From Trinidad to Havana and What Falls in Between

February 10, 2017

It is our final day in Cuba. Our tour had a few stops planned for our drive from Trinidad to Havana for our last day in Cuba. Upon departing Trinidad, we drove through the Valle de los Ingenios which is a series of three valleys that was the center for sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century.

Sugar production was introduced to Cuba by Spain in 1512. Soon the island became the world’s foremost producer of sugar and sugar production was Cuba’s main industry. At its peak, there were over fifty sugar cane mills operating in the three valleys with over 30,000 slaves. After the Wars of Independence, the plantations were left abandoned. Today, while most the mills are in ruins, there are a few structures remaining. We stopped to see the plantation of Manaca Iznaga whose main house, some slave quarters, and a tower still stood. The tower was built to watch over the working slaves.

We passed through the market where locals tried hard to sell their wares. Page was nice enough to buy some Cuba aprons for our Taste of Cuba party we are having in Denver. We took a brief look at the house and then headed to the tower for beautiful views of the surrounding area. There were quite a few stairs to climb and a few low ceilings, but we succeeded at making it to the top.

From Manaca Iznaga, we headed toward Santa Clara, the 5th largest Cuban city, with a population of 250,000. Santa Clara was the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution at the end of 1958. Che Guevara led a group of guerilla soldiers who captured the garrison at Fomento. They then derailed a train full of troops and supplies that Batista had sent to the area. At the same time, Cienfuegos led another group who defeated an army garrison nearby. The two groups combined to capture the city of Santa Clara on December 31, 1958 which resulted in Batista fleeing from Havana within 12 hours where Castro took over the next week.

Che Guevara was an Argentine Marxist Revolutionary and prolific writer who opposed the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the United States. While he studied to and became a doctor, he was bothered by the poverty he saw while riding his motorcycle through South America (The Motorcycle Diaries), and he felt it needed to change. He thought the only way Marxism could be achieved was through armed struggle.

He decided to settle in Guatemala to perfect his cause. He became closely tied into the Arbenz government which was removed from power in 1953 by the United States after it received weapons from the communist Czechoslovakia. After Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican Embassy, Guevara’s repeated calls to resist marked him for murder, so he sought protection in the Argentine consulate until he received a safe-conduct pass and then fled to Mexico.

It was in Mexico where he met Castro and helped strategize for and ultimately fight in the Cuban Revolution. He spent the next five years in government with Castro encouraging education, redistributing land and executing political prisoners. Suddenly, he decided he needed to fight for the revolutionary cause abroad and wrote a farewell letter to Castro where he resigned all his political positions and renounced his honorary citizenship of Cuba.

In 1965, Guevara went to Africa to offer his experience as a guerrilla to the ongoing conflict in the Congo unsuccessfully and later in Bolivia where he was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces, executed and buried in a mass grave. Some 30 years later, in 1995, it was revealed where his body was located. In 1997, his body was exhumed and returned to Cuba. He was given a full military honors burial. The remains of his body along with twenty-nine of his combatants killed in an attempted uprising in Bolivia in 1967 are now housed in the Che Guevara Mausoleum located in Santa Clara.

The Mausoleum is part of the Ernesto Guevara Sculptural Complex which took six years to build from 1982-1988. Along with architects and sculptors, 500,000 Santa Clara residents volunteered 400,000 hours in construction effort. The Complex is quite nice. Of course there is a large bronze of Che, but also there is a wall that depicts different times of his life such as his time in Sierra Maestra consulting with Fidel, beside Cienfuegos, and in the mountains on horseback. Another section depicts Guevara as Minister of Industry. His fight for literacy is also depicted through children in school who recite each morning “We will be like Che.”

His farewell letter to Castro is inscribed on the his 22ft sculpture. A beautiful tiled plaza surrounds the area. Inside, included two rooms. One is large and is like a museum displaying different items from the wars beneath bright light, while the other is small like a dark sanctuary which included a garden with water, and eternal flame lit by Castro, wood covered walls with pictures of his fallen comrades with flower by each one. Pictures weren’t allowed and hats had to be removed. It is amazing to me that a non-Cuban who left the government garners so much honor in Cuba. Obviously, he was quite the hero in changing Batista’s government.

From the Che Guevara Mausoleum, we made a quick stop for lunch and I may have had the grossest hamburger ever.  I thought it was funny that they put a slice of ham with the hamburger.

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We continued to Havana where we checked into our next home stay in a different part of Havana from the beginning of our trip. This time we stayed in Vedado, and Erin and Brian and Page and I were again housed in the same place. For some reason, we were split up in all the other towns despite many stays having capacity for us.

We had about an hour to kill before dinner and had read that it is a must to try ice cream in Havana so we set out to find some. We had seen corner ice cream stores in Habana Vieja and saw on the map there was an ice cream shop in a nearby park. Boy were we shocked when we came upon Coppelia. Three of us walked right by it as it was a large building. Page shouted, “Guys, it’s right here.”

We stopped and looked around. Cubans lingered on the sidewalk. At first I thought they were waiting for the bus. Then I realized they were waiting to get into the ice cream complex. A line formed at each entrance, of which there were at least three. We sort of milled around, and someone told us we could enter, but I saw all these people waiting and thought surely not. Another Cuban in line told us we could enter too.

So we walked toward the building where we met security who asked if we were paying with the tourist peso or the Cuban peso. “Tourist,” we replied. He pointed us to the stairs where we were escorted to our own private ice cream parlor for lack of a better word. With the Australian Open playing (which was about two weeks old), we ordered our coconut and caramel ice cream and sat down to eat. In the meantime, all the outdoor seating in the complex on the ground level was full. The Cubans patiently waited in line for their subsidized ice cream. I have never seen anything like it. I’ve seen quite a bit, but this just dumbfounded me.

After ice cream, we returned to our house. This house had a nice bathroom, a wardrobe and the usual beds. Our room was complete with a chandelier too. The Cubans like their chandeliers. We walked over to dinner at La Roca where we were served another feast. I mean an immense amount of food. Page and I ordered paella for two, and it might as well have been paella for four!  It was good.

After dinner most of the group attended the Buena Vista Nightclub which is famous. I was sound asleep on the bus when our guide spoke about it, so I missed out on the description until later and wished I had gone, but I had been fighting a lot of headaches on this trip, so oh well. I have to say, it did give Page, me, Edie, and Erika a chance to check out the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where the mafia used to hang out. The outdoor ambience with a view of the harbor, and the band were spectacular! I really enjoyed it, and the low key evening was probably more enjoyable to me than dancing anyway. A great trip to Cuba! ETB

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Treasures of Trinidad

February 10, 2017

To continue with the Valentine’s Day theme from last night, our hosts’ two-year old son picked some flowers in the courtyard and proudly presented them to me at breakfast…so cute! We enjoyed our breakfast on the veranda outside our room which was decorated in pottery. The house was home to grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, and their little one. Our room may have been the largest we’ve stay in on the trip thus far. It included to queen size beds, a large wardrobe with many hangers, coat hooks, and even Cuban shampoo and shower gel, not to mention cups wrapped in plastic like a US hotel.

Our tour began at 8 am again. This time we headed to a national park called El Cubano in the mountains of Escambay. We got to spend close three hours here, and I loved every minute. I was missing my nature fix. We hiked along the trail Huellas de la Historia to a lovely waterfall. I only wish I had my swim suit so I could jump in the cold, clear pool of water and swim in the caves!

Instead, we relaxed on the limestone rocks which somehow still felt tranquil to me despite sharing the area with a few other tour groups. The path we followed was overran undulating terrain. Sometimes the forest blocked the breeze just enough to make it a little warm and muggy, but for the most part, we enjoyed a nice breeze as we followed the creek, inspected the world’s largest wasp colony, and spent some time bird watching. I was so happy to see the national bird of Cuba, the Cuban Trogan.  It donned the colors of the Cuban flag; red, white, and blue!

