Cuba- The Loveliest Land

Come to Cuba

Cuba was a destination that was always out of reach.  

I had been in the vicinity a couple of times when studying monkeys in Puerto Rico.  Desecheo Island was just east of Santa Domingo, and one more island over was Cuba.  I was acclimatized to the environment, and acquainted with some local flora and fauna:  the dry Caribbean forests, the brown and blue footed boobies, giant frigate birds and all sorts of glorious tropical fish.   San Juan gave me just a taste of Spanish Colonial and later American cultural influence on Caribbean island life.  But this was not the same.  Cuba was the place that almost ignited humanity’s annihilation.  I watched the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on TV, with the real threat of global death creeping into my nightmares as we waited for doomsday.  Kennedy, my childhood hero, attempted a botched invasion to overthrow Castro as we played the bully of the Caribbean.  Much as I was enthralled with the Lord Of The Flies story at the time, that was fiction and the Bay of Pigs was very real.  The Domino Theory preoccupied policy makers and communism was seen as a real threat to democracy.  Our embargo of Cuba was to impact the island population for several generations.   Michele and I wanted to step into that history and get a glimpse behind the curtain, whether iron or lace.

I spent some time producing free lance editorial cartoons in Chicago and then in Seattle, and did a couple of toons on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of support from Russia for Cuba. We would learn later this was labeled the “Special Period”. It was a bleak period.

When I arrived at my new job with the City of Seattle in 2001, our Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers was heading to Havana on a cultural exchange, toting Styrofoam ice chests for Cuban gardeners to create worm bins.   A year later four Cuban women came to Seattle as a follow-up and visit our P-Patch program.

I wanted to go to Cuba but not by surreptitious routes entering via Canada or Mexico.  I just knew that at US customs on my way back I would break under pressure and confess all.   We ran into those who had gone while circumventing the travel ban.  One woman guided regular tours and only had one tourist get fined …but it was hefty.  That would be me. The odds were stacked against me. Once when Michele and I crossed back into the States from Canada, the custom official asked if I had purchased anything and I was totally honest and said, “Four Irish linen handkerchiefs.”  That was it.  He searched the whole damn car after that.  

Then on Lummi island while staying at the Willows Inn (when rates were low in the winter and before it was a “found” spot), we ended up talking with the only other guests on the lodge.  The guy mentioned he had been to Cuba, bicycling across the county several times and eventually writing the Lonely Planet guidebook to Cuba.  This had to be Marxist Karma or something.  What were the odds? 

It was a sign.  Time to pack.

Rick Steves gave a talk on his visit to Cuba with his family up in Edmonds.  Cuba was not on his guided tour list but his experience did help get us energized.  It was the first time I had understood about the two currencies, one for tourists – CUCs – and one for locals.  And Rick pointed out the need to take plenty of cash, since credit cards are not going to do you much good.  He assured everyone that it was safe to wander around Cuba with cash, given that Castro was not too keen on crime in his country.  At the end of the talk, we bought Rick Steve’s book on politically correct travel.  Cuba did not seem like the place to put your foot in it while going footloose.

Someone had said that you should bring useful small things to gift to Cubans: pencils, pens…condoms.

I was OK with packing rubber erasures.

We waited for the Obama administration to loosen up the travel restrictions before we got serious and Michele found a travel agent willing to tailor a cultural tour for two.    We had done enough research reading various travel books including Lonely Planet, Moon, Footprint and Frommers, and knew that we could do a two-person trip, though it would take some negotiation.  Michele located a travel agent, Maha Sarhan (Caravan Travel), who seemed prepared to make it happen.

In line at the Havana Air check-in and we seem to be the only one traveling light.  Huge bundles of packages are shrink-wrapped in blue plastic, headed for screening. Everyone is bringing “goods” back to Cuba. One guy has a sack of Tonka Toys, others are sending TVs and electric appliances.

A young woman in line asks us if this our first trip. “Yes.”

“You will love it. Going as a tourist is a different experience than visiting family.”  I think I was just dissed as a capitalist exploiter.  This was a strong indication of privileges to be allotted us in Cuba versus what families can expect from their government.  But she gave us a hot tip, “If you stay the night in Baracoa, you will see the lights of Haiti on the horizon.”

Finally, we get to the counter and the clerk is speaking Spanish.  Through her various gesticulations we realize that she cannot find our Visas that were to be transmitted by Maha. Now it is panic time since given the hour, there is no way we can get in touch with Maha, and a line of anxious Cuban Americans are piling up behind.  Finally, the only English-speaking attendant let us know that for a mere $100 each she can arrange a Visa on the spot.  I got the sneaking suspicion that we were about to be taken for ride but we had no choice in the matter.

I removed two crisp $100 bills from my money belt (as subtly as possible when you are reaching towards one’s groin) that were reserved for Cuban transactions, and handed over the cash in this highway robbery. [After the trip we found a baggage charge on our Visa card, when we knew we were never overweight. Viva La Revolution!]

Now we moved from the check-in line to the boarding pass line and then on to the waiting room.

Our fellow passengers were an odd lot. One large woman displayed a turtle and hibiscus tattoo on her left calf, and sat with three guys with shaved heads. A man of Cuban background sported the entire NYC skyline including the twin towers on his right arm.  A mother who appears Afro-Cuban sits with her two kids, as one kid holds the yellow leash attached to his brother’s stuffed animal back pack. 

We find our Exit Row seat, with Havana Air headrest covers.  The plane is branded on the outside with Eastern Airlines – an airline, once strong, now resorting to charter flights.   We took a selfie, and exclaimed, “We’re Going To CUBA!!!”

Forty-five minutes later we land and Michele and I look at each other and said, “We’re In CUBA!!!” 

Emerging into the bright Cuban sun, Adrian (our guide) and George (our driver) grabbed our bags and took us to George’s taxi. Not some classic American car from the 1950’s but an import from eastern Europe.  So much for nostalgia and the good ol’ days of American corporate and mafia colonialism.


Carro 8069

Enrique Minervini Fernandez-Cueto

05 2839218

Adrian Blanco Gonzalez

Tour Guide

San Cristobel Agencia de Viajes

Officios 52 e/Obrapia y Lomparilla

53 52837743

Our hotel did not change money, and we were directed to a market nearby where you get 87 CUCs for $100 US.  The foreign exchange booth was tucked into a large art market crammed into an old waterfront warehouse.  Paintings were hanging from booth walls, or leaning several deep against whatever vertical surface was available: paintings of classic 50’s cars in Havana cityscapes, nude Cuban women draped against tropical backdrops, a few modern abstracts of dubious distinction, Cuban peso notes with fish painted on them and more 50’s cars painted on newsprint.  We tried bargaining for the latter. The seller wanted 2 images for 25 CUCs, and after bargaining, he offered 2 for 24.99 CUCs.  We needed to sharpen our skills.

