Tampa Bay’s Cloud Based Travel Agency
813-868-0007 800-955-5594 info@vacationtc.com
Registered with the State of Florida as a Seller of Travel.  Reg. #10098 Cruise Lines International Association #00577404 Florida Travel Insurance License #A165107
© 2006 to 2017 Market Access Promotions, Inc.   PO Box 290816, Tampa, FL USA   33687
BOOK CUBA WITH OUR TRAVEL AGENCY
813-868-0007
John Rice HAVANA CUBA July 16-19, 2017 The last Americans to travel independently to Havana Cuba? The   alarm   is   set   for   3AM   and   the   bags   are   packed   including   toilet   paper,   half   a   dozen   cans   of   tuna,   pencils   and   crayons   for   the   kids   plus   a   good   supply   of   fishing   hooks   as   we   hear   they   are   hard   to   get   in   Cuba.      It   is   funny as   it   is   a   short   1   hour   and   15   minute   flight   from   Tampa   on   Southwest   and   we   even   get   free   luggage   but   it   seems   like   a   world   away.      We   have   been   waiting   for   this   opportunity   for   30   years   and   certainly   since   the   Obama administration   opened   independent   travel   to   Cuba   but   we   had   been   too   busy   to   get   away   until   now.      We   are   excited   and   apprehensive   as   we   will   be   in   a   formerly   forbidden   destination   for   Americans   at   8:15   AM tomorrow morning. When   they   announced   they   were   changing   the   rules   and   eliminating   independent   travel,   we   had   one   last   chance   to   just   go   wander   around   and   this   trip   was   planned   the   same   day.      I heard   Rick   Steves   comment   that   people   who   travel   to   Cuba   will   be   divided   into   two   groups,   those   that   were   there   while   a   Castro   was   in   power   and   those   who   waited   for   the   post   Castro era but by then everything will change.  We wanted to go while Cuba was still Cuba in all its original form.  Planning   was   relatively   easy   and   the   airline   tickets   were   cheap   from Tampa   and   our   $75   Cuban   visas   were   purchased   locally   in Tampa.     We   were   able   to   secure   an   apartment   in   Havana near   the   Capital   about   two   blocks   from   the   Prado.     We   have   been   in   communication   with   the   caretaker   of   the   apartment   who   introduced   us   to   a   couple   of   cousins   that   drive   the   same   taxi so   we   have   a   pre-arranged   ride   from   the   airport.      Because   of   the   US   Embargo   and   restrictions   by   the   Cuban   government,   everything   else   is   complicated.      We   have   Paladar   (private restaurant)   reservations   at   two   of   the   best   in   Havana   but   even   that   was   a   complicated   process.      The   first   we   used   Facebook   messenger   but   that   came   back   with   a   note   to   email   a   Spain email   address.     That   worked   and   reservation   number   one   was   done.     The   other   is   one   of   the   trendiest   Paladar’s   in   central   Havana   and   there   was   an   email   on   the   webpage.      No   response   a week   later   so   we   tried   calling   one   night.      We   found   later   webpage   administration   was   hard   with   the   Cuban   system   using   only   public   wi-fi   so   many   of   the   web   and   Facebook   pages   are administered   out   of   the   country.      The   Paladar   had   six   phone   numbers   but   the   first   five   did   not   work.      On   the   last   one,   we   reached   the   restaurant   and   they   put   an   English   speaking   waiter on the phone so we are all set. The   FAQs   from   OFAC   were   pretty   clear   that   nothing   changed   simply   because   of   the   announcement.      We   are   traveling   under   the   existing   OFAC   regulations   until   the   new   rules   can   be written.      The   existing   US   rules   for   Cuban   travel   are   pretty   straightforward.      There   are   twelve   reasons   under   the   “general   license”   for   travel   including   a   “people   to   people”   provision.     You   check   that   (or   another   that   you   qualify   for)   and   sign   an   affidavit   with   the   airline   swearing   you   are   traveling   under   that   provision.      As   an   independent   people   to   people   passenger, you   have   to   have   a   plan   and   we   have   a   pretty   full   schedule   that   includes   a   walking   tour   of   old   Havana,   a   visit   to   the   Afro   Cuban   neighborhood,   visiting   artists   on   the   Prado, Hemingway’s   House   and   Fursterlandia   on   our   way   to   the   airport.      Tuesday   we’ll   be   going   to   Las   Terrazas   to   get   out   of   Havana   for   the   day   and   see   the   countryside.      This   is   about   an hour   and   a   half   into Artemesia   province   of   Cuba   and   the   area   is   Unesco   Biophere   reserve.      I   have   entitled   this   blog   the   last Americans   to   travel   Independently   to   Cuba   as   we   expect   what we   are   doing   will   be   outlawed   by   the   US   Government   upon   our   return.     After   that   point,   you   will   have   to   travel   on   an   organized   group   people   to   people   tour   or   a   shore   excursion   off   the   cruise   ship.     As   an   agency,   we   are honestly confused about the new rules as they seem contradictory from first read.  If you want to encourage entrepreneurs in Cuba, why would you outlaw independent travel by Americans?
Havana Cuba - The smell of cigars, antique cars and the sound of guitars. As   I   sit   down   on   a   rainy   Sunday   afternoon   upon   our   return,   to   write   about   our   trip   to   Havana   and Las   Terrazas,   Cuba   the   first   word   that   comes   to   mind   is   WOW.      As   an   American,   30   years   of preconceptions   have   been   blown   away   during   the   last   week.      The   Cuban   system   seems   to   work for   most   of   Cuba’s   working   class   and   there   is   a   growing   entrepreneurial   sector   since   The   Cuban government   began   to   allow   some   private   business   in   certain   areas   of   the   economy.      In   Havana Vieja,   Habaguanex   (affiliated   with The   City   Historians   Office)   has   revitalized   487   buildings   plus they   are   generating   cash   flow   for   future   restorations   with   the   innovative   bars   and   restaurants they   have   developed.      They   generated   5   million   in   annual   revenues   in   1995,   40   million   in   2000 and   almost   200   million   in   2015   towards   the   preservation   projects.      In   my   research   for   this   trip and   blog,   one   Cuban   economist   explained   “you   have   to   compare   us   to   Haiti,   Jamaica   or   Mexico when   you   speak   of   economic   development   and   you   have   to   imagine   where   we   might   be   without the US Embargo.”  Lastly,   the   Cuban   people   were   very   nice   to   us   everywhere   we   went   and   prices   still   seemed relatively   cheap   even   in   the   CUC   tourist   economy.      We   did   not   see   any   visible   signs   of   protest and   no   one   voiced   dissent,   even   in   private.      We   were   careful   not   to   discuss   domestic   Cuban politics   as   we   are   fully   aware   that   this   is   a   socialist   military   government   that   has   pretty   tight controls   about   political   discussion.      Police   protection   was   tight   in   public   areas   and   as   a   result,   we felt   very   safe   as   tourists.     As   a   Cuban   in   the   travel   industry   told   me,   just   enjoy   Cuba;   don’t   try   to change Cuba and you will have a great time.  He was right. Southwest   is   on   time   and   the   captain   announces   58   minutes   flight   time   from   Tampa,   luggage   is FREE   and   we   are   wings   up   at   about   7:15   AM.      All   the   little   Cuban/American   girls   had   one   or two   dolls   for   cousins   and   strangely   some   men   were   wearing   stacks   of   4   or   6   hats   at   the   airport.     We   learned   later   they   don’t   make   many   hats   in   Cuba   so   Gina   scratched   that   one   off   the   shopping list.     The   passengers   were   90%   Cuban Americans   and   10%   tourists.     The   Cubans   all   cheered   and clapped   when   the   aircraft   touched   down   but   we   have   experienced   that   in   other   Caribbean   nations before.      We   discussed   carry   on   the   next   time   as   luggage   took   almost   1.5   hours   to   get   at   Jose Marti.      To   be   fair   we   saw   a   lot   of   shrink   wrapped   cargo   like   bags   so   I   imagine   every   Cuban American had 2 bags given all the things they need on the island. 
