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


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 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.

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

DSC_4677 *DSC_4650 *DSC_4641


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 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.

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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.

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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.