Rum, Cigars, and Communism

 By the time we arrived in Cienfuegos, we still had not resolved our deteriorating money issue.  When we arrived at our Casa and our hosts offered us dinner for 12 CUCs per person, we apologetically had to decline because we honestly weren’t sure that we would be able to afford it.  When we explained our situation, our gracious and gregarious host, Guillermo, offered to walk us to the bank that allegedly had a Western Union inside of it, while his wife, Midaimys, called another bank to find out our options.  We had learned earlier in the morning, before we left Havana, that we would not be able to have money wired to us, but could only have money wired to a Cuban citizen directly.  The Western Union lady explained that we would need to ask one of our Casa hosts if they would be willing to give us their identity numbers in order to do this.  Guillermo and Midaimys offered to help us with this, after we had known them for about 10 minutes.  When we arrived at the bank, only to find it closed, Guillermo banged on the window to get the cleaning lady to open the door, to explain to her to explain to those in the back that we were robbed.  “Wait, what?!?!? We weren’t robbed?” I  thought.  But, Guillermo thought it would be better to win over their sympathy. Even if they did sympathize with us, there was no way to get us money they explained, so we headed back to the Casa, counted our money, and set a budget. Lesson learned; if you are heading to Cuba from the United States, make sure you bring more than enough cash with you!

With only one night planned in Cienfuegos, we decided to walk down to their Malecon, which looks out onto one of the loveliest bays in the Caribbean.  Fortunately for us, there was a little store right at the corner selling $2 beers to take with us on our stroll.  If one follows the Malecon to the end, you would wind up in Punta Gorda, the upscale section of Cienfuegos.  We only made it about half way however, as the allure of the setting sun and the people watching were more than enough to entertain us.
Cienfuegos
Sunset in Cienfuegos

That evening, we strolled back to town trying to find a decent place to eat.  Although I had heard the food in Cuba was becoming better, in cities outside of Havana, it is not so easy to find a decent restuarant.  There are two types of restuarants in Cuba; the government owned ones and the privately run “paladares,” which work much like the casas, with people serving food out of their homes.  It is not always easy to find these places however, and it is not always easy to distinguish between a government run restuarant and a thriving paladar.  After strolling around the center of town, which seemed particularly dead on this Monday night, we were given a recommendation by a bar owner to try a paladar just around the corner.  The food was decent at best, if not a little weird (my “super hamburger” was a puck sized disc of minced meat with thousand dressing island on toast).  Thankfully there was a decent two-man band and as always, beer.

The next day, we decided to split the cab to Trinidad, with a few stops sprinkled in along the way.  As luck would have it, the two women staying in the other room at our casa were the same two women we asked to randomly share a cab back in Havana a few days earlier.  This mother and daughter team also happened to be from Long Island and Queens.  Happy to share a ride with them, we enjoyed the day, stopping off at El Nicho National Park to hike up to some waterfalls and swim in the natural pools.

El Nicho Park
El Nicho Falls
Swimming in the watering hole

We finally arrived in Trinidad in the late afternoon, wished our new friends safe and happy travels, and arrived at Casa Lola to meet our new hosts.  Full disclosure, I only selected this casa because it was named after their dog, Loba, which means “she-wolf” in spanish.  Although the hosts were nice enough, it was really Loba who stole the show.

Hostel La Loba
Loba
Nice to meet you, Loba!
Obsessed
Okay, last one.

Our room sat just off the back of the kitchen, with a terrace we could use and access to the stairs that led to the top of the building, which apparently is where Lola spent the night.  We heard her shuffling above us all evening.  No matter, her cuteness made up for it.

After we freshened up from our road trip, we went out to explore the adorable cobblestone old town of Trinidad.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, the whole city seems as if it is trapped in the 19th century with horse drawn carriages, pastel-colored colonial houses, and cobblestoned streets.

Trinidad

Every photography tour that goes to Cuba takes visitors to Trinidad to photograph this small, colonial city, particularly around the time the sun goes down.  Arriving in Trinidad around 5pm, I thought to myself that we had great timing!  Equipped with cameras and the excitement of exploration when you arrive in a new city, we set out to shoot our nat-geo photos.  Within 10 minutes of us walking around however, the sky became increasingly dark, with a looming storm rolling in over the surrounding hills.  Ever the weather optimist, I believed it would just pass and suggested that we grab two mojitos from one of the street-side vendors conveniently located on the Plaza Mayor.  We also noticed that there was a line of tourists around a food cart.  Curious as to what they were eating, a nice Chinese women sat next to us and offered us a piece of what turned out to be fried churros.  She generously gave us half of her portion, protesting she would never be able to eat so much.  Just as I sat there thinking how great travel is for connecting people from all over the world (here we were in Cuba, sharing a street-side churro with a Chinese woman), the sky opened up and my moment of Zen was gone.

