Santiago de Cuba – The Melting Pot

We had an early morning breakfast at the hotel, which consisted of a large spread of tropical fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs/ omelet’s (made to order), several different kinds of juices, a variety of meats, and the wonderful Baracoan cacao that we had learned about the previous day. I was still a bit full from the eating frenzy the day before, but just had to try the fabulous looking fruit – especially the pineapple and the mangos. Interestingly enough, I have always LIKED these fruits but never LOVED them until my visit to Cuba. I wonder if the amazingly flavorful fruit has anything to do with the organic farming methods used in Cuba and/or the fact that fruit is not picked before it is ripe (which occurs more often than not in the US). In any event, the San Felipe mango, native to Cuba will always have a special place in my heart… I think I ate at least 2 per day for the duration of my journey.

Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba (~250km)

Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba (~250km)

Our plan for the day included an 8AM departure for Santiago de Cuba, which is approximately 250km away from Baracoa, lunch in Santiago de Cuba, and visits to the Jesuit Delores College (where Fidel Castro was educated), and the Carnival Museum, to name a few.

ALTO DE COTILLA

We made a quick stop en route from Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba to enjoy the beautiful scenery at Alto de Cotilla. And BEAUTIFUL, it was! I LOVE being in the mountains and having a view of the ocean (Caribbean Sea) in the background as it reminds me of the Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I am a bit biased, but as a nature junkie, I think the Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais are a few of the most beautiful US offerings).

sights... NATURAL Beauty...

sights… NATURAL Beauty…

We encountered a few of the local merchants who walk or ride their bikes to the top of the mountain in hopes of selling their goods to any passerby who stop to enjoy the view. One such merchant was selling soursop, a tropical fruit that tastes like a combination of strawberries, bananas, pineapples, and coconut but with a somewhat chewy texture. I had never eaten soursop before and the merchant insisted that I sample it. Although this fruit is loved by many, I can honestly say, it is not my favorite… There were also a few merchants peddling sugar cane and chocolate bars – both milk and dark.

This was our first experience with both the local (Moneda Nacional = CUP) and tourist currencies (Cuban Convertible Peso = CUC), which have a considerable difference in value (1 CUC = ~20-25 CUP). Thank goodness we had someone traveling with us who could easily tell the difference between the two, and was able to assist some of our fellow travelers with their fruit and chocolate purchases.  Unfortunately, there is sizable risk when purchasing goods/services outside touristy areas as most locals do not have access to the tourist currency (CUC) and cannot make change, or make change ignoring the value difference between the currencies (sometimes intentionally).

GUANTÁNAMO

We crossed thru the Guantánamo Province very close to the United States Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, which houses the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center (also known as G-Bay or Gitmo), the closing of which remains a highly controversial topic around the world. (Although the US has muddy diplomatic relations with Cuba – at best – the US still leases space on the island). We were able to catch a glimpse of the fence surrounding the naval base. Unfortunately it is prohibited to stop anywhere near the base.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA

We made a quick stop for lunch at the Café Matamoros before wandering the streets of Santiago de Cuba, the 2nd largest city in Cuba. After having such wonderful meals in the village of Guirito and at El Poeta paladar in Baracoa, I was less than impressed with the food at Café Matamoros, a state-owned eatery. (Most eating establishments in Cuba are government-owned, and although nice, generally lack in the variety and quality of food that they serve). Probably not a fair comparison…government vs. private ownership… My taste buds will mostly likely always choose to eat in a paladar. (A paladar is a private home that sells meals or a privately owned very small restaurant (limited to serving between 12 and 20 people). Paladares became legal to operate in Cuba in the early to mid 1990s, but have a whole bevy of restrictions).

sights... Cuba’s black and white

sights… Cuba’s black and white

On our quick walk from the Plaza Delores, a square in the city center, to the Jesuit Delores College, where Fidel Castro did his schooling in his early years, we were immediately greeted by musicians with matching, bright-colored shirts playing lively Caribbean music. Seniors and mother’s with their young children were relaxing on park benches under the shade trees. Street vendors lined the roads peddling their wares. The streets were also filled with pedestrians, bicyclists, and taxi cab drivers zipping from here to there. The streets were so alive! Santiago de Cuba definitely had more of a BIG CITY feel.

