Another ‘Better Late than Never’ Post…
Late January 2016, we heard a cycling friend was putting together a trip to Cuba. His description was that ‘Cuba is different.’ Though we had never really considered visiting Cuba, we thought it would be an interesting adventure. The timing was right (early March), the weather would be warmer than Georgia, and it would be a chance to see Cuba before American tourism changed the scenery. We were also to be allowed to use “alternative transportation” (aka bicycles) on a few of the days; so that sounded like a good way to see the countryside and learn about the Cuban culture. We decided to sign-up and ended up being so glad that we did.
The trip was a people-to-people trip, planned to give us meaningful interaction with Cuban people. Our trip included a full schedule with visits to a tobacco farm, a cigar factory, Hemingway’s farm, a rum distillery, the beach, the Mural de la Prehistoria, the Vinales Valley, a cave that was one of Fidel’s hideouts during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Revolution Plaza, Old Havana, Morro Castle, an orchid garden, …..and I am sure that I am leaving something out! There was very little down-time–just a couple of afternoons. From what I have read, this is a typical schedule on people-to-people tours. Our guide, David (pronounced ‘Da-veed’), also took us to his grandmother’s home, where she was so welcoming. We only stayed long enough to meet her and some family members, but it was great! Later in the week, we stopped by the home of some of David’s relatives who lived in the country. David described their home as “humble,” but we thought it was wonderful; the setting was gorgeous and peaceful.
Rather than posting about our day-to-day adventures, I am going to focus these posts on topics related to the questions we have gotten since returning–old cars, food, farming, housing, historical/tourist sites, etc. My goal is to share some of the beauty that we encountered, so each post will include lots of pictures. Sorry that there has been such a delay in getting these posted!
At the time of our trip, only charter flights were going into Cuba from the U.S. We flew to Cancun, Mexico, met our travel group of twelve, then flew to Havana the next morning. Not only did we have the usual port-of-entry experience, we were also videotaped as we entered the airport. The airport is small, but modern. The first thing that seemed “out of the ordinary” was the parking lot. It was close to deserted!
We had to exchange money at the airport. They only allowed us to exchange two hundred dollars per person. Cuba uses two currencies, one for Cubans and one for tourists. As it turned out, there really wasn’t much to purchase, so we did not end up using all of the money that we exchanged. Most of our meals were included in the price of the trip, but we did buy water, beer, and a couple of lunches. We never saw any souvenir-type items that we thought worthy of purchasing.
At the airport, we met our Cuban guide, David, who is a graduate of the University of Havana and is employed by the Cuban government as a tour guide. He was a wonderful and friendly guide. He was with us most of the time, but we did have two afternoons when we were on our own. David is twenty-six years old and hopes to become a United Nations interpreter. We were warned to stay away from political topics (and we did!); but, David’s indoctrination often came through in his narrative. For example, he commented that the reason that Americans left when Castro came into power was that “Americans were afraid of communism.” David has never been outside of Cuba, so he has no comparison for many of the things that we saw or that he explained. If he achieves his goal of becoming a UN interpreter, New York City will be quite the culture shock!
Our first night was in Havana, then we toured the countryside west of Havana for several days near Pinar del Rio, then were back in Havana for a few days. In Havana, we stayed at the Hotel Copacabana . (Interestingly, the Copacabana is where my parents stayed in about 1954 when they took a trip to Cuba!) Our tour book described the Hotel Copacabana as having an “inherent dankness despite its 2010 refurbishment and fine ocean-side location.” It was nice enough, but makes it pretty clear why state-owned hotels are a bad idea.
In Pinar del Rio, we stayed at the Villa Aguas Claras. Our tour book described the Aguas Claras as having “ailing rooms, but lush landscaping.” Both hotels–the Copacabana and the Villa Aguas Claras, are state-owned hotels and have a very nice appearance from the outside looking in. They try.
Our experience, along with others from our group, was that every hotel room had areas of disrepair. In our case, two of the three rooms had broken or sporadically working showers–all hot or all cold water, only a handheld shower that had no overhead hook, only a trickle of water (think: drinking straw trickle!), etc. All rooms had limited lighting. One bathroom had such a bad smell that as a solution we put a towel over the floor drain and it helped (apparently, it had no p-trap)! One night, I began my shower with good water pressure and temperature, soaped up, and suddenly no water! Steve went to the main office and was informed that the whole complex was without water, but that it would be back on in ten minutes. I stood in the shower, wet and soapy, until he returned. Then, I figured I might as well continue to stand there until the water came back on; after about two minutes, the water began working. Others in the group later said they had experienced no problem. Each hotel had maintenance issues, but at one time must have been glorious places.
The elevator at the Hotel Copacabana did not work, so we used the stairs to access the fourth floor.
Food and Music
We had breakfast at our hotels each morning. Breakfast times were typical. Breakfast foods varied, but were usually filling and tasty. At the Hotel Copacabana, there was a huge breakfast bar with a variety of choices. We were unfamiliar with many of the choices, but were always able to find enough to eat. We had been warned to stay away from fruits that might have been washed with tap water, so that limited some of our choices.
Lunches and dinners were usually at private- or state-owned restaurants. Lunch time could be anywhere from noon until two or three o’clock in the afternoon. Dinner time in Cuba occurs later than eight o’clock. When we requested earlier times, seven o’clock was as early as anyone would consider eating. Restaurants were not open earlier than seven! Usually, a cocktail was served prior to lunch or dinner–a mojito or cuba libre. Almost all meals began with a salad plate of shredded cabbage and sliced tomatoes served with oil and vinegar. We didn’t usually eat this due to fear of the water contamination, but toward the end of the trip we sometimes took our chances. Next, we were served a soup course, either a pumpkin or squash soup. That was followed by the main course, a meat and side dish. Meat choices tended to be roasted chicken, roasted lamb (aka goat!), or fried pork. Side dishes were usually white rice and black beans, but sometimes included boiled potatoes or roasted sweet potatoes. Desserts were often a dish of preserved guava, a bread pudding-like dish, a flan, or a sherbet. The food was good, but not very spicy, bordering on bland. My guess is that our meals included larger quantities and better quality food than the locals get. We were told that tourism, primarily Canadian and European, is important and for that reason tourists receive deference. Meals were typically accompanied by wonderfully talented musicians.
Next up: We answer the question, “Did you see old cars?” Boy, did we!