Day 1 Arrival in Centro Havana Our   driver   had   changed   and   it   seemed   everything   was   in   a   little   flux   as   the   Cubans   juggled   all   their   jobs.      Daniel   and   Jenny   were   waiting   for   us,   even   with   the   delay,   but   we   had to   hurry   as   they   had   to   go   back   to   the   airport.      We   were   riding   in   an   older   58   Bellaire   that   we   found   out   later   was   Daniel’s   baby   as   he   purchased   it   when   he   sold   his   mother’s house   in   Santa   Clara.      She   was   old   (the   Chevy)   and   shuddered   when   we   got   to   first   gear,   but   still   ran   pretty   good.     All   of   these   50’s   cars   are   belching   exhaust   so   that   is   another smell   that   I   remember   from   the   streets.      It   was   about   half   an   hour   from   the   airport   to   our   apartment   in   Central   Havana.      Starting   from   the   airport,   we   felt   kind   of   like   celebrities as they had not met many Americans. The   caretaker   had   called   two   weeks   ago   to   say   the   apartment   elevator   was being   replaced.      Even   on   a   90   degree   day   this   seemed   to   be   a   mixed   blessing to   the   apartment’s   inhabitants   as   the   elevator   had   not   worked   well   for   years.           Many   of   the   Cuban   tour   packages   require   45   days   in   advance.      We   had   done an   Airbnb   as   we   were   only   booking   a   month   before.      Our   apartment   building was   newer   but   looked   like   some   60s   Soviet   bleak   concrete   design.      It   had   a big   metal   gate   downstairs   and   a   narrow   stairwell   that   wrapped   around   the open   elevator   pit.     They   had   removed   the   doors   but   propped   one   up   so   you   did not   fall   in   at   each   landing.      We   had   wanted   to   learn   about   Havana   and   live   in Central   Havana   with   the   Cubans   and   we   were   not   disappointed.      School supplies   were   packed   separately   so   those   were   debagged   to   make   the   bag lighter   for   the   five   flights   of   stairs.     Yamile   was   waiting   at   the   door   downstairs as   everyone   has   a   cell   phone   so   she   had   called   the   taxi.      Her   husband   came down   and   grabbed   Gina’s   bag   and   she   even   took   mine   away   half   way   up   as she   was   used   to   the   steps   and   we   live   on   one   floor   at   sea   level.      They   lived across   the   hall   from   our   apartment.      We   met   her   abuela   (grandmother)   who was the sweetest lady and her daughter was also very nice.  We   are   pretty   adventurous   but   sometimes   apartment   rental   and   other   ‘ad-hoc’ accommodations   are   not   always   as   reliable   as   a   hotel   reservation   (especially in   the   3rd   world)   but   this   one   was   very   nice.      We   got   very   lucky   with   the apartment   judging   from   some   of   the   other   Airbnb   type   accommodations   we went   past   but   we   paid   more   than   average.      Inside   the   apartment   was   fantastic with   a   good   air   conditioning   unit   and   a   balcony.      Water   pressure   was   sketchy but   other   than   that   we   had   no   problem.      The   apartment   allowed   us   to   solve many   problems,   since   we   had   local   help.      We   had   some   language   problems   as we   know   some   conversational   Spanish   but   are   certainly   not   fluent.      Yamile   at the   apartment   was   not   fluent   in   English   but   we   were   able   to   communicate.     She   had   a   nephew   who   was   a   tour   guide   so   we   talked   on   the   phone   and   solved   all   my   problems   when   we   first   arrived   at the   apartment   by   acting   as   a   translator   over   the   telephone   and   providing   advice.      We   had   a   pretty   good   people   to   people plan with a little work thrown in and the Cubans implemented the plan beautifully. In   a   coincidence,   the   apartment   caretaker   was   the   administrator   of   a   school   and   she   needed   the   supplies   we   brought   for her   school.      She   was   excited   about   crayons   for   the   preschoolers.      We   had   them   all   pre-packed   in   a   cheap   carry-on   bag   so we   gave   her   the   whole   bag.      We   had   also   brought   a   keepsake   picture   of   the   Jose   Marti   statue   in   Tampa   that   had   info   on Ybor   City.      She   was   going   to   take   that   to   her   office   at   the   school   as   Marti   is everywhere.      She   is   going   to   reconfirm   our   ride   to   Las   Terrazas   on   Tuesday and   also   a   taxi   for   a   couple   of   hours   on   our   way   to   the   airport.      Before   we head   out,   she   comes   back   and   asks   us   to   autograph   the   picture   as   she   is   going to   hang   it   in   her   school   office.      Jose   Marti   is   everywhere   in   Cuba.      He   came   to Tampa   20   times   between   1891   and   1894   as   they   prepared   for   the   Spanish War of Independence so Tampa and Cuba have always had ties. We   went   out   on   the   balcony   and   we   could   even   see   a   sliver   of   the   Caribbean Sea   along   the   Malecon   but   we   were   still   shocked   when   we   looked   at   the outside   condition   of   the   buildings   as   Centro   Habana   is   pretty   run   down.      I   had heard   this   before   arriving   but   was   still   surprised   at   the   effect   of   the   embargo,   the   salt   air   and   old   age   has   had   on   this   once   beautiful   Caribbean   capitol   city.      I   could   only   think that   a   lot   of   lumber,   plywood   and   concrete   could   come   out   of   Port Tampa   if   we   could   move   goods   and   people,   freely,   it   would   help   our   Florida   economy.     America   could   make a fortune in toilet seats alone. We   head   out   to   get   CUCs   and   we   are   told   we   can   go   to any   hotel.      Hotel   Ingleterre   is   on   the   corner.      They   are friendly;   even   though   we   are   not   a   guest   of   the   hotel and   the   money   exchange   is   a   quick   process.      If   you   are traveling   with   US   dollars,   you   only   end   up   with   about 87   cents   on   the   dollar   because   of   the   “penalty”   rate charged   by   the   Cubans   to   compensate   for   the   effect   of the    embargo.        Europeans    and    Canadians    are    only charged   about   3%.      I   always   thought   Raul   could   have at   least   gone   to   1   to   1   to   reward   Obama   as   a   minor concession   for   partially   lifting   the   tourism   rules   for people   to   people   travel.   I   realize   after   my   trip   that   the resolve   of   the   Government   not   to   change   the   system too   much,   too   quickly   plus   there   is   a   great   deal   of anger   and   hard   feelings   about   how   our   government   has   treated   the   Cuban   people   for   55   years   but   surprisingly   no   one   is   angry   at   the   American   people.      After   four   days   in Havana, I am more convinced than ever that we are not going to change Cuba through the embargo. We   head   out   into   the   bright   sunshine   to   Jose   Marti   Boulevard   or   The   Prado   as   it   is   still   called   from   Spanish   days.      The   first   thing   we   learned   from   these   artists   is   the   Embargo affects   everything.     They   all   have   to   make   art   paper   from   recycled   paper.      Juan   Gonzalez   makes   paper   mache   boxes   and   even   furniture,   Isabel   Carles   painted   beautiful   fish   and Marta   Gonzalez   “Maytego”   did   wood   block   printing.      One   guy   was   painting   inside   Coke   bottles   with   a   tiny   brush.      We   got   to   discuss   art   in   general   in   Cuba   as   everyone   was very   literate   and   eager   to   have   an   exchange   with   the American   travel   agents   who   write   a   blog.      We   saw   a   Cuban   clown   entertaining   the   children.      I did   not   understand   much   of   what   he   told   the   kids   but   they   were   hanging   on   every   word,   laughing   and   singing   along.      