When travel to Cuba opened up a few years ago, my curiosity was aroused. The trip planning was very challenging, however. At the particular time, it was not a slam-dunk, travel agency type of trip. Among many other obstacles and requirements, there was also the tentative situation circling around what our new POTUS would decide about travel guidelines to Cuba. One requirement among travel programs was that you have to do four days in Havana as part of the educational trip theme. That was not a problem for me as Havana is the city I was most curious to see. Later, I discovered that the latter detail was a guideline (not a requirement) that some travelers get around.
When I found a trip program that seemed seamless in regards to getting our visas online and not chancing it at the airport, etc. and other lodging, transportation and excursions details all included, I paid a deposit and waited for the program to fill up before we could get our airplane ticket. Things seemed ready to go and then……news came that the POTUS might close travel to Cuba. Ugh. This was frustrating because I didn’t want the trip to be canceled but there were so many other concerns and details, too. My travel companions and I also had to find dates that worked for our schedules. How ironic it would be now if interference with the trip was because of new travel restrictions. Luckily, the news was good…..travel to Cuba was ok if you had flights and cruises planned before a certain July date but after that it would only be allowed for group travel. Big exhale. I did meet plane passengers who were traveling alone but I also noticed that they didn’t know what excursions to do once they arrived. They also weren’t going to have drivers or bilingual guides.
I also observed at the Atlanta airport that many passengers were completing their Cuba visas there at the gate. That seemed stressful to me and I was grateful that ours were expedited ahead of time because we walked right into the gate and passed the others who were in line completing their visas.
A short cultural immersion trip program was ideal for me because without internet or phone plan, I didn’t want to be without communication too long from my teenager or octogenarian father. The Discover Corp program had impeccable customer service. I also liked the sustainable values the program offered.
To quote one of our travel guides, this is how she summarized the mission of Discover Corps : “Discover Corps is a certified B corporation that works across Asia, Africa, Latin America & Australia to offer vacations with purpose. Founded by Andrew Motiwalla, who served in the Peace Corps for two years in Honduras, Discover Corps started as a partnership with the National Peace Corps Association. Inspired by his time in the Peace Corps, Discover Corps takes travelers deep into local communities and exposes them to a side of the country most people never experience while giving back to local projects and organizations. Today, the Discover Corps team comes from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all share a passion for world cultures — and a belief that responsible, sustainable travel can make the world a better place.”
Initially, I applied under a journalist application category for a Cuban visa but then my travel buddy and I applied under a People to People category once we decided to use this particular trip program. The application and the visa process were expeditious and seamless. (This was more of a cultural immersion trip so we chose a program accordingly.)
Most of all, I liked that the People to People category directly supports the people of Cuba. By staying in casa particulares and dining at paladars, we were supporting the people and not the government. It also enhanced our cultural immersion to travel this way instead of staying at resorts.
Day one in Havana! We arrived, found our tour guide immediately, changed our euros into CUCS–Cuban pesos and put our carryon bags into our tour van. We traveled light to Cuba which made everything faster and easier. Driving the streets of Havana to our casa particular, we were welcomed by the intensely orange Flamboyan trees. Vintage cars and horse carriages drove by us as we gazed upon the colorful buildings. My friend took a photo of me taking a photo of the scenery and we laughed at the outcome. We were already having fun in Havana. The flight was not long and our connections were good. Leaving Tulsa at 6:00 a.m. and connecting to Atlanta, we gained an hour. We quickly walked to our next gate and boarded. There was a long line of people completing visas but we breezed past them to board the plane since our visas were completed online.
The colorful buildings were so vibrant and vivid. To be honest, I didn’t notice the crumbling that people talk about. I noticed the stately Neoclassical and Baroque architecture, the colonial influence of Columbus’s arrival, and a type of pride that was somehow conveyed in the cityscape. (Those architecture photos are in the Architecture and Faces of Old Havana blog and other blogs coming up.) Reportedly, a house a day crumbles in Cuba but I didn’t notice this compared to the architectural beauty and spectrum of colors which outweighed the “crumble.” Another factoid reports that there are 60,000 vintage cars in Cuba and 80% of them are in Havana.
We were immediately taken to lunch which is always a smart move of tour guides for weary travelers who have been up since 3:50 a.m. and only had snacks on board the plane. Light thunder rolled in the background as we listened to joyful, sultry, live Cuban salsa music inside.
A Cuban flag blew in the breeze. The rain ceased quickly and we bonded with our tour guide, (a bilingual professor) while trying traditional Cuban chicken, mojitos and sangria. I observed that the Cubans put a sprig or stalk of mint in each mojito, not muddled slivers like we are used to back home. I like the ease of this. Also, it’s powerfully pungent. As we boarded our van to depart to our casa particular in the neighborhood of Vedado, we noticed locals carrying umbrellas for both the heat and possible rain.
Next stop, our panoramic tour of Havana and Vedado. So much was already learned and we barely arrived. We knew our itinerary would be intense, packing in so much in four days but this was perfect for us. We were there to culturally immerse in a doable time frame with limited internet and phone service. We would rest when we got home! Upcoming blogs will cover our Panoramic Tour of Havana, Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Santeria rituals and so much more!
photos by GIna Kingsley
For other blogs on Cuba….search Architecture and Faces of Old Havana and A Santeria Ritual in a Havana Rainforest in the search bar of this blog site.