Sunset over the Sea on the Royal Caribbean

How to remain optimistic in winter: Head South

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer”. – Albert Camus

Here in Minnesota we are in the midst of winter. The days are short and cold and in January it rarely gets above freezing. Winter can last anywhere from 4-5 months depending on the year. This year, we have been fortunate as we had an incredibly mild November and December, and despite a sub-zero week it has been mostly in the 20s and 30s. For me, that is almost tropical after last week’s -20.

“So how do you do it” many people ask me in bewilderment and shock when I tell them where I’m from. Simple. I embrace it, and I take a break.

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Havana Cuba cars

Colossal Cuba

Wednesday’s shocking news that President Obama had brokered a secret deal with Cuba to restore full diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba after over fifty years took the world by surprise. Last year while I was in Cuba on a “people to people” cultural tour, one of the only legal ways for Americans to visit Cuba, Obama was secretly meeting with Raúl Castro in Canada and already in the midst of negotiations. The news has angered many who believe it only rewards Castro’s repressive regime yet others believe it is about time we open the doors to Cuba.

Whatever your views are and whatever ends up eventually happening I am glad I was able to go before the floodgate of tourists arrive. Only 90 miles off the shore of the US, Havana is an inviting place. It is the once forbidden fruit that will soon be open for more Americans to see. Will it change for the better? Will it help or hurt the people? These are questions that only time will tell. Like Nick Kristof, a rather liberal New York Times journalist, I believe that allowing the free flow of goods and people into Cuba will help. Will it topple the repressive Castro regime? No. But still, I believe democracy is a good thing and allowing the flow of ideas, people, goods, and cash will eventually help and hopefully lift many Cubans out of poverty. At least the Cuban people will be able to buy desperately needed goods and the shelves on the stores won’t be mostly empty. I remember giving out deodorant, tooth paste and a hairdryer to my Cuban maid before I left Havana and she cried. I thought about the Target store at home where  I purchased them in. Aisles and aisles of every brand of deodorant under the sun. Overwhelmingly stocked with everything your heart desires. It made me sad.

I looked through my pictures again from last year and it made me wonder. If Cuba does open up for Americans, what will it look like in ten or twenty years? Will these photos be relics of the past just like the old cars that are so common on the streets of Cuba today? Or will it be a land overwhelmed with McDonalds and Starbucks? And most importantly of all, will life be better for the Cuban people? Only time will tell.

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View of Havana

Evening view of Havana

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Old Havana

A morning walk in Old Havana

Havana Cuba

Crumbling, decaying buildings, a reminder of Cuba’s glorious past, line the streets of Havana.

Vintage American Cars in Havana

Pre-Revolutionary American cars are quite common in Cuba and a reminder of the isolation imposed on Cuba after the US Embargo.

Cuban propaganda

Cubans are highly patriotic. There is also a lot of propaganda.

Cuban worker

This young man was taking a break from work.

Cuban book market

The Cubans love their fiery Revolutionary past. Che and Fidel are on everything ranging from key chains,to posters and old books.

Cuban bar life

Having a mojito in a gorgeous Cuban bar is a daily necessity.

Cuban propaganda

Old magazines for sale

Old Vintage cars in Havana Vintage cars in Havana

Old cars in Havana

Given the age of the cars, many break down and have to be refurbished with new parts.

Cuban cigars

Cuban cigars are everywhere and everyone smokes them.

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba The Malecón Havana

The Malecón Havana Cuba

Starting from Old Havana, it is a lovely walk along the Malecón with lots of sights to see.

The Malecón Havana

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Old Havana Cuba

A Return to Cuba

Last February, I spent a week in Cuba and fell in love with the beauty and culture of this mysterious place. Although the country remains trapped under Communism and a lack of human rights, I still was able to find beauty in the people, the music, the glorious architecture and the land. It is a place I would love to go back to and see more.

Although I’ve already written rather extensively on Cuba, I discovered a few photos that I haven’t shared and thought it was time to return to one of my favorite places in Cuba: Old Havana. Take a walk with me through the lovely streets and step back in time.

Old Havana Cuba

Old Havana Cuba

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Palacio de Valle Cienfuegos Cuba

Dining in Cienfuegos at the Spectacular Palacio de Valle

The highlight of my visit to Cienfuegos was our late afternoon lunch at the spectacular Palacio de Valle. Built in 1913 for the wealthy business tycoon Don Acisclo del Valle, the palace is an unbelievable mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Mudejar and Baroque styles influenced by Spain’s Moorish past. The palace was designed by an Italian architect, Alfredo Colli and took over four years to complete.