We returned to town for lunch and ate at the House of Jesus. We climbed the stairs to the rooftop patio where we were served a feast. Everybody loved this lunch because it was different, though really if we broke it down it was mostly the same food with two new twists…we had bread, cheese, egg, ham, tomato and cucumbers, as well as the usual fruit. The twist were the pastries. We had five different kinds of gingerbread. Gingerbread filled with guava paste, gingerbread muffins, gingerbread cinnamon rolls with guava paste, flat gingerbread, gingerbread biscotti for lack of a better word, and even some savory fried dough. It was a much-welcomed change!16711495_10212205501193227_8042695143846859847_n-lunch

After lunch, we were given some rest time of which we took advantage, as it was sweltering. Just before our 3pm meet up time, we wandered to the other cigar shop to find they did not sell Cohibas either. This was getting discouraging. We needed some national Cuban cigars to bring home. Later, Valeri came through for us! But in the meantime, we still had some time to kill before we met the group at triangle park, so we stopped in at Punta Brava. The Dad at our home stay worked here!

From triangle park, our bus driver Michael took us to the pottery shop owned by the Santander family. Here, we watched a gentleman spin a few pieces on the pottery wheel. With one glob of clay he made three different items and he had enough left over to make one more. He made a cowboy hat, a mug for and an ashtray. After our group made a few purchases, we hopped on the bus for trip to the beach where we snorkeled and enjoyed a nice picnic dinner. The beach was a bit rocky with lots of shells and few fish, but the water was beautiful and the sunset and moon lovely.

Upon return to town, we spruced up and met at the “Spanish Steps” for a night out on the town. The cover charge was only $1. We joined Jimi, Frank, and Celine along with a large crowd on the steps as we listened to the band. The breeze kicked up, and it was actually cold, so we left Frank and Jimi behind and found a small place that was somewhat indoors. All those waiting in line to sit on the steps were probably happy to see us go. I was happy to see us go too as I loved this little pub across from the Casa de la Cerveza. It was very quaint and only seated about fifteen people. The three tables were filled with card tables, so we squeezed in at the bar. We girls took the bar stools, while Brian had to squat on this tiny chair. He is so tall, he almost made it to eye level with us.

Soon we moved on to Bar Yesterday with a bronze of the Beatles at its entrance. This is Valeri’s favorite bar as it plays different music, mostly American. The band played a variety of rock songs. The music was quite good, though there was room for improvement where the lyrics were concerned. Brian briefly found a dance partner, Page, but Page and I both turned in the towel around 11:30. It was a nice night out! ETB

Dancing at Bar Yesterday

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Cienfuegos and Trinidad, Cuba

February 9, 2017

We enjoyed our breakfast on the upstairs terrace as we looked on the horse drawn taxis. From our balcony view, the large city with a population of 110,000, still seemed like a quiet ghost town. Our breakfast was much of the same…egg, papaya, pineapple, and bread and juice and coffee. Here the pineapples were larger and not as good as the tiny ones in Viñales. We enjoyed our time at Eliza y Miguel Angel’s house, but it was time to pack up and keep touring.

We started out at the square around Parque José Martí where a mangy mutt protected us tourists. Each time a Cuban approached, he barked, and chased, and carried on until he felt sure the tourists were safe. He knew who was going to feed him table scraps…tourists and in particular Mary, but for some reason he followed Brian, Erin and I around the square while Page found a gallery that suited her shopping tendencies. Erin, Brian, and I looked in on the buildings that surrounded the square; the cathedral, theater, and town hall before we found a nice hotel with an available bathroom. Then we passed by the greyhounds that symbolized wealth and strolled through market on the way to the waterfront. I loved seeing the old fishing boats, though I must say I would not want to travel on one 90 miles to Florida like many Cubans do.

Our leisurely stroll took far less time than the hour allotted, so we seeked out some shade Parque José Martí and utilized Brian’s wifi card. My phone is finally synced on the correct time! Parque José Martí is home to a marble statue, carved in 1902, of the Cuban revolutionary for whom it is named. On its western end, stands a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in honor of the city’s French Heritage as it was founded in 1819 by immigrants from Bordeaux.

Our next stop was Palacio de Valle, a home designed for Acisclo del Valle Blanco in 1913-17. A wealthy sugar baron, he had the two-story building decorated with Gothic, Venetian, and Neo-Moorish motifs like the Alhambra in Spain. He died shortly after the structure was complete, and Batista turned it into a casino. Currently, it operates as the number one restaurant in the city, and its rooftop deck is a perfect place to take in fantastic views of the harbor while sipping a Ron Collins, lemonade with rum.

From Cienfuegos, we bused to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514 and was a major center for trade in sugar and slaves. Overtime with slave revolts and American businessmen taking over the sugar plantations, the area became impoverished and isolated. Trinidad adapted and now its old cobblestone streets with brightly painted houses known for their wooden shutters and doors within doors are full of residents who make cigars and handicrafts such as pottery and embroidery.

I found Trinidad to be much more interesting that Cienfuegos. To me it felt like a combination of Havana and Viñales. It seemed the town was freshly painting some of the building facades, doing its best to cater to tourists, yet many places remained in disrepair as residents with their day to day lives and jobs.

We arrived in the heat of the afternoon after a VERY light lunch Big Bang Restaurant in Cienfuegos, so after a short tour along a few streets and a description of the buildings surrounding Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor, the group split up to enjoy our “rest time”. Brian, Erin, and I climbed up the “Spanish Steps” and listened to some music at Trinidad Terraces while Page who loves embroidery and pottery continued to support the Cuban economy as she sifted through the local market. By chance, we all met up as we went in search of food. We decided on Restaurante La Parranda whose specialized in pig roasts and had live music playing on an open-air patio. And oddly enough, the TV at the bar was airing a European Grand Prix. The tasty pig, pizza, and pork hamburger revived us enough to attempt to climb the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convent de San Francisco for a lovely view of the city, but it closed at 4:30.

Next, we tried to find some Cohibas at the corner cigar shop, but we were unsuccessful, so we stopped in at the Casa de la Cerveza. Brian excitedly, “What’s on your beer list?” If only, I could have captured the look of surprise and dismay on his face on camera when the waiter replied, “Presidente and Bucanero!” Ha Ha, those were the same two beers available everywhere we went. What was the point of coming to the House of Beer, decorated with several beer logos, if they only had two choices?!? Not quite the same as a brewery in Colorado! Though they did have alcohol choices as well, unlike most brew pubs in the Mile High City.

It was an eating kind of day, as our next stop was for dinner with the group. We wandered through the streets to a Gourmet Vista Restaurante near the top of a hill where we had a choice of a buffet or a la carte. I’ve found buffets to not be terribly sanitary, so despite the variety it offered…lasagna, rice pudding, and much more, I ordered plain fish again. What a boring food elimination diet I am on…though somewhat failing at on this trip.

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Page and I called it an early night. I was personally worn out, though I can’t particularly say why unless the humidity zapped me today. I’m glad I went to bed early in our room that looked like a Valentine’s Day Suite with blush and bashful pink bedspreads, as the roosters begin their circuitous conversation around the neighborhood at 5am. ETB

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Korimakao Cultural Project and the Bay of Pigs Invasion

February 8, 2017

Our evening ended early, and we planned to awake at 6:30 for breakfast and our 8am departure. The loud diesel trucks were the first alarm, and the barking dogs and rooster were the second. Page’s phone alarm was the third. Our bus drove us back toward Havana past fog covered farm land our next stops: a break at rest stop, lunch at a paladar, a cultural visit to an arts project, a swim in a sink hole, and history lesson at a museum about the Bay of Pigs.

