An Amazing 5 Nights In Cuba

 I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it many, many more times.  It takes a special traveler to visit, appreciate and enjoy Cuba right now.  So many Americans are chomping at the bits to visit the “forbidden” island these days.  Pressed to know what all the fuss is about.  A year ago, after a few solo educational trips, I decided to enlist a small group of travelers to take the journey with me.  I got two brave, serious souls to say “yes”, and really commit.  Thank you Deanna and Jane!  These two ladies helped me navigate my way through the learning curve of taking groups to Cuba for educational and people-to-people encounters, and I’ve never looked back. Again, thank you, ladies!

I get excited each time I post a sign-up for a new group trip to Cuba.  I’m always curious about who will join me on the next adventure.  For the most part, I have been very fortunate with this.  Once, not so much.  This most recent time…Jackpot!

 

Entering the Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio

 

Lunchtime in Vinales

About 6 months ago I posted a sign-up for a November 2016 five-night trip to Havana, Pinar del Rio/Vinales and Varadero.  8 people was my limit.  Of course, about thirty people contacted me and said they were “in”.  I didn’t panic about not having the space.  I know how this thing works.  Within a couple of weeks, and come time for making a deposit, that list of thirty was down to a solid, committed five! Five women!  Five women who typically pack up and take solo trips, or who join travel groups as a solo traveler.  I planned to use some of my free time in Cuba to do some site visits to hotels and B&Bs, so I enlisted one more person to join our group.  A native Spanish-speaking, travel planner friend.  The two of us have traveled from the coffee region of Colombia, to the resorts of Jamaica together on travel planner jaunts, so I knew he would be a good fit for helping me with this trip.

Bedroom at B&B Solinos y Yo

After sending in all payments, getting all of the necessary paperwork from the group, securing visas, a couple of conference calls, and some last minute changes made by our folks in Cuba, our travel day had come.  We flew from our home airports of DC, Albany, New Orleans, (and a short drive from Miami), to Fort Lauderdale to meet for the first time in person and take what would be their first flight to Cuba, and my first commercial flight to Cuba from the U.S. (before, I’d taken chartered flights from Miami)
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Our Home For 3 Nights in Havana…B&B Solinos y Yo

This was one my favorite trips ever to Cuba!  I mean these women and one guy are travel pros!  They really know how to do it!  Sure, they brought a lot of luggage.  A lot!  But, they also left behind a lot of their clothes and toiletries, and brought back a whole lot of gifts (they have really happy friends in the States right now, I’m sure!).  From the moment we arrived at the airport in Varadero, to the moment we boarded our flight home, they were nothing short of curious, open-minded, gracious, well-educated, culture-loving travelers!  I could not get enough of how much they wanted to explore the island, meet the people, and take it all in.

Usually, a five day trip gives me plenty of time to have the group take in the tours, educational and people-to-people activities.  Not this group!  They happily turned our two hour walking tour of Old Havana into over three hours.  They didn’t only stop at the shops for gifts, they spent close to thirty minutes in each of the shops getting to know the artisans and craftsmen, and learning about what inspires them.  Our meals were long and lingering, full of conversations and live music, and without cell phones.  Aaahhh…heaven.

Living Room at B&B Solinos y Yo

 

Artwork at B&B Solinos y Yo

 

In Havana,we spent three nights in a lovely, large private home, B&B Solinos y Yo, with amazing twenty-four hour staff, a fully stocked bar and cigar humidor, high-powered a/c, a bedroom and bathroom for each of us (we had the entire place to ourselves!),  water that was sometimes hot, sometimes warm, sometimes cold (without one single complaint!), ate delicious group breakfasts of fruits, hot, baked bread from the bakery downstairs, eggs, ham, cheese, and freshly-made fruit juice, and traveled around to our cocktail and dinner spots  in either a nine-passenger minivan or two separate taxis.

 

Breakfast at B&B Solinos y Yo
Lunch Stop Day 1

 

Lunch Day 1

We took a very long day trip to Pinar del Rio/Vinales and visited a scenic overlook, the Cueva del Indio in Pinar del Rio, had lunch at a fantastic family farm restaurant, and got a lesson in cigar-making from my absolute favorite farming family at Finca Rancho Alegre, before taking the three-hour drive back to Havana.  Our drivers and guides Jorge and “Morro” made every trip a delight.  They were fountains of information!

