I am working closely with our man in Havana, Jesus Noguera, to develop the perfect, unique Cuban itinerary for adventurous travelers of the musical persuasion. And while our focus will be on Cuban rhythms, percussion and tres (the Cuban equivalent of an ‘ukulele!), we’ll also get a fair smattering of some of the other opportunities Cuba has to offer. While a few details still need to be ironed out (private workshops with local teaching musicians, for one thing) here’s what we have in store so far.
Day 1 – Havana
The plan is to fly as a group from Fort Lauderdale to Havana, arriving in the early afternoon to meet our local guide, Jesus, who will take us to our casa particular (Cuban for B & B). After we have settled in, we’ll get our bearings and explore La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) on foot visiting five centuries of history and architecture and the four main plazas of Old Havana: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza de la Catedral. What better way than this to begin to understand the exalted place Cuba held in the Caribbean for centuries. . . . .or to scout out a location for dinner (featuring local cuisine) and libations among the lively outdoor cafes, bars, and restaurants?
And for those still raring to go, go, go after we enjoy a little after-dinner-ukulele-merriment, we’ll head over to Havana’s most “famous and consistent” jazz club, la Zorra y el Cuervo, unless the music is better someplace else! (Or you just want to go to sleep.)
Day 2 – Havana
The Cuban art scene is not to be missed. So, in the morning we’ll visit the National Museum of Fine Arts, with a local art historian, to learn about Cuba’s past and most recent history through the lens of its artists.
Then we’re back on the music trail as we head over to Guampara, the first independent production house and urban music label in Cuba, and meet Isnay Rodriguez, one of its three original founders who will introduce us to the musical genres thriving in Cuba today. AND we’ll have we’ll have a go at learning to dance to some of the most popular Cuban beats.
After lunch we’ll visit Callejón de Hamel, a vibrant, “open-air museum,” created by artist Salvador Gonzalez in a 200-meter-long alley. with murals and sculptures that appear in religions of African origin, such as Santeria, Palo Monte, and the Abakua Society. The alley hosts a rich musical heritage, as well.
And no visit to Cuba is complete without a tour of modern Havana in a vintage car. This, too, may be the day we pick up a six-pack of beer and head back to the sea front to play our ‘ukuleles on The Malecón as the sun goes down.
And for those still willing, there might be another musical opportunity after dinner at the Berthold Brecht Theater, “where the hippest Cuban musicians play for fun.” Sheesh! When do we sleep?
Day 3 – Havana
This morning we will visit Habana Compass Dance, a school and studio recognized internationally for its dynamic fusion of Flamenco and Afro-Cuban rhythms with a “choreographic vision full of passion.” Stools, drum sticks, castanets, even their own bodies (!) provide the young dancers with everything they need to create a unique, artistic performance.
From here we will continue on to Jaimanitas, once a sleepy fishing town on the outskirts of Havana, now a mosaic-laden piece of living art, where we will visit the workshop and home of the internationally renowned artist, Jose Fuster, who has turned his home and neighborhood into a flamboyant masterpiece of tiles, turrets, and Gaudi-esque beauty. And then, we’ll lunch at Restaurante Santy Pescador, a tiny riverside paladar of international acclaim where we might even see the chef bargaining with the local fishermen for their daily catch. (Yes, the fish is that fresh.)
After lunch we are free to explore. There could be some cooking lessons on the menu. A visit to an organic farm or the Hemingway Museum. Or we might just grab our ukes and lounge around on the beach.
Day 4 – Zapata Peninsula and Bay of Pigs
It’s a busy day. After breakfast, we head for Trinidad via the Zapata Peninsula, a sparsely populated (and zealously protected) region that lies within the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, a protected habitat for rare birds and crocodiles that includes the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata and Laguna de las Salinas.
But first we visit the town of Pálpite and the Korimacao Cultural Project which gives young, non-professional artists from all around Cuba the chance to further their skills in theater, dance, poetry, or painting–and share it with people in small communities around the country.
