Winter Vacations in the Cuba
Version: Version 1.11
Date issued: 7 Jan 09
Table of Contents
List of Figures
In the long, dark and cold days of a Canadian winter, there is little more appealing than winging down south to a sunny clime where the ocean is warm and clothes are for protection against the sun and not the cold. For we in Ottawa that destination is invariably a country in the Caribbean Sea do to price and travel time constraints.
Figure 1. Destinations in the Caribbean sun (Ref D)
Of the destinations in the Caribbean sun (Figure 1) readily available from the Ottawa area, the most affordable ones are Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico. I’ve not yet visited Mexico mainly due to the desire to visit areas that are not cheek to jowl with tourists like Cancun.
Republic of Cuba (Spanish: Cuba or República de Cuba), consists of the island of Cuba (the largest of the Greater Antilles), the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) and adjacent small islands. Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It is the most populous country in the Caribbean. Its culture and customs draw from several sources including the period of Spanish colonialism, the introduction of African slaves, and to a lesser extent, its proximity to the United States. The island has a tropical climate that is moderated by the surrounding waters however the warm currents of the Caribbean Sea and its location between water bodies also make Cuba prone to frequent hurricanes.
Figure 2. Resort areas of Cuba
The recorded history of Cuba began on 24 October 1492, when Christopher Columbus sighted the island and landed at Bariay near Guardalavaca during his first voyage of discovery and claimed the island for Spain. Cuba was a Spanish possession for 388 years, ruled by a governor in Havana, with an economy based on plantation agriculture and the export of sugar, coffee and tobacco to Europe and later to North America. In more recent times Cuba was corrupt and though the 1950s a revolution against Dictator Fulgencio Batista began on the eastern end of the island lead by Fidel Castro. His revolution triumphed with his entry into Havana on January 1, 1959. The subsequent nationalization of U.S. owned companies and the influence of the Cuban exiles in Florida lead to the US trade embargo in 1960, the US sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961 and the resultant declaration of Cuba as a socialist republic in May 1961, and the follow-on Cuban missile crisis.
Castro's Soviet-style regime improved the quality of life for most Cubans, especially in the areas of education and medicine. But the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union combined with the long-standing U.S. blockade had caused severe shortages of goods throughout the island.
With the fall of Russia in 1991, Cuba had a foreign exchange (hard currency) problem and introduced tourism and a two tiered pricing economy. Tourists paid in US dollars in hotels and special "dollar shops" with western products, locals were not allowed use these facilities. With dollars entering the economy locals wanted foreign goods and would ask foreigners to buy them. Now local can possess foreign currency and its possession enables locals to buy goods otherwise not available to them.
The power of foreign currency means that the best jobs to have in Cuba are those connected to tourism. I’ve met workers in the tourism industry who left university teaching positions so that they could have access to foreign currency.
When I first went to Cuba, the US dollar was king, the Canadian dollar a curiosity and the Cuban peso a joke, but the US government cracked down on European banks supplying Cuba with US dollars. As a result, Castro introduced in 2005 the Convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) to serve as a one to one replacement of the US dollar inside Cuba. If tourists bring US dollars and want to exchange them for Convertible Cuban pesos, they have to pay a fee of 10%. However, transactions in Canadian dollars and Euros are not subject to this 10% tax when they are exchanged into Convertible pesos. Therefore, we now bring Canadian dollars and not US ones. Unfortunately as Convertible Cuban pesos are worthless outside of Cuba, you must divest yourself of them before leaving Cuba. However, you need to have $25 CUC in cash to pay the departure tax at the airport.
In my time in Cuba, I’ve found the people to be friendly, rich in spirit but poor in the material sense. The US trade embargo has caused unnecessary suffering for the Cuban people while achieving little in return.
Surprisingly Cuba is some 600 miles in length so seeing all of it would take some time – time which I do not presently have. The lastly impression that I have of my three visits to Cuba is a country largely suspended in time with crumbling infrastructure, severe shortages but a pleasant way of life due to the unhurried pace of life changed by the pleasant weather and the pointlessness of hurrying when it doesn’t pay off economically.
Figure 3. Provinces of Cuba (Ref C)
2.1 Varadero Beach
I stayed at the Riu Turquesa Hotel, Varadero, Cuba in 2002. This was my first trip to Cuba and my first trip to a Communist country. The US dollar was king and an approved tender by the Cuban government. I learned that a job in the tourist industry was so lucrative that the representative of my tour company had left a job teaching in university.
The Riu Turquesa Hotel is but one of tens of resorts on the the 20 km long Varadero beach on the Hicacos peninsula. The peninsula is only 1.2 km wide at its widest point and its tip, Punta Hicacos, is the northernmost point of the island of Cuba. At the northeastern end of the peninsula there is a nature reserve with virgin forests and beaches.
Figure 4. Varadero is 140 km east of Havana
The airport serving Varadero is about 30 minutes to the west. The customs bureaucracy at the airport in clear tourists into the country was fascinating to observe. It was a mild taste of how oppressive and omnipotent that a state can be. Once clearing customs I confidently picked up my check suitcase and got on the bus to the Riu Turquesa Hotel. Arriving at the hotel and retrieving my suitcase it was clear that I had actually picked up someone else’s suitcase at the airport and my heart sank. Surprisingly the front desk was able to locate the other person who had my suitcase and arrange for its delivery. I learned in a relatively painless way to clearly mark my luggage as most luggage today is black and indistinguishable.
The room was OK (Figure 5) and just back from the large pool. One draw back from being near the pool was the noise from the animation stage which can go past 11:00 pm. The food was basic good food. Given the privations in Cuba, it’s hard to complain about the food. The animation staff was very good and invariably put on an entertaining nightly show. In fact of all my trips to the Caribbean, I think the this animation staff was a good as any.
Figure 5. Pool at Riu Turquesa Hotel (left), room (right)
Varadero Beach is great in principle as it is long, wide and white sand. The problem is that there was generally a strong onshore wind that blew the sand around like a sandblaster. It was so bad, that lying on the beach in a lounger was not practical so the lounger had to be moved behind the dunes that lie between the hotel and the beach. Without a view of the ocean, it's not really being on the beach.
Figure 6. Varadero Beach
You have to get to the beach early, say before 0900 hours, to ensure that you got a lounger. The plastic loungers are uncomfortable to lie on without a beach towel.
2.2 Day trip to Havana
Havana is some 140 km west of Varadero, a two hour drive. I went on a $45 US day trip to Havana in a mini-van along with 7 other tourists, a guide and the driver. We stopped briefly in Matanzas to pick up the guide who was a young, university student who believed in Castro and the Communist system. The highway along the coast is a surprising good four lane one. There are all manner of vehicles on the highway ranging from old American cars to modern buses.
Figure 7. Old American car in Havana (left), ‘Camel’ on the Malecón (right)
Havana, founded by the Spanish in its current location in 1519, is a treasure chest of old American cars for the 1940s and 50s (Figure 7). That these privately owned cars are still on the roads is a tribute to both the mechanical ability of the Cubans and the stolid engineering of the cars themselves. The US embargo and the resultant economic hardship have resulted in a number of expedient solutions to the public transportation needs. One of these solutions is the ‘Camels’, so called for their two humps, used in Havana (Figure 7). These semi-trailers take the place of unaffordable city buses.
There are several interesting sites in Havana. For me the most interesting was the Malecón which is an avenue that runs along the seawall at the northern shore of Havana (Figure 7). It is popular for strolling and at times has sea spray from breaking waves drifting across.
Figure 8. El Morro Castle in Havana (left), El Capitolio (right)
The El Morro Castle (Figure 8) is a picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay against marauders such as Sir Francis Drake. Its construction started in 1587 by the Spanish on a big stone that was known by the name of El Morro. El Capitolio was built in the 1930s as a slightly large version of the US Capital Building (Figure 8). It was the seat of government before the Cuban Revolution of 1959. It is now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Figure 9. Che Guevara Memorial in Plaza de la Revolution, Havana
What visit to Havan would be complete without a visit to Plaza de la Revolution where Castro gives his hours long speeches to the assembled masses? Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Plaza de la Revolution is the impressive Che Guevara Memorial on the side of a large government building (Figure 9). It includes the memorable phrase of “Hasta la victoria siempre” (Always toward victory!) that is associated with Che Guevara.
Overall my recollection of Havana is that of a rundown city that has been ravaged by years of neglect in its upkeep. Undoubtedly this neglect is due to the effects of the US embargo and the consequent lack of foreign investment. Apart from sightseeing, I visited the local tourist market and a cigar factory. All in all, the visit to Havana was well worth the cost.
The bottomline for me was that Varadero was a nice place to visit as I enjoyed the Riu Turquesa Hotel, but for me a complete turn off was being incessantly sandblasted on the beach.
3 Santa Lucia (Camaguey) – February 2004
We flew on Zoom Airlines from Ottawa and landed at Ignacio Agramonte International Airport in Camaguey (Figure 10) and drove about 100 km to the Club Caracol on Playa de Santa Lucia (Figure 2). This was about a 1.5 hour trip in a nice bus.
