The Living Museum, Trinidad Cuba – James Smith
We were saved by the Marlborough Man. I was with a small tour group that had spent the day in Cuba’s Escambray Mountains. We had come into the town of Trinidad for a quick stop at days end, and were now besieged.
Our bus was parked on quiet street, while the driver and guide attended to some business. A pack of young urchins had discovered us and immediately began asking for candy, pens, and any other small items we might have had. They were polite, but insistent and the bus was quickly running out of items that could be passed out of the windows to them.
Just when we were down to our last stick of gum, a cowboy came around the corner on horseback. Sensing our predicament, he raced at the besiegers and chased them off. Tipping his hat in a manner I’m sure he saw in an old movie, he then rode off literally into the sunset before we had a chance to thank him.
Safe from the pack of kids at least for the moment I was now free to explore this small town nestled at the base of the Sierra Escambrays in south central Cuba.
Trinidad was founded in 1514 and for the most part hasn’t changed much since. Until the 19th century when it was surpassed by nearby Cienfuegos, Trinidad was a major commercial centre. Since that time it has slipped into becoming a quaint sleepy little town. In 1950 the town was declared a "jewel of colonial architecture" and laws prohibiting development were put in place. In 1965 it was declared a "national monument" and plans to preserve and restore the ancient buildings were put into place. In 1988 UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site.
The original town has been carefully preserved. Old Spanish style colonial buildings with ornate iron work line the narrow cobblestone streets. Cars are few and far between here, and the preferred mode of transport is horse and cart. There is not even a local bus system, but there are a few horse drawn taxis.
The centre of the old town is Plaza Mayor, and from here one has the best views of the ancient buildings nestled in the mountains. A little imagination and one can see how life must have been in a bygone era. At the east end of the plaza stands the simple but elegant Catedral Santisima Trinidad.
If Trinidad is a living museum in its own right then it also is full of them. It seems that almost every building contains a collection of one sort or another. There are probably more official museums here than anywhere else in Cuba. Within a few blocks of Plaza Mayor, there are more than a dozen of them. Museums devoted to archeology, architecture, music, romance and even one devoted to the guerrilla wars in the nearby mountains can be found. It would be impossible to visit each and every one in a week let alone a day.
There are a few modest hotels located on the outskirts of the town for those wishing to stay over and several resorts to the south at nearby Ancon Beach. The best bet though are the Casa Particulars, rental rooms in private houses. Trinidad was the first town in Cuba to be allowed to have these legally and boasts a good selection. Considering the alternative would have been to tear down some of the irreplaceable buildings to put up a large hotel it makes perfect sense. There are also quite a few restaurants available, again perhaps the best bet is the wide selection of Paladares the restaurants operated in private homes.
Don’t expect a lot of night life, although there are surprisingly a couple of discos. They are mainly for the tourists and for the most part located discretely on the edge of town. A quiet after dinner stroll through the quiet streets at dusk and an early night somehow seem more appropriate here.
Barrio Chino Havana – James Smith
Havana Cuba, city of Cuba Libre’s, cigars, mambo music and chow mien. The last one may sound a little out of place, but it there nonetheless. Havana does have a small but vibrant china town nestled into it’s downtown core. Located just to the west of Old Havana, and behind the old Capitolo Building are a few square blocks that seem totally alien in this ancient Latin city, Barrio Chino.
In the nineteenth century over 150,000 Chinese labourers were imported to Cuba to work the fields. The majority of them eventually gravitated to Havana, where they were joined by other Chinese immigrants escaping persecution from North America and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Here they established homes and business and the largest Chinese community in Latin America was eventually created, Barrio Chino.
Barrio Chino, in the Havana’s hey day prior to the revolution, was the place to go for good times and depravity. Located to the southern edge of the infamous red light district, it too had its share of night clubs, brothels, and opium dens. The infamous Shanghai Theater, where pornographic films were shown, made famous in Graham Greene’s book "Our Man In Havana" was located in this barrio.
Barrio Chino is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Of the 2,000 odd residents of this area of a couple of square kilometers, only an estimated 400 are native born Chinese. The balance are descendants of those original immigrants. Like many other parts of Havana, the district is crumbling and falling down. Much of the unique architecture is in danger of being lost forever. The Government of the Peoples Republic of China agreed to assist in the preservation of the area in 1995.
