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  • Myra Yatco

Cuba - Mas, Por Favor!

I just published my love letter to Cuba, and I must admit...It wasn't half bad. The final iteration surprised me since I didn't think intermittent head-banging (fueled by agonizing writer's block) would lead to a semi-decent write-up. While it took tremendous effort to craft that initial testimonial, it ultimately fulfilled its purpose. And that is, to convey one salient point from my recent Cuban adventure: It was the most educational, rewarding, stress-free trip I have ever taken. And I wanted to shout, "MAS, POR FAVOR!"

All pleasantries aside, my focus for this follow up post is twofold: to recap my 10 most noteworthy recommendations and to do so via photo and video compilations that convey Cuba's local flavor. I'll write a separate blog detailing travel tips and cautionary measures. But for now, I will communicate spotlights that made this trip truly exceptional. With that said, let's kick off Part 2 of my Cuban adventure with the tour that trumps all tours - La Corona Cigar Factory.

Spotlight #1: Eat, Drink, and Smoke Cigars

Are you a cigar aficionado? If so, this 30-minute tour provides a closeup view of the cigar making process from tobacco leaf selection to final stogie inspection. My favorite part involved meandering through rows of tobacco stations equipped with everything expert rollers need to produce Montecristos, Romeo y Julietas, Cohibas, and other sought after brands.

Even if you're not an enthusiast, this visit offers behind-the-scenes access to one of Cuba's most profitable economic sectors and should not be missed. There were plenty of takeaways from this guided excursion, but I don't want to spoil the experience for future visitors. With that in mind, this extremely brief description ends with 2 in-store photos (factory photos not allowed) to whet your tobacco-loving appetite.

Spotlight #2: Vintage-style time travel

When you think of Cuba, several images come to mind: cigars, mojitos, Buena Vista Social Club, and vintage automobiles from the 1940s/1950s. These perfectly preserved vehicles are pervasive throughout the country and can transport you from one hotspot to another. Here are several that caught my eye since they are stunning representations of Cuba's old world charm.

Nothing made me happier than riding inside a 1949 Convertible Chevy while navigating the streets of timeless Havana. This photo was captured by my awesome driver who temporarily gave up control of the wheel for this once in a lifetime photo op.

For approximately 30 CUCs (~$35 USD) per hour, we drove past the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, Revolution Square. Prado Street, John Lennon Park, Old Town Havana, Che Guevara's House, and other fabulous places throughout the Vedado district.

This video segment provides a cursory overview of Havana including back-seat highlights from this unforgettable ride.

Spotlight #3: Impromptu fashion show with award-winning Cuban designer

I was pleasantly surprised when we visited the studio of celebrated fashion designer, Mariela Aleman Orozco. Mariela Color, the official name of her fashion line, draws inspiration from Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican painter who is best known for self-portraits and her prominent unibrow. The snapshot below features an entire wall of Frida-emblazoned fabrics surrounding Mariela's outdoor workspace.

The following video begins with a fabric dye demonstration and ends with a surprise fashion show that brought her tie-dye aesthetic to life...

Spotlight #4: Ernest Hemingway's Libations and Cuban Oasis

Nobel Prize-winning author, Ernest Hemingway, left Cuba in 1960, but his influence on Cuban culture and history is still prominently felt today.

If you want to experience Cuba the way Hemingway experienced it, the following sites must be added to your itinerary:

Hemingway Stop: Hotel Ambos Mundos (Havana)

Room 511 was Hemingway's retreat for several years while he wrote the Pulitzer-nominated novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls". It now serves as a mini museum featuring the room just as Hemingway left it. The lobby also showcases various memorabilia including his framed signature.

Hemingway Stop: La Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita (Havana)

Ernest Hemingway once said, "Mi mojito en La Bodeguita y mi daiquiri en La Floridita."

I couldn't visit the famous Havana-based La Bodeguita del Medio since we had limited free time outside our packed educational agenda. So when I returned from my trip, I ordered Hemingway's cherished mojitos at my neighborhood La Bodeguita del Medio. Not a bad alternative, but I regret not stopping by the original bar that claims to be the birthplace of the Cuban mojito.

