On Friday 13 Nov the DeHaans, and Offerles met at our house for the trip to the La Quinta in Tampa where we checked in about 5. After a rest and settling in we drove over to the International Mall and had dinner at The Pub Tampa. Roger and I shared a Reuben then our little group went separate ways walking the mall.
It was a good start to our next adventure. The other six in our party had already checkin when we arrived.
This was the day of mass shootings in Paris.
Sat 14 Nov - Slept well then light breakfast at hotel, shuttle to airport. The checkin process to go to Cuba is a pain and requires a long lead time then a three hour wait. Not sure why but I guess it makes sense to someone.
Our flight was delayed because the incoming was late. Getting everyone through immigration and baggage pickup took an hour. Our guide, Milena, was waiting for us and brought us to the bus where we met Otneil, our driver. The delay of the plane meant we didn't get the promised bus tour of Havana. There was a couple of hours between check in and dinner so everyone went their own way. Roger and I napped then went down for a couple of cervezas. The Hotel Bella Habana gives a false impression from the out side. The exterior is elegant and the lobby well appointed. Once we got to our room we noticed how ratty it was. It had everything we needed but the standard was a lot less than we had hoped for. We sort of chuckled as we noticed the beds were spring mattresses that poked through, the pillows were laughable, the walls had not been painted in what we guessed were twenty years, the AC was questionable. But, it had everything that we needed for a shower and sleeping. It made us realize how spoiled we are. We found out later that Frank was attacked by bed bugs which kept erupting throughout the week.
I bought a road atlas and managed to communicate to an employee that I wanted him to show me where we are. He did so but had to borrow my glasses to see the print.
Sun 15 Nov - Surprisingly, I slept rather well between wake up breaks. Not sure if they were caused by the AC cycling on or my shoulder hurting. Looking out our window I could see palm lined streets, cars old and new, a street sweeper, and a crossing guard. Marathon day in Habana.
The group was up and out by 7:40 for the three and a half hour drive to Parque Natural Cienaga de Zapata where we picked up a local naturalist guide. We did stop for a potty break at Hato de Jicarita. A huge Witch moth was on the wall. This was the first of what were many restrooms with no seat and no paper. It really makes things difficult. We saw ragged buildings, lush countryside, and hitchhikers flashing money to indicate they are willing to pay for a ride.
A few facts that popped up on the way: killings cows is not allowed because they are needed for their milk; Cuba has the highest density of caves in the world; the butterfly bat is the smallest in the world; there are no venomous critters in Cuba; and all four types of mangroves grow in Cuba.
A stop in the park looking for the Cuban trogon turned into an unintentional blood letting when we were attacked by mosquitos that didn't realize that DEET is supposed to repel them. Never did see the trogon but did end the day with sitings of 16 different birds. The most common were the flamingos and various types of herons and egrets. Crabs are also a frequent site. We saw white and Cuban land crabs.
A loose horse galloping in front of the bus was quite amusing. Once it found its home place it turned off out of the road.
Cuervo Los Peces Restaurant sits right on the Caribbean and is a favorite spot for divers and snorkelers. We were served a very good four course lunch before continuing on to Playa Giron Museo which is dedicated to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Next was the checkin to the Playa Giron Hotel. The reception area was open air, right on the beach, a pool, two bars, and a restaurant. The rooms are another story. They are casitas far away from the public areas. I like the seclusion, but the facilities themselves are in great need of attention. The AC has to work doubly hard because the windows are louvers that don't close which also allows the Mosquitos to come in. There was a seat on the toilet and we had separate beds. After settling in and taking a nap we joined Mandy and Frank for Happy Hour. This was all inclusive and the drinks were not extra. Bonus. Dinner was a buffet that was tasty but not very warm. It did satisfy the requirement and the wine flowed freely. We all stayed and enjoyed the conversation for a couple of hours then hopped a ride back to the casita with Otneil.
I look at this place and can image that in twenty years all the casitas will be gone and large high rises will replace them.
Mon 16 Nov - after breakfast we walked to the breakwater behind the resort then loaded on the bus at 9:00 for a quick trip to a caseca to exchange money. That took almost an hour. We got to Cienfuegos about 11:30 and walked around the main square for an hour and a half. A quarter of that was spent getting everyone through the banos. There were a lot of beggars in the square. A quick downpour hit just as the kids were breaking for lunch from school.
Lunch was at Palacio Valle which is an old palace that was too extravagant to even try to describe. All the different textures thrown together overpowered my senses. The lunch was good, three courses, and a beverage and the view of the sea was lovely.
On to Trinidad through the countryside, catching a doze here and there. A roadside fruit stand was an opportunity to taste some unusual things including honeycomb and "sugar apple." There, like so many places, we were greeted by dogs looking for handouts. These actually looked healthy except one only had three feet. Most dogs and cats we see are in sad shape with all kinds of skin conditions. It is really sad but a cultural difference to the U.S. where pets are royalty.
