By Kitty Morse
Last December, my friend Susan and I bucked conventional wisdom, and headed for Cuba on the spur of the moment. Planning our custom itinerary was a breeze thanks to Vermont-based Karin Eckhard of Espiritu Travel (https://espiritutravel.com)
We were in for several surprises.
Cuba off-limits to US citizens? Not so! They are the largest group to visit Cuba after Canadians, and must plan their visit through licensed travel agencies. We were under the impression that we needed to fly to Cuba through a third country. Wrong again! Most major US airlines offer regular flights to Cuba, though US government directives dictate that they can only fly into Havana. The longstanding US embargo prohibits cruise ships from docking.
Following Karin’s instructions, we checked “Support the Cuban people” on our visa applications and obtained our visas at the JetBlue counter at JFK upon check-in. The cost? USD50.00 (Visas vary widely in price when purchased online.) Before we landed in Havana, we had to fill out the customs declaration that “banned any pornographic material.” Done! We walked out of Jose Marti International Airport pulling our rollies behind us towards Carlos, our driver and guide for the next 9 days.
“This is rush hour traffic,” said our guide in flawless English as we whizzed into town along an empty freeway. “Most Cubans cannot afford a car.” Hitchhikers of all ages waited for rides along the road. Carlos gestured our SUV was full. “Hitchhiking is a way of life here. We all have to do it,” he continued, as we passed vintage Buicks and Studebakers, even a grey Chevy Bel-Air similar to one my father once owned in the late 1950s. “Public transportation is not reliable. Besides, a free ride is cheaper!” said the former lawyer. Safety is not an issue, he assured us. This 700-mile long island a mere 90 miles off Florida bills itself as one of the safest countries in the world.
We drove into town under threatening skies. Our hosts, Carlos and Oralia were waiting for us at their casa particular (b and b) of Casa Carlos y Oralia, in Vedado. The heavy wooden door creaked open at our knocks, allowing us to step into a tiled patio lined with flowerpots encircling a gurgling wall fountain. Our room, one of a five tucked inside the narrow two-story building, faced this mini-jungle alive with chirping birds. We shed our winter coats for lighter wear, thankful for the air conditioning and the whirling fan, and for the refrigerator stocked with bottles of water. Carlos had already advised us not to drink local tap water.
Our guide picked us up at the appointed time for our afternoon tour of Habana Vieja. The historic district brought to mind images of my hometown of Casablanca (Morocco), with its magnificent and dilapidated old buildings scalloped in artistic wrought-iron balconies. In such close-knit quarters, daily activities unfold in the streets, much as they do in Mediterranean neighborhoods. Young Habaneros playing soccer blocked intersections; grandmothers in sleeveless blouses chatted in doorways, absent-mindedly puffing on a cigar while keeping an eye on their charges. Many ruined buildings had found new life: here a bicycle repair shop; there, a makeshift garage holding half a dozen classic cars in varying stages of repair; in another, customers waited for their turn in the antique barber’s chair. “Cubans always have a few extra pesos to spend on flowers,” said Carlos, as we stepped into what must have been the ground floor of an apartment building. The space was now the neighborhood flower market. “Nos Une el El Barrio” (the barrio unites us) proclaimed the hand-painted slogan on a wall. Each block held a walk-in clinic, attesting to the fact that the country has one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.
“Hola Carlos!” rang out a number of times. Our guide had grown up in the neighborhood, and these were his “peeps”. “Not many Cubans choose to live in this area of town anymore, except my mother!” he exclaimed. He led us down a narrow alley that opened up onto the elegant Paseo del Prado. We stood facing a clone of our capitol building. “Our capitol was built with sugar boom money between 1926 and 1929,” said Carlos. He added: “It was modeled after the US Capitol but it is just a little wider and a little taller!” The landmark was an eyesore for decades until local authorities undertook its restoration ahead of Havana’s 500th anniversary. The process took close to ten years. Today, the resplendent home of the National Assembly is a renewed source of pride. The same thing is planned for the neighboring Gran Teatro de la Habana, home of the world-famous Cuban National Ballet. To our chagrin, we did not program attending a performance. A word to the wise: obtain tickets upon arrival.
