Actually getting to Cuba is the first part of the tour’s adventure, as it turns out. We met our group the night before departure and they proved to be a congenial bunch.
We had to be at the airport three hours ahead of time (boring), but we saw the array of goods that people take to Cuba. We later heard that every Cuban who visits the US may take two televisions back with them each year, and we saw clear evidence of this in the Miami airport….55 inch screens seemed to be popular. Despite our tour company suggesting we bring a 22 lb bag, we found the luggage limit for travel to Cuba is three 70 lb checked bags. People definitely were aware of this option.
We traveled with Insight Cuba, on their Classic Cuba tour. Our logistics person was Alfredo from Costa Rica, and our local guide was Marlon. Our driver was Manuel. The team was excellent. The tour ran smoothly, there was daily communication about plans and any changes being made. They handled all issues and Marlon is full of Cuba content. As a former teacher, he knows what life is like in Cuba for most people, and he was diplomatic about issues of politics and race.
Though a lot of waiting was involved, we got to Cuba pretty painlessly and no one in our group was stopped or inspected with any particular scrutiny.
We visited Revolution Square in Havana on our way in, and I found it much bigger and less park-like than I expected. The iron faces of heroes were impressive.
We had a welcome dinner at Los Naranjos, one of Cuba’s paladares, privately owned restaurants that began in homes, though many are now full-fledged restaurants with room for tens of diners.
We heard a lecture on architecture, visited Old Havana and a center for elderly people who sang us a song and were charming to chat with for a few minutes.
I managed a swim in the hotel pool at the end of the day before we left for dinner. The next day we went to the market, where we tried to purchase food for an entire meal with 1 CUC (US $1.13). It was possible, but not easy (no meat). We also visited a dance company, a museum of the great Literacy campaign of the early 1960s in Cuba, and an animation studio.
Here are my new animated friends.
Our restaurant surroundings were lovely for lunch and dinner every day, but the lack of ripe tomatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables and the same entrée choices started to become apparent by the third day. The next day was a visit to the huge Cristobal Colon cemetery (Jose Marti is not buried there), followed by a medical clinic, and after lunch the studio of a well-known ceramic artist, Beatriz Santacana. We got on the road the next day for Cienfuegos, and stopped at the beach for lunch and an excellent talk about the national park adjacent to the Bay of Pigs. Our only swim in the Caribbean was here and it was wonderful.
I was ready to sit under an umbrella all afternoon, but it was not to be. We were due to stop at the museum that tells the Cuban story of the Bay of Pigs and move on to our stay at “casas particulares” private home B&Bs in Cienfuegos. Jonathan and I had a room that was pretty basic, but the air conditioning worked. The public areas of the house were very pretty and airy, though we had little time to sit with our feet up. The next day we visited Trinidad, a town preserved by a big economic slump during most of the 20th century. There we walked on the old cobblestone streets, visited the architecture museum, met with a priest of Santeria, and saw the studio of a very creative woodcarver, who began using old cabinet doors as the material for his bas-relief portraits when artists materials were scarce during the 1990s and beyond. I think everyone slept on the bus back to Cienfuegos.
The next morning we were back on the bus, first visiting a printer’s studio that specializes in wood block and linoleum prints. I did buy an eight-color lino print that I like a lot. Later I found out that most of the people who work there are not paid but live off their government ration cards and what they make from selling prints.
We next heard the Cienfuegos Municipal Orchestra play and they were wonderful, full of energy, as well as very good. There are eight musicians and all teach in the local art school as well as performing concerts twice each month.
From the orchestra we headed back to Havana, stopping only for sandwiches on bread shaped like a Cuban crocodile.
Before arriving at the hotel, we stopped at Hemingway’s house outside Havana. The man knew how to live. The house is comfortable and airy, with a big pool and beautiful gardens surrounding it. Decor is heavy on dead animals, but we knew he was a big-game hunter. The cape buffalo head is pretty massive and would be a bit strange presiding over a cocktail party.
This was our final full day in Cuba, so we celebrated by going to the famous Tropicana nightclub show. Dinner began at 8:30pm and the show started at 10. The dinner was utterly uninspired, but by purchasing it on top of our admission fee we qualified for good seats by the stage.
We rode home with our heads full of the colorful frenetic dancing. But that wasn’t the end. The next morning we made one last stop at the fanciful compound of artist Carlos Fuster, who has developed a project to cover his home and neighborhood with mosaics. It looks a bit like Gaudi’s mosaics in Parque Guell in Barcelona, doesn’t it?
We decided on a group photo in front of one of the community-made mosaics by Casa Fuster. Then we said goodbye to Cuba.Our week in Cuba is a bit compressed because I was unable to get internet access and had to wait and post when we returned. Still to come are my posts on vintage American cars in Cuba and Cuban architecture. Last but far from least will be my opinionated “Good Things to Know About Cuba.”
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