The racial makeup of the people is noticeably different in Santiago de Cuba vs. Baracoa. I could certainly see the mix of African, Spanish, French, Haitian, and Jamaican influences in not only the people, but also in the music, art, architecture, etc. For whatever reason, I did not expect Santiago de Cuba to be as racially and culturally diverse as it was… The myriad of sights, sounds, tastes, scents, etc. contributes to my LOVE of Cuba.

Although our local guide had pre-arranged for our tour of the Jesuit Delores College, upon arrival, we were only allowed to visit a very small hallway containing pictures of Fidel and Raúl Castro from their early years. We were told repeatedly that the taking of photos was strictly prohibited and watched like hawks by two staff members throughout our very quick visit. The cancellation of our tour was somewhat disappointing but expected as we were warned many times prior to our departure of the US that our schedule was subject to change with little to no notice…

We then made our way to the Museo de Arte Colonial, built in 1516, and the home of Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conquistador and first Spanish governor of Cuba. We had a bit of a delay to the start of our tour and I immediately thought that it was going to get cut short. Surprisingly, our wait was because the museum curator, friends with our local guide, was coming in on his day off just so he could be our tour guide. Sweet! I then began to clue in that our local guide knew EVERYONE. Regardless of what village or city we journeyed to, he was approached with a big hug and even larger smile by no less than 3-4 people. The museum curator was so friendly, had a personality larger than life, and was quite witty. Although museums rarely keep my interest, he kept me quite entertained.

sights... sounds... BEAUTIFUL Faces! RHYTHMIC Beat

sights… sounds… BEAUTIFUL Faces! RHYTHMIC Beat

Next stop… the Museo del Carnaval. Santiago de Cuba has the island’s most important Carnaval traditions, and the Museo del Carnaval documents the history of Carnaval (from the 1600s) through photos, newspaper clippings, floats, costumes, and musical instruments. The costumes were quite impressive! Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the museum.  Afterwards, approximately 15 musicians and dancers put on quite a demo, showcasing beautiful costumes and  a variety of musical and rhythmic talents. If I ever get an opportunity to return to Cuba, I will try my best to schedule it during Santiago de Cuba’s Carnaval celebration in July.

After a full day of activities, we finally made it to our hotel, the Meliá Santiago de Cuba, which is quite a nice hotel. As I am somewhat of a foodie, it is of no surprise that my fondest memory of the hotel relates to just that… My dad and I had quite the dining experience! The La Casona dining room seats approximately 350 people, and is one of 4 formal restaurants on the property. There were COUNTLESS food stations throughout the dining hall, serving every kind of cuisine imaginable – AND each food station provided the ability to get food cooked to order. I knew my stomach was going to be a happy camper when I saw that the seafood station had 10+ different types of fish and just as many types of shellfish to choose from, all cooked to order, and the fruit station had a wide selection including mangos, papaya, passion fruit, pineapples, and guava – a few of my favorite tropicals. There were also vegetable, pasta, meat, poultry, bread, rice and grain, juice, and dessert stations – to name a few. Typically, I am not a huge fan of buffets, but I can honestly say the food was INCREDIBLE!

After spending 3 full days in Cuba, spanning 500+ km, and experiencing Holguín, Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, and the surrounding communities, Cuba has far exceeded my expectations. I cannot wait to see what the remainder of my journey entails.

