It is Thursday, June 22nd, Andy and I are boarding an Alaska Air flight to Los Angeles to rendezvous with the rest of the TGT crew before all of us jump onto another Alaska Air nonstop flight to Havana, Cuba. This year’s line up includes: Jeff, Wyatt, Rob, Bob, Ian, Jof and his best buddy and “newbie” Andy.
We arrived in the hot and humid late afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport, we cleared customs, stopped at Int’l exchange to get CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Pesos, which is the currency tourist use in Cuba) and jumped into a couple of taxis for the thirty minute drive to Casa con Piscina on the outskirts of Havana. It is an eclectic home with colonial style architecture with columns, tall ceiling and narrow door ways. Attached to the back of the home was an enclosed cabana with a thatched roof housing the pool table, bar, restaurant and adjacent to the outdoor pool. The owner was a tall, soft spoken local named Tania Ortiz a former world champion and Olympic gold medalist in volleyball. She showed us pictures of her playing in the Olympics and meeting Fidel Castro!
By the time, we arrived at Casa con Piscina we were all hungry. Our gracious host Tania gave us menus, we had a lot to chose from: chicken, pork, beef, fish and some not so usual courses such as turtle and caiman. Dinner took about two hours, so we claimed our rooms and then settled in around the lounge, bar and pool table. By the time dinner was served we were all feeling pretty good and inhaled a delicious meal. After dinner we retired back into lounge/bar and commenced with the Honored Mate ceremony. It was a night to remember with the consumption of Cristal beer and the national hooch Havana Club rum. Bob was selected as the new Honored Mate (HM) 2018 and the celebration continued deep into the night!
On day two, we grabbed some taxis for our initial visit into Old Havana. We were all still feeling the effects of our night of debauchery when some of the boys were unlucky enough to sit in the back of the only taxi van with an exhaust leak and no openable rear windows. Needless to say when the taxis dropped us off across the street from the public square Plaza de San Francisco, Rob and Andy christened old Havana in their own special way. Old Havana was beautiful with the colonial architecture dating back 500 years, the classic 50’s style cars, great music, public squares/parks, friendly people all set with the Caribbean sea as a backdrop.
On day three, we again boarded a taxi van (no exhaust leaks & working a/c) for our day trip to Vinales about ninety miles outside of Havana. Vinales is a rural tobacco growing region with beautiful lush green vegetation and rolling hills. We toured a tobacco farm, learned how tobacco is grown, processed and the making of cigars. We learned that the government takes 90% of the farmers proceeds. We watched as a farmer hand rolled cigars and in turn offered everyone a hand rolled cigar with the cut tip dipped in honey. We bought the cigars which turned out to be the best cigars from the trip. After the tobacco farm we drove by to see the famous Mural de la Prehistoria – paintings of dinosaurs and early man on a large natural rock wall. We stopped at a local rural restaurant for lunch where we ate and danced. We wrapped up our Vinales trip with two hours of zip lining with El Fortin canopy tour. What a blast zipping through the trees 100 feet off the ground.
Day four was a free day spent back in old Havana hanging out, walking around and meeting the locals. One group of locals working in a grain storage warehouse invited us in and out of the torrential rain storm that had just begun. They shared their stories of Cuban life as well as their rum. There was a lady who invited us into her condominium to show off her latest remodel which was across the street from the first hotel in Havana which was undergoing a extensive rebuilding. We ended our visit being suckered into some back alley room where we bought “genuine” Cuban cigars only to learn later they weren’t the high quality Cubans we thought – oh well live and learn. Once again we grabbed taxis which were old, well taken care of classic cars and headed back to the casa.
Day five, we packed our bags, said goodbye to Tania and headed 200 miles southeast via Cienfuegos for lunch and to our final destination – the 500 year old and UNESCO World Heritage site – Trinidad. Trinidad is a town in central Cuba with cobblestone streets and old colonial style architecture. We meet our gracious host Ivani owner of Casa LaEsmeralda and settled in. Trinidad was a nice respite from the hustle, bustle and exhaust fumes of Havana. In the evening we went out to a local bar with views of the town and had some beers and cocktails. Jeff befriended a couple who had visited Trinidad several times and recommended the restaurant La Redaccion. The food was excellent as well as the ambiance. Afterwards, we walked the streets and tucked into a local bar were again we befriended the owner, drank and shared cigars all while a thunder and lightning storm was going on outside. The rain was coming down so hard that the streets looked like creeks. We visited until the storm was over and headed back to the casa around midnight.
We were all enjoying ourselves until day six, when we all came down with some degree of sickness (perhaps from bad ice). Most of us spent the day hanging around the Casa or adventuring not far from the casa in case we needed to make a mad dash for the bano. No one had it as bad as Wyatt and Andy and luckily they were roomies. Let’s just say their room was dark as well as ripe with the smell of vomit and shit. Those two purged from every orifice possible except for perhaps their ears. Some of us tried to help by bringing them safe clean ice, water & medicine but there was no stopping whatever they were getting rid of. By the late evening, Wyatt was starting to feel better but the evil was not through with Andy.
By day seven, most of us felt good, Wyatt was better but fatigued and poor Andy was still battling the demons. Our gracious host Ivania and her husband took care of Andy providing him with medicine, tea and food while the rest of us went on a horseback riding adventure. We rode through the countryside past fields of sugarcane, livestock and shanties until we arrived at the trail head. We were now in El Cubano national park and we were hiking up to the local waterfalls – Salto del Caburni. We all had a ball swimming and jumping off the cliffs even “cliff jumping”, Ian. Afterwards, we hiked the 15 minutes back to the horses and began the journey back to Trinidad, however, along the way our guides stopped at their favorite local shanty for a cold refreshing beverage. We watched as the patron made fresh squeezed sugarcane juice and we all shared drinking the dirty sugar water then chased it down with more cold Cristal. We hung out at the watering hole with our and other local guides talking and having a jolly good time. They were comfortable hanging with us gringos when one Amigo pulled out a hand-carved knife to show us then our guide pulled out a knife etched blade to show us his handiwork. It was getting late, so we bid farewell and headed back to town. We made it back to town with some sore thighs and crotches from the riding all day but all was good. Andy was feeling better so we went out to eat at a roof top restaurant with more good views and shared our adventure with him. We should have spent more time in Trinidad and less in Havana. Late that night, Jeff and I headed out about midnight to check out a local disco club called Ayala which was inside a cave. The club consisted of multiply rooms set deep in the cave with a dance floor and large video display screens. We had some drinks, checked the place out and then headed back to the casa.
On day eight, we again packed up. said goodbye to Ivania and drove back to Casa con Piscina for a quiet evening before heading back to the states the following day. On June 30th, we headed for Jose Marti and boarded our flight to LA, after landing and clearing customs we said our goodbyes and, Andy and I flew to Seattle.
Cuba was a memorable trip and I was happy to introduce my best friend, Andy to my longtime best friends. I’m just sorry, Andy wasn’t able to experience Trinidad like the rest of us but I know I’ll be back perhaps with, Andy and the wives – together visiting Trinidad and the many other beautiful places in Cuba.
2017 TGT “Cuba” HM