It   is   only   the   first   morning   but we see everybody out with kids as parents seem to cherish spending time with their children in Cuba. We   ask   about   Callejon   de   Hamel   and   pointed   in   the   direction   by   the   artists.     As   we   cross   the   street   a   cool   lemon   yellow   Chevy   Impala   ragtop   turns the   corner.     A   ride   in   one   of   these   old   birds   is   always   at   least   $10   or   $20   CUC.     We   are   quoted   $20   because   of   the   distance.      Sr.   Quiala   owns   this   car and   he   has   one   of   our   favorites   Bob   Marley   on   the   CD   player   as   we   turn   around   on   the   Prado.      We   notice   he   turns   the   volume   way   down   when   we pull   up   next   to   the   police   car   but   we   crank   Bob   up   again   as   this   majestic   piece   of   chrome   and   steel   cranks   up   to   speed   on   the   Malecon.      He   loves Bob   so   he   pulls   up   a   couple   more   of   his   favorites   as   we   all   sing   along.      The   Chevy   has   a   little   metal   box   with   5   or   6   different   sized   buttons   and   we soon   realizes   besides   Bob,   we   get   a   horn   concert   as   he   hails   up   friends   or   approaches   an   intersection.      Each   button   is   attached   to   a   horn   of   a different pitch so he can literally play music after all these years. Callejon   de   Hamel   is   the Afro   Cuban/Santoria   neighborhood   and   they   do   a   rumba   like   show   time   on   Sundays.      It   is   packed,   hot   and   like   the   guidebook   says,   kind   of   touristy.     There   is   a   small   amount   of   artwork,   a   couple   of   bar/restaurants.      The   stage   where   the   show   goes   on   is   packed   6   deep   with   tourists   so   we   are   only   there   about   a   half   hour.      We do   buy   a   couple   of   cheap   $5   CDs   from   Kiki   who   is   a   music   teacher.      The   neighborhood   has   a   primary   school   that   is   supported   by   the   tourists   and   the   CDs   support   the   music school.         If   you   will   listen,   they   are   eager   to   show   you   the   community   projects   like   schools   that   are   paired   with   tourism   projects.      It is   not   even   noon   yet   and   we   are   starting   to   realize   that   community   and   neighbors   seem   to   be   part   of   the   social   experiment   they   are proud   to   tell   the Americans.      Remember   as   an   agent,   I   have   not   advised   anybody   in   Havana   that   I   was   arriving   and   we   are   moving among   the   local   population   as   we   try   to   do   when   we   really   want   to   learn   about   a   place.      We   head   off   walking   to   the   Malecon   and eventually across Central Havana which was part of today’s plan. It   is   every   bit   as   hot   as   Florida   and   we   should   have   done   lunch   before   heading   off   across   Central   Habana.      There   are   a   couple   of   small   private   “tent”   restaurants   on   the Malecon,   but   they   are   mostly   ham   sandwiches   or   things   that   are   getting   going   for   later   as   the   charcoal   has   not   yet   been   lit.      We   make   a   right   turn   and   head   across   Central Havana   and   it   looks   a   little   like   a   bombed   out   war   zone.     There   are   a   couple   of   streets   closed   because   of   total   restoration   including   the   streets   and   then   we   get   into   where   people actually   live.      We   walk   another   six   blocks   without   seeing   an   acceptable   restaurant.      The   young   Europeans   get   pesos   and   CUC   and   eat   ham   sandwiches   but   we   have   agreed   we did not want to get down to that level with food because of food handling practices. We   reach   a   pedestrian   palisade   and   turn   towards   the   Prado.      We   see   a   restaurant   conductor   and   she   advertises   it   is   air   conditioned   upstairs.     They   had   a   price   fix   menu   with   a   rum   drink,   entrée,   salad,   lemonade,   coffee   and   desert   for   $15   so   we   head   upstairs.      It   was   a   decent   chicken dinner   but   the   price   fix   menu   was   not   really   true   it   was   a   $5   plate   of chicken   with   rice   and   slaw.     This   was   our   first   hustle   of   the   trip   as   it   was more   a   tiny   bar   than   a   restaurant   and   they   did   not   offer   some   of   the items   and   courses.     Then   the   waitress   asked   if   we   wanted   a   mojito   so   we went   along.      Later   it   was   announced   that   the   mojito   was   not   included   in the    “free”    rum    drinks.        We    suggested    since    you    did    not    serve    the lemonade,   coffee   or   dessert,   we   certainly   are   not   paying   for   the   mojitos as   you   said   you   included   a   rum   drink.   Plus   the   lady   did   not   say   they were   extra   when   she   suggested   them.      They   finally   agreed   but   the   check came   with   the   2   mojitos   showing   $7   and   we   firmly   had   them   take   them off   the   bill.      We   laughed   as   we   hit   the   street   as   it   was   overpriced,   but good   food   and   we   probably   would   have   paid   $15   for   an   hour   of   a/c   on   a 90+ degree day in Central Havana. As   we   walked   back   to   Havana   Vieja,   we   surmised   that   would   be   enough   for   folks   if   they   want   a   couple   of   days   to   Havana.      Centro   Havana was   pretty   bleak   past   our   apartment   unless   you   have   a   specific   place   you   are   heading.      With   the   redevelopment,   the   Havana   Vieja   has   a   nice vibe   with   music   everywhere   amongst   the   t-shirt   shops   and   local   neighborhoods   scattered   throughout   the   quarter.         We   went   into   Gale   da   Manos   on   Obispo   #411   with   Artesania   Cubana.      Gina   got   a   nice   lined   hand crocheted   purse   for   $10   CUC.      It   was   hand   made   by Ana   Iris   Pena   and   is   very   nice.     All   of   the   art   products   seemed   to   be   inexpensive   and   genuine   compared   to   other   islands.     We   noticed   a   shady   park   with   an   open   air   bar next   door   called   Ruinas   Del   Parque.     They   had   a   pretty   good   band   called   San   Miguel   with   fathers   and   sons   and   a   dread   playing Trombone   plus   2   guitars,   2   percussion   players   and   a   great   singer.      It   was   your   typical   tourist scene   but   the   band   was   great   and   it   was   a   good   time   in   the   day   just   to   cool   out.      Beers   were   about   $3.50   and   a   Limeade   was   $2.      The   basket   always   get   passed   around   for   the   band   so   collect   your   $1   CUC   coins   as   small change can be scarce.  That   evening,   I   had   a   reservation   at   Dona   Eutemia   which   was   one   of   the   first   Paladars   in   Havana   Vieja.      It   is   located   in   an   alley   off   the   Plaza   Catedral.      This   is   traditional   Cuban   food   plain   and   simple.      We   had   shrimp that   had   a   hint   of   Catalonia   in   Spain   with   cooked   garlic.      It   came   with   a   great   cold   salad   plate   with   lettuce   and   cabbage,   blanched   green   beans,   cucumbers   and   tomatoes.      They   also   brought   out   plenty   of   white   rice   and black   beans   plus   it   was   served   with   plantain   chips.     A   decent   bottle   of   Spanish   wine   was   about   20   bucks   and   the   service   was   great.     We   were   out   of   there   for   about   $40   without   any   appetizers   or   drinks   but   that   included   a couple   of   bottled   waters.      We   skipped   café   con   leche   as   we   needed   to   sleep.      Taxi   men   are   waiting   as   we   emerge   from   Plaza   Catedral   and   a   nice   young   guy   takes   us   back   towards   Hotel   Ingleterre   for   $10   without   much conversation.      We   always   walk   the   last   two   blocks   as   we   can   describe   the   apartment   address   plus   San   Rafael   is   a   pedestrian   block   between   Ingleterre   and   our   apartment.      For   hotels,   we   very   much   liked   the   area   around Hotel Ingleterre and Parque Central as it did not seem as tight and busy as Havana Vieja.
