Chevrolets, shrines and Santiago

Changing of the guard
Changing of the guard

FEBRUARY 19, 2015 – We skip the pre-arranged excursions in Santiago de Cuba, seeing as we’ve been there twice before, and opt to do our own thing. Our morning destination is Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Cuban late great military leaders, politicians, poets, doctors and musicians are laid to rest.

Outside the port entrance we run a gauntlet of taxi drivers and their agents vying for our attention. Our first notion to find a van to transport four of us to the cemetery is not an option and we have to choose from air-conditioned small cars, such as a Peugeot, some beat-up Ladas and an assortment of old American cars with no air con.

Our ride - a 1949 Chevrolet
Our ride – a 1949 Chevrolet

We opt for a pea soup green 1949 Chevrolet with red leather upholstery and soon are on our way to see dead people. The cemetery is a beautiful place dotted with towering royal palm trees and surrounded by black iron fencing. We pay our pesos and are set up with a guide whose English is still a work in progress and she has only worked there for two weeks. Between her limited English and my limited Spanish, we meet in the middle.

The main reason we have come is to watch the changing of the guard, a spectacle that happens every 30 minutes during the day from 8 a.m. The toll of a bell is the signal, and amid pomp and circumstance, a trio of serious young men in military dress carrying ceremonial rifles with bayonets march down the walkway to the tomb of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero who was a poet, writer and lawyer. The young officers’ precision goose-stepping is impressive and I’m sure their gluteus muscles are equally impressive from lifting their legs so high all day long.

Erected in 1951, the hexagonal mausoleum is oriented so that Martí’s wooden casket receives daily sunlight. In one of his poems, Martí said he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.

Several symbols incorporated into Marti’s mausoleum signify the six original provinces of Cuba and there’s a statue of him made of Italian Carrera marble peering down at his flag-draped casket. While the Marti monument is a centrepiece, the rest of the cemetery is beautiful with numerous elaborate sun-bleached white marble headstones, markers and monuments honouring military heroes from the 10 Year War and the Cuban Revolution, members of the Bacardi family, a doctor who pioneered a type of eye surgery and Compay Segundo, a musician from the famous Bueno Vista Social Club.

By the end of the tour, the breeze has died to remind us just how hot it can get in Santiago. We pile back into our pea green carriage and head back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we trek up to Santiago’s central square. We have to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers again, cross a wide intersection while dodging motorcycles, bicycles, trucks and horse-drawn carts and make our way up the long steep hill to the city centre at the summit.

Santiago, as historic and colourful as Havana, sadly has not been as well tended as her prosperous sister on the north shore. The ravages of time and the battering of recent hurricanes have taken their toll on many of the city’s beautiful Colonial buildings but we are encouraged to see some restoration taking place. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks heaved and the pavement broken and pitted but it’s part of Cuba’s unique character.

The buildings surrounding the central square have been restored and are lovely. The square is not large but is a pleasant place to plop down on a bench and watch life go by. I remember my visit there seven years ago when a short, squat elderly woman in a bright red dress and running shoes was in the square smoking a cigar. I took her photo and she demanded money for allowing me to do so – but I didn’t oblige. You can take pictures of people, houses, buildings, etc. without permission if you are on public property. As the photographer, I also owned the picture so I should have demanded a peso or two from her and sent her a copy.

In downtown Santiago de Cuba
In downtown Santiago de Cuba

We notice that some people are on the roof of the Casa Grande Hotel and figure that would be a great spot to capture some panoramic shots of the city. We take the hotel elevator to the fifth floor where there is a rooftop bar and wide terraces offering views in three directions. It provides a wonderful bird’s eye view, a Cuban band is playing in the bar and a nice breeze keeps us from overheating. We can also see our ship and the easiest route to get back.

My significant other made the trek into central Santiago earlier in the afternoon before enticing me to join him. An English speaking local help him locate a Cuba tee shirt in a local store (there’s virtually no souvenir shops to be had) and took him through back streets to somebody’s house to show him some alleged 15-year-old rum that could be purchased for $10 convertible pesos. He returned back to the ship rum-less, explaining that the rum was in a plastic bottle and the label looked less than official.

That’s a typical Cuban experience – locals wanting to sell you rum, cigars, home-cooked meals or show you their artwork – and part of the fun.

