Adios to the Land of the Palm Trees

I was down to my last few CUCs when Pedro dropped us off at the Arms Plaza. I used all but two of them to buy cigars for my friends back home. No problemo. I had enough USD’s to convert. I would simply head for the bank a couple blocks from our place and exchange them. Except, by the time I got to said bank, it was closed. Soon we were headed up Obrapia Street, where someone told us a bank would still be open. It was not.

The bank guard there told us there was a currency exchange a few blocks over. We went there. One look at the sad faces of those leaving told us something was not right. I approached the entrance window. The lady pointed to a large seated crowd of weary, forlorn tourists and said, “Dos horas”. Uh, two hours? No thanks.

Here is why I love TripAdvisor.  In their forums is all kinds of advice for sticky situations. In this case, the advice was to exchange currency at a hotel if all other options fail. We left this ship of the damned and soon found a very nice hotel and a clerk more than happy to see those USD’s. I ended up getting a better rate than at the bank.

So, now that I was solvent once again, it was time for some dinner.We headed back down Obrapia:


We had passed a number of places with outside dining and finally found one that looked appealing. We thought we would celebrate our last night in Cuba with a nice $8 tenderloin. We were quickly advised they were out. John settled on a lesser cut. I decided to go for the pasta. It didn’t take long to realize we had picked the wrong place:


That squiggly stuff on top is some kind of cheese. Sort of like Swiss. But not. John’s steak was not much better. How we missed Yelp!

In our younger days we might have taken advantage of our last night in Havana to party into the wee hours. But, considering that we would be leaving for the airport at 7:30 am and that our whirlwind three days had more than taken their toll, we decided instead to head for the Cathedral Plaza, light up a cigar and toast the city. It was a beautiful night.


I will say this about traveling with John Starr: In addition to his sparkling sense of humor, this is a guy who appreciates adventure and who has the rare ability to stay cool when situations arise that others might find, shall we say, unnerving. And how fine it is to meet such an old friend later, not to talk about the good old days, but but about what just happened. It is something rare in my experience.

When you visit a country whose leaders have hated your own country’s everlovin’ guts for more than a half century, you want to make sure all “i”s are dotted and”t”s are crossed before you get there. But even more important than getting into such a country is getting out.  Once again, TripAdvisor’s forum offered considerable reassurance, as many described how easy the process was.

So, all paper’s complete and readily available, we were ready to go by 6:30am. Our hostess made it clear that her customary luxurious breakfast would not be available at that hour, but she did have coffee ready, which was the critical issue. We had just been seated when she came in to advise us that our taxi to take us to the airport was already here. I went down with my Anywhere Cuba itinerary in hand and pointed out 7:30 to the driver. No problemo! Take your time. Well, we didn’t need much. The owner and her daughter helped us with our bags and soon we were waving goodbye and heading east.

There were no stops this time. We made it to the airport before 10 for a 1 pm flight. We pulled our bags into the main entrance of Maximo Gomez airport and looked to the right. There, lined up in front of maybe 5 or 6 all-purpose computer screens was a crowd of bleary-eyed lost souls waiting to be checked in. The room was about the size of a basketball court. Once again, TripAdvisor came to rescue. Just before we left, there was a post regarding the airport at Varadero, which reported that for 30 CUC’s you could buy VIP status at the airport to get out of the long lines.

Sure enough, directly ahead was a kiosk. They were selling something else, I forget what, but I went to the lady in charge and just said “VIP?” She said, “Wait a minute.” and off she goes. Soon she returns with a very professional looking woman who is holding a sign that read “VIP”. She confirmed the price and asked if we were interested. We both quickly agreed. In a twinkling she was escorting us past the soulless eyes of the throng, directly to a clerk sitting behind a computer screen. This was the line we had to pass through.The people in the background were doing something else:


The clerk studied my passport, then looked up at me. “Sir,” he said “I am afraid there’s going to be a problem.” My guts did a barrel roll. “Did you vote for Trump?” “No.” He started laughing. “OK, just checking. Ha Ha Ha” From that point on he cracked one joke after another, quite a hilarious guy. Not exactly the time or place for this particular routine, however.

We were offered free checked bags, but I kept mine. John checked his. The VIP lady showed up again and moved us to a special Passport Control window where we did not have to wait in line. She seemed to know everybody in the airport and whatever she asked for, she got. All to our benefit. Passport Control could not have been easier. They take your picture, you give them the second half of your visa, they scan your passport, stamp your visa, which they keep, they hand you back your passport and say, “Please come again soon!”

Security was just like TSA.

It only took maybe twenty minutes to go through all this, then the VIP lady comes again and escorts us to the VIP lounge. There, a very nice gentleman collected our thirty CUC’s and offered to make us a sandwich. He then pointed to the bar area and advised us that all drinks are free. They would make a Mojita for us, or whatever.  Plus they had all kinds of snacks. Since it was early in day, free orange juice and coffee were perfect and some sponge cakes held us over till he brought the sandwiches. Here is the lounge:



The place was only about a third full when we got there, and as flights were called the crowd diminished further. Soon it was just John and me. They had CNN on in English, so we finally got some details about the election.

The manager came around and invited us to take the escalator up to the second floor, where they have a bunch of shops in case we didn’t get enough souvenirs. I spent a few of my last CUC’s on some things, and went back to the lounge.

