HAVANA, CUBA - When Christopher Columbus discovered the alligator-shaped island we know as Cuba, he called it the most beautiful place on Earth. With a developing economy and a desire to be a tourist destination, Cuba is a country that is changing rapidly. However, we Americans cannot hop on a plane in Miami for a long weekend in Havana.
Our travel from the United States has to be organized through a group with a specific focus, such as education or culture. My trip, Havana and the countryside, is known as a “People-to-People” tour, which means that in addition to the traditional sightseeing, I will mingle with citizens of this fascinating country—dancers, artists, musicians, farmers, restaurateurs and a community organizer. I am travelling with my husband, Arnie, and 19 other Americans from all over the country—New York to Seattle, Somers to Savannah, and cities in between.
As soon as I take my first steps on Cuban soil, I see them—the classic cars from the ‘50s for which Cuba is famous. It is an unexpected sight. I thought there would be occasional glimpses, but now they are here at the airport, letting me know the brightly colored Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, Pontiacs and even Studebakers are as ubiquitous in Cuba as Japanese cars are in America. The old cars outnumber newer models, a Lada and Geely, imported from Russia and China, respectively.
It is about 5 p.m. when we board the blue and white bus that will be our second home for the next eight days. On the way to the hotel, we pass Revolution Square, a huge outdoor space where Fidel Castro has addressed his people and three Popes have held mass. Two of the office buildings on the outskirts of the square have oversized images of Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuego, two icons of the 1959 revolution. At night, these likenesses are back lit making the already larger-than-life illustrations even more stunning. It is a powerful reminder of another time that is always present.
We stay at the famous Hotel Nacionale de Cuba, opened in 1930 and designed by an American architectural firm. Guests have included celebrities and politicos like Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle and Sir Winston Churchill. On the other end of the spectrum, it has hosted the notorious Mafia figure Meyer Lansky. All that changed after the Revolution, but the allure of the Nacionale remains high and notable figures still clamor to stay here.
Our rooms are on the executive floor, where we eat breakfast in a private dining room and our personal concierge exchanges U.S. dollars for Cuban currency known as CUCs (pronounced KOOKs) every morning.
When the bus brings us back to the hotel at the end of the day, we gravitate to the outdoor bar for mojitos overlooking the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall, where young couples go to smooch, friends meet and musicians play and dance.
The first Cuban we meet is Kelvin Lopez, an artist who owns his home, a studio, living quarters and backyard, where he entertains us with stories about his family. Lopez was born in 1976, baut his work reflects the Revolution. He paints beautiful homes that had been abandoned the year Castro came to power, along with images of front doors that had been marked with signage announcing that the home is now the property of the state. Many homes that were taken over by the government were turned into schools, day care centers and community centers.
When we go to Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is being restored, we walk along narrow, cobblestone streets lined with charming, pastel-colored buildings in myriad architectural styles—baroque, neo-classical, art nouveau and art deco—that remind me of a European city. Wending our way through the streets, we reach Old Square, which had been used for slave auctions. Today, it is surrounded by refurbished buildings that house restaurants and expensive boutiques catering to tourists. As we enter the square, I follow the sounds of a flute and a violin to a nearby restaurant. Inside, additional musicians play an accordion, keyboard, drums and bass. Music is an essential part of Cuban culture. The refined compositions that the Europeans brought to the new world eventually melded with the percussion rhythms of the Africans, resulting in an interesting musical mix.
Cuba is a country of contrasts. A few blocks from Old Havana, there are dilapidated buildings that still serve as homes to people. When I ask about the disparity, our Cuban tour guide says there is not enough money to repair the buildings—they will be refurbished in time. Cuba hopes to bring needed revenue into the country by growing its tourist trade. Already, cruise ships stop in Havana.
You may be surprised to learn that this communist country has a private sector and that there is an emerging middle class. The most prominent privately owned businesses are Paladors—restaurants that families operate out of their homes, usually converting one floor into a dining area. The families buy vegetables and produce from local organic farmers and fishermen, but they are required to purchase restaurant equipment from the government.
We visit three dance companies: modern, where we eat lunch with the dancers after they perform; primal, which has an African flair and where we bop up and down with the dancers to the pulsating sounds of drums; and then a senior center in the town of Mantanzas, where men and women perform the traditional Cuban dance, known as danzón, a slow dance with a partner.
Ernest Hemingway’s house, about 10 miles east of Havana, is now a museum. Visitors are not allowed inside, but we take pictures through the windows. Hemingway’s trophies from big game hunting in Africa hang on the walls amidst simple furnishings. A three-story white tower adjacent to the house was built for him to use as a writing studio by his wife, Pauline, but he preferred to write standing at his dresser in their bedroom or sitting in the bathtub. Hemingway’s famous fishing boat named Pilar is in dry dock on the property, along with the graves of his four dogs and a swimming pool, where it is rumored Ava Gardner swam in the nude.
Two hours west of Havana is Viñales, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a 19th century town using oxen and horse-drawn wagons for farming and transportation. Dogs sleep randomly on paths leading to blue or salmon colored houses, and clothing hangs on lines over the verandas with rocking chairs. There are younger tourists here who ride bikes and travel by yellow mini taxis, a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a moped with an extra wheel in back. We eat lunch at Casa de Confianza, Cuba’s first local private organic farm, where they make fertilizer and grow vegetables and produce. Based on a government grant allowing them to farm the land, the owners give 10 percent of their harvest to the local day care center.
With world-class soil for growing tobacco, the best cigars come from this area. Tobacco is harvested once a year and 90 percent of the crop goes to the government with the farm owner retaining 10 percent. Giovanni, the cousin of the head farmer at the farm we visit, leads us into a barn where tobacco leaves hang upside down to dry. He selects a few of varying sizes, trims them with an oversized knife that he pulls from a sheath in his waistband, and maneuvers them in a specific way to create a perfectly cylindrical cigar that is ready for puffing.
Our last stop before returning home is Varadero, one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. Located on a peninsula, it is 87 miles east of Havana and a popular vacation spot for Europeans, Canadians and Cubans. It has white sandy beaches and a turquoise sea. Our hotel, Melia Las Americas, is more modern than the Nacionale and boasts the only 18-hole golf course on the island. We take a salsa lesson in the morning and then have a final lunch with our tour mates at an outdoor restaurant before heading to the beach.
If you want to be part of history in the making or if you just want to visit a beautiful country with friendly and interesting people, then type Cuba Tours from the United States into your search engine and book a trip right now. I hope you enjoy you Cuban experience as much as I did
Leslie Jay-Gould travelled to Cuba with Road Scholar. She lives in Heritage Hills and writes the Heard around Heritage column for The Somers Record.