Through travel windows such as “people-to-people” tours, Americans are pulling back the curtain on Castro-era Cuba.

Photography by Charles and Mary Love

Our taxi pulled up to a crumbling, white mansion in Centro Habana, one of 15 municipalities in the capital city of Cuba, as afternoon eased into night. Adorned with ornate moldings and weighty balustrades, the building whispered “faded glory.” This was La Guarida, Spanish for “the lair,” arguably the most famous of Havana’s new breed of small, privately owned restaurants called paladares.

A hefty man opened the cab door. “Buenos noches,” he said. Then, detecting we were English speakers, he asked, “From where do you come?”

Estados Unidos,” we replied.

“Welcome! Did you know Beyoncé and Jay-Z were here not long ago?”

We knew. The music industry’s first billionaire couple had ruffled feathers in the United States with their April 2013 visit to the Communist country; several members of Congress would denounce the trip as a thinly disguised tourist jaunt, violating U.S. restrictions on tourism.

But Beyoncé and Jay-Z had come to Cuba legally, as had we, under a U.S. government-sanctioned program that allows licensed travel companies and select institutions (museums, universities and other nonprofits) to offer “people-to-people” trips with educational and cultural itineraries.

We stepped through a small carriageway and up two flights of curving marble stairs. The first landing opened to an empty room with marble tiles; in the middle stood a row of Corinthian columns. Up the next flight, past a headless marble goddess, we found La Guarida and its three small candlelit rooms. Large mirrors and photos of celebrity clientele competed for space on ochre-colored walls. The diners, mostly Spanish-speaking, were relaxed and talkative.

Despite elegant details (white linens, crystal chandeliers), the restaurant’s furniture might have been collected on sporadic shop-ping sprees to an antiques mall. Each chair was different. No glass or plate matched. Yet, somehow, it managed to hang together—a metaphor for today’s Cuba where industrious people are “making-do” to overcome years of economic hardship.

And what about our entrées of fresh sea-food? Let’s just say it was clear why many people say the best cuisine in Cuba is in her paladares. La Guarida’s Cuban fare was decidedly more sophisticated than any we’d sampled in restaurants in South Florida. Fish was a specialty. Grouper arrived on a bed of cooked greens in a light, white-wine garlic sauce. Also on the menu: seafood boiler with Indian curry and swordfish with vanilla sauce. For dessert, we chose an airy guava mousse.

Over the next seven days, our trip adhered to U.S. government requirements that the focus be on “educational exchange activities” that result in “meaningful interactions.” Five days in Havana and two in Trinidad, a beautiful United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, allowed us to explore both cities and the countryside in between.

Although people-to-people trips have strict itineraries with limited flexibility, many travelers find them enjoyable and make repeat journeys. They usually include visits to historic sites, arts organizations, schools, farms and model communities. Evenings are free to dine, dance, attend a cabaret show—or simply relax on your own.

The growing interest in visiting Cuba has partly to do with its status as “forbidden fruit.” Prohibited from visiting for many years, Americans are now seizing any opportunity to see Castro-era Cuba before it becomes more commercialized. As one of our travel companions confessed, “I just wanted to see Havana before it becomes another Miami Beach!”

For more on Cuba's nostalgic scenes, beautiful historic buildings and trip advice, pick up the May/June issue of Boca Raton magazine.