It turned out that our plane arrived on time, but since the airport has only four gates, they had to wait for a gate to open before we could board. It took about a half hour. Once again, the plane was about two-thirds full, so John and I could move around to window seats. We said our goodbyes to Cuba


In no time at all we were rolling into our gate in Miami. During the flight, US Customs came on the screen to advise us about the streamlined procedure for going through. Rather than fill out forms, all we had to do was scan our passports at one of a multitude of kiosks. When you do that all your flight info comes up, along with the form and some touch-screen check boxes.  Then it takes your picture and prints out a form to hand to the agent.

John passed right through customs. The guy stopped me and asked if I was bringing back anything. I said cigars. He asked how many. I told him. That was it. By then there were no restrictions on the number anyway, so I don’t even know why he asked. Probably just to pass the time.

Since we had already been screened in Cuba, TSA gave me a pre-check card to carry with me. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. That was it. We were back in the good ol’ US of A!!!

Well, people, there have been a few changes since that plane touched down on the terra firma. My original objective was to see Havana in the time of the Castros. Turns out we cut it pretty close.  Now, with Fidel about to head up the smokestack, and lots of armed people around,  personally I would hold off on visits for a while.

Cuba, in the time of the Castros held few real surprises. Wealth is not flaunted, but there is wealth among those with the guns. Mostly, there is poverty and this is in places of relative prosperity. It takes no imagination to envision life in the small villages across this huge island. One thing that was not a surprise, because it is legendary, is the vitality and good nature of the Cubans themselves. This is a warm and welcoming country that deserves much better than it got.

Once the way forward is clearer, it will be an island well worth visiting. When the time comes, I cannot recommend highly enough the services of Anywhere Cuba. You will know what you are paying for and the people you hire will deliver. And, if trouble arises, they’ve got your back. For Cuba, my hope is for better days ahead.

For those who follow this blog, if you are wondering what the hell ever happened to the tales of Italy, we are headed back there next. I got a little distracted this fall.

Hemingway in Cuba

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary left their home in Cuba in July of 1960 as he battled both illness and deep depression. They settled into their property in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley, where Ernest began treatment for his ills. But, the depression worsened and in July of 1961 he, like his father before him, killed himself.

Following Hemingway’s death, his wife Mary contacted the Cuban government regarding their home and was informed that the government had taken possession, as they had already done with billions of dollars of US assets. She was able to negotiate a return to pick up a few paintings, books and Hemingway’s manuscripts. Everything else was left behind.

The Hemingway property, like many other properties in Cuba suffered from years of neglect. But in 2007 they turned it into a museum and have kept it up ever since. This was the last tour of our trip.

Our guide, Pedro again, has had first hand knowledge of property rights in Cuba. As he tells the story, he once had a beautiful home by the sea. But, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which came in 1962, the government trumped up fear that Cuba itself would be invaded again. To provide security, the military took possession of homes strategically located, and his was one of them, he said, even then everybody knew there would not be an invasion. Somebody in the military wanted his home and they took it.

Now, we would have loved to hear more and to explore the feelings of the people regarding their government. But, this is the kind of conversation we were specifically advised to avoid. So, I said, tell us about Hemingway!

It was Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, who first found the property and persuaded him to rent it so she wouldn’t have to stay cooped up in the Havana hotel where he was writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. He finished most of that book in his new home and used part of the proceeds from the royalties to buy it. He named the home Finca Vigia, or “Lookout Farm” It is located in the little village of San Francisco de Paula, about 15 miles east of Havana.

When you first arrive there, you find an admission gate and then a short drive takes you to the tourist center, with two souvenir shops and a small bar.


This gentleman is crushing sugar cane for their rum drinks, which I found necessary to sample.


Then they have a nice shaded area to enjoy said rum drink, in which, believe me, they do not hold back on the rum.


From here we began the walking tour. The first buildings are these, which, at one time, were guest quarters for the less valued visitors. They are now offices for the property managers.


Past this, is Finca Vigia. Pedro agreed to pose for a photo op:


Visitors are not allowed to enter Hemingway’s home, but so much is visible from the outside, this is not really a problem except on a rainy day.


The main entrance:


The living room. For the day, this was a very open floor plan with lots of opportunities for breezes to move through the place.


This is the patio to the left of the entrance.


When you round the side of the house, there is a walkway that takes you to the pool.


Between the pool, and what used to be a tennis court are the graves of Hemingway’s favorite dogs.


Now, I have to tell you, people, I have been a Hemingway fan since my college days and, also being somewhat of a seafarer, I have long been fascinated by his adventures on his boat, the Pilar. I had once read an article that described this beautiful boat as rotting at its moorings due to neglect and so, had assumed it had long ago gone the way of hundreds of thousands of wooden boats and simply wasted away. Imagine my surprise, when I look up and there, where the tennis court had been, was the Pilar, meticulously restored to its former glory!



As you can see, it still has Papa’s fishing chair and everything just as it was.


Imagine Hemingway sitting right there, hauling in a big one!




She was equipped with downriggers on the side. This is what she looked like under power.

EH6956P Ernest Hemingway aboard the Pilar. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.




After returning from the pool area, more of the house was open. This is the same living room from the opposite end. You will note a large collection of bottles of booze next to the chair. Hemingway was an alcoholic’s alcoholic, rarely drawing a sober breath, even while working.


