AIC Cuba Trip Travelog Part 3

29 January 2014 (Day Six)
Travel_Cuba_20140129103712In the morning, we meet our guide for the next few days, Nancy Benitez , the former director of the City’s Conservation department and an active voice in preservation in the city.  We tour historic center of Trinidad, Cuba’s second UNESCO World Heritage site and a bastion of Caribbean vernacular earthen architecture.  We toured historic mansions now turned into museums, including the Palacio Cantero and the architecture museum, as well as public squares where pilot conservation projects have been carried out, and visits to a couple private homes representing all stages of preservation of the regional art and architecture.  After lunch at El Jigue, the group travelled to Manacas Iznaga historic sugar plantation, founded by Bayamo residents and comprising one of the most important sites in the rural southern coast of Cuba.  It’s part of the UNESCO world heritage site of Trinidad and the Valley of the Sugar Mills. After the tour, we ended day with a cocktail, la canchanchara, a drink made from honey, lime and aguardiente (brady) and made famous in the 1860s by Mambises, Cuban freedom fighters, who were battling Spain for Independence. We had the drink at a bar of the same name and which happens to be the oldest building in the city, dating from the early 17th century.
30 January 2014 (Day Seven)
Travel_Cuba_20140129122802Early in the morning, we departed Trinidad for the Caribbean colonial city of Cienfuegos. Before getting to the town, we stop along the way at the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, which was founded by Harvard botanists in the very first years of the 20th century and home to more than 2000 species of plants on 240 acres of land just outside the city. After the gardens, we visited the historic center of Cienfuegos, guided by its chief preservation architect, Iran Millan.  During the tour, we visited the Parque Martí, center of the city, and see several important buildings including the 1889 Tomas Terry Theater, one of Cuba’s three exemplary 19th century regional theaters. After the tour, we had lunch in at Villa Lagarto, which sits at the end of the in the point that juts out into the Bay of Cienfuegos.  After we lunch, we departed Cienfuegos for Havana, but this time we were able to take Cuba’s one and only high speed roadway, the Autopista Nacional, which stretches from Havana to the small town of Taguasco in the center of the country and where it abruptly stops (ie the money ran out). Rarely is any traffic encountered on it, and we arrived at our hotel in Havana after a short four hour bus ride…made a little shorter after we “opened of the bar.”
31 January 2014 (Day Eight)
Chief of Mission ReceptionAfter many of us awakened to a view of the bright blue waters of the Straits of Florida outside the windows on the Malecόn side of our hotel, the Hotel Nacional, we began our time in Havana with a tour of the four main colonial plazas of Old Havana, Cuba’s first and most significant UNESCO World Heritage site, starting at the Plaza de Armas, where we will see the oldest Spanish fortress in the Americas, a Greco- Roman style Neo-classical temple that marks the spot where the first mass and town council meeting were held in 1519, and the Palace of the Captains Generals, seat of government from 1776-1930. From there we went to the Plaza de le Catedral before going to Plaza de Francisco and ending at the Plaza Mayor, where we had lunch at a restaurant called Santo Angel. After lunch, we went back to the hotel where we quickly freshen up for our visit to the residence of the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland, where we were received by the Chief of Mission (“Ambassador”), who updated on the current policy of the United States towards Cuba. We were then able to explain the nature of our trip and plans for future engagement with Cuban conservation professionals before posing for a photograph to commemorate the occasion.  To celebrate the gradual thawing of relations between our two countries and toast to future progress, the group after the reception retreated to El Floridita bar, where we partook in some liquid refreshment, much like Hemingway did when the bar was one of his favorite watering holes. Popularizing a drink known as the daiquiri by notoriously downing many of the cocktails himself, Hemmingway concocted her own preferred version, which calls for grapefruit instead of lime juice and maraschino liquor instead of simple syrup and which they still blend up batches of for tourists who come to pay homage to the author who now lends his name to the drink.  Dinner that night was at San Cristobal, one of the top private restaurants in the city.