Hotel Armadores de Santander

Calle Luz No.4 y Ave. San Pedro esq.

La Habana

Our first night on the town in Havana was to be a blow-out, with dinner at the Le Guarida Paladar.  Michele had researched this place and we both had watched an hysterical YouTube video of Conan O’Brian dining there.

A Taxi charged 7 CUCs to get to the paladar.  No arguing. He got us there and we had no clue as to the going rate.  On arrival I felt a bit underdressed compared to two swanky looking couples headed up the  stairs to the restaurant.  Michele assured me that all dress was acceptable. Power to the People!   Climbing several flights of stairs was not that encouraging since one floor seemed in complete disrepair, with support posts seeming to hold up an old structure yearning to crumble.  Entering the restaurant gave me hope, though thank goodness we did not get seated on the balcony. What was holding it up? 

Questionable Balcony with a View

Above our table were photos of Jack Nicholson and Samuel Jackson. No Conan, but we were in good company. 

My dinner included beef carpaccio and lobster risotto, and Michele chose chicken with grilled veggies. Dessert was a deconstructed lemon pie and Sopa de Coco with caramelized French toast.  Special of the house was coffee with cinnamon and lime zest sprinkled on foamy milk. 

After dinner, a visit to a designer all gender bathroom with 8’ doors in 15’ stalls was in order. The stall interiors were lit with black light or neon, that made it cool but dark for ablutions.  All stall doors opened out to a waiting room with a sink in the middle constructed from a granite slab. Four faucets radiate out from a central pipe that pierced the slab. Water runs across the glistening stone. Hand towels were rolled up in a wall of cubbies.   People want to linger without appearing inappropriate.

OK, this is not what I was expecting in Cuba, a place still suffering from a US embargo and the devastation wrought by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block.  

Throngs of Cubans risked death at sea to cross over to Florida to gain freedom from an incipient authoritarian government.  An artist friend, when he was nine, had been put on a boat by his family to escape the Castro Regime.   Yet even he had recently broken his own 50-year embargo and gone for a reunion with his sisters and cousins in Havana.  Obama had loosened the rules and an American-Cuban baseball game had been hosted by Cuba.  Scenes from a Fast and Furious had been filmed on the Malecon.  So we needed to put this in perspective and not beat ourselves up.  We were helping a struggling economy.  We just had to be a little more aware of how we shared the wealth.

Climbing a spiral staircase to reach the rooftop lounge, we had the place to ourselves.  We settled in with Gin and Tonics, both suffering a mild case of culture shock.  We were IN CUBA!  And we had just rushed headlong with full stomachs to indulge in the New Cuba.  We justified the indulgence by commiserating that entry into any culture can be unsettling, and we chose to soften the blow with lobster risotto.  

An enormous Afro-Cuban guy at the door arranged for a ride back to the hotel.  The driver was waiting on other dinner guests but figured he had the time to drive us in his 1955 Dodge and pick up some extra cash.   Both the driver and the guide told us on the way that they both made 10 CUCs while chauffeuring their Kentucky guests this evening.  Asking about his classic car, the owner said the body was original but under the hood was a Korean Mercedes engine.   


Adrian and George picked us up for a trip to the Havana Music School that is adjacent to the Instituto Superior de Arte or the National Art Schools. We had read a good deal about the Institute, yet our tour company had not been able to arrange a visit to the campus.  It sits on an old golf course that Castro claimed for the Institute. There is a photo of both Castro and Che, gold clubs in hand, gazing at the site.  Italian architects Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, joined the Cuban Ricardo Porro in designing the unique complex.  Later after construction of several of the buildings, Castro deemed the Institute as decadent and bourgeois and cut off funding.  Students still used the site for guerilla arts action. The architectural world considered the site a landmark, and eventually Castro relented and some of the jungle was cut back.  A couple of buildings were completed and three others stabilized.

The Dean of the School met us and escorted us to a room on the second floor. We passed students congregating in outdoor corridors readying for exams, distracted only briefly by the gringos.  The performance arranged for us included an elementary student on violin, a teen with long hair playing guitar, an Afro-Cuban teen on piano with rag time jazz interludes, and a very accomplished violinist with extraordinary dexterity.    For the finale, the guitar player and violinist performed an improv piece.  We gave them a stirring round of applause (just the two of us). 

The Dean escorted us back down to the courtyard with an intimate gesture – one of her hands extended behind each of our backs.  The Institute was visible from this angle and Michele boldly asked if could wander around.  The Dean told the guard to let us pass and we were in. This was the first time that either Adrian or George has been on the campus grounds.

As we broke into the sacred Institute, there were a few families and students crossing the campus but not many. The School of Plastic Arts building had multiple brick domes like so many pizza ovens on the roof.  We poked into studios throughout but the place seemed abandoned though evidence of creative work was everywhere.

Heading across the golf course, over a long causeway above a stream and then up steps to the woods, I wondered if we were retracing Castro’s steps on what had been the front nine.  

At the School of Dance, modern and traditional dance classes were in progress and we were instructed that we did not have permission to interrupt.  We just peeked in on the bodies in gorgeous synchronous motion and listened to the music pulsing out through the windows. Drummers were jamming in an open corridor, their beat reverberating against the brick. 

The abandoned ballet school building had arched domes on thin spider-like supports.  Broken steps led down into the empty theater. Runnels are designed on top of the walls along the staircase, directing water to cement pools.  The theater has a certain post-apocalyptic look. A circular open skylight over the “stage” resembles the hole to the sky in the Roman Pantheon, which should not come as a surprise since two of the architects were Italian.  Ribbed arches support the brick ceiling. Stagnant water pooled in the circular performance space.  I felt sorry for the architects, not seeing their work completed…and for the building never to have the opportunity to showcase beauty as intended.

Lunch was at the Prado 115, a very “hip joint”. Art everywhere and an old jukebox sat in the front room.  One particular piece struck all of us as peculiar. It was a photo of a woman in a white dress with what appeared to be a real sword sticking into the image.  Please explain.  Though the chicken was tough, – hey it is hard scratching out a living in these surroundings – the pumpkin soup was delicious and the lemon pie was not deconstructed. Michele had the ubiquitous flan.

Prado No. 115

e/Genios y Refugio,

Habana Vieja

Habana 10200 Cuba

My takeaway art with real swizzle stick gifted to Adrian.


On our own after lunch, Michele led the way since she had gone over Havana maps so many times in preparing for this trip.  We took Mercaderes to Muralia and found Plaza Vieja.  Factoria de Plaza Vieja, a brewery on the square had a band playing Bueno Vista Social Club style music as patrons consumed these bizarre tall glass beakers full of brew.  After a pass through the House of Cards (with all the gambling that used to go on in Havana, I suppose it makes sense to collect all manner of playing cards), we sat across the square from the beer garden and ordered coffee and hot chocolate. 