After dinner on the ship, we take in a Cirque de Soleil type show. We are on the way to Jamaica and the sea is rough tonight. I am astounded at how the acrobats are able to keep their footing and perform their routines given the movement of the ship. The performers are part of the Louis Cristal crew and the level of talent is impressive, from the singers to the dancers to the musicians. They’d be the ones to beat on the X Factor or The Voice. And Danny, the cruise director is an Energizer Bunny of a man who speaks seven languages, makes the announcements during the day over the loudspeaker (“Your kind attention please ….”), hires the performers, emcees the shows and even has some dance moves. If only you could bottle that kind of energy …





















Paradise Found


Morning concert
Morning concert

FEBRUARY 18, 2015 -Our day in Antilla begins by lining up and loading into one of the Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal’s lifeboats. The ship is still afloat and there’s no emergency – it’s the first stage of our trek to Cayo Saetia (Paradise Island) to see Fidel Castro’s former private hunting grounds and his assortment of imported game animals, followed by some snorkelling and swimming.

The sun is burning off the fog and Nipe Bay is as still as glass. Our lifeboat drops us off at a concrete pier where a group of Cuban musicians and dancers are very lively for 8:30 a.m. After a short walk, we and our 47 other cruisers pile onto a catamaran with an open bar and a lively tour guide named Joe.

It’s an hour and 40 minute ride to Paradise Island. The sun is warm, and the liquor is flowing. We spot the occasional fishing boat with Cuban fishermen out to score the day’s catch, see a few jellyfish and a couple of flying fishing jump out of the water and skim along the surface right in front of us.

It really is paradise
It really is paradise

Paradise Island lives up to its moniker – unspoiled, lush and green with a beautiful white sand beach. We load onto Russian military trucks and bounce off through the interior looking for game, armed with cameras. Just minutes in, the trucks screech to a halt and we see what the excitement is about – an ostrich! He’s trotting with purpose down the red dirt path but one of the drivers grabs him and brings him over to the trucks for a look-see. We grab our cameras and are shooting away when I remember that I live less than five minutes from an ostrich farm in Canada and can see them any time I want.

We catch the odd sighting of groups of antelopes in fields and among the trees and the driver points to what looks like a herd of black cattle. They are actually water buffalo – some Chinese, some African – and true to form, a bunch are wallowing in a muddy pond.

After a few more antelope sightings and passing a herd of grazing horses, we stop by a very tall wooden corral and are invited to disembark to meet Jose, the resident giraffe. Jose is very tall and happily accepts treats of leaves from the visitors. His long blue tongue deftly wraps around the offering and he brushes my hand with soft lips. Apparently Jose doesn’t live on the island alone. There are other giraffes but we don’t see them.

Jose the giraffe
Jose the giraffe

Next, a bunch of us get back on the catamaran for a short ride to the reef for some snorkeling. The visibility isn’t perfect today but we see a lot of sergeant majors and grunts, some blue tangs, butterfly fish, some needlefish that invade my personal space and come a little too close for comfort with their pointy appendages, and some varieties of parrotfish we haven’t seen before. There are also quite a few white and black sea urchins. Joe wisely warned the rookie snorkelers not to touch or step on the reef or rocks as the sea urchins tend to hang out there. If you want to know why to avoid touchy-feeling moments with them, just ask my sister-in-law Norma who three years ago had a too-close encounter with an urchin-inhabited reef and had to have the nurse at our resort remove numerous black spikes from her rump and legs.

As our snorkel time is nearing an end, we do get a thrilling sighting: a large barracuda about four feet in length. I manage to snap a couple of photos with my underwater camera before he gets tired of spectators and swims off.


Back on shore in the rustic pavilion that was Fidel’s lodge, we chow down on a Cuban-prepared lunch of chicken jambalaya, fish, rice, pizza, eggs and white pasta with choice of thin tomato sauce or cheese and chopped up ham.

After lunch, we have an hour and a half to soak up the beautiful Cuban sun. Most people head for the sand beach but after a brief barefoot walk, I hang out in the shade of the pavilion, watching iguanas come and go and a brief showdown between a youngster and an older alpha male. When the head bobbing begins, you know an iguana smack-down is brewing. The little lizard wisely sees that he has no chance and scurries away from the challenger.

We have been on a few of these type of Cuban island excursions over the years and can tell you the ride home is always the same: the tunes are cranked and the tour guide dances with the innate rhythm all Cubans seem to possess while the not-so-gifted tourists try to keep step.

Back at the dock where we wait for our lifeboat to take us back to the Louis Cristal, there’s more music and dancing as a smartly dressed Cuban band springs into action and two pairs of dancers dip and swirl around the pier.




Hunting for Hemingway in Havana

Three bearsLR

FEBRUARY 16, 2015 -Yes, I like alliteration and seldom get to use it, so I took advantage with today’s headline.

