¡Bienvenidos a Cuba! Our story continues with five savvy travelers from recent, individually crafted “people to people” education tours to Cuba in the past two years. Through Green News Update, they are sharing their ideas, insights and impressions of Cuba, as one says, “at a turning point that can go either way.” They are sharing what you should seek – and what you will love –if you’re interested in seeing the real Cuba.
What is the essential Cuba? Can you find it? Authentic is the word that is offered most often by “people to people” visitors who see Cubans through the lens of local artistic, cultural, social, and everyday experiences. Their travel is vastly different than that of the Canadians or Europeans who seek out a few “Club Med” –style resorts and golf courses on the island. [Might as well go to Barbados or the Virgin Islands!] The “p to p” travelers emphasize the essential Cuba is a far different – and richer—place to experience a living culture.
So come along, we’ll send you to World Heritage sites, Havana’s favorite haunts, at-home restaurants, arts in everyday life, cultural icons, and ways to experience social and cultural exchange.
If you missed it: Our earlier story, Cuba’s Waiting for You (Part I of our series) features plenty of interesting cultural history, how Hollywood and gambling shaped the pre-revolutionary island, and aspects of the current cultural explosion. Enjoy the shared wisdom of our Cuba travelers! And we’ve got two Photo Galleries with images from (literally) thousands that our travelers took:
The Essential Cuba Photo Gallery and the Cuba’s Waiting for You Gallery
Cuba: It Starts with People
Cuba is on the same latitude as Algeria, Egypt, India, Oman, Vietnam and Hawaii – but its people possess their own distinctive culture, after centuries of influence and assimilation. The island was shaped by slaves, imported labor and immigrants: Mexicans, Catalonians, French Colonials, Jews, Chinese and Africans. In the 19th-20th-centuries, U.S. investment, before the Revolution, exerted influence and brought Americans for entertainment and gambling.
Hardship has formed the Cuban identity of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. People have lived for decades without many of the goods and services most of us take for granted—remember the long and continuing embargo – and especially during the “Special Period,” (1991 onward) when the former Soviet Union collapsed and ceased supporting Cuba. Our travelers saw many contrasts: white tablecloth restaurants in select hotels and the simplicity and warmth of a family dinner in a private home or apartment (paladar). Large homes may be “owned,” but in need of complete restoration and basic updating like reliable electricity. Ration books continue to provide basic staples (rice, sugar, milk) while stakeholder farms produce and sell healthy organic foods using permaculture.
Pride in finding solutions – improvisar (improvisation) – has been the byword for everything from renovating Old Havana’s buildings to machining parts for the vintage American cars that ply Havana’s streets.
There is an entrepreneurial spirit that has been building since the Cuban government lifted controls in the last 5-10 years, to allow individuals and families to create “home-grown businesses,” earn extra money and stimulate the tourist industry. Keep in mind: The average monthly “government” salary is about $20.00!
Here’s just a few examples of how you can see firsthand the resourcefulness and energy:
- Artists get a yearly sum from the government; they pay an annual tax (like a license) and get to keep proceeds from what they sell through studio visits brought by “p to p” groups and artist co-op sales.
- Small stakeholder farmers sell their produce to restaurants and keep a portion for themselves, to sell to neighbors or bring to town in carts.
- Bicycle pedicabs and private rides in restored American cars from the 1950’s provide mobility for tourists and extra cash for locals.
- A barter system in “p to p” visits allows visitors to bring much needed items identified on a “wish list” for Cuban needs– dance shoes for a ballet company, diapers and household items, spices for a home restaurant — swapped for a tour of a private home, a private dinner or a dance recital.
Connect with Communities
Our travelers found authentic, connected communities. “One trip makes you want to learn more.” “Visiting there makes you care about Cuba – the Cubanos are like brothers and sisters. You have a real sense of camaraderie with the people.” Another: “I feel so much for these people and want to return!” The African legacy has had a pivotal role in shaping people through the religious practice of santería and in music (mambo, chachachá , through the distinctive Afro-Cuban musical style called son and its variation changṻí ). Here you will seek and find the rhythms of everyday life.
