Penn Alumni Travel Cuba 2: Part 2

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Author: Alyssa D’Alconzo, GED ’04, GRD ’11

As Faculty Host and Penn Professor Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw’s recent post suggested, Cuba was an economically, politically, and culturally fascinating country to visit. There was something new to see, learn, and experience around every corner, and we certainly made the most of our time in Havana. What follows is a brief overview of our day-by-day itinerary. The memories, feelings, and lessons we took away are difficult to articulate in a blog post, so I encourage you to experience it yourself on the Penn Alumni Travel 2015 Cuba departure!

Saturday, January 18: MIAMI/HAVANA

We had a fantastic group of Penn Alumni and friends on our trip.

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After convening in Miami, we flew to Havana and connected with the rest of the support team for the week.

Cuba 2 629Front: Bus Driver Jaoquin; Center: (left to right) Tour Guide Yuni, Tour Director Ute, Professor Gwendolyn, Staff Host – me!; Back: Translator John

We checked in to the Saratoga Hotel

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for lunch and began the first in our series of lectures. Pepe, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs, gave us an introductory lecture on Cuba’s current economic and political reality and joined us afterwards for dinner at El Aljibe, a State-run restaurant.

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Sunday, January 19: HAVANA

Our first full day in Havana started with a lecture from architectural historian Miguel Coyula

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and continued with a walking tour of Old Havana.

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It was during Miguel’s talk that we learned about “fan lights”, arches filled with stained glass, which we saw all over the city.

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After learning why Miguel considers Havana a little piece of Europe in the Caribbean,

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our tour concluded with lunch near the cathedral. Moneda Cubana was our first visit to a paladar, a restaurant in a private home that operates with the special permission of the Cuban government.

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In the afternoon we visited the homes and studios of some of Havana’s leading artists. The arts have long presented Cubans with an opportunity to cautiously express their views on society, and we had fascinating conversations with Maria, Frank, Adrian, Alex,

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and Kdir.

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In the evening, most of our group took the opportunity to listen to and dance with the famous Buena Vista Social Club!

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Monday, January 20: HAVANA                                              

Our morning lecture on this day was by Maria Antonia Fernandez Mtinez who discussed rural and urban agriculture in Cuba.

We continued to the small, hilltop village of San Francisco de Paula to see Finca La Vigía, the house where author Ernest Hemingway lived for 20 years

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and saw, on the grounds, his fishing boat Pilar.

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On our way back to Havana, we stopped for a brief visit to the village of Cojímar, the setting for The Old Man and the Sea.

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We stopped on the drive back to Havana for lunch at a paladar, Doña Carmela, before returning to the hotel.

Rounding out a busy day was a private, after-hours tour of the Ceramics Museum,

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an incredible private classical guitar concert by Luis Manuel Molina, and dinner at a nearby restaurant, San Felipe.

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Tuesday, January 21: HAVANA

Our wonderful faculty host Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw was our lecturer today!

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After learning about art depicting Colonial Cuba, we journeyed to the Museum of the Revolution, which vividly describes Cuba’s history from Colonial times through the winning of independence to the revolution.

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With a bit of free time afterwards, some guests paid a visit to the Hotel Nacional, a historic hotel once frequented by famous actors, artists, athletes, writers, and mobsters.

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Later that evening we visited the Ludwig Foundation for the Arts for a presentation on Cuban Art.

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The Foundation President hosted a cocktail reception and homemade buffet dinner on the penthouse terrace, and we dined with young Cuban artists.

Wednesday, January 22: HAVANA / MATANZAS / VARADERO

Time to hit the road to see more of the country! Departing for Matanzas, we stopped en route at the Bacunayagua Bridge, the highest in Cuba, with beautiful, panoramic views of the nearby valley.

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Upon arrival in Matanzas, we toured the Castle of San Severino, which included rooms exhibiting Santeria (an Afro-Cuban religious tradition) and slavery as part of UNESCO’s project “The Route of the Slave.”

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We continued to the homes/studios of two artists, Daylene, a photographer, and Borodino, a painter,

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before enjoying lunch at the beautifully restored Xanadu, the former Dupont Mansion built in the 1930s.

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Finally, we arrived in Varadero to rest for a night before more sightseeing in Matanzas.

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Thursday, January 23: VARADERO / MATANZAS / HAVANA

Making our way back to Havana, we stopped at the Pharmacy Museum in Matanzas

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and attended a private, a capella choir concert.

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A visit to Ediciones Vigia, where handmade books are created, followed

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and preceded a stop at the studio of local sculptor Osmany Betencourt aka Lolo.

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Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw led a talk about the Havana Bienal on the bus ride back to Havana.

Despite being tired from traveling, some passengers visited the Tropicana at night!

Friday, January 24: HAVANA

Our last day in Havana came quickly but also brought one of the highlights of our trip — attending an informal rehearsal of the Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba at the Teatro Nacional.

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We spent the remainder of the morning at the National Museum of Fine Arts with a curatorial tour focusing on its Cuban art collection.

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In the late afternoon, we drove by classic car

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to attend a private concert by Ars Longa

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at the Church of San Francisco de Paula

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before our farewell dinner at another popular paladar, San Cristobal.

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Saturday, January 25: HAVANA / MIAMI

We bade farewell to our fabulous tour guide, tour director, architects, artists, museum directors, students, and each other and departed for home.

Our time in Cuba was spectacular! If you would like to experience it yourself, e-mail Emilie LaRosa ( to be placed on the priority reservation list for our next departure, February 14-21, 2015 with Professor Sharon Ravitch.

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