Day 2 Havana Vieja Up   for   our   walking   tour   day.      We   have   decided learn   on   our   own   as   we   are   getting   along   so well   with   the   Cubans,   everybody   wants   to   talk and   we   want   to   learn   about   the   people   as   well as   the   architecture   of   Old   Havana.      Speaking   of the   lack   of   small   change   yesterday,   today   the hotel   apologized   as   I   got   my   whole   $200   in   $5 bills, so go figure.  Gina   was   sitting   in   a   chair   in   the   hotel   lobby listening   to   a   classic   pianist.      She   suggested   the hotel   breakfast   as   we   needed   something   to   get going   and   the   music   was   quite   nice.      Breakfast was   only   $8   CUC   each   so   we   pay   and   head inside.      It   was   more   basic   than   most   Caribbean hotel   buffets,   but   we   still   had   some   scrambled eggs   and   some   nice   touches   like   roasted   peppers   in   oil   and   a   pretty   good   cheese   tray.      Coffee   was   self   serve   so   we   had   a   couple   of   cups.      Well   worth   the   price   and   the   music   was   fantastic   from   orchestra   classics   to   50s show tunes.  We had an appointment at 11 to shoot pictures of last night’s Paladar and speak with the owners for our blog.  We   looked   at   a   couple   of   hotels   but   it   seemed   the   security   was   watching   us   as   we   went   from   hotel   lobby   to   hotel   lobby.      We   went   past   the   revolutionary   museum   and   met   Juan   Carla   a   one- legged   basketball   coach.      He   showed   us   his   neighborhood   including   the   apartment   where   Che   Guevara   lived   for   a   while   and   the   neighborhood   bar   where   he   and   Hemingway   supposedly   drank from   time   to   time.     They   had   Gina   ring   the   bell   as   anyone   would   do   to   announce   their   arrival.      It   was   all   in   good   fun   but   who   knew   if   any   of   it   was   true   as   Hemingway   supposedly   left   Havana   in 1960 after the revolution. On   our   way   through   Havana   Viejo,   we   stopped   to   admire   some   paintings   and   got   talking   with the   painter   Luis   Ramondi   Gomez   and   his   wife.      He   was   located   at   Tejadillo   #209.      He   had beautiful   tropical   paintings   and   told   us   he   had   ten   of   them   up   in   Miami   at   Doral.      I   asked   why   he did   not   paint   smaller   ones   the   tourists   could   get   home   and   he   replied   that   “he   could   not   see   them small”   which   was   interesting   to   us.      I   was   explaining   that   many   cruise   ship   tourists   wanted   a keepsake   but   something   small   they   could   put   in   the   suitcase   and   take   home.      I   explained   I   have   a painter   friend   of   mine   who   lived   all   summer   off   of   postcards   when   there   were   not   rich   tourists   in Florida   to   buy   paintings   and   he   was   very   interested.      I   promised   to   send   my   digital   pictures formatted   as   postcards   to   help   with   his   business.      It   is   interesting   as   the   Cubans   want   to   learn how   to   run   small   businesses   and   market   their   goods   but   there   is   not   much   information   available about that in that environment. We   stop   at   Dona   Eutemia   and   learn   that   the   mother   originally   started   the   restaurant   that   the   family   now   runs.      She   used   to encourage   people   to   linger   but   it   was   one   of   the   first   Paladars   in   Havana   that   had   opened   around   2010   so   they   had   a   line   out the   door.     The   small   business   people   we   are   meeting   are   hard   working   and   all   appear   to   be   successful   but   there   seems   to   be   a lot   of   competition   for   the   new   entrants   without   the   good   guidebook   recommendations.      We   had   made   reservations   at   some of   the   best   paladars   who   are   regularly   turn   away   guests   without   reservations,   so   there   is   business   to   be   had   as   people   show   menus   in   the   Catedral   Plaza.      One   figure   we   saw   said   there   were   1100   paladars   in   Havana.      Dona Eutemia   was   one   of   the   best   in   Havana   according   to   Lonely   Planet   but   we   needed   a   reservation   2 weeks prior to arriving to even get into the house on a Sunday evening in off season.  Next   door   to   the   paladar   was   the   Taller   Experimental   de   Grafica   and   boy   was   this   place   interesting   at least   for   me   doing   digital   graphics   and   understanding   the   history   of   graphics   and   printing   all   the   way back   to   Gutenberg.      We   had   no   appointment,   we   had   just   wandered   in   but   we   were   immediately invited   into   the   back   where   the   artists   were   working   and   showed   how   the   print   making   process happened.      We   were   there   over   an   hour.      One   project   had   15   colors   and   the   artist   Gullermo   Ramirez Malberti   was   working   on   color   #8.      The   place   had   these   great   old   presses   and   they   pressed   with   stone blocks.      We   got   to   see   works   in   process,   how   the   presses   and   stones   work.      Everyone   was   friendly   and   glad   to   show   us   their   work   and   work   in   process.      We   saw   all   kind   of   print   making   in   many   mediums   plus   wood   inlay projects   and   all   kind   of   creativity.      Gina   liked   a   print   from   Ricardo   Silveira   Miro   who   works   in   vivid   color.      Prices   were   reasonable   and   everybody   packs   prints   in   cardboard   to   travel.      We   highly   recommend   this   stop which is just off the Plaza Catedral.  We also stopped to see some of their friends at the Tien De Las Brujas to see the collection of los elfos near Mercoderas and Oreilly. Next   we   went   on   to   the   Plaza   de Armas.      Santa   Isabella   had   music   on   the   square   and   the   whole   district   was   just   nice.      The   Royal   Caribbean   Empress   of   the   Seas   was   parked nearby.      My   vacations   always   have   a   little   bit   of   work   as   you   go   by   and   look   at   hotels   or   go   off   to   shoot   pictures   for   the   blog.      We   were   surprised   when   we   turned   the   corner from   Plaza   de Armas   as   the   ship   was   right   there.      They   had   backed   her   into   the   pier   and   the   50’s   Chevys   were   rolling   past   with   guests.      On   our   way   back   to   the   old   town,   we saw   a   man   with   two   dressed   up   wiener   dogs   with   hats   and   sunglasses   that   were   posing   for   pictures   in   a   little   car.      They   were   absorbing   all   the   love   as   people   passed   by   but   the old   man   was   pretty   vexed   trying   to   collect   his   “fees”   from   tourists   who stopped   to   shoot   pictures   or   selfies.      He   was   plain   and spoke   English   when   he   advised   tourists   it   cost   1   CUC   to   shoot   a   picture   but people   tried   to   sneak   them   anyway.      Be   advised   that   when you   enter   a   poor   country,   this   is   what   the   man   and   the   dogs   do   for   work.      If you   shoot   a   picture,   pay   the   man   and   take   a   little   extra money as you are visiting poor nations with enterprising individuals who go out to entertain you.  We   were   at   the   other   end   of   old   Havana   at   the   Plaza Vieja   when   it   started   to sprinkle.      We   ducked   into   a   place   called   the   Factoria   Micro Cerverza   for   a   beer   and   little   more   musica.      Gina   had   the   light   and   I   had   a dark   but   we   decided   the   dark   was   a   little   better.      This   is   a   slick   computer   controlled   micro   brew   that   has c ome   up   with   plastic   towers   that   hold   either   3l   or   5l   of   beer.      We   just   had   a glass   each   but   many   of   the   groups   ordered   a   “beer   tower”   which      put   a   tap   on   the   table.      They   had   a unique frozen ice column in the middle of the tower to cool the beer.  Been there and done that but never have we seen one of those before. By   this   point,   we   were   starting   to   see   dark   ominous   rain   clouds.     As   we   walked   Mercaderes   we   had   been   approached   an   hour   earlier by   a   polite   restaurant   salesman   at   the   Paladar   Los   Mercaderes.      He   rang   a   bell   as   we   came   up   the   steps   to   alert   the   crew   as   the restaurant   was   on   the   second   floor.      Without   planning,   we   had   chosen   our   3rd   of   Lonely   Planet’s   5   best   paladars   in   Havana   and arrived   at   a   late   afternoon   time   when   we   could   get   a   table.      At   the   top   of   the   steps   was   another   trio   was   again   playing   music   in   the restaurant   as   we   navigate   musica,   musica,   musica.      They   were   called   the   Song   of   Caramel   and   also   were   pretty   good.      I   want   to emphasize   we   saw   no   bad   entertainment   in   4   days,   everybody   was   talented   and   trained   under   the   Cuban   system   that   has   maintained cultural values under the revolution.  We   took   a   table   inside   which   was   good   as   lightning   was   crashing   and   buckets   of   rain   were   running   by   now   in   the   Havana Vieja.      Gina got   to   order   her   ropa   vieja   that   was   sidelined   by   fresh   shrimp   last   night   and   it   was   an   excellent   choice.      I   think   finished   with   sherry but Yamil   said   it   was   a   secret   which   just   means   it   will   take   me   a   few   more   trips.      I   had   a   thick   piece   of   Snapper   with   a   beautiful   white wine   mustard   cream   sauce.      We   had   agreed   to   share   and   we   both   were   glad   we   did.      Most   paladars   in   Havana   are   a-la-carte.      Make sure   you   have   the   black   beans   at   Paladar   Los   Mercaderes   as   they   were   fantastic   with   spices   and   bay   leaf   plus   a   bowl   of   steamed   veggies   was   only   a   few   bucks.   I   was   glad   for   the rain   as   it   was   a   good   excuse   for   dessert   and   café   con   leche.         We   had   a   huge   slice   of   flan   was   more   cake   custard   consistency   and   topped   with   a   dollop   of   fresh   coconut   infused with sugar.  This was served with a scoop of home-made vanilla ice cream with raspberry ribbons as a beautiful dessert. This   was   the   second   of   three   great paladar   meals   we   had   in   Havana.      Yamil   is   an   engineer by   trade   and   took   that   approach   to running   a   restaurant.      His   American   clientele   had   gone from    35%    to    almost    70%    of    his business     which     included     a     lot     of     older     Cuban Americans   as   he   is   about   1000   feet from   the   cruise   ship.      