It’s alegría without the big bucks!
For an essential experience, your tour should include:
- Neighborhoods, towns and rural areas to find the truly welcoming friendliness and generosity of spirit. Here’s where you see real people doing real things, people learning and developing skills, such as after school programs, elderly social clubs, school of the arts. People weave arts and entertainment into life as part of their culture. You’ll feel the joy of their creating together.
- Visit to a private home – enjoy a tour and have a private meal there (paladar)
- Go to farmers markets and check out street carts filled with fruit and vegetables
- Spend time with artists and artisans in their studios and coops to talk about the arts and buy firsthand
- Enjoy a wide range of music performances, from neighborhood groups to night-time clubs and venues
- Savor the contrasts: people on horseback, mule-drawn carts, pedicabs, and 1950’s vintage cars
Cuban guides affiliated with tour organizers are the most important person in your group, according to travelers – fully bilingual, familiar with local customs and lore, and able to offer insights and access. A well-planned tour always features talks and discussions on architecture, art, music, history and policy from highly trained Cubans, not propagandists – architects, lawyers, retired diplomats, teachers and others – who supplement the island’s low wage base with moonlighting in tourism.
Cuba’s Beautiful Places
Cuba boasts a half-dozen World Heritage Sites – among many memorable places –that are essential for your itinerary – from Havana’s Old Town in a teeming city of 2 million, to communities with outstanding examples of early city planning and beautiful architecture, a traditional valley of the sugar trade, and a national park named for explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who spent time in Cuba in the 19th century. (World Heritage Listings for Cuba)
Havana’s “Old Havana”
Founded in 1519, Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean, many say the most beautiful, and it’s considered historically important, with plazas, squares, many parks, lots of public art. The old city center (La Habana Vieja) with some 3,000 buildings of early and Spanish Colonial architecture, the harbor, and 18 fortifications along the coast and harbor is officially designated as a World Heritage Site (WHS). The city’s seafront wall, the Malecón is a night-time magnet for young people. And don’t miss: Plaza de armas the green quilt in Havana
Founded in 1819, this southern coastal city – a lively Colonial port town on the Caribbean Sea — is considered one of the “best examples of 19th-century planning principles in the Americas.” It was settled by French colonists from former French colonies of Haiti and Louisiana, who influenced the streetplan and its neoclassical style of architecture. The Historic City Center is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Cienfuegos is the first, and an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble representing the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order in urban planning as developed in Latin America from the 19th century.”(WHS) The Cienfuegos Province Botanical Gardens feature more than 2000 species of exotic plants and 400 types of orchids that our travelers found outstanding. There’s a lively art scene (see below on our Arts suggestions) and the chance to visit studios and hear music performances.
Trinidad and the Valle of the Ingenios
Located in Central Cuba, Trinidad and the Valley of the Sugar Mills (about 12 km from Trinidad) are linked because of the 18th and 19th century sugar trade, which once numbered some 60 refineries. The beauty of this area – designated as a World Heritage Site—is tempered by the knowledge that some 30,000 African slaves toiled here on the sugar plantations. You can still see remnants of the mills, slave housing and plantation homes. One of Cuba’s best preserved cities – called an “untouched legacy” — Trinidad feature plazas, cobbled streets, former “manor houses” in pastel hues that had been occupied by sugar barons, as well as one-story “domestic” houses. Not to miss: the Templo de Yemaya, where the traditions of Santería can be explored (combining Catholic theology and Afro-Caribbean beliefs). There are paladars here (family-run private dining) and a family-owned ceramics studio. Much to see and do.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status recognizes Viñales as “a living cultural landscape” with its centuries-old farming that emphasizes tobacco production. You can stay in one of dozens of casa particulares (bed and breakfasts in former private homes), visit a tobacco farm and watch cigar-rolling, go by bicycle or on horseback for a country ride, and spend time at the limestone outcrops rising to 400 meters high from the valley floor (mogotes ). Local farms can be toured to see firsthand low-tech organic farming. Check a map to find the western province of Pinar del Río, about three hours from Havana.
