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       ADVENTURES IN CUBA PART III +

rita@salsacrazy.com

Cuba 2003 Photo Gallery

I recently made my fourth trip to Cuba, toting  my Canon Rebel camera (real film, no digital devices this time), audiotape recorder, Power bars, liters of bottled of water and my dancing shoes. Though there recent changes in the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) restrictions for travel to Cuba, there are many licensed tours to Cuba.  In the San Francisco Bay Area  you may want to contact Global Exchange  or PlazaCuba (with many former staff members of Caribbean Dance and Music). My trip was organized and guided by members of the US Women and Cuba Collaboration who arranged our visits to a women's issues conference at the University of Havana and site visits to medical schools, medical clinics and farms in Pinar Del Rio.  CLICK HERE FOR TIPS ON TRAVELING IN CUBA.

The remainder of my trip was focused on popular music and dance in Cuba.  As I said in my earlier articles, Adventures in Cuba I and Adventures in Cuba II a pilgrimage to Cuba (and Puerto Rico—my next Salsaroots trip) are mandatory for anyone who wants to really understand and embrace the culture, history and musical heritage that is the foundation for current day Salsa.  You might try to get to Havana for the International Jazz  Festival held every other year in December (next one is 2004) which brings together an amazing array of musicians and dancers from all over the world. For photos from the last festival go to Havana Jazz Festival

If you are thinking about going to Cuba, do your homework. When you are planning your trip, talk to as many people as possible and check out the discussion group: http://library.thinkquest.org/18355/gather/cgi-bin/mboard/TravelBoard/thread.cgi?4901,0,91.  Afrocubaweb.com also has tons of update information about history, politics, arts and music. I continue to highly recommend the books, Havana Handbook and Cuba Handbook by Christopher Baker which you can get from Barnes and Noble or any bookstore with a good travel section.  Cody's Bookstores in Berkeley also have great maps on Havana which highlight restaurants, museums and other interesting sites for visitors. It is a amazing that one city has at least 5 separate museums devoted to music and dance.  There are many airlines that fly to Havana and consider looking at www.nashtravel.com to review your options. Most of the organized trips fly from either Los Angeles, Cancun or Miami.  In view of increased security at the airports, leave lots of time to make your connections.

 

THE PLACE

This time I stayed primarily at Hotel Vedado (a  just barely adequate hotel) but the location was great.  On a previous trip I stayed at Havana Libre, a great hotel in Vedado which large rooms, mini-bar, business center with internet access and roof top night club called Turquin.  The nightclub was spacious, with a beautiful dance floor, panoramic view of Havana at night.  Once the band begins, the roof slides open and pretty soon you are jamming to Cuban music under the stars.  I was able to hear Pupy Y Los Que Son Son lead by Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso, former keyboardist for Los Van Van. His new group has a great CD called Timba - The New Generation Of Latin Music Import CD (Universal/Pimienta 160519), released 2001 that takes timba to a new level. They were even more exciting  to enjoy and dance to in person.

Havana Libre is connected to a small shopping mall with stores selling souvenirs, liquor, CDs and pharmaceuticals. This a great place to go for a ready supply of essentials—bottled water, snacks, fruit and rum. A  bottle of Havana Club rum (aged for 7 years) will cost about $11.   A liter and a half of bottle water was about $1.50. You really need to stock up on provisions for your day trips since there are very fast food places in Havana. Though you will occasionally see red and yellow buildings of  Rapido, a new fast food chain in Cuba, there are no Seven-Elevens or Burger Kings on every corner. I always carried bottled water, fruit, crackers, handi-wipes and Kleenex in my knapsack since many toilets don’t have tissue paper, soap or paper towels.

While you are hanging out in Vedado, go to the business center on the second floor of  the Havana Libre hotel and use their computers.  A little pricey at $5/15 minutes, it is quiet, not very busy and has a fast connection. You will not find traditional internet cafes at this time in Havana so you have to rely on hotels with internet services.

