Why go to Cuba, you might ask? Well, this trip was Allen's idea, sort of a snap decision earlier this year when we heard that travel to Cuba was becoming a possibility for Americans as the embargo was being lifted. People from other countries have been going on vacations in Cuba during our American embargo because it was fairly cheap and a nice climate. Canadians especially have been good trading partners with Cuba over the years. This was a trip of a lifetime really, because once normal relations are fully implemented, it will surely change the character of this beautiful country. We had a chance to see it now and perhaps we'll go back in another 15-20 years to see what has changed.
We are all familiar with traveling to the airport, waiting at the gate for your plane to depart and things of this nature. Oh if it were that easy for us! The trip started fine, with the taxi picking us up right on time. We got through security with no issues and Sandra even met Kellyanne Conway in our terminal when we were walking to our gate. Sandra shook her hand out of respect, but Allen kept his distance. Anyway, the time quickly approached for our boarding so we were getting excited. Then the time passed and the delay cycle started. Some excuse about the laboratory on the plane had an issue. Soon we were in a 2-hour delay and then.....canceled. Yep, we were screwed. Sandra got on the phone with our travel agent Cindy and she got us on a late flight to Tampa. We arrived at our first hotel around 10 PM, and there was our Collette tour representative (Kathy Fil), still waiting up for our late arrival. We spent 9 hours at National Airport and missed the welcoming drink in Tampa, Florida, but at least we made it.
The second day we were up very early (which would be standard procedure from this point forward) to get on another plane and head down to Miami so our group could purchase visas ($100 each) and then fly from Miami to Santa Clara, Cuba. These flights were fine and things were starting to look up, so our excitement was building. It was wonderful to finally be in-country and ready to check out our first digs - the beautiful Iberostar Ensenachos Cayo Santa Maria (Isla) resort. It was also time to try out that smart phone that Allen paid $50 to rent for this trip, as our iPhones were not supposed to work in Cuba. The rental phone could not find a network. Oh oh. No communication with the outside world.
The monetary system in Cuba is called Cuban Pesos. But for tourists like us, they have another monetary system called 'Convertible Cuban Pesos', or CUCs. I think the reason is to keep things cheap for locals and more expensive for tourists. As far as an exchange rate goes, we got about $174.6 CUCs for $200 USD. An even bigger surprise was to be found in our bathrooms at the resort - a small can next to the toilet. It turns out they don't want you to flush toilet paper down the toilet; you are to put used toilet paper in the small can. What??? Yes, the plumbing in Cuba can't handle toilet paper. Double oh oh.
We rode a nice tour bus over to Santa Clara and stopped for a nice lunch where we got to chat with our fellow tour group members. As a surprise, the restaurant staff had a little birthday cake for our tour representative Kathy, as she was born on this day (07 December). Our tour guide and driver (Yamelis and Louie) were helping to make everything go smoothly too. Yamelis spoke fairly good English and of course Spanish.
A interesting bit of information here. Our tour ran from 06-14 December 2016. The tour prior to ours was cancelled due to the mourning period for Fidel Castro. Earlier tours suffered from rain in Havana. We had perfect weather for this time period, so we were very lucky! We only saw a little rain riding the bus into Havana, but it was gone even before we departed the bus to head up to our rooms.
Our first big day of seeing the sights started in an art museum where we listened to one of Cuba's last Piquetes bands (Piquete Melodias Antillanas). We watched dancers demonstrate the national dance (Danzon) and some of us were picked to dance with them. Sandra and Allen won second place, which was quite amazing given Allen's two left feet. Sandra was awarded a small orange hand-made decoration to wear. There were also local art theater students that gave us a demonstration and they sure were cute.
We visited the Che Guevara Memorial & Museum on this day and no cameras were allowed inside. There were many pictures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro from the early days of their successful revolution to oust President Batista in 1959. Back at our resort (after sunset) we attended a mojito-making demonstration and got wasted.