Cojímar and Von Humboldt Park
Like two sides of a coin, these two locations are iconic: writer Ernest Hemingway (and his Finca Vigía) who hung out and fished in Cojímar; and Alexander von Humboldt, the ultimate 19th century Prussian explorer, who spent 5 years in Latin America and the Caribbean on his own voyages of discovery.
Von Humboldt National Park is a World Heritage Site, with an abundance of ecosystems, rivers, and floral biodiversity. It’s known for its biodiversity, large number of endemic species (found only in Cuba). Von Humboldt visited Cuba in 1800 and 1801 – your own visit to the park could be just as exciting. Located in the eastern Cuban provinces of Holguín and Guantánamo.
Cojímar is the fishing village where Ernest Hemingway (author of The Sun Also Rises) spent time fishing, drinking rum and playing cards with the locals – not necessarily in that order! Local Cojímar fisherman Gregorio Fuentes was, according to all accounts, the inspiration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and was captain of Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar. For the second half of your Hemingway experience, travel on to San Francisco de Paulo in the Havana suburbs to Finca La Vigía (“lookout house”) discovered by Hemingway’s third wife, and purchased with his first royalties from For Whom the Bell Tolls; it became his port-of-call for writing.
Revered by locals and respected by the regime (Fidel went fishing with Hemingway!), Hemingway left the house—and Cuba — behind in 1960. It’s beautifully preserved with original furnishings (and mounted animal trophies!) and open for visits. Don’t miss: The Pilar, a 38-foot marlin hunter that Hemingway commissioned in 1934 at a Brooklyn shipyard, is perfectly restored and on view.
To Do List: Some Favorite Haunts in Havana
Cuba has been called “the land of the night,” and nowhere is that more true than in Havana.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba: This is the place to go for mojitos and fancy events –“beautifully laid out and hasn’t been spoiled by tourism,” says one traveler who was impressed by the graciousness of the staff. “So much style!” It’s a palatial structure – opened December 30, 1930 – designed by McKim Mead & White (and Purdy & Henderson Co.) with “Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements.” If you’re not an architecture buff, its celebrity is on display in a photo lineup of the famous and the infamous who visited or stayed here: American stars and performers Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Jack Dempsey; and the infamous Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Santos Traficante!
The Malecón: Where land ends and the sea begins, the Malecon promenade is a 7-kilometer-long magnet for the young to gather in the evenings, enjoy conversation and listen to their music devices. Don’t miss the chance to mingle with the locals –“it’s packed with young people” — and engage in casual conversation.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar: The American “sloppy joe” – so named because it was “a mess” of ropa vieja on a bun – was actually invented in Havana and spread to the US and elsewhere! Sloppy Joe’s was one of the sets for the famed Alec Guiness film Our Man in Havana (1959). More recently, the building underwent extensive restoration and reopened in 2013. Today you can go for a drink and a sloppy Joe. Story on the reopening
Buena Vista Social Club: Those words have multiple meanings – the album, the Wim Wenders movie, the worldwide acclaim for talented musicians Compay Segundo, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and virtuoso pianist Ruben Gonzales, and others from the 1940’s and 50’s era. Today, their legacy lives on in venues where heirs to the Buena Vista Social Club perform in Havana and on tour as the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. Your tour guide will show the way to where, on any evening, you can hear the music, the crowd is rambunctious, and 200 people are on their feet swaying and dancing till the wee hours.
Try a Cuba libre made with Bacardi Gold rum and check out the cigars – they’re legal here!
The arts, in the broadest sense, are everywhere in Cuba, infused into everyday life from neighborhood art projects to national first-tier orchestras and dance troupes. Music is everywhere – bars and clubs, but also unexpected places where there may be small and group performances in parks, churches, the workers’ hall, even at dinner (paladar) in private homes .
The arts are free, multi-generational , bring people together. Music is huge as a form of self-expression. Music and dance training begin very early – remember that 1.5 million Cubanos under age 20 are benefiting from arts incorporated into their education. One traveler suggests: “Ask someone when they learned to dance.” Dance schools, especially ballet, are “everywhere,” with opportunities for visitors to see everything from auditions and rehearsals to full performances.