Carlos knew just where to take us for lunch for our first taste of Cuban cuisine. Ropa vieja (old clothes) is Cuba’s comfort food, and the specialty of the intimate Café Mambo Habana. We dug with gusto into Cuba’s classic dish of shredded pork stewed with bell peppers and tomatoes, and a side of Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice). We were to eat multiple versions of these dishes during our 9 days, and Café Mambo’s was a delicious introduction. Three cooks, all young men, practiced their culinary skills in the galley at the back of this diminutive diner.
Our hunger pangs appeased, it was back to Vedado along the Malecon, the 8-mile long oceanfront boulevard that skirts Havana Vieja. Dog and owners took their daily paseo, and youngsters skipped long the sidewalk, or jumped into the waves that crashed over the low parapet. Silhouetted against the gray skies, lone fishermen stood on the rocks hoping to reel in a fresh catch. An excursion across the bay allowed us to take the whole Malecon panorama from the fortress of Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro. The view from the ramparts made clear why Spanish explorers selected the enormous bay as the main port of their New World colonies, and why, in 1592, King Philip II of Spain decreed Havana “Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies”.
The next morning, after breakfasting on Oralia’s cheese omelet, piping hot ham croquetas, fresh fruit, ham sandwiches, fresh orange juice and Cuban coffee, it was off to the races — in this case, the government run cigar factory. An oversized portrait of a pensive Fidel Castro smoking a cigar looked down on us as we stepped across the black and white linoleum tiles towards Luis, a factory worker-cum-guide. Like most men in the antiquated building, he was chewing on an unlit cigar. No photos were allowed past this point. We followed him up narrow stairs reeking of stale smoke, to a large workroom where men separated and smoothed out the dried tobacco leaves spread on wooden tables. They barely looked up as we trooped past on the way to the top floor, reserved for women seated at individual work stations. Each one expertly wrapped and labeled Cuba’s famed export with her identity number for quality control.
“These women are the best paid workers on the island,” explained Luis. “Each one can make 80 to 150 cigars a day and is allowed to take home 5 cigars to sell on the open market.” Needless to say, a job as a cigar wrapper is as much sought after as the end product: Romeo y Julieta and Monte Cristo cigars.
The sweet aroma of fresh cigars permeated the car as we drove along the wide Avenida 5a to Fusterlandia, a most unusual neighborhood inspired by Barcelona’s artist Gaudi. An explosion of kaleidoscopic tilework greeted us down a discreet side street. Gaudi, as well as world-famous French-American artist Nikki de St Phalle, both inspired the Cuban-born Jose Fuster to plaster his entire neighborhood in tilework, from benches, rooftops, and shops, to the Holy Virgin watching over his pool.
A different style of art lined the walls of the Callejon de Hamel, a shaded, pedestrian alley at the heart of Havana Vieja, where walls, chairs, lampposts and even old bathtubs displayed various forms of graffiti. Our morning walk concluded at Venami’s (www.tripadvisor.com/venami), an secluded Italian restaurant near the Capitolio. “Venami’s serves the best Italian food in Havana,” asserted Carlos upon entering the tiny space, winner of Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence for 3 years in a row. We would have been hard pressed to find it on our own. Paladares are under private ownership, and hanging a commercial sign is prohibited. More often than not, a chalk board on the sidewalk is the only public notice.
The trio of young chefs who expertly manned the brick oven had perfected their trade in Italy. They slipped wooden pizza paddles in and out of the brick oven at record speed to the sound of a boombox vibrating with Cuban tunes. As we left, satiated with chicken piccata and heaping bowls of seafood fettucine, our waitress grabbed my arm and insisted we take a spin on the pavement.
