Cuba Libre: Cuba Beyond the Beach

With deliberate care, Ramon Guilarte places a half-empty bottle of Paticruzado rum on our table,alongside a battered tin coffee pot and some cups made from old soup cans. He sits down, lights a cigar, smiles through a billowing wreath of smoke and proudly proclaims: “Rum, coffee and cigars are the best things produced in Cuba and you have to enjoy them together!”

Guilarte is our host at La Fondita de Compay Ramon, a private restaurant he runs with his family in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city after Havana. Privately operated restaurants like his, known as paladares, cater to tourists and locals alike—and they’re popping up all over the country.

In a country where virtually every business is state-owned and salaries are low, the opportunity to cash in on the tourism boom is a big deal for many families. The restaurants are also great places for visitors to interact with ordinary Cubans.

Guilarte grew up on a farm in the neighbouring Sierra Maestra Mountains, and artifacts from his youth adorn the walls of his eatery. While he leaves the cooking to his wife Mayra and daughter Viviana, Guilarte serves us a buffet of traditional Cuban fare: pork, chicken, fish, rice, beans and plantain. Everyone’s favourite dish is picadillo—ground beef with green peppers, onion and tomato sauce.

After the meal, Viviana describes the satisfaction of preparing food for guests. Her father echoes the sentiment. “The greatest pleasure for me is to see visitors enjoying our food,” Guilarte says, “I really want them to feel like they are in my home; to see them come in as tourists, but leave as members of our family.”

That dinner in Santiago is just one of many highlights of an eight-day road trip that takes us more than 750 kilometres along highways and back roads, through beautiful colonial cities and dusty farm towns. The journey brings us face-to-face with regular Cubans leading ordinary lives, far from the postcard-perfect beaches for which the country is justifiably famous.

Read the rest of the story in CAA Manitoba magazine at http://joom.ag/IpBY/p44.

Internet connectivity is getting easier for visitors to Cuba

I’m not sure how I feel about the announcement from the Cuba Tourist Board about improved internet coverage in the Caribbean island.

The initiative was first presented at FIT Cuba, one of the country’s largest international tourism fairs, hosted in the Villa Clara Keys in May.  Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said in his opening address that wifi coverage would be extended to 287 additional hotels by the end of 2018 with full coverage of every hotel on the island scheduled for 2019.

Part of the island’s charm is the fact that it’s so hard to go online. If you weren’t staying at a hotel with wifi, which were rare, you’d have to buy cards that got you one-hour of connection time at wifi hotspots that were mostly located in the parks and plazas of cities across Cuba. Not only would you have to type in a confusing string of numbers and letters from the scratch-off card for your username and password, there was no guarantee that you’d actually connect if too many people were logged on at once.

Cruz has also announced that Cuba will begin offering visitors preferential rates for roaming service so you can be connected outside of your hotel via your mobile phone as you explore the country. Now that 3G and 4G networks are available in popular destinations like Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Largo visitors will be able to Snapchat and Facebook their vacations like never before.

I suppose there’s no stopping progress and Cuba’s economic outlook depends enough on tourism that it’s necessary to build up their infrastructure to make it more attractive to visitors.

Cuba ‘Trump-ets’ new American invasion

It was 56 years ago that American-backed insurgents landed on the beaches of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. That invasion was a failure, but, thanks to the recent warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S., there’s a new American invasion taking place. How this one will turn out is anyone’s guess.

Any day that cruise ships are in town, the length of Calle Obispo, the main artery of Havana’s Old City, bustles with American  tourists. They come to explore the host of shops, bars and restaurants that line this picturesque avenue in a city that was once off limits to Americans.

One of the most popular spots along the street is La Floridita, the bar that invented the rum-fuelled daiquiri cocktail that was a favourite of American writer Ernest Hemingway.

Read the rest of the story on TraveLife Magazine’s website.

Photos: Five days in Cuba

Just got back from my first trip to Cuba, a country that I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. It totally delivered.

Music is everywhere, old American cars are omnipresent and not just on show for tourists and the people love life and are more than happy to share their country with visitors.

Here is some of what I saw during my short stay there:

Photos: Captivating views of Cuba

Many are predicting that Cuba will change once the effects of America’s embargo disappear. It surely will, although it remains to be seen if the changes will be for the better or for the worse. Whatever the case, you can be sure that it won’t happen overnight.

This collection of photos of the Caribbean nation give you a glimpse of what it’s like today so enjoy it while you can.

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Cuba 2013!

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