We bid “Mañana” to our incredible crew on the Avalon and made our way back to Havana. The boat leaves the Gardens around 930am giving you time to pack leisurely and have a last breakfast and lunch together during the crossing before beginning the six hour bus ride to the capital. Our return journey pretty much duplicated the way out. It is still beautiful winding through the villages, and it still hits you that you are traveling through a land that time seems to have forgot, but the hours also still move much more slowly when anticipation is no longer your travel companion.
The coach dropped us at our hotel entrance around 930pm. This time we were staying at the Parque Central. A huge upscale hotel whose crowning glory is the rooftop pool and bar that overlooks the Old Historic Center.
After settling in our rooms, we met downstairs for dinner as we were famished. My roommate for the week and who I now consider a firm friend was ready to hit the town and see what the nightlife was all about. Sadly in Old Town, most places shut down by midnight, right around the time we were ready to go. We did get to take in some if the magnificent sites at night, and the central square was still bustling with people meandering around. However finding a late night salsa bar or nightclub would mean traveling to the more modern part of Havana and I simply couldn’t muster the energy. I will likely regret this forever and people who know me well know that I squeeze every last ounce of experience I can from a place when I travel, but my body was officially done after 9 days on the go. So after a drink on the rooftop of the Hotel Ingleterre, we returned to our room around 1am and fell soundly asleep for a few hours before it was time to meet our tour guide for our final day.
This trip we ventured away from the city to see some of Havana’s surrounding countryside. This tour was fantastic! We began with a visit to a fishing village that has been transformed to a living work of art thanks to resident artist, Jose Fuster. Fuster, who is an important and beloved artist of the country, decorated every square inch of his house and gardens in his artwork. A combination of smaller paintings, broken tiles, shells, glass and many other items create mosaics and murals wherever you turn, down to the drainpipes! It is a dizzying sight! But Fuster did not stop there. If he lived in a colorful house, shouldn’t his neighbors get to also?! Over 10 years, the front facades, entry ways and/or garden walls of 80 houses have received part of his creativity. His property is mind-boggling to absorb, but rows and rows of small modest houses adorned in splashes of color, texture and messages of peace and love in what would otherwise be a humble town is difficult for the brain to process what the eyes are seeing.
After a quick shopping stop, we continued on through hills and valleys, driving along a highway. It was scenic but otherwise normal fare for a high-speed road anywhere in the world. That is until you encountered now and again a local farmer selling their wares on the side of the road. Fresh cheese, milk, fruits and even slices of cake or a fully roasted chicken ready to eat can be found along the way!
Our next stop was to the area around the small village of Soroa. Referred to as the Gate to The Garden of Eden this stunning village is the starting point for many hikes to the soaring Sierra del Rosario. Due to a time constraint we sadly did not get to explore the village but there we did visit the Orchid Gardens. This is home to over 700 species of plants, trees and flowers (a mix of indigenous and imported) including a huge variety of orchids. Butterflies and hummingbirds flitter around your head, adding to the tranquility. Inspired by the natural beauty of the area, the Spanish landowner Thomás Felipe Camacho created these gardens in 1943 as a present to his daughter. This magnificent area is now a gift to many. As well as touring the gardens and learning about the identification and importance of various plants, visitors can meander over “Lovers Bridge”, stop at the cafe for a refreshment (or a Cuba Libre!) and soak in the lush mountainous forests that span as far as the eye can see. If you are lucky, a local musician will be softly playing traditional songs of Cuba, and his gentle music will transport you over the edge into a state of pure Zen.
A rolling stone gathers no moss as they say and after a short while it was time to snap out of our trance and move on to another spot on our tour. It was workout time as we hiked down to the Salto Arco Iris, a magnificent waterfall that forms part of the Rio Manantiades. The great river bubbles through the rainforest before gushing down as a 65 foot high waterfall; at its feet, the refreshing water culminates in an enclosed basin, which is perfect for dipping in and cooling off. For those willing to make the walk (mainly) down and face the prospect of climbing up again, you are rewarded with yet again an immersion into the country’s culture. Salto Arcos Iris is not a secret place and it does attract visitors, but including our little group of five, the total number of international tourists was exactly, um, 5! Barbequing, playing music, chasing each other under the waterfall or simply cooling off in the fresh water lazing the day away was small groups of Cuban families and friends. This is a place favored by local people on a day trip or nationals on holiday come to play. And yet we were instantly welcomed. There was no feeling that perhaps we had intruded or had wandered where we didn’t belong. Despite our cameras and our attire of touring/traveling clothes rather than bathing suits, we were left to do what one hopes to do when you sign up for a cultural experience – blend in as much as you can despite being acutely aware that you are a sore thumb and enjoy a Saturday as the locals do.
