Education is a cultural priority in Cuba, and all children must attend school until the age of 18. After that a young person may decide to work or attend University. Hence Cuba is reputed to have the highest literacy rate in the world.

Cuba

All Cuban children study music, dance and art

Children who are identified as having exceptional gifts in music, dance or art are given the opportunity to audition for a place in a special school. There is one such school in each of Cuba’s 15 provinces where 8 to 15 year olds receive both pedagogical and artistic training. We visited Alfonso Perez Vocational School of Art, a school of 417 children. The youngsters who study in these schools are in line for life careers’ with Cuba’s National Ballet, the Symphony, Theatre and Dance Troupes.

Our “Eddy” (Cubatur guide extraordinaire) studied Mechanical Engineering at University. There are three universities: Havana U in the west; Santiago in the east; and Santa Clara in the center of the island. After two years obligatory work in his profession, Eddy applied to go back to school to study tourism. The fact that he is very proud of his country; fluently bilingual in Spanish and English; as well as an enthusiastic history buff, made him a natural for this 6 month program – and he has been reveling in his career change ever since.

Cuba

Two boys arriving for music classes after their regular school day

Muraleando

Founded in 2001, in the Lawton area of Havana, Muraleando is a community project that supports young artists and musicians. It is a home away from home for over 300 neighbourhood children, including those with disabilities, who want to develop their talents. They paint, take music and dance lessons, and learn the art of ceramics and sculpture. With few materials easily available, “the idea is to teach the children to recycle and be creative”.

Mano A Mano

The Hand in Hand Art project has grown with help from the Canadian Embassy and Artisans without Borders. You’ll see ceramics, photography, floral arrangements. The unique logo in the café area of the project was designed by Quebec artist, Pierre Olivier.

The Vinales Valley

Cuba

The well-appointed Moka Hotel situated in the lush biosphere reserve
Complejo Las Terrazas

Less than two hours outside Havana, on the way to Varadero, is the Vinales Valley (Valley of the Vines). The region boasts spectacular scenery: lush farmland, surrounded by the dramatic Sierra de los Organos mountain range. The area is known for farming: tobacco, corn, bananas, sweet potato, mango and avocado. You’ll see chickens, lamb, goats and piglets, and be tempted by roadside vendors with papaya, mangos, and Cuban apples.

Our first stop in the Vinales Valley was to visit the biosphere nature reserve: “Complejo Las Terrazas”, open since 1968. This social and cultural project has successfully restored the forest region that was destroyed by coffee growers and past tea and sugar plantations. Now the forests are again lush; full of teak, mahogany, native pines, and the hibiscus trees used for baseball bats. Our guide claimed 900 different species of plants, and 131 species of birds thrive in Complejo Las Terrazas. And 262 Cuban families live and work in this unique garden community.

The 4 star, 42-room “Hotel Moka” situated within Las Terrazas is open to visitors – most of whom are hikers, birdwatchers, and those who love nature and peace and quiet. Room prices vary by season.  The Hotel Moka is unique – an oasis surrounded by small lakes, hills, flowers, and flowering trees. All rooms overlook the valley. There is a pool, tennis court, and zip line nearby. When I visited Cuba the Flame trees were at their peak – providing a stunning orange canopy over much of the countryside

Cuba

The Macondo family have been
making cigars at La Casa del Veguro for generations

Cigars

Cigar lovers will want to visit a cigar farm. La Casa del Veguro, is operated by the Macondo family who have been making cigars for several generations. My first cigar ever (!) was hand rolled by Lazaro Marlin, and I tested it the Cuban way – dipped in homemade honey. Apparently some folks prefer a whiskey dip.

Mural de la Prehistoria

Closer to the mountain range that dominates the border of the Vinales Valley, tourists are invited to visit the Mural de la Prehistoria. This is a huge painting across the side of a sheer rock face – 90 meters high and 120 meters long. Every stroke was hand painted by some very brave artists.

Cuba

Mural de la Prehistoria is a huge painting across the side of a 90 meter high sheer rock face

Where to eat in the Vinales Valley

One of the most beautiful places to lunch in Cuba is a restaurant is called Balcon del Valle. We dined outdoors on a glorious terrace, overlooking the Vinales Valley and distant mountains. Cuban style dining puts all platters in the center of the table – for everyone to taste and savour at a leisurely pace.

The Varadero Beach area

The island of Cuba is a land mass of 110,900 square kilometers, of which Varadero Beach is probably the best known area. Weather averages 25 to 29 degrees year round, though temperatures can climb into the 30’s in July and August. The beaches are clean and the sand is soft and white. The water changes from billboard-ad turquoise to light and deep blues and greens depending on time of day and angle of the sun.

Cuba

Balcon del Vallee Restaurant, each table overlooks the
Vinales Valley and the mountains

I was a guest of the newest Varadero Iberostar “Bella Vista” – one of several Iberostar resorts on the island. Iberostar is a Spanish chain that has helped develop the infrastructure for tourism, and provides hundreds of work opportunities for a growing population who can see the potential of the tourism business.

Varadero is actually a peninsula on the Atlantic side of Cuba. Tourism in the area first began with the development of two or three storey units, by resort operators like Iberostar, Bahia Principe, and Melia. There is a Plaza Americano “touristica” shopping mall close by the entrance to the Varadero hotel strip.