A study…


This was the Hemingway’s main bedroom, not nearly as grand as in his home in Key West.


Barely visible in the background is Hemingway’s typewriter. Having survived two plane crashes, shrapnel from the war, and numerous other serious injuries over his life, he found it difficult to remain seated for any length of time. Often he would write standing up. In this home he would not only finish For Whom the Bell Tolls, but also The Old Man and the Sea.Hemingway typed with just his index fingers.


His office


Shooting supplies on the desk.


This was a storage room off the kitchen.


Apparently, notebooks were in short supply. He recorded his daily weight on the wall.


An original Picasso hangs near the study


This is the guest room for those with more favored status:


The dining area:


Martha and Ernest formally purchased the property in 1940. In 1945 they divorced. Ernest kept the place and Mary, his fourth and final wife eventually moved in after divorcing her husband back in the States.

In time, she hit upon the idea that Ernest needed a separate work room with a view of Havana. He must have agreed in principle since she could hardly keep it a secret. However, he rarely used it, instead turning it over to their large family of cats.


Today, if you choose to climb it, his office has been restored.


And, the view of Havana is spectacular!


There is also a lady up there who will take your picture. A small tip is appreciated. In the doorway is the loser of the Hemingway look-alike contest, prepared to write his memoirs.


Typically, most tours would have ended here. But, Pedro had a special surprise in store!  A trip to Cojimar.

In Hemingway’s day, Cojimar was a small fishing village, about a 15 minute drive from Finca Vigia. In fiction, it is the village in The Old Man and the Sea where Santiago lives. In real life, it is where the Pilar was moored. At the heart of Cojimar is, as you might imagine, is a bar called La Terazza de Cohimar, Hemingway’s favorite when he was in town.


To walk into La Terazza is to walk into the ’50’s. It is spotlessly clean with wood paneling and gorgeous views out all the windows.


A lot of Hemingway-related art is displayed including this picture of the Pilar moored next to the Cojimar Tower.


Here is the tower as it is today. Built in 1646, it was designed to keep invaders from going up the Almendares River into Havana.


Here are some other Hemingway pictures on display.


At one point, Hemingway sponsored a fishing tournament. Fidel won the tournament, although our guide maintained that Hemingway actually caught the fish and gave it to Fidel to claim the prize. i find no other record supporting that view.


I later found a picture of Fidel and Che Guevarra fishing in the tournament. A little different look from the typical revolutionary pose. .


This is the view outside of La Terazza, where boats would have been moored.


Near the Tower is a statue of Hemingway, so Pedro took us down there. This young man started working John for a few pesos shortly after we got out of the car.


Cohimar is in a beautiful setting, but is in no better state of repair than any other part of Havana. There are winners. There are losers. The story of Cuba in a nutshell.

Art in Habana

The fort called Morrow Castle, at the entrance of Havana harbor was mostly for show. The real fort, that actually defended the harbor, is right behind it and is called Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña.


It was built because the Spanish, after they had plundered gold from much of South and Central America, brought it here to redistribute among their ships for the long haul back to Spain. As you might imagine, pirates of the Caribbean, not including Johnny Depp, took a keen interest in these proceedings and were happy to come into the harbor, guns ablazin’, to steal that gold. The Spanish, not amused, built the Castillo, which is huge and which once had hundreds of cannons bristling out of it. The pirates decided to take their trade elsewhere.

Over time, with the threat of piracy gone, the fort became a garrison for Spanish soldiers. One of the routines of the day of the was to signal the opening and closing of the gate into Havana, which, at that time was a walled city. They would fire it once at 4:30 am to signal the opening, and once at night to signal the closing. Over time, they developed a ritual for to process, which takes about a half hour. Today, the ritual is enacted daily at 9:00pm and generally draws a large crowd. This was to be our second tour and we were to meet Pedro at 7:45.

Unfortunately, we had trouble with an order for dinner at the Plaza Cathedral. I ended up wolfing down the dinner and actually jogging, not running, across the plaza and down the street to meet Pedro. John followed close behind. Pedro assured us we would still make it in time, but since I had four locks to deal with and also because it was now dark, I decided I would leave the camera in the room. I was sure somebody would have posted it on You-Tube. Sure enough, here it is. It runs about 5 minutes and may not be of interest, but it was a cool ceremony and when they finally fire the cannon, you can hear the shot echo back from the city.

Pedro is about our age and in roughly the same condition. Whenever we would ask a question he would stop to answer it. Considering there was a deadline to meet, we learned to save the questions till after the event. To his credit, he paid a couple extra pesos so we could go up to the top tier for a better view. This was much better than trying to watch through the large crowd.

We were transported to the event by taxi. The driver waited for us. He told us where to meet him, which was near a small food vendor. Pedro ordered dinner for himself and his driver. John and I picked up the tab, which they really appreciated. We got off to a good start with Pedro, which was good because we would see him again tomorrow.

We did not get back till after 10 and we both agreed we had had enough. That night was the best sleep I had in Cuba.

Our next tour was not to start till 9:30 am, so that gave us some time to freshen up and to get some breakfast. Here is the breakfast served at the Casa Venezia:We were each given this fruit plate, which included a couple items I did not recognize. Guava was apparently one of them. It was all yummy.


