Jul 052016


Cuba CongaAmericans think of the Conga as a kitchy dance done in a line.  It is a very different thing in Cuba.  During the weeks leading up to Carnival the streets fill with the Conga on any given day at any given time.

The Conga is both a drum (traditionally called a tambore or tambadora) and a dance.

The dance originated in Santiago de Cuba, exactly when and how, is not really known, although documentation traces it back to at least 1902.  It is said that the Conga was appropriated by politicians during the early years of republic in an attempt to appeal to the masses before election. During the Machado dictatorship citizens were forbidden to dance the conga, because rival groups would work themselves to high excitement and explode into street fighting, some things never change. When Batista became president in the 1940s, he permitted people to dance congas during elections, but a police permit was required.  Today police still accompany the Conga dances.

Cuban Conga


The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The Santiago de Cuba Conga is slightly different than the Conga of Havana.

These differences are in the instruments.  The Santiago de Cuba Conga or Congas Santiagueras includes the Chinese cornet, an instrument in the oboe family introduced to Cuba by Chinese immigrants during the colonial period (specifically the late nineteenth century). .

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Congas of Havana or the Congas Habaneras do not have the Chinese coronet, but do have trumpets, trombones and saxophones with a few cowbells and frying pans thrown in for good measure.

The drums used can be complicated.  These are variations on African drums that have been altered over the years as to be unrecognizable from their original form.  This description is of the traditional Cuban tambores.

There are three tambores : one requinto and two galletas. The requinto is shaped somewhat like a snare drum- about 50% wider than it is tall. It is hung from the left shoulder with the top of the drum slightly skewed to the left and is played with a stick on the right-hand. The galletas are like bass drums, but flatter. They are both played with a stick in a manner similar to the requinto, except that they are hung from the shoulders in such a way that the skins are nearly horizontal to the ground. The higher pitched of the two is called a redoblante.  The lower-pitched galleta is called a pilón.

Cuban Drums


Quinto Drum

However, often the drums will be whatever form makes noise.

Cuba Conga

The Conga today is a mass of humanity and noise.  People pour into the streets and follow the music.  The Conga itself is just a few small steps, and a feeling of movement, so the street is not so much filled with dancing as with rhythm and energy.

If you are interested in getting a feel for the sounds of the Conga here is a short video.

Fights do break out on occasion

Fights do break out on occasion

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Cuba Conga

*Cuba Conga

*Cuban Conga

*Cuba Conga

*Santiago de Cuba Conga


Feb 182016

I recently read an article about Americans that don’t use the internet, and it was essentially what you would expect, primarily rural and older people. I wonder if Americans ever give any thought to people that simply can’t use the internet, because it doesn’t exist.

There is a misconception about Cuba and the internet amongst many people I meet. If a Cuban is fortunate enough to have money they have a cell phone and some are lucky enough to have a tablet, but that is not the norm.
The real point is that these devices are used for nothing more than phone calls, photo storage and game playing, since, for all intents and purposes there is no internet in Cuba.
Yes there is an intranet, Cubans can Skype with each other, but they can not look up information on Google or order items from Amazon.

Universities have limited internet, and the “ politically well connected” have access, but censorship is very strong, and service is intentionally kept ridiculously slow.
While one can spend hours discussing how that limits freedom of information, to me it presents completely different considerations.

Corporations, governments and people expect you to be connected. So many items today simply can no longer be accomplished without an internet connection.

I took a Notebook to my family in Cuba because they are cheap and and could hold a program I wanted for their education. However, notebooks are cheap because everything is held in the cloud, but what if the cloud doesn’t exist?
There are so many companies in the US that no longer have humans to deal with simple items like customer service. It is the norm to handle all your problems via a device, and yet, what if you don’t have a device?
I am one of the most connected people I know, and yet I wonder how we came to this point where human contact is abhored by corporations and when you attempt to solve a problem you are given a website address with the assumption that that solves the problem.

All of this is brought home to me when I head back to Cuba and try to explain to people that I truly, truly am disconnected from the moment the plane leaves Miami to the moment I return.

While in Cuba I carry an old fashioned notepad and a pen to write down everything that I need to remember.
I hold all my shopping lists, family members wish lists and all of the items I need for my stories in this little pink notepad that is as much a trademark of mine in Cuba as my Italian laced Spanish or my ever present Buddhist prayer beads.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 9.53.03 AM

I watch in fascination as the world, and especially my home town of San Francisco is so wired that even their front doors and lights are controlled by wi-fi or bluetooth without a thought to the fact that in other parts of the world they have no concept of these items.

When Cuba opens and American corporations begin to move into the business world of Cuba, how are they going to cope?

Nov 092015

October 2015

Baracoa, Cuba

The white sandy beaches of Baracoa, Cuba with El Yunque in the background

Baracoa is the oldest city in Cuba and sits as the far east end of the island. Baracoa means “the presence of the sea” in the Aruaca language, which was spoken by the original inhabitants of this area, the Taino. The town of Baracoa was founded in 1511 and immediately became the political and religious capital, this changed however, twenty years later when the capital was moved to Santiago de Cuba.

We traveled to Baracoa from Guantanamo along the Costa Sur. This area is the most barren part of Cuba, it is almost desert-like, which becomes obvious when all of the fences are cacti and the beaches are rocky.

The Costa Del Sur

The Costa Sur south of Guantanamo

At the town of Cajobabo one turns inland to the drive through the Cuchillas de Baracoa mountains. You wander through these mountains via the Farola, which begins just as one crosses the Rio Jojo. Here the luxurious foliage begins to simply overwhelm ones senses. There are banana plantations, pines, royal palm trees and waterfalls everywhere. The Farola is a road. It is touted to be one of the engineering feats of recent Cuban history, however, it was actually started during the Batista regime, and was halted because he refused to pay a fair wage.  Construction did not resume until the 1960s. The name came about because farola means beacon, and in some stretches, due to the lush vegetation of the area, it looks like a beam suspended in the air.

Inland of Cuba

Driving on the Farola looking back to the Costa Sur

This lush forest continues down to the small bay where the city of Baracoa rests.

Baracoa Bay

Baracoa is centered around its main square Parque Independecia.

Parque Independencia

Parque Independencia

Here sits the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. Built in 1512 and restored in both 1833 and 2012 it is the home of Crus de la Parra. This is said to be the cross brought to Cuba by Columbus, while the wood has been dated, and proves it is around 500 years old, the wood is also indigenous to Cuba, throwing the theory to the wind.

The Town of Baracoa Cuba

The pedestrian area around the Parque de Independencia

Statue of Christopher Columbus along the Malacon

Statue of Christopher Columbus along the Malacon

Baracoa is famous for cucurucho’s and chocolate. There is a small café marked Casa de Chocolate, in the center square, that is more convenient for its good prices on liquor at the bar in the back than its actual distribution of chocolate bars. The chocolate factory is owned by the government, and while you can look in and see hundreds of chocolate bars and “bon-bons” it is, after all, a socialist country.  So buying chocolate at the store and the concept of service are hit and miss at best

A woman selling from her home.

A woman selling pralines from her home.

The best way to enjoy the sweets of the area such as home made cucuruchos, chocolate layered with local coconut and these delicious praline like confections, are to find them in roadside stands sold by the locals.

The road to Yumari

The road from Baracoa to Boca de Yumuri

While the town of Baracoa is lovely, the reason to visit this region is the wildlife and the beaches. Heading east from Baracoa towards Maias you find the Boca de Yumuri. Here people are anxious to take you out to a small island up the Yumuri River and provide a roast pig feast. This area is well known for its stunning ecology of tall canyon walls, lush beaches and a rich birdlife.

Boca de Yumari

Boca de Yumari

The cliffs around Rio Yumuri

The cliffs around Rio Yumuri are dotted with caves and covered in tree roots and whatever else can cling to their sides.

Along this drive you will find traditional Bohios. These represent the original construction of the area, wood homes with palm leaf roofs.Bohio of Cuba

The drive on to Maias is a roller coaster ride through beautiful countryside with nary a person in sight.

Rio Yumuri

*Rio Yumuri, Cuba

We even tripped upon an old cemetery. This was the first time I had seen a country cemetery in Cuba and was thrilled to explore for a while.

cuban cemetery*

cuban cemetery

A symbol of the Baracoa area, and especially the Rio Yumuri, is the Polymita snail, or “Cuban land snail” or “painted snail”.  They are illegal to sell since poaching has depleted them drastically, however, this does not stop local fellows, just outside of town, from doing so such as where I snapped this picture.

Polymita Snails

Their colors are many and have a legend attached.  It is said that an Indian with no pearls to give to his love captured the colors of the universe. The green is for the mountains, the red is of the earth, the pink is for the flowers and the white is the foam of the sea, the yellow is the sun and the black is the night sky.  The love sick Indian put these into the shells and presented them to his love. Apparently the Duchess of Windsor, in the 1950s had a pair made into earnings.

There are many Casa Particulars in Baracoa, but we stayed at the government hotel simply because it was right on the water.  In fact it is across the street from the Hotel Russa, which is presently undergoing restoration.

Hotel Rusa Baracoa, Cuba

Hotel Russa was established by Russian émigré, princess and former dancer, Mima Rubenskaya or “La Rusa de Baracoa”. The princess settled in Baracoa after fleeing the 1917 revolution, she was six at the time.  She converted her home into a hotel in 1953.

We were in Baracoa on October 28th. On the waterfront all of the school children were brought to pay tribute to Camilo Cienfuegos, a compadre of Castro whose plane went down in the early parts of the revolution. This is an annual event that takes place across Cuba.

The children listen to a long set of propaganda speeches and then throw red flowers into the sea as a tribute.

The children gather to listen to speeches

The children gather to listen to speeches

They then wait in long lines to throw their flowers into the sea

They then wait in long lines to throw their flowers into the sea

Cuban Children

Eastern Cuba


Nov 092015

October 2015

Manguana CubaIf one heads North of Baracoa you get to Playa Maguana. This absolutely stunning white sand beach has a small government run hotel (Villa Maguana) with its own small private beach and fairly decent restaurant and bar. I have stayed in many government hotels in Cuba, do not let this photo fool you, this gem is very, very unique.

The government hotel in Manguana

The government hotel in Managuan.

ManguanaIt is twelve miles from Baracoa to Manguana and the entire road is like this. It makes for a very long slog.

El Yunque

If you travel this way you will go along the foot of El Yunque. El Yunque is a 1,885 foot limestone formation covered with vegetation and was a sacred site for the Taino Indians. Named by the Spanish, (the anvil) its shape is recognizable for miles.

We continue on this rather bad road towards the town of Holquin.  Along the way one passes the Parque Nacional de Humboldt. This UNESCO World Heritage site was discovered by German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt.

The road to holquin

Many miles after leaving Managuan we spotted a family building this structure along the completely desolate, and still horrible, road.  We hopped out to ask what they were doing and were told it is going to be a cafeteria. To me this is one of the exciting signs that capitalism is coming to Cuba and the Cubans are looking forward to a better life.  We asked about the road, and they hoped, as much as we did that it would be improved one day.

You leave the State of Guantanamo and enter the State of Holquin.  The bad road stops somewhere along the road, but of the 45 miles from Baracoa to Moa, not much is paved.

The Moa area is known for its nickel, cobalt and chromium mining. In fact this area has the largest deposit of nickel in the world, estimated at 800 million tons. Sadly, the mining activities have devastated the area.  There has been deforestation of well over 3000 acres, there is ground, water and air pollution, slope instability and severe changes in the water table.  The bay and the aquifers are polluted with both the presence of heavy metals and sulphate.

Moa, Cuba


Just the destruction you can see from the road is difficult to bear

Just the destruction you can see from the road is difficult to bear

There are very few roads in the area after leaving Moa. The most accessible, i.e. paved, is the road directly through the capital city of Holquin, and then out to the coast.

the road to Gibara

A train/bus on the road to Gibara. The transportation in Cuba is so bad that necessity is the mother of invention. Here a bus is outfitted to run on the train tracks.

Our first stop on the coast was the very small town of Gibara on the border of the State of Holquin with the State of Las Tunas. Gibara is centered around its main square with the Iglesia de San Fulgencia, built in 1854, at its heart. There is a sweet little Natural History Museum preported to have the best butterfly collection in Cuba. The town, also called “Villa Blanca” (white village) or “Village of the Crabs” is rich in colonial architecture.  Isadora Duncan danced at the local theater, said to be the best in the country at the time, sadly the date of her performance is not known.

Gibara cuba

The blue building at the end holds the Natural History Musem

Gibara, Cuba

This replica of the Statue of Liberty was erected  in 1915 with contributions by locals.  It was the idea of Enriqueta de la Torre y Delgado.  A veteran of the War of Independence against the Spanish Mercedes Sirvén Pérez-Puelles unveiled the monument and Aurora Pérez Desdín, a local Gibara woman was the model for the face of the statue.

Gibara, Cuba

Iglesia de San Fulgencia

Gibara, CubaThe Hotel Encanto Arsenita is just of the square and dates to the beginning of the 20th century. It is named for the original owner, Maria Arsenia Martinez, a teacher, better known as Arsenita.

Gibara, Cuba

Continuing along the road towards Guardalavaca, one only catches glimpses of the coast.

Gibara, CubaThe most beautiful beaches along this coast are owned by the government. They stretch from Bahia de Naranjo to Guardalavaca. The ridiculous amount of hotels form a wall between the road and the beach, making the area inaccessible to anyone not paying to stay in a hotel.

The price of these hotels (from $120 – 300/night)  include your meals, watered down drinks and entertainment that leaves a lot to be desired. The rooms are adequate and the food barely palatable, however, this is not Cuba, it is a resort with not a hint of the country you are in.

At one time Cubans were not allowed to stay in these hotels, however, it is now permissible, but the largest amount of visitors are Canadians and Germans who have been coming for years.

There is a delightful little hotel in Don Lino ($60/night)  for those on a budget and who want the Cuban beach without the Spring Break wrist band, experience. Playa Blanco also has a wonderful beach and a funky restaurant, however, it has no lodgings.


Chorro de Maita

Three miles south of Guardalavaca is Chorro de Maíta. This is the largest native Indian necropolis in Cuba. The state of Holquin has yielded one-third of all of Cuba’s archeological finds.

The bones have been tested and show that they belong to people that lived somewhere between 1490 and 1540. The area covers about one-half an acre with 56 of the discovered 108 graves visible.

The site is now recognized as a village of indios encomendados (indigenous individuals serving the Spanish colonizers under a regime of forced labor).

Eastern Cuba

Nov 092015

October 2015

Yara Cuba

This trip goes from La Demajagua to Bayamo, the trail marks the beginning of the Cuban struggle for freedom from the Spanish. What is most striking to me is that it is farmland for mile after mile.  After hours of driving through countryside without seeing anything but a few farm houses, crops and tractors, you get a true sense of how unpopulated Cuba is.


6 miles south of Manzanillo is La Demajagua, where the 1868 Cuban revolution from the Spaniards began.

La Demajagua, Cuba

La Demajagua was the home of Carlos Manuel Céspedes a landowner and lawyer. Céspedes purchased this sugar plantation in 1844. La Demajagua is the site of the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara),  (October 10, 1868) declaring Cuban independence, which began the Ten Years’ War. On that morning, having sounded the slave bell indicating that it was time for work, Céspedes announced to his slaves that they were all free men, and were invited to join him and his fellow conspirators in war against the Spanish government of Cuba. Céspedes is called Padre de la Patria (Father of the Country). In April 1869 he was chosen President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms.

The Spanish burned his sugar mill to the ground upon hearing of this revolt.

Manzanillo Cuba

As you move east from La Demajagua you come to the the sleepy fishing town of Manzanillo, founded in 1784, it was the site of four battles during the Ten Year’s War. The town centers around Parque Céspedes, its central square.

Manzanillo, Cuba

In the center of the square sits “Glorieta Morisca” with its Arab-influenced brickwork. The bandstand was designed in the 1920s by Jose Martin del Castillo, an architect from Granada, Spain.

Manzanillo, Cuba

Iglesia de la Purisma Concepcion, built in the 1920s

Some of the typical architecture of Manzanillo

Some of the typical architecture of Manzanillo. It is important to understand that while the government keeps the buildings in the center of town in good shape, everything else in Cuba is falling down.

Manzanillo, Cuba

The town hall (the building to the right) once held Colonia Española, a social club for the Spanish, built in the early 1930s. Inside is the most glorious array of Andalusian tiles with a mural showing Christopher Columbus’ landing in Cuba.

Colonia Española, Manzanillo, Cuba

Colonia Española, is absolutely worth seeking out, but very difficult to photograph

Manzanillo, Cuba

My two crazy Cuban brothers with Piolo, on the right, the Chef.

We stayed in a wonderful Casa Particular in Manzanillo run by Luis de la Paz Acosta.  It is at Mártires de Viet – Nam #169.  It was clean and comfortable and 25 CUC’s a night, breakfast extra, which is usually about 5 CUCs.  It was the owner of our Casa Particular that recommended our restaurant and we were NOT disappointed, it was fabulous, and very inexpensive.

After dinner I wondered the Malacon and found where our dinner had come from.

Manzanillo Cuba

Shrimpers in Manzanillo.

Manzanillo Cuba

Our journey continued with a drive to Yara. Yara was actually part of Manzanillo until 1912, thus the Grito de Yara.

Yara is also the site of the burning of Hatuey.  Hatuey is known as “Cuba’s First National Hero”.

Hatuey was originally from Hispaniola, he fled with many other natives to warn the people of Caobana of the treachery of the oncoming onslaught of the Spanish. Sadly the Caobanans did not believe him and few joined him in his fight against the Spanish. He was captured in February of 1512 and burned alive at the stake.

