Cuba is a country that is on the move – just look in the news. It seems like every day brings new stories as relations between the U.S. and Cuba gradually warm and borders begin to open to American travelers. But in the streets of Havana, life continues largely as it did half a century ago. Vintage cars drive along the malecon – Havana’s famous sea wall, century-old buildings stand in narrow alleyways echoing Cuban percussion and signs adorning Che Guevara’s infamous silhouette decorate billboards alongside communist-era slogans.
Ask anyone in the streets and they will tell you the same thing – “Change is coming…”. Whether it’s the wi-fi that is sprouting up in hotels and cafes, cruise ships beginning to arrive in the city’s ports or direct air service from the U.S., Cuba is on the verge of entering into a new era, one influenced by it’s neighbor only 90 miles to the north. Whether these changes will be good or bad is to be determined, but one thing is clear – this is the time to see the island in all of its glory.
I was lucky enough to spend a week exploring the island on Discover Corps’ Cuba: Building Bridges trip. Here’s a look at my day-by-day journal…
Arriving into Havana is like taking a step back into time. Walk out of the airport and you are immediately greeted by vintage automobiles dating back as far as the 1940’s and billboards dating back to the Cold War. Oh, and the unmistakable Caribbean heat!
The group, a family of four originally from China and a father & son from Washington, hop into the bus as we take off for downtown Havana. Along the way, our group leaders introduce themselves and give us a brief history of the city as the Caribbean shows itself in the distance.
We jump right into the jet stream of life having lunch in a shaded park right in Old Havana. Tasty Cuban sandwiches and music echoing from a nearby cafe makes for the perfect arrival into the city.
We continue on with a guided tour of Old Havana. While navigating the narrow cobblestone alleys and listening to the history that can be found around each corner, it really starts to set in that I’m in Cuba. From Hemingway’s old haunts to relics of Spanish colonialism, Cuba has a depth of history unlike anywhere else.
Later in the afternoon, we check-in to our hotel in the center of Havana and enjoy dinner together at a charming restaurant overlooking the old city of Havana.
After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, we step into the fresh Caribbean air for a day of arts & history in Havana. First stop is Project Fuster, where the work of Cuban artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster has transformed a community into a colorful art project. Brightly colored sculptures and mosaics adorn the buildings, roofs, benches and walkways of the community.
Our guide walks us through the community, pointing out various social and political messages hidden in the artwork along the way. While exploring the vibrant streets, we even managed to stumble upon a local baseball game and had a chance to watch the locals cheer along their team!
Next stop is an enlightening discussion with Dr. Hugo Pons, Special Advisor to the President of ANEC (Association of Cuban Economists) and Consultant with the United Nations, on the Cuban economy. Through an interactive presentation, Dr. Pons shows the group exactly how the Cuban economy works and what the future of U.S.-Cuban relations are. This helps to provide a foundation for our experience in Cuba going forward.
On to mojitos! After a relaxing lunch looking over the bay of Havana, we head over to the famous Hotel Nacional for a mojito tasting session (and for those younger ones – virgin mojitos!). Overlooking the Caribbean with swaying palms, this proves to be the perfect late afternoon activity.
After exploring the lavish hotel grounds, we head to dinner at a nearby paladar, or self-run private restaurant in Cuba. A three course meal greets us along with stunning views of downtown Havana.
Fresh Cuban coffee and tropical fruit – now this is how you start a day!
As we hit the streets of Havana, I can’t help but to think of the joie de vivre that exists on this island. From the colorful art that adorns the streets to the upbeat music streaming out of every cafe, Cuba is alive.
Our journey takes us to an alley, but not just any alley. Callejon de Hamel is an alley that has been transformed by the artwork of Salvador Gonzalez. More importantly, it is a celebration of Afro-Cuban culture as well as the location of a weekly rumba party hosted for the community.
Walking along taking in the beauty of the artwork, our guide points out to us the artist himself who has come for a visit! The group stops for a quick chat and even gets a chance to see some of his recent paintings that were exhibited abroad.
We hop in the van to the next project called Muraleando, an art collective that began in 2003 under Cuban artist Manuel Diaz Baldrich. The beautiful structure hosts workshops in the community of all forms of art and holds an annual international symposium on wall painting.
After a guided tour, we’re led to the top floor of the building were a band is taking the stage and a table is laid out for a private lunchtime performance! Some take the stage to practice their salsa moves while other simply take in the music. A home-made lunch of chicken, rice, beans, salad and fruit is served – a refreshing break in the afternoon heat.
Back to old Havana for some free time and a quick visit to the National Rum Museum. Later, we enjoy dinner at a charming paladar in the city. We even decide to explore the malecon where thousands of Cubans gather in the evenings to enjoy the cool Caribbean air.
On the road again. Today, we make our way across the island to the southern town of Trinidad. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad is home to beautifully preserved colorful buildings and winding cobblestone streets.
The drive takes some time, so we stop along the way for some fresh juice and piña coladas. But that’s not our only stop – as we make our way along the southern coast, Gretell, our guide, points out the infamous Bay of Pigs. Home to the failed CIA invasion in 1961, we have the unique opportunity to see the beaches where the battle took place as well as enjoy lunch at a nearby paladar.
Back on the road, we continue onwards to Trinidad gazing in wonder as the beautiful coastline of Southern Cuba comes into view. As the van starts to rumble along the cobblestone streets and colorful buildings of colonial design come into view, we know we’re here.
