Trinidad to Havana

by Randy Keck (Part three of three parts on Cuba. Part one, in the May 2010 issue, thoroughly explored the legal considerations for Americans considering traveling to Cuba.)

On the morning of day seven of my January ’10 tour of Cuba, our ElderTreks group of 16 visited the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens for a highly informative guided walking excursion that featured many varieties of exotic palms.

Colorful Trinidad entertains

Classic autos compete for attention with the Gran Teatro de la Habana on the Paseo del Prado. Photo: Keck

We continued on to the colorful city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sports finely preserved French colonial architecture and traditional cobblestone streets. Our walking tour included the striking Plaza Mayor, Museo Romantico and artisan markets.

In the afternoon, after checking into our beachfront, all-inclusive resort, Hotel Bristas Trinidad del Mar, we enjoyed a relaxing sunset cruise in perfect conditions on our own private catamaran.

The following morning we explored Valle do los Ingenios, during colonial times Cuba’s most important sugar-producing region. Touring the former Manaca Ignaza estate, we climbed the 142-step tower, constructed to watch for runaway slaves.

Later, back in town, we were introduced to the holistically oriented Afro-Cuban Santeria religion and, after lunch, Cuban percussion.

The mountains beckon

In the morning, heading inland from Trinidad, we endured a long, steep climb into the Escambray Mountains, the second-highest range in Cuba.

Deep in the forest, we boarded an old Russian military truck for a 40-minute ride through an old coffee plantation which is now part of a national park. The bouncy ride was accurately referred to by our local guide as a “Russian massage.”

Disembarking, a 45-minute walk revealed vast botanical treasure in the form of many exotic species of trees and several of the 25 endemic species of orchids found in the area.

Santa Clara bound

In the afternoon we continued through the mountains, finally arriving at Villa La Granjita, a rural-style Cuban resort on the outskirts of the university town of Santa Clara.

Our touring the next day included the Ernesto “Che” Guevara monument, a tribute to the iconic cult hero who played a vital part in the armed overthrow of General Batista’s dictatorship in the battle of Santa Clara and beyond.

More “Che” beckoned the following morning at the fascinating Che Guevara Museum before we began the journey back to Havana.

The international language of beisbol

At Parque Vidal, the main square in Santa Clara, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the revolution, we had the opportunity to explore on our own.

In my pretrip research, I discovered that in the main city parks in many cities in Cuba, men gather to discuss with great exuberance and reverence the nation’s national pastime: baseball.

Parque Vidal presented my long-awaited first opportunity to intermingle with such a group and distribute some of the 150 vintage (mostly 1950s) baseball cards, including many Cuban players, which I had brought to Cuba to give as gifts to these local baseball aficionados. The cards were enthusiastically received.

Cuba’s medical system impresses

In Santa Clara, a visit to a neighborhood hospital included a tour of the facility and a lengthy meeting with the doctors in charge.

We learned about the comprehensive medical system in Cuba, which provides free health care for all with a system devoid of profit-motive-based corruption and which focuses on preventative health practices.

Havana return

We returned to Havana the following day and checked into the historic Hotel Telegrafo, built in 1911 but resurrected at the start of the millennium. Situated on the edge of Parque Central, it combines modern and colonial architecture to stylish effect.

Commencing a walking tour of the mixed residential and commercial neighborhoods around the hotel, we visited a bakery, a butcher shop and a clothing store, marveling at the haunting architectural styles of the buildings in various states of repair.

The evening featured a performance at the historic, open-air nightclub Tropicana Cabaret. The impressively choreographed entertainment provided a glimpse of the ornate Havana nightlife scene in the 1950s but also the infusion of modern talent.

Havana finale

On our final morning’s walking tour, we visited Havana’s most magnificent building, the Baroque- and Renaissance-style 1915 Centro Gallego, which houses the Gran Teatro de la Habana, home of Cuba’s national ballet.

We traversed the Paseo del Prada, a pedestrian promenade which adjoins Cuba’s magnificent national capitol, inaugurated in 1929. The visual attributes of this grand stage accented by the colorful, preserved classic American autos offers an incomparable time-capsule bounty to visitors.

To recover from our awe, we visited a rum factory for a tour and tasting. In the tasting bar, we were treated to a delightfully addictive, fire-laced, rum-and-espresso aperitif.

Afterward, we toured the Ernest Hemingway finca (estate) and the beach pub Las Terrazas de Cojimar, where the famous and infamous author was inspired to write “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Into the Havana night

On our final evening, after enjoying a farewell-to-Cuba dinner at a beautiful, private-home restaurant, we walked to the traditional, nighttme, cannon-firing ceremony at Castillo de la Fuerza, a massive structure that was one of the fortresses that made Havana the most fortified city in the Americas during the 18th century.

Our comprehensive tour of Cuba had suddenly concluded with a sprint to the finish line and a learning curve that was off the charts. The combination of the ultracomprehensive itinerary and the daily interaction with the resilient Cubans amazed us continuously. The Cuba that, for me, had been a decades-old compounded mystery was, thankfully, a mystery no more.

My tour of Cuba was taken courtesy of Toronto-based ElderTreks (800/741-7956), an ITN advertiser which operates small-group, exotic adventures (limited to 16 people) for travelers 50-plus to destinations worldwide.

Cancun stopover

Many Americans, including most of those on my ElderTreks Cuba tour, do a stopover in Cancun, Mexico, en route in each direction.

My group was accommodated near the airport at the extremely user-friendly Cancun Marriott Courtyard (phone 52 998 282 2200), whose quality amenities include a beach club and rooms at $80-$110 double.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

The veil lifts
to reveal and remind
the truth of truths:
thy neighbor is thyself
— Randy addressing the fundamental truth of the American/Cuban equation