A statue of Hatuey in Independencia Plaza in Baracoa

A statue of Hatuey in Independencia Plaza in Baracoa

The story that every Cuban child learns is that before Hatuey was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. Spanish historian Bartolomé Las Casas wrote of the reaction of the chief:

(Hatuey), thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes… The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.

Rice Fields of Yara

Rice Fields of Yara

The last town on this revolution journey is Bayamo. On the 20th of October 1868 a group of intellectuals, including Céspedes declared this the capital of the Republic in Arms. In January, realizing that Bayamo was about to be recaptured by the Spanish, the people of the town burned their city down. This is why the song Bayamesa was later chosen as the national anthem of Cuba.


The main square of Bayamo

Bayamo is the second oldest town in Cuba (after Baracoa). The center square, Parque Céspedes, contains most every important building in town, including the Hotel Royalton.


Plaza del Himno

Just to the side of Parque Céspedes is Plaza del Himno (Square of the Hymn). This name came about because La Bayamesa was first played in the church on this square. The song was written by Perucho Figuredo during the 1868 Battle of Bayamo. Figueredo took part in the battle. He put the words to a melody he had written the year before.

Fun things to watch in the center of Bayamo

Fun things to watch in the center of Bayamo

Transportion in Cuba comes in all types

Transportion in Cuba comes in all types

Bayamo Cuba

When the Cuban’s burned Bayamo to the ground they thought that they had placed the most valuable items in the church outside of town, alas, most everything was lost except this last remnant of the church.

The lyrics to Bayamesa in English: (translation via wikipedia)
Run to battle, men of Bayamo
The motherland looks proudly to you
Do not fear a glorious death.
Because to die for the motherland is to live.

To live in chains it’s to live
Mired in shame and disgrace
From the bugle hear the sound
Run, brave ones, to battle!

Fear not: the fierce Iberian
Are cowards as every tyrant
Do not resist the angry Cuban
Forever their empire fell

Free Cuba! Spain already died
Their power and pride, where did it go?
From the bugle hear the sound
Run, brave ones, to battle!

Behold our triumphant troops
Behold them that have fallen
As cowards they flee defeated
As braves, we knew how to triumph!

Free Cuba! We can shout
At the cannon’s terrible boom
From the bugle hear the sound
Run, brave ones, to battle!

Typical street in Bayamo, Cuba

Typical street in Bayamo, Cuba

The Hotel Royalton in Bayamo was full but they were kind enough to make a few phone calls and we ended up in two Casa Particulars just off the square for 25CUCs a night with breakfast for an additional 5CUCs.

Rosa Bayamesa

Rosa Bayamesa by Lescay

On the outskirts of Holquín you will come across a park with this stunning statue.  The artist is Santiagueron Alberto Lescay.  Rosa La Bayamesa was a 36 year old daughter of slaves, a nurse and organizer of field hospitals during the Ten Years’ War.

A personal note about Manzanillo.  There are so many places throughout Cuba that make me so terribly sad.  Castro’s socialism has failed miserably and the country has suffered in so many ways, but I felt it to my bones in Manzanillo. Manzanillo is a sweet, charming, exquisite small seaside town, that should be bustling with commerce and tourists, but it is loosing its population and the buildings outside of the public square are crumbling as bad as those of Havana.  If things do open up I can honestly see Manzanillo turning into a small tourist coastal town that the world knows and understands. While many may find that horrifying, the town needs an infusion of cash to keep it going, and the people of the area need to make a living.

Eastern Cuba


Nov 092015

October 2015

Cuban Family
There is nothing like being a member of a Cuban family, there is love, fierce loyalty and drama, drama, drama.  It was time to spend a day and night with the family in the countryside, and that meant drinks, food, drinks, food, love, hugs, kisses, and family politics.

Let me begin in Contramaestre. There is no real reason for the town, other than towns have to spring up someplace.  There is a mercado and grocery store, and then services necessary for people to function, but not much else.  It is a town of around 45,000 although 100,000 plus if you count the people living in the countryside.

Contramaestre, Cuba

The horse and cart are the number one source of transportation in the countryside of Cuba, it has been immortalized in bronze paint here in Contramaestre.

Before leaving Contramaestre we stopped in on the parents of my dear, dear friend Juan Jose. We stopped in just to say hi and drop off a few groceries, they are some of the most lovely people one can have the pleasure to meet.


Loaded with vegetables for our meals, and a tank of gas we were off to see the family.  It is a difficult concept to grasp for most people, but Cubans don’t eat vegetables, even in the countryside where they could grow them, it is not part of the Cuban diet.  This is why we buy before we go.

Cuban Country Kitchen

The outdoor stove

The indoor kitchen in House one

The indoor kitchen in House one

Our first stop was the family we were to have lunch with – this would be an Aunt, Uncle and cousins on one side of the family.  For those that do not come from an extremely extended family, or do not understand Cuban families, it is difficult.  However, since marriage is not part of the Cuban culture, it is almost impossible for an outsider to keep track of who belongs to whom, and which clan and which branch.  I try and try and try, as a non-Cuban to remember, but it is futile.

Cuban Lunch

Lunch was in house one.  The food will always consist of beans and rice and then some sort of protein.  The protein is most often chicken or pork, but in the countryside can also be lamb or goat.  Rum, beer and soda are your drink options.  Water is unsafe to drink, even for the Cubans, and in the countryside, bottled water is expensive.

Lamb being prepared for lunch

Lamb being prepared for lunch

The Coffee Farm

My Cuban brother and his husband are building a house in the countryside so we had to take a trip after lunch to see how it is progressing.

Coffee Beans

Coffee Beans

Goat for milk and eventually a meal.

Goat for milk and eventually a meal.


Our hosts were two brothers, they inherited their father’s coffee land and this is how they make a living.  There is also cocoa beans, coconut and crops to feed the animals such as corn.

Guillermo getting coconuts for a refresher of coconut milk on this horribly hot and muggy day

Guillermo getting coconuts for a refresher of coconut milk on this horribly hot and muggy day.

Digging in

Digging in

Hotel in Contremaestra

The boys were not sure I would be comfortable staying in a Cuban country home so they had the family make a reservation for me at the local government hotel. This is El Salton.  I was completely comfortable with my family accommodations, but we not only had to come and cancel the reservation, but we had to buy beer, as there was none to be had in the three towns we tried.

Beer is the same price no matter where you purchase it in Cuba, so it is not uncommon to walk into a bar and get a six-pack to go, the bars are prepared for this and keep a large stock cold.

El Salton

El Salton sits amongst a lush rain forest with, what is normally, a rushing waterfall.  The rains have been poor this year and the waterfall is not what it should be.  However, I can not imagine how anyone gets to the hotel.  It is at most, a 1/4 mile off of the main road, but one needs incredible patience, and preferably a four-wheel drive to get there.  The road is not only ridiculously bad but think, boulders, and I mean boulders. It is a classic government owned tourist hotel.

Cuban Family


Stocked with beer we headed for house two for conversation, dinner and the night.

The men play cards while the women prepare dinner

The men play cards while the women prepare dinner

Roasted Coffee

Roasted Coffee

As I mentioned, the brothers grow coffee.  All the coffee that Cubans grow must, by law, be sold to the government.  However, they are allowed to hold back enough for personal consumption.  When we arrived the air was filled with the delicious smell of coffee being roasted in the backyard.

A neighbor came by to roast coffee

A neighbor came by to roast coffee

The round concrete thing was once the outhouse, this home just recently got plumbing and a concrete floor. There are still no doors however.

The round concrete thing was once the outhouse, this home just recently got plumbing and a concrete floor. There are still no doors however.

Bananas are everywhere

Bananas are everywhere

The breakfast table the next morning

The breakfast table the next morning consisted of eggs, avocados, fried plantains and bread.  The juices in the bottles are guava and papaya.

Peeling oranges for fresh squeezed orange juice.

Peeling oranges for fresh squeezed orange juice. Due to the soil in Cuba oranges are tart.

These are the men of the family that run the two farms

These are the men of the family that run the two farms.

Pigs are kept in the backyard.

Pigs are kept in the backyard of most every home in Cuba with the exception of those in large cities where it is prohibited.

Cuban electricity at its finest.

Cuban electricity at its finest.

Quality Family Time

This is the Cuba that tourists do not see.  This is where the decisions made in Washington and Havana will have some of the biggest impact, especially regarding coffee and cocoa growing, production and exportation, and yet it is a Cuba completely unknown.

These are the people of a past era, living completely off of the land, yes they have electricity, and newly installed flooring, but it is a way of life that died in the 1930s in most first world countries.

Families around the world bring baggage, but when you sleep with walls that do not go to the roof, one bathroom and mud floors, that baggage is exposed and means for a fiercely close knit organization, and something I am so privileged to be a part of.

Eastern Cuba

Nov 092015

October 2015

Museum in Guantanamo

The Museo Zoologico de Piedra

stone zoo Guantanamo

This fun little diversion about 12 miles east of Guantanamo is the brainchild of Ángel ĺñigo Brito. Ángel was a farmer and self-taught sculptor. He began carving these animals in stone around his property in 1978. The sculptures graphically depict life in the wilds, and yet can be whimsical at the same time.

Zologico de pedra

There is a little over a mile of pathways and 400 sculptures. The work was completed by Ángel’s son Ángel Íñigo Pérez. The “zoo” is part of the Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve.

Stone Zoo Guantanamo, Cuba

The cost to enter is $1CUC and an additional $1CUC for a camera permit.

My two crazy Cuban brothers

My two crazy Cuban brothers

Stone Zoo Guantanamo, Cuba*Stone Zoo, Guantanamo, Cuba *Stone Zoo, Guantanamo, Cuba *

My "Brother" and partner in crime in Cuba

My “Brother” and partner in crime in Cuba

My favorite of all the sculptures

My favorite of all the sculptures

Stone Zoo Guantanamo, Cuba *Stone Zoo Guantanamo, Cuba


Nov 092015

October 2015

Jardin de los HelechosOne day, out for a hot and steamy drive from Santiago de Cuba, we tripped over the Jardin de los Helechos.  It was after closing time for the park, but as we poked our noses around, the delightful director stepped out, beckoned us in, and gave us a full private tour.


Director Manuel Caluff

The Jardin is a one acre tropical wonder, situated just outside Santiago de Cuba, it is a fern and orchid garden and a research and study center. The center was once a family home, and is still lived in by the original family

Jardin de los Helechos* Jardin de los HelechosBegun 30 years ago, the garden is purported to have the most complete collection of tropical ferns in the Americas, and has a growing collection of orchids.

Jardin de los helechos*Jardin de los helechosThe Institute’s collection consists of 3000 tropical ferns requiring constant attention. There are five employees, in addition to Sr. Caluff, watering, pruning, tending the beds, and keeping plants free from disease.

Jardin de los Helechos

This chameleon changed his color several times as we watched.

Jardin de los helechosIt is a research center valued by students from universities around the world. The center hosts visiting botanists and other fern cultivators.

Jardin de los Helechos* Jardin de los Helechos

The garden is open 9-4 Monday thru Saturday and 9-12 on Sundays.  The cost is 1CUC for tourists and 1MN for Cubans.

The address is #129 Carretera Del Caney

Fern and Orchid Garden* Jardin de los Helechos* Fern Garden Santiago de Cuba* Fern Garden * Fern Garden Santiago de Cuba


Aug 122015

April 2015

Every since I began writing about Cuba I have been asked some darn good questions.  Before getting into reading about the country here are some simple statistics.  So I don’t lose you here, I have interspersed other great information throughout, but here goes the easy stuff.

Map of CubaThe Republic of Cuba consists of one large island and several small ones situated on the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea, about 100 miles south of Florida.  This means the flight is about 45 minutes to a little over one hour, depending on destination and tail winds.

Flying to Cuba

Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, accounting for more than one-half of West Indian land area.

Courtesy of OverlapMaps.com

Pennsylvania and Cuba – Courtesy of OverlapMaps.com

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The area occupied by Cuba is slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania.

Map of CubaIt is separated from Florida by the Straits of Florida, from the Bahamas and Jamaica by various channels, from Haiti by the Windward Passage, and from Mexico by the Yucatán Channel and the Gulf of Mexico.

Beaches of CubaCuba’s total coastline is 2,316 miles. While many people come to Cuba just to get a tan not all the beaches are sandy.

Everyone in this photo is Cuban, with the exception of the South African lady in the front.

Everyone in this photo is Cuban, with the exception of the South African lady in the front.

Cuba is a highly ethnically diverse country. In the latest 2012 census 64.1% of Cubans listed themselves as white while minorities include mulatto and mestizo (26.6%) and black (9.3%).

Canadian FlagWhile Americans are hankering to go to Cuba, the rest of the world has been visiting for sometime.  Here is a breakdown of tourism from those countries in 2010

Canada         945,248
UK                 174,343
Italy               112,298
Spain             104,948
Germany        93,136
France            80,470
Mexico           66,650
US                   63,046 (This number is expected to be 200,000 in 2015)
Argentina      58,612
Russia            56,245

Cuban Children

Yes Cubans are having babies, but their birth rate is very low.  This could cause problems in the future, as is occurring in  Italy, Greece and Japan, but as their economic system is so vitally different than the rest of the worlds only time will tell how it will affect the country.

World Birth Rates

World Birth Rates

Cuban Birth Rates

Cuban Birth Rates

The 2012 census showed the population of Cuba as just over 11 million people, around the population of the state of Ohio.

Cuba sits in a seismic zone.

The Cayman Trough is the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea.

The Cayman Trough is the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea.

The eastern edge of the Cayman Trough is called the Gonâve microplate.

Map of Cuba showing the Pico TurquinoPico Turquino (6467 feet) is the highest point in Cuba. It is located in the southeast part of the island, in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Santiago de Cuba Province.


Here are books about Cuba in my library, I hesitate to recommend any particular one, as everyone’s interests are different, but I have provided a link to Amazon on each for you to explore further.

Back Channel to Cuba
Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters
Havana Real
Waiting for Snow in Havana
Bay of Pigs
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba
The Other Side of Paradise
Dancing With Cuba
Castro’s Daughter

A very good website, written by the woman that wrote Havana Real is


Another worth exploring is


The hard thing about these websites is that the authors write the articles and then email them to friends in other countries for translation.  Please keep that in mind when the sentences sometimes just require a re-read to get the gist.

Aug 112015

January 2015

If you are traveling on a tour to Cuba you may see this statement on the top of your itinerary: “You are traveling on a government issued people-to-people license therefore free time to explore independently is not allowed.”

To further elucidate that statement, there are places you will be required to go and another requirement is that you spend a minimum of 6 (six) hours per day on a people-to-people interchange.


In 2004 the Cuban government started penalizing the use of the US dollar so the CUC was created.

The exchange rate for the CUC (pronounced cook) also called the Chevito, is 87 to $100 and you will receive that rate no matter where in all of Cuba you exchange your money.

It is easy to determine the CUC vs. the Cuban Peso as the pesos have important people on the face of the bills and the CUCs have monuments on the faces of the bills.

Cuban Convertible Peso



This is yogurt, yes, nothing but yogurt.  This is typical of what you will see and it is caused by several things.  First, Cuba has a distribution problem, so this store got all the yogurt for miles and miles around.  Second, Cubans must purchase in Pesos not CUCs so it is often difficult for them to purchase items that are in stores that only take CUCs, thus, there is a shortage problem.  While it may be on the shelf, it is essentially not available for purchase.  It boggles the mind.


Cuban food, a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean. is not spicy. There are really only three ingredients used for seasoning, garlic, pepper and onions, also lots and lots of salt. Some Cubans also use oregano and cumin, but on the whole Cuban food is mild.

Meals are traditionally served family style and always consist of black beans and rice. Forty years of food rationing has made meat items scarce for the average Cuban, but it usually consists of shredded pork or beef cooked slowly with a sauce.

Historically Cuba has always depended on food imports in order to meet its needs. A large reason for this is that nearly 30% of Cuba’s arable land is dedicated to growing sugar cane.

The fall of the Soviet Union caused a major food shortage in Cuba and in the 1990s the City of Havana authorized the used of vacant state property to produce food, creating “people’s plots” that occupy more than 2000 hectares.

Black Beans and Rice

Black Beans and Rice or “Moros y Cristianos” (Moors and Christians)


Cuba is an extremely safe country, in fact the Police are required to leave their guns in the police station prior to heading home.

There is some crime, due to the classic fallout of poverty, but that happens around the world.


The Colon Cemetery or the Cemeterio de Cristóbal Colón was founded in 1876; it covers 140 acres and has over 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. It holds 800,000 graves and 1 million internments. Since space is at a premium the bodies are buried for two years and then removed, boxed and placed in a storage building.

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You can read all about the life and history of Che many places. The question is why do you see his face everywhere and not Castros. There is a true personality cult regarding Che in Cuba, but it is still considered wrong to encourage this concept. This is why you find almost no photos of either Fidel or Raul, it is okay to pay homage to the dead, but not the living.

Cuban Trinkets


While it is considered a Roman Catholic country, most Cubans live together, have children and never get married.

There is a saying in Cuba – Once you get married, it is all over. You will meet many people with wedding rings on, or maybe just the engagement ring, but they have never actually gone through the ceremony.


The flag, known as the “Lone Star Flag”, was adopted April 11, 1869.  The three blue stripes represent the three departments in which the island was divided at the time, the two white stripes signify the strength of the independence ideal.  The red triangle is a symbol of equality among men and the blood that has been shed for freedom. The five pointed star is a sign of absolute liberty and independence.



