Category Archives: Cuba

G is for Guards

G In my travels, I have taken the opportunity to see many different Changing of the Guards Ceremonies. Some occur once a day, such as at Buckingham Palace, the Royal Palace in Stockholm or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens, Greece. I love comparing the pomp of each ceremony — some things are the same but some are unique to each country.The one at the tomb of Jose Marti in Santiago de Cuba occurs every thirty minutes from 6 AM to 6 PM. Here are some pictures from this ceremony.

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F is for Farms in Cuba

FFarming is important to Cuba. If you drive through the countryside, you will see farms for sugarcane, mangoes, bananas and many other crops.  You will also see lots of goats, cows and chickens. In some cases, Cuban farmers use oxen or horses to pull carts and assist their work. While the state owns a majority of Cuban farms, cooperatives own of some farms. Cooperatives are  groups of families who pool their resources and farm the land together. The land is very lush and green — beautiful.

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E is for Evening at the Tropicana in Havana

ESince 1939, the Tropicana in Havana has created over-the-top shows. Over 200 performers – dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats perform under the night sky. As we entered, there were musicians entertaining us with classical and popular music. We received a glass of champagne to start the evening. There was a light breeze as I watched stars starting to appear in the sky and waited for the show. Just before the show started, servers brought bottles of Havana Club rum and colas; buckets of ice were on the tables. Now, with a (few) proper Cuba Libre, it was time for the show to begin!

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Here are some of the pictures I took from the show.

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D is for Dolphins

DI grew up watching Flipper as a kid, so dolphins have always been special to me and getting in the water with them was an experience of a lifetime for me. There are many places where you can swim with dolphins; however, after talking to some people who did this in other areas, I am very grateful that my experience was at Aquario Cayo Naranjo in Cuba’s Holguin Province. Not only did we get the chance to swim with dolphins, but all our drinks, lunch and two shows were included. Several pools give different types of dolphin experiences. For most, you have to wear a life jacket, but the largest pool is partially on a sandbar with water that is about waist-deep (or a little more for me, since I’m short), so no life jacket was required.

We started our swim by being introduced to two lovely ladies – Brenda and Doris – and we were told about the ten-month old baby that was peacefully swimming around.  We would not have actual contact with the baby and told to ignore her completely, so I was surprised when she swam up to me and around my legs – a lot like one of my cats! Our group of thirteen people, divided into two groups – each group would interact with one of the dolphins. My group’s dolphin was Doris, who first went to each person and gave us a kiss.

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Then, we got to touch and pet her. She would swim up to our group and, as soon as anyone touched her, she would roll over onto her back – I think she liked her belly rubbed! The trainer then invited us to open her mouth. I thought that was weird, but after a bit, we each did it and she again seemed to like it.

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Then we, as a group, picked her up out of the water – I held her nose and the back of her head.

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At one point, she “head-butted me” in a very similar way one of my cats does. The last piece was for each of us to get kisses by both.  Most people in the group were with someone, so they went together, but since I was solo, both dolphins kissed me at once. We had quite a moment together. When the trainer finally got them to swim back to him, I was sad to let them go. Or was it the splash of their tales that give me such a look!

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C is for Callejon de Hamel in Havana

CI visited this very special community centre on my second day in Havana. It is a centre for Santeria religion in Havana as well as a vibrant community hub. The artist Salvador Gonzalez painted the huge murals of Yoruban Orishas on the walls of this small alleyway in Central Havana in order to help revitalize a very poor community. In the middle of the alley is an area that is partially covered and gives the space a place to hold functions – such as rhumba drumming on Sundays from noon to 3 or other events, like the children’s plays I saw the day I visited. In addition, a small art gallery and shop sells paintings by local artists and CDs of music made by the local drumming community. It is a unique explosion of colour and community – and I loved the energy of the place.  While the Sunday drumming may bring in many tourists, it is much more than a tourist stop to the local community.

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Here is a video of some of the dancing that occurs on Sunday afternoons.

B is for Beaches in Cuba

BThe main island of Cuba has 5,746 km (3,570 mi) of coastline and this does not include any of the additional islands that are part of Cuba. Therefore, there is a lot of space for beautiful beaches. Here are some of my favourite beach pictures – including some places that look like hidden gems!

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Punta Francis, Cuba

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My AtoZ 2015 Theme Reveal

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It’s that time of the year, where I participate in the AtoZ blogging challenge.  First, what is the challenge?  During the month of April, bloggers participate in a challenge to write a blog based on the letter of the day — one post on Monday through Saturday. Last year was my first year and I didn’t really have an overall theme — just highlights on some of my favourite travelling adventures.

This year will be a little more focused. It is still about travel, and over the past twelve months, I’ve had some amazing adventures — a trip to the British Isles with my mom, a trip to the Canadian Maritimes with my friend Marshall, and I just got back from a trip to Cuba.  So, which one will I focus on for this year?

