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Published: February 14th 2016
Cuba, a land off limits for decades, was high on our bucket list for many years. So close, yet so far away. Finally, thanks to political changes and an inexpensive cruise, we were able to visit this forbidden island. With our close friends, Lynne and Don, we flew to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to board our Greek cruise ship. The ship circumnavigated the island with stops at Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Maria da Gorda, and Cienfuegos.
Santiago de Cuba has a rebellious past in Cuba's fight for independence. San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt defeated the Spanish in the Spanish American War is located on the outskirts of the city. Fidel Casto began his rebellion in 1953 by attacking Batista's troops at the Moncada Barracks. Their Revolutionary Square commemorates their many freedom fighters.
After all the historic sites and the rum tasting at the former Barcardi Rum factory, we decided to explore a bit of the city on our own. The four of us headed to Cathedral Square and were soon caught in a the tropical downpour. This became a real wet mess with the poor drainage, the rough roads and limited sidewalks. Unfortunately, it quickly shortened our tour of
The next day and a half we sailed around the island enroute to Havana, or Habana. While on the boat we had the opportunity to attend numerous presentations by our People 2 People professors Jorgue and Julio. People 2 People is the program which allows America citizens to travel to Cuba. We are not "tourists" traveling in Cuba, we are "visitors on a cultural exchange". Their excellent presentations included topics on history, art, music, food, rum, Cuban slang, and politics.
Arriving in Havana was really exciting. It is a mixture of beautiful old architecture, derelict buildings, renovated town squares, old cars, horse carts, art, music, cafes, living statues, and friendly people. Our walk through the town squares was a great introduction to the city. One square had been recently renovated with beautiful stained-glass windows and bright paint that accentuated the lovely old buildings. The renovations are being funded by tourist dollars.
Our two day stay included visits to the major tourist sites and to a tribute performance of the Buena Vista Social Club. At one point, Ron and I left the group and hired a red, 1952 Chevy taxi and drove to Hemingway's house in
the suburbs. It was a bumpy, fun ride. As we left the city, the roads got worse and so did the homes. Apartment buildings turned into shanty towns with people lining the sidewalks waiting for buses. Buses were totally packed and horse carts were plentiful.
Hemingway's house is lovely and has not been changed in any way since he left the island in 1961. Visitors are not allowed inside, but can view the interior through the open French doors. His boat, the Pilar, was located in the back yard by the pool. His writing studio was in a small tower similar to the one in Key West.
When we returned to the city, we were dropped off by The Malecon, the famous drive and promenade along the Havana harbor. It was a beautiful walk with views of the city and the waterfront. We headed to the Nacional Hotel which was once the hotel of the stars and the mafia. It has been beautifully maintained and has an elevated view of The Malecon and the sea.
The following morning we arrived at a beach town called Maria da Gorda (translation - Fat Mary). The cruise ship was anchored
at sea and we were transported to the beach by tenders. Our tender driver was either a novice or just having a bad day. It took him 4 tries to dock the tender. Three times he hit the pier and on one of the collisions he pulled the cleat, that the stern line was attached to, right out of the dock. Wood splinters went flying through our tender hitting two men in the head. Some in our group were ready to jump off the boat and swim to shore.
Once on shore, we headed off on a five hour bus excursion to Cabo de San Antonio. This is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The only wildlife we spotted were big iguanas and a wild pig and her piglets. The pristine coastline and rocky bluffs on this peninsula were stunning. Thankfully, the return trip on the tender was uneventful.
The final port was Cienfuegos. The city was settled by a Frenchman from Louisana in 1819. Consequently, it has a New Orleans look about it. We were there on Jose Marti's birthday. He is one of Cuba's major heros in their early struggle for independence from the Spanish. His statue was
covered with flowers and the city was in a holiday spirit. The central square, surrounded by the Town Hall, the Teatro Tomas Terry, and many other important buildings, was an impressive focal point of the city. One of our visits was to a Graphic Arts School with local music, paintings, and performance art. Our walk through the city gave us a diverse view of their life. Horse carts, food ration stores and local businesses were a true representation of their daily life.
My impressions - the island has been a victim of colonization and political struggle. Their life is better than it was under the Spanish rule, but unfortunately they have had a lot of challenges. After a failed attempt at democracy they became a puppet of the U.S. Fidel won them their freedom, but the U.S. Embargo caused them to then become a puppet of the Soviet Union. Education is free from age 1 through University, medical care is free, and food is rationed and subsidized. Consequently, money for their infra-structure is limited. Our professors gave their opinions freely and felt there is hope that their life will improve with the changes in Cuba/U.S. relations. As Julio stated,
"We want to be your BFF". I hope there is a brighter future for these friendly people who have been caught up in all the superpower politics. I would love to go back as a "tourist" one day and enjoy the island as people from other nations do.
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