If you’re on a tight budget, one option is to stay at a less expensive hotel and just pay for a day pass at the luxury hotel pools like Golden Tulip Parque Central and the Hotel Nacional. Many of these hotels charge $10-$15 per day and offer poolside food and bar privileges, towels and  at the Parque Central, a covered hot tub.  The pool and hot tub are totally decadent luxuries but after dancing and walking on marble and concrete for two weeks, I felt I really needed it.  Take your sturdiest walking shoes for exploring Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

 If you plan on dancing a lot, leave your high heels at home and invest in a pair dance sneakers (Capezio and Braun make great ones). If you really want to save money, take a pair of your favorite running shoes and have a cobbler resole them with the suede material that is used on ballroom dancing shoes. Since few Salsa venues have wood floors and you will usually be dancing on asphalt, concrete, tile or marble which can be murder on your feet and legs without proper support and cushioning.

Havana definitely seems to be changing rapidly but the colonial charm is still there.  The magnificent decaying Spanish colonial churches and mansions and cobbled stone plazas remain pretty much in tact. The place is a photographer’s dream with all kinds of marble columns, colonnaded arcades and aristocratic homes. But Cuba also has fiercely modern buildings such as the clean, geometric lines of National Museum of  Belles Arts, an amazing art gallery. It is an modest looking, rectangular building that encircles a large interior open air courtyard with sculptures, patios and benches. The breath and depth of the their display of contemporary Cuban art is breathtaking.  THIS BUILDING IS DEFINITELY  A MUST SEE-even for those of us  who hate traditional art galleries.

Walking is definitely the best way to explore Habana Vieja since the streets are tiny, riddled with potholes, full of people, bicycles, parked cars, motorcycles and small dogs Some of my favorite haunts are the Plaza de Catedral with a large flea market on the Malecon. It is my favorite spot for wonderful, inexpensive art work, musical instruments and gifts.  Not far away is the used book fair in Plaza de Armas where you can find books on Cuban music  and dance, atlas of Cuba, cookbooks and books about Fidel, Che and politics. Calle Obispo is the main drag for CDs, art galleries and souvenirs.  Unfortunately Havana is not known for high fashion, but you can get inexpensive summer clothes at many of the flea markets.

Also I constantly used the maps in the Havana Handbook by Christopher Baker (my bible on this trip) and a larger map I got from Cody’s bookstore.

 

 

 

RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTSPOTS

The restaurant scene in Cuba continues to expand and grow including more Italian inspired fusion cuisine, more vegetarian restaurants and lots of Caribbean based dishes. For a quick inexpensive meal any time day or night, go to the Cafe La Rampa next to Havana Libre Tryp Hotel. It's quick, clean and has very friendly waiters.  I went there at least once a day for their great fruit salad ($3.50).  For a more sumptuous, upscale brunch check out Parque Central on the Prado.  Brunch at the Ingleterra and Seville hotels were a little cheaper are also good bets. Check out the early morning view from the top of the Hotel Sevilla hotel while you dine. Many restaurants have live music at lunch and dinner.  The picture on the left was taken at Bar Montserrat at lunch time. 

 

Other restaurants we explored were

 Café del Prado (small Italian bistro),

 Cafe Marpoly-great for lunch and dinner

Bar Monserrat--great people watching, food and live music

Restaurante Aries-- a palladar (privately owned restaurant) near the University of Havana (Say hi to Pedro the Chef and ask for the coconut ice cream)

El Alijibe in Miramar known for its extensive menu and great chicken dishes. This place is great for a large dinner party and they have a wonderful wine list.

Coppelia Ice Cream Stand in the Coppelia Park, right in the heart of the Vedado section of Havana, close movies, hotels and stores.  All day long you will see people waiting in line for their exotic, creamy flavors

I am still very fond of the paladares, privately owned restaurants. Since they are not allowed to advertise, you have to rely on taxi drivers, hotel concierges and other tourists for recommendations. The meals without drinks average about $12-$20.  Our favorite paladares on this trip was Aries Restaurant near the University, La Casa and Los Amigo. Unfortunately I did not get back to La Guarida which was a loyal following  and is now so popular you have to make reservations in advance. Once you get there you will climb to the third floor and sit in small waiting room with tons of movie posters and vintage photos of Cuban artists and musicians. The dining room is very intimate with lots of wood, antiques and atmosphere. The chicken and fish dishes were very tasty and the service was prompt. A great place for a romantic dinner.