The best examples of the chines architecture can be found on Dragones where there is a ceremonial gateway to the neighborhood opposite the New York Hotel, just to west of the Capitolo and the Partagas cigar factory. other excellent examples can be found on Calle Cuchillo, where there is a daily market and several very inexpensive and good little Chinese restaurants. Restaurante Pacifico is also located here The building the restaurant was located in at one time contained both a brothel and an opium den. Ernest Hemmingway was a frequent visitor to the restaurant in his time and so was Fidel Castro.
A guide to black market cigars – But are they the real thing ? – James Smith
The most reliable place to purchase cigars in Cuba is through the authorized official stores, at the factories, major hotels, airports, and tourist areas. Due to the demand however there is a growing supply of unofficial suppliers. The minute you leave your hotel Jinteros (hustlers), will approach you offering to sell you, among other things, boxes of Cohibas or Monte Christo Number 4’s.
The sale of black market cigars in Cuba is illegal, but the penalties for tourists are usually minimal, confiscation of the cigars. The Cuban Government’s official policy on these cigars is that they are all poorly made fakes, often containing sawdust, floor sweepings and other products including banana leaves which if smoked may make one ill. In this respect they are partially correct, many cigars sold on the street are poorly made fakes, but not all.
The second and probably most common black market cigars are the copies or counterfeits. These are real hand rolled cigars either made in official factories and stolen, or made in illegal home factories. They are usually made of a lower grade of tobacco and to a less demanding standard then the high quality premium cigars but have the bands or labels of the better known names added to them.
This category may also include cigars rejected during the inspection process which are supposed to be destroyed. In both cases the boxes, labels and other packaging are either stolen from the factories or skillfully reproduced. Some enterprising Jinteros can even give you official" receipts needed to export your cigars.
Finally there are a few real premium cigars for sale on the black market. The penalties for stealing an empty box to fill with fakes and for stealing a full box are the same so some do leave the factories this way. The poorer quality fakes are easy to spot due to their defects, but some copies are so well made that is hard to tell them apart from the real thing without smoking one. Even then if you have never smoked the real thing, and it is a good copy, you may not cannot tell.
Not to condone this activity, but if one considers buying their cigars this way the following may help to avoid being ripped off. Availability and price are two other key factors in spotting fakes. The most popular types of cigars for tourists are Cohiba Lanceros, Cohiba Esplendidos and Monte Christo #4s.
Naturally these are the types most often faked. More obscure brands offered for sale are more likely to be the genuine article. As for the price, compare with that in the stores if it seems just too good a deal, guess what they’re probably not the real thing.
Finally if you know little or nothing about cigars, either find someone who does, or do some research first. One suggestion might be for several persons to buy and share a box during the first or second day of your vacation. Make it clear that if they are good, then you’ll all place a larger order before leaving. The Jinteros who are more open to this usually have the real thing or at least good copies. Never buy a box without opening it, it’s an old trick but tourists still fall for it. It really is better in the long run to buy from authorized sources, but if you insist, remember buyers beware.
Communism’s Best Beach, Varadero Cuba – James Smith
Varadero, is the premiere Cuban resort area. In this narrow peninsula only barely five kilometres long and at some points only a few hundred metres wide there are crammed over forty hotels and resorts. The older and budget properties are located in and around the town at the southern end of the peninsula. Spread out towards the end are the luxury resort in their enclosed compounds.
The reason for this concentration, is primarily the beach, one of the finest in the world. Varadero has always been a resort town, even prior to the revolution. The rich and elite used to come from Havana 134 kilometres away to vacation here. Al Capone and the Dupont family both had residences here, now turned into restaurants.
There is no way to totally describe all of the things to do in this small but lively resort town so no attempt will be made to. Varadero is a small town at some points only three or four streets wide, but crammed into this space are enough night clubs, bars, discos and restaurants to satisfy anyone’s desires. Many of the more upscale establishments do take major credit cards (aside from American Express) and a Passport is required when paying by this method.
