Wednesday & Thursday, March 29 & 30, 2017 - Depart Home / Miami / Havana, Cuba
Hot sun moderated by soft breeze greeted us in Miami, a preview for conditions on the two-week voyage awaiting us. Many of us were already acquainted from previous Zegrahm trips, and Expedition Leader Nadia Eckhardt soon began introductions and a briefing.
The next morning, our flight path followed the fragile low-lying chain of the Florida Keys before making the 90-mile crossing to land in Havana. Staff beckoned us to our buses, where local guides Abel Valdes and David Camps greeted us warmly. Once underway, they showed themselves to be both personable and knowledgeable, as well as forthcoming about their own histories and opinions, and the realities, dilemmas, and challenges that face Cuba.
We stopped for a photo-op at the Plaza de la Revolucion, once the open-air gathering place for tens of thousands of Fidel Castro’s supporters held captivated by his masterful oratory. But our group, the majority of whom were Americans “of a certain age,” were spellbound instead by a gleaming array of 1950’s Detroit cars lined up adjacent to our parked buses.
In Old Havana, Sloppy Joe’s supplied us with the first of many “welcome mojitos” and hearty lunches, before we crossed the street to a fleet of gorgeous convertibles drawn up to the curb ready to whisk us on a tour. We passed through crowded urban areas to quieter residential streets, and across a picturesque bridge over the Almendares River to enter the lush vegetation of Havana’s hilltop El Bosque preserve. A brief rest stop saw our cars clustered together like a flock of exotic birds before we “flew” onward down the hill, through a tunnel, and, with the open sea on our left, along the Malecon to end at the landmark Hotel Nacional, still imposing in old age. Inside, low-key signs pointed to a “Museum of the Missile Crisis” down the stairs at one end of the soaring Moorish-style lobby. An access door leads literally underground through low-ceilinged tunnels and storage rooms which were hastily built into the promontory on which the hotel sits during the lead-up to the November, 1962, Cuban Missile Crisis.
Our drivers then delivered us to the much newer Melia Cohiba. After checking in, we headed for dinner at La Habanera, a paladar, or private restaurant, for an al fresco dinner with live (and lively) music.
Friday, March 31 - Havana
Fortified by the Melia Cohiba’s abundant breakfast buffet, we left while the morning was still fresh for a walkabout in Old Havana. Our first stop was the inspirational Guarderia Padre Usera, a day-care center run by a team of four Catholic nuns and an equal number of lay teachers who serve a group of local children, aged 3-6, all of them poor and all from troubled families. Other morning sights included Havana’s Cathedral, the handsome Plaza de San Francisco, ladies in colonial-era dress posing for pictures—or giving lip-smacking kisses—for CUCs, and a madcap street performer whose dachshund was trained to snarl alarmingly when asked its opinion of US President Trump.
A permanent exhibit of an enormous scale model sponsored by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, the engine which drives and oversees restoration, helped us orient ourselves to the maze of streets through which we’d been wandering.
The entire light-filled second floor of the charmingly old-fashioned Medio Oriente Café Restaurant was ours for a leisurely and convivial lunch before we were once more on our way, this time to the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Afterwards, some went on to the colossal Colon Cemetery, literally a “City of the Dead” with its own street names. Others returned to the hotel to relax before dinner at La Moraleja, a large paladar. That evening some of us even managed to stay up to attend the Melia’s “Buena Vista Social Club” show, which featured some of Cuba’s highly-trained professional musicians and dancers.
Saturday, April 1 - Havana / Viñales
With all of us signed up for a day-long bus trip, we wasted no time and hit the road. Throughout the drive, our guides took the mic to inform us and answer questions on matters ranging from cigar culture and the educational system, to religion and agricultural policy. We, meanwhile, could see the city give way to the more sparsely-populated countryside.
The Viñales area is famed for its rare karst geological formations, limestone outcrops known in Cuba as mogotes. We had a good look at the scenery from a spectacular overlook before one bus went to a family-owned tobacco farm. We gathered inside the intricately-constructed drying shed, surrounded by rack after rack of sweet-smelling leaves, as the fourth-generation tobacco farmer described the process of cultivating and curing tobacco. He ended with a deft cigar-rolling demo before taking us to see a hand-turned antique sugar-cane press and to taste guarapo, fresh cane juice, mixed with lime.
The second bus went to an artist’s gallery/studio to meet and talk with Ramon Vazquez, an internationally-known painter. A native of Viñales who until recently was represented by Galeria Cernuda in Coral Gables, Vazquez has chosen to return home to work unaffiliated with any gallery.
We all came together for lunch at the Finca Agroecologica, a state enterprise with a hilltop restaurant surrounded by its own productive terraced vegetable beds. A young and bustling staff served us a delicious family-style feast featuring many fresh, local ingredients. Afterwards Abel reported that, incredibly, the Finca served 300 people the day we were there—no wonder it was a bit hectic! With full stomachs, our buses switched destinations so everyone had visits to both the tobacco farm and the gallery.