SHOPPING

I returned to one of my favorite spots the Plaza de Artisans open-air street market on Calle Tacón. Amid all the usual tourist kitsch you can find some interesting things musical instruments ( claves, maracas, guiros) and inexpensive paintings and jewelry.  I found lots of new artists and lots more wood sculpture than I had found on previous visits. Within a few minutes of the Plaza de Artisans, you can walk to Taller Experimental de la Grafica on Callejon del Chorro, near the Plaza de Catedral which traces the history of engraving and has many pieces for sale. If you plan to buy valuable artwork, be sure to get the authorization de exportacion( authorization for exportation) issued by the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales to avoid complications with customs. Reputable art dealers will take care of this for you.

For the latest salsa/timba/son band I suggest that visiting  the music store on Obispo, Habana Si, the ARTEX souvenir store across from Havana Libre hotel in Vedado, Casa de la Musica, Museo de la Musica and finally at the airport. It is very helpful if you know the artists who you are looking for and know what CDs are already available at Museo del Disco, Descarga.com, Amazon.com or you local store. CDs are expensive in Cuba (usually $15 or more) and it makes sense to buy things that are not available outside of Cuba. Since some stores also sell copies of the CDs at this high price so be sure that what you buy has the original CD cover and liner notes.

If you want to bring back rum, consider bringing back Havana Club which has aged for 5 years, 7 years, reserved which is aged for 12 years or the very pricey 15 year variety. The best price I saw for the 15 year aged rum was $85 at the duty free store at the Havana airport. The other varieties are readily at the local convenience stores and grocery stores ($6-$12) for much less than you’ll find at duty-free stores.

ART, MUSIC AND DANCE

This is the part many of you have been waiting for. As I mentioned earlier in this article many restaurants and bars have live music starting at mid-day.   At night I have enjoyed several clubs including Café Cantante, Casa de la Musica ( which has a great CD store) and my special favorite Casa de Amistad. Casa de Amistad is an enormous old mansion, which the State operates as a "friendship" house. The large garden in the back hosts 2 son/salsa bands on Tuesday night performing in an outdoor theater with a large terrazzo dance floor. The show begins at 8PM and admission is only $5.00, which includes a drink ticket. There are plenty of tables and chairs for relaxing and it has become a hit with tourists and locals alike. The groups who played when we were there heard Tipica Oriental and Orquesta Jilengue.  They were accompanied by a troupe of energetic you dancers who treated us to a Tropicana style cabaret revue and even danced with members of the audience.

Every Sunday the Hotel Nacional presents the best in traditional and contemporary Cuban music performed by Compay Segundo's lead by his sons.  They are keeping the sound spirit of Buena Vista Social Club alive.

Callejon de Hamil is a  FREE Sunday afternoon rumba/block party that you can’t miss. The festivities  take place 12-4 pm in an alleyin Centro Havana.  Callejon de Hamil has cut back to 2 captivating rumba bands playing consecutively on a tiny stage and inspiring audience members to dance rumba (see salsaroots section on Guanguanco for more info). The two groups that I heard this time were strongly influenced by Reggae and Hip Hop  floating on top of the tradition complex Cuban drum rhythms. An intoxicating mix of sounds, movement and colors. Callejon de Hamil is where men, women and children of all ages spring to life and move to the captivating, rhythms of the congas and clave and interact with the musicians. In between sets, the DJ plays the hottest tunes by Issac Delgado, Paulito FG, Bamboleo and many popular timba bands. If you’re lucky you find a little square piece of concrete for dancing. By 2PM the alley is swarming with Cubans who have made this a prime place to see and be seen, show off new outfits, well toned bodies and  everybody flirts outrageously. It is really like a neighborhood block party every Sunday afternoon. Come early so that you can get a place to sit and snatch some shade because it can get pretty hot under that baking sun.

 If you plan on dancing a lot, leave your high heels at home and invest in a pair dance sneakers (Capezio and Braun make great ones). If you really want to save money, take a pair of your favorite running shoes and have a cobbler resole them with the suede material that is used on ballroom dancing shoes. Since few Salsa venues have wood floors and you will usually be dancing on asphalt, concrete, tile or marble which can be murder on your feet and legs without proper support and cushioning.

