When is the best time to travel to a place you may never have the opportunity to see again? The time for a new cultural expedition is now — and as IVY Members will tell you, our trips to Cuba offer an unmatched opportunity to be amongst the first of our generation to gain an insider’s perspective on the island — an iconic nation suspended in time, yet buzzing with vibrant culture, creative cuisine, and impending waves of change.
Over the past two years of IVY Travel trips to Cuba, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to make the best out of our time on the island. Below are a selection of those highlights, along with some stories from the travelers who have joined us to hit the streets of Havana.
If you’re interested in discovering Cuba yourself, you’re in luck — our 2017 IVY Cultural Expedition to Cuba has open spots. We expect them to fill up quickly, so take a moment to imagine yourself on a rooftop in Old Havana, surrounded by a group of new friends and reminiscing about a day jam-packed with private tours of historic destinations, meals of arroz con pollo, delicious mojitos, and salsa dancing.… We’d be delighted for you to join us!
In the meantime, here’s a preview of what’s in store.
Vamos a Bailar
Salsa is a universal dance language, and certainly the most popular Latin social dance in the world. All of which is to say: it’s a fun, friendly, and useful set of moves to have in your rhythmic arsenal.
We always get our groove on at La Casa del Son, a popular dance joint located in an 18th-century house. Whether you’re a salsa novice or aficionado, you’ll learn styles and techniques to up your dance game. We’ll let Mark Radcliffe, an IVY Member in New York, sum up the experience:
On the second night, our leader Carl brought us to La Casa del Son, a place that was a mix of a dancing hall and rum joint for a Cuban salsa lesson. Once the lesson wrapped up, we all ordered another rum drink and began blending in with the locals. At some point, the female lead singer of the band on stage saw me dancing rather enthusiastically, and beckoned me up on stage to sing with her. Now, my Spanish is horrible, but I am a singer/songwriter, so I have a good ear and voice and was able to follow her singing in a call and response song. That got the whole crowd cheering for the gringo who turned out to be a decent singer.
Then I asked her if I could sing one with my friends, and the band obliged —which almost never happens in America, I should add (the bands who booked the show want the stage all to themselves). It was a true testament to the generosity and open-heartedness of the Cuban people.
So, I got up and sang a song of mine that IVY peeps had heard before, “Let’s Light This Fuse,” and it really got the room rocking — all the locals dancing along, too. Meanwhile, one of our other IVY group members had sweet-talked his way behind the bar to join the bartender there in serving drinks. So, we had one IVY member singing on stage, another slinging Cuba Libres, and the rest of our crew lighting up the dance floor with the locals. We definitely found a Cuban connection in the city of Havana — truly a memorable night.
All Hail Old Havana
Cuba’s capital city has a lot to offer. On the first day of our trip, we always take a guided stroll through Old Havana, highlighting the main historic plazas: the Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja, and Museo de la Revolución — all while stopping for formal encounters with local artists and shopkeepers.
We also tour a historic Cigar Museum from the 18th century, and meet professional cigar rollers (the Cubans making the world-famous Cubans). When the sun sets, we head to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a former power plant that’s been converted into a massive haven for the abundant visual and performing arts community. And that’s not even mentioning our private sunset cocktail hour and dinner at our favorite, family-run paladar.
Home Sweet Hemingway
In 1939, Ernest Hemingway — the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist and one of the world’s greatest writers — ventured to Cuba in his boat. He settled down in the hilltop village of San Francisco de Paula, where he lived for 20 years in Finca Vigía (Spanish for “lookout house”). The eclectic house has since been converted into a museum displaying Hemingway’s library, manuscripts, and personal effects.
We pass by Finca Vigía for a private visit and cultural discussion, seeing where the old man slept while he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Movable Feast.
Meat and Veggies
It’s time to talk food and drink, because there’s lots to enjoy: fricasé de pollo (Cuban-style chicken stew), pernil asado con mojo (roasted pork shoulder marinated in a citrusy mojo marinade), ropa vieja (shredded beef), fried sweet plantains, fresh mojitos — not to even mention mouth-watering desserts like tres leches cake, flan, and arroz con leche.
You may have noticed a trend: there’s plenty of meat to go around in Cuba. Yet one of our favorite spots is El Romero — a pioneering, eco-friendly, vegetarian (gasp!) restaurant that sources farm-fresh, local ingredients. Every year, we meet with the restaurant’s chef (over a sumptuous meal) to discuss the advent of organic, slow food to Cuba and the rise of the green revolution. ¡Buen provecho!
It’s hard to pin down the origin of Cuba’s mysterious charm, from the centuries-old colonial fortresses and 1950s American convertibles, to giant arts and crafts markets and predominance of el tuteo (the informal, second-person “tú” form of address).
Yet the magic of the island undoubtedly has a foundation in its diverse, thrilling natural attractions. On the IVY Cultural Expeditions, we always take a drive through the country’s scenic countryside to Las Terrazas, the innovative eco-village that is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We also make a point to swim in the clean, cascading waters that fall into a series of pools at the Baños del San Juan, and visit one of the longest-surviving coffee plantations in to talk with local farmers about how they harvest their beans.
Kirk Sigmon, an IVY Member from DC, had this to say of the experience:
My trip to Cuba with IVY was absolutely spectacular. I not only got to meet and make friends with amazing people from a variety of different backgrounds, but I got to experience Cuba in a way that few people ever do. From exploring an old Cuban cigar factory to late night dance lessons and early morning swims, I had the time of my life. IVY’s trips are always bursting with fun, culture, and education.
If this sounds like your cup of tea (or mojito, we should say), please visit our 2017 IVY Cultural Expeditions to Cuba page for more information!
We’ll let one IVY Member, who preferred to remain anonymous for their review, have the last word: “Can I use expletives in my testimonial? Great. It was f***ing awesome. The IVY planners should be give a lifetime achievement award for packing in so many awesome things for a sizable group. Major props!”
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