Floridita is situated at the corner of Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana. Hemingway popularized their papa doble daiquiri, which contains twice the amount of rum as the standard one. Lightweights, beware (wink).

Hemingway Stop: Finca La Vigia

Finca La Vigia served as Hemingway's primary residence after he checked out of Hotel Ambos Mundos at the request of his third wife. His estate reopened decades later as a museum showcasing perfectly-preserved rooms throughout the main home. Since theft was common when the museum first opened, guests are only allowed to peek through several windows along the exterior perimeter.

Hemingway Stop: Seaside village of Cojimar

Cojimar is a quaint fishing village often frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Visit this coastal stop to see what inspired Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Old Man and the Sea".

The following video segment includes footage of Finca La Vigia and Cojimar, where a stone monument dedicated to Hemingway currently resides.

Spotlight #5: Cuban art transforms entire neighborhoods.

There are three unique stops that celebrate Cuba's thriving art scene: Muraleando,

Fusterlandia, and Callejon de Tradiciones.

Art Stop: Muraleando

Muraleando was the brainchild of several artists who transformed a lackluster barrio into a spirited showcase of murals, sculptures, and wall installations. What started as a classroom project 15 years ago, morphed into a community-driven undertaking championed by

30 artists and 250 students across 5 disciplines: arts, music, dance, theatre, and film.

Art Stop: Fusterlandia

Jose Rodriguez Fuster, aptly referred to as "The Picasso of the Caribbean", created an eclectic mix of ceramic-tiled homes in the fishing town of Jaimanitas. Fuster's casa serves as the epicenter of an 80-house neighborhood adorned with 3-dimensional sculptures, murals, and intricate art pieces.

Visiting Fusterlandia can be likened to spending time inside a Gaudi-inspired fairyland. If Gaudi were alive today, he would be extremely proud of his Caribbean apostle since his influence is undeniably present in each colorful creation.

This segment is a tribute to Cuba's art scene and focuses primarily on Muraleando and Fusterlandia. There is one photo from Lester Campa's (well-known Cuban artist) art studio that made the final reel as well.

Art Stop: Callejon de las Tradiciones

The city of Matanzas, which unfortunately means "slaughter", features an Afro Cuban diversification project in the Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood. Callejon de las Tradicones

(Traditions Alleyway) is a culturally-rich initiative celebrating heritage and tradition. Artists help fund this undertaking via paintings, murals, or performances that illustrate 300+ years of Afro Cuban history.

My favorite and most memorable part involved performing with one of the natives during a theatrical street show. Dancing while attempting to mimic her moves was the highlight of my birthday, and I could not have asked for a better gift. Nobody filmed that impromptu moment, so this Myra-free vignette will have to suffice.

Spotlight #6: Cuban biosphere brings rural flora and fauna to life.

Las Terrazas, Cuba's smallest biosphere reserve, was once a Haitian-built coffee plantation that fell into disrepair after the Spaniards destroyed its surrounding forests. Many years later, reforestation efforts transformed this once barren wasteland into a thriving UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our guided excursion took us through the self-contained village with its own school and political system. Site stops include: a ration store, daycare, playground, cafe, medical clinic, and the art studio of local celebrity, Lester Campa.

This video compilation showcases some of these sites and ends with photos of Casa del Campesino, a state-run paladar popularized by Fidel Castro, Arthur Miller, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Spotlight #7: Walking tour of Old Havana left me speechless.

How could I possibly describe La Habana Vieja, one of the most charming, historically-rich municipalities in Havana. I don't know where to begin since there were copious amounts of structural eye candy.

Make sure to strap on those comfy shoes since you will be meandering through cobblestoned-streets while marveling at the architecture, plazas, fortresses, cathedrals, museums, storefronts, paladars, and other popular stops such as Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Used Booksellers Market, Hotel Ambos Mundos, Floridita, and Inglaterra.