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Join me on another adventure to Cuba for the 2015 AtoZ Challenge!

My Last Days in Cuba

All good things must come to an end – but in this case, the Cuba Cruise has one more day of relaxation in the form of a semi-private beach on the Isle of Youth. The Isle of Youth, or Isla de la Juventud is a sparsely populated island that is home to some of the best scuba diving sites in Cuba. For us, it was the access to Punta Francis and its long beach of white sand.

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The ship anchored and tender boats ferried people across to the island for a nice, peaceful retreat. The water is clear blue and there are rum drinks. What more could you want? Back on board the ship, staff setup a barbecue by the pool and we had a perfect day in this bit of paradise.

As the day wore on, there was entertainment all around the ship and the main lounge show was a highlight. As the evening drew to a close and luggage placed outside the stateroom doors for pick-up, I knew I was going to miss the many people who made this such a great experience.

The sail into Havana is a great photo opportunity – especially since you should be able to see the sunrise over the city. It was almost like sailing into Valletta, Malta, the way the Morro Fortress guards the entrance – stunningly beautiful.

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After breakfast, I said a special good-bye to my stateroom stewardess and found a place to sit and read until we got the notice we could disembark the ship. Again, there are protocols to follow.  In this case, for those of us disembarking, our luggage had to be off the ship, scanned twice and sniffed by dogs. Then, we could leave, have our temperatures taken one last time, show our passports and another customs form before collecting our luggage.

The transfer to the airport was easy.  Next to where the luggage, all transfer agents hold signs so you can check-in and get information on how you are getting to the airport – or transfer to other locations. Pretty easy.

Our bus driver liked me because my luggage was small and light. We headed out of Havana to the Varadero Airport, with a brief stop for a bathroom and smoke break, arriving at the airport right at 1:00.

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Check-in was easy – show your passport and they find your information and print a boarding pass. The next stop is to pay the airport tax of $25 CUC (and don’t forget this step – if you do, you will have to go back and then stand in the immigration line again). Next is the immigration line – one person at a time where they take the immigration form, your picture and you then are on your way to the next line – scanning! Finally, you are through all the lines and can head to your gate.

There are duty-free shops, just in case you forgot to pick-up your bottle of Havana Club rum or a few cigars. I was drinking a coffee when they announced the boarding call for my plane. We were loaded on the plane and set to leave thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I guess, once everyone has checked in, the plane can take-off.

We arrived thirty minutes early to Toronto, so of course, there was no gate for us and we had to wait. At least it was warm on the plane – it was not warm in Toronto. I was home and now I have more stories to tell of my time in Cuba.

I’m already planning my next trip — I love Cuba!

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Cienfuegos and Trinidad, Cuba

After our brief stop in Jamaica, the Cuba Cruise headed back to Cuba, docking at Cienfuegos. Because we were re-entering Cuba, we had to go through the full immigration procedure again. This included a new immigration and customs landing form. Before the ship docked, several immigration and medical staff loaded the ship and all of us entered into the Muses Lounge to have our temperature checked and immigration forms reviewed. Everyone on the ship had to go through this procedure before anyone could disembark form the ship.  It did not take long – except for one missing person that they finally found – and I headed for the next adventure.

Waiting for us were three women dressed in traditional Yorban-Orisha costumes and drummers. Then, we had the scanning procedure before handing over our custom forms. One of the customs dogs took a liking to me – I was not sure if I should be nervous or pleased to interact with such a friendly dog.  I opted for the latter and had a nice conversation with the dog’s handler.

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Then, I headed to a bus for my next tour. The nice thing about Cienfuegos is that you really do not need a tour if you just want to hang out in the town.  It is an easy walk from the ship and has a nice plaza area and beautiful French colonial buildings.  I, however, wanted to see the town of Trinidad.

We drove through the town of Cienfuegos, and learned that their baseball team was the Elephants – there was a huge elephant statue next to the stadium. We drove past the medical centre area and a cemetery before heading into the countryside. The drive to Trinidad takes about ninety minutes, and you see several types of terrain, from fields to mountains to the sea.

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For some reason, I felt this could be my home. I felt such a deep connection that was a bit overwhelming. Part of the drive reminded me of driving along Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Half Moon Bay – one of my all-time favorite drives.

This is also the time that all of my camera batteries died – two before I left the ship and one halfway through the journey. However, I did manage to take a few pictures along the way and once we got into Trinidad.

Our first stop on Trinidad was as a beautiful, but run-down plaza. On one side was a former Spanish prison, turned into a restaurant where we had lunch and listened to Cuban music. On the other side, stood a church partially destroyed by a hurricane. I was amazed that the bell tower complete with bells, was still standing.

