Star Date: Sept 2017
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something." (Neil Gaiman)
I would if I could but I can't so I won't.
Simplicity. Minimalism. Cuba, where life is simple. Cubans yearn for more complications and we, in the life of stress and ultra busyness, yearn for the simplicity of life.
Discover Cuba’s larger-than-life culture, sultry rhythms and weathered beauty while exploring the country’s historic attractions. Cuba is a melting pot of cultural influences including aboriginal, Spanish, African & Yuma (American). This rich combination creates the most diverse and populous country in the Caribbean. The contrasts and anomalies of Cuba reach a peak in its capital Havana. In the old section of Havana or Havana Viejo it is possible to wander the streets and back alleys enjoying local life, play with families in a park, sit in an old courtyard sipping wine or a coffee, visit a cigar manufactory and watch the Romeo y Julietas being individually hand-rolled, or sampling what even the locals call a Cuba Libre as the sun sets over a sapphire Caribbean. History oozes from every corner. Retrace the centuries by admiring the elegant Spanish courtyards and balconies that have survived since colonial days. Walk along the seafront or El Malecon past forts still sporting canons to ward off marauding pirates. The Malecón, Havana's evocative 7 km. long sea drive, is one of the city's most soulful Cuban thoroughfares. It is a favorite meeting place for a variety of lovers, poets, philosophers, musicians, fishermen and wistful Florida-gazers. The Malecón's atmosphere is most potent at sunset when the golden hues hide the decrepitating buildings and restore them to their previous glory.
Drop by ‘Papa’ Hemingway’s favorite bar for a mojito, stroll past the huge wrought-iron mural sculpture of their hero beret-clad Che Guevara, notice anti-US slogans still decorating walls next to old revolution tanks and planes, dance in the streets to the throbbing rhythms of salsa, and definitely hire an old 1940-1950's US luxury car serving as a taxi, for the ride of your life!
But it is la musica, the very rhythm that pulses through the veins of Cubans, that speaks to your soul. Everywhere you walk there are little cafes with live bands, sporting 100 year old non amplified instruments, singing their hearts out. In residential areas music booms as women clean the house or men practice their instruments in the living room. One of our favorite stories happened while sitting in a small sidewalk cafe. A couple on their way to work heard the band start one of their favorite salsa tunes and they stopped in their tracks, looked at each other, smiled, and danced a sidewalk salsa performance rivaling anything seen on TV. Song done they continued on their way to work.
Cuba is music. Music is in their souls. When all else fails Cubans escape into the souls of salsa, rumba and Afro-Cuban jazz music to name a few, finding refuge and pleasure. Smiles radiate and happiness prevails. A definite example of "Simple pleasures are life's treasures."
Taking a bus 2 hours north west of Havana we were excited to get lost in the foothills of the Sierra de los Organos mountains and the Viñales Valley. You know you are getting close when you spot your first craggy mogote (limestone monolith) and you spy a cigar-chewing guajiro driving his oxen and plough through a rust-colored tobacco field. Endless green tobacco fields, with drying sheds fill the valleys. This is where Cuban cigars are born! Ah yes, we had arrived. Viñales is a small town in western Cuba. When last here there were about 50 Casa Particulares to choose from, now about 800. In other words everyone is getting in on the act - one of the only legal ways to make a little extra money for the family. The choice is wide open so if the one you choose doesn't work out just take a walk and find a better option. (Ours operated a daycare during the day so we moved on!!) Vinales main street is lined with colorful colonial-era wooden houses, but getting lost in the farms and forests of Vinales Valley is the place to go. On the roads leading out of town there are many, many cute, quaint little farm houses with rooms to rent. Far from the now bustling center of town it is a way to feel the rural, country life of Cuba. We spent the next week hiking through the valley; climbing trees, drinking coconuts and talking to the friendly farmers who call this home.
Walking down one of the country lanes we noticed a driveway off to the left that looked familiar. We had stayed with, Miguel 5 years earlier and when they saw us walking up to their farm they yelled, "Hola Nancy and Joseph!" We had a great catch up and reunion, but alas they were fully booked for the rest of our week. "Next time," we promised. They still follow us on our webpage monthly and 'travel with us'.
