I recently went to Cuba to find out more about what it would be like for our hybrid parents to travel to Cuba and explore Cuban history, politics, arts, and culture.
There are many educational companies that can create a unique program based on your families’ specific needs. I went through Cuba Educational Travel (CET) and they were able to work with our group of 10 women to fine-tune a program that allowed for us to meet with locals and to learn a little bit about different aspects of Cuban Life (culture, politics, arts, music, architecture, private industries). See Highlights Below.
We received an authentic, Cuban experience by meeting with locals in their homes. The Cubans were very open about talking to us about what motivates them, what challenges and struggles they have encountered on a day-to-day basis, and what their their hopes and dreams are for the future.
Travel Back in Time with Your Kids
Today, Cuba is a MUST for kids, particularly school-age and adolescents, because it offers them a country that has remained largely untouched by globalization and modernization. When arriving in Cuba, you notice a country that seems frozen in time.
This contrast naturally opens up a discussion with children about why Cuba is politically isolated from the rest of the world. They learn about diverse forms of government, such as Communism. Through an educational tour, they will learn about the events that led to the Cuban Revolution. They also learn that they are part of the Post-Cuban revolution story. They are creating history—and they can take an active role to what happens to Cuba next. They can engage in discussions about the effects of modernization and why it’s important to preserve Cuba’s unique culture and country.
In addition, research shows us that families vacations and adventures can help children build resiliency skills for when they face darker times in their lives. The memories that are created on these vacations serve as a “happiness anchor” when children reflect on their happiest memories. These types of adventures can serve as a “happiness anchor” for the rest of a child’s life.
ONE Country, TWO currencies
Children will learn about conveniences that they may take for granted when they travel to other countries such as the use of ATM and/or Credit Cards. In Cuba, Cash is King. To pay for anything in Cuba, you must bring cash with you that can be exchanged at the airport or at one of the tourist hotels. The lines can be long, especially since every tourist needs to exchange their cash! During the wait, children will naturally learn about how globalization can make it easier or more difficult to travel around the world.
Cuba is also interesting because of its dual currencies: ONE country, TWO currencies. There is one currency for tourists (CUC) that is pegged to the dollar and worth 25 times more than what the locals use which is the (CUP). Children can learn more about how the dual currencies came to exist during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba had been able to trade with the Soviet Union until the collapse. At that time, Cuba was left with limited access to hard currency. Fidel was forced to to legalize the dollar. This created a 2 tier system. People who had access to the dollars could afford luxury goods, and the state-employees were only paid in pesos.
What you see when you travel to Cuba, is that while the locals get paid in CUP, almost all consumer goods are priced at CUC. This naturally creates an economical divide between Cubans living in Cuba and Cubans who have family abroad that can send home dollars equivalent to the CUC. What we learned from the local Cubans is that this divide is a pressing challenge to manage day-to-day living conditions since most local Cubans make $20 a month. Ironically, this divide between the rich and the poor was exactly what Fidel Castro was fighting against during the Cuban Revolution.
Connections vs. Connectivity
Make Personal Connections and Reduce Technological Connectivity. Another perk of visiting Cuba is that families will not be able to access their screens (wireless connection is limited to a few hot spots). Television is also limited to a few channels. This means quality (forced) bonding time with one another! What do people do without screens? I saw many Cubans playing chess or dominos on the streets. Without connectivity and access to social media, they were spending time with one another and establishing personal connections.
A Safe Place for Families
Cuba is extremely safe for families. Many tourists note how Cuba seems safer than other Latin American countries. There are many different opinions on why Cuba seems safer. From my observations, it did seem like there was a strong sense of community, everyone was looking out for one another and the locals definitely had a unique sense of humor! They love to laugh with, and make fun of one another. Cuba is also a police state so citizens are closely monitored. They have lower rates of homelessness due to highly subsidized housing and the citizens are not allowed to own firearms.