Cuba is officially secular, however with religious freedom increasing since the 1980s the government amended the constitution in 1992 to drop their atheistic characterization.

There are two primary religions in Cuba, Catholicism (approximately 59%) and an African root religion, Santería. The only real way to know if one is of the Santeria faith is that they wear all white, although this is really only required in the first year of conversion. There is a very, very small population of Jews, Muslims and Bahá’í as well.

One of many abandoned churches in Cuba

One of many abandoned churches in Cuba

The Catholic Church in Cuba was originally for the very, very wealthy. The church supported Batista, so when the over throw occurred, the church, with its Spanish NOT Cuban fathers was persona non gratis. The prohibition was not so much against the church as against the Spanish institution that existed in the form of the church at the time.

This was the beginning of the Cuban people turning away from the church. While there are practicing Catholics in Cuba they are not as pious as they might have once been.

Since Argentinian Pope Francisco has been so active in the back room workings of bringing the United States and Cuba to the negotiation table, he is truly well liked in Cuba, but not nearly as much as Argentinian soccer stars.

A woman of the Santeria faith.

A woman of the Santeria faith.


Some interesting odd considerations;  Everyone that enters Cuba must have purchased medical insurance before entering.  Water in Cuba is unsafe so always drink bottled water.  You must hold back $25 CUC for an exit tax. (this is changing, however)  MasterCard was reputed to be arriving in Cuba for Americans in March of 2015. (This still has not happened as of December 2015)

Aug 102015

Good items to bring to Cuba

I am often asked what to take to the Cuban people.  Please tread carefully here.  Like so many countries around the world, the Cubans are no different in lacking of the essentials, but the other side of that coin is setting up a community that expects handouts from foreigners.

If you are staying in hotels, know that the staff is already better off than most of their fellow citizens, they are tipped, and more importantly tipped in CUC’s, so they have the privilege of shopping at the CUC stores.

If you are staying in Casa Particulars,  you are paying them in CUC’s as well, but their pockets aren’t lined as well as those that receive tips in major hotels, so here, yes, a little something is appreciated.

Cuban soaps and shampoos are horrible, so while they are appreciated, they are not necessarily the best thing to leave.  If you are on your last day, by all means leave behind what you brought, but there are other things far more difficult to obtain in Cuba.

Toothpaste and toothbrushes are not only horrible, but very, very expensive.  This will become evident the more you see the missing teeth in the smiling Cuban faces.

Aspirin, also almost impossible to find and very, very expensive.

Bring School supplies to CubaIf you are visiting a school, usually a requirement for tour groups, bring, paper, pencils and Spanish language books appropriate for small children.  This will be one of your most appreciated gifts, and don’t worry, a box of Number 2 pencils, while a simple concept to you, will be manna from heaven in Cuba.

Toilet paper is a luxury in Cuba, no you won’t be deprived, but the Cuban’s are.  The government newspaper Granma is the most common form of TP in Cuba, appropriately since nothing written in it is worth reading.  I suggest you bring at least a roll for your private use, just in case, and leave it behind when you have no more use.

Washcloths, also do not exist in Cuba.  If you are a person that needs a cloth, I suggest you bring them with you, and again, leave them behind as you see fit.

Aug 092015


School Children in Cuba

I often hear people say that one of the advantages of Cuba’s socialist system is the free education.  My answer is, you get what you pay for.

My “Cuban family” has two smaller children, seven and nine, and I am appalled at their education. It is fair in math and science, but history is the Castro Revolution, Geography consists of communist and socialist countries, and social education is the party line.

Teachers in Cuba are fleeing the country and their profession. Several years ago, as a response, the government placed television sets and videos into classrooms to function as teachers. This is obviously not ideal as there was no ability for interaction, but parents indignant over a poor education was not what did the program in.

Cuban Classroom

It was simple technology. The ability of the government to make videos and show them was thwarted by their incompatibility with today’s plasma TVs. It was also difficult to teach this way in the mountains where there is not even electricity to run the televisions.

The result of this was a drift towards larger class rooms, the Cuban schools are now only allowed 15 students per classroom.

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

The present solution is to give interested adults a crash course in teaching, (most teachers in Cuba only possess a High School education) and then send them into the schools as “auxiliary teachers.”  To fill the teacher void there is also now an incentive to get freshly graduated High School students to be a teacher for two years before pursuing higher education or another career.

Even with all of this effort to continue to attempt to teach the children of Cuba it is difficult. There is a complete lack of paper and pencils, new technology is completely unheard of, and there is not a book in Cuba to be read that isn’t either the life of Che or the history of the Revolution.

Then there is food and water.  The children are given a snack, which I am told is basically a piece of bread.  So if you are one of the luckier families and have the ability to buy food so your child has lunch at school things are okay, but if you are living off of Cuban Pesos, this is a difficult task.  Regarding water, every child takes their own water to school. Water in Cuba is not drinkable before being treated, and the water in the schools are not treated, this means a backpack full of food and water is lugged to school by every child.  That can be difficult enough in the heat if you walk to school several blocks, but imagine if your commute consists of standing in the back of a truck, or on a donkey for miles and miles.

School uniforms, while not terribly expensive, are now only given once every two years.  My god daughter and her brother can at least swap out shirts and ties, but she wears a skirt and he pants, so they are bought big in the hopes they grow with the kids.

If a teacher is ill, or is not able to get to school due to the complete lack of transportation in Cuba, class is canceled. At least they don’t have to sit through the indignity of a 1950s health movie.

If you are interested in reading more about Education in Cuba I suggest this article in the Atlantic.

Aug 022015

DSC_4453While the actual numbers regarding July temperatures do not scream hot to many, it is one of the hottest July’s on record in Santiago de Cuba.

This is a colonial town, there are no trees. The homes, built of heat radiating concrete, sit side by side, wall to wall, and the streets are narrow and treeless. Plaza Jose Marti and Plaza Cepedes were once a respite from the sun until hurricane Sandy ripped the trees from the ground.

DSC_5274Breakfast is outside in the shade of the two story wall that separates neighbors, fans are running on high, but it is still cool enough to enjoy coffee and conversation.

Sadly the breezes ignore Santiago in the morning.

Lunch is served at around 1:00, there are 11 of us sitting in various positions around the table and the kitchen, with six fans doing their best to keep us cool.

Once the dishes are washed and until around 6, everyone is sitting and doing nothing. I read, the kids are watching TV, but for most everyone else, staring at each other or a siesta seems to suffice for entertainment in this heat.

Three rooms in this house have air-conditioning and all 11 of us are in those three rooms. Unfortunately, my room is not my favorite place during these times. There is no glass in Cuba to speak of, so everyone’s windows are covered in steel hurricane slats, while it keeps the house “cooler” it lacks the natural sunlight and view that makes idleness so much easier for me to endure. Yes the slats open, but that takes away the advantage of having a very expensive air-conditioning unit in your room.

DSC_5256By 5:30 or 6:00 the breezes begin to pick up and everyone heads outside.

Aug 022015

San Miquel de Allende-70In July I was walking down the miserably hot streets of Santiago de Cuba on my way to the mercado. As I rounded the corner the women’s voices began to ring out, huevos (eggs), donde? (where?) la esquina, (the corner). You heard this repeated from house to house, street to street.

Eggs were in. While eggs are guaranteed to every Cuban on their ration card, there are never any eggs in the market. Tuesday there were eggs, and they arrived, from wherever the government keeps them, to every store in all of Santiago, all at one time.

So goes the life of obtaining food in Cuba. My family has the privilege of having access to the hard currency in Cuba the CUC, so eggs should be accessible all of the time, but they are not. If you do not have access to CUCs, you are truly on the bottom of the food chain.

We bought 4 dozen for the house; you never know when the next shipment will arrive. With four dozen sitting on the counter unrefrigerated we needed to get to cooking. On the dinner menu, Huevos Diablos. This is a wholly American dish, it is not known to Cubans, but there was a recipie in the house. The only thing that changed was…the ingredients.

Cuban mayonnaise is not of the highest quality. Cuban mayonnaise is made with the lowest quality oil and a lot of chemicals. It sits on the counter, in the Cuban heat, for months at a time. I find it interesting that the name of the company that makes the mayonnaise is Los Atrevenos, which if one takes it literally means, those of us that dare.

The next ingredient is easier to obtain, lots of chopped onion, garlic and cilantro, but alas, what makes Deviled Eggs is the spicy paprika on the top, for this we used a product from Goya (a Mexican firm) that was more salt than anything. They were good, not great, but good, such is home cooking in Cuba.

Thursday was toilet paper day, Gracias Dios, as there was no more in the house. I always tell tourists, take your own, you just never know.

Aug 022015

DSC_5013It is July 26th, one of the most important days in Santiago de Cuba. The heat is stifling and the only respite found during the day is a comfortable chair with a fan. Thanks to the extreme drought and continued poor management of utilities, by the government, the lights flicker and all of our water is gone.

It takes many phone calls and a lot of foot work, but the water truck has come to fill the cistern. This costs $12 CUCs, which is pretty much par with the US dollar, out of an average salary of $28 a month, this is scandalous.

DSC_5008Water in Cuba is free, until there is none, and then, like everything else in Cuba you find, water is available, but no longer free.

Water is turned on one day a week so that everyone can pump into their cisterns, and yes, this one day a week dictates your schedule. For this privilege you pay only 60 centavos per month.

Sadly the water does not come every week, often it is no more than 4 out of 7 weeks, and during this drought often water does not appear for 3 weeks.

DSC_5015This house has a cistern that would normally last 21 days, but water hasn’t come often enough to keep it topped up. This week is Carnaval, and our friends and family have been camping out, the showers, the cooking and the simple guzzling of water has taken its toll.

I cannot imagine those that are sitting in this heat who cannot afford the few CUCs that would make things comfortable.

Aug 022015

August 2015

Church in Trinidad Cuba

My Cuban friend, whom I call Tio, asked me the other day what I thought of Raul Castro stating he might once again begin to go to church. My reaction, not ironically, was Dios Mio!

In the U.S., a statement like that makes one fear the church will catch on fire, but there aren’t enough standing official churches in Cuba to make that a worry.

On May 10, 2015 Pope Francis and Raul Castro met for a sit down. At the time Raul said he was so impressed with the pope that “I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.”

“I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,”
Religion in Cuba is complicated. Declaring itself an atheist state in 1962, that edict was not lifted until 1992. Only then did official Cuban textbooks remove the statement that “Religion is the opium of the people”.
Religious persecution was the norm, not the exception.

While Catholicism is now recognized, there is still no recognition, and therefore, continued persecution, of so called outlying religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

According to the US Commission on Religous Freedom’s 2015 report: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.”

The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) are still regularly persecuted during their processionals to church and some are still subjects of Actos de Repudio.

Will this all stop if Raul actually goes to church? I doubt it, he was a member of the original revolutionaries, it was they that removed religion from the Cubans. What I do believe will happen is that worship will be accepted as long as it continues to follow the party line.

Aug 022015


cordless drill

It is actually very simple. You can not get decent tools in Cuba. Yes, you can purchase badly made, highly expensive, tools from Russia, but you can not buy quality, made-to-last tools.

What person doesn’t need a cordless drill. They are, in my opinion, the one tool every home should have. This is the reason I was trying to bring a quality piece of every day hardware into Cuba. My friends needed one.

Customs in every country has its own quirks, but in Cuba, looking for things to tax is the foremost. There in lies my drill story.

It was simple, in amongst the 20 pairs of shoes, not for me, but for my friends, was the drill.

Shoes made to last are another quality item almost impossible to find in this beautiful island country. Amongst the shoes, I had several sets of sheets and towels. You guessed it, anything over 30 thread count just doesn’t exist. Tucked deep in all of this was an inocuous little drill, bits included.

That is what I got stopped for, simple really, that is what the x-rays will pick up. I complained, made up lots of excuses, played very stupid and stated that it was in my suitcase, because who doesn’t travel with a cordless drill? I walked out without paying any duty.

Why is this important, I owed in the neighborhood of $30 to $40 US maximum, so why not just pay it and move on.
It is the principal really. My drill was just another symbol of the lack of quality items in Cuba, and if I have to lug them there, instead of buying them there, I am not paying another dime.

The lack of everything, from decent drills to eggs and cheese is already starting to wear through the thread bare patience of the Cuban’s I know. If I can help to show them what is out there, and what they could have when things open up, I am happy to pull that dangling thread on an unravelling sweater.

Jul 312015

Carnaval SantiagoThe most famous of all Cuba festivals is the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba. The festival is held annually from July 18 to 27.

CarnavalWhile there is quite a lot of history, I asked the Cubans themselves what Carnaval is to them, and the most common answer, after the obvious, one week off a year, was tradition. This tradition is similar to what one would expect of long holidays around the world; family, togetherness, dancing, music and great food.

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

Like many other Cuban festivals, the Santiago carnival began as a religious event: the saint day of Santiago (St. James) is July 25. The festivities became a time for celebration by Santiago’s slaves, who introduced some of the dance, music, and costumes still typical of the Santiago carnival. Over the years, the carnival incorporated elements of African, Spanish, French, and communist Cuban traditions and culture.

carnavalWhat is today called the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba is not a manifestation of pre-Lenten carnival, which would be celebrated in February or March, but evolved out of the summer festivals formerly referred to as the Fiestas de Mamarrachos. Mamarrachos were held on June 24 (St. John’s Day), June 29 (St. Peter’s Day), July 24 (St. Christine’s Day), July 25 (St. James the Apostle’s Day) and July 26 (St. Anne’s Day).

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

The main activities were music, dancing and consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages, and nothing has changed.

CarnavalMamarrachos were held after the end of the sugar cane harvest, or zafra, which runs from January to May. This meant that unemployed sugar cane workers, most of whom were African and mulatto slaves and freedmen, were able to participate. Summer Carnival  originally was intended as a period of rest and fun for the laborers (the Blacks) and was eventually nicknamed ‘Carnaval de las classes bajas’ (or Carnival of the lower classes)…” It is said that the Spanish colonial authorities (in response to pressure from plantation owners) permitted the growth of the mamarrachos in order to distract the slaves (and freedmen, who were typically in sympathy with the slaves) from more subversive activities.

CarnavalThe festival underwent its biggest change in 1902 with the introduction of  floats sponsored by big-name companies like Cristal Beer and Tropicola.  At that time the celebration was transformed from a marginal black community event to a city wide popular extravaganza. This concept of sponsorship still exists, and while I asked many Santiagueros how that could occur during a communist regime, most said they had never even noticed, and had no idea.

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

Today in Santiago de Cuba, Carnaval is celebrated on July 18–27, in honor of the Revolution, with the final complete Carnaval parade held on the 26th. This date commemorates Castro’s assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, which had been planned to coincide with traditional Carnaval in that city.


Perhaps the most distinctive element of modern-day carnaval in Santiago is the conga parade that takes place in each neighborhood on the first day of the celebrations. Led by the comparsas, almost everyone in the neighborhood leaves their houses as the performers lead them around the streets in a vigorous parade. Sadly, this occurred the week before I arrived, but here are some photos from outside the front of our house where it passed by.



Further shots of the Parade of Carnaval



While I can’t say enough about how noisy, colorful, crowded and fun, fun, fun, this entire experience is, one must also remember that the temperatures during the day were in the 90s Fahrenheit, and didn’t change but a tad during the evenings.


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When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off

When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off


A very typical sight around Cuba are peanut sellers, but in Cuba they are called Mani

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While not the greatest, as it was very, very crowded, here is a little more with sound.

Jul 312015

DSC_5250The second night of Carnaval I headed out to the kids area to see the rides. This is worth every moment, it is a true step back in time.

Of course there is entertainment along the way.

DSC_5073Carnaval has moved this year, it is in a variety of places around town as usual but the parade moved to the Port area.  It is my belief that Santiago de Cuba is getting ready for Cruise ships to dock during Carnaval when things finally open up. We shall see.

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I caught Grandma's eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

I caught Grandma’s eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

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Apr 282015


This post, I hope, will give you a better insight to the Cuba outsiders just don’t see or know.


This is the bedroom of one of an elderly woman.  The house was two rooms, the other being the kitchen.


This woman worked as a school teacher, and at the age of 70, this is all that her pension affords her.  Food, is another subject.


This is the only room in a farm house outside of Santiago


This amazingly funny clown and fabulous magician is a doctor, he needs this gig to make ends meet.  The average salary of a doctor in Cuba is $26 US, a specialist can make as much as $67 per month.  Health care is not what you think, it is very common (something I witnessed) for patients to take food to their doctors the day before a visit to ensure care and proper diagnosis.


For many Cubans, the only way to get protein into your diet is by keeping pigs and chickens in your house.  Despite the fact that the monthly ration includes these items, they are very rarely found in the store.


It is actually legal for non-Cubans to own property and have businesses in Cuba, but it requires the OK from the Cuban government and that is not very forthcoming.  This yacht was being put in the water at a Dutch owned boat yard in a bay.  I can’t imagine what the Dutch paid for the privilege of owning a boat yard, but I also think it says that they feel things are about to break wide open in Cuba.


This stunning meal of Lobster, mashed potatoes, green salad and white wine from Spain was served to me in a lovely garden by a private citizen.  The meal was completely illegal.  Beef and lobster both are illegal for a Cuban to purchase.  Those commodities are only allowed in tourist restaurants.


Now some fun things…


This is a cashew apple.  Cashew Apple Jam is often served with cheese as a dessert, and is delicious.  Here is a look at some of the many fruits of Cuba.