Trinidad
Trinidad
Convent of St. Francis Bell Tower, Trinidad
Let the rain begin

Once the rain really began to come down, we found a little bar, with a handful of Cuban men, and decided to duck in for shelter and a beer.  Little did we know how entertaining this would be.  The men in the bar were local cowboys who had spent their day guiding tourists into the surrounding hills via horseback.  When we entered the small, open-aired room with a counter top serving as the bar, no one batted an eye.  The bartender told us he only had one type of beer, and the man drinking it next to us assured us that it was good.  With the rain pouring down outside, we obliged and ordered two.  At this point, a gregarious guide/cowboy came over to us and began to ask us the usual round of questions.  “Where are you from?”  “America?  But you speak such good Spanish?” (that one is for Michelle).  “What do you do in America?”  “What do you think of Cuba?”  It didn’t take long however, for the conversation to turn to wedding proposals and promises of living the good life on their ranches, where all we would have to do is relax and do our nails.  As fun and entertaining as these men were, we politely declined their generous offers of eternal love, and when the rain subsided a bit, we said goodbye.

Our Suitors

That evening, we were excited to check out the nightlife in this old colonial city, but were dissapointed to find that most of the nightlife consists of hundreds of tourists sitting on the steps of the Casa de Musica, drinking mojitos or canchacharas, with almost no Cubans around.  Although the city of Trinidad is delightfully scenic, the whole place felt as if it has been sanitized for tourist consumption; a sort of Disney version of Cuba.  Still, determined to experiences the famous Cuban nightlife we had heard so much about, we hopped in and out of a few music clubs while sipping the drink of the region; canchachara.  Made with sugar cane, rum, and honey, the Canchanchara is a refreshing and potent drink that is often served in little clay cups. The drinks were strong and sweet, but the music fell short of our expectations.  Everyplace we enterecd had a bunch of tourists bopping thier heads or tapping their legs as they sat around listening to some local band try to make some CUCs.  Almost no one danced.

La Canchanchara

Although our first evening in Trinidad was less than exciting, the next day turned out to be wonderful.  We started the morning by climbing up the tower at the Museo Historico Municipal, which offers gorgeous and expansive views of Trinidad and the surrounding areas.  Plus, with most of the tour buses rolling in around 11am, we were the only ones up there.

View from the top

Our second stop was the the House of Santeria, where we had read that the local priest will sometimes appear and perform a ceremony.  We walked into a bland, white room, with blue-lined trim around it and waited with a handful of French tourists for something to happen.  A mix of Catholicism and voodoo, Santerian priests are known to sacrifice animals during ceremonies.  With nothing going on (thankfully), we decided to get out of there before we got the creeps, and headed off to Playa Ancon to spend the rest of the day at the beach.

Playa Ancon

Located just 14km from Trinidad, the white-sand beaches of Playa Ancon are often visited by day-trippers, although there are a handful of resorts you could stay at if you chose.  Our first drink was “sold” to us from some guy who was getting them from the all-inclusive beach we were “borrowing” the beach chairs from. Ever industrious, Cubans need to be smart and savvy when it comes to making tourist dollars, and we did not mind paying this man to get us drinks, even if he was likely getting them for free.

Playa Ancon

In the afternoon, we took a boat-tour about 5 miles off the shore to a reef for some snorkeling, before we headed back to the beach for some relaxation time.

Snorkeling
Snorkeling (pic from Michelle)
Relaxation Time

Our second evening in Trinidad was just as uneventful as our first.  After finding an Italian restuarant that sold $3 pizzas and pasta, which, ironically, turned out to be one of the best meals we had in all of Cuba, we called it a night.

The next morning our Casa host arranged a taxi collectivo to take us to back to Havana.  We spilt the ride with a hungover couple from Amsterdam who were all over each other in the back seat, while Michelle sat with her face glued to the window.