Heading down San Ignacio, we ended up walking around the Cathedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, locating the tower stairs and hauling ourselves up to the bells. This was a moment when we didn’t want the bells tolling for thee or us or anyone.

Part of the afternoon was spent viewing art not in “galleries” but in art dealers’ homes. 

We really liked one artist’s work that referenced the boat migration to Florida, and when an image was shown at a high but maybe negotiable price ($2000) we asked to see it…which meant going to another home, even bigger with massive painting piled against walls.  When they pulled out the piece, it turns out someone had forgotten to mentioned one zero in the price. It was $20,000 dollars.   We tried very casually to hide our gasps and coolly suggested we would think on it … and beat a hasty retreat back to the first home to look for tiny yet representative pieces.

Marchante de Artes Plasiticas Cubanas

Fidel Fernandez Pacios

Calle 60 No. 106

e/1ra.y 1 ra. A, Miramar, Playa, La Habana Cuba

Next stop- Plaza de la Revolucion in the late afternoon light.  A guard shooed us away from the massive monument since it was closed. It was open when Obama laid a wreath below the huge sculpture of Jose Marti. 

Then off to the cannon firing was at sunset @ Forta Leza San Carlos. We crossed a moat and passed through the limestone gate along with guys in period costume doing their military service.  Thunderheads were building to the west and shafts of pink light were piercing the atmosphere. 

One guy appeared with a torch and the crowd surged forward with cameras to the ready.  To avoid the crowd and the deafening sound of the canon, we moved off to the side.  Leaning on the parapet, we had a great vantage point overlooking the bay and two other forts. Adrian explained that the reason one fort seemed to have its guns pointed at Havana was that it was built in 1774 to deal with pirates plundering the town.  Pirates! Really!



Adrian showed me the Hotel Ambos Mundos on Calle Obispo where Hemmingway lodged in room 511 and wrote part of For Whom the Bell Tolls. A corner of the hotel lobby is dedicated to him with multiple photos and an enlarged signature framed on the wall.  According to my guide, Hemmingway’s wife bought property out of town to get him away from the rum.  Our next stop then was Hemmingway’s favorite bar.

A bizarre stop was a gun shop that displayed rifles and knives including a set from Gorbachev to Fidel.  Hemmingway’s rifle was somewhere in a line of them in a case.  This in a country that does not allow gun ownership.

Book sellers filled the perimeter of the Plaza de Armas.  A poet was giving an outdoor reading. I crossed over wooden street cobbles into the plaza and as Adrian talked about the fort, a guy was rapidly sketching a caricature of me…for which I paid 5 CUCs. On the port side, was a small Doric style building, El Templete under restoration. Michele Obama had planted a ceiba tree in front.

We got take out at the Five Corners café – beef tenderloin and gnocchi with 3 cheeses to share back at the room.

5 Esquinas Trattoria

Habana #104 esq.

Habana Vieja

Phone: 78606295

My afternoon was for wandering as Michele hunkered down.  I paused at Plaza del Christo to watch the kids spinning tops, while young girls swarmed over a table to gab.  Some youth kicked a ball around.   Young boys were singing and yelling over a microphone in the church.  While this all seemed raucous, an older woman sat in the shade with her cart of treats…waiting for sales.  

On my way to the Capitol building (design based on the US Capitol), I passed one older building under renovation with at least 30 guys in hard hats waiting for their shift to start.

I met Miguel at the Parque Central who was hawking one-hour tours in a classic 50’s Oldsmobile for 14 CUCs.  He explained that the structure being set up outside the Capitol building was for a salsa dance event.  We chatted about the US, and he claimed to have relatives in Oklahoma.  Now this should have reminded me of a line from two men in Delhi that Michele and I ran into in a tourist hotel.  They too opened up the conversation asking where we were from and then managed to mention they had relatives in the States.  They were hustlers and before luring to share tea (most likely with sedatives diluted in the tea) we booked out of there.  In this case, I just kept on sharing information, oblivious to the game about to unfold. When he asked about my hotel, I struggled to remember the full name, but he managed to recall it.  Now that our conversation was proceeding smoothly, he offered up a hot tip: for the next 30 minutes before closing, cigar factory workers were allowed to sell cigars half price. There is a worker’s home just three blocks away.   Having no interest in smoking and only slight interest in cigars, I bid him a fond farewell but headed in the direction he mentioned. Not two blocks away a guy passes me at an intersection and mid-crossing he takes off his sunglasses and says, “Hey, I know you, you’re staying at the Hotel Armadores de Santander. I work there, remember me?”.  He did not look familiar but then again, I did not know the entire staff and not wanting to be an Ugly American, I shook his hand in greeting.  “What are you looking for?” I mentioned I was curious if there was a cigar sale nearby.  “Here I’ll show you!”  As he guided me down a street, he happened to mention, “My cousin lives up there in that building, we should have coffee afterwards.” 

Finally, my WT (World Traveler) sixth sense started to tingle. Took long enough. Dormant way too long.

Still being polite, I continued with my guide.  A man wearing a gold neck chain greeted us at the doorway of an apartment building.  Now this was a blinding glimpse of the obvious!  I was falling for a scam.  Now my fight or flight response innately kicked in. I was headed into trouble.  Walking down a dark hallway, we turned a corner into an apartment where three men sat on a couch. Flight response was getting stronger since fight was out of the question.  Now was the time to plan exit strategies – Rapido!  In the back room, Gold Chain guy demonstrates the quality of the fine Cohibo cigars, rolling one cigar he pulls from the box showing no leaves falling out.  Then he blows into the end of the cigar proving god knows what – maybe the tightness of the roll.  The special deal is 250 CUCs for 24 cigars. I pose a look as if mulling over the generous offer all the while planning my escape in as cool a manner as possible.  I shake his hand and thank him profusely but confess I do not carry that sort of cash. (Actually, I was walking around with $300 in my money belt and my sweat was soaking the fabric.)  The Gold Chain guy shows his trust in his mark, “Oh, we can give you the box of Cohibos and drive you to your hotel to get the cash.”  Somehow I managed to decline his generous offer and move to the exit.  No one stops me though my guide continues to hang in step.  Outside with witnesses around, I bid him adios and beat feet.

On my way back to our hotel, I did actually meet a guy who works there. I had exchanged dollars for CUCs with him at a slightly better rate than the bank. (He was headed to Russia with US currency to buy goods and return to Havana for resale.)  We had a sort of trust built up as co-conspirators in the black market.  I asked him what the going rate for two dozen Cohibos should be, and he said maybe $85-90 dollars.  He offered to make the deal happen, but I was spent in more ways than one.

