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    In 1492 Christopher Columbus "discovered" an island he named Juana on his first voyage, Cuba, a variant of Cubanascan, is the name given by the indigenous people. Four-million US citizens rediscovered the 42,815-sq.mile island 525-years later. Cuba is actually a 776-mile long archipelago set amidst thousands of smaller islands. Geographically it is 112-miles from Florida and 50-miles from Jamaica, is comprised of beaches, marshes, mountains, plains and tropical forests, and is situated between North and South America at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. While the dominant culture is Spanish, evidence of African, Chinese and other Europeans profound cultural impact on Cuba's art, architecture, cuisine, religion and music is pervasive.

    The first settlement was founded in 1511, the same year Chief Hatuey led a rebellion against the Spanish resulting in his being burned at the stake. In 1512 the King of Spain officially sanctioned black slavery and by 1555 their number exceeded 750. Ultimately more than a million slaves were brought to Cuba and by 1830 the black population outnumbered that of whites. Their labor made Cuba the world's leading sugar manufacturer at every stage of production. Slavery was abolished in 1886.

    Potential visitors tend to comment that they wish to visit Cuba and see it before it changes. I disagree, Cuba is like a kaleidoscope with fixed elements that are always expanding and morphing into something equally spectacular and a constant surprise. Additionally, one of Cuba's greatest exports has always been its culture, think Gloria Estefan, Ricky Ricardo, Celia Cruz, Mojitos and the rumba, and we begin to realize that visiting Cuba is like spending time with an old friend. In short, Cuba is where passion, art and history intersect and this is the perfect time to wallow in all it has to offer.

    In 1960 the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba and severed diplomatic ties the following year. Forty-five years later President Obama reestablished relations and in 2016 personally visited. With these events came an increased ability for Americans to visit with the goal of active interaction in the form of "people-to-people" educational programs. Documentation regarding their activities while in Cuba must be maintained for five years.

    To maximize your experience I highly recommend a cruise to the island and my research found that the best way to experience all that Cuba offers is to take a cruise and the most affordable and immersive all island tour I found was Celestyal® Cruises - Experience The Real Cuba‎. All of the above sites are part of a Havana tour in conjunction with accompanying guides, specialty drinks and guaranteed access to sites. All of their cruises immerse you in the culture through more than port excursions. On board activities and events amplify your experience with lectures, classes, folklore shows and Cuban crewmembers. Most impressively, activities are designed to coincide with port visits so that travelers are knowledgeable prior to cultural encounters. Celestyal Cruises vary in length and ports of embarkation. You receive a certificate that memorializes your participation in the people-to-people program and cruise line documents provide receipts, activity records and detailed itineraries making self-certification unnecessary. Schedules, general information and pricing is available online. http://americas.celestyalcruises.com/en,, #celestyalcruises

    There are nine UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country and the three harbors in which the ship docks provide access to five of them. The first port of call is Santiago de Cuba, one of the earliest settlements, established by Diego Velázquez de Cuellar on June 28, 1514. Both Hernán Cortes in 1518 and Hernando de Soto embarked on expeditions from Santiago and from 1522-89 it was the colony's capital.

    The premiere site in the city is the UNESCO inscribed Castillo San Pedro de la Roca, the 17th century fortress. The cliff side structure, designed by Giovanni Antonelli is considered "the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, based on Italian and Renaissance design principles". Tours include museum rooms and outdoor areas accessed by a series of stone steps and ramparts. The views are incredible and include the Sierra Maestra Mountains in which revolutionaries were headquartered.

    Northwest of the city is Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, founded in 1868 and named after an Ethiopian saint. The cemetery is replete with magnificent marble mausoleums, monuments and gravesites. Fidel Castro is interred here in a tomb carved from rock from his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra Mountains as well as the ashes of Jose Martí, national hero, poet and revolutionary. Martí's 85-ft. tall, hexagonal, mausoleum sits upon soil from every Latin American country and a changing of the guard ceremony takes place daily. 

    Theodore Roosevelt solidified his reputation during the Spanish American War by recruiting a group of amateurs he dubbed the Rough Riders to fight. On July 1, 1898 they and the 10th Cavalry of the US Colored Troops, the Buffalo Soldiers, charged up San Juan Hill leading to a decisive Spanish defeat. The Buffalo Soldier's contribution has gone largely unnoticed. Today the hill is covered with monuments the centerpieces of which are a centennial monument and a reproduction blockhouse.

