If by chance you happened to read my post about the fishing trip I took to Kodiak Island in Alaska, you may remember that I have a sister-in-law who is a travel agent. Because of her, I learn about off-the-beaten-path travel opportunities I likely wouldn’t hear of otherwise. I took her up on one a year ago and spent nine days in Cuba.
I was intrigued at the prospect of visiting this island that's been sealed off to outsiders since 1961 and just reopened in 2015 to visitors who certify they belong to one of 13 approved entry categories.
We flew into Havana — by we, I mean the 23 three of us who signed up for this tour — then boarded our deluxe (de lujo in Spanish) bus to travel to a splendid stretch of white sand called Varadero Beach a couple of hours east of Havana, where we soaked up the sun, took salsa dancing lessons and chillaxed for two days.
Next, we were back to Havana. One of our excursions in the city was shopping at the open market where world-famous Cuban cigars can be purchased — 300 for $24. We also toured Ernest Hemingway’s house perched on top of a hill in a small suburb called San Francisco de Paula. Hemingway, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, first bought his home in Cuba in 1940.
After the large hotels in Havana and at the beach, it was a welcome change to head over the mountains and spend the remainder of our trip in small B and B’s. Till then, we felt as though we were being 'watched.' In the countryside we felt less restricted, and toured a daycare facility, a cigar factory and a remote mountain school, affording us more of an opportunity to get to know average, everyday Cubans one on one.
It might not have been us the authorities wanted to keep an eye on, though. It may have been our personable, well-educatied tour guide. She had applied for permission to visit her godparents in Florida, been denied and recently reapplied. The government might have been trying to make sure she didn't attempt to leave with us or claim asylum. Cuba doesn't want to lose its educated, young people.
Few Cubans could afford to drive these gas guzzlers, and parts were impossible to get due to the US embargo, so there these machines sat in garages and fields. But when the government loosened restriction on travel and car ownership, local entrepreneurs realized that what had become rusty, hunks of junk were actually assets and restored them to their original glory. I had the pleasure of driving a perfectly-restored 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible.
The hardest thing for many of us to comprehend, however, especially for someone from the agricultural heartland as I am, is the state of farming in Cuba. We saw field after field, as we drove through the countryside, being tilled — or attempted to be so — by a lone man, leading a cow or an ox pulling a stick as a plow. We were witnessing 18th-century agriculture still being practiced.