I felt pretty foolish getting tangled up in the situation and even more foolish when Michele heard about my adventure and could not believe I had fallen (I protested “Almost.”) for the oldest Cuban scam in the book. Literally.  Every guide book for Cuba explicitly highlights this scam…and I clearly had not read those sections in preparation for our trip.  I think my misadventure was amusing enough to lift her spirits.

Michele had sufficient energy to visit the Habana Museo de Arte Colonial.  This was a classic old money house from the colonial period, full of antique furnishings, precious china and porcelain nick knacks.  This was how the Cuban one percent lived in the good old days.  While the workers were in the cane fields, the residents here were sipping wine from crystal under a grand chandelier. 

We had a quiet afternoon since we had to save energy for la Baracca Grill and the Cabaret Parisien at the famed Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Entering the Hotel Nacional is like walking into a past filled with an abundance of decadence. This was the mob hang-out until Batista was overthrown.  This was where all the Mafia families came to play and confer.  Now it is showing a bit of ware, yet still it is a draw for all visitors.  But not so much for the Cubans.  On entering the Cabaret Parisien, neither Adrian nor George were allowed inside.  Strictly a show for the big spending touristas.  Though this was not the Copa Cabana, the performance was full of great rhythm and song with ladies in vibrant dresses and head décor weaving in and out, bodies swaying to the beat.  

We were drawn into the nostalgic show of yesteryear when Cuba beckoned Americans to come play, dance and gamble in the tropic sun.   What happened in Havana, Stayed in Havana along with probably a few dead bodies.  But this was only a passing whimsy of nostalgia, we were here to see the present-day life of Cuba.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Calle O esquina a 21,

Vedado, La Habana , Cuba

537 836-3564



Headed to the Tallar Experimental de la Grafica studio once again for Michele to check out the artists in action and view the gallery. Tourists were crowding the streets…one of the first cruise ships had docked.  What would this onslaught do to the country?  Already we had heard that taxi rides were creeping up to 10 CUCs across town.  How would they cope with the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken and beef given the lines we had seen outside the markets.  Paladars will gain the income to buy up the best produce for tourists and leave the regular folks seeking the left overs

Humor relieved my dark foreboding.  On the wall of the Tallar Experimental de La Grafica studio gallery were several references to the relationship between Cuba and the US. Obama and Raul Castro appeared in comic hero costume, flanking the Pope.

A father and son worked together on prints.  They were generous in letting us watch the process and shared in their technique.  We had to grab lunch to go at the 5 Corners before heading for Hemmingway’s home south of Havana.

Situated up on a verdant knoll, the house is an incredible set-up for a writer. Large grounds, beautiful views, large swimming pool and an open-air house filled with books, magazines, stuffed animal heads staring at you and various art pieces and posters on the walls.  Adrian claimed that this layout and the furnishings were all original. We could not enter the house, only lean in over the cordon.   Up in the tower, was a small writing desk and typewriter…a tree house above the retreat below.  You could not get more isolated from the Havana bars and plentiful rum than here…and still be within easy commuting distance of Havana.  This must have been the Good Life.  I need a writing tower.

Around the empty pool, sits Hemmingway’s motor launch high out of water like some beached whale yearning to float once again. Apparently Hemmingway’s grandson did take measurements and recreated the model to hit the high seas.


As we rounded the pool again, we asked the staff person sitting poolside (and seemingly bored to tears like a life guard on pool cleaning day) if they ever filled it.  She said that they had once for a movie, bringing multiple water trucks to top it off.  After filming, the staff got to jump in. That would have been a scene to document.

June 14

On the road to Cienfuegos-

The Hotel La Union in Cienfuegos has a classic Spanish colonial façade, with lovely tile work in the courtyard. Our generously sized room was basic in décor, utilitarian with a dark wood desk and a few stiff chairs.   

Hotel La Union

Av. 54 y Calle 31

Phone: 043 55 1020

The town square was visible out our window.  We walked to the narrow peninsula in the protected bay.  Very little was open along the route.  The Cienfuegos Tower was open so we explored its various nooks,

Michele had arranged for us to dine near the tip of the peninsula.  Our table was on a covered balcony overlooking the restaurant water feature complete with stiff plaster alligator. 

Restaurant Hotel Cienfuegos

Calle 35 #4b

e/ Oy Litoral La Punta

Punta Gorda,

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Phone: +53 (43) 519966

Our trip back in a Trike pedicab was slow and wonderfully peaceful.  No cars, and just a few pedestrians as we sat back and quietly moved down the neck of the peninsula, peering into the windows of the houses along the way. 

At the hotel we took the stairs to the rooftop bar, ordered a Bucanero and listened to local band playing renditions of Buena Vista Social Club songs as well as some of their own originals.  We captured the moment by buying their CD, and managing a few salsa moves on our way down the steps back to our room.   We had not totally immersed ourselves in the local club scene, but at least sampled it. Long after we returned to our room, the crowd scene continued out on the street.


Our morning tour was out to the Palacio del Valle Botanical Garden. Mosquitoes were so bad that I lent my mosquito repellent Ex-Officio hoodie to Adrien since my Ex-Officio shirt was doing the trick.   Yet the place held a remarkable collection of trees from various countries.  Our guide realized I had an interest in medicinal plants so he pointed out the Nim tree for anti-prostate inflammation.  Hey, I am not there yet. Let’s move on.  More anti-cancer plants were nearby and a plant to cure all evil.  Now I was wondering if he was a shaman and sensed some dire condition in my future.  Finally we moved on to exotic flowers and the brighter side of things. 

An amazing variety of palms were thriving including a “Elephant Foot” tree.  A Harvard team first set up this collection of plants from around the world.  Their work was funded by an American sugar plantation owner, but a recession hit in 1939 when sugar prices dropped precipitously. Money stopped, but Harvard took up the slack to preserve the site.  

Our lunch was set in an antique filled house in Trinidad’s  main square. Tables were set up in the living room and bedroom. We started with a fruit compote mango puree and then were served fresh fish and chicken with veggies. 

The square was just outside our window visible between the iron bars.  Along came a dog who placed his head between the bars and rested it on the sill.  Of course, Michele wanted to feed him chicken. He ate well. As we ate, wind whirled outside and rolling thunder broke the stillness. The plaza was shut tight.

When the squall passed and things quieted down, we strolled the plaza…

…and paid a CUC for a photo session with elder cowboy and his donkey. 

By now Adrian had tweeked our tour a bit to focus more on art, so we dropped by a wood carving studio where the artist did bas-relief carving of local individuals on window shutters. He must have been doing OK, since he was attending a gallery opening of his work in Minneapolis.  

A local female artist, Lazaro Niebla, welcomed us into her house.  Her passion seemed to be depicting female figures using a technique of pulling thread from fabric to create patterns. Though the images were romantic and the works idealized female figures, the shaping of the forms in fabric was intriguing.  Lazaro took us to check out a circle of women on a porch pulled thread just like a knitting circle. As many as seventeen women may work on the embroidery of one piece.

