April 18, 2015. Let me stress this date before I continue, because when it comes to Cuba dates matter! Only four months after president Obama announced his intention to restore diplomatic relations we take a 45-minute flight from Miami into Havana airport. Although we’re only set to spend a week here, we will leave a slightly different place from the island we eagerly landed in today. Things are moving fast in Cuba!
Yes, dates do matter when it comes to Cuba. Many of us remember very specific dates in reference to Cuba: Cuban Revolution (1952-59), Bay of Pigs (April 1961), and Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Today, our small group of eight hungry-to-learn American adventurers land on this island that only months before had been illegal to visit since 1962. As of this writing, American legal travel to Cuba falls into one of 12 categories, including religious, business and “people-to-people” visas. This typically means going with a tour that coordinates city tours, talks with artists, and having face time with locals. Our small group is on such a visa.
One of the first things we notice is how long our bags take to exit the plane. This is due to the huge amount of loot our Cuban-American passengers bring in for relatives and the inevitable underground resale business. As our Chinese-made bus groans from the airport, we immediately see a Fidel Castro billboard flanked by an iconic 50’s Chevy. This country has played such a ridiculously outsized role in the American imagination; and here it is, right before us. It gives me an out-of-body feeling.
The opportunity to induct us into Cuba’s politics is immediate, as en route to our hotel we stop at the Plaza de la Revoluction. As the center of government, this area contains most of the offices of the main ministries and is often used for massive rallies. It is the counterpart of China’s Tiananmen Square.
HAVANA: A tragically beautiful city. The buildings—jumbles of Neo-classical porticoes with dashes of Baroque—are weather-beaten and partly hollowed out — I am reminded a bit of Leningrad. There is a lushness to the jerry-rigged decay and the carelessness of black electric wires draping faded mansions.
The streets have no lamps and no light. The decaying mansions are open air, like a mouth with decaying teeth displaying columns and wrought-iron staircases dense with wires and creeping vegetation. Where stores, half-lit, seem to sell nothing more than a single box of detergent. Graffiti of Che Guevara’s youthful image admonishes passersby to “work more and criticize less”. There is no traffic and practically no stores. We are standing in a city virtually untouched by the dense web of satellites floating above the earth. Did I mention, our iPhones don’t work here! Our credit cards don’t work here! No McDonalds, and almost no Coca Cola!
The entire week we stay in a European-owned hotel located on Parque Central. It is a lovely old-world hotel with a lobby that is thick with Latin-American charm and Cuban cigar smoke. I expect to hear Ricky Recardo belt out “Babaloo” at any moment.
Only a few steps outside the hotel is Old Taxi Central; here you see all makes and models of American cars from the 50’s. You can talk to the owners/drivers who will charge you a very reasonable fee for a ride. However, be forewarned that a majority of these old beauties are best admired afar. Replacement parts are now almost non-existent, and many of the bodies are filled with “bondo” and poorly painted. Mechanical replacement parts are often from Russian or Chinese autos and re-tooled to fit the immediate need. Despite the belching black smoke and fumes that assault your senses, seeing them cannot help but bring a nostalgic smile to the face. To ride in one is pure joy.
What Cuba lacks in luxury amenities, it makes up for in culture. We feel lucky to visit here before luxury development ends the requirement of our “cultural people-to-people” visa — we came for the culture, but then we usually do. Forget the beach! No really, you can forget the beach! Beach tourism is strictly forbidden here at the moment, and the miles and miles of beautiful white beaches are just waiting for the hoards of tourists who will eventually turn this island into a South Key West community. The crumbling sea wall in Havana, which the locals refer to as their “sofa” because everyone goes to sit and socialize in the evening, may be as close as you get for now. Currently, this trip is for people truly interested in active learning who want to be engaged all the time. If you want to sit on the beach and read a book, you need to go to another island.
FOOD: It is said that going to Cuba for the food is a bit like going to Boston for the nightlife. We quickly found out that if you are a foreigner (because locals don’t have the money), you can eat very well at the new wave of privately-owned restaurants housed in shabby-chic quarters, called paladars. These are privately (vs governmental) owned and the food is usually fresh and done well. My favorite was LaGuarida, but there were others such as Rio Mar and Paladar Atelier, just to name a few. They are usually quite good and often come with a table-side-visit by the owner/chef. Most of these meals are served “family style” and consist of local fish, pork, chicken, vegetables, rice, black beans and flan. Flan usually ends the meal, and it is consistently the best I’ve ever eaten—creamy with the consistency of cheesecake. Yummm!
ART: Cuban art is some of the most prized and collected in the world. In fact, artists are the highest paid profession in Cuba. They are not taxed on their sales and the profession is virtually uncontrolled by the government. We visited a printmaking workshop, art studios such as Studio 3 y 31, sculptors Wilay Mendez and Jose Fuster, and architect Universo Lorenzo. We also visited the Instituto Superior de Arte that Castro commissioned for a tuition-free, educational institute he had built on a former golf club. It is a beautifully designed concept, but as with so many things Cuban, it has the quiet undercurrent of slow decay.
