Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cuba January 2017

All Pictures and video at the bottom of the post!

Cuba why? Because I can! Thank you former President Obama! Country number 52 on my quest to visit every country in the world.

I have now been living in the U.S. for a few years after spending seven years helping a village in
Botswana, Africa.

I still think the U.S. is the best country in the world to live, if your goal is financial success and material success. I'm less inclined to say the same if you're looking more for quality-of-life, compassion for others, and a feeling of community.

I have visited other communist /socialist countries, most have been in the process of moving to a more capitalistic economy. Cuba will be the first country I am visiting that is as close to pure communism as you will get in today's world.

This is going to be a short trip, seven days, four days in Havana, three days in Santiago de Cuba. Usually I plan my travel solo with Margarite somehow always finding me and joining in. This trip Z (though I think his new name is Sack) who has traveled with me before will be joining along with two newcomers Chef Theo and Chef Melissa both are world renowned chefs. They are co-owners of Zest Culinary Services. With all these foodies, I'm hoping to experience some great Cuban food.

Getting to Cuba is fairly easy:
Step one - Purchase airline tickets, more and more U.S. airlines fly to Cuba.
Step two - Purchase a Cuban Tourist Card (from the Cuban Government), the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC will give you a list of tourist brokers that sell tourist cards (visa). We bought ours from Caribe Express. If you do not have a place to get a visa, I highly recommend Caribe Express and their manger Ulrich.
Step three - There are 12 reasons US citizens can travel to Cuba
1. Family visits. 
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations. 
3. Journalistic activity. 
4. Professional research and professional meetings. 
5. Educational activities. 
6. Religious activities. 
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions. 
8. Support for the Cuban people. 
9. Humanitarian projects. 
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes. 
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials. 
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

There is one category of Cuba travel that is not allowed.
1. Starting a missile crisis - Absolutely do not go to Cuba if you intend to start a missile crisis!

Seriously, tourist travel to Cuba is still not permitted by the U.S. State Department.

Go ahead and pick one of the twelve reason, throw a dart, it is an honor system, so it really does not matter which reason you pick, as long as it is not start a missile crisis or tourism. Yes, you do have to get a tourist card, but you can not go for tourism.

The last step,
Step 4 - get cash. At the beginning of 2017, U.S. banks still do not authorize the use of their credit cards or debit cards in Cuba. Bring enough cash to last the whole trip. There is a 10% fee to convert US dollars to Cuban CUC, so we brought Euros.

Now that Americans can go to Cuba, everybody's going to want to go! NOT!!! Based on our flight maybe 15 people on a flight that had a capacity to carry a couple of hundred. It does not look like demand is high. Going through customs and immigration was a breeze, lots of customs and immigration agents and few passengers.

First order of business, exchange money, this was my first trip where we would have no access to ATMs or Credit Cards. I exchange €400 for 407 CUC that's about a 4% discount or fee. With an ATM there would be no discount or fee.

Once Theo and Melissa retrieve their bags. We got our first lesson on Cuban time (about 60 minutes
to get their luggage), we were on our way.

Our first impression, everybody seemed happy and wanting to help us. We asked about a taxi for 5. We found a nice man with a mini van that agreed to take us to the apartment we would be staying at for 40 CUC.

The driver spoke broken English and tried to answer any questions we had. The roads were in good shape, the infrastructure was there, but appeared to not have had any maintenance for the last 50-60 years. We had rented an apartment from Fanny on Airbnb, not far from old Havana.

I have used Airbnb many time, but being an American and our first trip to Cuba I was a little nervous for this trip. Fanny not only made the process of booking her apartment easy, she was very informative on what to expect on our trip to Cuba. From things as simple as taking a taxi from the airport to the best way to convert money. Unfortunately Fanny was not in town during our stay so we did not get to personally meet her and thank her for all her help. Though we did get to enjoy the hospitality of her husband Alay. One item that I do not think is mentioned in the description is, Alay is a culinary trained chef. If Alay is around during your stay, please take him up on cooking breakfast or preparing a traditional Cuban dinner. Both are fantastic. As far as the apartment, it is a great location especially if you plan to walk during your stay in Havana as it is within walking of most sites. During our stay Alay was always available for any or our needs, planning taxies, tours, even arranged dinner reservations. While Alay was there when we needed him, we always felt we had our privacy. The apartment was very safe and secure. On the last night, we got the privilege to meet and have dinner with Alay's grandmother. She is 91 years old. If you are interested in the recent history of Cuba Alay's grandmother can give it to you first hand. We could not have been happier with our first stay in Cuba. One last note, we had to depart the apartment at 3:00 AM for an early flight. Alay, showed up to make sure we did not have any issue with the Taxi arriving as requested.