Music of a different era enlivened the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a mafia hangout before the Cuban revolution. A trio of musicians serenaded us as we downed one mojito and then another beneath vintage portraits of international celebrities. In decades past, the edifice echoed with the footsteps of Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Jean Paul Sartre, Yuri Gagarin, Lucky Luciano, and other world-famous luminaries. It even hosted a battle in 1933. The battle of The Hotel Nacional de Cuba pitted the Cuban army against non-commissioned officers who supported Battista. Ensconced in deep armchairs in one of the oceanfront salons, we sipped mojitos and tapped our feet to our private WWII musical interlude.
We had barely downed our last mojito when Carlos introduced us to Yordanka, the driver of an eye-popping ‘52 royal blue convertible Buick.
“There are very few women drivers in Havana,” said the attractive brunette. “I studied to be an accountant, but I can’t support my family on the government’s $35 a month.” Like Carlos, she too felt the pinch of the US embargo. “And so I drive a classic car!” The government keeps a stable of several hundred of these classic autos, and leases them out to (mainly male) drivers for a hefty monthly fee. She drove us, top down, through Havana’s leafier districts until we reached the enormous Plaza de la Revolución. A large portrait of Cuba’s revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, cast a benign stare from nearby buildings onto tourists examining the rows of vintage cars on the plaza. Many cars advertised ”In Havana, you can rent your fantasia”.
In addition to music and vintage cars, Cubans are renowned for their agricultural expertise. The island has long practiced ecological growing methods, and we were curious to visit a working farm. “One reason we follow ancestral farming practices,” explained Carlos on the way to Vista Hermosa Eco Farm, “is that the country cannot afford to import expensive fertilizers or modern machinery. This has forced farmers to revert to ploughing fields with oxen due to the lack of fuel, and to shun the use of chemicals.” Farm to table, or “de la Granja a la Mesa”, is the norm in Cuba. This catapulted Vista Hermosa to the forefront of the Slow Food movement. The young farm manager had travelled to Italy, birthplace of the movement, on several occasions. Vista Hermosa, a 165-acre finca ganadera, cattle “farm, operates as a semi-private co-op, and must sell 80% of its products to the government. Most of their microgreens and specialty herbs supply the hotel trade. Lucky for us, we sampled their products at their charming “outlet”, the Mediterraneo Havana restaurant. Blue and white, so typical of Mediterranean countries, predominated in the sun-splashed villa nestled in one Havana’s better neighborhoods. For the next two hours, young waiters plied us with Vista Hermosa’s baby vegetables, farm-raised chicken, home-made cheeses, farm fresh ricotta, and even, their own Italian style salumi.
That evening our curiosity compelled us to attend a dinner show at the fabled El Guajarito, home of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. The packed cabaret was filled with groups from around the world. Dinner, served by young women in skimpy attire, began with a cup of broth and an unusual bruschetta of stewed squid. The evening’s high point came in the form of the show’s exuberant star, 82-year old Tete,the liveliest person in the room, who, in no time, had the place stomping its feet and clapping to classic Cuban jazz tunes.
Our destination the next morning was Vinales in the western province of Pinar del Río. Carlos had advised us to dress in layers and take rain gear. On approach, a rainbow arced over the lush countryside, and the steep, dome-shaped limestone cliffs emerged from the mist like those of Vietnam’s Halong Bay. These mountains, called mogotes, attract rock climbers from around the world and most local casas particulares cater to long term visitors, as did the aptly-named Casa Bella Vista, where a diorama of domed-shaped mogotes faced the inn’s terrace.
