Ginni from St. Louis, whom I’ve traveled with in the past, called me up and asked if I would like to visit Cuba. It is a country I never thought about visiting but said “Why not?” This happened in the fall of 2016. We contacted our travel agent and, after looking at a couple different tour companies, we settled on Tauck because of their itinerary which took us from one end of Cuba to the other and their small group size; dates of our travel were from March 4th thru March 17th.
Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba, is located in the northern Caribbean where the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Havana is the largest city and its capital. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and has a population of over 11.2 million inhabitants. It is a one-party republic where the Communist Party is enshrined in the constitution. Its economy is dominated by the exports of sugar, tobacco, coffee and skilled labor. According to the Human Development Index, Cuba is described as a country with high human development and is ranked the eighth highest in North America. It also ranks highly in some metrics of national performance, including health care and education.
Cedar Rapids and Miami
Left home for the airport at 5:50 AM on March 4; arrived in Miami at 3:00 PM. Retrieved luggage, got a taxi with a very reluctant driver, and headed to my hotel for the next two nights called Hyatt Regency Coral Gables. There was a carnival going on so the streets by the hotel were blocked off which meant the taxi had to maneuver all over the place to get to the hotel. Got checked in and went to the bar for a drink because our room was not ready. Settled into the room; it faced the carnival street and was very noisy but was assured by the front desk that festivities would be over by 10:30.
I decided to find a place to buy a bottle of wine for Ginni who would be coming in later tonight; I had packed one of the bottles given by Allan and Jeannette to me during the holidays for myself. The concierge gave me directions to the nearest place for wine so I went to it, purchased a bottle, and then went to Millers Ale House for dinner of Mahi/Mahi with vegetable. Good food, good service, and pleasant outdoor atmosphere. I walked through the carnival looking at the booths of artists displaying their wares. Got back to the hotel and settled in the room with a book while waiting for Ginni. Went down to the lobby about 8:45 to wait for her arrival which happened five minutes later. Back to the room where we sat and talked until after 11:00.
Sunday morning was a slow one with our waking after 8:00; we got dressed for the day and went to breakfast around 10:00 in the hotel dining room. It was buffet and had lots of choices. After breakfast, we wandered through the carnival and around downtown Coral Gables.
Went to our room for a brief break before heading downstairs to meet up with the Tauck representative. Got checked in and met some fellow travelers on the tour. Back to the room for an afternoon nap. Orientation meeting was held late afternoon where we met fellow travelers along with our tour director, Carlos. Dinner that evening with members of the tour; Ginni and I ate with Marsha/Dave from Columbus, OH and Andi/Larry from Cleveland, OH. After dinner we went to the bar for a drink.
Miami Departure and Havana
Breakfast at hotel @ 5:30; arrived at the airport where there was a problem with security on where to park. Carlos got everything straightened out; we got checked in with Delta and went to gate for boarding. Easy flight from Miami to Havana airport.
Upon arrival at Havana we went thru Immigration and Cuban Customs; the whole process was made easily with the guidance of Carlos. Once everyone arrived at the VIP lounge, we departed the lounge and was met outside by our tour guide, Hector, and bus driver, Rudolph.
Havana: March 6 – 8
After departure from airport we saw many sights from the bus: Havana mural of Indian girl, 1946 Polinros Fountain, Jose Morte sculptures, Revolution Square, original city walls, El Morro, Port of Havana, Statue of wind, fire, and rain; stopped at forts; Cristo de La Habana with statue of Christ. Lunch at Habanero with Andi, Larry, Rosemary, and Yvonne.
Went to our hotel, Melia Havana, checked and settled in. We had a very nice room with balcony on the 9th floor; it looked over the beautiful pool area and along the coast where you could hear the waves meeting land. Got a taxi with Andi and Larry for a ride to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which was said to look like Biltmore in the USA. Beautiful hotel with lovely courtyard. Had a drink and returned to our hotel for dinner in the lobby area along with another drink.