I don’t have much to say about the rest stop except we paid our token twenty-five cents to the attendant to use the facilities. Many of them place a $1 on the plate to encourage a bigger contribution, but Valeri told a small donation is fine. Of course, I’m not so sure this is just for tourists, and locals don’t contribute. Anyway, some toilet we’ve used of late require water buckets to flush them, so I suppose attendants are necessary in some cases.

There were two accidents on the highway today…likely due to fog. The traffic just drove over the center median of the highway and continued the wrong way in the oncoming lanes. As we entered oncoming traffic, this traffic exited the highway and reentered at the next ramp. Unfortunately, the scenes of the accidents looked rather grim. All things considered, the police orchestrated a relatively efficient method to redirect traffic.

After short delays considering the severity of the accidents, we reached the paladar for a late lunch. The restaurant was out in the middle of nowhere on farm land. The patio was nice, the outhouse entertaining, and the food good. We had pork, chicken, beef, fried plantains and the like. We were beginning to learn, that our meals would be somewhat similar day to day. The rooster, birds, dog and tired worker seemed common place to us now as well.

From the paladar, we drove to the Korimakao Cultural Project in Ciènega de Zapata, an area famous for its wetlands. The nature lover in me probably would have rather visited the crocodile farm and look for birds at the national park, but the Korimakao project was interesting. At first I couldn’t understand the arts complex as I understood it be a place where students get paid to study the arts. That’s not a bad gig. Then I realized it is another government sponsored project like the reforestation project at Las Terrazas only this project was designed to bring theatre, music, art and dancing to remote areas of Cuba.

The project began in 1992 and students, many of whom had little experience, auditioned to get accepted. The students’ ages range from 16-30. Some stay for years while others move on to new opportunities. They travel around Cuba to perform. After we learned a little about the program, we watched a few performances. The first was by a band that composed its own music. Then we walked across the way to see two dance performance in the theatre. Finally, we stopped into a small gallery with a variety of art. Unfortunately, with the traffic delays and long lunch, our visit was brief as it was already late afternoon and we had two more stops before getting to dinner and our home stays in Cienfuegos.

Dance Recital Video
Band Performance Video

After our visit to Korimakao, we raced off to the sink hole which is located across from the coast still in the Parque Nacional Ciènaga de Zapata. While I may have swam in a limestone sinkhole unknowingly, I can’t recall doing so, especially with tropical fish. With only fifteen minutes to swim, I can’t say the mossy rocks, twenty feet of visibility and a few fish were worth the clothes changing, brackish water stickiness, and the drying off, but I marked something off the list, and it could have been quite enjoyable had we had the afternoon to relax on the beach across the street and visit both places.

From the sink hole, we made it to Museo Girón just before it closed. Our guide had to talk our way in, so we had to speed through the museum which wasn’t too hard since all the signs about the Bay of Pigs invasion were in Spanish. I suppose I could have gotten the gist had I read them, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to do it in five minutes. It was probably interesting as well, as we were repeatedly warned that the exhibits were from the Cuban perspective and celebrating the defeat of the Americans! Outdoors the were some tanks and planes and remnants of an American plane which was shot down, proof the US was involved in the invasion despite the initial denial.

The history of the Bay of Pigs Invasion is as follows:
On April 17, 1961, a group of 1,400 Cuban exiles and mercenaries trained by the CIA landed on Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs to invade the island. Castro caught wind of the planned attack, and he along with his men who had support of the local population stopped the invasion in its tracks. The fighting lasted just three days. The US denied being involved and to avoid an international crisis, the US withdrew its air support and abandoned the mercenaries who were imprisoned for twenty months until the US agreed to a trade for medical supplies to Cuba.

The invasion failed so badly that eight days later President Kennedy declared a trade embargo against Cuba which created a boycott among most other countries which resulted in closer ties between Cuba and Russia. A year later, the US discovered the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, thus Kennedy ordered a blockage of the island which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While a Caribbean War between the Soviets and US was averted at the 11th hour with the agreement that the US would remove its missiles from Turkey and promise not to invade Cuba in exchange for Russia dismantling its missiles in Cuba, the Cold War ensued and continued for decades.

On our way to Cienfuegos, we stopped in the country side where both kids and adults were playing baseball. We had read to bring pens, pencils, first aid kits, and even used clothing to give out. While most of us did this, Frank brought a suitcase of baseball gear! This was definitely a hit. I kind of felt silly handing out pens afterward!

Upon arriving in Cienfeugos, known as the “Pearl of the South” at dusk, my first impression of the city was “meh”. It seemed drab and dark. Even Erin asked, “Is it safe?” It’s unfortunate because the wide boulevards and elegant columns could have been charming just with some added bright paint and street lights.

Our home stay this time included a TV in our room. We unplugged it to charge our devices though there were few more outlets available. There was water pressure in the shower, which was most appreciated, and it got hot! There was even a wrapped bar of soap. It was so big, for one night, we felt too guilty to use it and used our own. The toilet on the other hand took a few flushes. We had quite a colorful room with Mexican style bedspreads and a curtain hiding a fake window. Our hosts greeted us with a frozen, welcome drink! They were quite lovely, though we didn’t hang out long as it was time for dinner.

The restaurant, Bahía, smelled like fish when we entered. Fortunately, the smell dissipated over time, the service was fast and the food was good. There was even some variety on the menu! After dinner, we ditched the bus and walked back to our homestay so we could stretch our legs and enjoy the cooler temperatures. The city seemed quiet and dull this Wednesday night. Perhaps in the daylight, it won’t appear so dreary. We’ll see tomorrow. ETB

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Cuban Farms…How to Roll a Habano!

February 7, 2017

Mirta prepared our breakfast for 7am. It included a variety of fruits, eggs made to order, coffee and homemade juice. We didn’t have to leave until 9am today, so I took advantage of the late start and went for a run. I aimed to go off the beaten path and succeeded. I climbed up the small hill as I left town toward the northeast. The concrete roads turned to a combination of crumbled asphalt and dirt. I got to the highest point I could for a nice view before I dropped down just slightly to run on a dirt road past small horse farms before I ended up on a busy road as children walked to school in their red uniforms. At this point, I didn’t know where I was and was surprised to feel lost in a three road town!

I came upon a main intersection with a gas station that I vaguely remembered passing by in the bus. This place was a gold mine…the only one in town and VERY busy. It reminded me of the late 70’s when we had to wait in line to get gas. Eventually I found my way when I spotted one of only two internet towers and the lone cathedral. I ran along the road peppered with cars (old and older), bikes, horse carts, scooters, buses and even tractors back to Mirta House. I think next time I go out running, I might take note of the street name on which we were staying.

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Fortunately, I arrived back with time to spare and prepared to go visit the tobacco farm which I was very excited to do today. Our itinerary said we’d be learning from Hirochi Robaina http://www.coronacigar.com/cigar-brands/HR-Cigars/. The sign we turned at said, “Finca de Referencia, Paladar Paco y Concha, Restaurant La Rosita.” Our guide called it Paco’s Tobacco farm. Wherever we were, the farm produced much more than tobacco. In fact, to protect the soil, other crops were planted as well, including cassava root, coffee, and sugar cane. The farm was also home to chickens, turkeys, goats, and pigs. If that wasn’t enough, we got try some of their sugar cane juice and coffee at their restaurant. The highlight for me was to learn how the famous Cuban cigar was made…all by hand and very labor intensive.

With all the intricacy and processes taken to make a Cuban cigar, I’m certain I will likely miss a step in my explanation, but here it goes. First and foremost, the tobacco farmers turn 90% of their crop over to the government and keep 20% (wink, wink) for themselves. No, the crops are highly regulated and the government knows the size of the fields.