Only 2 blocks from our hotel is the impressive Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Cuban Art). This large museum is dedicated exclusively to Cuban art, and our tour takes a chronological path from the earliest days of colonialism to the latest generation of Cuban artists. As a generalization, Cuban art is colorful and dramatic; yet, I struggle to like it.
For me, however, the highlight of our art tour is a visit to the Centro Pro Danza, founded by the famous dancer Laura Alonso. We are honored to meet her daughter, who has her best dancers perform the pas de deux from Swan Lake for us. It was hard to reconcile the sheer beauty of the dance with the decaying buildings they study in. This school of dance serves 850 students who perform around the world. The building, an old colonial mansion, was donated to them by the owners, but there are no funds to restore or maintain its infrastructure and façade. It, too, will crumble unless action is taken soon.
HISTORY: One of my favorite days is spent driving through several of the residential communities, and points of interest. Here we have a short visit to the Christopher Colon Cemetery which covers nearly 8% of the City of Havana and has beautiful tombs, statutes and interesting stories. I think it is the most beautiful cemetery I have seen in all my travels.
The Plaza Vieja (Havana’s oldest plaza dating back to the 16th century) and The Plaza de San Francisco (a cobbled plaza surrounded by buildings dating from the 18th century) are dominated by the baroque Iglesia and Convento de San Francisco dating from 1719.
No trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to a cigar and/or rum factory and store. So, for our first time, we bought Cuban cigars and rum to legally take into the USA.
Finca Vigia is Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban farm, and is a true highlight. Hemingway’s Cuban compound contains original furniture, artwork, and personal memorabilia. Most impressive is his library containing thousands of letter, telegrams, photos, scrapbooks and manuscripts.
In keeping with the Hemingway theme, we return to our hotel in Havana and stroll just a few short blocks for a daquiri at his favority hangout, Bar Floridita. Here, a life size bronze of Hemingway leans against the bar, smiles at you, and begs a photo be taken.
A few more blocks away is another of Hemingway’s hangouts, Sloppy Joe’s. Newly renovated, it has loads of old photos from time-gone-by to gaze at while you enjoy one of their libations and snacks. It is also deliciously air-conditioned — an endorsement in Havana’s stifling humidity and heat.
RELIGION: Cuba is not a typical Latin-American country when it comes to religion. Only about 60% are Catholics, 5% Protestantism, 11% African Religions of various flavors, and finally 24% Non-religious (mostly Atheist).
We have the privilege of visiting a home in the Callejon de Hamel area where Elias Aseff, a Cuban scholar, explains the culture of the Afro Cuban religion known as Santeria. Santeria is a syncretic religion of Caribbean origin, which developed in the Spanish Empire among West African slaves. It is influenced by and syncretized with Roman Catholicism.
COUNTRYSIDE: We spend only one day outside the city of Havana. We are anxious to escape the heat, noise and exhaust fumes of the city as we drive westward towards the beautiful Vinales Valley. We are all amazed at the wide 4-lane divided highways with almost no traffic. Now and again, there are bridges crossing the highway that go nowhere.
We then head to Finca Confianza in the Valle de Vinales with stunning views of steep-sided residual hills called mogotes. Typically having a rounded, tower-like form, these stunning geological wonders are second in size and number only after China. Considered by many to be the most beautiful place in Cuba, the valley holds stunning landscapes and jaw dropping vistas. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must see if you visit Cuba.
Considered to be the premier tobacco growing area in the world, it is a photographer’s paradise. This beautiful valley also produces a multitude of organic fruits, vegetables, and grains. We have lunch at an organic farm where we eat outdoors at tables laboring under the burden of plate-after -plate of fresh vegetables, fruits, chicken, roasted pork, and of course, flan. We are in heaven!
All too soon our week in Cuba has ended. We have truly enjoyed our time here. As American, Cuba holds a mysterious place in our imaginations. Thanks so much to our wonderful local guide, Edel. You are great! There are no questions you will not answer, even though you have probably answered them a thousand times before. We leave wishing you nothing but the best for your future in Cuba. And a special “thank you” to Duniesqui Bauta (Duni) with Cuban Cultural Travel, who was with us all the way from Miami and back. You made our trip easy, pleasant, and most of all informative.
FACES OF CUBA:
Note of Interest: As we begin to tell our friends and family about our Cuban experience, we are overwhelmed at their interest. Most of the time when we talk about our travels we see eyes glaze over and yawns start on the jaw. But EVERONE wants to know about Cuba. We can only imagine it is because of what I will call the ” Cuban Forbidden Fruit Syndrome“. Cuba: only 45 minutes from Miami. Cuba: westernized despite its lack of direct contact. Cuba: a manufactured myth based on political propaganda from both sides. Cuba: close yet so far. Cuba: a beautiful, rare flower just poised to be experienced..