Tag Archives: Varadero

¡Cuba! Part 2

Varadero’s white sandy beaches and clear waters are entertaining, but we also went to Cuba to learn more about the music and dance culture, so we left the beach behind from time to time to explore nearby cultural enclaves.

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Let’s get ready to rumba!

In the small town of Cardenas, we had our first introduction to rumba. The local rumba group was composed of one singer and several percussionists and dancers, and they began by giving us an informal performance. Many of the percussionists and dancers would alternate, letting someone take the stage to show off their dance moves.

The main type of rumba they demonstrated was performed by a male/female pair. The man and woman danced alongside each other facing the audience (rather than each other). The woman carried a red piece of cloth that she waved and shook, somewhat like a torero taunting a bull.

And from time to time, the man would make some sort of aggressive motion towards her, whether he was thrusting his hips or kicking his foot in her direction. We later learned that this is a typical type of rumba, where the woman coquettishly entices the male, but when he attempts to get up in her business, she has to deftly block him.

They explained that this was the traditional rumba, but they also wanted us to see what the modern rumba looked like. A young boy (who was probably around 10 or 11) emerged from the percussion section and began his performance. It included a lot of jumping and writhing on the floor, and at one point, he brandished two small knives, and while he lay on the floor, he brought the knives toward his body and began to stab the ground around him in quick succession.

I found this aspect of the performance a little disturbing—I’m not used to seeing children wield knives in that manner—so it would have been interesting to hear what his inspiration had been for his choreography.

Orishas in Matanzas

On another day, we headed to the town of Matanzas for a lesson in Afro-Cuban dance inspired by the Yoruba traditions. Our large group climbed up a few flights of stairs to a tiny, sweaty room, where we could barely all squeeze in.

It was a little intimidating to walk into such a small space, but the instructor and musicians greeted us with wide smiles and class began almost immediately. They introduced us to several deities in the Yoruba tradition and explained how different types of movements are associated with different deities.

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Our teacher, a lanky 20-year-old man, switched easily between the male and female roles, simply donning a flowing white skirt when it was time to embody the more feminine deities and mimic the waves of the ocean with the fabric.

After our class concluded, the group gave a performance, where our instructor and other dancers donned colorful costumes and took on the playful qualities of mischief-making deities. They stole people’s hats and water bottles, pulled us up from our seated positions and danced in circles around us, and eventually returned us to our seats and made sure everyone got their items back. It was a fun and playful scene and easy to just get swept up in the moment.

We then had a few minutes to wander around El Callejon de las Tradiciones, an “art alley” covered in murals made from recycled materials (pictured below).

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Havana

It only took a few hours in Havana for me to decide that I really liked this city. The mid-century modern aesthetic is in full effect, especially in our classy digs, the Hotel Capri.

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La FAC

On our first night, we ventured to La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, also known as La FAC. This arts center offered a little bit of everything—photography, paintings, installations, live music… even reasonably priced mojitos!

You could wander around several floors, each composed of smaller warrens and larger galleries. Some pieces seemed to reflect ambivalence about the impending influx of Americans and American influence, including a video installation of a man building an American flag out of bricks and tearing it down. Another installation featured a melting bicycle and a puddle filled with a video showcasing the leisurely pace of Havana life. It was hard to imagine that this wasn’t created with some trepidation about the future and how that slow pace will be forced to speed up to catch up with the rest of the world.

Tucked away in one of the corners of La FAC was a tiny shop called “Clandestina.” It sold T-shirts, magnets, and posters bearing funny slogans such as “99% diseño cubano” (99% Cuban design) and “actually, I’m in Havana.” The friendly guy working there, Oscar, explained that they had a larger shop in Old Havana, so the next day we went to check it out. It turns out that they take a lot of recycled materials (including souvenir T-shirts from Cozumel!) and print over them with their own designs (hence the 99%  Cuban design).

The world’s cutest taxis

New cars may be scarce, but Havana is full of the adorable “coco taxi.” These scooters have been outfitted with round, shiny yellow shells and a couple of seats in the back. It’s basically the tuk-tuk, Cuban style, but for some reason this is so much more enjoyable! You just have to close your eyes and say a few prayers occasionally when you find yourself inches away from a bus or a behemoth classic American car.

