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An American traveler in Cuba: Q-and-A with blogger Megan McIntyre

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?

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: Ancient contractors

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Win a FREE trip to Greece and the Greek isles through the “Great Greece Giveaway”

Have you ever wished to walk among ruins dedicated to ancient gods, lounge on black sand beaches, and lose yourself in a maze of quaint shops overlooking the Aegean Sea? Well you’re in luck. Today we’re unveiling our next Friendly Planet Travel sweepstakes, which will transport two lucky travelers to the birthplace of Western civilization — Greece!

Greece unites the wonders of the ancient past with the beauty of the modern present to enchant visitors and keep them dreaming of this breathtaking destination for years to come. The Greek Isles speckle the Aegean and Mediterranean as pinpoints of paradise. With whitewashed villas and bustling tavernas nestled high on bluffs overlooking the azure sea, these beautiful islands are everything a traveler could ask for in a vacation destination. Meanwhile, Athens, awesome and inspirational, uniquely integrates Eastern and Western influences resulting in a lively metropolis, renowned for its food, music, friendly people, and shopping.

This terrific trip could all be yours for free through our “Great Greece Giveaway.” One lucky Facebook fan will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise group tour. All you have to do is visit our Facebook page, Like us, and enter your information in the Great Greece Giveaway tab for your chance to win this prize, worth up to $6,100. Since this is a brand-new contest, you’ll have to enter your information (whether or not you participated in a previous Friendly Planet Travel sweepstakes) to be eligible to win.

The grand prize includes,

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Myanmar through the eyes of a Friendly Planet traveler

EXPERIENCE MYANMAR: A trip to Myanmar opens eyes and changes perceptions

A trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma, introduces visitors to an ancient culture barely touched by modern life, where spirituality, gentle people, and unmatched tropical beauty abound. Opened to tourists just a few years ago after a series of dramatic government changes, those who have been fortunate enough to visit have fallen in love with this exotic country, and count themselves blessed to have seen it before modernity changes it forever.

Traveler Ann Young recently visited Myanmar on a Friendly Planet Travel tour and recounted her experience in an article on JournalStandard.com. Ann marveled at the country’s spectacular Buddhist temples, watched the sunset on the world’s longest teak bridge, and most notably, took part in helping feed 250 rural schoolchildren a lunch of chicken, mango salad, hard boiled eggs, and corn soup with rice.

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5 reasons to travel internationally with your kids

FAMILY TRAVEL: International family travel from Friendly Planet broadens minds and expands horizons

Forget Epcot’s World Showcase. Families today want to go beyond the ‘been there, done that’ summer vacation to see the real China, Italy, Japan, and Africa. You might be one of them — a parent who has always dreamed of traveling internationally with your children, but didn’t think it was possible because of the cost, stress, and planning required to put a trip together. There’s a lot to consider: choosing hotels, scheduling intra-country travel, knowing what sightseeing spots to visit, not speaking the local language, and the ultimate question: Will my children be OK (and actually have fun!) on this trip?

That’s why I’m so excited that Friendly Planet now offers families safe, affordable options to travel internationally this summer with our new family-friendly group tours. We handle the details, so you can concentrate on enjoying the spectacular beauty, culture, and history of some of the most jaw-dropping places on Earth with your kids (along with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, too!), making memories that will last a lifetime.

You might be thinking: Is international group travel right for my family? One of the best parts of these tours is that every detail has been thought of. We’ve selected kid-friendly hotels with amenities that they’ll love, scheduled touring that kids and parents will enjoy, and picked talented guides who specialize in making sightseeing interesting for the entire family. And, by traveling with other families in a group, you and your kids will have plenty of opportunities to make new friends and share this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

But there are many more reasons to travel internationally with your kids. Here are just five:

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How you can help build sustainable high schools worldwide

Alyssa Ramos (we call her Ali) is a member of our operations team. She is also one amazing woman, who has taken herself from homelessness to college graduation on the strength of her own guts and brains, both of which she has in abundance. Ali’s dream is to build sustainable schools in places around the world that offer little opportunity for kids. According to Ali’s dream, kids not only learn the basics of language, history, math, and science, but they also learn about sustainable living on every level, and then go on to work in new industries that will be critically needed in our modern, environmentally challenged world.

