A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: amikulski

Excursion to Viñales

Day 6: Tobacco and Horses

This morning we departed Havana early for Viñales. Our rest stop was interesting because it was named after the barrigonas (big-bellied) palms in the area.

The ride took about 3 hours over some roads with lots of potholes: I now understand why our host dad says that the trip is better by bus than car and that he hopes improvements are made soon. The roads also got narrower as we turned off the Carretera Central, Cuba’s main highway.

Viñales has become a popular destination for its mogotes, unique limestone formations that are a UNESCO site. We could see them from the bus as we were approaching.

We stopped at a tobacco farm surrounded by mogotes,
where they explained the process of growing tobacco,
drying leaves,
and rolling cigars.
We also learned the difference between Habanos and puros. Tobacco farmers sell 90% of their crop to the government. This gets made into cigars in the government factories. They are identifiable with the Habano label that goes around the cigar. They also add some preservatives to extend the life of the cigar. The 10% that the farmers keep can be made into cigars for their own consumption or for private sales. They are rolled at the farm, have no preservatives, and are not labeled. These are puros, named that way for the lack of preservatives.

According to the farm, the difference between Habanos and Puros is important for US tourists: they are prohibited from bringing home the former because they are government products but are allowed to bring home the latter because that is considered support for the Cuban people. Tricky. However, there are differing opinions online about the legality of this, and the Department of the Treasury does not mention any distinction between factory- and farm-rolled cigars. To them, they are all prohibited as of 2020: https://ofac.treasury.gov/faqs/769

So if you’re a US citizen thinking of buying cigars, it is most realistic to accept that they could be confiscated and buy at your own risk.

The farm also sold honey, coffee, and rum made with a small guava fruit that only grows on that part of the island. That rum would fall under the prohibition mentioned in the link above so again, buy at your own risk, but the honey and coffee would be fine.

Next we went horseback riding. It was my first time ever in a horse! DD1 only had ever done a 5-minute pony ride about 10 years ago, so it was her first extended ride.

It was a little scary at first, but fun. We did a half-hour loop on the farm and passed through a pretty place called el Valle del Silencio. No pics to share because DD1 and I felt too uneasy about letting go of the horn of the saddle to take a picture!

After the ride, we had an enormous family-style lunch at Finca del Paraíso. The restaurant has beautiful views of the mogotes. They also have gardens surrounding the restaurant.
After lunch, we went to our casas particulares in the town of Viñales. When we arrived, they were under an apagón that was supposed to last until 7 PM. The lack of electricity made our room warm and dark, so we spent time in the courtyard.
The sun kept going down and there was still no power, so our casa and the one next door started up generators. Regular power came on at around 8, just in time for our group dinner at 8:30.

Day 7: Caves
I woke up at 2 AM feeling hot and not hearing the air conditioner in the room: another apagón. I splashed some cold water on my arms and neck and eventually fell asleep, so I don’t know how long it lasted. We had electricity when we woke up for the day, but it definitely gave us an idea of how hard it must be to work around the apagones, especially for those who live outside of Havana. Our host mom says that people in the provinces have to deal with them much more because the government prioritizes the capital. She had heard that people in the provinces could expect outages of up to 14 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Our first stop was at the cave tour, la Cueva del Indio.
The caves in Viñales were used as hideouts for cimarrones, people escaping slavery. They weren’t turned in by the tobacco farmers nearby because they weren’t enslaving people. The cimarrones built settlements called palenques inside the caves. By the early 20th century, some people had the idea to make the caves a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, they did not see the value to the palenques and other artifacts from the settlements, so they cleared out all evidence of human habitation. What’s left is just the natural structure of the caves. It was impressive, though.

The first part of the tour was done on foot, but then we reached a river and took a boat ride the rest of the way.

The tour guides pointed out interesting structures in the limestone, like one that looked like a skull.

We also had the opportunity to try guarapo (sugarcane juice) freshly squeezed with orange and star fruit.

