The last full day in Cuba was certainly as much of an adventure as the rest of the trip. My trip roommate, Erin Green, and I woke up and headed over to the Hotel National de Cuba for a buffet breakfast—the first that even slightly resembled American cuisine. Once I had finished eating, I met with one of my class project teams for a debriefing and reflection on a discussion we had with our tour guide. When that came to completion, I met up with Nathan, Margaret, John, Sierra, and Bowen to go purchase our souvenirs to remember the trip and share with friends and family. The best place to do this, we heard from a few local sources, was the large covered market on the other side of Old Havana along the Malecon. We took two coco taxies for the six of us to motor us over. When we got there, I was surprised by the vast quantity and rather high quality of paintings sold along the edges of the trinket booths. I purchased a few paintings for my home and my parents. My options ranged from images of Fidel Castro’s face and street scenes in Havana to fabric collage and large abstract paintings. The trinkets available were everything imaginable with “Havana” printed or painted on it, from T-shirts to demitasse cups. My favorite was the shower curtains that had famous Cuban art printed on them. The market itself was quite fascinating. It was like shopping in an art museum with low prices! For lunch, a group of us ate at our first hotel’s restaurant, Hotel Terral. This is where Nathan and I split our very last seafood paella, which had two mini squid and a nice lobster tail on the top. Delicious! This is also where mine and Erin’s adventure really took off. Erin had a friend who studied abroad in Cuba. This friend wanted her to deliver some gifts to her host family, so she undertook the task and allowed me to act as sidekick. We took a taxi to get there, and once we had introduced ourselves, gave them the gifts and enjoyed a refreshing cup of sweet mango juice. The host father gave us Cuban pesos so that we could take the public city bus—Havana’s main provider of public transportation. The bus was pretty empty where we got on, but about twenty minutes into the ride as we got closer to Old Havana, the bus got more and more crowded. Then a woman was kind enough to let us know that we had been sitting in seats reserved for children, so we immediately got up and received smiles and giggles from the Cubans all around us. When we saw the Hotel National, we hopped off and checked public transportation off our list of cultural explorations. We then had our closing, good-bye toast at the Hotel National de Cuba, which was a fabulous end to a great trip! Thank you, Carol, Erin, and Nathan for all the planning and hard work. I had a truly memorable time.
We woke up in Varadero, which is located in the Matanzas Province along the Hicacos Peninsula and prepared for our two-hour transfer back to Havana. After a delay with the bus, we left this heavily developed tourist town. Varadero was quite the contrast from our time in the Vinales Valley. On our way back to Havana, we crossed over the highest bridge in Cuba and saw verdant fields and hills rolling along the beautiful coastline. A bit further along the way, we crossed Rio Jaruco (River Jaruco) and some petroleum and refinery fields. I think the group was ready to head back to the somewhat familiar grounds of Havana.
As our bus got closer to the outskirts of Havana, storm clouds began gathering on the horizon. Sure enough, by the time we started passing through the edge of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the rain, thunder, and lightening cut loose. Fortunately, we were all safe and sound on the bus, and the driver was more than happy to wait with us for the storm to pass. The storm churned on and on, so eventually we decided to head for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is directly across the street from our casa particulares (home stays where we are spending our final two nights). The Hotel Nacional provided terrific shelter from the storm, but the storm was so intense that parts of the bottom floor of the hotel flooded and phone service was knocked out. Cuba continues to surprises us and we roll on!
The Hotel Nacional is a Cuban national monument, and rightfully so! There is a spacious lobby opening on to a shady courtyard overlooking the Malecon. Hotel Nacional was built in 1930 after only 14 months of construction. The list of dignitaries and celebrities that have stayed here is almost endless: Johnny Weissmuller, Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Lucky Luciano, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and so on.
The storm required us to cancel the afternoon class with Teresita Borges from the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment (CITMA). Fortunately, for us, Teresita and her husband Francisco were able to join us at a local restaurant La Casa in New Vedado for dinner a bit later in the evening. Teresita and Francisco were very gracious to share their professional (both are trained as biologists) and personal experiences with us over another terrific dinner!
Teresita has worked for CITMA for over twenty years managing issues of environmental protection, environmental assessments, translating laws into policy, and participating in climate change negotiations around the world. Teresita has worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and represented Cuba at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences. As an island nation, Cuba is particularly susceptible to sea level rise, flooding, and other public health issues associated with climate change. Teresita mentioned that Cuba has implemented a series of studies to address such issues called Cuba-Macro—a project on Coastal Threats and Vulnerability in 2050 and 2100.