Figure 10. Zoom airplane at the Ignacio Agramonte International Airport in Camaguey
Unfortunately I left my camera on the Zoom airplane at Ottawa and even though I phoned the Zoom office within an hour, the camera was not returned. I was very disappointed in the lack of concern and action by Zoom Airlines to recover the camera. I purchased a replaced on eBay for $300.
Club Caracol is a small resort with 150 rooms (Figure 11) located on Playa de Santa Lucia. The Santa Lucia beach stretches 20 km along the northern coast near the Bahia de Nuevitas. This is a beautiful white sand beach, protected by an offshore reef which contains over 50 species of corals. The water is clear and warm and the beach is practically deserted, which of course means that there is little resort development in the area.
Of the resorts that I’ve visited in the Caribbean, Santa Lucia is the least developed. It is somewhat comparable to what Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic was when I visited there in 1991. The major difference being that the Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort was higher quality construction.
Figure 11. Aerial view of Club Caracol
Figure 12. Club Caracol with giant caracol (left), pool with swim-up bar (right)
Figure 13. Club Caracol reception area with earthenware jar (Tinajón), (left), reception area inside (right)
Figure 14. Staircase to room (left), inside basic room (right)
Figure 15. Oceanview rooms (left), Sidewalks leading to beach (right)
Figure 16. Approaching beach (left), unpopulated beach (right)
Figure 17. Buffet (left), show by animation staff (right)
Towards the end of our stay, a tourist said to one of the animation staff, “I wish I could stay here.” The staffer replied “I’ll change places with you.” This exchange illustrated that the grass is greener on the other side but more to the point that the life of a tourist in Cuba does not reflect the life of the average Cuban.
Figure 18. The near deserted beach looking toward Caracol, Brisas and Gran Club Resorts
3.3 Day Trip to Camaguey
Camagüey (founded around 1515 by the Spanish) is a city in central Cuba and is the nation's third largest city with a population of about 294,000. It is the capital of the Camagüey Province.
The city of Camaguey is one of the cradles of Cuban culture. The oldest part of the city is unique because of its narrow, twisting streets and alleys, which start or end in public squares and form a complicated labyrinth-that was deliberately designed this way to confuse pirates and other raiders in the past. In fact Camaguey was relocated inland from the coast near Santa Lucia (Bay of Nuevitas) because of raiders.
Most of the buildings have cool, leafy inner patios which contain large earthenware jars (Figure 13) - the symbol of the city. These large earthenware jars (Tinajón), used in the past and at present to store rainwater in the patios of many houses, are a distinguishing feature of the city.
We walked around downtown Camaguey and have lunch in a restaurant and then visited a cigar factory and rum factory.
Figure 19. Churches in Camaguey, Iglesia del Carmen (right)
Figure 20. Camaguey street scenes
We toured a small cigar factory in Camaguey. Like most industry in Cuba, the factory is very labour intensive which is not surprising given the necessity of providing gainful employment in the Communist state. The factory was in an old rundown building with age old working areas. The cigars made here are for domestic consumption and not authorized for export. To legally take cigars out of the country, you need to present of the bill of sale issued by a legitimate shop.
Cuban cigar rollers are famous for being the most skilled rollers in the world. The creation of a quality cigar is still performed by hand (Figure 21). An experienced cigar roller can produce hundreds of exceptional, nearly identical cigars per day. The rollers keep the tobacco moist-- especially the wrapper, and use specially designed crescent-shaped knives, called a chaveta, to form the filler and wrapper leaves quickly and accurately. Once rolled, the cigars are stored in wooden forms as they dry, in which their uncapped ends are cut to a uniform size. From this stage, the cigar is a complete product that can, to the best of anyone's knowledge, be kept indefinitely under the proper conditions.
Figure 21. Cigar factory
Figure 22. Camaguey central plaza
Our last stop in downtown Camaguey was at a small restaurant where we got a drink and were entertained by a musical group, most of whose members were seniors (Figure 23). We then headed out of Camaguey, stopping briefly at a rum factory and then the family-run Casanova’s pottery/gift shop.
Figure 23. Pottery (left), musical group (right)
Like many Cuban cities, the center of Camaguey is surrounded by neighbourhoods of drab, prefabricated apartment buildings most of which are remains of the Soviet-era in Cuba. Here and there are factories left over from the same era (Figure 24).
Figure 24. Abandoned factory from the Soviet-era
We flew on Skyservice Airlines from Ottawa on 23 December and landed at Holguin Frank Pais International Airport in Holguin (Figure 25) at about 2200 hours. The downside of this trip occurred at the Holguin airport. We were force to stand in line for 2 hours to get through the immigration control. Cuba has implemented a VIP category of tourist which appears to mean that you pay 20 pesos and you are put are the head of the line. These VIPs continually cut into the front of the line while we waited and waited.
We drove about 62 km from the airport to the Club Amigo Atlantico near Guardalavaca. It was about an hour trip in a nice bus.
Figure 25. Zoom Ex-patriots arriving at airport (left), relatives picking up ex-pat relatives (right)
We were scheduled to fly back at about 2300 hours on 30 December but the plane broke down so we overnighted for 9 hours at the airport departure lounge until a replacement plane arrived from Toronto. That being said, the service on the Skyservice flights was far superior to Air Canada.
Figure 26. Being creative with towels (left), view of hotel building from the sea (right)
At check-in we were allocated a tropical room in the main hotel building. This room was nice and roomy. The downside was the noise coming into the room from the hallway via the transoms.
As at other Caribbean resorts, the housekeeping staff does creative things with the towels and bed cover (Figure 26). Once nice thing about staying in the main hotel building is that it is close to the beach (down a twenty foot staircase) and the main dining room.
The temperature was constant at about 80 degrees during the daytime with sun during half of our days there. The beach was smallish but very nice with fine white sand and a gentle slope into the ocean (Figure 27). It’s one of the nicer beaches that I’ve visited.
Figure 27. Offshore in sailboat looking at hotel (left), Guardalavaca beach (right)
The image of Che Guevara is seen frequently throughout Cuba. As he died young, he is an iconic figure stuck in time. We even saw a tattoo of Che on the beach.
Figure 28. Locals diving off undercut shoreline at end of beach (left), Che Guevara on beach (right)
The food at the hotel was good with a nice variety including big, fresh lobster. The Christmas Eve dinner was very nice (Figure 29). Apart from the buffet, we went to two of the three “a la carte” restaurants, namely the El Benny’s Cuban restaurant and the El Fuerte Italian restaurant - the former was a miss while the later was a hit. There also was a 24 hour snack bar that served pizza, burger, pasta and fries as well as drinks. We skipped the "La Espada" restaurant in favour of the buffet as its menu was not appealing.
As this is Cuba, you have to accept that things simply don’t happen and there is no reason. For example, the resort did not have any clean beach towels during most of our stay. Each day we'd stop by the towel booth and check and the worker eventually gave up saying that they'd be in the following day.
Figure 29. Cake as map of Cuba (left), serenaded at Christmas Eve dinner (right)
Just down the coast from Guardalavaca is the Bariay National Monument Park, the spot where Christopher Columbus first set foot on Cuban soil, celebrates that meeting of Indian and European cultures that took place over five centuries ago. A group of historical re-enactors showed up to advertise the performances put on at the Bariay National Monument Park (Figure 30).
Figure 30. Native Indian and 15th century Europeans from Bariay (left), meeting Columbus (right)
You can rent motorbikes at the resort and tour the countryside. One day we noticed a badly scraped up male tourist and a female with a bandaged foot at the pool. The cause was an accident on a motorbike rental. Obviously time in the sun and road rash do not go together.
Just outside of the resort was a craft market that is operated for the tourists from the resort (Figure 31). Apart from the pedal boats, windsurfers and the Hobie Cats, there was not much happening except for the occasional buzzing by the flying zodiac (Figure 31).
Figure 31. Craft market (left), flying zodiac taking off (right)
Just west of the resort is what appears to be a Cuban government run vacation spot for government officials and party members. Some of the folks staying in this spot had nice looking American cars from the 1940s-50s (Figure 32). Others had boring recent model Japanese or European cars.
Figure 32. Old American car in great shape (left), a smokin’ beater (right)
Guardalavaca is small town just outside of the resort where many of the resort workers and their families live. Guardalavaca literally means "Put away the cow" in Spanish. This name perhaps refers to the requirement to safeguard cattle during the 16th-century pirate raids.
On our final day, we bicycled out about a half mile to see Guardalavaca. The apartment buildings are very basic (Figure 33) five stories high ones without elevator service. Storage basins for rainwater share the roofs with the TV antennas. Most of the buildings carry revolutionary slogans as do some of the rocks (Figure 34).
Figure 33. Guardalavaca apartment buildings
Figure 34. Lining up for monthly rations (left), Viva la Revolucion (right)
Figure 35. Monthly banana ration (left), primary school (right)
We met a young man who was a teacher from Banes. He was interested in talking to us as he wanted to practice his English. He was clearly a supporter of the Castro regime. When we first started talking to him, we asked if he lived in one of the apartments. Interestingly he replied no, he lived a small house but he hoped to live an apartment one day! Obviously although we thought that the apartments were rundown, the locals did not see them in that light.
