The Round Trip Experience!
I've been on a mission to touch toes to every continent. So far, I've managed to visit countries on four of the seven, but the last three have been a little evasive. Money, time, and familial obligations have slowed my plans but not stopped them. In 2016, with the summer moving along faster than I anticipated, I was in the process of planning a trip to South Africa, when a good friend called to tell me that he was thinking of joining a tour group headed to Cuba. Cuba!
And this Cuba:
And this Cuba:
And this Cuba:
I guess you know what happened, next. I ditched my plans. I put my "only three continents left" bucket list on the back burner and bought a ticket and a tour for July 22 - August 4 traveling to Cuba. I wanted to absorb Cuba for all that it is. And I did.
Havana, We're Here!
Like I mentioned, I tagged along on a trip that I didn't plan for myself. My travel buddy and I went with the African Awareness Association to Cuba. The organization goes annually at the time of the Anniversary of the Revolucíon. It is a great time to be there. There were 13 days of planned activities and a cross country trip to Santiago de Cuba and back. For as wonderful of a time that I had bonding with people, traveling the country side, staging a mini coup, and lounging in Varadero, the organizer was problematic, so please do not consider this an endorsement for the group. I will say this: we managed to go to government locations and find out from some of Cuba's officials about Cuba's history and its future. Not sure if that was because of the organizer or if it was a part of the package we got through our Cuban Tour ambassadors.
We landed in Havana and it was hot. Not just warm and humid, but HOT! It was fine with me because I never turn down a good opportunity to get into a swimsuit. Which reminds me, I love Cuba, but in Havana, beaches are not really its thing... well for the tourists, but I'll get back to that. Remind me if I forget. The group found its way into customs--walk across the lobby, the airport is one big room, so you will NOT get lost--one person at a time into a closed hallway to speak with an agent. Currency was exchanged for CUC and we loaded the bus.
After a long and winding trip into Downtown Havana, we stopped at the Malecón, did a little shopping then went to our hotel. Havana has some of the most splendid hotels with breath-taking architecture. A quick walk through the city will allow you to see that to be true. Our hotel was not one of those. Here's what I remember about our hotel:
The elevator did not work and my room was on the 7th floor. The winding stairway had no handrail and I thought I was going to fall and die. Seriously. There was a three inch gap from the bottom of the room door to the floor. There was mildew and the water trickled out of the shower head. I forgot the name of the hotel but there was a small bar called Los 3 Moños. Nevertheless, breakfast was delicious and there was a grand view of the city from the roof. By grand, I mean vast. From so high, Cuba looked like war torn territory. The colors of the buildings ran together and the buildings seemed to melt. Everyone was helpful and accommodating. We were there for one night, thank goodness.
Santiago de Cuba
To get to Santiago de Cuba, we rode in our 16-seater for sixteen hours across country. The landscape was lush and green. Some areas were covered with untouched nature, trees and plants were overgrown and beautiful. In other areas, there were vast farms and crops. Besides for the greenery, there were bright blue skies when it wasn't raining. Even the rain was beautiful in its gray coolness. Unlike in the United States, there are no billboards selling every product and service you can image along the road. Instead, there are pro-Cuba posters, signs, markers, and adverts.
Santiago de Cuba during the anniversary has its own unique electricity. It is small and quaint, but also very alive. Carnival takes place down a short strip with a multitude of colorful floats, beautiful costumes, and food and beverage stops. To add to our experience, we had befriended some local cab drivers who carried us from our hilltop motel to the events. The one who was charged with returning early to retrieve our elder members had been given extra cash for gas... he returned with a bottle of rum and an empty tank! Thank goodness for flat shoes and good company. We walked about a mile from "El Titan de Bronce" (The Bronze Titan) a monument to Antonio Maceo to the Melia Hotel, had a cocktail, then trekked a few miles uphill to the motel. Fun times.
We visited all the attractions, staged out first mini-coup (ordering lunch at a nicer hotel when the tour group was on a tight schedule, but we wanted to enjoy a little luxury), danced in a local bar, made friends, went to carnival, a music festival, a cemetery made of marble, swam, played b-ball in the pool, walked, talked, drank and slept. See? Everything! By the way, the cemetery (Santa Ifigenia) was fascinating, even if all the mausoleums intentionally have asbestos.
Havana, We're Back!
After a 16 hour return trip, we arrived back in Havana. They moved us to the third floor to accommodate the elder members of the group, but this floor was... yeah...just yeah. Determined to get a better hotel, some of us left the tour group, walked through Havana to IBEROSTAR Parque Central, had a cocktail, stuck our toes in the pool and crafted our own revolution of sorts. I'm sure it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it was at the time. We went back to our hotel, listed our demands, packed our bags and hopped on a bus to Varadero Beach for the day. A few hours later, we frolicked in the ocean, had our own amazing educational experiences. Guess what, it worked! When we got back, we found that they had moved to a new hotel with all our belongings in tow. Yay!
The rest of the trip was lots of fun. I went to Hotel Havana Libre (the old Hilton Hotel) for a swim and a meal, walked through a market place, Went to the Hotel Nacional a few times, once for a Buena Vista Social Club cover band, La Zorra y el Cuervo jazz club where I got called on stage and danced with the band, high rise dinner, Callejón de Hamel (a very cool immersive art experience), learned to play the guitar, and visited a rum factory. I walked and walked and walked but there was NEVER a moment that I felt unsafe. It was awesome. I'm pretty sure there is more, but honestly, what more can a girl on the go ask for?