When we arrived back in Havana, we were joyously welcomed back into Mary’s house, as if we were long lost family.  After settling in and recounting our cash, we hopped a cab out to the San Fransico Barrio to visit Finca La Vigia; Ernest Hemingway’s home for the last years of his life.

Hemingway’s Home

Unlike Hemingway’s house in Key West, visitors are not allowed inside of his Cuban home, but it mattered not, as one can see all the rooms quite clearly from the open-aired design of the house.  Hemingway purchased the home in 1940, while he was still married to his second wife, Pauline, but clearly entranced with his third wife, Martha.  The name, Finca La Vigia, loosely translates to “lookout house”.  From the writing room he built off of the main house, one could indeed lookout onto the city of Havana and its sprawling surrounding neighborhoods.  As you walk around the perimeter of the house, you can glance through windows at his book collections, his typewriter, and of course, his infamous hunting game trophies hanging on the walls.

Hemingway House
Hemingway’s typewriter
Hemingway House

Here Hemingway wrote such classics as For Whom the Bell Tolls and his literary acclaimed The Old Man and the Sea, as well as his nostalgic Movable Feast. More than a writer, Hemingway’s experiences while living in Cuba are meant for the pages of history textbooks.  During World War II, Hemingway and his Cuban buddies allegedly patrolled the waters between Havana and Miami, searching for German U-boats on his now famous fishing vessel, “Pillar”.  The boat is now forever “docked” in the back of his house.

Pillar 

Years later, during the Cuban revolution, Hemingway allegedly aligned himself with Castro, and was targeted by clandestine forces in the US government who tried to expose the fact that he was helping to smuggle weapons for his rebel friends.  Exciting and adventerous as his life was, this is also the place where Hemingway, living with his fourth wife Mary, began to experience severe signs of depression.  This is perhaps best exemplified by the pet cemetery he had established in his backyard.

Pet Cemetery

As most already know, after suffering severe bouts of depression, Hemingway killed himself in 1961, leaving behind his wife Mary, and the house.  The Cuban government ceased the house upon his death and left everything as it was the day he left for the U.S.  In visiting all of the Hemingway sites in Havana (and Key West, and Paris), it is sometimes easy to forget that this iconic author, who seemingly lived life to the fullest, also suffered from massive unipolar depression.  Never one to shy away from politics, it would be interesting to see what Hemingway would have thought about the relationship, or lack thereof, that developed between the US and Cuba during the second half of the 20th century.

After stocking up on souvenirs in the gift store; the ONLY place in all of Cuba that took my American credit card, we split a cab back to Old Havana.  Fully in love with Havana by this point, and realizing we had enough cash to get us home, we casually strolled through the streets, people watching and looking for souvenirs.  The street art, the old cars, the abandoned buildings, and the people, living life in the open all make Havana a uniquely charming city that has easily wiggled its way into one of my favorites in the world.

Havana
Havana
Havana
Havana
Havana

In the evening, we made our way over to Vieja Plaza, the oldest plaza in all of Havana, where children kick soccerballs and tourists snap pictures.  We found a decent cafe with outdoor tables, where I ordered the “Old Man and the Sea” sandwhich just to get my full kick of Hemingway for the day.  With decent food, we sat back with a few beers and enjoyed life unfold in the plaza.

Taking in the life at Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja

From here, we walked around for a few hours, enjoying the illuminated buildings and plazas of Old Havana, while sipping watery Pina Colidas and $2 beers.

Convent of St. Francis, Havana
Havana at night
If you like Pina Colidas….
Havana
Plaza de la Catedral
Clearly, there was rum in the Pina Colida

Our final day in Havana, we decided to take a bus to Vinales, the tobacco growing region of Cuba that is a 2-3 hours drive from Havana.  Experiencing a bit of FOMO about not staying a night there, we did some reserach and found a hotel that arranged one-day bus tours to the region.  Although I’m usually not a fan of the bus tour, this seemed like our best and cheapest option.

The tour departed the Hotel Ingelesia, the oldest functioning hotel in Havana, at around 8am.  Our first stop was a rum factory, where the usual touristy drill of “everyone off the bus, eveyone look at this one person make (fill in the blank), everyone into the store where they sell (fill in the blank)” began.  After tasting the rum, we were shuffled into a small store selling overpriced bottles of rum, prepackaged rolls of cookies, gum, and cigars.  For whatever reason, perhaps at the suggestion of our tour guide, we all decided to buy our cigars here.

