Long before former President Barack Obama allowed U.S. travelers to set their own itineraries on trips to Cuba, U.S. citizens could legally visit the island by participating in educational trips. Under President Donald Trump’s stricter policy, which will eliminate self-directed people-to-people travel and potentially narrow what constitutes educational travel, these group trips are likely to become more popular.
What will they look like? How can you join such a trip? Cuba Trade reached out to travel agents and U.S.-based organizations dedicated to the advancing everything from medicine, ecology, and musicology to historic preservation and architecture to find out.
AGRICULTURE AND ECOLOGY
Foodies and gardeners with an interest in ecology and healthy eating may want to travel to places where they can learn about organic and sustainable agriculture. InsightCuba is one agency that curates food-centered trips. Their signature Legendary Cuba tour showcases the rural community of Pinar del Rio to learn about local food production.
“They’ll eat at farm-to-table restaurants where they actually go to the farm before getting to the table,” said insightCuba Operations Director Alison Coehlo.
The program explores the challenges Cuba faces in obtaining the equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock feed needed to produce food. It also explains why the country has had to focus more on small-scale organic farming. Participants learn how farmers provide the products needed for local school lunches, despite difficulties in mass food production.
“The politics of being a farmer are constantly changing. Getting that perspective [both] good and bad is enriching for people,” said insightCuba President Tom Popper.
Closely related to exploration of farming are trips designed to explore the island’s impressive biodiversity. Miami-based VaCuba offers bird watching among its curated group trips. Birders can engage in smaller or longer trips, depending on the number of species they want to see.
VaCuba’s 14-day package is the most complete. Between Havana and excursions to western and central Cuba, travelers are likely to see dozens of different types of birds. They’ll also have an opportunity to see those birds in spectacular habitats such as the biosphere reserve Las Terrazas Community, which is designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Similarly, at the Cafetal Buenavista, a 19th Century French coffee plantation, visitors can see how coffee plants not only produce energy-packed beans, but also emit oxygen into the atmosphere, prevent soil erosion on the mountains, and serve as bird sanctuaries.
ARCHITECTURE AND CULTURE
Architects and city planners are likely to find inspiration while touring the colonial buildings of Old Havana as well as colonial cities such as Trinidad and Cienfuegos. A trip to the Cuban capital is also an education in the challenges of renovating and preserving historic structures.
Cuba Travel Services has been offering group tours of cities across the island for more than half a decade, with a focus on local architectural and cultural heritage. They offer trips for “families, educators and students, professionals of all kinds” to cities that include Cienfuegos, which they describe as “the architectural jewel of the nineteenth century. Its historic center, declared a World Heritage Site, is a living example of the French imprint on many features of the culture and customs in Cienfuegos, particularly in its architecture, where arches, stained glass and ironwork prevail.”
Cuba Travel Services also focuses on the architecture and history of Holguín, Matanzas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba, as well as offering biodiversity tours of Pinar del Rio province.
Marazul, the United States’ oldest Cuba-bound travel agency, also arranges programs that feature the country’s architectural legacy. Its agents usually start with a presentation from the Office of the City Historian in Old Havana. In the 1990s, during Cuba’s toughest economic crisis, this entity worked with preservationists to revive the neighborhood’s historic buildings, turning the area into the nation’s largest tourist attraction and one of its biggest income generators.
“How they’ve done it, the materials they’ve used, how they’ve planned it, and their relationship to the people who own those buildings is all part of the educational process,” says Marazul Vice President Robert Guild.
In some low-income countries, activities such as music and sports aren’t treated as integral to the physical health and mental well-being of a society. In Cuba, it’s the opposite. And while there are plenty of general people-to-people trips showcasing Cuban music and sports to U.S. travelers, some groups delve deeper to explain how these activities improve Cuban’s physical health, self-esteem, critical thinking, and team collaboration, in addition to economic advancement and entrepreneurship.
One way to experience the life of a Cuban athlete is to join them on their own turf. That’s something Cuba Travel Services does by sending travelers to sporting events such as the November 19th Marabana Marathon in Havana.
Over the course of five days, U.S. travelers have the chance to train in and around the sites of Old Havana before running the marathon. Running alongside the Cuban people allows them to build relationships in the process.
During special meals and seminars arranged through Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER), participants can share personal histories and training tips. That’s one of the most exciting aspects for upcoming participant Nadia Ruiz. The Ecuadorian American marathon runner won the Guinness Book of World Records as the first Latina to run more than 100 marathons. Her strength, she says, comes from the struggles of her immigrant parents and her momentum from running marathons all over the globe. Now, she says, she looks forward to finding new inspiration from Cuban athletes.
“I would love to learn more about their passions, their stories, and what challenges they’ve had to overcome,” she explains.
Cuba’s pristine waters offer another avenue for educational travel, combining the experience of cruising the coastal waters with the scientific study of reefs and ocean ecologies. Two leaders in this field are Aggressor Fleet and Moore & Company.
