AIC Cuba Trip Travelog Part 1

AIC Cuba 2014From Jan. 24 to Feb. 4 a group of 19 AIC members went on a research trip to Cuba.  Over the next week we will be posting about our experiences. Below is an account of the first two days. Join us on our journey.
24 January 2014 (Day One)
Having flown in from various (mostly snowy) places the day before, the group of 21 members and staffers gathered in the lobby of the Sofitel Miami in the early morning hours (4am!)  to board shuttle buses that would take us to the airport. It would be a short flight–only an hour–but where we were going would be a world away from where we were. Santiago de Cuba, our destination, sits on the eastern side of the island of Cuba, a mere 500 miles from the shores of South Beach, Florida, and with a population of almost 500,000 is its second largest city also capital of a province of the same name. One of the first seven cities founded in Cuba and older than Havana itself, Santiago is surpassed only by nearby Baracoa and Bayamo in age and is home to many of Cuba’s most famous historical sites.
After arriving at Antonio Maceo International Airport–named for the famous general of the Cuban-Spanish wars of the latter 19th century—we quickly passed through passport control with little more than a smile and a welcome-to-Cuba-I-hope-you-enjoy-your-visit nod to our American passports. After meeting our Cuban guides and boarding our Havanatur bus, we immediately headed out to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. Known more commonly as El Morro, the castillo (or “fortress”) is a picturesque fortification from the 16th century that sits about 6 miles south of the city and guards the Bay of Santiago. Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997, it is considered the best preserved example of Spanish New World military installations as based on Renaissance principles. It affords some outstanding views, too!
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
After lunch on the site, we checked in at the Melia Hotel, a post-modern style Spanish chain hotel that towers over the city to the east of historical center. As we had all been up so early in the morning, we gather later for a light dinner at the hotel, and then we debated about going out to experience some of Santiago’s greatest cultural heritage: its musical traditions. Thankfully, after a mojito or two, there were enough festive travelers who were keen to explore the city’s music, which is part of its complex and layered cultural blending. So using a tip from a local, we decided to check out the club Patio de Los Dos Abuelos, a small open-air place where a few locals and tourists freely mixed, dancing (some better than others) under the night sky. A resident band Son del Tres was playing, and after a few impromptu lessons from the bandleader, we joined in the whirling fun. As the birthplace of many extraordinary musical traditions given to the world, Santiago de Cuba is truly the best place to experience them.  Some of the country’s best musicians, including Buena Vista Social Club members Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa, and even the Cuban American bandleader Desi Arnaz, hail from the city.
25 January 2014 (Day Two)
After feasting on a huge breakfast buffet at the hotel, which caters mostly to European tourists and consequently had a Cuban take on everything from churros to crepes, we went to the office of the historian of the city, where we listened to an introduction to the city. After the lecture, we began our walking tour of Santiago’s historic center, guided by the city’s historian and chief preservation architect. After the tour, we had lunch in the historic center at Los Primos Twice, a great paladar (or private restaurant) where we feasted on shrimp in creole sauce and pork in sweet and sour sauce, as well as the haunting, beautifully sung songs of Chely Romero, a mainstay of the Santiago music scene. After lunch, the Archbishop of Santiago hosted our group at the city cathedral to learn more about the restoration work going on there and in the diocese’s other churches undertaken by a joint Cuban-Italian team. The work they are doing is a rare example of successful conservation being done outside the government system. Dinner that night was at Compay Gallo.
city cathedral

Keep tuned for more blog posts on this amazing trip….