Cuba is a wonderland

Trip Start Jan 01, 2014
1
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Trip End Dec 31, 2014


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Where I stayed
Melia Habana Havana
Read my review - 5/5 stars
What I did
Enthralled by the people and places we visited

Flag of Cuba  ,
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Map of Cuba

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If I had to rate our trip to Cuba, it would rate a +10, or as many of our group have voiced “WOW” many times during the trip, and after we arrived home. And this from a well traveled group; one even owns a travel company.

We had seven in our tour group, six from California, and one, my roommate, from Mexico with-whom I've traveled with before. It was a good group, because we traveled together several times before on other trips, and have known each other for some years.

This adventure lasted only ten days including our two days of travel, but all of us experienced a life time of site-seeing, excellent food, and many gallons of drinks.  When I say drinks, it included (many bottles of) wine, beer, mojitos, daiquiris, vodka, whiskey, penya colatta, and margaritas. And believe it or not, we even drank water!

The food? I'm not sure where to start, because we ate like royalty. For example, our first night in
Havana, I had creole crayfish and a seafood plate to die for! It just got better as we had meals at other restaurants in Old Havana.  One evening, we even had dinner at a castle where Batista once lived.

Wait, wait, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. So, here's the chronological sequence of events of our ten days in Mexico City and Cuba.  I will do a separate blog on Mexico City, because it deserves a blog on its own.  

A brief on Fidel Castro Ruz and Cuba (from Wiki):

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
(
Spanish: [fiˈđel ˈkastro]; born August 13, 1926) is a Cuban politician, socialist revolutionary, and former political leader of the country.[1]  As the primary leader of the Cuban Revolution, Castro served as the Prime Minister of Cuba from February 1959 to December 1976, and then as the President of the Council of State of Cuba and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba until his resignation from the office in February 2008. He served as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba from the party's foundation in 1961 until 2011. In 2006, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Raúl Castro, who is the current President of the Councils of State and Ministers, and who previously served under Fidel as Minister of Defence from 1959 to 2008.

While studying law at the University of Havana, he began his political career and became a recognized figure in Cuban politics.[2]  His political career continued with nationalist critiques of the president, Fulgencio Batista, and of the United States' political and corporate influence in Cuba. He gained an ardent, but limited, following and also drew the attention of the authorities.[3]  He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated, and later released. He then traveled to Mexico[4][5] to organize and train for an invasion of Cuba to overthrow Batista's government, which began in December 1956.

Castro subsequently came to power as a result of the Cuban Revolution, which overthrew the US-backed[6] dictatorship of Batista,[7] and shortly thereafter became Prime Minister of Cuba.[8]

A brief on Che Guevara: Che's pictures are posted all over Cuba, and t-shirts with his picture are popular.  I didn't see any t-shirt with Fidel Castro's picture. Che was a physician, author, and a major figure of the Cuban Revolution. Che traveled throughout Latin America, and t-shirts and caps with his picture are also popular. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico City, and joined their 26th of July Movement. They sailed to Cuba with the goal of overthrowing the US backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. We had dinner one night at his castle-residence cum restaurant.


Today, Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place where anyone stepping into its boundaries will immediately fall in love with. Havana Vieja was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. During its intervening history, Old Havana was destroyed by the French, and pirates plundered the city and burned much of it to the ground. Subsequently, the Spanish built fortresses and walls to protect the city. Castillo de la Real Fuerza was the first fortress built in 1558. The city was built in the 17th century in baroque, Spanish colonial, and neoclassical style. If one can look past many of the ruins of these once beautiful structures, it's easy to see how it was once the third
largest city of Cuba (not the world). 
May 10, Tuesday: Six of us flew into Mexico City from San Francisco to stay one evening before our flight to Cuba. We stayed at the Hilton Double Tree, and had dinner at an Argentine steak restaurant. The steak was so-so compared to the “real” steaks of Argentina. But that was okay, because we made up for this somewhat average meal for the rest of this journey with fine food.