Lazaro Niebla

Calle Real #11

Trinidad, Cuba

Phone: (53) 5294 0210

Last we dropped in on a ceramic artist, Azariel Santandar Alcantara, who was at his wheel molding a vase.  He paints the vases with abstract patterns, reminding me of the fair ground drip painting done on a spinning wheel. Not to denigrate his work, Seven generations of his family have been throwing clay onto wheels and shaping long necked vases with clay encrusted hands.

Azariel Santander Alcantara

Calle Andres Berro No.9

e/Abel Santamaria y Julio A. Melia

Trinidad S.S. Cuba

Phone: +53 58315666

Hotel Brisas Trinidad Del Mar turned out to be a classic run-down beach resort.  We strapped on a wrist band to access services, and headed past the large pool, lounge chairs and palms to the beach. 

Hermit crabs were the main entertainment. We passed up the $15 per head lobster dinner, and explored the main dining room.  Flies were tromping all over the buffet delicacies so we ate at the bar, splitting a hamburger and fries order with Crystal beer for me and hot lemon and honey for Michele since she was hacking her guts out.

Brisas Trinidad del Mar

Peninsula Ancon, Trinidad

Phone: 041/99-6500

In town again, I gifted a pencil portrait I had done to the Donkey Man in town. He thanked us and said he would put it in his casa.

Onward to Sancti Spiritus. Along the way we passed a cowboy loading up his horse with a bag of hay, as a bike rally raced by.  Two horse carts full of the hay bags was heading out of the Valley of the Sugar Mills (aka Valle De Los Ingenios) as we headed in.

The tower at the Hacienda Iznaga, once used to spot runaway slaves, was our goal, or at least climbing the seven slights of stairs (136 steps) without cracking my skull on the low ceilings.  Below crocheted table cloths flapped in the wind.   Michele viewed the selection from above and then we dropped down and targeted one woman’s display.  A guy swept in and placed a hawk on Michele’s head…for one CUC.

Our lunch stop, Restaurante El 19, was in Sancto Spiritus near the old Plaza Sanchez. On the wall was a Last Supper image in bas relief, and a few large B&W portraits that just might have been spray painted.   While relishing a lobster plate with a creole sauce, a woman entered El 19 with black hair, black shades, very tight black pants and four-inch platform shoes.  Outside a lone cowboy was hanging out in the square with friends – his large silver belt buckle gleaming in the sunlight.  There is some serious bling here.

Restaurante El 19

Maximo Gomez

Phone: 041/33-1919

The road to Camaguey has long stretches with large trees shading the way. The countryside is flat with fields of sugar cane and a few orchards.  Guys step out into the road with each passing car to sell blocks of cheese.  Our gas stop was colorful.

We needed a bicyclist to guide us to the Gran Hotel through the winding streets of Camaguey.  Designed to confuse pirates when the town moved inland away from frequent pirate rampages, now they confuse tourists.  The Gran Hotel is appointed with dark wood. Rum and cigars are for sale in the lobby. Old clocks on the wall behind the front desk are set to the time in different cities around the world. Our second-floor room had a balcony to watch the strolling residents on a car-free pedestrian way. 

Gran Hotel

Calle Maceo #64 e/Gomez y Agramonte

Phone: 032/29-2314

We hired pedicabs to cover the mile to our Santa Teresa Italian Restaurant since George was exhausted from driving.  We sat near a wall of Cuban celebrity photos of comedians and musicians and actors.  My lasagna could have fed four people.  Luckily Adrian forewarned the chef about Michele’s allergies regarding tomatoes, and she had veal.   George eased up and actually told us he had an 18 year-old daughter, Daniella, going to Med School and a 23 year-old son, Carlos, going to law school.  

Pedicabs moved leisurely back to the hotel with lightening flashing all around.  Down the quiet (since there was no thunder) winding streets, we looked through open (but barred) windows and saw families watching TV.  Others were out on their stoops taking in the atmospheric pyrotechnics.

June 17

The next day a couple of pedicabs took us on tour of the city’s multiple plazas.  Of the hundreds of pedi-cabs, we had the privilege of riding in a couple of the vehicles painted by local artists , “bicitaxis andaraiegos”.  These painted cabs would have fit right in with the art cars in Seattle’s Fremont parade.

I explored the maze of streets to Plaza Agromonte (the coffee shop /bar was closed), to Plaza San Juan de Dios.  I took General Gomez to the river.  Men played chess.  A mother steered her child with disabilities down past me on the sidewalk and over the bridge. Many bike commuters took that bridge.  I wondered when, like Vietnam, scooters would replace the bikes. Heading back, a truck was being loaded with chairs and then a family with two young girls dressed in fancy attire hopped in back…though not before taking off their high heels.  One photo op of the family and the truck is off.

After dinner at the Rooster Plaza (Plaza del Gailo), we went to see the Ballet de Camaguey at the Teatro Principal.  And it was extraordinary.  The Camaguey ballet company gained its reputation under the direction of Fernando Alonso, the divorced husband of the famous Cuban dancer and choreographer, Alicia Alonso. They were co-founders of the Ballet National de Cuba is in Havana.  We watched the Ballet Contemporaneo Endedans perform Move On (music by Humberto Garcia Branas), A el (world premier) with music by Chopin, Guajira (premier in Cuba) with music by Los activos-Gruip Cespedes y Jose Maria Vitier, and Medianoche (Midnight) with music by La Fonda Tango Club, Electrocutango, Appart.

53.32.293 105

June 18

Breakfast view with reflection

Hold on! The big tours must have wiped out the omelet bar. No mangoes though some papaya and oranges to scavenge.  We need the energy for a long walking tour.  Our first stop is the Jolver-Isabelle home packed with art covering every inch of wall space. Antique furniture is set off against old Shell and Coke signs.  The couple are both artists and their styles are exhibited everywhere and eclectic- clearly changing over time.

At the Santa Iglesia Catedral in Agromonte Plaza, we did not hike up the tower. This place is where the town holed up when the Pirate Henry Morgan raided the town and starved them until the leaders revealed the treasure. 

The poet Guillen’s house was closed so we visited Isabelle’s studio near the Plaza San Juan de Dios. On the way women in a salon offered to shave Adrian’s head.  Isabelle’s work has a comic touch with a bit of pop twist.

Next door another artist uses cave paintings to inspire him.  Finally, we hit Jolver’s studio with a wonderful eclectic collection with pieces.  Some chairs decorated with odds and ends including a phallic baseball hat, metal beer can, and beer bottles.  He painted a series of large canvases with the William Tell theme, with apples on a supersize Greek head.  One image of an angel captivated us so we agreed to buy it provided we figured out how to ship it home. I certainly was not going to carry an angel.

