Cuba in March 2018 – A Travelogue

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Cuba, a tropical wonder.

An End of Winter Trip to Cuba with Compass Travel
By Charlotte Bernini and Pam Broadley

March 4th
Cuba is a country of contrasts. After our cold and snowy New England winter the warmth and humidity of the tropics felt wonderful when we landed in Havana, but our driver and guide quickly swept us off to the cooler mountainous climate of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and self-sufficient eco-village of Las Terrazas. In 1968, following years of bulldozing the cedar, mahogany, and pine trees, the area was literally barren. Today, after much care, the area is lush again.

On the bus ride to Las Terrazas, our wonderful tour guide Jesus requested our driver make a quick stop; he hopped out to purchase some local cheese directly from the farmer. When we arrived at Hotel Moka, Jesus treated us to an authentic Cuban snack of delicious cheese topped with bright orange guava jam. Later our first dinner was local fare at a popular vegetarian restaurant.

Our guide Jesus with his daughter.

Our guide Jesus with his daughter.

March 5th
A high point of our stay in Las Terrazas was a visit to a local elementary school where the enthusiastic students welcomed their visitors warmly, so typical of the Cuban people. Ever thoughtful, Holly donated signed copies of Tomie dePaola books to the children. To say they were ecstatic would be an understatement!

French influence was apparent when we explored the remains of the Buena Vista Coffee company. Bird watchers will love it. After visiting an artists’ community including the home of the late, beloved Cuban musician Polo Montanez and the gallery of artist Lester Campa, we swam in and lounged by the hotel pool with piña coladas. Fantastic!

March 6th
On our way back to Havana, we stopped outside the city at the home of Ernest Hemingway, his four-acre “finca” (farm) where he lived from 1939-1960. Sporting spectacular views, the walls were filled with reminders of his hunting life. Seeing his vintage cars and boat was also a treat.

When we arrived in Havana we enjoyed a lunch that included a local specialty, Picadillo a la
Haberna, ground beef with raisins, olives, black beans and rice. A walking tour of Old Havana
helped burn some calories. We visited artist Manuel Mendive’s studio on the second floor of a lovely old colonnaded building overlooking a pleasing interior courtyard surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants. Mr. Mendive was in residence and showed us a collection of chair sculptures now on exhibit in a New York gallery. After that, we checked in to our beautiful and modern hotel, quite a contrast to so many of the city buildings that are literally in decay.

March 7th
DSC_1895What a full day. We started with a visit to the home and gallery of Roberto Salas, one of Castro’s official photo chroniclers. Born in the Bronx, Mr. Salas met Fidel Castro by chance at age 15 when the revolutionary was in New York fundraising for his cause. The walls of his authentic colonial style home are covered with his photos and paintings. My personal favorite was the intimate shot of Che Guevera and Fidel caught in the flicker of a cigarette lighter. His work is shown at left.

Next, we stopped off at Sandra Levinson’s apartment in a nondescript building near the waterfront. Sandra Levinson is a Cuban art powerhouse. Paintings covered every surface and leaned against the wall three deep. Sandra divides her time between Cuba and New York where she is the executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies, an organization dedicated to promoting Cuban art and normalizing United States and Cuban relations. Jesus filled us in on how Sandra got hooked on Cuba. During the Revolution, she visited as a journalist and wound up getting slashed cutting sugar cane on a plantation. Fidel gallantly rescued her and whisked her off to the hospital. It’s possible they had a romantic relationship.

We loved our restaurant meals on this trip. Instead of preset tourist menus, Holly arranged for us to order food and beverages off the menu. Hello, grilled lobster! We ate lunch at Al Carbon, a place in Old Havana filed with Cuban bric-a-brac and offering a delicious specialty—suckling pig. Next, we crossed over to the Revolution Museum housed in Cuban dictator Batista’s white marble palace. We saw the actual secret staircase where he fled from student revolutionaries in 1959. Next door, we looked at the remnants of a crashed plane that killed Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the triumvirates of top revolutionaries. After this historical immersion, we took in an intense cultural event, a performance of the all-women Habanas Compas Dance troupe—a fusion of percussion and a mix of flamenco rumba and tango dance.

When we arrived back at the hotel, Pam strolled down Paseo de Marti to check out a restaurant but after coming across a black lamb with a bag over its head lying dead on the sidewalk (a Santeria sacrifice Jesus explained), we struck off in a different direction along dark unlit streets to a bustling restaurant. Dessert was our nightly piña coladas enjoyed poolside at the gorgeous rooftop bar of our hotel.

March 8th
DSC_1955After breakfast, we headed to the craft mall in an old warehouse on the waterfront. We can’t say that Cuba offers the best shopping, but we did love the handmade soaps and adorable paper gift boxes produced by an all-women cooperative. We linked arms with the proprietor and Holly took our photo. That woman had such positive energy!

This is a good moment to mention the entrepreneurial nature of the Cuban people. Most Cubans are employed by the government and live on very small monthly stipends. But people have found that by using their personal talents, they can supplement the basic state-provided income. This means that many small businesses are flourishing. If you have a skill or an asset, you can turn it into a profitable venture and raise your standard of living, which explains the colorful old American cars functioning as taxis, the vibrant art scene, the lively bands serenading us in every restaurant and providing a few of my new car CDs, and the Paladar restaurants staged within authentic colonial homes loaded with intriguing art and antiques with the lace-covered bed still set up next to the dining tables.