Today the Palacio de Valle is open to tourists at its lovely first floor restaurant and also holds various cultural events throughout the year. After traveling to the South of Spain and Morocco, I fell in love with the Moorish architecture of that part of the world and was a bit surprised to find it in Cuba.

The Palacio de Valle was my favorite building that I saw during my trip to Cuba due to its sheer beauty and architectural genius. The entire place is enchanting and the craftsmanship inside the palace’s interior is a feast for the eyes.

Palacio de Valle Cienfuegos Cuba

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Cienfuegos Cuba

An Afternoon in Cienfuegos Cuba

An hour drive west of Trinidad in Central Cuba lies the port city of Cienfuegos. Known as the “Pearl of the South“, Cienfuegos was built along a peninsula overlooking one of Cuba’s largest bays, Bahia de Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos was originally inhabited by the French who arrived in 1803 with 40 families from Bordeaux and Louisiana. In 1819, the Spanish arrived and founded the town which would become an important industrial area after the Cuban Revolution. Sugar refineries, flour mills, cement factories and a naval base transformed Cienfuegos into an important economic hub for Cuba.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

Most people visit Cienfuegos today for its amazing location along the Caribbean Sea and its access to beaches and culture. The historic center of Cienfuegos is a World Heritage Site lined with gorgeous Spanish and French colonial architecture reminiscent of Cienfuegos’ heritage and past. Cienfuegos also boasts a strong cultural scene with one of Cuba’s finest Chamber Orchestras (which we got to hear) and a surprisingly developed art scene. Unfortunately we only had a few hours to spend in Cienfuegos but it was well worth the visit. Here are some highlights.

Cienfuegos Cuba

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Cuban countryside

A Drive through Cuba’s Countryside: Trinidad to Cienfuegos

One of my absolute favorite things to do when I travel is see the countryside. As much as I love the vibrant culture and pulse of a city, there is something special to be found in the countryside. Our drive from Trinidad to Cienfuegos was as nostalgic as I’d imagined. We passed farms, tobacco and sugar plantations and lush mountains in the distance. The deep blue colors of the Caribbean Sea sporadically appeared upon the horizon as we neared our next stop for the day: The lovely, historic town of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

We only had a few hours to spend in Cienfuegos before heading on the long drive back to Havana. The drive from Trinidad was beautiful and sadly the only pictures I could snap of the passing, verdant countryside were from the window of our Cuban tour bus. The glare was bad, the motion a little fuzzy but at least I captured a few good shots of the beautiful Cuban countryside.

“I long for the countryside. That’s where I get my calm and tranquillity – from being able to come and find a spot of green”. – Emilia Clarke

Cuban countryside

Powderpuff clouds in the horizon

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Trinidad Cuba

Trinidad: The Color of Cuba

Tucked away atop the hillside of the surrounding Sierra del Escambray mountains in Central Cuba lies one of Cuba’s most precious colonial jewels: The beautiful colonial city of Trinidad. Founded in 1514 as Villa de la Santísima Trinidad by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a Spanish conquistador, Trinidad has rightfully earned the reputation as one of the most beautiful and well-preserved colonial cities in all of Latin America.

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The beach at Hotel Brisas del Mar Trinidad Cuba

Heading South Along Cuba’s Glorious Countryside, Part II

Author’s note: This is post is part II of a two-part series. To read the first post, click here. 

After our glorious mouth-watering lunch at Palador Enriques in Playa Larga, it was time to board the bus again and continue along south to Trinidad. We were all extremely full after our lobster and seafood feast but there was no time to snooze. We only had a short drive until we arrived at our next destination before reaching Trinidad: The Bay of Pigs Museum. It was time to soak up Cuban Propaganda to the fullest extent.

Bay of Pigs Museum Cuba

The Bay of Pigs Museum

The Bay of Pigs or Plaza Giron is the famous beach site in Cuba known for the final battle between Castro’s armed forces and the counter-revolutionary army on the 17-19 of April in 1961. Known in Cuba as the Playa de Zapata, Castro became keenly interested in helping this depopulated pristine area of Cuba that was home to many underemployed, uneducated Cubans. Castro spent time in Playa de Zapata and his unique knowledge of this remote part of Cuba greatly assisted him during the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco.