The Iberostar Bella Vista where I stayed is an 800 room, all-inclusive resort. It has 11 floors, 4 swimming pools, 4 a la carte restaurants, and an elaborate play area for children. Kayaks, paddleboats, and catamarans are available for ocean front fun. The six bars were very popular, and entertainment ongoing.

Cuba

Atenas Brass Ensemble, in the style of our own Canadian Brass performed at the
luxurious XANADU

Close by the Varadero Golf Course, is a famous old mansion – XANADU – formerly the get-away retreat for the prominent American Dupont family. XANADU houses a mahogany lined bar and dining room, as well as a large seaside terrace perfect for al fresco dining and sunset photos. It’s a lovely spot for a special occasion: think a drink at the bar listening to live music, then an intimate dinner for two or with friends while watching the sun set and night descend. There are also a few exclusive guest rooms available for rent.

The evening we dined at XANADU, the musical entertainers in the bar were an excellent quintet “Atenas Brass Ensemble”, in the style of our own Canadian Brass. The band members are also music teachers, and members of the Symphony of Matanzas and Band of Concerts. Listening to Cuban mambo, jazz, and their rousing rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching Home” was a real treat. Even more entertaining, the band played the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah like it’s never been played before.

Further east past many all-inclusive hotels finds you in an upscale harbour area; with a high end shopping mall and the newest Melia development. Most surprising is the Kike Kacho restaurant – a large restaurant with a nautical theme, offering an extensive menu, and wine selections from moderate to very expensive prices. The highlight of the restaurant is the giant live lobster cage off the pier. When that’s your dinner choice, a lobster is caught and barbequed before your very eyes. The Kike Kacho is unlike any restaurant I expected to find in Cuba. A lunch with a Mojito Frappé is worth a visit.

Cuba

Street musicians entertaining

The Town of Varadero

The town of Varadero is a short trip away from the beach. Shopping is more authentic than in the Touristica Mall. The Handicraft Market at 15 Street is packed with Cuban art. Close by, Josone Park offers welcome shade where to eat ice cream or have a drink beside a pretty man-made lake.

A popular spot in town is the “Factoria Varadero” Beer Factory, new to Varadero since September 2018. Five young technicians were trained by an Austrian Brewmaster, Peter Hubrt, and are now running a very successful pub.

Cuba

“Musea Farmaceutico”, on the Town Square of Matanza City

Matanzas City

Further along from Varadero is the “rich” city of Matanzas. Rich because it is known as the “Venice of Cuba”, situated at a meeting point for three rivers and on the ocean; rich too because of its thriving art and cultural community.

This is the place for good walking shoes. There is much to see of both historical and cultural interest in Matanzas. Don’t miss the “Musea Farmaceutico”, on the Town Square. This museum was a working pharmacy since 1882, and converted in 1964 to a museum when the state took over the Cuban medical system. Everything in the museum is authentic, even the record books going back over 100 years.

Many art galleries and workshops thrive along the busy streets, and as you stroll along the waterfront, unique sculptures draw curiosity and attention.

You could easily spend a day in Matanzas. We had lunch at the Restaurant Chiquirrin, and as in most Cuban restaurants we were entertained by a local musical group. The Chiquirrin is where every customer should take along a sharpie pen to sign the restaurant walls. It is fascinating to read the names of tourists from so many places who have found their way to this intimate café on this unique island country.

A Final Thought

Tourism is extremely important to a changing Cuba. Food at the all-inclusive resorts is plentiful, if not haute cuisine, but the wonderful weather, warm waters, music, and sympathetic nature of the people is exceptional. As Eddy proudly told me: “Cuba is very safe – not quite paradise, but very close”.

Travel Planner

Canada’s major holiday wholesalers sell all-inclusive packages in addition to selling return air tickets for travellers who want to organize their own accommodations. These include Sunwing, Transat Holidays and Air Canada Vacations.

Read Beverley Kerr’s Cuba 2019 – much more than a beach – first stop Havana

Havana’s unique Fusterlandia

Cuba

José Rodriquez Fuster created a Gaudi-like
wonderland of brilliantly coloured ceramic tiles

In 1994, after seeing the art of Picasso, and architecture of Gaudi in Spain, successful Cuban ceramist and painter, José Rodriquez Fuster decided to decorate his own home and garden. He used his own money ie: Fusterlandia is not a government funded project.

“I wanted to prove that art could help grow and bond a community”, 72 year old Fuster told us when he happened by Fusterlandia the day we visited. “I sell my art, but rather than put the money I make in the bank, I invest in my neighbours”.   No stress with bank accounts, according to Fuster.

His family and friends were soon in awe of his decorative home and garden, and suggested many more ideas for their street and other homes. Fuster decorated his daughter’s home across the street. And then Villa Iris for a nurse nearby; then Claro asked Fuster to give his home a Chinese/Japanese feel. Several blocks near Fuster’s own home have been ‘Fustered’, making for a fun walking tour.

There is no entrance fee to Fusterlandia. Donations are welcome and help enhance Fuster’s pet projects like vaccinations for Cuban children.

Fusterlandia has been called many things, but it reminded me most of Barcelona and the Gaudi architecture. Magical realism and folkart are other terms often used to describe the works at Fusterlandia. Our Justin Trudeau has visited Fusterlandia.

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