Create Hands-on Learning Experiences
Help children make natural connections to what they are learning in school.
In California’s History and Social Science Standards, 5th graders learn about the American Revolution and how the ideals of the American revolution served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. Students can compare and contrast between the American and Cuban Revolutions. Both were about power. The American Revolution had to do with being unfairly taxed by Great Britain while the revolution in Cuba occurred as an attempt to overthrow the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
In the middle school years (6th-8th), students learn how to frame questions that can be answered with historical study and research. Students are asked to interpret history by explaining central issues and problems from the past. What led to the trade embargo by the U.S. to Cuba in 1962? Why were U.S. citizens banned from Cuba? What led to U.S. citizens being able to travel to Cuba again?
In 10th Grade, students specifically begin to learn about the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan which was established provide economic and military aid to prevent the spread of Communism. Discuss with children why the U.S. was against Communism. What is Communism in theory? And What does Communism look like in practice? When speaking with local Cubans, students can get a better understanding of how different their lives were during the Revolution. Cubans could not practice their religion or own their own businesses. The government controlled
In 11th grade, children learn about the JFK’s order the Bay of Pigs invasion. In an effort to stop communism in Cuba, The U.S. tries to invade Cuba in which 1,500 Cuban exiles are trained by the CIA and attack Cuba to remove Fidel Castro from power. This ends in a disaster with most of the invaders being captured or killed. As a result, Cuba becomes allies with the Soviet Union.
In 12th grade, they have case studies to understand the scope of presidential power and decision making by exploring the decisions that were made during the Cuban Missile Crises. Castro allowed the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles that could strike at the U.S.
Aftermath: The country had a difficult time surviving after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Some Highlights from Our Trip
Since this was planned by Cuba Educational Travel based on what we wanted to learn as a group, we had a final program that was set and ready to go before we left for our trip. There was someone there to meet us at the airport, help us exchange our currency, and take us to our apartment. Our Guide, Orlando, met us in the morning every day and took us to the various activities we had planned.
The Arts: Performing & Visual
Private performance by Habana Compás Dance. This was a spectacular showcase of a combination of traditional and modern dances from Spanish, Cuban and African-Cuban heritage. We learned about an Afro-Carribean religion called Santeria (ways of the Saints) that combined the Yoruba religion of the African slaves with Catholicism (the prevailing religion in Cuba). Traditionally, with Santeria rituals the drums were only to be used by men. However, the
the group at Habana Compas Dance explain how how culture is not fixed but fluid and changes with time. Today, we were able see some of the changes as girls were seen playing the drums yet also preserving the culture by using the drums and through their traditional forms of dance.
National Museum of Fine Arts. We were accompanied by Nelson Herrera, an art historian, who provided us with overview of Cuban art and the artists for over the last 4 centuries. Most of the art is by Cuban artists and is very impressive. The museum was very organized and you can explore art based on the different time periods in history. The art historian was able to give us a better understanding of the artists’ lives, inspirations, and perspectives.
Home and Studio of Edel Bordon, AltaMira Art Loft. We met artist Edel Bordon and his family. His wife, Yamile Pardo, created the AltaMira art space, as an exhibition and workspace for artists. Many artists rent rooms from them and the receive artists and guests from around the world.
They invited us into their home/workspace and discussed the inspiration behind the artwork. I bought a painting from here, and it was wonderful learn that the painting was created by him when he was living in the countryside of Cuba. The painting represented the memories that he had of himself and they ways in which he played near the trees by his house.
Private musical performance by renowned singer and songwriter Frank Delgado at Café Madrigal. Café Madrigal, owned and run by film director Rafael Rosales, is housed in a beautiful colonial mansion with the walls lined with captivating artwork. We had tapas and learned about how music changed throughout the various decades and we learned about the the inspiration behind the music. Mr. Delgado discussed the nueva trova movement in Cuba, which was a social and political movement that emerged around 1967/68 after the Cuban revolution. The songs represented stories about personal lives and social hardships.