Sunday, April 2 - Havana / Embark Le Ponant
Enchanting live chamber music accompanied breakfast at the Melia but we weren’t lingering: we soon set off for a late afternoon embarkation from Havana’s famously sheltered Inner Harbor on Le Ponant, our elegant sailing ship.
But first, we visited the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation, a research institute located in what was once the home of the distinguished Cuban anthropologist by that name. The attractive building, opened on a Sunday for us alone, is not a tourist destination; it houses Nunez Jimenez’s personal library and papers, as well as his collection of fine art and artifacts collected on research trips to the Andes and by canoe around the Greater Antilles.
Our lunch was at a paladar with an outdoorsy feel created by its fountain, waterfalls, koi-filled ponds, and many indoor tropical plants. After lunch, we visited the Museum of the Revolution, located in what was once Fulgencio Batista’s Presidential Palace.
Almost before we knew it we were met at the bottom of a gangway by the affable Captain Paul Boucher. All eyes along the shore were upon us as we, waving and snapping pictures, as we sailed past El Morro and headed east towards Varadero.
Monday, April 3 - Varadero / Matanzas
We were up early to check out snorkel gear and get ready to depart on tour, either to Rio Canimar and inland for a city tour of Matanzas, or on a full-day tour with snorkeling or beachcombing time before lunch at La Arboleda. Our lone diver, meanwhile, enjoyed an exceptional morning’s dive, both in terms of the underwater sights and the professionalism of the upscale Marina Gaviota’s dive operation.
By 5pm we were all back together in the lounge for Richard’s Eight Keys to Understanding the Cuban Revolution, in which he provided background essential to trying to understand what we were seeing throughout the trip.
Sea conditions blessed the captain’s welcome dinner as we gathered to toast the days before us and, as always with such a group of veteran travelers, to talk of trips taken and trips to come.
Tuesday, April 4 - Cayo Guillermo
The morning sun sparkled on the sea as we ate breakfast on deck before heading out for the day’s excursions. Snorkelers were in the majority, looking forward to immersion in saltwater and the discovery of sea creatures.
The beachgoers quickly dispersed, to walk or run along the sand at the water’s edge or to stretch out on lounge chairs to sun, read, or people-watch. Playa Pilar is a popular destination for tourists and even some locals, with access via a long causeway which connects Cayo Guillermo to Cayo Coco and the towns of Moron and Ciego de Avila.
The rest of us crossed the beach to a wooden boardwalk for a short bus ride; across from our first stop, there was a spectacular display of flamingoes in the shallows. The large birds, whether bent over to feed, standing in delicate balance, or with wings spread wide, were the deep-rose color that makes them beautiful even as they also are weirdly, wonderfully gawky.
Our first recap began with Jack Grove’s pictures of swarming blue tangs, guests engaging with stone crabs, and posing with schooling grunts and sergeant majors. Rich Pagen then shared his images of soft corals moving in the surge, bearded goatfish, a big-eyed squirrelfish, and a hard-shelled chiton in the intertidal zone. Richard finished up with a useful chronology of US-Cuba relations in the 1960s.
Wednesday & Thursday, April 5 & 6 - At Sea / Antilla / Cayo Saetia
Perfect conditions graced the only full day at sea of our voyage, which was busy, yet relaxed. All three lecturers offered presentations, starting with Jack’s, The Natural History of Cuba, Part I. Richard followed with, Portraits of Cuba in the 1960s, before we watched Papa Hemingway in Cuba, the first North American feature film to be shot in Cuba in more than 50 years. The show ended in time for tea, while Rich’s illustrated talk, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire, ended just in time for cocktails. Abel stepped forward at recap to give us a primer on Santeria, a syncretic religion widely practiced by Cubans of all backgrounds in which Yoruba deities, and other symbols and customs of West African origin, blend with the country’s dominant Roman Catholicism. Richard then regaled us with the first of his Meeting with Fidel stories before we headed to bed.
First off the ship the next morning was the group headed for Cayo Saetia, an expedition via catamaran, who were greeted by the sights and sounds of musicians and dancers. The latter group set off to explore by bus with a savvy local guide. Outside town, agricultural fields gave way to heavily wooded and hilly scenery of striking beauty, with many mature mango trees along the road. The driver paused in a settlement for us to look at a typical community doctor’s dwelling, and David seized the chance to hop off the bus to run and buy freshly picked mangoes.
The small archaeological museum in Chorro de Maita at the edge of the inland town of Banes was open, and we were able to look around on our own. People were eager for a glimpse of Banes, and many of us strolled around in the midday rush of children heading home from school for lunch. We continued our return to Antilla with a stop at a roadside stand to purchase bananas for snacking and pineapples for pina coladas at the ship’s bar. Last but by no means least, our day in the country ended with a surprise—a stop to visit Eduardo’s family house, home to three generations.