The ride took about 40 minutes, once we got close to the apartment we realized a lot of the roads were torn up. It appeared as if they were replacing or installing gas lines. The streets in the area were laid out in a grid with every other street going the opposite way. With the construction it was impossible to get to our apartment without going down the wrong way street. Not in Cuba that would be illegal. Instead they just drive in reverse you are still going the wrong way, but it is ok because the car is facing the correct way.

As we traveled to the apartment I would guess about one third of the cars were vintage American made cars from the early to mid nineteen-fifties. Most looked in excellent condition.

We rented an apartment from Fanny, though she had told me ahead of time she would not be there, but her husband would be.

On our arrival Carlos (or at least that is what we thought he said), Fanny's husband introduced himself. His uncle was also there. We would later find out his parents along with his younger sister immigrated to the United States when Carlos was two years old, so Carlos was raised by his grandmother.

Carlos and Fanny spend time in Toulouse, France and Havana Cuba. When we arrived the apartment was being cleaned and look great (for Havana standards very clean).

Carlos speaks Spanish and French. Luckily for us Theo speaks Spanish and Melissa speaks French and of course I speak all languages. It had been many hours since we last we. Carlos offered to walk us down to a local restaurant to grab a quick lunch. It was one o'clock we have a bike tour reserve for 3 o'clock plenty of time in America, but not in Cuban time. Lunch took one hour and 45 minutes. Lunch was great, it just took forever to get our food. We got back to the apartment at 3 PM. Carlos call us a cab which showed up 30 minutes later, again Cuban time. Our first ride in a fifties vintage American made care.

Riding in a car that was made over 50 years ago, and the owner not have access to replacement parts, it seemed surreal. How could this be, in the U.S. many people get new cars every few years. The engine and exhaust were loud, black smoke blowing out the exhaust, but the music was even louder.

We arrived at for our bike tour at Ruta Bikes, A Bicycle World in Havana, at 4 PM, one hour late, no worries, Cuban time, they got us set up on bikes, though I use that term loosely, some bikes had brakes, some had gears, a few even had air in the tires. Once on the bikes the mechanic connected us with the tour already in progress. We cover 25 km in three hours getting most of the highlights of Havana. Only being in Havana a few hours, it was still hard to comprehend how the city is frozen in time, though the decay is evident. Everything seemed to need a lot of tender loving care. The saying "Necessity is the mother of invention", could not be more true in Cuba. They somehow keep everything working even with out access to parts.

As we finished our ride the sunset and the music rose, Cuba was alive and well. People in the streets enjoying the evening air (when it was not filled with exhaust). We finish the ride along the seawall before returning to our starting point. We had asked our taxi to pick us up at 7:00 PM and he was there right on time, as promised.

It had been about 30 hours since Sack had slept so he opted for bread and water and off to bed The rest of us found a great restaurant, Castas & Tal, about five blocks from the apartment fantastic Cuban food with prices to match, 10 CUC for dinner including drinks. Now it was finally time to head off to bed.

Today started with a walk to the bank to change Euros to CUC. When Theo and I arrived at the bank
we found it was closed for fumigation. No fear the black market is here everything we read said, "Never, Never, Never, change money on the street!". So, Theo changed €500 and I changed €1,200. My guess, the guy we did the exchange with us, had over $10,000 in money, Cuban, Canadian, Euros, and even American currency all stuffed in different pockets. The banks exchange rate Euros to CUC was 1.02, we got 1.01 on the black market. Not bad and no lines, which we would later find out is rare at Cuban Banks.