Cuban cigars are made of three types of tobacco leaves, the wrapper leaf, binder leaf, and filler leaf. The wrapper leaves need to be large and pleasing to the eye as it is used on the outside and provides the cigar its smoothness and beauty. The wrappers are categorized into one of fifty selections based on size, color, and texture. Beginning in November, these plants are grown for seventeen weeks under the shade of a cloth which traps heat or in a greenhouse.

The plants producing binder and filler leaves are grown in the sun for sixteen weeks. The top leaves are the most bold, and the lower leaves contain the lightest flavor. Each leaf is harvested by hand. A farmer visits the fields 150 times during these weeks, and it takes thirty days to harvest a plant. The leaves are sewn together by women and placed over racks to air dry for 45-60 days. Once the leaves have dried, they are rehydrated. Once sprayed with water, the veins are removed, and the leaves are then pressed to expel any excess moisture and left to ferment a second time. These leaves are also sorted, classified, and transported to Havana where they mature for two years. A good Cuban must age like fine wine.

All brands of Cuban cigars are marketed by Habanos S.A. Cigars not officially sold by Habanos are considered black or grey market stogies of lower quality. The master blender for each brand holds the recipe in his head for each size cigar produced. The roller, with the binder leaf placed on the table, selects the appropriate filler leaves of which there are three grades; ligero, seco and volado. The ligero leaves are the most aromatic. With the filler selected, the cigar is rolled in the binder and then covered by the wrapper and then placed in a wooden board template for molding its shape. Each cigar is measured for weight, length, girth and consistency. They are also tasted. The larger cigars tend to be bolder. The cigars are packaged and sold with the appropriate label. For the real deal, look for Cohibas!

With the 10% of tobacco the farmer keeps, he rolls his own cigars, doesn’t label them and sells them for a cheaper price. A package of ten may only cost $20 CUC while a package of ten Habanos could range from $30 CUC up to $400 CUC depending on the quality!

From the tobacco farm, we visited the Mural de la Prehistoria commissioned by Castro in 1959. The artist, trained by Diego Rivera, painted the history of evolution from ammonites to Homo sapiens. The mural, located on a rock cliff consists of colors coupled with many black lines. The area is also nice for hiking and climbing! We walked up a short trail until it required ropes to get any higher.

From the mural, we tried to visit a cave which wasn’t included on our itinerary, but the wait was too long, so we headed back to town for lunch at our home stays and then enjoyed a few hours of “rest” otherwise known as free-time to explore the town. We visited the square home to Viñales’ only cathedral (and internet where a card could be purchased for $1.50 nearby), wandered off the beaten path a bit, and stopped at a craft market where I picked up a cigar cutter for the Habanos I’m bringing home for our Taste of Cuba party. Page picked up something, though I’m not sure what. I’ve lost track of her shopping addiction. I only know that she is a staunch supporter of the Cuban economy (and probably all economies where she visits)!

At 4 pm, we got picked up to go for our salsa lesson where I attempted to have rhythm in the back corner of the room. We had a fun time getting a little exercise, though I can’t say I will be trying to dance the salsa in public any time soon. Page, once a competitive ballroom dancer, put on a much better performance!

From salsa practice, we visited an organic farm operated by Wilfredo Garcia Correa with a sign at its entrance calling it, “Parque Nacional Finco Agroecoligica”. We walked around the garden full of a variety of vegetables and herbs including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, bok choy, anise, and oregano among others. The biggest reason for so many organic farms in Cuba is because they can’t get chemicals easily. As far as organic produce is concerned, Americans should love it here…no more Whole Paycheck! Our dinner was fantastic! We started out with sweet potato fries, fried taro chips, and crispy cassava root tortillas. Next came an excellent soup, family style vegetables, and meats (beef, pork, chicken and fish). The table was covered in an absolute feast…if felt like Thanksgiving.

In addition to our excellent dinner, they served a drink called Anti-stress, similar to a piña colada yet far less sweet with cinnamon on top. The concoction was served virgin style and a bottle of rum was placed on the table for spiking! This fruity cocktail is worth learning how to make. I think we’ll be playing around with the ingredients (which they graciously provided though not the amounts) when we get back to the States. What a great day! ETB

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Las Terrazas and Viñales…A Treat for Nature Lovers

February 6, 2017

We ate our final breakfast at Casa Obrapía before loading on the bus to drive west for 1.5 hours to Las Terrazas, a very interesting community. A reforestation project was designed around the community which provided countless jobs and government housing to many. The hills, once full of trees were left almost barren after timber logging by the Spanish and Cubans, and coffee planting by the French. Only 14% of the forest remained in 1957. A 12,000 acre reserve was created in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains where trees were replanted and in 1984 it was named a biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

The number of families who lived in the area has grown from 171 to 1,014 since the project was initiated. Now its number one source of income is from tourism. The community, which is almost like a commune, operates a movie theater, disco club, library, coffee shop, and Cuban ration store. Those who work for the government project receive their salary as normal, and the money earned by the community is divvied up, most of it being returned to the state. Las Terrazas plants an organic garden, produces 30 tons of honey, offers several guided hikes and ziplining tours, has an in house veterinarian, and is a haven for birdwatchers who can stay at the Hotel Moka, where we ate lunch.

In addition to government workers, there are also independent workers who pay a 15-20% tax on the goods they sell. Many of these independent workers are artists. We visited two of their art studios. Lester Campa, who wasn’t there, owned a studio on the shore of the quaint Lago San Juan and his work was quite fascinating.

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Ariel’s studio was located up on a hill. He recycles paper to use for his paintings. We got to learn how he makes his paper. He makes different colored paper from different woods such as bamboo, the “tourist” tree which is red and peels, purple cardboard apple cartons, and used office paper. To clean the office paper, he soaks it in a large vat of water where the ink rises with the foam. He takes each piece out and one by one creates a pile of 50 that are then pressed to squeeze out excess water before they are hung to dry. Most of his work included birds, specifically hummingbirds and the Tocororo (or Cuban Trogon), the national bird of Cuba which is red, white, and blue. Ariel was actually assigned to Las Terrazas by the government to pay back his free University schooling. He fell in love with a girl from the area and stayed. He is an example of the education/work system I explained in yesterday’s post.

After enjoying lunch on the open-air patio of the Hotel Moka, we loaded on the bus and continued to Viñales past farmland and hills. The Viñales Valley, home to a somewhat mountainous terrain of porous limestone, is just spectacular. It’s beautiful scenery and caves are its biggest attraction for spelunkers and climbers.

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The town of Viñales is quite wonderful as well. Once an agricultural town, it now caters to tourism. Its three main streets are lined with colorful and quaint colonial homes. Each donned a patio with rocking chairs and most rented out at least one room for a homestay. Page and I were assigned to Casa Mirta. Mirta was so kind. She walked us into her gated patio with an iron picnic table shaded by a canopy of flowering vine and showed us to our small room painted in grey and red. While the decorations were limited, her house was much more charming than our homestay in Havana.

Of course, comparatively, each home had its pros and cons. Here we had one extension cord with three plugs…one for the lamp that hardly weighed more than an empty plastic water bottle and two for charging, so we could get by, but in Havana we had our choice of wall outlets. In Havana, we couldn’t get rid of the sewer smell no matter what drain we covered. In Viñales, this wasn’t a problem. The shower in Havana was hot with some pressure while luke warm water trickled out of the showerhead in Viñales. In fact, the shower set up was remarkable in a rustic way. There were not any faucets. We simply had a shut off lever that ran perpendicular to the horizontal pipe. To turn the water on, we pushed it parallel to the pipe like we were turning on a gas valve. There didn’t appear to be any temperature controls though the shower head looked like it could be adjusted for water flow. The mattresses sat up on a bed frame this time, though I can’t say they were comfortable.

