Molly Danner, a program director on National Geographic’s Expeditions team, recently visited Cuba on two National Geographic tours, both focused on discovering the island’s culture. This was her third trip to the once forbidden nation, where National Geographic has been offering authorized tours since the early 2000s.
For Molly, this most recent trip was all about the amazing people she met in Cuba. Here’s what she had to say about how these connections made her travels more memorable and meaningful.
Why did you choose this particular trip or destination?
Like many others, I’ve been captivated by the layers of the Cuban story, from historical events to the evolving landscape today. Beyond spending a period of time living or studying abroad, rarely have I had a chance to explore a culture so pointedly through its people.
People-to-people travel programs are organized with full days to focus on meaningful encounters with Cubans from all walks of life—more structured than some trips I’ve taken, but it’s also a great way to get to know a country at its core. There’s something to be said for seeing a culture in such an authentic way—through the stories, hearts, and lives of its people—and having the opportunity to be connected with locals, ask questions, and discuss similarities and differences.
Describe your most memorable moment.
A fellow traveler leaned in and said with a grin, “You got the best dance partner.” I was engaging with community members at a neighborhood party in the French colonial city of Cienfuegos coordinated for our group to share ideas, stories, and interests related to our lives. A band played “Guantanamera” and other classic Cuban and rumba songs. But then a couple of young Cubans organically jumped in with a guitar and drum to sing Enrique Iglesias’s more recent hit, “Me Estoy Enamorando.” It’s nearly impossible to sit still when you hear Cuban rhythms around you and a new friend pulls you into a dance.
What’s a can’t-miss spot in this location?
An early morning visit to the vantage point of El Morro Castle, which offers a view of Havana and the harbor as the city is waking up.
Tell us about someone on your trip who made it particularly special.
Whether it was hearing about baseball’s impact on his life and country from a former professional player; learning about the expanding private sector from a casa particular (guesthouse) owner; or seeing how music, dance, and the arts are cultivated at an arts academy, the people I met made each day a discovery.
I found the Cuban people to be inspiringly creative and resourceful, warm and welcoming, vibrant and enthusiastic.
The deep sense of community is tangibly seen and felt, especially as neighbors often sit on their front stoops and, more often than not, would welcome us into their homes. Ophelia, a woman I met in a small town outside Havana, left a lasting impression on me. In her 90s, she was eager to say hello, show us her home, and share photos of her as a young woman, clutching them with pride and a sense of nostalgia.
Give us the most important tip you have for any new visitors.
Approach your trip to Cuba with openness and an adventurous spirit. I love finding universal connections when traveling. This often shows up as a shared interest or a familiar expression of humanity—something that transcends any language barrier. Having played soccer from a young age, I found that the universality of the sport of fútbol (and, for many travelers, baseball as well) was a way to bring me closer to the locals, so I could start up conversations or juggle the soccer ball with children playing a pickup game in the street. Don't be afraid to highlight and celebrate these shared interests as a way to connect. It makes for deeper impressions.
Catch up with Molly Danner on Instagram @dannermo.