Monday, December 24, 2018

Cuba - To the Hills!

December 24, 2018
Havana & Outlying Areas, Cuba

Tour Day 2 – Havana and Las Terrazas
Enjoying the mid-day meal with our tour group at Casa del Campesino

It's Christmas Eve in Cuba, which means... almost nothing to the Cubans. While religion hasn't technically been curtailed since the "triumph of the revolution" (TOTR), it seems to have been de-prioritized. To us, it seemed like the locals had learned to start saying "Merry Christmas" just to appease the tourists. Decorations are pretty much limited to areas with tourist traffic, and holiday shopping isn't a thing (what would they buy?). 

But Christmas does mean that Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's house is closed on the 25th, which the tour operator didn't realize when initially scheduling the itinerary, so our visit was moved up to the morning of the 24th. It was about a half-hour ride on the bus to get there, with a quick 10-minute stop at cigar & rum shop, where several of us bought one cigar each. I figured I might as well smoke something that I know is legit.

The Hemingway house visit was pleasant enough; with history that recent it's pretty easy to imagine his life in Cuba. It was definitely a do-it-yourself tour, as it mainly consisted of us wandering around the outside of the home and peeking in the windows. 

With our visit to Papa's out of the way, it was time for the main event of the day, which was a visit to an "eco-community" in the mountains about an hour and a half southwest of Havana, called Las Terrazas. In the middle of the 20th century, the area was unsustainably harvested of all of its trees. After the TOTR, Fidel and Co. decided the hills around that area should be terraced (Terrazas!) and replanted with trees, to be harvested more sustainably going forward. It's now a self-contained community where they grow their own food, have their own schools (complete with giant Fidel & Che visages on the exterior walls), and is now also a tourist destination for nature lovers or anyone who just wants to get out of the city. 

The tour started with a sugary, rum punch cocktail (think alcoholic Kool-Aid) at the open-air Welcome Center, along with an overview by our local guide who would be taking us around. While at first she seemed a bit stern and stiff, she loosened up as the day went on and seemed like fun. We all climbed on the bus to drive over to lunch at Casa del Campesino, a restaurant located in a more remote area, and supposedly on the banks of the Rio San Juan, although I don't recall seeing any river. The food here was similar fare to what we'd already had, but easily the best of the trip thus far. Chicken, ropa vieja, rice, beans... and there were french fries, and quite tasty ones at that.  Cubans do seem to excel in the art of all things deep fried. And I feel it's important to mention, they also served a dessert of fruit marmalade topped with shredded cheese. This was also something we'd be seeing again on the trip, even if we didn't want to. With delicious food, a band playing, and people singing along, it made for a fun lunch stop.

After lunch, the mini-tour of Las Terrazas began in earnest. First we headed to a coffee shop called Maria's that specializes in very sweet cappuccinos with plenty of cinnamon. The coffee is grown in the surrounding hills, and was probably delicious under all of that cinnamon. It was a nice spot for coffee, overlooking the mountains in the distance and the actual "community" in the foreground - which consisted of several very communist looking concrete block apartment buildings that don't really do much for the scenic locale. The highlight was seeing a turkey vulture fly by in front of us with a snake hanging from its beak. Hope it was as tasty as the ropa vieja.

Caffeine ingested, we were taken down the street to an artist's shop who did paintings and prints on paper he makes in-house. We were packed into his tiny space along with another tourist group or two, while our guides waited outside. No explanations were given. No one made any purchases.

The last stop before heading back to Havana was further up the mountain, to the ruins of an old coffee plantation. There were terraced drying areas, where husked beans are laid to dry, and a covered area with a giant, circular concrete trough into which coffee cherries would be placed to be rolled over with a large wooden wheel to remove the husks. Our guide was very pleased to demonstrate. It all made me nostalgic for my coffee company days at Nespresso just two years ago. Everyone's favorite part seemed to be the expansive views across the mountains in all directions, which were quite beautiful.

We were whisked back to Havana with plenty of time to celebrate our Christmas Eve however we chose to. In our case, we decided to walk a mile-and-a-half through El Centro neighborhood of Havana to go to La Floridita, the bar that Ernest Hemingway favored for his daiquiris (Papa! Full circle!). Incidentally, he took his mojitos at El Bodeguita del Medio. Both of these establishments are, not surprisingly, exclusively tourist joints now. Even so, La Floridita had a cheerful crowd and excellent five member band cranking out the hits, which motivated us to stay for seconds. Caroline had another daiquiri, while I went with a straight 7-year Havana Club rum. I've learned that when drinking straight liquor, it's really hard to make a bad drink (or a weak one, for that matter).

