Music, Rum, Music, Sun, Fun
and More Rum

photo: musicians in santiago de cuba

Outdoor musicians in Santiago de Cuba gather a crowd.

From Santiago de Cuba to Havana In
Only Three Weeks

by Linda Thalman

Cadillac Ranch, Saturday, 11. March 2000:- At the first step out of the Santiago de Cuba airport on Saturday, 12. February we salsa-ed through a receiving line of costumed dancers moving to the beat of Cuban music. And the beat went on and on throughout our trip from east to west in Cuba.

Music morning, noon and night. The són - the term for the 'Buena Vista Social Club'-type music - was king in Santiago de Cuba and we loved it. Sipping our first Mujitos - rum, sparkling water, sugar and mint - on the fourth-floor patio of the Hotel Casa Granda overlooking the main square and Cuba's Bahia de Santiago and the warm setting sun - this was a perfect beginning.

Following dinner, the group 'Francisco y su Piequette' serenaded diners with music on the veranda and later on Sunday in the Cespedes Park. Simply magnifico! We bought our first Cuban music cassette.

Within minutes of a stroll around the town we were approached by young Cubans asking if we wanted a restaurant, cigars, a hotel or any kind of help. "Wherephoto: alliance francais la habana are you from? " "Paris." "Ah, parlez-vous français? Comment est-ce que je peut vous aider?"

The Alliance Française in Santiago de Cuba and in Havana has apparently done a roaring business of teaching Cubans French.

The Alliance Française in Havana spreads French around Cuba.

While Spanish is the language of Cuba, folks in the tourist trade know a smattering of French, German, Italian and some English for the English-speaking Canadians - who are about 50 percent of the tourists in Cuba.

Cuba welcomes United States citizens; they only need to fly from a non-U.S. city. Current regulations in the U.S. prohibit travel agents from selling tickets to Cuba. Simple as that and there is no animosity towards visitors from 'El Norte'.

Tooling about in our new, snappy, gold-colored Daewood - complete with air-conditioning - we visited the Castillo de San Pedro del Morro and then for ten Cuban centavos each - no dollars accepted - this was really local! - we took a ferry to the offshore Cayo Granma for an exquisite freshly-caught fish lunch at a private home.

The young man who latched on to us guided us around the island, to the private house for lunch, sold us cigars and made sure we didn't get lost. Pierre, my companion, smoked at least one fatphoto: che memorial, santa clara Cohiba a day which meant we had to buy some more at the end of the trip. I was always downwind and got to 'enjoy' the cigar smoke more than Pierre did.

If you don't want a 'guide' or cigars, a restaurant or a hotel, one simply says "No, gracias" right away. Often the best way to find the 'paladars' - private restaurants and Bed-and-Breakfasts - is with the help of an eager 'helper' - a dollar tip is typical.

The Ernesto 'Che' Guevara memorial in Santa Clara.

There are three currencies in Cuba. The Cuban peso, the national currency; with 20 pesos to the US dollar on the street. Cubans often call US dollars 'divisas'. And there is a 'peso convertible' with the same value as the dollar. Confusing? Not really -just take 'divisas' and you'll do fine as it is the tourist currency of Cuba.

We paid between $15 to $20 per room for accommodations in private homes, two dollars for overnight parking, two dollars for breakfast, one to three dollars for museums and one to six dollars for drinks.

The six-dollar Daiquiri was at El Floridita, the most expensive in all of Cuba. Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy - among others imbibed here where the daiquiri was invented in 1914!

From the guide books we'd read, we thought it would be only black beans and rice every day in Cuba. They were wrong! The grilled fish, lobster, chicken and pork were all very good. I only had beans once - at L'Estrelle in Trinidad - and they were darn good. Three delicious courses, wine and coffee, including tip, all for $20 for two!

Our journey took us along the blue Caribbean sea lined with cactus and then through banana and coffee plantations, in the tropical garden region of Baracoa at the eastern tip of Cuba.

We invited two French women also staying at the Hotel El Castillo to join us on a memorable day-trip. First we lounged on a local beachphoto: la habana, women musicians group where piglets were being washed in the sea by their owner. Then we had a boat ride and walk along and in the Yumurí river - accompanied by half the village women - where we enjoyed a riverside picnic.

A group of lady guitaristas, called 'Trío Femenino Ocasión'

An enjoyable group with a cassette called 'De Cuba un Cantar Traigo' played at dinner at El Castillo, and, yes, I got one of their music cassettes too.

One of the few times we actually got lost trying to find the non-existent sign posts to La Boca de Yumurí, we came across an annual veterinarian inspection and blood sampling of the village horses. This was a scene straight out of the 'wild' west.

A long day behind the wheel took us through Moa and finally to Guardalavaca, passing through the delightful town of Banes.

Luis, from the 'Museo Indocubano Bani' - the Indian artifacts museum - gave us a personal tour followed by a visit to the nearby local arts and crafts shop, a 'civic center' and the market. A more charming, warm and friendly person would be hard to find anywhere. Alas no cassettes or cigars here.