The one time I had tried guarapo before was many years ago in Miami, and it was just plain, without any fruit juice added. It was too sweet for me. I thought I’d try it mixed with the fruit, and I did like it better: it had a more complex flavor instead of just sweet. DD1 liked hers as well.

Our next stop was the Mural of Prehistory. Many of us thought this was the Cueva del Indio and directly translated into English and thus thought we were going to see indigenous cave paintings. We were wrong on 2 counts.
1. The painting is on the outside of the cave, not in it.
2. None of it was done by indigenous tribes (some of the painters may have indigenous ancestry somewhere, but no more so than any other Cuban).

So what it is? It’s a cooperative project, originally painted in 1960. Leovigildo González Murillo, a Cuban painter who had studied under Diego Rivera, provided the artistic vision, but many locals helped in the painting. Locals also help with periodically touching up the work. The mural itself depicts the prehistory of that part of the island, including indigenous peoples, hence the name.
Rumor has it that the Cueva del Indio bar has the best piña colada on the island. I would need more research to fully confirm this, but I can tell you without a doubt that it was really good!
FYI, they are made virgin, and adults can add rum if they wish.

All around us, we had the scenery of the mogotes. We also learned that the red tile roofs seen throughout the region were introduced by settlers from the Canary Islands.

After lunch, we headed back to Havana.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by amikulski 23:37 Archived in Cuba Tagged horses caves cuba vinales teens mogotes Comments (0)

Havana, Part 2

sunny 85 °F

Day 3: Dos gallos con salsa

For the past two mornings we heard a rooster crowing: it wasn’t something we had expected to hear in Havana. We asked our host mom about it, and she said that a lot of families raise chickens in their yards for eggs and meat because of the economic situation. She also said that some families have pigs and keep them in the bathroom at night and let them wander the house in the day. They’re basically a pet, until it’s time for slaughter. With the price of pork at 1200 pesos a kilo, it makes sense for some people. (To put this in context, we heard that the salaries for government jobs top out at about 11,000 pesos a month, and that retirement pensions are about 4,200 pesos monthly).

Our group spent the morning at a community center doing service learning with children from the Pozitos neighborhood of Marianao. Together we upcycled egg cartons into decorative mobiles.

Interesting side note: the director said that in the special period of the 90s, egg cartons were like gold. Everybody kept theirs so they wouldn’t have to pay the 1 peso fee to get a new one. She said that even though they are in a difficult situation now, people currently are more likely to toss their cartons and pay for new ones rather than keep them.

The kids were a bit shy at first, but we talked to them a bit. The ones at our table reported that school lunches were free, but the food was bad, and one said that his teachers were a pain. One played street hockey and the other baseball. I didn’t take pictures to protect their privacy.

José Martí, Cuba’s national hero who was also a poet and essayist, is everywhere in Cuba, including the fence of the community center.

The center also had turtles!

We had a nice lunch at the center, and then we were invited to watch part of a party/initiation rite for a secret society of Abekuá, a religion of Bantu origin. We walked through the yard where people were waiting for those going through the initiation to emerge from the temple building. There was a lot of people, a lot of drumming, plenty of empty beer cans, and a dead rooster (sacrificial, I’m guessing) in the corner. Pictures were not allowed as it was a religious ceremony. After we got back to the center, the directors explained that we were the first large group of foreigners that had ever been invited to witness such an event at that temple. It was cool that they let us observe and that we saw something that very few foreigners get to see.

Then we went to a dance studio in Old Havana called La Casa del Son for a salsa class. Our group had Adrián and María as our instructors. They taught us several combinations that they named by number, so we had to remember which sequence went with each number. After some individual practice, they brought in other dancers so that every student had a teacher-partner. It reminded me of the moments in Dirty Dancing when the dance teachers went into the crowd and chose resort guests to dance with them. My partner, Cobá, was helpful, and all of the teachers were positive: they high-fived us every time we went through a set of sequences. No pics here because we were busy dancing!

Day 4: Beach, Neighbors, and Family

Today the group made an excursion to Santa María Del Mar. DD1 and I were excited about this because it is one of the beaches that my mom regularly visited with her family.

