Until very recently, the only three legal ways for an American citizen to travel to Cuba were family, academic research, and humanitarian volunteer work. The tour group with which I traveled to Cuba officially fell into the latter category. The volunteer-oriented part of the scheduled turned out to be very minimal, however — only one hour of the entire week. Much more time was devoted to food activities and standard tourist sightseeing. The itinerary that was set up for us included several places I probably would not have chosen, but that is a disadvantage of going with a group.
|Catedral de San Cristobal|
Our first outing was a day-long visit to Old Havana, which is a great way to get a feel for the history of the city. There's been a lot of restoration and conservation of the old buildings (with signage showing how they used to belong to wealthy individuals and now serve the greater good of the general population; gotta get that propaganda in). We saw a good number of the major highlights, including the Plaza de la Catedral
, site of the cathedral dedicated to Saint Christopher
, the patron of Havana (the cathedral is currently undergoing renovation and was not open); Plaza San Francisco de Asís (Saint Francis of Assisi), with the basilica dedicated to Saint Francis
and also a statue of Father Junípero Serra
, well known to Californians as the man responsible for founding ten Catholic missions in California; the Plaza Vieja
("Old Square"), the only plaza remaining from colonial times; and the Plaza de Armas
(I might translate it as Military Square), near a fantastic flea market type of set-up with lots of booksellers (because the government ministry for publications is also nearby). Of course, that's
when the tour guide suddenly decided we had to hurry, after lollygagging at several other locations. I did manage to squeeze out enough time to buy a Cuban cookbook (in French!) and a book about the history of clothing from a Cuban perspective.
|City view from Cámara Oscura|
On the other hand, we also went to the Chocolate "Museum", which had a couple of display cases with unidentified items but was otherwise just a café selling chocolate-focused foods; the Cámara Oscura (at the Plaza Vieja), which provided a great visual overview of the city but also had a guide who made snarky remarks about Americans during his spiel (and then we were told to tip him anyway); and the Museum of Rum, which was kind of interesting, but the tour guide there didn't speak clearly, and I was told later that she was a friend of our guide, which explained why we were the only ones asked to give her a tip. On top of that, we were rushed out after the rum tour by our guide and not given a chance to buy any rum or cigars (only to be directed later during the week to a different store where the prices were twice as much, and our guide was heard asking the cashier how much members of our group were spending; can you say "kickbacks"?).
One day we watched a cooking demonstration and ate lunch at a state-run culinary school. The demonstration was fun — I was the volunteer assistant — but the lobster at the meal was overcooked and rubbery for everyone, not a great recommendation for a cooking school. On top of that, the chef told us that the recipe for the entree was in the cookbook they had for sale. It wasn't, but we didn't discover that until several of us had already paid for the book.
One morning we visited a coop organic farm. It's a self-governing community of people who are trying to find better ways to grow food and increase crop yields. They say they recycle or reuse everything, which is great, but I saw a lot of what looked like good fruit that had fallen to the ground and was just lying there, being allowed to rot. While I'm sure it will be used for compost, I wondered why it hadn't been harvested. We had a long lecture about Cuban political ideology (but more on that in my next post). This was also the location of our only volunteer activity; members of our group picked beans for about an hour.
|Front of Hemingway's house|
After leaving the farm, we ate lunch at a restaurant that appeared to cater exclusively to tourists. In the afternoon we spent a lot
of time (maybe too much time) at Finca la Vigía, the former estate of Ernest Hemingway and now a museum where everything is supposedly exactly as it was the day he left (well, except for his boat, the Pilar
, which was brought up from the water and put into permanent drydock; and the swimming pool, which has been drained; and who knows what else, because there's no documentation). As far as I could tell, all of the visitors were Americans. I took tons of photos there because my sister likes Hemingway, but I personally could have done without the visit, which had no interpretive or curated elements. It's on the tourist circuit because he was American and famous, not because it has much of anything to do with Cuba or Cubans.
|Graves of Hemingway's dogs|
Half of one day was spent at an artist's studio where they have a great gig going — you pay them to visit the studio and eat lunch, plus they have you do work on an ongoing community art project. We were behind schedule when we arrived and therefore started our project late, so were unable to complete it. Because the project was specific to our group during this trip, it will likely remain unfinished. Personally (and I realize this will differ from person to person), I did not enjoy the art style, which is somewhat of a cross between primitive and Cubism. And we didn't even meet the artist.