Map of Old Havana

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May 11, Wednesday
: After our flight from Mexico City to Havana that took about 2.5 hours, the bus took us on a quick tour of Old Havana to drop off other passengers before our transfer to the Melia Habana Hotel some distance from the Historic Center. Our dinner that night was at the La Fontana restaurant not far from our hotel. We first stepped into their small downstairs bar before sitting outside for dinner. I had the Creole crayfish appetizer, and seafood platter with lobster and wine. The meal was heavenly.






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Shuttle bus stop

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May 12, Thursday: Alex, my roommate, and I took the free shuttle to Old Havana, and walked towards Plaza Armas, stopped at a tourist information office to buy a map of Cuba, and passed by some street performers on stilts, , then to the Hotel Santa Isabel building's bar at Plaza Armas for a cervesa.  We walked back towards Calle Obispo, the main shopping and main street that connects the Malecon (main outer drive) to the center of the city. It's also where Cafe Floridita is located at the other end of Obispo, the famous bar where Ernest Hemingway frequented. The daiquari was invented here, so that's what we had (at tourist prices). A young lady sat next to me with a camera, so I volunteered to take a picture of her with the bust of Hemingway at the end of the bar. Turns out she was from Moscow, and was having a last visit before returning home later in the day. Alex and I had lunch at Hanoi restaurant, then walked to the cigar factory tour located on the other side of the Nacional Capitolio. Picture-taking was not allowed in the factory, but I took some in the shop and the entrance hallway. We saw them grading the tobacco leaves, the apprentices working, and how the 184 experts roll the cigars. After the tour, we visited the shop to look at the different cigars. The best ones are called Cohiba, and the second best are Montecristos.  I saw a box of Churchills, those very long cigars that Churchill made famous. I bought a Cohiba, and I must confess, I really enjoyed the aroma and taste. Alex and I had a smoke on our balcony after our visit to Nacional Hotel.


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Much is made of Ernest Hemingway’s predilection for staying at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. He wrote the first few chapters of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in room 551, which is now maintained as something of a shrine.
 





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We took the bus back to our hotel, then a taxi to Nacional Hotel, declared a National Monument. Alex and I sat outside for cervesa, and to browse around the hotel property, because there are many pictures of famous Americans such as Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, and Marlon Brando, posted in the hallways and public rooms. The five others in our group showed up, and sat at
our table after the waiter brought over some more chairs.

 

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This was the evening six of us went to Batista's castle, Casa Espaniola, for dinner. We had some tapas for appetizers, and I had the leg of lamb for my entree. I think our group drank 5 bottles of wine. We got back to our hotel after midnight. Alex was already sound asleep when I entered our room.



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To enlarge any picture, just click on it.

May 13, Friday: Today was our day tour to the Pinar del Rio District, the western-most area in Cuba.  The Vinales Valley with its wooden barns where they dry the tobacco leaves are seen often while driving through this tobacco country where they grow them.  This tour included the visitation to a cigar and rum factory, the limestone mountain range, a huge mural on the side of a mountain, and a boat ride in a cave. Lunch was included on the tour at the cave restaurant.
 






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May 14, Saturday
: Alex and I took a late bus into Old Havana, and walked to his favorite Italian shirt shop, the Fariani, where he purchased four shirts. He told me that the $29-$31 he paid was a very good bargain, because those shirts sell for over $100 – even in Italy. He claims they last forever.  We walked and walked and walked, to Plaza Aramas, train station, Plaza Vieja, Plaza Aramas, Havana Club museum, Dosttemanos, Castille de Farnes, lunch at Del Oriente where I had the lobster-shrimp bisque and the pork in lemon-honey sauce. I had foot blisters for the
remainder of this journey.











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We had dinner at our hotel restaurant, La Bella Cubana, an Asian fusion eatery where we had sushi and sake (Japanese rice wine). The desert was a chocolate pudding with a curry sauce, and it was delicious! I just couldn't eat it all, because I was totally satisfied!   Sorry, but no pictures.