Tamarind Tree




Cuban Almond


Plantains, fried by the loving hands of a family member.


Carrots, not a common commodity in Cuba



This perfectly restored and manicured home is in the Vista Alegre portion of Santiago de Cuba.  It is obvious that the home was bought, via a  Cuban family member, by a wealthy Floridian Cuban.  They know things will open up soon and the real estate market is getting hot in Cuba.


The one form of transportation I have yet to mention is the motorcycle.  I rode on the back of this fellows motorcycle from the center of town for about 15 cents, and yes I wore the modified hard hat as a helmet, oh and by the way, I was in a skirt.DSC_2570

Here are some random photos from around Santiago de Cuba, I thought you might enjoy.

My friend Jose juicing limes for cocktails

My friend Jose juicing limes for cocktails

Mama Francesca, one of the saints of the house.

Mama Francesca, one of the saints of the house.

One of many wonderful characters we met in the market

One of many wonderful characters of the local market, the woman is actually the manager.

Cabbage is a major staple of the Cuban diet

Cabbage is a major staple of the Cuban diet

The herb salesman

The herb salesman

Trompo Loco showing me a Malanga. Somewhat related to Taro, a large part of Cuban cooking

Trompo Loco showing me a Malanga. Somewhat related to Taro, a large part of Cuban cooking

I really did not get enough Passion Fruit, but I tried

I really did not get enough Passion Fruit, but I tried

The garlic and onion man

The garlic and onion man

Saint Lazarus is one of the most popular traditions in Cuba. This worship emerged out of the catholic and Yoruba religions and it is related to leporacy.

Saint Lazarus is one of the most popular traditions in Cuba. This worship emerged out of the catholic and Yoruba religions and it is related to leprosy.


Despite the fact that health care is “free” in Cuba, the incidence of diabetes, chronic asthma and its accompanying heart problems as well as cancer, are rampant.  Doctors, while well trained, tend to leave the country at the first opportunity.  Medicine is nonexistent and when I spoke to a man who’s father needed an EKG, he told me of how the hospital had the machine but no paper for it, and it hardly mattered as the rats had eaten through most of the important pieces of the machine anyway.


I was in this store to buy pencils and notebooks.  Even though free education in Cuba is the norm, it sadly lacks paper, pencils and books.

Cuban Americans still have to hold a Cuban passport to enter Cuba, and they are not cheap, the reason I am sure the Cuban government makes them have one, income. The passport needs to be renewed every two years at a cost of $400.

Cuban Passport


One morning I walked into the main room of the house and there was a gentleman with a book and a beer, it was 8:30 am.  He was the electric company’s meter reader.


Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 9.10.41 PM


This was the original Bacardi Rum factory.  They now make Santiago de Cuba Rum here, it is still the best rum in Cuba.




The old Coca-Cola Factory

The old Coca-Cola Factory

So what do I think of Cuba and its people?  I love Cuba and I truly love its people, I am as anxious as everyone for things to open up.  I hope for more people in the world to get to know this amazing island, and I hope, so very much for an increased prosperity for the Cuban people.  If any of this has helped you to understand Cuba just a little bit more I am glad, thank you for stopping by.


Apr 202015

It is April 2015 and I have returned to Cuba.  This time I am traveling with a Cuban national, one of the approved ways of entering the country.

Our lady of the Assencion

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de las Asuncion

Santiago de Cuba, or Santiago, is the second largest and second most important city of Cuba.  However, the hospitality of the “Santiagueros” is second to none!

I began my tour with a walk around town at dusk, the temperatures in April hover in the 80s fahrenheit.

Parque cespedes

The Old San Carlos Social Club

This is the area around Parque Céspedes, Santiago’s most important plaza.  It, like the town, was once filled with large shade trees, sadly, the 2012 hurricane, Sandy, took over 30% of those trees down.

The church is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de las Asuncion (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption). The majority of this neo-classical building dates back to 1922, although some parts are more than 400 years old, earthquakes have not been kind to this grand lady.  It is said that the remains of colonial governor and Spanish painter Diego Velázquéz are interred here, but no one is positive.

On the east side of the parque is the Casa de la Cultura Miguel Matamoros.  This was the former site of the San Carlos Social Club where wealthy Santiagueros enjoyed themselves. The building was the spot of the first radio transmission in Santiago.

Hotel of Santiago de Cuba

The Hotel Casa Grande

The Hotel Casa Grande is one of Santiago’s grandest hotels. Novelist Graham Green was a periodic resident of the hotel. Opened in 1914, the hotel has an admirer with a lovely website about the architecture and history of the structure.

Casa del Gobierno

Casa del Gobierno

This white, Moorish influenced, building houses government offices and is not open to the public.

The Diego Velazquez House

The Diego Velazquez Home

The Velázquéz home was built in the early 1500s and thought to be the oldest residence in all of Cuba.  Governor/conquistador/painter, Diego Velázquéz, lived upstairs and the lower level was a gold foundry where the furnace can still be seen today. The house underwent restoration work in 1965 and now houses the Museo de Ambiente Historic Cuban, with a collection of furniture, porcelain, glass and other household items.

Diego Velazquez Home

Some of the magnificent ornamentation on the Velazquez Home

The home incorporates some of the traditional building techniques used in Santiago de Cuba.  Santiago sits in an active seismic zone.  Woven sticks of different sizes are packed with hay, rocks, clay, and other materials, these are then plastered over.  This creates strong walls flexible enough to give during seismic activity.

Pico Padre

Pico Padre

Further in our wanderings we came upon Santiago’s most famous stairway, Pico Padre. Mayor Emilio Bacardi ordered the construction of these stairs in 1899, to honor Santiago’s Catholic priest Bernardo del Pico Redin, well known for his charity work at Beléns Convent.  The street has 52 steps.

Padre Pico


View from Pico Padre

View from Pico Padre

Children looking down on Padre Pico

Children looking down on Pico Padre


Museo de la Lucha Clandes­tina

At the top of the steps and  little to the right you will find the Museo de la Lucha Clandes­tina (the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle).  The house, which sits in the Tivoli neighborhood, focuses on the activities of the resistance movement under local martyr Frank País. The residents of Santiago, along with the peasants in the Sierra Maestra, were instrumental in supporting the Revolution.


A house across the street from the museum

As the sun started to set we wandered homeward, here are some glimpses into that walk.

Santiago de Cuba


Santiago de Cuba



The view from Balcon de Valázquéz


El Balcon

Balcon de Valázquéz  – Felix Pena 612

Santiago de Cuba

Architecture of Santiago de Cuba

Santiago’s architecture is as varied as one can see in any city.


*Santiago de Cuba


Art Deco in Santiago

Art Deco in Santiago


The lack of cars in Cuba make for an easy pickup game of football




Apr 202015

Plaza Marti

This is a Phrygian cap.  It is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward and in the past was associated with the people of the Phrygia region of Anatolia. In early modern Europe it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of manumitted (emancipated) slaves of ancient Rome. Therefore, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap.

The cap sits atop the Cuban coat-of-arms and here it sits atop a column in Plaza Marte.

Plaza Marti

Plaza Marte was constructed in 1799 and is one of Santiago’s central plazas in the “old” part of town. Named Liberty Square on June 12, 1899, to honor the independence of Cuba, everyone still calls it Plaza Marte. Marte is Spanish for Mars, the plaza is named after the Greek God of War.

Miquel Matamoros Matamoros

This is Miquel Matamoros Matamoros.  The most prolific composer of the Matamoros Three, he sits on the edges of the more touristy part of town and the entry to Avenida José A. Saco (more commonly known as Enramada) Santiago’s main shopping thoroughfare.

The Trío Matamoros was one of the most popular Cuban trova groups. It was formed in 1925 by Miguel Matamoros (8 May 1894 in Santiago de Cuba – 15 April 1971; guitar), Rafael Cueto (14 March 1900 in Santiago de Cuba – 7 August 1991; guitar) and Siro Rodriguez (9 December 1899 in Santiago de Cuba – Regla, 29 March 1981; maracas and claves).

The Enramada

The Enramada

The Enramada is part of the area that surrounds Plaza Dolores, a small tree lined park that is surrounded by colonial homes, most of which have been turned into tourist restaurants.

Plaza Dolores

Plaza Dolores

Musicians play to the tourists in Plaza Dolores

Musicians play to the tourists in Plaza Dolores

Across the street you will find another small area with a sculpture of Juan B. Gomez, Rafael H. De Labra and Miquel Figueroa fighting for the liberation of slaves, this statue sits in Serrano Park, a gathering spot for chess, checkers and domino players.


dominoes and checkers


Abel Santamaria

Across town on Trinidad street is the Abel Santamaría Historic Monument. The fountain, standing in front of a complex of buildings, honors the armed action of  revolutionaries led by Abel Sanataría Cuadrado on July 26, 1953.

Abel Santamaría along with his sister Haydée participated in the Moncada barracks assault in July 1953 that was supposed to start the revolution to overthrow Batista. After its failure they were both thrown in prison. Abel died in prison after being tortured by police trying to get him to reveal the location of where the other revolutionaries were hiding. It is said that the police removed Abel’s eyes and showed them to his sister Haydée but she never revealed where the revolutionaries were.

This is also the spot where Castro stood trial for his actions in the Moncada barracks attack, this is the famous trial where he represented himself and gave the closing argument that “History will absolve me”.


The Moncada Barracks

While now a school, the Moncada Barracks also holds a museum covering the period leading up to the July 26th attack.

On July 26th, 1953 during Carnival, rebel forces led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara attacked these concrete barracks to seize weapons. The attempt failed, but the revolutionaries gained recognition from their efforts, and many people consider this incident to mark the beginning of the Revolution.



The Moncado barracks

The museum proudly shows the bullet marks made during the July 26th attack.

July 26 Flag

Another hat tip to the revolution is this 1990s sculpture by Albert Lezcay sitting on the edge of Plaza de la Revolution. The Plaza is typical of those around Cuba in that Fidel delivered speeches from here but more importantly this is where the Pope celebrated mass during his visit to Cuba in 1998.

MachettesThis monument is dedicated to the 19th century war hero, General Antonio Maceo. Saw-toothed “machetes” rise from the grass and surround a large sculpture of the General on horseback.  If you are interested in learning more about this sculpture check out ArtandArchitecture-SF.


Heredia Theater

On Revolution Plaza is the Heredia Theater. It was opened on August 13, 1991 and cost 41 million Cuban Pesos to build.

Born in 1803, romantic poet, Jose Maria Heredia  is Cuba’s most famous poet, although he died in Mexico while in exile. Heredia, because of his pro-independence writings, is considered Cuba’s first national poet.

In the older part of town, at Calle Heredia 260, Casa Natal de Jose Maria Heredia is now a museum paying tribute to his life. The building also functions as a cultural center and occasionally features poetry readings.

Casa Heredia


Apr 202015


Strategically located on a cliff top, the structure, Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, took 62 years to build and was completed at the end of the 17th century.

It was designed in 1637 by Italian engineer, Giovanni Battista Antonelli, as a defense against raiding pirates, although an earlier, smaller, fortification had been built on the spot between 1590 and 1610.

The fort, built on the steep sides of the promontory (morro) has four main levels and three large bulwarks for housing artillery. Supplies would be delivered by sea and then stored in a large warehouse, which was cut directly into the rock.


Cannon Mounts

During the 20th century the El Morro fell into decay, but it was restored during the 1960s by Francisco Prat Puig. The fortress was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, and was cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.


The fort’s true name is Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca


Although originally intended to protect against pirate attacks, El Morro  served as a prison in the late 1700s, with a gruesome history of torture.


A view of the bay.


A tour bus leaving El Morro and heading to La Estrella, the beach just around the bend


Farms located across the channel


Our group enjoying the view.

*DSC_1749 *DSC_1748Roberto making sure Otis has pictures to take back home with him to remind him of how hot and tired we all were that day.
DSC_1745 *DSC_1744Even though they show this as a chapel, I do not believe the Spaniards would have given up such a strategic window for that purpose.

*DSC_1741 *DSC_1738 *DSC_1735 *DSC_1732

El Morro is about 6 miles out of town and very near the airport, so planes approach directly overhead.


When visiting, keep in mind, there is a cannon firing ceremony at sundown, which sadly we did not get to witness.

Lighthouse at El Morro

The lighthouse was added in 1840.


Apr 202015



Created in 1868 to accommodate the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak, the Santa Ifigenia includes many great historical figures among its 8000-plus tombs, notably the mausoleum of José Martí.

Santiago de Cuba cemetery

When the cemetery was inaugurated in February 1868, it was in the form of a Roman cross, divided into courtyards. The main ones were used to bury those high up on the social ladder, and they move outward until arriving at the areas where those perishing from yellow fever and cholera epidemics were laid to rest.

Bacardi Tomb

Emilio Bacardí y Moreau (1844–1922) of the famous rum dynasty



Memorial to Marine Stevedores and Workers


The Altarpiece of the Heroes, the resting place of Generals Jose Maceo, Guillermon Moncada and Flor Crombet, who headed a legion of officers and soldiers in the two 19th-century independence wars in Cuba.


The highlight of the cemetery, for many, is the tomb of Cuba’s national hero, José Martí (1853–95). Erected in 1951 during the Batista era, the hexagonal structure is positioned so that Martí’s wooden casket receives daily shafts of sunlight. This is in response to a comment Martí made in one of his poems that he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.

Jose Marti


Jose Marti's Tomb

Jose Marti’s Tomb

Marti's coffin

Marti’s coffin which holds his ashes

José Julián Martí Pérez (1853 – 1895) is a Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature. He was a poet, an essayist, a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist.

Born in Havana, Martí  would travel extensively in Spain, Latin America, and the United States, raising awareness and support for the cause of Cuban independence. His unification of the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. He was a key figure in the planning and execution of this war, as well as the designer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its ideology. He died during the Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895.

Jose Marti

Martí is considered one of the great turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals. His written works consist of a series of poems, essays, letters, lectures, a novel, and even a children’s magazine. He wrote for numerous Latin American and American newspapers; he also founded a number of newspapers himself. His newspaper Patria was a key instrument in his campaign for Cuban independence. After his death, one of his poems from the book, “Versos Sencillos” (Simple Verses) was adapted to the song “Guantanamera”, which has become the definitive patriotic song of Cuba.



An eternal flame at Jose Marti's grave

An eternal flame at Jose Marti’s grave

A round-the-clock guard of the mausoleum is changed, amid much pomp and ceremony, every 30 minutes.

A round-the-clock guard of the tomb is changed, with much pomp and circumstance, every 30 minutes.


This is a very short video I shot, make sure your volume is on, the music is half the entertainment.

Cuban cemetery

*Cuban Cemetery


Apr 202015

El Cobre

This is El Cobre, a church with a colorful history and a stunning interior. Built in 1926, El Cobre lies about 12 miles outside of Santiago de Cuba.

A focus of intese popular devotion—not just for Catholics but also for followers of Santería and even those who aren’t otherwise religious—the beloved Virgin of Charity was declared the patron saint of Cuba by the pope in 1916.


On the road to the town of El Cobre, before visiting the shrine, you are given the opportunity to purchase flowers, candles and personal shrines.  We purchased both flowers and candles.

Virgin of Charity

el cobre

As you can see, the church is well adorned with flowers from visitors.

El Cobre

The side aisles serve as a place to offer candles and there are framed prayers above the tables if you need prompting.

El Cobre

The history of the shrine is linked to a legend that has changed with the passage of time.

One day in 1608, two Indians and a slave boy (often told as a white, a mulatto and a black) were gathering salt on the coast near El Cobre when they saw something floating in the water. It was a small statue of the Virgin Mary, carrying the Christ child and a gold cross. She floated on a board bearing the inscription, Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad, “I am the Virgin of Charity.”

El Cobre Offerings

Offerings are kept in the Chapel of Miracles, including Ernest Hemingway’s medal for his 1954 literature Nobel Prize, which he donated to the Virgin. Common objects left in more recent times include replicas of rafts, representing safe journeys to America.

El Cobre

There are beautiful stained glass windows everywhere.

DSC_1629 *DSC_1631 *




This stunning wood mechanism is used to transport the Virgin through town on important holidays.


There is a dispenser for you to fill your container with Holy water to take home.

The Copper Mines of the area

The Copper Mines of the area

Jennifer and I at El Cobre

Jennifer and I at El Cobre

The town of El Cobre was founded in 1550 as a Spanish copper mine, worked by slaves and Indians. It was at its peak in the first half of the 19th century, when it produced 67,000 tons of copper. In 2001, scant production and low prices for copper on the world market led to the mine’s closure.



We stopped for coconut water and cucurucho on our return trip. Cucurucho is a delicacy of the city of Baracoa east of Santiago. Wrapped in a cone-shaped palm leaf (cucurucho is Spanish for cone), it is a mix of coconut, sugar and often other ingredients such as orange, guava and pineapple.



Cucurucho - it is DELICIOUS

Cucurucho – it is DELICIOUS


Apr 202015


Once you leave the Cathedral in El Cobre, and if you are willing to walk 400 steps, be certain to visit the Monumento al Cimmarón.


You very well may be met at the bottom of the stairs by a “guide”. He will take you off the beaten path to see this “holy” tree.  It is a site of Santeria gathering in July, the Fiesta del Caribe.

Further up the “off path” trail you will find many caves.  The guide will tell you the Cimmaróns built them, but I have a bigger suspicion they were dug while this area was being mined for copper.


Just before you get to the top, if you remain on the “off the track” direction you will come upon this mural. I know nothing about it, and neither did my “guide”.


