Today’s featured operator is Sean, based between Miami and Cuba, where he offers luxury yacht charters and land excursions all over the island. 

Sean shared local tips and secrets about this extraordinary island with us, and told us that Cuba's beauty is not just in the spectacular beaches, lush nature and unique, suspended-in-time atmosphere of this island - but also in the friendliness and hospitality of Cubans, happy to welcome visitors and introduce them to cultural experiences. 

Cuba Local Tips from Sean, our Local Operator

So, Sean, thanks for meeting us! We can't wait to hear your Cuba local tips! How did you start offering trips to Cuba? 

It all started thanks to a friend of mine, a sales director for a major hotel chain. He mentioned that they were building new resorts in Cuba, and he suggested we got involved with Cuba on a ground level. I reached out to a friend of mine, whose mother had a business taking Americans to Cuba - mind you, this was a time when it was really avant-garde, and even quite dangerous.

Fast forward, we now take corporate groups to Cuba, do private luxury leisure travel to Cuba, and then we started getting involved with yachts, because our clients kept requesting it. We've now been involved with yachts for about a year and a half, and it's going extremely well. 

As a local, what is the best time to visit Cuba?

The roughest time of year are the summer months because it's hurricane season. Winter, fall, and spring are ideal to visit Cuba. 

If someone has a week to spend there, what itinerary do you recommend for families and for couples?

There are two different options. For something secluded and romantic, if they really want to spend most of their time on the water, we would probably recommend the South Coast, based out of Cienfuegos, going to Cayo Largo, Trinidad... the South Coast of Cuba has the most spectacular opportunities for scuba diving, snorkeling, and underwater photography. Did know that Cuba has the most pristine coral reefs anywhere in the Caribbean, because it has never been overdeveloped like the rest of the region?

It's also very romantic and adventurous to take clients on the northern side of Cuba. Their introduction to Cuba, in this case, is Havana - in the north, we usually do a combination of land and sea, people get immersed in Cuba's rich cultural traditions, the music, the art, the cuisine. Our clients love that. Then we do a sea itinerary doing Cayo Coco, Varadero, which is world renowned... so really, we have two distinct itineraries, the north and the south coast, both perfect for a week. 

So which one is the best for a group of young people that want to have fun at night?

The North Coast, obviously. Not only because you get to go into Havana, where you have UNESCO-listed architecture, but also for the club scene in Havana. One of the most interesting places I've been is called Fabrica de Arte Cubano, it's this massive multimedia art space, a former cooking art factory turned into a cultural center, where you'll find fine arts, photography, dance, DJs, live performances. Everything is under one roof, and it's so accessible and inexpensive that not only celebrities and tourists go there, but also locals - so you can really say you've been partying with Cubans. There are just amazing options, really. 

Having said that, on the South Coast we take the entertainment to them! If a group of young people wants to party, we'll take Cuban drummers and dancers to them, onto their boat. Everything is possible in Cuba!

Cuba is getting more and more popular. As a Cuba local, do you think there are still any 'hidden gems'?

Few of our clients really have the time to get to Isla de la Juventud, but that's a really nice place to explore. But do you know what's interesting? Hidden gems are not only on the water, and under the water, which is incredibly spectacular. I'll give you one example. We took one of our clients, a family from Detroit, Michigan, to a little town as part of their land itinerary, near Matanzas. That area is known for Afro-Cuban heritage, and we were literally able to create a parade, a festival, just for this family. 

Hidden gems are not just landscapes and seascapes - it's the people. That's what we hear time and time again from our clients - they are blown away by the warmth of Cubans. I know it sounds cliche, but it is the truth! 

Which are the best Cuba local dishes that travelers should try during a cruise?

We have our captain and crew fishing for our clients - they eat the fresh catch of the day, lobster, literally out of the water and into the kitchen. That's what we do for our clients on the water. 

