Our Visit to Cuba
By Richela & Bill, USA - 9 day People-to-People Tour - October 2016
How our Cuba trip all came about
Cuba, always has been on our list, for me, I imagined it to be a romantic topical island that had stopped in time, with beautiful beaches and old american cars dominating the Havana scene. US citizens have not been allowed to travel to Cuba because of an embargo the government had put in place back in the early 60's when Fidel nationalized all the foriegn (and private) businesses. It would be fun to see the country before it changed. Let's be on the leading edge of seeing this island.
While preparing for the trip we had a list of 12 books as possible reads, but only 2 were I able to find in our public library. Not even a travel book with information on Cuba could be found. Odd. Just weeks before our departure Hurricane Matthew hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but no mention of Cuba. Odd. Only later we would learn that the south of the island in the city of Baracoa, near Guantanamo, was destroyed, equally as bad as Haiti. The US just doesn't report on Cuba – unless there it has to do with the Castro brothers, Fidel or Raul
To comply with US government requirements we did this trip on a guided tour – 9 out of the 11 days that we were there. it was absolutely the best way to have caputured the essence of Cuba. It was like travelling with a text book on the history and culture of the Cuban people. (Cuban Adventures – tour guide was Andy (Roiger). We stayed in small guest houses and Casas Particulares – B& B like experiences which gave us an opportunity to meet and talk with more Cuban people.. There were 10 of us, our guide was a “licenced” cuban guide with a PhD (in linguistics) spoke 4 languages. He was open to discussion – not arguments. He served in the military as all Cubans are required to; he is still apart of the reserves. He grew up in Guantanemo. Married with 1 daughter and another child on the way. He has never been out of the country, like most Cubans that we met. Our driver, Jorge, is married to a MD. She is currently working in Brazil for about $1000 more a month than she could make in Cuba. Most of the members of our group were “senior” citizens from the US with one younger couple from Australia and she was orginally from Gibraltar. Our days were filled but because there was not much need to meander or shop there was little need for additional free time. Breakfast was included with our home stays, lunches were usually with the group and about 2/3 of our dinners were included allowing us the opportunity to explore and adventure out on our own. In fact one night we ate dinner at our Casa, on the roof top terrace overlooking Trinidad.
deteriorating old and obviously elegant buildings,
tropical warmth climate
dogs by day, cats by night
and of course old colorful american cars dating back to the 40 and 50's
some in pristine condition others not so
beautiful fertile countryside
Our trip began with an overnight in Miami, I would not even include mentioning this except that it was hard to believe that we were not already in another spanish speaking country with the predominence of spanish being spoken. I have read that the Cuban community which is the largest outside of Cuba read / listen daily to the reports on Fidel's health and once he dies there is a HUGE celebration / parade planned in Miami.
It is only 1 hour – 90 miles from Miami to Havana. And suddenly you are in a country that reminds me of growing up in the 1950's. Warm tropical breezes and cars from the 50s and earlier. Some in disrepair others in perfect condition.
Upon arrival our first priority was to get our dollars exchanged into Cuban CUC's something at this time you can only do in Cuba. (Cuba has 2 currencies the local which is a Cuban peso used pretty much only in the “ration stores” and has little or no value – 3 CUC = 75 cuban pesos. ) Our taxi driver (Lasaro) met us and at our request took us immediately to the exchange booth. – so our first encounter set the stage, and the tone for what we would experience throught out the trip in terms of the friendliness and curiosity of the Cuban people.
We stayed in Havana at the begining and the end of our trip. Both times I would describe our “casas” more like a guest house. Both times these were in large old houses. Our first had a gated entry and lovely veranda overlooking a busy-ish street. Each of these “casas” were large enough to accomodate the entire tour group and even a few others. These were several stories tall and each room had a private bath added. In our first home the rooms surrounded an open air court yard where breakfast was served; Most rooms were on the second floor of our second Havana house with a a resturant and bar where breakfast was served on the roof top. In both cases because these were larger facilities than we would stay for the rest of the trip there was no real connection with the owners. The first one was located in the “newer” section of Havana called Vedado, just 3 blocks from the Malecón (the sea wall promenade). Newer meaning back in the 50's this is where the well-to -do and maybe the foreigners moved to get away from the center of Havana.The second was located in the middle of Old Havana. There we had a small balcony which allowed us to sit out and watch and listen to street sounds of Old Havana.
