The scenic Vinales Valley is known for limestone formations called mogotes and for distinctive waxy palm trees. Photo credit Billy Giles
Supporting the Cubans, Surprised by the Fun!
by Sally McKinney
All photos credit Sally McKinney unless noted
Eager to get to Cuba before masses of other Americans arrived, my friend, Billy and I flew to Cancun in the summer of 2015. We bought airfare to Havana, then tried to find a hotel room. I’d been sweating over the computer for an hour before showing Billy yet another listing.
Habana Viejo: Meson de la Flota
Five guest rooms on upper floor
A team of oxen pulls two men in a cart used for hauling.
Along with occasional motor traffic and men on horseback,
the oxen plod along along a paved Vinales street lined
with casas particulares.
Spanish décor, antique furniture, ensuite baths
Ground floor restaurant and bar
Flamenco performance every night ? ? ?
Billy and I traded quizzical looks. What exactly WAS Flamenco music? Did we even LIKE Flamenco music? What if they played too loud and too late and kept us awake? Aware that other rooms on the list cost even more, I kept on reading.
“The music stops by 11:00 pm every night.”
Click. Click. Click. Reservation confirmed!
By next evening, we had checked into the Meson de la Flota in Havana’s Old Town and were dining outdoors. Like actors in a movie, we sipped mojitos while people strolled past in the film-set location.
When I walked back into the building, diners were chattering in Spanish around indoor tables. Beyond, on the stage, men in black pants stomped intricate rhythms and women in black boots kicked up red-tiered skirts. Seduced by the scene, I wanted one of those skirts. Soon I was tripping—but not falling—on the uneven floor. After using the room marked “Mujeres”, I went back to our table.
“Oh, Billy! I LOVE Flamenco music.”
Next morning, reality hit. Our elegant upstairs room with Spanish décor was twice what we could afford. Worse, we had lost sight of our (self-authorized) purpose: supporting the Cuban people.
We had come to direct travel funds to self-employed Cubans. That meant staying in casas particulares (rooms in licensed homes) and dining in paladares (licensed family-run restaurants). Although we both used computers at home, we were traveling without a laptop, without cellphones, and spoke only “un poquito Espanol” (a little Spanish).
The guidebooks listed casas on San Ignacio street, so we started knocking on doors. When a maid opened up and spoke in Spanish, I got discouraged. Owner not there, manager too busy, maybe tomorrow.
Mariela, casa host at Villa Maikel in Finales
town, smiles for this unexpected photograph.
After that door closed, meeting Silvia at Los Balcones was delightful! For some reason, Silvia, actually liked us! We were never quite sure why. Not only did she have a room, she helped us find taxi drivers, tour guides, even casas particulares in other cities.
At the time of our visit, the typical Cuban was earning between $14. and $20. a month. Deliberately, Billy and I matched services offered by the self-employed to our daily needs. We paid Marisa, for example, to wash, dry and fold our clothes. We hired a strong, young guy with a bici-taxi service to take us around. After dinner at Paladar Los Mercaderes, we left money for the slim, shy (and grateful) waiter.
Each day that Billy and I would go out, hire services of Cubans, then climb back up those stairs, Silvia would greet us with hugs. “Sah-lee!” she’d say. “How are you?” Bee-lee!” Another hug. Whenever we stayed with Silvia, her place was home.
One day, we took a taxi through the tunnel from Habana Viejo to Castillo de los Tres Reys del Morro. This polygon-shaped. defensive fort was built by slaves centuries ago into a rocky headland. While Billy toured this sprawling complex, I looked for a place for lunch. The bar across from the entrance didn’t serve food, but I could sit there in the shade drinking water.
Outside, in the sunlit corridor, three men were playing Besame Mucho, and I hummed along. Soon, they started a lively “Guantanamera.” Revived by the water, I was ready to dance, eager to rock out and around the corner and see the band. After the band leader himself took my picture, I gladly bought the Andy Soldano de Santiago CD! Playing music was their “day job,” so I bought their CD for $US 10, yet another way to support enterprising Cubans.
The dining room at Finca Vigia features hand-crafted Cuban
furniture and trophies from Hemingway’s hunting expeditions.
