Cuba, not so libre

Our band of travelers. That’s son-in-law/tour guide Alfredo on the right.


What was remarkable to me, on our recent visit to Cuba, was not the number of classic, restored Chevrolets, but the number of horse carts.

Sure, there were plenty of ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevs, along with the occasional Ford or Oldsmobile, and they have become something of a cliche and a major tourist draw in Havana. But the rural areas and smaller towns we visited depended as much on horse power as on horsepower.

New and old means of transport.

There is a similar comparison among buildings – beautifully restored colonial buildings and Art Deco buildings from the 1930’s – next to crumbling structures.

And along with this, the overlay of the period of Soviet influence – essentially between the time of the Revolution (1959) and the fall of the Soviet Union (1991.) Some of the taxis are wired-together Soviet-era Lada’s, and there are ugly concrete apartment blocks that could as easily be on the outskirts of cities in Bulgaria or Croatia.

Now you may be wondering why this is all being written in the past tense.

Colonial church in the Vinales town square.

Avid followers of travelswithpatty  – both of you – will recall that we usually post these blogs as we travel. That wasn’t possible this time, as the Internet is hard to find in Cuba. So this will be an effort, back in the comfort of Seattle, to recreate what we liked most about our trip.

For about a year, we had been planning to go to Cuba with our friends Paul Goldberg and Janie O’Brien, and Jane and Terry Chadsey. We all had traveled together before, so we were pretty confident we could get along with each other. And Jane and Terry have a Cuban-born son-in-law, Alfredo, who offered to lead the tour.

So last summer, Alfredo used part of his annual visit home to Cuba to

Private enterprise in Vinales.

scout out places for us to stay. Rather than hotels, we used casas particulares  — the Cuban version of a bed-and-breakfast. Alfredo also required each of us to write down on 3-by-5 cards what we most wanted to do. (For me, it was to see some historic buildings and museums and to talk politics with real Cubans.)

You will recall that there had been a period of liberalization under Raul Castro, which allowed some additional private businesses, and more travel from the U.S. Since then, Cuba has backed off a little on the privatization – a fear that some people were benefitting much more than others – and new restrictions on U.S. travel imposed by our current president.

The rules now require that travelers from the U.S. be part of a recognized tour group rather than freelancers. We took a chance, marked the box for “people to people” and “education” as the reason for our visit, and went unchallenged.

Government store. Today there were eggs available.


Our first stop, after flying to Cuba via Miami, was Vinales, a small down West of Havana near a major national park. Vinales is an agricultural town, but its proximity to the park means there are a number of casas particulares and some nice restaurants. It was a good, low-key way to introduce ourselves to Cuba. The second day, five of our group rode horses to a tobacco plantation. I stayed in town and had lunch – my first ham-and-cheese sandwich of the trip.

Vinales had some restaurants and a market aimed at the tourist trade, but these were mixed in with the government shops were the residents got their monthly allotment of eggs, rice and other essentials. We did not see a lot of folks from the U.S. although later we met a retired teacher from the Seattle area who had come here for rock-climbing on the limestone.

’56 Chev in the driveway.

The water here is safe enough for Cubans but doesn’t have the right bacteria for Norteamericanos, so we used bottled water and avoided fresh vegetables. There also isn’t much beef. So a lot of places offered ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Or you might get cheese sandwiches, or ham sandwiches, or pork sandwiches. Most dinners came with rice and black beans. If you are lucky, you might get a spicy black-bean soup, which is really good. Or, more often, rice and black beans mixed together in arroz moro.

Every place we stayed came with breakfast, which consisted of juice, coffee, bread, eggs, ham and fresh fruit. We also had some very good seafood. Big lobster tails were a great bargain.


Next stop after Vinales was Trinidad, an old colonial town on the south coast, southeast of Havana. Trinidad was founded in 1514 and is a UNESCO site. It was a slave-trading center and an important part of the sugar production in the 17thand 18thCenturies. It has some beautiful

Colonial buildings.

colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. Many of the buildings house shops featuring embroidery and other crafts, and there is a lively nighttime scene with modern jazz coming from some restaurants and Afrocuban music from others. We also found local pottery and many shops with artwork.


By now – six days into our journey – we had become pretty confident.  Pat, Jane, Paul and Janie actually walked into the center of town from where we were staying (about 3 km,) apparently unfazed by the 80-degree weather. Alfredo was on the lookout for places that had ice made from bottled water, but even when there was no ice for mojitos, our group had become quite fond of Cuban rum taken straight.


Tomorrow: Our stay in Havana.






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