“When you told people that you were traveling to Cuba, the reaction was probably ‘Why?’ or ‘Wow,” our Cuban Guide Gustavo began his introduction after our tour group had settled into our tour bus. I was traveling to Cuba with Naturalist Journeys on a People-to-People trip that also included birding. It was the perfect tour for me since I don’t like to visit a country to view its wildlife, without getting to meet the people and see cultural sights.
While it has become much easier for American citizens to visit Cuba, travel must be as part of a group that has a license. There are a lot of hoops to jump through, including having the application to travel approved by the U.S. State Department. While the tour was offered by Naturalist Journeys, it was under the license of International Expeditions who was the liaison with Havanatours that approved the itinerary and provided the guide. In addition, International Expeditions contracts with Marazul who obtained our visas,
provided our orientation the night before we departed Miami by American Airlines charter flight, and was at the airport to get our boarding passes and make sure there were no snags.
The necessity of so many ‘middle men’ added to the cost of the trip. American Airlines has charter flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Los Angeles at this time. They must have to pay some hefty fees, as the airline flight of less than an hour was quite expensive.
Since we would not be able to use credit cards, we had converted cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC’s (the acronym sounds like ‘kooks’) before leaving the Santa Clara International Airport.
Our first stop would not be far – El Monumento de Che and the Museo de Che.
It was clear not only here, but throughout our travels in Cuba, that Che is very much a hero. After taking time to view the memorial, Gustavo led us into the museum, housed below the monument. I had forgotten that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a medical student in Buenos Aires and from a well-off family before experiencing the disparities between haves and have-nots on his 8 month motorcycle journey in 1952 with a friend.
“It makes you want to re-watch The Motorcycle Diaries,” my friend Bonnie commented as we walked through the small museum chronicling not only his early life, but his transformation into a revolutionary.
Before leaving Santa Clara, our bus driver, Alexander, drove us around the plaza.
A young woman sitting on a park bench caught my attention as she studied her cell phone while holding an umbrella bearing the famous picture by Cuban artist, Victor Manuel.
Later as our group traveled towards Cayo Coco, Gustavo shared more about the Cuban Revolution. “Che Guevara met Fidel Castro in 1955 when both of them were in Mexico. Che joined the revolutionary movement and was part of the group of 82 fighters who sailed from Mexico to Cuba. “
Why do you think that the journey is referred to as the Granma?” Gustavo asked.
“Because they were disguised as a grandma?” Alice answered.
“No!” Gustavo retorted. “No dinner for you tonight,” he chuckled.
I thought her answer made sense.
“The Granma was the name of the boat used by the 82 revolutionaries,” Gustavo explained. He went on to detail that they were met by Batista’s soldiers and only 15 survived, dispersing into the Sierra Maestra.
The following day, after we spent the morning birding on the various islands in the Jardines del Rey archipelago, our itinerary called for us to visit a local arts and crafts market.
Although several in our group took the opportunity to buy souvenirs, I am not a shopper. After chatting with a couple of the vendors, I discovered that most were not the artisans. The real people-to-people exchange was occurring across the street where a few of the men in our group had the opportunity to ‘kick tires’ in broken Spanish with a local taxi driver and his Mercury.
The next day we traveled to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city and nearby Valley de los Ingenios, were founded and prospered on the production and export of sugar.
“You will be walking on uneven, cobblestone streets,” Gustavo told us the day before so we would wear appropriate footwear.
The bus dropped us off and we walked several blocks through the colonial city to the paladar where we were having lunch.
The architecture around the plaza was particularly impressive.
Our lunch was our first experience eating at a local paladar, one of Cuba’s ventures into capitalism and part of Raul Castro’s economic reform. Paladares are actually independent, state sanctioned, restaurants that range from small family-run establishments to full-scale restaurants. While they became legal as far back as 1999, there were a lot of restrictions, including only serving Cuban fare. It was not until 2011 that regulations were loosened, that menus became more cosmopolitan. Most of these establishments are being opened by repatriates who have the cash to purchase businesses from their savings while living abroad. In addition, these entrepreneurs are able to either access, or bring into the country, ingredients that are not accessible to the average Cuban.
Our lunchtime paladar was located in a building that probably came complete with the pre-revolutionary furnishings;
it was like dining in a museum.
A small band entertained us from the mini-balcony off the dining room.