Before we left Havana for Vinales valley, on the west end of Cuba Silvia found us lodging in a casas particulares and arranged for a share-taxi ride. The host of the pretty, pink casa, Villa Maikel, spoke no English. Yet, each of us smiled a lot and I used what Spanish I knew. When she pointed to my wrist watch and said “dasayuno?” (breakfast?) I said “ocho” (eight). Next morning at eight, breakfast was ready! She also prepared a special dinner for us. At $10 a person, this was one of the best Cuban meals I recall: filet of fresh fish, black beans and rice, sliced beets, fresh fruit and flan.
Awkwardly, I lacked the lingo to ask about tour guides, so we set off on our own. From the casa to town center, we could walk one way past an open-air market selling woven hats and tote bags. We could walk another way past oxcarts used for hauling building materials. On the main street, near the plaza, we found snack bars, cafes and tour company offices.
In one office, Billy signed up for a long, guided group hike. Next morning, Billy met with the guide, but no other hikers had signed up. So the guide led Billy on a circuit of Vinales valley, past meadows and tobacco fields. They saw limestone formations called magotes and walked through cool, moist caves.
Along the way, the guide identified two species of birds, a Cuban Tody and a Cuban Trogan—both endemic to Cuba. Billy returned, red-faced and sweaty, his clothes splotched with mud. Even so, he was thrilled with all he had seen. Later he claimed this trek in Vinales valley was one of the best things he’d done in Cuba. And the guide was happy, too, with Billy’s “200 % tip.”
A café near La Floridita—run by Habanaguex--serves this tasty
Spanish stew of sausages, potatoes, tomatoes and onions.
Later, knowing we had a casa in Cienfuegos and a driver to take us there, I relaxed on the porch. From a chair facing the road, I looked at the flowers and watched horse carts clip-clopping past, even an occasional vintage American car.
Then came an unexpected phone call. Our taxi driver was “very sorry.” He could not take us to Cienfuegos. The car would not start and he could not get repairs. Billy had gone out, so I sat alone--really stressed and depressed--until the host's niece arrived.
“Not to worry,” Diana said. “My husband, he know someone.” When Diana called him, she got only voice mail, so left a message. “He’s out of range,” she explained. Late afternoon, her husband came bursting through the door. Good news! His friend could drives us to Havana in the morning. From there, we could easily to get a taxi to Cienfuegos. Thus, despite limited Spanish, we could appreciate Cuban hospitality. Even better, we were getting to know Cuban people!
We checked into the Hostal Maria Antonia y Napoles in the Punta Gorda section of Cienfuegos. They had an inviting back yard with grass, trees and flowers and two guest chairs facing the calm bay water. An outdoor table, shaded by a lattice frame, would become my new favorite place for breakfast. We could walk to nearby restaurants in the neighborhood and taxi to city center.
On the first day, while walking around the open-air mall, I had trouble coping with the heat. For a time, I cooled off in the air-conditioned office of a tour agent. Concerned about possible rapid changes if/when the U.S. embargo was lifted, the agent said she’d worked with Americans and knew their tastes. Cuba was not ready for masses of Americans, she believed. Changes in Cuba should take place slowly.
At the Palatino in Cienfuegos, Septeto Bella Costa has set up
equipment and begun to play. Buying their CD helped provide
support for Septeto Bella Costa, while letting visitors
enjoy Afro-Cuban music back home.
Unable to find a lunch place, Billy and I found seats at the Palatino, a bar across from Parque Jose Marti. While I watched, an artist made cartoonish sketches of unsuspecting patrons. A five-piece band called Septeto Bella Costa played mambo, rhumba and son. This midday concert was fun, but unexpected; I’d been looking for lunch. Instead, my lunch money went to buy another CD, even more support for Cuban musicians. Billy was surprised when the artist showed him the drawing, and paid him $2 to take the drawing home.
Drinking water helped revive me, but—without food—I still felt weak. Reluctantly, we took a taxi back to the Punta Gorda casa. Fighting off nausea, I sprawled on the bed in the hot, stuffy room. Cooled by the sea breeze, Billy sat in a bayside chair, writing in his journal. Later, we paid our casa hosts for a special camarones (shrimp) dinner, but I had little appetite and Billy ate most of my meal.
