We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through our people-to-people programs, offering Americans one of the few chances they’ll ever have to soak in the vibrant people, culture, and arts of this island nation. We found that these excursions not only open our traveler’s minds to the wonders of a diverse nation, but they return with transformed views of Cuba as a whole.
We recently interviewed Cuban traveler and blogger Megan McIntyre to uncover her take on her recent people-to-people cultural excursion. From visiting a primary school in Old Havana to exploring the urban farms of Terralismo to meeting Julio Munoz, known as the Cuban horse whisperer, Megan gained a deep understanding of a complex country that has been paralyzed by economic hardship, yet is still passionate about life and optimistic about the future.
Here’s what Megan had to say:
Friendly Planet: Why did you decide to travel to Cuba?
Megan McIntyre: My husband and I love to travel. We find no experience more rewarding than exploring different places, cultures, foods, and adventures. When choosing our most recent trip, we weighed the pros and cons of numerous destinations. Did we want a more active or relaxed trip? How far did we want to travel? Should we return to an old favorite destination or explore somewhere new? With these qualifiers in mind, we opted for an active, new experience that would minimize travel time. From that, there seemed to be only one logical option — Cuba.
2. What did you think about Cuba before your visit?
I was intrigued by the U.S.-based Cuban tours, but the country was largely a mystery to me prior to embarking. I knew Americans were forbidden to travel to Cuba independently and this added a sense of intrigue. For that reason, I saw this people-to-people trip as an authentic way to learn about the nation properly, without relying on the biases of the past.
3. What was your first impression of the country?
I was shocked by how far away it felt despite its physical proximity to the U.S. I immediately understood its description as a time capsule, with antique cars and 50s style bars lining the streets, but I also caught glimpses of modernization. That dichotomy drew me in and left me wanting to learn more about the country and its people.
4. What were some of your favorite people-to-people interactions?
I found interacting with the locals to be the most valuable aspect of my time in Cuba. As an avid gardener, I loved visiting the urban farm of Terralismo. Not only did I walk among the community gardens, but I tasted the fruits of the famers’ labor and experienced the best food of the entire trip. Murealando, the community mural project of Havana Barrio, also inspired me. I saw how a few vibrant images could awaken a community and unite people to work together to improve their lives. Finally, the children of a primary school in Old Havana stole my heart. They were so excited to meet our tour group, making it impossible to not feel welcome. Plus, I caught a rare glimpse of the real Cuban education system, one where 97 percent of all Cubans are literate.
5. What was your experience with Cuban art?
I am by no means an artist, but Cuban art moved me. I felt a deep rooted energy in each painting and sculpture, and heard true passion from the artists. I fell in love with the vibrant murals splashed on city walls, but I was equally enamored by the graffiti and mosaics. Those unofficial paintings stood in stark contrast to those in America, with each image drawing from a deeper understanding of art. Cuban art is a prime example of how art is nothing more than passion, talent, and resourcefulness. Obviously, the ingenuity and strength of the artist is not unique to Cuba, but it took this trip for me to truly understand the full power of the arts.
6. What opened your eyes the most to the culture of Cuba?
The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” has never rung more true. I expected to view a country stifled by a Communist regime and in a state of decay under the U.S. embargo. Instead, I was stunned by the resilience and growth of the Cuban people. I discovered that the Cubans are highly educated. Education, while limited in the scope of learning and range of resources, is compulsory through age 16.
While culture and intellectual endeavors thrive, Cuba still suffers economically. I met several people that work a number of jobs in an effort to support themselves and their families. For example, my pedicab driver, Crazy Charlie, was a high-ranking interpreter at the military base in Guantanamo. The horse whisper I met in Trinidad, Julio Munoz, was both an engineer and a social change agent. And it’s not uncommon for hotel maids to work as nurses or teachers. That’s what makes the people of Cuba so engaging. They do not relegate themselves to one descriptor, but embrace many roles.
7. Would you return to Cuba?
Yes. Definitely. I am blessed that I experienced the country now, before sanctions open up and the country changes forever.
8. What advice do you have for people who are considering traveling to Cuba?
Don’t expect the food to taste like the Americanized version of Cuban food. While restaurants try their best to provide tasty dishes, cooks are limited by ration restrictions, so access to fresh, high-quality ingredients is difficult. Prepare to eat a lot of Moors and Christians (Spanish black beans and rice). You’ll also find little red meat, and even less that’s not over cooked. That said, I enjoyed every meal, due in part to the unforgettable people and the unique beauty of the country.
If you’d like to hear more of Megan’s takeaways about her trip to Cuba, click over to her blog Odds and Hens where she pairs stunning visuals with an honest description of the country. Thanks again Megan for taking the time to speak with us.