After swirling my feet in the cool water and enjoying a rum concoction mixed in a whole fresh coconut that had been carved into a very large glass by a “bar-tender’s” machete, it was time to move on again. I wished I could have stayed – eating whatever delicious meat was being grilled on open coals, thrown caution to the wind and scaled the waterfall, or simply sat for a while longer and continued to watch the children splashing around with their parents, each with giant smiles on their faces.
With their laughter ringing in my ears, we made our way up to the van and was on our way for one last stop. The mountain community of Las Terrazas, which was built as a reforestation project in the 1960s and is now a Unesco Biosphere Reserve is yet another magnificent place. We explored the remains of what used to be a coffee plantation – wandering along the large “steps” in the side of the hill where coffee used to dry in the sun. At the top still sits, perfectly preserved, a large stone mill where slaves once ground the coffee in large quantities by walking it around and around for hours on end. And all of the while as far as you could see and beyond, the lush green vistas never ended.
The heat of the day was taking its toll and lunch was long overdue. Our guide suggested a simple spot that sits next to the pretty San Juan mountain stream. A one page menu with 4 meat and seafood options, all served with rice, beans and plantains, it was a place where the owner was also the waiter and while on one side of the page the menu was in English, the language itself barely existed here in spoken form. Approximately $8 got me a plate so big I couldn’t finish (believe me I tried) along with two beers and tip. While devouring our food, we found we were once again in a place where Cuban families and friends came to splash around in the water or laze around in the grass, soaking up the sun and in turn playing in the rain when a brief storm later moved in.
Not everyone apparently was happy being soaked, and half way through our meal, various small collections of people took shelter under the large palapa that served as the restaurant. A couple of young men had instruments with them (their own version of taking a boom box with them on outings such as these) and after a while they began to play. Instantly, dotted around the dining tables, spontaneous dancing broke out. Cubans are known for their dance. No matter what sorrows they endured yesterday, no matter what fate may await them tomorrow, every Cuban you meet will tell you how vital dance is to their lives and how it is a very part of their being. It is a way they express various emotions, a way they celebrate milestones, a way a man woos a woman. It is also a light in the darkness and when all is lost, they will literally dance their cares away.
I had read about this when trying to learn a little about the Cuban culture before the trip. It had been part of the discussions when sipping rum with our beloved crew on a moonlit night. I had even learned a couple of salsa steps myself while on the boat in recent days and been seduced by the music out of my hotel window that never seemed to end just last night. But this was something else. It was raw and genuine and free. While most of the people dancing could move their body in ridiculous ways with a fluidity and rhythm I will never find if I tried a lifetime, others who dance more my style also threw caution to the wind. Mothers grabbed their children’s hands and spun them around, and there was even a grandmother in nothing but a bathing suit that was shaking it from head to toe, dance after dance. Song after song, the “dance” floor grew, strangers pulling seated onlookers up on the floor and all of this stemmed from a couple of young men with little more than some bongo drums and their voices.
I never did get to dance myself that day. Believe me, I wanted to play in the rain, dip in the stream and laugh and twirl with the people around me. I wanted to be just like everyone else that was there – completely invested in that moment as if my worries or responsibilities didn’t exist and as if there were nowhere else in the world I needed to be. But our time was up. Our guide had to all but drag us away as we already should have been on our way to the airport for our flight home. At that moment, I don’t know that anyone in our little band cared if we made the plane or not. Our guide weaved us quickly through the crowd, with purpose in her step and an urging to her charges “We need to hurry, we are late”. And while the 5 of us each moved our feet obediently forward towards what ultimately would lead to home, our heads and our hearts were still looking back, soaking up every last drop of our final moments in this incredible, indescribable place called Cuba.