The next day, I felt only a little bit better and could not do much. That evening, Billy went out to scout around, then came back to surprise me. Curious, I trailed him down the street, around the corner and up two flights of stairs. Our outdoor table at the Pelicano perched high above and overlooked the street. The wait staff brought vegetable soup for my low appetite—and an ample dinner for Billy. The next night, three of the Pelicano wait staff—hanging over the railing of the upstairs deck—saw us walking below. I heard a woman call “How are you feeling?” I looked up to see Pelicano staff waving, so I called back “much better!” In truth, I did not feel better at all. We had done a walking and boat tour of Laguna Guanabacoa and seen beautiful flamingos. Yet, during that excursion, I felt sick and unwell. Yet we traveled on, since we now had reservations in Trinidad and a driver to take us there.
Longina Musica on busy Obispo street
displays instruments in the stairwell.
There were more than 20 types of claves.
The Trinidad lodging, called Hospedaje Sr. Sara Sanjuan Alvares, was inside a stately colonial home. Our room—and several others—overlooked a courtyard where flowers bloomed beside a fountain. In the morning, the kitchen crew began early, chatting in Spanish while rattling cooking pots. They made a lavish meal, but—embarrassed—I ate only small bites, ate only to keep down the nausea.
After smiling goodbye to the staff, I confided to Billy. “I’m really sick!” Fortunately, I knew about the Servimed clinics for foreigners in Cuba. Carrying the clinic address, Billy and I set off to find it. While Billy forged ahead, I shuffled along the ancient, paved streets, trying not to fall on the uneven sidewalks. Soon we arrived at what looked like a house. Inside the clinic, I waited in a padded, wicker chair, flanked by the green, leafy plants, and inhaled fresh air from the windows.
Dr Maritza and her nurse wanted a urine sample—right away—but I could not produce one. The nurse took me to an airy, white room where I drank water laced with electrolytes, then lay down on a bed. While I was drinking and resting, Billy sat out on the patio, reading about science—and baseball. Aware that Billy prefers being active, I felt even worse about being ill. This was NOT the trip we had planned!
This bookcase and the trophy head decorate
a bedroom in the Finca Vigia house.
The doctor’s diagnosis: severe dehydration with a kidney infection. Knowing that Cuba lacks sufficient medicines—an effect of the embargo—I pulled out an antibiotic I’d brought from the States.
“Cipro!” the doctora exclaimed. “Yes! Take Cipro!”
She also prescribed Arginor. “Take this until your energy returns.” Then she danced around by the desk, showing me the energy I’d have after I got well! The total cost for medical consultation, tests, glass ampules of Arginor, three hours of observation was $115.30, paid in CuC’s (equivalent to US dollars).
Billy and I walked back slowly through Trinidad’s historic streets. Hidden behind closed doors and ornate, white grillwork, Trinidad reveals itself slowly. The next day, unable to visit the history museum (it was closed), we passed a restaurant and a large man called to us, “Come on in!”
Nice place, pretty dishes, bright flowers, but—too early for lunch. Nobody in there! Soon a young man set up a music stand. While Billy downed a cool Tukola (Cuban cola) and I let my hot tea cool, more diners arrived, then more musicians. The band, Son Villalba. was playing, so we stayed for lunch. Happily, I listened to Afro-Cuban rhythms and drank in the harmony of the song, “Yolanda”., with its repetitive refrain at the end of each verse, “te amor! te amor!” Each day, we’d been focused on our purpose: support for the Cuban people. We had rarely been looking for fun, yet fun kept coming around the corner, taking us by surprise! Even easier, now, to pay this band $10. for yet another CD.
Bronze bust of Ernest Hemingway seems to
lean on the bar at La Floridita in Habana Viieja.
Visitors are inspired to drink daiquiris in his memory.
Photo credit Billy Giles.
In the city of Santa Clara, we stayed close to nearby shops, cafes and a city park. A line of empty bici-taxis awaited outside the door. Inside Casa Mercy, Omelio and his family were a great help to us. At breakfast, he told us stories about his parents during the revolution. Omelio also suggested a paladar for dinner, found us a taxi driver for Remedios, even phoned Havana to re-schedule and re-confirm. So, how would we get back to the capitol? The driver Omelio had chosen would come promptly at ten.