I chose grilled seafood from the available entrées.
And, as we would soon learn, a ‘welcome cocktail’ – complimentary mojito, or as Gustavo referred to it – Vitamin R, preceded each meal.
After lunch we wandered through the colonial part of town
to get a taste of commerce and then we had the choice of exploring the arts and crafts market or visiting the Canchancara, a mojito bar. As we walked to the bus, we had the opportunity of peeking into one of the small markets where Cubans can get staples with their monthly ration coupons. We were struck with how sparse the offerings were. There was just time for a quick visit to a pottery studio before heading to Topes de Collantes in the Sierra Escambray. We were glad to be traveling to a higher and cooler elevation.
In addition to birding-related people-to-people activities the following day, we had the opportunity to visit the Cuban Contemporary Art Museum located in the former home of someone in Fulgencio Batista’s close circle. It later became a place where the Communist Party housed VIPS’s during their visits to the area.
After a morning of birding, our next destination was Playa Giron along the Bahia de los Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) where we visited the Museo Giron and had the opportunity to learn the Cuban perspective on the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The homes on the nearby streets had been spruced up and become entrepreneurial, offering rooms for rent.
While our lodging at Playa Larga were delightful and roomy cabins near the bay, no one had hot water and the shower was a drizzle. Fortunately, birders are adaptable and the nearby birding more than made up for the cold shower.
The next morning we visited the nearby Korimakao Project that provides opportunities for children in the area to experience art and music. Two of their resident musicians entertained us.
In order to reach the highway leading to Soroa, our next destination, it was necessary to head north to the outskirts of Havana, where we had lunch at Il Divino. A paladar with a social purpose, it has programs for children and seniors. It serves dishes prepared with produce from its organic garden, including fresh mint for the ‘welcome cocktail.’ Everyone agreed that the dessert – coconut or pineapple ice cream, was the highlight of the meal.
After lunch we toured the gardens while our local guide pointed out various plants and medicinal herbs.
At one point I found myself standing in front of a bee hive.
Since I am extremely allergic to bees, I moved quickly away; however, I was assured that the bees do not sting. Later Gustavo told us that since no pesticides are used in Cuba, honey is their number one export.
After lunch we boarded the bus for Soroa, located in the Sierra del Rosario.
The next day we drove to nearby Vinales where we stopped at a tobacco farm. The farmer showed us around the farm and explained the steps from tobacco plant to cigar. Growing the tobacco starts in raised beds.
When the seedlings are big enough, they are individually transplanted by hands into the field.
When the leaves are picked, a worker selects the best
and later they are hung up to dry.
The farmer demonstrated how they are rolled,
and then those who wished could savor a cohiba cigar.
After birding at Cueva del Indio, we had lunch at a local organic farm
and then had some time to explore the town center.
I was intrigued by the people in front of the cell provider and wi fi hotspot across from where our bus had parked along a side street.
The following day we visited the planned community of Las Terrazas. Our local guide explained that the valley was originally settled by a group of people of French descent who fled Haiti in 1792. They tried to grow coffee on the hillsides; however, they were not successful. In order to survive, they began cutting down the trees to export, as well as to make charcoal leading to deforestation. When the model community of 250 families was established in 1971, the government assisted them in forest restoration in exchange for housing.
We toured a number of community activities including listening to local musicians,
touring a school,
stopping for coffee at a coffee house, and visiting the studio of a local artist
who explained how he made his own paper from recycled paper.
We spent our final two days exploring Havana. The first morning the bus dropped us off in the historic areas of the city, stopping first at a cigar store for those who wanted to take Cuban cigars home.
Book sellers lined the side of the nearby square, reminiscent of vendors along Paris’s Seine.
“You will notice various people dressed up,” Gustavo warned. “If you want to take their picture, you will be expected to pay a fee.”
A short distance away as we gathered around Gustavo while he explained a local historical site, I noticed the archway into a nearby building’s garden. The fountain was framed nicely by the arch. I stepped away from the group to take a picture. While I noticed what appeared to be a soldier standing in front, I didn’t pay much attention as I made sure that I didn’t capture people in my picture.
After rejoining the group, the ‘soldier’ came up to me demanding money. “Por que?” I asked. He just flashed his permit in front of me insistently. Fortunately, Pete got rid of him by handing over 1 CUC. After he left, I checked the picture I had taken, and sure enough he was not in it. However, I was very careful taking pictures after that experience.