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Ciudad Primera

Baracoa is a VERY BEAUTIFUL city located on the eastern tip of the Island. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a Spanish conquistador, in 1511, making it the oldest colonial city in the Americas (hence, the name, Ciudad Primera). It is somewhat remote and not the easiest place to travel to due to limited options – especially for US citizens traveling legally:

  • Plane – there are only 2 flights a week (on Sundays and Thursdays), but they are quite often delayed and/or cancelled with little to no notice. (We experienced this 1st hand as our British travel companion’s flight was cancelled, preventing him from meeting us at the Holguín airport and requiring him to take a taxi to Baracoa. I can only imagine how scary that must have been since most of his journey was after sundown… and I don’t think there are enough fireflies in Cuba to light the muddy, rock infested path to Baracoa… AND, according to him, his taxicab driver sped along like a bat out of hell…)
  • Bus – supposedly a public bus from Santiago de Cuba takes 4+ hours, depending on the weather and road conditions. (We took a chartered bus from Holguín, almost equidistant to Baracoa, and our journey took us ~7 hours, thanks to the lovely road conditions).
sights... sounds... smells... the beach SCENE

sights… sounds… smells… the beach SCENE

Since we arrived at our hotel VERY, VERY late the previous evening, I had not had the opportunity to check out my surroundings or even read the itinerary for the day – so that was my first priority. We stayed at the Hotel Porto Santo, which is located relatively close to downtown Baracoa. It is a decent hotel with a magnificent view of the Baracoa Bay. The staff was very accommodating, willing to do whatever necessary to make sure we enjoyed our visit. The hotel was perfect considering all I really cared about for this journey was that I had a decent place to sleep and bathe each day…

LEGAL TRAVEL TO CUBA FOR AMERICANS

We had a full day of activities scheduled including a visit to the Matachín Fort Municipal Museum, a cacao farm, and the village of Guirito, and dinner at a paladar. As a US citizen, we are legally allowed to travel to Cuba for cultural, educational, and/or humanitarian reasons, with a “People-to-People” license from the US Treasury Dept (Office of Foreign Assets Control – OFAC) and an approved visa. (We cannot legally travel to Cuba solely for tourism). A few select organizations hold the necessary “People-to-People” license allowing them to provide tours of Cuba (e.g. World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, People to People, National Geographic Expeditions, to name a few). The tours consist of activities that will promote cultural exchanges between Cubans and Americans, and provide little to no time for independent exploration. As tour participants, we must agree to comply with the detailed itinerary as well as retain all records from the trip for 5 years from the date of travel. According to the US Treasury Dept (Office of Foreign Assets Control – OFAC), we are “subject to daily spending limits and are prohibited from bringing any Cuban “souvenirs” or other goods into the United States, with the exception of information and informational materials. Civil and criminal penalties may result from a violation of the Regulations.” Oops… I brought back a few CDs from some of the musicians I met along the way and a pair of figurines carved out of wood only found in Cuba…

DOWNTOWN BARACOA

Our day began at the Museo Municipal del Fuerte Matachín (Matachín Fort Municipal Museum), which documents the history of Baracoa beginning with the first settlers, the Taïnos Indians, and including more recent events. Beyond that, I can’t tell you much about the visit as I spent most of the time playing with my camera trying to learn its features (as I am a very NEW, amateur photographer whose eyes gloss over when people mention words like aperture, shutter speed, white balance, etc.) and attempting to get a good candid shot of my father (who doesn’t really like to have his photo taken).

sights... sounds... smells...all GOOD!

sights… sounds… smells…all GOOD!

Unfortunately… fortunately my attention span is limited when it comes to museums and the like… Although I understand the importance of history, I would much rather be exploring the outdoors and meeting people – seeing, hearing, and experiencing their lives. At this point, I wasn’t quite sure what I had gotten myself into with the tour but knew that I could easily entertain myself for the duration of the trip – as long as I had my dad by my side and my camera.

Afterwards, we went on a walking tour of downtown Baracoa. I was so excited to walk the streets, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells that I could. The storefronts and residential dwellings were all painted bright colors – green, yellow, turquoise, salmon, etc. – reminiscent of the colors found in other Caribbean countries.

sights... sounds... smells... the city SCENE

sights… sounds… smells… the city SCENE

We walked along the malecón and caught a glimpse of several people relaxing on park benches watching the waves, children playing in the sand, and a young man bringing in his morning catch. It was so relaxing! There were quite a few residential dwellings right on the beach, but sadly, they were all quite dilapidated. Americans would pay top $$$ for beachfront property – especially in such a beautiful location.