The   quality   of   his   food   comes from   the   quality   of   his   ingredients so    he    has    families    that    raise    pigs,    grow    lambs    and another   family   that   grows   a   special kind   of   bean   that   makes   creamier   black   beans   when cooked,   plus   fishermen   and   even   fresh   pineapples   for   his   pina   coladas.      Menu Prices   were   a   little   more   than   last   night   but   he   was saying   that   he   then   can   share   extra   so   he   gets   top   quality   ingredients.      He   wants animals   raised   and   fed   a   certain   way   to   increase   taste quality   in   his   meals.      To   us   for   the   quality   of   the   food,   it   still   seemed   cheap according   to   American   restaurants.      The   paladar   was originally   his   wife’s   mother’s   house   and   it   was   decorated   beautifully   and   chic.     Gina   even   commented   they   not   only   have   a   great   toilet seat but also rose petals sprinkled in the rest room. As   we   talked   with   Cuban   entrepreneurs   who   operate   under   a   socialist   system, we   have   all   kinds   of   questions   we   don’t   ask.     As   I   am   a guest   in   Cuba,   we   try   to   focus   on   learning   and   providing   support   from   the   US   tourism   industry,   rather   than   questions   about   political   systems   or   systems   of   business   organization.      I   learned early   on   that   Cuba   has   its   own   way   that   we   don’t   really   understand.      Yamil   is   worried   that   the   change   in   US   rules   will   hurt   everybody’s   expanding   small   businesses.      He   is   grateful   for   info from   the   states   and   my   explanation   of   what   changes   have   been   proposed.            I   find   it   interesting   that   Cuba’s   new   entrepreneurs   are   threading   a   needle   and   this   seemed   to   be   a   casebook   implementation   of   socialism   infused with the market reforms recently implemented in Cuba.  I know the result was a world class meal and we felt that we were in a vibrant Havana at a very exciting time in history. We   go   back   to   our   5th   floor   balcony.     Wave   at   the   folks   across   the   street   on   the   balcony.      In   the AM,   the   fruit   man   sings   as   he   goes   down   the   street.     At   night   the   bread   man   does   the   same   routine.      Buckets   and   bags   tied   to strings   are   lowered   with   pesos   from   the   upper   floor   and   filled   with   goods   to   be   hauled   back   up   by   string   rather   than   running   down   to   shop.      Cigars   are   smoked   by   many   of   the   men   and   cigarette   use   is   very   high   amongst the   population.      The   dog   next   door   has   finally   gotten   used   to   us   but   the   old   people   prefer   not   to   speak   with   the   touristas   who   constantly   inhabit   the Airbnb.      It   is   only   night   #2   but   we   already   have   friends   who   wave   from across the street as the Cubans all seem very friendly including a one year old who is learning how to wave. Tonight   we   are   off   to Taverna   Benny   More   to   hear   some   Cuban   music.      In   the   afternoon,   it   is   sold   as   being   like   Buena Vista.      It   is   actually   a reincarnation   of   the   Roberto   Faz   Band   with   Mazacote   who   is   one   of   the   lost   old   men   that   got   famous   again   after   the   Buena Vista   film   in   the 90s.      They   also   have   Rolito   Rodriguez   and Armandito   Fernandez   who   were   also   pretty famous   singers   in   the   Cuban   showbands   of the   50s   and   60s.      They   also   have   a   guy   in   a slick    suit    who    does    the    Benny    More character   for   a   few   songs.      You   can   tell when   they   switch   the   tempo   from   Cuban   to swing   it’s   time   for   that   part   of   the   Benny More   part   show.      The   show   is   30CUC   each but includes two rum drinks.  In   addition   to   a   12   piece   band,   they   have Daivel     (Benny)     Garcia     and     his     dance partner   who   are   both   dance   teachers.      We get    sucked    into    the    conga    line    and    it    is obvious     she     teaches     dance     as     she     is moving   my   shoulders   even   in   the   minute or   two   as   we   pass   by.      We   have   seen   a   lot of    showtimes    in    30    years    of    being    tour operators    and    travel    agents.        This    one ranked   pretty   high   in   terms   of   production quality    and    musicianship.        I    talked    with Benny     afterward     about     this     and     he immediately   indicated   he   taught   salsa   and rumba to guests arriving in Cuba.  He could use the club in the afternoon and people could come back for the show in the evening.  Again,   I   am   intrigued   to   talk   tourism   with   this   dance   teacher   who   lives   under   this   evolving   brand   of   Cuban   socialism.      We   exchanged   cards   and   agreed   we   would   meet   again   someday   to   finally   teach   Gina   and   I   how   to Latin   dance.     As   we   come   out   a   taxi   man   is   waiting   and   we   walk   a   block   in   the   Havana   night   to   an   older   Fiat.      Streets   are   quiet   on   a   Monday   night   as   we   head   back   to   Centro   Habana.     We   ate   late   lunch   and   skipped   dinner so we have our ripe avocado spread on fresh media noche bread at the apartment before heading off to bed.
Day 3 Las Terrazas We   are   up   early   today   as   we   are   going   to   Las   Terrazas   at   9A.      In   fact,   about   7AM   a   bi-plane   was   buzzing   the   city.      I   first thought   sleepy   eyed   was   that   a   military   exercise? As   it   makes   a   second   and   third   pass   over   the   city,   I   am   thinking   mosquito spraying   as   they   are   working   to   tramp   down   Zika.      I   confirm   it   is   a   bi-plane   as my   brain   wakes   up   and   I   head   in   to   wake   Gina.      Water   pressure   really   stinks this   morning   as   all   the   Cubans   must   be   getting   ready   for   work   and   we   are   on the   5th   floor.      Our   evening   showers   have   been   a   little   better   but   don’t   use   too much shampoo. We   drop   our   half   avocado   and   remainder   of   the   loaf   of   bread   with   Yamile’s abuela   when   we   leave.      I   will   never   forget   her   telling   me   “con   mi   leche”   as she   squeezed   the   ripe   avocado.      She   was   very   sweet   and   had   a   soft   little   voice.     We   head   to   the   famous   Pastelaria   Francesca   for   café   con   leche   with   some sweet   rolls   and   juice   for   breakfast.      Fresh   squeezed   juices   are   everywhere   in Cuba   as   it   seems   to   be   a   luxury   even   a   Cuban   can   afford   for   a   few   pesos   so   we enjoy   fresh   squeezed   pineapple   juice   today.      This   is   a   great   people   watching hub   across   from   Parque   Central   next   to   the   Ingleterre   hotel.      There   are   always the best antique cars at this spot with drivers hawking Havana tours.  Back   to   the   apartment   and   we   are   picked   up   promptly   at   9A   by   Daniel   with   a special   surprise   as   his   son   Daniel   is   along   for   the   ride.         Daniel   is   22   and works   at   the   vaccine   factory.      He   is   very   proud   of   his   country   but   has   never been   to Artemesia   so   this   is   a   tourist   day   for   him   too.      He   talks   about   his   job, his   life,   his   girlfriend   and   Cuba.      We   are   surprised   to   hear   that   Cuba   exports vaccines   for   the   poor   children   in   Venzuela,   Bolivia   and   Uruguay.      He   was   in the    army    for    two    years    and    hopes    to    do    more    education.        We    pass    the guidebook   and   he   translates   for   Dad   who   has   only   been   past   but   not   up   this road to Las Terrazas. Las   Terrazas   is   the   UNESCO   Biosphere   reserve   that   is   about   100   kilometers   outside   of   Havana   to   the   west.      It   is   a   beautiful   natural   area   that   used   to   be   filled   with   coffee   plantations   and   was   getting   deforested   before   the designation.      Many   people   come   out   here   to   hike   in   the   hills   but   we   have   just   come   to   take   a   look   around.      This   is   the   village   of   the   deceased   singer   Polo   Montanez   who   was   a   Cuban   folk   singer.      They   have   a   small museum   that   was   his   house.      Daniel   shows   us   where   he   crashed   on   the   way   home   as   a   footnote.      Also   in   town   was   the   Galleria   de   Lester   Campa   but   it   was   closed   the   day   we   visited.      There   are   also   a   couple   of   nice restaurants and a coffee bar so stay for lunch and enjoy the environs if you travel this far.  It was a great way on a short Havana trip to get out and see the countryside.  On   the   way   home,   we   talked   about   the   car.      This   is   a   58   Chevy   Bellaire   but   it   is   not   the   original   engine   he   explained.      His   dad   made   and   modified   car   parts   sometimes.      Daniel   explains   his   father   drove   large   trucks   as   a civilian   for   the   military   his   whole   life.     We   noticed   quickly   he   only   had   one   window   crank   that   was   removable   and   worked   on   all   four   windows.      He   was   originally   from   the   other   side   of   the   island   in   Bayamo.      Every   once in   a   while,   they   would   visit   Bayamo   but   dad   would   work   on   the   car   for   about   a   week   before   they   left.      With   the   old   Chevy,   it   sounded   like   a   c-check   on   an   airplane   that   engine   parts   were   fixed,   cleaned,   maintained   and worked   on   whether   they   needed   to   be   or   not   from   the   conversation.     There   were   repair   shops   but   his   dad   was   pretty   good   at   maintaining   the   old   girl   to   keep   her   running   as   a   collective   taxi.     A   collective   picks   up   more   than one   person   at   a   time   and   drops   off   along   a   fixed   route   for   a   couple   of   pesos   per   person.      He   has   a   license   to   operate   a   private   business   (the   taxi)   which   costs   about   $40   per   year   and   pays   tax   on   those   earnings   to   the government   monthly.      On   the   way   back   to   Havana,   we   visited   the   Plaza   of   the   Revolution   to   see   the   large   Marti   statue   and   Che   Guevara   metalwork   on   the   government   buildings.      Daniel   and   his   son   were   both   nice   people and we said goodbye as we had a different driver in the AM.  We are hoping to see them again someday at the airport when we arrive but we will see when the new Cuba travel rules come out.