Wanting to spruce up a bit after months of hard travel in the middle East and N. Africa, I stumbled on Lucy's Peluqueria (hair salon). Observe. Allow. Accept. Walking in the old caved in door, past Lucy's ancient Mom selling single cigarettes, honey and prescription drugs; I sat down next to another ancient, smiling black woman. She, like me, was just there to watch what might happen next. Lucy was busy creating toe art and bleaching dark hair to orange, beauty in the making. Gossip was flying, music blaring, and Yoni the dog was chewing on anything in sight. All of a sudden under the Reggetran beat I heard the most magnificent classical piano wafting from behind the tattered curtain. Camelia, Lucy's 14 year old daughter, has just been accepted into the Havana Music Academy. I requested that the booming video be squelched and we just listened to her play. Someone gave Lucy a piano 15 years ago and Camelia has been playing for 11 years. What an eclectic treat! The beauty of classical music shining brightly in the dimly lit, crowded, falling down home; with people pausing to enjoy the melody, is a memory that lingers.
While I waited for the henna on my hair to finish we talked and I shared photos of my family. When done trimming my hair Lucy declared, "I did something different to your hair!" Not words you want to hear from a hairdresser, especially when I had plainly requested a trim of just the ends. The bottom of my hair was zig-zagged! The damage was minimal and the smiles grand. Quickly trimming off another 2 inches and I was good as new, not looking like the new style from Paris in Lucy's hair magazine. By the time I left I felt like part of the family! And in Cuba family is everything.
And so it goes.........................................Next S. Eastern Cuba, El Oriente, in search of the origin of salsa. Until then let's remember to get out there this New Year. Do things we have never done before. Make mistakes. Just do something! Take care and Thanks for keeping in Touch! We love your emails!
Love, Light & Laughter,
$1.00US = 1 c.u.c or 25 peso nacional
Remember U.S. citizens need to have a valid U.S. passport to re-enter the U.S. from the Caribbean.
Immigration and customs can take a long time as lines of foreigners arrive late afternoon. Try to avoid busy times and have all your cards filled out before stepping up to the desk. Flights fill up fast and even pre-booking doesn't guarantee a seat. Check-in early to avoid a delay of often 1-2 days; until the next flight flies inter-island in the Caribbean, depending on the route.
Cruises: Check on-line for end of season or last minute specials. A good way to get to see a sampling of the Caribbean (a Hawaiian term: 'pupu platter').
Weather: High season Christmas through Easter. Prices drop as the hurricane season (June-Dec) blows in, although family groups push the prices back up in July & August (the hottest time of year but a.c. is included). These islands have survived many storms through the centuries and chances are you won't run into one.
Carnival ushers in exciting times with music, dancing and parades. Carnival celebration signal falling prices and rising temperatures. Each town/island has a different Carnival celebration. Havana before Easter, Trinidad in March, Camaguey the end of June and supposedly the liveliest celebration, Santiago, in July. Check schedules ahead as it is worth experiencing for a crazy, fun couple of days.
If you want to hang out with the locals, avoiding the tourist traps and inflated prices, convert your Euros, British Pounds or foreign currency into cucs then exchange at least $20 worth in pesos nacional for street food, fruit and vegetables in the market, arts and crafts in smaller towns. For instance a stamp for a postcard on Obispo St in Havana sells for 85 cents. At a post office it costs under 8 cents. (Just write, buy from the usual stamp teller, lick and stick, and drop it in the box). The tasty street pizzas cost 40 cents or a tourist will be quoted 1 cuc or one dollar. In fact most quotes to tourists will be a minimum of 1cuc or one dollar. Better to bargain then give a small tip for good service but don't fall for the cuc trap. You must exchange all money before flying out - Cuban money isn't usable outside of Cuba. The exchange rates are all similar (government set). You must exchange all your pesos nacional before the airport (only cuc are exchanged there).
There are ATMs in the bigger centers for the above mentioned currencies. Also it is possible to use credit cards from any country excluding the US. US currencies has a whopping 20% surcharge so plan ahead with different currency. Anything originating in the US is NOT accepted - such as bank cards or credit cards.
Phones in Cuba:
After waiting 2 hours in a line I was told it would cost 3cuc per
day for a sim card to activate my phone. Only $180 for 2 months!
