Adventures in Cuba

My father sent this letter to me on January 8, 2011.  What an incredibly generous offer coming from his big heart!  At the time, I was beyond preoccupied with my 2 and 3 year olds and battling some significant health issues.   I kept the note on my desk and in my free moments, I would read it and just dream about this future trip with my dad.

Life continued to be busy and it always seemed difficult to make plans that involved me being away from my babies for more than a couple of hours.  And I also felt, despite it being one of the best offers anyone could ever hope for, it was incredibly overwhelming to decide where I would want to go because there are so many places I want to experience.

When my folks visited me last spring (2016), we were sitting on a bench at the library and my dad was telling me about an upcoming trip to Cuba being planned by his Law School alma matter, Case Western Reserve.  He said he would really like to go, but wasn’t getting much interest when he’d ask around to see who’d like to join him.  I think I actually stood up and blurted out “oh, ME, I wanna go!”  I felt it right away, that Cuba is where our journey was meant to take place.

Why Cuba?

I majored in Spanish and Anthropology in college, and recieved a certificate in Latin American studies.  I was exposed to Cuban music in one of my classes, specifically the Buena Vista Social Club, and instantly fell for it.  I loved their sound and the way they mix up all kinds of interesting metaphors in their lyrics.  I was hooked for sure!  The music is a wonderful representation of the passion Cubans have for life and love.  They have gone through extraordinary hardships throughout their history and they continue to be faced with many struggles.  Seeing how they have represented their struggles through many different mediums of art, had a profound impact on me.  Art gave the Cuban people, and continues to give them, a voice when it is unsafe to speak out in any other way.  I have incredible respect for the resourcefulness, creativity, resilience and strength the people of this nation have.

As most people know, Cuba and the U.S. have a history of complex and complicated relations.  It is still illegal to travel there as a U.S. citizen unless you go with an organized group that is learning based, or unless you figure out a way to secure a special travel license.  I felt like this was a rare opportunity to see Cuba before it undergoes significant tourism based changes that are likely heading its way.  This trip was planned around many educational sessions given by local Cubans.  I learned so much, and am filled with gratitude to be given direct insight to what life has been like for them.

Somewhere along the way in my life, I, like many, developed a fascination with the Argentine, Ernesto (Che´) Guevara, who played a significant role in the Cuban Revolution.  Four years ago when we got our beloved dog, a Havanese, I couldn’t think of a better name for him than Che´ (¡Ernesto! when he is misbehaving).

So my mind was made up, and I didn’t even take much time to ponder, it just felt right.  I was going to Cuba in December 2016, for a ten day trip with my wonderful father.

Cuba is an absolutely beautiful country and I can’t say enough good things about all the incredible people I met there.  This post includes many of the photos I took on our trip with brief explanations of some of our adventures.  It was everything I had hoped for and more.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to take this trip and I hope to return someday!

This is a view from our room, 501, in the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

The courtyard at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where some glasses of rum and mojítos were consumed while people-and-peacock watching.

I was beyond ecstatic to find out upon arrival at the Hotel Nacional, that some of the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club play there on a regular basis.  We were able to see them play one night.

This is a stack of Cohibas at a tobacco plantation in Viñales. I ended up buying and splitting this very stack of cigars with a friend to take home as gifts.  I also toured a cigar factory which was really fascinating.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t take photos there but I learned the following:

There are 102 steps involved in making Cuban cigars.

The training to roll cigars starts with (60) 18-20 year olds over a 10 month period.   After 10 months only 20 people make the cut.  The average career lasts 10-15 years, at which point the hands can no longer take that kind of tedious work.  Those workers are then (hopefully) shifted to taking on another role in the factory. They make about 50/60 CUCs per month (roughly 50-60 USD).

Cigar guillotine

These are some shots of the beautiful Cuban countryside I took through our bus window between Havana and Viñales.

Cuevas del Indio, Viñales.  We took a canoe ride through this cave.  Caves are just cool.

“Mural de la Prehistoria”

This mural was designed in 1961 by Leovigildo González Morillo, based on the ideas of Celia Sánchez, Alicia Alonso and Antonio Núñez Jiménez.  This giant mural took took eighteen people four years to complete.

(looking good Pops)

While in Viñales, we stayed at the scenic Hotel los Jazmines.



On the way back from Viñales, we stopped at the José Martí (Cuba’s liberator) memorial.

Our whole group….

The next major adventure we took was to the residence of Ernest and Mary Hemingway, Finca la Vigía (meaning lookout house).  This is where Mr. Hemingway wrote, “Movable Feast,”  “Old Man and the Sea,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  It is now a government run museum.

