My Cuban Experience

I was able to travel to Cuba for about 10 days with a licensed, humanitarian group this year. Our experiences were varied and always exciting. These are our adventures outside Havana.

Visit to Eastern Cuba

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by airynfaerie on December 17, 2009

Earlier in the year I traveled with a licensed, non-profit, humanitarian group that "strives to foster better awareness and understanding between the citizens (of Cuba & the US) through a relationship of mutual concern and respect, and to provide self-help projects...that relieve suffering, bring relief, ease tensions, aid learning, brighten lives and bring happiness to individuals and groups in a situation of stress, isolation, illness, poverty, deprivation, scarcity and meager resources."

For the past several years I've helped on the States-side of the operation, loading shipping containers of donations, doing graphic work for the environmental campaign posters and books, but this was my first time being able to actually go to meet the people for whom the work was being done. After one night in Miami, we flew into Santiago and visited one of Cuba's renowned artists, Lawrence Zúñiga Batista, as one of the projects this trip was to finish up a cultural book on Cuban artists originally from Baracoa.

After a quick stop to view his pieces, we continued on to Guantanamo for dinner with Irania Garcia, who was one of CNN Heroes for environmental efforts as she turned a trash dump into a garden after her daughter died of cancer related to environmental poisons stemming from the dump. It was amazing to meet her and hear about the work she's been doing, but we still had a 4+hour drive ahead of us, so we had to get going. Before the night was over, we finally arrived in Baracoa, and rested for the week ahead.

The next morning, I woke to a beautiful view over the town, mountains, and the ocean. We quickly went to work and over our 4 days in Baracoa had a busy time meeting several more artists, visiting galleries, putting on a business seminar, distributing books, doing inventory of the last donation shipping container to make sure supplies got to where they were meant to, meeting with a handicap center, and viewing some of the recent hurricane damage and restoration efforts.

The people of Baracoa treated us like special guests, always greeted us in the streets, and even put on a cultural event for us complete with an art exhibit, local music, poetry readings, and a local traditional dance show. Before we left Baracoa on the way to Havana, we worked on a few more projects including visiting a seaside village completely destroyed by Hurricane Ike and doing some work in a UNESCO national park. Over all it was a lovely unique experience.

Beautiful City of Baracoa

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by airynfaerie on December 17, 2009

The town of Baracoa was discovered in 1492 during Christopher Columbus' famous exploration trip and was forever the first-founded settlements in Cuba. Later to be founded by the Spaniards in 1512. Home now to over 80,000 people, Baracoa is known to many people as Cuba's most beautiful cities.

Located on the eastern tip of Cuba in the province of Guantanamo, Baracoa is surrounded by the ocean and literally means "beside the sea". Also the Bahia de Miel (Bay of Honey) sits among the town with mountains scaling the outer edges of the landscape. There is one mountain top that's quite particular and an iconic fixture to the Baracoa skyline, which is "el Yunque". This name means "the anvil" and is a flat plateau style mountain top which rises above the bay.

Downtown there are several shops to visit, many filled with handmade trinkets and local artists' paintings. The main town square is home to a colorful fountain and small open park in front of the city's cathedral, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Here it's worth a stop in to peek at the "Cruz de la Parra" an old wooden cross that Columbus was said to have brought from Spain. It's now housed in a glass case towards the front of the alter. There is also a national art museum to the side of the square with great selections from Cuban artists on display.

For outdoor enthusiasts, you don't have to go far. Enjoy the many hikes in and around Baracoa. Only 20 km away is the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. And Salto Fino, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean is part of a connecting river which flows into Baracoa's main Toa River.

A trip to Baracoa will be made even better by the lovely people who live there. The culture is rich, and there's no shortage of things to see, eat, do, or people to meet.


Eastern Cuba's National Park

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by airynfaerie on December 17, 2009

After a busy first few days in Baracoa during a humanitarian trip to Cuba, our goup still had several things to do before flying to Havana. One of the last mornings in the Eastern side of the country, we piled into a jeep and headed to the nearby Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a site dedicated to the unmatched diversity of ecosystems and species.

Before reaching the entrance to the preserve, we stopped at a small village on the ocean, that was completely destroyed by the hurricane. At first I couldn't even tell that it used to be a village at all, as it was mainly flat ground. There were a few foundations left from old structures, and about 3 shells of what used to be simple wooden homes. Most of the villagers are being housed in the concrete school house several hundred yards away from the shore. The last container we shipped to Cuba contained new mattresses for all the families.

At the park we met with several of the directors there who will be working with the group on the next environmental book release. Also, another member of our group (a former science teacher) brought small microscopes to donate to the park, and we worked with a group of children in the park in learning to use them. The park is so beautiful and it sits on a gorgeous bay, which we admired as we ate cucurucho (a local snack made of honey, coconut, and fruit all mashed into a cone shaped container made of palm leaves), and drank coconut milk straight from the fruit.