At all of our other “casas” we were either alone with our hosts or with one other member of the tour. The rooms were very basic and small. A bed or two, and a bathroom. In Viñales, this was perhaps my most favorite. The house had a front porch with 2 rocking chairs where you could sit, watch the children playing ball in the street, neighbours visiting or cleaning their homes. In the backyard garden where we stayed there were 2 more homes which formed a “family compound” One other home was also a “Casa.” In the center of the garden was a gazebo dinning room which was being built as a restaurant to serve guests and special groups. The house we stayed in belonged to the mother, Aida, her daughter-in-law (Milady) who lived in one of the other 2 homes ran the business, making breakfast, doing the business end of the operation. Her husband is a chef and will be doing the cooking for the resturant which is to open later this month as the tourist season peaks.
Our next home stay was for 1 night in Cienfuegos and our hosts had converted their garage into 2 rooms for rent. They had both been working at one of the local hotels for years and decided to make a change. They advertise with AirBnb and we shared the accomodations with 2 fellows from Greece. The charm here was the enthusiasm of our host: Wilbur and Merelyn. Wilbur actually walked us to the restaurant where we ate the night we arrived.
Our last “casa” was operated by a dentist, who at the time we were there was on her 15 day semi annual vacation. They had just opened at the first of the year. We shared the house with a couple from Russia. The husband of the owner was a Opthomologist working in Angola – for better pay. The mother of our hostess lived down the street and came to assist both with the hosting,cooking, cleaning, and the care of the 2 children. This house was interesting, the father-in-law lived down below and owned it. Our hostess and husband built a second floor which could only be accessed from an outdoor narrow spiral staircase. There were 2 rooms for rent. Meals were served on the outside terrace overlooking the city Alot of the homes, if not all, in towns we visited didn't have glass on the windows, only shutters and particularly in Viñales we had to closed them tight to keep the small mosquitos away. Yes, there was air-conditioning, fans and hot water.
We didn't see poverty in the sense of homelessness and hungar. What we did see were many old mansions and homes crumbling from lack of care and/or poor construction from the very beginning.
Particularly in Havana the more modest homes were built right up to the street. If you would look in you might see a staircase leading to a second floor, the staircase would be crumbling. The lower floor might serve as a store front selling art or other items, behind the storefront you might be able to see the living area for a family. Sometimes in the nicer kept homes the living area would be preceded by a garden courtyard.
In Viñales particularly, we saw more free standing homes and defined neighbourhoods as opposed to those in Havana that seemed to share walls or were butted up to each other.
In our last stay in Havana it felt like we were staying in a commercial area, but in fact it was a neighbourhood just off one of the many plazas. Vendors passing thru with their push carts selling bread, cookies and other food items.
Fashion?...nope no one was wearing anything that implied a sense of fashion: shoes, clothing, accessories. Just comfortable clothing to deal with the climate.. albeit some of women / girls wore short and tight tight skirts.
Ration stores and the scarcity of food: Each family has a ration card which entitles them to a daily loaf of bread for each member, rice, beans, eggs, maralade, rum and cigars – a probably a few other items. Other items like meat, and water needed to be purchased from an independent store. On our first day out looking to buy a bottle of water the first store we went into had no water available. Was that due to scarcity or a poor distribution system? the next place we found palletes of water. Later in the trip we saw an empty freezer case. That was definitely scarcity.