 

Entrance to Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio

 

Along the Tobacco Route

 

My Favorite Rest Stop

 

My Favorite View in Pinar del Rio
Tobacco Farmers in Vinales at Finca Rancho Alegre
Lemonade and Mojito-Maker Extraordinaire

We spent the last two and half days in Varadero, after a ride through Matanzas.  While we stayed at the concierge level of the lovely Melia Marina Varadero, an all-inclusive beach/marina resort that had every amenity you could ever wish for, my amazing group of travelers decided, each day, to leave the resort and take the local bus into town to visit with the locals, shop for local crafts, and eat the local food.  Did I mention that this group was awesome?

Music on the Way to Matanzas
The Beach in Varadero

 

Melia Marina Varadero

Over the dinner our last night in Cuba, we took turns talking about our favorite parts of this trip.  It made me happy beyond words to hear their feedback.  Dameatrice enjoyed searching through Old Havana, both in personal homes and shops, for a handmade dance skirt for her young niece (she eventually found one!), Lisa loved meeting the tobacco farmers and having a fresh smoke with them.  Krissy enjoyed her sunrise run along the malecon, meeting the locals and their dogs out for morning strolls. Luis reflected on his night-time walks along the malecon, having hours-long conversations with the revelers and fishermen.  Joyce smiled as she spoke of her lone wanderings through Old Havana after our group lunch. And Taryn spoke over and over again of how she can’t wait to visit each town again.  Thank you all.  You helped make this trip to Cuba a truly special one for me.

 

Luis and Our New Friend!

 

Always Great To See Her!
Cool Pups!

 

Afternoon in Old Havana

 

Are You Really Ready For Cuba?

With the recent ease in travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba, there has been so much chatter and buzz about how folks just “have to get there to see it in it’s buff”, or just “have to see it before the Americans take it over”. Literally, every other time I mention that I’m going to, or coming back from, Cuba, I get a response similar to the above mentioned remarks.  But, is that REALLY what we Americans want?  To see Cuba “in it’s buff”? Do we really want to experience Cuba before it is “Americanized”?  Can we really handle that?  You’d be surprised by the true answer, I think.

The idea of traveling to a place that for the past 50 years, or so, was “forbidden” to U.S. citizens seems exciting. Adventurous. Brave. Cool.  It proves that you are a world traveler.  That you don’t need to be surrounded by all of the creature comforts of home.  That you’re not sheltered. Right? Well, based on my experiences over the past year with taking groups to Cuba to participate in People-to-People exchanges (1 of the 12 categories that allow U.S. citizens to legally travel there), not everyone is REALLY ready to see Cuba “in it’s buff”, or before it is “Americanized”.  Not everyone is the experienced traveler who is ready to be exposed to ALL parts of the globe. And, guess what? That’s okay.What is not so okay to me is that folks leave the comforts of the U.S. talking on and on about how they are ready to go full-force into the experience of this once “forbidden” country, and nearly spasm out the moment they realize that, say, the air conditioning in the room is not has forceful as it is in their State-side home. Or, that the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet is not the likes of their IHOP breakfast. Or that Cuba’s national dish doesn’t taste the way they want it to taste. I’m serious.  I can’t make this stuff up!

I admit, to some, to many, the first visit to Cuba can be daunting. The country may appear to be still in the 50’s, but it’s slowly making progress.  So, sure, it takes some a minute to adjust, and move on with their visit.  But, some visitors do not seem to make the adjustment, and unfortunately, they spend their entire visit to the place they couldn’t wait to experience in “its true form” complaining, retreating, and missing out on the moments.What a pity.

Cuba is not for everyone.  It simply is not!  Not everyone finds it easy to maneuver through the underdeveloped roads to the underdeveloped towns, differentiating between the two types of Cuban currencies, eating the staple beans, rice and meat, while occasionally swatting flies or accidentally getting whiffs of vehicle fumes. Cuba is for you if you go knowing what to expect, and with an open mind, an open heart, and a little knowledge of the history of the country.  Having a little common sense will also help.