The skies opened up as we set off to digest our heaping plates of meltingly tender lamb and Moros y Cristianos. Rainer, our guide and botanical expert, led us to shelter in an abandoned shack, while delivering a rundown on the valley’s endemic plants. These include 165 varieties of mamey, and dozens of rare papayas. We had expressed the desire to visit one of Vinales’ famed tobacco farms to roll our own cigar. Since neither car nor oxcart could navigate the flooded paths, we set out on foot under a deluge, our shoes sloshing with water, our clothes wringing wet under our flimsy rain gear. We reached a rickety barn after what seemed an eternity. Inside, open shelves were stacked floor to ceiling with tobacco leaves in varying stages of the drying process. “Bienvenidos!” A farmer with the bluest eyes I had ever seen flashed a row of gleaming white teeth as he invited us in. Rain pelted the leaky roof and the aroma of fresh leaves floated around us as he demonstrated how to roll a cigar, unwrapping each leaf, and expertly rolling it into Cuba’s signature product. Thunder and lightning punctuated our return to Casa Oralia. This sent me dreaming of home-made chicken soup. We found it at El Biky’s, a newly opened restaurant near our casa particular. A steaming bowl of home-made chicken soup, and their cracker-thin pizza crust smothered in fresh mushrooms and melted cheese did much to soothe our rain drenched souls.
The skies had cleared the next morning when we set off for Trinidad. On the way, we witnessed first-hand how Cubans source daily necessities. “You want to try a cortado?” asked Carlos, pointing to a roadside stand. Of course! He disappeared at the back while we sipped a Cuban espresso with milk. He returned holding six tubes of Colgate toothpaste. “My supplier buys these in Miami!” he said with a chuckle. We stretched our legs again at a roadside stand festooned in strands of garlic. Carlos’ purchases done, we continued on to Cienfuegos, originally settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana. Today, the town is a center for sugar and tobacco production. The shaded central plaza flanked in pastel colored colonial buildings brought to mind a typical zocalo. Carlos led us to the rooftop terrace of the Palacio de Valle, an extravagant structure built in the Moorish style, to sip daiquiris and take in the unobstructed view of the bay.
“You will love Trinidad,” he declared when we were back on the road. Francisco de Narvaez, one of the first explorers of the southern coast of North America, was the first to set foot in Trinidad in 1527, before his exploration of La Florida. Nowadays, visitors from around the world flock to the flower-bedecked central square to access free wi-fi. Trinidad native Yneisy and her Italian-born husband Enzo were our hosts at their family home a few minutes’ walk from the plaza. From the Hostal Casa Groning (www.hostalcasagroning.com) we ventured out on our own to explore the pedestrian streets lined in cobblestones originally used ballast for ships. We navigated uneven sidewalks and flooded side-streets filled with horse-drawn carts, pedicabs, and bicycles. A laid-back attitude contributed to the tropical charm of this colonial era World heritage Site. Hemingway must have felt it too. A trio of street musicians stood in front of La Floridita, one of the famed author’s favorite watering holes. Open doorways afforded a glimpse of daily life: students learning the samba, a cobbler bent over his iron last next to a mountain of shoes, a barber plying his trade inside a studio lined with his own paintings. We ran into a number of these informal art galleries, as well as one exhibiting internationally-known Lazaro Niebla’s stunning bas-relief portraits carved out of wood (www.lazaroniebla.com).
The late morning temperature was turning oppressive and we sought the air-conditioned confines of Bar Frio. There, the jovial bartender revealed the secret of making canchanchara, a drink introduced by African slaves in the late 1800s. The bartender went to great length to blend the sugar cane juice, honey, lemon and rum. A different legacy of Afro-Cuban origin is santería, a religious practice introduced during the influx of Lucumí slaves from Nigeria. In Trinidad, the Templo Yemalla, site of regular santería ceremonies, displayed various facets of this syncretic religion which combines elements of Yoruba and Catholic practices. Inside the foyer, an array of offerings lay at the feet of a black virgin attired in royal cape and crown, and cradling a white skinned baby Jesus.
