Throughout my retirement, travel has been something I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve always had aninterest in visiting Cuba. I told myself that once it was legal for Americans to go, I’d be one of the first.
On Feb. 24, 2014, I packed my bags and took off. Americans can legally go to Cuba through a “People to People” trip now coordinated through many travel agencies. It is rather strict with a well-planned itinerary; the whole trip is mapped out for you. However, sometimes some of the things and places that I was supposed to visit just did not pan out. No reason was given but the Cuban guide told us we were not going to do it.
We flew out of Miami. Because we were flying so low, it was easy to spot the Everglades, the Keys, and Key West from the air.
It is just a 45-minute ride to Cuba, but what a different world it is! We flew into Cienfuegos and went by bus to an all-inclusive resort called Hotel Las Brisas Peninsula Ancon. Surprisingly, it was a nice resort on the Caribbean, 15 miles from Trinidad. The beaches were lovely and it had most of the amenities that resorts in Mexico would have.
We stayed at the hotel for three nights, and every day we took trips to the areas around the resort. The first night we had dinner in Trinidad at a beautiful old home now turned into a restaurant.
Not so hot
Before I left Rochester, I worried the food would be too spicy, but it was not — in fact, it was very good. The food centered on pork, chicken, fish, rice and beans. Usually every lunch and dinner was a five-course meal; and there were always musicians. The musicians in Cuba are fantastic. They are very talented and it’s hard to not buy their CDs, but one can’t resist! Music is one form of entrepreneurship, and restaurant businesses are on the rise.
We spent the second day in Trinidad, which was an interesting town with cobblestone streets, nice parks, old Spanish-style homes and people meandering. The cobblestone streets were beautiful, but uneven and very hard to walk on. You had to watch where you were walking, as you never knew when a horse and cart, truck, or tractor would come by.
We went to a museum called the Palacio Cantero, and later in the day had lunch at a sugar plantation. We toured a cigar factory where there were about 50 women workers sorting leaves, hand rolling, cutting and stamping the ends of the cigars. The next stop was canceled; no reason given but we gained time to come back and spend time at the resort.
We saw lots of farm land and one thing I found of interest was the use of tree branches as fences. I was also struck by the number of people standing by the road waiting for a ride. There is a lack of transportation as we know it. A person could be picked up by an open truck, horse and cart, bus on a railroad track, or tractor. It is the law in Cuba for government vehicles that if you have room in your vehicle you have to pick up the people. Seventy percent of the cars found in Cuba are American cars from the 1950s, and most of these are found in Havana. Because of the embargo a few cars were from China or Russia.
On the fourth day, we went by bus to Havana and spent four days at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is a HUGE five-star hotel and one of the largest in Cuba. During this time we saw many of the usual things, like Ernest Hemingway’s plantation, a school, clinic, nursing home and the Bay of Pigs Museum.
Old ball game
Some of the people in the group got permission from our Cuban guide to go to a baseball game. They saw the Estados Latino Americano League “Havana lndustriales,” which is a big league in Cuba that can be found on the Internet. My friends, at my request, were able to get a baseball cap for my grandson.
I also asked if they sold hot dogs and pop like we do in America, and I found that the only thing they sold at the game was laundry soap! Is there a shortage of laundry soap in Cuba? We do not know, but occasionally people would come up to us rubbing their forearm, seeming to be begging. We thought they might want hand soap, so we gave them hotel soaps and shampoos.
One other thing we got permission to attend was the Tropicana nightclub, which was GREAT! I was surprised to realize that the club was outdoors and that it has been performing for 75 years. When we arrived we were given a cigar, and cans of their type of “Coke” were placed on our table. Each group of four also got a large bottle of rum. Cigars and rum are some of the main products Cuba is known for, but we were not allowed to bring any home.
When we left the club, we found a lady selling cigarettes in a tray on a strap around her neck, just like we saw in nightclubs years ago.
Some of my fondest memories were watching boys practicing baseball behind Hemingway’s property. I also watched a 12-year-old boy in an alley in Old Havana, trying to play baseball with a stick and a rock. At that moment, I wished I had brought a baseball and bat to give to him.
It was a great trip and a very special one. I’m glad I got to see Cuba before more and more tourists cause it to lose its true character.
It is a poor country, but the people are very nice. It is safe, but a person has to realize this country is about 50 years behind. If you have a chance, I’d encourage anyone to go, but be sure to bring toilet paper and a good pair of walking shoes.
By Marge Breuer, August 15, 2014