DECATUR — Thirty area residents who visited Cuba in April are still talking about the trip of a lifetime. Tour groups have been scarce in the country since a U.S. trade embargo was imposed 50 years ago, but it has long been on Linda Roberts’ list of places to visit.
Recent policy changes to encourage more cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba have opened up new opportunities for Americans interested in taking educational trips to the country through companies such as Collette Vacations, which led the local group several months ago.
Roberts, a Mount Zion travel agent, attended the trip as a guest, along with others from the area.
“It’s really, really hard to get into Cuba,” she said, adding that travelers to the country must be going with a licensed operator, such as Collette.
Roberts and the others engaged in a wealth of cultural, educational opportunities with the help of the company’s guides and locals who helped enhance the experiences with their intimate knowledge of the communities.
“That’s why you travel is to see the different cultures,” Roberts said.
The group’s journey began in Trinidad, Cuba, and progressed to the capital city of Havana.
Some of the highlights of the journey were seeing cigar and linen factories, visiting historical sites, such as the Bay of Pigs Museum at Playa Girón and places frequented by American author Ernest Hemingway, and taking in the culture with a baseball game and other activities.
“The interaction with the people was the real key of it,” said Martha Floyd, who went on the trip with her husband, Don, and son Mark.
Floyd said she and others got many chances to talk to local residents about their lives, their history and their dreams. Roberts and Floyd remarked on the evidence of extreme poverty — also extreme happiness — that they encountered on their journey.
The visitors enjoyed cheering during a baseball game at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, home of the Industriales, a team in the Cuban National Series.
“My husband loved the ballgame,” Floyd said.
In Havana, just about every other car was a classic, Roberts said. The tour group’s members had fun riding in, posing with and photographing the ’55, ’56, ’57 cars found throughout the city.
“All of the men just loved that part of it, seeing all of those old cars,” Floyd said. “It was kind of like going to a car show.”
Many of the guys on the trip also enjoyed smoking Cuban cigars just about everywhere they went, said the two women.
“The cigar factory we went to was really interesting,” Roberts said.
“People were sitting at their little stations working and smoking,” Floyd said.
A visit to Ernest Hemingway’s farm, Finca Vigía, offered breathtaking views and a chance to see the surroundings that inspired “The Old Man and the Sea.” El Floridita, a Havana bar frequented by the legendary author, was another popular stop.
Roberts said she has visited many of Hemingway’s favorite spots around the world.
“We’ve always kind of followed those along,” she said.
The opportunity to experience the culture and people of Cuba fulfilled a dream 28 years in the making, she said.