May 15, Sunday: Today was a very special day, because of our visit to Reencuentro con Hemingway, or known to gringos as Revisiting Hemingway, and the House where he lived for
twenty years – where he spent more time than anywhere else. The house was built in 1903. In 1940, Hemingway's new wife, Martha, purchased their home in  Finca Vigia in San Francisco de Paula. He bought a fishing boat, Pilar, for $7,500, and made a down-payment of $3,000. He wrote many of his works on a Royal typewriter while standing. He published many works from his home in Cuba, and even traveled to China in 1941 to report on the Sino-Japanese war for PM Magazine. Hemingway even hunted for German U-Boats on his fishing boat before he headed to Europe to cover WWII.  His first stop was London where he met a fellow reporter, Mary Welsh, whom would eventually become his fourth wife. Hemingway spent time in Paris, and later entered Germany with the American forces before returning home. He divorced Martha in 1945, and in 1946, married Mary Welsh. Hemingway's most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea, was published in 1952 in Life Magazine which won wide acclaim and financial success. In 1953, Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1954, a Nobel Prize for Literature. The pictures are mostly self-described, but will explain some that are of some interest.






 



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The clock stopped in 1960, when Hemingway walked out for the last time. Hemingway met Fidel Castro once, but the picture that was taken during that event is universally plastered all over Havana. We got a tour of Cojimar to have a cocktail at La Terraza bar where a picture of Don Gregorio, Hemingway's boat captain's picture is in a port hole frame is hung behind the bar

We stopped at a cigar store at Morro –Cabana fortress where Alex purchased three cigars. The driver was very disappointed that we didn't buy more.

After our return to Old Havana, we had lunch at Castillo de Farnes' bar for sandwiches and beer, then walked over to De la Revolucion (Revolution Museum) to browse at the many pictures and artifacts from the revolutionary period. The museum building was the presidential palace before the revolution. The museum's exhibits are devoted to the revolutionary war of the 50's and the country's post-1959 period. Some parts are devoted to pre-revolutionary period including the War of Independence against Spain. In a fenced area outside of the main building are some of the vehicles and armaments used during the revolutionary war and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The engine of a U2 plane, the tail of a B26, tanks converted from farm machinery, and a surface-to-air missle is also on display.  In a large glass enclosure is the Granna, the yacht that Castro and his revolutionaries used from Mexico.









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After our visit to the museum, we walked back towards Floridita to the taxi stand for our ride back to our hotel.




May 16, Monday: I left for Old Havana on my own this morning to meet with the group for lunch at El Templete restaurant behind Plaza de Armos. As I walked into Plaza Vieja, a guy approached me and started to speak in English, so we talked for a few minutes. He introduced himself as Rueben, and asked if I would be interested in looking at Havana's oldest church,
Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit). I said yes, so we headed south towards the outer drive called Desamparados. I looked inside, and took a couple of pictures. He then suggested the biggest
mercado in Havana, so I said yes again. After peering inside for a few minutes, we walked towards Ave Debelgica and northward towards Estancio Central (central rail station) where I again took some pictures. We walked past Monserrate, then to a side street where Rueben said they made the best mojito in Havana, so of coarse we had one, then to Obispo where we stopped for ice cream. Rueben took me to his brother's home to show me how most Cubans live, and what I saw and took pictures of was a very small, modest, three room apartment with
a kitchen with a small table, a bedroom, and a front room with a tv, syncrotism (a combination of Catholism with Afro-Cuban roots) icons, and a motorcycle. of Rueben got me back to Plaza Armas about 1:45 where I was supposed to meet the group at 2PM. I saw them walking
toward us at the plaza, so I introduced Rueben to our group, and said our goodbyes. We had lunch at El Templete restaurant. I left the group at the restaurant, because I wanted to get back to the hotel for some badly needed rest (my blistered feet were aching very badly). We've been on the go every day, and I wanted to go back, rest, and read the book I brought with me, The 8th
Confession, by James Patterson. I finished the book back in Mexico City where we spent two nights before coming home.














