This week, I’m taking a break from my usual music blog where I showcase a song that influences my writing.
Instead, today’s music post highlights Cuba.
When the temperature dipped below -20C the first week of January, my good friend, Darcy and I desperately wanted to escape the cold. Within days of thinking about it, we booked a resort in Varadero, Cuba, best known for its white, sandy beaches. Only a three and a half hour flight away, and we’d be exchanging boots, hats, and scarves for bikinis!
Before the trip, we picked up a few things
I was in Cuba more than twenty-five years ago, and after speaking to a native Cuban, things had not changed much economically for the people living there. They are still in need of basic essentials like personal hygiene products, women’s stockings, children’s school supplies, and simple treats like chocolate.
We bought ketchup for our guide in Havana because we knew he loved Heinz and it wasn’t available in Cuba!
Darcy and I packed lightly for ourselves and topped up our luggage with necessities to give away. The Cubans are a proud people (especially the men). They don’t need our charity, so it’s important to connect with someone before “gifting” anything. Our desire was to be helpful, not patronizing. Throughout the trip, we met wonderful people who opened up about themselves and their families. It allowed us to personalize what we gave away.
Day One and we were already in trouble
Neither of us is much for following rules, so we skipped the resort “orientation” (I HATE those things) and decided to take a long walk our first day. Varadero Beach stretches 20km, but from our hotel, it is not a continuous path. At times, we had to weave in and out of other properties to find our way back down to the beach. It wasn’t a problem and actually allowed us to see different hotels along the way.
We walked for almost two hours before we decided to turn back.
That’s when we ran into a small problem, in the form of a Cuban security guard.
We had seen him earlier in the day when we passed him. We even commented on how odd it was that he was sitting under a little grass hut about 5 meters (15 feet) in from the main path. He seemed in the middle of nowhere.
What could he be guarding?
Well … we soon learned he was keeping an eye out for trespassers, and we were on a private boardwalk belonging to some exclusive resort nearby. When he approached us and said we could not walk the short distance to get back on the beach, we were dumbfounded.
We had taken that very path earlier, we told him.
He shook his head and said “No, you cannot go this way.”
“But … we want to get off your property,” I said. We explained we just wanted to go back the same way we came.
Our efforts to reason with him in our broken Spanish proved futile.
He refused to let us pass.
We were not happy that he re-directed us inland to find another route back. Also, I must confess I’m directionally challenged. I got lost almost immediately once we did a few twists and turns. Darcy fared better, but in the end, neither of us wanted to walk on dusty roads to return to our hotel. We came all the way from freezing Canada to walk on the beach, and damn it, that’s what we were going to do!
We explained our plight to an official of the resort that owned the “private boardwalk,” and he pointed us in the right direction.
Off we went again—toward the beach and that security guard.
Only this time, we were determined to get by him no matter what. We psyched each other up and jokingly said we could take him if we had to.
By the time we got on the path again, we hoped he might have changed shifts or was facing a different direction so he wouldn’t see us. We even tried sneaking by on the rocky surface behind him, ducking behind boulders, but … no luck.
He saw us and walked in our direction, wagging a finger and shaking his head. I felt like a child being reprimanded. He demanded we follow him back toward his grass hut.
He stomped his foot and gave a curt gesture with his hand to follow him.
We did not budge.
He drew a walkie-talkie from his holster and spoke to someone, then commanded again that we follow him.
We defiantly stood our ground.
Exasperated, he turned and slowly walked back to his hut. We contemplated making a run for it.
The only thing that stopped us was thinking he might be armed. Neither of us remembered seeing if he carried a gun. As illogical as it sounded, we thought he might chase us and shoot us in the back. We just did not know.
Finally, the guard returned carrying a big notebook. Most of the pages were empty. He asked for our names and the particulars of where we were staying. Darcy even wrote down everything for him. He returned to his hut and replaced the book, spoke on his walkie talkie again, and then came back to us.
“Come,” he said, motioning again for us to follow him.
This time, we complied. We even thanked him for personally escorting us the 10 meters it took to get us off the property.
Later we learned the orientation (had we attended) would have informed us not to go on certain private properties, but hey … then I wouldn’t have this story to tell you!
Thankfully, this was the view from our room, and it’s not from inside a Cuban jail cell!
We were able to walk up to the top of the peninsula from our resort to Xanadu Mansion, an estate built in the 1930s. The home belonged to American millionaire, Irénée du Pont. Now, it’s a hotel with a beautiful old-style bar on the third floor.