As we settled in, I climbed over my bed to turn on the overhead light, and we closed the plantation shutters to take advantage of the window unit A/C and fan. Regardless of the little idiosyncricies, Page and I both liked Mirta’s home and its charming surroundings. After unloading our bags, we took a brief stroll around the small town before we loaded back on the bus to visit Hotel La Ermita to lounge by the pool and enjoy a beautiful view. I actually brought my bathing suit along and thought I might do a few swim laps for my triathlon training, but the pool was recently painted and empty! So instead, we took cover in the shade and washed down some rum before we Restaurant Mirador Balcón Del Valle for our cooking lesson and dinner.

Here, Annia demonstrated how to make a dip chock full of homemade mayonnaise, bread crumbs, dried milk, garlic, sugar, onion, tomato sauce, cumin, oregano, and spicy peppers. This dip didn’t make my food elimination diet, so I skipped the tasting and focused my attention toward peeling plantains and taro root along with marinating a pork roast….lots of orange, salt, garlic, cumin and oregano.

After we prepped the food, we were escorted through the kitchen to the back grill where Annia fried plantains, cooked beans and rice together, and whipped up a curry vegetable soup. Our stomachs growling, we took a seat on the outside patio overlooking the stunning valley tucked beneath the limestone cliffs. After a tasty meal, we returned to our homestay for the night. ETB

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LOVED the Streets of Habana Vieja and Fusterlandia

February 5, 2017

I was so excited to go to Cuba, that I had high expectations for Havana yesterday, and they weren’t quite met.  I think mostly because I was tired and with all the travel challenges, I felt like we did a whole lot of nothing.  Now, somewhat revived, I was ready for our walking tour of the city and worked hard to keep my excitement in check.

Our morning began at 7:15 when we walked over to the main house, which had much more charm than our apartment, for breakfast.  The owners served us a variety of fruit; bananas, papaya, passion fruit and pine apple along with eggs, tea and coffee.  The breakfast area on the roof top was quite nice, and we enjoyed a leisurely meal before Valeri our guide and Michael our bus driver picked us up at 8 to begin our exploration of La Habana Vieja.

Havana is split into three neighborhoods, La Habana Vieja, Centra Habana, and Vedado & the Plaza de la Revolución.  La Habana Vieja is the historic district of the city, home to cobblestone streets and colonial style architecture, some of the buildings in shambles and others refurbished.

We started our tour with Sucil at the Plaza de Armas surrounded by historic buildings including the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Museo de la Ciudad, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and a famous hotel, Santa Isabel.  The Plaza de Armas was the first square developed in Havana and is where colonial troops practiced their military drills, thus its name.  It operated it as the city’s administrative center and command post.

The park is shaded by saba trees which are sacred to the Cubans. In fact, saba trees may not be cut down without a permit.  A statue marks the place of the oldest saba tree which was planted in 1519.  It is tradition to circle the tree three times and make a wish on October 10, Cuban Independence Day.

Cuban Independence Day marks the beginning of the Ten Year War, Cuba’s first attempt to break free of Spain.  On this day in 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, “Father of the Homeland” gave freedom to his slaves and started the independence against the Spanish colonial power.  Céspedes is honored with a statue in the square’s center.

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The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest stone fort in the Americas.  The star fort was constructed to defend against pirate attacks, but being so far inside the bay located it in a poor strategic position.  Eventually the fort was abandoned as a defensive bulwark and was used as a residence for the Governor of Havana, Juan de Tejeda.  Subsequent governors also lived here and in 1634 Juan Bitrián de Viamonte added a watchtower.

The watchtower is topped with a weathervane called La Giraldilla which it is in the shape of a woman.  It is thought to honor Inés de Bobadilla, Havana’s only female governor who assumed control from her husband Hernando de Soto when he undertook an expedition to Florida.  She spent many years scanning the horizon for his returning ship, though unbeknownst to her he had died.  The figure has become the symbol of Havana and is now held in the City Museum located the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales while a replica sits on top of the watchtower.

The governors’ residence moved to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales when its construction was completed in 1792, nearly 20 years after it was proposed.  It is said the one of the governor’s wives was a light sleeper, so she had the cobblestone street that ran in front of palace changed to wood so that she didn’t have to hear the noisy, clippity-clop of the horses trotting by at night time.

Today the Plaza de Armas is known more as the literary square.  Three times a book sellers line the streets to sell their wares.  I hadn’t given it much thought, but with limited access to the internet and the prices being so expensive for the Cuban peso, books and book stores are prevalent within Havana.  Not to mention, with free education provided, the population is extremely literate.

From Plaza de Armas, we followed our tour guide to Plaza de San Francisco . Along the way, we learned her father fled to Florida.  He invited her to come stay with him, but she did not want to go.  She once applied for a Visa to visit him, but she was denied.  She works as a tour guide to make extra money.  Her primary job is a historian for the government where she earns $16/month.  While English is taught in school, she paid a tutor for more training.

We stopped in front of a Cuban ration store to learn about their ration cards.  They are only allowed to shop at the ration store in their neighborhood.  The shelves of these stores were quite bare.  The stores sell rice, sugar, matches, oil, alcohol and few canned goods.  There are also bakeries for the bread and carnicerías for meat.  The ration stores were instated in 1962, shortly after Castro took over.  Each family is allotted a certain ration for each food.  For example, each Cuban is given five eggs a month at a subsidized price.  While the price is low, twenty-five cents for a unit of rice compared to $5 at a regular grocery store, the ration is not enough to feed the family, thus extra food must be purchased at normal prices on their low wages.

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Upon reaching Plaza de San Francisco, the second square built in Havana in the 16th Century, we learned it was very important as it was located near the shipping docks in Havana Harbor.  It soon became a market place.  The noisy markets, however, bothered the monks who worshipped at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís, so the markets were moved to Plaza Vieja.  Now the plaza is known as pigeon square.  The name seemed appropriate as we watched a young boy toss grains to the birds and dance in joy as the pigeons flitted in frenzy.

On a bench by the square is a bronze of Chopin.  I’m not exactly sure why except Cubans like their music, including classical.  Another interesting bronze just near the square was of a Gentleman from Paris.  Apparently, there was a homeless Frenchman who an “educated talker”.  The Cubans took a liking to him and his stories, so they would bring him things and give him money.  He would never accept anything for free, so in return he would give them a postcard he had drawn or a newspaper article.  For more details, click here:  http://www.cubagenweb.org/misc/paris.htm

Next, we passed by the old aqueduct on the way to Plaza Vieja once called Plaza Nueva. As I mentioned previously, the plaza became the new place for the market and is now decorated with modern art.  One statue with a naked child on a chicken with a fork is said to represent Cuba in the 1990’s after the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the USSR when people struggled for food and money and turned to prostitution.  This period was a result of Castro ousting Batista, the US trade embargo and the Cuban missile crisis.

After the US trade embargo, which was put in place in 1960 in retaliation for Cuba’s state appropriations and seizures of US assets when Castro came into power, the USSR invested heavily in Cuba and by the end of the 1980’s the USSR provided Cuba with subsidies worth approximately $5 billion annually.  When the Soviet trade and currency dried up, so did Cuba’s economy.  The Cuban government initiated a “special period” where the government was forced to introduce limited capitalist opportunities.  By 1993, Castro legalized the US dollar.  Foreign investment was allowed via joint ventures in tourism and oil, and Cubans were allowed to open paladars (restaurants), “home stays” and private farmers markets.  This change opened up tourism which has now surpassed the sugar cane industry, once their most important export.