The day we visited Guardalavaca, 28 December, was the day that the monthly rations were available. At Christmas time there are extra rations available. We saw an older man carrying back his banana ration (Figure 35). There was much in the way of a Christmas break as school was in full operation with the school kids in their red and white uniforms (Figure 35).
Figure 36. Repairing family car (left), public transport pulled by old East German truck (right)
The transportation situation in Guardalavaca is somewhat dire. An ordinary person can only own a pre-blockade car which is why there are so many 1940-50 era American cars on the roads (Figure 36). That these cars still run is a testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the ordinary Cuban people. The public transportation situation is not that much better (Figure 36). Public transport vehicles are catch as catch can. On some roads, the highway police stop empty trucks to allow people to get a ride. Frequently we would see people walking along or bicycling on the roads which makes driving at night at challenge to avoid these obstacles.
For Christmas Eve, we along with two other couples arranged through our tour company representative to engage a bus to take us to the Catholic service in Banes. The bus trip was an adventure in itself as the road was narrow and windy, the night dark, the speed high and the road shared with pedestrians and bicyclists.
Figure 37. Map showing Holguin, Guardalavaca and Banes (Ref A)
Figure 38. Church of our Lady of Caridad (left), donkey-drawn cart in square beside church (right)
After arriving in Banes and prying our fingers off the handholds we got off the bus and stepped out into the night in a busy town square. This square has a park in center with a domed band shell. Surrounding buildings include an old American style old theatre and the Church of our Lady of Caridad (Figure 38). The square was filled with people celebrating Christmas Eve and partying on a Saturday night. After a brief look around, we entered the church where Fidel Castro married his first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, daughter of the mayor.
The church is very spartan inside as one would imagine given the poverty of the church membership. However the parishioners were dressed in their best and the service was very moving. Even though we were strangers, we were invited to sit in the very first row by a matron who had a family pew. Of course the service was in Spanish including the carols but little was lost.
The church was nicely decorated for Christmas with an interesting crèche near the entrance. Unfortunately immediately after the service we were herded back on the bus and whished away back to the resort. In retrospect we should have negotiated with a cab driver outside the resort for the trip as this would have given us more flexibility.
Figure 39. Priest distributing hosts at communion (left), decorated altar (right)
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo is the most important tourist resort in the Granma province (Figure 40). It is located on bay of Marea del Portillo on the Southeast coast of Cuba at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. This provides a dramatic backdrop to the black sand beach that stretches over 2 km. The resort is 100 km from Manzanillo international airport and just east of Marea on the road to Santiago de Cuba is the highest mountain in Cuba, the 2005m Pico Turquino.
Figure 40. Provinces of Cuba
Granma is one of the provinces of Cuba with its capital being Bayamo (Figure 41). The province was named after the yacht Granma in which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raúl Castro and 79 of their supporters sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to kick off the Cuban Revolution. The American who sold them the secondhand yacht in Mexico apparently had named it after his grandmother, i.e. Granma. Castro landed at Playa del Coloradas on 2 December 1956 and the Castro forces finally triumphed on 1 January 1959 with the overthrow of the Batista regime.
Figure 41. Granma province
In addition, halfway between Marea del Portillo and Pilon to the west is Cayo Blanco, a small islet some 500 meters offshore, considered an ideal place for romantic people and boasting exceptional sea bottoms.
We booked our trip through http://belairtravel.ca/ for a trip with Sunwing (http://www.sunwing.ca/) on 4 March for a schedule departure on Sunday, 9 March. The cost was a total of $1490 for the both of us plus a CUC $25/person Cuban departure tax that would be paid in Cuba when departing.
Since there was a winter storm warning for Saturday, 8 March, we decided to overnight in Montreal near the airport. Unfortunately all the park-sleep-fly deals were sold out so we booked a night at the Knights Inn, Montréal through expedia.ca. We left Ottawa at 1230 hours just as the snow was starting and drove to Montreal. When we arrived at Montréal it was snowing heavily and we had to park right beside the hotel office as we could not manoeuvre through the deep snow in Donna’s Mazda 3 and I had to borrow a shovel to park even there. In all it snowed 10 inches (26 cm) overnight. We got up and left at 0500 hours to get to the airport but it took me about 45 minutes to shovel enough snow to get the car out.
When we arrived at the Dorval Airport, I was going to park in the Park’N Fly lot but it was full so I drove over to the EconoParc but it closed due to the storm. That only left the highest priced lot in the multi-level parking garage at the terminal itself. The price would have been $130 vice $65 for the EconoParc but at the resort, I was talking to a man who said that if you explained the situation to the attendant, you’d only be charged the EconoParc rate when leaving the lot – amazingly it was true.
We wait around the airport with thousands of others and finally our Sunwing plane left from Montreal ten hours late, 1900 hours vice 0900 hours, so we arrived at the Manzanillo Airport in Cuba around 2200 hours. Even though it was late the currency change bureau was still open so that we could change of Canadian dollars into the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The exchange rate was such that a CUC was worth slightly more than the Canadian dollar. Since 2004, when the U.S. dollar ceased to be accepted in Cuban retail outlets, the CUC is the only form of currency that is now widely accepted from tourists. The local Cubans use the Cuban peso which is of very low value.
Figure 42. Parking at Knight’s Inn, Montreal (left), 10 hour wait at Montreal airport (right)
We drove for about two hours to cover the 100 km to the resort. The bus was a brand new one from China but the Cuban roads have some impressive holes that make the trip slow and will damage the bus over time. There were several times that the bus driver appeared to driving too fast for the road conditions that we thought that the bus would roll. Hence we were thankful when we arrived at the resort around midnight and made it to our room.
We brought some school supplies as we expected that we’d have an opportunity to drop them off at a school. During the three villages tour the guide told us that tourist could no longer drop off supplies to schools so we gave the supplies to workers at the resort who had children. It wasn’t as satisfactory.
The Club Amigo Marea del Portillo has three sections: the Marea del Portillo section on the beach; the Farallon del Caribe section on a hill; and the small Punta Piedra section. The first two of these sections are on a large horseshoe-shaped bay that is surrounded by the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The Punta Piedra section is about 5-7 km away on the main road leading to Pilon. We never went to the Punta Piedra section but we passed by it several times and it seems rather small and quaint.
We stayed in the Farallon del Caribe section but frequently walked the short distance, 2 km, to the Marea del Portillo section although there is a caleche ride available (right, Figure 44). We were told by the Sunwing representative that the caleche ride was free but one of the drivers told us that “the ride is not free”. Afterwards we just walked between the two sections to avoid any hassle.
Figure 44. Big iguana at Farallon (left), caleche back to Farallon (right)
The weather was good throughout our stay with only some late afternoon clouds marring the sunshine on a couple of days. Our hotel room was good with warm water for showers available. The mattresses were marginal but acceptable.
The food at the Farallon buffet was fine and there was a balcony area with a great view for dining. We also went to both a la cart restaurants: Cuban and Italian. Both these were OK and had good service. Some of the bars offered drinks such as Piña Colada but others didn’t – it was never clear why.
Nightly entertainment at the Farallon sometimes happened and sometimes didn’t. This may be because of what was happening at the Marea del Portillo section but we never did find a timetable. The house band at the Farallon consisted of 15 members who played and sang Cuban music and they were very good.
The Farallon section has a wonderful view of the bay and surrounding mountains (left, Figure 45 and right, Figure 46). It also has some bushes at its reception area that were in full blossom (right, Figure 45) and a resident population of large iguanas (left, Figure 44) that provide for some fascinating viewing. There is an excellent bar at the beach below the Farallon section but most of the beach action is in front of the Marea del Portillo section. The beach itself is a dark sand beach that gently slopes into the warm Caribbean waters.
Figure 45. View towards Marea del Portillo from Farallon (left), blossoming bush at Farallon (right)
Figure 46. Rooms at Farallon section (left), view from balcony at Farallon (right)
There is a crewed catamaran that can be reserved for a 45 minute trip about the bay. As well there are some kayak and sailboards available. The beaches on the sides of the bay are excellent for beachcombing due to all the coral that is washed ashore.
Figure 47. Cuban cowboy on beach (left), relaxing on beach (center), Cubans collecting shells (right)
There were two beach bars, one to serve the Marea del Portillo section and one to serve the clientele at the Farallon section. We camped out at this latter bar which was little utilized (center, Figure 47). The service at the bar was excellent and we favoured espresso and drinks such as pina colada. One day when we came down, the Cuban cowboys were having a skills testing contest on the beach in front of the bar (left, Figure 47 & left, Figure 48). There was a small ring suspended on a line between two poles in the sand. The goal was to gallop at speed and pick off the ring using a small stick held in the rider’s hand. It was interesting to see the contest and watch the cowboys socializing and drinking while awaiting their turn.
Figure 48. Watching Cuban cowboys on beach (left), pelican & fisherman (center), pushing rocks (right)
Walking around the east side of the bay, we came upon fishermen from Marea del Portillo standing in the sea and pulling in their nets (center, Figure 48). Along the way to the end of the bay are some heavily eroded mushroom-like rock formations (right, Figure 48).