On land, there's really a vibrant culinary scene in Havana thanks to young entrepreneurs who have been opening their restaurants. The most traditional dish is probably roast suckling pig with moros, black beans, platanos, the plantains. There are many places that are doing not only twists on traditional Cuban dishes, but also offering other cuisines like Italian or Indian. In Cienfuegos, we've created interactive culinary experiences for our clients, like mixology classes to teach guests how to prepare fresh mojito, followed by a cooking demonstration with Cuban chefs. People like getting involved and learn about cuisine!

Is it possible to rent a boat without skipper? What are the rules to be respected?

Cuba may be more open nowadays, but there are still many rules and regulations so it's difficult. It is possible to rent catamarans without the crew only if the client is licensed and has experience, but this option is only available on the South Coast and out of Cienfuegos. The North Coast does not currently offer any independent options, only daily rentals with crew, which we can arrange of course. However, you can take your own yacht to Cuba, and we can help with that.

Tell us a Cuban tradition not many people know of! As a Cuba local, you must know many!

One of the things that struck me is the number of cultural festivals that happen throughout the year - at any given time there are festivals all over, relating to dance, theatre, poetry, opera, music. I mean, it's a large island, but I was surprised with the number of initiatives happening at one time. It's part of the cultural landscape of Cuba, which is really important to Cubans, and it is something they share on a continuous basis.

Afro-Cuban traditions are also interesting and very vibrant - we are talking about a country where religion took a back seat during the fifty years of Castro leadership, but in fact it was all maintained. Catholicism is very important to local life, and so is the Evangelical religion - but throughout the whole time, the Afro-Cuban Santeria remained alive as well. There are certain cities like Matanzas where the Afro-Cuban culture is very vibrant, pockets of culture where the Afro-Cuban experience is very powerful - this often surprises people.

There's just so much down there! During the Colonial phase, all the architecture - we are so happy that the time kind of stopped, and those buildings were left as they were. This is really unusual to me as an American, it's amazing to see that they are still intact. Some of our clients come from Miami and only pop down for a quick weekend, but they really feel like they are going to a different world!

Talking about the Afro-Cuban tradition, what kind of experience can clients have?

We love to organize musical immersions, performances, and dance related to the Santeria experience. We take clients to a suburb of Havana - tourists don't usually go there but we can take people to these spaces, because of our relationship with locals. It's a very intimate experience. On a much larger scale, we've gone into town and had Santeria parades, like the example I told you before. This happens at specific times of year, when celebrations are on.

Really, it's about talking to our clients and see what they want to experience. Do they want to discover the Afro-Cuban tradition through food? So many of our clients are foodies and want culinary experiences. You can have a 10-course meal designed around the orishas, the Santeria deities. If people are into music, we can take them to a place dedicated to music and dance - there are rumba halls, which are very close to the essence of the orishas and the Santeria. We've been into places where even our staff was like 'are you sure?' - but of course, travelers won't go into these places, but when we find some people who are open, we like sharing this with them. 

Talking about adventure activities - what's there to do in Cuba? Give us your best Cuba local tips!

Diving and snorkeling are great on the south coast! We have some great divemasters for our clients, we also work with the top underwater photographers - a couple of months ago we had a very well known underwater photographer as a client, and we paired him with one of the best underwater photographers on the island. That's a big thing for us!

For our American clients, we also share some of the photography taken by our clients with a nonprofit organization called SeaKeepers, which helps to catalog the reef and underwater spaces. We also have another initiative in Cayo Coco with a sea turtle foundation, we get our clients involved with conservation activities on the island, we donated signage and other things to the foundation - we're very much into sea turtle conservation, we help out in Miami as well. 

There are also lots of 'toys', jet skis and all that. For adventure clients there's also adventures on land, there's so much in the mountains, zip lines, hiking, climbing, especially in Vinales, the tobacco region. Can you tell I LOVE doing this?

Sounds like there's a lot to do! It's really great when people share their passions... now, let's talk about diving and snorkeling locations. Where's the best diving in Cuba? Tell us your fave local spots!

