We had been looking at and exploring traveling to Cuba for quite some time. When companies began to offer People to People trips we began to compare their itinerary and prices. On the recommendation from friends we chose to book the Complete Cuba Tour with International Expeditions (IE), One Environs Park, Helena, AL 35080
Toll-free 800-234-9620 (USA/Canada) Worldwide (205) 428-1700 Fax (205) 428-1714.
From the first things went well and we had great service from the staff at IE. Soon after we made and paid for our reservations we were informed by IE that Sun Country Airlines flights back from Cuba were getting back to Miami much later than in the past and we would need to make an overnight stay at the Miami Airport Marriott at our expense. What was interesting was that when I spoke to the crew of our flight back from Havana to Miami, they told us that they were two hours late due to FAA rules and that this last flight of the day was their sixth between Miami and Cuba. Why could we not get on an earlier flight?
Three weeks prior to departure we began to expect the travel packet from IE. When we did not get it we called and were told it had been sent USPS Priority Mail. We waited two more days and when it still had not arrived we called and sent an email. We exchanged emails for two more days and still no package from IE. Our contact person promised she would send us PDF files of our papers so we would have material to prepare for the trip and in hopes that the package would arrive on Tuesday, Christmas Eve.
We finally received the package from IE on Saturday December 28, 2013 at 4:43 PM. It had a postmark of December 11, 2013 from Helena, AL. It certainly was not an IE problem but USPS and FedEx who had been contracted to carry the package and deliver to our Post Office. Part of the infamous Christmas delay.
Our flights were arranged on United and we had no problems flying between Denver and Miami. Transfers to and from the Marriott were very easy and well organized. The Marriott stays were pleasant and what one would expect from this company.
Our first evening in Miami we had a pre-trip meeting with Lazaras, coordinating our transfer the following morning to the airport and Cuba. She was very welcoming and gracious, and stayed with us for two hours giving us vital information and answering all of our questions. She told us that Bolivar (Boli) Sanchez (IE Tour Director) was already in Cuba and that Rafael from MarAzul would help us the following morning get to the airport. We were served beer, wine and soft drinks and so much to eat with empanadas, Cuban sandwiches and pastries that we did not need dinner that night.
The next morning Lazaras and Rafael were at the Marriott to help us check out and get ready for Cuba at 8 AM. Rafael took us to the airport and after a wait until the counter opened at 9:00, we checked our luggage and went through TSA security without any problems.
Our Sun Country Airlines flight was 30 minutes late so our waiting was over 4 hours. But once in the aircraft it was very pleasant and short flight to Cienfuegos, Cuba. We deplaned on the tarmac and entered the airport facility. We were welcomed with open arms by the airport staff of the island. We went through passport control and then immigration. Because we are on a legal and authorized People to People expedition, our passports were stamped just as if we were going to any other country.
As soon as we cleared customs Bolivar Sanchez, our International Expedition Tour Leader and lovely Claudia, our Cuban guide met us as we stepped out of immigration. Along with our bus driver, Eliecer, our group of eight was complete. We took the short drive to the Hotel La Unión where we checked in and were offered a welcome drink of fruit juice, which was very refreshing. Our room at the Hotel La Union was very spacious and clean. The hotel was built in 1869.
We took the opportunity to take our first unaccompanied walk around the city and found everyone to be exceptionally friendly. With our Spanish language facility we quickly made friends with everyone we met. In the following ten days we found that the Cuban people were among the top ten friendliest people we have met in our over 100 countries we have visited. They want to talk to the people visiting their country and THEY SMILE all the time.
With the late afternoon tour of Cienfuegos with Boli and Claudia our small group felt very comfortable and the conversational give and take was very relaxed. We met people on the street; musicians, workers, mothers with their children, and then a special performance by the Cantores de Cienfuegos - exceptional singers. Our buffet dinner was at the palatial home of an ex-sugar baron.
I could go into great detail about each day of our trip but I will try to be brief by highlighting each day.
Day 3 - Saturday - We drove to the UNESCO Valle De Los Ingenios and visited Manaca Iznaga sugar cane plantation. Then we traveled to the port city of Trinidad where we did a walk and met the people on this colonial city as they celebrated their 500-year since the founding. There was a short visit Casa Del Alfarero Santander to see the pottery. Being chauffeured in 1950s vehicles, we went for a fabulous dinner and traditional music at La Rosa Paladar. Our two-day stay was at the Resort Hotel Club Amigo Ancón.