Trinidad abounds in souvenir shops where foreigners can spend convertible pesos or CUCs. Cubans, however, must use local Cuban pesos. Their limited purchasing power was apparent when we stood before a counter dispensing stacks of “la libreta”, government-subsidized ration books. The monthly allotment coupons detailed the amount of rice, pasta, eggs, coffee, salt, sugar, oil, beans, matches, and of course, cigars, for each family. Rations usually last about 10 days out of every month. The rest of the time, most Cubans resort to bartering or purchasing necessities on the black market.
One daily activity in Trinidad is to while away the time on the steps of La Casa de la Musica sipping mojitos and listening to live music. Dancing erupted around the plaza soon after sunset, and a strikingly tall black-skinned woman in an immaculate chef’s jacket approached each table. “Would you like to try my gratin of seafood?” asked the imposing chef whose toque towered over our table.
The cooking class at Casa de Tonia, a private home converted to a casa particular, dispelled the memory of the previous evening’s lackluster gratin! Our professional chef/instructor Eduardo, flanked by an English translator, demonstrated the art of cocina criolla using his grandmother’s recipes. For two hours, he directed us as we sliced and diced ingredients in his small and well-appointed kitchen. In no time, we turned out fufu de plátano, a plantain puree mixed with pork fat and pork rind, sopa de frijoles colorados flavored with a mild sofrito pureed peppers, and much more. Most instructive was his use of latitas, empty cans of sweet condensed milk instead of a measuring cup. (So was the ingredients list that called for “chicken bottoms” instead of chicken thighs!) Our cooking completed, we retreated to the far end of the patio, around a massive table set with crystal and china. When we remarked on the ubiquity of Moros y Cristianos, instructor and staff burst out laughing: “El frijol se le hace diario en Cuba!” (In Cuba, we make beans every day!)
Trinidad once was a hotbed of revolutionaries. So were the jungle lined hills of Valle de los Ingenios, which we explored during our excursion to Topes de Collantes and Parque Guayanara national park. Our hike took us deep into the lush greenery, to the exuberant Salto de Caburni waterfall and the frigid waters of a popular swimming hole. For this senior citizen (albeit in good shape) hiking downhill to the falls, then climbing up again, necessitated more effort than my daily exercise routine! Luckily, Carlos had planned a restorative stop at a nearby family-run coffee plantation. After my first shot of potrerito—a Cuban espresso spiked with rum, lemon juice, and honey, I was ready to climb mountains! There was no need, for our next stop was Carlos’ family farm, a compound consisting of housing for his 11 family members, as well as a vegetable garden and small orchard. Our host proudly showed off a pig pen and a chicken coop. ““We have to grow our own food. That’s how we survive,” he explained. Lunch with his extended family turned out to be a highlight of our stay.
We had planned to spend our last night at Casa Carlos y Oralia. On the way back to Havana the Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara Sculptural Complex in Santa Clara was a requisite stop. The memorial houses the remains of this longtime friend of Fidel Castro’s and one of Cuba’s preeminent revolutionaries. A youthful uniformed guard was all smiles when we invited him to pose alongside us. Carlos’ last requisite stop was at Los Martinez, a thriving family restaurant by the roadside: “These people know how to make a Cubano sandwich,” he proclaimed, as we bit into our warm roll filled with warm shredded pork and sliced ham smothered in melted Swiss cheese and fresh pickles, and sipped goblets of fresh guava juice. Our guide was right once again.
Carlos Eire’s book “Waiting for Snow in Havana” describes how the author’s favorite pastime as a young boy was to have his father drive through the waves crashing onto the Malecon. Susan had expressed her wish to do the same. On our last evening in Havana, we joined a crowd of ebullient young Cubans running through the waves along the promenade. Drenched and happy, my freind and I could leave Havana having fulfilled our own “fantasia”.
Kitty Morse is the author of 10 cookbooks, and a staff writer for Wine Dine and Travel.
Susan McBeth is the founder and president of Adventures by the Book (www.adventuresbythebook.com) and Novel Network (www.novelnetwork.com)
Kitty Morse, author, publisher
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