We walked toward the city center and it was hustling and bustling with people. The streets were filled with pedestrians, bikers, bicitaxis (bicycle taxis), and horse drawn carriages. There were only a handful of brightly painted classic cars (taxicabs) visible on the road. It was business as usual with Cubans patiently waiting in queues… at the carnicería (butcher shop), the heladería (ice cream parlor), the panadería (bakery), banco (bank), etc. I did stumble upon one produce merchant who was open for business but was busy catching a nap…

sights... sounds... smells... the city SCENE

sights… sounds… smells… the city SCENE

Everyone was so friendly, and more than willing to engage in conversation with me. Unfortunately, my Spanish needs some work… We spent the remainder of our time in downtown Baracoa in the Parque de la Independencia lounging, listening to a musician play his maracas, and people watching. That was where I learned that (1) being called “mango” is a compliment as it is a slang word for a good-looking man or woman, and (2) cañandonga (cassia grandis in English), tastes somewhat like carob.

 

CACAO FARM

Our activities for the day also included a very informational visit to a cacao farm, which was very fitting as most of the chocolate in Cuba is grown and produced in Baracoa.

tastes... and it was very TASTY!

tastes… and it was very TASTY!

Although I have visited the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum in Köln, Germany and the Caillers-Nestlé factory in Broc, Switzerland to learn about the history and production of chocolate, this was the first time I actually got to see and taste cacao in its natural state. One of the farmers took the time to show us the fruit of a cacao tree, and the cacao beans that are found inside the “fruit” of the tree. (Cacao is the bean in its natural state; cocoa is what the beans are called once they have been cleaned, roasted and processed).

We were given the opportunity to taste a local delicacy – termites – and I eagerly obliged. The look on my father’s face was priceless when he saw me – his baby who hated food during my primary and secondary school years – tasting them… (It took moving away from the Midwest to attend a university in the desert Southwest to learn that I really only disliked Midwest food). Interestingly enough, termites taste like pepper. Although I love pepper, I am not sure if I would sprinkle termites on my food in the future…

The farm was very beautiful, with every kind of tropical fruit tree imaginable (mangos, pears – including a variety only found in Baracoa, pineapples, coconuts, a large assortment of bananas – from tiny yellow ones to large green ones, avocados, guavas, papayas, numerous varieties of plantains, etc). There were many roosters, hens, and chicks as well as cats and kittens scrambling around beneath the fruit trees and in the flower gardens. This place is a camera-toting, nature and travel junkie’s dream! I must have snapped at least a hundred photos of flowers, birds, fruit trees, roosters, etc. We even caught site of Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon or Tecororo, chirping away and nested fairly high in a tree.

sights... NATURAL Beauty...

sights… NATURAL Beauty…

Besides the fruit trees and the lovely flower gardens, there was a BEAUTIFUL German Shepherd puppy, named Leal, who caught my attention. (Leal means loyal in Spanish). He spent several hours “escorting” us around the farm, keeping within a few feet of his owner. After running circles around us throughout our visit, Leal finally found time to catch a snooze while we were discussing the 6-step cacao fermentation process with one of the farmers. At the end of our visit, we had the opportunity to sample the cacao. It was the BEST hot cocoa I have ever had, and I drank to my heart’s content.

ALMUERZO

Around lunchtime, we departed for Finca Rancho Toa to enjoy a relaxing meal and some music. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the pleasantly fragrant smell of roasting food. My mouth IMMEDIATELY began to water. Typically, I am not a huge fan of  pork, but the Cubans really know how to cook it! The meat was incredibly succulent and packed with flavor. It was accompanied by a multitude of other dishes – fresh fruits and vegetables, soup, mashed plantains, yucca (which is now my favorite root vegetable), bread, and followed by fresh coconut ice cream. I don’t think I have ever eaten this much food in one sitting – not even at Thanksgiving…

tastes... TASTY- quite the understatement!

tastes… TASTY- quite the understatement!

