Interview with Alex Lopez, YFU Travel DirectorCuba may be only 90 miles from Florida, but for half a century, it's been largely off-limits to most Americans. Since 2011, Americans have been allowed to go to Cuba on tours run by licensed companies like Interplanner, YFU’s Adult Study Tour provider. Recently, President Obama asked the Treasury Department to expand permissions for travel to Cuba, though general tourism on one’s own will still be forbidden. This renewed attention on Cuba has many would-be travelers wondering what the island neighbor has to offer. We talked to our own expert, YFU Travel Director and native of Cuba Alex Lopez to find out.
YFU: What do you think participants come away with after a YFU Adult Study Tour to Cuba?
Lopez: Participants will be surprised to learn that the Cuban people have a great respect and admiration for the American people. Travelers to Cuba find that Cubans can easily separate politics from culture and appreciate people for who they are.
Cuba travel does not whitewash the challenges that Cuban people face. YFU travelers will experience the real Cuba, filled with culture, creativity, art and loving people. They also get to see the reality of Cuban living standards, which are often difficult and impoverished. The program changes beliefs and attitudes and allows people to look past politics and into the heart and soul of a culture and its reality. In my 37 years in the travel industry, I have never seen a single travel experience change so many lives as a visit to Cuba does.
YFU: What would you say to tour participants about the citizens of Cuba?
Lopez: Cubans are friendly, warm, communicative, enthusiastic and hospitable people. It is uncommon to meet a Cuban who is not outgoing and fond of festivals, music and especially dancing. Most Cubans find it easy to joke around about almost anything, even hardships and difficulties.
The Cuban people have endured 53 years of a U.S. economic embargo that has severely burdened the entire population. The Cuban people have always welcomed American visitors and have been able to separate the political differences between the U.S. YFU will be a great ambassador delegation, and who knows, maybe soon we will be the first to open the way for a student exchange program between both nations helping to heal the wounds of decades of isolation.
YFU: This is a really unique opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba. What parts of the tour do you like the most?
Lopez: The island has nine United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites. They’re architectural gems that have not been discovered by Americans from this generation.
You’ll never forget your visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The collection ranges from the traditional to the modern. It’s as good as any museum in New York.
Participants will also enjoy the Cuban cuisine. It is much more inventive than just black beans and rice. Because of the embargo, they don’t always have the best ingredients, but they sure make do. Paladares, privately owned restaurants that are often run by families (sometimes out of their homes), have become popular in recent years. They are intended to give tourists a truly authentic Cuban experience.
YFU: Why should YFU alumni or anyone else travel to Cuba?
Lopez: The announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations makes this trip a historical time to visit Cuba. It is the most sensual island in the Caribbean and has been frozen in time for American visitors. Cuba is full of friendly people, amazing geography, and has 250-plus museums and 500 years of historical sites. Havana’s architecture is magnificent, and dance, culture and great cuisine are everywhere. This is a truly educational experience!
Learn how you can join Lopez, along with YFU USA's President & CEO in Cuba this summer! YFUUSA.ORG/TOURS
*Traveling under the People to People General License.