1 February 2014 (Day Nine)
Travel_Cuba_20140201152213After a visit the Decorative Arts Museum, we took a walking tour of Centro Habana, which centered on the Parque Central area, stopping at such sites as the Capitolio, Hotel Inglaterra, Bacardi’s glazed terracotta-clad Art Deco headquarters, Sloppy Joe’s bar, and the Paseo del Prado—all of which shows the development which occurred outside the walls in the 19th century. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to stop for a quick drink at the old Barcardi, where they do actually serve up rum-based drinks–none of which, it almost goes without saying, are made with liquor  under the label of the same name. However, that was okay, because we had to get to lunch at Ajiaco in the lovely little fishing town of Cojímar just outside the city. Cojímar is also home to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house, which we toured later that day.
2 February 2014 (Day Ten)
Travel_Cuba_20140202151052In the morning, we visited the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes with a tour of the Cuban modern art collections by one of the museum’s curators. The museum is in a striking modernist building which was completed in 1953 and exemplifies the combination of sculpture with architecture in Cuban mid-century modernism.  We then visited Havana’s Cementerio de Colόn. Laid out between 1871 and 1886, the cemetery includes more than 500 mausoleums, chapels and family vaults, sculpted in bronze, granite, marble and limestone by leading Cuban and European artists. After the cemetery, we went to the Plaza de la Revolucion before making our way to the hotel Riviera, a perfectly preserved masterpiece of mid-century modern architecture. To cap of our mid-20th century-themed morning, we had lunch at paladar called Vista al Mar, which is in a beautiful oceanfront house overlook the Straits of Florida in Havana’s famed Miramar neighborhood. The rest of the afternoon, the group went to the craft market at Antiguos Almacenes San José or explored the city on their own. The group gathered at the paladar Atelier that night before going to Tropicana.
3 February 2014 (Day Twelve)
Travel_Cuba_20140202123331On our last full day in Cuba, we had a chance to visit the Cuba’s national art school, El Instituto Superior de Arte or “ISA.” Built in 1961 on the grounds of a former golf club, the school was one of the earliest and now recognized best public works projects begun by the Revolucion. A personal project of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the art school reflects the flush of utopian idealism that characterized the revolutionary movement at that moment in its history. Only later in the decade, when Cuba adopted a more Soviet-style functionalist approach, did the art schools begin their decline—all of which is detailed in the recent documentary “Unfinished Spaces.”  Because Cuba now allows artists and musicians to earn a living in hard currency (CUCs) abroad and keep most of it themselves, these professions have become some of the top professions in the country, making placements at the art school some of the most coveted in the country among its young people. This has brought about a resurgence for the school—not to mention, it also makes for great art, which you can buy from students at the school. After lunch at El Aljibe, known for its amazing roasted chicken, the afternoon was free for the group to spend on its own. Some took a ride in one of the old American convertibles from the 50s. Others took a dip in the hotel’s pool, and others who had not yet dropped from all the shopping thus far went to spend their remaining foreign currency. Dinner that night was in the famed paladar La Guarida, which in addition to being one of the oldest in Havana was also the set of the seminal masterpiece of Cuba cinema, Strawberry and Chocolate. Made in the early 90s, the film takes place in Havana, Cuba in 1979 and  tells the story of a growing friendship between a university student and a gay cultural functionary unhappy with the Castro regime’s treatment of the LGBT community as well as the censorship of culture.  The film fundamentally changed the way Cubans both inside and outside the government viewed their LGBT comrades, paving the way for the pro-LGBT reforms currently being considered in the government today.
4 February 2014 (Day Thirteen)
Travel_Cuba_20140204164118All good trips end far too soon, and ours ended early, early in the morning after we checked of the hotel and headed to the airport where we would spend a few hours before boarding a very short charter flight back to Miami and back to reality. Perhaps because of the time warp that is Cuba or the breakneck pace that is our modern, American way of life, our time on the island, though impossible to forget, would soon become a distant memory. As sad as this may sound, it is kind of the way most trips to this place go. The saving grace in this is that it just makes it easier to return, and return often, each and every time.