As 14 Flying Jayhawks prepared for our trip to Cuba Jan. 6, tour director Antoinette Ford of Gohagan & Company wisely urged us to “be flexible and have open minds and hearts” during our visit to the island nation, which is struggling to accommodate the dramatic influx of tourists from the United States. We soon learned that the Cuban people welcome Americans with open arms, eagerly sharing their extraordinary culture and history. But Cuba’s aging infrastructure, dual currencies and years of isolation from the United States make for an unpredictable, challenging adventure. One of our local guides joked that the unofficial motto of Cuba is, “It’s complicated.”
Joining us on our journey were 26 Traveling Owls from Rice University and 12 alumni of Vassar College. In addition to making new friends from across the United States, we treasured the opportunities to meet and talk with Cuba’s citizens, including our local guides, musicians, dancers, artists, community leaders, farmers and the owners of several paladars, local Cuban homes that have become restaurants.
Our adventure began with six nights on the majestic M.Y. Le Ponant, a three-masted French sailing ship making its first Cuban voyage. For three nights, the ship remained in Santiago Bay, on the southeast coast of the island, as we enjoyed daily excursions. We visited San Juan Hill, the pivotal site of the Spanish-American War (known to Cubans as the Spanish-Cuban-American War). A lively performance by local musicians and dancers provided the perfect introduction to Cuban culture. We also toured the magnificent Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, which includes the mausoleum of José Marti, Cuba’s national hero and a literary legend in Latin America, as well as the grave of Fidel Castro. We were fortunate to witness the changing of the guard.
Other sites in Santiago included the cathedral and shrine of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. Outside the city, we visited the 16th-century Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a Spanish fort more commonly known as The Morro. Brilliant sunshine made up for the buffeting winds as we enjoyed the breathtaking views of Santiago Bay and an exquisite a cappella concert in the fort’s chapel by four Cuban women, Vocal Vidas.
As Le Ponant sailed from Santiago, the ship’s crew hoisted the KU flag and we enjoyed a glorious day at sea before arriving in Cienfuegos. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city features a picturesque square bordered by the historic Teatro Tomas Terry, where famed tenor Enrico Caruso and other legendary stars performed. We also visited Santa Clara, where we learned the danzon, a traditional Cuban dance, from senior citizens at Abuelos de Fiesta, and toured the Che Guevara Monument and the History Museum of the Revolution.
After leaving the ship, we traveled by bus to Havana, the highlight of the first day was a visit to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s stunning home, which boasts lush gardens and spectacular views. While our guide enjoyed telling us that actress Ava Gardner once skinny-dipped in Hemingway’s pool, most of us were more interested in seeing the famed author’s retreat, with its hunting lodge décor, historic photos and, of course, his typewriter.
The next morning began with a tour of the city in the vintage U.S. cars that local drivers have carefully and painstakingly preserved. Riding in a ’57 pink convertible Chrysler New Yorker sure beats a tour bus. We then walked the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, including the Plaza de la Cathedral and other squares where restoration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s colonial structures will continue for years to come. In a Havana suburb, we marveled at the wondrous, whimsical mosaics by artist Jose Rodriquez Fuster, who has adorned not only his home and studio but also his neighborhood with joyous, colorful sculptures in all shapes and sizes. Fuster’s eye-popping art lifts the spirits of residents and tourists.
From Havana we ventured to the Vinales Valley, which sits amid dramatic hill formations that are part of the Sierra de los Organos mountains. A local organic farm has become a favorite tourists’ lunch spot, known for tasty all-natural smoothies (rum optional) and delicious family-style meals. Our last stop was a tobacco farm, where Senor Benito explained the process for growing, drying and rolling the leaves that become Cuba’s famous cigars. A few travelers shared a smoke with Benito, who also welcomed us into his home for coffee.
After a long day, a few of us rallied for an evening at La Tropicana, the famous night club where extravagant (and decadent) entertainment first flourished in the 1940s during Havana’s heyday as the forerunner of Las Vegas.
As U.S. tourism continues to soar, Cuba no doubt will change drastically in the years to come. The Flying Jayhawks counted ourselves fortunate to visit the island as a new era begins.
—Jennifer Jackson Sanner
Jennifer Jackson Sanner is senior vice president of strategic communications and advocacy and editor of Kansas Alumni magazine. View more pictures from the trip on Flickr.