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May 17, Tuesday:
Today was our last day in Cuba, and so Alex and I wanted to revisit as much of Old Havana to enjoy its sites, sounds, food, drink, and their people. From the free shuttle bus stop near Habana Cathedral, we walked through the Plaza de la Cathedral to the Plaza San Francisco de Asis, stopped at a bar for cervesa, then all the way Antigua Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula, stopped at the largest mercado to browse and buy paintings (and take pictures), and although I saw some at very reasonable prices, I abstained because of the restrictions placed on Americans, and we already have many paintings in storage. We then walked to Estancio Central.  I later learned that the others in our group from California purchased many Cuban goods including bottles of Havana Club rum and trays. We stopped for lunch at this restaurant that Alex had eaten at before not far from the capitol building, and I learned why. The waitresses were big breasted!   Well, the food was good too!


We then walked through some side streets to Obispo, then took a taxi back to our hotel. I was exhuasted, but happy and totally satisfied! When I got back to the room, I took a short nap, then read some more of The 8th Confession.


On the last night at the hotel bar, Alex and I celebrated with a cigar and some drinks. The tv was showing the soccer finals, but I didn't pay too much attention to what was happening. It was Manchester 1. The bar manager served the last drink to us gratis.


What can I say, but many WOWS~! We're ready for another journey to Cuba to visit the other major cities, Santiago, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and several others east of Havana. It's an amazing country.   As a matter of fact, my friend in Mexico is planning another trip to Cuba, but this time for 12-days.   If it's before October, I can join them.    The September pre-Turkey tour to Syria was cancelled by the travel company.  


NOTE
: The American embargo on Cuba is ridiculous! There are many flights between Miami
and Havana serviced by American Airlines and Delta. Americans are able to visit China and Russia without any restrictions, communist countries that are as restrictive (or more so) against democracy.  The US is the only country with an embargo against Cuba.  (How stupid is that?) Many of the new buses and vehicles are made in China, and there are automobiles from Europe and Asia. The US is missing out on good commerce with our neighbors for some stupid restrictions that doesn't make any sense. I just hate to see the Cubans suffer from this embargo. I'm sure open trade with Cuba with improve their economy and standard of living.

The US has no embassy in Cuba, but a US Interest Section.

The Cubans are nice, friendly, people, for crying out loud.

AFTERTHOUGHTS
: What I noticed immediately as we were bussed from the airport into Old Havana and our hotel was the fact that their street lights indicate how much time is left for the green and red lights.   We need those in the US.   The old American made cars are abundant in all manner of shape and forms, but the mint-looking ones are spectacular!   We even rode in Russian made taxis and old American cars.   Buggy rides too!  

I immediately felt good about our journey to Cuba when we checked into our hotel.   The Melia Habana is some distance from Old Havana, but the hotel provides free shuttle service hour on the hour from 9:30AM during the morning, and every two hours in the afternoon till about 5:30PM.

Most of the Cuban people struggle to make a living.  Even doctors do not earn good income, but there are many contradictions that visitors observe while there.    There are many good hotels (joint ventures at 60/40; Cuban government owns 60%, and foreign company owns 40%), and restaurants-bars in Cuba with prices that are very reasonable for tourists, but difficult for Cubans.   I think most of the alcoholic drinks I had were between $2.50 to $7.50, depending on tourist bar or local.   Meals were a bargain; we ate like royalty with the best ingredients for under US$40, and that included wine and other drinks.   There are kiosks all over the country selling their wares and printed goods.   Most of the cigars produced in Cuba are exported, because many can't afford to smoke them.   The best cigar, Cohiba, cost about US$7.00 each where the average monthly salary is around $20.     Cubans use a different currency than does visitors; the exchange rate difference between the Cuban script and tourist money (CUC) is around 20/1 (guess). 

I love Cuba.


* I may revise and/or add/delete pictures in the future.  Also, I will post my travelogue on Mexico City within the next few days. 
  Feel free to ask questions.

My Review Of The Place I Stayed



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