We headed out of town for lunch at El Eden, passing a baseball game on the way.  The lunch site has a lovely manicured garden. Parrots squawked in cages.  The menu offered lobster but Adrian made it clear that if we were interested, we would have to pay for it. We ordered chicken. 

Getting back, we considered a dip in the hotel pool. Nope, not after seeing the crowd in the pool. Two girls were shimmying in bikinis to blasting music.  All yours.

 Stopping for a break at Café Ciudad (with a local hot spot) I had coffee and Michele had hot chocolate.  The order came with four squares of dark chocolate which Michele then melted with a swirl into the cup of steaming milk.  A black guy with Rastafarian dreadlocks sat nearby. Four juaneterros dropped by to sell art.  We had been warned about jineteros and jineteras, and I had dealt with a few on the Cuban cigar goose chase, so we did not ask to view the art.

We walked to dinner at the Restaurant 1800 on the Plaza San Juan De Dios. A full moon was rising over the church. Though the buffet was mediocre, the music was great but ended early (8:30 p.m.). 

Restaurant 1800

Plaza San Juan de Dios #113

Entre san Rafael y San Juan de Dios

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey 70100, Cuba

Strolling back, we walked around a couple of clowns entertaining children, but Adrian could not figure out what the clown was saying with her high-pitched Mini-Mouse voice.  The latter part of the evening Michele and I sat on our balcony watching the crowd (including George) pass by.

June 19

We passed through Bayamo to make a stop for lunch and stamps.

The post office was staffed by children…mothers were taking a break. In purchasing the stamps I pulled out the number of CUCs I thought was needed. The postal clerk’s eyes got very wide and I realized I was supposed to pay in pesos. A lot cheaper.

Approaching the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre on the way to Santiago de Cuba, it looked like the Gods were angry.  An intense dark bank of clouds closed in.  We were just in time to seek refuge in the church, and the lightening started cracking.

I helped a church attendant shut giant wooden doors to avoid getting some antique wood furnishings wet.  A choir practiced as the thunder rumbled through the building.  The Virgin of Charity (the patron saint of Cuba) glowed from on high over the sacristy. It was a haven of stillness under assault. 

The Pope had come to visit here. We had to be safe.  And only later did we find out that Ernest Hemmingway’s Pulitzer Prize was in the basement. We were in a very sacred space.   To be on the safe side, we bought two inexpensive reliquaries of the Virgin saving the fishermen.  Come on – there was clearly magic here.

Our hotel Melia Santiago in Santiago de Cuba was a high- rise Soviet style edifice. Not much in style and showing its age. But it did have a bar on the roof.

Melia Santiago de Cuba

Ave. Las Americas y M

Reparto Sueno, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Phone: (53 22) 68 7070

June 20

Off to the town square, Parque Cespedes, and walking around the Cathedral (built in 1522 and holds the remains of Diego Velazquez).  The oldest house in Cuba, the Museo de Ambiente Historica Colonial, Diego Velazquez’s residence, has classic heavy wood furnishings and unique nick-knacks including a porcelain Misen figure of black sambo.  Wood screens covered the windows allowing for privacy but making the rooms a bit claustrophobic. 

We managed to buy some cigars in the hotel and then sat for coffee on a porch overlooking the Parque and the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) balcony where Fidel Castro delivered his victory speech on January 9, 1959.  We did not smoke the cigars in honor of Fidel.  Hemmingway probably did.

Lunch at Zunzun, where we had our own space off the house living room and we were serenaded by a mother-daughter guitar strumming duo.   It was a very up close and personal performance and we never sure if focusing on our food while they sang would be an insult. 

Restaurant Zunzun

Av. Manduley #159

Phone: 022/64-1528

The Bacardi Rum factory offered free samples though not overflowing. We had a short tasting and then went downstairs into the bar, where the bartender was creating an amazing mojito for a customer. This was art but we did not imbibe. We were close enough to enjoy the fragrance and volatile fumes.

We ran into a busload of Americans who were anxious to find a place with a TV to watch a soccer match.  Our bar in the hotel had one so we agreed to rendezvous up there later.  Arriving early, Michele and I had drinks on the balcony until the soccer fans arrived.  But they did not stay long.  Is it something we said?  We found out the next day that one traveler on the tour was African American and the bar refused him service, so the whole group left, boycotting the bar.  I wish they had let us know, because we just keep sipping beer and mojitos blissfully ignorant of the overt racism.   It was odd too since this area of Cuba has a higher percentage of Afro-Cubans, so intolerance would seem out of character for the community.  Was this not the “Heroic City of the Revolution”?

Santiago de Cuba fashionista

We ran into a busload of Americans who were anxious to find a place with a TV to watch a soccer match.  Our bar in the hotel had one so we agreed to rendezvous up there later.  Arriving early, Michele and I had drinks on the balcony until the soccer fans arrived.  But they did not stay long.  Is it something we said?  We found out the next day that one traveler on the tour was African American and the bar refused him service, so the whole group left, boycotting the bar.  I wish they had let us know, because we just keep sipping beer and mojitos blissfully ignorant of the overt racism.   It was odd too since this area of Cuba has a higher percentage of Afro-Cubans, so intolerance would seem out of character for the community.  Was this not the “Heroic City of the Revolution”?

As for where all the bodies are buried. We found them, Cuban leaders, martyrs of the revolution, and musicians (Compo Segundo of the Bueno Vista Social Club) are at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. The tomb of Jose Marti comes complete with honor guard. (Since we paid our respects, Fidel Castro has been buried here.) The space is brutally bright with marble throughout.

June 21

After a couple of missed turns from A1 to the Guantanamo road and from Guantanamo to Baracoa, we finally head east.   I had the feeling that George really did not want to find this route to the Floating Highway over the mountains.

Past Guantanamo, the place is a desert with several varieties of cactus bordering the sea. It resembled Desecheo Island off of Puerto Rico where I observed rhesus macaques during a college research expedition.  The sea was an amazing pale blue, with waves crashing against jagged rock.  Scattered along the brutal coast were a few rough pebble beaches with palms tucked into the tiny bays.

Heading onto the mountain road, George took it slowly since this route was known for rock falls. He leaned forward in his seat as he drove to peer around the corners.  This of course got us craning our necks to see around corners.  A few fruit sellers hung on around the road’s edge, eking out a living on these precipitous slopes.  At one view point, bananas and mangoes looked tempting but we were keeping our stomachs intact.  One official road-stop at the pass and we started down. The vegetation changed dramatically. The whole landscape appeared as some Shangri La paradise hidden from the world. Palm trees mixed with Pines, and as we descended further the variety of plants increased with cocao trees appearing in the lush forest.