Our host family was concerned about pickpockets and advised us to leave our phones at home. This was great for protecting valuables, but it meant that we had no camera. A friend graciously agreed to share her pics of that day, so credit to V here.

The beach was beautiful! It must have been amazing to have this as a regular outing spot growing up.

There was a Portuguese Man of War that had washed up on the beach, though, and some people spotted more floating on the water. I’m not sure if that’s seasonal, but definitely be careful if you go.

The stretch of beach that we were on was fairly undeveloped. There was a hotel and some food stands near the access point. Once on the beach, there were umbrellas and chairs for rent and vendors selling snacks, coconuts (with rum added if you wish), hats, and sunglasses. We even saw some folks who had arranged for a table and dinner set up on the beach. The only thing missing? Bathrooms. We tried going to the hotel, and security said the restrooms were only for guests. When I asked if that held even if we bought a drink, he referred me to their gift shops in the other building. Once there, we bought drinks and asked an employee about restrooms, and she was nice enough to take us to one for employees. Incidentally, we also tried to get lunch at the hotel cafeteria and were again turned away by security. It’s weird because most hotels I know of in other countries are happy to let non-guests pay to eat at their restaurants. Eventually I spotted a restaurant a little ways down that may have had facilities.

After the beach, we met up with our host family. First they drove us through the neighborhood where my mom lived as a teen, Casino Deportivo. We went by a park that she knew

and a place that was a market when she lived there.

I had my mom’s address with the cross streets and description of where it was along that block. We went there and saw that the house numbers weren’t anything close to what she had written down. We double-checked our cross streets and deduced which house must have been hers.

Our host dad mentioned that some parts of the city had houses renumbered as part of urban planning efforts, so that maybe that’s what had happened on this street. There was a man on the street, about 30 years old, so my host dad asked him how long they had had these house numbers. The guy said it was a long time, but when my host dad followed up asking if the numbers went back to 1959, he wasn’t sure. He said that the family across the street had been there for a long time and suggested we ask them.

That family was on their front porch, so my host dad approached them. They confirmed that the house numbers had indeed changed. My host dad explained why he was asking, and they started asking for my family’s name. I started with our family surname, then the first names of my grandparents and my mom. Then I remembered that my mom went by a nickname and shared that. Then the grandfather of the family cried out, “la hermana de [my uncle’s nickname]?”

I responded that [nickname] was my uncle!

We had a nice conversation. The grandfather had grown up on that street since he was three. He used to ride bikes with my uncle and said that he had a picture of them at a birthday party somewhere in his house. He remembered that my mom played piano and that my grandfather drove a Chevrolet. I shared some old pictures of my mom and uncle on my phone and took his contact information so he and my uncle could get in contact. (Post-trip update: my mom and uncle had a video call with him!)

After that amazing encounter, we had another one: our host family drove us to meet our cousin and his wife. It was great to be able to meet them in person for the first time! They introduced us to white guavas, shared stories, and showed us lots of old family photos. Some had been taken in Cuba, like this one of my cousin Martha (RIP) on her wedding day.

Others had reached them from the US. I guess I’d forgotten that my mom sent my senior picture to Cuba!

We’re so glad that we had the chance to spend some time with them!

Day 5: Getting Schooled

We began our day at CIPS with a talk about education. Not surprisingly, it started with a José Martí quote.

The talk did couch things in terms of improvements that have happened since the Revolution, but it is true that there were inequalities in education before that time.

Also, the speaker had worked for 12 years in the literacy brigades teaching older adults, so I respected that she walked the walk on the topic of education. She also just described how education is structured in Cuba, such as what grades are at which schools and college entrance exams.

Her finishing slide reminded me of much of the perspective of I had been hearing: pro-Revolution with an upbeat, love-for-all vibe.

Our next stop was an elementary school.

The main lobby had a wall of pictures for Fidel,

And some photos of when current President Díaz Canel visited their school: a study in contrasts, to be sure.