Then, an omelet. The juice was a smoothie of some kind. All delicious!


Our next tour was to be our choice from among a variety of museums. When we met our guide, Eduardo, however, he strongly recommended the art museum. It would have been our choice anyhow. Here is Eduardo with John:


Our first impression was, they have sent a boy to do a man’s job. Not so. First, he had exceptional command of English, which he learned, he told us, because his sister could speak English and whenever she would gossip with her friends, they would use English as their secret language. He learned it to eavesdrop. Then, we learned he is a PhD candidate in cinematography with extensive training in the arts. And then we learned that this was his first tour, so to make it the best possible experience for us, he had come to the museum the day before to take extensive notes on the works we would be seeing. We were sold!

Well, the Museum of Belle Arts is located in central Havana, a long hike from our home. Many of the streets are brick and the sidewalks are narrow:


Considering the vehicle traffic, the three-wheeled bicycles which make little noise, and other traffic a person could easily get whacked if they stray to far from the sidewalk.

Eduardo took us through several neighborhoods and along the way we passed La Floridita, one of Hemmingway’s famous watering holes.


Clearly, we were in a much more upscale neighborhood, and yet you had only to look past La Florida to see the problem that plagues virtually all of Havana, a rapidly accelerating urban decay.


Still, where capital was available, it could be beautiful again!



At last, we were at the National Museum of Belle Arts.


I brought my camera and asked Eduardo if it was OK to take pictures. “Sure, no problem” So, here is how the place is laid out:


It covers three very large floors and begins chronologically with works beginning in the colonial period and ending post-revolution. The tour lasted over three hours and we could have stayed longer.

When the Spanish arrived in 1492, the first order of business was to enslave the native population, which wasn’t all that numerous to begin with. In a few short years, however, the natives were gone, having been wiped out by diseases against which they had no defense, coupled with the kind treatment they received at the hands of the conquistadors.

With no slaves around, the Spanish did what everybody did back in those days. They went to Africa and got more. Over time, it became apparent to the colonists that some of their slaves had special talents, including the graphic arts. Arrangements were made to import paints and canvasses and soon some of the slaves were given enough training to paint their masters. The one thing no one could teach them, however, was how to paint hands, which is a special skill. For this reason, most of the slave paintings are from the chest up. Naturally, not one slave was ever given credit for their work, so this is what you get:



Apparently, all the slave painters had the same last name, “Anonimo”. What are the odds?

The next evolution of art centered on realism and the painting of landscapes.


Here is a painting depicting the Had Dance, in which young men, wishing to dance with a certain lady would throw their hats near her. If she picked it up, it was game on!


But it did not take long before those boundaries were pushed out.


Then came the introduction of symbolism and figures from Cuban mythology. (Who knew there even was a Cuban mythology?)

In this painting by Jose Mena, called “The White Flower” you see the young lady at the crossroads between the ways of evil on the right and righteousness on the left.


In the painting of the couple below, they are together, but each wants more. Good luck!


It was at this point that approximately 15,000 guards, in unison, shouted “NO PHOTO!” From then on, it was cat and mouse, but the mouse lost repeatedly as guards seemed to come out of the very woodwork. Fortunately, the best paintings can be found on line.

For example, before Picaso became Picaso, here is an example of one of his early portraits:

Image result for early picasso portraits

Well, before Wilfredo Lam became Wilfredo Lam, here is an example of his early portraits.


Here is Lam’s later work, called “A Seated Woman”


Each of the markings is a symbol. Call Eduardo. He’ll gladly tell you what they are.

One of the more interesting painters exhibited at the museum is Carlos Enriquez Gomez. His most famous painting is on display, “The Rape of the Mulattos”


Actually, it is more of a kidnapping and is sometimes translated that way. The colors, the ghost-like images, the  power of the figures, this is a painting you remember long after you are heading home. It is based on the “Rape of the Sabine Women” painted by several Italian artists, which we’ll take a look at when this blog finally switches back to Italy.

Eduardo saved the best for last, though. The painting, “La Gitana Tropical” (The Tropical Gypsy), by Victor Manuel Garcia. She is the Cuban “Mona Lisa”.





Cruisin’ Habana

Following the revolution, Cubans were banned from buying foreign cars, especially US cars. Over 150,000 US cars remain, frozen in time. Now, many are used as taxi’s.


For our tour, we were treated to a ride in a 1950 Chevy convertible. It showed its age, but was still a very fine ride:

The nice thing about our tour guide was that he was willing to let any clown sit behind the wheel!


Now, I’m going to show you lots of pictures from this tour, but they don’t compare to the actual experience. Wanna come along? Here we go! (video)

Perhaps you noticed how, after you leave the immediate area of the Capitolio, things take a sudden and dramatic downhill turn. It’s not that public projects aren’t happening. It is that the need is so overwhelming it seems impossible to keep up.

The first part of our tour took us around the harbor area. This stature of Jesus, made of Carrara marble, is said to be the largest in the hemisphere, bigger than the more famous one in Rio. dscf5948

In the days before the revolution, Fulgencio Batista made a personal fortune through his association with organized crime. Casinos, prostitution and drugs brought him millions. His most famous partners in crime were Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Meyer had been kicked out of the US and deported to Sicily, but found it difficult to manage US operations from there, so he secretly re-located to Cuba. There he found a warm welcome from Batista and soon casinos were springing up all over the place. It was from this home that Lansky and the other bosses from the US would routinely meet to divide up their cash.

