I spent eight days in Cuba, traveling with ten other women, friends and friends of friends. We took an educational people-to-people trip with Globe Drifters. This country is definitely different than any I’ve visited. For the most part, development stopped in the 1950’s and it’s been decaying ever since. With the introduction of some private enterprises, it seems to be shifting from communism towards socialism, and with increasing tourism, restoration is beginning. It’s definitely on the cusp of big changes and it will be interesting to see what happens when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018.
Scroll down past the photos if you’d like to read more detail.
11/15/15 – Havana
We were warned to arrive 3-4 hours early for our flight from Miami to Cuba, but, even with the crazy scene of returning Cubans loaded down with piles of plastic wrapped packages, two hours would have been plenty.
It was relatively easy to get through customs and change money, .87 CUC (convertible Cuban pesos) per dollar after conversion fees. We were met at the airport by our Cuban guide, Mikel, and shuttled in three taxis to a half dozen casas. I’m sharing a room with Anne, one of my hiking buddies. We had the afternoon free so most of us had lunch together at Habana 61, a new private restaurant that opened within the last couple years. My swordfish was delicious, better than any meal I had in Florida.
We then split into small groups to explore historic Havana. It was sad to see so many once beautiful buildings in such decay. Hopefully the overdue end to the U.S. embargo will lead to funds for restoration of this UNESCO site. Music was playing on almost every block.
The group rejoined just as the rain was starting. We were soaked by the time we reached the restaurant where we experienced a crazy scene of people crowded onto wet curved marble staircase with waiters passing by with trays of food, wind blowing over rooftop tables, and other chaos. We were eventually seated inside and I enjoyed my first mojito.
11/16/15 – Road to Trinidad
Breakfast at our casa was moved indoors due to more rain. It was the same government-dictated meal we would receive every morning – eggs, rolls, fresh tropical fruit (which we were assured was safe to eat), juice, and coffee/tea. We met the others at our rendezvous point. Our bus was significantly bigger than the van we were expecting, so with a row per person the long drive to Trinidad was quite comfortable.
Along the way we learned a bit about history, from the Cuban perspective. We stopped at Museo Giron, which documented the great inequities leading to the revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion. The American invaders were mostly upper class Cubans who either fled or were asked to leave after the revolution. (Those who refused to accept the small offerings for their land and business holdings received nothing). Due to leaked information, Castro knew about the invasion in advance and the Cuban Americans didn’t have a chance. Most of those that survived were returned to the U.S. after their families paid ransom.
11/17/15 – Trinidad
Anne stayed in all day, suffering from traveller illness. I almost got lost when I went out to find her a soda, but was able to retrace my steps on the cobblestone street by the sights along the way – primary schools filled with children, pregnant women in a row of rocking chairs, and interesting buildings.
I later joined the group for a walking tour of the historic district, another UNESCO site – homes of wealthy families on the square (sugar cane plantation owner, factory owner, railroad owner, and slave owner). More than a million African slaves were brought to Cuba and many of the island’s inhabitants are descendants of them. I later purchased a couple souvenirs at the handicraft market, one of the few places to buy anything. They had small wooden items, embroidered linen, jewelry made from old silverware, and handbags made by crocheting the aluminum tabs from flip top cans.
In the evening we had a wonderful dinner on a terrace with a live band. My mariposa lobster and Bucanero beer were both delicious. I had heard that the food in Cuba was mediocre, but Mikel obviously knows where to find the best. It felt a bit extravagant knowing that we were eating much better than most Cubans whose staples are rationed and “supermarkets” are tiny.
11/18/15 – Waterfall and Playa
Seven of us took a hike to the Javira Waterfall in Parque Natural el Cubano. Though I didn’t feel a thing, I later noticed a large red swelling on my elbow. While it has gone down, it has not disappeared. After a short break, just enough time for me to walk back to the plaza for an iced Torquino coffee served with ice cream (yum), we boarded the bus again for a short drive to the beach. We went swimming at one beautiful sandy spot then had a picnic dinner and bonfire at another. It was wonderful to watch the stars come out while barefoot in the sand.
11/19 – Long Drive to Vinales
We spent the whole day on the bus with a few stops along the way – a sugar plantation, Manaca Iznaga (an estate previously owned by a wealthy slaver trafficker with a tower from which slaves were watched), and the Che Guevara memorial.
11/20/15 – Vinales
After an early morning walk (colorful casas, horses, bicycles, oxen) and another identical breakfast, I joined the others for a tour of a tobacco farm where we learned how cigars are made. Permits are required for this family-run operation to allow tourists and it’s heavily taxed. We had time to walk to the town square before lunch. After a siesta, we toured an organic farm where we were served a huge family-style dinner while watching the sunset. I showered before heading back to the town square to see a band, but don’t know why I bothered since I was sweating again before I’m got dressed.
11/21/15 – Back to Havana
On our way back to Havana we stopped at Comunidad Las Terrazas where we learned abut this model town, then visited the river where we ate yet another ham and cheese sandwich (it was either that or cheese and ham). Our dinners may have been amazing, but most lunches are boring. On the way to our casas, we stopped to stroll though Fusterlandia with amazing tiled artwork and walls reminiscent of Gaudi.
I had dinner in an outdoor plaza with about half the group, an ever-present band playing. We then met the others for a taxi ride to a club. We were the first to arrive at 10 pm and didn’t stay for the live band, which we later heard started at 1:00 a.m. (Needless to say, many Cubans are on a later time schedule than we are). Back in our neighborhood, I took a short nighttime stroll with Anne, Nancy, and Harley (for the first time we are staying at a casa with fellow travelers).
11/22/15 – Havana
Mikel took us on a walking tour and to lunch on the roof of Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s first residence in Cuba. It rained a bit in the afternoon, but stopped just in time for our city tour in old convertible cars. That was great fun and our only chance to see other parts of Havana. We had another delicious dinner and then went to a theater performance at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
11/23/15 – Back to Miami
Taxis picked us up after breakfast and took us to the airport where I spent my final CUC on digestive biscuits. Part of me would have liked one more day in Havana, but my digestive system was happy to return to the U.S. where I can brush my teeth with tap water.