Day 7: Havana

We were joined by the architect we met the other day, Daniel.

Later we asked him a lot of questions.

The Cuban government called the 1990’s a ‘special period’ because of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Food and medicine was hard to get and there was much suffering. Daniel said his parents made a lot of sacrifices (i.e. let the kids eat most of the food) but he still went hungry. Then we starting talking about Cuban sports, the Olympics (they only watch summer sports because they participate in baseball, boxing and track) and other TV programs.

He was able to travel to Mexico and Switzerland to study as an exchange student. The government doesn’t grant visas to younger people in fear they won’t return to Cuba.

Walked the promenade was built in 1912 and are mostly limestone and bronze. A Parisian architect designed this area of Old Havana and called it the city of columns. Along the promenade are homes of former presidents, a ballet school and other privately owned buildings, hotels and apartments. They were also shooting a movie with costumes from the 1920’s. Apparently, the director is the most famous in Cuban film – I will have to figure out his name and try to find a way to watch his movies.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) – was built in 1954 and received donations from collections of weathy Cubans who fled. Cuban fine art follows American and European trends. Most of the works are political, especially the pieces from the 1960’s. The building we were in was for Cuban artists only but there was another building for foreign art in a different location. Across the street there was a military museum honoring the Bay of Pigs.

Then we went to lunch at an Italian restaurant. Pizza is very popular in Cuba. We had cheese pizza and spaghetti – I tried the spaghetti but it wasn’t very good.

Jaimanitas by Jose Fuster – a created art neighborhood by a man who is famous for mosaic tiling and also crazy paintings. He designed many things for his neighbors too. He spent 40+ years decorating his own house and 18 years on his neighbor’s houses.

While Margaret went to a performance by a trio of jazz musicians from the Cuban Institute of Music, I lounged and swam in the hotel pool since this was our only chance.

We ate dinner at a Paladar on outskirts of the city run by an Italian man and his Cuban wife.


DSC_1561 DSC_1555 977 Havana Havana Harbor Margaret 981 Havana Havana Harbor 958 Havana Museo Bellas Artes 946 Havana old taxis 953 Havana transportation 940 Havana Park Central 956 Havana Museo Bellas Artes Architect Guide DSC_1630 DSC_1629 DSC_1627 DSC_1626 DSC_1625 DSC_1624 011 Havana Fuster 019 Havana Fuster 018 Havana Fuster

Day 6: Havana

DSC_1572 DSC_1574 DSC_1575 DSC_1576 DSC_1580 DSC_1591 DSC_1598 DSC_1599 DSC_1600 DSC_1602 DSC_1604 DSC_1607 DSC_1608 DSC_1610Cementerio de Cristobal Colon was founded in 1876. The first mausoleum was Hemigway’s bartender who invented the daquiri. Christopher Columbus was supposed to be buried there but his remains were taken back to Italy.

We saw several free mason symbols and former presidents graves. There was also a firefighters memorial. 38 died in an explosion because a businessman was smuggling fireworks. It currently operates as a cemetery and there were 3 funerals today.

The average pension is less than 10 CUC per month (about $10). Our guides’ father is 80 and still works as a cabinetmaker.

We asked about the prisons and were told that in the 90’s if you had a USD in your possession you could go to jail.


Calle Hamel: murals of Cuban-African religions. There are 3 main ones represented. Slaves became free in Cuba in 1868 after the main sugar plantation & slave owner decided to free his slaves and others followed suit. This started the first independence war lasting for 10 years. There was a second independence war and one of its leaders was Jose Marti (a national hero). Cuba then became the Republic of Cuba until the Revolution.


Muraleando – community art project. Street of murals. It’s also a children’s school of training in art, music, ceramics and doll making.


Hemingway Finca Vigia – where Hemingway lived with his wife from 1939 to 1960. We saw his beautiful home and a lookout tower. His last wife (he had several) donated all materials from their Havana home to make it a museum, including his boat. The museum offices are in the bungalows that he built for his kids when they came to visit. The house cannot be entered but we could look through the doors and windows (see pictures).


We ate dinner at The National Hotel. It was the best and nicest meal we’ve had so far, all for around $60. We joined the group for a 1930’s jazz show in the main ballroom.



Are coming soon, I promise! Internet here is slower than molasses in January (as Margaret would say). I can’t decide if internet here is better or worse than Chinese internet.