By day there is not much to see or do, and many tourists appear to use the daytime to relax on the spectacular beach and recharge themselves for another evening of partying. The city tour is an excellent way to see those attractions there are, and to orient one self. One spot not to missed is the ice cream parlor, fallen on hard times of late, but still providing some of the best ice cream ever to locals and tourists alike.
It is possible to walk almost anywhere in Varadero, the town is that small. Taxis if needed are plentiful, available twenty-four hours a day, and cheap $4.00-$6.00 anywhere in town. Moped rentals are available from various dealers, all private entrepreneurs, and for something more elegant there are horse drawn carriages, price negotiable. There are also a few black market taxis usually only slightly cheaper than the official tourist ones.
Exchanging money in Varadero is an easy process. American dollars are the working currency as elsewhere in Cuba and can be exchanged for at most hotels. There are no ATMs in Varadero, but credit card cash advances can be obtained at the International Bank on 32nd street, and again a Passport is required.
Specially minted Tourist Pesos in coins and small denomination notes are used along with the US currency. They have the same value and may be exchanged at the airport without a receipt. Cuban Pesos may be purchased at the official exchange rate from the bank and most hotels to a maximum of $5.00 and a receipt is issued to enable them to be exchanged back.
There is really no need to have any Pesos as they are almost worthless and all prices are in Dollars. Offers to exchange are always made to tourists, but aside from being illegal, it is pointless as the money is worthless. It is illegal to take Cuban currency out of the country.
In addition to being one of the major tourist regions of the country, Varadero is also becoming a major example of the now permitted but limited private enterprise system in Cuba. Many small independent businesses, now exist. The most numerous being the Paladares or private restaurants in peoples homes, and the Casa Particulares, rooms for rent, again in private homes This has legitimized what were once Black Market activities, although that still exists.
One of the major areas of the Black Market is in the sale of Cuban cigars. While the price will seem attractive, unless one is an expert, the chances of being offered inferior quality cigars is almost certain. In addition be advised that any cigars purchased without an official receipt may be confiscated on leaving the country.
It is unfortunate but true that Cuba has developed a reputation for sex tourism and prostitution that is known world wide. It is officially illegal and while the Government may make statements about it, until recently they have taken little action as it may affect the flow of hard currency into the country. Woman from all over Cuba ply their trade every evening, and most are very brazen in their approach.
To be fair it is the old law of supply and demand that has brought them here, and economic problems. The real blame is with the increasing number of European and Canadian tourists who now come here solely for this purpose and have literally created the situation. In Varadero attempts to curb this have been successful of late, due to the geography of the place. A narrow peninsula with guarded access does allow for the control of persons entering the resort town. Varadero is no longer the Bangkok of the Caribbean that it was in the early 1990’s.
In a town of this size with so many tourists there is some crime obviously and while it may be more than that found in other Cuban cities, it is still less than other Latin American or Caribbean countries, and often less than in North America or Europe. Avoiding the poorer sections especially at night and not displaying expensive jewelry and cameras can minimize the chances of being robbed. The recent heavy police presence also helps.
There are also a few pickpockets, including the previously noted money changers and working girls. Despite the heavy police presence don’t count on getting any stolen property back, but they will take a report and give you a copy for insurance purposes. The Police here are more approachable and less corrupt than most other Latin American countries, and often overlook small indiscretions by fun seeking tourists (aside from drugs), but don’t press the issue.
Most of the street vendors are engaged in legitimate business and provide goods and services like T-shirts, crafts, cigars, massages, manicures and informal tour guides, some however will go to more extreme lengths to separate you from your money so exercise caution.
"Yankee come home, Tips for US visitors to Cuba" – James Smith
This article is mainly for citizens and residents of the United States. For those of us who live work and play elsewhere, it doesn’t really apply so feel free to click off. You can stick around if you so wish as some of the information may be relevant and useful.
First of all lets get one thing clear. I in no way advocate or encourage anyone to violate US laws and/or statutes regarding Cuba. That is a personal choice you have to make, and accept the consequence, if any of your decision. That said it is estimated that more than 100,000 US nationals visit Cuba annually, through third countries and without prior authorization form their Government. If for whatever reason, you have decided to join this number, then hopefully the following info will make your trip go easier.
