After a relaxing few days in and around Marina Hemingway, we were ready for our busy five-day Havana and Viñales tour. We normally don’t do organized tours, but this and our earlier trip to Trinidad kept us in compliance with US regulations. US visitors to Cuba must be on fulltime tours organized by US approved companies.
Havana Ooh Na Na
Ingrih (pronounced Ingrid) Angulo Torres, our amazing guide for four of the next five days and Alejandro, our trusted driver for all five days, picked us up at the marina and drove us to Havana. We checked into the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba along the water. We strolled the grounds of the Hotel Nacional as Ingrih briefed us on the hotel’s long history. Huge cannons on the hotel grounds were used to fight off ships during the Cuban War of Independence (Spanish American War to those of us in the US). And the hotel is plastered with pictures of all the famous people who have stayed there, including many famous Americans. We checked out the pictures while enjoying a mojito and listening to a trio play live music in the bar.
Later that night, we headed to dinner arranged by our tour company, Cuba Cultural Travel. Each night we had reservations at a different place. They were all unique, but all were Paladars (privately owned restaurants vs. other restaurants that are government owned) and all served more tourists than locals. Tonight, we were at Café Laurent. We walked to a non-descript apartment building and were greeted by a woman near a small sign that we may have missed if she hadn’t been there to greet us. She walked us into the building lobby and to a cool little elevator covered in old US magazine covers and newspapers from the 60’s and 70’s. My favorite was a Newsweek cover of young Bill Gates. The restaurant was clearly operating out of a former apartment in a building that is otherwise residential. As we walked down the hall of the restaurant we saw one former bedroom was now staging for desserts, another was used for food chopping/prep. The living room had a bar and a few tables. Dinner was served on a lovely patio overlooking the city and the Malecon. We enjoyed good food while watching the sunset and listening to a violinist play. Nice!
We met Ingrih in the morning to tour Havana by car in two restored 50’s convertibles. We drove a bit around the city, passing historic sights and learning about Havana history.
As we drove, we learned more about Cuba’s education system, one that our guides had also discussed with pride. There are specific uniforms for each grade, and later for each course of study, that are government provided and consistent throughout the country. Students specialize their education fairly early, sometimes as early as mid-elementary school for specialties like music. Students take entrance exams to get into specialized schools and to vie for seats in the more selective schools in Havana vs. regional colleges. One detail I found particularly interesting is that there are two options for college – full time or working. If you work while in school, there’s a specific schedule based on your course of study and school. For example, you might work for three weeks at home, then travel to school for a week. It takes longer to graduate, but you get to earn money while you go.
As we drove around Havana, I was struck by how much of the city is crumbling. Havana and the other cities we visited are a crazy mix of crumbling buildings right next to beautifully restored buildings. People living in rundown apartment buildings with dirty, crumbling walls next to a beautifully restored restaurant catering to tourists. We learned that after the revolution, large family homes and other private buildings were either taken over by the government or broken up into small apartments by relatives, domestic workers who had worked in the homes/offices, or squatters. Many are now in grave disrepair – people living in small spaces with crumbling walls and buildings owned by the government that closed and falling apart “pending restoration”.
One of our first stops was Revolution Plaza. I couldn’t help singing the song Big Yellow Taxi by the Counting Crows “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in my head the entire time. It’s one of the most important places in the city and is dedicated to the revolution. Along the edges, there’s an impressive tower and statue of Jose Marti and images of Che and another hero of the revolution. But the middle of the plaza looks like a huge parking lot! Apparently, there’s a big parade on May Day, an annual celebration of the revolution and workers. Each trade (education, tourism, engineers, etc.) has a big sign and they gather in the lot and march with their trade while the leaders sit up on a podium to watch.
We also visited the El Cristo de le Habana (Christ of Havana) park and monument with beautiful views overlooking the Port of Havana and Old Havana. Unfortunately, while there, my phone was stolen. It’s possible it may have fallen out of my pocket first, but I realized it was gone quickly and it was nowhere to be seen. Bummer!
Luckily our next stop was old Havana where we had a planned stop at a bar to rest and have a drink before touring on foot. Nothing like a mojito to make me feel better about my phone! We walked around Old Havana checking out the architecture and a number of the historic plazas.
After lunch we switched from convertibles to “regular” restored 50’s cars. These cars were restored by Nostalgicar, a company we would visit later, and they were absolutely beautifully restored.
We drove to Parque Almendares, or the “Havana Forest”, a tree lined river on Havana’s west side. The park and river are used by worshipers of the Santeria religion to perform ceremonies. Santeria is an AfroCuban religion that mixes traditional African beliefs with Catholicism. We were warned by Ingrih to not go in the water because of contamination from animal sacrifices. Erin learned about this first hand as she went down to the river to take pictures and almost put her hand on a dead chicken!