Friday, April 7 - Santiago de Cuba
With a morning at sea, we gathered out on deck where David, who grew up in Guantanamo Province, pointed out landmarks. Jack offered Part II of his Natural History of Cuba presentation, followed by Richard’s lecture on Cuba’s lobster fishery in the 1970s, complete with pictures he took at that time. We enjoyed a clear view of Santiago de Cuba’s El Morro towering above the narrow entrance to the city’s bay, a lovely natural setting.
Once we made our way ashore, the rest of the afternoon moved into fast forward mode, with visits to the Parque Céspedes in the heart of the old city, the marvelously preserved Casa Velasquez which faces onto the Plaza, and the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum. We split into two groups when we reached our buses, as one group returned to the ship and the other ventured into the unknown in the form of a cocktail hour party in our honor at a private home—that of past Zegrahm guest, Cindi Casey!
Just as it was time for us to leave, the sky cracked open with buckets of rain, forcing a quick exit onto the bus. Whether mostly-dry or soaked to the skin, all agreed that we’d had an experience worth getting wet for, although it was sad that the ship’s BBQ was cancelled by heavy winds and rain.
Saturday, April 8 - Santiago de Cuba
We raced to be the first tour bus at the historic Moncada Garrison where a small museum, now part of a school complex, chronicles the defeat of the several dozens of men on July 26, 1953, known today as the 26th of July Movement. It is celebrated by the red and black flag we’ve seen all over Cuba, and by exhortatory billboards such as the one on the outskirts of Antilla which proclaimed, “Moncada, Victoria de las Ideas.” We also saw the Plaza de la Revolucion’s immense monument, which honors El Titan de Bronce (“The Bronze Titan”), the ex-slave Antonio Maceo, who, along with his mother and brothers, fought heroically for Cuban independence from Spain in the Spanish-Cuban-American War.
Next we visited the impressive Santa Ifiengia Cemetery, which boasts acres of burial plots with elaborately carved Carrera marble decorative sculptures, from weeping angels to flower garlands. Jose Marti’s elaborate mausoleum is there, an imposing structure of carved columns supporting a large domed roof.
Once back at sea, we passed a pristine coastline which rises steeply from the water’s edge, a striking view of ridge after ridge of mountains; a beautiful sight but one which showed visible signs of drought, including a sky made hazy by smoke from inland wildfires. Our placid midafternoon was broken with an excited cry that sperm whales, including a cow and calf, were sighted off the vessel.
The day ended with Rich’s witty and instructive, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, with
references to behavior many of the snorkelers know well.
Sunday, April 9 - Casilda / Trinidad
A morning at sea, with its possibility of a leisurely breakfast, is always a pleasure, one we made the best of before Richard spoke on Cuba: the Past is the Mother of the Present, a cautionary reminder that while history is relevant to understanding the present, it may be even more relevant to attempts to predict the future. Rich followed with, Marine Mammals, Local and Global: A Look at Conservation Issues and Solutions. After lunch, we watched The Accidental Eden, a documentary on the political and economic isolation of Cuba.
Those not already out on deck enjoying the salt-air and sunshine came out as we entered the long channel leading to the small daylight port of Casilda. Trinidad is just inland from there, a charming and well-preserved colonial town.
We were lucky to arrive by ship, however, both because we brought our accommodations with us but also because we docked at a “non-peak” time which assured us of the privilege of wandering Trinidad’s quiet Sunday evening streets with no set agenda and just as the heat and glare of the day softened into the muted, moonlit colors of a still-warm night.
Monday, April 10 - Trinidad
The day took us in different directions, as the full-day group headed to Topes de Collantes in the mountains of the Sierra del Escambray, and onward by truck on a rugged ride to Guanayara Park for a hike though the rainforest. Later in the afternoon the exhilarated returnees reported that, yes, the day was wonderful despite having gotten a bit wet.
The half-day group went into Trinidad early enough that its cobbled side streets were fresh and cool, with a delightful sleepy-Monday-morning feel to them. First off was a visit to Lazaro Niebla, an artist who carves extraordinary realist portraits in bas relief, using a process he discovered in the 1990s when art materials were simply not available.
The Museum of Colonial Architecture’s interesting and well-presented materials are displayed in a handsome blue-and-white structure, which is actually two 18th-century houses joined to form one large house on the corner of Trinidad’s main square nearest to the dominant Church of the Holy Trinity at its top. Our last stop of the day was the house of a well-known artist who uses the salon to display the work of other, younger artists, as well as to show off the many vintage objects he has collected, from clocks, to gramophones, and on to a garish jukebox “made in the USA,” but featuring recordings of old-time Cuban singers and orchestras.
