An Unforgettable Journey to Cuba

by Liz Rothaus Bertrand

Next spring, The Language Academy of the Carolinas heads to Cuba for the first time! This unique trip has been organized in partnership with Educational Travel Adventures (ETA), a company specializing in custom-designed group travel for more than 25 years. From April 18 – 27, 2018, Language Academy participants will have the chance to discover many facets of Cuba: from its stunning architecture and natural beauty to its vibrant cultural scene and fascinating political history.

Julian Jacobs

We spoke with ETA’s Director of International Programs, Julian Jacobs, to learn more about trip highlights, the latest news on Hurricane Irma recovery efforts, and tips for preparing for this one-of-a-kind adventure.

Trip Highlights

During this 10-day voyage, travelers will experience both the excitement of urban centers and the rural beauty of the Cuban countryside. From the capital city Havana and the beautifully preserved Spanish Colonial town of Trinidad to the lush Viñales Valley (where they still use traditional farming methods) and the gorgeous beaches of Varadero, the trip will cover a lot of different terrain.

Vinales Valley

Cultural experiences will abound, including:

  • an evening at the legendary Tropicana Cabaret with its glittering spectacle of singers, musicians, and dancers.
  • visits to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Cienfuegos, known for its exquisite neoclassical architecture, eclectic palaces, and beautiful vistas overlooking the bay.
  • a tour of Havana’s Fábrica de Arte Cubana, a converted factory that now houses some of the country’s best examples of modern art.
  • an afternoon of salsa dance lessons taught by professional Cuban dancers.
  • opportunities to visit artisanal markets.
  • exploration of key historical sites tied to the Cuban Revolution.

Palacio de Valle in Cienfuegos. Photo by Reinhardt Schmidt, Conde Nast Traveler

One especially intriguing aspect of this trip is the chance to stay in Casas Particulares throughout Cuba. “They’re a cross between a bed and breakfast and a homestay,” says Jacobs. “You actually get to meet people, practice language skills and get a little local flavor.”

Like nearly everything in this Caribbean country, the Casas Particulares program is run by the government. Families must apply to host foreigners and are carefully screened. Thanks to its advance team, ETA can usually select families they already know. “The families are very welcoming,” adds Jacobs.

A bilingual Cuban Guide, fluent in Spanish and English, will travel with the group throughout the tour. “They are usually amazing,” says Jacobs. An ETA Tour Manager will also accompany the trip, providing an additional resource to ensure the best experience possible for participants.

Aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Without question, Hurricane Irma caused significant damage to certain areas of the island. The Category 5 hurricane was the most powerful storm to hit Cuba in almost a century. The northern coast of Havana, known as the Malecón, was especially battered by the storm, with waves more than 20 feet high crashing over the seawall and causing flooding in nearby areas.

 

According to initial government estimates*, the storm damaged more than 4,200 homes in Havana and 211 cultural institutions throughout Cuba. After five grueling days without water or electricity in Havana, most of the country now has restored power.**

Despite flooding, Jacobs says his sources have told him the damage sustained in Old Havana (another UNESCO World Heritage Site the group will visit) was not too bad. The Cuban government has announced plans to repair and rebuild quickly throughout the country. They are aiming for much of the work to be completed by the start of tourist season, in early January. Jacobs expects clean up efforts to make safe travel entirely possible by the spring when the Language Academy group arrives.

Old Havana, Photo by Patrik Bergstr for GQ magazine

Tips for a Great Trip

ETA streamlines the travel process by managing most of the logistics before and during the trip: obtaining visas, booking a non-stop flight from Charlotte-Douglas Airport to Cuba, arranging accommodations, planning meals, and organizing private transportation by bus. Organized group travel is the only way for American tourists currently to visit the country, since the White House announced last June a return to a policy of greater travel restrictions to Cuba. While ETA handles most of the nitty-gritty, there are still some important tips to keep in mind as you head overseas:

1.) Stay flexible.

“Things change. Plans change,” says Jacobs. “Just like travel anywhere– but it seems to be elevated in Cuba.” If activities are canceled, ETA will replace them with equally interesting experiences.

2.) Be open-minded.

Try new foods and experiences.

3.) Be appropriate.

“There are many people in Cuba who love Castro and others who don’t,” says Jacobs. While it’s ok to be inquisitive, it’s best not to try to impose your views on the people you meet.

4.) Bring cash for your purchases.

Most places in Cuba do not accept American credit or debit cards. There is a 10% fee for all US currency conversions in Cuba. You can avoid this fee by bringing another currency with you, like Canadian dollars or euros, but keep in mind that if you purchase these in the US, you’ll still pay a conversion fee at your bank.

5.) Wi-fi access is limited.

You can read more about where and how it’s available in this informative Tripadvisor article.


Want more details about this trip? Call the Language Academy at 704.548.0048 or visit the website at carolinalanguage.com.

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Liz Bertrand

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