When we returned, Carlos made us a great breakfast, Eggs, Fresh Fruit, toast and fresh fruit juice, all for five CUC each. Melissa had arrange a cooking class which was schedule for 10:00. It would be a 30 minute taxi, we had arrange to use the taxi from the night before and he showed up right on time, 9:30 AM.

We arranged a cooking class that included lunch. We first started with a tour of an organic garden just around the corner to the restaurant. We spent about an hour learning how they use nature instead of chemical, to protect the fruits and vegetables from damaging insects. Once back at the restaurant we got a detailed explanation of the food and the culture history. Then off to the kitchen to prepare lunch. What a great experience.

The cooking class was run through a restaurant called Ajiaco Cafe. The restaurant is located about 20 minutes outside of Havana in a small fishing village. We were greeted by our host Roy, after introductions, we walked a few blocks to a local organic garden. Most of the produce used at the Ajiaco Cafe comes from this garden. We got to taste many of the fresh herbs, Cilantro, Mint, Chives, etc.. The garden is tended to by two brothers Jose and Juan, they each spend 2 hours working the gardens in the morning before heading off to their full time jobs. We learned how they use nature to protect the plants from insects and other issues, for example they put ash around the gardens to keep the slugs away. They plant Marigolds which attract bees, but evasive insects do not like the scent. We spent about an hour in the garden before heading back to the to the restaurant. Once back in the Restaurant, Alexander
gave us an explanation and history of a Cuban meal. It seems that the food in Cuba is influenced by Europe, Africa and even South East Asia. After our education on Cuban food we headed into the kitchen. Theo and Melissa did the cooking with the head chef Alexander giving them instructions, though I doubted they needed them.

We leaned that in Cuba, restaurants do not pre-plan of cook meals. Everything is made to order from scratch. That is why you can have a 30 minutes to one hour wait from ordering your food to being severed. After our cooking class we headed to the bar were we got a lesson on how to make the perfect traditional Cuban Mojito. What a great experience and the best part we got to eat and drink what we made. After lunch we walked around the village a bit. We had not realized how loud Havana was until we got out of the city and realized how quiet this little fishing village was.

After a fantastic lunch and cooking experience we drove back to Old Havana and had a daiquiri at the Floridita, the bar Ernest Hemingway used to hang out at, back in the day.

Next stop, the rum museum, not worth a visit, really just the rum store ripping off tourist. We took a taxi back to the Apartment for 15 CUC, well worth it. The car, a 1952 red convertible, awesome ride
through Havana. We had just realized these American cars had had their gas engines replaced with diesel. The air pollution was heavy with all these diesel cars we very old exhaust systems. After a long day we all took showers and hung out with Carlos. We asked Carlos to pick a restaurant and he join us for dinner.

Carlos picked a restaurant across from the Revolution Museum in Havana. This is where the Granma is kept. The Granma is the boat use to transport 82 Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba. The restaurant Carols picked was Al Carbon this restaurant is on the higher end, price wise, by about four times. The food was fine, I had the suckling pig. One issue the waiter was very rude to our host, Carlos. I would not recommend this restaurant! Carlos said they spent over $1 million renovating the restaurant which is a Kings fortune in Cuba. Dinner was ok, but cost about 40 CUC per person that is four times the cost of the dinner the night before and we had a much better experience at Castas & Tal, I guess Al Carbon is trying to pay for their million dollar renovation. After dinner it was a walk back to the apartment and then off to sleep.

By the way Carlos is now Alay we somehow got confused on the name during our first introductions. Maybe our taxi driver from the airport was names Carlos. Alay had been making us great breakfast all week, actually today will be our second breakfast, it just seems like we've been here for such a long time we're having such a great experience. Before breakfast Margarite and I went for a walk along the Malecon to take pictures with the perfect morning sunlight. The Malecon is a road that serpentine's around Havana along the water. There was a lot of activity, people fishing a few snorkelers looking for lobsters and a lot of people just out for a beautiful morning walk. The weather was perfect. We returned at 8 AM for breakfast and to pick up the rest of the crew. Today we will be walking old Havana admiring the architecture and the people both rich in culture and history.

