The Smallest Group Immersion into this Newly Opened Caribbean Nation's Nature & Culture
Day 1: Miami, Florida / Cienfuegos, Cuba
Our Cuba People-to-People exchange begins as our small group flies to the historic city of Cienfuegos, where our local Cuban guide joins us on arrival. Once we settle in to
our hotel, we head to the Museo Historico Provincial, a regional museum inside an opulent former Spanish casino, to attend a performance by the internationally acclaimed choral group Cantores de Cienfuegos. Afterward, we enjoy a leisurely dinner at a local waterfront restaurant.
Day 2: Cienfuegos—Botanical Garden / Trinidad
Our day begins with an exploration of Cienfuegos. Founded by French settlers in 1819, the city is recognized as an outstanding example of early 19th-century urban planning in Latin America, and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a walking tour of the scenic area surrounding the Parque Marti, the central square, admire the lavish cathedral and town theater which was built with materials and craftspeople imported from Europe. Along the way, we stop at the Tomas Terry Theater, which opened in 1889 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida
. The magnificent interior includes seats made from Cuban hardwoods and an exquisite ceiling fresco.
After lunch, we set out by road for Trinidad, dropping by the Cienfuegos baseball stadium to meet with a retired local pro representing Cuba’s favorite national sport. We also stop at Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, established as a center for tropical plant research in the early 1900s. The gardens showcase thousands of tree and plant species imported from around the world. Meet with staff to learn about the history of the garden, which once had close ties with the United States and other nations through sugar cane research and the exchange of rare botanical specimens. Late this afternoon we reach Trinidad, the crown jewel of Cuba’s colonial cities. Founded by Diego de Velasquez in 1514 as a base for expeditions into the New World, Trinidad today is a World Heritage Site still filled with elaborate palaces, cobbled streets and tiled roofs, looking much as the Spaniards left it during its period of greatest opulence.
Day 3: Trinidad
A morning walking tour reveals Trinidad’s historic treasures. Beginning around the Plaza Mayor, the town center, we find the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, Cuba’s largest church. The 19th-century cathedral is renowned for its acoustics and altars made of precious woods. We then visit the Palacio Cantero, an early 19th-century mansion owned by a German planter who acquired vast sugar estates. The elaborate neoclassical decor of each room is a testament to the wealth he amassed, and the view over Trinidad from the top of the tower is exhilarating. We also stop at the home and studio of two local artists who will discuss the role of art as a form of Cuban cultural expression, then enjoy a lunch of classic Cuban fare at Sol Ananda, Trinidad's best private restaurant.
This afternoon, we travel east to Valle de Los Ingenios—Valley of the Sugar Mills—once the center of Cuba’s sugar industry. Trinidad’s immense wealth was created in this verdant valley from the late 18th to the late 19th century, though most of the 50-plus sugar mills were destroyed during the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Today, the area’s cultural significance is recognized in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, we admire the Iznaga Tower, a regional landmark constructed in 1816 that once was Cuba’s tallest structure at 147 feet. Its height and elaborate design were a testament to its owner’s vast material wealth during the Spanish colonial period, much of which was created by the labor of more than 30,000 slaves in the valley.
Later, at the beautiful Trinidadian residence of Julio and Rosa Muñoz, we have a chance to chat with the family. Julio is a photographer, business owner
and esteemed horse trainer. Dinner this evening is at a special private restaurant—Casa de Los Conspiradores—owned by artist Yami Martinez, who has achieved international recognition for her work depicting the strains of life on Cuban women. The building remains one of Trinidad’s oldest and most architecturally significant 18th-century houses, and one of the city’s most photographed colonial facades.
Day 4: Topes de Collantes / Playa Giron
We depart Trinidad early this morning to travel by road to Topes de Collantes. Soon, we turn inland from the coast, climbing into the Sierra Escambray with slopes are draped in Caribbean pines, ancient tree ferns, bamboo
and eucalyptus. This area lies within the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, a protected reserve encompassing some of Cuba’s lushest natural scenery, including rushing streams and waterfalls. Wet
winds coming off the Caribbean Sea have made the north face of the mountains a luxuriant refuge for plants and animals, while the drier south face also contains important ecosystems. We spend the morning on a nature walk that highlights much of the area’s natural biodiversity, including more than 40 indigenous orchid species, 100 fern species, wild plantain and banana trees, several representatives of the ginger family and some 40 coffee species. Birdlife here is also profuse, with several unique species of hummingbirds. We enjoy lunch in the park before making a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to admire its
little-known but outstanding collection of 20th-century Cuban paintings
En route to Playa Giron this afternoon we stop at Bermejas Forest Reserve, a haven for many endemic birds and plants. We’ll hope for a chance to see the world’s smallest hummingbird, which is generally found here in the late afternoon, and we learn from park staff about steps being taken to protect the park’s unique ecosystem. Our accommodations for the next two nights in Playa Giron offer a rare opportunity to stay with a local family in a casa particular
, where our Cuban hosts welcome us into their home and provide a window through which to witness the culture and customs of everyday life in Cuba.
Day 5: Zapata National Park / Bay of Pigs—Snorkeling
This morning we rise early to explore the Zapata Peninsula, a remote, sparsely populated area of tremendous ecological significance. This UN Biosphere Reserve covers 1.5 million acres, much of it marshes and brackish lagoons that comprise the Caribbean’s largest wetlands. At the heart of the peninsula, Zapata National Park harbors some 1,000-plant species, of which 130 are endemic to Cuba, and a great diversity of habitats such as grasslands, mangroves, varied types of forest, coastal lagoons and coral reefs. We'll be joined by a local naturalist at Las Salinas, home to huge numbers of winter migratory birds as well as rare endemics.
