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Ever wanted to see Cuba legally? Now’s your chance!

Our team at Friendly Planet Travel has helped more than 5,000 Americans travel to Cuba legally through our licensed people-to-people programs, and according to a survey we conducted of travelers upon their return, an astonishing 81 percent would go back again if given the chance. People-to-people licenses were first issued to qualified tour operators by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2011, with the intent of developing a greater understanding between the separated nations, and since then, have proven to be a tremendous success.

These tours are not simple vacations. Instead, they’re life-changing events that allow Americans and Cubans to better understand each other through educational exchanges around such topics as art, music, literature, education, and much more.

Our present license — due to expire in September — has just been renewed for two more years! We’re extremely excited that we can continue offering these rewarding experiences to anyone with a desire to find out more about Cuba and its people. As a result, our team has been hard at work preparing the details of our upcoming departures, and we’ve just posted new dates through May 2015 for our three signature programs:

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The true colors of Cuba: Part 2

Barry Ostrow recently recounted his first trip to Cuba on a Friendly Planet Travel tour. Barry glimpsed the 1950s cars lining the streets of Old Havana, met world-class dance students at Pro Danza, and listened to energetic salsa beats at a Cuban dance club — and that was only in the first four days! Here’s the final account of Barry’s Cuban experience.

Day 5: On the way back to Havana from Trinidad, we stopped at the former French city of Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a wealthy city thanks to the presence of Cuba’s oil refineries. Instead of the narrow, twisty cobblestoned streets of Havana and Trinidad, Cienfuegos’ main street is long, wide, and lined on both sides with large stores surprisingly stuffed with consumer goods. One of the highlights of the trip was the unexpected appearance of a band of revelers dressed in colorful Mardi Gras apparel, many on stilts, playing instruments, dancing, and pulling bystanders into their midst.

A few blocks away, we visited the art studio Grafica Cienfuegos. The studio’s business model blended old and new Cuban economics. While salaries were still set and paid by the government, the gallery had to sustain itself — buying paper, ink, and equipment — through the sale of its art.

That night, we returned to Havana and our hotel, the famous Nacional, which overlooked the Malecon and featured collages of all the famous people who had stayed there, including Myer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. The Malecon is a ribbon of sidewalk that runs for miles along the Atlantic waterfront. Since we were there on Valentine’s Day, the entire stretch was packed with young lovers.

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The true colors of Cuba: Part 1

Travel opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world. This sentiment couldn’t be truer than among our people-to-people program travelers who visit Cuba through our specially licensed program and experience a world that has been shut off to Americans for decades.

That exact experience happened to Barry Ostrow when he traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet Travel’s Colors of Cuba tour. We caught up with Barry to get a personal account of his people-to-people excursion to Cuba. Here’s the first half of his story, be sure to check back soon for part two.

Day 1: On my first trip to Cuba, I legally arrived with 21 other travelers in Havana to begin my U.S.-sanctioned Friendly Planet people-to-people tour. The tour introduced us to the social, historical, and educational aspects of Cuba, and it certainly opened my eyes to life on the beautiful, yet troubled island. The narrative of the trip was frank with no holds barred. We saw all of the good things the island had to offer, as well as the bad.

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Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.

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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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!

Why you have to see these faces of Cuba

Among the greatest joys of visiting a new place is the opportunity to get to know the locals. And after 30-plus years of traveling the world, one constant that I’ve found everywhere is that despite how different we look, live, work and play, people are essentially the same everywhere.

I shared a bit about the people of Cuba through the talented lens of award-winning photographer Jeremy Woodhouse in my latest contribution to The Huffington Post. Jeremy has given us special permission to share some of the faces of Cuba he captured on a recent trip with us, and these photos are absolutely breathtaking. Be sure to click over to see them in full.

You don’t have to be Beyoncé to travel to Cuba legally

The U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) legalized travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens through People-to-People licenses in 2011. But it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba in April that ignited the national conversation around American travel to the island nation.

Legal travel to Cuba through the People-to-People licensed program requires that Americans participate in cultural and educational exchanges with Cubans, and get to know them through these personal interactions. This is an extraordinarily enriching experience, as art and culture are inherent in the daily heartbeats of life in Cuba. It’s seen everywhere – from young school children who learn classical dance and can recite great Cuban works of poetry to seniors who spend lazy tropical afternoons discussing art and music over a game of dominoes in the cooling shade.

You can immerse yourself in all of this culture plus more, while also giving back to the country and its people, in many important ways. There is a great symbiotic relationship you can build when you visit Cuba through a People-to-People license. Here are three reasons why you should take a legal trip to Cuba.

You will definitely interact on a daily basis with real Cubans in every walk of life. In my opinion, the best reason to take a legal trip is that the mandated trip itineraries are phenomenal. I’ve been selling and creating travel experiences for 33 years, and People-to-People trips require you do what’s most interesting about Cuba and travel in general—get to know how the people of that destination really live, while sharing a bit with them about how you live back in the U.S.

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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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