The kids had planned dance performances for us in the school lobby, but there was an apagón when we arrived. They had found a speaker that would play—I’m guessing it was battery-powered—but every group would have to cut their performance short so that there’d be enough power for everyone. The kids adapted and gave great abbreviated performances (not sharing pics to protect the kids’ privacy).

After that, each performing child was told to find a person from our group and give them a tour of the school. My tour guide, A, was a sweet fifth-grader whose favorite subject is math. She took me by the hand and showed me all around the school, and soon one of her friends joined us to assist in the tour.

We saw the computer room, which every class visits once a week. I noticed the mention of Scratch Jr.

This is the lunchroom.

On the menu: pea stew, white rice, beet salad, jam and bread.
I noticed a cardboard Granma in the Kindergarten room, though I don’t know how often it is brought down for lessons. The kids were coloring numbers at the time.

I spotted one classroom named for José Martí’s narrative children’s poem “Los zapaticos de rosa.”

I explained to A that I had taken a picture of the sign because my mom was born in Cuba and used to have that book. She told me that the story was in her José Martí reader and promptly took me to see an art project on “Los zapaticos de rosa”

And a José Martí quote.

After lunch, we visited the Literacy Museum, which is specifically about the Literacy Brigades that Castro formed in 1961.

I am all for literacy, and the brigades were successful, but I felt like we were getting the government point of view laid on pretty thick at this museum. Maybe it felt that way because our group, along with the museum tour guide, was being supervised by some type of party official. Also, the museum told more about the politics of the brigades—e.g., how some were attacked by counter-revolutionaries—than how they taught people to read. We actually learned more about that from the speaker that morning. Fortunately, this was the only place on the trip where I felt like we received any attempt at conversion to the party line. To the contrary, everyone else was very open about the challenges people in Cuba were facing—which, at least at this moment in time, does not make for a very convincing argument.

Thanks for reading! Next I will share about our trip to Viñales.

Posted by amikulski 19:36 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches cuba school havana teens Comments (0)

Havana, part 1

Arrival, Old Havana, Cañonazo

sunny 83 °F

Day 1: How to get jet lag without changing time zones

Our group was scheduled for a 6 AM flight out of BWI. Thing is, we live 3 hours away from that airport and wanted some cushion in case of bus issues or poor weather. That meant departing at 12:15 AM. We tried to nap in the evening before we left, but only DD1 succeeded. Once on the bus, DD1 was again more successful at sleeping. Fortunately I recouped some sleep time on both legs of the flight.

We landed in Havana around 3, but leaving the airport took a while. Some members of our group had purchased internet access cards online to pick up at the airport, but apparently that wasn’t so simple. By the time we met our host families, we were running behind, so we only had time to set down our bags before meeting with the group for our orientation. Then it was off to a spectacular welcome dinner: you'll see it later! By the time we got home, we were beat and fell asleep fast.

Day 2: Our first apagón and Old Havana

We had heard about apagones, rolling blackouts that occur so as not to overpower the city grid. We were getting ready to meet the group when one struck, so it didn’t affect us much in the moment. However, when we reached our first stop, the Centro de Investigaciones Psicológicas y Sociológicas (CIPS, Center for Psychological nd Sociological Research), power was out there as well.

The plan had been for us to sit in an air-conditioned classroom for our talk, but instead CIPS moved chairs into this courtyard so we would have light and some air.

The talk was about Cuban history. Our speaker, Rubén, had a PowerPoint presentation, but unfortunately could not access it because of the apagón. He still did a fantastic job, though! He has a tattoo of Cuba on his forearm and used it as a visual aid when he referred to different parts of the island. He was also a gifted storyteller, with all sorts of anecdotes from the Pre-Colombian tribes till today. There was of course mention of the Revolution in a positive light, but the talk covered much more than that and did not gloss over the Special Period of the 1990s and described Cuba today as being in another sort of Special Period.

Then we toured Old Havana on foot. We immediately spotted line of classic cars for hire.

