Sandra’s Secret Cuba
My wife and daughter and I recently returned from a fantastic ten-day trip to Cuba. Tom Miller, co founder of Green Cities Fund, Imogene Tondre and Varun Mehra were incredibly generous to facilitate our trip, introducing us to Sandra Vasquez and her team of dedicated Cuban professionals.
Sandra and her cousin, Anita, met us at Jose Marti airport on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Within minutes, we were swept up by their warm smiles and headed towards Havana in a beautiful, blue and white, 1956 Ford Fairlane. First stop, Casa Raquel, our casa particular in the Vedado district where our hosts greeted us with open arms. After unloading our bags we were off with Anita for a very pleasant walking tour of Havana Vieja and dinner at one of Havana’s most famous restaurants, Paladar Le Guarida. From the roof top bar, we enjoyed an incredible view of the city and a full moon over the ocean.
After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, we headed out to visit Isis Salcines and her farther Miguel at Organoponico Vivero Alamar, a cooperative farm that he and other leaders established 1997. Isis is one of the most open, kind and visionary people I have ever met and the farm is nothing less than inspirational. Like other bright and capable Cubans who we so enjoyed meeting during our trip, Isis has travelled abroad extensively and will be attending the Eco Farm conference in California this winter where we will see her again.
From Alamar we drove west to our next farm visit with Fernando Funes and his wife Claudia at Finca Marta. From the moment we walked through their front gate, we knew that we had arrived at a very unique and special farm. After the best lunch in all of Cuba, we toured their farm, named in memory of Fernando’s mother. Together, they have created a model farm, complete with their own bio-gas production, rain and wastewater retention systems, and the most amazing production garden I have ever seen. And honestly, we didn’t see one tractor or motorized piece of equipment. Fernando did say that they badly needed refrigeration and were hoping to receive funding for this from a Japanese NGO.
Fernando had recently returned from North Korea and Washington DC where he had been invited to share his Cuban farm experience. And the day following our visit, he and Claudia were expecting a TV crew from Cuba 360 degrees to film their operation to share with the world.
And now comes the part where Sandra shined everyday. She had made us a special dinner reservation at Ivan Chef Justo. We were so impressed with the freshness of the food and the unique menu that we decided right them and there that this would be the restaurant where we would celebrate our final dinner in Cuba with the many of the friends we met along the way.
Tuesday morning, having arrived in Cuba just 36 hours prior, we were off with our newest friend, Alex, in a rented car to Pinar del Rio Province and Vinales. This was an exciting addition to our trip, made possible by the incredible feat of Alex finding a car to rent! Along the way, we stopped by the home of a local tobacco farmer to walk his field and learn about his cultivation techniques. He rolled us a homegrown cigar, which Emily puffed on!
With its limestone cliffs, caves and lush fields of tobacco, Vinales is a must see and one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. As a surprise, Sandra had arranged a guided walking tour with the most experienced local climber of the region. After several hours of exploring the mogotes, Alex took us to a refreshing, late lunch of shrimp with garlic, yucca and salads, which was delicious. Our return to Havana, along the four lane highway with animal carts and people walking in the right lane, was in the dark and reminded me why Alex was driving rather than me and why it’s best not to drive at night.
Again to our great surprise, Sandra had called upon her friend Hubert, the owner of La Esperanza, to accommodate us for a late dinner. We were exhausted from our day in Vinales but delighted by our meal and the gorgeous surroundings of Hubert’s home.
And now the day we were all looking forward to, our tour of the Museum of Fine Arts. Danella, our personal docent, did a remarkable job introducing us to the Cuban artists of the past century. From Carlos Enriquez to Choco and Kcho, we spent several hours learning about art and sculpture, including the revolutionary artists leading up to today; definitely one of the highlights of our entire trip.
A late lunch, upstairs at the wonderful Dona Eutimia. What a great, fun, and delicious restaurant! In the afternoon we strolled old Havana and walked from Casa Raquel to Café Madrigal for a light dinner.
New Year’s Eve day and a drive together with Sandra and Alex up 5th Avenue. A quick tour through Jose Fuster’s amazing ceramic neighborhood and on to a long awaited swim in the Caribbean. We spent a few lovely hours at Playa Santa Maria before preparing to meet Sandra’s friends from San Francisco for New Year’s Eve dinner.
Julie and I very much wanted to welcome the new year with salsa dancing and after checking out dance venues with Alex, we ended up at Casa de Musica where an amazing salsa band took us into the wee hours of the morning. Getting back to Casa Raquel was a little dicey and expensive but hey, it was New Year’s Eve!
The next part of our trip exploring Cuba was exhilarating. We left Havana en route to Trinidad via Cienfuegos, arriving three hours later. Trinidad is nestled in the hills above a beautiful beach and is absolutely gorgeous. Our stay at the brand new Casa de la Trinidad was delightful, with excellent breakfast and dinner offerings. Sandra again surprised us with a lunch reservation at La Casona. Her friends and owners of La Casona, Kenia Pons Espinosa and her husband, Andres, were consummate hosts and prepared a wonderful meal for us in their outstanding bed and breakfast.
As Julie and Emily enjoyed Playa Ancon, Alex and I explored Valle de los Ingenios, Trinidad’s former sugar cane producing valley and home to many sugar mills. This verdant valley was one of Cuba’s wealthiest. The valley’s main focal point is the Manaca Iznaga, a hacienda originally owned by an unscrupulous slave trafficker who built a 132-foot tower to watch his slaves.
Somehow Alex must have known that I really wanted to go to Sancti Spiritus, a town 60 kms. away, which was not on our itinerary. So I said: “Let’s go” and off we went!
Along the way we stopped to pick up several local Cuban hitchhikers and learned a great deal about the local culture from them. And Sancti Spiritus was well worth the extra drive. It’s a beautiful, 500 year old town with much less tourism than Trinidad. The central plaza, lined with gorgeous buildings including the library was, as Alex liked to say – ‘Spectacular’!
We made a hasty return to Trinidad for our final dinner at 1514 Café, owned by Alex’s friend Cesar. The entire meal is prepared on a wood fired stove in an elaborate, outdoor dinning area.
Next stop Playa Giron. We were so warmly received at the home of Lidia and Julio where we enjoyed two days of scuba diving with Julio. Lidia prepared the best lobster of our trip, not just for one meal but several! Visiting the Museo de Playa Giron was a very sobering experience and reminded us of how little we really knew about the miss guided and irresponsible Bay of Pigs invasion.
The final night of our trip was spent at our favorite restaurant, Ivan Chef Justo, celebrating with our favorite friends, Sandra and Alex, his son Alejandro, Imogene and her fiancé. We toasted each other while enjoying our favorite Cuban drink, Canchancharas! Our 1,300-kilometer trip across Cuba was coming to a close but it was just the beginning of an amazing friendship with the people of Cuba. We are sure to return very soon.