Our last stop of the day was our favorite. We visited Nostalgicar (http://www.nostalgicarcuba.com/en), a private business that meticulously restores old 1950’s cars. We heard directly from Julio Alvarez who owns Nostalgicar with his wife Nidialys, about starting and running a private business in Cuba. After working as an engineer for the government, he decided to quit and restore an old car he owned to make more money driving a taxi. He would park outside of the Hotel Nacional “fishing for customers”. One car led to a second, his wife joined him in the business, and the rest is history. Nidialys has been acclaimed as a Cuban Woman Entrepreneur and they both have gained international fame. His office is littered with pictures with famous people. It was fun to compare notes with them on the challenges of running a small business with your spouse. We also learned about the outrageous machinations they go through to source parts given the US embargo. It’s insane! They are a great example of the emerging private sector in Cuba.
That night we went to what turned out to be our favorite restaurant in Havana, La Concordia (http://laconcordiahabana.com/), a paladar that’s a combination restaurant/hostel. Similar to last night, we would never have noticed the restaurant. Luckily, our driver Alejandro pointed us to a door along an urban residential street with a guy sitting outside on a stool. We walked up a few flights of stairs passing rooms for rent from La Concordia before reaching the restaurant. We ate up on the rooftop with a piano/violin duo playing. The view was spectacular, and our server was great. He chatted with us throughout the evening and gave us lots of Havana tidbits. One of the more interesting was when we saw two guys climb up on their roof next door to check a big blue water tank. The tanks are ubiquitous on Havana roofs. He explained that there is only water in Havana about every other day. Residents fill their tanks when there’s water and the water in their homes comes from the tanks, not directly from the water supply.
The Old Man and the Sea
The next day was “Hemingway Day” on our tour. In the morning we visited Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home southeast of downtown Havana. It was a lovely home in the woods and much bigger by far than any home we’ve seen in Cuba.
The small town-square near Finca Vigía, similar to other places outside downtown we’ve seen, there were lots of people hanging around in the middle of the day. Ingrih explained why. Apparently, these are mainly people with government jobs who go to work, drop off their stuff, “do an errand”, come back, work a little, “do another errand”, etc. Depending on who’s numbers you believe, somewhere between 70% and 82% of the population works for the government (pretty amazing since private business licenses where only allowed starting in 2010). And while we met and saw plenty of very hard-working folks, others seem resigned to get by with hardly working.
After Finca Vigía, we traveled to Cojímar, a nearby fishing village and home to one of Hemingway’s favorite bars. Again, there were tons of people hanging around the town square during the day, many of them using the WiFi hotspot.
We visited Hemingway’s favorite bar, had a drink and played music with a local band – Jaspe de Cuba. It was clearly a tourist trap, but the band guys were really nice, and we had fun. They taught Erin to Cha Cha and the kids played percussion along with the band.
We also stopped at the San Jose Arts & Crafts Market. It’s a huge building that looks like an old train station that’s full of stalls with local artisans selling all kinds of goods. Throughout our stay we’d passed many art galleries and I was keen to buy a piece of art. We hadn’t seen anything we loved yet, so we headed straight for the art section of the market. A ton of artists where showing their work in rows and rows of paintings. It was really hard to decide, but we love the painting we bought of a fisherman on the Malecon!
As we headed back to Old Havana, Ingrih told us about health care in Cuba – like education, an area of pride for many Cubans and from everything I’ve read, very high quality. Each local community as a doctor/s who know the people in the area and who provide basic care. If there’s an issue beyond what the local doctor can handle, there are regional centers in each state to see a specialist. There are also specialized centers in Havana for complex care, like the cardiovascular center we drove by. In theory, all this great health care is free. In reality, paying off doctors is a regular occurrence. If you don’t pay, the appointment never seems to happen, and the surgery never gets scheduled. Not surprising given that I read that the highest paid doctors make $67 a month and nurses $40.
As we walked through the city we stopped at a bodega (local market) and learned about food rationing in Cuba. Each person/family is given a ration book for monthly basic food staples – rice, sugar, oil, etc. These items can be purchased very inexpensively up to the limit on the ration book. Food items beyond those staples can be purchased if you can afford it.
For dinner, we went to Otramanera (http://otramaneralahabana.com/en/) in the Miramar district, where the foreign embassies are located. As Alejandro drive us to the restaurant, we noticed that it was the only place in Havana where we saw single family homes. Many looked to be diplomat homes with foreign flags flying, but not all. The restaurant was very modern and had an international clientele. It was a good meal, but it felt a little weird given all that we’d seen in Cuba thus far.
Off to the Country
Alejandro picked us up early for a day trip to the Viñales Valley, about 2.5 hours southwest of Havana. Similar to the drive to Cienfuegos, the city landscape quickly changed to rural. As we drove we also saw miles and miles of reforested land. Much of the land was stripped clear in the 1800’s for sugar cane farming and there’s a major effort to reforest.
In the small town of Viñales, we picked up Gabriel, our great local tour guide. Our first stop was a tobacco processing station. The station is government owned and all local tobacco farmers are required to sell their crops here. The manager of the station walked us through the process while Gabriel translated. First, women sort the leaves.