Now back to the casa particular for a restful night’s sleep before our last full day in Cuba!
This morning, we ate breakfast overlooking the Viñales Valley. The view looked like a scene from Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom. The mountains were domed, covered in green, and I half expected Indy himself to come bursting into the hotel.
Tonight’s view in Varadero is no less impressive, but of a completely different nature. It’s not just the view that’s different though; it’s the entire feeling. Both Viñales and Varadero are designed to cater towards tourists and aim to provide a relaxing atmosphere, but it feels so much more forced here in Varadero.
It’s all-inclusive, but as exclusive as it gets in Cuba. All guests have to wear a bright green wristband to set them apart from anyone else who may wish to wander onto the property. I get the feeling that you could stay a month here and only converse with people staying and working at the resort. There is no need to look elsewhere for restaurants or entertainment. It’s all here.
I’m not completely knocking the all-inclusive resort, but it’s harder for me to make the transition. I rather enjoyed the sense of community found in Viñales. We went horseback riding yesterday, and in those two hours, we connected with four different businesses. Now, that’s what I call networking! When we drove the five hours east today, we lost some of that community and entered into a more “corporate” atmosphere.
I do love the sound of the waves lapping the beach and the sunsets here, but if I had to choose one over the other, I’d head to the hills.
Today, I started my day horseback riding through the beautiful valley that Hotel Jazmines overlooked. We booked the tour through the tour operator located at a table near the front desk. In the group, there were four of us from ECU and two ladies from Wales. Pablo, the leader of the tour, was at least in his 60s, wore a cowboy hat, sun glasses, jeans, and boots with spurs on the back. The first hour of horseback riding involved maneuvering our way down a rocky path. My horse’s name was Negro, and I learned to trust him more than myself during that time because he knew the path obviously more than I did. Soon after arriving to the bottom of the valley we arrived at “una casa de campesinos” (a countryside house). We learned about how they produce tobacco in “el campo” (the countryside). Every single step was done in the most natural way possible. The left over stems from tobacco leaves are soaked in water and deposited around other plants, which act as a pesticide. The leaves had two drying processes that each took at least three months because it was done in an area enclosed by the leaves of the banana tree. We had coffee there, and a couple other men joined us for a further demonstration of the last processes of making cigars. We were then offered a cigar to smoke. Pablo emphasized how everything they grow is natural including bananas, oregano, avocado, malanga, sugar cane, and rice (which are only a few of the forty products they produce). Pablo explained that 90 percent of the tobacco produced on their farm belongs to the state, but they are able to sell the majority of other crops they produce in the market or to neighbors for private income.
Horseback riding was definitely on my list of top five things in Cuba. We passed cows and horses that were not enclosed in a tight space, but in open fields of fertile land. I also saw large amounts of butterflies scatter in the air as I passed through their meeting places with Negro. There were mountains covered by green vegetation surrounding us making us feel so small, but pleasured to be in the presence of such a work of nature. My roommate Yana and I were looking over the valley expressing how such a beautiful valley would have not even been the same if it were not protected and a profit-motive government system took advantage of the richness of the land.
About half the class went to a restaurant called El Palenque for lunch, which was located on the side of a cave in the mountain. The theme was of the African slaves that escaped from their masters and found refuge in the caves. There was also a statue of a slave with a machete held high after chopping the arm off his master. Lunch was beautiful because I received a small history lesson from the perspective of the marginalized group.
After class, Nathan, Sierra Jones, and I went to the Viñales National Park Visitor Center where we met an employee. Our conversation with her was insightful because she explained how important tourism is to Viñales National Park. Many of the locals make a living in “casas particulares” and “paladares,” which is when Cubans open their houses to tourists for renting rooms and eating Cuban food. She said that it has created a bit of tension between people because one can make a significantly higher amount of money than their next-door neighbor. However, she explained that this phenomenon is not large scale. Community members are still very communal and collaborate in order to survive. For example, the tour operator at the hotel brought customers to Pablo, and Pablo then took us to someone else’s home to drink coffee and learn about the production of cigars. The security guard at the visitor center explained that he would love to visit the United States, but he doesn’t want to live there. He expressed how he might not have the freedom of expression, but that he is still free because he doesn’t have to worry about his safety or suffering from starvation because there will always be someone who will help. I believe that we can’t have it all, and we all sacrifice one freedom for another depending on the country. The real question is not which is better, but which you value more in life and what you are willing to sacrifice in order to have it?