A few take-aways, in no particular order (this is not a full list):

  • The hotel room star rating system in Cuba is not the same as it is in the States. Their 4 star is closer to our 2 star.
  • Just because you are “promised” a certain type, size, make or model vehicle, does not mean you are “guaranteed” it.
  • Sometimes the AC works, sometimes it doesn’t. 
  • The food in Cuba tastes different from the food in the U.S. because it is different from the food in the U.S.
  • You will lose money on the currency exchange.
  • The official language in Cuba is Spanish (Surprisingly, I have to remind people of this!)
  • Most of the Cuban people do not understand American slang. (Again, surprise!)
  • Cuba is underdeveloped by U.S. standards. (Yep! Surprise!)
  • Travelers from the U.S. have to meet at least one of twelve qualifications to LEGALLY travel to Cuba from the U.S.
So, think about it.  Are you REALLY ready to visit Cuba?  Know that spending most of your visit griping and complaining about how the country doesn’t have the comforts of “home” won’t change anything. Are you ready?  If your answer is yes, great for you!  It is truly a remarkable place filled with a rich culture and friendly people just waiting to greet you!

The Wonderful People of Cuba

Cuba is a “melting pot”. The races have so intermingled that it is impossible to categorize the population’s mixture with 100% accuracy.  As of 2012, the population of close to 12 million was made up mostly of  Spanish and Africans.  About 64% of Cubans consider themselves white, or of Spanish descent.  27% of the population is mulatto and mestizo, and 9%  is black. 

With Our Personal Tour Guide in Habana Vieja

Crafter in Trinidad

With the Bartender, chef and waitress at El Zaguan in Havana

With Chambermaid at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

 A very small number of the country’s Chinese population lives in Havana’s Chinatown, where at one point, this area, known as Barrio Chino, was said to have been the largest in Latin America.  However, today, the Chinese population has almost diminished, and/or blended into the Cuban culture, and the neighborhood (Barrio Chino) has lost most of it’s splendor. 

Most Cubans are Roman Catholic.  There are also Protestants and a small Jewish population. Before the revolution, there were close to 20 thousand Jewish people in Cuba, mostly seeking sanctuary during WWII.  Now, there are a few thousand.  Many of Cuba’s blacks are followers of Santeria

The Cuban people are friendly, outgoing, stylish, and a s helpful as can be.  If my group even looked a little confused, there was a passerby at the ready with directions, information, or legitimate suggestions.

Artist in Trinidad

With Artists at the Rumba Festival in Habana Vieja
Stylish Teens in Habana Vieja

Stylish Toddler in “Jellies” in Pinar del Rio

Newly passed regulations now allow for some forms of capitalism.  The Cubans are very hard-working and are known for their entrepreneurial skills.  To be able to branch off (somewhat) on their own is a huge stepping stone for them, and an opportunity that they do not take lightly.  During our visit we met an English professor-turned-independent tour guide, grammar school teachers, paladar (both small and large) owners, artists, fishermen, musicians, farmers, concierges, chambermaids, doormen, a dentist, bartenders, a cigar-maker, tour bus drivers, IT specialists and chefs, to name a few.  Each and every one of these people, worked their craft with noticeable passion. 

Cigar Maker in Vinales

Cocktail Crafter at Cueva del Indio in Vinales

With Constelacion group members at Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Doorman at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

Farmer in Pinar del Rio

Fishermen in Havana

Teacher and Students in Trinidad



Musicians at La Moneda Cubana in Havana



Note From Chambermaid in Trinidad

With Artist in Havana

 One thing I can personally say about the Cuban people is that they truly made me not want to leave them.

Concierge at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

With Tour Guide in Havana

My Favorite Farmer in Vinales

Cuban Dining…Good Without Excitement

The food in Cuba was good, but void of the heat and spices I enjoy so much.  Actually, I would venture to say that had I stayed there for a few more days, I might have grown a bit bored with the cuisine.  While the Cubans tend to be conservative when it comes to experimenting with ingredients and flavors, the local produce is fresh and usually organic. And the chicken, rice and beans, a national staple, were perfectly prepared each time I had it.

Also, there were days in a row where I had delicious lobster for lunch and dinner, so I am not really complaining.

With the new ripple of paladars and privately-owned restaurants popping up, I look forward to a little more excitement in their culinary growth. 