Next, the leaves are dried and then packaged for final drying and rolling. The station manager was female, and I asked if it was normal for a woman to be in charge. She told us forcefully that since the revolution, all jobs are open to women. Of course, she told us earlier that only women can do the sorting because their softer hands are required to do this work. Gabriel had a funny look on his face as he translated and clearly got the dichotomy, but no one said anything. It was also a little weird that the walls of the station had pictures and quotes from Che and Fidel painted on them. I kept thinking about what a difference this was from our fancy dinner in the diplomat restaurant last night.
We had a great walking tour through town and out into the fields. Gabriel had so much information to share. Until a few years ago he was a college professor teaching English and French. I asked him why he changed jobs and he said that students didn’t seem to want to learn anymore. I had read that college attendance is down in Cuba, often because there isn’t any economic gain from more years of study. The money is in the private sector that’s very focused on the restaurants, hotels, taxis, and tour guides.
We learned that farming in Cuba is almost totally manual using oxen and horses. There were tractors and some other farm equipment supplied by the Soviets prior to the Special Period in the 1990s, but because of a lack of money to buy parts and replacements, and the difficulty of getting merchandise under the US embargo, they are now practically nonexistent. Farming in Cuba is a hard life.
Next, we stopped at a tobacco barn out in the fields and met the farmer. This guy was the real deal – a proud man of few words (translated by Gabriel), a well-worn hat, and a big knife at his side! He showed us the process that comes before the processing station – picking, sorting and initial drying of the tobacco leaves. He also showed us how cigars are rolled.
We learned that until a few years ago, all tobacco had to be sold to the government at the price determined by the government. But a few years ago, the law changed, and farmers can now keep up to 10% of their crop for themselves. Farmers can use this portion as they wish. I asked the farmer if he had any of his own cigars to sell. He did and they were packaged by wrapping them in a palm frond.
We walked through the fields with great views of the mogotes, steep sided limestone hills that are unique to the Viñales Valley.
Next, we headed to lunch at what was described by our tour company as a “true field to table restaurant”. In reality, it was much cooler than that. We drove to a farm and met the farmer, a guy with a big personality who spoke some English and told us about his visits to the US. There were lots of people hustling around the farm and we quickly found out that it was because they were slaughtering a pig today. This was a group activity, almost a party.
The farmer invited us to take a look. The pig carcass was hanging from a hook, there was blood all over the ground, and parts of the pig where being cut up by various people at different tables. And long strips of the skin were hanging from the porch ceiling where the fat was cut off so the skin could be fried up. You don’t see that at home!
As we were checking out the scene, one of the guys who was hanging around asked us where we were from. He had a cigar in his mouth and a mostly empty bottle of rum in his hand. Turns out he was a UVA military law professor visiting Cuba. He had been to the farm yesterday and decided to change his plans and come back today to join the pig butchering party. Small world!
After checking out the pig, we headed to a covered pavilion with a picnic table underneath for lunch of rice and beans, cabbage salad, lamb, mango and pineapple. Yum! It was a great chance to ask Gabriel questions about Viñales and Cuba in general. Similar to most everyone we spoke to, he was positive on the revolution given the brutal Batista regime and inequities at the time, but felt that now things needed to modernize, particularly more private enterprise and better relations with US.
After lunch we took a horseback riding tour through the town and then out into the fields. Horseback riding hadn’t been on our itinerary (and turns out it was a surprise to our tour company as well), but it was a really fun way to see the beautiful scenery, even with a little rain. Our guide was a young local guy who didn’t speak much English, but we did our best to communicate. His father lives in Miami and he’s hoping to move there soon.
More Havana Ooh Na Na
On our last day in Havana, Alejandro drove us by the Capitolio (federal Capital building) as Ingrih continued our history lesson. Originally, we were scheduled to tour the Capitolio today. It has been closed for renovation for years and just opened up for visitors a few months before. Except then they stopped allowing tours a few weeks ago. The official reason was that the tours were slowing down the pace of renovation, but who knows.
Instead we visited the Museum of the Revolution, and in hindsight, I’m really glad we did. The huge and ornate building that houses the museum used to be Batista’s presidential palace. During the revolution, he narrowly escaped through a back stairway when the building was stormed. There are still bullet holes in the walls throughout the building. There were many exhibits about the details of the revolution and the pre and post revolution eras. Particularly interesting were the remains of a US U-2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, artifacts from the Bay of Pigs, and details of how the CIA killed Che Guevara in Bolivia.
Ingrih did us right with a final lunch at a great restaurant with a duet playing mostly classic US rock with a few Cuban songs mixed in. So fun and a great way to say good-bye.
The US only allows US flagged vessels to stay in Cuba for fourteen days without lots of bureaucracy, so it was time to get ready to leave. But before we left, we had one last dinner and sunset at the restaurant Vistamar. Followed by a cab ride home driving along the wide boulevard outside Havana with Cuban music turned way up and the bass thumping!
Bye Cuba, it was great!