It is said that when Batista was finally driven out of Cuba and into exile first, in the Dominican Republic and later, Portugal. he had over $300 million USD’s at his disposal plus much more stashed here and there.


Cubans, particularly our guides, all mark time from the revolution. While there are reminders everywhere, they now seem to be fading. Most often you will see a likeness of Che Guevara, almost never will you see a likeness of Fidel. Or, at least we didn’t.


Our first stop was in the heart of Havana at the Plaza of the Revolution. Some familiar sights can be found there:


And, if you are looking for a taxi, well here you go!


This is the National Theater of Cuba, absolutely gorgeous. Obama spoke here during his visit.


Below is a statue of Jose Marti, best remembered here as the leader of revolt against Spanish rule, which did not end until the turn of the twentieth century with the Spanish-American War. Marti was killed in battle in 1895. For Americans who have heard of him, though, he is remembered, not as a revolutionary, but as a poet. He spent a considerable amount of time in the US and became ill. He went to a small town in the Catskills to recover. While there he wrote a book of poems called “Singular Verses”. Some of the lines in this book were made famous by Pete Seeger in the song “Guantanamera”. Here are some of the other lines, his hope for his homeland:

I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his hand frankly
And for the cruel person
who tears out the heart with which I live,
I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns:
I cultivate a white rose.

Sadly, even for such a remarkable man, you find idiot tourists wanting to share the spotlight.


Part of the plaza is a park:


The Capitolio is undergoing renovation. Once the seat of government before the revolution, it now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences.


Next, Havana’s Chinatown. Chinese immigrants came here in the 19th century seeking prosperity. They did not find it. Over time, however, substantial inter-marriage occurred so that now it is uncommon to fine a person purely Chinese.


This is the entrance to the University of Havana. Quiet now, in the days before the revolution this became the center of protests against Batista. He closed the university in 1956, rounded up student leaders and had them publicly executed. The university remained closed until the revolution.


Following the revolution Che Guevara, among other duties, served as Minister of Industries. One of the government buildings displays his likeness.


Across from the government buildings is an obelisk in memory of Jose Marti.


Not far from this area we came upon these walls.


Inside them you will find the graves of over two million people, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It even has streets and blocks. At one time, the remains of Christopher Columbus were buried here.


Next we stopped at a beautiful park, called Isla Josephina. The Almonderes River flows through it.


A very pastoral setting, great place for a picnic.


Except, there is trash everywhere


Beautiful forests.


But, somebody needs to clean this place up. And, keep it clean. What a shame.


Next stop, John Lennon Park. After the revolution, the music of the Beatles, and many others, was banned for promoting drugs and an objectionable lifestyle. Later, though, no doubt under some pressure, they realized that the Beatles were preaching peace and love. To atone for their mistake, they created John Lennon park.


Unfortunately, after this statue was put in place, people kept stealing his glasses. For a couple years they were replaced, but finally the park managers just gave up. Our guide told us this story and then said that a little old lady, who was standing nearby, had taken it upon herself to make sure John always had glasses. I asked him to ask her in Spanish if she would be willing to sit with us while the guide took our picture. Apparently, few, if any, had ever asked her. She was reluctant at first, but then sat down with us. While we were sitting there, she gave me a big kiss on the cheek. The guide missed that shot, however. John Starr gave her a tip as well. We made her day, and she made ours!


Here is a view of the Havana skyline. No skyscrapers, that’s for sure.


In the Old Town we found this mural, featuring prominent Cubans throughout history.


The figures, though, were made of acrylic and sand.



At one end of the Arms Square is the building from which the Spanish used to govern the country. Apparently, one of the countesses who moved in, took exception the clip-clop of horses and rumbling of heavy carts on the stone pavement outside her window.


So, in true countess fashion, she had the stone paving replaced with wood to make things quieter, a tradition which continues to this day.


This building houses, among many other things, a currency exchange. Notice anything unusual?


Each floor is built a different height, apparently a trade-mark of the designer.


And, we encountered the statues in the square. One is a statue, the other is an actor.


Near the Plaza Viejo we encountered this hotel, now completely gutted. Renovation is underway at a cost, no doubt in the millions. Good luck!


At last, it was time to say farewell to our first guide, Luis. What a great introduction to Havana this was! In a few hours, our next tour would begin. In the meantime, a little dinner on the Plaza Cathedral was just the thing!



Around the ‘Hood

Havana is a city of 2.1 million people. The Old Town begins at the city’s harbor and appears to end roughly at the Capitol Building.


The red X marks the location of Casa Venezia, our Casa Particular. We didn’t realize it at the time but Oficios street, where we were,  is a primary connecting street for all of the Old Town.


Since we had some time before the first tour, we decided to get lunch and check out the area. Right around the corner, toward the docks, we had passed a nice looking restaurant. Soon we were settled in. It didn’t take long for the music to start.


At almost every restaurant we visited, live music was part of the experience. And, these people were excellent musicians. For a few pesos, well worth it. The food was also quite good and very reasonably priced. About 8 USD’s will get an excellent meal in Cuba.


The lobster is not from Maine. Still tasty but a little, shall we say, firm.