We went on three excursions from the resort: horse ride to the local waterfall (CUC $10); jeep ride to the distant Salto Las Yaguas (CUC $49); and the three villages tour (CUC $5). These trips were fine but the jeep ride was a bit overpriced. I’d highly recommend the horse ride to the local water fall.
The excursion from the resort to the Salto Las Yaguas (Las Yaguas Falls) was in Suzuki 4X4 SUVs along a very bumpy and at times steep track in the mountains north of the resort (center, Figure 49). Due to the rareness of private vehicle ownership in this region of Cuba, most of the locals traverse this track either on foot or on horseback (right, Figure 49). During the excursion, there is a magnificent view from the mountains back towards the resort on the coast (left, Figure 49).
Figure 49. Looking towards resort on coast (left), steep road (center), passing horse rider (right)
The trees on the mountains were a mixture of deciduous trees and Royal Palm trees, Cuban national tree (right, Figure 50). We were lucky to see a red, white and blue Tocororo, the Cuban national bird (left, Figure 50).
After about 1½ hours, we reached an overlook with a good view of the upper and upper Salto Las Yaguas (center & right, Figure 51) way down below. After another 5 minutes of driving, we got out and descending a long and windy path to a hut near the lower falls. While the Cuban crew prepared a lunch (right, Figure 54), we bathed in the refreshing pool at the foot of the falls (Figure 52). The crew brought sandwiches to the pool (left, Figure 53) and a singer played and sang Cuban songs at the side of the pool (center, Figure 53).
Figure 50. Tocororo - Cuban national bird (left), Royal Palm trees - Cuban national tree (right)
Figure 51. Passing broken down Soviet era truck (left), Salto Las Yaguas (right), upper falls and pool
Figure 52. Pool at base of upper Las Yaguas Falls (left), pool from top of falls (right)
Figure 53. Snack at the pool (left), serenading at the pool (center), relaxing (right)
Figure 54. Butterfly at top of falls (left), iguana at top of falls (center), preparing Cuban lunch (right)
I climbed up the dry side of the falls to the top to see what was there. It turned out that there was a pretty orange butterfly (left, Figure 54); a 2-3’ foot iguana (center, Figure 54); and a good view down to the pool at the foot of the falls (right, Figure 52).
We stayed at the falls for about 3 hours relaxing (right, Figure 53) and then headed back with a stop to see a typical farm house in that area. Although the extended farm family that lived there was better off than most due to the number of tourists that visit and drop off supplies (right, Figure 55), they were still living in basic conditions along with the chickens and pigs that they kept around their house (center, Figure 56). It is not an easy life.
Figure 55. Farmer’s daughter (left), washing stand (center), have another pencil (right)
Figure 56. Farm’s clothes on line (left), sleeping pigs (center), cacti at farm (right)
The three villages tour lasted for four hours. We first drove to the village of Marea del Portillo for a drive through visit and then drove to Pilon (14 km from the resort). On the way to Marea we passed by the classic Che Guevara image on a billboard that sported the equally classic phrase of “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” meaning “Until the Victory, Always” (left, Figure 57).
Throughout the tour, we saw many houses until construction (center, Figure 57) but our guide told us that it takes years to build a private house as building materials for those purposes are rationed and unpredictable. The future owners can never be sure what materials will be made available, e.g. perhaps concrete or perhaps wood, from year to year.
Figure 57. Classic Che billboard at Marea (left), slow building (center), delivery horses in Pilon (right)
After Marea del Portillo, we went to Pilon where we made two stops: first at a school; and then in the center of town.
Figure 58. High school (left), government store (center), nurse in fishnet stockings (right)
While the group walked off to see a primary school, I walked around a building and came across an old cobbler with an age weary face, hard at his trade. I asked him if I could take his picture and he consented – this is my favourite picture of this trip (left, Figure 59). He was repairing every type of shoe, e.g. sneakers, sandals and loafers, using very simple tools.
Figure 59. Cobbler in Pilon (left), 7 workers take on one hole (right)
Driving into the center of Pilon we passed by a group of 6 workers watching one man work to repair a water leak (right, Figure 59). This productivity reminded me of that of the City of Ottawa workers.
Figure 60. Haranguing students (left), bicycle repair station (center), sidewalk barbershop (right)
In the central square in Pilon, we cross across a gathering of students being harangued by a fellow student in a ceremony to commemorate some aspect of Cuban communism (left, Figure 60). The students gave perfunctory cheers at the appropriate moments during the speech but they did not seem genuinely enthused. In the street around the square there were many sidewalk businesses on the go, such as the bicycle repairman (center, Figure 60) and several barbershops. I wanted a haircut but decided against it as the haircuts seemed to be very short military style ones (right, Figure 60).
Figure 61. Wooden bike seat (left), appliance delivery (center), 60 year old Dodge auto (right)
The local transport did not relied much on modern motor powered vehicle, rather the people used bicycles – with wooden seats added (left, Figure 61); horse drawn carts for appliance delivery (center, Figure 61); and American cars from the period before the US trade embargo (right, Figure 61). The old Dodge car was from the period of 1948-1951 based on its ram’s head hood ornament.
The post-Soviet era ended the sugar subsidies from the Soviet Union and finally in 2002, the government of Cuba abandoned much of its sugar industry thereby closing most of the country's sugar mills including Pilon's mill with its prominent smokestack that is visible for miles around (center, Figure 62). Most of the land where sugar cane was grown has being turned over to other uses.
Figure 62. Marginal house (left), abandoned factory (center), Che passed here in 1956 (right)
Some of the houses in Pilon are quite marginal as they look to have been constructed of bits and pieces from here and there (left, Figure 62). The residents of there houses are lucky that the climate is so warm.
Leaving Pilon, we drove through the mountains over the roads crossed by Fidel and his cohorts after he landed in the Granma (right, Figure 62), to the small town of Sevilla. We passed by a grass roofed house with the washing hung out to dry (left, Figure 62) – life is simple for many Cubans. Most villages had a doctor’s house (center, Figure 62). Our guide explained that these white painted houses show folks where the doctor and his nurse work and live. This office is on the 1st floor and their residences on the 2nd floor. Newly graduated doctor must spend 2 years in the countryside before they can move back into a city.
In Sevilla we stopped at a high school and then went into town for a look-see.
Figure 63. Simple house with clothes drying (left), doctor’s house (center), old Soviet motorbike (right)
Before finally returning to the resort, we stopped at the Saturnino mirador (left, Figure 64) on a hill overlooking the coast line. In the distance, we could see the cabin cruiser from the resort at Cayo Blanco (left, Figure 64) and the smoke stack from Pilon’s abandoned sugar mill (right, Figure 64).
Figure 64. Garden at Saturnino mirador (left), Cayo Blanco (center), view towards Pilon (right)
We booked a horse ride to the local waterfall about 5 KMs (CUC $10) for Saturday morning at 1000 hours. The corral was located behind the Marea del Portillo section. Our group consisted of ten tourists and one cowboy/guide (right, Figure 65). There were no instructions so we saddled up and were off. The horses knew where to go and we were able to saunter down the main road with the sparse traffic giving us a wide berth.
Figure 65. Shuttle carriage at Farallon (left), farmhouse near dam (center), our Cuban cowboy (right)
Figure 66. Author on horseback (left), pool near the dam (center), Donna saddling up (right)
On Saturday, our last full day at the resort, we booked the crewed catamaran for a 45 minute trip about the bay. We sailed to Marea del Portillo and saw the colourful fishing boats at anchor (Figure 67).
Figure 67. Author on catamaran (left), Marea del Portillo fishing boats (center), Donna on cat (right)
On Sunday, our day of departure, we had time so I hiking up the steep hill behind our hotel block to see the view. As the area is desert-like, there were lots of cacti and other dry climate plants and lizards (Figure 68). The view of the bay was great (right, Figure 68) but it was time to saunter back down to the lobby to catch our bus. As there was nobody waiting for the bus and it was time for the departure, a sense of foreboding descended. I inquired at the front desk about where the bus was and was thunderstruck when the woman replied that it had already departed!
Figure 68. Lizard (left), large spiky plant (center), view of bay from top of hill at Farallon (right)
Unbeknownst to us, on the Saturday night/Sunday morning of our departure, Cuba changed to daylight savings time. Due to this time change, we missed the departure of the bus to the airport and had to take a taxi to catch up with the bus. We caught up with the bus at Pilon and were forced to pay the taxi driver US $10 for the trip. When we arrived at the Manzanillo Airport, Donna spoke with the Sunwing who was reluctant to reimburse us but after some cajoling she gave us the US $10 which we need to pay for our US $25/pp departure tax.
Once we paid our CUC $25 departure tax, we entered the departures level and visited the shops and watched a local Cuban musical group (left, Figure 69) while waiting for the Sunwing plane to arrive which arrived on time (right, Figure 69). We only had enough CUC to buy a couple of Cuban baseball caps.
It was interesting to see the security personnel screening the Cuban airport workers to ensure that they carried nothing to allow them to hijack our airplane (center, Figure 69). Apparently some airport workers tried this in the past as a way to escape from communist Cuba.
