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.
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.
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.