Finally, we passed through Baracoa and up the hill to Hotel El Castillo.  We opened the curtains and it was Awesome (and I do not use that word lightly).  This was a veritable eyrie.  We could see El Junque (The Anvil) and the entire bay below.  Small fishing skiffs with brittle masts clustered off the closest bay shoreline.  We seemed to have dropped in on a movie site for the Old Man and The Sea. 

Hotel El Castillo

Calle Calixto Garcia

Loma del Paraiso


Phone: 021/64-5106, 021/64-51904

Crossing the Toa River, we watched horses being bathed in cool water.

Eager to explore, we descended a steep staircase and walked into town to visit the Cathedral Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.  While we waited in the square for the Cathedral to open, three guys were having a very intense conversation but no fight erupted. Peace Be With You…And You…and You.

Inside the Cathedral sits the supposed remnant of the cross that Christopher Columbus planted on the shore when he “discovered America”.  Carbon dating seems to verify that the wood could be from that century.  I believe when the Pope visited the Basillica Nuestra Senora del Cobre, the Cross was carried to him to bless.

We were ready to sample the renowned Baracoa dishes at the paladar La Terraza Casa Nilson. Lobster with coconut steamed in palm leaf was divine, and dessert was coconut ice cream with peanuts and  shavings of local dark chocolate.  This had to be our best epicurean delight in Cuba.

Bar Restaruante

Las Terrazas

Flor Crombet #143

e/Ciro Frias y Pelayo Cuervo

Baracoa, Guantanomo Cuba

Touring a gallery of student art, the artists’ work showed eclectic styles though some had a political edge.

Much as we love to appreciate art, we could not wait for our next stop at the Casa del Chocolate.  A brown statue of a buxom chocolate goddess holding a large cacao pod occupied the courtyard.  The pod was big enough to be worrisome. It resembled a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a classic b&w 50’s film that was bent on showing the terror of communist ideology.   We sipped thick hot chocolate and bought dark chocolate bars for the road.  We had capitulated to the dark side…but only with dark chocolate.  

Now Adrian, he prefers milk chocolate so we had to make another stop to satisfy his cravings before taking a walk on the Malecon. 


This is not quite Havana’s Malecon but the view is spectacular. Only one couple was seeking a bit of intimacy along the wall.  One sad looking dog looked up at me from the rocks below.  Near La Punta restaurant we found a blow hole along with trash.

Around the point on the bay side we came across a garden below the wall.  In chatting with the gardener, we learned this was a reclaimed dump site transformed into an organic oasis.  He had raised beds and hanging beds made from old fan guards.  The site produced mint, lettuce, guava, papaya, bananas and more.  In the bay sat the fishing skiffs with masts and booms, and small outboard motors.

As we walked behind some homes along a torn-up alley, Adrian mentioned that this place made him sad to see the conditions.  It reminded him of The Hole in Havana where he spent the first five years of his life when his mother was assigned to practice medicine there.  The Hole has and continues to be an extremely impoverished community.

June 22

We needed to wake up a little earlier if we want fresh fruit for breakfast that the local flies have not danced on.   River Tao Resort was our destination and a Cayuca (canoe) ride up river.   Wildlife was limited to a couple of pigs and a crane. George, Adrian and I took turns at the oars until our guide insisted on taking over because we were slowing him down.

We never made to the UNESCO Biosphere reserve at Cuchillas De Toa given the road challenges, but we did make it to an ethnological exhibit in glass cases…in a cave up the hillside. 

Our guide wanted to give us a rare protected Painted Snail (Polymita pictas) shell…we passed. We could just see ourselves trying to explain that at Cuban and US customs.

La Corsana

Marti 114 esq.

Marayi, Baracoa

Phone: 021/64-1122

Lunch was back in town at La Corsana, a lovely old colonial house. More seafood in coconut sauce. 

Then on to find a bank.  First line I stood in was not for a bank. At least I learned the Cuban strategy for waiting in line. Find out who is last in line, then you track that person and not worry about standing in line.  Of course, as you become the last person in line, it is your obligation to inform the next arriving person of your status.

Michele asked around and we then located an actual bank.  When I pulled out two $100 dollar bills, the bank clerk said “No Cambio!” even though we were in the Cambio line.  We were directed to the Casio Cambio back the other way.  Finally entered the Casio Cambio where they were very meticulous as the counted the pesos using a machine four or five times.

Now we were ready to buy a painting. We looked over multiple canvases in one artist’s home and finally settled on one.  The artist insisted on getting us a certificate authenticating the purchase ($10 CUCs) and I realize I was going to need more money for this transaction.  Leaving Michele to mix it up with the artist’s wife and son, I raced up the steep staircase (passed to forlorn lovers hugging on a step), to our room, dropped off our bag, picked up $300 US and dashed down past the hapless lovers.  Casio Cambio looked closed, but the manager took pity on a desperate gringo.  While they processed the transaction, he and I talked of the beauty of Baracoa. He owns his own paladar.  Apparently, the City (or Cuban Government) was considering digging a deeper channel to the bay and building a new dock to accommodate cruise ships.   Be careful what you wish for. Transaction completed, we shake hands “cool” style (two stage version) and off I went to find Michele.  I found her communicating with the artist’s wife and son as she looked over all the canvases.  No common language just gestures with “ums” and ”ahs”.  The son is also doing some of the work.  His dad finally arrives with certificate in hand and we walk away with a tube of rolled up Cuban art. 

The pool at the hotel was inviting, though too many people for Michele to feel comfortable.  I did a few laps using different strokes.  I did not mean to show up the guy who took a dip with his girlfriend. He did not try to swim as I cruised by…and she did a head check of me creasing the water.

I did not have the body to showcase but I may still have the strokes.

Lightning and thunder rolled over the Castillo during the night.  What shape would the pass be in after the torrential downpour?

June 23

We had a long drive ahead and impressions of images flew by:

  • Butterflies rising up along the road median as we swept past
  • Horse carts carrying commuters scattered in the car lanes
  • A pair of oxen leaning into each other as the hauled a load. 
  • A brahmin bull strolling along with a crane riding piggyback
  • A pig is strapped on the back of a bicycle
  • “Camel” bus passing by
  • Toyota Land Cruisers seem to the preferred means of travel for the privileged.

Our car radio station fades in and out with each hairpin turn as we climb to the pass moving from classical to 70’s pop: Flashdance, Hotel California, Shake your Boots, The Rain in Africa, Johnny come lately, The new kid in town and many more.

After a long drive we make it back to Camaguey and the Gran Hotel.  Dinner is elder worn out chicken and the flies got to the fruit first.  We walked over to the Jolver home to discuss the transfer of art, passing a dance class of young teens clogging in a circle. Sweat streaming off their bodies.

Jolver and his wife Ileana showed how to reassemble the art after shipment.  We do not need to pay until arrival in Seattle…so trusting.  I think we are family now.

