Cuba – The Unspoiled Isle Is A Myth. And that’s okay.

(Trading Paradises Special Edition: With Kate still at home for the holidays, Grant & his buddy Senor Rum packed up and headed for Cuba. Kate rejoins the travels in our next edition, but for now, it’s just your author Grant & Senor Rum. For the record, despite following the letter of the law on our Cuba adventure, Grant’s friend asked not to be identified in the post, hence the moniker…he’s weird like that.)

“I just want to get there before the Americans show up and everything changes.” So was the gist of the conversation over what my friend, Senor Rum wanted for his bachelor party. No booze fueled benders south of the border nor the flashing….lights….of Vegas. He just wanted to see Cuba before it was laid to waste by American tourists lurking only 90-miles across the Florida Strait. With the 7 decade old Cuban Embargo crumbling the window to explore the unspoiled isle seemed slim. What we didn’t know was it had passed decades ago.

So unknowingly and with a sense of urgency in our step, we scheduled a whirlwind tour of Havana and the western Cuban state of Pinar del Rio in Mid January and packed our bags for the “unspoiled isle.” What we found was something significantly different than expected, hardly unspoiled Havana bursts at the seams with tourists from every nation except the US and is drifting dangerously near the rocky reefs of soul sold tourist sheen. Elegant colonialism has given way to decaying colonialism with a healthy dose of communist chic. All of the old cigar factories have even been shuttered in favor of either newer ones further from the city or closed to renovate to accommodate tours. And while McDonald’s may have been kept at bay, Cuban entrepreneurs haven’t let that stop them from finding alternate concepts to cater exclusively to tourists’ wallets. All that, not good. The good, it doesn’t matter. So here is the story of unfulfilled expectations with a wonderful outcome.

The trip starts not with an air ticket, but with a 1800 mile drive from Nashville Airport to Mexico City, MX. Since Kate & I had already scheduled a night cap to our world adventures with two months in Mexico, Sr. Rum accompanied me and all our gear to Mexico City while Kate took the easy route and flew south 10 days later.

I’ve owned my F150, for over 10 years (Sept 22, 2005 is our anniversary, yes, I’m serious) and over 100,000 miles. It had never been in the shop for a mission critical reason and yet here we were at sunrise on the side of the road in Waco, Texas, with less than 48-hours to make our flight in Mexico City with an alternator that had kicked the bucket.

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The travel gods who had followed Kate and I around the world didn’t disavow me just because Senor Rum was along however. It turned out, the alternator kicked it less than two miles from the nearest Ford dealer. We were patched up and on our way by noon and into Mexico City with time to spare. No harm, no foul. Senor Rum even got a short tour of the historic center of Mexico City…a place to which Mrs. Trading Paradises and I would be returning the next week.

The next day we were primed for sunny skies, classic cars, and the beautiful city of Havana.

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Driving rain storms, flooded streets, and a delightful Ruskie Classic had to do instead. A wise man once said to me, days like these are why God gave us Pacifico and barstools. In Cuba, it’s why Hemingway gave us daiquiris.

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After checking into our awesome AirBnB we headed straight for the legendary La Floridita, the purported birthplace of the daiquiri and Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunt during his many years on the, not yet, forbidden isle. We spent the night dashing between pubs and parks when the rain storms would let up and of course smoked our first Cuban cigars.

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My first 100% verifiably real Cuban cigar, the famed Partagas Serie D, No 4

Here’s the story of our time in Havana in photos, starting with our AirBnB in Habana Vieja. (Hover over the image for captions/descriptions).

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The view from our AirBnB balcony.
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Much of the area is blocked off from vehicle usage, almost entirely by these old canons.
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Sitting at the crossroads of the world’s trade routes, Havana had the world’s largest pharmacy. It recently underwent a restoration and is one of the closest  to”original” buildings.

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No shortage of street “art” in the city. It did make navigation easy though, oh there’s the naked chicken fork lady, we turn left here.

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Huge forts line both entrances to Havana Harbor. The colonial architecture is nice, but the forts really lend the town a 1700’s era.
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The Ford Fairlane & Chevy Bel Air were the classics of choice.

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Little else remains of the original Partagas factory aside from its shell. It contains a La Casa Del Habano (chain of government run cigar stores) and a few interesting old photos of the factory.
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Getting out of the touristy Habana Vieja to dig a little local life.
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Our full third day in Havana we spent wandering off the beaten path before we ended up at the famed (and laughably named) Habana Libre hotel and its excellent Casa Del Habanos. This fellow was hand rolling tasty smokes in the lobby of the hotel that served as the headquarters of Castros guerrillas in the coup.
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We capped our day off at the Hotel Nacional as a storm blew.  After exploring the hotel we enjoyed drinks and watched waves break over the road with the forts guarding the harbor in the distance.