We walked through a number of plazas, including the Plaza de Catedral,
where we went inside the baroque interior of the Catedral San Cristobal de la Habana. Unlike cathedrals in other Latin American countries I have visited, this one did not have local citizens praying or lighting candles.
It was clear that a great deal of restoration is occurring on the colonial buildings. Many have been newly refurbished, like this hotel.
On some streets, we could see restoration in progress.
Overall, the buildings in Habana Vieja were in much better condition than I had expected.
No visit to Havana would be complete without checking out Hemingway’s haunts. He had a room on the 5th floor of the Ambos Mundos Hotel,
which is still preserved in its original condition. While standing in line for the elevator, we admired some of the photos on the adjacent wall, and then
toasted Hemingway from the rooftop bar.
Next we walked to the nearby La Bodequita del Medio,
where Hemingway often went to drink. The adjacent walls are covered with signatures of prior visitors.
That evening after dinner at a paladar overlooking the harbor, we went to the Buena Vista Social Club. After watching the movie by the same name prior to my trip, I was really looking forward to listening to the band at the Café Taberna, so I was really shocked when the bus dropped us in front of a hotel and I discovered that the performance is now like a Las Vegas nightclub act! At the end of their hour and a half show, they came and got two of our group to join them on the stage.
“What do you consider Cuba’s biggest challenge?” someone in the group asked Gustavo during the trip.
“Transportation,” he replied without hesitation. “Hitch hiking is the national pastime.”
While transportation is improving in the urban areas, the more rural areas of Cuba have very few cars and rely on bicycles,
or horse drawn carts.
While I had expected most of the cars to be 1950’s era American-made cars, I was surprised to find out that they are primarily used for taxis – both by tourists,
and by locals.
“Are most of these old cars owned by descendants of 1950’s owners?” I asked Gustavo.
He nodded ascent, “although the owners may not be the drivers.” The revenue from the taxis allows them to be ‘owners’ of their own business.
At some of the tourist locations we visited, we encountered modern taxis
both made primarily in China.
Europeans and Canadians are not restricted to tours and can rent cars.
I discovered this sign in a Havana museum.
On our last day in Havana there were entrepreneurial old car owners, or their drivers, lined up along Revolutionary Square. It was fun to sit in the front seat of one while we had a group picture taken.
Revolutionary Square, located in a more modern area of Havana, contains a statue commemorating Jose Marti, the hero of Cuba’s independence from Spain and a historical mentor to Castro.
Around the square are various government buildings, this one bearing the caricature of Che.
Next we visited the Museo de Revolucion, originally the ornate presidential palace. After the revolution, it was converted to a museum.
Behind it is the Granma Memorial.
We stopped a few blocks from the Malecon and walked to take pictures of the recently re-opened American Embassy.
After lunch at a paladar on the ‘street of barbers,’
we drove south to visit Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, now a museum, where a very knowledgeable docent shared stories of Hemingway’s time there with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. “Martha wanted him away from the bars in Havana,” she relayed. “While he willed the house to his fourth wife, she was forced to sign everything over to the government in 1961.”
The interior of the home is closed to the public, so we peered through the open windows at the various rooms.
Our plane didn’t leave until late in the evening, so we languished our remaining hours on the lawn of the Hotel Nacional.
As we drove to the airport, Peg Abbott, our Naturalist Journeys guide, told us that since most Cuban professionals, including doctors, earn a meager monthly salary, that those who work in the tourist industry and receive tips are considered wealthy.
It seemed as though only those in our group were in the ticketing area at the Havana International Airport. Gustavo came in with us to make sure everything went smoothly. When my friend Sue and I stepped up to check-in, the clerk seemed distressed and said something in Spanish we did not understand. She finally got up and escorted us around the corner and into a small, room – and the turned around and left us there. We wondered why we were being isolated.
As soon as she was gone, I cracked open the door and was relieved to see Gustavo talking with others in our group not too far away. “We need your help,” beckoned.
After bidding some others goodbye, he came to troubleshoot. Somehow our names were not on the manifest and he was able to remedy things. We checked in, got our boarding passes and went through immigration where our pictures were taken and matched to our passports and incoming photos – and then we were able to relax and begin to decompress, realizing that our visit to this amazing country was soon to come to an end.
It was definitely a ‘wow’ experience.