Exclusive Travel Series to Cuba 2015
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.
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.
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.”
IMAGES OF 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.
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.