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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.