La Fabrica de Arte Cubano. This is the spot when it comes to night-life. When I spoke to other Cubans on the trip, they all told me that this is where they go after work to hang out. At La Fabrica, we were able to enjoy various forms of art here, such as performance arts, theatre, photography, video-art, films, and a live jazz concert! The art definitely showcased the diversity of life and what it means to be human in many different ways. On a side note: When you walk in you are handed a card that is used to keep track of your drinks, etc. make sure you don’t lose it or they do charge you 30CUC for it!
Visit to the Nostalgic Cars restoration garage.
Julio Alvarez followed his passion and love for classic cars to create a fleet of over 20 classic cars for their various clients. We learned about how Julio got started and what motivates him. We were able to get a first-hand look at how they restore cars from the 1950s.
Sight-Seeing in Havana
Walking tour of the Old City. We explored the unique charm of the 4 Plaza’s. Plaza de Armas, a scenic tree-lined plaza formerly at the center of influence in Cuba. Plaza de San Francisco, a cobbled plaza surrounded by buildings dating from the 18th century. Plaza Vieja, surrounded by sumptuous houses of the Havana aristocracy from the 18th and 19th centuries. Plaza de la Catedral and the Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana.
Visit to Christopher Colon Cemetery, one of the oldest and most prestigious cemeteries in Latin America. We received a tour and learned more about the symbolism behind the unique masoleums that have been built there.
Former Home of Ernest Hemmingway (La Finca Vigía). Hemming’s home it has been kept in its original condition. This was where he wrote two of his most celebrated novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
Day Trip From Havana
Viñales Valley is approximately 3 hours from the Havana. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful place in Cuba. The Viñales Valley National Monument holds stunning landscapes. The area is also famous for being the premier tobacco growing area in the world. We were able to visit a tobacco farm and learn how tobacco is grown, fermented, and then rolled into making cigars.
The local farm, Finca Paraiso Agroecologica (the Organic Paradise Farm), provided us with a delicious farm-to-table lunch. We were the able to spend some time exploring the downtown area of Vinales.
Tours with Local Architects & Urban Planners:
Tour of the Vedado neighborhood with architect Pedro Vazquez. Vedado or “forbidden” in Spanish was built after the Old City. Pedro discusses how the buildings were built from the east to the west. Vedado is more modern that the area to the West. The National Hotel is situated in Vedado.
Socio-economic discussion with urban planner Miguel Coyula. This was at the Hotel Parque Central. Migues gave us a presentation on housing, infrastructure, investment, and restoration programs. We got a better understanding of why Havana looks the way it does today and possibilities moving forward. I still remember the last slide on his presentation, which was a picture of Shanghai and a lady wearing a mask over her face, due to air pollution. He worries the same may be true for Cuba, if they don’t address how globalization will impact their relatively untouched country.
Paladar San Cristobal. This restaurant was located in Central Havana and the setting takes you back to the 1940s and 50s. It is a intimate setting and make you feel like you were invited to someone’s home. This restaurant is also frequented by President Obama and celebrities like Beyonce and Kimye.
Paladar Atelier. This restaurant is equally known for its atmosphere and exquisite cuisine. The lighting and textures of the house, which was home to a pre-revolutionary senator, coupled with walls adorned in modern art, create a cozy, but modern setting.
We met many local entrepreneurs during our visit to Cuba. A memorable entrepreneur was Niuris Higueras the owner of Atelier, she had a passion for creating food and changes the menu daily or weekly. That’s why there were handwritten menus. She is also very passionate about empowering women in Cuba.
El Cocinero. This lovely restaurant is housed in a former factory. It has a cool vibe and was also one of Fidel Castro’s private chef’s recommendations.
La Guarida paladar. Great food and the location for the film Strawberry and Chocolate. The restaurant is on the third floor of a large, old town house.