After lunch we checked out the neighborhood. We soon found that three large plazas were within easy walking distance. The first was the Cathedral Square:




Nice place! However, as we approached the square I saw, hovering near the entrance, several ladies all dressed up in their dance hall finery. The oldest trick in the tourist book. John was a little behind me when I blew past those women. Then I knew that, just like a calf in a buffalo herd, the wolves had gotten him. Sure enough:


To his credit, he was able to talk them down from their original exorbitant asking price to just a few CUC’s. It was hard bargaining. All in all, a small price to pay for the Cuban Tourist Education Program.

Later in our travels we encountered one of several tour groups. None were American. Many were Canadian. Judging from the flight board at the airport, about a third of all air traffic was from Canada, about a third from Europe. The rest were Middle East and Africa and one American. Us. It appears there are strong ties between Canada and Cuba. You would think they would be investing, but I imagine the commies have some kind of issue. Who knows?


We then went up one of the streets leading to the Capitol building. These were busy, lively places to go.


Then to the Plaza Vieja.


This is a plaza surrounded by nice shops and some homes. Since Cubans can now own property, if they can’t afford to pay for the entire cost they are able to set up businesses, like this upstairs cafe’.


Also, along the way, we passed multitudes of street vendors, all declaring their friendship with us:


After the Spanish were driven off the island, there turned out to be an excess of cannons. At first, nobody could figure out what to do with them. Then somebody had the bright idea of using them to close off streets to traffic. Worked like a charm! But, when it’s time for street repair, they have to come up:


Not often you see a bunch of cannons laying around. And these are real, too!

At the Plaza Veija there is a famous work of art called “The Power of Women Over Men” There is, of course, the fork. The rest is self-explanatory:


By the time we had taken in all these sights, we had wandered somewhat far from our home. We had to be back there by 2:00 for our first tour. Since it was now quite a hike, we decided to hire a tri-cycle with a very cozy seat. Off we went. When we pulled up to our place the guide was already waiting. The driver charged us 40 CUC’s, which was an outrage. Here is a classic blunder: Always set the price BEFORE you go. We had to cough it up. To our credit, this was the only time we got snookered down there, although many tried. So, it was a better track record than usual.





On the Road to Habana

On the whole, the Cuban people are poor, with the average wage per month being about $19 USD’s, according to Wikipedia, or 466 CUPs.  About 80% of the people are employed by the government. Only recently has there even been a private sector, which is now the other 20%. There are no traffic jams because few have cars. There are no yachts in the harbor because there are no rich. Or, there is no ostentation. Interestingly, one of the guides told us, and other confirmed, no one knows where Fidel and Raul Castro live. They just show up for work. They are said to live among the people, in true commie fashion. Uh-huh. They probably don’t have any Caribbean bank accounts either.

On our trip from Varadero to Havana we saw many examples of what daily life is like for the Cubans. Here is a guy on his way to work. It is Wednesday, not Monday. That says it all.


More likely you will see groups of say, 50 or so waiting along the road for the next bus. The buses are often tandem, two buses being pulled by one. My guess is, the AC, even if it works, fails to meet the demand on a hot summer day. In addition to the buses you will often see another form of transportation, the dump truck:


Some dump trucks are even fit out with seats, possibly folding chairs. All this for a subsistence wage. It is said the people in the countryside are even poorer.

The road into Havana is four lanes all the way and well-maintained with flowers and well-tended plants in the median. We would often see workers with machete’s knocking down weeds. Clearly the idea is for foreigners to have a pleasant journey, which it was.

About half way to Havana, we passed through the port city of Matanzas. In typical Cuban fashion there were palaces next to dilapidation


A high-rise apartment.


A nice area near the harbor.


Not far from Matanzas we came upon this. The cloud extended out into the ocean as far as the eye could see:


In time the driver stopped for a much-needed break at this small observation area:


As usual, somebody was selling something:


Plus they had yet another band of musicians. And trinkets galore.


Or, you could just look at the scenery, which is what the stop is actually for!


Soon we were on the outskirts of Havana:


To get into the city, you have to go through a tunnel which takes you under the harbor.


When you come out on the other side, the fist thing you see is Morrow Castle, the only landmark I knew in Cuba:


We wound our way along the harbor for a brief time, then the driver turned down some side streets. Soon we were winding our way through very narrow, bustling streets of Old Havana.





There were some condition issues with the streets and some of the properties, but on the whole this was a lively and colorful part of the city. In time, the driver stopped at a corner. “This is it,” he said in broken English. We looked around. There was a door standing open that led into a small, I guess “courtyard” is the word, but it was more like an alleyway inside the building, painted green. A couple of stories up a woman yelled down for us to go inside. In we went.


We wound our way through a kind of passageway:


Under those steps you see in the background. Then into an open area:


When we got to these gates, the owner’s daughter was there to greet us and hand us each a set of four keys we would need to get our room. Experience tells me that this is about three keys too many. Up we go.


And go….


And go. Note the bottom step in the picture below. It is about three inches higher than all the others at every level. I took its picture because John and I tripped over it every time we went up there, which was often.


It was a hike, people! Theresa, Rich and Dianne Stoner will remember one much like it a little farther north.


At last we were in our new home! And, in spite of tight, and I mean TIGHT security, and the considerable cardiovascular test that was administered, we absolutely loved this place!


The room was basic, but had a great AC. John’s had two twin beds.


