HAVANA -- Girls dressed in ruffled layers for a quinceanera. American cars, from the Eisenhower era, in tropical colors. A hand-hewn carousel with peeling paint. Young fans cheering at a baseball game.

These are some of the scenes of everyday life I observed on a recent people-to-people tour of Cuba. These tours allow Americans to travel to Cuba as long as they go with a group licensed by the U.S. government to provide a "full-time schedule of educational activities." (The U.S. government forbids unrestricted travel to Cuba, but in addition to people-to-people tours, travel is permitted for certain other groups, including Americans with relatives there, religious organizations and academics.)

Most people-to-people trips have a themed itinerary like music or food. Some are offered by large travel companies, others by small nonprofits. I joined 21 artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers on a trip organized by a small group from Minnesota that traveled to four cities: Havana, Bayamo, colonial Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba, home of Cuba's historic summer carnival, birthplace of Cuban musical legends and gravesite of national hero Jose Marti.

People-to-people tours are not typical vacations. Structured itineraries include daily meetings with government-sponsored organizations and tours of schools and other institutions. Some meals were in dreary government cafeterias, but we also ate well in paladars, which are intimate restaurants in private homes. You're not supposed to spend the day at the beach the way Canadian and European tourists do, but we did get some free time, and occasionally participants ditched the schedule to explore on their own.

Our program included sightseeing and encounters with artists, writers and filmmakers, but politics was never far away. Political billboards are everywhere in Cuba, on roads, streets and in classrooms and even hand-painted on private homes, and many pay homage to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who helped Castro take power in 1959.

But no effort was made to shield us from unpleasant realities, like the sight of crumbling buildings or women begging for money to buy milk for their children. And the tours do guarantee opportunities to meet ordinary Cubans, whose warmth, friendliness and outgoing nature leap across the boundaries imposed by the decades-long political cold-shoulder between the U.S. and their tropical island nation. When we asked about censorship and other sensitive issues, they sometimes turned our questions around to point out inconsistencies in our own government. But they also acknowledged everyday hardships, like struggling to feed their families and coping with shortages. Those connections created a travel experience that surpassed my expectations, offering glimpses of ordinary life that tourists don't often experience.

Here is a gallery of photos from the tour.

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  • This April 24, 2012 photo shows a view of Cuba's southeastern coastline and the Caribbean Sea from the top of the Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca, a 17th century Spanish fortress that protects the entrance to the harbor in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The fortress was originally designed to fend off pirate attacks. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken on April 26, 2012, performers dance to live music at Casa de la Trova or House of Troubadours in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Music is an integral part of the Cuban culture. One doesn't have to travel far in the downtown section of Havana or Santiago, Cuba's second largest city, to hear the sounds of live music spilling out of nightclubs, bars and social clubs. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • This April 26, 2012 photo shows performers dancing to live music at Casa de la Trova, house of troubadors, in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Music is an integral part of Cuban culture, particularly in Santiago de Cuba, birthplace of composer Compay de Segundo, who was well known before, but became an international celebrity when the Ry Cooder film, "The Buena Vista Social Club" was released. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • This April 24, 2012 photo shows a group of men playing a game of dominoes at a park in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken Sunday April 22, 2012, young men and women dance in the front row during the Cuban National Baseball Series between the Holguin home team and the Havana-based Metropolitanos, a farm team of the better-known Industriales at the local stadium in Holguin, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this Saturday April 21, 2012, men bearing their own bottles crowd around a beer truck where they can purchase refills for five Cuban pesos, in the seaside town of Gibara, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • This April 24, 2012 photo shows young dance students performing for American visitors at the Jose Maria Heredia Vocational Arts school in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The school is dedicated to educating eight to 18 year-olds. Students identified as talented who live outside Santiago may attend. All students are provided free tuition, room and board. They may return home every other weekend to visit their families. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken on April 21, 2012, a young girl rides on a carousel of a street fair near the harbor in the seaside town of Gibara, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • This April 26, 2012 photo shows performers dancing to live music at Casa de la Trova, house of troubadors, in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Music is an integral part of Cuban culture, particularly in Santiago de Cuba, birthplace of composer Compay de Segundo, who was well known before, but became an international celebrity when the Ry Cooder film, "The Buena Vista Social Club" was released. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken on April 25, 2012, a man puffs on his cigar during a meeting of a CDR or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution at a neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this photo taken Monday April 23, 2012, pedestrians follow a hearse during a funeral procession on a road near Santiago de Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken on April 17, 2012, a woman sweeps her stoop beside a sign that reads in Spanish: "Long Live the CDR" in Havana, Cuba. The CDR or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution are neighborhood watch organizations that do everything from making sure that residents show up for the anniversary of the revolution to promoting vaccination campaigns, running blood banks, and conducting hurricane evacuation drills. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • This April 24, 2012 photo shows students raising their hands to answer their teacher's questions in front of a portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born co-founder of the Cuban revolution, at the Jose Maria Heredia Vocational Arts school in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The school is dedicated to educating musically- talented eight to 18 year-olds, some of whom come from surrounding areas. The Cuban government provides free tuition, room and board. Students are allowed to return home every two weeks to visit their families.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken on April 17, 2012, a musician rehearses beside a louvered window at a restaurant in Old Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken Monday April 23, 2012, a sign inside a school in Bayamo, Cuba, promotes children's rights to a free education, among other things. Cuba's literacy rate for those 15 years and older, at 99.8%, is among the highest in Latin America, second only to that of Argentina, according to statistics from the World Bank. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this picture taken April 17, 2012, a young boy rests on a bicycle cart as workers slide construction materials onto the cart for transport through Old Havana, Cuba. Restoration as well as new construction are a frequent sight in the city. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this photo taken Monday April 23, 2012, primary school students walk past a mural depicting heros of Cuba's independence from Spain, including Cuban patriot Francisco Vicente Aguilera, right, who later supported Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in the revolt against Spain, in Bayamo, a colonial town in Oriente province. The color of children's uniforms denotes their educational level. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this photo taken Monday April 23, 2012, a man climbs under the engine of his Russian-made car while repairing it in Bayamo, Cuba. Since cars are expensive, many of the ones on the streets have old bodies but have engines that have been repaired and replaced multiple times. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • In this Saturday April 21, 2012, residents seek shade beneath a sculpture of a sailfish in the seaside town of Gibara, Cuba, Saturday, April 21, 2012, during the annual international Cine Pobre, the Poor People's International cinema festival that is held in the town. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)