Honors student Lindsey dubbed her recent trip to Cuba “the trip above all others.” Keep reading to learn why:
It was an early morning start at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, but I had finished finals and was about to embark on a trip that I had been dreaming of for years. At the airport, our group was able to all meet for the first time. The group included four college students: Sam, Mac, Julia, and me, and a handful of adults that included Auburn University professors, the Dean of Liberal Arts, and Honors College faculty. After a short two hour flight we got our first taste of Cuba by walking off the plane onto the hot tarmac of the José Martí airport. Our tour guides David and Alpi lead us to the bus we would be using all week and took us straight to lunch. We all spent the time on the bus getting very excited about the old cars and the beautiful scenery. Everywhere you looked there was a new art piece, murals, and graffiti. Alpi explained to us that the Cuban government promotes the arts and sees graffiti as artistic expression. Post food and a quick trip meeting, we were taken to our lodging. The college students stayed at an amazing apartment with a rooftop terrace. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the terrace before dinner at Fabrica de Arte Cubano. The four-course meal was delicious and included a traditional Cuban experience. Right as my main course of fish was placed in front of me, the power went out for the whole block! Ending dinner in the dark was an interesting experience. Generators quickly worked to power up the essential lights, but that meant we could not experience the club and art exhibit that Fabrica de Arte Cubano is famous for. When we left to go back to the apartment, the line to get in was around the block and looked to be a half of a mile long. Though we did not to see a lot on the first day, I was already in love with Havana.
Cuba runs on a different time than Auburn. I am not talking about Central versus Eastern time zones, but instead I am referring to the slowed pace that all Cubans subscribe to. We started the morning by heading to a restaurant within walking distance from the apartment for breakfast. After drinking some Cuban coffee and waiting for a while, we found out that the restaurant did not have any breakfast food. It was common to find that places had run out of certain foods or places to be randomly closed. So after a breakfast of granola bars back at the apartment, we visited Callejon de Hamel, a street that is covered in art and is also the home of the Sunday Santeria street celebration. Santeria is the Afro-Cuban religion that emerged from the Africans that were brought as slaves to Cuba. On Sundays at twelve they dance the rumba and the street is filled with people coming to watch the dancing and listen to the music. We went before the dancing started so we could see all the beautiful murals and art pieces on the street. For lunch we had a cooking lesson at Villa Costa Habanera. The house had turned into a bed and breakfast and the cook gave cooking lessons back in the dining room/kitchen. The lesson started with learning to make mojitos. We were then split into pairs to learn how to make the rest of the dishes. Sam and I were put on beans while the others made the pork and tostones. Before we were able to eat we had an exam with the winner winning a prize. The others decided I should be the winner and started laughing when the prize ended up being a shot of rum. I don’t drink and it was hilarious that that was the prize. I ended up sharing it with everyone because I did not like the taste. The food we made was some of my favorite from the entire trip and I am looking forward to making the food again at home. After lunch we went on a walking tour of Old Havana and we saw the four plazas. We ended the night with another delicious dinner, a walk down the Malecon (the sea wall where everyone meets to hangout) and a trip to my first ever bar, King bar. Our first full day was full of surprises and lots of firsts for me and I could not wait to see what other things I would see over the next week.
The sound and smell of someone cooking breakfast is a perfect way to wake up. I don’t normally eat a lot for breakfast, but in Cuba we did not eat lunch until two or three so a large breakfast was necessary. A lady came into our apartment and made us a fresh breakfast of omelets, ham, cheese, fresh fruit, bread, and papaya juice. Our guides picked us up and we headed to the Partagas Cigar Factory for a tour. The original factory was under restoration so we toured their temporary facility. The building was very hot and had very little air flow. We got to see the different stages of the cigar from the sorting of leaves and removal of the leaf veins to the building of the cigars to sorting and packing. They also had tasters and quality control rooms that we did not visit. Post-learning about cigars our group went to a salsa lesson. Each person was paired up with a dancer. I got to dance with Irwin and he really helped me understand the counts and where my feet were supposed to be. I had a lot of fun counting 123 567 as we spun around and did the combination of eight steps we learned. After the lesson we were all starving, so we headed to our longest lunch the whole trip and the one place I had WIFI the whole trip. The meal of pumpkin soup, shrimp in tomato sauce and a dessert of chocolate mousse was delicious but dragged on for over three hours. Once we finally were done with lunch, we headed to the Museum of the Revolution before it closed. The city of Havana is 500 years old in November of this year, so a lot of places were under restoration to prepare for the celebration and the Museum of the Revolution was one of them. All the exhibits had been moved around and were not in a easy to figure out order, but were written in both Spanish and English so we were able to piece together the history. It was interesting to read about the revolution from the side of the revolutionaries and not through an American lens. The museum’s building was previously the Presidential Palace. After we went through all the exhibits inside the building, we headed out to the backyard to look at some of the vehicles used during the revolution and behind glass was the yacht, Granma, that Castro, Che and 80 other fighters rode from Mexico to Cuba. We ended the night at a local community project called Muraleando. We met the founder, an eccentric man whose catchphrase became an inside joke for the rest of the trip, “and I NEVER lie!” The site was originally held a water tank for the steam trains but turned into a trash dump before Muraleando moved in. The entire place had been turned into a giant art project using items found when they were removing the trash. Kids in the community can come and learn art, film and music skills for free. We had the opportunity to listen to two of the bands that were formed at Muraleando. The first band played traditional Cuban music while the second played music that was closer to American classic pop. That night we learned who was good at dancing and who enjoyed dancing. The night ended in lots of laughter and smiles.