“They weave entertainment into life.”
“You feel the joy of creating together.”
A good “people to people” tour will integrate opportunities to see demonstrations, auditions, recitals, and full-scale performances — whether in a park or a synagogue. Our travelers say, “ These performers are not pretentious, but they are not beginners . it’s polished and professional.” One of our reporters recalls “the Cantores de Cienfuegos choir event we heard in Cienfuegos was so good it gives you chills.” “People are doing an event just for you!”
In the visual arts, parks are the setting for a wide range of sculpture, folk art, mural, wall screens – not just sculptures of the Revolutionary heroes. Artists and writers are organized under a union (UNEAC) pay dues, get licensed (an annual fee) and get to keep the income they generate from studio visits and coop displays where they sell directly to travelers and art dealers.
Here’s a very short list of see and do options:
Fusterlandia: In the Havana suburb of Jaimanitas, ceramics artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster has used his ceramics palette to adorn a joyful world of 80 homes in this old fishing village with colorful murals that celebrate everything under the sun (including the sun), including folk characters, animals, Fidel and Che as revolutionary heroes (with corazón). He even has an homage to Antonio Gaudí, the architect-artist whose famed Sagrada Familia cathedral is still -in-progress.
Havana Biennale: Last year, the 12th Biennale featured artists from Cuba and 45 other countries in this invitational show at every possible venue in the city – churches, museums, streets, and the seafront promenade. As the Art Institute of Chicago put it, “The entire city comes together to celebrate the works of art…” Read about the 2015 Biennial and plan your trip for 2017.
Cultural exchanges: In the visual arts the Museo de Bellas Artes (Havana) and NYC’s Bronx Museum of the Arts are standouts for the exchange projects they have mounted, including exhibitions that feature exchanges of contemporary works by Cuban and American artists, teen exchanges, educational programs and publications. Anticipate that more of these events will take place with the warming of cultural relations. Founded in 1913, El Museo National de Bellas Artes (MNBA) is Cuba’s leading fine arts institution. MNBA houses the largest and most significant collection of Cuban art in the world, as well as artwork from diverse cultures and historical periods. Read more.
Artists and galleries: Galeria Habana is one of a dozen state-owned galleries that show and sell artists’ work, but plenty of coops and private homes, in Havana and other towns, are available where you talk with artists and photographers, and if you choose, buy their work. Budding artists get a 9-year art education for free in Cuba! Kadir López , one prominent artist, answered his door to find Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith there interested to see (and buy) works he has produced incorporating old Coca Cola signs. Read the New York Times story
Look up and around: Some of the world’s best Art Deco buildings are in Havana, and many in need of full restoration. Don’t miss them! Here’s a gallery of examples from The Guardian and others off the beaten path
Don’t forget: Ceramicists, basket makers, fabric artists and others offer beautiful items, within reach, for the general traveler, in smaller towns and locations that “p to ‘” tours often travel. This is a perfect way to support artistic production at the source.
The joy of motion: Check out everything from Cuban National Ballet’s world ballet mistress Alicia Alonso to Conjunto Folklorico
Meaningful moments and icons
Jamás podrá tomar este país (you can never take this country)
Playa Girón: Of Cuba’s 289 beaches, this may be its most revered as the place in the Bahía de Cochon (Bay of Pigs) where Brigade 2506 (Brigada Asalto 2506), made up of Cuban exiles-and sponsored by the the CIA- attempted to overtake Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961 and were defeated “hands down” says one of our travelers. There’s a small Bay of Pigs Museum (Museo Girón) that you should not miss to better understand the conflict and how the US is portrayed.
Santa Clara: The place where Che Guevara’s rag tag 300 troops stopped the trains carrying ammunition/explosives for Batista’s troops (1958). The tren blindado (armored train) is near the train station in Santa Clara. Che’s mausoleum is in Santa Clara. What to see and do
Queremos serán como Che: Ernesto Che Guevara is revered as a national hero in Cuba; his image is everywhere in parks, murals and sculpture. Che’s portrait is on the Ministry of the Interior building in Havana. There is an annual Che Day where you can buy “checitos,” which are all sorts of items with his likeness (from key chains to tee shirts). See what author Tom Miller has to say about Che Day in Havana
The José Martí Memorial in Havana was completed in 1959: the year that Fidel Castro came to leadership. It’s 109 meters high, a “huge towering thing” that stands on a raised hillock, in front of the former offices of Fidel Castro.
