Want to Go to Cuba? These Three Ladies Can Help

Cuba may not be on your to-go list, but perhaps it should. While many tropical destinations compete for the best resorts, beaches, and night life, Cuba offers a culture and vibrancy all its own. And as time goes by and Cuba opens up, some of its authenticity and other-worldliness may disappear. Think Hilton, Starbucks, and McDonald’s.

As of today, Cuba exists as an in-between, a country open to Americans but without the corporate presence. For some, this may be just the time to go. And I know just the people to take you.

These three women assisted my journey to Cuba earlier this year. They are happy to help you with yours.


Hanna Esparza

Sometimes in life all you gotta do is ask. Hanna, who I know from salsa dancing in the Twin Cities, asked the right person at the right time when messaging me in November about joining her New Year’s Cuban tour.

“Cuba?” I thought. “Nah.”

“Well…” I continued in my head. “What else are you planning to do for New Year’s?”

“Nothing,” I answered in my mono-dialogue.

Images of Cuba danced in my head, and I responded with questions about trip details. I looked up flight costs and travel dates. (I would stay one more week than Hanna. You know, since I was already there… ) Everything worked out, and I two weeks later I booked my ticket.

Upon arrival to Trinidad, where I met Hanna, things continued to work out. She had activities planned each of the six days we were there. These activities immersed me into the regular life while showcasing the highlights of this region.

Locals celebrate 2018 New Year’s.

Her relationships with people there opened the door. Literally. We stayed with a local family, who exemplified the Cuban warmth, expression, and community-mindedness.

With host family New Year’s Eve
Saying goodbye to Hanna’s Cuban family

There was hiking, swimming, and a salsa dance lesson. Hanna can customize these activities to your liking. She takes several tours a year as director of the Cuba Cultural Exchange.

She writes:

Join us on this one of a kind experience in the colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba! Surrounded by ocean and mountains, come discover culture, amazing food, live music day & night, and connect on a people-to-people level. Price: $1,100, includes accommodations to an air conditioned room with a private bathroom, hearty breakfast and dinner, activities such as horseback riding to a waterfall, relaxation on the beach, private lessons in dance, music, art or Spanish, and activities such as museums and history. We fly out of Fort Lauderdale, FL, into Santa Clara, Cuba. Guests pay for their own airfare. Find more details at www.corazonesdecuba.com or email Hanna at hannaheart1@gmail.com.

Hanna’s guest house
Urban “back yard” Cuban-style


Mariesa Sun-Saenz

Hanna was my main guide and the reason I went to Cuba, but two more ladies helped along the way. In fact, Mariesa, who I had met through Hanna just a few weeks before I left home, arranged a car to pick me up at the Havana airport. (Hanna’s guests usually arrive in Santa Clara, but since I would be visited and leaving from Havana, this is where I arrived–and received a hand from Mariesa.) The driver of the car, Alejandro, did more than just transport me from the airport terminal to the bus station. He waited for me as I exited the airport. VIP service.

Alejandro and Classic Beetle

Mariesa knows Havana. She knows all of Cuba pretty darn well as a matter of fact–particularly the art world. She’s the director of the U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange.


From their website:

US Cuba Artist Exchange is dedicated to fostering cultural appreciation and personal growth between American and Cuban artists through collaborative art programs and cultural exchange. We aim to enrich US and Cuba communities through the development of artists from both US and Cuba, the production and exhibition of collaborative works, and the infusion of inspiration and influence from each other’s culture.

One of her featured artists

If you prefer to focus on the artistic side of Cuba, contact Mariesa at: 612-267-8363 or connect@uscubaartistexchange.org. To learn more about Cuban artists and the U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange, go to: www.uscubaartistexchange.org.


Rena Papatheofilou

A Google search led me to my third guiding hand in Cuba. Rena founded Experience the Real Cuba. She’s an Englishwoman who splits her time between England and Cuba. Over her years coming to the island, she has established a strong network of hosts and activity coordinators, particularly around Cuban culture and museums.

Coincidentally, she is also based out of Trinidad–though offers tours around the whole island. For one of my days there, Rena walked me through some of Trinidad’s many historical sites.

My name is Rena Papatheofilou, I came to Cuba in 2006 to learn Spanish and take Salsa lessons. I instantly fell in love with the beautiful colonial city of Trinidad, Cuba, and it now feels like home. Experience the Real Cuba was founded in 2010. We are more than just a business or a language program. We are a community, a network of people, working together to offer you the chance to immerse yourself in the culture and experience life in this fascinating country, where nothing can be taken for granted and little makes sense.

Out for a Cuban meal with guests
One of Rena’s guests at a Spanish lesson. Muy bueno!

Experience the Real Cuba has an amazing portfolio of professional teachers looking forward to sharing their skills and knowledge with you. We organize accommodation in Casa Particulares (private guest homes) across Cuba as well as a range of cultural activities such as Spanish lessons, Salsa & Dance lessons, Painting workshops, Ceramics workshops, Music or Cuban Percussion workshops, and Guided tours in Havana. Feel free to check out our website where you can download our free Cuba Guide.

Rena also offers some words from her friend and guest home owner, Misleydis, pictured with Rena above:

Hola! We opened Hostal Misleydis & Gustavo to guests in 2005. After more than 10 years of experience in the business, we feel proud of the welcoming and professional service we provide to people visiting our beautiful city and the dedication we extend towards friends and family who we host.

Hostal Misleydis & Gustavo

For us, to feel the satisfaction and gratitude of our guests is the best gift we could receive. Many of our guests have shown us their gratitude by returning to stay at our casa time and again and by writing wonderful reviews on websites such as TripadvisorWe enjoy preparing tasty meals for our guests. They are simple, home-cooked meals demonstrating our warm family lifestyle. The best way to relax in our home is to pull up a chair under the avocado tree and take part in a game of dominoes with one of Gustavo’s specialty drinks, the Canchánchara.

Our doors are always open for our friends. My family and I look forward to meeting you.

Reach Rena at experiencetherealcuba@gmail.com. Learn more at www.experiencetherealcuba.com. And check out Misleydis’s guest house here and here.


Cuba is more accessible to Americans now than it has been for most of our lifetimes. And now we have three guides willing to take your hand to help you get there.

My next post will be my final about Cuba–a video of our recent event in Minneapolis “Cuba: From Us to You“.