Figure 69. Cuban band at airport (left), scanning airport workers (center), our Sunwing 737 (right)
This was our first trip with Sunwing and we were impressed with the service and the onboard food.
The was our first visit to Cuba in the post-Fidel era that has seen Fidel's brother Raul Castro assume the reins of power. There was no noticeable change in the part of the country that we visited. Perhaps significant change will only come with the death of both of the Castro brothers.
We’ve stayed in Varadero, Holguin and Camaguey but Marea del Portillo stands apart due to its wonderful setting. In conclusion, we’d recommend this resort to anyone seeking a resort that is not over-developed and in an area of Cuba that offers some unique experiences.
6 Santiago de Cuba (25 December 2008 – 1 January 2009)
We stayed at the Club Amigo Carisol Los Corales resort which is located along the coast in the Baconao Park east of Santiago de Cuba (Figure 70). This 357 mile2 park was declared a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO in 1987. The park has a number of attractions including unusual ones such as the Valle de la Prehistoria with its life-size models of prehistoric animals (left, Figure 71) and the El Mundo de la Fantasia with its Disneyland-like castles and giant clown’s head (right, Figure 71).
Figure 70. Map of Santiago de Cuba area (Los Corales Resort in lower right)
Figure 71. Mastodons at Valle de la Prehistoria (left), clown at El Mundo de la Fantasia (right)
For older North Americans, there is an interesting connection to Santiago de Cuba due to the marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (left, Figure 72). Lucy met Desi in 1940 when she was a relatively well known Hollywood actress and he was a debonair Cuban musician who was born the son of the mayor of Santiago de Cuba in 1917 (his grandfather was one of the founders of the Bacardi Rum company). He and his family fled Cuba to Miami, Florida after the 1933 revolution brought General Fulgencio Batista to power.
One of products of their marriage was the hugely popular "I Love Lucy" television sitcom on CBS that débuted in 1951 (center & right, Figure 72). They also formed their own production company, Desilu, which became responsible for some of television’s popular series over the years including the original “Star Trek”. "I Love Lucy" continued until 1957 and they divorced in 1960.
Figure 72. Lucy & Desi (left), "I Love Lucy" opening (center), famous grape stomping scene (right)
Our camera was a Lumix DMC- TZ4 whose performance was mediocre with some shots being excellent and some being washed out. Its biggest problem is its slow response time before it’ll take a photograph under many lighting conditions. However, the 10X optical zoom was a boon as was its 28mm lens since it has a wide field of view which was very useful at times.
This resort is comprised of two hotels, Carisol and Los Corales which are on the Cazonel beach. It is a 60 minute bus ride from the Antonio Maceo Airport in Santiago de Cuba. On arrival we had a choice of staying at either the Los Corales or the Carisol section which had just opened but selected the former. On the whole, both are comparable but we found the Los Corales section somewhat better and preferable. Our spacious room is on the second floor of the 500 block – one of five blocks that surround the nice big pool (Figure 73). The only problem was that our air conditioner was wonky so it was stuffy in the room.
We booked our tour with Sunwing Vacations (http://sunwing.ca) for a total cost of $1000/person. As with our trip to Manzanillo de Cuba, the Sunwing flight crew was good as were the in-flight meals. We flew out of Ottawa at 1500 hours on 25 December and arrived at Santiago de Cuba at 1900 hours (no time change).
To return to Ottawa we left the resort at 1600 hours. After checking in at the airport, we had to pay the 25 CUC departure tax (no other currency accepted). We spent about three hours waiting in the departure lounge. The only issue was that our return flight to Ottawa was not direct since we stopped at Cayo Coco to pick up passengers there before heading on to Ottawa. In the event, we left Santiago de Cuba at 2000 hours and arrived back in Ottawa at 1345 hours and got home at 0300 hours after picking up my car at the Park’n Ride ($75 parking fee).
Throughout our stay, the weather was very nice and sunny which made our stay that much better given the cold winter and bus strike back in Ottawa.
Figure 73. Our hotel block (left), nice pool in front of our block (right)
The nationality of guests included Western and Eastern Europeans and Canadians. There was the inevitable underlying tension between Canadians and those Canadians who would prefer to be independent.
Figure 74. Old Soviet-style apartment block (left), close-up of block (right)
The sights around the resort were always interesting. There were local Cubans moving around on bicycles and horses (left, Figure 75) and farm animals gazing (center, Figure 75). The water sport worker had captured some squids (right, Figure 76). There were two abandoned old Soviet-style apartment blocks in back of our hotel block (Figure 74) - we saw identical ones in Santiago de Cuba. We were told that these used to be used as hotel apartments for Cubans staying at the resort but that ended and then they were used for training resort staff. They have been unused for several years and their fate is undecided although one block has been pulled down. The waste of decent accommodation is a shame in so poor a country.
A quaint looking thatched roofed building served as the beach restaurant during the evening. It was the only à la carte restaurant on the resort and it offered a delicious plate of pork, chicken and beef trio served with rice and vegetables. We ate there twice and one time Donna pre-ordered half a lobster for 12.50 CUC. Later in the evening this restaurant becomes a disco after 2230 hours (right, Figure 75). It was at this à la carte restaurant where I fell off my chair onto the floor when one of my chair legs slipped into a hole in the floor boards. I knew I was going to fall but could not see why so as I was falling, I asked to no one in particular "Why am I falling into the floor?" Following my pratfall, the comedy theme continued with a group of four, two adults and two teenagers, at a table near us. We had traveled with them to Santiago on the yacht we knew something about them and Mark had left a lasting impression. They were talking very loudly about personal matters and were obviously having some disagreements. Things came to a head and after finishing their salads, the entire table rose as one and they walked out but not before both adults assured the waiter that everything was "fantastic" and how much they enjoyed the meal even though they had not had their main course yet. All in all much of the evening was like a comedy skit.
Figure 75. Cubans on the move (left), horse cutting grass (center), restaurant/disco (right)
The restaurant hosted cats, dogs and birds. The tourists feed the cats and dogs from their tables, while the sparrows swooped in to peck at the desserts (left, Figure 76). The animals in the restaurant were not ideal.
The only sign of Christmas at the resort was the lonely Christmas tree in the lobby (center, Figure 76). This was in keeping with the minimal decoration that we saw at Club Amigo Atlantico Guardalavaca during a Christmas spent there. Outside of the resort in Santiago de Cuba, we saw a similar lack of Christmas decoration. This led us to conclude that Christmas is celebrated in a low-keyed manner in Cuba. It appeared that New Year’s is a more important celebration.
Figure 76. Sparrows eating dessert (left), Christmas tree in lobby (center), captured squids (right)
We exchanged our money into Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) at the hotel since the CUC is the only accepted currency. The official exchange rate is 0.80 CUC for one US dollar and 0.72 CUC for one Canadian dollar. If one accepts that the exchange rate for Canadian dollars is fair then the rate for US dollar is a rip off since clearly it should be about 0.88 CUC (or 10% more) given the relative strength of the Canadian and US dollar.
There were three bars at the resort but we found it hard to determine which bar served what type of drink since the drinks offered by the bars varied with the time of day so it was never clear which bar to go to to get a particular drink. For example the 24/7 bar did not serve beer during the day and one had to go to the swim-up bar. The 24/7 bar (Bar Daiquirí) ran out of many items early in our stay and was not replenished.
Figure 77. Resort beach (left), reading on beach in rocking chair (right)
At the center of the beach, there was a small coral outcropping around which a variety of the small fish hovered about (right, Figure 78). It was interesting to snorkel around this coral outcropping and watch the fish (left, Figure 78).
Figure 78. Snorkeling off resort beach (left), fish along coral off resort beach (right)
Next to Los Corales Resort is Baconao Bay (left, Figure 79) which is quite nice and is frequented by local Cuban including those wanting to sell you cigars. The view of the coastline from the resort’s beach is very nice (right, Figure 79). There is a man on the resort’s beach who will open a coconut so you can drink the coconut water and then he’ll dig out the meat for you – we tipped him 1 CUC for his effort.
Figure 79. Baconao Bay next to resort (left), opening coconuts (center), view of coastline (right)
The entrance to the lobby is a walkway over a large pond that it full of small fish and has a couple turtles. Feeding bread to the fish produced feeding frenzies that saw fish ending up on top of the bread (left, Figure 80). We also saw a turtle chasing a turtle in the pond (right, Figure 80)
Figure 80. Fish jumping on bread (left), feeding frenzy (center), turtle chasing turtle (right)
The food was typical of a 3-star Cuban resort, i.e. mainly good but not fantastic with the exception of the freshly squeezed orange juice at breakfast (left, Figure 81) and the special New Year’s Eve dinner. It is typical of Cuban resort there is a musical group that strolls around playing during supper. They play Donna’s favourite Spanish song, Béseme (Kiss Me), for her (right, Figure 81).
Figure 81. Orange juice squeezing machine (left), serenaded during supper (right)
For New Year's Eve supper, they cooked two pigs over charcoal beds for hours (Figure 82) and supplemented this meat with excellent roast turkey. We had champagne at supper and a good musical group that brought out the dancing ability of the staff and hotel guests (right, Figure 83). For desert we had good ice cream and picked cream puffs off of the dessert coated house (left, Figure 83).