On this day we toured a sugar museum (Museo de la Sucre) which had old steam locomotives nearby. That was pretty cool to see these monstrous machines, but they were dwarfed by the size of the sugar cane extraction equipment. We were given a taste of fresh-squeezed sugar cane at the end of the tour. Then we headed into downtown Remedios and walked around before sitting down to our choice of restaurants for lunch. Our restaurant was fairly new; they only had one menu to pass around! The food here was cooked to order, so we almost ran out of time waiting for it to show up before hopping on the bus again to ride over to San Juan Bautista de Remedios, a 17th century Baroque church. We saw one of only seven Virgin Mary statues in the church. Next was a cigar factory, where we watched how they rolled Cuban cigars (no pictures in there). Then we headed nearby to visit an art museum, one where they hand make paper out of recyclable materials. After a full day of touring, it was time to ride back to the resort to relax with the buffet dinner and a few drinks.
So we had to depart that lovely resort in Santa Clara eventually, and today was the day. We headed out early and rode the bus to Cienfuegos Province Botanical Gardens, the oldest of its kind in Cuba. We saw various species of bamboo and things of this nature, including a beautiful banyan tree. Sandra loved this place, but Allen was itching to get into Havana to see more old cars. We enjoyed a nice lunch in Cienfuegos and then arrived in Havana, just missing the rain that had been there for several days. Our hotel was a famous one - the National Hotel, built in 1930. Our room was fine, and dinner was exceptional, especially the wine selection (available for additional purchase of course). We split a nice bottle with our fellow travelers Steve and Jean, and this bottle (Valdriero, Crianza, 2009) was exceptional.
Unfortunately, both Sandra and Allen got sick the following morning (as it 1 AM onwards...) and Allen had to stay in the room for day 6. Sandra toughed the next day out because she is a strong woman.
Sandra headed out to see a performing arts school and later to see Casa Fuster, which had on display the work of Jose Fuster - his artwork was inspired by Spain's famous architect Antonio Gaudi. There were a few Harley-Davidson motorcycles nearby and Sandra requested a T-shirt for Allen to be delivered to the hotel, but it never showed up (same for another member John of our tour group). At least they didn't pay in advance. Allen was feeling better by the evening and good thing, as we had paid to go visit the Tropicana! Our evening there was wonderful, as the costumes were fabulous and extravagant. The music was loud though so you might want ear plugs for this event.
This day started off right for the ladies in our group, as our first stop was a jewelry design shop (Rox 950) in Havana. We saw how they fabricated the pieces in their workshop(s) and of course there was an opportunity to purchase some of the pieces. Outside we saw some kitty cats so Allen was happy too. Next was a cigar shop in old Havana where we could purchase Cuban cigars at a reasonable price. Almost everyone bought a few although only a few of us smoked. They are sought after in the states of course, so they make good gifts. We continued on to visit the Revolution Museum and they had a wall there with three of our previous presidents depicted in a bad way. This was to be ignored by most of us but I grabbed a picture anyway. We spent some time in old Havana, walking on a small section of their ironwood road (they didn't line many roads with this wood as it turned out to be very slippery when wet) and Allen got some great pictures of old cars parked nearby.
In the afternoon we headed over to Hemingway's house (Finca Vigia) in Cuba. This was left mostly in the condition as when he passed, with several period newspapers laying on the bed and such. There were tons of books in the various rooms (you could only look from the outside through the open windows) and all the furniture was custom fabricated on location for the house.
To finish the day off, we did dinner on our own. Sandra and Allen dined at Havana 21, which was a few blocks from our National Hotel. The food was decent but again, not very spicy. Allen asked for some Tabasco sauce to spice things up a bit.
Well, our educational vacation was quickly coming to an end. This last day of touring was spent in Havana, starting with the Hamel Alley art museum where they have produced some excellent artwork out of recycled materials. Nearby we were entertained with religious dancing (imported from Africa) and then we saw a fine arts museum (zzzzzz) but then were able to see some more of the antique cars! Our lunch consisted of just ice cream this time, which was fine by most of us since they provide so much food at the buffet meals. We had about 45 minutes to shop in the flea market before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our evening tour of the city in old convertibles. The cars dropped us off at our restaurant for our farewell dinner at the Café del Oriente. Quite a day really.
The whole trip was very enjoyable. It's long enough to get a good taste of the country, but you'll need another week to see the whole country. If we go back in the future, I suspect we'll visit the southern portion of the country if permitted.
Relaxing after dancing up a storm into second place!