    Santiago is known as the Cradle of the Revolution because significant events took place there. The Cuban Revolution began with informal urban resistance that was unified on July 26, 1953 when Fidel Castro led 150 rebels to attack Moncada Fort. Bullet holes are still visible on the exterior. Four years later Castro announced victory from the balcony of City Hall.

    The heart of Santiago is Cespedes Park, built according to the law at the time, surrounded by the cathedral, town hall and homes of the wealthy. The existing cathedral dates from 1727 and is a mixture of architectural styles. Of particular note is a statue of Columbus in a niche inside.

    Possibly the oldest home in the country, the 1516-30 home of Diego Velazquez, is now a museum. The house has Moorish elements and a cedar roof. Velazquez's office was on the ground floor. 

    Santiago is considered one of Cuba's most afrocentic cities and the annual carnival puts Afro-Cuban culture on display. The carnival dates from the late 1600s and includes, parades, performances and the official dance, the Conga.

    Havana is our second port of call. La Habana Vieja was founded in 1519 as a Spanish settlement and in 1982 Old Havana and its Fortifications were listed as UNESCO sites. The 5-mile Malecón, a bayside promenade, connects several of the areas in the city and provides great bay views and glimpses of pastel colored buildings on winding cobblestone streets. Americans constructed the Malecón during their occupation of the island.

    The colonial center was an important harbor in the 1600s and tours begin across from the cruise terminal in Plaza de la Catedral where Old Havana began. Five plazas, enclosed by the original walls, the Old Square the site of the slave market and Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the oldest standing colonial fortress in the Americas, are highlights. The symbol of the city is the 1748 St. Christopher's Cathedral with its Latin cross floor plan, Baroque façade and Neo-Classical interior. Showcased inside is a 1636 statue of St. Christopher.   

    One could spend their entire vacation examining the city's architecture. Early Spanish homes adapted Moorish elements to fit the climate and use. Basically homes had thick walls, tiles and shutters. In the 1700s rooms were added as well as central courtyards and in the 1700s the wooden grills were replaced by wrought iron. Business was conducted and slaves were quartered on the lower level while families resided upstairs. 

    Africa House Museum is housed within a 17th-century building that was once a tobacco factory. The 1986 museum is a research center and the 2,000-object permanent collection's exhibits relate the story of the African presence in the region and include objects gifted to Cuba from African nations. The first floor displays articles used during slavery. Santeria, "way of the saints", icons and other ethnographic pieces are also exhibited. The museum presents a variety of educational programs.

     

     

    Outside of the old city there are a plethora of additional sites that round out a portrait of the country. A good place to begin is at Havana Harbor atop La Cabaña hill where a Carrera marble statue of Jesus Christ blesses the city. The 320-ton monument stands 65-ft. tall and depicts a Latin male face. Located directly opposite the statue is the former home of Che Guevera. It is open to the public.

    Ironically, the luxury Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built in 1930 by Americans for Americans, it now represents a beacon of Cuban heritage and culture. On the exterior it is nearly an exact copy of The Breakers in Florida. Self-guided tours are free and many of the rooms have exhibits of artwork, memorabilia and photographs. Do not pass up a Mojito on the portico facing the bay. http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com

    Sculptor Jose Roderiguez Fuster built his home in Jaimanitas, an impoverished neighborhood. Inspired by Gaudi. His colorful works filled every surface of his house and he then began to decorate the homes of willing neighbors. The area, Fusterlandia, is now a tourist draw.

    Revolution Square dates from 1952 but it received this name in 1959 after the revolution. The site is important because all significant celebrations, rallies and parades are held here. The Memorial to Jose Martî, Cuba's national hero, is 358-ft. tall and provides the best viewpoint in Havana. A 59-ft. statue of a seated Martî is placed in front of the tower while interior memorial displays feature portraits, artifacts, documents and a mural. A 1995 wire portrait of Che is on the exterior of the Ministry of the Interior. The bronze depiction is lit in the evenings.