First the rules, it is not technically illegal for an American to visit Cuba, only to spend money there. The legislation, called "The Trading With the Enemies Act" prohibits anyone from spending money in Cuba and/or purchasing Cuban goods and services either there or in another country, and importing same (can you say cigars). As it would be impossible to visit the island without spending money without spending any money, it literally prevents travel there legally.
One can travel legally to Cuba in one of two ways. First one can apply for permission from your Government. Examples of this have included journalists, artists and to attend educational business and/or other meetings or conferences. Personal reasons including visiting relatives arc also included in this category.
The only other legal way is to drag yourself off to your local recruiting station and join the US Navy or Marines. Then you apply to be based at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Cuba. Don’t count on seeing much of the country this way unless you’re really good at bypassing minefields, armed guards and barb wire fences ( remember the movie A Few Good Men). Anyway aside from the local flora, fauna and climate, Guantanamo more or less resembles any Midwestern US town outside a military base.
If neither of those ideas appeals to you, then read on.
First of all you have to get there. Depending on where in the states you live can determine your entry point into Cuba. If you live in the North East, then Canada should be your preferred choice. During high season there are several charter flights out of Montreal and/or Toronto a week to various Cuban cities.
Those in the South and South East, have a variety of choices. There are flights available from Jamaica, The Bahamas and The Dominican Republic into Havana and or Santiago dc Cuba on a fairly regular business. One point, it has been reported that US customs in Nassau (Bahamas) often watch who gets on and off the Cuba flights and also the check in counter. It is probably not advisable to go right there from your connecting flight from Miami. Relax and enjoy a night in the Bahamas.
Coming in from California, Texas and anywhere else out west, then Mexico is your target. AeroCaribe and other air lines have regular daily service from both Mexico City and Cancun to Havana.
There are advantages of booking through Canada. One is the selection. A list of Toronto travel agents with 800 numbers and/or web sites is at the end of the article. Secondly there is no language barrier in booking as might he the case in Mexico or the DR. However you are visiting a Spanish speaking country, so a little language practice can’t hurt. Finally you get to pa in Canadian Dollars, which currently are worth about 65% of their US counterpart. Some week long packages air/hotel with meals and drinks can be had for as little as $500.00-$600.00 Canadian! Then again it may be easier to explain that sun tan in January to customs if your flight just landed from Cancun, not Toronto.
That brings us to the next point, getting in. Cuba does require US citizens to show a valid US Passport. Don’t worry they won’t get upset when they see it, remember they see 100,000 or so a year. They also will not stamp it unless you specifically ask them to. What does get stamped is your Tourist Card. This is usually provided by the tour operator or airline. If for some reason they don’t issue one, you can purchase them at the point of entry. The cost as of my last visit there was $5.00 US.
What will get stamped in your passport is a small air plane in a box stamp usually discreetly on the last page. It looks like something a kid with a play stamp kit might do. Exiting the country, is also simple, although remember the exit tax is $20.00 US payable in cash. Aside from these points’ immigration and customs in Cuba are really no different from in most other countries.
Money in Cuba can be a problem. the good news is the currency in use in the country, as least as far as tourists are concerned, is the US dollar. In fact there is practically no need for Cuban Pesos at all. The bad news is credit cards and travelers cheques drawn on US banks are not accepted in Cuba. There have been reports of US master cards being accepted in Havana, but don’t count on it. Even if you purchase your air/hotel package from Canada or Mexico on your credit card, you’ll still need spending money while there. Unless you have a credit card from a third country, the alternative is large ammounts of cash, not a really acceptable alternative.
There is a viable option. The Transcard is a debit card available in Canada and accepted in Cuba for most transactions including cash advances at banks. One purchases the card prior to going and "loads" it with enough US currency for the trip. Transcard is available via their web site, www.transcardinter.com or at (905) 305-7703.
Finally there is the question of whether to declare your trip on return to the US. You don’t require a Passport to enter either Canada or Mexico, so there would be no need to show it on return to the US. One then must decide to admit where you were, and face the possible consequences. You can also lie and stay you were in Canada and or Mexico, or can follow the example of your soon to be former Commander in Chief and go with "ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies." I think it goes without saying that a suitcase full of Che Guevera memorabilia and Cohiba cigars would not be a wise move.
