Tobacco, Sugar and Tourism

A city once dominated by sugar plantations, Trinidad has turned to tourism to keep the city alive. The architecture echoes the Spanish colonial period and the peak of Trinidad’s prosperity. The cobblestone roads mark the original city lines as the main urban center of the city is surrounded by abandoned sugar plantations and a few working tobacco fields.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Havana, I highly recommend traveling outside of the capital to experience more of what Cuba has to offer. Trinidad is a small town on the southern coast. One of a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba, the city was founded in 1514 by the Spanish. Visitors can walk the entire city in the day while experiencing a city frozen in time.

Nearby, visitors can take a day trip to Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Mills. The valley was once home to a number of sugar plantations during the peak exportation years. Now, the area is mainly an attraction for tourists. Cubans turned the oldest plantation house into a restaurant that serves authentic Cuban cuisine.

Make sure to stop by the pottery shop, Casa Chichi, on the outskirts of Trinidad. The Santander family has worked as potters for over six generations as the craft is passed down from generation to generation. After trying the wheel out for myself, I can say it is not as easy as they make it look.

The colorful city of Trinidad comes alive at night, with live music and dancing around the city. About four hours from Havana, Trinidad is a must see when visiting Cuba.

Where the Old and the New Collide

Welcome to Old Havana, a mix of colonial Cuba and today’s tourism.

The buildings are reminiscent of a time when Spain controlled the island and its economy. Now, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the narrow streets are filled with tourists looking to experience Old Havana and vendors looking to capitalize on the growing industry. The famous San José Market offers tourists a one stop shop for any souvenir you can imagine, from anything cigar related to Cuban art.

Much like the original layout of the city, the streets of Old Havana empty into five large plazas filled with restaurants, museums, and shops. The district is marked by cobblestone roads as tourists mix with locals. I highly recommend taking at least an afternoon to wander the streets and stop in at places that catch your eye. El Chanchullero, literally a hole in the wall restaurant, served the best ropa vieja I had while in Cuba. 

If you are interested in the history of the island, I highly recommend stopping by the Cuban Art Museum and Revolution Museum. The art museum takes visitors through Cuban history through art starting with colonial times through the Revolution to present day. The Revolution Museum, meanwhile, was interesting for different reasons. The state-run museum presented a rather one-sided view of the events leading up to and during the Revolution of 1959. At many times, the museum felt more like a forum for propaganda rather than fact.

This barely touches on what Habana Vieja has to offer visitors. I highly recommend the Chocolate Museum. Have an idea of what you would like to see and do before going as it can be overwhelming to make a choice. It is also easy to get hung up on Habana Vieja and forget that it is only a small part of the city. 

Hemingway, Cuba and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway is a national hero and an adopted son in Cuba.

In many ways, Cuba was a muse for Hemingway’s writing. The scenery and people inspired many of his works. In a similar way, the Cuba people loved, and continue to praise, the writer. Bars like The Floridita proudly claim that Hemingway drank his daiquiris there. Tourists go on the Hemingway drinking tour to visit all of his favorite places. The relationship between the writer and the island is not fully imaginable until you set foot in Cuba.

The first class I took while in Cuba dealt with the island’s influences on the writer Ernest Hemingway. Throughout the class, we read two of his novels and a number of short stories. We also discussed the rich history and culture of Cuba from pre-colonization through the revolution. In order to give us a better understanding of Hemingway’s relationship with Cuba, our professor planned a day trip to visit some of the places he wrote about.

Cojímar, a small fishing village just outside of Havana, is the setting of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning novel,  The Old Man and the Sea. An old Spanish fort guards the coast while the tribute to Hemingway sits on the main road. A bust of the writer with a plaque commemorating his achievements seems to be the main attraction in the town, aside from the fishing. Having just finished reading the novel, it was easier to imagine the dramatic scene between the old man and the fish unfolding off the coast of Cuba while visiting the town Hemingway drew inspiration from.

In 1940, Hemingway bought Finca Vigía just outside of Havana after spending time in the Keys, Paris, and Spain. He fell in love with the island after his first visit and it became a favorite spot to visit throughout the years. Much like the rest of Cuba, the estate appears to be frozen in time. Visitors are invited to peek inside the writer’s home, but can only venture as far as their necks will let them from the doorways.

The estate is a testament to the abilities of the US and Cuba to work together as both countries strive to preserve the estate and Hemingway’s work.

Hemingway’s prized fishing boat, Pilar, rests on estate grounds. During World War II, he would take the Pilar out into the Atlantic to search for German submarines. Although he never found anything, the adventures played a part in the novel Islands in the Stream, published posthumously in 1970. His many dogs and cats are also buried at Finca. The cats’ graves are not marked as it was seen as bad luck to know where their bodies were laid.

Visitors can also buy a Hemingway inspired drink before they leave. Workers prepare the drink in front of you, using freshly squeezed sugar cane, pineapple and limes. Rum is optional.

"Taxi, miss?"

One of the first questions people asked me when I returned from Cuba was, “So did you see any of those cars from the 1950’s?”

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I decided to study abroad in Cuba for a number of reasons. The deciding factor was the timing of my visit. Cuba and the United States recently re-opened diplomatic relations between the two governments. Our last day in Cuba, July 20, was the one year anniversary of the relationship. There has been a lot of talk about how the island will change now that the two governments are talking. A lot of the literature I read before traveling talked about how Cuba was seemingly frozen in time. Hence the American cars from before the revolution and embargo. 

The cars were everywhere, some barely hanging on by the duct tape holding the mirror on. The cars were in all conditions of wear. Some cars had been upgraded to include an automatic transmission and air conditioning. Others had a rotting floorboard and doors that barely stayed shut. No matter the condition, we always got to where we needed to be.

Taxis were fairly cheap, especially if you were willing to negotiate with the driver. Because we were tourists, and they immediately knew that, we had to work to get the price we wanted. If you ever find yourself in Havana, don’t let the driver take you to Habana Vieja for more than 5 CUC.