Cuba Day 7 (November 20, 2015)



There was one thing on my Cuba bucked list that we hadn’t accomplished, a visit to the iconic Che metal figure on the building in the Plaza de la Revolution. So Ellen and I got up early and took a Coco-cab (sort of a motorcycle with a shell on top) there.


Our driver waited for us while we took about 10 minutes to take pictures. We were glad we went out there.


Back to the hotel for breakfast. I emptied and repacked my suitcase, as there needed to be room for rum. The bus took us to the airport. Check-in and emigration was easy. We did our duty-free shopping. Nothing left to do but wait for our flight.

And this time, everything went smoothly. A one hour delay out of Havana. Luggage immediately arrived in Miami. No problems with immigration or Customs. A burger! for dinner at a TGIF at the airport with Margaret. Easy flight to BWI. Overnight at a hotel there, then home Saturday morning.

I am writing my impressions of the trip for NBC4. Once that’s published, I’ll link to it. This was an experience, not a vacation. Overwhelming too, because while we were there, we were exposed to the people and lives of real Cubans. It was amazing. And a little overwhelming.

Cuba Day 6 (November 19, 2015)


Today, we return to Havana, but not without some fun along the way. After loading up the bus, we went just a few blocks to a cigar factory. We can now attest, when they say Cuban cigars are hand-rolled, they are. Workers have piles of tobacco leaves from the 3 parts of the plant and combine the filler, the binder and the wrapper to create the cigar. They make about 150 a day (and can take home 12 a week).


We traveled by bus next to Las Terrazas, an artistic community in a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. We had a local guide tell us the history, where the trees had been clear-cut at one point to create charcoal. The area then had over 1 million trees planted and managed ecologically. We had lunch at a restaurant there.

We then went to the outskirts of Havana and watched the Compas Dance Company perform. Mostly young women, it was another time when the spirit of the Cuban people provided hope for their future.


We returned to the Hotel Plaza, where we had been for the start of the trip. It wasn’t easy to return, because the hotel is not in the best shape. Our hotel in Pinar del Rio was much nicer.


There was a farewell dinner, but many chose other options. Ellen and I decided to make this our special anniversary dinner. We ate at La Guarida, perhaps the nicest paladar in Havana. We took a pedicab there, enjoying the bumpy ride. The paladar is on the 2nd floor of a building in pretty bad shape in a not-so-nice neighborhood. You had to walk up marble stairs with iffy handrails to get there. But once we made it, it was all worth it. We had a meal that would have been delightful anywhere. We started with cheese ravioli. Ellen had suckling pig, I had snapper in a delicious sauce. We had dessert and coffee/tea, and the meal came to just 85 CUC including tip. We ate leisurely, as our pedicab driver was coming back to meet us in 2 hours.


Almost all in the tour were ending the trip with a night featuring the Buena Vista Social Club band. Legendary Cuban performers take turns singing songs, walking through the crowd. Our Cuban tour guide had told them it was our anniversary, so about half-way through, we were brought flowers and they announced we were there celebrating our 30th anniversary. We were surprised and very honored. The concert ended at 11:30, and we walked home for our last night sleeping in Cuba.



Cuba Day 5 (November 18, 2015)

Today was a full day!


Our first stop today was the Vinales National Park. The topography was pretty awesome, mountain formations that erupted out of nowhere.


We hiked through tobacco fields, learned about tobacco farming, plants and harvesting. We learned that tobacco farmers turn over 90% of their crops to the government for the creation of branded cigars, but can age, ferment, flavor and sell the remaining 10%. After having bought 3 Cohibas for $45 in Havana, I bought 12 cigars from the farmer that are better for $30.


We had lunch at el Palenque de los Cimarrones, which was entirely touristy and unremarkable. In fact, we were stuck in a bus traffic jam getting out of the parking lot.