From the Plaza Vieja we walked down San Ignacio St, which provided a good example of how Cubans live now.  The streets in Havana are narrow as to block sunlight and the houses were built with high ceilings to let the heat rise and help cool the living space.  The once spectacular architecture is now, in many cases dilapidated with trees growing from the walls.  One building we passed housed 20-50 families.  On this street, we also passed a vegetable market, and a ration bakery where a ration card gets a person one roll each day.  Bread is the cheapest item available.

We turned off San Ignacio St and passed by a University refurbished in interesting architecture…partly modern.  There is a university in each province that may be attended for free by Cubans.  Upon graduating, men must work for the government for two years to pay the country back and women must work for the government for three years.  The difference time requirement is that most men join the Cuban army for one year between high school and college.

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In working for the government, the workers receive a small salary as mentioned previously, but they are placed in an area where they are needed based on their specialization.  For example, a third-grade teacher might be needed in the country side, so a graduating education student would be placed there.  Their degrees are not validated until they have completed their required work.  At such time, they may leave and work for a private company or they may stay.  Our main tour guide Valeri worked as a teacher before he moved on to odd jobs and now works for a travel company.  He said his goal is to save his money to buy a house of his own.  In Habana Vieja, a two bedroom place would cost $60-70 thousand in cash.  No mortgages are available.

From the university, we passed by the Cuban History Mural.  The mosaic mural depicts 67 outstanding figures in the Cuban history, including theologists, lawyers, aristocrats and the like along with only one black person, a famous musician. From the mural, we moved on to Plaza de la Catedral named for Catedral de la Habana. Here Cubans dressed in their Sunday best and posed for pictures with tourists for small tips.

After visiting this plaza, we stopped in at the Museo de la Revolución.  We had to check our large bags as many places require worldwide, but it wasn’t for stealing anything, it was for fear of weapons.  I can’t say the museum was terribly exciting to visit as it mostly included pictures and descriptions of the leaders of the revolution rather than memorabilia of any kind, but it was interesting to learn the history of the revolution, to see a few ornate rooms of Batista’s palace, and to witness the bullet holes in an attempted assassination of Batista in 1957.  It was also odd to see random busts of presidents along one hallway including Abraham Lincoln.  Of course, when we rounded the corner on the bottom floor, our tour guide made sure to explain the next exhibit was a joke.  It was called the “Corner of Cretins”.  The Cretins were Batista, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W.  The signs next to each read, respectively:

“Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION”

“Thank you cretin for helped us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”

“Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION”

“Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE”

So, on to the history of the revolution….

In the first half of the 20th century, the United States was the primary purchaser of Cuba’s sugar and dominated its economy.  Until the 1950’s, Cuba was besieged by political corruption and violence under the presidency of Fulgencio Batista.  The country was overrun with casinos, gambling, brothels and the mafia.  While Batista was lining his pockets, the rest of the country was poverty stricken.  A band of young rebels formed and attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.  While the effort failed miserably and many rebels were killed, captured, and tortured, it paved the way for its young leader, Fidel Castro.  Jailed and tried for his offenses against the nation, Castro a lawyer defended himself and was imprisoned offshore for two years until Batista granted amnesty to political prisoners.

Castro fled to Mexico where he spent a year in exile while planning his overthrow of the government.  He along with Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and his brother Raul returned to the Sierra Maestra mountains on a small yacht name Granma which was on display outside the museum along with cars, trailers, planes and missiles also used in the fights.  Here they rounded up peasants to form a guerrilla army based on promises of providing land.  After two years of fighting, Batista fled the country to Dominican Republic and the “bearded ones” took over Santiago de Cuba and Havana a week later, in January 1959.

Castro who served as first as Prime Minister and later President along with his men immediately set about restructuring Cuban society.  The government reduced rents, limited estates to 400 hectares and put the media under state control among other things.  In just three years 250,000 professionals and wealthy landowners fled Cuba and settled in Florida.  I suppose I can see why many Cubans saw Castro as a hero, while others did not.

Soon we stopped for lunch at the Art BAR.  It was a cute café on the corner decorated in a variety of musical posters and record albums.  The sandwiches were enormous!

After lunch we loaded the bus and drove about 40 minutes from the city to see the works of Jose Fuster at his home and workshop called Fusterlandia in Jaimanitas.  He sells his mosaic art work and reinvests the money into work forces who go about the surrounding neighborhood refurbishing old areas in ornate murals.  We passed by a park with a cement wall marked in sections representing South American or Central American Countries.  The project was in progress so we could see the drawings in ink all the way up to the tiles in some sections that were complete.  It was really enjoyable.  I felt like I was at a circus or a tiny Disneyland.

We returned to Havana in time for a little “rest” which let us explore on our own.  Erin and Brian took advantage of the nice digs are Parque Central while Page hung out in the apartment, and I snuck in my 30-minute training run.  I thought it was going to be excruciatingly hot and humid, but the narrow streets provided much needed shade as the breeze came off the water.

I am simply fascinated by old doors and doorways.  It was a treat to run down all the side streets as I dodged pedicabs, weaved through locals, and checked out the small vegetable carts, corner games of dominoes, and soccer in the small parks.  I found it fascinating to see grocery markets, barber shops, nail salons, and jewelry repair shops run out of peoples’ broken down homes.  These opportunities have become available to Cubans since Raul took over power from Castro in 2008.  Should they own them, Cubans are now able to sell their homes as well.  Otherwise, the state provides shelter for everyone and homeless people won’t be found on the streets.  It is ashame, however, how many supplies Cuba lacks.  Meat is only distributed every two weeks.  Beans are hard to find.  And, the hospitals hardly have aspirin and X-ray plates.  Given the poverty, it is also amazing to me to know how little violent crime is in Cuba.  Hopefully no prisoners will escape from Guantanamo Bay or that might change!

We were picked up for dinner at 6.  We traveled to El Canoñazo Paladar with lovely outdoor seating beneath thatched roofs home to peacocks.  The dinner was nice as was the band that seems to be at every eatery.  Unfortunately, we took a little bit too long as we missed a good spot for the famous firing of the canons at the fortress at 9pm.  When Havana was a walled city, the canon was fired to alert residents the gates were closing.  Now a ceremony accompanies this tradition.   While the ceremony was packed, with many locals I might add, we felt like this was a skippable event!  None the less, we marked it off the list and called it a night.  ETB

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An American in Cuba!

February 3-4, 2017

Cuba…a place I’ve wanted to go probably because it has been off limits to Americans and from what I have seen on TV, the culture seems interesting.  As such, I googled a variety of trips…cruises, dive trips and others.  I was somewhat interested in a photography trip, but I didn’t find one and instead stumbled across a vacation offered by Intrepid Travel.

While I had never heard of this travel company, I really liked the activities offered on their “people-to-people” exchange, one of the restricted ways Americans are able to travel to Cuba.  It was one of the few itineraries I found that didn’t require us to go to the University to listen to a lecture.  In addition, the trip included home stays which intrigued me.

My travels started off on a red-eye from Denver to Miami on Frontier Airlines.  I had never flown this budget airline, and had I known the seats didn’t recline, I likely wouldn’t have booked an overnight flight!  Otherwise, I found the staff to be extremely kind and helpful, and I think I would appreciate the seats being stuck in the upright position on a daytime flight.

Miami to Havana is a short, 40-minute flight.  As we taxied up to the small building on our left, I noticed a much larger building to our right (important to know for later).  We deplaned and passed through immigration into baggage claim.  In order to get to baggage claim, we had to place our carry-ons through a security scanner.

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I picked my backpack up on the other side after I was wanded as the 20 cents in my pocket set off the metal detector.  I strolled around a little trying to determine on which of the two carousels my bag would arrive.  I had read this could take hours, but hoped differently.  While waiting, I walked into the bathroom where an attendant provided my toilet paper, and upon exiting, the security guard met at the door and asked me to come with her by wave of her hand.  Asking “why” didn’t get me anywhere.