The mansion was still undergoing renovation after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017.
The view was spectacular, but all the windows of the bar had to be replaced and reinforced after Irma.
We sipped brandy at the bar. It was 11am, but I had a sore throat … really!
Exploring Havana in a vintage car
We booked a full-day tour of Havana, which is a two-hour drive from Varadero. I connected with Blexie (a Cuban professor turned tour guide) before we left Canada and set up a date.
Blexie’s English is impeccable as he was trained as a translator. He explained that workers in the tourist industry are among some of the best paid employees because they are able to earn tips. Government workers, lawyers/doctors paid by the state, even professors only earn an average of $25.00 CAD/month. Both he and his wife are University educated, and yet, they work in the service/tourism industry.
To put earnings in perspective, Cubans receive free healthcare and education, as well as minimally subsidized living expenses, but it is still a struggle to make ends meet. Many Cubans have jobs on the side, and many more have become self-employed. Although there are government restrictions on self-employed workers, the earnings potential is considerably more than state salaries.
With Blexie and his driver Lou.
Our car hid an Ontario, Canada license plate beneath the Cuban one!
Before arriving in Havana, we stopped at the Bridge of Bacunayagua, the tallest in Cuba standing at 110 meters. It was inaugurated in September 1959 and crosses the canyon. That’s it behind us on a windy start to our day.
Old Havana is where most of the tourists spend their time. It’s full of interesting architecture with many of the main attractions concentrated around four plazas. I will cover three of them here and the last one in a subsequent post.
The picturesque Plaza de San Francisco is directly across from the port.
Formerly a small inlet opening directly to the bay, the plaza was first laid out in 1575 when the land was drained. From the start it was a market where goods were unloaded, bought, and sold. That included the purchase and sale of slaves.
The spacious cobbled square, which was fully restored in the 1990s, takes its name from the Franciscan convent built there.
Orphans were placed inside the tiny doorway in the wall. Loosely translated, the sign says: My father and my mother abandoned me to be taken in by the charitable souls inside.
In the late 17th century and 18th centuries, many wealthy nobles built their homes on the cobbled plaza. Eventually, the marketplace moved to Plaza Vieja after noise complaints from the residents and the convent’s monks.
Street scene around Plaza de San Francisco.
The oldest square in Old Havana and the site where the city was founded is Plaza de Armas. In colonial times, it was the site of military parades, musical concerts and formal evening promenades, and it maintained its political and administrative role until the mid-20th century.
In the center of the square is Parque Céspedes, pinned by a white marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, initiator of the Cuban wars of independence and Father of the Homeland.
The square is lush with palm trees and other tropical plants, while the perimeter is lined with elegant Baroque buildings. Cuba’s national tree, the royal palm, is distinguished by its trunk which looks like it’s made of cement.
Nearby is the 18th-century baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales—the former governor’s palace, fronted by a street made from wooden tiles instead of cobblestones. The governor of the time found it too noisy!
Today, the building houses the Museo de la Ciudad, dedicated to the city’s history.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a fort on the western side of the harbour bordering the Plaza de Armas. It was originally built to defend against pirate attacks.
To the east of the square is El Templete, a 19th-century, Greek-style Neoclassical temple marking the legendary spot where Havana was founded in 1519. The monument was erected in 1828 and inside hangs three large canvases. They represent the first mass, the first town council, and the blessing of the site by aristocracy and high officials of the colonial government.
The works were created by French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay, whose remains and those of his wife are in the interior in a cenotaph.
Darcy swore one of the aristocrats in the centre canvas looked like John Lennon, and I’d have to agree!
Plaza de la Catedral showcases Cuban baroque architecture, including the Catedral de la Habana (also known as Cathedral of Havana San Cristobal).
It is the newest of the four squares in the Old Town, with its present layout dating back to the 18th century.
Inside the asymmetrical cathedral.
In and around Plaza de la Catedral.
In Spanish, “Guantanamera” is the feminine form of from Guantánamo as in a woman from Guantánamo. It’s considered the definitive patriotic song of Cuba, especially when its lyrics are adapted from Cuban poet, José Julián Martí Pérez. Enjoy the song by Cuban musicians from around the world.
In the next post, I will explore the final plaza – Plaza Vieja. And of course, I haven’t even touched on Ernest Hemingway. Hope you’re having a great week so far.