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February 11, 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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