Your reason for the climb is several fold, but most important it is to visit “El Monumento al Cimarron” (the Monument to Runaway Slaves), a towering sculpture created in bronze and iron, built to honor one of the earliest slave revolts that took place in the country.

DSC_4551This region, was the scene of many acts of insubordination and mass slave escapes in the years 1673, 1691, 1731, 1737 and 1781 and an uprising on  July 24, 1731.

DSC_4526You can read all about the sculpture and the sculptor here.

The other reason to make this trek is the view.


The town of El Cobre was founded in 1550 as a Spanish copper mine, worked by slaves and Indians, and mining continued until 2001.  Once the mine was closed the quarry turned into an enormous pit, that is the lake you see.  The water is very high in minerals, especially sulfurs.


The environmental damage is evident, but can be mistaken for the poverty that sits above it.

DSC_4533-001You are rewarded for your efforts with stunning views of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, the cathedral and the town of El Cobre.

If you do go, take water, and if you use the guide, tip him at least 1CUC, it is a long hot walk especially in the summer.


Apr 202015

April 2015

I have come to Guantánamo to visit my friends family.  This post is really just a walking tour of the downtown.

General Pedro A. Perez

General Pedro A. Perez

The town of Guantánamo was founded in 1796 to handle the French fleeing the slave revolution of Haiti.  Along with being famous for the naval base, the song Guantanamera (girl from Guantánamo) is probably the only reason American’s know of the town.


The song Guantanamera is aligned with changuí, a variation of son music that developed in the coffee plantations.  The song was composed by Joséito Fernández in the 1940s.  It was apparently inspired by a proud local girl who did not react to a compliment that he paid her.  Later some verses from José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, were added.

Jose Marti Square GuantanamoThe center of Guantánamo City is Jose Marti Central Park.

Jose Marti Park in Guantanamo City

Jose Marti Park in Guantanamo City


Church at GuantanamoThis is the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Catalina that sits on the central square.

Church of Guantanamo

Construction on the building started in April of 1837, but it was not finished until July 15, 1842. The first oratory was built in 1842. In 1953 a floor for the bell tower was added as well as the concrete cupola. Between 1959-60 other changes were made by Architect Jioaquín Sebares, under the tutelage of Dr. Francisco Prat Puig.


Note the beautiful carving on the ceiling

Centro La Luz Guantanamo

This building, about to undergo a restoration, is called Centro La Luz.  It was the distribution center for José Martí’s children books.

The Post Office

This was the home of engineer José Letyicio Salcines Morlotte, built in 1919 in the Beaux Arts style.  The house was one of the first to integrate bathrooms into the bedrooms, breaking with the traditional colonial house design. In 1994 the Post Office moved into the first floor and the Municipal Syndicate of Education moved into the third, the second remained residential.  The building underwent a restoration in 1999 and now the Salcines Art Gallery is on the first floor, the Decorative Art Museum on the second and the Provincial Center of Cultural Patrimony is on the third.

The main street of Guantánamo

The Royal Coat of Arms sits over the front door of this Cuban bank

The Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom sits over the front door of this Cuban bank

Another classically designed bank, now a Cuban bank

Another classically designed bank, now a Cuban bank


The neighborhoods of Guantánamo City.

Due to the absolute level land of Guantánamo, bicycles of every shape, size, color and design are everywhere in Guantánamo City.


There are many forms of transportation in Cuba, and due to the compact nature of Guantánamo, I saw most of them.


This isn’t as odd as it looks.  Since the buses in Cuba are worthless many enterprising people have adapted large trucks into human transport devices.  This truck had benches inside to take on passengers and get them where they need to go.




This is the bus station.  Since the buses are so bad, the building serves more as a meeting place than an actual bus station.  People arrive here in search of transportation, often in those jeeps that you see.


We drove from Santiago de Cuba to Guantánamo in this.  These older cars are called Almendrónes (Almonds). Almendrones are pre-1959 US automobiles and are called that due to their particularly round and elongated shape. They are the cheapest “for hire” cars.  Our ride that day, which was a 6 hour day for the driver, cost approximately 900 Cuban pesos, or about $33 US.  Keep in mind that the average monthly salary of a Cuban is $24 US.


We had a lot of fun in this car.  Children in Cuba are not allowed to ride near a door or in the front seat

It is 55 miles from Santiago to Guantánamo,  and for some unknown reason it took two hours to get there but only one to return. The roads were typical of Cuba, good parts and bad parts.  We traveled part of the way on a new road called the Autopista National.  Even though it is fairly new it still had potholes. The odd thing was, I could never quite reconcile in my mind what the new road was for. The traffic was absolutely nil, with the exception of leaving Santiago, you could land a plane on the road and no one would be the wiser, there were very long stretches where we saw no one.

There are two checkpoints between the two towns, one you can be flagged over going either direction the other is just for entry to the area around Guantanamo, we were not stopped at any. This, the driver said, is because they knew his car as he makes the run regularly. I have to assume that is also why he veered around the potholes at 50 mph, he knows the road well.

Our driver raised his hand in greeting to every car, hard to do in the U.S. if you travel 55 miles. There was one tunnel, not long, but, as an aside, there were no lights inside. When we returned I noticed our driver go through the tunnel much much slower than the first time, I then saw a motorcycle cop on the other end. After that I noticed our drivers wave to the other cars was different, obviously they all have hand signals, that was truly a fun bit of insight, glad to see they have a bit of rebellion in them.

A funny note. I had a window seat, and of course the window was down. The next morning I got up to put on the same white shirt I had worn to Guantanamo and it had a fine covering of black, not so noticeable as to be alarming, but noticeable enough that I couldn’t wear it again without washing and it makes you wonder what is in my lungs from that trip.  This car, like many others in Cuba are converted to diesel due to the cheaper cost, I guess that explains my dirty shirt.

Buying and making yogurt in Cuba

One of the stops that we made along the way was this yogurt and sandwich kiosk.  Set in front of a private home, the yogurt was some of the best I have ever had.  The woman showed me around the new additions to her home she is able to make due to the extra income this little enterprise is bringing in.


And finally, a drive through Cuba is never complete without being bombarded with communist propaganda. There is no revolution without boldness.

Apr 202015

Jennifer Reyes Chavez is a very very bright young 9 year old from Cuba.  When this article appeared in the November 21, 2014 issue of Granma, which is delivered to her home everyday, she was so moved she decided to write a poem.

Felix Baez Sarreas

Felix Baez Sarrias

GINEBRA.-Cuban doctor Felix Baez Sarrias, member of the International Contingent Brigade “Henry Reeve” infected by Ebola in Sierra Leone remains “stable” but “very tired”, said Friday the head of Intensive Care Hospital Geneva Cantonal, Jerome Pugin.

Pugin told reporters that at present it is difficult to predict how it will evolve Baez Sarria, 43. The situation in his state of health “can change very quickly,” said the expert, noting that “the patient may improve or worsen as is the case with this type of hemorrhagic infections”, several news agencies reported.

According to EFE, Baez Sarria has begun to receive the experimental treatment Zimapp administered in recent months to other international patients who were infected with the virus in West Africa, with results that are considered encouraging.

The Cuban internationalist physician arrived in Geneva on Thursday for treatment against Ebola, a specialist in handling infectious cases of high transmissibility University Hospital section.

He is being treated by highly qualified, well equipped and trained for such emergencies in a wing of the building that is independent of the location of outpatient facilities and general hospital.

The treatment in this European country responds to an agreement with WHO to address medical staff Cuba is involved in missions to third countries.

Here is Jennifer’s Poem:
Un Médico Héroe

Un día un médico llegó
a un país donde no se le conocía
y al pasar de los días ya
era el Rey de su profeción

Y hoy con gran amor
salvando vidas humanas
pasando entre praderas
llanos y montañas
el todo lo vence

Pore eso presente siempre estas tú
Félix médico héroe
que dejaste entre ellos
tu gran valentia y audasia

Y esa Sierra Leona
nunca te olvidará
porque presente siempre estarás
en su Patria de Valientes

Jennifer Reyes Chávez


And here is a quasi translation:

Physician Hero

One day a doctor came
to a country where they did not know him
and the passage of days
He was already the King of his Profession

And today with great love
saving human lives
passing through meadows
plains and mountains
He conquered it

Keep in mind you’re always
Felix medical hero
you left between them
Your great bravery and boldness

And that Sierra Leone
will never forget you
because you will always be present
in their country of Brave



Jennifer Reyes Chavez

I want to apologize to my very dear friend Jennifer for the horrible English translation of her poem, all mistakes are mine.

Baez survived.

Jan 262015

Cuba has the most tightly controlled internet in the world.  Their internet is characterized by a low number of connections, limited bandwidth, censorship, and high cost.  For that reason I posted this first entry prior to leaving and the rest upon my return.

Havana, Cuba

Everyone is talking about the opening of negotiations between the US and Cuba, so before I leave, I thought I would share some thoughts.

Before leaving I attended a lecture with a dear friend who owns property in Cuba and visits regularly.  The lecturer was Peter Kornbluh, author of Back Channel to Cuba.  My friends take on the entire thing was that it was nice to hear the diplomatic side, but it was way off base regarding the people that actually live in Cuba.  The book, while dense, is a good read if you want to get a feel for the complicated situation that has been going on since the Kennedy administration.

While I am truly in favor of, and in complete agreement with the release of prisoners on BOTH sides of the issue, there is still a long way to go towards normalized relations between these two countries.

There were several excellent articles about the release of prisoners, and I will point you to them here (American) and here (Cuban). I do not want to get into a discussion of “left vs right” or “I see it that way vs You see it this way”, I would just like to present a few good articles.  At this point, my attitude is, unless you are Cuban and have lived there for the past 20-50 years, you really only have the right to listen, there are just too many facts not available to people that are looking from the outside in to have an opinion of value.

I will say, however, that my Cuban friend Otis, who now lives in the United States, has said the only person in Cuba that will benefit from the lifting of the embargo and complete normalization, at this point would be Castro.  Presently the embargo is a good way for the Castro’s to stay in power and keep up the “revolutionary fervor” as my friend Gary Brown has so aptly pointed out.  However, if the embargo were lifted Otis feels that all the money and goods would go to the people in power and not the people of the country.  Since this has played out so often over history, I have to agree he has a point.

Castro who is now 88 years old

Castro who is now 88 years old

I have been told by many that have traveled to Cuba that one can not be prepared for the overwhelming sense of poverty.  I have taken that under advisement.  I have been in some of the most impoverished parts of the world, but they were not islands, they were a part of a more dynamic country with parts that had an actual economy.

I have also heard that you never feel the poverty because of the beauty of the people, and the amazing, if somewhat dilapidated, architecture.  I am excited no matter what I find.

cars in Cuba

When I heard that comment about poverty, I immediately thought of an article I had read about the cars of Cuba.   Yes, the Cubans are master mechanics, they have the ability to hand make any part of any U.S. car, but what about materials to make those parts?  Tires are nonexistent in Cuba.  Think about that. You utilize your car to make money, tourists for private rides during the day, and by night, taxi, but your tire has been repaired so many times you desperately need a new one.   Also, why classic American cars? Well a Peugeot costs approximately $262,000 in Cuba, necessity is truly the mother of invention.  Should the price of oil continue to plummet and the Cuba Venezuela pact breakdown, none of this is important, because there won’t be any gas to operate the cars anyway.

If you aren’t up on Cuban politics and that last line threw you, basically Cuba sends thousands of medical professionals to Venezuela and, in return, gets billions of dollars worth of Venezuelan oil cheaply.


Some common Questions:

The night before I left the rules changed, but just 24 hours prior as an American I was required to travel with a group.  one could not enter Cuba legally from the United States, without being in a group.  One could not get a visa without being part of a group and only the group can give one the authorization letter  needed to enter the country.  This won’t change too terribly much to be honest. The US now has no problem with American citizens traveling to Cuba, however the Cuban government is another story.  You will still need to have approved Cuban visas that are issued only by approved agencies.  For that reason most people will most likely still need to be on a tour, for a while anyway.

Most everyone travels on what is considered a People-to-People expedition.  What that means is that you don’t choose where you want to go and what you want to see, they do.  That being said, it really is a great itinerary.  Local craftspeople, local farmers, several museums, tobacco sorting and drying facility, art projects, schools, and senior centers are all on the agenda.

CheI have been told over and over that washcloths are non-existent, I have come prepared.  Also toiletries, while available, are not plentiful, nor any of the other items one has grown accustomed to finding in even the cheapest hotels around the world.

Cuban CigarsI am fortunate in that I will be part of the first group of people to be able to legally bring back Cuban Cigars and Cuban Rum to the United States.  Yes, I plan to do so!

One last thought – is Castro dead?  The rumor was running rampant on the island according to my friends that returned just before I left, then the newspapers and internet picked up on it.  The best that I can say is no, but that is only because an Argentinian soccer player, Diego Mardona, has received a letter from Castro saying he is very much alive and well.

If he were would it affect Cuba, probably not, Raul is pretty well ensconced and has been for seven years now. The military complex controls 60% of the major enterprises on the island according to the Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies at the university of Miami, these officers have a huge incentive to maintain control regardless of who is in charge.

In 2013 when Raul lifted the exit visa requirements for Cubans allowing them to travel more freely, and then instituted a series of economic changes allowing for a slightly less state-run economy things also eased up on the potential for revolution.  While dissidents continue to protest an outright overthrow seems hardly in the wind.

With that all said, I look forward to bringing you my findings and my photographs, see you in a few weeks.



Jan 262015

January 16, 2015


The day started at 5:00 in the morning to get to the airport for the Cuban airport hustle. It essentially means that you get to the airport, hand your tour handler your passport, $20 for baggage and your visa. Then you stand and wait. That process took over an hour.

However, our standing around was more unusual than most folks, since on our departure date the stand off between Cuba and the US was cracked open just a bit more. We were joined by television cameras to greet us, take our pictures and interview a handful of our group.

Newspaper Headline Cuba Opens

Then through TSA to sit and wait some more. This wait was for weather. It was foggy on the ground in Santa Clara so we waited for that to burn off.

Once in the air it was 40 minutes. Forty minutes to look down upon the ocean and contemplate how many people have made that trek crammed on escaping, rickety boats. Landing in that short period of time hits you like a brick for just the same reason. A simple 40 minutes out of our lives spent happily talking on an airplane, 40 minutes that millions of Cubans, till now, have not been able to spend.

Our first stop was the Che Gueverra monument just outside the Santa Clara airport.

Che Guevera Mausoleum Cuba

Che is the hero of Santa Clara, a vital spot in the revolution. Batista knew that if he lost Santa Clara he would lose the fight, and it was Che that secured the area of Santa Clara for Castro and the revolution, forcing Batista to give up and leave Cuba.

Che Gueverra Monument CubaThe monument was designed by architect Jorge Cao Campos and sculptor Jose Delarra. Che’s remains are in this mausoleum, along with the remains of his comrades that died fighting with him in Bolivia.

Our next stop was lunch at the Club Cienfuegos in the Punta Gorda portion of Cienfuegos. The city, named after Governor Jose Cienfuegos was built by the French in 1819. These French were predominantly from New Orleans, Haiti and Bordeaux. The city sits on the Punta Gorda and the Club Cienfuegos is a boating club, with, primarily catamarans as members as far as I could see.

Club Cienfuegos

Our stay was at the Hotel Union. You can see how stunning it would have been in its heyday with a central open court, columns and ornamental railings. We were told this would be our best hotel during our trip to Cuba, in hindsight, I don’t think this was true, it was very similar to most that we stayed in.

Hotel Cienfuegos


Hotel Cienfuegos

The center of Cienfuegos, Jose Marti Plaza, is a UNESCO world heritage site, chosen as a singular model of 19th century urban planning in Cuba and the Caribbean.


Benny More

On the Cienfuegos Promenade Prado is a bronze statue of Benny Moré, often thought of as the greatest Cuban popular singer of all time. He was a tenor and a master of most genres of Cuban music.  Moré formed and led the leading Cuban big band of the 1950s, until his death in 1963.  Click here to listen.

The Tomás Terry Theater whose name sake was a plantation owner and local patron of the arts. Built in 1890 it has been the stage for such notables as Enrico Caruso, Sara Bernhardt and Mexican movie star Jorge Negrete.

The Tomás Terry Theater whose name sake was a plantation owner and local patron of the arts. Built in 1890 it has been the stage for such notables as Enrico Caruso, Sara Bernhardt and Mexican movie star Jorge Negrete.

The Masks on the Theater

The Masks on the Theater


The Municipal Palace (City Hall)

The Municipal Palace (City Hall)

Constructed during the 1920s with funds left by wealthy city patron Nicholas Acea Salvador

Constructed during the 1920s with funds left by wealthy city patron Nicholas Acea Salvador

Dinner was at in the courtyard of an amazing home, Valle Palace. Built between 1913 and 1917 at a cost of 1.5 million pesos it was the collaboration of French, Arab, Italian and Cuban architects and is made of materials from all over the world. A gift from husband Acisclo del Valle Blanco, to his wife it was conceived on the couples trip to Spain.

Cienfuegos Valle Palace


Dinner in Cienfuegos


I will include our official itinerary at the end of each specific day post, as some items will be covered in more depth in their own post.


5:15AM Meet CJ Cueto in the lobby of the hotel
5:30 Arrive at Airport and begin check in
8:00 Flight Departs Miami
9:00 Arrive Santa Clara, proceed through customs/immigration and baggage claim
Visit to the Che Memorial in the heart of Santa Clara
Transfer to Cienfuegos
Walking City tour
Cienfuegos Choir
Dinner at Los Laurels
Overnight Hotel La Union

Jan 252015

Cienfuegos Mercado

After a buffet breakfast we were bound for Trinidad. Before leaving town we headed to the local Mercado. It was a fairly typical Mercado and yet fun to explore.