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When we arrived at our hotel, there was a bright pink cadillac with a cowboy driver parked outside. Does Havana have the world’s cutest taxis, or what?

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La Plaza de la Revolución

For 30 CUCs (roughly $30), we arranged for a tour of the city in a purple convertible with the genial Marín. He took us to several scenic points, including the old fortresses, the statue of Christ, through Chinatown, and to La Plaza de la Revolución. As in most places, Che Guevara was featured prominently.

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Miramar

Our journey ended in the leafy Miramar neighborhood, where we went to see a performance at La Casa de la Música. But before the performance, we had time to grab a quick bite. Directly across the street from the club, we saw an adorable pâtisserie, full of decadent cakes and sweet treats. However, we were hoping for something a little more substantial, so we asked the staff, and they told us there was a paladar (a semi-private dining space) just around the corner.

It turned out that Otramanera was a hidden gem (to us, anyway)! A guard stood in front of the thick metal gate, but when we asked if it was a paladar, he graciously opened the door to reveal a lush garden patio.

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We sat outside and enjoyed the evening, quenching our thirst with a mojito frappé (a blended mojito) and filling up with Italian-inspired cuisine. It was definitely my favorite meal during my time in Cuba, both for the setting and the food.

There’s always an urge when you go somewhere to draw connections with other places you’ve been (or at least it’s an urge that I feel, anyway). But in many ways Havana defies comparison.

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The architecture reminded me of Spain, and the mid-century interior design aesthetics reminded me of certain elements of Kyoto and Tokyo. Yet in Havana you have a feeling that you’ve truly stepped back in time. The scarcity of Wi-Fi means you don’t see people constantly buried in their phones, which means it’s somewhat easier to engage with the people around you. A recent article in the New York Times on the dating app Grindr’s lack of mass adoption in Cuba summed this up perfectly, quoting “Wild” Calderon: “I’m bisexual, because I prefer the unlimited. Why would anyone — bisexual, gay, whatever — want to be trapped as a photo, as an internet profile in an app? That’s a different kind of closet, a box. So boring.”

Having the world  virtually at our fingertips sometimes means that we neglect the real world around us, and my brief time in Cuba reminded me of that.

As relations with the US continue to “normalize,” it will be interesting to see how life in Cuba changes. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to go when I did and catch a glimpse of Cuba at this unparalleled moment in time.

Miss Part 1 of my mini-series on Cuba? Find it here.

¡Cuba! Part 1

In late June/early July 2016, I joined the Sol-Axé dance retreat on the trip of a lifetime: We chartered a plane from Miami to Havana and spent a week dancing through Cuba.

In a nutshell, our trip lasted a week, with four days in the beach town of Varadero and three days in Havana. We took dance classes, saw timba, rumba, and cabaret dance performances, visited an amazing arts center called La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (also known as La FAC), and otherwise had the chance to observe this amazing country at a unique moment in time.

In March 2016, President Obama announced that the US would be lifting some of the strict travel and financial restrictions it had been imposing on Cuba. Just a few months later, when we made the trip in June, we could see that Cuba was on the precipice of change, but not quite there yet.

A tale of two airports

The act of flying to Cuba is a great example. No US airlines were offering direct flights, so we went through a charter company to secure the flight from Miami to Havana. The ratio of complication and waiting to actual time flying was pretty astounding. For a 43-minute flight, we were instructed to arrive at the airport a staggering 4 hours early. When I approached the ticket counter at American Airlines (as my charter voucher instructed me to do), the disgruntled woman behind the counter snorted, “ABC? Never heard of ’em! What are you, going to Cuba or something?” “Yes,” I replied, “That’s what I’m doing.” She gestured to the far end of the airport, “Try over there.”

When I found the counter, there was a single man working there, but he instructed me to come back at 8. (This was around 7:40 or so.) I went and grabbed a seat. As I waited and watched, people began to trickle in, and somehow two lines began to form. One line seemed to have people with their luggage and the other did not, but it was all a little unclear.

I should also point out that there was a little kiosk set up off to the side—not an official part of the airline’s area, but nearby—that was offering to shrink wrap your luggage for $15. It caught my eye and seemed unusual, but I forgot about it until later on in the day, when it became significant.