I'm still awestruck and speechless so I'll let these snapshots speak for themselves. Timeless. Classic. Breathtaking.

Spotlight #8: Move over Buena Vista Social Club, Cafe Taberna lives up to its musical hype.

When it comes to live musical performances, the nightly show at Cafe Taberna is as good as it gets. Located at the corner of Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, this tourist destination serves a daily dose of heart-pumping, booty-shaking Cuban music in addition to several rounds of mojitos. Que bueno! And yes, I danced with the band since you can't help but move to pulsating, rhythmic Cuban beats.

Note: Fellow Friendly Planet travelers and I opted for the performance-only portion of the show for 30 CUCs, which is approximately $35 USD when you factor in exchange fees.

Spotlight #9: A Cuban haven for both locals and visitors

The latter part of my 5-day excursion began in the fabulous resort community of Varadero. I could have cited a number of unforgettable moments involving white sandy beaches, poolside daiquiris, overflowing food buffets, or our swanky all-inclusive hotel.

Instead, I'll reference a series of events including a group serenade, birthday toast, private magic show, Romeo y Julieta cigar, and a surprise hotel gift addressed to Mister Myra. Yup, that special greeting was accompanied by a bottle of champagne and a "Happy birthdy" cake engulfed by an army of tenacious ants. Battling these feisty "hormigas" with insect repellent capped off my awesome day. Thank you Melia Varadero! It was the heart-warming, unsolicited gesture that counted most.

The following collage/vignette transports me back to Varadero's scenic oceanside beauty, which I couldn't get enough of during our extremely brief 1 1/2 day visit. Not enough time for full beachside acclimation, but we made every paradise-loving second count.

Spotlight #10: Cuba's Organic Farming Community

This last spotlight completes my 10 most noteworthy recommendations and delves into Cuba's flourishing farming sector.

Farm stop: Organopicos

Organopicos came to fruition during the "special period" - a euphemism for economic turmoil that resulted when the Soviet Union collapse obliterated 85% of Cuba's trade revenue.

Since farmers could not afford pesticides, organic farming sprouted to feed hungry communities. Today, 70% of Cuban food is organically grown.

The primary goal of this 11.4 hectare, 150 worker farm is to promote biodiversity. With that said, Organopicos produces mangos, avocados, coffee, marigold, oregano, okra, corn, basil, noni fruit, and the miraculous moringa plant, which is commonly known as viagra for poor people.

The rich soil color in the following photo surprised me since these were once sugar fields that were eventually burned when exports plunged during the Soviet Union's demise. Soil quality suffered as a result, but this snapshot shows otherwise.

Farm stop: La Coincidencia

I could probably write an entire blog post about this 30-year old farm that merges agriculture with ceramics. Interesting combination, but it definitely makes sense once you visit

La Coincidencia in Coliseo. There was plenty to see, smell, eat, and touch throughout the grounds, which also houses the first ceramic workshop ever established in that province. A few notable tidbits...

- There are 500+ varieties planted throughout the farm including guanabana fruit that's known for its cancer-fighting medicinal properties.

- Sculptures are peppered throughout the property. My favorite was the stone amphitheater with perfectly-placed rock formations.

Melopina bees produce flavorful honey onsite. Don't be afraid to dip your finger into those protruding honeycomb pods. Stingless bees are harmless, and the honey was exceptional.

This final snapshot features my favorite family-style meal using ingredients harvested from the farm.

I just covered an entire gamut of recommendations that were cherry-picked from my comprehensive educational itinerary. Thank you Friendly Planet since I could not have come up with such a flavor-packed agenda on my own. I loved my trip so much that this list could have easily surpassed 20 most Cuba-fabulous moments. But I've taken too much of your time already.

It's time to pass the Cuban travel baton so that others can experience these indelible activities for themselves.

Until then, here are several resources to help with future trip planning.

- Click here to read my Cuban love letter (Part 1 of my 3 part blog series).

- Click here to access photo highlights.

Next up: Cuban travel tips and cautionary advice for future visitors.

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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