We stopped next in the town of Vinales. Our tour guide gave us the assignment of going into a casa particular (think AirBnB) and talk with the owner and go into a local store and price in the local currency. Cuba has 2 currencies, the CUC which foreigners use and the local peso. Well, that was the plan. The CUC is now a hard currency that is pegged to the dollar and is used by Cubans for anything more than the basics. It’s complicated, I’ll maybe do a blog entry solely on currency and inequality issues.


Ellen was a little reluctant to enter a casa particular, but I thought it might be fun to use the little bit of Spanish we’ve learned from taking a class. We picked one at random and walked in. We spoke with the owner, who was very nice. Her room was already rented for the day, but we learned its price of 25 CUC per night and that she really likes her telenovellas. She asked where we were from and told us she has had US guests from New York, DC, Miami, and Texas.

We went into a grocery store that sold things priced both by CUC and pesos and got a sense of what locals pay.

I had wondered how the casa particulars market themselves. And we found out when a bus from Havana pulled up. The owners were right there to meet the bus, delivering impassioned pleas to bewildered travelers. I liked the one-to-one sales efforts!



For dinner, the tour group was going out to a paladar, but we decided to go on our own. Walking past the hotel, one of our fellow group members, Hillary from Austin, ran after us to scout where we were going for a smaller group that was looking to break away. We had researched in Moon and had a couple places in mind. They were on our street, but we had some difficulty finding them, as the street numbers went down and then back up again. A local took on the task of “helping” us find the paladar. The one we were looking for was closed, but we found one further down the street. We were gone so long that the others had gone to the group dinner, so it was just the 3 of us. I didn’t have small Cuban bills, so I tipped him $3 for his “help.” After sitting down to dine, the local came back in to “check” on us. He told the restaurant we were his friends. He left, but came back again maybe 5 minutes later, again looking for his friends. At this point, we think the restaurant owner came to check that we didn’t know him and escorted him away. Our waiter told us he was loco.


The menu had appetizers for 1 CUC each and main courses for 4.50. We had 3 appetizers, 3 main courses, 3 drinks and it cost us 26.40 CUC with tip. We had a great conversation during dinner and felt we had our most authentic Cuban meal of the trip.


We found out that the tour group had dinner at the paladar right next to ours. Except they had been there 1 ½ hours and didn’t have their dinner yet. We win! We walked back to the hotel with Hillary, had a drink and then went to bed. Still before the group got back to the hotel.

Cuba Day 4 (November 17, 2015)


We left Havana today! About a 2 hour bus ride to Patio de Pelegrin, a small community with arts opportunities for the citizens. They gave us a tour, showed us their paintings (we bought one) and served us lunch.


Back on the bus for another half hour or so to Pinar del Rio. Our hotel is nicer than the one in Havana, more modern and reliable. We went with the Insights Cuba guide for a walk, just to see the stores and buildings. Such a different pace than Havana. We visited a theater/singing/dancing group of kids in their 20’s. We enjoyed the performances.


The town was interesting to people watch. Even an ATM!



Dinner was with the group at a convent. Yes, with nuns serving and clearing the dishes. It was really fun.

I’ve been a little under the weather today, so we went straight up to bed when we got back at 9:30.

Cuba Day 3 (November 16, 2015)

Rainy morning to start the day.


Now with the race over, Ellen and I have the same itinerary, a people-to-people emphasis. The group is also down to only 19 people who are on the full 8-day tour.


First stop today was a health clinic. We met with the director and head nurse and got an introduction to the Cuban health system. This clinic served 31,000 residents, providing primary care (all for free). If more specialized or severe care is needed, there are then centers and hospitals.


DSC_0941Next was the grand cemetery. More an outdoor art museum than cemetery, Everyone in Havana can be buried there, but they only leave bodies in the graves for 2 years. By then the humidity has reduced what’s left to bones. The bones get boxed and moved to another area. Our guide told fantastic stories of love and loss, in such a dramatic (and accented voice) that even if you didn’t understand him, you loved the theatrics.


Lunch was in a palladar, then we toured an arts and barber community project.