After breakfast and a disappointing mango juice, which was my first disappointment because the mango juice is usually muy bueno, and after our class session, the group set out on the bus with our guide Julio for Vinales Valley and Vinales National Park. The land between destinations is green and undisturbed, with mountains in the distance dotted here and there with small private farms, and the occasional horse-drawn cart on the road. Our hotel in Vinales Los Jazmines is located at a spectacular lookout point with a small souvenir market. The mountains here are unusual—irregularly shaped, rising straight up out of the ground like fat columns with flat vertical sides. After a few photos and purchases, we set out for la Mural de la Prehistoria—a mural painted on the flat rock side of a mountain depicting the evolution of man painted by a well-known Cuban artist. Our reactions ranged from disapproval of defacing the natural landscape to mild interest. Lunch was good, accompanied by local music in the typical open-air thatched roof setting. There were cats and dogs wandering in and out, hoping for scraps (of which they received plenty from our table. There were lots of birds, larger than hummingbirds but almost as fast, dive bombing the restaurant and rapidly flying off. I don’t know what they were and neither did Julio.
After lunch, we set out for the Santo Tomas caves, about which Heather will tell you more!
Today might have been one of my favorite days in Cuba thus far. This morning Erin Harris and I got up at 6:00 a.m. to hike a trail called Mirador de Venus. We decided last night that it was a fantastic idea to hike the trail and be at the top around sunset. This morning at 6:00 a.m. I was questioning that decision, but we got ready anyway and headed out. The actual trail is about a mile to the top and it’s 1,230 feet above sea level. The trail was a good challenge as it was rocky and had a fairly steep incline. We actually made it to the top just as the sun was rising over the mountain and the view was amazing! There were vibrant shades of green everywhere despite the morning fog, and the views of the interwoven hills were beautiful. It was definitely worth it to get up early.
Later in the day the whole class was scheduled to take a tour of part of the Santo Tomas cave system, which is the largest cave system in Cuba. The whole cave is 46 kilometers long, however only 500 meters are available to tourists. When we arrived, there were hard hats with headlamps attached to them set out for us. We were surprised to find that in order to get into the entrance of the cave system, we had to hike up part of a rocky mountain, which was a significant climb. There were handrails along the side made of bamboo, and the path was quite rocky. Inside the cave was unlike anything I have ever seen. There were stalagmites, stalactites, open gallery-type areas, bats, crickets, frogs, and even ferns in some places. The guide explained to us that a few plants were able to grow inside because the bats carry seeds in with them from outside of the cave. In a couple of places, there were openings in which natural light streamed in; however, in others it was so dark that if we turned our headlamps off, we couldn’t see our hand in front of our faces. It was a beautiful illustration of nature’s wonders and a unique and adventurous way to explore. There are currently no protective environmental regulations in place for the cave system, which is important in order to preserve the formations inside as well as the entire system.
For dinner our group ate at a paladar called Restaurant La Cabana. Paladars are privately owned restaurants that are usually located in people’s homes. This particular paladar had a very nice and cozy outdoor seating area in front of the house complete with a bar! The food was delicious. We had fruit, salad, two or three kinds of rice, chicken, pork, lobster, and yucca. All of the restaurant staff were super friendly and seemed really happy to have all of us there. It has been terrific to see that at least some private businesses are thriving with the fairly recent changes in policy in regards to private enterprise.
For the first five days in Cuba, our group was immersed in Havana-based Cuban culture. Today, we left our endearing and lucrative “home” at Hotel Terral for a more ecotourism experience in Las Terrazas. We were introduced to an orange-flavored welcome drink of rum and coke (a Cuba Libre) upon our arrival while listening to a band called Hermanos Morales. Our tour guide, Daniel (pronounced ‘don-e-el’), for Las Terrazas had worked at the site for over 15 years and was very knowledgeable of the area’s flora and fauna. Daniel showed us a site where they processed turpentine and coffee, and then we had lunch at Casa del Campesino. Casa del Campesino had quite a few wild birds and chickens running around. Although Daniel warned us that flying squirrel was going to be on the menu, everyone (luckily) ate a delicious spread of black beans and rice, chicken, omelets for the vegetarians, tomato and cucumber salad, malanga chips, and ice cream for dessert. Afterwards, we went to the center of a beautiful, quaint town in Las Terrazas where each of us was able to choose different variations of Cuban coffee drinks at Cafe Maria’s. Maria had everything from espresso with Guava-flavored rum of the Pinar region to a heavenly, frozen coffee concoction. While sipping on these coffee drinks, many of us opted to buy a few souvenirs at the downstairs shop that housed local crafts for sale.