There you go a basic Cuba primer for US visitors. I’ve deliberately left out basic information on Cuba, resorts, what to do, what to see and where to stay etc. There are plenty of places on this site and others with this information. The choice to go or not is yours, as are the possible consequences. As of writing this, it still is against US law. While I don’t wish to influence your decision in any way, I hope I have been of some small service. Bon voyage.
SOME TORONTO BASED TRAVEL AGENCIES WITH PACKAGES TO CUBA:
Sears Travel 1-800-799-6466 www.sears.ca
Sun Hollidays www.sunholidays.ca
Bel Air Travel 1-800-465-4631 www.belairtravel.com
Air Brokers Direct 1-888-556-7777 www.yourtravelbroker.com
Air Transat 1-888-872-6728 www.transat.com
"Bully", San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba – James Smith
On April 5, 1898, the American Battleship USS Maine was blown up under mysterious circumstances in Havana harbor. The American Government used this act as an excuse to become embroiled in the struggle between Cuba and their Spanish colonial masters. The Spanish American War was on.
A US Army expeditionary force, including the 1St Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the "Rough Riders" under their charismatic Colonel Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, was dispatched to Cuba. They landed at Daiquiri Beach east of the city of Santiago de Cuba. Several days later they fought their first minor inconclusive action against Spanish forces near the town of Siboney.
On July 1 1898 the Americans assaulted the Spanish defenses outside Santiago de Cuba. The Americans including the "Rough Riders" made their historic charge up Kettle and San Juan Hills ending the battle and Spain’s involvement in Cuba and the Americas.
Visitors to Santiago de Cuba can easily visit San Juan Hill. It is located just outside the eastern edge of the city on the coast road to Bacanao Park. The site is easy to locate, near the zoo, the Hotel Leningrado, and an amusement park. Modern day visitors can climb to the top of the hill along a paved road, a much easier trek then that endured by Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.
The view of the city and the surrounding mountains from the summit is spectacular. There are several cannons from that era, and plaques commemorating the soldiers, Cuban, American and Spanish who fought and fell here. Descending the hill, you can stop at the large ceiba tree under whose branches the peace treaty, that would forever alter the path of Cuba history, was signed.
For those who wish to, it is possible to visit both the town of Siboney, east of the city, where the initial skirmishes took place, and the landing site at Daiquiri Beach. Take the coastal road east to Siboney and after continue eastward towards Bacanao and watch for the turn off for the Hotel Daiquiri which is located on the beach of that name.
It should be noted that there are no plaques or monuments to this conflict at either site. Siboney is better known in Cuban history as the site of Castro’s initial failed attempt to seize power in 1956, and the Daiquiri, well we all know what that name means in Cuba.
It is also possible to travel west from Santiago to Nima Nima and/or Asserdero. Here you can view the rusting wrecks of Spanish warships that were run aground and destroyed by the American fleet in the naval battle that took place on July 3, 1898 soon after that at San Juan Hill.
Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba – James Smith
The first thing you notice is the colour of the water. A bright almost neon green blue that takes your breath away even from 30,000 feet. The next thing is the brilliant white sand of the beach, contrasting sharply with the water that laps against its edges. It is a sight that stays with you as the plane flies over the coast to land at the airport 100 kilometres inland. A couple of hours later as you approach the beach by land, you again begin to anticipate that lovely sight.
This is Playa Santa Lucia, on the north coast of Cuba’s largest province Camaguey. Santa Lucia is the third largest beach in Cuba More than 20 kilometres of blinding white sand and aquamarine clear water protected from the waves of the Atlantic by a coral reef. Santa Lucia offers almost the perfect vacation paradise, isolated yet relatively easy to reach. Spartan, but with enough amenities to ensure that one is roughing it in relative luxury.
The beach is on the seaward side of a large peninsula that parallels the north coast. The inland side contains marshes and lagoons which are a favoured nesting grounds for flamingos and other sea birds. The small town of Santa Lucia is spread out a the base of the peninsula. At the tip is the tiny fishing hamlet of La Boca and a nearby salt mine and housing complex. Nestled in between these is the "hotel strip." There are only five hotels on the peninsula, all beach front properties and evenly space out. The total number of available hotel rooms is slightly more than 1,000. on the entire peninsula.
