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Monday, June 1, 2015


Exclusive Travel Series to Cuba 2015

Cuba is the largest island of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. Cuba’s land area is 42,426 square miles (same size as Pennsylvania) with a population of 11 million (same as Ohio). Havana is the largest city on the island with a population of 2.1 million (same as Houston, Texas).
Editor’s note: Throughout June 2015 on a daily basis this blog will feature articles, photos and insights resulting from what we dubbed our group: the April 23 Brigade’s Tour of Cuba 2015.

The Discovery/Gate 1 tour we took out of Miami lasted eight days.  We traveled by a charter 737 to Cienfuegos then to Trinidad, Santa Clara, Playa Giron before reaching Havana.
From Miami, a U.S. tour guide led our 20-person group.  Once on Cuban soil a bi-lingual Cuban guide and bus driver joined us.  The trio provided excellent leadership and made the experience truly one of a lifetime.

Discovery/Gate 1 Tour of April 23-May 1, 2015
As this was a bi-government sanctioned tour, it was not surprising we stayed in two of Cuba’s best hotels (Hotel Jagua/Cienfuegos and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana).  Another surprise greeted us immediately.  The Cuban people like us—they really do.  This was experienced on-tour and during our limited free time off-tour. 

Our days in Cuba were basically from 8 am until after dinner.  “This was work,” offered one tourgoer.  Because of the jammed schedule we saw a lot.
No siesta for the wicked on this tour.  As a result, the overload of educational and inquisitive fabric of the tour exposed the artistic, architectural and educational side of Cuban life to random U.S citizens.
By visiting Trinidad and Santa Clara on day trips from Cienfuegos, we were able to witness more rural life and within each small town we noticed a common blend of art schools, senior centers, museums, farms, historic sites, shopping areas, tourist centers that reflected a socialist uniformity found in larger cities.

Havana was next as we left Cienfuegos.  But first we drove to Playa Giron to visit the small seaside village on the east side of the Bay of Pigs, where in the 60s an ill-fated Anti-Castro armed invasion was repulsed.

We toured the Giron Museum, a site devoted to the war logistics of the invasion; from there we had a terrific lunch at Hotel Enrique, a home that doubles as a restaurant.  The owner is a local fisherman, who caught our lunch.  The red snapper there was the freshest and best prepared.

Cubans around Giron were busy fishing and catering to the large influx of Euro and Canadian tourists, who love scuba diving.  The bathwater warm Caribbean beckons snorkeling and old fashioned beach camping and horse back riding.

From Giron to Havana we drove through countryside not unlike a hillier version of America’s great plains with sugar cane fields and mango groves instead of miles of growing wheat and corn.

Entering Havana’s Hotel Nacional porte cochere was in the nick of time as a huge tropical downpour entertained us from top floor windows (five inches of rain in two hours with a light show of thunder and lighting never seen in San Diego).  Streets were flooded in Havana for several days.

What’s nice about the tropics is the rain goes away in time for a beautiful sunset over a colorfully painted city that claims 500 years of history.  Ancient Detroit built cars drive by countless buildings needing maintenance, especially around the malecon, the famed seaside road.

Gate 1 U.S. tour guide Daniel Guzman (5 stars)
Photography by Bruce Henderson
Be sure to find a map with street names because finding street signs in real time will be difficult.  Cabs and pedicabs are plentiful while public buses are slow.  A physically fit bike cab driver will get you anywhere you wish in Havana faster than granddad’s ’49 Chevy, especially in rush hour traffic.

Havana is what you want it to be.  Tailor your adventure to music, the arts, vintage deco and colonial architecture, old cars, great cuisine and an entire city of bargain shopping.  If you’re a fan of scaffolding and huge cranes then you’ve found your mecca because Havana is being restored one building at a time (including the national capitol).

Of course, you want a Cuban cigar.  Don’t buy it off the street because there’s no telling where they were made—probably Miami.  No doubt your tour will take you to the Spanish era fortress across Havana harbor.  At Castillo del Morro you will find a terrific rum and cigar store with good prices.  Plus, you’ll see the fort and witness great views of the city across the bay. Save your shopping for the cobblestone streets and alleys of Old Havana. 

Because Gate1 travel provided lecturers to discuss with us the political and economical aspects of the Communist/Socialist country of 11 million, we had a chance to ask questions.

Norkis, our Cuban tour guide extraordinaire
Photography by Bruce Henderson
For many on the tour, the reason for signing up now was to see Cuba before Euro and USA fast-food and chain retail outlets overwhelmed the island.
Albeit, Cubans we spoke with said they are looking forward to change in what ever form it takes.  They quickly add they do not fear more commercial modernization because—in the words of a Cuban architect we met—“we are capable of deciding for ourselves what is good for Cuba.”


Adrian, our intrepid bus driver throughout the tour, points to where he parked the bus.  The group gathered outside El Dorado, our lunch restaurant in the town of Trinidad, Cuba.  

Our walking tour arrived in Old Havana, where a young architect involved in the government’s challenge of restoring 17th and 18th century buildings, led us through several plazas.  From him we learned that the government owns the land, but the residents own their “space.”  A building cannot be rehabbed unless all the tenants agree to move.  If they move they get a free apartment in the suburbs of Havana.  But many, would rather live in decaying buildings than move from their beloved Old Havana.  A big problem, said the architect. 

Bruce Henderson from San Diego 
has kindly shared many of his 
images for this blog.  
We highlight our fellow tourgoer’s 
photography throughout our coverage.  
In this photo, Bruce has found 
a bit of shade in Trinidad, where noon temperature
soared to 100 degrees. 

Photographer Phyllis Shess 
contributed many images for 
our coverage.  She’s in Cienfuegos 
posing with one of the few cats 
in Cuba allowing tourists to get
up close and personal.

Mike Shess, publisher of a San Diego based craft beer magazine, West Coaster, was on the trip.  We share many of Mike’s images in this blog and we appreciated his Spanish skills as a translator.  Here Mike is about to finish his first Cuban beer, Cristal, in the Hall of Heroes bar in the Hotel Nacional in Havana.  Mike gave it a thumbs up, especially at the end of 100 degree day.  
Thanks to a wonderful serendipity, Gary Payne and his wife, Zoraida, were on another People to People tour of Cuba about the same time as our group.  Gary is one of San Diego's top magazine photographers, whose work has appeared internationally.  We appreciate Gary's kindness in sharing many of his images.

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