If you have been on the fence about taking a trip with the Flying Jayhawks, get off that fence and book a trip today. I recently had the opportunity to take my first trip with the Flying Jayhawks and it was unforgettable. On this nine-day trip to Cuba, everything was taken care of—all I had to do was have fun! We had a knowledgeable local guide, tons of terrific Cuban food, an itinerary packed with amazing experiences that an average tourist wouldn’t get and a great tour director from our tour operator, Gohagan.
Since Cuba is sort of a mystery to most Americans, I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. Some things were just as you would expect: lots of old American cars and lots of cigars and rum. The most surprising thing to most of us was how many tourists were in Cuba. There were a number of other American tour groups and many tourists from other countries. Despite currently accommodating a lot of tourists, I don’t think they are quite ready for the rush of Americans who will visit once the borders open. It was nice to visit before all of these changes take place, and it will be interesting to see how things change.
This particular trip to Cuba focused on people-to-people interactions, engaging Cuban individuals and U.S. travelers with one another. We met with scholars, artists, architects, farmers, musicians, school children and others who were able to provide a unique glimpse into what life is like in Cuba. We toured the city of Havana, saw the resort area of Varadero and traveled through the Cuban countryside. It was a great mix of people and places and definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.
—Michelle Lang, director of Kansas programs, hosted the Flying Jayhawks excursion to Cuba from April 19-27, 2015. The group is pictured below in the top photo; the bottom photo includes travelers from Texas Tech who were adopted as honorary Jayhawks. In 2013, another group of Flying Jayhawks travelers experienced Cuba; read more about their trip. For more information about the Flying Jayhawks program, including the 2016 schedule, visit www.kualumni.org/flyingjayhawks.
Danny Lewis, director of alumni programs, hosted a group of Flying Jayhawks during a recent trip to Cuba. For more information about the Flying Jayhawks alumni travel program, visit www.kualumni.org/flyingjayhawks.
At the end of September, I was lucky enough to host a group of 15 fellow Jayhawks on one of Go Next’s first alumni program trips to Cuba. The program was a “people to people educational exchange,” and this is the only type of trip that allows United States citizens legal entry into Cuba. The group I hosted included well-traveled passengers from Kansas City, Liberal, Union, Greenleaf, Dallas, Jackson Hole and Valdosta, Ga.
We spent most of our time in Havana, which lives up to its reputation as one of the best cities architecturally to visit. The old buildings, mixed with old-school American cars, truly made it feel as if we had gone back in time.
Sightseeing, however, was not the purpose of the trip. The main focus was to help our group gain a better understanding of our neighbors to the south through personal interactions. We enjoyed outings to elementary schools, high schools, arts and vocational schools, the University of Havana and hospitals and clinics. We met with business owners and artists to talk about everyday life in Cuba. During our seven days in the country, we also visited Las Terazas, Cojimar, Cein Fuegos, Trinidad, Manaca Iznaga, Sancti Spiritus and Santa Clara.
The trip afforded our group a great opportunity to see a country that a lot of Americans will never see, and to help make new connections between those on the trip. I can’t wait for my next adventure with the Flying Jayhawks!
If you’ve ever harbored a desire to visit Cuba, we have a great opportunity for you. Our alumni travel program, the Flying Jayhawks, features an exclusive package developed for the KU Alumni Association by our travel partner, Go Next, Inc.
Go Next, Inc. has been issued a People-to-People license by the U.S Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that authorizes registered travelers of this educational exchange program to visit Cuba. The trip includes visits to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara, where travelers will meet with diverse locals including dancers, teachers and entrepreneurs.
This Cuban adventure will take place from Sept. 13-20, 2013, and is limited to around 25 participants. Only a few spots remain on the trip, so don’t miss this opportunity! You do not have to hold a degree from KU to be eligible to travel with the Jayhawks.
Danny Lewis, d’04, director of alumni programs, will host the trip.
If Cuba’s not your thing, we have a variety of other trips available that include both ocean and land journeys in exotic locations such as Africa, Asia, South America and Europe as well as historic tours of North America. Click here to view a list of all Flying Jayhawks programs.
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The Flying Jayhawks Program offers all graduates, former students, families and friends the chance to travel among the camaraderie of fellow Jayhawks through discovery, adventure and education. The program provides enrichment through the exploration of other cultures and lifestyles while strengthening loyalty, friendship, commitment and communication among a unique community drawn together by KU.