    Ernest Hemingway initially discovered the natural beauty, bounty and warmth of the Cuban people for three days in 1928 while on route to Spain. He and his family booked a room in the Havana Hotel Ambos Mundos. Four years later he returned to fish for marlin and two years after that he purchased a boat he named after his wife, El Pilar, that he docked in the tiny fishing village of Cojimar and he boarded in the Hotel Ambos Mundos. Eventually Hemingway purchased a hilltop home and lived there until he left Cuba after the revolution. He referred to himself as a Cubano Sato, an ordinary Cuban. There are five major sites on the Ernest Hemingway Trail that provide insight into what he most loved about Cuba. All are accessible, tours are self-guided and there is no language barrier.

    Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway's first home in Cuba, is located in the heart of Old Havana. The 5-story, colonial-style hotel was constructed in 1923 and restored 73 years later. During his 1932-39 residence he occupied room 511, now preserved as a museum, that features several personal items including the Remington typewriter upon which he started For Whom the Bell Tolls and one of his rifles. Looking around the room and out of the windows allows you an interesting look into his world.

    The lobby is complete with piano bar, comfortable seating and is a mini-museum. Adorning the walls are pictures of the author at various stages. A large open-grilled elevator is the one he would have ridden to his room and guests may take it to the rooftop terrace for cocktails and a view of the city below. Reservations can be made through Cuba Travel Network. www.hotelambosmundos

    Both of Hemingway's two favorite Havana bars still exist, are little changed physically and continue to serve his signature drinks. They are tourist draws but are also essential sites on the trail.

    La Bodeguita del Medio is a local establishment that is noted for not only its drinks but also its Cuban cuisine. Here Hemingway was known to favor the Cuban highball, a mojito. One of the most famous displays in the bar is a, supposedly, autographed, framed, statement, "My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita". The walls are filled with photographs of the author, inscriptions and graffiti.

    La Floridita is possibly the most famous of Hemingway's haunts and is considered "la cuna del daiquiri", "the cradle of the daiquiri". The Silver Pineapple opened in 1817 and was renamed in 1914 because of the large number of North Americans who frequented the establishment. An ascantinero, a bartender and the owner, is believed to have created the frozen daiquiri.

    The atmosphere in the bar is fantastic and tourists are ever present, but no Hemingway tour is complete without a daiquiri from La Floridita. The daiquiri was reportedly his favorite drink and he is said to have drunk 13 doubles in one sitting. They do offer drinks without the rum and live music is offered. Photographs and a bust of the writer decorate the venue and, best of all, Hemingway himself is present. A life-sized statue of the author, by Jose Villa Soberón, stands behind a red velvet rope near his favorite bar stool.

    In 1940 Hemingway purchased an 1886 hilltop home for $12,500 in San Francisco de Paula 10-miles from Havana. The home, Finca Vigia, Lookout Farm, was his residence until he left Cuba forever in 1960. During his years there he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Upon his death in 1961 the government took over the estate.

    Visitors cannot enter the house but are allowed to peer in through doors and windows. Tours are self-guided and include the house, garden, tower, pool and boat. The home looks as if Hemingway just stepped out. It is filled with trophies, personal items, furniture, 9,000 books and his personal typewriter placed atop a bookcase because Hemingway wrote standing due to an old injury.

    His fishing boat El Pilar is on view near the pool. It is painted in dark colors, unlike other Cuban fishing vessels, because Hemingway was the only American allowed to patrol Cuba's offshore waters hunting for German U-boats. He was equipped with hand grenades, binoculars and a Thompson machine gun. President Roosevelt requested that civilians volunteer to patrol the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in 1942. The volunteers became known as Hooligan Navy. They were mandated to patrol and if necessary alert the military. Hemingway the adventurer obviously had other military ideas.

    A few miles from Finca Vigia is the tiny fishing village of Cojimar. Hemingway set his 1954 Nobel Prize winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, there. He docked the Pilar there and it is widely believed that the title character is based on his fishing guide Gregorio Fuentes. In the novel the old man promises to visit the Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba if he lands his fish. Hemingway gifted his 23kt Nobel Prize Literary Medal to the Virgin of Charity where it was displayed until stolen even though it was rapidly returned.

    La Terraza de Cojímar is a restaurant and bar that was frequented by Hemingway. In remembrance the bar section is decorated with photographs and paintings of both Hemingway and Fuentas. In the attached restaurant his table is indicated with a historical sign. From his table you obtain one of the views that inspired his book.

    The main street is a bayside promenade and a small stone fortress currently housing the coast guard. Hemingway Park is midway the promenade. Inside a neo-classical pavilion is a bust of Ernest Hemingway created by villagers in his memory in 1962 from donated metal after they learned of his suicide. He gazes contemplatively out to sea.