For over 400 years Cuba has had a very turbulent history and it's been very hard on the people. Yet as
we walked around all the people were very friendly and full of life, music playing, lots of smiles, and lots of dancing. As we walked up Paseo de Marti we stumbled upon grade school kids enjoying recess out in the street, my guess kindergarten or first grade. For the last two days we have been giving out baseball jerseys to kids we ran into, unfortunately we have run out og jerseys, as all these kids deserve jerseys, they were working so hard at recess. Paseo de Marti is a four lane road, two lanes in each direction with a large pedestrian promenade in the center, the promenade is where recess was being held.

One nice thing, after 60 years of neglect we did see renovations going on throughout the city, many of the projects were bringing the original structures back to life. We did a complete loop having lunch where we had dinner our first night Castas & Tal. After lunch we walk to the Vedado neighborhood, this is where the wealthy once lived. To get to Vedado from our apartment Margarite, Sack and I, walked through all the local neighborhoods talking and enjoying the Cuban hospitality outside the tourist area.

Melissa and Theo took the Malecon and enjoy the sea air and the ocean view, we met up at the Avenue 23 and Avenue do los Presidentes after regrouping we walk through the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. At on point in time prior to the revolution, this was the wealthy section of Havana, after walking the neighborhood we notice the houses are larger then in the main city, but they still appear to be run down. We did see some renovations being undertaken. From Vedado we walked over to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for drinks overlooking the water as the day turned to evening. After drinks we had dinner at Santa Barbara Paladar it's a privately owned restaurant about five blocks from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It was recommended by a passer by, when we were walking earlier and thought we would try it. We were pleased with our meals and the service, nothing special but well worth the visit.

As we enjoyed our stay in Cuba we have learned more and more about how the economy works, most
business are owned by the government. There are private business of which most caterer to the tourist industry, Taxis, restaurants, Bed and Breakfast, etc.. You could go into one restaurant and it is government owned and run, then visit another that is privately run and owned. Most of the private restaurants are actually part of a private residence.

We walked back to the apartment about 1.5 miles, the weather was perfect and the night life quiet for a Thursday night. What a great day, long but fun. We walked over ten miles.

Today we are taking a tour out to Vinales, this is an area known to grow tobacco for cigars the drive is 2 to 3 hours west of Havana. We got two taxis that are over 60 years old being held together with spit and glue. With a drive this long we thought splurging on the extra car was worth the cost.

First thing was to stop at a bank to exchange more Euros for CUC, what an experience we got a better exchange rate then our guy in the back ally, but a much slower process, some people in front of us were depositing bags of cash. I guess that is to be expected in a cash economy dominated by the black market.

While Theo and I waited in line at the bank, Sack, Melissa, and Margarite scouted out some of the resorts, they said the quality was five star plus.

Our first stop about 2 hours out side of Havana was a small tobacco plantation. We got a detailed explanation of how tobacco is grown for cigars and how the cigars are made. We realized it is a long an arduous process, both in time and labor. Certain tobacco leaves are used for the wrapper and others are used internally, no leaves are cut they're all used whole.

Another interesting fact is the stem of the leaf is removed which contains 95% of the nicotine. After the plantation tour we enjoyed a nice lunch just passed Vinales. After lunch our taxis took us to a cave/boat tour it look too touristy and crowded. Plus we had a 3 Hour drive home, in hindsight we
would've departed earlier in the day, and spend time walking around Vinales.

The drive home was uneventful except for one stop. All of a sudden our driver quickly pulled over to the side of the road. He got out of the car, we followed to see what was going on. He got a water bottle out of the trunk that looked like it was filled with Ice tea. He opened the hood and filled the completely empty master brake cylinder with this liquid. He then returned the bottle to the trunk. We all got back in the car and we were on our way.

On our return, Alay made us a great dinner which included: lobster, fish, pork, chicken, rice and beans, plus salad and vegetable. It was a meal fit for a king. Alay's grandmother joined us for dinner she is 91 years young and going strong. I wish I spoke better Spanish as I would of loved to understand some of the history she has seen during her life time.

We work at 3:30 AM for a 4 AM taxi to catch our 6:10 AM flight to Santiago de Cuba. NOT!