We left Havana for Cienfuegos and started to see a different side of Cuba. Leaving Havana behind we saw less cars and more open fields and green space. We traveled southeast to the other side of the island, stopping at Playa Larga for a hike with a naturalist at the Enigma de las Rocas. The hike was fascinating with all the greenery and water everywhere. One thing that I thought I would never see in a forest was crabs. There are no poisonous animals in Cuba so we did not have to worry about the large array of crabs, lizards and iguanas we saw on the trail. Towards the end of the trail we came up to a cenote filled with brackish water; this is where fresh water and seawater mix. The naturalist showed us where we could jump off the six meter cliff into water. All four college students all jumped in multiple times while the adults took pictures. I was terrified to jump the first time, but as Sam put it I hesitated on hesitating and jumped in with no problem. The water was so pretty and the perfect temperature to cool off in after walking in the Cuban heat. When the adrenaline of jumping caught up to us and we were all tired, we hiked back to the bus and headed to lunch at a local house. It was an array of fresh seafood, fruit, salad, rice and beans. Lunch was followed by a bus ride to Playa Girón to visit the Bay of Pigs museum. I used my limited Spanish skills and context clues to read the exhibit signs. Just like with the Museum of the Revolution it was interesting to read about the Bay of Pigs invasion from a non-American view. After learning about the Bay of Pigs we headed out to one of the landing sites of the invasion to have some relaxing time on the beach. The beach was very different from other beaches I have visited. The sand was mostly coral and due to seaweed there were only certain areas where you could walk into the ocean. The beach also had the remnants of old defensive strategies like sniper pods along beach and poles to slow down a land invasion. After a couple hours at the beach we travelled to Cienfuegos where we spent the night. Dinner was a late affair with bets on whether or not dinner would last to 11:30 or midnight (11:30 won). This night also started our napkin folding competitions that happened whenever our food was taking a long time. The night ended with another walk along the Malecon.
Cienfuegos is very different from Havana because it is has a smaller population. The city is turning 200 this year so it has a more modern architecture than Havana. The view from the rooftop terrace at the place we stayed was of the sky trees and one to two story houses. Downtown had one central market road that we got to explore. Julia and I spotted a toy store and we were surprised at the sparseness of the store. There was about ten total different types of toys sold and then baby supplies like diapers and shampoo. It was a drastic difference to the toy aisles in America. At the end of the market street, there was the central square with the Thomas Terry Theatre which we got to tour. Next we toured an eccentric sugar plantation house. The house was built with lots of design styles mixed together. The front room was Moroccan while other rooms had mixes of renaissance and baroque; the styles really work well together. We ate lunch there and then headed down the road to Trinidad. At one point in the drive, the bus stopped at the side of the road at a fruit stand. The owner of the stand let us try all the fruit and honey he was selling. The honey was so good we all ended up with a bottle of it. I was worried about if it would actually get back to America but it did. Once we got to Trinidad and ready for dinner, we were supposed to go on a walking tour of Trinidad but it was lightly raining and some of the members of the group did not want to go on the tour in the rain. Our guides took us instead to a pottery store, where we got to try our hand at the pottery wheel. My bowl ended up looking okay in the end but I messed up a lot. They let us wander around the back of the store to see what else they were making and sitting there was a 1915 Ford Model T! It was so cool to see a Model T in person with its hand crank engine and wooden wheels. The owner told us, they were slowing restoring it when they can find the correct parts. Dinner was on a rooftop and there was a giant tree extended over all the tables. While we were waiting for dessert, a band came over to us and our driver got up and sang with them and then salsa danced. He was really good and it was a departure from the stoic nature we had seen of him previously. After dinner half of the group went back to their rooms while the other half went to an outdoor Cuban bar and then when that place closed at 1am we went to a club that was in a cave. It was so cool going down into the cave and how the sound carried in the different areas.