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Our next stop was at a private pottery business run out of a family home.  The Santander family started this pottery business in the 1890s. The business still runs out of the family homes around Trinidad. In 2007, UNESCO recognized the work of this family with a Master Artisan award.

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We entered the back of the family house into a pottery showroom, complete with a dog asleep near a counter and a parrot in a cage. An elderly man walked up a pottery wheel, and demonstrated how they make the pottery cups that you will find in bars all over Trinidad. I picked up a small bowl, asked how much and told $2 pesos. I should have bought more but I did not know how much would fit in my luggage! They have a wall of pictures that show many of the famous people who visited the shop. Here is a YouTube video that tells more of the story of this pottery business.

After this, we made our way to Plaza Mayor with its stunning architecture. Like most of the plazas, there is a church. This one is the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad. Next to the church is a flight of stairs that lead to the Casa de la Musica.

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To the left of the church is the Palacio Brunet built in 1812. It now houses the Romantic Museum and displays furniture and other objects that used by the Brunet and other wealthy families of this era. The kitchen has the original painted tiles. It is a step back in time and the collection is lovely.

Our next stop was for rum, of course.  This time it is in the form of the “original” rum drink, canchanchara. It is a mixture of rum, lemon and honey and served in the little cups made by the Santander pottery business. Because the day was hot, they served it cold and you had to stir the honey to mix the drink. I think this was my favorite of all the rum drinks I had in Cuba (or maybe I just liked stirring the honey into the rum)!

I wandered a bit on the cobbled stone streets of Trinidad, enjoying the energy and the beauty of the town centre before we headed back to Cienfuegos.

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The last “stop” was made was a quick tour around the main plaza in Cienfuegos. While Trinidad is vibrant yellows and bright blues, Cienfuegos is pale blue, pink and white. It was nice to see the difference between the two before heading back to my home on the ship.

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Sailing into Santiago de Cuba

Sailing into Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, was breathtaking. Santiago rests in the heart of a picturesque bay protected by the Morro Fortress. The ship docks at the foot of the city, which rises up before you with colourful buildings.  This is a city filled with energy and life – traffic and people. Called the City of Heroes, Santiago remembers its sons and revolutionaries. This is where the revolution began.

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Before revolution, pirates attacked the city until the Spanish built the Morro Fortress. It was the first capitol of Cuba, until it moved to Havana. It is the home of Cuban music, dancing and produces the best rum. Its streets are chaotic and people can be “very friendly.” Welcome to Santiago!

Before we could enter Santiago, we had to go through an immigration checkpoint and get our temperatures taken (again). The difference this time is that we had to turn in our immigration forms and get a temporary pass because we would be leaving Cuba when we sailed away from this port. Sounds a bit confusing, but just follow the instructions.

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My first stop was at the Morro Fortress.  This impressive fort provides amazing views of the harbour and the city of Santiago. Inside the fort is a complete history of its construction and lists of various pirates who made life in early Santiago challenging. Most of the information is Spanish, but you will recognize a few names, including Henry Morgan. Walking around the fort can be a bit tricky – the cobblestones can be slippery and it can be very windy. However, the views are worth it. Note that to take pictures in the fort; you will have to pay $5 CUC.

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There is also a nice restaurant next to the fort – and it is always time for a mojito! There are also a number of private craft vendors along the road to the fort.  I bargained for a hat and there were lots of woodcarvings and other items for sale.

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Santiago has a number of beautifully restored colonial houses, many of which are now schools.

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It also has monuments to many heroes. One of which is a monument to Che Guevara and the men who were killed with him in Bolivia.

Che Memorial

The largest monument to a Cuban hero is in the cemetery – the tomb of Jose Marti. Every thirty minutes, there is the changing of the guard ceremony. The tomb is impressive – and setup in such a way to honour his wishes, as expressed in this poem:

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door:
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor.
I am good and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun.

This is a monument to him – a tower that is open at the side and the top is stained glass that reflects the sun that shines on the wooden casket draped with a Cuban flag. Every morning, they place white roses at the casket. It is a beautiful memorial.

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The cemetery has a number of other notables, including the Bacardi Family, several sections for revolutionary fighters, and a section for Cubans who aided in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Like the fort, you will have to pay to take photos — $5 CUC seems to be the going rate.

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The main plaza in Santiago is similar to other plazas throughout Cuba. At the heart is the main church, and the open area is surrounded by other colonial buildings.  This one had building from different eras in Santiago’s history, including one that is the oldest building in Santiago.

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Overall, Santiago is a beautiful city, but it can be chaotic for a first-time visitor. Streets are crowded and there are few, if any pedestrian-only areas. In the main plaza area, I found some of the people more aggressive in requesting things from you. No one asked me for money, but it was more for items such as soap or cosmetics. Even saying no, did not deter them from continuing to ask me to things. This did not happen to me in Havana, so it was surprising.

I only mentioned the highlights of some of the things I did in Santiago – there are many more!