Our visit to the 2022 Havana Jazz Festival with Havana Music Tours was a wonderful experience. Tour director Chaz Chambers and his Cuban wife, Yamilka, looked after all arrangements in... read more a professional and proactive way. They curated an outstanding selection of concerts, informal performances, and visits to musical institutions. Before and after the festival, when no performances were scheduled, they arranged private performances by musicians of their acquaintance, for example an afternoon tour of the "Afro-Cuban Religious Experience" through shrines scattered around Central Havana and a visit to a recording studio to hear a local band rehearse. Because US government rules do not allow Americans to stay in Cuban hotels, Chaz found housing for us in a series private homes, essentially BnBs, all of them clean and comfortable with ample breakfasts. Most of our other meals were included in the tour: they turned into festive occasions at some of Havana's best restaurants. We traveled around Havana and the nearby countryside in comfortable buses with tourism guides provided by a Cuban government agency. Chaz and Yami also looked after airport arrivals and departures, Covid testing, money exchange, and record keeping for the US government. Almost everything went smoothly, and when inevitable problems arose (e.g. a delay in Covid testing at the airport), Chaz and Yamilka dealt with them quickly and successfully. The best thing about Havana Music Tours was the people. Chaz, Yamilka, their assistants Zack and Miguel, tour guides Alejandro and Ernesto, even the bus drivers -- everyone was friendly, attentive, knowledgeable and really, really nice. As well, our fellow tourists turned out to be excellent company, with a variety of ages, backgrounds and musical interests. We look forward to the next Havana Jazz Festival.
January 1, 2022
My wife and I attended the 2020 Havana Jazz Festival with Chaz Chambers, who operates Havana Music Tours. It was a wonderful experience in every respect. Chaz made arrangements for... read more accommodations and meals, as well as a few touristic activities (walking tour of old Havana, visit to the music conservatory, etc). There were activities from midday until late at night, but tour participants could choose to come along, retreat to their hotel or pension, or set out on adventures of our own choosing. Chaz had anticipated just about every eventuality and all arrangements went off very smoothly.
The tour included passes to hear music afternoons and evenings at a variety of venues in central Havana. Chaz, who himself is a professional drummer, curated the selection of concerts and provided transportation for our group of 7 to and from all the events. The performances, which included both Cuban and foreign musicians were all good and most were excellent. The musical level in Cuba is extraordinarily high. We hear some of these performers on tour in the US and on recordings. But to hear so many of them playing together in a single place in a single week is a privilege.
At present it's much easier than most people imagine for Americans to visit Cuba. You can fly from several US cities to Havana, and you buy a visa at the airport. The US government places restrictions on where you can stay and what you can buy, but these restrictions are easy to work with. Best of all Havana Music Tours looked after all the paperwork, so we never had to give the matter a second thought.
What are you waiting for . . . ?
February 17, 2020
We normally don't take tours... as we prefer to explore places on our own. However in the case of Cuba and the Havana music scene in particular, if you want... read more to visit for a relatively short time (i.e. can't stay for a month+) and be able to pack in a whole lot of unique experiences without being frustrated by the complexity of dealing with "word-of-mouth" music venue details, then we highly recommend Havana Music Tours run by Chaz Chambers. We went as a family with a teenager who plays saxophone in a couple of high school jazz bands. We wanted our son to be able to experience the music and be inspired by the Cuban musicians. Chaz was able to customize our tour and set up private saxophone lessons for our son with some great local musicians and arrange for him to sit in with them for a couple of performances. This was a great experience and it was wonderful to feel the sense of joy and local community among the musicians... meeting them and their families offered a much more personal experience than you would be able to get by just showing up at a jazz club. Chaz and his local Cuban contacts do a ton of work behind the scenes to make sure everything is customizable, flexible and runs smoothly. Going on the tour was like spending time with a group of friends who just happen to have inside connections in the local community to avoid tourist traps and make it pain free to maximize the musical and cultural experience. In addition to the personalized music lessons, we toured the city, took a day trip to the Vinales agricultural region, went to the beach for a refreshing swim, and had free time to explore on our own.
Writing this review because we had a great time and wish Chaz the best of luck ... but please stay small and keep it personalized. We'd like to come back when next we get the chance.
Things you should know:
* Plan to spend late nights out listening to great music (Some performances don't really get going till around midnight)
* Some clubs have age restrictions so aren't available for < 18 yr old
* In addition to music, plan to see Havana, take a day trip, and just wander around (Cuba is very safe ... a little Spanish speaking ability is really helpful but not required)
* No issues with US customs/immigration at all (we flew JetBlue through JFK... really easy)
* You can get cell service and internet, but try to disconnect for a while if possible.
January 19, 2019
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