Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. – Pico Iyer
Cuba lies just 90 miles from the tip of Florida. Due to the U.S. embargo, however, the island nation might as well be orbiting in another galaxy for most Americans wanting to go there.
After sixty long years, the grip is loosening. One of the legitimate ways to travel there is guided “people to people” tours. A handful of operators have been granted a license by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Friendly Planet is one such company. We took their week-long tour last week and had a fantastic time. Our host and guide Tracy Lewis earned five gold stars for her fabulous handling of our group, 22 in all. Nary a hiccup, we’re pleased to say.
Equally terrific and helpful was Alejandro Infante, our Cuban guide and man of many insights (thanks for the “tobacco stories.”)
Thanks also to our bus driver Ramon, whose steady hands negotiated those shifting imaginary yellow lines that give drivers fits in underdeveloped countries. (OSHA, don’t look).
Part of the fun was meeting our fellow travelers. We enjoyed getting to know everyone. In particular, I had a good time talking to the Roberts family who hail from Indiana. Mary and I shared our common interest in Southern soul food, which prompted a craving for grits!
Hard to distill this wonderful trip down to a dozen or so highlights, but here is our humble effort.
Hotel Nacional, our home in Havana for the first three nights. Its list of distinguished guests is longer than Cuba’s coastline. Relax in the rear with a cold drink, a warm breeze and commanding views of the gentle waves kissing the seawall.
We visited an elementary school in Havana, as well as Convento de Belen. Most visitors see the church, a restored beauty. We were taken inside and got a look at a pre-school and senior center.
After the change of government in 1969, the new regime in Cuba kept just one of the old departments. History buffs can be eternally grateful the sole survivor was the Office of the Historian of the City.
It certainly shows. Old Havana has an incredible amount of historical markers.
The tour is a good balance of urban and rural. Escaping the sharp focus of the city, we climbed in the bus for a visit to Las Terrazas, a nature reserve and village of 1,000 about an hour’s north of Havana. Lush with forest, lakes, and terraced greenery, it is a protected Biosphere Reserve.
Sitting under canopies of shade, we were entertained by a band, informed by a young doctor, sipped coffee au lait at the hillside Café Maria, strained our necks to see the Cuban national bird, and ate a hearty country-style lunch.
Parts of Cuba are like an old chest box. Not much on the outside, but open it up and treasures await. In Matanzas we visited the Pelusin del Monte Cultural Center. A sense of urgency and the sound of hammers filled the air as puppet master Zenen Calero and his staff prepared for an upcoming workshop that will be given in front of an international audience.
Ernest Hemingway loved Cuba. One writer notes he had contact for more than thirty years.
Sadly, Finca Vigia, his Havana home, was closed while we were there for filming. Fortunately, we got to see two of his haunts.
In Havana, Hemingway pecked away at his typewriter in room 511 at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. The room now serves as a small museum where groups pour in to see photos, one of his typewriters, a collection of his books, and the views he took of the cobblestoned streets below.
East of the capital city lies the seaside town of Cojimar, his inspiration for the village in “The Old Man and the Sea.” He also kept his fishing boat there. Gregorio Fuentes, whose life spanned across three centuries (1899-2002) lived in Cojimar, and found fame and friendship with the Nobel Prize winning writer.
The dusty town is reflective of parts of Cuba that are woefully lacking redevelopment. Nevertheless, a peacefulness Hemingway no doubt felt here still exists, as well a couple of restaurants. At La Terraza, you can throw back a beer or a mojita while gazing at black and white photos of an older Hemingway who stilled enjoying fishing. I felt a bit too much like just another tourist stepping off the bus at this spot, but, enjoy the feast when you can...
End of Part One...