I followed her back to security so they could look through my bag!  I thought to myself, they sure had plenty of time to dovthis earlier, on no sleep, I was moving quite slowly.  She unzipped the bag, but once she realized how stuffed it was, she questioned “La Ta?” as she handed me the bag to remove it.  I was allowed to touch my own bag…quite different from the States…as I pulled out my laptop and was sent on my way.

I thought I would try to change money while I waited but couldn’t find a place in the baggage claim area, so I wandered around and found the board to see when Page’s flight on Delta was on time.  A Delta flight did not appear.  Then I spotted a desk by the carousels and noticed they were collecting one of the two forms I filled out on the plane.  I opted to turn it in even though they I’d passed by it several times previously where they didn’t make much of an attempt to retrieve it.

Eventually, I got my bag, it probably took at least thirty minutes, maybe longer, but not hours, so that was a relief.  I was beginning to worry about it anyway, as it appeared to be one of the only bags not wrapped in twenty layers of blue cellophane with names inked across them.  Apparently, the Cubans were bringing in quite a few items to declare, including eggs!  Fortunately, I had nothing to declare and cruised outside into a crowd of people.

Peering around the masses, I found a young man holding a sign, “Elizabeth Bankhead” and “Page Tredennick”.  In broken English, he asked, “Where’s Page?”  I shrugged, “Otra aerolinea…Delta.”  His eyes widened, and he immediately made a phone call as he told me, “Otra terminal.”  While he called his company, I went to change money.  There is a 10% penalty to change US dollars and ATM machines don’t accept cards from American Banks, so I had to exchange Dollars for Euros before I left the USA and exchange Euros for CUC (the tourist peso and 24 times more valuable than the CUP which is the local, Cuban currency).  Had I realized the money exchange was to the left of immigration, I would have stopped here first, given I was going to have to wait for my bag anyway.

I asked my driver if we were going to pick up “mi amiga”, and he said another person would.  I couldn’t imagine how that would work well as she had already landed (assuming her flight was on time). It turns out that it didn’t work well!

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I was driven to our home stay at Casa Obrapía in an old car which was in immaculate condition on the inside, though needed some wax on its exterior.  My driver rolled my bag to a non-descript door on a somewhat run down street, and said, “here”.  A man inside, carried my bag up a flight of stairs where I checked in by handing over my passport for scanning.  Then a lady waved for me to follow her.

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We proceeded back down the steep stairwell, this time I had my bag in tow, we walked a few doors down to an attached building, and she pulled out a set of five keys, each color coded.  She pointed at the first key…and I said, “naranja.”  She nodded yes as she let me into a stark, dank hallway.

We walked up a set of stairs, then some more, and some more.  Four flights later and definitely not handicapped accessible, I finally got to set my bag down.  The black key opened the iron door, the green key opened the apartment door, the silver key opened the room door, and the funky key opened the safe!  I read in travel books and in the information from the travel company that Cuba was safe, but multiple locks later, made me feel skeptical.

Our apartment that we were sharing with the Deardorffs, who had yet to arrive, seemed like it was still under construction.  The living space included a love seat draped in a blanket, a small coffee table and a fan.  The walls were stark white with no decorations.  The kitchen area included a sink, though no other appliances were installed.  Sliding glass doors to a balcony provided a view of the colorful street below.

I slowly piddled around in my room with two mattresses on the floor, a nice tiled bathroom that wreaked of sewer, and a small refrigerator as I waited on Page who was taking an inordinate amount of time.  Sleepless and hungry, I finally wrote her a note that I was going to walk up to the Hotel Parque Central to use the wifi in order to see if I was able to confirm our car tour.

The nice lady who showed me to my room stopped cleaning Erin and Brian’s room to point me in the right direction.  I joined mobs of people on Obispo Street which I later discovered was the “main drag” in Old Havana or Habana Vieja as I walked four blocks to an absolutely magnificent hotel.  I wondered what I had gotten us into by using Intrepid.  The hotel had two business centers and charged non-guests three times as much for an internet card as hotel guests.  The first offer was for a card that worked for five hours for $15CUC.  I said, I only needed the internet for five minutes and was pointed to another business center where I could get a card for an hour for $4.50CUC.  What I didn’t understand, but found out later when I sent Erin and Brian over there for internet is the card works anywhere in Cuba (assuming there is a tower nearby), and the time doesn’t have to be used all at once.  Also, I think 5 hours was $10CUC, but the actual price of the card is $1.5CUC per hour which can be found in other places though sometimes there is a long line.  Oh well, it was nice to be away from all the online USA politics for a week.

I think I was too tired and hungry to deal with it all, and I didn’t want Page to go off somewhere without me as I forgot to write the current time on my note, so I ditched the effort and walked back.  Page had just arrived when I returned.  Poor thing!  One of her bags had fallen off the baggage carousel so she couldn’t find it for a while.  Then of course, there was no one there to pick her up.  After waiting an hour and not speaking the language, she finally got shuffled to two different travel agencies that helped her get to our homestay which I had fortunately just asked Intrepid for the previous day.  Luckily she is a seasoned traveler, so it was more of a nuisance rather than a terrifying experience it may have been for others.

I would have been grouchy by then, but she took it in stride and joined me for some food at a restaurant with a loud band!  I’ve forgotten the name of the place, but it was one of many restaurants to choose from on Obispo St between our home stay and the Hotel Parque Central.  We ate quickly as I wanted to return to the house for the two-o-clock, unconfirmed scheduled tour.  I sent an email at the last minute as the previous car-tour didn’t have availability, so I wasn’t sure what would happen.  Given there are old car taxis on every corner, I wasn’t too concerned as we could just walk back to Hotel Parque Central and get a ride. No car was in front of our door at 2pm, so we returned to Hotel Parque Central to negotiate a ride to Finca La Vigía, Hemingway’s House.  The negotiation to get to his house was quick, as soon as we arrived at the corner, a rain shower dumped on us.  Fortunately, Ricardo pulled up the top, wiped down the seats, and “safely” secured the roof with a string around his rear-view mirror.  While I would have liked to ride in a pristine, pink Bel Air, beggars can’t be choosers, and we rode in a pock marked, red, push start Pontiac.  I don’t even know the year.  In fact, I know so little about cars, it shouldn’t have mattered to me at all.  I just liked the pink cars.

After just a few blocks of rain, the skies cleared.  Ricardo graciously pulled over, untied the roof, and prepared us for a slow drive out to Finca La Vigia.  I’m not sure we got above 15 miles per hour!

Hemingway’s House is located in the small, working class town of San Francisco de Paula, nine miles away from the capital city.  Hemingway purchased his house in 1940 for $12,500 after visiting Cuba a few times to fish.  He preferred to live among those with whom he spent his time fishing.  It was here where Hemingway wrote to of his most famous novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.  I can’t say I found Hemingway’s house, cat cemetery and boat to be too exciting, though I suppose for a huge Hemingway fan, seeing the house exactly as he left it before he killed himself would be a treat.  Unfortunately, entry into the house was not allowed, so we had to squeeze in between the hordes of visitors to look through the windows.

We found the drive around Havana and Malecon much more interesting, and if I had to do it over again, I probably would have chosen this option for a much cheaper price.  Having said that, I was happy to see another part of Cuba.  After our two-hour jaunt with Ricardo, we stopped in at La Floridita a loud and crowded bar that Hemingway used to frequent.  We decided it was a little much for us, so we returned to Hotel Parque Central for a quiet drink before we met Erin and Brian back at the apartment just before our six o-clock group orientation meeting.