A common bath, but immaculately clean. Hot water was in short supply, however. Just like in Varadero.


The dining area, where they served a terrific breakfast.


An immaculate kitchen, which in pleasant Spanish we were invited to keep the hell out of.


And a very nice living room, tastefully appointed.


This is certainly better than we expected, given the locale. We had time to freshen up, and look around the hood before our first tour.




Cuba, 2016

In 1959, when I was eleven years old, the commies took over Cuba. With that takeover, and everything that went on after, it looked like I would never see the day when the doors would open to Americans. That is, till this year. Following a series of sweeping reforms,  a path is now open.

For years, I have discussed with friends how we might get over there. Now, all of a sudden, here it was. And, there was no better time, since we would already be in Florida for the twenty-year anniversary of our first visit to Key West that I posted earlier. And, while everyone in our party considered it, only I and one other, John Starr, actually decided to go through with it. Dianne had no particular interest in this experience.

Serious planning for this trip began around the end of May. Last year, Dianne and I visited Costa Rica and on this trip all the planning and arrangements were accomplished through the assistance of a tremendous organization called “Anywhere Costa Rica”. I was pleased to discover that they had just opened up an office in Havana called “Anywhere Cuba”. I contacted them right away, and just like in Costa Rica, they were outstanding to work with.

At this time it is not possible to go to Cuba as a tourist. You have to plan your travel to meet one of the twelve approved reasons for going. The category we chose was the “People to People Travel” which focuses on interaction with the Cuban people through planned activities. These activities were set up by “Anywhere Cuba”, and there were plenty of them. Anyone who has followed this blog already knows that these kinds of exchanges, more than just sightseeing, are the reason we like to travel in the first place.

Although all this sounds simple, there were a lot of details to work out which I won’t go into on this blog. If you are seriously considering doing this yourself, contact me directly and I will provide you with links and budget info. It is not extremely expensive, but not cheap either.

The purpose of our trip, in addition to interacting with the people, was to see Havana before we Americans come in with our Yankee dollars and change the place forever. It is rare to be able to go anywhere that has not been overdeveloped. Cuba is one of the last.

Sometime this summer, four or five airlines were approved by the US and Cuban governments to fly routes to Cuba. It was not until about a month ago that any of them began to actually fly. And, while all approved airlines put out flight schedules, none of them fly into Havana. The closest we could get was an American Airlines flight into a small town called Varadero, which we had never heard of. It is about an two hour drive to Havana from there. I checked to see if there were buses running and there were several. I contacted “Anywhere Cuba” and they offered to send a private driver and, since we would not arrive in Cuba till about noon, they booked one night for us there and two nights in Havana. That was all we needed.

One of the requirement for getting into Cuba is to purchase a visa or, Travel Card. If you buy it from the Cuban government, it costs 50 USD’s. If you buy it through American Airlines it costs 85. I tried to buy it directly, but the Cuban government web site is not set up to handle American currency. Since I didn’t have any British Pounds laying around, I went through American. I will say, they provided very good service and FedEx’d the visas immediately.

The visa comes in two halves. One to get into the country and, more importantly, one to get out. Sadly, the Cubans only stamp the visa, not your passport.

Because of the still-in-place embargo, Cuba has no relationship with any US banks, cell providers, or anyone else. Even UPS and FedEx have nothing there. DHL is the only delivery service. So, when you go to Cuba you will have NO cell phone service, internet (except VERY sparse wifi) no credit cards, no debit cards. You are on your own Thankfully, Anywhere Cuba provided us with a Cuban cell phone in case we had problems. That was our life line down there.

You must bring cash to Cuba. When you get to the Cuban airport there will be a currency exchange. You will change your USD’s to the Cuban currency called the CUC, although they are called pesos by the locals. The Cuban government charges a 10% penalty for the exchange of USD’s. So, 100 USD’s will get you about 80-90 CUC’s depending on the exchange rate over and above the penalty.

Interestingly, the CUC is a currency created for tourists only. It is not traded on any international currency exchange, so you cannot buy them ahead. Actual Cuban citizens use a similar peso called a CUP. These are not traded either. While no one explained this to us, it is pretty evident that the Cuban economy is shored up, in part,  by its holdings in foreign currency.

With American Airlines it is not possible to pre-print a boarding pass to Cuba. They say to be there three hours before the flight. We were a little tardy, but not much. When you get to a kiosk at the check-in everything is routine. They scan your passport and then a screen comes up asking for which of the 12 reasons your are going to Cuba. You tap the one that applies to you and that’s it. The subject never comes up again. No questions asked. No one to see. No nothing. They print your boarding pass, you go through TSA and head for the gate.

At the gate, there is a kiosk just for visitors to Cuba. There a young lady looks over your visa to make sure it’s filled out correctly, looks over your passport and then stamps your boarding pass “Cuba Ready”. With that stamp you are allowed on board the plane. Cuba also requires a fee for their medical insurance and an exit fee (like many countries south of the border) but the cost of these things is already built into your plane ticket and they handle it.

So now, after all these months, the only thing left for us to do was fly.


Varadero, as it turns out, is a beach resort area overlooking the Strait of Florida where it meets the Gulf of Mexico.In Havana they call it the “Plastic City” because it was apparently created for tourists. You see it on the right.