In 2001 this park was instituted into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for is unique and complex diversity of landforms, flora, and fauna. The treasured "polymita" snail can be found here, and is a species only found in this area of the world. These are beautiful colored snails that are each unique with varied patterns and colors. Unfortunately, through the years, people have made necklaces from the shells to sell to tourists and the species is now endangered. One of the environmental books we worked on was to raise awareness of this amazing species. At the park we spotted a few with one of the country's polymita expert's help.

The park covers over 260 square miles and was named after a German scientist who studied the area in the 1800s. For those interested in this area's biodiversity. This national park is a must see.


Migratory Bird Research on Cuba's Coast

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by airynfaerie on December 11, 2009

After a very eventful week and a half in Cuba, our last full day was spent in the southern part of Cuba's coast at Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp), just south of Havana on the Zapata Peninsula. We went to meet with Cuba's national director of ecotourism, who was conducting an international conference at the park that week, and whom we were working with for eco research for several upcoming projects.

When we arrived, after a little over 2 hours on the road, we were greeted by the park directors and our guide for the day, who joined us in the van as we continued on our way. We were ushered through a gated area into the preserve and started down a very narrow dirt path through the lagoons and marsh areas. During this time, our guide was explaining the different species of animals and plants that are endemic to the peninsula. After a few kilometers down the road, we stopped and climbed up onto a look-out tower to view the marsh.

As a UNESCO Heritage Site, this National Park is home to over 65 species of migratory birds and we were there during the peak time of migration. It was really interesting to try and find different types of birds in the water and air. We spotted black coots, great white pelicans (of which our guide said only about 8 have been counted all year, and we saw a group of 5), cranes, herons...

...and of course, the star of the park, the caribbean flamingo, which makes its home in this area between October and March each year. We were told that you can observe the age of a flamingo by how bright pink their feathers have become...the older, the brighter. We kept stopping along side the road during the drive if we spotted a group of flamingos close. It was always great to see a large group take flight.

At the end of the 9km dirt path, there is an area where rangers live for a couple weeks at the time for researching, guarding, and guiding. There is a small amount of fishing allowed in this area (mainly done in flat-bottomed boats in the shallow marsh), and fly fishing is also quite popular here as well. There is a "Criadero Cocodrilo and Guamá" (Crocodile Farm) here to see at the front of the park entrance as well as several gift shops and cafes to enjoy.

After some time milling around a bit more (and I found some sea beans growing on the marsh side which we all enjoyed snacking on), we piled back into the van and started on the trip back out of the park. As we were leaving the peninsula, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs just to have a look...quite peaceful these days, but it was interesting to see some rusted ships and other wreckage left from the conflict.

Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata

Cienaga de Zapata, Cuba

Hotel from a Castle

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by airynfaerie on December 17, 2009

Overlooking the entire town of Baracoa, Cuba sits a lovely hotel that we made home for the several days we were in the town working with a licensed, humanitarian group. Hotel Castillo (Castle Hotel) is probably one of the most popular choices in this small town, and one of the few you'll find tourists.

Reservations are needed in advance as there are only 34 rooms and this hotel hosts several events and tourist groups that you'll quickly need to grab a spot. There's a great open pool area overlooking one of the best views in the area. With a flat-topped mountain top in the distance, and a still bay below, palms sway overhead as relaxing time is spent on the hotel's patio. The rooms are tiled and airy, with nice windows and simple colonial/tropical style furnishings.

Originally built as a castle in 1749 on this high plateau it was used over the years as an artillery defense overlooking the bay and ocean. You can still see the remains of the lookout towers. Through the years it was a soldier house and then later a prison. Finally the hotel was built on the site in 1979. To get to the entrance from the town, you can take a long winding road for cars and buses, or the more direct steep staircase. Either way, it's a bit of a hike.

The housekeepers and staff were beyond friendly and helped us out during the entire stay. There's an outdoor poolside bar and a nice-sized restaurant which we ate at daily. The prices are reasonable, and they made special-request vegetarian dishes for me. Be sure to check out the artwork hung around the entire hotel. Most are by the resident Baracoa artist known as "Noa". He sells most of his popular paintings to the tourists passing through and is almost daily onsite to help with negotiations and explanations.

If you plan to visit Baracoa, this is a great place to lay your head. The staff can help you out with arrangements you may need and you'll find this a good refuge during your trip.

• 21/4-5195
• Calle Calixto García, Loma el Paraíso
Hotel Castillo
Calle Calixto Garcia, Loma el Paraiso
Baracoa, Cuba

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