Tuesday saw us depart the hotel @ 8:30. Went to the Colón Cemetary started in 1876. With over 140 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in the world and renowned for its elaborate memorial architecture. There are more than 800,000 graves and 1 million interments. We witnessed several Cubans coming to the sacred memorial for “Amelia and her baby”. Amelia died in 1901 of preclampsia and she was buried together with her baby. Local Cubans now come and offer their prayers for safe pregnancies and return with flowers and prayers to thank her for a safe birth.
Next stop was a tour of to the Cigar Factory where there was a picture of Fidel on the door. Cuban cigar makers, unlike their counterparts in most of the non-Cuban cigar world, make the entire cigar themselves. It was an interesting tour where we saw how cigars are made from start to finish; we were able to ask questions of the workers and they were very forthcoming in their answers. Once the tour was over, we went to the Cigar Shop where I purchased some cigars.
Next stop was the Hemingway House; beautiful home and grounds. Hemingway lived in the house from mid 1939 to 1960, renting it at first, and then buying it in December 1940 after he married his third wife. In the fall of 1960, the Cuban government expropriated the Hemingway house and its grounds of which they have responsibility of its maintenance today. Lunch was at Divino; good food and great atmosphere.
After eating, we visited the Revolution Museum in Old Havana. The museum is located in what was the Presidental Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario Menocal in 1920 to Fulgencio Batista. It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban Revolution. The exhibits are largely devoted to the 1950’s Revolutionary War period and post-1959 period. Behind the building lies the Granma Memorial, a large glass enclosure which houses the yacht which took Castro and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution. Around the yacht there is a surface-to-air missile of the type that shot down a U.S. spyplane during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the engine of the U-2 airplane is displayed. Dinner that evening at La Moraleja.
Wednesday morning we went to the performance of the Habana Compas Dance Company, a thriving dance and cultural performance group that combines the essence of Spanish dance with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Drumsticks, castanets, heels, claves, chequeres and percussive chairs characterize the performances of the ensemble which, through dance, preserves a large part of the island’s African and Spanish cultural heritage. After the performance, I purchased a couple items in their gift shop. Next we went to Old Havana where we was given a tour by an expert of architecture. Old Havana which was founded in 1519 by the Spanish crown and is architecturally unlike any other Caribbean city. The predominant architecture in Old Havana is an eclectic mix of Cuban Baroque, Neoclassical and Moorish influences reminiscent of Cuba’s Spanish heritage. Buildings are brightly colored in various hues of pastels adding to the charm and allure of Old Havana. However over two-thirds of Old Havana is in desperate need of renovation and funding is lacking. The tour was interesting but did seem too long. A picture of our tour group was taken in front of the Custom House. There was a model of the old city displayed which, we learned, took a married couple over three years to make. Lunch was at Ambos Mundos Hotel. We ventured to the Main Square where we saw a statue of Carlos Manual de Caspedes who was the first president (father) of the country. Also seen was the main castle, front of Governors House, mural of 67 people who were diverse in culture and opposed the crown, Cathedral Square, and the first American embassy.
That evening we were surprised with a car ride in a 1955 Bel Aire convertible; earlier in the day, Carlos gave each female on the trip a red scarf to wear while riding in the open car. Drove to the Museum of Universal Arts where we were given a special performance by an Acapella singing group called Vocal ELE’. Had dinner at La Foresta; okay food but the funny part of the evening was a fake birthday for one of our fellow passengers.
Sancti Spiritus: March 9
Departed the hotel at 8:00 after having breakfast. We headed for our one night destination of Sancti Spirtus. Drove for an 1.5 hours before stopping at a rest stop. Hector had given us the history of the Cuban Revolution from Columbus to the 1950’s. It was a very nice rest area with a couple gift shops. Next we were on our way to Santa Clara where we stopped at the Che Guevara Mausoleum; he was the military leader who played a key role as Fidel Castro’s second-in-command during the Cuban Revolution. Lunch was at La Aldaba Restaurant.