Something about a grape?
Che and Cienfuegos watch over the factory

Once we arrived in Vinales however, I was not dissapointed in how beautiful it was, and immediately regretted that we did not plan to spend at least one night here.  Our less than enthusiastic tour took us to numerous sights, including La Cuervo del Indio, an interesting cave with an underground river system that has turned into a tourist trap galore.  We waited inside the cave for about 30 minutes to take a 5 minute spin up and down the “river” before exiting into a sea of souvenir stands and a restaurant.

Walking through the Cave of the Indians
Inside the cave
Exiting the cave

After the cave, we were taken to a tobacco factory/farm where one very annoyed and easily not-amused man explained to us, through rough translation, the process of growing and rolling tobacco.

Tobacco, just hanging around.
Rolling Cigars

Quickly bored with the explanation, and not enjoying squeezing in with 50 other people gathered around one not so enthusiastic tour guide to see the demonstration of how to make a cigar, I roamed off and explored the property a bit.

Vinales

While everyone was buying packs of 10 or 20 cigars, Michelle went and asked the man if we could purchase just two.  He handed us two and waved us away, telling Michelle in Spanish that there was no cost.  Sweet!! The overpriced bundles of our not particularly lively tour-mates covered the cost of our “free-samples”

Smoke em if you got em!

After the tobacco factory, we were taking to what would classify as one of the worst tourist traps/sites I have ever seen; a giant rock with prehistoric history spray painted over it.  For some reason, this rock of prehistory is considered a main attraction in Vinales.  When we arrived, underwhelmed by the giant, colorful rock, we realzed the restaurant for the lunch included in the tour was located here as well.  Although the lunch was included, if we wanted an alcoholic drink, we were told it would cost $4.  Michelle had the ingenious idea of going to the restuarants’ gift shop and buying a $4 bottle of Havana Club Rum, to which we added our two free cokes, and we were good to go!

Prehistoric History Rock
Brilliant

After lunch, we were taken to another tobacco farm, where, we were told, we could get out and take pictures. When we all shuffled off the bus, one of the young men on our tour, with a conspicuous camera, wandered off and was wading through the tobacco plants when the owner of the farm, a medium-sized, tan and sweaty middle-aged man came crashing off his front porch, angrily yelling at him to get out of his crop, and then at all of of us to get off of his farm.  Well, that was akward.

We ended the tour at a look out point, up on a hill that housed a small bar with a live band and a commanding view of the pool of the neighboring hotel.

Vinales

We made it back to Havana just in time to catch the sunset along the Malecon one last time.  With our leftover bottle of Havana Club and two cigars from Vinales, we enjoyed our final sunset in this glorious city.

The Malecon
Enjoying a Cuban on the Malecon
The Malecon
The Malecon

When we finally made it back to our casa, we hung out with our host family for a bit on their veranda and made plans with them to go out later in the evening, to hang out where the “real” Cubans go.  After a quick dinner, we found ourselves in an old Russian GAZ from the 1980s, cruising across Havana, past Habana Centro, Verdado, and into the neighborhood of Miramar.  Mary and Pedro, our generous and fun loving hosts, decided to take us to a stand-up comedy show/club to see Panfilo, the famous comedian who made fun of Obama to his face when he visited in 2016.  Apparently, in a Cuban comedy skit on TV, the two of them were playing Chess and when Obama commented “you blocked me,” Panfilo repsponded, “you blocked me first”, a reference to the American embargo, which many Cubans refer to simply as “the block”.  After about an hour of Michelle having to translate the show, prompting me when I should laugh, the scene turned a bit more lively, with Cubans dancing and laughing; an escape from the everyday realities of not being able to get toothpaste, having to use ration cards, and not being able to freely speak about politics.

Exhausted, Mary and Pedro dropped us off back at “home” around 3am, only for them to turn around and go back out.  They may not have much, but what Cubans do have is an appreciation for the little things in life; like catching the sunset, dancing with friends, and being able to meet and talk with foreigners, who help open up their door to the outside world.  Unfortunately, that  door is only ajar right now, allowing Europeans, Canadians, and even some Americans in, but few Cubans out.  Hopefully, one day in the not so distant future, Cubans will be allowed to travel freely to the US, so that we can generously open our doors to them, just as our hosts have opened their doors to us.

New Friends

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