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Afro-Cuban music in Trinidad

The Rhythm and Twist of Cuban Rumba

Cuba’s rich culture and heritage is a melting pot of mixed ancestry and race. As the Spanish came to colonize Cuba, they brought in over a million slaves from Africa to work on the plantations starting in the 16th century until the abolition of slavery in 1886. During those years, African slaves were coerced to assimilate as much as possible into Spanish Cuban society. However, they fortunately had rather creative ways at retaining their own unique culture and identity through their religion Santeria, music, and dance. One of the benefits of the Cuban revolution was the creation of a more equal society. Although racism still exists a little bit it is much less prevalent than in other parts of the world.

Trinidad, one of the most beautiful colonial towns in all of Cuba, has a strong Afro-Cuban culture. One of the highlights of our visit to Trinidad was a live show of Afro-Cuban music and dancing at the Palenque de los Congoes Reales in the heart of Colonial Trinidad. Over tangy mojitos, we enjoyed a live performance of rumba dance to traditional Afro-Cuban music.

Afro-Cuban music in Trinidad

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Enriques Playa Larga

Heading South Through Cuba’s Glorious Countryside

After five wonderful days in Havana, it was time to head south to Trinidad. As much as I absolutely loved Havana, I was really looking forward to seeing the countryside. I chose a nice seat up front in our bus so I could get a bird’s eye view of the passing tobacco and sugar plantations and the nostalgic fields of southern Cuba.

It was a beautiful and quite eventful drive. We headed south with a stop at Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs before ending just in time for sunset and an ocean swim at our hotel outside of Trinidad.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

Photo Source: Wikipedia Free Commons

After we left Havana, the first thing I noticed was the lines and lines of people standing around in groups alongside the highway. Curious, I asked Abel our Cuban tour leader why so many people were standing alongside the road, some in packs and others alone. He told me about the immense challenges of getting around Cuba. These people alongside the roads and highways were waiting for a free ride to most likely visit family and friends in the provinces.

As the economy collapsed over a million Cubans fled the countryside and moved to Havana seeking jobs. Unfortunately the government could not keep up and today there remains a huge shortage of bus service for Havana’s 11.4 million residents. Cars are so expensive that most Cubans do not have them so they are forced to take whatever mode of transportation they can find to get out of the big cities and into the smaller cities throughout Cuba’s provinces.

Transportation in Cuba

Anything works to get from place to place in Cuba.

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Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Along the Prado

Perhaps Havana’s most beloved streets is Paseo de Martí or simply known as the Prado, a beautiful, long promenade that divides Old Havana from Central Havana and is the place to see and be seen. Back in the days of Cuba’s glory before the revolution, the Prado was the place for Havana’s wealthy elite to take a stroll, have a cup of coffee or relax along this long tree-lined promenade.

Today, the Prado still continues to have her charm and is the place where the young enjoy skating, biking, hanging out or playing music. There are also lots of beautiful buildings and hotels around the Prado where you can sit out on a verandah and watch the world go by.

On a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon I took a walk down the Prado to take some photos. Here is what I found.

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Beautiful marble benches and wrought-iron street lights line the promenade making it a lovely place to stroll.

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

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Colon Cemetery in Havana.

Colon Cemetery: Havana’s Work of Art

When I saw our itinerary for our “people-to-people” cultural tour of Cuba (one of the only legal ways to visit Cuba as an American), the one event out of all that I was the least excited about was the visit to a cemetery. To me, visiting cemeteries are rather morbid and oftentimes depressing. Unless of course you are at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, who wants to see a bunch of grave stones while you are happily enjoying a vacation?

Our morning visit to the famous Colon Cemetery or Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón as it is called in Spanish, proved that not only was I completely wrong but that cemeteries can be actually quite a beautiful place loaded with gorgeous architecture, flowers, history and art. If you have to be buried, then there isn’t a more beautiful place than the Colon Cemetery in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

Founded in 1871 as the prosperous Spanish colony began expanding its architectural works into new posh neighborhoods and theaters, train stations, markets, hotels and parks, the Colon Cemetery was built on top of the existing Espada Cemetery and named after Christopher Columbus, the Spaniard who “discovered” Cuba. The Colon Cemetery was based on a project designed by Calixto Aureliano de Loire y Cardoso, a Spanish architect who lived in Cuba. Sadly, he died only two years after starting the project and was one of the first people buried in the cemetery.

Colon Cemetery in Havana.

The beautiful church at Colon Cemetery in Havana.

The Colon Cemetery is known as the third most important cemeteries in the world based on its glorious architecture and history. In Latin America, it is the second most important cemetery after La Recoleta in Buenos Aires that I have also seen. Both are equally beautiful yet in drastically different ways.

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