Dining in Havana

Lamb in Vinales

Lobster in Vinales

Lobster in Havana

Pumpkin Soup in Havana

Chicken Sandwich at a Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

Ceviche in Varadero

Chicken in Special Sauce at El Aljibe

Flan in Vinales

Dining in Vinales

Trinidad, Cuba – Life at a Nice Pace

Trinidad, Cuba became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.  The city, with a population of about 30,000, is on the Caribbean coast close to the Escambray Mountains, with beautiful views of both hillsides and sea.  With its quaint, old-world charm, picturesque beauty and really, really friendly residents, surprisingly, the city is unsullied by, but not void of tourists. There are little taxi cars and a small bus “station” to shuttle about the day-trippers.  It’s so pleasant to wander through the mostly traffic-free, cobble-stoned streets, hearing to clopping hooves of horses, while dodging slow-walking dogs and cats.

Plaza Mayor, the town’s main square, boasts a plain cathedral and five ornate, colorful, colonial mansions. There is a park with bronze greyhounds and a statue of Terpsichore, the muse of dancing and song. There are several casas de musica (music houses), with one next to the cathedral.  The tiny school houses, casa particulars (private homes with rooms for rent), pastry shops and the open air markets keep the day wanderer entertained for hours.  We did not stay at a room at a local home this time, opting, instead to spend our 2 nights at Brisas Trinidad del Mar.  While the resort staff was lovely, and the resort grounds made it easy for me to create stunning photos, and it was great to start and end our days with the sand and surf as our back yard, the resort left a lot to be desired.  It’s barely a 3-star resort by U.S. ratings.  I didn’t necessarily mind sharing my room with sand crabs and lizards, but I did mind the somewhat dirty and very smelly rooms, and the bad, bad food. My group and I agreed that the next time (and there will be a next time!), we’ll stay closer to history in one of the homes.

Vinales, Cuba – Valle de Vinales and Cuevas del Indio

The Vinales Valley (so far, my favorite part of Cuba!) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of a series of interconnected, narrow valleys with scenery that is simply magnificent!  It is here, in the red, fertile soil and deep green fields (vegas) that some of the world’s finest tobacco is grown.  Peasant farmers tend the fields, dressed in army fatigues or white linens and straw hats.  There’s no serious machinery to help with their work, just traditional, oxen  drawn wooden plows.  Many of these farmers own their land.  They do, however, have to sell their crop to the government at a fixed rate.

Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

The farmers welcome visitors to freely enter into their vegas and curing sheds to talk to them about the basics of tobacco farming.  They’ll even share the fruit from their fruit trees with you! Palm trees, banana trees and orange trees dot the scenes, and chickens, cattle, pigs and horses roam about the fields.  The valley is perfect for hiking, but do take a guide if you opt to scale a mogote (tall, conical mountains that add to the region’s beauty).  The views of the valley are best at dusk and dawn when the natural light is enhanced by the dimly lit lanterns of the thatched huts.

While there are several national monuments to visit in Vinales, we spent time at the breath-taking Cuevo del Indio (Indian Caves).  These underground caves are filled with interesting stalactites and stalagmites, and in places, reaches a height of 300 feet.  The cave is well-developed for tourists, complete with lights and a boat tour.  The entry fee is 5 CUC (about 5 USD).

Steps to Cueva del Indio

 

 

Inside Cueva del Indio

Just before entering the cave, I tried the Guayabita del Pinar rum, mixed with fresh sugar cane and lemon. Delish!

If you’d like to stay over a couple of nights instead of taking a day trip to the region, there are hotels and lovely guest houses to accommodate you.  The people, the food and scenery are some that I will not soon forget.

One of several lodging options in Pinar del Rio/Vinales region

Vinales, Cuba – Tobacco Route

Our day 2 in Cuba was my favorite.  It was a very, very long day.  The car ride from Havana to the province of Pinar del Rio was about 4 hours.  Our driver/guide, Jorge, was awesome!  He was an English Professor before joining the tourism industry.  With such a large amount of professors (and doctors, nurses and lawyers!) in Cuba, the salary for the profession is so low these days that it’s forcing those who are able to look elsewhere for career options.  After working for an international cruise line for a few years and traveling to more countries than I’ve ever dreamed of, Jorge was able to purchase a car with some of his savings and start his own business as a tour driver.  We were told by a few budding entrepreneurs that about 5 years ago President Castro realized that on some jobs there were close 20 people doing the job of one person,  he made sweeping lay-offs, and the government began to allow more and more Cubans to start their own businesses.  Of course, a pretty large portion of their earnings go to the government (taxes?), but it’s a start.