Over the next two nights, we’ll have the unique opportunity to stay in casas particulares, or local bed and breakfasts that are common throughout Cuba. This is the perfect chance to learn about Cuban culture from the people themselves.
After having a chat with my host family, a husband and wife who are both retired engineers, I head to dinner with the group at a beautiful paladar in town. Greeting us upon arrival is a live band who plays for us as we wait for our delicious meal of fresh caught lobster. Later in the evening, I join some of the group for an evening listening to salsa music in the historic city center.
Waking up to fresh squeezed mango juice, Cuban coffee and an enlightening conversation about Cuban music is not a bad way to start the day! My host even has a private bonsai garden that she walks me through.
We hit the streets of Trinidad early with a walking tour of the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Quaint alleyways lead to cobblestone streets lined with colorful houses. In the center of Trinidad sits an ornate cathedral that looks over the main square, a relic to the 16th Century Spanish sugar trade.
Towards the end of the tour, our guide waves us over to a set of stairs that leads to a secret lookout point. The group stands motionless taking in the most well preserved city in Cuba as well as the Caribbean sitting in the distance.
Speaking of the Caribbean, you can’t go to Cuba without taking a dip in its warm waters. After lunch, we take a short drive down the road to an unspoiled beach for a brief afternoon swim – a relaxing addition to a wonderful day.
After relaxing a bit back at our casas and a delicious dinner at a charming paladar in town, we decide to head over to a nearby jazz bar to see some live Cuban music and salsa dancing. I’ve come to the conclusion that learning to salsa dance is basically a right of entry to the island. From kids to adults, it seems as though everyone knows the moves.
The road is calling again. We hop into the van on our way back to Havana, but not without a stop in the Cienfuegos. Dubbed the “Pearl of the South” for its French-inspired architecture, Cienfuegos is unlike any of the places we’ve visited in Cuba. Wide boulevards, classic French-style buildings, a beautiful harbor and even a replica of the Arc de Triomphe adorn this city.
Our morning in Cienfuegos begins with a visit to a local health clinic to see firsthand how the Cuban healthcare system works. Along with a team of doctors, the director of the clinic gives our group a tour of the facilities as well as a Q & A where the group is free to ask anything. It’s amazing to hear that even though Cuban doctors only earn an average of $67 per month, they have some of the best trained doctors in the world (and they’re sent all over the globe to help)!
Next we head into the city center for a once in a lifetime experience – a private performance from the Cienfuegos Chamber Orchestra. The group is utterly speechless as the various members take the stage and treat us to an amazing hour of music. By the end of the performance, we were even up dancing with the conductor!
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Afterwards, the orchestra opens the room to a Q&A about Cuban musical history and the role the government plays in promoting Cuban culture. A fascinating experience indeed.
Lunch at the harbor as well as some free time in the city is a perfect break before hitting the road back to Havana. The scenery is absolutely stunning as we make our way along the coast and back inland through lush fields. We’re even greeted with an afternoon thunderstorm as we enter the outskirts of Havana.
Tonight, we have a relaxing evening in town enjoying dinner at a paladar in town followed by a leisurely walk along the malecon.
I can’t believe it’s our last full day together in Cuba. It’s amazing how fast time flies by!
We hit the road early to catch a performance from the Havana Compass dance group. I have to admit, after seeing several performances over the past week, I did not think this could be any better. Boy was I wrong…
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Havana Compass is not only a dance troupe that has performed for the likes of Mick Jagger, but also trains over 200 children in the community to be dancers, some of whom become professionals. Their full performance absolutely blows the group away. Using everyday items such as chairs as instruments of percussion combined with traditional and modern dances creates an atmosphere that is absolutely electric.
We couldn’t leave without a group a picture…
Our final stop of the trip takes us to the seaside village of Cojimar. Why drive all the way out to such a small town? Because it was once home of one of Cuba’s most famous residents – Ernest Hemingway.
We take a guided tour of Hemingway’s home, including the rooms where he wrote some of his most famous novels including The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway spent a bulk of his life and Cuba and his home, dubbed Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, is a testament to his love for the island. From his boat to leftover manuscripts scattered on his desk, it’s truly amazing to see the life of such an illustrious writer.
We make our way to lunch down by the bay where the cool sea breeze tempers the Caribbean humidity. With less than a day left on the island, Harlen, our driver, takes us to a small indoor market in Havana for some last minute souvenir shopping. From artwork to rum, our group comes back with everything!
Tonight is bittersweet. Our last meal together is at one of Havana’s best restaurants where we enjoy fresh paella and the sounds of a live piano performance. A final cheers to Cuba ends the night as we walk back to our hotel.
And we’re off. Driving through the streets of Havana to the airport is somewhat of a surreal experience. Watching vintage cars fly by as I realize I’ve been offline for nearly a week is almost unheard of in today’s world. But Cuba is different. This is a place that has retained its culture and fended off globalization unlike anywhere else. Change is coming and I’m sure it will mean many things for the island both good and bad. But for now, I’m happy to have seen a place that is anchored to its cultural foundation and to have met so many beautiful, happy people. Until next time… –text and photos by Alex DuBois
BIO: Alex DuBoismanages the operations of Discover Corps. Cuba has always been a place that has fascinated him and he could not have thought of a better time to visit the island. His one tip when going to Cuba – be flexible and enjoy the ride, it will be well worth it!