Many of the hotel staff and their young families came for supper with their parents. The 13 year old son of one of the bartenders helped out his father in the bar by serving beer. A Canadian tourist gave the lad a bag of chocolate treats for his efforts.
Figure 82. Roasting pig (left), roasted pig at supper and shrimp and apple covered pyramid (right)
Figure 83. Dessert coated house (left), musical group and dancing staff and tourists (right)
Figure 84. Dancers in New Year’s Eve show (left), fire-eating “fire-guy” (right)
The resort evening entertainment was an hour long show that started at 2130 hours. Most evenings there were male and female dancer but one evening was a comedy show and on another a magic show - all were entertaining. On New Year's Eve, the entertainment started at 2230 hours and lasted until midnight. That evening’s entertainment show was very good that night and included some dance numbers, comedy skits and the very entertaining fire-eating man. At the end of his set, an inebriated tourist shouted out “You’re the best fire-guy!” At midnight, we all had a glass of champagne to toast the New Year.
Figure 85. Getting ready for New Year’s Eve (left), champagne at midnight (right)
6.3.1 Santiago de Cuba
We found it was very hard to figure which tours were being offered since most tours would only go if they has 8 or more people signed up. For example we booked a trip to see a baseball game in Santiago de Cuba but it was cancelled the night before the night and our payment refunded as we the only ones who signed up. However, two hours later we were told that the trip was now on since 6 other people had signed up. As by then we had made other plans, we did not bother going.
Unfortunately the trip to “La Grand Piedra” (the big rock) was not being offered as the road to it has been damaged. However, we took the all-day boat trip to Santiago de Cuba (57 CUC) and the half-day bus trip to Santiago de Cuba (27 CUC). The boat trip included a brief stop for snorkelling on a reef and lunch on an island in the Santiago de Cuba harbour. This trip seemed long as the scenery along much of the coast was invariant. On the other hand, the bus trip was very interesting and well worthwhile. Overall, the prices for the trips seemed high especially given the aforementioned exchange rates.
Santiago de Cuba with a population of half a million people is Cuba's second largest city and I found it to be as interesting as Havana. The first thing that one notices is the large percentage of the population that is Afro-Cuban. This is largely due to the proximity of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After the 1791 revolution in Haiti, a large number of French coffee plantation owners fled with their African slaves and made their way to Santiago. Black Haitian workers followed, as did large contingencies of West African slaves, sold to work on the plantations.
The city, founded in 1515, has always played a prominent role in Cuban history: it served as the Spanish colony's capital until 1553; significant land and sea battles in the Spanish-American War of 1898; Fidel Castro used it to launch his embryonic nationalist revolution in 1953; Emilio Bacardí based his first rum factory there; and just about every Cuban music genre from salsa to son first emanated from somewhere in its streets. As well it has produced a number of national heroes in Cuba's struggle for freedom from Spain including Antonio Maceo and Frank País both of whom have international airports that we used named after them - Maceo in Santiago de Cuba and País in the city of Holguín.
Santiago de Cuba sits at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains on a large, deep natural bay that is guarded by the 16th-century El Morro fortress. The climate is quite hot year round and especially so in summer months. The warm temperatures in the winter months make it a good place to vacation. Its downtown contains a fascinating mixture of architectural styles ranging from the baroque to the neoclassical.
6.3.2 San Juan Hill
Our first sight in Santiago de Cuba was San Juan Hill (Loma de San Juan) which is a low hill just east of the city and was made famous by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill in 1898 during the Spanish-American War which defeated the Spanish troops (Figure 86).
Figure 86. “Rough Riders' Charge Up San Juan Hill” by Frederic Remington
After the battle, the American commander prohibited their Cuban allies from entering Santiago de Cuba due to a fear of looting and the Cubans were not even signatories to the Spanish surrender. These actions contributed to debut of resentment of American actions in Cuba. The neatly manicured park at the top of San Juan Hill has several plaques and monuments that pay tribute to the Americans who participated and died in the war and a few dedicated to the Cuban fighters. Incongruously there is a small amusement park on the top of San Juan Hill (right, Figure 87).
Figure 87. Summit of San Juan Hill (left), ferris wheel on top of San Juan Hill (right)
6.3.3 Santiago de Cuba and Castro’s Revolution
Santiago de Cuba is intimately involved with the history of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution starting on 26 July 1953 with unsuccessful armed attack on the Moncada Barracks by a contingent of some 100 rebels led by Fidel Castro and including his brother Raúl. On of their goals was to capture a supply of weapons to expand their revolutionary movement. The attack failed miserably and 61 were killed. The others escaped but were soon captured; many were tortured to death by Batista's army. Batista announced to the press that 500 well-funded militiamen had attacked the barracks and had been killed in a gun battle. However, a young journalist succeeded in getting photographs of the tortured and murdered young revolutionaries out to Havana, where the published pictures galvanized many Cubans against the Batista regime.
This attack is widely regarded as the start of the Cuban Revolution and red and black flags in Cuba are frequently seen with 26 Julio written on them as well as propaganda posters (right, Figure 88).
Figure 88. “No blockade” roadside sign (left), 55th anniversary of attack on Moncada Barracks (right)
After the attack the bullet holes and scars of battle were quickly covered up by the Batista regime. Our guide told us that after the revolution the government used a photograph taken shortly after the attack to recreate the holes in the walls to commemorate the attack (Figure 89). The barracks are now a school and a museum.
Figure 89. Immediately after 1953 attack (left), now with restored bullet holes (right)
On our way to Santiago de Cuba, we passed by the farmhouse near Siboney where Castro and his companions left to attack the Moncada Barracks and where after their attack’s failure, Castro was captured. The farmhouse has bullet holes in it that our guide said were from the shootout during Castro’s capture (left, Figure 90). Interestingly, Siboney and the nearby village of Daiquirí were locations where American forces came ashore in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
Of course Daiquirí lent its name to the cocktail that was supposedly invented about 1905 in a bar by a group of American mining engineers working in a mine east of Santiago de Cuba. The 24/7 bar in our resort was called the Bar Daiquirí (right, Figure 90) and we had a Daiquirí there.
Figure 90. Siboney farmhouse with bullet holes (left), seated at Bar Daiquirí (right)
One evening while sitting at the bar, the magician was demonstrating entertaining sleight of hand tricks to the bar crowd. One of his tricks was putting a 5 CUC note into a small rectangular "magic box" that had a small window so you could see the note (left, Figure 91). He left us with the box to see if we could open it and get the note. We studied the box and tried various methods to open it but to no avail. However, a man beside us showed us how to open it by pressing on opposite corners which was ingenious. We replaced the 5 CUC note with a piece of paper and when the magician returned he opened the box with a flourish but was surprised with its contents - we gave him back his note. He was selling these nice boxes for 10 CUC.
Figure 91. Magic box (left), kids with cart & slingshot (center), watch repair stand on street (right)
Leaving San Juan Hill, we drove through the charming Vista Alegre neighborhood with its wide, tree-shaded streets that was home to the mansions of wealthy families before the Cuban Revolution. Most of these mansions date to the 1920s and 1930s with several having a very ornate neo-classical design (Figure 92). Like many historical buildings throughout Cuba, the mansions are in various states of repair. Some are in good repair since they have been put to government use. For example, one of the mansions, Casa del Caribe (right, Figure 92), is in good repair as it houses a cultural research institution.
Figure 92. Former mansion in the Vista Alegre neighborhood (left), Casa del Caribe (right)
After Vista Alegre, we stopped for a bathroom break at the modern 15-story Melia Santiago De Cuba hotel down the street from the Plaza de la Revolucion (left, Figure 93). This is rated as a 5-star Cuban hotel and had good washrooms. It was an option to stay when we were considering hotels in the Santiago de Cuba area, however it was not an all-inclusive hotel and was located in the city and not on a beach.
Figure 93. Melia Santiago De Cuba hotel (left), cutting grass by machete at Maceo memorial (right)
Leaving the Melia Santiago De Cuba hotel, we drove down the street to the Plaza de la Revolucion which includes the monumental Antonio Maceo memorial. This memorial consists of a 16 meter high equestrian statue (the tallest statue in Cuba) to honour Antonio Maceo Grajales and 23 huge machetes that rise up from the ground in front of the statue (left, Figure 94). The machetes were used as a weapon during the Ten Years' War (1868-1878) against Spanish rule in Cuba during which Maceo was a significant military rebel leader. It is ironic that Maceo was an Afro-Cuban and there was an Afro-Cuban man cutting the grass around his memorial by hand with a machete in the blazing sun (right, Figure 93). It would be interesting to see if that would be viewed as progress by Antonio Maceo.
Figure 94. Plaza de la Revolucion (left), in front of Antonio Maceo equestrian statue (right)
6.3.5 Parque Céspedes in Santiago de Cuba
During our visits to downtown Santiago de Cuba we saw the Parque Céspedes area being readied for the celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of Cuban’s revolution on 1 January 1959. The preparations included building a big stage in front of the town hall and setting up many chairs and big screens in the Parque Céspedes. However we were told that you have to be an invitee in order to even get into the square let alone get a chair.