Day 5: Vinales

DSC_1491 DSC_1493 DSC_1494 DSC_1496 DSC_1498 DSC_1503 DSC_1504 DSC_1507 DSC_1509 DSC_1510 DSC_1518 DSC_1522 DSC_1523 DSC_1526 DSC_1528 DSC_1533Vinales is about 2.5 hours west of Havana. We took the National Highway built in the 1970’s to get there. We passed through of provinces of La Havana, Artesmesia then Pinar del Rio. Sugar cane was the main crop and export until the Soviet bloc collapsed in the 1990’s and the price of sugar fell worldwide. Then tourism became the most important industry. The main exports now are rum, cigars, coffee and sugar. They also mine cobalt.  Along the road hitchhikers are common but they have money to pay drivers. We saw people traveling by all types of transportation: bus, car, oxcart, donkey cart, motorcycles, covered trucks and horseback.

The terrain changed from flat to hilly with cattle grazing, goat herding and tobacco farms. Tobacco is harvested by hand and cigars are made by hand. Crops are grown in dark red soil but tobacco is grown in light brown soil with sand. The mountain ranges in this area are the oldest mountains in Cuba. There are a total of 3 ranges – the biggest is in the eastern most province of Guantanamo. The national reforestation program is taking place in this area and the National Park here is a UNESCO site.


We visited a working tobacco farm.  They were growing black tobacco. Leaves drying inside are for cigars. They dry for a total of 5 months. Leaves growing outside are for cigarettes. The farm had 8 hectares and 140,000 tobacco plants. They plant in November and harvest starting in January. From seed to cigar the process takes a total of 3 years. There were 11 workers and they make 2 CUCs a day which is about They sell their leaves to the brand Cohiba.


Vinales National Park – mountains are limestone with caves and farming is done with oxen. We stopped for lunch here and saw a prehistoric mural.


We then visited a local organic farm. They use natural compost like red worms and rabbit poo. There were puppies everywhere.

They used marigolds, hibiscus, corn and calla lilly for pest control. For pest spray they use the center vein of the tobacco leaf soaked in water. Their produce is purchased by an urban farming group and then sold to schools, hospitals, etc.


After 3 more hours on the bus to get back we went to a Paladar (privately owned restaurant run by a professional trained chef) called Santana. It was on the first floor of a family home close to our hotel.


Day 4: Havana

451 National Hotel veranda468 Dance School470 Dance School475 Dance School497 Havana Dance School balletDSC_1611 DSC_1612 DSC_1613 DSC_1616 DSC_1617 DSC_1618 869 Havana National Hotel M & S in car 871 Havana National Hotel entrance 872 Havana National Hotel Sara outside 883 Havana National Hotel Sara on veranda 884 Havana National Hotel Veranda Musicians


Old Havana Model – Architect of the restoration explained the model and procedure of the restoration. The restoration is 33% completed with money from UNESCO and EU countries. They have been working on this percentage of restoration for 20 years. The model took one family of five 3 years to build. Wood is hard to find here, since the US has the best wood and it is embargoed. Canadians have the second best but if Canada trades with Cuba, the US won’t trade with them for a year.

San Francisco de Asis


The Hotel Ambrose is the former hangout of Ernest Hemingway when he came to Havana for the fishing tournament (and after, before he rented a house). He stayed in room 511 where he finished the book For Whom the Bell Tolls and started The Old Man and the Sea.

National Hotel – probably the nicest hotel in Havana where many presidents and famous people stay.

We then visited a Dance School where kids ages 4-14 would study dance after school.  They are there from 4:30-7 pm.  Kids aged 4-9 were in workshop 1, 10-14 were in workshop 2. At age 9 kids must pass an audition to continue into workshop 2, the professional school. Kids attend M-F and learn 3 different styles of dance; ballet, modern and Spanish. There were a total of 470 kids in the school. After workshop 2 they stay for 5 years. There are 10 boys total and in 9th grade they have to decide weather to continue at that school or go to the National School of Art. They start with 40 students in workshop 1, 25 go onto workshop 2. If students don’t qualify, they can stay in workshop 1 for another year. We had trouble getting answers about what they do after school or what other options they have if they can’t make it into workshop 2.

23rd and L street is the most famous corner in Havana, where you can find the most popular ice cream shop, the former Havana Hilton, the theater showing “White Elephant” and behind it Cuban radio and TV stations.



Day 3: Santa Clara/Havana

Santa Clara, capitol city of the province about a 2 hour drive from the resort we stayed at. We walked around the city square called Parque Vidal – monuments and statues, surrounded by colonial buildings. This city is also home to a Jewish  For lunch they brought us to a tourist resort (the only places we’ve had food so far) and it was a buffet. I really love the papaya here.

4 hour drive to Havana

Cars seem to be rare (in the countryside) and I think gas is rationed. License plates are by color.

