My wife and I, along with our adult son, enjoyed an Essential History Expedition to Cuba this past October. We are all well-traveled in Latin America, and my son and I are both fluent in Spanish, so the lure to see Cuba before there’s a Starbucks on every corner was irresistible. Brian and Sheryl’s travel package hit a delicate balance between understanding the historical perspective, and embracing the existing culture. Furthermore, the small group of ten intrepid voyagers included delightful, funny, knowledgeable, and flexible co-travelers.
We started with a dinner for most, but not all, of the group at the hotel in Miami, where we began to get to know each other, and traded stories on the paths that landed us in the care of Brian and Sheryl. The next morning, we were ready, willing and waiting at Miami International Airport, where we continued to wait for a flight that was six hours delayed. We knew we had a good group when that news was met with a shrug of acceptance. Traveling in Latin America often requires a certain sense of existentialism, where anything can change at any time for no apparent reason, and our people seemed to roll with it, which was an excellent sign.
First stop was Santiago de Cuba, and the fun began. The ubiquitous colonial architecture is reminiscent of Cartagena or Cuenca, but the late 1950s American automobiles and the 1960s-80s Russian automobiles are unique to Cuba. While Sheryl deftly handled the logistics, Brian waxed eloquent on the colonial history up to the seeds of the Revolution, and Santiago’s role in both. Throughout the rest of the trip, including Havana, the Bay of Pigs, and Cienfuegos, as well as side trips, Brian enlightened, but never overwhelmed, and casually displayed his encyclopedic professorial education on a broad array of topics.
One delightful aspect of the trip was that Brian had offered the opportunity for each traveler to choose a character from Cuban history, and to play the role of that character at pertinent times during the trip. My wife chose a revolutionary figure, I chose Ernest Hemingway, and we assigned our son Emilio Bacardi which, given our consumption of Mojitos and Daiquiris, seemed appropriate. For our small and friendly group, that mechanism served us all very well.
The food was always ample, always healthy, and occasionally very good, even the crocodile. Private sector services are only just emerging in the Cuban economy, and the private restaurants were easily distinguishable from their government-run counterparts. There was often a protracted negotiation about whether the price of the meal did or did not include a cocktail of some variety, which Sheryl handled with a relaxed aplomb.
The hotels we stayed in tended to be quite modern, although Brian and Sheryl indicated they had planned on some older properties, only to have arrangements changed at the last moment. They were very well appointed, although again, a lack of infrastructure led to logistical challenges from time to time, but nothing major.
Music played a wonderful role on our travels. Brian and Sheryl arranged a private concert and dance lesson outside Santiago and a very splashy and professional floorshow at the famed Tropicana Club in Havana, but Cuba spontaneously offered live music and dancing along every block, and occasionally right out in the middle of the road.
I cannot recommend this experience enough. It won’t be a five-star tour through a first-world country, but it will be an immersive Cuban experience before Cuba is changed irreparably.