We’ll also visit the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) and the two beaches that served as the landing points for the 1961 invasion, Playa Girón and Playa Larga, which also happen to offer some of the most spectacular snorkeling on the island! Here we’ll have a number of options: a visit to the museum, snorkeling in one of the beautiful bays, and/or kayaking. Or. . . . .a little beach uke time!
Then we head to beautiful Cienfuegos, a maritime city founded by French settlers in 1819 for a quick tour of the main square, the Cathedral Church, Terry Theatre, and the Palacio del Valle, and to eat dinner before heading on to the cobble-stoned streets and pastel-colored houses of Trinidad, a charming UNESCO World Heritage site and Cuba’s foremost colonial town.
Day 5 & 6 – Trinidad
Trinidad is a colonial sugar town with an historic center that has not changed much over the last 150 years. We’ll take a stroll around the Plaza Mayor, visit the Museo Palacio Cantero, and spend time at the local artisan street market, where splendid wood carvings, fabric art, crochet pieces, and straw works are for sale. We will also be able to visit some local artists, including the Santander Family that has been making pottery for generations.
With two full days, we’ll also have time to explore the nearby Escambray mountain range, home to Topes de Collantes National Park, a lush nature reserve known for its cascading waterfalls and natural pools. And a little further down the road is ¨Playa Ancón,¨ a ribbon of white beach on Cuba’s south coast. And in between lies half-forgotten La Boca, a small fishing village at the mouth of the Río Guaurabo with a pebbly beach shaded by flowering acacias. A great spot for a lazy stop to watch the sunset.
Back in Trinidad the real action begins around 7pm, when locals and tourists alike gather at the open air Casa de Musica to order a cocktail, sit on the wide stone staircase, listen to music, soak up the atmosphere, and/or join in the salsa dancing. Or, we might find our way to Casa de la Trova, Canchánchara Bar, and Disco Ayala – a disco in a cave. Traditional and Afro-Cuban music abounds here, with two days here, we should have ample opportunity to enjoy it all, and get a few workshops of our own in, as well.
Day 7 – Matanzas
Right after breakfast we travel to Matanzas, a vibrant cultural hub that hosts one of Cuba’s finest theaters. During our stay we will visit Ediciones Vigia, a unique and creative book publishing house that emerged as shortages of paper and other basic goods forced the writers and artists to use scrap paper, leaves, yarn and other “found” supplies to publish their works. Since its humble beginnings, it has published the most important Cuban writers using only a typewriter, an ancient mimeo machine, and ingenious craftsmanship.
We’ll also explore the local music scene that gave the world a number of Afro-Cuban musical traditions, including the rumba and an assemblage of instruments including conga drums, claves, palitos (sticks), marugas (iron shakers), and cajones (packing cases). And we will lunch at a private home where we will also enjoy the performance of a Cuban music band. Here. too, we will have an opportunity to explore the city, visit a number of local musicians and share a little ukulele joy.
Day 8 – Havana
We return to Havana for our last day and will have the chance to do some last-minute shopping at the Almacenes de San José souvenir market. We’ll also make a stop at La Terraza de Cojimar, a favorite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway, with its fabulous view of Cojímar Bay. This is where Hemingway would go fishing and from where he met the fisherman who was the inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea.
After our farewell dinner at Restaurant San Cristobal we’ll have one last social and music-filled evening together!
Day 9 – Havana & Home
Off to the airport to catch our 10 am flight back to Fort Lauderdale. (Though we need to arrive and depart as a group, you will be responsible for booking your own flight.)
Please Note: Travel in Cuba requires a flexible attitude. Visiting developing countries can be eye-opening and life-changing. Visiting Cuba is both. That said, accommodations may not be up to the standards you are used to: sometimes the hot water or air conditioning may not work, for example. Cuba has its own beat and things don’t always run on time. Our days are full, and as required by U.S. law we have a full agenda of meaningful interactions with the Cuban people. And while we will do our best to make sure we fulfill our obligation under the Support for the Cuban People program, the activities and visits listed are not guaranteed.
So, we ask that you appreciate the authenticity of your cultural encounters as well as the people, food, culture, and adventures that await. Come with an open heart and an open mind and this will be a fascinating and educational experience.
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In the meantime, perhaps this will get you in the mood!