We visited the cathedral square

and went into the cathedral.

Of course, San Cristobal--because the city's full name is San Cristobal de La Habana--and la Virgen de la Caridad--Cuba's patron saint--were there.

We saw the exterior of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived for several years.

We went to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and learned the legend of the lady on the weathervane of this fort. She is also on the Havana Club logo: if you don't see her, the rum is not authentic!

We saw El Templete, which commemorates the founding of Havana.

It has murals in the building and a garden outside.

The ceiba tree is considered sacred, so people leave offerings and walk around the trunk for good luck. However, the one at El Templete was getting so much attention that there was concern about damage to the tree. It is corded off 364 days a year for protection, with 1 day allotted for the practice.

We also saw the building that used to house the Havana stock exchange

And the Mother Theresa garden.

We visited the statue of el Caballero de París, a vagrant who always insisted on giving people something in return—a pen, drawing, etc.—to those who gave him money or food. Legend is that if you touch his beard, finger, and foot at the same time, you’ll return to Havana. I had to give it a try!

Havana, especially Old Havana, reminds me of Prague, not geographically, but in the sense that in both places there were so many pictures of pretty buildings that I wanted to take. In some cases, the street level is touristy with daily life going on above.

Also like Prague, we spotted a bride--but no groom. Could she have been a model or getting pics done before the ceremony? She looked too old to be a quinceañera.

We took a lunch break in the Plaza Vieja.

Then we visited a large souvenir market. A snack bar there was selling malta, a sort of molasses-flavored pop. DD1 tried it and liked it.

After dinner, the group met again to see “el Cañonazo”, the firing of the cannon.This is done at exactly 9 PM every night at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fort that was built in the 1700s to improve the defenses of Havana after it had been occupied by the British for 11 months. Soldiers dress up in period clothing for the ceremony, which starts with them marching, reading a decree, and letting people through the gates.

After that there is some down time to explore the fort. We checked out the chapel.

There were some great views of Havana from the fort as well.

As the hour draws near, there is more marching and preparation of the cannon.

Then boom! And it’s done.

And this first installment is done! Thanks for reading.

Posted by amikulski 00:13 Archived in Cuba Tagged history cuba families teens Comments (0)

School Trip to Cuba!


For the upcoming spring break, our family will split into 2 groups. That’s because DD1’s school is doing a trip to Cuba, and she and I are going!

Cuba has pretty much always been on my bucket list, and yet choosing to go on this trip wasn’t simple. My mom is from Cuba and lived there until age 16, and some cousins still live there. I had always wanted my first trip to Cuba to be on my own terms with my husband and both of my kids, either traveling with a family exception to the embargo, or without the embargo. The trouble is that different administrations define what relationships count as close enough family to get the exception: as I understand it (it's not simple), I’m currently able to go, but my kids haven’t been for their entire lives. And that embargo doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so it seemed foolish to keep waiting when an option for my oldest presented itself. I’m sad that my full family can’t go, especially my youngest. But right now the best I can hope for within the current set of rules is that this trip goes so wonderfully that the school does another one once DD2 is in high school. In the meantime, DD2 and DH will go to Punta Cana for their spring break.

I also mentioned wanting to go on my own terms. Whereas people who travel on the family exception are able to use their time however they wish, those who travel under an educational/cultural exception have a carefully planned itinerary. This school trip falls in the latter category. We have only one free afternoon. Part of me doesn’t mind, because our itinerary has some interesting and fun activities. But I won’t be able to everything I want to do, like hire a taxi to drive past all the places where my mom lived and went to school, visit relatives, and see the family tomb at Colón Cemetery: maybe DD1 and I will get to do just one. Plus, I have a bit of skepticism about some of these activities: how much of the “party line” will we be hearing? I hope that the school will help students think critically about what they see and hear—and what remains unseen and unsaid. I’ve already started some conversations with DD1.

