Monday, September 2, 2013

The new frontier: Cuba opens for U.S. travelers

So near and yet so far--Cuba has been off-limits for American visitors for more than half a century. But now certain U.S. travel companies have been licensed to provide specific journeys, thus allowing adventurous travelers to satisfy their curiosity about this once-forbidden Caribbean island.

My husband Larry and I jointed  a People-to-People excursion that American travel company International Expeditions is licensed to provide.  The immersive itinerary uses local guides and offers visitors opportunities to interact with Cuban artists, farmers, and biologists as ambassadors rather than simply as tourists.
Teatro Tomar Terry, an historic building in the beautfiful city of
Cienguegos, our first destination in Cuba
 Our journey covered 1,100 miles of Cuban territory where we learned about Cuban culture during visits to Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Bay of Pigs, Las Terrazas, Vinales, and Havana. Other destinations included visits with naturalists at Topas de Collantes National Park and the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Zapata Peninsula.

Located just 90 miles off the U.S. coast, Cuba is the largest and westernmost of the West Indies islands. With the Caribbean Sea on its southern coast and the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to the north, Cuba is in a strategic position for access to the U.S., a fact Russia took advantage of during the Cold War with the U.S. in the 1950s. When Cuba-Soviet relations soured in the late 1980s, Cuba lost its primary source of aid, and the economy further deteriorated as sugar cane plantations decreased.
Sunset on the Caribbean Sea at Hotel Ancon near Trinidad

As tensions increased, a politically-charged embargo was enacted by the U.S. After hurricanes in 2005 and 2008 devastated homes and crops in Cuba, some embargo restrictions were lifted in 2009, and attempts to restore diplomatic relations ensued. Official U. S. policy today is focused on encouraging democratic and economic reforms and respect for human rights, which are still culturally light-years from our own country’s ideals.

A fifth generation member of the Santander
family created beautiful pottery.

Rather than emphasizing politics, the People-to-People tour aims to engage participants in meaningful interactions with individual Cubans to foster a better understanding of the country and its people.  Our young Cuban guide said she would tell us about the Cuba she knows and lives—her reality not necessarily what we may have thought before coming, That honest approach allowed us to accept her views and learn from them.

If you like to be among the first to experience new destinations and you appreciate travel off the beaten path, consider traveling to Cuba. Go with an open mind and a willingness to enjoy the good things the country has to offer—hard-working people, beautiful mountains, excellent bird-watching opportunities, lively music, and architecturally historic buildings.

A young organic farmer is proud of his produce.
As tourism increases--more from Europe and South America than the U.S--hotel and retail chains will likely pop up, thus diluting the authenticity of the experience. Despite the fact Cuba still has many problems, the people love their country and are hopeful for a better future. As Americans we can appreciate their loyalty and learn from their enduring spirit.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier




Colleen Friesen said...

I am a Canadian which means we can go to Cuba any time. But I've been looking for a more meaningful way to do it. I certainly didn't want to do the usual resort trip. This is exactly the kind of trip I'd love to take. Thanks for this tip!

@ChristineSalins (FoodWineTravel) said...

I'd love to experience Cuba and this sounds like a fabulous way of doing it: getting to know the locals and having more one on one experiences.

Beverly Burmeier said...

Colleen and Christine, I hope you both have an opportunity for this kind of experience in Cuba.