The Cuban Government has determined that the area can accommodate 7,000 plus hotel rooms. The present economic situation in Cuba practically ensures that this number will not be reached in the near future. In the interim a lot of the infrastructure to support this potential influx of tourists has already been put in place, all to the benefit of the present day visitor. There is a modern international bank in the village capable of handling cash advances on credit cards.
A car rental agency and aqua sports centre are located in the area as are a couple of small hard currency restaurants, and snack bars. Midway on the hotel strip is a small shopping centre, almost on the beach. There is a restaurant, ice cream snack bar and several tourist shops including a cigar store. Both the selection and prices in this last establishment appear reasonable.
All of the hotels have restaurants and most offer day and evening entertainment for their guests. There are also a few other options available. There are a couple of lively discos, including Flamingo, located at the west of the line of hotels, and another with a restaurant , located on a long pier that juts out into the ocean. This one is located on the beach behind Hotel Mayanabo. There are several horse and carriage operators as an alternative to a taxi, of which there is also a plentiful supply. can be booked.
Daytime activities for those not inclined to laze on the beach, include a small bird and wild life reserve located on the lagoon side of the peninsula and a regular shuttle bus to the village of La Boca, which has several excellent small seafood restaurants and an isolated beach. There is of course, snorkeling , scuba diving and a variety of aquatic craft for rent for the energetic. Day trips to the colonial city of Camaguey and/or nearby King Ranch for a Rodeo , Cuban style, are also available.
Unfortunately, the last thing you’ll see, when your vacation has ended and the plane carries you north across the coast is that wonderful green blue water. Hopefully the view and the memories you’ll take back will be enough to sustain you until your next visit.
Fidel’s first shots, Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba – James Smith
On the night of July 26, 1953 the city of Santiago de Cuba was enjoying a Carnival. A group of desperate men approached the Moncada Barracks, the main military post in the city and surrounding region. The plan was simple, bluff their way in dressed in Cuban Army uniforms, overpower any soldiers not on leave or out celebrating, seize the armouries, and start an uprising against the present regime. One of their leaders was a twenty six year old, lawyer, ex major league baseball prospect and aspiring politician, Fidel Castro.
The planned attack immediately began to go wrong. The intruders were discovered as they attempted to enter the gates. The alarm was raised and a furious gun battle erupted. Castro and some of the other survivors managed to escape but were eventually captured in the surrounding mountains. Tried and imprisoned on the Isle of Pines, Castro was eventually deported to Mexico in 1955. In 1956 he returned to Cuba at the head of a guerrilla army and the rest as they say is history.
The Moncada Barracks still stands in Santiago de Cuba. It is a symbol of both the power of the then dictator Batista, and the struggle to remove him. It is an imposing structure of high battlements and yellow ochre walls. It is no longer a military post, but a primary school. The playful shrieks of laughter of red and white uniformed children are now heard on the fields that once only soldiers harsh commands were heard.
Part of the barracks, near the gate, has been converted to a small museum. It is open to the public, and admission is $2.00 US with a further fee for cameras and video equipment. Bright eager young bi lingual guides are available to show you around the exhibits. The history of the uprising and later guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra’s are all retold as are other aspects of Cuban history. Among the displays are blood stained uniforms, Castro’s personal rifle, and a diorama showing the failed raid. The medal awarded to Cuba’s first cosmonaut is also here in a special display.
The gate and walls of the barracks are still pockmarked with the bullet holes and shrapnel from that fatal night long ago. They have been left as a reminder and memorial. What is not widely known is that after the raid, the authorities ordered all the holes and damage repaired. When he came to power years later, Castro had them redone using photographs taken of the original battle.
Jagua Castle, Cuba – James Smith
The grizzled old man finally agreed to take $1.00 US and a couple of cigarette as payment for the trip. Handing him his fare, I jumped aboard the small rickety boat and we quickly set off across the narrow straits. Approaching the far shore, we soon came under the shadow of the massive castle walls which seemed to reach right down to the waterline.
