By Edward Piegza
We are truly honored that our Cuba for Families cultural exchange program has been selected for National Geographic Traveler’s "50 Tours of a Lifetime" for 2015. According to the magazine’s official press release, the trip was chosen because it is one of the “most authentic, most innovative, most immersive, best-guided, and most sustainable tours.”
In a way, I have my two sons to thank. They went with us on the very first People-to-People Exchange Program that Classic Journeys ran a few years ago. Their reactions – to the friendly Cuban people we met, to the eye-opening economic and social conditions, to the music and food, and most of all to the fun we had together – led us to start Cuba for Families as fast as we could.
Since then, family groups with kids from ages 8 to 18 have explored Cuba with us, and they all come back saying the trip is unforgettable. The trip means even more now, as the normalization of U.S./Cuba relations gathers steam. It’s so amazing to be in the country at a tipping point like this, with change so near. You really understand that you’re not just a traveler…you’re a living part of history. That is a tremendous gift to give to the young travelers in your family.
There isn’t a moment in the daily activities of the Cuba for Families program when you’ll think that this is vacation-as-usual. It’s starts on the drive in to Havana from Jose Marti Airport as you see horse-drawn carts and tail-finned American cars from the ‘50s wherever you look. Within an hour or so, you’ve been pulled out of your chair to dance with local muscians and artists in La Muraleando, a neighborhhood where the locals brighten up their rickety streets with crazy wall murals and sculpures made from found objects. By bedtime that first day, you’ve stood on the walls of a fortress overlooking the city for the firing of the cannons that’s happen every night since the 1770s.
You quickly learn hard-to-process things like the average monthly income of a Cuban, which is just $20. And suddenly, you start to understand why there are so few stores, and why the buildings are crumbling, and why the Cubans hang out on the promenade along the bay for company and (free!) entertainment. The rules we’re used to just don’t apply in Cuba. People buy food supplies with ration cards. And those vintage cars? While a few of them are in mint condition, most of them rattle down the road more than 50 years after they were made because people can’t afford anything newer. On top of all that, the people you meet smile and greet you warmly and seem more content than we could ever imagine. If that doesn’t provoke a conversation with your kids, nothing will!
The kids love the countryside too. On our drive out to the Viñales Valley, we stop at Las Terrazas. It’s a project where the locals re-forested mountainsides that were srtripped of trees by coffee growers in the 19thcentury. We stop at a village school, where chickens scratch on the sidewalk outside open classroom doors. Principal, teachers and kids all welcome us. If it’s hard to picture going to school like this, it’s just as hard to imagine that all education is free, right through grad school.
At Viñales, we go walking through farmland with a guide. People are working in tobacco fields, chopping at other crops with just a machete. Again, you see just how friendly Cubans are. They stop to talk…and the surprise is that you can really ask just about any question. They’ll tell you about their families, what they grow, and on and on.
It’s no wonder that our guests tell us, after they come home, their kids add this trip to their educational resumes, they write about it in their college applications, and they keep bringing up the lessons that stayed with them. One of our best friends says that she likes to take her family on trips like this because she wants them to think, feel and behave like citizens of the world. I think that goes a long way in explaining why Cuba for Families has been named one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime”.
Cuba for Families is one part of our People-to-People Exchange Program that also includes Cuba—Havana to the Viñales Valley and A Long Weekend in Havana. For more information about any of our Cuban experiences, call 800-200-3887