The Hampton Road Chamber of Commerce hosted an eight day trip to Cuba from May 28 to June 5. Forty of us traveled to the “Pearl of the Antilles,” including two Chamber Staff members, Priscilla Monti, and myself. We explored five different cities starting in Camaguey (“the city of churches”), Trinidad (“the city of museums”), Cienfuegos (“100 fires”), the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban capital, Havana. We travelled on what is called a “People to People” Visa. This is a unique way to experience Cuban culture, cuisine, and history. Our Visa required 3-4 personal meetings with Cuban citizens every day while in Cuba.
Our group flew into Camaguey on Friday, May 29 on a chartered flight from Miami. Upon arrival, we were dazzled by a contemporary dance performance led by a director from New York City. After the dance, we were privileged to have dinner at a “paladar,” a privately owned restaurant. We enjoyed Cuban cuisine, consisting of bread, rice, beans, pork, chicken, fish, fresh fruit and dessert. We finished the evening with a tour of a local artisan’s shop and a delightful ride to our hotel, the Gran Hotel in Camaguey, travelling in 1950’s vintage American cars.
The following day, we went to King Rancho for a rodeo. We then toured their local elementary school and had coffee and fresh fruit in a nearby home. Later, we stopped at a pottery where the artist and his father create plant pots, cups, candle holders, and bowls. For dinner that night we ate at a government restaurant and were entertained by wonderful Flamenco dancers.
On the fourth day, we traveled to Cienfuegos. En route, we stopped in the small city of Trinidad where we ate at a paladar and strolled the city. In Cienfuegos we stayed at the Hotel Jagua, where we learned how to Cuban Salsa dance. Next to our hotel was a gorgeous palace built by a sugar plantation owner. After he passed away, the palace was sold to the government and is now a restaurant. We toured the city of Cienfuegos, where we saw their local theater and heard an impressive choir concert. Later that day we visited a cigar factory and watched the process of how they pick and sort specific leaves for each type of cigar, and their rolling process. Each worker had a specific, daily quota to roll; if they rolled more cigars, they received a bonus.
While traveling to Havana we visited the Bay of Pigs Museum to hear the Cuban perspective on that historic event. We stopped at a natural pool dive center where we enjoyed lunch with a beautiful view of the beach. When we arrived in Havana, we checked in to the internationally recognized, five star Melia Cohiba Hotel. We toured Old Havana, where we learned about the architecture and history of the city. We visited Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite restaurant, where the daiquiri was made famous. We saw gorgeous Catholic cathedrals, cigar shops, unique statues, and ladies dressed up in fun, bright outfits. We stopped at Revolution Square, the site of many famous political speeches and the place where the Pope says mass when he visits Cuba. Later that day we were brought to the Colon Cemetery, where millions of people are buried thanks to a unique custom. In Cuba, two years after someone is buried, their remains are dug up and put into a smaller box to make more room. Tombstones and memorials in Colon were incredible. There were sky-high statues and mini houses, built to replicate the deceased person’s home. There were stained glass windows in some of the monuments.
After touring the cemetery, we stopped at Ernest Hemmingway’s home. We saw the tower which was his writing studio and where his 54 cats lived. In Havana, we also experienced a Cuban ballet and a walk through a local medical clinic. In Cuba, everyone has a house, most of their food is paid for, as is their education and their healthcare. The Cuban healthcare system is particularly impressive. Their main focus is prevention, realized through public health campaigns against obesity and smoking. There are approximately 25 local doctors spread throughout the neighborhoods of Havana caring for 28,900 people. Moreover, there are 87 clinics and 35 hospitals in the city.
Travelling to Cuba was an amazing experience. The people of the island were unvaryingly friendly and excited about the U.S. lifting its embargo after 56 years. They are eager to learn more about the United States and the American people. The tour itself was a consistent joy.
If you are interested in being a part of a Chamber trip, our next one is to the Greek Islands and Turkey from October 23- October 31. Click here to learn more!