Cienfuegos, Bay, sometimes also called Jagua Bay is one of the largest bays and harbours in Cuba. Located on the south coast of the island nation, the bay has been used as a shelter for ships and sailors for more than 400 years. Initially, pirates and privateers sheltered here in between sorties on rich Spanish Galleons. During the cold war Soviet and Cuban naval vessels were based here, and Russian submarines often sailed to play cat and mouse games with their American counterparts. Now it is used by commercial container ship and oil tankers bound for Cuba’s only oil refinery.
Seen from the air, the bay is massive, dwarfing the city of Cienfuegos, perched on a peninsula at its north end. It also appears to be a lake or inland sea at first glance. Only a closer look reveals a narrow passage at the south end exiting into the Caribbean Sea. The passage, barely wide enough to accommodate the large cargo vessels that transit it on a regular basis seems even smaller, as it is dwarfed on one side by a massive fort, Castillo de Jagua, Jaguar Castle.
The importance of this large natural harbour with its one narrow entrance was not lost on the Spanish when they first arrived in Cuba. Fortifications were quickly built here in the 17th century to defend against marauding British and other vessels. These were improved upon over the years and the present fort was completed in the 18th century.
Nowadays the ramparts are no longer manned, and the only inhabitants a re curious tourists either from the city or the nearby resorts of Playa Rancho Luna. The castle is open to the public, admission $1.00. Spectacular views of the bay, the narrow harbour entrance and the two small fishing villages on either side of the straits can be had from the walls. Also worth looking at are the Governors quarters, where you can pose for pictures seated in his impressive oak chair. The entrance to the castle is over a massive wooden drawbridge, also worth a close look. There is a small restaurant, bar on the premises and plans for a museum are in the works.
Outside the fort, the village of Jagua is also worth a look, with its winding narrow street, and tiny church. Off to the west you can see Ciudad Nuclear, "Nuclear City" a massive uncompleted nuclear reactor site, complete with its collection of drab apartment blocks for the work force and construction cranes frozen in place since work stopped on the project in 1992. Across the strait is the equally picturesque village of Passacaballos.
Getting to Castle Jagua is quite easy, there is a local bus that runs from Cienfuegos to Passacaballos several times a day, or you can catch a taxi from here or the beach resorts at Ranch Luna. From the Passacaballos side there is the afar mentioned small ferry plying across the strait, and as you can see the price is negotiable. For those planning on spending the day here, you can grab a bite to eat either at the castle, or at the Hotel Passacaballos’ which is on a hill above the village, on the eastern side opposite the castle.
"Papa’s Place," La Bodeguita Del Medio, Havana ,Cuba – James Smith
On a small side street just west of the Plaza de Cathedral is perhaps the most famous bar in all of Havana, the Bodeguita del Medio. At first glance this tiny hole in the wall bar doesn’t appear to be much. The furnishings are worn even by Havana standards, and the walls appear to be covered in graffiti.
They are in fact, and a closer examination of this graffiti shows you one of the reasons why this place is so famous. The walls are covered with signatures and comments from past patrons. The names on the wall of past patrons include Nat King Cole, Fidel Castro, and the man most associated with the place, Ernest Hemmingway.
The Bodeguita originally started as a small general store in 1942, owned and operated by one Angel Martinez. By 1946, he realized that the place was becoming more of a popular hangout and it slowly converted into a restaurant and bar. It soon became a hangout for students, musicians, and bohemians. Late evening conversations here over a glass of rum would run the gamut from local politics to the specifics of Son and other forms of Cuban rhythms.
Over the years the popularity of the place grew, and more and more began to call the small little store turned bar into their home away from home. After the Revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power, the place continued to prosper. Many of the present regime had spent some of their earlier student days here after all.
In recent years it has become one of the most popular tourist draws in all Havana. Each day busloads from all over the world are deposited here. Each hopping to share in the history, enjoy a Mojito, the house special, and add their names to the wall.
It is not quite clear who or how the idea of scrawling names on the wall began. Some claim Hemmingway started it. More than likely it started as a way of leaving messages for friends, and just grew from there.
