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Close but no cigars after vacation trip to Cuba

It was an adventure of a lifetime.

On June 1, about 40 members of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce returned from an eight-night, nine-day trip to Cuba. The cultural exchange trip offered a look into a country many Americans do not get a chance to see – but should, according to those who went.

"Just go there," said John Yingling, of Crawford Yingling Insurance in Westminster.

While he does not claim to be a world traveler, Yingling likes adventure, he said, and when the trip was proposed to the chamber last August, he signed up.

"We gotta do this," Yingling said he told his wife, Sharon. "I knew very little about Cuba. It was an adventure to see a Communist nation like that. It was just a fabulous trip."

From the start, the trip proved to be eye-opening. Upon landing at the airport at Camaguey, the group found stray dogs mingling with their luggage in an old building, Yingling said.

"You don't see buildings like that in America," Yingling said, of the small, rundown airport. "It was a very old building, very old. Havana Airport was even more amazing. It was very, very small. Antiquated."

Camaguey's main means of transportation seemed to bicycle and horse-drawn buggies, Yingling said.

What cars there were on the roads were from the 1950s, or older — all painted in bright shades of pink, red, orange and Ravens' purple, according to Yingling

"It was pretty amazing," Mike McMullin, president of the chamber, agreed. "It was like you were stepping back in time."

The group traveled throughout the island, following an itinerary highlighting the country's history and culture that was packed with stops at museums, dance shows and rodeos, as well as opportunities to talk with teachers, medical personal and business owners.

"We hit a lot of things," McMullin said.

They flew in from Miami and landed in Camaguey, Cuba's third-largest city. Known for its clay pots, the city dates back to the 1500s. Also on the itinerary were trips to the colonial city of Trinidad with a stop at a village of approximately 70 sugar mills, and visits to Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs and Havana.

Only recently have Americans been allowed to visit Cuba, and those visits are only through people to people and authorized venues. An ongoing embargo with the U.S. prevents trade with Cuba. No one on the trip was allowed to bring home anything, according to Yingling, especially Cuban cigars, coffee or rum.

"You just didn't do it," Yingling said, of bringing home items. "They were pretty strict about that."

Despite a rumor that there is a government spy on every block in the city , "I didn't feel threatened at all," Yingling said. "Most of the people were very friendly."

"I was surprised by how much the Cuban people seem to genuinely like Americans. We were greeted with smiles everywhere we went," McMullin said. "The people who live there were very friendly, very welcoming."

McMullin is already planning another trip for 2016. Yingling is ready.

"I would definitely go," Yingling said. "For all the travels I have done, this one was the top [trip] I've taken."

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