Some of the group wanted to stop in Trinidad for a quick look so we spent thirty minutes walking in a section of mostly residential with a few shops. Upon arriving at the Hotel Costasur we were greeted by a young couple salsa dancing and a cold glass of juice.
Our room looked out onto the Caribbean but opening the sliders was difficult and it only took a few minutes for the room to be swarming with mosquitos forcing us to close them again. This is another place that puts all its efforts into the public areas and doesn't pay much attention to the private areas. While the rooms are generally clean, the amenities are almost below basic. I was happy to see a seat on the toilet, toilet paper, and a shower, there was no table or chair in the room. Two single beds, a night stand, and a wardrobe were the extent of the furnishings. This resort was all inclusive and the dinner was good and plentiful with free flowing wine.
Tues 17 Nov - Leisurely start to the day with breakfast at resort. I found the restaurant to be sensory overload from the number of conversations going on at one time and left as soon as I ate. We loaded the bus at 9 for a short trip to the Valle de Los Ingenios lookout which is is at the foot of the Escambray Mountains and used to be home to about of dozen sugar plantations and is still a fertile valley but with various crops. Just below the overlook is a little farmhouse where an elderly lady waved and welcomed my photo op. Turkeys and chickens pranced around. The rest of the day was spent in Trinidad with the first stop at a pottery factory. This provided us an opportunity to help the local economy. The group opted to stay in town for lunch after the walking tour and to shop or relax in outdoor restaurants which is what we did.
Trinidad has cobble streets and quite a bit of commerce. Transportation includes horse carts and wagons, old US cars, motor bikes, bicycles, old Russian vehicles, and a few modern European, Korean, and Chinese cars. The streets are crowded with pedestrians and just about every open door has someone trying to sell something and begging is rather annoying. While you see folks working and hustling to make a living, there are also quite a few just standing or sitting around.
For lunch we chose Los Conspiradores where we sat under a large pink bougainvillea, a band played. I had a vegetable soup and a Bucanero, Roger and Mandy had sandwiches, and Frank a chicken plate. There were also some coffee and other beers. As we were leaving four of the others from our group came and we gave them our table and headed to where they had been having coffee, Cafe Don Pepe. We enjoyed quiet time on benches in a shady park before spending our last hour in the Don Pepe where Roger and I had piña coladas and the Offerles had coffee.
The ride back to Costasur was uneventful and we had a few hours to collect our thoughts, explore the premises, and relax before dinner. Afterward most of us went to the show which was a little weird but I think was a depiction of the Europen i.e. Spanish conquest of Cuba and the annihilation of the indigenous people in the name of religion. Later there was a local band which was quite pleasant and we got the treat of seeing Milena dancing. She was wonderful. All of this was part of the "all inclusive" resort fee.
When we returned to our room in the afternoon, the attendant had left us a nice note wishing us safe travels and an exhibit with the towels. The public areas of this resort are wonderful but more attention needs to be given the private areas. That has been the theme of the hotels.
We'd 18 Nov - it was a bright sunny morning as we pulled out of the Costasur Resort for a short jaunt to meet our transportation to Parque Codina. A Russian army truck with a Chinese engine and a Cuban driver got us Americans to Topos de Collantes where we picked up our naturalist guide. Janet says he is the only male in the country with that name and he has a sense of humor about it. His mother expected a girl. He started us with a welcome drink called a jinata. He was knowledgeable about the plants and birds and I added 11 birds to my list as we walked the trails and rested on the porch of the hacienda. Lunch was a traditional meal of rice and beans, Casaba, pork roasted on a spit, and Cuban bread.
The ride back down started out pleasantly enough but then it started raining. A little at first progressing to a heavy downpour. The guides scrambled to put down the panels but we still got wet because the metal roof leaked like a sieve. It was a little uncomfortable but we laughed as we commented on the all inclusiveness of the experience. We were relieved to get back on the dry bus for the long ride back to Habana. And, long it was.
Since Frank had trouble with bed bugs at Bella Habana, Milena had her agency move us. We arrived at the Atlantica at 8:30, rushed to get supper before the restaurant closed at 9. It took until about 10 to get into our rooms. I was tired from a day packed with new experiences and long drives. The room was the biggest we had had. It was houses with three and four individual bed rooms and a common area.
Thurs 19 Nov - Finally a breakfast that was served to us instead of a buffet, fruit, egg, and toast. What more do I need? On the way to the botanic gardens we detoured into A La Mar for money exchange. It is a neighborhood of Soviet era buildings in need of repair. The National Botanic Gardens are near Las Guasmas and there is a quite extensive pavilion with plants from all over the world. Our guides name was Rose which I thought was very appropriate for a garden employee. We had lunch in one of several restaurants on site then drove the grounds to see the trees that are also from all the world. Our city tour was cut short due to time constraints and folks wanting to alter the established plan. Otneil did drive us around to show the Malecon and the U.S. Embassy, the some of us went to the rum museum while others shopped at a huge market. We got back to our rooms at about 4:45 which provided enough time for a quick nap and relaxing before the 5:45 pickup in the vintage car taxis that took us back into town for a quick visit to the "Cristo".
We had the best dinner of the trip at La California, a privately owned establishment in a not so attractive part of town. Across the street was a sign renting rooms by the hour or day. The lobster was good. I wasn't so impressed with the cannon firing ceremony later but it was a bit of culture.
Fri 20 Nov - Our last day in country was long and eventful. Three of the group opted to go back into Havana for a city tour. The rest stuck to the scheduled activities and went to Las Terrazas which is an eco community and world Heritage site. Its claim to fame is the building of terraces to allow for reforestation of an area that had been totally clear cut due to subsistence, making of charcoal, and war. While getting the initial briefing by the local guide, another group came into view and we saw the Brucklers, a couple from Cedar Key. The village is called Rancho Curujey and is in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains.
On to Soroa and lunch at Villa Soroa before a stroll through the Soroa Orchid Garden with a guide who was very enthusiastic and a great birder. She called a Cuban trogon close enough to get good photos and brought my bird count total to 37. It was a long ride back to our resort where we had time to walk to the beach, have a couple of cool ones, and dinner.
Roger and I headed back to get ready for an evening out. The top step to the casita’s entry is a bit higher than standard and I tripped, landed on my face, my glasses tried to lobotomize me and I ended with doozy of a black eye. Ed checked it out and we decided I was going to live for a while, I got some ice to stem the swelling and we all headed into Havana and to see the Buena Vista Social Club. Milena and Otneil were concerned and offered to take me to the hospital to use up some on the mandatory Cuban medical insurance but I opted to see the show. Walking around Havana at night was much more pleasant than in the heat of the day when there are too many people for my liking.
Sat 21 Nov - Up early for the ride to the airport where we bade farewell to Otneil. Milena stayed with us until we got to customs. The line at the airport was horrible and it took an hour and a half to get our boarding passes. Going through immigration was quick. The plane was delayed an hour while baggage was loaded and a search for a missing boarding pass stub was conducted.
On he way from Tampa we stopped at the Monkey Island Restaurant (Yardarm) in Homosassa for our only meal of the day and finally got home about 6 p.m.
Thoughts and observations
When we went to Cuba three years ago the plane was only half full but the cargo hold was packed. This time the plane and cargo were full and they limit the amount you can take without paying. Last time most of the people on the plane were Cubans returning for family visits. This time along with the 12 in my group, there were several other larger groups of US citizens including an art tour and a “The Nation” contingent.
Cuba is much like other countries we have visited in their infrastructure. Clean water and sewage disposal are the most noticed deficiencies. The tap water is not potable and you must use bottled water which means you also have to be careful of what you eat to be sure it hasn’t been washed in unsafe water. Sewer systems are not designed for disposal of paper so a basket is placed by the toilet for the paper which can lead to some very stinky restrooms. Most public toilets do not have seats which leaves you with the choice of squatting over the hole or sitting on the porcelain.
We saw a 1950-ish Chevy speeding down the highway with a US flag fluttering and we asked about that. Milena commented that that is permitted now because we are “friends”.
Transportation for the masses is a problem. The public busses are loaded and ancient. Horse buggies and carts are common. Although Cuba is known for its old American cars there are also old Soviet cars, trucks, and busses. The newer vehicles were mostly Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Geeley, and Audis. I thought about how uncomfortable the rides looked but then also wondered how the roads would support any more cars. If all the folks riding the busses and horse carts were in cars they would have the same gridlock and pollution that we have in our cities. Hitchhiking is common and safe.
I asked Milena how the change in relationship affects her personally and she said she welcomes the internet and she has had to work harder because there are more US tourists coming. She doesn’t mind working and loves her job. She got a kick out of our group and said we gave her inspiration seeing that even we old folks could get around, have a good time, and a sense of humor about our selves.
University is free in Cuba but you have to work for the Government for at least two years afterward to pay it back. Your degree does not get the official stamp until that time is up. You have to work where you are told to whether you like it or not. Part of the university education is spent in the countryside working in fields. As more people become educated, less are willing to be farmers.
Women’s health care is a priority with birth control, abortion, and prenatal care readily available. In fact, if a woman misses a prenatal appointment she is visited at her house for an explanation. Six months of breast feeding is mandatory unless there is a medical reason to prevent it. A year of paid maternity leave is allowed that may be split with the father. It is illegal to kill a cow because the milk is needed for children and mothers. Vaccines are mandatory.
Little things that made me realize how spoiled we are: Toilet seats and clean public restrooms with free toilet paper. Nice hotel rooms. Wi-fi. Clean tap water. Really cold drinks. Grocery and drug stores. Room door locks that work. Door locks that work.
Except for a few folks that were hustling, the people we had contact with were happy to see us and loved the interaction. They are looking forward to more Americanos coming knowing that they mean money and positive changes.