This meeting is always my least favorite part of guided tours as it always seems to last twice as long as necessary, and there is always someone who has to ask 100 questions that was already answered in the material provided.  Fortunately, this one wasn’t too bad, though it was easy to tell who the loud mouths were going to be on our tour.  Even so, we ran out of time, and walked at steady clip through a crowded street to NaO.

This was a nice paladar (self-owned not government owned restaurant) near the end of Obispo Street not far from the Malecon where many walk along the water at night.  We took up most of the upstairs, along with a loud band, a common theme among restaurants!  We ordered some empanadas, ceviche, lobster and paella.  The ceviche was out-of this- world good.  In fact, it may have been the best I’ve had.  Our seafood paella was tasty and while the lobster looked fancy and spectacular, it was a somewhat large and tough.  Regardless, it was a nice first evening and by the time 10pm rolled around, I was out cold.  ETB

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Amble Through Apex Park

January 26, 2017

I was so excited to see the forecast…no snow and temperatures warming to the mid-50’s in Denver.  As such, I planned a snowshoe with Tanya (and Ellie the dog) at Lake Isabelle in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.  Little did I know that the high in the area was only going to be 18 degrees.  And that doesn’t include any windchill above the treeline.  Fortunately, Tanya was open to adjusting the location.

Instead, we headed out to Apex Park, part of Jefferson County Open Space.  The 700 acre park provides 9.4 miles of multi-use trails.  We arrived at the parking area around 9:30.  We were the only car in the lot aside from one other that pulled in simultaneously.  It seemed odd that on this clear, sunny day only a few of us would be enjoying the trail, but at 9:30 it was still bitter cold at a mile high!

We grabbed a map, bundled up, and prepared for a hike around five-miles.  We hadn’t decided on which route to take, but we knew from perusing the map we connect a few loops to get in a decent walk for the day.  We started out Apex Trail where we quickly came to a trail junction.

Since much of Apex Trail caters to mountain bikers, we turned right onto Pick-N-Sledge Trail and gained close to 900 feet over the next 1.5 miles.  Depending on which side of the mountain slope we were on, we either trekked along an orange path lined by golden grasses or  a frozen path of snow.  While I doubt this is true, frozen ground feels harder than pavement!  At least we weren’t walking through slush.

From Pick-N-Sledge Trail we began to descend down Grubstake Trail.  In the shade of the forest, however, Ellie’s feet started getting cold, so we turned around and took a half-mile short cut on Bonanza.  From Bonanza we connected with Grubstake and soon retraced our steps back to the trailhead.

We found our steps along the frozen side of the slope to be beautiful.  The pine trees and succulents were covered in frost, like a sprinkler system went off while it was below freezing.  In places, we could see the shapes of the individual snowflakes.

While the landscape was pretty and the view of Golden was nice, what I think we liked the most was spotting a large herd of elk!  I was surprised to see them so close to town.  Usually, we are only blessed with deer sightings.  They were quite grand and certainly cautious of our hunting dog!  Overall, I think our jaunt turned out to be four miles…no big feat, but a nice way to spend a sunny day that eventually warmed up.  I suppose we’ll get out there and snowshoe at some point, but I’ll be headed to warmer weather first…Cuba!  ETB

Website for Park:  http://www.jeffcooutdoors.org

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Dining in Dallas

January 20-22, 2017

What a nice weekend in Dallas celebrating my mom’s birthday a few weeks late.  We had the nicest time chilling out, watching football and eating out!

Friday night we went to Adelmo’s.  It is a long-time Italian restaurant in Dallas that used to be in a house in the Knox-Henderson area.  It recently relocated to Inwood Village.  The dinner and service were lovely.  While I can’t say the food was the best ever, it was an enjoyable, quiet evening.

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Saturday night we went to Fearings located in the Ritz-Carlton in uptown.  Dean Fearing himself came out to our table to say hello.  Fearings’ plates were absolutely mouth-watering good!  Almost all of us ordered the Lobster bisque which included a lobster pot sticker at the bottom of the bowl…delicious!

The entrees were fantastic as well.  Three of our party ordered the Arctic Char and raved about it.  My lamb chops, though not cooked to the medium temperature requested, had phenomenal flavor.  Phil, my god-father, ordered the scallops and king crab, and he found them to be quite satisfying.  We ordered a few shared desserts too.  I didn’t try my mom’s peanut butter crunch bar, but it looked remarkable!  I just drooled over it.

Fair warning, both restaurants provided amuse-bouche between the appetizer and main course as well as after dessert, so if you don’t have a big appetite, a three-course meal isn’t necessary.  Of course, it is fun to indulge on special occasions.  Fearings even served a bite-size, gratis tomato bisque prior to our appetizer which was tasty too.  If I’m being picky, for a fancy place, the service could have slightly improved, but it certainly didn’t damper the occasion.

With Dallas being a test market for restaurants, it’s tough to beat the food here.  If the eatery isn’t good, it goes out of business in a year and another fills its place.  The food scene is something!

The flowers in the lobby of the Ritz were another spectacular scene and made a perfect back drop for our pictures.  It was sort of fun to dress up.  I don’t do that often, nor do I really want to regularly, but once in a while it is probably good to put on a little make up.  Not to sound obnoxious, but I think we all looked good!

Sunday, when we weren’t watching the football games, I was training for my Olympic distance Triathlon.  I’m not sure why I decided to compete in a triathlon, but one benefit is weighing what I did in high school!  Anyway, when possible I prefer a soft surface path rather than pavement for running, so I searched out a nature preserve.

The Oak Cliff Nature Preserve was definitely the most unique nature preserve I’ve visited.  I suggest taking a picture of the map at the trailhead which shows all the colored loops as there are many intersecting trails (some less traveled) without signs.  Having said that, there are many signs pointing in the direction of the loops in an open space so you can at least find them, it just might be hard to find the parking lot on one’s first visit.

I had to run for 40 minutes or 4 miles today, so I planned to connect the white loop, to the blue loop, to the purple loop.  I didn’t take much time reviewing the map because the damp air coupled with 20-mile per hour winds made we want to find the cover of the trees quickly.  I probably should have focused a bit harder as I never did connect all three trails and sometimes ended up on the same portion of a trail twice.  But all that really mattered was getting in the mileage.

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After the big thunder storm last night, I thought the trails might be somewhat muddy, but they really weren’t too bad.  I only had to watch out for tree roots and slick limestone at times.  I expected to have to look out for mountain bikers as it seemed like the nature preserve catered to them.  The description of each loop discussed bike jumps and technical portions of the trail.  Most nature preserves I’ve been to don’t even allow bikes, so it seemed odd to me.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to dodge any cyclists, and for that matter, I only saw about six people on the 7+ miles of trails the preserve offered.  The preserve must attract mountain bikers at some point, however.  Many trees are decorated with bike reflectors and there is a pump station for tires.  There is a variety of “art” (for lack of a better word) on the trails as well.

Anyway, I can’t say it was the most beautiful place I’ve been, especially in the winter, but there were a few different types of berries growing, birds flitting around, and a bush with lavender colored leaves that I have never before seen. It was definitely a nicer way to get in my miles rather than weaving around runners and cyclists on the Katy Trail or at White Rock Lake.

The only thing that proved frustrating was to wonder which gadget I should believe.  My Fitbit claimed I ran just over five miles while MapMyHike calculated only 4 miles in 48 minutes!  As much as I’d like my Fitbit, which is set to automatically calculate the length of my stride, to be correct, I don’t think I averaged less than a 10-minute mile pace.  By the same token, I surely hope I ran better than a 12-minute mile!  I guess I’ll have to go to the track some-day soon.  All-in-all, it was a nice visit home, and it was nice to catch up with one of my best friends from my horse show days too.  ETB

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WANT TO VACATION SOONER?  IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!

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