Most of today (Feb. 16) was about standing in lines: Lines to check in at Pearson airport, lines to go through the security check, then lines at Jose Marti Airport, followed by lines to get on a bus, then lines to check in for Cuba Cruise on the Louis Cristal, then a line for another security check. It must have been a slow day at the Havana ship terminal security check because the guy in the cubicle I chose was napping.

Even though we were exhausted from the rigours of travelling from a -25 C climate to a 25 C one, after filling up on tasty cruise ship buffet food, we decided to burn what little daylight was left by exploring a bit of Havana. It is a totally awesome city.

The earlier bus ride from the airport featured views of a lot of what we remembered from our last Cuban sojourn four years ago: banana trees, people on rickety bicycles, a mix of old American vehicles, Ladas and newer compact cars and squat, concrete buildings that feature the stark, humourless architecture resulting from Cuban’s ties with the former Soviet Union.

The buildings in the historic district downtown near San Francisco Square are a whole different matter. According to, the city is one of the most beautiful and architecturally diverse in the world.

There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana's historic district
There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana’s historic district

The older colonial and baroque buildings are beautiful, ornate and romantic, like the souls of so many Cuban people we’ve met. The square was full of bears, which seemed a little curious; as far as I know, bears are not indigenous to Cuba.

But we learned the 128 fibreglass bears are part of a United Nations international art exhibit, United Buddy Bears, intended to foster global peace and tolerance, Each life-size bear is painted by an artist from a different country. It took a while to find the Canada bear, as I assumed it would be red and white and likely sporting a maple leaf or beaver or hockey stick.

The bears are in alphabetical order and the Canada bear was where he should be, sandwiched between bears from Cameroon and the Centroafricana Republic. He was painted with blue, grey, white and brownish squares that created a weird optical illusion. I’m stumped as to how he represents Canada. Ireland’s for example, was wearing a jaunty green jacket and festooned with shamrocks and Cuba’s was smoking a cigar.

As our time for exploring was limited, we decided to hunt for Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Papa is long gone but the hotel he used to live in and his favourite bar are still around. We strolled down cobbled pedestrian streets, drinking in the atmosphere, listening to a marching band playing the Eurthymics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), sneaking glimpses into little cafes, restaurants and hotels and we remembered why we love Cuba so much. The culture, the people and the atmosphere are like no other.

Along Calle Obipos we came to the first of our two intended destinations: the triangular pink Hotel Ambos Mundos that Hemingway called home. It has an elegant restaurant, bar and lobby with high ceilings and its walls are plastered with Hemingway photos, including him with the trophy he won in a fishing tournament and another posing with his pal Fidel Castro. Sadly, we were there too late to see the room in the hotel that is now a miniature Hemingway museum, as it had closed at 5.

The next order of business on our Hemingway hunt was to seek out the Floridita, the bar where the writer did a lot of his drinking. A lot of drinking. After one mistaken stop at the Florida Hotel, the kindly concierge explained how to get to our intended destination. We found it, where old American taxis were parked outside as well as a trio of coco taxis, which look like bright yellow coconut shells perched on three wheels. We’ve toured in them before and they are a blast.

Hemingway's favourite bar, the Floridita
Hemingway’s favourite bar, the Floridita

Evidently we weren’t the only people who heard that the Floridita was Hemingway’s haunt. The place was packed and pretty much everyone there was drinking daiquiris, Hemingway’s poison of choice. We pulled up stools beside a life-sized statue of ol’ Ernest and ordered a couple. We also were served a plate of homemade potato chips that were delicious. A three-piece band was playing and typical of Cuba, the musicians were excellent.

Tourist after tourist came up to pose with bronze Hemingway and of course, we did the same. We struck up a conversation with two guys at the bar – one was a Cuban who owns an apartment he rents to tourists, and the other was Marc, an American who has lived in Roatan for 22 years (readers of this blog will recall we were just in Roatan less than a month ago).

Marc is a character and regaled us with tales of his life in Roatan, including his three ill-fated marriages to Honduran women. With three divorces under his belt, he’s single again. “Some people live and learn,” he said. “I just live.”

old carrLR

The walk back to the Louis Cristal/Cuba Cruise ship was equally magical – a clear night sky, balmy temperatures, the streets alive with people and music, whether it was shop keepers shaking maracas or tambourines, the sounds wafting from cafes with live bands and a Cuban man out for a walk, singing in a clear, melodic voice.

It left us wanting more and we agreed we’ll return to Havana in the future when we have more time to explore this gem of a city.