We garnered some free time before meeting back together and boarding the bus for a drive to an overlook which offers a panoramic view of the Valle de los Ingenios, or Sugar Mill Valley.
We sailed away from Casilda, bound for Cienfuegos as the afternoon light was falling, a pretty sight. Although we had yet to come to the end of our journey, the time had arrived for us to prepare to leave the ship—needing to pack was the bad news; the good news was that our evening’s agenda included the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner, to be followed by a slideshow of trip highlights presented by Rich.
Tuesday, April 11 - Cienfuegos / Disembark / Playa Larga
We said a fond farewell to Le Ponant and her crew, landlubbers once more, on our way for a full day’s tour, beginning with the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden. One of the garden’s featured species is bamboo, and we saw several impressive stands of giant bamboo. We ate lunch at Los Caneyes resort complex at its bountifully-stocked buffet which served both its own guests and the many foreign visitors who, like us, were going or coming from the nearby Che Guevara Mausoleum.
The Mausoleum is an imposing structure which looks a bit like an Aztec ruin. A towering bronze likeness of Che Guevara stands beside it. The building was opened in 1988 with a small El Che museum, but not until 1997 were his remains repatriated and buried there with full military honors. We also saw the Teatro Tomas Terry, a highlight of our walking tour, and an ornately decorated architectural gem which has been in continuous operation since 1885.
After checking in to the Hotel Faro Luna and with welcome drinks in hand, we were off for a full evening’s fun, beginning with drinks and live music on the windblown rooftop of the Moorish-style Palacio del Valle. A fleet of pedi-cabs then delivered us two-by-two a kilometer away to a walled, open-air restaurant.
Wednesday, April 12 - Playa Larga / Zapata Wetlands
On the road through Matanzas Province, we saw the remarkable sight of rice spread out to dry, covering one of the highway’s two lanes; when traffic becomes two-way, the “rice-side” vehicle drives right over the rice, thus “threshing” it to remove the hulls.
We all went to the museum at Playa Giron, which celebrates the crushing defeat of the Bay of Pigs. Once a dimly lit place with fuzzy black and white photos, mug shots of prisoners, and crudely typed captions, the museum has been professionalized, with more on the historical context.
The beachgoers stopped at Playa Larga, where the site offered two snorkeling options, a cenote on one side of the road or from the beach on the other. The nature group continued on to the edge of Zapata National Park and transferred into a 1948 Ford truck with benches in the back, for a rough ride along the Salinas Trail, a dirt track which crosses the southernmost edge of the large, Everglades-like swamp.
In the all-important category of Bird Sightings, the snorkelers won hands down with the world’s smallest hummingbird, the bee hummingbird, seen practically swarming around a single tree, while the bouncing-truck-swamp group’s best bird was the Cuban blackhawk.
We enjoyed a sumptuous multi-course lunch at the Hostal Enrique in Playa Larga which featured delectable bean soup, family-style platters of rice, vegetables, calamari rings, pork, crab, fish, and on to fresh pineapple, papaya, and watermelon to accompany natillas, a classic dessert.
But there was more! A big-city dinner at La Bonita, a large and art-filled paladar, ended our day. We were served in the serene garden, with music by a superb trio of saxophone, beat box, and guitar. The musicians’ love for American jazz came through in their arrangements of a host of international romantic favorites. As the meal progressed, some danced, some sang along, loud applause was offered to our bus drivers and guides, and all nodded appreciatively as Nadia, Jack, and Rich each said a few words about the memorable trip we shared.
Thursday, April 13 - Playa Larga / Havana
We set off to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba under threatening skies. On a lovely hilltop setting, the house is picturesque amongst its pleasant gardens, though no one is allowed inside. We all squinted through the windows, catching a glimpse of a hunting trophy or a bookcase. Hemingway’s boat Pilar is more accessible, raised so she can be seen from a walkway that encircles the covered spot where she sits.
We had our last long lunch at the bustling Café Ajiaco, a place which had a hip vibe of a sort we hadn’t seen elsewhere. The food was good, with careful attention made to its presentation on locally-made pottery dishes. To begin, little paper bags were passed out to us with steamy-hot herbed yeast rolls inside to go with three spreads already on the table.
For those thinking of taking souvenirs or presents home, there was afternoon free time in Old Havana with the bus drop-off/pick-up point at what is now a sort of arts and crafts fair at the cruise ship pier, as well of course as a final chance to soak up a few more hours of local color before our final dinner together outside at the Melia Cohiba.
Friday, April 14 - Havana / Miami, USA
Goodbyes were said in succession, as the first group left the hotel at 5 am and the last not until late in the day. David and Abel, still smiling and still hard at work, stayed with us until the last moment before we went through airport security, wondering how Cuba would be changed if we were ever to come back.