Friday, August 31, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions


One sultry afternoon we hire Ray and his '46 Chevy to taxi us to Finca Vigia (lookout farm), Hemingway's estate from 1939 to 1960...and Cuba's most popular national museum. Ray is Italian-Cuban, so we're there in minutes. Ciao bella! The estate is fifteen acres of old growth tropical banyans, bamboo, ferns and flowers, pathways with garden seating, lead to a swimming pool, where I imagine Frank and Ava cavorting with other guests of the Hemingways. The renown author crossed from Key West to Havana in his boat, Pilar. It sits now in a covered storage on the 'farm', which I circumnavigate slowly while remembering his love of fishing. Climbing a tower of four stories (with an incredible Havana view), I arrive at his famous writing room, where an old typewriter adorns a small rectangular desk, not nearly as elaborate as the curved inlaid wood one in his study in the main casa - which is large and sprawling, with a huge party terrace, separate cocina. His books, stuffed game animals, clothes, art, and memorabilia are throughout the home as if Ernest had just gone into town for a mohito on the rooftop of the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It was here in this oasis that Hemingway penned four best-sellers.[1] I imagine living here years ago...and muse that even I could write a best seller here. 

Cojimar was another of Hemingway's haunts, a small fishing village and inspiration for his story of Nobel fame, the Old Man and The Sea. Now the town is made famous by the writer's tale. As we taxi downhill towards Cojimar, I glimpse the young boy, carrying Santiago's fishing gear, walking down this very street towards the cafe and the small boat, harbored in the ocean's crook, by the seawall. We order a Crystal[2] at La Terrazza, the restaurant/bar where Ernest stopped after a day on the water. There a large wall mural depicts the story of the huge marlin, battled by the protagonist. I walk to the square, where a bust of Hemingway stands, as a young boy skips by, carrying his just-caught shark.  Like the famous hotel, Finca Hemingway, and a few 'Papa' bars in Havana, Cojimar is made famous by an American writer who lived and wrote twenty years in Cuba, over fifty years ago.

Like the other eleven World Heritage sites in Cuba[4], Viñales is on everyone's 'don't miss' list, so we head off to the Valley. Passing small farms and a large lake, acacia and date palms. goats, pigs. and cattle, we spy an old Chevy just off the highway. It looks like it's been there waiting for parts for fifty years. The road is excellent, with two lanes on each side of a landscaped divide. We pass corn, bananas, rice paddies, grains and processing plants. vegetable gardens and screen houses, fields. Orchards of citrus and pine. Mango groves line the road, and we arrive in the quaint town of Viñales a downpour. As we disembark, we are mobbed by a throng of casa owners and tour drivers, hawking theirs. Ignoring them (we have reserved ahead for a casa), we dodge flash flooding in the streets, ducking under a stranger's porch, where we are immediately invited in to wait out the rain. The casa particulares we look for is across the street, which has become a river, but within moments, we are settled in, and the sun is out. We lunch a block away at Casa de Don Thomas, another architectural gem, built in 1822, now the best restaurant in town. The waiter speaks fluent (university) English and dreams of going to Great Britain.

Viñales Valley is exquisite - Mother Nature showing off. A national parc, declared a World Heritage site in 1999, the valley is a geological wonder, framed by limestone hills and mogotes[5], so lush and fertile it also grows the best tobacco in the world and is dotted with tobacco fields and drying houses. We visit one on our valley tour with a Russian cabbie in his ugly Lada. Later, strolling around town then hiking to the top of a knoll, we take our cameras for a tour of the amazing vistas throughout the area.

Duano, son-in-law of the señora of our casa, piles us in his classic '49 Oldsmobile, and we head out of town to the beach at Cayo Jutias, fifty kilometers away. En route we drive through a beautiful caves valley, observe thatched houses, horse and buggies, oxen pulling plows and carts, old cars, bicycles, rural people. There's a causeway to the island, where we are charged $5 (tourist price) for access. It's overcast by the time we arrive, and Manuel's coconuts are welcomed as we dodge another storm, heading back within a couple of hours.

Back the next day from the sprawling beauty of Viñales, Havana feels like an old friend, City on the bay, where we spend a few more days, exploring the neighborhoods, shooting historic buildings and old cars, enjoying the music and dance in the parks and squares. The habaneros are sweet, seem happy. We begin to wind down from our busy lives. Like so much in Cuba, Viñales provides a breather, a break, a proverbial hammock to enjoy the passage of a time that has slowed to the pace of the 50s.

One cannot describe Cuba without paying homage to its stunning beaches. Uncrowded, scenic, safe, stretches of sand invite to water which is crystal clear and perfect for swimming, diving, snorkeling, surfing...depending on location. During our first week in Habana, we walk to Parc Centrale and take a $3 bus to Playas del Estes, a few miles of beaches about thirty minutes out of town. Heaven - a cool bus on a hot day, driving along the coast, and arriving at a dune, which we hike over to a turquoise sea on a sandy beach: Santa Maria. The beach chairs with thatched umbrellas are $2 - more than the cost of a cold beer, .50 less than a mohito. Salad and fries are another $1.85 (with tip). The band is sweet.

Outside Trinidad, we discover Playa Ancon, another treasure, sprawling along the coast. But our favorite beach is Varadero - 13 kilometers of eye-searing aqua along a wide swath of powder white sand. One of the best days of our month is a day spent under a shade tree on Varadero Beach, swimming, reading, playing a bit of volleyball, swimming again, re-applying.

Varadero is in a special 'touristic zone', and until last November there were no casas particulares allowed, only hotels. Nor could Cubans enter the zone unless they were working. Now they come to enjoy the beach like tourists. We stay in the central part of Varadero, away from the big hotels where Canadians and Europeans hang, and where a boom market keeps the government construction at breakneck pace. Our room is a block from the beach - in the central part where the beach is nearly empty, except for a few locals. Every night features a mind-blowing sunset, and from Hemingway sites to Viñales Valley to all the beaches and valleys, we are awed every day by the sheer beauty that is Cuba.

[1]  For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, Islands in the Stream, and The Old Man and The Sea, for which he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.
[2]  Fabulous Cuban beer
[3]  (pronounced 'Biñales')
[5]  Round-topped rock formations, over a million years old, feature caves and underground caverns