From the craft mall, we traveled to a different Havana neighborhood where Pepe and Cecelia Viera welcomed us warmly and personally into their home. They entertained us with anecdotes from their experience with Fidel Castro and the revolution. Pepe gave a talk about the evolving economic systems in Cuba. This couple is so smart, warm, gracious and genuine. Can’t we put our differences aside and end the embargo? Cecilia and her kitchen crew provided a delicious Cuban lunch.

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antique carsAfter a bit of free time, we climbed into vintage cars and rode around Havana with Guantanamera blasting from the tape deck. We said farewell to Havana with dinner at Paladar La Guarida where we had the most wonderful, innovative cuisine in an elegant setting—the unforgettable steak with blue cheese and chocolate sauce. We walked back to the hotel on a darkened street laced with unmarked trenches, some kind of public works project in progress. Oh, Cuba, the land of contrasts.

March 9th

DSC_2027Today, we crossed to the southern shore of Cuba stopping in Cienfuegos for lunch and a tour of the downtown before traveling on to Trinidad. We noticed a difference in temperature. Cienfuegos was stifling! We ate lunch at Ache. a charming open-air restaurant surrounded by gardens dripping with orchids and other marvelous tropical plants. Cienfuegos was originally founded by the French from New Orleans. The Spanish colonial architecture feels like a Disney creation. The back of a store led into a courtyard where young girls in chartreuse dance costumes, hair neatly tied back, assembled for their after-school dance class.

In the late afternoon, we arrived in Trinidad and settled into our older but classically comfortable hotel. Our spacious room opened onto an outdoor patio generously planted with lush bougainvillea. Diego Velazquez founded Trinidad in 1514. Our first impression is that Trinidad is better maintained than Havana. One-story pastel-colored houses with decorative wrought iron bars over the windows push up against the cobblestone streets. A park across from the hotel is a WiFi hotspot filled with young people peering at their cell phones. People are getting around by horse and buggy, bicycle, motorbike, and the occasional small car. Jesus guided us through the darkness up the chunky cobblestone road to the main square where we had dinner at another beautifully furnished Paladar restaurant, Sol Ananda.



March 10th

Today, we explored the Trinidad art scene stopping at several studios and one well-stocked family run pottery business. The artists were so welcoming and proud of their work. Jorge Cesar Saenz, who created a sculpture for Pope Francis, painted surrealistic images in a precise realistic style. His mother brought the shoppers in the group into a bare room with a single bed where she laid out her exquisite handmade shirts with intricate lace patterns. These lacemakers use the same pulled thread technique invented by peasant women in the 17th century to emulate the fine lace worn by aristocrats.

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Art made from found objects – amazing!

Next, we stopped in to look at Carlos Cesar Roman Perez sculptures composed of ordinary objects. We marveled at his portraits of Fidel, all recognizable whether made out of mousetraps or scrap metal. Then we were off to La Casa del Alfrero where they make the adorable Canchanchara cups used to serve the famous Trinidadian cocktail made of rum, honey and lemon juice, a very refreshing and potent drink!

Our final stop on the art tour brought us to Yudit Vidal Faife’s home and gallery. Her walls are covered with gorgeous portraits many incorporating the pulled thread technique lacework. She is apprenticing young women to give them a craft and to help keep this tradition alive. Honestly, can we harness this passion, talent, and optimism, take it home and use it to stamp out the anti-Cuban rhetoric and policies that are not going to help our island neighbor?

After a satisfying lunch with a round of Canchancharas at San Jose Restaurante, we were off to the beach, Playa Ancon. The water was warm and buoyant. We rented lounge chairs and fell asleep under the Cuban sun.

March 11th

Voting Day in Cuba

Voting Day in Cuba

Today was voting day in Cuba, the second stage of the general elections to the National Assembly of People’s Power (parliament). It was fascinating to witness. Voting booths seemed to be open every few blocks and school children dressed in immaculate, freshly pressed uniforms stood guard at the ballot boxes. Involving kids on voting day seems to contribute to a very high voter turnout in Cuba.

We walked around Trinidad taking in the tropical flowers and the pastel colonial architecture, the white-robed Santeria priest, the Fidel impersonator. After lunch, we took the bus back out to the beach for another welcome dip in the Caribbean. Then we enjoyed dinner in the balmy Paladar courtyard, Sol y Son. One last roast lobster, one last mojito, one last lively house band. Someone snaps a photo of Holly and me with our arms hugging our African looking waiter and the Anglo looking percussionist. This is Cuba.

March 12th
On our way out of town, we stopped in the Valle de los Ingenios, a former sugar plantation. We scaled a tower that the owners had used to keep watch over the slaves, a reminder of Cuba’s oppressive history. Then, we drove across the same mountains that sheltered guerilla troops during the Revolution, stopping at the massive Che Guevara mausoleum before boarding our plane in Santa Clara.

The authors: Charlotte (left) and Pam.

The authors: Charlotte (left) and Pam.

For more photos, click here.