This February, a group of Badgers and two American Bar Association members (products of Texas A&M) went on a fascinating, weeklong tour of the island of Cuba: a country that is very close to us, yet most of us know so very little about it. Our tour through Go Next was a people-to-people educational exchange program. To visit Cuba, travelers are still required to hold a tour permit, and one of the ways to get a permit is to go for an educational purpose. Our tour was filled with visits to interact with people and experience the Cuban culture and way of life.
The main city that we stayed in was Havana, at the Hotel Parque Central. It was a beautiful hotel, with a giant lobby full of plants and very comfortable chairs. It had live music going all the time. From there, we took many day trips in Havana to see the neighborhood plazas, their shops, and the people who live there. The Plaza de Armas has a used-books market, and on the day we visited, it also had a full orchestra playing music for the passersby.
In the Old Havana section, hundreds of brightly decorated bears lined Plaza San Francisco. They’re called United Buddy Bears: bears decorated to match the theme of each country. It was a fun challenge to go around and guess which country each bear symbolized.
On another day, we visited a vibrant center of arts, music, dance, and theater called Muraleando. There a group of volunteers performed for us and showed us the impressive crafts that they make. The music was traditional Cuban, and in no time, everyone was up dancing to the great Cuban beat!
We stopped at a community garden to learn how people grow their food and how they make cooperative organic gardens a success to feed the people of that community. We walked through the old fishing village of Cojimar, which was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
On a daily basis, our travels took us to visit local artists and musicians. Even though these people lived in impoverished communities, they were able to create places that would influence many people and allow the community to take part and have a place of pride. Outside of Havana, we visited Las Terrazas, a self-sustaining community and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve nestled in the lush, forested hills. There we got a rare glimpse at how Cuba’s rural medical services work and how these communities thrive with little outside influence.
Throughout our trip, we learned about the educational system of Cuba. We visited a primary school in Havana and were able to interact with the teachers and students to learn about their challenges. Later we visited and toured the University of Havana, Cuba’s oldest university.
For two days, we traveled east to the city of Trinidad, a colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trinidad’s Old World charm and beautifully restored downtown and plazas made this a special place to visit. Live, outdoor music in the plazas made this a very friendly and relaxing experience. In Trinidad, we visited a bed-and-breakfast, a pottery house, and the Templo de Yemaya, home to a fast-growing Afro-Cuban religion. On the way there, we also saw the vast fields of the once-thriving sugar industry in the Valle de los Ingenios.
Of course, Cuba wouldn’t be Cuba without the classic, old cars that the country is known for. Colorful cars from the 1950s and ’60s are abundant everywhere you go — and all of them are ready to give you a ride around town!
The Cuban Discovery trip was a fantastic experience in a country that is stuck in time. However, the hotel’s accommodations and the food were 21st-century top notch! The people were always very warm and welcoming to us. The meaningful interactions that we had with the people were tremendous and something that you don’t get in most travel opportunities. They make for a very memorable experience. This mysterious island has a rich history and a very diverse culture that makes it a great travel destination.