Feeling the, um, warmth of Christmas in our bellies, we set off into Habana Vieja to find a restaurant with at least a little atmosphere for dinner. We ended up going upstairs in an old building, which was most certainly someone's home a couple of decades ago, but is now a very eclectically decorated private restaurant (known as "paladares") called Ivan Chef Justo. We ordered several tapas-style dishes, including some outstanding ceviche, ensalada de pulpo (octopus), and papas bravas. Everything was terrific, and halfway through our meal there were even other diners in the restaurant, making for a less awkward meal.

Sated and happy, we topped off our evening with an exciting taxi ride in a dilapidated (1980's era?) Russian Lada. Seeing how it's been on the road for a long, long time, we trusted we'd make it home, even if it seemed like it was going to fall apart along the way.

Feliz Navidad!

On the way to the Hemingway house, we stopped off at a legit rum and cigar shop, where we purchased a single real-deal Monte Cristo cigar to share sometime later in the trip
Ernest Hemingway was clearly an avid hunter, as evidenced by the taxidermied animal heads in virtually every room in his home
Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's home located just outside of Havana
Finca Vigia
This is Hemingway's writing studio, located at the top of a skinny, tower-like building, adjacent to the main house.  Possibly the the only room with no animal busts mounted on the walls, it is decorated instead with a portrait of "Hemingway the Hunter". Built over the course of a year because he wanted peace and quiet for writing, when it was finished he lasted only a couple of hours before declaring he can't write there - too quiet.
The bottom level of the tower was filled with artwork depicting Hemingway in Cuba
Hemingway's Cuba home, Finca Vigia: main house on the right and the tower containing his writing studio on the left
The grounds were lush and lovely. This was the walkway leading to the (now empty) swimming pool and a boat that Hemingway kept
Photographing the mint-condition taxis (theme) that were waiting for their fares outside the Hemingway house
The view from Las Terrazas Welcome Center
Our guide, explaining what Las Terrazas is all about
Starter salad at Casa del Campesino.  While the ingredients are quite typical - shredded beets, cucumbers and tomatoes - to what we would be served every day, the preparation here was a bit more unique and inspired, considering what they had at their disposal to work with.
Again, typical lunch and dinner fare was served at this homestyle meal, but this was easily the tastiest meal of the trip. Linett claims that it is wood-smoking the meat, as they do here at Casa del Campesino, that makes it so very delicious.  The black beans were extra tasty too, even though the restaurant claimed they were vegetarian (yeah, right...)
Dessert: mango marmalade topped with shredded cheese.  Let's just say once was more than enough.  I guess you need to be Cuban in order to appreciate this one.
Enjoying the coffee and the views at Cafe de Maria, where we stopped after lunch as part of our tour of Las Terrazas. This photo was taken just before or after we spotted a turkey vulture flying by with a sizable snake hanging from its beak.  Definitely a highlight of this tour. Take that as you will.
Cafe de Maria
The house specialty coffee at Cafe de Maria, Cafe Las Terrazas, was described to us as being like a milkshake.
Upon tasting it for ourselves, I would describe it as like a Frappucino, although this could be inaccurate since I'm not sure I've ever had one.  It was very sweet, like Cubans tend to like their coffees.  It was Caroline's lucky day - yum!!
The papermaker's work area was in the corner of the tiny shop selling hand-painted, handmade papers
The paper maker's supplies
Handmade paper, hanging to dry outside the shop
Million-dollar views at the old coffee plantation
Alas, there was no time to sit for a spell and enjoy said views
The former plantation house.  It was unclear exactly what it functions as today, but our guide was very excited to be attending a Christmas Eve dinner here later today.
Coffee-drying terraces (las terrazas) at the plantation
Historic coffee grinding equipment used at the coffee plantation when it was in operation
We were excited to have a free evening from our tour tonight, allowing us ample time to sample the daiquiris Hemingway famously favored
Inside La Floridita: a convivial holiday-time atmosphere
The high-energy quintet playing at La Floridita was very good and drew quite a crowd. And yes, they played Despacito.
The eclectic and chaotic design aesthetic at Ivan Chef Justo was as entertaining as the food was good!
The papas bravas and the pulpo at Ivan Chef Justo
Establishments that are permitted to rent rooms to foreigners display this blue anchor symbol outside. If only Cubans are allowed, the anchor would be red

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