If you’ve been keeping up with GGT lately, you know our company Green Travel Media recently signed on as the editorial voice behind International Expeditions’ 2015 rebranding efforts. But while this post was sponsored by the company, the truth is that we’ve always been fascinated by Cuba.
As a Music Business major and Music Theory minor, I studied Jazz History and the history of African-American culture in college. I learned about how Afro-Cuban music had influenced legends ranging from W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. I immersed myself in the music of Cuban bass legend Cachao, singer Celia Cruz, percussionist Tito Puente and the all-star lineup of Buena Vista Social Club.
I dreamed of exploring the rich culture that gave birth to mambo, salsa and son, but of course it was illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba back in the ’90s. But now International Expeditions is among a handful of companies permitted to offer legal trips to Cuba under the People to People program, which is licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Guided by Cuban natives, these tours allow travelers an opportunity to learn about Cuban history, culture and nature, while also interacting with local people.
International Expeditions is promoting their Complete Cuba itinerary by giving away over $2000 worth of prizes (click on the image below to enter). We were excited to get a chance to speak with one of IE’s Expedition Leaders, Ana Maria Perez, about growing up in Cuba, the evolution of Cuban attitudes towards the U.S., the richness of Cuban culture, and the wealth of natural and historical attractions the island nation has to offer.
What are your favorite memories of your childhood in Cuba?
I grew up with my grandma in a small town of eastern Cuba called Chaparra, in the province of Las Tunas. Mom was working in the province capital to support us all. Every time I close my eyes looking for a happy memory to better my day, I remember family gatherings.
On August 18 every year, we would all come to my grandma’s to celebrate her birthday. No matter how old she was turning and how scarce things were, there would always be cake, ensalada fria (a macaroni salad with ham or chicken and pineapple), and bocaditos (little sandwiches). Sometimes a roast pork on a spit if we could afford it. And always music and laughter and gifts. Family is the most important asset to Cubans.
In what ways has Cuba changed over the years?
Progress is undeniable, although slow. The 21st century Cuba has evolved to a more open and accepting society, partially because of the need to survive and the loosening of restrictions by the government. Cubans don’t see foreigners, especially Americans, as evil anymore. Visitors are welcome and treated like family.
Despite restricted use of the internet, most Cubans find access to information and technology from the rest of the world. Some own 3D TV sets and other “gadgets” that some of us in North America still don’t have. The Cuban community abroad is so huge, and these expats take care of their families on the island with remittances and goodies they bring. The entrepreneurial mindset is rapidly developing, as a result of the government legalizing small private enterprises to some extent. The growing number of “paladares” (private restaurants) is amazing.
Social discipline is one aspect that needs urgent attention– keeping the streets clean and garbage free, recycling, and doing jobs right without expecting any kind of extra compensation are some of the issues that need to be addressed.
Can you explain how “People-to-People Cuba Travel” is different from a typical vacation?
As an independent travel advisor, I send lots of Canadians on vacation to Cuba, most of them to all-inclusive resorts. Very few have the opportunity to visit a school, or the home of a family in the countryside.
The People to People way of traveling focuses on human interaction that allows Americans to understand the side of Cuba they don’t completely get, while also allowing Cubans to see the other side of the coin and compare their reality to that of the rest of the world. There are priceless experiences from the trips I have led.
One time, when interacting with students in an arts school in Matanzas after a magnificent spontaneous performance, one of the students dared our group to play something for them. Herm, a teacher and musician traveling with our group, went to the piano and played a classic American song. We were all in awe, silently singing to his music.
You’ve led several IE expeditions to Cuba. What do the American travelers you’ve led seem most surprised by during their time in Cuba?
Americans find it hard to understand how Cubans can be so happy with so little. I think that’s their biggest shock. By the end of the tour, most of our guests have found their own answers.
Most people don’t think of Cuba as a nature-lover’s paradise. What can travelers expect to see in places like Topes de Collantes National Park and the Zapata Peninsula’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve?
Nature is particularly impressive in Cuba. When Cuba comes to mind, most people think of music, cigars, rum and vintage cars. But, as we move away from Havana and the other cities, to the mountainous areas of Topes de Collantes and the Zapata swamps, our guests realize that there’s much more to Cuba.
The beauty and diversity of the bush, the fascinating endemic bird species (including the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird), and the masterful ways in which our naturalist guides bring it all to life help draw a broader picture.
There’s a lot of history in Valle De Los Ingenios and the city of Trinidad. What makes these places such important UNESCO Heritage Sites?
When we get to Trinidad, it is time to close our eyes and go back in time while our guide tells us the history behind this beautifully preserved colonial town and its cobblestone streets.
What Trinidad and the Valle de Los Ingenios meant to Cuba, and to the world economy, as the world’s number one exporter of sugar, and the rich history of its ingenios, give it a special place in the history of humankind. Thus the well-deserved title of Patrimonio de la Humanidad.
I originally fell in love with Cuba via the country’s rich cultural traditions. Can you talk about the importance of music and art to the Cuban people?
Music and art are essential to every Cuban. Art is thoroughly encouraged by the government. Talent is developed in art schools– any age, any form– for free.
Kids grow up seeing their parents play music and dance and sing to the rhythm while they clean the house, cook, or do laundry. Music, from reggaeton to salsa to classical, is everywhere. You get on an almendron (the old American cars that serve as taxis) and music is playing. A party is not a party without music and dancing!
Some people may be nervous to travel to Cuba because it was off-limits to American for so long. What words of advice would you have for those who are considering a visit?
Open your mind and your heart to Cuba, and you will understand, accept, and inevitably let Cuba captivate you. Life as you know it will not be the same after Cuba.
You’ll learn not to take everyday facts for granted, like running water on tap, a shelf full of products in a grocery store, and new shoes every time the old pair is getting uncomfortable.
At the same time, you’ll likely get back to work and want to hug your colleagues and play music to spice up your day. You will hopefully become an even better human being, and do even more for our common Mother: Planet Earth. –by Bret Love; photos provided by International Expeditions
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