In this picture of his bathroom, you can see sideways writing by the bathroom scale.  It is where he kept track of his weight and the corresponding dates.

Throughout Havana, there isn’t much in the way of street art, however you can’t help but notice the beautiful and unusually captivating work of Yulier P. on some of the buildings.  Sadly, much of his work has recently been painted over… “erased,” including this one.

On our scheduled free time, I wanted to visit the bar in Old Havana that Hemingway frequented, “El Floridita.”  It is known as the “Cuna del Daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri).   It is said, that Hemingway holds the record for the most daiquiri’s consumed there at 16 doubles, though without the sugar.  We took an old car down the Malecón to get there.

Papa y Papa

Daddy-O and I enjoying the house beverage.

Street scenes in Old Havana

A wifi hot-spot

This was dinner at Laurent a “paladar,” which was one of my favorite meals while in Cuba.  Historically, “Paladares” are restaurants set up in part of the family home.  You’d never know this one was a home, until you use the restroom and see the bathtub in there.  Unfortunately for me, my food preferences don’t align much with the delicious (I hear) Cuban cuisine.  I was vegetarian for much of my life, and only eat poultry now, and on really rare occasions some seafood.  I haven’t had pork since I was 6 or 7 years old (strange food issues!), and it’s the primary staple as far as meat goes in Cuba.  Even the beans and rice are typically made with pork.  But needless to say, I was still able to enjoy some good meals.  This night I had the best gazpacho ever.  The rest of the table had pork lasagna.  Everyone assumed that “pork lasagna” meant that instead of ground beef between layers of noodles, it would just be pork.  What it really was, was just layers and layers of different kinds of pork meat.  Meat on top of meat on top of meat on top of meat!  It was a slower moving group post gigantic pork meal that night.  We couldn’t all fit in the elevator, not because of the recently consumed pork, but because there was a 6 person limit.  Being the youngest of the group, I said I’d take the stairs.   I ran, fueled by spicy gazpacho and several glasses of Spanish rioja, down the many flights of stairs and ended up waiting for the group to exit the elevator on the first floor.  The door opened and their faces were so confused to see me there already.


We toured a clinic,  which are called “policlinicos” and had a comprehensive lecture on the Cuban healthcare system.  It was very informative and interesting.  I took lots of notes, but it’s not for this blog so contact me if you want the low-down on how things work there.  We had lectures on various topics nearly every morning.  Each speaker who presented to us had to be approved by the government, along with the content of their lecture.

One day we took an excursion to a neighborhood just outside of Havana and saw a traditional Afro-Cuban dance performance.  The dancers were very talented and eager to involve our group in the dances.

We had to wait awhile before the dancers were ready, so it’s a good thing they had some disco on the television.  I think that was the only exposure I had to television throughout the whole trip.

On our way to Varadero Beach, we stopped in an art-centered part of Matanzas and toured Lolo Galeria-Taller and had a poetry reading at Ediciones Vigía.  This might have been the highlight of the trip for me.  The art was profoundly inspiring, and we could hear directly from the artists and writers themselves regarding their art.  The poetry reading was done by Hugo Hodelín Santana.  I was so taken with his words and how he wrote about the world around him,  I purchased his book and asked him to sign it for me (pictures below).

Varadero Beach

Just some much needed and appreciated chill time by a very beautiful beach.

My shoes, not my bottle

I am so grateful to everyone who played a part in organizing this trip; it was truly an experience of a lifetime for me and my dad.

A special thank you Michelle and Raiko!!

Thank you to my mother-in-law, Linda who helped with the kids while I was gone, and thank you Dean for your constant support in every way.

And of course a HUGE, MASSIVE, GIGANTIC thank you to my father, Tom.  This was such a special trip, and the memories of our time there together will be forever treasured.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to return!


About the artist:

Natalie’s primary goal as an artist is to evoke feeling through her words and photographs.  Her artistic journey began long ago but it wasn’t until she entered her 30s that photography and writing became the primary outlet for her artistic expression.  She likes to share the way she sees the world with those who are interested in her perspective.  She is inspired by light, shadows, contrast, shapes, lines, colors, words, nature, adventure, music, and of course, the people, and animals she loves!   She has recently been experimenting with self-portraiture and finding additional outlets for her art.  While experimenting in different directions and following her passions as they arise, she is laying the groundwork for the future paths of her artistic journey.  Her work has been published by Lensbaby, Beyond the Wanderlust, and she is an artist at Offset.com.

Comments are closed.