Welcome to the second (and last) part of our Cuba tour write up. You can find the first part here where we covered a lot of the pre-trip details and planning and explained a lot of the fundamentals about travelling to Cuba, as well as covered our first two days in Havana. Incidentally I just this morning added half a dozen pics to that post that I had trouble uploading when I originally wrote it.
DAY 3: The Beach, the Fort, and the FAC.
After the previous full day in Old Havana, Talek changed things up with a day at the beach and a night on the town. We started with breakfast at the restaurant just around the corner from the casa. While the food was just reasonably prepared typical breakfast fare, the juices were amazing. Fresh squeezed papaya, watermelon, mango, pineapple and cherimoya. Oddly, orange juice was not available.
We caught the first bus from Old Havana to the eastern playas with a short stop at El Morro, the castle guarding the entrance to Havana Bay. The castle was not yet open for tours, so we satisfied ourselves with a few exterior pictures before catching the next bus to the beaches.
As you would expect in the Caribbean, these are very lovely sandy beaches with beautiful blue water. We rented a couple of the pre-positioned umbrellas and lounge chairs, I believe it was a very reasonable 6 CUC for each set for the day, and enjoyed a relaxing few hours with local beer and rum based drink available for far less than a US resort would charge. Shortly after noon we had an outdoor lunch at one of the beach side, bohio style food stands.
We returned to to Havana in the mid afternoon to allow everyone the chance to clean up in preparation for our visit to the F.A.C. the Cuban Art Factory. I am not normally all that interested in touring an art exhibition, but I have to admit this one was fantastic, though my impression was probably enhanced by the very strong drink obtained near the entrance before we even started the actual tour. The performance and exhibition center encompasses three floors of what used to be a cooking oil factory. It includes traditional painting, photography, and other wall mounted art, but also has live music, dance, sculpture and full room installations.
We had dinner outside on the rooftop to cap off a truly memorable evening. It was a great meal in a beautiful setting, we strongly recommend including it in any Havana itinerary. We snagged one of the larger taxis home, it might have been a Packard station wagon, and the driver, realizing we were up beat and feeling no pain turned on his interior disco light set up with the music for our short ride home. What fun!
DAY 4 Donations, Classic Cars, El Malecon
Though Talek intended to change things up with breakfast at a different joint, the lack of a chef on premises yet pushed us back to the previous day’s venue for more excellent fresh juice. From there we gathered up all our donation items and caught a taxi to an elderly folks home that has some relationship with a local youth group. We met many wonderful old Cubans here, and received a thorough briefing on the different forms of elderly care facilities in the country.
After that, another highlight of our visit: a driving tour of Havana in a beautiful convertible classic car. We had our choice from among a dozen or so parked in the central plaza. We selected the largest we could find, a 1950’s era Cadillac complete with big ole fins and lots of chrome with white interior. The only disappointing thing about it was the backseat limo style bar was empty.
Talek pointed out the interesting archtectural historical features along the way, and we made a couple of stops for pictures, of course. The final leg of the ride was along the multi-mile waterfront stretch known as El Malecon. As part of Havana’s 500 year anniversary celebration many art installations line the way.
We went back to walking through Old Havana with a late lunch at a tiny little restaurant with good food and excellent gin and ginger based drinks, and visited yet another wonderful rooftop view atop one of the big hotels.
DAY 5 Vinales
The last full day of our tour would take us well away from Havana and into the country. We piled into a 1953 Chevy taxi for the three hour drive to Vinales Valley. We made a brief stop at a hotel overlook point with a beautiful view of the valley, a welcome stop after the long car ride.
From there it was on to a working tobacco farm for a tour and a smoke. We got a short rundown on how the process works with some interesting information about the different flavor and strength of cigar tobacco largely determined by how high or low the chosen leaves are on the tobacco plant, and by other factors such as sun and soil. Then we had a smoking opportunity made further appealing by the delicious guava infused rum drinks. More on that in a second.
The cigar offered had just been rolled, and we learned that many Cubans dip the mouth end in a bit of honey, which alters the flavor and nature of the smoke quite a bit. It was, frankly, a really nice cigar. I enjoyed it quite a lot, especially since we got to share the time with a family from Baltimore visiting as well.
As for the rum: it was some of the best we have had. I’m not much for fruit infused spirits normally, but the guava really worked well with the Cuban style rum, and we nearly purchased a couple of bottles. However, we believed that we could get it on the way out of the country at the duty free, which would save us some trouble. We were wrong. Ah well, if we ever get to the point where Cuba is exporting to the US, that will be one of the first things I purchase.
Moving on, we headed to a underground cave and river for a short but fun boat tour. It was a nice, very cool temperature large cave complex and some talented boat drivers working in tight maneuvering situation. I think the best part was the exit point, just beautiful.
We headed for a late lunch at a restaurant with family style serving and set, but extensive menu. After stuffing ourselves silly we stopped into the town of Vinales to check the local outdoor market before piling back into our taxi for the long ride home. Incidentally, the 1953 Chevy was a perfect example of the imaginative methods Cuban mechanics use to keep these things running. It had a Fiat engine, a Toyota transmission, and a Ford differential. Truly Frankenstein.
We made it back to Havana well after dark, only to find outselves locked out of our Casa. No one else was home, and we tried repeatedly to make the key work. Even the neighbor came over and gave it a go: no luck. After waiting about 30 minutes for the someone to hopefully return to the casa, we gave it one more try and voila, it magically worked. I am not sure if our key was right on the edge of being off, or if the lock is just that sensitive. Oh well, we got in.
DAY 6 Departure
Talek arranged for taxis for each of our trips to the airport. Ours was late morning, and we had no problems at all, aside from the disappointing lack of Guava Rum at the duty free! Ah well, we made do with a few bottles of Club Havana. The flight was uneventful, and US customs and immigration was easier than expected.
On a final note, those of you interested in taking a tour of Cuba may be out of luck for a while since the current administration just removed most of the reasons a US private citizen may go. We can, however, strongly recommend any tour organized by Talek: She has upcoming plans for Norther Spain, and China is in the works as well.