Ali and her team have created a short video as part of a competition for $30,000 in funding for her project. The public is asked to vote for the project they deem most worthwhile, and it is possible for everyone to vote once a day. The other contestants will be assembling their own team of supporters, but I want Ali to have the strength of our readers’ collective efforts, to make sure her video gets the votes needed to win.

I regularly watch a segment called “The Good Stuff” on CNN, where people like Ali are featured. In another year or so, once Ali’s school project is further advanced, she will probably be one of those amazing people featured. Today, I am asking everyone who believes in personal success stories to help us get the winning number of votes for Ali’s project. Here’s how to vote:

STEP 1) Click this link to register: http://www.phillyinfocus.com/channel/philly-dogooder-ii/ 

You have to create an account in order to vote! To create an account you need to submit a username and email.

STEP 2) Check your email in order to confirm your account. Note: the password is generated for you.

If you do not see the email, please check your Spam/Junk Folder.

STEP 3) Follow the link in your email. Sign in with your username and the password they generated for you.

STEP 4) VOTE FOR US HERE:

Our video is called – Schools for Sustainability

http://phillyinfocus.com/video/schools-for-sustainability/

Click VOTE!

It will take just a few  minutes but will make a huge difference. Your support is greatly appreciated!

Advice for Americans traveling to Cuba

Our recent survey of folks who’ve traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet people-to-people programs showed how these trips are changing the hearts and minds of Americans nationwide. U.S. citizens get a unique opportunity to meet Cuban people one-on-one in these programs, learning how the Cubans live, work, and play.

The big lesson from our survey? As traveler Cynthia Richmond told us, “This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.”

Respondents were also eager to offer advice to other Americans traveling to Cuba. If you’ve been considering visiting this island nation, read on to hear what they had to say.

Just go, and go now!

“If you have the opportunity, go. It’s an experience of a lifetime.” - Jose Deleon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in May 2012.

“Don’t put it off, go now! You won’t regret it. What a wonderful opportunity and I can’t wait to go again!” - Suzanne Wells, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in March 2013. (more…)

American travel to Cuba: The truth you need to know

We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through people-to-people programs, and we recently conducted a survey to better understand their experiences there. I spent this weekend reading over these travelers’ comments from the survey, and it was mind-blowing. Their trips to Cuba forever changed them — a truly transformational experience that opened their minds, hearts, and souls to the people, culture, and arts of this island nation.

How about you? Looking for an exotic, once-in-a-lifetime tour? A way to connect with a people and culture? These folks would suggest you take a trip to Cuba, soon. Here are some of the most poignant responses from our survey.

Culturally, what impact did your trip to Cuba have on you?

“I learned more about Cuban art and culture than I could have imagined … Meeting world-renowned artists in their studios and talking to young artists was the highlight of the trip. Being able to purchase artwork to bring back was a joy.” - Mona Becker, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in December 2012.

“I saw a vibrant people who love music and art. Who are always striving to be their best. A country where people care about each other and take pride in their country.” – Marilyn Cantisano and Donald Southworth, travelers on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in October 2013.

“It reinforced for me that people are very much the same regardless of nationality, origin, or standard of living.” - Steve Rutherford, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in February 2013.

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Why travel to Cuba and why travel there now!

Today I am more passionate about the power of travel than any time in my long career of helping people experience new places around the world. That excitement stems from a survey of Friendly Planet travelers who have recently visited Cuba under our people-to-people program. The results dramatically underscore how travel, more than any other endeavor, opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world.

The survey showed that 81.3 percent of those who traveled to Cuba with Friendly Planet would return again if given the chance. That is the highest intended return rate we have ever seen here at Friendly Planet. The reasons are many and fascinating.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com

Our survey revealed that people-to-people programs are transformational events in the lives of our travelers. They go to Cuba not for luxury or creature comforts (Cuban travel infrastructure is still lacking), but rather to experience the people, culture, and arts; connect with Cubans on their terms, under the conditions they currently find themselves; and learn about Cuba now, before it’s forever changed by the outside world.

A trip to Cuba changes minds and opinions, allowing travelers to set aside politics and connect personally with the Cuban people as they go about their daily lives, struggling economically, but achieving much through their art and culture. In some ways, it represents a step back in time, before cell phones and the Internet, when people shared their lives through music, storytelling, and simple small talk within their homes and public plazas. It is this setting that shatters expectations and connects travelers directly with the Cuban people.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com


According to our survey, the surprises are many. For example, 78.1 percent of our travelers were surprised by how open and friendly the Cuban people were toward American visitors. Some 67.6 percent said that upon their return, they could more easily separate politics from culture and appreciate the people for who they are!