We   went   back   into   Havana   Vieja.      The   band   looked   great   and the    sign    said    lobster    $15,    so    in    we    went.        This    was    the Restaurant   Europa   which   looked   like   a   government   operation but   well   staffed   and   Septeto   Tipico   de   Sones   was   one   of   the best   bar   bands   we   saw   in   the   3   days.      They   even   had   a   dance act   with   them   so   lunchtime   came with    showtime.        Note    the    dance act   is   a   separate   tip   from   the   band.     The     lobster     was     grilled     nicely.       Sautéed    veggies    were    $1    and    so was   rice   and   beans.      We   had   both and   it   was   a   nice   presentation   with a   grilled   lobster   on   top   of   the   shell which   was   on   top   of   the   veggies.     About    $36    with    beer,    water    and coffee.  We      inquired      about      guayabera shirts   and   the   waiter   sent   us   about four    blocks    down    the    street    to Quitrin    Moda    Legitima    Cubana.      He    was    right    very    cute    cotton clothing   at   cheap   prices   so   we   got both   a   shirt   $25   and   a   dress   $32 for Gina. Back   to   change   money   again.      We   keep   joking   that   you   need   to bring   more   money   gringo.      We   had   budgeted   enough   but   you   are   operating   without   the   benefit   of ATMs   or   credit   cards.      Everything   is   still   cash   for Americans   given   the   embargo   but   you   are   only   getting   87   cents   when you   change   a   US   Dollar.      Even   with   the   relaxation   US   banks   and   credit   card   companies   have   been   slow   to   do   business   in   Cuba   because   of   the   recordkeeping   requirements.     We   were   traveling   with   about   $1200   in   50s   and 20s.      We   used   money   belts   and   divided   the   money   between   us   but   we   always   felt   safe   in   Cuba,   even   at   night.      You   have   to   take   extra   funds   as   you   have   to   allow   a   margin   for   error   of   a   cancelled   aircraft   or   something   as even hotels won’t take an American credit card.  We brought about $200 home and would not have been comfortable with any less cushion than that. It   was   late   afternoon   and   Havana   Vieja   was   jammed   with   cruise   ship   passengers.      We   ducked   into   the   Fototeca   de   Cuba   which   was   supposed   to   have   14,000   pictures   but   we   were   only   permitted   in   an   area   with   a   pretty boring   visiting   exhibition   about   cruise   shipping   between   Havana   and   New York.      This   was   supposed   to   be   photos   used   for   the   restauration   process   in   Old   Havana.      Similarly,   the   Museo   de   Ciudad   was   also   closed   which was   supposed   to   be   archives   for   the   restoration.      Things   seem   to   open   and   close   at will   plus   Havana   Vieja   is   a   work   in progress.      We   made   a   quick   afternoon   stop   at the    brew    pub    to    see    a    musical    set from   Azucar,   Tabaco   y   Ron.      The   singer   was good    and    they    had    a    female    flute player    that    was    very    talented.        We    brought back   some   high   quality   Cuban   music from   these   smaller   bands.      You   have   to   tip   a buck   or   two   if   you   watch   music   but they   would   prefer   you   purchase   a   cd.      The   cds once   we   got   home   were   high   quality with    good    production    technique    and    many contained   original   music.     The   Cuban system   highly   values   culture   so   most   of   these people   learned   music   in   school   and continued   on   afterward   for   enjoyment   and   to pick   up   some   extra   cash.      When   the basket   comes   around   we   purchase   our   last   cd for   $8   and   walk   Old   Havana   one   last time back to the apartment for some rest. A   big   bottle   of   water   and   an   hour   on   the   balcony   assured   us   Havana   Central   was   the   same   as   yesterday   and   will   be   tomorrow,   after   we   leave.     The   baby   was   looking   for   us   while   he   took   in   the   action   in   the   street   below   and the   dog   next   door   was   bored   with   us   by   now   and   asleep   on   the   balcony.     As   the   sun   sets   over   Central   Havana   people   are   smoking   on   the   balconies,   traffic   is   making   noise   below   and   the   buildings   continue   to   decay   in   the Caribbean salt air while the cranes move to build the new hotels being built by the Malecon. Tonight   we   are   walking   six   blocks   up   the   Calle   San   Rafael   to   Paladar   San   Cristobal.      San   Rafael   is   the   local   shopping   street   that   is   always   busy   with   foot   traffic   and   shops.      San   Cristobal   is   one   of   the   new   breed   of restaurateur   in   Havana   so   we   are   looking   forward   to   this   “event”.     This   is   the   palador   that   the   ambassador   sent   President   Obama   when   he   visited   with   his   family   last   year.     We   see   a   couple   of tables   turned   away   and   one   couple   is   told   to   come   back   on   Thursday   at   the   earliest.      The   Palador   owner   stops   by   to   say   hello   while   we   are   waiting.      We   are   seated   in   the   VIP   (a/c)   room   on front   of   the   eclectic   catholic   santeria   altar.     Tough   wine   list   as   it   goes   from   $30   to   $150   with   some   pretty   good   wines.      Spanish   wines   dominate   most   of   the   lists   in   Havana.     We   pick   a   Sicilian Nero   for   $40   as   a   nod   to   Gina’s   heritage   as   the   $30   Spanish   wines   are   pretty   average.        We   are   actually   pretty   surprised   to   find   a   Sicilian   Nero   Davola   in   Havana   and   the   bottle   is   discussed   as a   novelty   by   the   waiter   and   owner.      He   asks   me   to   describe   it   and   I   say   you   have   to   really   like   red   wine to   order   a   Nero   as   it   is   a   big   fruity   black   grape   grown   in   the   southern   sun   in   Sicily.     These   are   guys   that are   passionate   about   running   a   restaurant   but   still   trying   to   take   the   restaurant   experience   to   the   world standard   from   Havana   in   the   middle   of   an   embargo   and   the   Cuban   revolution.      San   Cristobal   is   open 12   hours   a   day   six   days   a   week   and   I   hear   various   second   languages   being   spoken   on   our   visit.      Next   to us   is   a   table   of   12   Americans   that   look   and   sound   like   they   came   off   the   cruise   ship.      As   we   leave,   I   speak   with   Carlos   and   he   asks about   the   changes   as   he   also   is   doing   more American   business.     We   explain   independent   travel   which   worries   him   but   we   also   explain that   rules   are   not   out   as   of   yet   so   we   are   not   sure.      I   explain   that   I   have   traveled   the   world   and   his   meal   could   be   put   up   against anything   I   have   eaten   in   Europe   and   he   is   grateful.      I   tell   him   the   travel   industry   will   do   what   it   can   to   keep   moving   people   in   spite   of the changes. We   had   a   great   salad   with   fresh   avocado   and   fresh   basil   served   with   olive   oil,   balsamic   vinegar   and Himalayan   pink   salt.      This   was   followed   by   pork   done   in   mustard   sauce   for   Gina   and   sliced   country style   pork   for   me.      Sides   were   creamed   (mashed)   potatoes   and   grilled   veggies.      This   was   a   nice   mix   of crispy   grilled   veggies.      It   is   day   three   and   we   are   getting   a   little   tired   of   eggplant   but   that   is   the Caribbean    in    the    summertime.            We    skip    dessert    tonight    but    a    ron    (rum)    aperitif    was    brought complimentary   at   the   end   along   with   a   complimentary   cigar   (for   smoking   later).      They   even   had   a choice   of   men’s   and   lady’s   cigars.     The   whole   tab   was   about   $78   plus   tip   even   with   a   $40   bottle   of   wine.     As   we   walk   the   six   blocks   up   San   Rafael,   we   are   amazed   how   safe   Havana   feels,   nobody   bothers   us   and it   is   a   quiet   hot   trip   home.      We   come   on   a   huge   park   where   200   or   more   people   are   using   the   hot   spot   to talk   to   friends   in   other   cities   and   countries   plus   surf   the   web   on   mobile   phones.      Kind   of   an   eerie   site near   midnight   with   all   the   phone   screens   but   there   are   a   couple   of   cops   and   everything   looks   peaceful while people have a beer and speak with friends overseas.
