Is there a way to service the niche of older Americans who want a rugged yet comfortable journey through Cuba’s hinterland? An Idaho-based company has done just that, making it their business to take baby boomers from Cuba’s tour buses and put them onto bikes, into kayaks, and onto mountain trails for immersive tours of the island’s stunning and varied terrains – with all the particularities of U.S. customers in mind.
Cuba Unbound, headquartered in the lake resort town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, sprang from parent company Row Adventures shortly after U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba were relaxed in 2015. It offers twelve different five- to 11-day excursions, from walking tours of Cuba’s national parks to kayaking and cycling tours, with a few more relaxed itineraries that focus on cultural history. Guests can also work with an “adventure consultant” to create a private trip with family and friends. The cost of a tour ranges between $1,800 and $2,950 per person.
While Cuba Unbound trips can be taken by anyone, Row Adventures managing director Brad Moss said the company actively markets to the baby boomer demographic, in part because they are “extremely active, social and knowledgeable travelers,” and because the tours they’ve created need clients “who can invest in experiences.” They also understand that for a generation of people who came of age during the Cold War, Cuba holds a particular mystique – a forbidden-fruit quality that isn’t felt as keenly by younger travelers.
Accessibility to outdoor gear, and especially kayaks, was a major roadblock. So was transportation. “You can’t just go and buy a trailer that will carry your kayaks or your bikes – there’s just no [Cuban] manufacturer who will do that,” explained Moss.
Cuba Unbound joined forces with four Cuban travel agencies allowed to work with the U.S.: Havanatur, Amistur, San Cristobal, and Cubanacan. By law, every excursion must have both a leader representing the U.S. company and a Cuban guide, who also doubles as an interpreter. The group “people-to-people” educational requirements for U.S. travelers are fulfilled by local conservationists and other experts who give presentations on topics such as marine wildlife, swampland birds, and revolutionary history.
Moss called the program’s first year “inconsistent” for what he chalked up to differences in culture, life experience, and customer service. Cuba Unbound responded by offering week-long training programs for Cuban guides who had little familiarity with kayaking and long-distance cycling. Still, he says kayaking and biking are the easy part of the training. The bigger challenges were “the intangibles,” the soft skills required for relating to U.S. customers. The extra training made a big difference. “Some of these guides are saying, ‘No one has ever taken this type of interest in us, and we appreciate it,’” he said.
They also had to convince Cuban tour agencies that U.S. customers are interested in active travel, as well demonstrate to the guides – who earn low wages from the government – that going the extra mile for American clients has rewards. “The reality is the United States culture tips better than any other culture,” Moss told Cuba Trade. Suggested tip amounts are in the tour literature and reach everyone involved in the trips, from the core guides to hotel and wait staff.
Moss says Row Adventures has invested “tens of thousands” more dollars in its Cuba brand than any of the programs it offers across 32 countries in five continents. When asked about the tariffs to bring equipment into the country, and whether Row Adventure’s collaboration with Cuban travel agencies helped pave the way, Moss only said there were “lots of hoops involved.”
“Now here we are going into Year Three, and it’s looking really good,” Moss said. “We have some guides that we really love within those agencies [who] we can request, and they typically request us back, and so we can kind of hand-select who’s on our tours.”
But Moss is also aware that U.S. travelers have high standards, so he will offer the training workshop again this year.
“What we really tried to capture is, ‘What’s the mindset of the U.S. traveler?’” he said.
The typical baby boomer who joins the tours is “kind of a credit card and dream type,” said Landon, one of Row Adventures’ U.S. guides. Her guests are typically between 50 to 75 years old and want something in between a resort and a rugged outdoor challenge. “People want an authentic experience, but they still want comfort,” she said.
Indeed, American visitors are still finding their legs after nearly six decades of estrangement, and part of Landon’s work is managing travelers’ expectations. She says inconveniences are inevitable over the course of an 11-day trip taking 15 people to five different lodging locations. “I can usually expect three pretty major challenges – whether it be ‘I don’t have running water,’ or ‘I don’t have power,’ or ‘I need an iron’,” she says.
Many of the guests see their trip as a slim window of opportunity to experience Cuba before it changes – that is, before American investors carve out tourist traps across the island. From the beginning, Landon invites people to embrace challenges, with friendly reminders like, “That’s what makes this the experience you’re seeking.”