Nine Days in Cuba
When I say ¡Cuba Si! I am not speaking politically or economically. Rather I say “Cuba Yes!” for a terrific travel experience. For starters, we must thank “the agency” for making arrangements that worked perfectly for us. If you’re considering a visit to this island nation, please visit Manny and Caroline at www.cubatraveladventuresgroup.com. They set us up with Daniel to guide us and Jorge, our driver, without which we would have been wasting precious time and energy trying to figure out our itinerary, directions, transportation, dining options, etc. A guide and driver are indispensable on a first visit to Cuba.
Our flight departed 6am on 25 March via Delta Airlines from Cincinnati to ATL, then direct to Havana for two nights followed by two nights in Viñales before returning to Havana for another four nights.
Accommodations were beyond our expectations. While in the city we enjoyed a spacious master bedroom and large bath in the home of a prosperous, well-heeled woman who is a producer of live music events. This is where we stayed in Havana… Casa Odette.
Some writing by a different Odette… https://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/odette-casamayor
Day One Daniel and Jorge met us at the airport and our passage was as smooth as Cuban rum. Settled in Jorge’s taxi we headed to our accommodation at Casa Odette, met the agency’s admin who delivered our CUC’s, and soon were off to dine with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable professor to talk about various aspects of Cuba’s economy and culture. He is political science professor and diplomat Camilo Garcia. We enjoyed our time with him and discussed Cuba’s history, government, politics, U.S.-Cuba relations, role of women in society, gender and LGBT education issues, Fidel’s Literacy Project, and Cuba’s predominant Santeria spiritual faith. And we sipped – okay, slurped – our first mojitos…mmmm! Later we danced under the stars to the salsa band Moncado…sort of like Conan O’Brien did. And we really did sip the beloved and iconic rum, Havana Club (7 Year).
While Jorge speaks no English, Daniel’s English is excellent. More importantly he is very knowledgeable. I can’t recall a question that he couldn’t answer – well a couple of times he did consult the internet on his mobile phone.
Each breakfast was prepared by our host’s staff and was consistently delicious. Typically we enjoyed fresh fruit, juice, bread or toast, cheeses, little sandwiches, scrambled eggs with bacon or ham, pastries and, of course, fresh coffee with hot milk. Every morning Jorge and Daniel would pick us up – usually at ten o’clock – to begin our adventures.
Day Two After a very fine breakfast we toured some of Havana where Daniel talked about many aspects of Cuba’s history and current conditions. Like any big city there are wide ranging conditions from serious slums to current construction and re-construction. Modern buildings were underway and old Spanish architecture was in total disrepair, perfectly gorgeous or being restored. Cuba’s violent crime rates are low and guns are in the hands of the policia aka military in this communist country. Yet there was one neighborhood where Daniel would not even drive through in daylight for fear of …what? We saw a level of police presence no different than we do in Cincinnati or Boston. (The only “assault style” weapon we saw was in the hands of an airport security guard – in Atlanta.) And we always felt relaxed without any fear of violence. The occasional Cuban might ask for a “donation” on the street, but only a few times in our seven days there.
Ernest Hemingway, 1950-1960’s American automobiles, rum and cigars are all of interest to American tourists. But we were blown away by some of the artwork, music and dancing.
“What we are doing is demanding that the Cuban government respect the basic human rights of their people,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, White House Press Director, said. Trump’s policies restrict visits by Americans that are not related to education and culture. They require a “face-to-face encounter with the people.”
No person subject to US jurisdiction can legally conduct direct financial transactions with approximately 180 business entities and sub-entities, including hotels, travel agencies and shops, because they are run by the Cuban military, intelligence and security services.
The US attempt to restrict individual trips reportedly cost Cuba about US $1.5 billion. The other political changes have resulted in economic losses for Cuba of US $4.3 billion between April 2016 and June 2017, according to the island’s National Institute of Economic Research.
Though the US represents an important tourism demographic for Cuba, its blockades still cause significant economic losses. However, tourism on the island has increased nonetheless. Last year the island broke its record when 4.7 million visitors, with Canada being the country that visits the island the most.
The markets in France, Italy, Spain, Argentina and Brazil have also shown significant growth on the island. However, the most surprising statistic of the year was the growth of Russian tourists to Cuba, which exceeded 100,000 for the first time, with 100,310 visitors as of December 18.
On Day Two we took a peek into one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, a tiny bar called La Bodeguita El Medio. A small but enthusiastic crowd enjoyed the memorabilia and the three musicians who managed to scrape out just enough floor space and elbow room to actually play their instruments.
After a satisfying siesta we enjoyed fine food and drink at paladare El Cocinero where the Queen of Spain and Beyoncé have dined. Fish tacos and rabbit for me. (I forget what Barbara ordered.) After dinner we visited another Hemingway favorite and today’s tourist draw, Floridita, where we enjoyed a couple of daiquiris and a grovin’ band.