Earlier that morning we had visited a private farmers' market, even though we had been warned multiple times by the tour coordinator not to buy anything uncooked or to buy food off the street. Everything in the market was sitting out in the 90°+ heat, including raw meat (yum!). I don't think anyone bought anything, and just think, if we hadn't gone there, we probably could have finished our art project . . . .
|Mogotes near Viñales|
An entire day (from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) was spent on a trip to the Viñales area, in the western part of the island (three hours by bus each way). The main attractions there were karst formations (mogotes
) with limestone caves and a (very short) boat trip on a river that flows through some of the caves
. This was enjoyable, even though I have been to larger caves before (such as the Jenolan Caves
in New South Wales, Australia). I also had fun photographing the vultures that were flying around. Lunch afterward was very tasty and seemed to be authentically Cuban. A performance purporting to be a recreation of something from historical slave times might have been more plausible with information on the research, rather than just asking for money.
Then, however, we took a side trip that cost an hour to see an unfinished, primitive (read: amateurish) wall mural at a location that appeared to be marketed primarily to get tourists to spend money on piña coladas. We were told that the mural was created to commemorate someone having proven that it was possible to travel by canoe from the mouth of the Amazon to Cuba. The reason he was trying to prove the canoe trip was possible was because he had a theory that Cuba was populated not by migration of native peoples from the Florida peninsula, about 200 miles away, but from the Amazon. I would be more willing to give some credence to that theory if I saw the research in a respected, peer-reviewed, scientific journal.
The visit to a tobacco farm after that was much more educational. We learned about the five different types of leaves that go into a cigar, how the leaves are dried and prepared, how much of the crop the farmer is required to sell to the state (80%), and even what happens to leftover pieces of leaves. Then we saw a demonstration of rolling a cigar by hand, which was pretty cool. The cigar was rolled extremely tightly and showed great craftmanship. And then — of course — we were given the opportunity to buy cigars at a very special price. Supposedly cigars purchased there didn't count against the customs maximum, but I declared mine anyway, because they were the only ones I bought. And if you're interested in getting a genuine Cuban cigar from me (a plain-wrap Cohiba
), let me know!
|Plaza de la Revolución|
When free time was left in the schedule, most of the suggested activities were to go to expensive stores, restaurants, and clubs that cater to tourists, rather than to museums, historic locations, local restaurants, or other places that would give more of a flavor of the history and people of Cuba. The tour coordinator told me that previous groups had enjoyed those activities. I guess this group was not like those other people. Not only did we routinely decline to go to all the touristy places (the coordinator repeatedly told us we were missing great opportunities by not going; I guess she didn't want to go by herself), she had not included a visit to the Plaza de la Revolución in the itinerary, and we went because everyone in the group wanted to see it and specifically asked for it.
Given my own license to choose, the Chocolate "Museum", artist's studio, farmers' market, and mural probably wouldn't have made it onto the itinerary. I was much happier with my own visits to the cemetery and to local bookstores and "flea markets." I even found a memorial to the victims of the 1898 USS Maine
explosion (which precipitated the Spanish-American War). A quick glance in the Havana Páginas Amarillas para el Turista
("Yellow Pages for Tourists") in my hotel room showed me the Museum of Colonial Art, Museum of Railroads in Cuba
, Museum of the City of Havana
, and the National Museum of Fine Arts, all of which seemed far more interesting. The National Museum of the Literacy Campaign sounded intriguing (Cuba has almost 100% literacy), and the Napoleonic Museum
would have been interesting. Ah, well, I guess those will also have to wait for my next
trip to Cuba . . . .
My Cuban Adventure, Part 1, is "In Search of Family History
My Cuban Adventure, Part 3, is "General Impressions and Observations