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.

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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 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