Definitely along the South Coast. Our clients love going to Cayo Largo, it's a definite hit! Really though, there are so many keys! For diving we leave from Cienfuegos then head to Cayo Largo, Isla de la Juventud, or to the small archipelago off the coast of Camaguey. The south coast is a treasure trove for divers! There's also great deep-water fishing, lots of opportunities.

Our clients have told us time and time again that Cuba's ocean-scapes are some of the best they've ever seen, and that is because it wasn't overdeveloped. The coral reefs are some of the most pristine in the world, attracting lots of marine biologists. There's now an initiative in collaboration with the government to balance the increased demand and further develop the tourism industry while protecting, doing it in an eco-conscious manner. This is a very big discussion in the tourism industry at the moment - the government is really trying to control the growth to help protect the patrimony. 

This is great! So, how long is the average stay of your clients?

It's usually one week to 10 days. When we have clients that want to stay two weeks, we usually map it out so they can see the north coast and the south coast. They fly to Havana, see the north coast, then we transfer them by ground to Cienfuegos including Vinales and the landscapes, then we fly them out to Cienfuegos. Then we sometimes have clients staying in Havana while the crew takes the yacht to the south coast, and then they join up again. That's a great mix.

Suggest the perfect one day cruise in Cuba!

We are members of the Hemingway Marina in Cuba, and we have access to the fleet there - we can take clients out diving for one day, or fishing, and in this case we either take yachts or fishing boats, which are not luxurious but they're part of local life in Cuba, and our tourists love them! We also do romantic evening cruises, cocktail parties, and for this we generally use catamarans - they're very elegant and we don't need much lead time. 

What do travelers need to know before heading to Cuba?

Just go with an open mind and embrace what you discover. It's a very proud country and culture, a very rich culture in so many ways, and welcoming as I said. Go with an open mind and an open heart!

Most of our clients are from the US, and invariably 99.9 percent of our clients, within a couple of days of arriving, they're always like... this is not what we expected at all! They've been told for decades and decades, there has been this image of Cuban culture that was presented to Americans - and now it's a blank canvas, everything is completely unexpected. 

As a Cuba local, do you think there any behaviors that is best to avoid while in Cuba?

Cubans are really relaxed! It's not like going to China or Japan, where there are cultural taboos and formalities. That is not really an issue in Cuba. There's a laissez-faire attitude. The most important thing is respect, but that's true wherever you travel.

I think people really need to be aware of expectations, that standards are not always 5 stars, and sometimes we may not have some provisions - even though we really do our best, and even fly things in. This doesn't usually hinder the trip, it's just a matter of expectations, something to be aware of especially on the ground portion of the trip. Yet, normally boat people are aware, they know island life. 

And what if someone has never been on a sailing holiday, what do they need to know about life on board before departing?

Be ready to relax! Be ready to have fun, and be entertained. Our skippers dance around the boat sometimes... it's fun! Just get ready to relax and be introduced to experiences you may not find anywhere else. 

Time to pack: what do travelers need to take on board?

No, not really. On board it's casual, casual resort wear. Cuba is very relaxed when it comes to clothes, and I'm from Miami, we are used to going even to the best restaurants with a buttoned-down shirt and no tie. It's the tropics! So even on land, it's resort-chic, but on the water, it's completely relaxed and comfortable!

Before saying goodbye, would you like to add something else about Cuba and what it means to you?

Cuba means so much to me and to my partner. We loved this initiative when it was presented to us and we are so really glad we got involved. We love Cuba! We made so many wonderful contacts and friends, it's just an incredible place.

Just to give you an idea, on our very first trip, we visited with a project we wanted to present - taking some Brazilian musicians to Cuba. We got talking, and within 3 days our proposal was on the desk of the Minister of Culture, had been given the green light by Castro's brother and the conductor of the National Orchestra came to our hotel to talk about the project, and with a handshake he said 'this is great, let's do it'. The project was great, it was broadcasted live... it was just mindblowing. It's amazing, when you embrace Cuban culture, how they embrace you back!

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