Farm Owner/Host

 

 

Jorge Tour Guide/Driver

Having Jorge as a guide was such a pleasure.  While he is from Havana, he knows Vinales Valley very well.  He also loves visiting with his family whenever he can.  It was he and his wife’s 13th wedding anniversary the weekend after our day trip there, and he told us that he’d planned to go back with his family for a couple of days.  Jorge’s English was excellent (former English professor), so he was able to explain a lot about the region to us, and to answer the million questions that I had.  With such an action-packed day, this post will focus on the tobacco farm (la finca).



En route to Vinales

 

 
 

Upon our arrival to the farm, we wandered around and took in the beautiful green scenery until the tourist couple ahead of us finished getting their cigar making education.  While waiting, we picked and ate guava fruit, met the 87 year-old farm owner (my favorite!) who picked peeled and served us green oranges (I’d never had one before.  It looked like an unripened grapefruit and tasted like a sweet lime!) .  He strolled around the farm with such swagger and ease.   He was slim and tanned and had such a gracious way about him.  A Cuban cowboy.

 When it was our turn, we entered the cigar-rolling room for our tutorial with Anuvys Gonzalez.  Like his grandfather, Anuvys was so proud of his work.  He took his time and taught us all about the production of the cigars, from seed to stick.  I’d brought along 2 gift bags filled with toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the like, to give to the gracious people of Vinales that I’d grown so found of on my previous trips to the country.  These small tokens could never show our hosts how grateful I was for their time, education and friendliness.

 
Tobacco Leaves




Honey for Dipping the Cigar Tips
 

  
Packaged to Sell Directly From the Farm

 

Havana, Here We Come!

After months of planning and preparation for our trip to Cuba, the time had finally come!  We spent the first evening in Miami at the Sofitel Hotel, as our flight the next day was an 8:30am departure and we were told to arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance.  The Sofitel Hotel is a few minutes from MIA, offers a free airport shuttle pick-up every 30 minutes,  has nice rooms and a couple of nice dining options. It was just perfect for our overnight stay.

The next morning, we met in the lobby at 4:45am for our 5am shuttle.  We arrived at the airport, met with the Cuba Travel Services represenatative, picked up our Visas, roundtrip plane tickets and boarding passes, checked our bags (yes, I had to check a bag for the first time in ages!) because the weight exception is very light and very strict, paid our $25 entry/departure fee,  and waited patiently to board our non-stop 45 minute flight to Havana.  The process of submitting our itinerary and obtaining our special travel visas was a much smoother process than we imagined. 

We boarded our Sun Country charter flight, and departed on time. No sooner than we took off, we landed.  It was a sunny, hot day in Havana.  The airport was bustling with tourists, divers, people-to-people groups, clergy, families, officials and other workers.  It was exciting, festive. After quickly clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we headed outside the airport and were greeted by our waiting minivan driver, then off on our 20 minute ride to our first stop, Hotel Palacio O’Farril in Habana Vieja.  We were hours early for the 4pm check-in, and the hotel, like almost every hotel in the city, was full, as Pope Francis was on the island for another couple of days.  We checked in, left our bags, and went in search of an early lunch.  The hotel doorman, Clemente, not only suggested a place for us to go for lunch, he walked us two blocks to El Zaguan restaurant.

We were the only customers in the restaurant.  It was only 11:45ish. I went in  thinking I’d start off my visit with a Cuban sandwich.  After seeing the menu, I opted for “Lobster Tropical”.  Great choice!  It was paired with pumpkin soup, rice, black beans, plantains and Cristal beer.  Dessert was flan and Habana Club rum.  All for about $20.(we had to pay for everything in Cuban Pesos, of course.)

Now, off  to walk around Habana Vieja before settling into our Habana home for the next 2 nights.  We are so looking forward to the week ahead.

Is Cuba On Your “Must See” List?

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Sierra Maestra Band/Son Music

Last weekend we had the absolute pleasure of experiencing the Sierra Maestra band live!  They performed to a near sold-out crowd at Artisphere in Rosslyn, Virginia.  Sierra Maestra is a Cuban band formed in the 1970’s that has remained one of, if not the best, preservers of the Cuban old-style son music.  Featuring tres, guitar, trumpet, bongo, güiro and vocals, Sierra Maestra has captured new audiences and reintroduced the son style of music to the Cuban music faithful.

They named the band after the mountain range in Eastern Cuba that it considered the birthplace of son.artisphere.com.