Since the recent expansion of legal travel to Cuba, Americans have become fascinated by the seemingly “frozen-in-time” island. Picturesque streets full of vibrantly painted buildings, classic cars, and friendly people provide quite the draw for travelers. When news of the change in travel regulations hit, Cheryl Willis, tour coordinator for the senior tour program, said Bellingham Senior Activity Center members’ interest was piqued. “Cuba captures a moment in time. We really wanted to go sooner rather than later, before the McDonald’s arches started to appear,” she said.

Cuba provides such a unique look at a culture unknown to Americans for decades. Willis said there was nothing but support from the community when they began to offer the tour. “If there [were] negative responses to our interest in Cuba, I didn’t hear it,” she said. Like many countries, the travelers had to get visas, but planning the trip was just as easy as any other tour, Willis said.

The tour included eight days of guided experiences, mostly focused on arts, culture, and people-to-people experiences. With the help of a Cuban national guide and an American guide, the tour group visited music schools, learned Cuban dance, played baseball with the locals, and had plenty of plantains and rum. “Rum is the drink of choice. They are very generous with [it],” Willis said. Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 26 the group spent time in Varadero and Havana. Varadero was about the beaches, while Havana was more of a city, Willis explained. Days were packed with activities including a trip to Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca La Vigia, a walking tour of Old Havana—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a performance by the Habana Compas Dance Group, and countless other experiences. “We wanted the group to feel like they were living like locals,” Willis said.

However, the problems of the island were not lost on the tour group. Like most Americans of their generation, the travelers had been made aware of the issues in Cuba their whole lives. However, it wasn’t until they actually observed Cuba’s shortage problem that reality sunk in. Material goods like baseballs, soaps, and pencils, were on short supply. “Some of the members of the group brought items to donate. One even brought a suitcase full of baseballs,” Willis said.

Although there was certainly more to learn about Cuba and its people than the American rhetoric of decades passed had led on. “The Cubans really wanted to interact with us. Everyone was more than welcoming,” Willis said. One day, when the travelers donated a few baseballs to a group of playing children, they were invited to a game of ball. The tourists couldn’t say no. Who could?

Experiences like baseball games with locals made it an unforgettable trip full of eye-opening experiences and something the tour program would do again, Willis said. The Senior Tour Program also organizes overnight and day trips in addition to their international tours. The center is currently putting together a trip to Bali, a European river cruise, and a tour of Tuscany

"Cuba provides such a unique look at a culture unknown to Americans for decades."