Traffic/cars and transportation
Just as expected there were lots and lots of old US cars dating back to the late '50s. Some in pristine condition and used to take tourist on a fun ride. Others in okay condition and used as taxis and still others in poor condition as a means to get around, or waiting to be refurbished. Our taxi to and from the airport was a very nice car that was 72 years old- which makes our 23 year old camerys new in comparison! The owners of these cars take a lot of pride of ownership in these cars (Bill would comment it is a pity they didn't feel the same about their homes)
There is no traffic. They just don't have enough cars to create traffic. It was not an issue to cross a 6 lane highway – Thru out the trip we saw very little traffic. There were a fair number of motorcycles, some fueled by gas and others electric. Our guide had an electric motor cycle and dreaming to have any kind of car because of his growing family- old or new not impportant, but seemly very expensive. Outside of Havana there was a lots of horses and carts as a means of personal transportation and transportation of items. Outside of Havana these out number the autos. Taxi's in Havana: A lot of variety: old cars with a “taxi” sign handing in the window, traditional “yellow cabs” which were relatively new and foreign made - – 3 wheel bicycles and motor cycles painted the traditional yellow.
Reasonably priced and tasty. Breakfast which came with our “casa” stay included coffee, tea, guava juice, fresh fruit, mainly papaya, pinapple, guava. Sometimes there would be a ham and cheese sandwich and eggs to order.
Lunch/dinner: was usually later in the day after 1pm and was more on the heavy side like what we would expect and experienced at dinner – in the resturants they always offered us a 'drink” usually rum based ,like a Mojito, family style service would include a appetizer: fried plantains, yuca followed by a salad with only oil and vinegar as the only dressing options then choices of fish, pork, beef, (usually in the form of the traditional ropa vieja) or chicken. Not many green vegetable and of course there was always rice and black beans. This feast was followed by dessert often some version of flan. A couple of times when we were on our own we were able to find a sandwich – pretty much just ham and cheese.
There wasn't much if any street food – we either ate in a resturant or a paladar which is a home that has established a small resturant as a business; one time we did eat in our “casa” . The warm water lobster was wonderful – reasonable priced we saw it range from $9 – $17. portions were generous. Most meals cost about $10- $12 for an entree, local beer $1.50 ; mojitos $2.50-3.00, wine which was imported from Chile $4-$7. A sandwich $3-$5.
Coppelia – ice cream: every community has a ice cream “palor” called Coppelia. People will wait in line for hours. It is not necessarily that the ice cream is great – it is okay – but it is the social experience for the people to gather and catch up on news, gossip and make friendships.
We didn't see depression, or unhappiness. The people – at least according to the guide cherise their free education, free health care and social services, and don't want that to be touched, modified or messed with. Everyone has a job – if they want one- everyone gets the same pay. In the case of our guide, his company – Cuban Adventures- will pay his salary to the government and the government in turn will pay the guide his $75. The same that a doctor, a teacher and a janitor earm. Those that are working in the “serivce” sector, tourism, restuarants, casas etc. Have addiitonal opportunities to make extra money by way of tips – Doctors can go abroad and practice ( just not in the US) – but teachers don't have such opportunities.
Kids wear uniforms to school; color differentiate what level
The embargo didn't stop tourism to Cuba. Tourism has always been big in Cuba, just not a US destination. One of the biggest draw is the beautiful beaches and resorts that line the beaches outside of Havana. Everyday as you walk along the Malecón you can see as many as 20 or 30 large tourist buses- those 50 seaters- which would be parked, one behind another just outside of the Old Havana. Tourism has continued to grow, from upwards of 1 million to close to 4 million thisyear. Since there is no industry tourism, and related service industries (casas, resturants, tours) are one of the few ways for individual Cubans to earn a little more money, but the infrastructure is not there and with the doors opening between the US and Cuba, I personally think they don't have the hotel space, or the restaurants to accommodate the influx of tourism that the US will generate. The industry has grown 4 fold and will only grow more.
Just a note, since nothing US made has made its way to Cuba, most of the buses come from China. These are relatively new, ours was a 15 passenger bus, with air-conditioning, and video capabilities . All the bells and whistles to make it a comfortable way to travel the country.