Flight canceled! No fear Cubana de Aviacion rerouted on a 6:00 PM flight to Holguin which is a two to three hour drive to Santiago de Cuba. At a minimum we would arrive 14 hours later than planned. We were not sure what to do, when Melissa
noticed an earlier flight to Holguin. I spoke to the supervisor, I need to mention everybody was understanding and trying to help us, he said he could put us on a 7:00 AM flight but we would be on our own to get to Santiago de Cuba, if we waited for the 6:00 PM flight, the airlines would provide a bus to Santiago de Cuba.

This was a hard decision, actually not, we took the 7:00 AM flight. Thank you Melissa!!!

We could not have been happier with our stay with Orestes. The pictures do not do it justices. Prior to our stay Orestes was very helpful in answering any questions we had. On our arrival we had a flight delay with no way to inform Orestes, but he had not issues with us being a few hours late. The rooms are spacious, while we rented the entire apartment (5 of us) to be honest we could of all fit in the large bedroom easily. The bedrooms all had there own modern bathroom and all had air-conditioning. We had breakfast each morning prepared perfectly for a nominal fee. The apartment is on a square with a Beautiful church so it is very peaceful. The location is great we were able to walk to everything. When ever we needed Orestes he was there to help us out. (He lives with his family next to the apartment). The apartment was cleaned everyday. Orestes's wife owns a restaurant across the way from the apartment I recommend you have at least one meal there. 

Once we landed in Holguin we found a 1958 Studebaker with a driver name Ronlando Perez Nova. He agreed to drive the 5 of us to Santiago de Cuba for 100 CUC. Two and a half hours later we were entering our beautiful home for the next two days. Orestes and his wife, Aurora welcomed us. The place was perfect actually it would be perfect for eleven people, the place was huge, we were only five. After getting settled in we decided take a walk to Roy's Terrace. Roy's Terrace is a B&B with a terrace roof top restaurant. We had arrange dinner reservations for 7 PM, they asked that we re-confirm when we arrive in Santiago de Cuba. Since everything is prepared from scratch they also like you to pre-order to reduce the wait time once we arrive for dinner.

The owners of Roy's were very gracious and made sure everything was in order. After checking in at Roy's we had planned to walk and see some of the tourist sites.

We first stopped at the little shop with an overlook of the bay. While there Melissa got a salsa dance lesson from Rafael. While Melissa was dancing I spoke Johannes. Johannes is an engineer at the refinery at night and tour guide during the day. I thought having a guide would ensure we saw all the important sites especially Fidel Castro's tomb! I was working with Johannes on a four hour walking tour. Once we had it planned out, I mentioned it to our group, I had
even negotiated a rate of ten CUC for the four hours. This did not go over well, it was already past 2:00 PM we had been up since 3:30 AM. The group thought an hour might be better. They wanted time to rest and shower before dinner. On the drive into Santiago I had eaten about 200 chocolate wafers, not sure what was in them, but they were like jet fuel. Rather than ask for one fourth of the four hour tour I asked, "Can we do the complete four hour tour in just one hour?" Johannes said, "Four times as fast, no problem". We were off at the pace of a quick jog at least Johannes and I were, the others lagged behind. We visit the site of the start of the revolution, Fidel Castro's childhood home. All of a sudden we realized the other were lagging Johannes suggested we
take bike taxis.

This work perfectly, we visit the waterfront, a Beer Factory, and then last but not least Fidel Castro's burial site. It was getting close to five so the bike taxis took us home. I am not sure if it was lack of sleep, lack of food, or maybe my obnoxiousness (from being hyped up on chocolate wafers), but I think the four others were not so happy with my tour. Once back at the house it was clear my hyper tour may not of been one of my finer moments.

While on the tour Johannes had asked if we wanted to buy some cigars. Johannes's brother works at the cigar factory and can get us a deal. We arranged for Johannes to meet us on Monday at 9:00 AM. The plan was Johannes would take us to the factory and we would get some black market cigars.

The walk to dinner gave us a great feel for Santiago de Cuba Saturday nightlife. We walked by two squares both with bands and salsa dancing everybody having a great time. It looks like communism isn't so bad. Everybody was happy and enjoying the beautiful evening. We arrived at Roy's restaurant right on time. Dinner on the roof terrace was perfect the weather had low humidity a slight breeze we all enjoyed the evening. The walk back was as pleasant as the walk there we or should I say Melissa had hoped to do some salsa dancing but the band was packing up as we walked by, still a lot of
nightlife but no dancing.