Buy international cards
Internet is available in big hotels on their machines for $6 an hour. Wifi only at Central Park Hotel in Havana for $8-10 an hour. No Skype and many blocked links. Basically out of reach of most Cubans who remain in the dark and must use a weeks wages for checking their emails - don't think so. A black market internet system is in place for $1.00/hr but still slow and for short periods of time.
Go to Buzon de Creo - Cubas oldet post office in Plaza Cathedral XIX -Old Havana and mail a postcard back home.
Approximately 20-30 people a day will ask for pens, soap, money. As we have said over and over giving money encourages further begging so share food, soap, little shampoos from home (none given in the Casa Particulars), etc. Genuine friends or 'amigos' you make along the way would love a little treat. It was told to us that the only way a person can afford the outrageous prices with low wages is to get help from abroad. With over a million Cubans living overseas, mainly in Miami, this helps keep the economy moving.
is easy in Cuba. Buses go regularly for mid range prices (Havana to
Trinidad 5 hours 25cuc, Havana to Santiago - 12 hours - 51cuc),
including on time departures, air con, and bathrooms on the Viazul
or Cubatour buses. They always take a little longer than planned
but are pretty efficient. Cubatours leave from downtown hotels
while you must take a taxi out to Viazul's outlying bus terminals.
Out of the way destinations require hiring a taxi - which when
combining with other travelers ends up being cheaper at times.
Always ask if there is a cheaper car/van going to combine with
locals. Often a returning taxi will match the bus price for less.
Bargain hard and agree upfront.
There are horse wagons, Astral buses and trucks hauling people around the country. We heard that it was possible to travel on Astral buses but when trying, we weren't even allowed in the 'local' part of the station. I guess fines can be issued if we are found on board. By the side of the road one Astral driver said yes, the other said NO! We hired a car to make the trip. Our thoughts that an extra few c.u.c.s would insure an easy trip went up in steam as the radiator blew in the new car. They just don't build them like they used to! We had to stop 4 times, then limped into our destination the same time as the bus which left 4 hours later. Oh well! Locals travel on Viazul but not vice versa - worth a try though as the prices are lower. Cubatours offer stops at tobacco farms, etc for the same price - but of course it takes much longer.
Current info on
We fell in love with Old Town.
Before or after spending an enjoyable couple of hours at the magnificent Nacional Theatre drift down the street towards Central Parque and catch on of the many talented traditional bands, complete with brass, that play at the Patio? de la Louvre. Always a lively fun time. Stop in the park to watch life from a shaded bench, continue through or past the Museo of Belle Arts for a walk past the "Floridita" and down Obispo. Never know what is happening in the many, many Cafes. When you hear music you like, stop right away as their 'sets' are only 4-5 songs long and often they move on. A place to be in the NOW!
At the right side of the Nacional Theatre, underneath, there are shows at 4pm and 9pm in the smoky bar downstairs for $5 or cuc. May be worth a look before paying. Just ask to see if the band is lively enough to block out the surroundings (such as an Afro Cubana Rumba show).
Walking straight down into Old Town from the Capitol building you come to a little park on your left. On the opposite corner is the "Auborgine? (or something) Restaurant. Good food, friendly staff. Always cool breezes on a hot day.
There is a good market - without queues - if you continue down the Paseo de Prado past the Capitol - it is on your right side. You can spot it with the flower stands out front of the blue & white building with pillars.
La Medina - middle eastern restaurant in an historic building near the Plaza de las Armas (1700's). Don't expect belly dancing or fancy settings but a large vegetarian platter with falafels, hummus, pita, etc for $8.
Rooms in Casa
Hotels are double the price with half the service. Maintenance with no supplies rarely happens.
Cafe Europa - dancers and traditional music on Obispo - a tradition.
Old Habana: Habana Vieja
Around to the right side of the main restaurant building - down the alley - is a government run version of the expensive restaurant, for much less. (Also good food) As vegans we enjoyed the roasted root vegetables and a salad in both places. Yum!
Continue on to the other Plazas in the historic old city. History just oozes from every pore at every turn.
National Hotel de Cuba
The famous Tropicana nightclub outside of Havana offers a show with over 200 dancers (and busloads of tourists) for $75-95 pp.
Portion Merced 68-c
Playas del Este/East Beach: near Havana. A bus will take you there for only $3 each way (from in front of the Capitol). Watch out for pickpockets, and bag snatchers as you swim. The same everywhere as you travel.