After lunch, we preceded to Sancti Spiritus where Hector took us on a tour of the town square while Carlos arranged for our baggage to be unloaded and placed in our room at the Hotel Don Florencio. We had dinner outside of the hotel that evening and was entertained while eating with a group who sang and played instruments.
Camagüey: March 10 – 12
Departed Sancti Spiritus for Camagüey around 8:00; Hector provided us with more information regarding Cuba and their residents as we rode along. Stopped at a rest stop after a few hours of riding; I gave the restroom attendant a couple roses that Ginni and I received the night before at the hotel we had stayed at. There was shopping and an area for walking around. We continued on to Camagüey where we had lunch at Hotel El Camino de Hierro. Camagüey is considered a city of baroque and is renowned for its historic center; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. It is the nation’s third largest city with more than 321,000 inhabitants. After lunch, we attended a traditional folk dance performance by a group called Companñia Folklorica Camagua; it was followed by a question and answer session with performers. We checked into Hotel Sevillana where we had time in our room to settle in for our 3-night stay. Dinner was at the hotel with some of us gathering for a drink beforehand; a group of three gentlemen entertained us. After walking around the area, I settled into a local bar with Andi, Larry, Joyce, Bryan, and Ginni for a final glass of wine.
On Saturday, we did not have to depart the hotel until 9:30 so slept late, got dressed, and updated my notes before breakfast. After breakfast, in groups of two, we boarded bike taxis for our tour of the town. Brief history of Camagüey; it started out being called Santa Maria but changed its name to current. It is the biggest providence of Cuba along with being the flattest. Population is 700K with tourism, sugar cane, and artists being its main area of revenue. Also known as the City of Churches with 24; 15 of those are Catholic. And it is home to the second oldest theatre in the country called Teatro Principal. After exploring a market, the bikes took us to the Artesano Aristarchus which is the studio of Jose D Gutierrez (Pepe) where he demonstrated his craft. He was trained as a mechanic and makes all his tools. His pieces are unusual and cannot be purchased anywhere else. Next stop was a couple doors down to Projecto Carsuenos; it is a community project founded by Carmen Gonzales and she gave us a talk on her work. There are currently 162 members of the project; these members are either handicapped, have mental illness, alcoholism, and children age 3-16. All of them are trying to improve and bring brightness to their lives. All the children design while the adults sew dolls for hospitals or for sale both nationally and internationally; so far, they have made 270 dolls. The big project they are working on currently is a big doll measuring 24 meters which they are hoping to enter into the Guinness Book of Records. We walked to the art gallery and workshop of Martha Jimenez Perez. Her most important element in her paintings and sculptures are women with her most famous being “Gossippers” which are three women talking at a fountain with halos over their heads (represents) heavenly. Across the courtyard for lunch at El Paso Restaurant; ate a meal of black bean soup, chicken, rice, and vegetables while listening to a duo called Black Coral.
We boarded the bus for a short drive to a home of a family artists who do their work and displays on the premises. The members either paint, do ceramics, or make clay pots. The place is called Alfareria Casanova. A father/son duo demonstrated making the clay pots; after a pot is made, it takes 15 days to dry and then fired in a kiln for 30 hours at 1000 degrees. After the demonstration, we wandered thru their shop and I purchased one of the paintings. Returned to the hotel and walked to the square to look in a couple places for souvenirs but did not find anything. Back to the hotel for some rest before dinner at an Italian restaurant. Restaurant was called Santa Teresa; since it was raining, their staff greeted us with umbrellas.
The meal of pizza was not very good because it was undercooked. I believe they were not equipped to handle our size of group so some people were done with their meal before others at their table received their meal. Definitely believe Carlos and Hector will recommend Tauck remove them from future itineraries. Had a round of drinks at the hotel before heading to bed. We set our clocks ahead one hour since Cuba goes on daylight savings time as we do.