Day 4 - Sunday - We took our bus to the Sierra de Escambray where we visited Topes de Collantes National Park aboard a converted Russian troop transport truck and did a nature walk and visited a local coffee house. In the late afternoon we saw the Cuban Modern Art Museum adjacent to the park entrance and then returned to Trinidad and the hotel for a buffet dinner.
Day 5 - Monday - In the early morning we left Trinidad for the Zapata Wetlands, an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with a local resident who was our bird guide where we spotted almost 20 species of birds including the Bee Hummingbird. We went on to Playa Giron where we had a visit to the Museo Giron or Bay of Pigs Museum - the Cuban historical perspective. At the Hotel Playa Larga right on the Caribbean beach we met a local environmentalist and Director of the National Park who briefed us on the local environment and promised us a great bird watching experience in the morning.
Day 6 - Tuesday - Our 6 AM early morning birding was postponed about an hour as there was a heavy fog but once it dissipated we had a treasure trove of indigenous birds we identified. We departed Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs to visit the Korimacao Art Project where we saw dancers, musicians, and beautiful art projects. A short drive took us to Treasure Lake and the Taino Indian Village for a boat tour and lunch. We then had a long drive past Havana to our lodging in the tropical forest of Soroa.
Day 7 - Wednesday - From our Lodge we did a guided walking tour of Soroa Orchid Garden with its 600 varieties of orchids. Our bus was awaiting us as we left to drive us through Sierra de los Organos Mountains and then visit Montesino Tobacco farm. We saw the whole production, were invited to try sugar cane juice, then coffee and lastly to try a cigar. When we arrived at the Cueva del Indio it was raining but a short walk had us in the cave to wander and navigate. For lunch we drove to the Casa de Confianza organic farm for another great experience as we overlooked the valley and the karstic limestone mountains that surrounded us. We finished our exploration by doing some walking through Viñales before going for dinner at the hotel. A long drive day but truly spectacular in all we saw and experienced.
Day 8 - Thursday - On our way to Havana we spent the morning at the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Las Terrazas. We stopped for coffee at Cafe de Maria, saw the Las Terrazas waterfall, and had lunch at Cafetal Buena Vista. Driving into Havana we visited the Hemmingway home and museum. Into Havana we stopped at the Plaza of the Revolution and then on to the 5 Star Melia Cohiba Hotel.
Day 9 - Friday - Today was a full day in Havana, visiting the Our Lady of Belen Convent a community center for children and senior citizens. We then walked and wandered through Habana Vieja walking the many Plazas and Harbor Edge Art Market. Our Farewell Dinner was at the Cafe del Oriente in Old Havana; another fabulous gastronomical experience.
Day 10 - Saturday - Our departure day was adjusted, as we were to have the last flight out of Havana. Boli rented two mid 1950s Chevrolets to give us a tour of the city and the Havana Forts. We then visited the Museum of the Revolution before we had to go to José Martí Airport and bid adieu to Cuba and fly to Miami and the Marriott. We thanked our new driver Boris for keeping the bus spotless throughout the trip.
Our young Cuban tour guide Claudia was very good in giving us a understanding of her country. With her ever-present smile she was an excellent ambassador for Cuba. She was one of our best "local guides" we have experienced. She took the time to present material to us and had the courtesy to always face us when she spoke - even in the rolling bus.
Bolivar Sanchez, our IE Tour Director, representing the company in Cuba, was outstanding and continuously made sure all was well with each of us and ensured our trip experience was exceptional. His professionalism and attention to detail was especially good and saved us hours, from our arrival in Cienfuegos to our last day in Havana and our late departure.
We all were very appreciative for all the extras he provided for us during the trip. The special gift of the personal thumb-drive with the 15 minute video of the trip he made with his Go Pro Hero3 was excellent and so well done - he spent a lot of personal hours editing and finalizing so we could all have a copy.
Those days on the road when we were feeling a little low on energy he would stop and buy us all an ice cream - especially that day when we exchanged buses.
As we drove into Havana and stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución we saw a classic red and white Chevrolet while we were walking around and photographing. Boli took the opportunity to get the young man to pick us up at the Melia Cohiba with his friend on our departure day and give us all a tour of Havana in two classic Chevrolets. Boli was always thinking outside the box - impressive!
IE should consider the company very fortunate to have a Trip Manager of Bolivar Sanchez’s caliber working for them.
If someone wants to get a broader perspective of Cuba (more than just music and art) one should consider International Expeditions Complete Cuba.
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