I know that travel to Cuba can be controversial, especially for Cuban Americans. Yes, the Cuban government will get a little boost from this trip, but individual Cubans—like the ones who work for the tour company and the ones hosting us in their casas particulares—get a more meaningful boost. For me, this trip isn’t about the politics: it’s about seeing where my mom’s side of the family lived, and where some still live today. In fact, I’m tired of having politics create a situation that has delayed my first trip to Cuba for decades, so I am thankful for this opportunity.

Internet access will be limited on the trip, so I don’t expect to be able to post anything in real time. I do hope to take lots of notes and plenty of pics to share once we return!

Posted by amikulski 20:33 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba school teens Comments (0)

Where We Ate: Prague

View Germany/Czech 2023 on amikulski's travel map.

Credit to DH for many of the pics here.

In the Old Town

Faency Fries

As you can guess, this place specializes in fries with all sorts of toppings served in paper cones. This one was basically sour cream and chives.
The only downside is that they have no seating. It is a short walk from the Old Town Square, so we walked there and found a park bench.


Loki Burgers
Everyone enjoyed their burgers here. Here is one with goat cheese,
and another with bacon.

Their lemonade of the day (raspberry) was refreshing and delicious, though not as icy as the drinks at Alebrijes (see below).

Website: https://www.lokiburgers.cz/en

La Piccola Perla
We all enjoyed this Italian place. I ordered the tagliatelle alla Emiliana.
DH had a mushroom and truffle risotto.
DD1 also had pasta, and DD2 had a pizza.

Website: https://www.lapiccolaperla.cz

Choco Cafe (Lilova location)
I strongly recommend this place for chocolate lovers. There are lots of hot chocolates to try here.

DH tried a single-plantation chocolate from Peru.

I tried a hot chocolate from Cuba because I wasn’t sure when I would ever be able to do that again.

The kids each got a mix of chocolate, raspberries, strawberries, and cream.

Everything was delicious! And at the current exchange rate, the price point is comparable to Starbucks ($5-7), but the drinks are orders of
magnitude better. They also have desserts and light lunch fare that looked great, though both a hot chocolate and a dessert might be too much of a good thing. All the more reasons for repeat visits if possible!

They also have a selection of chocolate bars and hot chocolate mixes.
I really wanted to buy some chocolate to take home. The only thing that held me back was the summer heat: I didn't want to risk the disappointment of having it all melt. Unfortunately, they do not ship outside the Euro zone. I hope they start shipping to the US someday!

Website: https://www.choco-cafe.cz/user/documents/upload/gallery/Liliova-EN-menu.pdf

Mala Strana neighborhood, near Malostranská tram stop

Alebrijes Cocina Mexicana
One of the cultural differences that we bemoaned on this trip is how rare it is to get ice in your beverages. Well, this restaurant is an exception! Every drink was wonderfully icy, which was much appreciated on a sweltering hot day.

The interior was nice and cool as well, not in a US-blasting-the-AC way, but noticeably cooler than outside.

I’ve already said enough to convince you to stop in for a drink on a hot day. But be sure to eat here as well! The owners and staff are from Mexico, and the food was great. We enjoyed a range of tacos (these were norteños),

tostadas (al pastor, anyone?).

and flautas. They were happy to make the flautas with only chicken inside and nothing on top for DD2. She approved: here she has one flauta left alongside her side toppings.

Website: https://www.alebrijescocinamexicana.com

Near Betramka tram stop

Restaurant Zlaty Klas
This place was walking distance from our hotel. They had a variety of Czech dishes, one of which was chicken wings and thus felt a lot like home. I had the Roasted beef in cream sauce with cranberries and bread dumplings. Yum!

Website: http://zlatyklas.cz/en/

Finally, I can't write a food-related entry on Prague without mentioning that it was at a corner store where we finally found our first lemon Fanta of the trip. We had come across several other flavors on the trip, but none had replaced lemon as our favorite, so we were happy to find it--so much so that the kids staged a photo shoot for it!

That wraps it up for this trip. Thanks for reading!

Posted by amikulski 02:42 Tagged children food prague czech families Comments (0)

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