After breakfast, I was dressed and mixing the Arginor when I heard voices downstairs. The driver had come early! But—now stressed—I’d not even finished packing. Then Omelio’s son, Ian, came bounding up the stairs. Twenty-or-so years old, healthy and strong, he grabbed several bags. “Forget my parents, downstairs,” Ian said to us, joking. “I am your baby now!”
Back in Havana, our casa hosts seemed happy and healthy. They were building on more rooms and eager to host more Americans. Silvia welcomed us warmly to our Havana “home.”
On the Fourth of July, we paid tribute to author Ernest Hemingway by drinking daiquiris at La Floridita. While “Cuarteto D’Amore” played for the midday crowd, we shared our table with a young couple from Prague. This was Independence Day back in the States, so the four of us talked history, revolution and freedom.
Billy ordered bruschetta at La Vitrola café in Plaza Vieja
(Habana Vieja), the food was decorated with this American flag.
Hemingway, who had lived in and loved Cuba, had been a “bridge between cultures” a Cuban official has said. Later, I recalled a conversation with a museum guard. The young woman in uniform had heard me speaking English and asked
“Where are you from?” Her smile grew broader when I said
“Prohibacion no good,” she replied.
“The American people don’t want the embargo either,” I explained.
So the young woman and I had already met on Hemingway’s cross-cultural bridge.
And we agreed. “We want to be friends.”
Sally McKinney lived a normal life before launching her career as a travel journalist in 1985. Born in Valparaiso, Indiana, she moved with everyone else through childhood, high school and college. Marriage and family. After the marriage ended, her four sons left for Texas and California. Only then could she pack up a notebook and camera and set off to see the world.
Billy Giles and Sally McKinney ride in a horse cart,
a traditional means of transportation in the Vinales valley.
Eager to explore, she trekked through New Zealand rainforest with a Maori-owned tour company. Hired villagers on Viti Levu to build a bamboo raft. Sampled 20-or-more wines in one long day. Cooked fresh seafood on skewers in the Kuala Lumpur market. Dined and then danced to tribal drums one night in Kampala.
About to retire in 2011, she went to Tanzania for a volunteer program and found a travel companion. Billy had always wanted to see Machu Picchu, so they traveled the next year to Peru. After that came great trips to Panama, Ecuador and Cuba.
Sally has already visited 47 countries, yet eager to pack those bags again. Her grandson and fiancée have invited family and friends to their Loire Valley wedding. Guests stay in a chic French hotel within Fontevraud L’Abbey. Already this story has heroes and heroines, a main plot—and sub-plots. Might as well go!
How to book casas particulares in Cuba
In the article, Billy and Sally report on the casas partiulares in Cuban homes. Below are the addresses and phone numbers:
El Meson de la Flota
Calle Mercaderes #287E
Habana Vieja, Cuba
Los Balcones Casa Hospedaje
Silvia y Pepe
Calle San Ignacio No. 454
e/ Sol y Santa Clara
Habana Vieja, Cuba
Calle Rafael Trejo No. 14-B
Vinales, Pinar de Rio
Hostal Maria Antonio y Napoles
Calle 35 #22
e/ O y Litoral (La Punta)
(53) 43-513 196
Hospedaje Sra Sara Sanjuan Alvares
Simon Bolivar (Desengano) No 266
e/ Jose Marti y Frank Pas (Carmen)
Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
(53) 41- 993997
Casa Mercy Hostel
Omelio Moreno Lorenzo
E Machado 4 e/Cuba y Colon
Santa Clara, VC
To book rooms in advance from outside the country, use a booking agency. TripAdvisor lists El Meson de la Flota, Casa Mercy, and has many other casa particular listings for Cuba. AirBnB lists Villa Maikel and lists casas in Vinales and elsewhere. Another site to try is CubaCasas.net. After arriving in Cuba, use the telephone or use an Etecsa computer or—perhaps—show up at the casa door.
Special notice to Americans. The official website of the U.S. State Department has much useful travel information. https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html
Americans should pay special attention to the latest guidelines from U.S. Treasury Department, Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC).