Only 6 months after their Belize trip, Greg and Chris decided to 'go wild' again and joined a small, people-to-people trip to Cuba, our Havana and the Heartland of Cuba adventure. They shared their experience with us here:
Chris and I had a great time and we both enjoyed the trip immensely. I was a little unsure what to expect and how interactions with locals would go. After being embargoed for so long how would the average Cuban react to Americans beginning to show up? We learned quickly that most Cubans have no issue with Americans at all. It's our two governments who can't get along. Every Cuban we met was kind, helpful, eager to talk with us and great to learn from.
Getting to Havana was easy. One form, a purchase by mail visa, and an airline ticket. Not any more difficult than a normal trip. I was surprised that many of the Cuban customs staff were female and all dressed in miniskirts. Clearly, we were not in Kansas any longer. After several sideways looks by my wife directed at me for watching the miniskirts, we proceeded out of the terminal and met our driver. We carried on our bags and that was the way to go. (Read FAQ about new Cuba travel restrictions)
HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR TRIP
We took a beginner's class on Cuban rum and cigars. How to drink the rum and how to properly light and smoke the cigars. I enjoyed that quite a bit. Never too early in the day for the rum!
One of our stops was the Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Hemingway had stayed. We toured the room he stayed where he did much of his writing. It had a nice view but seemed quite small. One big plus there was the rooftop bar area. With superb views of downtown and the harbor, Chris and I would spend nearly every evening there as the sun would set discussing the day's activities and drinking Mojito's and Cuba Libre's.
We saw lots of amazing architecture. One of the many things that make Cuba so fascinating is that it's like the country was plucked out of the world's timeline about 60 years ago and put in suspended animation. Then reinserted back in again. The cars, infrastructure and many aspects of daily life are from another time. The buildings date from the 1700's in some cases to about mid 20th century and then everything stopped. Nowhere else in the world can you see something like that. Havana is a unique place.
We went to Cayo Levisa, A small island resort with white sand beaches. The ferry out was painfully slow as I was really wanting to get in the water. We were able to get about an hour of snorkeling in which was one of my personal highlights of the trip. I could easily have spent the entire day in the water. If I did Cuba again I would add more snorkeling. We did get to relax on a nice beach that afternoon, which was Chris's highlight!
We got in a bit of shopping at the Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San Jose the open-air craft market along the waterfront. There was some amazing artwork and beautiful crafts along with junkier stuff but it is well worth a trip.
We discovered Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Assis and climbed to the top and had incredible views of old Havana. Dating from the 1600's the cathedral was beautiful, made from coral stonework.
We visited Fusterlandia where we got to tour Jose Fuster's work. The house or perhaps better described as a "park" was a visual explosion of lines, colors, figures, and millions of tiles. All in a neighborhood setting. It's easy to see how Gaudi was an influence on Jose.
The find of the trip was in the corner of the Plaza Vieja, a little store called Café Escorial, that has a roaster and roasts its own coffee daily. There was a man roasting and a woman running the register grinding and selling the coffee. There was always a long line at the door even at opening when I showed up early the following days to purchase Cuban whole bean coffee. Their coffee is outstanding. Such a unique and superb flavor to it. Unlike any, I have had. I came home with my backpack full of beans. If I ever make it back to Cuba I am taking an extra bag just to fill with beans from that café.
We visited Café Ajiaco, in Cojimar, which is a fun place and we were immersed in cooking our own lunch and getting a master's class in preparing Mojito's. Bryant, our waiter/guide and the bartender showed us the mojito mojo. Julio taught me how to clean and cook a lobster with flair and showmanship. They were all amazing people. Cleaning and cooking our own seafood was a highlight. We really got a chance to interact in a setting where we were working together and making a meal as a team with the restaurant staff. While I was cleaning and preparing the lobster Chris and Amy got to do some flambé with rum! We enjoyed every bit of the cooking and eating! (Read more about travelers suggestions on what to do/see in Cuba)
We got to visit a primary school and we met the headmistress and got to see the school while the kids were in class as well. They do so well with so little compared to schools in the states. I was impressed
Our trip to Vinales, through the country, was very interesting for a couple of reasons. One was the lack of any real road traffic. The occasional car or lorry but not at all what one would expect for a dual lane carriageway. Maybe in remote areas sparsely populated in the states. But this was the main two-lane road going the length of Cuba. There were more horse-drawn carts than there were cars on the main road.
We stopped at a roadside stand selling local crafts. The souvenir trade just seems to be getting going. Unlike the US and Europe where you are inundated with kitsch, these items were made of local woods and quite nice.
We stopped at a tobacco farm, watched the farmer roll some cigars and got a briefing on the tobacco industry in Cuba. I expected the cigar farms to be large expanses of tobacco. But most are very small family run affairs who sell to the brand name manufacturers. It was interesting to see again how Cuba is so different in terms of technology from the US or Europe. Small farms are the norm for everything, not just tobacco. Anything that can be grown is done so on smaller farms and harvested by low-tech methods. The tobacco drying houses were simple, low maintenance and filled with aging leaves.
We took a Bici taxi tour. I was impressed with the rider's abilities to haul around tourists in the Havana heat all day. They must be in superb shape at least in leg power.
We got to listen to a talk on Cuban culture from the artistic director of the Malpaso dance company Fernando Caravajal and then an amazing dance demonstration by the company members. They were quite talented and when the power went out briefly the company members dancing continued and the non-dancing ones joined in to hum the tune they were dancing to completing the performance. We enjoyed the performance quite a bit and a bonus was that we were able to meet Sonya Teyah. She is an Emmy-nominated choreographer of note from the US. She worked on the "So you think you can dance" TV show for several seasons.
Cuba is amazing. I'll always remember our trip because it was so unique in so many ways. All our guides were great; we had a superb time, learned a lot, & probably drank more rum than we should have. Thanks to our guides and everyone at wildland who helped make our trip so memorable. Wildland has always delivered! I enjoy using Wildland because they pay attention to the details and are always patient with my myriad questions.
Greg and Chris Dunham
I was happy to hear that they had such a great trip! If you are interested in trips to Cuba give me a call and I would love to talk Cuba with you.
Keeping it wild,