After coffee and shopping, we spent about an hour in the town enjoying the pristine lake and mountain views. A few of our group members even zip-lined through the town’s green oasis. The small town reminded us all of Jurassic Park because of its egg-shaped mountains that looked like some giant placed them strategically throughout Las Terrazas. Later, we checked into Villa Soroa, which was a definite change from our modern, waterfront accommodations at Hotel Terral. Villa Soroa had a great pool, but it closed early because most pools in Cuba don’t use chlorine, and although that makes the pool’s cleaning process more green, it also takes longer to clean, so they have to close the pools down at 6 o’clock. However, not even a quarter mile up the road and down some steep steps was a gorgeous waterfall (cascada in Spanish). Everyone walked to the waterfall at their leisure. We took turns at different “stations” at the waterfall. The first “station” you could sit underneath the falls for a great shoulder massage. The second “station” was swimming in the bed of the waterfall. The third “station” was climbing slightly up the waterfall and lying on top of the flat rocks, and the fourth “station” was to get “coco loco” drinks if you desired. The “coco loco” station was where Cubans would cut off the top of the coconut and give you a hollow stick to drink the juice out of. You could also opt to add rum to the coconut itself—hence the name coco loco. Besides serving delicious coconut drinks, the local Cubans were there to protect their land and ensure the safety of visitors. We were not allowed to go behind the waterfall due to safety reasons. I asked one of the Cuban guys if they took a day off from watching the cascadas, but he said they were there every day. After the waterfall, everyone got settled in their rustic, camping-style rooms, ate dinner, and prepared for our seventh day.
Today our class toured the Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas cigar factory. Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas, founded in 1845, is Cuba’s largest and well-known cigar factory. The factory employs over 400 workers who typically work a 12-hour day. The Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas is housed in a well-preserved industrial building dating back from the mid 1800s. The building stands out amongst other nearby buildings because of the colourful and ornate maroon and cream exterior. Currently, the original factory building described is undergoing renovations and is being housed is a large four-story building until the renovations are completed. The Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas cigar factory has seven brands of cigars. The brands are differentiated by the pattern of the tobacco leaves inside at the type of tobacco. Each of the seven brands comes from seven different tobacco plantations in Cuba. The factory produces 25,000 to 27,000 cigars a day. All cigar factory workers have to go through nine months of training in a classroom located in the factory where they learn all of the steps of hand rolling the cigars. The cigar factory workers are well paid by Cuban standards, which is still not that much.
During the tour, we were shown the process of manufacturing cigars step by step. In the first step of the manufacturing process, the tobacco leaves are unbundled and sorted. In the second step, the tobacco leaves are moistened using water. The third step is putting together the filler, which is composed of four tobacco leaves. The leaves are rolled then put in a mold and pressed for 20 minutes. After the cigar is pressed, the filler is then rolled in the outer leaf. In the fourth step of the process the cigars. The fourth steps entails putting the label ring around the cigar. The cigars are then sorted by color. Tobacco leaves vary in color, some being lighter and darker than others. Workers match and group the like color cigars when placing them in the box. The factory manufactures its own cigar boxes. The boxes are made of wood. The paper labels and lining of the box are applied with paste. The cigars are then placed in the boxes. After the cigars are completed, quality control examiners test one from every batch. The examiners light a cigar to test how they smoke and split them down the middle to examine the inside.
One of the most famous brands of Cuban cigars is the Cohiba brand. The Cohiba cigar brand was first introduced in 1968 and was originally reserved for diplomatic use only. A bodyguard of Fidel Castro shared some of his private supply of cigars made by a local artisan named Eduardo Ribera. These cigars pleased Castro so much that a special production of the unbranded blend, produced under tight security, was made for Castro and other top government officials. In 1982, three types of Cohiba Cuban cigars were introduced to non-diplomats. The tobacco used for the manufacturing of this line is very special. The Cohiba is not a major production. It is very limited due to the quality of the harvest. The Cohiba tobacco is harvested in plantations selected in Vuelta Abajo (Pinar del Rio province). In terms of the fillers, Cohiba uses the best leaves of the best fine sunny plantations in Pinar del Rio, from San Luis and San Juan.