Day 4 The Fort, Fusterlandia and Havana surroundings. We   head   out   to   the   Pasteleria.      Today   it   is   fresh   orange   juice   with   Cuban   toast   and   café con   leche.      We   bring   granny   a   sweet   piece   of   cake   and   an   apple   as   they   happen   to   have cases    of    fresh    South   American    apples    at    the    coffee    shop.        We    stop    off    at    Tiene Artehabana   for   a   little   birthday   shopping   and   find   some   famous   Cuban   art   from   the museum   printed   on   plates   for   Mom’s   kitchen   and   we   see   a   big   CD   collection   for   sale.      I am   looking   for   an   artist   by   the   name   of   Coto   and   ask   the   music   store   man   who   is   older.     He   smiles   and   asks   Americano?      He   is   sorry   as   he   knows   Coto   but   has   none   of   his music   at   the   store   but   compliments   me   on   the   request.      The   plates   are   cheap   at   $10 including   a   stand   and   they   come   packed   in   a   box   for   the   trip.     Abuela   is   delighted   with the   cake   and   apple.   She   asks   me   with   a   big   hand   swish   and   a   vocal   sound   if   I   am   flying home   today   and   no   translation   is   needed.      To   this   I   reply   si   avion   hoy   and   she   gives   me a   hug   while   her   granddaughter   Wendy   takes   the   treats   into   the   apartment   for   a   morning break.  I give Wendy a tip for her Mom and tell her to buy a chicken. Yamile   surprises   us   by   coming   home   on   a   lunch   break   to   see   us   off   and   bring   back   the school   supplies   bag.      She   has   tears   in   her   eyes   and   says   no   moneda,   tuna,   foto   da Tampa y   ninos   de   escuela.      We   thank   her   for   assistance   as   we   could   not   have   arranged   and coordinated   all   of   this   without   her   help.      We   tell   her   to   keep   the   bag,   buy   a   chicken   for the   family   and   she   is   delighted   to   keep   the   bag   as   it   is   heavy   duty   and   bright   pink.      She calls   the   driver   but   has   us   stay   upstairs   in   the   AC   until   he   gets   there.      She   calls   a neighbor   who   is   pretty   strong   so   he   grabs   both   suitcases   and   heads   down   the   five flights.      He   is   thrilled   to   get   a   quick   3CUC   which   is   about   75   pesos   or   a   day’s   salary   for the   average   worker.      We   left   a   tip   for   the   housekeeper   which   is   a   lady   from   upstairs,   we have   seen   her   again   while   we   all   climbed   the   five   flights   plus   the   extra   toilet   paper   and other   toiletries   from   hotels   across   the   world.      It   was   interesting   how   the   whole   building benefitted from the Airbnb as the tourists came and went. I   already   know   Ernesto   is   not   fluent   in   English   so   I   have   been   planning   my   route   in Spanish   overnight.      I   tell   him   in   spanish   I   am   a   travel   agent   so   I   need   to   shoot   pictures of   the   cruise   ship   and   the   city   from   El   Morro.      Up   the   Malecon   one   more   time   to Vedado   past   the   hotels,   then   to   Fusterlandia   and   a   lunch   stop   plus   Hemingways   on   the   way   to   the   airport.      Got   it?      He   nods   yes   and Yamile   gives   me   a   high   five   as   the   gringo   is   going   to   be   ok   on   his   own   and   off   we   go.     On   the   way   to   El   Morro,   I   am   realizing   in   spite   of   the   language   impediment,   this   guy   is   a   good   driver   as   he   asks   Christa?      He   says   in   English   higher   than   the   fort.      I   concur   si   Christa   as   it   is   su   casa   not   mio   casa   and   we change   course   for   the   Christ   statue   which   is   high   above   the   harbor.      Ernesto   is   right   as   this   spot   is   directly   above   the   harbor.     A   lone   guy   is   playing   music   and   singing   at   the   foot   of   the   Christ   statue.   When   we   head   past   El Morro   he   questions   stop?     We   don’t   share   a   language   but   this   guy   is   a   professional   as   he   drops   us   off   near   the   fort   but   says   we   will   have   to   get   picked   up   at   the   bottom   of   the   hill   as   he   can’t   stay   here.     Yeah   this   will   give   us the obligatory long view of the Malecon and another perspective on the city.  As the cruise ship tours are running all the best cars are up here and there seems to be one of everything. As   we   head   off   to   the   Malecon,   I   find   out   I   am   riding   in   a   54   Studebaker   but   it   is   a   pleasant   ride and   he   is   a   very   careful   driver.      Our   agency   sells   hotels   in   Vedado   as   it   gives   clients   access   to   a swim   at   the   end   of   a   hot   day   and   the   tours   of   Havana Viejo   are   included.      Our   tour   packagers   have decent   prices   on   the   formerly   convention   hotels   plus   luggage   is   easier   as   some   of   Havana   Vieja   is restricted   to   automobiles   so   some   hotels   can   be   three   or   four   blocks   walk   from   drop   off.      We   are surprised   when   visiting   as   some   parts   of Vedado   are   pretty   far   from   central   Habana   but   also   newer and   more   suburban   in   nature.      We   passed   through   embassy   row   on   our   way   to   Fusterlandia   which is near Marina Hemingway. Jose   Fuster   is   a   famous   artist   that   they   refer   to   as   the   Picasso   of   Cuba.      Fusterlandia   is   the   creation that   has   now   become   an   attraction   when   you   visit   Havana.      His   mosaics   reminded   me   of   the Gaudi   creations   I   had   seen   in   years   past   at   Park   Guell   but   more   over   the   top   and   more   Caribbean in   nature.      This   is   now   a   whole   neighborhood   decorated   in   mosaic   tiles   with   mythical   creatures raising   up   from   rooftops   and   back   yards.      In   addition   to   Fuster’s   house   the   entire   neighborhood has   similar   decorations   for   blocks   as   you   enter   the   community.      No   entrance   charge   but   a   donation box   and   you   are   welcome   to   wander   around   the   premises   plus   there   is   a   small   art   gallery   of   his work with pretty high prices so his artwork must be valued worldwide. On   our   way   in,   everybody   asks   us   to   see   their   art   shops   so   we   work   our   way   out   through   the shops.      There   are   many   great   home   made   souvenirs   in   Cuba.      This   neighborhood   had   some   pretty good   art,   beautiful   leather   goods   and   other   items.      We   also   had   a   coco   frio   and   the   coconut   water tasted   so   good   on   a   hot   summer   day.      We   view   a   few   more   wall   murals   in   the   neighborhood including   Castro   and   the   Granma   plus   a   pretty   fish   mural.      The   souvenirs   in   Cuba   are   so   nice   and so cheap we probably would have bought more stuff if the gringo had brought more money. I   found   a   fish   restaurant   near   Fusterlandia   called   Santy   Pescador.      It   seemed   pretty   obscure   but   I had   called   yesterday   and   asked   about   Lobster.      The   owner   thought   he   could   get   some   so   we   made a   reservation.      I   knew   I   needed   to   hook   the   driver   up   with   some   neighborhood   guys   so   we   could find   the   restaurant.      I   asked   them   about   Santy   Pescador   and   told   them   to   talk   to   the   driver.      They talk   a   while   even   though   it   is   only   a   couple   of   blocks   it   is   a   right   and   then   a   left.      He   needed   to   ask a   second   group   along   the   way   as   the   restaurant   I   picked   had   no   sign.      In   the   lot,   Gina   and   the driver   sent   me   in   to   check   but   it   was   a   beautiful   little   hideaway   on   a   dock.      When   I   went   back   out Gina   asked   me   if   I   was   sure.      The   driver   joked   by   echoing   her   are   you   sure?   In   English   I   said   si   to   both   of   them   and   told   him   in   Spanish   he could   return   in   an   hour.      When   we   went   in,   Gina   was   surprised   that   the   place   was   so   nice   on   a   river   dock   by   the   fishing   boats   with   fans   on   the ceiling   above   each   table.      Even   though   it   did   not   have   a   sign,   it   had   a   buzzer   on   the   secret   door   up   front   so   they   could   let   you   in.      Fishing   boats were parked out back and the dock had two levels with about 40 tables. They   introduced   me   to   Carlos,   the   owner   and   I   reached   into   my   bag   for   the   rest   of   the   fish   hooks   we   had   brought.      I   explained   in   Spanish   for the   small   men   who   fish   for   him.      He   knew   we   fished   as   we   brought   a   few   sizes   of   hooks   and   he   promised   after   lunch   he   would   see   the fisherman   who   launched   from   his   creek   and   give   them   out.      One   lady   spoke   pretty   good   English   so   we   ordered   two   lobster   dinners   and   a   whole loaf   of   bread   was   brought   out.      This   restaurant   specializes   in   Sushi/Sashimi   as   the   owner   trained   with   Japanese   masters   to   learn   the   technique.     