Figure 95. Town hall being readied (left), Raúl Castro’s speech in front of town hall on TV (right)
We saw the building on the square and those in some of the streets surrounding the square being freshly painted in attractive pastel colours. Many of these buildings were still crumbling but they sure looked good with a fresh coat of paint – sort of like putting lipstick on a pig J
Figure 96. Tarting up buildings in Parque Céspedes area
Parque Céspedes used to be known as the Plaza de Armas and it was the main city square in the colonial area being surrounded by the principal buildings of the colonial settlement: church, town hall and Governor's House. The park memorializes Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who issued El Grito de Yara (The Cry of Yara Village) declaring Cuban independence in 1868 at the start of the Ten Years War.
While we were waiting at Santiago de Cuba’s Antonio Maceo Airport for our flight on the evening of 1 January we started talking to a professor from the University of Ottawa who does part time teaching at the University of Santiago de Cuba. He gave us some insight into life in Cuba and provided some translation during Raúl Castro’s televised speech on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
Figure 97. Raúl Castro delivering speech (left), audience in Parque Céspedes (right)
We watched on the airport’s TV as Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, aged 77, who took over as President in February, delivered a speech to 3,000 of the party faithful from the same location in Santiago de Cuba (Figure 97), where Fidel declared victory after the flight of the dictator Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959. Fidel Castro, 82, has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery nearly two and a half years ago. However he published a short message on the front page of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, congratulating “our heroic people” on the half-century of revolutionary rule.
The celebrations were scaled back after Cuba was hammered by a string of hurricanes and an economic crisis that has left it unable to pay its debts and derailed incipient reforms. The most significant foreign dignity to attend the celebrations in Santiago de Cuba was President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who considers himself Fidel Castro’s “spiritual son”.
Earlier, our Cuban guide had told us of her hope that Raúl Castro would make a major announcement that would make the life of the ordinary Cuban easier. Unfortunately that was not the case as indicated in the following article from the Times of London which summarizes the Raúl Castro speech and the state of Communist Cuba 50 years on (Ref F):
In a TV appearance on New Year’s Eve Raúl Castro delivered a sombre message that, 50 years after the revolution, many difficulties still lay ahead. “There are many positive things, but at the same there are new problems that we have to confront,” he said. “We haven’t had peace, we haven’t had tranquillity.”
Raúl Castro, who used his long-time position as Defence Minister to expand the military’s control of the economy to include retail outlets and hotels, is thought to favour China’s economic model. He faces opposition from his domineering older brother however.
The younger Castro has experimented with reforms such as allowing Cubans to buy computers and mobile phones but at exorbitant prices in Cuba’s tourist currency, which is worth 24 times the local peso, and with no access to the internet.
His agricultural reforms, allowing peasants to sell surplus produce and lease fallow land, have been set back by economic troubles after three hurricanes that caused an estimated $10 billion (£7 billion) in damage last year and wiped out almost a third of the country’s crops.
Last week Raúl Castro told the National Assembly that the state had to adopt austerity measures and that 2009 would be a year of much uncertainty.
With the departure of George Bush, the Cuban Revolution will have outlasted ten US presidents despite a US economic embargo, a US-backed invasion and numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Hopes run high for an improvement in relations after the inauguration of Barack Obama, who has promised to allow Cuban-Americans to visit the country more freely and send money to relatives on the island.
Fidel Castro wrote in a recent Granma column: “A discussion with Obama can take place wherever he should wish.” But he added: “He should be reminded that the theory of the carrot and the stick will not have any effect in our country.”
The two buildings dominating on Parque Céspedes and facing each other is the Santa Iglesia Basílica Catedral Metropolitana and the Town Hall.
We checked out the public areas of the Hotel Casa Grand to the right of the cathedral on Parque Céspedes. This hotel is a landmark in Santiago de Cuba and was where the character Wormold stayed in 1914 in Graham Greene's novel 'Our Man in Havana'.
We ascended the very small old elevator up to the rooftop terrace bar with its excellent view out over the city. The elevator appears to labour to bring you up or down and it moves slowly such that you’re unsure of whether you're moving. On the way down we squeezed into the elevator with two other passengers including a major-general from the Ministry of the Interior who can with a group of generals inspecting the preparations for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in Parque Céspedes.
Once on the rooftop we surveyed out over the city Santiago de Cuba and watched the preparation in the Parque Céspedes. This visit to the rooftop terrace bar is highly recommended and reminded me of our visit to the rooftop terrace bar on top of the Rex Hotel in Saigon (http://travelogues.x10hosting.com/SE-Asia_Trip_Report-Part1.htm).
Figure 98. Cathedral de la Asuncion & harbour (left), Sierra Maestra Mountains over Imperial Hotel (right)
Figure 99. Ministry of Interior generals on rooftop terrace (left), street beside Hotel Casa Grand (right)
6.3.6 Other Sights in Downtown Santiago de Cuba
From the Casa Grand Hotel, we walked back toward our bus at Plaza de Dolores and just a block from Parque Céspedes stopped into Santiago's famous Casa de la Trova (House of the Ballad). This is a music house where the traditional trova music is played and many come to hear including ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. The casa includes a series of rooms both upstairs and downstairs (left, Figure 100) including a courtyard. In the courtyard, we listened to a lone trumpeter playing (right, Figure 100). The atmosphere of this old building is very evocative of the clubs seen in American movies from the 1920s and 1930s.
Figure 100. Music room in Casa de la Trova (left), trumpet player in courtyard (right)
Figure 101. View up busy Calle de Jose A. Saco (left), street music (right)
On the busy Calle de Jose A. Saco we went in to the “La California” department store (left, Figure 101). The store was crowded at there was a wide variety of general goods such as clothing, footwear, washing machines and hardware. Most of the goods were of mediocre quality except for the washing machine at some $450 which is well beyond the reach of most Cubans.
There were several beautiful old buildings from another era in very states of repair (Figure 102).
Figure 102. Beautiful building on Parque del Ajedrez (left), close up of Hotel Imperial (right)
Walking along, we were passed by a man pushing a unique homemade delivery cart (Figure 103) and a bicycle with a kid riding on bike carrier (left, Figure 103) when suddenly the kid fell off bike carrier and onto the street (right, Figure 103).
Figure 103. Kid riding on bike carrier (left), oops! - kid falls off bike carrier (right)
We walked down a side street off of Calle de Jose A. Saco and stopped in to see a small market (left, Figure 104). The market sold lots of shoes and hardware including handmade rat traps (right, Figure 104).
Figure 104. Entrance to down scale market (left), goods including homemade rat traps (right)
We arrived back at our bus at Plaza de Dolores. Plaza de Dolores is a former marketplace dominated by the 18th-century Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. It's now a different type of market since it is one of Santiago's most popular gay cruising spot. After a fire in the 1970s, the church was rebuilt as a concert hall (Sala de Conciertos Dolores). Many restaurants and cafés flank this shady tree-filled square and we enjoyed sitting there waiting for our bus' departure time (Figure 106).
Figure 105. Street near Plaza de Dolores (left), mural on building and urinator (right)
Figure 106. Bar at Plaza de Dolores (left), relaxing on bench (right)
When most people think Cuba, they think of Castro, cigars or rum. We bought the latter two for gifts or use: the locally produced Ron Santiago de Cuba Añejo (7.65 CUC for 750 ml) (a picture of El Morro is on the label – see left, Figure 107) and Havana Club Añejo Reserva (8 CUC for 750 ml) (right center, Figure 107) which is a brown rum distilled from molasses in used whisky and bourbon barrels. The Havana Club brand was established 1878 and after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the distillery and company was nationalized by the Cuban government. Since 1993 it has been produced by Havana Club International, a 50:50 joint venture between Pernod Ricard and the Cuban government. Havana Club is not sold in the United States due to the United States embargo against Cuba. Bacardi sells a rum in the U.S., also called Havana Club but unrelated to the Cuban version. The Bacardi product, which is made in Puerto Rico, is currently the subject of trademark violation litigation by Pernod Ricard. The label on Barcardi rum states that the company was founded in 1862 in Cuba (right, Figure 107).
Figure 107. Santiago de Cuba Ron (left), Bacardi Rum made in Puerto Rico (right)
As a gift for friends, Donna bought some Guantanamera cigars although the recipient had a familiarity with Cohiba cigars. In retrospect, this might have been a mistake since it turns out that Cohiba cigars are much higher rated than Guantanamera cigars (http://www.cigars-review.org/). However we did not know this at the time. The Cohiba brand was introduced in 1968 and developed initially as a medium bodied protocol cigar for presentation only by officials of the Cuban government. Cohiba was marketed widely beginning in 1982. On the other hand, the Guantanamera's are very mild Cuban cigar for a beginner or for any cigar smoker who likes a very mild and light bodied cigar.
We visited the Barra de Ron Caney store at what used to be the original Bacardi rum factory before the revolution and before the owners fled. The factory, opposite the train station was founded by the Bacardí family in 1838 but after the revolution the company moved to Puerto Rico taking the Bacardí patent with them (they're now suing the Cuban government under the US extraterritorial Helms-Burton law). The Santiago de Cuba rum product was renamed Ron Caney.