CRACK! goes the bat as the batter runs to first base. Today was day five of our Cuba study abroad program, and we are at game one of a five-game series between the Cuban National Ball Club and the USA Collegiate National Team held at the Latin American Stadium in Havana.
Baseball is a symbol of Americana. However, it is also Cuba’s No. 1 sport and is taken very seriously. You might have heard of Canseco, Alonzo, and Pena—all hailing from Cuba. After we pay our three CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) for a ticket, we find our way to the bleacher seats and settle in. As we get comfortable, we take pictures while some Cubans smile at us holding up an American flag. Soon after, a stadium representative approaches us and escorts us to box seats. Not hesitating, we resettle in as Cubans ask us where we are from and to autograph their baseballs.
Due to rain delay, the game started at 10:00 p.m. In spite of continuous use of air horns and other noisemakers, we watched as zeroes illuminated the scoreboard under each inning. We soon experienced the intensity of Cuban baseball. Like Americans, Cubans fervently run to fly balls, have heated discussions with fellow spectators, eat popcorn and snacks, and ask for autographed baseballs from players. Laura, in our group, taught a young Cuban girl how to say “autograph” in English. The girl then ran to a USA team player and asked for his autograph. He said he would give it to her soon. She was so excited while she ran back to Laura and she squealed, “Thank you!”
We found solidarity with the Cubans as we learned that “Strike!” works for both languages, as well as boisterously yelling as it happens to a full, un-contacted swing. In the sixth inning, we witnessed a grand slam by USA player No. 5. Everyone got up and cheered. Our Cuban neighbor gave us a high five as recognition of a job well done. The game ended with a 4-3 win for US.A
Without a doubt, this part of our trip will be one of my most favorite memories. Finding human connections in a foreign country is rewarding for both traveler and local. However, one thing I will not be sad to hear again for a while is the sound of another air horn.
I’m sitting here in Hotel Terral under the stairway sipping on an ice-cold mojito and trying to figure out how to convey our experiences here to all of you! Sierra filled you in most of the events of day four in Havana, so I thought I’d give you some more details on our daily life. Every morning we wake up, open the curtains, and take in the view of the ocean and the Malecon—the sidewalk along the sea that is the central point of all Cuban social life. After showering in our beautiful tiled bathrooms, we head down to the lobby to order the Terral Breakfast. A basket of warm crusty rolls is delivered with butter and marmalade, shortly followed by a Cuban coffee (strong espresso), and a delicious mango or papaya smoothie. The main course arrives consisting of an egg on toast surrounded by beautiful fruit slices, tasty bruschetta bites, and a variety of sausage and ham skewers. When we don’t have class time or tours going on, we spend our time wandering the city of Havana. The rundown yet beautiful architecture in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is stunning. While I have seen unique and beautiful architecture before, never have I seen so much of it all around me. A glace into a building often reveals a hidden courtyard or fountain.
We have also been enjoying the variety of transportation options. Sometimes in the high heat of the afternoon, walking doesn’t sound appealing and we utilize a taxi. The 1950s American and Russian cars are like stepping into the past. There are definitely some expert mechanics around to keep this ancient machines running. Also fun is the “cocotaxis,” which are shaped like large yellow motorcycle helmets. They are open air and fit three passengers right behind the driver. Last but not least are the “bicitaxis.” The calf muscles on the men that power these bicycle taxis are pretty amazing.
Our evenings often consist of hanging out on the Malecon, or just relaxing on the balcony with a drink in hand and taking in the happenings on the street. The people we have been interacting with have been wonderful. The hotel staff is extremely welcoming and friendly. We know our maids by name and have seen pictures of their children. Last night after hanging out on the Malecon with a guitar, some of the bartenders and cooks from the hotel took us out dancing at a nearby club. A mix of Cuban, Latin, and American music made for a great time and gave us a chance to try out a few of our freshly minted salsa skills—or lack of!
Traveling for educational purposes really adds a new spin to things, and our conversations with workers from across the tourism industry opens up a whole new side of Cuban life and tourism. So far, people have told me that the Americans they meet in Cuba are very nice people and well liked by Cubans, which is an encouraging thing to hear.
Well, time to change clothes after getting caught in the regular, late afternoon rain storm and head off to a baseball game, a great pastime in both American and Cuban culture. Hasta Manana!