Plaza de la Revolucion: French urbanist Jean Claude Forestier conceived the gigantic Plaza de la Revolución (known as Plaza Cívica until 1959) in the 1920s, as part of Havana’s “new city,” which grew up between 1920 and 1959. As Lonely Planet Guide points out: “the nexus of Forestier’s ambitious plan, the square was built on a small hill (the Loma de los Catalanes) in the manner of Paris’ Place de l’Étoile, with various avenues fanning out toward the Río Almendares, Vedado and the Parque de la Fraternidad in Centro Habana.”
The Literacy Museum: Cuba today has a 98% literacy rate (higher than the US) and that’s partly due to the literacy campaign started decades ago by Fidel. His initiative sent young high-school graduate to farming communities to teach reading and writing in rural areas, armed with lanterns so they could teach at night. They were expected to live there for a year. Graduation for those who were learning was to write a letter to Fidel. This is a must-see museum.
What’s for Dinner ?
If you want authentic Cuban food, one traveler says, you need to go to New York and Miami. This isn’t a criticism, but recognition that chefs don’t have access to all of the foods and traditional spices that are integral to Cuban cooking, and have learned to improvise.
It’s possible to eat good, home-style food in Cuba and that’s a major step forward compared to the 1990’s when, during the Special Period, Cubans on average lost 30% of their weight because of severe food shortages when the Soviet Union collapsed and ceased being a major economic partner, and supporter of the Castro regime. Today rationing is still common. There is a monthly ration card for rice, sugar, and milk which is primarily reserved for children and pregnant women.
Agriculture is not working on a national scale, says another traveler, a biologist. On the plus side, many people have small stakeholder plots of an acre or two and are actively producing food for themselves and for sale as mobile hucksters on the street or in farmers markets. Most food is produced organically (three cheers!) because of a lack of synthetic fertilizers.
If you’re eating well in an urban restaurant, some of it is likely imported – fish from the Nile (the government buys and imports fish), butter from Germany! Local fisherman have to be licensed to protect from overfishing. A small stakeholder may have a cow that the government owns and gives the stakeholder a 20% ownership. The rest of the beef goes to restaurants.
One of the best ways to enjoy an authentic Cuban food experience is through paladars – private homes that are licensed to cook and serve food. But a paladar is much more than that. Think of it as a social experience to spend time with a family that is sharing their life and livelihood as part of your Cuban experience . See a list of paladars in the Guardian
The point of this story — and our travelers’ strong feelings — is that Cuba is a living culture that has its own authenticity and should not be tarnished by large-scale US hotel and golf-course development, the cruise ship craze, and mega-scale tourism. It stands on the brink of change resulting from new US-Cuba diplomatic relations, cultural exchanges and the likely lifting of the embargo. Cuba needs economic development but not at the expense of its vibrant culture!
The time to go there is now! ¡Vámonos!
Green News Update offers special thanks to our travelers from 2014 and 2015 who shared their experiences and over 2,000 photographs to develop this story: Meg Maguire, Heidi Crabtree, Brigitte Savage, Alexandra Fairfield and David Cheney.
If you missed our first article, Cuba’s Waiting for You (Part I of our series) catch up on plenty of interesting cultural history, how Hollywood and gambling shaped the pre-revolutionary island, and aspects of the current cultural explosion. Enjoy the shared wisdom of our Cuba travelers! And we’ve got two Photo Galleries with images from (literally) thousands that our travelers shared: The Essential Cuba Photo Gallery and the Cuba’s Waiting for You Gallery
Green News Update continues our series on Cuba later this year on the island’s pristine coastline, marine life, plant world and urgent need to protect and preserve Cuba’s biodiversity.