The mystique and mystery of Cuba had been on the periphery of my mind since learning about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For so long, I pondered the reasons why a country less than 100 miles off the coast of the U.S. was so off limits. This limitation made me want to visit this island nation more than ever. And finally, after years of yearning, I was able to go on a “people to people” tour with Go Ahead Tours.
“People to People” tours are a great way to be temporarily immersed in a country’s culture and the life of its people. You get the opportunity to visit the citizens of these places in a personal and direct way. What better way to explore a country that has been off limits to U.S. citizens for over 50 years.
My journey to Cuba began in Miami, Florida. After spending the evening in Miami, my early morning charter flight landed at the Jose Marti airport in Havana where my group met up with our local Cuban tour guide, Yojandra. From this point on, we hit the ground running.
Our first stop was at Revolution Square where we saw a large memorial for José Martí, and smaller memorials for Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. We also were treated to views of some of the many classic American cars in Havana parked near the square.
Our next stop was at Rox Jewelry, where we experienced our first “people to people” interaction. Rox Jewelry is owned by Roxana Vargas, a female Cuban silversmith. A lot of the products sold in the shop are creations handmade by Roxanna. In addition to this, she also started a school where Cuban young adults learn how to make their own jewelry. The pieces that are made by the students are also sold in the shop and the students receive the proceeds from their pieces that sale. All the silver that goes into the making of the pieces are re-purposed from recycled silver products found in Cuba. We had the opportunity to meet Roxana and to see some of her students working on their own pieces.
Next we walked through the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Garden where there was a plethora of wonderful sights. The first sight through the gate was a mosaic baptistery. The we saw a church that was dedicated as a gift to Havana by the Greek Orthodoxy. A few steps from the church was the Convento de San Francisco, which we could catch glimpses of through a few well placed gates. In addition to this, the gardens contained sculptural art works including a seated and a standing statute of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Next, we continued on our walking tour of Havana. We explored the Plaza de San Francisco, walked past the Basilica de Menor de San Fransisco de Assisi, saw the “El Caballero de Paris” and the St. Francis Assisi statutes. We explored Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de Armas, where we saw school children playing and artist Roberto Fabelo’s “Naked Girl on a Rooster.” We also saw a mural on Mercaderes Street, amazing representatives of Cuban architecture and many other sights.
Our next stop was lunch at La Monda Cubana where we enjoyed live music while we dined.
As we walked back to our bus, we saw more American classic cars and the Malecon waterfront.
Our next “people to people” event was a meeting with artist Lorenzo Lopez Shening. At this event Lorenzo explained the meaning behind two of his works, including, “Love Me, Love Me Not” the one he is pictured with. Lorenzo also explained that all of his works are also created solely with recycled goods.
After this, we were surprised with a ride in a classic car. This ride would take us from our hotel to Fusterlandia, a gaudi-esque park and neighborhood of mosaic tile works begun and continued by Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Although we arrived too late to visit the park, the surrounding neighborhood had a ton of representatives of Fuster’s work. This was one of my favorite parts of this trip.
We ended our first day in Havana at Habanera Bar Restorante. This dinner was absolutely amazing. The decor and grounds of the restaurant were well manicured and the plating and flavor of the food was sublime.
To view more photos from my first day in Cuba, click here.