Here in Canada, agents might know Eloy Govea as the director for the Cuba Tourist Board.
Halfway through his studies in industrial engineering in Havana, Cuba, Govea says he got lucky: along with a few of his fellow students, he was selected by the university to study a new branch that focused exclusively on the tourism sector.
"We were sent to complete our curricular program in the University of Matanzas in combination with the unique opportunity to learn from the bottom up, all of the details of the industry in the most important tourist destination in Cuba: Varadero," Govea explained.
That was back in 2002.
Since then, Govea has worked in the travel and tourism sector, even occasionally working as a university professor every so often.
Born and raised in Pinar del Río, Govea says most of his family and friends still live back in Cuba.
"It's where I spend most of the time when I am not working," Govea said.
Known to the travel industry as the director of the Cuba Tourist Board, Govea's official title is Consul in charge of the Tourism Section of the Consulate General of Cuba in Toronto, a position he's held since July 2014.
This week, we're checking in with Govea to learn more about the special gastronomic wonders you can only find in Baracoa, that one time a U.S. customs agent made him extremely nervous, and the hobby he's so good at, he holds a master title.
PAX: What are three essential items you always travel with?
Eloy Govea (EG): Books, laptop and sunglasses.
PAX: What are some of your favourite vacation spots?
EG: The greatest joy of my life is spending time family and friends. For that reason I try to make my vacations the occasion when I have the most of it.
That makes my hometown, Pinar del Río, my top spot for a vacation. The beauty of the Viñales Valley, a landscape that was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the excellent rum and cigars, and the fantastic traditional Cuban countryside food make all your senses engaged in the best way imaginable!
Cuba is big in history, culture and arts (let alone being the largest island in the Caribbean). Santiago de Cuba is the place where you find all that in its proudest and most authentic form.
Other than these two places, located 1,000 kilometers apart (yes, that big is Cuba), I only like everything I between.
PAX: What’s your favourite airport and why?
EG:My favourite is Jardines del Rey International Airport.
It is located right in Cayo Coco and operations there cater exclusively to its resorts. For that reason, it’s the one where the customs and immigration process is quickest, as is the transfer to your hotel (10-20 minutes).
PAX: What do you love about your job? The travel industry?
EG: Striving to learn about other cultures and your own is essential to better cater to the people you serve. No knowledge is wasted. And it’s much more than just collecting data and applying marketing techniques.
There is also a huge human factor. You deal with people. That forces you to grow professionally and as a person.
PAX: What was the first vacation you ever took?
EG: Being a kid from the westernmost place in Cuba, my first vacation was to Punta Colorada.
Besides enjoying that pristine beach for the first time, what makes that vacation so memorable for me was the experience of fishing and eating fried “roncos” and “rabirrubias” shortly after; as well as delicious “hicacos” and “marañones”, fruits that you might only find in that particular area. Even if it wasn't the first time, all of this would be memorable!
Interestingly, that secluded place was barely known to anyone except the locals, but now it's becoming one of the most exclusive destinations in Cuba thanks to the golf course and real estate projects recently launched there.
PAX: What’s the biggest splurge you’ve ever made on a trip?
EG: We like to share and celebrate, and when the family reunites, we don't skimp out on the food and drinks.
Every single year we try to make it bigger, and you never know exactly how much was spent on roast pork and Cristal Beer, especially because there comes a time when lucidity stops helping with the math!
PAX: Most memorable food/meal you ever ate while travelling and where you ate it?
EG: Baracoa, in the east end, is one of most fascinating places in Cuba, and one that stands out in many ways.
It was the first Spanish Villa in Cuba, and it's number one in biodiversity: 90 per cent of Cuba's cocoa is produced there, and nowhere in the island does it rain more.
The most exquisite and exotic dishes I have enjoyed there, especially because of the peculiar and extensive use of the coconut milk.
Being so different, it comes as no surprise that its culinary traditions are so unique, and dishes like “tulanga”, “frangollo”, “guanimo”, “bacán”, “palmito”, “bola puñeta”, or "calalú" are just some of the many that you can only hear of and enjoy in Baracoa.
PAX: What’s your biggest travel pet peeve?
EG: Indifferent, apathetic service.
PAX: What are your hidden talents?
EG: Chess is my passion. I have a National Master title, and while it's been a long time since I played serious games, I keep studying and engaged.
The popularity of chess in Cuba has made it possible to have a great number of Grand Masters, starting with the legendary World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca.
PAX: Checked bag or carry-on?
EG: Whenever possible, carry-on. I have little patience for waiting at the conveyor belt.
PAX: What's your funniest travel anecdote?
EG: The first time I travelled to the U.S., I was so nervous, that for some time upon arrival, unconsciously, I kept responding in Spanish to an official who was asking me questions in English.
Then, he switched to Spanish (out of convenience or kindness), and I switched to English. Fortunately he realized that I was in a temporary trance, and laughed instead of getting offended.
PAX: What are 1-2 things travel agents should be aware of right now in regards to Cuba?
EG: Havana is turning 500 years old. More than 200 events are taking place this year to celebrate that.
There are new properties in every single destination, and the culinary offer is exploding with the surge of more than 2,000 new “paladares” (private restaurants) across the island.
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