The plane was only about 2/3 full and most of the passengers were Cuban nationals. Very few like us.  John and I were able to switch seats so we could see what was below. We were surprised to see fairly rugged mountains, like the Blue Ridge, but not as high. Here is what looked like on approach:


The airport is new, but small with a total of four gates.


When we got off the plane we had to go through passport control and another TSA type screening. John and I only had carry-on bags. We had been warned by Anywhere that checked bags can take over an hour to be processed.

After we got through all that we headed for the exit and there was our driver holding up the Anywhere Cuba sign! Always a relief to see that guy. We stopped at the currency exchange, got enough bills to last a day or two and we were off to our new home.

Perhaps you are familiar with the ABC’s of sales: “Always be Closing”. In Cuba, they have not hit that level quite yet. Instead it is “Always be Selling” and from the moment your tootsies hit Cuban soil, somebody will be trying to sell you something. Between the currency exchange window and our cab it was cold beer and souvenirs. We declined both.

In Cuba, tourists have two options for places to stay: One is the state-run hotels which generally receive poor reviews. The other option is a “Casa Particualar”. Within the last few years the government has allowed private property owners to rent out all, or part, of their houses to tourist after the fashion of B&Bs. Casa Partculars are available through, for example, Air B&B. Their reputation is much better than the hotels. And, staying with a family is consistent with the “people to people” mission. A perfect fit.

Originally, Anywhere booked us into a house in town. A few days before departure, however, I received an e-mail from them saying they had just added a new property which was on the beach. They changed the booking and put us there, subject to our approval. We approved. This was the place:



Before long, our driver pulled up to the gate and we were in! They had two rooms for us, one in the front, one in the back. We flipped for the one in front. I won. But, we mostly spent time on the balcony anyway, so we both got good use out of that room. Here is a view from the room:


And, from the balcony. A private resort was next door.



Here is the room interior. Dated and somewhat worn.


Here is the layout of Varadero. An X marks our location:


This is an expanded view:


The point of these maps is, this place is much bigger than it looks. That is, longer. We had a nice lunch. Our first meal in Cuba was a pizza. Then, we went back to the house. The rooms were ready, so we got settled in and checked out the beach. John waded into the water, but I declined. When I was younger I loved the sun. Now, for some reason, it seems to want to kill me. Even when trying to avoid it, I still get plenty.

Later in the afternoon we decided to head uptown. However, it became clear that we were not going to see much of this place without assistance. Travel in Varadero takes three forms: Standard taxi, three-wheeled motorcycle, or horse-drawn carts. Keeping with “people to people” we chose the latter.

The driver was an old man, who spoke little English, but we were able to get the message across that we wanted a tour. Off we went!. He had one of his sons with him and we soon picked up another.


Here was part of trip: (video)

 Here is what The Lonely Planet says about Cuba: “Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.” That’s as close as I can come to explaining this place, although I’m still processing it. It is like a 1950’s theme park, except it is real. So, on the one hand you have a very nice resort:


A few blocks down, this: Right on the beach.


You think a beach front property like this would be standing in the US? Cranes would be running into each other trying to knock it down. Throughout all the places we visited the one glaring common theme was lack of working capital.


The fitness club was a big attraction for the locals:


It was now almost dark and our driver started recommending restaurants. It later became clear that drivers get a little extra for bringing in people. But his choice was good and so was the food.


They had an excellent band playing Cuban music at this restaurant. During the break they come around for tips, which we gladly provided. The band leader asked where we were from and when we said “America” he didn’t understand. When I said “Estados Unidos” he stared at both of us and shook John’s hand. He said that was the first time he had ever shaken hands with someone from the US. Maybe. Maybe not.

If I have learned anything from our travels it is, when someone approaches you for whatever reason, be wary. Before long, the leader was back with a small handful of USD’s. He said the manager had paid him in these and he wondered if we could convert them to CUC’s. So, here we go again. I told him on our tour we had passed a very nice bank. We suggested that he use it.

After dinner it was now pitch black and we had no idea how far up the main street we were from our house. We took a left and started hoofin’ it. Before long we spied a lady with a three-wheeled moped looking like she could use some work. She spoke virtually no English, and we could not give her a destination since we didn’t even know our address. While I was searching through my pockets for a card from the house she noticed my World Series hat. She said “Ah Basebol!” In very broken English she said she knew Adolphus Chapman, the Cubs fireballer, who is from Cuba. John kept asking her questions. It turns out her son plays baseball and played with Adolphus. Well, then, it turned out he didn’t play with him, but had seen him. Uh, OK, she actually never met him, but had heard of him.

While this discussion was going on, I realized I had nothing to show her our destination. Finally we said, “Turn left and we’ll tell you when to stop.” Off we went.

It turned out to be a short trip, however and she soon had us home.

This is the main gathering area of the house:


The TV was on and the election returns were coming in. John and I went to our respective rooms. I watched the returns until there were some grave doubts that Hillary would pull this off. I shut it off and hit the hay. But there were some real issues with this room that I won’t get into. Suffice it to say, it was a mostly sleepless night.

When I woke up the next morning I turned on the TV in my room. There was no cable service. I went downstairs and met John at a patio by the beach. A woman from another group came over to ask if we had heard the news. She didn’t have to bother. Her expression told the story. Nothing to be done about it. We got ready for our driver to Havana, who was due at 8.