Cienfuegos Cuba Mercado

*Cienfuegos Mercado

Our first stop out of town was a Batey. Batey is a Cuban word for a small community that centers around a sugar plantation and factory.

Batey in Cuba

The site, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was founded in 1847 by the Saria family. In 1884 Elisha Atkins, grandfather of US assemblyman Chester Atkins bought the plantation and factory. At that time there were 800 slaves and the property was 4500 acres. The sugar factory remained in the family until 1959, the last owner being one of Elisha Atkins daughters.

In 1959, when Castro took over Cuba the sugar factories were nationalized. At this time the name was changed to “March of the Revolution”.

Due to the economic crisis of the 90s Castro had closed over 50% of the sugar factories down by 2004.

The “March of the Revolution” was one of the first sugar plantation/factories to be closed due to its location. The terrain is rather hilly making it difficult to move large machinery around.

In 2002 when it was sidelined 2000 workers were left without jobs. These workers were given full pay for the next 3 years with the understanding that they get an education.

Nancy the sugar plantation guideOur guide, Nancy Robaina Monzon became a history teacher, and now teaches down the road while taking great pride in helping to archive the history of the plantation.

Pedro the sugar plantations train driverAnother gentleman Pedro Gonzalez Jauragui, was the railroad engineer for the factory. Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes had over 80 km of railroad lines. When the factory was closed he retired, but enjoys meeting and greeting tourists today.

Employment books of the Sugar PlantationRegarding the slaves. Sugar and slavery go hand in hand. Since the aboriginal population was completely decimated by the Conquistadors the Spaniards brought Africans to do the work. Slavery was officially outlawed in Cuba in 1886. At that time the Cuban sugar entities began importing Chinese to do the work. There is a Chinese cemetery on the property, and a very small and aging Chinatown in Havana.

Notice the Chinese names in the right hand column

Notice the Chinese names in the right hand column

These books are the payroll records; according to Nancy there are 1000s of them.

The Atkins lived in the house only 3 months of the year when harvest and sugar production was occurring.

We next meandered along the bottom of the Los Helechos Mountains ( translation: the ferns) to get to Trinidad. The center of Trinidad was declared a World Heritage site in 1988, and the city itself one of the better preserved colonial towns of Cuba.

The ParochialChurch of the Holy Trinity  Built in 1892, this classic facade is composed of four naves.

The Parochial Church of the Holy Trinity
Built in 1892, this classic facade is composed of four naves.

The altar of the church

The altar of the church

One of two wrought iron stairs in the church

One of two wrought iron stairs in the church


 is the House of the Sánchez Iznaga  which houses the Museum of Colonial Architecture This building was originally two houses in the 18th century, both owned by the sugar barons of the Sánchez Iznaga family The two houses, joined in the 19th century show the typical grilled and shuttered windows, and feature an elegant portico with slim columns and a delicate wrought iron balustrade,

The House of the Sánchez Iznaga family, which houses the Museum of Colonial Architecture. This building was originally two houses in the 18th century, both owned by the Iznaga sugar barons. The two houses, joined in the 19th century show the typical grilled and shuttered windows, and feature an elegant portico with slim columns and a delicate wrought iron balustrade,

Built between 1800 and 1809, this house originally belonged to the Mayor Rafael Ortiz de Zuniga.   It is now the Benito Ortiz Borrell University Gallery

Built between 1800 and 1809, this house originally belonged to the Mayor Rafael Ortiz de Zuniga.  
It is now the Benito Ortiz Borrell University Gallery

Diego Valazquez de Cuellar, a conquistador that originally arrived in Cuba in 1511, established Trinidad in January 1514.

However, by mid 1500 Trinidad was depopulated of the Spanish because Cortez regularly came to recruit the Spanish conquistadors for his conquista of Mexico.

Trinidad was a rich and prosperous city in the 1700s with sugar. Sugar came to Trinidad via Haiti. Haiti was a big sugar producer, but during the slave rebellion many left for Cuba bringing the sugar trade with them.

Due to this wealth from sugar Trinidad was made an Administrative Center. The 1800s however saw the beginning of Trinidad’s decline.

Some factors included; the depletion of wood, the main fuel for the sugar factories., the Industrial revolution, occurring amongst other parts of the world, and the War of Independence from Spain in 1860.

This economic decline resulted in the loss of Trinidad’s status as Administrative Center and Trinidad became a highly isolated place. This explains the preservation of the architecture within the city.

Built in 1812 for the Borrell Family, this classic colonial Trinidad residence now houses the Romantic Museum

Built in 1812 for the Borrell Family, this classic colonial Trinidad residence now houses the Romantic Museum


Upside down cannons dot most every corner of Trinidad

Upside down cannons dot most every corner of Trinidad


These gents will happily pose for photos for $1CUC.  The fabulous smile belongs to Paula Armentrout

These gents will happily pose for photos for $1CUC. The fabulous smile belongs to Paula Armentrout

Thanks to the railroad in the 1920s and the roads that were built to the city in the 1950s the population of Trinidad is approximately 100,000 people today.

The architecture of Trinidad has a few distinct features. Wide doors, pastel colors and beautiful iron work. The streets are paved with cobblestones that served as ballast when ships came from America. Lunch at David Marti, Trinidad, Cuba

Lunch at David Marti, Trinidad, Cuba

For lunch we had the utter pleasure to dine at Davi Mart. Davi Mart is a paladar. Before I rave about the food at lunch let me give a bit of history around the word paladar.

During the Cuban economic crisis of the 1990s Castro recognized that something must be done or his people were going to starve. He allowed the development of some private businesses. These were, and are today primarily restaurants and hotels.

At the same time as the crisis, the entertainment for the downhearted was an Argentinian soap opera. The soap opera centered on a woman, nicknamed Paladar, a word used to denote a person of good taste.  Somehow those two things came together to give these new ventures their name.

Chef David Marti

Chef Davi Marti

Chef Davi Mart is surrounded by his family in this venture. We were greeted with a drink called Canchanchara. It consists of honey, lemon and rum served in a little terracotta cup.

We began with a “Sleeping Bean” salad. A tomato with a helping of black beans topped with grated cabbage. The entire thing was locally and organically grown.

The main course consisted of our choice of lamb, lobster (langostino) shrimp or red snapper. Since you were allowed to combine things the majority of us consumed the grouping of three fish, they were wonderful, but I understand from Carolyn Maize, a grower of her own lamb, that it was equally delicious.

We topped the lunch off with birthday cake for Leslie Lauble, a beautiful chocolate mousse cake for a beautiful lady.

We topped the lunch off with birthday cake for Leslie Lauble, a beautiful chocolate mousse cake for a beautiful lady.

After lunch we headed to ChiChi Santanders pottery factory. That was a major disappointment. The factory was not “art” pottery but was in the business of producing items to sell quickly and cheaply. This group of sophisticated, well-educated travelers headed in and headed out and we were on our way.

The small cups are for Canchanchara, a rum, honey and lemon concoction

Canchanchara cups

As the dark clouds began to roll in we made our way up to the hotel deep into the mountains. It was a slow and careful drive with badly engineered, cheaply paved roads and rain, but the fauna along the way was gorgeous.

Our hotel, Los Helechos, was sparse and utilitarian, and the dining fare bleak.

Our hotel, Los Helechos, was sparse and utilitarian, and the dining fare bleak.




Breakfast at the hotel
Visit the street market to interact with local vendors
Transfer by coach to ruins of a sugar estate, speak with local crafters and villagers
Depart for the city center of Trinidad
Walking tour of Trinidad to meet and talk with local shop owners
Lunch in a local pleader
Visit Casa Santander
Continue to ur hotel for check in
Dinner tonight is at our hotel
Overnight Los Helechos

Jan 242015
Luise our guide

Luise, our guide, with a pod from the Angel Mahogany tree.

We were joined by a local guide Luise. Luise has a degree in journalism but is a fountain of information regarding the flora and fauna of the preserve, as well having a fabulous command of the English language.

Our day was spent in the Topas de Collantes Natural Park in the Guamuhaya Mountains. This 200 square kilometer area is a protected landscape. The area was first explored in the 1930s when Batista decided to build a TB sanatorium in the area. In 1961 the sanatorium became a teachers training school and then in the 1980s a hotel.

Upon its transformation to a hotel this area began its tradition of Eco-tourism. Originally the first visitors were from the Soviet bloc but since the 1990s there has been an increase in tourism from other countries.

Topes de CollantesThe park itself has its roots in the Batista era. 1 square kilometer, the Jardin des Gigantes, was planted with 273 tropical plants by a botanist friend of Batistas. The intent was both research and pleasure.

It is thought that when Columbus landed in Cuba it was 95% forest. Thanks to hacking down trees for sugar production by the 1960s Cuba had only 13% of its original forest, the replanting efforts coupled with the attempt at ecological education has brought that number up to approximately 30%.

Sadly there is a long way to go. The Cubans still come into the protected area to capture parrots when they are very small and sell them in Havana. There is also an active trade in the native ferns, orchids and bromeliads. This is all illegal, but difficult to police.

Our walk through the Topas de Collantes was a fascinating education in the use of the local plants. Since the embargo and exit of the Soviet Union, medication is near non-existent in Cuba making the knowledge and use of herbal remedies a necessity.

We saw plants too numerous to list but they included the Prunus occidentalis a very dense tree whose bark is used to make tea to help cure the common cold.

African Cactus

African Cactus

There was the rat pineapple, good for curing parasites, an African cactus used in treating diabetes and the wandering Jew, used for liver disease and hepatitis.



Then there is the Melastomataceae also often called miconia, the presence of this plant tells you the acidity of the soil, the greater the number of plants present, the higher the pH. Melastomistaceae is also the number one toilet paper in Cuba. One must be careful if you are to adopt this usage, as it is also the home to very tiny fire ants.

We learned a bit about the woods of Cuba. There are three woods used in Cuba, mahogany, cedar and granadillo. While we saw African mahogany we were shown how much straighter and knotless the Cuban mahogany grows.

The soil of this area is highly acidic making it perfect for growing coffee, bananas and pine trees.

Coffee in CubaWe spent the next several hours learning about coffee growing and visiting the home of the Colorado family.

Approximately 2% of Cuba’s arable land is used to grow coffee. There are two types of coffee grown in Cuba the Shade Arabica and the Robusta. The Shade Arabica is grown in the mountains where we were visiting.

It is expected that by 2020 coffee will be a major crop for Cuba.

In Cuba the farmers grow the coffee and they are called coffee collectors. They grow the beans and then harvest and dry them, they are sent to the government for roasting and distribution. The coffee, called Crystal Mountain Coffee is sold primarily to Japan and France for approximately $7–9,000 per ton. This money is then used for the Cuban redistribution program, i.e. social welfare.

The coffee is by default organic. This is simply because when the Russians left, fertilizers and pesticides became so expensive as to be essentially non-existent. The Cubans would like to reintroduce fertilizer in order to boost production. They also have a problem with nematodes, something they desire to cure with pesticides.

Amanda Madar being shown Plantago major, one of the most abundant and widely distributed medicinal crops in the world. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds, stings, and sores in order to facilitate healing and prevent infection. It is also edible and is high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K.

Amanda Madar being shown Plantago major, one of the most abundant and widely distributed medicinal crops in the world. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds, stings, and sores in order to facilitate healing and prevent infection. It is also edible and is high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K.


Maria and one of her sons

Maria and her son Homer, notice Homer’s machete.

Berto Colorado and his beautiful wife Maria own the farm that we visited. They have four boys and four girls and 16 grandchildren. Berto owns his farm, however, his son Homer is a tenant farmer. Originally all of the land would have been owned and run by the government but in the 1990s the government realized that tenant farming could produce more food and cut down on the country’s dependency for imports. Eventually the laws allowed for a tenant farmer to oversee 65 hectares.

DSC_5874In both houses were new rice cookers and hot plates. These were from the government, in exchange for older, less energy efficient appliances.


We enjoyed a repast with the Colorados of guava paste, a peanut butter sugar concoction, oranges, lemons and bananas. Cuban citrus is very sour due to the high acid soil. Cubans usually juice their citrus and then mix with water and sugar.

DSC_5891During this time Louis showed us hand woven baskets called guaniquiqui. The baskets are named after the vine they are woven from and that grows all over the area. I believe that the Latin name for the vine is Trichostigma octandrum

Coffee Beans drying after last nights rain

Coffee Beans drying after last nights rain


Sue Opdyke with one of the daughter-in-laws.  She makes the necklaces to sell

Sue Opdyke with one of the daughter-in-laws. She makes the necklaces to sell

The necklaces are made from seeds and beans and are really, really pretty

The necklaces are made from seeds and beans and are really, really pretty

One of the sons, that sells produce

One of the sons, that sells produce

Lunch was at a restaurant, Mi Retiro, that was originally the home of one of Batista’s banker friends. It consisted of unlimited sliced pork, rice and beans. The location was lovely and the food fairly good.

Mi Retiro

Mi Retiro


The night was again at Los Helechos.


Our Itinerary:
Meet local guide at park headquarters for orientation to the park
Visit a small coffee house for discussion about coffee growing
From the coffee house walk on the Jardin de Gigantes trail with the local guide
Lunch at Restaurant Mi Retiro
Visit the Art Museum
Visit a local farm to visit with the farmer and family

Jan 232015
The Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) - also known as Zunzuncito or Zunzún hummingbird. It is found only in Cuba and is classified as Near Threatened. They are the smallest known living bird in the world

The Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) – also known as Zunzuncito or Zunzún hummingbird.
It is found only in Cuba and is classified as Near Threatened. They are the smallest known living bird in the world

The Cuban Emerald Hummingbird

The Cuban Emerald Hummingbird

We began our day in the Zapata Swamp looking for the Emerald Hummingbird and the Bee Hummingbird.

Steve Stancyk searching for the screech owl we never did see

Steve Stancyk searching for the screech owl we never did see

This was day two of birding. Steve Stancyk explained to this non-birder, that the group was looking first for endemic birds and secondly birds not found in the U.S. that were new to the group.

The endemic birds that have been seen by the group consisted of the Striped Headed Tanager, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Tody and the Cuban Trogan (the national bird).

What the group also saw were a lot of warblers on their winter migration from America.

Our morning stop today at the Zapata Swamp was very successful. We were not only able to spot the Emerald Hummingbird but the all-elusive Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world and endemic to Cuba.

My initiation into birding has put me in an elite group my very first trip out.

Alex Armentrout admiring the fighter jets

Alex Armentrout admiring a Hawker Sea Fury

Our next stop was the Bay of Pigs. I have absolutely no intention of discussing the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, that is what Wikipedia is for.  If you are interested in learning more I suggest Bay of Pigs by Peter Wyden.

We heard two stories about the naming of the bay. First that the pirates of the 1700s gave the name due to the amount of wild pigs, something they could hunt and eat. The second was that this is where the Europeans off loaded the pigs as they brought them to the island, both plausible and fun stories.

DSC_5995We visited the Bay of Pigs Museum. Needless to say it was as flag waving, patriotic as one can possibly imagine, then take that same sort of nationalism and drop it back to the 1960s and you get a feel for the museum

There was a propaganda movie as well; complete with English subtitles so you can be reminded of how weak the American Cubans were against the almighty Cubans that remained behind with love of country behind them.

Our tour leader Nadia Eckhardt and our driver Luise stocking up on water and snacks. Luise not only spent hours during the day driving, but had to log his trip every evening as well.

Our tour leader Nadia Eckhardt and our driver Luise stocking up on water and snacks.
Luise not only spent hours during the day driving, but had to log his trip every evening as well.

A quick stop across from the museum

Bill Madar being told "Made in Cuba, Not China....YET"

Bill Madar being told “Made in Cuba, Not China….YET”

Our guide Gustavo showing us his mighty swing

Our guide Gustavo showing us his “wicked good” swing

DSC_6058A fun lunch outside at Punta Pairdiz, consisted of the usual underwhelming pork, chicken, fish choice on a buffet, with vegetables and rice.

After lunch, those that chose went snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs. I dipped my toe in this historical spot and then enjoyed the afternoon watching the frolicking in the beautiful blue water.

The Bay of Pigs sits within the Zapata Swamp area of Zapata Park. This sits within the largest municipality of Cuba. Prior to the 1960s charcoal production was the only source of income for this region. Since the area has become an eco-tourist spot there has been a large increase in both economic and cultural growth.

Time for a group photo at the Bay of Pigs

Time for a group photo at the Bay of Pigs

Dinner was at a parador called Milly. Run by a husband, wife and mother-in-law it was small and delightful. Dinner was the usual chicken, a fish, and again langostino, but lovingly prepared and quite good. The highlight was the fresh vegetables and fruit and the best Mojitos.



Our hotel was the Playa Larga, coincidentally named for the second landing site of the Bay of Pigs. Moderate and yet clean and right on a beautiful beach with bungalows that reminds you of summer camp.

Hotel Playa Larga

Hotel Playa Larga


Transfer to Zapata Swamp
Meet a local guide to search for the bee hummingbird
Continue by coach to Playa Giron, driving along the Bay of Pigs
Lunch at Punta Perdiz at the Bay of Pigs
Visit to the Bay of Pigs Museum
Continue to hotel for check-in
Visit with Frank, a local naturalist, for discussion about the wetlands
Dinner in a local paladar across from the hotel
Overnight Playa Larga

See on the road to Bay of Pigs "The Big Homeland that Grows"

Seen on the road to Bay of Pigs
“The Big Homeland that Grows”

Jan 222015
The Cuban Green Woodpecker

The Cuban Green Woodpecker

We had the privilege of a lecture from Frank Medina, director of the Zapata Park. This 5000 square kilometer Park is the most important wetland of Cuba. It is recognized by UNESCO as a bio-reserve.