It turned out that you had to wait in both lines, but it was important to do them in a specific order. In the first line, you handed over your passport and received a piece of paper (that was not your actual boarding pass). In the second line, you checked in your luggage and got your actual boarding pass.

Then you went through security and proceeded to your gate in the terminal as usual. The monitor clearly displayed “Havana, Cuba” would be greeting us with a sunny, 84 degree day.

Boarding began on time and went fairly smoothly, but it had begun to rain heavily in Miami, so we ended up having to wait out the storm before we were allowed to take off, which meant about an extra hour on the plane before we even took off.

The flight, operated by American Airlines (despite the disgruntled agent’s lack of knowledge at Miami airport), was quick and uneventful, but the second our wheels touched the ground in Havana many of the passengers burst into applause.

Going through immigration was pretty quick—the agent reviewed my passport and visa, took my photo, and handed everything back.

I stepped through the door and into the baggage claim area.

I was in Cuba!

Except… there was the small issue of luggage. First, there was a security screening for everything we’d brought as carry-on. We had to put it through a scanner, and then proceed to the conveyor belts to pick up our checked bags.

The baggage claim area was full of people milling around, and the few chairs along the wall were occupied by seemingly off-duty immigration officials and other airport personnel. They lounged and chatted with each other, and the passengers from our flight filtered into the room after clearing immigration.

After about half an hour, it became clear that the bags would not be coming out any time soon. There was a muffled announcement that said something about the rain delaying the bag retrieval process.

Someone from our group later explained that it was actually because they go through every bag individually to ensure you’re not bringing any contraband into the country. This actually made a lot of sense because all the zippers on my bag were slightly open when it finally arrived, and the shrink-wrapped bags were the first ones to come out on the conveyor belt. Now I understood the significance of the kiosk at Miami airport!

All told, it took a little over two hours for our bags to arrive. Our flight, which was scheduled to leave Miami at noon but didn’t leave until after 1, arrived in Havana around 2, and we were getting our bags around 4:30.

And we then had about a 3-hour bus journey to Varadero, so our day of travel was not yet complete!

But I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining—although waiting 2+ hours in an airport (and actually 6+ if you include the time in Miami airport that morning) is not my ideal way to spend a day, it seemed like it was an integral part of the experience, especially at this point in time.

Perhaps in the next few months, it will become more commonplace for there to be direct flights between the US and Cuba, and something will change on the administrative side in Cuba as well. It may end up like any other destination in the world, but for now that is certainly not the case.

Welcome to Cuba! Have a piña colada!

Once our whole group was assembled, we hit the road. Our chariot was not a classic American car but a Chinese-made Yutong bus. However, it was air-conditioned and had seats for everyone, which was great because the drive from Havana to Varadero was about three hours.

Traffic doesn’t seem to be a huge problem—cars are so expensive that few people can afford them, so the roads are relatively clear. There were a lot of people waiting at bus stops and walking along the highway, and throughout the countryside you’ll see large painted murals featuring Che Guevara and different slogans and messages.

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About halfway through the journey, we stopped in a lookout point in Matanzas to observe the tallest bridge in Cuba (shown above) and partake of piña coladas (pictured below). The bartenders blended up the beverages and poured them into the pineapple shells and supplied the rum, but you had to pour it yourself.  This reminded me a little of the “all you can drink” establishments in Japan. It seems like you’d have people who take advantage of the system and drink way more than they’re paying for, but somehow it seems to work.

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As we enjoyed the fresh air and the lush scenery, a few stray but clearly socialized cats wandered up to see if they could score any snacks.

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Geography lesson

The best way I can come up with describing the aesthetic of our accommodation, the Barcelo Solymar in Varadero, is ’80s Soviet-inspired beach resort. These two photos from TripAdvisor help to illustrate what I’m talking about.

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But one of my favorite aspects of the Solymar was the reception desk. This display is such a good reminder that we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and the principal cities of the world can really vary depending on where you are. And when you’re in Cuba, they’re not what you think they are.

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¡La playa!

The beach in Varadero was quite simply one of the most pleasant I’ve ever seen. White, powdery sand, clear, calm waters, and not overly crowded.

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The water was also so warm that it was possible to go in the evening and watch the sun set from the water. Photo proof below.

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Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll talk about some of the dance lessons and performances and share some scenes from Havana!