Joel Jover & Ileana Sanchez

Artistas de la plastica/pintores

Marti #154

e/Independencia y Cisneros

Camaguey, CP: 70100. Cuba

Phone: 53 32 292305

Though Café Ciudad was closing, we managed to order hot chocolate and hot milk.  We chatted with Adrian about US visas and the need sometimes for US hosts to make a stay in the US feasible.  From the Café Ciudad, we spotted seven army personnel and two policemen with a police dog. Then we noticed a bunch of folks wearing straw hats with ribbon dangling from the brims. It was carnival time.

 Masses of people followed in a loose parade around the hotel three or more times down Gomez and Republica.

Michele and I ate dinner just off Maceo at the Hotel Camino de Hierro, a recently restored colonial building.  The spacious dining room offered views past wide open doors to a veranda and the Plaza de la Solidaridad.  Large groups of young people were clustering on walls at the edges of the plaza, some sharing smart phone messages and images, waiting for the festivities to beginBefore we knew it, a fight broke out between two groups.  Waiters quickly rushed to slam shut the large floor to ceiling wood doors closest to the chaos as the arrival of the Police sent culprits scattering in all directions.

Festival fireworks exploded around midnight.  Given the powder-keg situation at dinner, we bolted up out of deep sleep and rushed to the window.  The crowds were calmer and strolling in the summer night. Drum cadences reverberated off the old walls and down the maze of streets. We watched from our bathroom window since the late disruption got us out of bed stark naked. The balcony might have been a little overexposure.

June 24

On the road again to Havana. Flashes of imagery along the way: Horses and cattle tied in this same space between the road and fence lines…presumably for access to grass.  This reminded me of George’s story of his son who hit a horse with his car and the horse owner is the one who got a ticket.

We lunched at Cubanacan Los Caneyes, (Indian Camp Hotel) in Santa Clara complete with thatched roofs, wooden sculptures of “primitive” Indian families in the courtyard (no Cigar Store Indian in sight). A live alligator was a nice touch.  Lunch included a buffet with red and white sauce on pasta, and dessert was sundaes with multiple sauces!!!  Adrian had two bowls.

Cubanacan Los Caneyes

Ave. de los Eucaliptos y Circunvalacion de Santa Clara

50100 Cuba

Phone: 042/21-8140

Showing respect to Che was short with a walk around the Mausaleum, then to the Plaza de la Revolucion Ernesto Che Guevara and the teatro built by Marta Abreao. 

Though the NaturArte was a restaurant with an excellent menu, we gained entry after the lunch rush to see the site.  Bizarre sculptures (visualize Lord of the Rings Gollum like characters) greets the visitor.  A large bird aviary had two Cuban Trogons, the national bird of Cuba.  The bird’s multiple colors are the same as in the Cuban flag: white throat, red belly, blue back feathers.  Inside the aviary, many hummingbirds darted in a frenetic feeding trajectory, one landing on Michele’s finger to feed.  And then there were the cages with Parrots, a Belgian and German Shephard, a Cuban Rat, and Guinea Pigs.  A very odd collection.

Vultures were hanging out across the road from the Truck stop.  Tough crowd.  People are waiting with bags by the side of the road for rides?  I hope the vultures are not any indication of the length of time it takes to get a ride.  We did see one Mercedes Sprinter van at the truck stop…there is money around.

For the last hours, Adriann drove to let George rest until we hit the deluge. George took over for wave after wave of downpours.  The top windshield wiper speed could not keep up with the amount of water.  Thank God the four-lane highway had very few cars on it, so he could swerve around pools of water. 

Arriving back in Havana to the Armadores de Santander, we ended up with a room without any windows.  It was too claustrophobic so we requested a change.  The clerk did remember us and thought we might not want a room that required climbing a staircase and with a loft.  Gad do we look ancient or what after our long journey.  The bedroom had a cool spiral staircase…though flies lurked in the bathroom.  We ate on the roof. I sipped a cold beer and Michele a mojito as we gazed over the city.  We had really seen Cuba, or at least a tourista slice of it.  After so many years of preparation, it was surreal that it had all come together for us.


June 25

Off at 5:45 a.m. for the airport.  Arriving supposedly before the airport opening at 7 a.m. but the building is already open and there is a long line.  As we stepped up to the end of the line, George who we could see us from outside through the sliding doors, gestured to Adriann. Next thing we know, Adriann is checking with a special ticket agent who is checking in elders and folks with disabilities.  Adriann comes back and ushers us towards the ticket agent, saying “What do you want to give her?” Finally, I clued into what he was alluding to. Michele asks, “How much?”  Adriann wisely declines to be specific.  I slipped a 10 CUC to Michele and she slips it into a ticket holder and we slip through, but not before saying farewell to Adriann.

Visa control has a photo stop and at first, they refused to process Michele’s due to “Eastern Airlines was not activated.” No idea what that was about but in a few moments we were through. Then security- they unrolled the one art item marked “painting” (thank goodness we had the documentation from Baracoa). The customs lady never asked about the other art and I was relieved since I did not have any other documentation.

With the long wait, Michele encouraged me to spend my last CUCs on rum. I was reluctant since I am not a rum officianado.  I passed over the bottle priced at several hundred CUCs, and I selected two bottles, a Selecion and a seven year old Havana Club.  More weight on the trip home but these two bottles along with my cigars completed the classic tourist Cuban acquisitions that proved we had been here.  These were the real deal, the genuine items.  The alcohol in the rum was proof enough.

After watching several lines form for departure, we or finally found our line…only to wait in the bus for the rest of the crowd. As we are ascending the plane steps, Michele realized that she had left our rolled-up painting on the bus. Panic.  I started walking across the tarmac but was called back.  I waited until the next bus arrived and amazingly, an Eastern employee hand delivered the painting. 

Forty-five minutes later we were landing in Miami.  Twenty minutes in a Lyft and we were sitting in South Beach at the Chesterfield Hotel and Suites and suffering real culture shock.

Chesterfield Hotel & Suites

855 Collins Avenue

Miami Beach, US

+1 305-531-5831

Post Script:

The assault of luxury cars and well-heeled (we are talking four-inch heels) bar hoppers was overwhelming.  We did take advantage of our half day in South Beach to visit the Cuban-American museum, full of memorabilia of the glorious days when Cuba was THE place to vacation and sample all that the exotic island had to offer.  Tourist posters and brochure with Carmina Miranda types images showcasing the extraordinary delights, glossy photos of nude dancers, and multiple images of celebrities mixing it up in Havana.   Art exhibits displayed various Cuban artists from the 20th century, with some stock proletariat style and others abstract.  I loved the last touch on exiting, instructions marking the Mamba and Salsa footsteps on the floor.  Cha Cha Cha! Or something like that.