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  • Tony

Cuba - 2017

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

January 2017 - With the recent changes to US travel regulations now allowing Americans to travel into Cuba, I decided to arrange a trip there in order to see the country in its's current state prior to the anticipated onslaught of US tourism and investment. I invited a few friends to join us and we ended up with a group of 11.

It was a privilege to see through the rubble, what this country once was in it’s prime, what it looks like today and to see the hopes and dreams of the future. To witness the struggle that Socialism combined with in-effective dictators and economic sanctions can bring to the people. To see the joy and happiness that exists today with so little material needs or expectations. To see the entrepreneurial efforts to survive and capitalize on the new wave of anticipated tourism. All in the midst of great pride for country and the heroic efforts to salvage and rebuild the spectacularly beautiful architectural gems from the glory of Cuba's pre-revolution past. A journey that touched our souls and forced introspection of our own standard of living and appreciation for what we have.


Since members of the group were located in different parts of the country, we decided to make Miami our meeting place and eventual point of departure.

Day 1.

We all converged at the Miami airport to meet Maria, our US based guide for the week and prepare for departure. The terminal for flights departing to Cuba was chaotic! Many large families traveling together and bringing several bags, boxes and cases of supplies presumably purchased in the US and unavailable in Cuba. It took most of the two hours that we allocated to present our visa's and other documents in order to board the flight. Once on board the flight was short, we landed and moved quickly through customs and onto our awaiting transportation. Our local guide Yoandry (Yo) and driver were waiting in the van and would be with us for the entire trip.

On the way to the Hotel we stopped at revolution square to see the monuments to Cuba's revolution. Kind of Erie to see the self preservation efforts of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro still prevalent both in billboards along the streets, the roads throughout the country and in the monuments at revolution square.

On the lighter side...the architecture and the cars were more than expected. You can see how beautiful and prosperous the country once was through whats left of the structures in decay and the exuberance in the american cars from the 50's. Oh and the occasional "newer (1990's)" models of the Russian made Lada's.

We arrived and checked in to the Melia Cohiba Hotel which would be our base for the duration of our stay. The Hotel was large, modern and similar to a four star hotel in the states. Located next to the Historic Riviera Hotel on the Malecon overlooking the Caribbean sea.

Dinner tonight was at the paladar HM7 just across the street from our hotel. A Fantastic first meal that set the tone for our trip.

Day 2.

Breakfast at the hotel In the morning. The Hotel has an amazing breakfast room with numerous food stations from traditional Cuban to American, European and Asian. Each morning local musicians entertained the room with traditional music. We would have breakfast here each day before departing for activities

We were to visit the Partagas cigar factory this morning but it was closed for renovation. Just one of the many changes in itinerary we had to make due to the informal schedules and communications locally. Flexibility is the key to ensure a great trip along with knowledgeable local guides who can make things happen!

The Hotel houses one of the official state run "Casa Habana" (Havana House) in Havana. It was an amazing place to hang out, with a full bar and a live band each night. The walk in humidor is well stocked with just about any Cuban cigar you can imagine. The staff are friendly and very knowledgeable about the cigars and rums of Cuba. We spent about an hour in the Cigar lounge and enjoyed the company of a local/seasoned female cigar roller who was happy to create a custom cigar as a gift for us. The lounge staff also prepared a rum tasting for us of the 7, 11 and 20 year old rums from Santiago All were fantastic! and reasonably priced for the bottle. My favorite was the 11 year old which would stand strong next to a better bourbon for sipping purposes.

This morning we headed to Old Havana for a Havana Historical Tour including the historic Havana Vieja (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Heritage site, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Catedral de San Cristobal, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes.

The 500-year-old city’s architectural plenitude is hard to overstate: From the colonial Spaniards who founded the city in 1515 to the Americans of the early 1900s, the so-called “Paris of the Caribbean” became the focal point of an outpouring of culture. In the absence of the modernization and development waves that swept most of the world in the mid–20th century, Old Havana remains virtually untouched and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

The revolutionary government neglected the old city, however, as it focused what little money that was available on education, health care, and rural infrastructure. In 1993, Castro put city historian Eusebio Leal in charge of a program that channeled tourism dollars into the historic center’s restoration. But the money has fallen short, and you don’t have to go far from the restoration zone to see crumbling facades and people waiting in lines for government rations in dusty potholed streets and begging for spare change from passersby.

It was impossible not to notice the poverty, sharpened by the vast difference in spending power between tourists and locals, many of whom earn the equivalent of less than $30 a month. I couldn’t help but internalize a bit of the schizophrenic melancholy I felt around me. Something had gone wrong with Castro’s revolution, and whether it was his fault or that of outside forces, only a few can say what's really true.

Still, the exuberance of this irrepressible city ring out everywhere. Music is everywhere, the familiar rhythms of the cha-cha, salsa, and merengue fill the air.

Lunch at Paladar Mercaderes located in the center of OLD HAVANA in a beautifully renovated colonial house built circa 1890. It has 2 salons, each with unique decorations, fabulous furnishings and signature tiles. There are also fresco's from 1905 on all of the walls which brings an added facet to the style of the restaurant. The Beautiful interior hanging garden adds an enticing and pleasant ambiance to the dinning experience.