Ellen and I then went to the Museum of the Revolution. In Baptiste’s former presidential palace, it told the story of how the Castros came to power. There was some English, which served to remind me that history is written by the victors.





A short rest at the hotel, then to dinner with 4 others from the group. We dined on the roof of a building with a view of the old city. A cannon sounds at 9pm, a vestige of when the old city would close its gates.


We took cabs to the Tropicana. A dancing/singing show, it had the outrageous costumes and glitzy staging that you might expect. The show went from 10pm – midnight, at which time we found our taxi driver who had waited for us and went back to the hotel.

Cuba Day 2 (November 15, 2015)

Race day! Up at 4:30 for some carbs and water, back to sleep until 6. Our hotel is just 2 blocks from the start, which is always a great thing. Left the hotel just after 6:30 and milled about at the starting line. Promptly at 7, we were off!


On this trip was a high school classmate of mine. Had brunch with Jon Kirn about 6 months ago and mentioned this trip. He had never run a race before, but here he is!


The race starts (and finishes) by the capitol, which looks much like the US building. We were soon along the malecon, the sea wall that Cubans hang out next to. The waves were rough, so there was a lot of splashing over the sea wall.


IMG_0096About 1.5 miles into the race, I could tell that the humidity was going to be a huge factor for me. So I walked through the water stops. The water was delivered in plastic sacks that you bit the end off of. Much more efficient delivery than cups filled with water. Also, more liquid! Each sack held 250ml of water.


We passed the US Embassy near the end of the malecon, it was something to see the building and the US flag flying. Hills started around mile 5, which I was okay with to start. But I began strategically walking the later hills and at one point around mile 9. But only a little to recharge, and then back to running.


The Cubans along the course sat on their front lawns or up on their balconies and watched, but there wasn’t any cheering. That was okay, there was so much to see and absorb along the way, I didn’t miss the signs and bands and cowbells that US races have.


Insight Cuba hired Jenny Hadfield from Runners World as our running coach on Facebook and she was here with us. Around mile 11, I saw an Insight Cuba sign, then realized it was Jenny rooting us on. She had helped coach me through preparing for the heat and humidity, so it was uplifting to see here there. Jenny took this picture.


I pushed through the last 2 miles and was happy to return to the capitol and finish the race. I timed it at 2:38:05, which was fine with me given the conditions.IMG_0182


The race featured a mixture of Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Americans and a few other noticeable nationalities. There were about 5000 runners this year, a record for the number of Cubans and foreign nationals who ran here. It was an incredible experience to see Havana through the streets, so I’m so glad that Ellen encouraged this as the selection for our anniversary trip.

I was able to clean up and take a taxi with 2 other runners to join the companions for lunch at an organic farm outside of Havana. After getting back to the hotel, Ellen led me on a walking tour of old Havana and we did some souvenir shopping.




There was a dinner celebration for the whole tour group, with most of the runners going back to the US on Monday. At each table were 2 Cuban runners. We occasionally had a translator, and otherwise used some Spanish and some English to communicate. It was a special exchange, to talk and share as runners and citizens. It was warm, friendly and uplifting. The race organizer spoke at the dinner about the special bond between the Insight Cuba groups and the Cubans. Maybe there is something to this people-to-people exchange idea.


Cuba Day 0 (November 13, 2015)


Editor’s Note: With no Internet access in Cuba, I wrote the blog as we went. Now that we are back, it’s time to publish.

We didn’t accomplish anything but making it to Havana, so I’m going to call it Day 0. Group travel and charters call for lots of patience. Ours was tested. Lines to get tickets, lines to check-in, meetings, lectures…and that was the easy part. Flight was delayed 3 hours, so we spent even more time in MIA. All that was for 45 minutes in the air; took off at 9:30pm, landed at 10:15pm. Entering Cuba immigration was easy. Getting our luggage wasn’t. It wasn’t until more than 2.5 hours after we landed that luggage from our flight started coming onto the belt. We were tired and cranky. Got to the hotel around 1:30am. Got our keys and tried to collapse.


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