An aerial view of Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
| Credit: Getty Images

For many Cuban-Americans, the homeland of their parents or grandparents is little more than an idea, a place described in stories or shown in black and white photographs, says Giancarlo Sopo. But with the recent thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, many young people with Cuban origins are grasping the opportunity to see the land of their ancestors in the flesh.

“My generation in Miami was so disconnected with Cuba, both the good and the bad,” Sopo, 33, told Travel + Leisure. He is one of the founders of CubaOne, an organization that sends Cuban-Americans on free trips to the island.

“Most young Cuban-Americans think that the island is like North Korea but with nice beaches,” he said.

Inspired in part by Birthright, an organization that sends Jewish-Americans on a free trip to Israel, CubaOne wants to provide a unique cultural experience that allows Cuban-Americans to reconnect with their roots.

Sopo is a Miami-raised Cuban American whose father left Cuba after his own father was killed as a political prisoner. Sopo’s father returned only once to the island, to fight in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and he died before Cuba and the U.S. began rebuilding diplomatic ties in December 2014.

After decades of embargoes and practically non-existent diplomatic relations between the two countries, many young people have never met their grandparents still on the island. Others are fascinated by their Cuban counterparts and seek to know more about their culture and way of life.

The trips are open to Cuban-Americans aged 22-35, and 40-50 applicants are selected each year. The trips are financed by the founders of the organization. With a modest budget, the week-long trips are focused on creating unique cultural experiences, not just an average island vacation.

“We don’t go to Cuba to lie on a beach and sip mojitos—not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Sopo told T+L.

“We go to engage our peers on the island and provide opportunities for our groups to learn about their own culture and think of ways that they can give back to Cuba,” he said.