Here is a short recap of some of the places we went:
First we had a walking tour of Old Havana. It is exactly what you would expect, and have already seen. Plazas, buildings under restoration, buildings un-inhabitable and deteroriating. And of course the Fort which protects Havana where each night at 9PM a cannon is fired
We later visited the home of a famous artisit Jose Fuster who has made his entire home and much of the surrounding neighbourhood into an artwork using tiles in mosaic forms.
Our 3rd day we travelled north to Viñales with a stop in Las Terrazas. Las Terrazas is an eco-village that began in 1968. Today it's a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. It has a large art community unfortunately when we were there everything was closed. Altho we did visit the home of the Cuban singer Polo Montañez who was discovered internationally in his 50's, and died tragically in a bizzare traffic accident. This is a totally self contained village, with schools, community/senior center, health facilities and farming. A beautiful fertile valley. Lunch that day was at restuarant that served everything that was grown in the area.
We spent 2 nights in the delightful town of Viñales where we saw oxen plowing the tobacco fields. This is a tiny agricultural town where the horse and carts prevail- I couldn't help think of growing up in the 50's where life was slower, safer – almost Norma Rockwell style. This is where we visited a tobacco farm, saw how tobacco is farmed, learned that 90% of production is turned over to the government for processing and marketing. The farmer only gets to keep 10%!
Cienfuegos via Bay of Pigs
Next we headed south past Havana. Along the way we got to watch a documentary on Fidel Castro. Biggest surprise for Bill (and me too) was how much international exposure Caster had. Unlike other cities in Cuba which were established by the spanish, Cienfuegos was founded by the French and has a European flavour with wide parisian style boulevard quite elegant and not so runned down.
Our final stop before returning to Havana. Trinidad is a perfectly perserved spanish colonial settlement, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988. We were able to enjoy the cobblestone streets- each street looking exactly like other. We learn about the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería, a syncretistic religion that hides in African roots beneath a symbolic Catholic veneer
On our return to Havana we first pass by Manaca-Iznaga plantation in the Valle de los Ingenios Where we saw a 147 ft tower which was built to look over the slaves as they worked. We stopped in at the town of Santa Clara, a key city in the Cuban Revolution. Saw the statue of Ernesto Ché Guevara, built by the city to commemorate his death and that of the revolutionaries who died along with him in Bolivia. They actually brought back the remains of Che and placed them in a memorial with an eternal flame. Che is considered a favorite son, a hero to Cuba and the Cuban revolution.
The people were incredibily friendly. We were stopped on the street and asked where we were from. Many were able to differentiate between Washington DC and the state of Washington knowing which side of the continent we were located! Some knew a little English, and others knew none. Many who did know English explained that they were self taught! Because Cuba is not new to tourism as Europeans and Canadians have been coming here forever we met some interesting tourist: A couple from Poland – commenting this is how our country was when my parents were growing up; a young couple from Russia asking who would become President of the US. There was very little of the “street” begging (??) women dressed in traditional dress, willing to have a picture taken for a price, a dog doing tricks, there even was an artist drawing sketches of tourist all hoping for a CUC- but if you said “no Thank you”... they weren't persistent. They accepted the No graciously. They weren't as numerous or pesty as we have seen in other countries that we have visited.
The government continues to use the embargo as a propoganda tool, using the bloque interchangeably with the term embargo. I remember seeing a billboard saying the bloque/embargo is the longest in human history. According to our guide if Cuba wants to buy a foreign product say from Italy, if it has an American component, Italy will be fined-by the US and negociations halted. Guess that is why there are so many Chinese made products in Cuba. The people don't think ill of the Americans, but see it as a political issue between governments.
What will be interesting is to see what will happen after the Castro brothers die, will families reunite? Who will be 'elected' president? Will the embargo disappear? Can Cuba rebuild the country? What place will they play in the international arena? Will US business get a foothold in the country?
This is a big island, and maybe 5 years down the road it will be interesting to re-visit and see more of this fertile island.