Sunday morning, after breakfast, everyone gathered in our hotel lobby around 9:45 for a walk to the home of the Endedans Contemporary Ballet Company. This is the only ballet company in Cuba performing contemporary ballet. It was started about 10 years ago; the performers range in the age of 18-40 years of age. They are currently working on a project of exchange between Cuba and the US. It is a professional ballet company run by the state. The group gave us a private performance that they have not premiered as of yet. These performers and students are encouraged to use their creativity in the development and performance of each act. They are very talented in contemporary, ballet, hip-hop, and other dance styles. Very enjoyable to watch. We walked back to the hotel and got into another convertible for a drive to the restaurant where we were having lunch. Pat, a gal from California, joined Ginni and I into a white exterior/red interior 1950 Bel Aire. What fun waving and shouting greetings to the people we passed. We arrived at the restaurant, Rocola Club, where we were greeted with a Cuban fruit drink called Mamey and introduced to the owner. We ate lunch with Dave/Ann and Larry/Andi.
Boarded the bus and drove back to our hotel. After asking Carlos for some suggestions on where we could a bottle of wine, we headed out to look for this item. However, all the stores were closed. When we returned to the hotel, we told Hector about our search and he took us down the street to a place where each of us was able to purchase a bottle. Met in the lobby at 6:00 for our walk to the evening’s restaurant which turned out to be a wine cellar right down the street. Before leaving the hotel, we were entertained by a musical song and dance group called Andarte. Fun time; I even danced with the group. Walked to the restaurant and had an enjoyable meal even with the lights going out a quarter of the way through. Candles were lit at all the tables and the meal proceeded along. We found out the power was off all over the city. As we were getting ready to leave the restaurant, the power came on. Got a drink at the hotel bar and went to our room for packing since we were leaving the next day for our last destination in Cuba, Holguín, which is where Hector has his home.
Holguín, March 13 – 15
On Monday, the 13th, we left the hotel at 8:00 heading to Holguín. As we rode along, Hector provided us with information on Cuba and their education system. The education is provided by the government and free to every Cuban. There are three mandatory levels: preschool, elementary for 6 years, and middle school for 3 years. When the mandatory levels are completed, a child can decide to attend a technical college or university, which take 3 to 6 years to complete, or stay home. All males must go into the Army for two years while females go to work. We made a rest stop in Cucalambé; nice stop with clean restrooms, small gift shop, and counter selling beverages. Onward to Finca Agroecologia La Conchita which is a working farm using organic principals to grow fruits and vegetables. Very interesting tour where we saw the gardens and fruit trees/bushes. They are part of a cooperative which means what they grow is exchanged among the other co-op members. Some of the items grown are coffee beans, tomatoes, cabbage, bananas, cucumbers, tapioca, mango, coconut, pineapple, custard apple, and much more. After the tour, we had the best meal of the whole trip; pig which had been roasted over an open fire; salad of cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green beans; potatoes; desserts. Everything was fresh and tasted delicious!
Drove a couple hours, dropped Hector off in Holguín so he could stay with his family (bad week for Hector since his brother-in-law passed away, a first cousin passed away, and another cousin fell and broke his hip at Hector’s home while attending the funeral) and onward to our home the next three nights at Paradisus Rio de Oro Hotel which is a resort by the ocean and 37 miles from Holguín. Wonderful, huge accommodations with the bathroom large enough you could land a small plane in it. The shower was a garden shower outside. And everything was all inclusive which meant everything was included except items purchased at the gift shop or spa treatments. Dining options include 8 restaurants and 7 bars. There’s also an outdoor pool, private beach, a spa and a gym. Settled into our apartment, took a shower, and went to dinner at the restaurant on our level where we were joined by Andi and Larry. Went back to our lodging around 11:00.
After breakfast, we boarded the bus for a drive into Holguín. There was seat rotation each day on the bus so Ginni and I got the front row seats; certainly enlarges the area of vision. Our first stop, after picking up Hector, was at the practice facility of the opera company Rodriguo Pratts for a Cuban Zarzuela performance which was excellent! Zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that incorporates operatic and popular songs as well as dance. At the question and answer session we found out that there are 97 members of the company with 45 in middle school for 3 years and the university level for 5 years. There are also some young children being taught. Everyone has to audition in order to get into the company and, once in, have to audition once a year to remain. They perform locally a couple times a month and do perform nationally and internationally. Our next stop was to La Loma de La Cruz or Hill of the Cross. There are 462 steps leading up to the cross and each May there is a celebration in which people carry a huge Cuban flag from the bottom to the top.