Traveling along Cuba’s southern coast, we stop near San Juan for a chance to snorkel the turquoise waters in
the Bay of Pigs, infamous
site of the 1961 failed U.S. invasion that helped make Fidel Castro a Cuban national hero, and learn about the elkhorn coral formations that support myriad tropical fish. Cuba’s reefs demonstrate a level of health long since lost in corals elsewhere in the Caribbean, in part due to Cuba's decades of isolation from mass tourism and its sustainable agricultural practices. Afterward, we visit the Bay of Pigs Museum to learn about the significance of this site in Cuba's history, then head back to Playa Giron for dinner.
Day 6: Las Terrazas / Valle de Viñales
Today, more of Cuba’s beguiling rural scenery awaits as we drive to the western part of the island. Departing Playa Giron this morning, we travel to Las Terrazas, a scenic rural community that is focused on sustainable ecotourism. Surrounded by expanses of wild nature, Las Terrazas is the site of some of Cuba’s earliest coffee plantations and a 1968 reforestation project, and today is part of the UN Sierra
del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. This area’s complex geological structure produces special soils that support endemic flora including the tiny orchid (Bletia purpurea
) that is a symbol of the reserve.
After lunch, we continue through Valle de Viñales, Cuba’s most famous landscape. This area was the last refuge of the Ciboney, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe. The mountains are riddled with caves, some running underground for many miles, in which Ciboney burial artifacts and rock paintings have been found. Enjoy vistas of steep-sided limestone mountains called mogotes
that rise starkly from flat valleys where farmers cultivate the red soil for tobacco, fruits
and vegetables. The Viñales Valley's famous mogotes
are dramatic 250-million-year-old loaf-shaped limestone mountains laced with caves. These karst formations have been worn away by hundreds of years of erosion, becoming small islands that are self-contained ecosystems.
Day 7: Viñales National Park / Havana
As we explore Viñales National Park this morning, we are accompanied by a local naturalist for a close-up look at this fascinating ecosystem. A walk along the Coco Solo Palmarito Trail reveals rich plant and birdlife. Over lunch at an organic farm, we meet the family, learn about their ecologically supportive growing techniques, and sample some fresh produce. The views are spectacular across this tropical plain famous for its tobacco plantations, rice paddies and hibiscus, bougainvillea and flame trees. Our visit to the valley also includes a typical Cuban tobacco farm. With the development of the European tobacco market in the early 19th century and the perfection of the Havana cigar, Cubans realized this Pinar del Rio region guarded a treasure: soil and climate that produced the world’s best tobacco. The timeless scenes here epitomize rural Cuba—thatched homesteads and farmers, called guajiros
, driving ox carts with their faithful dogs trotting at their heels.
Late this afternoon, we continue on Cuba’s vibrant capital of Havana, passing through the city’s heart, the Plaza de la Revolucion, the most politically important square in Cuba. The plaza has stood witness to many rallies and revolutions that altered the course of Cuban history.
Day 8: Havana
This morning we venture out on foot to explore historic Havana. The strategic and commercial importance of Havana as Cuba’s capital is reflected in the fortifications surrounding the city. The original city was built in 1519 around the plaza, one of the largest city squares in the world, followed by the construction of the 17th-century walls that ring what is now Old Havana.
After lunch on the Plaza Vieja, a prominent architectural historian joins us for an overview of Havana on foot and by bus. On our meanderings, we’ll pass such iconic structures as the Pabellon Cuba, the Hotel Havana Libre, the Yara Cinema and Art Deco apartment buildings. Along
our way, we’ll stop for a mojito at the Hotel Nacional. This iconic landmark overlooking the Malecon waterfront opened in 1930 when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans.
Early this evening we meet Dr. Norma Guillard, a University of Havana professor who studies psychology and gender. She is featured in the documentary La Maestra
(a film we’ll see), which tells the stories of young women literacy workers who traveled across
Cuba to teach and found themselves deeply transformed in the process. Afterward, dinner is at your leisure, with a chance to try your choice of one of Havana's many popular paladares
, or privately owned restaurants. Radically altering Cuba's food landscape, paladares
have made dining out a growing highlight of life in modern Cuba.
Day 9: Havana
After breakfast, our morning begins with a roundtable discussion with an economist from the the University
of Havana, sharing the monumental economic changes afoot in Cuba as forces for liberalization and privatization continue to gain greater hold. Afterwards
, we drive to the National Theater to watch a dance class at the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. This extraordinary dance group melds classical ballet and American modern dance with folkloric Afro-Cuban dance, Cuban rumba
and Spanish flamenco. Then it’s on to the Havana Botanical Garden for lunch, where we’ll take in a panel discussion on the conservation of biodiversity in Cuba. We also visit the new Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: Arte Cubano (Cuban Collection), accompanied by a curator. The museum dates back to 1842,
when the San Alejandro Art Academy started its collection that became the nucleus of the museum founded in 1913.
Our grand Cuba adventure wraps up with a farewell dinner at La Guarida, perhaps the best known of Havana’s trendy new paladares
. Among Havana’s most elegant offerings, La Guarida
attained fame as the locale where the 1994 Oscar-nominated Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate
Day 10: Havana / Miami / Depart
Our Cuba tour concludes today as we fly from Havana to Miami.
Please note: This itinerary is meant as a guideline and can change due to diplomatic events in Cuba, amendments to U.S.-Cuba sanctions, weather, hotel restrictions and/or scheduling changes. These factors may require us to deviate from our intended itinerary, in which case we will provide the best available alternative, though our focus will always be on people-to-people educational exchanges, and we'll make a great adventure of it!
Physical Rating: Moderate