Day Three As always, breakfast was excellent at Casa Odette. Jorge and Daniel then whisked us away to the beautiful land of Viñales…where we were in a depression. Viñales Valley (Spanish: Valle de Viñales) is a karstic depression in Cuba. The valley has an area of 51 sq mi and is located in the Sierra de los Órganos mountains just north of Viñales in the Pinar del Río Province. For more on this World Heritage Site see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/840
Our accommodations were in the clean, comfortable home of Lourdes and Reynaldo and their daughters. All wonderful people! Sitting on the small terrace enjoying a beautiful view, a good cigar and a Cuba libre…priceless. I must mention that while southern Ohio has lots of turkey vultures, Cuba seems to host 3-4 times as many. Not the prettiest raptors, keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I always enjoy seeing them soar and glide with so little effort. They know all about the air currents and seldom even have to flap their wings to stay aloft.
*** HEADS UP! FOR MY NEXT POST WHICH WILL BE PHOTOS ONLY ***
Jose Garcia showed us how he hand rolls cigars. After smoking a fresh one I purchased twenty to share with friends in the U.S. Lunch included a scenic vista of the valley and was followed by a visit to Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria, neo-cave art on a macro scale. After dinner we were surprised to find that a couple of venues in this rural, touristy town offered up Tropicana Club style entertainment. Both nights found us dancing and enjoying a show performed by professional dancers and musicians. It was great fun!
Day Four Wednesday we hiked through the valley with Duarte, our guide for the 2-3 hour walk. We encountered a Santeria shrine in the nook of a tree and Duarte explained to us the useful plants, homeopathic remedies, crops and landscape. I was impressed by the changing colors of the earth, especially the shades of yellow and red. All week the weather was sunny with temps in the mid-70s to low 80s. The Caribbean breeze was fairly constant and the climate for sleeping was quite comfortable.
Day Five Thursday morning we said farewell to our fabulous host family and headed toward the planned community of Las Terrazas. Lester Campa welcomed us to his studio and I wish we had the funds to purchase a piece of his art. In a way, Lester Campa, 50, is a political artist, his primary subject the politics of the environment. Mr. Campa lives in Las Terrazas, a planned town built in the 1960’s and 1970’s near the ruins of a coffee plantation in the Sierra del Rosario mountains an hour west of Havana. Las Terrazas is part of an environmental center and botanical garden that specializes in nearly extinct indigenous plants. Being a communist country the entire property is owned and operated by – you guessed it – the Cuban government.
After lunch we hired a guide named Leonardo to take us on a walking tour through the forest, along with Susan and her daughter Tess who are from Arlington, Massachusetts. Afterward Barbara wanted to try the zip line. I had been on one once up in New Paltz NY, but this was a first for Barbara. It was the shorter leg of the lines because they were about to close for the day. We zipped over the lake, climbed another platform and zipped back to another point on the lake shore. “Age limit: from 2 to 80, being not recently operated and not be under the influence of alcohol and not be hypertensive.” I guess I almost qualified, right?
After a one-hour return to Havana we found were invited to a big birthday bash at Casa Odette, honoring her close friends, popular singer-musicians Polito Ibáñez and David Torrens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrEbij2drzk They both performed for family and friends on the patio. It was a miraculous evening and so unexpected.
Day Six On Friday we did some shopping for a Polito CD. A few hours at a very beautiful beach. No coral reefs for snorkeling but I did see two lovely little white-silver fish swim past my mask. The lone pelican seemed to be happy diving for sushi. Dinner included vodka martinis! I had a seafood bisque and ground peccadillo – excellent.
Cuban beef picadillo is a traditional dish made with ground beef, potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, bell peppers, white wine, tomato sauce, raisins, olives and capers.
Day Seven We did a little shopping for rum, cigars and gifts; had lunch at La Vitrola at Plaza Vieja. Back to Casa Odette for a nap, plus a sunset cigar on the balcony with the national beer, Cristal, while watching the vultures soar and glide to their nightly roosts. They float as high as possible to catch the warmth of the setting sun and when that is done they descend from great heights to roost in trees overnight. Dinner at Café Laurent where a solo violinist enhanced our experience by playing a lot of Sinatra. Barbara had lobster (a bit over-cooked and rubbery) and I savored a white fish covered with shrimp and mussels and for dessert a to-die-for chelos de limón. Then on to the Havana Jazz Café, another highlight of our musical adventures in Cuba.
Day Eight Easter Sunday seemed like no big deal in this country of saints. We viewed dozens of the old American cars on display, almost all of which are income vehicles aka taxis. After a siesta and dinner we soaked up some of the Buena Vista Social Club’s performance…and some rum.
Day Nine Our final morning in Havana we loved a walking visit through the neighborhood ceramic art project of the “Picasso of Cuba” José Fuster, dubbed “Fusterlandia.” More a mix of Picasso and Gaudi influences really. Amazing tile art, small to huge. We purchased two small paintings.
Later we bid farewell to Jorge and Daniel at the airport and headed to Atlanta…both of us already missing our Cuba experience and agreeing to return and see more of the island.