For whatever reason everyone now does it, and some names famous and not have been obscured under hundreds of others. I’ve personally signed it on three different occasions and am never able to find where I did the last time. The most famous signature on the walls of course belongs to Ernest Hemmingway. The Bodeguita was one of his favourite haunts.
The tiny restaurant with only fifteen tables to the rear of the bar, may not look it , but it is actually a five star establishment and winner of numerous awards. There is always a line up to eat here, and as reservations are hard to make in Havana, prepare to be patient. The menu of Cuban and Creole dishes however is well worth the wait.
The best time to visit is in the evening after the throngs of tourists have left. While it is still hard to get a table in the restaurant, the front bar is relatively quiet. You can sip your Mojito in peace and examine the photos and autographs that cover the walls. Feel free to add your own of course, it’s a tradition.. You can even ask one of the bartenders to show you how to make a Mojito, just like "Papa" liked them.
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 oz. lime juice
- 2 sprigs of mint leaves
- 2 oz. of soda water
- 1 1/2 oz. light dry rum
- In an 8 oz. glass, dissolve 1 tsp. of sugar and 1/4 oz. of lime juice. Add 2 sprigs of mint leaves and crush stems with muddler. Then add ice cubes and 1 1/2 o. of Havana club light dry rum. Fill with 2 oz. of soda water and stir.
Hotel Inglaterra, Havana, Cuba – James Smith
Havana is probably one of my favourite cities in the world. I thoroughly enjoy tramping through her narrow streets day or night. Again and again I find myself carried to some favourite spot, discovered on an earlier visit. I also marvel at new and as yet undiscovered wonders on each and every subsequent visit.
Havana is also one of my favourite places for a pub crawl. The nights are warm here and the soft breeze off of the ocean with just a hint of salsa and mambo in the air make it the perfect place to enjoy a cigar and a drink. One of my regular haunts is the Hotel Inglaterra on the Paseo de Marti, or as the locals call it the Prado.
The Hotel Inglaterra is located opposite Parque Central and right beside The Capitolio, the original seat of Government. The hotel was built in the nineteenth century and retains that old colonial charm. It has recently been restored and although it now boasts all of the modern conveniences, they have bee masked under the old world elegance.
The Inglaterra though is more than just a Hotel. It has been declared a national monument for its architecture, a kind of wedding cake facade. There is also much more here than that though. There is an atmosphere of intrigue about this place, a sense of history.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Inglaterra’s rooms and bars were witness to a variety of agents, spies, soldiers of fortune, and general rogues. A young reporter named Winston Churchill covered the Spanish American War from here. It was here or so it is said that he also developed a life long taste for Havana cigars.
The Inglaterra actually has three bars. The first is the tiny roof top terrace bar. This is a popular meeting place for travelers, especially the back packer set. One of the best views of the city can be had from here.
The second is the rather elegantly appointed lobby bar. Here amid dark wood paneling and thick starched table clothes is that sense of a time gone by. It’s a quiet place, the exact opposite of the youthful crowd on the roof top. Entertainment here is usually of the refined type. A singer or a perhaps a pianist for the well healed European guests. Often too there is that form of entertainment unique to Cuban hotel entertainment, the fashion show.
My personal favourite though is the front patio bar. Everyone who visits Havana seems to congregate here sooner or later. The bar itself actually predates the hotel and was built in 1849. From its very inception it has been the place for travelers to meet and greet.
On any given day or night one can find much diversity here. I love to pass a warm afternoon or evening here just relaxing and listening. Listening to the languages from all over the world among the numerous groups around the small tables. A group of American students marveling at their first night in Havana. A boisterous tour group recounting their days adventures. Perhaps an elderly European couple enjoying a shared memory of an earlier visit here years past. All of them and more seem to find their way to the Inglaterra.
Sipping my drink and watching the ash on my cigar, I find my mind wandering. With just a little imagination I can picture myself in the same spot watching fifty or a hundred years earlier. The harmless tourists around me have changed.
The quiet unassuming person in the corner is transformed from a business traveler to a character out of a Graham Greene Novel. Spies, and gunrunners, rebels and rogues all fill the tables around me. In my crisp white linen jacket and silk shirt, I feel like one of them myself. The Inglaterra is that kind of place. History was made here once, and you can almost see it unfold again.