Experience taught us that one should shop carefully for rum and cigars and the prices vary wildly. For example a box of 10 decimos Guantanamera cigars sold for 15 CUC at the Barra de Ron Caney store in Santiago de Cuba but only 7.55 CUC in the departure lounge of the Santiago de Cuba airport. In fact rum and cigars seemed a better buy in the departure lounge but it was not possible to exchange money in the departure lounge.
For our boat trip to Santiago de Cuba (57 CUC), we walked down to the beach at 0830 hours and were then transferred to the yacht (left, Figure 108) in the outboard motor used for short snorkelling and diving trips (right, Figure 108).
Figure 108. Yacht for trip (left), shuttle boat to yacht (right)
There were some 24 tourists on boat but it did not seem that crowded. I spent the entire four hour voyage on the upper deck but fortunately under the sun shelter of the canopy. The trip leader offered drinks from the open bar throughout the voyage.
We passed by the Baconao Aquarium (Acuario Baconao) and the other two resorts along that stretch of coastline, i.e. the Costa Morena and the Club Bucanero. The Costa Morena Resort has no sandy beach due to the effect of a series of hurricanes while the Club Bucanero Resort has a postage stamp size beach.
Figure 109. Baconao Aquarium (Acuario Baconao) (left), Costa Morena Resort (right)
Figure 110. Club Bucanero Resort (left), Club Bucanero Resort postage stamp size beach (right)
After about an hour, we stopped at a reef just off shore (Figure 111) for an hour of snorkelling off the boat (left, Figure 112).
Figure 111. Dropping anchor for snorkelling (left), buildings ashore at snorkelling site (right)
It was interesting to see the variety of corals comprising the reef, i.e. brain coral, fan coral and branch coral (Figure 113 and Figure 114). It was interesting to see the fan coral waving with the current’s ebbs and flows like a fan. Fortunately we brought a Kodak Sport single use underwater camera (Kodak Ultra Max 800 speed film) that is waterproof up to 50 feet (15 meters). The picture quality was uneven with some being in focus and others blurry despite identical lighting conditions.
There were some small colourful fish but nothing like the number of tropical fish we saw in the Galapagos Islands (http://travelogues.x10hosting.com/Ecuador-Peru_Trip_Report-Part1.htm). Apart from viewing the coral, the most interesting view was that of the underside of the boat and its underwater shadow on the reef (right, Figure 112).
Figure 112. “Donna Cousteau” enters ocean (left), underside of yacht (right)
Figure 113. Purplish fan coral (left), fan coral (right)
Figure 114. Head of coral (left), large brain coral (right)
During the voyage, the crew set out a fishing line and caught two fish: a barracuda; and a tuna (Figure 115).
Figure 115. Fish On! (left), small tuna landed (right)
The trip was not that interesting as the coastline was largely invariant. At 1230 hours, four hours after leaving the beach at the Los Corales Resort, we arrived off the El Morro fortress on a promontory, i.e. morro in Spanish, from which the fortress gets its name. This fortress is at the entrance into the Santiago de Cuba harbour.
The El Morro fortress is an impressive sight from sea level and certainly commands the harbour entrance. The fortress has a number of names including Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, Castillo del Morro and San Pedro de la Roca Castle. In its current form it was designed in 1637 on behalf of the governor of the city, Pedro de la Roca y Borja as a defence against raiding pirates. The designer also designed similar Spanish fortresses in Havana; Cartagena, Colombia; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The fortresses construction was spread out over 42 years with final completion in 1700.
Figure 116. Captain Morgan delivering rum (left), cannon vs. airplane (center), French cannon (right)
The fear of pirate attacks was well-founded as this was the era of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and warring colonial powers. The city was plundered by French forces in 1553 and by English forces under Christopher Myngs in 1662 before the fortress was completed. In the English forces was a ship commanded by the famous Captain Henry Morgan (left, Figure 116). He was not technically a pirate since he had a Letter of Marque issued by a representative of the English government, the governor of Jamaica, that empowered him to fight the Spaniards on England's behalf. This letter made him a privateer and enabled him to legitimately ply his trade and make a fortune stealing from Spain who in turn had stolen riches from the natives in the lands of South and Central America that they had conquered (see http://travelogues.x10hosting.com/Ecuador-Peru_Trip_Report-Part2.htm#_Toc217124106).
However the fortress did frustrate a couple of attackers before its completion; suffered damage in a couple of earthquakes; and was used a prison for political prisoners starting in 1775. The fortress fell into decay after the Spanish-American War of 1898 but was restored during the 1960s. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish military architecture in the Caribbean (Ref E).
We visited the El Morro fortress during our half-day bus tour of Santiago de Cuba and found it to be well worth a visit. The view out over the coastline and the harbour are very impressive and beautiful.
Figure 117. El Morro guarding entrance to harbour (left), El Morro from harbour entrance (right)
Figure 118. French-made cannon near entrance to El Morro (left), bell w/graffiti and view of harbour (right)
Figure 119. Views of Santiago de Cuba Harbour from El Morro
Figure 120. Views of coastline from El Morro
Leaving the fort we saw a couple of common sights in Cuba: an old Soviet Antonov An-2 and an old American automobile from the 1950s (Figure 121). These are the outwards symbols of the vice that Cuba was squeezed in during the Cold War by the then two global superpowers.
Figure 121. Soviet Antonov An-2 biplane (left), 1950-1953 Buick Four-Door Deluxe Sedan (right)
Figure 122. Power station stacks dominating skyline of harbour (left), view of El Morro & out to sea (right)
After our boat passed under the guns of the El Morro fortress, we circled around the island of Cayo Granma which is now a rundown fishing village but which used to be home to houses of the rich that they used to escape the heat of the city. We docked for lunch at the El Cayo restaurant on the island and the locals called out to sell souvenirs such as starfish (left, Figure 124) and ask for our t-shirts and hats which surprisingly we needed! This is a pretty blue-and-white clapboard waterfront building (right, Figure 124). We had a good fish lunch while sitting on the covered wraparound balcony looking out on the harbour and Castillo El Morro.
Figure 123. Decaying building on island (left), kids playing in water (right)
Figure 124. Locals selling star fish to tourists at restaurant (left), El Cayo waterside restaurant (right)
Transportation around Santiago de Cuba is a mixed bag ranging from newly arrived publicly operated articulated buses; to privately operated stake trucks and semi-trailers; and to animal-drawn carts. It is hard to criticize their transportation system given that our public transportation system in Ottawa has been non-operational for a month now – something is better than nothing.
Figure 125. People-moving semi-trailers
Figure 126. Privately operated stake trucks
Figure 127. Animal-drawn carts in Santiago de Cuba
Cuba can be legitimately called the greatest living American car museum in the world. On the streets can be seen classic American automobiles from 1940s and 1950s that were imported before the American embargo was imposed. These cars are in regular use and not the show cars from this era that are found in the United States. They are the prized possessions of their owners as they allow them some freedom to move about although frequently they are used only on special occasions due to the cost of operation relative to their income and gasoline rationing.
Figure 128. Vintage pre-embargo American cars in Santiago de Cuba
Frequently these cars look good from far but on closer inspection, most are far from good. This is due to the effects of age and constant exposure to salt in the air from the ocean. It is a tribute to Cuban ingenuity that most of these cars still function after more than 50 years considering that the median age of cars and trucks in use in the United States is only 9 years old. If they are lucky, they might get some parts from relatives in the US but many of these old vehicles actually run on Lada engines. As well, mechanics resort to expediencies such as mixing alcohol, brown sugar and shampoo for brake fluid.
There is an enormous black market in spare parts, Leave a car unguarded overnight and its wing mirrors and windshield wipers will have entered the resale trade by morning. Gasoline is strictly rationed, so Cubans often siphon gasoline from their own cars to keep it safe for the night.
Figure 129. Spray painting 1950s Chevy van in the street
We enjoyed our stay in Santiago de Cuba and again found Cuba to be a fascinating country to visit. The weather was warm and the people friendly. However the condition of the country is saddening.
Based on our conversations with knowledgeable people and our observations in Cuba, it is fair to say that 50 years of Communism in Cuba has resulted in a fairly dysfunctional society. In general for most people, there is little incentive to work hard as incremental rewards are few. The heavy hand of Communism has deadened the will of most people to strive to get ahead and malaise has become the norm. In addition for most, including government officials, some fifty odd years of the punishing US trade embargo has provided a convenient excuse to account for all their societal ills.
With the election of Barrack Obama as US President, many hope that 2009 will bring either a loosening or end of the 49 year old US trade embargo. However, given the unique society that has been produced in Cuba over the 50 year period following the revolution, it is unclear how Cuba will easily transition its economy and culture should the US trade embargo be lifted thus ending the convenient excuse for all the ills in Cuban society. That being said, if the embargo ends and American tourists are allowed in, there will be a wave of Americans visiting Cuba and they will bring money and their dominant culture to this isolated island only 90 miles from Florida.
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