OARS Guide Turned Tour Operator Opens Doors for Authentic Cuban Experiences
You never know which childhood experiences will steer your future. For Joslin Fritz, it was a family rafting trip down the Dead River in Maine at age 16 that led her down the path from river guide to Cuba tour operator.
“I had a really fantastic time, and a really amazing female river guide,” she recalled. “I think that memory stuck with me.”
Years later, after finishing her undergraduate degree in 2007, she enrolled in guide school with OARS and from there went on to guide for the company, mostly in Oregon, until 2013. During this time, she spent summers on the river and winters traveling internationally.
Through her travels, Joslin quickly realized she could combine her love of guiding and adventure into a reliable off season job and led trips for several companies to places like Vietnam, Bhutan and India.
As she started to think more about the future, Joslin began to contemplate a long-term career in international adventure travel.
“I was kind of at a turning point, thinking about doing something else than guiding,” she said.
It was at an International Ecotourism Society conference in Portland when she remembers thinking, “Adventure travel is a wonderful way to learn about different cultures, to get out of your comfort zone, all of it.”
But Joslin said that her real “ah ha” moment came when she realized how beneficial tourism can be for local economies when done right. “I remember feeling like, ‘What a wonderful way of creating sustainable travel.’”
By 2012, when she got offered a job to lead several tours to Cuba, her future was sealed. Today, Joslin heads up Experience Cuba, which operates authentic, off-the-beaten-path tours in Cuba for small groups. As OARS’ official Cuba partner, we caught up our longtime friend to talk about what makes her trips so special, the challenges of Cuba travel and advice for American travelers.
Q&A with Joslin Fritz of Experience Cuba
Q: How did you get your start in Cuba?
In 2012, I got offered a job to lead tours to Cuba with a company called Grand Circle Travel. That was when travel to Cuba was a bit more restricted and complicated, but it was definitely happening. The kind of tourism that was going on back then was very organized, groups of 20 on a bus, set stops, etc.
When tourism started changing with Obama in early 2015, I was working for six or seven travel companies. I had done all of these different itineraries and was spending the majority of my time down there. I just decided, “You know, I could do this. I have this three year head start and I could really do something here.”
Tourism in Cuba had started to shift too. You could start doing smaller groups. So all of a sudden, there was more opportunity to do different activities, especially recently with people importing electric bikes, better mountain bikes, or sea kayaks. So what I really wanted to do was incorporate more active travel, maybe even a bit more experiential travel.
Q: What’s your favorite experience to share with guests in Cuba?
There are plenty of different community projects and artist visits that I love—things that you couldn’t maybe do on your own—but one of the best things is taking a walk along El Malecon in Havana at night, and interacting with people as you’re walking along. Everybody’s out there. It’s the biggest bench in Cuba, they say.
Q: What might surprise people most about traveling in Cuba?
Cubans are very well educated, and they’re really thirsty for people to converse with. I think people are surprised at how welcoming and excited they are to interact—talking, sharing with them, and having insightful conversations.
Q: Why is it a good idea for people to travel to Cuba with a tour operator?
People, especially Americans, are confused. They can still go individually, but it’s not an easy destination to travel to on your own. Another reason is it really makes your time down there much more valuable, present and less frustrating.
Also, Cuba is under this embargo and it’s an island, so it’s hard to get things. I’m one of the few people that have stand up paddleboards. And there’s a really good contact of mine, a German guy, he just imported 80 E-bikes, which are so nice. It’s one of those things where you might read about it on Trip Advisor, but chances are you’re not going to find that on your own.
Q: What advice do you have for travelers who are interested in planning a trip to Cuba?
Patience and flexibility are super important, but not only that, just having an open mind. I think in the States we live in this land of yes and no, and black and white. In Cuba the saying is, “Es complicado.” It’s complicated. It’s the land of, sometimes it’s like this but maybe it’s like this. It’s a land of gray. I think as Americans, we don’t really like that.
Know that you’re going to have a great time, but you’re going to learn something, as well.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity | Photos: James Kaiser & Joslin Fritz