Cuba is 1200 Kilometers long and in it you will find 290 natural beaches, 4095 different keys, 4 mountain ranges, 103 protected areas and 45 nature parks. Almost 20% of Cuba’s land is protected.

Within Zapata Park live 9000 people. There are 3 biological stations that monitor fish, crocodiles, mangroves and marshes.

There are 366 species of birds in Cuba and 258 of them live in the park. The Zapata Wren, last reported in 1998 was again sighted on the 12th of November 2014, encouraging to the work the conservationists are trying to do.

There are 12 mammals in the park, 100 species of spiders, 16 species of fresh water fish and 13 amphibian species, mainly frogs.

DSC_6172The crocodile is the one species that is receiving the heaviest care. The Cuban Crocodile is on the endangered species list and can only survive in a 300 square kilometer portion of the Zapata Swamp.

There are three crocodile farms built with the intent of breeding the crocodiles and repopulating the area. The crocodile is the umbrella species in the area and vital to its ecosystem.

Even so, there is also the American crocodile on the island, and although they prefer brackish water to the fresher water of the Cuban Crocodile, there has now been at least one sighting of interbreeding.

The park also has a few human problems to deal with, hunting of the crocodiles for the hide, illegal since 1960s, fishing of the Gar Fish, and catching of the Cuban Parrot for domestication.



Other problems are Forest Fires, primarily in the dry season of November to April. Invasive species; the Melaluca bush that is so prolific it is easy to spot everywhere. The Lionfish is one they are keeping an eye on and then there is the catfish, grown for food on the island, but a 1998 tropical storm caused the rivers to run so high they escaped their northern farms and got into the local waters. And then, of course, climate change affecting everything from the loss of shoreline to salinity in the marsh area.

DSC_6153Our afternoon began at a crocodile farm at Boca de Guama. This was a sickening tourist trap that even sells stuffed crocodiles. Hard to understand how working this hard to protect a species is coupled with the blatant selling of its parts. At the park one walks around a small area gazing at crocodiles while passing by several stores and one large restaurant and bar.

DSC_6198A twenty-minute boat ride puts you at the center of this Guama Tourist Center and a replica of a Taino village. As you walk along raised wood walkways and over 5 bridges, you pass 25 sculptures by Cuban sculptor Rita Longa. Lunch was crocodile, chicken or squid. We did find it interesting that after a lecture of the success of catching catfish as the most viable eradication process, the catfish in the water, just over the railing of the restaurant, wasn’t on the menu. All and all the food was very good even if the setting left a lot to be desired due to its overly ridiculous tourist hype.

Rita Longa was one of Cubas finest contemporary sculptors, these are not representative of her finest work

Rita Longa was one of Cubas finest contemporary sculptors, these are not representative of her finest work


Early morning birding with Frank Medina
Depart for visit to Korimakao Project for interaction with artists, musicians and dancers (see Art in Cuba)
Depart for Boca de Guama
Visit the Crocodile Farm
Enjoy a short boat ride to our restaurant for lunch
Depart for Pinar del Rio
Dinner at our hotel
Overnight Hotel Villa Soroa



Why do I never remember to take pictures of my room until the morning we leave?


Jan 222015
The Organos Mountain Range

The Organos Mountain Range

Today was filled with those moments that just reek of the tourism that no one in this group wants, and yet, we had no choice, so off we went.

We visited the Indian Cave, located in the Organos Mountain Range in the Guaniguanico Range. The valley, and a large part of the mountain range, became a national park in 1999. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site chosen for its Cultural Landscape.

These are limestone caves developed during the Juraisic Period. The largest of these caves, Santo Tomás is 47 km long and is considerably north of where we were.

Indian Caves in Cuba

Indian Caves in Cuba

As soon as you headed into the caves you were accosted with three people dressed in “native” costume performing for coins.

After a short walk the group was put onto a boat to navigate the subterranean San Vicente River and promptly shown all the things in the cave that looked like something recognizable, i.e. a wine bottle, or a dragon’s head, the classic cliché of every cave tour in the world.

DSC_7018After unloading off the boat you walked through a battery of people selling trinkets and back onto the bus.

Tourist Buses at the Indian Caves in CubaSome of the caves of this area were originally inhabited by the Siboney Indians. The Siboney are a branch of the Arawak Indian that lived in Cuba before the Spaniards. These are separate from the Taino Indian branch that inhabited the Zapata Swamp area.

The Arawak Indians were originally South American and came to Cuba through both the Lesser and Greater Antilles. All the indigenous people of Cuba were wiped out by the Spaniards.

The next stop was the lovely town of Vinales. Here, we and all the other tour buses snapped photos, bought ice cream and even more trinkets.  This area was originally settled by Spaniards from the Canary Islands.


These two stops of the day left me wondering why this spot, why this town? Is it, like America, who you know, or what palms you grease? The answer lies with someone whose Spanish is far more sophisticated than mine.


Lunch was the highlight. We ate at the first privately owned organic farm in the Pina del Rio area. We began with freshly fried taro chips, tostones (fried plantain often stuffed, in this case, with ground turkey) a vegetable soup, vegetables to our hearts content, and then pork, lamb and chicken.

DSC_6430The farm grows 38 crops. The crops are terraced and they use pineapple plants to prevent erosion.

They use natural insecticides such as planting bug-loving plants away from the vegetables, or placing motor oil on brightly covered squares amongst the vegetables.

DSC_6466Corn is always planted a long way away because it attracts the white fly.

The farm practices crop rotation and they fertilize with the excrement of the farm chickens and rabbits. The also do some fertilization with tobacco infused water.

The farm itself is part of a co-operative, whatever is left over after making their required contribution is shared between the local hospital, day care center and senior center. What is left from that feeds guests like ourselves.

They had a Guaybita de Pinar tree, whose fruit s used in making the local liquer. The company the Casa Garay Distilling Company was founded in 1892 combining the knowledge of Spanish liquer making and the fruit of a tree grown only in Cuba.

The farm had a Guayabita de Pinar tree, whose fruit is used in making the local liquer. The company the Casa Garay Distilling Company was founded in 1892 combining the knowledge of Spanish liquer making and the fruit of a tree grown only in Cuba.

Explore the Cueva del Indio and Vinales town
Visit a local organic farm and have lunch
Tour a tobacco sorting and drying facility to talk with the workers (see Tobacco in Cuba)
Dinner at the Hotel

The ubiquitous farm dog

The ubiquitous farm dog

Cuba's Organic Farming

Jan 212015

DSC_6619The morning began with a tour of a Botanical Garden that specialized in Orchids.

DSC_6570Our guide, Aliett Cecilia Diaz, was a botanist and a perfect English speaker.

DSC_6632In 1952 Attorney Thomas Felipe Comacho began building a garden for his famous orchid collection. The garden, an addition to the home, built in 1943, took nine (9) years and $1.5 million to build. It was a tribute to his wife and daughter Pilar.

The 35,000 square meter garden is now owned by the Pinar del Rio University and is a center for study and orchid conferences. They have 700 varieties of orchids and 6000 ornamentals, and apparently a fabulous library.




The next stop was obligatory but excellent – Las Terrazas.

Las Terrazas is the perfect study in Socialist living, and in fact was the first of its kind in Cuba. It functions very similar to a Kibbutz but here the families live in their own units and do all of their own cooking.

The project was the task of architect Osmany Cienfuegos. He was charged with reclaiming the land and creating what would later become a park within a biosphere. The biosphere is known as Sierra El Rosario and the park is Las Terrazas.



The single family homes of Las Terrazas

The single family homes of Las Terrazas

The backs of the apartment buildings of Las Terrazas, the little pop outs are closets.

The backs of the apartment buildings of Las Terrazas, the little pop outs are closets.

The first workers enticed to move to the area were given homes, and there are 45 of those. As more people realized the work was good they came in droves and those people all live in large apartment buildings. As long as you work for the park you can remain in your home, and houses are essentially handed down.

At present 45% of the employment is in the tourism trade the rest in the maintenance of the park. As tourism has expanded there is not enough housing, and many, like our guide are bussed into the area. They have, to date, built one tourist hotel.

The project began in 1968 by bulldozing 1500 terraces and planting over 6 million trees. Villa Terrazas, the communal neighborhood was built in 1971 and houses the workers, a grocery store that takes ration cards a grocery store that takes pesos, a doctor, a dentist a post office a cinema, a disco and a craft market.

In 1985 the area was turned into a biosphere and in 1990 tourism was introduced.

DSC_6678After a fun, fun visit to a primary school, where the second grade class entertained us with songs, we headed to Café Maria. Originally the café was in Maria’s home and served the workers, but at tourism became the main focal point they built Maria a café for her and her children to work, big enough to handle bus loads. Your choices were espresso, espresso with Guyabita liqueur, and the third choice was espresso with chocolate liqueur and ice cream.  Next time I am ordering all three, they all were delicious and it wasn’t fair to try just one.

A bio shower, just outside Cafe Maria

A bio shower, just outside Cafe Maria

Our guide at Las Terrazas, Anais Gloria

Our guide at Las Terrazas, Anais Gloria

Lester Campos StudioA stop at the art gallery of Lester Campa, while the artist was not home we had the opportunity to step into his gallery right on one of the lagoons and purchase what our wallets could afford. I later had the pleasure of meeting the artist in Havana, he is much younger than I anticipated and thrilled to discuss his art.

The painting I purchased from the Artist

The painting I purchased from the Artist

Lunch was at the home of a Señor Saint Salebar. Salebar was a Frenchman that escaped from Haiti during the slave revolution and went about buying land for a coffee plantation. This spot, 240 meters above sea level still has some remnants of the coffee plantation “Buena Vista”.

The Saint Salabar Coffee Plantation

The Saint Salabar Coffee Plantation



Lunch was truly delicious; it began with taro chips and then consisted of salad, rice and beans, shredded beef and a new one for this trip, rabbit.

Then a one-hour drive to Havana and a stop at Revolution Square. José Martí Plaza de Revolucion, the 31st largest public square in the world, while conceived in the 1940s, was not complete until 1959. It is dominated by Cuba’s largest building at 130 meters tall. There are a few buildings that surround this huge empty paved spot including the National Library, and the former offices of Fidel Castro.

Revolution square cuba

There is a 16 ton metal single line sculpture reproducing the famous photo of Che Guevara taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda on the Ministry of the Interior building, where Che once worked. Below this sculpture are the words Hasta la Victoria Siempre (Onward forever to victory) in Che’s handwriting. This sculpture, done in 1993 was by Cuban artist Enrique Avila Gonzales.

Che Gueverra sculpture revolution square havana

On the Ministry of Communication building is a similar sculpture of Camilo Cienfuegos, with the words “You are doing well Fidel.” This was done in 2009 by the same artist. Cienfuegos, while not as well known to Americans as Che, is a significant person in Cuban history. He was one of the main chiefs in the 1959 revolution, he died in a plane crash that same year.

camilo cienfuegos sculpture revolution square havana

Our hotel for the next few nights was the Melia Cohiba, a 17 story four-star hotel with a swimming pool, television, expensive restaurants, first quality art on the walls and even internet, for a price.

Melia is a Spanish company and the staff is a combination of Spaniards and Cubans.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 6.43.08 PM

Our Itinerary:

Visit to the Soroa Orchid Garden
Depart for Las Terrazas
Walk through the local community to see the local schools and businesses
Lunch in a local restaurant
Visit Maria’s Coffee shop
Depart for Havana
Visit Hemingway’s home (See Hemingway and Cuba)
Afternoon orientation drive through Havana and a stop at Revolution Square
Diner at Mercaderes
overnight Melia Cohiba



Nadia, Gustavo, the owner of Mercaderes and our waiter President Obama

Nadia, Gustavo, the owner of Mercaderes and our waiter President Obama

Rose pedals covered the stairway up to the restaurant

Rose petals covered the stairway up to the restaurant

The food was divine and it was the first time we were served drinkable wine since being in Cuba!!




Jan 202015

DSC_6957The older portions of Havana are built on a system of squares. We hopped off the bus at the Malecon and into a small one-block-long historically dedicated street. In 1946 this area was dedicated to a barber Juan Evangelista Valdés Veitía (1836-1918). Veitía worked to help move children from a potential life of crime that is endemic to poverty and into the “Art of Cutting”. There are galleries and street art to celebrate the concept.



Meandering the streets we next found ourselves in Cathedral Square, originally called Swamp Square due to the subterranean springs.

Cathedral of Havan

Cathedral of Havana

The Cathedral, built throughout the 1760s consists of a baroque exterior with a classic interior.

The doors of the cathedral

The doors of the cathedral

A few more blocks and we were in the Main Square. The square, filled with old-book and trinket vendors surrounds a statue of Céspedes by Cuban artist Sergio López Musa erected in 1955.

DSC_7038One one corner is El Templete finished in 1828 as a remembrance of the founding of the town. This Greco-Roman gem was designed by Antonio María del Torme. The tree is a silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra).  Every year, on November 16th, pilgrims come, circle the tree three times and make a wish.

Havana Stock ExchangeWe finished our walk in La Plaza de San Francisco de Assis. Surrounded by classical buildings the square is anchored by the Stock Exchange. Built in 1909 it is topped with a replica sculpture the Roman god of trade, Mercury, originally sculpted by Jean de Boulogne that now resides in the Bargello Museum in Florence.

seducing Chevalier of CubaEl Caballero de París – José Maria López Lledín (1920s-1977) dressed in black, wandered Havana, some saying, completely insane. Sculpted by José Villa Soberón 2001.  You can read more about this sculpture and El Caballero at ArtandArchitecture-SF.

Fountain of the Lions HavanaFountain of the Lions – carved by Giuseppe Gaggini in 1836 out of Carrera Marble.

DSC_7150Lunch was at an eclectic restaurant with the absolute best pumpkin soup, La California.

It was Nancy and Andy's wedding anniversary, cake, songs and not a dry eye in the house.

It was Nancy and Andy’s wedding anniversary, cake, songs and not a dry eye in the house.

The afternoon was special in so many ways. We pulled up to the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Center and were greeted by Angel Graña Gonzalez. The museum was hot and muggy and had all the feelings of a long and boring visit, little did any of us know what was in store.

Nunes Jimenez Center

Nunes Jimenez Center

The purpose of the center is to work towards a culture of nature, with the objective of creating harmony between society and its environment.

Jiménez began writing as a young boy, and in the 1950s he wrote Geography of Cuba. It was a heartfelt and open account of the social and political situation of the time. In 1953, when Batista discovered his own children reading it he had all the copies of the book confiscated and burned and the lead types melted down for bullets.

“It was my first geography text. I had intensively lived all the things I said in the book, all that terrible reality of peasant life. They were truths I had seen, that I had felt. I had lived alongside those human beings, alongside millions of hungry, mistreated, indigent, parasitic, tubercular peasants… So there’s no doubt that the geography book was destroyed essentially because of the defence I was making in it of our peasants.” 1959. La liberación de las islas.

Author of over 90 books and ambassador to Peru in 1972, Jiménez was appointed Vice Minister of Culture by Castro and carried out the first Agrarian Reform.

The first two rooms of the center are displayed with the life of this man, and he threw out nothing. One could spend hours and hours just looking at books and memorabilia.

Hatuey CanoeThe third room however, is where things got interesting. In the center is a canoe called the Hatuey.

Hatuey was a Taino Indian who lived in the early 16th century, his legendary status comes from fighting against the Spaniards becoming the first fighter of the New World and is “Cuba’s First National Hero”.

The canoe is surrounded by headdresses, weapons, numerous ceramic figures in positions of the Latin American Kamasutra, but the Hatuey is the focal point. This canoe was one of five that, in 1987, began in Quito and traveled 17,422 kilometers through 20 countries. The objective, of this one year expedition, was to study the prehistoric tribes of the basins of the Caribbean and the Orinoco. This meant a canoe trip down the waters of Napo, The Amazons, Negro Guainia, Casiquiare, Atabapo, Temi, the Orinoco and the Caribbean Sea, plus their tributaries.

As you peered into the canoe there were some belongings of our unassuming, gracious guide Señor Angel Graña Gonzalez. A man that had spent the last hour praising Jiménez and his feats, not once letting on that his were equally amazing.  There were only 12  men that completed the entire expedition, six of them were Cuban.

Angel Grana Gonzalez

Our Itinerary:
Walk through historic squares to speak and visit with the locals
Visit a local project, Artes Cortes, to see the school senior center and playground
Lunch in a local paladar
Afternoon visit to the local market
Dinner and show at Buena Vista Social Club (see separate post)

– This was the schedule that was most modified, something that happens regularly in Cuba.

The bar at La California

The bar at La California

Book sellers in the Main Plaza

Book sellers in the Main Plaza

Yes I paid him to pose, but it was worth it.

Yes I paid him to pose, but it was worth it.

Jan 192015

The morning of Day 9 we started at the largest crafts market, a grouping of storage lockers inside a quonset hut, that was just waiting for a cruise ship to pull in.  While it was true that you could find most everything anywhere else, the selection was good and the stop worth making.




Lunch was at La Baraca in the National Hotel

Designed by McKim, Mead and White, the hotel features a mix of styles. It opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans.

Designed by McKim, Mead and White, the hotel features a mix of styles. It opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans.