While we were busy filling our stomachs we were serenaded by a local Cuban band, Banda Tropical, who performed a few of their own songs but also played quite a few from the world famous Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban ensemble. I couldn’t have asked for a better day – to be on vacation… in the Caribbean… experiencing the people, music, art, food, and drinks of Cuba… with my father! The week prior, I was worried this trip wasn’t going to happen because (1) the aftermath of the Beyoncé & Jay-Z controversy, thanks to Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and (2) I had yet to receive my license, visa, or plane ticket to Cuba from our travel company. Thankfully, it all worked out!

THE VILLAGE OF GUIRITO

After a short journey, we reached the village of Guirito. The village residents are the last living descendants of the Taïnos Indians, who were the 1st inhabitants of Baracoa in the 1100s. They are such BEAUTIFUL people with very strong facial features. Their eyes really spoke to me…

sights... sounds... BEAUTIFUL Faces! RHYTHMIC Beat

sights… sounds… BEAUTIFUL Faces! RHYTHMIC Beat

The adult members of the village performed some of their native dances – adaptations of the Cuban son (el nengen and el kiriba), which is the root of contemporary salsa music today. I was introduced to so many new instruments that I had never seen before: marímbula, botijuela, claves, and güiro – granted I am not a musician. The music had such a beautiful rhythm… I was captivated by their dancing as their bodies flowed seamlessly with the beat. Meanwhile, the children sat around and watched us with very skeptical eyes.

sights... BEAUTIFUL Face!

sights… BEAUTIFUL Face!

I was quite surprised that everyone – including the youngsters – maintained such a solemn expression throughout most of our visit. One of the young boys loved having his photo taken and tried his best to keep my attention on him. It took quite some time of interacting with the older children to finally get them to crack a smile. The younger ones, no such luck… My favorite was a very shy little girl who just stared at me for more than an hour.

After their performance, a few of the adult women brought out all kinds of native dishes for us to try. The food just kept coming… I have absolutely no idea what I ate…or drank… Whatever we were served… It was FANTASTIC!

EL POETA PALADAR

Our evening plans included dining at one of Baracoa’s finest paladares – El Poeta (or O Poeta on Trip Advisor). A paladar is a private home that sells meals or a privately owned very small restaurant (limited to serving between 12 and 20 people). Paladares became legal to operate in Cuba in the early to mid 1990s, but have a whole host of restrictions.

sights... BEAUTIFUL Face!

sights… BEAUTIFUL Face!

Talk about an EXCEPTIONAL place! The owner of El Poeta, Pablo, catered to all our senses: sight… sound… smell… taste… and touch… Pablo, who is a poet, had a few young children that he mentors perform for us. The poetry is sung to music and is like a soap opera, lasting 15-20 minutes and with lots of drama. It was quite entertaining. A young boy, who had been playing outside, heard the music being played at El Poeta, and decided to come join the fun. He put on quite a show – clapping, singing, and dancing – until he realized that all eyes were on him…

Pablo and his family provided a FABULOUS banquet table of food consisting of lobster, shrimp, and other shellfish, a variety of vegetarian, chicken and meat entrees, and lots of other dishes native to Baracoa. Dessert consisted of a giant torte (with enough servings to feed 20) and freshly made chocolate ice cream with bits of cacao. It all looked, smelled, and tasted so good! Unfortunately, I was completely stuffed after all of the food I ate in the village of Guirito a few hours earlier, so I was only able to take a small taste of everything…

 sights... NATURAL Beauty...

sights… NATURAL Beauty…

After dinner, Pablo broke out the rum and sugar cane… That was when the fun really began. Somehow he managed to get my father to sit in a chair with his head back while Pablo poured Cuban rum and fresh sugar cane juice in his mouth. And, yes, I have it on record…