Driving around town had us pass the park of sculptors, square which is over 100 years old, and wedding palace where Hector got married. The town was named in 1720 after the first Spaniard to arrive. It is in the fourth largest providence and is third largest in population. There are 346,000 people in the city. Most private homes are owned by Cuban people who live overseas. A small one-bedroom home costs $130,000. Next stop the Papyrus Papers Publishing House where we learned their purpose for paper printing. They print up to 100 books per title of a book. Any kind of paper such as cardboard, tissue, newspaper, gets reused. This is a family-operated print shop and their printing museum houses historic printing presses used to produce a wide-range of art books with some of them dating back to 1816. Lunch was at Restaurant Royal near the printing shop. We returned to the resort and had the rest of our afternoon to ourselves. We walked down to the beach and around the grounds.
That evening Ginni and I decided to eat apart from everyone so we ate at the same restaurant as the previous evening. Lights were out around 10:30.
Our final full day in Cuba, the 15th, was spent visiting the José María Ochoa School of Music where we were given a performance by various students of the school; performers were either in their first, second, or third year at the school. In order to be accepted within the school, they must pass an exam. Once accepted, they will be tested throughout the school year with a final exam where they must score at least 80 or they will be dropped from the program. The school includes children starting at the age of 8 upward. After leaving the school, we stopped at a square where we were shown a mural on a wall that depicts the history of Cuba starting at the time of Columbus. And we were able to walk around the square, on our way, going into whatever store we wanted; I was on the look out for coffee but did not find any. After our exploration, we boarded the bus and drove to the home/gallery of Yuri Urquiza, a young and amazingly talented neoclassical artist. He works quite closely with his wife who also has an art degree. Her father is a well noted Cuban artist who displays his art all over the world. Yuri seems to be a very talented artist but I had a feeling his paintings were not cheap.
After the visit, we returned to the resort where we had lunch at the lobby restaurant. Since it had rained and the day was overcast, we did not want to go to the beach so Ginni and I took a golf cart to the lower area where there were a couple gift shops. Neither of us saw anything to purchase so we returned to our lodging where we prepared for our farewell reception and dinner. Carlos gave each of us a copy of the group photo taken outside the Customs House in Havana; it was quite good. And we had a surprise performance by the director of the music school we had visited on Wednesday and a magnificent piano player who could play anywhere in the world; Lola sang and Marcos played the piano. Both were excellent but Marcos won me over with his magnificent playing. We had dinner with Jackie, Debbie, Andi, and Larry.
Tomorrow we leave for the airport at 9:15 with bags out at 8:15.
Departure Cuba; Miami to Home
Nothing of interest today since we flew from Holguín to Miami without any problems.
Yvette, the trauma surgeon from California, sat next to me and we had a great conversation over the pond. Arrived in Miami and got through Immigration and Customs quite easily. Ginni and I grabbed a taxi to take us to the Hyatt Regency for overnight before departing the next day to our respective homes. Settled in the room which had WiFi so both of us caught up with mail before meeting Andi and Larry for a drink and then dinner at Fratellino Ristorante, an Italian place. Dinner at the restaurant was fantastic and we all enjoyed what we had ordered. Ginni and I walked back to the Hyatt and bed while Andi and Larry went to another establishment for a drink. On the 16th we headed for home so checked out of the room and got a taxi to the airport around 8:45. Ginni was flying American while I was flying United so got dropped at two different points. Both of us connected with each other after check in and we had breakfast at Air Margaritaville; good omelet and Bloody Mary. My flight was leaving at 12:20 so we said our good byes. Got to my gate, boarded the plane, and both flights into Cedar Rapids were uneventful with my getting home around 5:30.