“I didn’t realize when I boarded that plane in Miami that it was actually a time machine,” Sue Pannill says of her Classic Journeys trip to Cuba last December. “We got on in the 21st century and deplaned in Havana into 1959.”

Her initial impression sounds more like Twilight Zone than Back to the Future, but Sue quickly warmed to the charms of this island country. “Yes, Cuba was gritty, faded and decrepit,” she says. “And I still can’t believe how fast I fell in love with it all.”

And yet, you know what they say about love: It’s complicated. Sue delights in talking about doing the mambo (or was it a salsa?). She’s poetic about watching the rising sun strike the limestone mogotes in the Valle de Viñales. If you’re looking for a convert to smooth, aged Cuban rum, she’s your woman. An avid fan of contemporary art, she delighted in Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts and is thrilled by the work she bought from an artist in his studio.

Vinales Valley

But, running through her list of memorable experiences, she stops short. It was as if expressing too much fun and fascination with the Cuban experience gives her pause. “We’re used to having everything at our fingertips, and it’s humbling to see how Cubans make do and are so very good-natured about it,” she says.

And there it is: the understandable quandary that thoughtful visitors almost always raise. First, you hear a certain fascination and respect for the resourceful, ramshackle Cuba of today. And then it’s tempered by the sincere hope that things will change for the good of Cuban people. You somehow wish that both could happen, but you know that surely they won’t.

Lettuce and carrots are a good example. “The produce is all organic, and it tastes fantastic,” Sue raves. But then we compare notes on the farmer who was recently quoted as saying, “Of course, we’re organic farmers. We can’t find or afford agricultural chemicals.” Do you begrudge a farmer the chance to increase his yield and income? Will something be lost if and when that day comes along? So much politics, economics and history are riding on those veggies. The people-to-people contact on a Classic Journeys trip stimulates conversations like that, as well as lively interaction among fellow guests, guides and the Cubans themselves.

Farm in Cuba

“The way I like to put it is that Classic Journeys embedded us to give us more of a sense of what is really happening in the culture,” Sue says. She praises local guide Manuel for his role, too. A university professor of history and linguistics, he impressed her as a non-stop font of information. But even more than that, “he took the temperature of our group and made sure we got a chance to see and do things that really mattered to us.” The irony is that today a professor in Cuba can earn more money in the tourist industry than from a government income. We hope that the changes to come will allow him to pursue his original calling, but we’d miss the opportunity to explore his homeland with him.

When asked if she’d go back to Cuba, Sue Pannill’s response is measured. “I don’t really feel I’ve left Cuba yet,” she says. “I don’t know how long the things I saw in Cuba will last, but I know this experience will last in my mind for always.”

In a nutshell, that’s why so many people are heading to Cuba now. It’s still 1959 just 90 miles south of Miami, but the clock is ticking. Normalization looks to be the next tipping point for an island altered so many times before by conquest, war and revolution. History—exciting, unpredictable, thought-provoking history—is happening right now, and there will never be a better opportunity to see it for yourself.

Havana Waterfront