Another feature of Callejon de Hamil is the colorful Afro-Cuban mural by Salvador Gonzalez Escalona. Salvador transformed this run-down, neglected alley into a boisterous, vibrant display of colorful images and poetry, inspired by mysticism, urban realities and santeria.  Come back to Callejon de Hamil during the week, visit his studio, chat with his manager and purchase some uniquely spiritual, haunting art works.  The gallery also sells copies of the video and now it is featuring paintings by his son. For more information on Salvador Gonzalez log into: http://salvadorgonzalez.artspan.com/

I highly recommend spending an afternoon at the Museo de la Musica which is close to Malecon. They have an impressive collection of vintage instruments (drums, guiros, pianos) photographs and lots of books, magazines and CDs that chronicle the African and European influences that contribute  to many vibrant, complex styles of  Cuban music. Since my last visit they have added more displays of instruments and photos from the Havana International Jazz Festival.  General admission is $5.00 and they charge extra if you plan to use video camcorders or still cameras.

The Museo Nacional de Belles Artes was one of the hosts for the 8th Havana Biennial will be held with the participation of approximately 100 artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and several countries from Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Biennial will show a group of sculptures, paintings, installations, photographs, video art, performances and plastic actions, thus creating a unique cultural atmosphere in the city. Under the motto of Art with Life, the 8th Havana Biennial exhibited a group of works of those artists related to the multiple forms of life of Cuban people that go from a critical and reflexive perspective of their reality to the passionate exaltation of all forms of beauty. The works of these talented artists also express the irony or humor viewpoints many people in Cuba and around the world use to cope the wide spectrum of problems that affect day after day of many Latin American and Caribbean nations. THIS MUSEUM IS A MUST SEE.

If you want to explore beyond Havana, arrange day-trip into the province of Pinar del Rio which contains some of the loveliest scenery in all of Cuba. While in Pinar del Rio,  visit the community of Las Terrazas, an ecological settlement that was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. One of the biggest surprises of this trip was El Romero, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Las Terrazas. Another highlight of Pinar Del Rio was the recently opened  Santeria Museum  and the new art gallery n Pinar Del Rio (about 2 hours west of Havana).  The Santeria museum has 3 small rooms packed with exhibits on three of the most powerful religious movements-- Santeria, Abacua and Palo Monte. Santeria is a fusion of Lucumi religion of the African Yoruba slaves brought to Cuba 300 years ago and catholicism.  Since during colonial times the slaves were barred from practicing African religions, the slaves disguised their gods (orishas) in Catholic garb and continued to pray for them.  Many of the musical and dance forms of contemporary Cuban music have their roots in Santeria and still make reference to the orishas (e.g.Elegua, Yemanya, Chango) in their lyrics. Abacua a secret all male fraternity / religion Efik people are from the Southern Nigeria Calabar region and are also known in Cuba as Carabali. Palo Monte was religion brought to Cuba by the Bantu slaves from Congo.

Recommended books on Santeria

Santeria: The Religion: Faith, Rites, Magic (World Religion and Magic) -- Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Charles Wetli; Paperback

Santeria Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion -- David H. Brown; Paperback

FAREWELL FOR NOW

As always when I am flying home from Havana  in Cuba, I felt that I have barely scratched  the surface. The country is a wealth of music, culture and history that holds treasures and adventures around every corner. Havana is still the embodiment of romance, mystery and intrigue. It is both old and new and never dull. There are tons of other cities in Cuba that are rich sources of Afro-Cuban heritage such as Santiago, Mantanzas and Guantanamo.  I hope  to explore more of the country in the future. Don’t worry--I am already planning my next trip. If you get there before me, have a mojito (Cuba’s favorite rum drink) at Hotel Nacional  and be sure to dance all night long.

 

Click here for the Cuba 2003 Photo Gallery

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If you're thinking about going to Cuba, here are a couple of travel options you may want to investigate:

Alicia listed on SalsaCrazy.com's travel section under our travel at Plazacuba. For all levels but particularly advanced musicians and dancers based at the Escuela Nacional des Artes.  Click here for more information.

Global Exchange www.globalexchange.com A little cheaper with classes in percussion, folkloric dance and Rueda.


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