Working with the Oceans for Youth Foundation, Aggressor Fleet’s Cuba travel programs are designed to include presentations in Havana by Cuban scientists and marine biologists. After getting a background in Caribbean marine ecosystems, participants spend a week onboard the Jardínes Aggressor, which explores the spectacular Gardens of the Queen (Jardínes de la Reina), a national aquatic park with coral reefs, 60 miles from the southern coast of Cuba.
Moore & Company also works with the eco-study organization International Seakeepers Society, which certifies yachting trips to Cuba under the umbrella of educational research journeys. Typically, U.S. or Cuban scientists join the crew onboard a chartered (or owned) yacht, doing actual research while sharing knowledge with the travelers. For example, their Seakeepers E3 Cuba Experience (environmental, ecological, and educational), enlists participants to help scientists shoot photos and videos of ecological findings.
“We interface the marine community, scientists with people who are interested in the waters around Cuba—how to preserve and protect, and to save and restore,” says attorney Michael Moore, chairman of the board of Seakeepers and an expert at making sure luxury yachts traveling to Cuba comply with U.S. and Cuban regulations.
MUSICOLOGY & ART
Another travel service provider that works with yacht and boat owners is Carlson Maritime Travel, but with an added layer of land-based cultural excursions. These include photography junkets with photo experts, Jewish heritage tours, and even a golfing expedition. Where they excel, however, is in music.
“Cuban music is often considered one of the richest and most influential regional [styles] of the world,” says company president Suzanne Carlson. “It has been hugely popular throughout the world and has contributed to the development of a wide variety genre and music styles.” A musicology tour attunes travelers to Cuban rhythms, musical techniques, and lyrics that discuss everything from historic trade routes and religious beliefs to historic political movements.
Carlson offers a variety of group music tours, ranging from “Dr. Mambo’s Jazz Tour” (scheduled for this November) to “Aruffo’s Musical Taste of Cuba,” which includes meetings with famous band leaders, musical exchanges with performers, and visits to music museums and clubs.
Closely allied with the world of music is that of visual art. Cuban art today is among the most sought after on the planet, and the island bristles with talented painters and photographers. While ‘art’ is available at every souvenir market, finding and learning about curated, world-class art sometimes requires a guide.
Several travel service providers excel in this realm, including Bespoke Custom Cuba Travel and Xael Charters (which also conducts ecology and religious tours). Basically, art tours—which can be customized for groups—include visits to important galleries in Havana, jaunts to the best art museums, and meetings with individual artists in their studios.
Another travel service provider specializing in the arts—both music and the visual arts—is Cuba Tours and Travel. A true pioneer in cultural travel to Cuba, and one of the first agencies to take Americans on group tours to Cuba, Cuba Tours and Travel conducts a variety of cultural journeys across the island. Where they shine is in the arts, particularly the visual arts and music.
One of the earliest specialties for founder and CEO Peter Sanchez was connecting artists with potential collectors from North America. Among the artists he has dealt with, a half dozen sold their first paintings to his clients. “Now some are famous artists, working for Citigroup,” he says. He also connects museum curators with artists and organizes group trips for the museum’s members.
As far as music goes, Sanchez arranges special trips that include educational presentations. And it was Sanchez who brought the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans to Havana in 2015—along with 200 of their fans.
Several tour providers work closely with nonprofit organizations focused on the advancement of public health and biotechnology. One of the largest is MEDICC, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that promotes U.S.-Cuba medical collaboration. In addition to helping American medical students enroll in Cuba’s fully accredited Latin American Medical School and later obtain residencies back in the U.S., MEDICC works to organize curated public health tours and conferences in Cuba.
MEDICC has developed full-time schedules that can include everything from exchanges and conversations with Cuban doctors to visits to the medical facility that developed the CIMAvax cancer vaccine. There are also opportunities to shadow neighborhood family doctors making their rounds. In addition, the organization communicates with Cuban professionals in other sectors such as housing and the environment.
“Health is broader than health services, so we also go with a lot of groups who are interested in getting a fuller picture,” explained MEDICC Executive Director Gail Reed. “We tailor our programs to the institution. We want them to feel that their purposes have been fulfilled and at the same time introduce them to things they haven’t thought about.”
THE EDUCATION PASS
Regardless of the exact theme, the organizers of all these educational trips say travelers will have ample opportunity to soak in Cuba’s dynamic culture. After all, in between a full schedule of seminars and educational site visits, there are some leftover hours to eat, relax, and dance in picturesque neighborhoods.
What is key is that, despite prohibitions or restrictions for individual or ‘person-to-person’ travel, group educational travel is permitted under the latest policy directive from the Trump administration in Washington.
“To ease our clients’ fears,” said Bespoke Custom Cuba Travel president Myriam Castillo, “we can show them this, which legitimately lays out that you are not doing anything that is against the current policy, or whatever the future policy may be.”