The historic old city, Habana Vieja crawls with tourists, is flooded with tourist bars and stores, and one generally doesn’t find Cubans in the area at all if they aren’t working in businesses serving tourists. But the neighborhood’s colonial architecture, sea front promenade (with delicious brewery), and myriad historic sights more than make up for any cheesiness. Additionally, other, more authentic neighborhoods lie only a kilometer or so away. Most lack major sights worth visiting (notable exception to the seafront malecon, Revolutionary Plaza, & Estadio Latinoamericano) but are still a pleasant neighborhood stroll. Boiled down; Havana is great! Just don’t expect the unspoiled perfect rendition of the 1920’s city that years of embargo has placed in the American mind’s eyes. The rest of the world, which hasn’t had an embargo, travels too (factually, more than Americans). Just because there isn’t a McDonald’s doesn’t mean it’s “unspoiled”, but being today’s version of Havana is still a beautiful thing.

We did manage to get in several very authentic Cuban experiences in our time in Havana. We stood in line for 90-minutes at a bank to get money. We stood in line for 90-minutes at the telephone store to get an internet card so we could stand in front of a hotel and use their wifi (which is how everyone gets wifi in Cuba, they huddle around hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists and have wifi, which the government mandates must be an open signal; despite the fact the government regulates who can access that signal), and we drove across town to find out the baseball game time had been arbitrarily changed from 2 to 7 o’clock, though no one had bothered changing the times online. Only tourists check the internet anyway, right? These are relatively minor hassles for a visitor, but for a resident dealing with them day in and out…oy.

After three nights in Havana we piled into another Ruskie Classic to escape the city’s confines.  We headed for what was expected to be the star of the show, Pinar del Rio province on the island’s western tip. The area is well known for several things, but its famous for one. The finest cigar tobacco on God’s green earth is grown in PDR’s rust red dirt.

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You separate quickly from anything resembling a tourist trail as the terrain turns from coastal flatlands to rich farmland framed in by soaring mountains and mogotes.

Our driver took us for a short pit stop at the entrance to PDR. A farm meant as a tourist-trap of sorts, we ended up snooping around the owner’s tobacco barn and talking Dodger baseball with him, well really about all the Cubans on the Dodgers, and generally enjoying one of our first “human to human” interactions of the trip. Away from the lights of the city, even at the tourist sites, people were already ready to engage at a more conversational level.

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Pinar del Rio is both the province and its eponymous capital, but we were headed 45-miles south to the village of Vinales. The village lies in the middle of a fairy tale landscape. Soaring cliffs rise up out of seemingly nowhere and collapse back to the earth where endless fields of that red dirt contrast with the bright green tobacco leafs clear to the horizon. It was another excellent example of mother nature just showing off.

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A tobacco farmer twists the new tiny sprigs off the top of the tobacco plants. This encourages the plants lower leaves to grow larger and healthier instead of taller and spindlier.

After our AirBnB in Havana we were booked into a Casa Particular in Vinales by our Havana host. A decade ago the Cuban government finally caved under the immense weight of economic depression and allowed their citizens to open private businesses. One of the first things to pop up were families running guest houses from their family homes. These are to this day the overwhelming majority of lodging options for travelers in Cuba and the only ones we saw in Vinales. You stay in your hosts home, eat the food your hosts cook for you, and as in our case, basically arrange everything you wish to do through your host. We were lucky enough that our host’s son, Duniel, is a local man about town. Part tour guide, part party animal, and all around good-guy, Duniel became our go to guy for the next two days. After arriving to the village in the late morning, we set off by early afternoon with Duniel for a walking tour of the surrounding village. It quickly deteriorated (or upgraded?) into a rural bar-crawl.

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The day started with a long walk among the fields and mogotes of Vinales National Park.
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Another drying barn.
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After strolling through a few tobacco fields we met Roberto, a third generation tobacco farmer. He walked us through his family’s process from seed to rolling the cigar. Most interestingly, the fermentation process.
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Having worked up a dire thirst we enjoyed pina coladas with bottomless rum at the family house. Yup, they just bring you a half glass of coconut milk  & ice and then sit a bottle of rum on the table. Go through a bottle? No problem, there’s more where that came from.
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The characters of the Cuban countryside
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After exploring caves, farm fields, & learning a bit about the other farm products we got to meet the stars of the show – the hutias. Part rat, part marmot, part puppy dog. These guys were pets at the next watering hole on the trail, protected since they’re also apparently quite popular table fare for rural Cubans. This little lady and I became good friends over a couple days.
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Cubans are up on the organic farming trend. Selling drinks, food, smokes, etc… all grown right on the property Raul had quite the racket going on. He is also the purveyor of the finest mojito ever made… by far. We learned the secret, but we aren’t telling.
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Last stop of the day, waiting out a pop up rain storm over a few Crystal beers & 3 coco locos

 

After a delicious lobster meal at our Casa (the best food we ate the whole trip were our dinners at the casa) we managed to wander back out and close the evening with live Cuban music and a night cap. Day one in Vinales… Great success.

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Needing to exercise out some of the previous four days – we rented mountain bikes for a grand tour of the Vinales Valley and the surrounding Vinales National Park.