And isn’t that the real intent of traveling the world and meeting other people? Isn’t our real drive to learn to appreciate the world directly, without filter or bias? It’s easy to form opinions from a distance, even the mere 90 miles that separate America from the Cuban shore. But it’s much more real and much more accurate to shelve our own opinions until we spend time with a people, immersed in their culture.

Image © Jeremy Woodhouse | Pixelchrome.com

Make no doubts about it. These travelers were honest about their experiences. They saw both the good and the bad of the politics and economics of the Cuban experience. But they also witnessed the nobility of the people. Their pride in their heritage. Their intelligence and wit. In fact, the most valuable findings of our survey had nothing to do with statistics and everything to do with heartfelt sentiments. Here are just four firsthand accounts from Friendly Planet’s Cuba travelers:

“You will take away so much more than you can imagine from your trip. After you leave Cuba, ask yourself the question ‘How can I make a difference for the Cuban people?’ My answer would be: Tell everyone you can that you, an American, have been to Cuba and it is time that more Americans go and see … this country and change our attitude.” – Jean Pluchar, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in April 2013.

“We felt like our trip to Cuba was an incredible gift. … There was so much to see and do and absorb, and the people-to-people interactions were what made it so special. Cuba was nothing like the 51 other countries we have visited in the past.” – Robin Hannigan, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in January 2013.

“It provided a more personal understanding of the people, culture, and political structure than you can ever experience in books or TV documentaries.” – Drew Nixon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in November 2013.

“This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.” – Cynthia Richmond, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in December 2012.

From my involvement with the people-to-people Cuba program, my own love of travel has been renewed and refreshed. I am reminded that travel opens vistas, encourages understanding and acceptance, and reminds me that people are basically the same everywhere.

Our people-to-people programs to Cuba are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to gain a deep and lasting appreciation for an island nation where people care about each other, are amazingly creative, are able to withstand great challenges, and treasure family and love visitors. No doubt Cuba will evolve, sooner or later, to meet the realities of our world. But for now, at this moment in time, Cuba offers the rarest of chances to open one’s mind, one’s perceptions, and one’s heart and soul to forever be transformed.

We plan to publish a number of the survey’s findings here on our blog and through the media. So check back frequently to learn more about how a trip to Cuba will forever change your life!

Discovering the magic of ageless India

The following story from Cherie Thiessen, a traveler on one of our Taj Mahal Express tours, ran in Senior Living Magazine’s December 2013 issue. I was truly impressed by her fabulous article about India, which captures the essence of the scenes she describes beautifully. I experienced those very same places, and her descriptions reminded me of the details, which we typically tend to gloss over in our hurry to take everything in. She, on the other hand, noticed all the special tidbits that make India so fascinating. Read on for her story.


We’re swerving and bumping our way along one of the world’s oldest roads: the historic Silk Route, one of a network of connecting trade routes linking East, South, and Western Asia with Europe and North Africa. We’re only taking this impossibly congested road from Delhi as far as Agra, a mere 240 kilometres, but that will nevertheless take us all day. Here’s what will slow us down:

  • Cows lying in the middle of the road, nonchalantly munching on garbage. The drivers all manage to veer around them without altering their speed.
  • Two truckloads full of students, standing cheek-to-jowl in the back as they jerk and jostle to the music spilling out of the front. Every time the vehicles slow, some of the agile youths rappel out of the trucks and swap places, nonchalantly flicking in and out of traffic. Our driver brakes.
  • Women in rainbow saris balancing bales of chaff the size of smart cars on their heads, the edges of which scratch against our windows.
  • Vehicles ahead of us abruptly stopping in the middle of the road to enable occupants to pray alongside three-storey Hindu statues whose large eyes eerily track our every move.
  • A school bus crammed with tidy, uniformed children, barreling down on us on the wrong side of the freeway, forcing our two lanes of traffic to further divide into a very emaciated three. An overloaded fruit truck inching past the school bus so closely that a young arm is able to reach out and grab a banana from the teetering pile.

We wave and the children wave back exuberantly. (more…)

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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