A few Japanese are upstairs and we see courses of Sushi heading upstairs with bowls of wasabi. A   bowl   of   ceviche   is   placed   on   our   table   and   some   Cubans   are   eating   ceviche   as   a   main   course.      Gratis   we   are   told   so   we   guess   for   the   gifts.      We   are   not   usually   fans   of   ceviche   and   a   little   hesitant,   given   food   safety warnings   about   Cuba.      We   each   have   a   taste   and   a   piece   of   bread   but   this   is   followed   by   spoonfulls   as   this   lime   soup   has   chopped   onions,   hot   peppers   and   salt   so   we   figure   if   anywhere   here   with   the   sushi   master.      When the   lobster   course   comes   it   is   a   whole   plate   with   a   big   one   on   top   and   a   plate   of   smaller   “chicken”   lobsters   as   we   used   to   call   them   in   Jamaica.      They   are   split   in   the   shell   and   broiled   in   garlic,   butter   and   spices.      We   are surprised   when   the   second   plate   comes   out   as   the   first   plate   was   obviously   a   serving   for   one.      This   was   an   absolutely   great   last   meal   in   Cuba   and   we   finish   up   with   a   café   con   leche   to   get   artificial   stamina   to   get   through the airport and onto Tampa. Interesting   side   note:   two   tables   over   was   Ricardo Alarcon   who   was   a   former   speaker   of   the Cuban   Parliament.      He   was   at   the   UN   for   30   years   as   a   foreign   minister.     As   he   was   on TV   in the   states   he   seemed   familiar   to   us   but   as   the   other   well   dressed   Cubans   came   into   the restaurant   over   the   lunch   hour   and   all   stopped   to   hail   him   up,   we   realized   we   were   right about   our   suspicions   as   they   took   selfies   with   him.      He   looked   like   any   other   retiree   enjoying lunch   with   his   old   friends   and   all   the   panama   hats   were   perched   on   the   wine   racks   behind them. Ernesto   is   waiting   when   we   come   out.      He   asks   about   the   meal   and   tells   us   he   is   allergic   so doesn’t   eat   langosto.      We   all   joke   about   the   great   restaurant   with   no   sign.      Turning   back   to look   there   is   actually   a   sign   that   can   be   seen   from   the   road   on   the   riverside   but   it   still   seems like   the   secret   restaurant   to   us.      He   heads   about   a   block   and   turns   into   the   Hemingway Marina.      I   point   out   we   meant   Finca Vigia   and   he   says   firmly   no   no,   too   far   con   aeropuerto   at 1600.      I   tell   him   once   again   su   casa,   not   mio   casa   so   aeropuerto   si.      We   had   some   discussion about   which   terminal   and   by   the   time   we   figured   it   all   out   he   got   stopped   by   the   airport police   for   going   the   wrong   way   and   got   a   small   ticket.      He   had   to   get   his   license   and   papers out   for   the   officer   but   they   all   seemed   polite   to   each   other   and   it   was   over   quickly.      He commented   that   it   was   only   a   few   pesos   but   more   a   hassle   to   have   to   go   down   and   pay   the ticket but did not seem upset. Like   on   the   way   in,   the   airport   took   more   time   than   usual.      We   suggest   at   least   three   hours   before   departure   to   arrive   at   the   terminal.     CUCs   need   to   be   changed   back   to   US$   as   they   are   worthless   out   of   Cuba.      You   don’t   get   the   10%   embargo   penalty   back   on   that exchange.      Immigration   was   a   quick   formality   and   they   collected   the   visa   at   that   point   in   time.      Still   no   toilet   seats   at   the   departure lounge   bathrooms.      My   Che   Guevara   t-shirt   was   cheaper   at   the   airport   than   in   Havana   Vieja   and   they   had   double   x   for   the   cheap shrinkable   cotton   shirts.      Not   much   exciting   to   shop   for   at   the   airport   which   is   very   small.      We   walked   out   onto   the   tarmac   and   up   the stairs to the plane just in time as the thunderstorms were coming over the mountains.  Once we were airborne you could see the south coast of Cuba and we plan to go back sometime to the other end of the island. The   flight   north   was   about   one   hour   and   five   minutes   flight   time.      We   arrived   at   US   immigration   and   were   only   asked   the   purpose   of   our   trip.      We   replied   “People   to   People   visit”.      “We   are   travel   agents   and   went   to   learn about   Cuba”.      We   were   asked   did   we   bring   any   alcohol   (no)   and   we   were   waived   on   without   any   further   questions.      We   have   retained   all   our   paperwork   and   receipts   in   a   file   that   is   marked   for   five   years   retirement   date, just   in   case   of   auditing   since   we   did   not   travel   on   an   organized   group   trip.      Ours   was   a   legitimate   independent   people   to   people   visit   as   we   did   interact   with   average   Cubans   full   time   while   we   made   our   way   around Havana.  We have kept our itinerary along with the receipts. Overall   we   had   a   great   trip   to   Havana.      The   people   of   Cuba   were   friendly   and   welcoming   even   for   Americans.      The   destination   seemed   very   safe   and   the   people   of   Cuba   seemed   fairly   happy   and   content   with   their   life under   Cuban   socialism.         The   People   do   earn   less   (about   $20   to   $30   CUC   monthly),   but   they   get   free   food   allowances   for   rice   and   beans   plus   they   are   allowed   to   purchase   additional   staples   at   bodegas   or   depots   for pennies.      Kids   get   free   milk   powder   until   they   are   8   years   old.      The   basic   monthly   phone,   electricity   and   gas   bills   are   about   $2.      They   have   universal   health   care   and   all   medical   coverage   is   provided   free   by   the government.      Gasoline   is   subsidized   plus   beer,   alcohol   and   all   food   sold   by   the   state   is   at   cost   or   near   cost.      Education   is   completely   free   and   they   have   99%   literacy   rate   in   the   country   plus   property   tax   and   taxes   on   goods and   services   are   zero.      Everybody   seemed   like   they   had   the   attitude   that   they   were   all   in   this   together   be   it   our   apartment   neighbors   or   our   drivers   who   tipped   everybody   a   few   pesos   (parking   lot   attendants,   the   taxi   guy who   helped   everybody   back   into   the   busy   road,   etc.)   since   they   were   having   a   good   day.      With   the   advent   of   private   businesses   many   Cubans   are   bringing   in   more   money   as   tips   in   paladars   are   10%.      It   is   already   figured into   the   restaurant   checks   in   many   places   so   pay   attention   in   restaurants.      Service   was   so   good   we   found   ourselves   leaving   a   few   extra   CUCs   at   the   paladars.      Service   was   kind   of   spotty   at   the   government   run   institutions but food was always good and everything eventually got served so it seemed mostly a training issue as the paladars had great service levels. I   know   some   of   my   clients   and   friends   will   think   maybe   I   just   did   not   see   or   hear   from   dissidents   and   that   people   were   afraid   to   speak   to   me   honestly.     We   did   not   really   talk   socialism   versus   capitalism   with   anybody   as   it did   not   seem   prudent   given   the   Cuban   system.      I   know   that   most   of   the   people   I   came   in   contact   with   looked   well   fed,   had   a   cell   phone   and   spoke   positively   of   the   Cuban   system.     We   always   travel   with   our   eyes   open   so   I have   read   the   accounts   of   Cuban   dissidents   and   know   that   those   demonstrating   against   the   government   can   be   imprisoned   in   Cuba.      I   may   be   naïve   but   I   have   always   believed   that   people   should   be   able   to   travel   in   an   open fashion.  I had an island friend who used to say, of capitalism, communism, socialism, tourism is my favorite ism as it allows people of different nations to exchange ideas and friendships.  I   am   just   saying   compared   to   areas   of   Kingston,   Montego   Bay   or downtown   Cancun,   the   quality   of   life   looked   ok   for   the   average Cuban   in   my   apartment   building   and   others   that   I   met   in   the streets   of   Havana.      I   also   applaud   the   Cuban   government   for knowing   the   revolution   must   change   over   time.      It   started   around 2010   when   they   cut   the   barber   shops   and   taxis   loose.      Shortly after    that    they    allowed    paladors    and    casa    particulares.        Now everybody   in   Havana   has   a   room   of   Airbnb   and   a   cousin   who drives   a   taxi.      There   are   almost   half   a   million   entrepreneurs   in Cuba   at   this   point   in   time   so   we   should   be   supporting   those changes    rather    than    continue    to    try    to    isolate    the    Cubans    as Americans   are   only   the   icing   on   a   pretty   healthy   tourism   cake they   have   already   made.      Cuba   did   almost   4   million   tourists   last year   and   only