Visit la Feria de San Jose, the largest handcraft market in Havana. Several craft vendors, a great place to pick up typical and handcrafted souvenirs

Before sunset we were picked up at the hotel by some of the classic American cars for a tour through Havana. These cars are amazing feats of engineering! Many are not as they seem on the exterior and are kept running by ingenious use of parts that are available more by chance than by plan. for example the 54 Chevy we were riding in had a diesel engine and transmission from a Toyota pickup! The drivers are proud of their machines. Many of these are used as traditional and un-traditional taxi's

Dinner at Rio Mar restaurant. The restaurant sits on a bay with decent views and great seafood

Later that night we were treated to an all out, outdoor Tropicana Show the likes of a Ricky Ricardo production times 10! A world-recognized cabaret and club in Havana that will not disappoint. The fact that when you arrive your table comes complete with your own bottles of rum and champagne that are included in the price of admission. Extravagant, sexy and visually stimulating. A must see while in Havana

A day filled with Classic Cars, Cuban Cigars, Chilled Rum and crazy fun! It's easy to imagine what this was like back in the day. It really is a blast from the past!

Day 3

This morning we ventured out to an Organoponico in the residential suburb of Alamar on the outskirts of Havana and learn about urban agriculture and Cuban cuisine. Pretty amazing to see what they have done with very little resources to build and sustain a thriving organic farm producing not only the produce needs but providing employment for the community. One of the founders took us through the garden and explained how things worked. She has traveled around the world at the request of organizations wanting to learn more about the methods and sustainability of their projects and better understand how we can put them to use. We asked her what was the one thing that she wished they had to make things better, she said a Home Depot! "It would be great to just go there and buy a shovel when we needed one, Today we either have to make our own or wait until one becomes available."

Cuba used to have an industrialized agricultural system, exporting sugar and citrus to Russia and importing most of its food, as well as oil, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which combined with a US trade embargo created a crisis that Fidel Castro named “The Special Period”. Suddenly cut off from all these inputs, the country turned to agricultural self-sufficiency, organic production and permaculture almost by default. Urban gardens sprouted around the island’s cities, encouraged by the government, and the end result is an incredible example of sustainable agriculture.

Organopónico Vivero Alamar, is a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). Covering 11 hectares in Alamar, a residential suburb. The allotment’s rows of vegetables are overshadowed by grey Soviet-style blocks of flats. Though small, the garden (really more of an urban farm) is incredibly productive. As well as fresh vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, seedlings, timber and medicinal and spiritual plants, the cooperative also produces dried herbs, condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles; vermicompost, compost and substrates; goat and rabbit meat and mycorrhizal fungi. The Organopónico also welcomes tourists and holds workshops and courses in organic agriculture. Products are sold to local restaurants and directly to community members from the farm shop.

The cooperative that owns the Organopónico has 150 members, with 17 employees. Miguel Angel Salcines López, one of its founders and the current president, says, “The sense of belonging is central to organic production, and in the cooperative form there’s even more a sense of belonging. We’re less vulnerable economically because we can adapt better to the economic conditions. And we can improve social conditions for members and their families.”

He says the cooperative is contributing to local development by facilitating access to healthy food at fair prices and creating jobs, especially for women and older people. They are also providing a beautiful example of how organic agriculture can be practiced in a city. Cuba’s shift to self-sustainability, at least in fruits and vegetables, and its wide-scale adoption of urban, organic food growing, offer plenty of lessons in how to cope with potential future oil shortages and how communities, when driven by necessity, will organize and find ways to feed themselves. In the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, Cuba may be “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture.”

Lunch at Le Chansonnier located inside a historical 1890 home in the center of Havana Vedadoa, Boasting international cuisine (as do most) with nuances of avant-garde French cuisine,

In the afternoon we traveled to the seaside village of Cojimar to meet with locals and have a guided tour of Hemingway’s country estate, “Finca La Vigia” Museum. One of America’s most celebrated novelists, Ernest Hemingway, spent such a substantial amount of time in Cuba that he purchased Finca Vigia in 1940, originally built by Spanish Architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886. While in Cuba, Hemingway wrote two novels, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea”.

You can get a flavor of revolutionary Cuba and what Hemingway experienced by watching the Movie PAPA-HEMINGWAY in CUBA... In 1959, young journalist Ed Myers (a character representing Petitclerc) is working for a Miami newspaper. He wants to be a writer and had long admired Ernest Hemingway, then living in Cuba. Myers writes to Hemingway and is surprised when he answers, inviting the journalist to Cuba to go fishing with him. While the Cuban Revolution comes to a boil around them, Hemingway advises Myers on his writing. Myers continues to write articles for his newspaper, reporting on the Revolution.

An early scene from the film depicts rebels allied with Fidel Castro bursting into a street near Havana's Government Palace to confront soldiers loyal to the government of Fulgencio Batista. Hemingway and Myers take cover, with Hemingway guiding Myers through the war zone. They gradually develop a friendship and Myers spends an increasing amount of time with Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary.

Out of respect for Hemingway, we thought it was only fitting to head next to the old Havana Club Rum distillery for a tour and tasting. A bit touristic but fun to learn more about the Cuban side of the rum story (No nods to Bacardi, seems to be taboo to speak of Bacardi's role in Cuba)

Upon returning to the hotel, there was a gathering of Harley's in the driveway getting ready to parade what appeared to be the guest of honor at a Quinceanera that just ended in the hotel.

On the way to dinner we stopped at another official Cigar shop near central Havana and the Partagas and H. Upmann factory. I managed to snap a few photos but they were closed for renovation so we couldn't go inside. From what we could see the building was very beautiful and the renovations were bringing the space back to its original glory.

Dinner at San Cristobal paladar, a lively restaurant situated in a historic home in Old Havana. The owner lives upstairs and makes you feel like you are guests in his home.