Cuba is famous for its rum cocktails, and rightly so. It is, after all, the birthplace of Bacardi.
There's the Cuba Libre - simply rum, coke and lime - one of which I enjoyed in the hotel bar just a few short hours after touching down in Havana. Next we have the mojito, and it didn't take me long to find one of those either, as a pre-dinner drink in the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Sevilla. It was a refreshing accompaniment to sunset views of the city, a lovely seafood meal, and the mellow stylings of the piano player serenading the diners.
But I discovered the island is much more than cocktails, or, for that matter, the beaches where so many tourists flock.
I joined a small group tour starting in the capital city. Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is the famous and much-photographed backdrop to crumbling grand old buildings and late 50's American cars. One of the squares -- Plaza Vieja -- has been beautifully restored, as have a few selected buildings. It's like a teaser for imagining how gorgeous the city must have been in its heyday.
On one corner of the plaza, we found find signs advertising a Camera Obscura. For a modest fee we were granted entry to the top floor of the building. A guide explained the history of the camera and demonstrated its use. As she shifted the angle of the camera to focus on different parts of the city, it felt like we were spying on those who were walking the streets and hanging laundry on rooftops. After the camera demo we were able to walk along the rooftop terrace of the building for beautiful views of the plaza and the city beyond.
Music is an integral piece of Cuba's culture that you'll experience without even trying. It seems it's practically illegal to dine without musical accompaniment in the country.
During my first Havana lunch at an outdoor cafe, our group was serenaded by an upbeat 3-piece combo. One of the band members salsa'd (Is that a verb? In Cuba, si!) over to our table mid-song and held out the maracas for one of us to try. Since there were no other takers, I agreed to give it a shot. Next thing I knew, the singer had pulled me up to shake through the rest of the song with them. Part embarrassment and part delight.
Later that evening after cocktail mixing lessons and dinner, there was more music. We chose one of the many clubs with music blaring out of its windows and grabbed a table. The group had a flautist. As I enjoyed the groove, I had fleeting romantic thoughts of taking up taking up the flute again and giving up my day job for a stab at a music career. It had nothing to do with the cumulative cocktail consumption of the day.;)
On our last evening in Havana we made a point of visiting the famous Buena Vista Social Club. Granted, it's a bit of an overpriced tourist experience with a changing cast of current musicians pays tribute to the music that made the original bar so popular in the 1940's. However, the performances are solid, the atmosphere festive, and some of the old guard do make appearances occasionally. We were thrilled when respected old-timer Julio Alberto Fernandez took the stage for a couple of numbers during our visit.
Cigars from the source
I was surprised by the unique beauty of the Unesco-protected Vinales Valley where we hiked among the mogotes (karst hills) and tobacco fields. On a family tobacco farm, we learned about how the plants are harvested and dried.
The farmer demonstrated cigar-rolling, and when he finished, he promptly lit one and passed it around for the group to try. I politely declined (cough, hack), but a few of the others tried a puff. The farmer's wife gladly took over after the group was done. When I asked her how many cigars she smokes each day, she held up five fingers and flashed me a toothy grin.
We had lunch in Pinar del Rio at a paladare - a family-run restaurant based in a private home. It's the kind of out-of-the-way place I never would have found on my own.
Our guide had called ahead the day before to make the reservation, since an invasion of 14 people was going to fill the place. Food had to be bought and prepared. The woman who owned the restaurant was gracious and warm, welcoming us with a beaming smile. We were entertained by a guitar/singer duo while we dined - remember what I said about never dining without music?
The food was delicious, from the ajiaco (vegetable soup) to the grilled lobster with salad, rice & beans, and finally a unique dessert of preserved oranges.
Bay of Pigs (and crocodile)
As fate would have it, it was the 50th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs US Invasion the day we stopped at this famous point on the coast to contemplate that bit of history. It was easy to see why ships would have had trouble navigating the rough waters and rocky shoreline - it would have been a difficult landing spot indeed.
I was surprised that nothing official was going on. There were very few locals about, considering the importance of this event in Cuba's past.
A few of us jumped into the sea for a brief swim, but the rough water crashing against the rocks made it exhausting work. Across the road was a cenote swimming hole with cool crystal clear fresh water. We crossed over for a much more relaxing swim there. Or rather a relaxing float.
At lunch I tried a small piece of another traveler's order of fried crocodile. I suppose you could say it tasted like chicken, but more so the rubber kind. Thankfully there was a tasty Cristal beer within easy reach.
Later we stopped at the Bay of Pigs museum, and it was here, in the town square, that we could see preparations for a rally or celebration to be held later that evening. Probably intentional to stage the festivities in the cooler evening hours.
The museum was small with only a few photos and artifacts, and plenty of harsh words for the "Yankee Imperialist" invaders. At the time, it made me wonder if the deep hatred and resentment between the two nations could ever be smoothed over, but there have been some improvements in the relationship since.
Salsa under the stars in Trinidad
I fell in love with Trinidad. Because ...
Taking salsa dancing lessons in the living room of a teacher's typical Cuban home while Grandma watched through a doorway from her rocking chair. The Afro-Cuban beats were queued up on an old-fashioned record player (dating from long before turntables became audiophile must-haves) and the notes crackled out through a single battered wooden speaker.
Trying out those newly learned steps to the beat of a live band on cobblestones under the stars at the Casa de la Musica. I would need many more lessons before I could ever dream of moving like the locals young and old strutting their sultry stuff on the rough outdoor dance "floor".
Sharing a moment with an old veteran of the Revolution. He proudly showed me his military medal and some tattered black and white photos of himself and his comrades in uniform. His eyes shone as he pointed to the photo and back to himself, to be sure I knew the young man was him.
Wandering the hilly cobbled streets in the early evening, seeing the water truck make its deliveries while noticing that the TV in every single home was tuned to the same soap opera. Multiple generations of family members gathered to watch the latest dramatic developments. It explained why the streets were so quiet for that hour, much like they would be during the final period of a Stanley Cup hockey game at home. And the water truck? The nightly delivery system was established to make up for the lack of a reliable city water supply - one of the infrastructure problems faced daily by many Cubans.
We stopped in Santa Clara on the way back to Havana, mainly to visit the Che Guevera Monument. It was the biggest statue of a man I've ever seen. It tops a museum full of photos with propagandist captions about how pitiful Cuba was before the Revolution and how wonderful it is now.
The country's museums certainly don't present balanced viewpoints about anything. But the same could be said of many museums all over the world where the bias is often just disguised with subtler language.
On the highway, I noticed what is essentially an organized hitch-hiking system that stands in as a main form of public transportation. Our guide explained why it's necessary to supplement the few public buses that are in various states of repair. As we sped along in our air conditioned mini bus, Cubans were waiting for rides outside in the stifling heat. Is it naive to hope that some of the profits from tourism will be allocated towards better public transport?
Our guide pointed out rural boarding schools surrounded by vegetable crops where students would spend time working in the fields each day. He remarked on the doctors' homes along the highway, which double as clinics. Although medical care is free, doctors aren't paid any better than anyone else, he said. Therefore, those who bring gifts tend to be assisted much sooner than those who don't. Somehow, capitalist elements have persisted in one of the most socialist states in the world.
Whatever your views on Cuba's politics and government, it's hard to deny the importance of tiny nation's cultural achievements. Oh, and let's not forget the cocktails.