Once we had finished eating and drinking, Pablo had two special treats for us – (1) a ball of Baracoan pure cacao and (2) a viewing of his BEAUTIFUL pet snails. Polymita Picta, also known as the Cuban Land Snail or Painted Snail, are endemic to Cuba and inhabit the subtropical hardwood forests growing on the coastal plains and mountains of the Eastern end of Cuba. They are collected for their shells and are in danger of extinction. The owner of the paladar, Pablo, breeds them and releases them in the nearby Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

~~~~~ Although I have only been in the country for 2 days, I am beginning to understand why those who can travel here legally absolutely LOVE Cuba and holiday here frequently. The fabulous sights, sounds, tastes, and overall rhythm and energy make Baracoa a place I would definitely return to if travel to Cuba becomes legal for Americans (or I am able to secure another visa). Top of list for a future visit is the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s last “untouched” rainforests. Thanks to our local guide and our British travel companion (a former journalist, now travel junkie, who spends several months a year traveling throughout Cuba) we have been able to see and experience some of the relatively “untouched” parts of Baracoa and interact with their families and friends. Further, we are able to get 2 perspectives on everything, which has contributed to the AMAZING experience thus far!~~~~~

additional photos:

DOWNTOWN BARACOA, THE VILLAGE OF GUIRITO, ETC.

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Let the ADVENTURE begin!

Let the ADVENTURE begin!

Let the ADVENTURE begin!

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on this journey as I didn’t have the opportunity to do much research on Cuba before I departed. My only impressions were based on my basic knowledge of the US/Cuban relationship from history class many years back, a few conversations with European friends who had traveled there and LOVED it, a Nov 2012 National Geographic article, and a few conversations with fellow members of the World Affairs Council who had been there in previous months…

Getting thru immigration was much easier than I anticipated as a US citizen… only a few questions about where I was going to be staying throughout my visit and a quick photo. Although I love my country stamps, I was thankful that the immigration officer knew NOT to stamp my passport. (Even though I was travelling legally to Cuba, I did not want to have difficulties returning to the US, or issues with future travels).

FRANK PAÍS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

When I got to baggage claim, I had a déjà vu moment… The Frank País International Airport, in Holguín reminded me of when I had landed at the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco, Peru in December 2011. Both airports are relatively small and quiet, and look very, VERY similar. The big difference was once I walked outside and saw classic cars everywhere.

To walk the streets of Cuba one must go back in time… way back… Welcome to Holguín!

HOLGUÍN

The hour ride to downtown Holguín passed rather quickly as I was so caught up in taking it all in. Landscape-wise, I could have been in rural Arizona or even many cities in Mexico, with the notable difference being transport. The primary mode of transportation for most Cubans is walking, riding a bike, horse, or donkey, or catching a ride on a bicitaxi (bicycle taxi), or a horse/donkey/ox driven cart. BRAVE souls may take the bus, which look like old US army trucks covered with tarps that they squeeze into like sardines. There are quite a few classic cars (manufactured prior to 1950) on the streets but most are taxicabs (taken by European and Caribbean tourists) as most Cubans cannot afford to own a car.

sights…Urban Transport

sights…Urban Transport

We made a quick stop in downtown Holguín to eat lunch (at Restaurant 1720) and exchange money, before our VERY LONG journey to Baracoa. Standing in line at the bank is where I first learned of the Cuban national pastime of waiting in queues… I also directly felt the impact of the US/Cuba foreign policy… Americans cannot use credit or debit cards in Cuba because of the US/Cuba trade embargo, and must rely on cash. Although we are allowed to exchange American dollars into the tourist currency (CUCs – Cuban Convertible Peso), we are taxed a 10% penalty in addition to an exchange fee. Thus, many of us exchanged our American dollars into Canadian dollars prior to departing the US.

EN ROUTE TO BARACOA

Getting to Baracoa was quite a feat… The 3 hour route from Holguín to Moa consisted of a 2 lane, partially paved road shared by lots of donkey/horse/oxen driven carts, bikes (manual and motor), bicitaxis, pedestrians, roosters and chickens, goats, a few classic cars, an occasional stray dog, and two wild pigs. The countryside was rugged yet lush with vegetation and very beautiful. The 70km journey from Moa to Baracoa proved to be quite a challenge due to HORRIFIC road conditions (mostly mud and rocks). However, the picturesque Baracoa was well worth the very treacherous, extremely long, 4 hour drive from Moa.