I grew up on the East Coast, and wintertime family vacations often entailed travel to the Caribbean. The islands there counted among my parents’ favorite vacation spots back then. One island we (obviously) never traveled to while I was growing up, was Cuba. Now that Cuba is open for US tourists, my parents — still living in the Northeast — jumped at the chance to explore the new-to-them Caribbean island country. But what was crucial to them in deciding upon a tour company was some emphasis on nature travel. They found the perfect outfitter in International Expeditions, and had a wonderful, memorable travel experience in Cuba with that company.
Now, I’m a lot like my parents in terms of nature travel. I’ve seen and know about the devastating effects unbridled tourism can have on a place; even travel that seems innocuous can have long lasting ramifications. Untreated ballast water from cruise ships leads to invasive species taking over an aquatic ecosystem, non-biodegradable plastic water bottles purchased where tap water isn’t safe to drink end up in landfills forever, etc. Anyone who has spent time in popular Caribbean vacation islands has to have seen the negative effects of tourism there. People have been breaking off and taking home with them pieces of coral for generations. Sprawling hotel developments displace sea turtle nesting areas. And local cultures suffer as well (I hope I’m not the only person who cringes a little during Hawaiian luau performances at resorts).
Cuba, now open for North American tourists, has in a way been frozen in time until now. Flora and fauna that is rare or endangered on other Caribbean islands (due to the hotel developments in reaction to rising demands of tourists) are still easily found in Cuba. International Expeditions’ mission of including nature travel ensures that the group leaders and itineraries are sensitive to the needs of the island. International Expeditions also strives to give guests more authentic cultural experiences, as well. The people-to-people element can include personal interactions with Cuban fishermen, musicians, artists, farmers and the like.
There are only a handful of travel companies that are permitted to provide Cuba group travel experiences at this time, under the licensed (hence, legal) People to People Program. People-to-people tours are active, enriching educational trips; so, save the week long poolside lounging for another vacation. International Expeditions’s Cuba trips are guided by Cuban natives, and guests are able to learn about Cuba’s natural biodiversity, its rich cultural traditions both historically and today, and to interact with other Cuban locals. While their entire tour of Cuba was wonderful, my parents described a few personal highlights on the International Expeditions Cuba itinerary:
The Korimakao Project Arts Center
Here was a place that was not a school, but a place for recent graduates in visual arts, music, and dance to work together to put together a show that would be taken “on the road” to travel around to remote villages that had no exposure to arts. We enjoyed watching a rehearsal with dancers dancing and musicians playing instruments. Apparently the visual artists were painting sets somewhere else while we were there.
Planned Community Las Terrazas
Lovely setting by a lake with houses, community center with medical clinic and other services on-site for 1,000 residents. It’s a ecologically sustainable UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and there is an ongoing reforestation project there.
Bay of Pigs
We think of it as a historical site of a failed invasion, but it is really a tidal wetland, with beautiful marshes and bird life. It’s a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve! We did a bird walk and saw the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. Nearby we also saw a Cuban Parrot, a fairly rare species. The US-supported failed invasion is honored with a plaque of triumph against the “ugly Americans.”
Land crab migration
Along the coast at this time of year (late March) land crabs must migrate from upland down to the sea to release their larvae. Unfortunately to get there, they must cross a well-traveled road, which has become orange for many miles, due to squashed crab carcasses. We stopped for a while to look at some who managed to cross successfully. There must have been millions of dead crabs along 10 miles of this road.
They also noted that they really enjoyed exploring Havana and the Museum of the Revolution, watching out for old-timey cars, and — especially — listening to music and soaking up the atmosphere at the Buena Vista Social Club. In fact, I have photographic evidence of how much fun my embarrassed old dad had!
My parents (who took these photos) had this to say about their overall International Expeditions Cuba vacation: “We had numerous offers from various travel companies for Cuba trips. They all followed the Congressional mandate that such trips be “people-to-people”, and offered trips that stayed in cities and were exclusively cultural. But IE introduced us not only to the dance troupes and museums and educational authorities, but also the rural and nature aspects of Cuba. We had taken other trips with IE that were primarily ecotourism, and this Cuba trip was a very nice mix.”
My parents are finicky travelers, so this is a good review! Here’s some more good news: IE is promoting their Complete Cuba itinerary with a giveaway. Over $2000 worth of travel prizes are included in this giveaway.
Grand Prize: $500 travel certificate & Gear Pack
2nd prize: Gear Pack valued at @$100 – two hats, two memory foam travel pillows, Eagle Creek packable daypack, luggage duffle, collapsible water bottle, daypack, first aid kit
3rd-5th Prizes: $100 Travel Gift Certificates
Enter the contest here. The giveaway runs until October 31, 2014.
Listening to my parents talk about what fans they are of International Expeditions, and how much they enjoyed the Cuba trip, has made me reconsider my “Caribbean? Been there, done that” attitude. After all, not many of us in the States have been to Cuba yet, and it’s so distinct from the other islands there. Fascinating! I’d love to go to Cuba with International Expeditions. If you have had your Cuba travel curiosity similarly sparked, consider booking your adventure with International Expeditions. My picky parents loved the trip, and I’m sure you will, too.
International Expeditions was a founding member of The International Ecotourism Society. It’s been named been named among the Best Adventure Travel Companies by National Geographic ADVENTURE and one of the World’s Best Tour Operators & Safari Outfitters by Travel + Leisure. This post was sponsored by International Expeditions, but all opinions are mine…well, my parents’.