Lunch, again, was the standard fare of red Beans and rice, shredded beef, and vegetables, but the setting was glorious.  The rain began to just pour, making it a wonderful experience.




We had the “opportunity” to visit the Revolution Museum.

“Two hours in the museum, that is longer than the revolution lasted”…Bill

Revolution Museum of Cuba

Revolution Museum of Cuba

The museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, used by all Presidents up to Batista. It became a museum after the Cuban Revolution. This classical building was finished in 1920, and was designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and Belgian architect Paul Belau.

The museum covers the history of Cuba but is primarily devoted to the Revolutionary war of the 1950s. There is an amazing array of political cartoons expressing the feeling that the Cuban government holds for the American government.

Granma Museum CubaBehind the building is the Granma Memorial which houses the Granma yacht that Fidel used to travel from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution, as well as aircraft and tanks.

Fine Arts Museum of CubaJust down the block is the Fine Arts Museum. Built on the site a former Mercado, this fairly modern building was designed by architect Alfonso Rodríquez Pichardo and completed in 1953. The collection is stunning and one needs several hours to consume it all.

A piece by The Merger

A piece by The Merger

Alex and I were the only two with enough energy to continue on to a private art gallery. Met by jewelry artist Sandra we perused paintings by both established and up coming Cuban artists. The highlight, for me, was the co-operative venue of “The Merger” a group of friends that work jointly on every piece they produce.

Our Farewell dinner at La Moneda.


The lamb

The lamb

or the lobster

or the lobster

It was Sandy Gerstungs 21st birthday

It was Sandi Gerstungs 21st birthday

DSC_7632This has been the absolutely, without a doubt, most cohesive group I have ever traveled with. We all had an absolute ball, and got along famously. I know we all hope to cross each others paths many times in the future.

The trip to the airport was punctuated with a wonderful story by Paula. Her father was the gentleman that caught and raised Andre the Seal.

A seal that was free to come and go, but lived in Rockport Maine. Andre served as ringbearer for Paula’s sisters wedding, and was once the town’s person of the year.

You can watch his story on BBC and PBS.

Our Itinerary Day 9
Meet with staff from the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity
Lunch at a local restaurant
Visit the Museum of the Revolution
Farewell dinner at Cafe del Oriente
Again – one gets used to changed in Cuba

Our Itinerary Day 10
Morning at Leisure (see cars in Cuba)
11:30 am transfer to the airport for check in and flight
3:45 pm arrive Miami

Even in Cuba there were signs of the storm rolling in

Signs of a storm rolling in


We will all miss Luise

We will all miss Luise

We will all miss Gustavo

We will all miss Gustavo

That was our day to day life, please keep reading for more in-depth observations of Cuba in general.

Jan 192015


DSC_7795The architecture of Cuba is filled with glorious, and rapidly deteriorating buildings.

Each large city in Cuba had its own distinct style but overridingly the architecture of Cuba is the definition of fusion. The 16th and 17th century was dominated by the Spanish, but you also have the Moorish influence from Granada. These all show touches of baroque and classical, and yet I was surprised to also see much Art Deco and Art Nouveau.Art Deco in Cuba


Decorative Wrought and Cast iron began to replace wood elements in the 19th century

Carved stone work is found all over the island most done in the 16 and 17th centuries.

Carved stone work is found all over the island most done in the 16 and 17th centuries.



Fine metal work is prolific, not just in the profusion of doors and grates but in lamps and lamp holders, door knockers and door knobs and corner guards protecting entryways from carriage wheels.


Fanlights, called mediopuntos, were designed to light rooms that opened off of a central enclosed patio.


In the countryside you will find colored glass over doorways and in high windows everywhere. It is odd, because it looks like a bad attempt to mimic stained glass windows carried out without much artistic thought. When you arrive in Havana you see the actual windows and realize how glorious the work is when done right. These glass windows are a distinct feature of Cuban architecture, and were described by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier as “an interpreter between man and the sun”. The windows are set as to be enjoyed more from the interior than the exterior.



Ceramic tiles were shipped from Spain by the thousands, the more durable colored concrete tiles were used for flooring.

You can see remnants of what was likely a large use of decorative tile on floors and walls in some of the better preserved buildings. According to some, Cuba has the largest amalgamation of 19th century Spanish Valencia tiles

Outside of the cities you begin to see a large Caribbean influence in the architecture of homes.


DSC_5881In the countryside when visiting the coffee plantation we were able to view the construction of the typical farm home. Berto and Maria Colorado’s home is clay. While less expensive it is always dusty and this type of construction does not hold up well in hurricanes. Their son’s home, however, is wood, the problem being, getting wood in a country that is trying so hard to keep people from cutting down trees.

Characteristics of Havana architecture include Media Ponto Arch, Stained Glasss and long balconies.  The blue color is Havanian Blue .

Characteristics of Havana architecture include Media Ponto Arch, Stained Glasss and long balconies. 
The blue color is Havanian Blue .

The barrotes of the 18th century (seen here) were replaced in the 19th century by grilles decorated with ornamental motifs in the architecture of Trinidad

The barrotes or rejas of the 18th century (seen here) were replaced in the 19th century by grilles decorated with ornamental motifs in the architecture of Trinidad.  They were traditionally draped inside with a cloth or leather curtain called a guard-plovo to provide privacy and help keep the dust out.

Architecture in Cuba cannot be discussed without touching on the Russian Influence.

The Embassy in Cuba is without a doubt the most striking and overwhelming example. This constructivist building was completed in November of 1987, and designed by architect Aleksandr Rochegov.


There is also the Russian brutalism influence, but if these buildings were built as badly in Cuba as they were around the world, they will not be with us long.

Jan 182015

Wow, I got to see the backseat of a ‘56 Chevy again. – William Madar

DSC_7701So you have heard about the great 1950s American cars of Havana, they make a great photo op and are in every promotional and tourist picture of Havana you have ever seen.

What you don’t know is the fact that they are everywhere, no, not just as taxis in Havana for photo opportunities. They, and the Russian Lada are essentially the only cars available in all of Cuba

You will see them in the countryside, in the cities and along every road in-between.

They are in every conceivable condition, in every conceivable color and are held together with more Bondo than is annualy sold in the entire state of California.

On our last day we got to do the one touristy thing that everyone must do.  Ride in a convoy of old cars.

I asked our driver about his car as best I could. Tires… he can find a dealer to bring them in from the US, but it is very difficult and he gets a new set of tires about once every three years.

You have heard of the ability of mechanics to manufacture parts, true, but there are also dealers for this, however parts may take as much as three months to acquire.

Many people think that once Cuba opens up they are going to be able to fly down and pick up a great classic car, not so. The cars are so jerry-rigged as to be nothing more than a great look with nothing original on them.

I predict there will be a great market in the logos and hood ornaments, but not much else.

What I truly hope is that the Cubans realize they are such a part of Havana that they make them city treasures, restore them and require they stay on the streets of Havana as cabs.



Ken Maize sent me his observations of the cars in Cuba, I am grateful to have a more educated point of view to add:

“There are actually three generations of cars: the pre-1959 American iron, the Russian Ladas (Gustavo joked that you have to be a religious person to own a Lada, because it takes faith to believe that the Lada is actually a car), and, most recently, many newer models from South Korea, Japan, France, and, surprisingly, Germany. I saw at least 10 new or nearly new Audi models during the trip, most but not all in Havana.

Strangely, in Havana I saw a lot of 1970s VW beetles and none anywhere else. And a complete anomaly: in the taxi line at the croc farm there was a 1990s vintage Dodge Caravan minivan. How the hell did that get there?”


















The Russian Lada is no easier to maintain, soon after returning to the states PRI did a fun piece of Cubans, Floridians, Russians and the Lada – Here it is for your listening pleasure.


The Lada

The Lada


Jan 172015



Our first people to people experience was in Cienfuegos. We had the pleasure of listening to a choral group The Cantores Cienfuegos. We were in a fabulous old vaulted plaster ceiling creating just wonderful acoustics.

DSC_5437Have a listen:


The performance started with “I wish I Could Die” by Claudio Monteverdi, and included “Oh Shenandoah” and then three Cuban songs. The first with the original title of “Song” and then a folk song” El Manicero”, the Peanut Seller. While Cacahuete is the word for peanut in Spanish the Cubans use the word mani. This song, written by Moses Simons explains the custom of walking up to a large black women in Cuba and yelling mani. Why or what that really means was left to the imagination.


Parque Condina

We had a short spell at Museo Cuba Arte in the Los Helechos mountains . This museum was created because much of the artwork that was originally in the local sanatorium needed a place for the public to enjoy it. The building, a 1940s art deco structure housed approximately 64 pieces of art from contemporary Cuban artists.


The most famous of the artists at the gallery was Tomas Sanchez. The top contemporary artists today in Cuba are Jose Villa, Joel Jover and Jose Rodriques Fuster.

When Castro came to power he gave a speech stating to artists that they must move within the movement or give up being artists. In speaking with guides there appears to be a loosening of that dictate and a more free expression is appearing in arts.

Zapata Swamp Park

Another people-to-people experience was Korimakao within the Zapata Swamp Park. Shown around by the director, Yander M. Roche Miralles, it was explained that Korimakao is a co-operative of artists that don’t need to have come from a formal arts education background. They audition and if they make the cut they become part of the family with living quarters on the property. There are presently 125 members of this group.


This group was founded in 1992 and was the brain child of a Commander of the Revolution, Fautino Perez and the actor Manuel Porto. It appears to me that this is much more of a theater group. We were entertained by musicians and dancers, and it appears that should you desire to be a painter or a woodworker you are quickly put to work making sets.

Our proffesional ballet dancer Susan Largen speaking with one of the company dancers

Our proffesional ballet dancer Susan Largen speaking with one of the company dancers

At present Korimakao has a working cultural exchange with a similar group in France so they swap members for one month a year. They are hoping when the US Cuban relations open that they may be able to form a similar exchange.

Here is a short video clip of one of the dances:




The Beatles music was banned in Cuba until the 1980s when Castro decided that John Lennon was a hero. There is a John Lennon Park with John sitting on a bronze bench.

Why the turnaround? “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.” – Fidel Castro. When Lennon was harassed by the US government in his later life, Cubans considered him a rebel and therefore a victim, a metaphor for the US Cuban relations?

The eyeglasses of Lennon have been stolen many times, so an older gentleman stands nearby and puts them on when visitors come by.

Art in Cuba has had its ups and downs, there is actually a strong support for the arts, but it runs headlong into lack of funds and cries of elitism.  Click here to read an excellent article about the trials and tribulations, or listen to the 7 minute clip here:

Jan 162015


Bill Madar enjoying a dance and a beautiful lady

Bill Madar enjoying a dance and a beautiful lady

Dancing in Cuba is spontaneous, and absolutely gorgeous. I am convinced the Cubans have an extra gene just for grace and beauty in the dancing world.

Music, as well, is on every corner every evening. So what would a tourist visit be without a trip to the Buena Vista Social Club.

Nancy Thompson, the belle of the ball.

Nancy Thompson, the belle of the ball.

Our evening began with tables crammed into a huge room, piled with absolutely inedible food and then the show.

The Buena Vista Social Club was a members club in Havana, Cuba, that closed in the 1940s. Cuban Musician Juan de Marco González and US guitar player Ry Cooder decided to bring the band back together again.

Susan Largen in her element

Susan Largen in her element

The project consists of old band members, many over 70 years of age that perform for you nightly.

While absolutely terrific for the band members it is in need of new blood. For no other reason than the loss of Compay Segundo at 95 in 2003, Rubén González at 84 in 2003 and Ibrahim Ferrer at 78 in 2005.

The two stars Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa are still going strong.




Jan 152015

We were given a tour of the grounds of Hemingway’s Cuban home by Deputy Director, Isbel Ferreiro. Hemingways love for Cuba started long before he purchased the house and there are hundreds of books out there for one to read, but this will cover what we learned on our visit.

The house was originally built in the 1800s by a Spanish architect, it was owned by a Frenchman when Hemingway and Martha first saw it in 1928.

In 1939 Hemingway was living in the Sevilla Hotel while writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, he did not want to rent the house because it was too far out of town, so one day while he was out fishing his wife Martha rented the house and had their belongings moved before he got home.

Hemingway had the top floor apartment where the window is open at the Hotel

Hemingway had the top floor apartment where the window is open at the Sevilla Hotel

In 1940 the home was purchased for $18,500. This was the only one of all his homes that was in Ernest’s name solely.

The Hemmingway’s designed the home and had all the furniture made by locals.

Hemmingway married his fourth wife Mary in 1946 and they lived here with their 60 cats, 9000 books and paintings by Picasso, Miro and other great artists until just before his death in 1961.

Hemmingway died in Ketchum, Idaho and upon his death Mary returned with the intention of turning the home into a study center and dispursing a few items to the help. However, the revolution occurred and it was not practical. On July 21, 1962 the home was opened as a museum and has remained so ever since.

DSC_7467Sadly, due to the high humidity of the day we were unable to go into the home, but due to its simple design peeking into the windows gave one an excellent view of the house.



Isbel mentioned that everyone must read all Hemingway’s books as part of the requirement for working there.

Alas, due to the tourist situation in Cuba, this also was a spot filled with buses.

Hemmingway’s cocktail was a Daquiri, he did not create it, he simply modified it – no sugar – double the rum

This was originally a guest house and garage

This was originally a guest house and garage



The Old Dog and the Flea - Ken Maize

The Old Dog and the Flea – Ken Maize


Books that Bill Madar suggested reading: Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson and Hemingway the Paris Years, by Michael Reynolds

Jan 142015

One of the best regions for growing tobacco in Cuba is the Pinar del Rio region which is where we were.

To understand the agriculture you must understand the end product.

There are three parts to a Cuban cigar. The filler, which contains four types of tobacco; Seco, Volado, Ligero and Medio Tiempo. The binder, which is made from Subcapa or Capote and the wrapper which is made from Capa.

DSC_6313The filler is folded together and then wrapped by the binder. Then one end of the cigar is cut clean and the cigar is placed into a wooden mold. The cigar sits in the mold for 30 minutes, at which point the second end is cut clean, the cigar is rotated 180 degrees, and left to sit for another 10 minutes in the mold.


The cigar is then beautifully assembled with the wrapper and glue made from sap of the Canadian Maple, a completely innocuous substance. It is recommended you wait a week to smoke.


We visited a 16 hectare farm owned by the Montesinos family. The farm plants, on average, 150,000 plants per year which equals approximately 6 tons of tobacco.

Tobacco in Cuba is started with seeds provided by the government’s laboratories. It is put in seedbeds in September and planted in the ground when it is around 20 cm. Tobacco takes about 3 months to grow and is harvested when the plant reaches between 1.6 and 1.8 meters in height.

All planting is done by hand

All planting is done by hand

Tobacco is a highly seasonal crop yielding one harvest per year. The soil rotation is augmented with taro, corn, and yucca.

While we enjoyed watching Paul Montesino roll cigars and sell them to us, this is strictly for the tourist trade. The law requires that the farmer turn over 90% of the crop to the government.

DSC_6284The crop is then sent to the Cuban government for the production of cigars.

Habanas are the last cigar that is 100% rolled by hand. When the tobacco enters the factory it is inspected and graded. It then heads to the main room of the factory to be assembled as I have described above.

The question remains, if the government owns all the cigars why various classifications and brands. The Cuban government recognized how valuable the concept of a Cuban cigar is and through the years have honored the “terroir”, growing and blending knowledge and the history of the various regions.

Habana cigars are classified by three classifications called “Vegas finas de primera” one of these classifications is color: light, red, light red, green and ripe red. Another is size. The distinctions would take a far more sophisticated person than I to edify.

There are also labels, many types of bands and labels are there to ensure you are buying a Habana, but with the embargo, smuggling has made much of these superfluous.

Basically there is the DOP seal (designation of origin). Since 1994 the word Habana has been “hot stamped” into boxes to act as a warranty seal of the Republic of Cuba.


This is an excellent time to discuss Agrarian Reform.

The very first of Castro’s reforms was the Agrarian Reform on May 19th 1959. This reform permitted land owners to keep only 30 Caballiera. A caballiera is slightly less than 14 hectares and 1 hectare = 2.47 acres.

A year later a second, more rigid reform limited the land ownership to 5 caballieras.

In the late 60s the Castro government needed more land for growing sugar cane and other food products. This lead to a type of proposal to the farmer.

The government would move you into a more rural area, provided you with a home, furniture, appliances and ensure that the children had a school within a reasonable walking distance. This was a completely voluntary project but quite an appealing one for most of the farmers.

Those that worked the government owned land would become tenant farmers versus the farmers that actually owned their own land.

Nancy Aldrich and a freshly rolled cigar

Nancy Aldrich with a freshly rolled cigar

The rating of a cigar

The rating of a cigar

Jan 122015

Oh Cuba I Bearly Knew Ya….Bill


United Buddy Bears is an art project to promote tolerance and understanding among nations, cultures and religions. The 128 bears represent countries recognized by the United Nations.

Each bear is created by an artist of its country. They stand “hand in hand” symbolizing the future vision of a peaceful world. Each bear stands for the people and their culture, but not their political system.

The tour consists of 28 exhibitions on 5 continents. 2004; Hong Kong, Instanbul, Kitzbühel 2005: Tokyo, Seoul, 2006; Sydney, Vienna, 2007; Cairo, Jerusalem, 2008; Warsaw, Stuttgart, Pyongyan 2009; Buenos Aires, Montevideo 2010: Astana, Helsinki, 2011: Sofia, Kuala Lampur 2012: New Delhi, St. Petersburg, Paris. 2015: Cuba