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After a five mile ride we pulled up for drinks at this slice of heaven. The above panoramic was taken from here. Plus, I love this picture. Guy playing with his dog, owner just watching the world go by, and the American flag bandanna on the wife sweeping.

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Green Gold

 

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How do they keep those classics looking so good?
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Drying barn with the goods.
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We lingered for hours over several more of Raul’s best-ever mojitos at the end of the day, topped off with cigars from his fields shown directly above.

Through all the wonderful people, beautiful scenery, and of course, delicious smokes & cocktails Vinales goes down as one of the more impressive places Team Trading Paradises has set foot. We’ll have to return when the better half can enjoy as well. But, who wants to go drinking and smoking when they’re pregnant?! Kate wouldn’t have had any fun at all. See how I snuck that in there? I try to reward our loyal readers 🙂 . Senor Rum and I weren’t just celebrating his bachelor party but also Mrs. Trading Paradises & I’s newest addition. I found out hours before leaving for Cuba, our new travel buddy is due in September.

Our third and final day in Vinales was spent, unintentionally, back with our buddy Duniel and two Brits he was showing around. Senor Rum and I had wandered into the countryside for a morning sight-see before catching our return taxi to Havana. We ran into the three of them (whom we’d met over breakfast at our Casa) and followed for one last unlimited rum Pina Colada at Roberto’s family establishment among the tobacco fields. Breakfast of champions.

Back to Havana that afternoon we enjoyed returning as “regulars” to a couple of our favorite haunts from the previous days. We caught up with a few fellow traveler friends we’d met the first time around and made a couple of new ones. Our flight out was late the following day and left plenty of time for one last day in the city. After the aforementioned baseball game goose chase, we decided to just hoof it all over the city in one last glorious crescendo.

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A sneak peak into the VIP lounge at La Casa Del Habanos at the Partagas factory.
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This was as close as we got to a baseball game in Cuba. This looks at the left field foul pole at Estadio Latinoamericano,  home of the famed Industriales.
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During our walk around town we found the new Upmann factory, but even it was shuttered. We’re still not sure where exactly cigars are rolled commercially in Havana…)
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Last but most certainly not least we stopped at Cigar Aficionado magazine’s top rated La Casa del Habano. Where is it you ask? Embassy Row of course.

After sticking our toes in the stormy Caribbean we caught our cab and returned to Jose Marti airport to bid farewell. Cuba as a whole scores somewhere in the middle of the pack of countries we’ve visited. But writing this over two months after our departure (sorry about that…. Mexico has a bad habit of encouraging procrastination) I can still vividly remember the smell of the air in Vinales, the sticky almost creole cadence of the old tobacco farmer, and the absurdity of daily life in Havana (the waiting, internet, etc..). The expectations of an unspoiled 1920’s museum of a city ended up being completely unfounded. But, as it turns out, that’s okay. Cuba doesn’t need to be a relic to be amazing.

Buen Viaje

Mr. Trading Paradises (& Senor Rum)

Filed from 38,000 feet on AAL Flight 2390

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7 thoughts on “Cuba – The Unspoiled Isle Is A Myth. And that’s okay.

  1. Mr. & Mrs. Trading Places and soon to be Jr. Trading Places,

    Congratulations on a great adventure and I do hope you brought back some of that Cuban smoke. Look forward to seeing you in June.
    Uncle/////no Great Uncle Fritz

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  2. I AM a loyal reader….(and one of Grant’s mom’s grade school friend) :)…..congrats on your upcoming new travel buddy! 😉 That’s awesome – as are your postings. I have really enjoyed reading them and have shared parts of them with my middle school students. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

    Mary Stoecklein

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    1. Hi Mary, That’s so cool you’ve been sharing with your students! We both had a good chuckle as we read the comments with a definite underline and emphasis on PARTS of it with your middle school students… probably all for the best 🙂 Looking forward to starting our next little adventure right back where mine began, in Boonville!

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  3. Grant,

    First, congratulations on Jr. Trading Places. Life is truly beautiful isn’t it.

    I very much enjoy reading about your adventures. You are a remarkable writer and you have the skill to take us all into your travels. I can almost smell the cigars!

    Michael

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  4. Stumbled across this by accident, enjoyed every picture and story. I love the laid back life. Just curious, how do people make a living if they aren’t involved with cigars?

    Jim

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    1. Hey Jim, Thanks for dropping by. Cuba legalized some small private businesses years back. Many make some form of money from a variety of small businesses. Most of those are aimed at tourists, but there are local restaurants, laundries, etc…. Then of course, a vast majority still draw their allotted crumbs…err paycheck…from the government for whatever menial work they do. It’s worth noting that many of those cigar workers you mention actually draw that government paycheck as all of the factories are government run (yes, every legit Cuban you smoke is made by the communist gov’t…in theory) and even the farmers sell at government fixed rates to those government factories. Really, the Casa Partiuclars (small family run guest houses) are the closest thing to unfettered capitalism.

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