Blue is for tourists/state owned vehicles

Red is for rental cars

Black is for embassy

Green is Army

Yellow is private sector

Cars we’ve seen:

Restored old American cars: Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Ford from the 1950’s

Newer cars are: Citreon, Hyundai, BMW, Fiat, Toyota, Lada, Veo, Rio, Peugeot, Kia and VW

During the drive we learned a lot about the local life and culture. Children are required to go to school, in elementary school they all wear red and white uniforms, 3 years junior high school they wear yellow and white and 3 years pre-university (high school) and wear blue and white and university or tech school (4 years) if they want. School is only mandatory until end of junior high school – around age 14. If they do, they have to take a job assigned to them for at least 2 years after graduation. School is from September to June, July and August are vacation. Education is free, there are no private schools. They have specialty schools for the arts and sports (I saw this in China too).

Men at 17 years old have mandatory 2 years in the military. Girls military service is voluntary. A person’s basic monthly salary is $10, but doctors, lawyers and police make around $40 USD a month. Most shops (and everything else really) is state run but there are starting to be small shops that are privately run.

After the economic collapse of the soviet bloc in the early 1990’s, the reconstruction of Cuba economics started with tourism. They still trade in sugar and tobacco. Private businesses are mostly barber shops, beauty schools, taxi drivers, restaurateurs, etc. and they pay taxes to the government. Most workers are state sponsored and hired by state agencies.

Housing is inherited or provided through micro-brigades. Today they can buy/sell properties but they are US prices so no one can afford them. Foreigners can only rent property. National health care workers have top priority for housing assignments. Private farmers have to pay taxes, medical care is free.


On July 26, 1953, Che Guevara led a revolution against the Batista government which was a US backed dictatorship. Fidel Castro was also one of the main leaders.

In 1956, after being exiled to Mexico, Che returned. Revolutionaries fled to the mountains near Santa Clara.

Once in Havana we drove through the city to get to our hotel. It is obviously for Canadian and European tourists. Then we went to dinner at another place only for tourists. I’m excited to go off on our own tomorrow for dinner.



Day 2: Remedios/Caibarien

DSC_1404 DSC_1405 DSC_1406 DSC_1415 DSC_1416 DSC_1417 DSC_1418 DSC_1420 DSC_1428 DSC_1429 DSC_1430 DSC_1431Today we visited the cities of Caibarien of Remedios.

In Caibarien we saw an old print shop and were able to exchange money. You CAN exchange USD but the exchange rate is fairly bad. I had CAD and still lost about $13 on the transaction. USD in the same amount lost around $25

Looked in a few of the stores but items like bottled water were hard to find. We found a store with 6 bottles and bought 2 of them. They also had a lot of ‘pizzerias’ which looked liked a tortilla with tomato sauce and then toppings. So more like an open calzone, definitely nothing like American pizza. Or Italian pizza.

We also visited an artist’s house: Madeline Perez


In Remedios, the main features of the town square are colonial architecture and cobbled streets. Visited the cathedral that the town was built around. It was the eighth of the original 8 cathedrals the Spanish built on the island. Everything we’ve seen so far is very poor looking. The buildings aren’t kept up and the roads are horrible.


We got back to our hotel around 2, ate lunch and tried to go to the beach but it had become overcast and raining so instead we walked around the resort.

Meeting Up & Day 1: Miami, FL/Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Staring off the morning in Miami, still recovering from my birthday celebrations of the weekend. Met up with Margaret in the evening and went to a great Peruvian restaurant across the street from the hotel. It was SO cheap! I think $15 for the 2 of us with drinks.

We spent the next morning on a tour of the Miami neighborhoods including Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and South Beach and ended in Little Havana. We saw Domino Park, where Cuban refugees play dominos everyday. Walked around a bit on Calle Ocho (the main street) and had lunch before heading to the airport.

50 minute charter flight on American Airlines. Landed in Cienfuegos, which is home to the smallest airport I have ever seen. It had a landing strip and a small building. I think we were the only arriving flight of the day.

Immigrations and customs were a breeze. They really studied my passport and I asked the officer to give me a stamp.

Dinner @ Casa Verde in Cienfuegos

3 hour drive to Cayo Santa Maria to our resort hotel. It is an all-inclusive right on the beach. It was a long day.


Hi all!

No ‘fun’ trips for awhile planned, just couple jaunts to Minnesota for Thanksgiving/Christmas. The next big trip I have planned will be in March 2013 to Havana, Vinales, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Remedios and Cayo Santa Maria CUBA! I am more than excited to be sharing this experience (& my birthday) with my aunt, Margaret.


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