I wrote a lot more than I thought I would for the previous days, but today was our slow relaxing day. We started with a trip to a sugar plantation where we got to try fresh sugar cane juice that we juiced using a machine from 1884. Then we climbed a tower with very steep ladder-like steps. The view at the top made the climb completely worth it though. You could see all the old sugar cane fields in the distance and mountains. The rest of the day was spent at an all-inclusive resort on the prettiest beach I have ever been on. The water was crystal clear, the sand was soft, rocks formed a natural pool area, and mountains were in the background. It was a great day to stop and recharge before heading into the back half of the trip.
This day started with a hike in one of Cuba’s national parks. Our guides David and Alpi told us it would be an easy trail, but I would not say the same; it had a lot of steep inclines to climb and lots of rocks and roots to watch out for. The nature along the hike was beautiful but once we came upon the waterfall, it made the hike worth it. We got to jump off a cliff into the water. The waterfall was next to a cave, so we swam towards it and went about ten feet in before we saw the bats and left. After jumping in a couple more times and learning most of our group that did not jump in the water had already started back, we got out and hiked back to the bus, joining the others. We had lunch at pirate themed paella place outside of Trinidad. Where we were sitting we could see how they stylized the backyard to look like the deck of a ship. The paella was really good but so much food that Julia and I ended up sharing and we still had leftovers. After lunch everyone was really tired and we had a couple of hours of free time in Trinidad so Julia, Sam, Mac, Wade and I chose to take a nap and then walk around Trinidad’s main square before dinner. May 10th was David’s, our guide’s, birthday so we went out after dinner to celebrate. We went to the club in the cave again and danced for a while and then went to a beach. By the time we got back to our home in Trinidad it was five in the morning.
Today was the day I realized the trip was almost over since we spent the day driving from Trinidad back to Havana. The drive took a lot longer than I thought it would but we stopped along the way to help break up the trip. Our first stop was to a community project that helps families with special needs children. We were able to meet two of their families for a brief minute while delivering food. Our next stop was at the farm of ceramicist Hector Correa. His wife made us a delicious lunch and then we got a quick tour of the farm. On the farm they kept bees and I was able to drink fresh honey right out of the hive. Our next stop was at the overlook Mirador de Bacunayagua, where there is the tallest bridge in Cuba. The view was amazing with greenery all down the valley and a view of the ocean in the distance. We finally got back to Havana with just enough time to change clothes before heading out again to see the 9 pm curfew canon at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. The boom from the canon was so loud that we could hear it the next night in Old Havana across the bay. We ended the night with dinner and a trip to Espacios.
Our last full day was very busy since David and Alpi wanted us to see as much possible. The first stop of the morning was to a cigar shop. Pretty much everyone in the group bought cigars, but I definitely bought the least with only two. Next we visited another art street, Fusterlandia. The artist started by decorating his house with tiles and it slowly moved into the street. The house was multiple levels of what I can only describe as a Cuban tiled version of Dr. Seuss land at Universal Orlando. Everywhere you look there is something new your eye notices. Across the street there was a tiled mural of the Granma yacht with Castro, Che and some other revolutionaries. We then visited an art studio to see some professional art pieces. Lunch was a happy affair because we had been craving pizza for days and we finally got to eat one. After we ate David and Alpi brought out a cake to celebrate our trip and roses for all the women on the trip since it was Mother’s Day. We keep the excitement up from lunch and went on the classic car tour. The four college students all rode together in a pink Buick that the boys picked out. I don’t know what year the car was because I forgot to ask in my excitement. The funny thing about the pink Buick is days earlier I bought a postcard of cars on a Havana street and the first car in the picture is a pink Buick; I did not realize the connection until I got home and I looked at the postcard again. We had our last Cuban dinner in Old Havana with an University of Havana professor. The night ended at the Buena Vista Social Club, where we listened to Grammy award winning artists and got to get up and dance on the stage. It was a great way to end our final night in Cuba.
Our final day was bittersweet because I was ready to go home and see my family, but I was not ready to leave. This group started the trip basically not knowing each other at all, but we became really good friends. We started the morning by saying goodbye to Julia as she left to go meet her Cuban family for the first time. Afterwards we headed to an indoor market where we were able to buy all the souvenirs we had space for. With our bags full and our wallets slightly lighter, we headed to the airport where we had to say goodbye to David and Alpi. They helped us so much on the trip and were so fun to be around; it was hard to say goodbye as we entered the security line. After a short plane ride we stepped back on American soil and the trip officially ended.
Cuba was such an amazing country and exceeded my expectations every day. The people were so nice and always tried to talk to us even with a language barrier. I am looking forward to returning one day to explore more of this extraordinary country.