Today we woke to a great breakfast and just hung out enjoy the open air kitchen courtyard of the apartment. This house is awesome, we decided to go walk around Santiago de Cuba and take in the sights, drink the drinks, and eat the food. We did visit the Emilio Bacardi Museum apparently as Emilio Bacardi traveled the world he brought back art and artifacts from his travels, including mommies from Egypt.

After six days in Cuba we had gotten a better understanding of the money and how it works. There are two types of Currency the CUC which also
maybe referred to as a peso. The CUC is equivalent to one U.S. dollar. The second currency is the National Peso which is valued at 1/25 of a CUC. Both currency's are often referred to as a Peso. The CUC is used mostly by tourist and the National Peso is used mostly by Cuban Nationals. For example at the Emilio Bacardi Museum the entry for foreign tourists was two CUC and for locals two pesos, so Cubans paid 1/25 the tourist price.

Theo bought some cake he thought the price was 10 CUC but it was really 10 pesos or $.40. A local, not someone working at the cake factory offered to help. I am not sure how much he helped. Theo got about 20 pieces of cake and some change for his ten CUC. It also looked like the local man took some of Theo's money, but Theo thought he got a good price on the cake, and I am sure the man needed the money more than us, so all was OK, and it was fun to watch.

Sack and I bought some pizza for five pesos or $.20 a personal pizza. Once we figured out the currency and found out where the locals shopped we realized how cheap it is to live in Cuba.

We had dinner at the Restaurant Compay Gallo everybody thought the meal was great. Since I had just had a pizza I only ordered dessert and it was fantastic, I ordered the flan, and was happy I did. We all agreed it was one of the best meals we had in Santiago de Cuba.

After we return back to the apartment Theo and Melissa went out dancing, since Melissa had missed dancing the night before. Unfortunately she missed the dancing again, I guess Sunday night things close a little earlier. Today is our last day in Cuba kind of like a bonus day. Sack has an early flight Rum Museum  but wait, what about Johannes taking us to the cigar factory, so we could get our black market cigars. His brother who works at the factory was getting us the five finger discount.
and a 2 1/2 hour taxi ride back to Holguin airport. We arranged for him to be picked at 8:30. We would not be picked up until 1 PM. We still wanted to visit the

Johannes showed up right on time, 9 AM but the first words out of his mouth was, we have a problem. "The cigar factory is closed but I brought my brother with me to sell you cigars." They must've been brothers from another mother as there was no resemblance at all!

I bought a box for $25 and Theo bought about 15 cigars for $20. As we bought and paid for our cigars Johannes reminded us not to buy cigars on the streets of Cuba as there are a lot of fake cigars. Good thing we were on the sidewalk and not the street!

Back to the Rum Museum, it was only about 4 blocks from our house. The Rum Museum in Santiago de Cuba is much better then the one in Havana. They gave a complete history of the sugarcane industry in the rum industry in Cuba. There was a bar in the basement where the bartender Edwardo Corona Viamonte claimed to fame was he made the best Mojito in all of Cuba maybe even all of the world.

Edwardo started by burning some wood and smoking the glass, from there it was magic in his mixing, we order three but mine was too strong so Theo help me out.

I bought a few sample bottles of rum and then we headed out Theo still wanted to stop to the store and buy some more rum to take home. After a stop at the house to pack, we headed out for lunch. No luck, restaurants do not open untill 2 PM so for 10 pesos or $.40 we got ham and cheese sandwiches. A bread shop had a very long line. I went over and saw people in line with ration books. As they got to the front of the line the worker would stamp their books and give them their allocation of bread. We got back to our apartment just in time for a taxi and a two and a half hour drive back to Holguin airport.

Fifty-two countries down! Three out of four countries that do not have complete diplomatic relations with United States next stop? Who knows! Iran is suppose to be next but??? Thank you President Trump!



Cuba January 1017

1 comment:

Trip Hooked said...

It would be the best travelling Things To Do In Havana journey. Must visit place.