Gliding into our 'do nothing but lie in the sun and read' days we arrived at Cayo Coco in a torrential downpour. But, sun and a lot of wind waving the palms were our companions at the Sol Club Cayo Coco for five whole, long days - where we did nunca, nada, nothing, zero.

Well almost. My first real horse ride took us through the mangroves and along the beach - delightful. No mosquitos, bugs, or creepy crawlies marred our stay; a few pesky flies was about it. Evening music was courtesy of 'Cuarteto Sol y Mar.' Yes, we have their cassette. Total is now three.

We took a half-day trip with Manuel and Miguel on their catamaran - with rum of course, freshly caughtphoto: beach view, guardalavaca grilled lobster and fish - dancing around the decks to Cuban music, snorkeling, sunbathing. Ah, sun, music, rum - yes, we were delirious.

The 'playa' at Guardalavaca. Palms were everywhere, but not in these photos.

The Cuban resorts have a fabulous 'everything included' system. And I mean everything: food, drinks and activities 24-hours a day. French Champagne at breakfast? We didn't try that, but we did sample often a lot of rum drinks as well as Cuban red and white wines.

For us Camagüe was special. This is a city with beautifully restored buildings, very few tourists, off the beaten track and a 'Casa de la Trova' that beat 'em all. There's a Casa de la Trova in most towns - it's a place to go to hear 'folk' and traditional music.

Starting at 9 p.m; two dollar entrance, we sipped shot-glass portions of white rum straight up in a tall glass - most other tables simply bought a bottle - and revelled in the Cuban 'són' and the open-air patio venue with people dancing, laughing, singing. Absolutely unforgettable.

Designated as a national heritage city, Trinidad was indeed a treasure. We spent two nights in a private home - 20 dollars perphoto: tropicana night for bed and breakfast - with a car-watcher just across the street. Another Casa de la Trova and the bar Las Ruinas offered more wonderful music. We bought the Grupo Cohimbre's cassette too.

Cobblestones, buildings painted in green, blue, yellow or red, a daily street market for local crafts and clothing, friendly people, music - for me, the most beautiful city we visited.

The Tropicana! Olé! The colors, the music, the rum!

Then a couple days at the beach near Trinidad - but we went back into Trinidad for music each night. We squeezed in a day trip through Cienfuegos, and to Santa Clara: the home of Che. The memorial and museum to Ernesto 'Che' Commandante Guevara were well worth the trip for me as a '68 high school graduate.

Taking the 'autopista' into La Habana at 130 kilometers per hour on a three-lane speedway was quite racy. Not a car in sight most of the time. In fact, once you're outside any Cuban city, the roads are empty - other than a few other 'tourista' rental cars and the usual carts, horses, tractors and pedestrians in the far right lane going the 'wrong' way!

The cities are filled with pickups, taxis, folks on foot, horse-drawn carts, buses, cars, bicycles and scooters, and it was only in La Habana that we noticed traffic lights - most other towns didn't have any.

We arrived in La Habana on my 50th birthday and stayed three days in the Hotel Isabel. This hotel was originally a 17th-century palace, now beautifully restored.

It is centrally located in the La Habana Vieja by the Plaza de Armas. This section of Havana is also a UNESCO National Heritage site. Literally hundreds of buildings have scaffolding in La Habana Vieja. It will be an exceptional jewel once all the restoration is completed.

The 'Trío Femenino Ocasión' at the bar next to the hotel was a treat. They sang 'La Mulata' at my request. We bought our fifth cassette. Prices range from five to 10 dollars for these cassettes and the CDs were always 15 dollars.

La Habana Vieja is full of music - in the bars and restaurants but also afternoon concerts by municipal orchestras.

And, of course, the famous Tropicana. What a show! What costumes! What rhythm and music. It is for tourists, but it was artistic, superbly choreographed with all of it being fantastico without being kitsch or crass. Sixty bucks a head for the show and a whole bottle of rum! No darn music cassette available though. Caramba!

After three weeks of almost no TV - CNN and even France-2 television are available at the big hotels - no newspapers - onlyphoto: shopping in trinidad the Spanish-language national daily Granma, and no Internet - no Internet cafe anywhere, es bueno! - we actually didn't miss any news. It is possible to totally disconnect - what a fiesta!

Here I am, with one of my trusty 'helpers,' shopping for... souvenirs - not rum.

Not a hitch, glitch or faux-pas in our trip until arriving at the super-modern terminal three to hear: "Flight CU440 to Paris does not exist." I'll spare you the tense anguish.

We did have professional assistance at the airport to get us and six other French travellers on a flight to Paris via Madrid two hours later than planned.

But, in Madrid we got the regular runaround saying flights were full for the next two days, until an Iberia supervisor sorted things out and got us on a flight six hours later. The duty free rum came in handy while waiting.

We certainly came back to France with music, music and more music - five cassettes and two CDs - Cohiba cigars, three bottles of Havana Club - motto: 'El Ron de Cuba' - sand in our shoes and wonderful memories.

Text and photos: Linda Thalman©2000
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