    Our final port of call is the gateway to two important UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cienfuegos and Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios. These areas are living testaments of the agrarian and plantation history of the country and how it was pivotal to its vast wealth and politics. The gulf was discovered in 1494 and in 1745 a fort was built here to protect the bay from pirates. Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South", is situated on Cienfuegos Bay and became a center of tobacco, coffee and sugar cane trading. 

    French immigrants from Louisiana and Bordeaux founded Cienfuegos in 1819. The city began where the Main Square is today and a zero mile marker indicates the center of Cienfuegos. The square is set amidst several Neo-Classical gems but the 1886 Tomas Terri Theater is the showpiece. Terri was a businessman whose first fortune was generated by purchasing sick slaves and reselling them after they were cured. He was first to electrify his sugar mills and became one of the world's wealthiest men. Your tour begins on the exterior where gold-leaf mosaics of the muses of comedy, tragedy and music top the portico. The interior of the 950-seat venue is adorned with hand-carved Cuban hardwoods, wrought iron embellished balconies, ideal acoustics and a stunning ceiling fresco. The first performance was Aida in 1895 and since that time the world's greatest artists, Bernhardt, Caruso, Pavlova, etc., have performed there. Because Cienfuegos is an architectural wonder a walking tour is important but be certain to take a ride along Cienfuegos Boulevard, the longest street in the country. 

    A 60-minute drive from Cienfuegos is Trinidad, another UNESCO city, the first to be so declared in Cuba. It was inscribed based upon its history, culture and architecture. Diego Velazquez established Villa de la Santisima Trinidad, the 4th of the original settlements, on the location of an indigenous village in 1514. It was named to honor the Holy Trinity. Four years later Hernán Cortes departed from Trinidad on an expedition to Mexico. By 1532 more than 62% of the population of Cuba were African slaves and their labor was used to construct the cobbled streets and large squares surrounded by colorful buildings that are still intact today and represent the best collection of Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas.

    Trinidad was prosperous, first from farming and gold mining then during the Colonial Era as a result of the sugar and tobacco industries. The area between Cienfuegos and Trinidad is a UNESCO site, the 87-sq. mile Valley de los Ingenios, the hub of Cuba's lucrative sugar industry. In 1827 the valley was home to 11,000 slaves and 56 sugar mills and produced the largest amount of sugar in the world, about 220,462,280-pounds.

    Cuba became the main importer of slaves to the Caribbean. It is believed that just from 1835-64 400,000 slaves were sent to Cuba, more than 1,000 a month. After the Haitian revolution instigated a migration of former plantation owners to Cuba they brought their slaves, their tools and knowledge of sugar production along. The slaves, in turn, brought with them their religion, music and cuisine, all of which are visible in Trinidad. 

    Visitors can ride an antique train into the valley to the Hacienda Iznaga's 144-ft. slave-watching tower. The tower was built in 1750 to enable the owner to monitor the slaves' activities. There are 7 levels of different shapes and a narrow staircase that leads to a stunning view of the valley.

     

    Chief Hatuey, a Taino Indian, is credited with being Americas' first freedom fighter. He organized armed resistance against the Spanish invaders of Haiti who came in 1502 with 30 ships of settlers and 100 African slaves. The Africans ran away immediately and joined the resistance. In 1511 they expanded their efforts to Cuba. He and his men held Velásquez and Cortes trapped in a fort for 3 months. Hatuey was finally overwhelmed and on Feb. 12, 1512 he was publically executed. A friar accompanied him to the stake and offered him a chance at conversion and heaven. Hatuey after asking if all Christians would be there, expressed his preference to go to hell. A statue of Chief Hatuey is situated on the valley road. 

    Trinidad owed its prosperity to the fortunes of the sugar magnates. They built lavish mansions and plazas until the sugar market collapsed in 1860. No major roads led to Trinidad until 100-years later and the city remained largely secluded. Simultaneously the government banned development in order to preserve the colonial atmosphere. 

    Trinidad's streets were designed by military engineers as a labyrinth to confuse invading pirates and corsairs. The symbols of the city are the 131-ft. bell tower of the San Francisco Convent and the Plaza Mayor.

    Palacio Cantero is an 1830 Neo-Classical mansion that now houses the Museo Histórico Municipal. The mansion is filled with antiques including handcarved mahogany furniture, Baccarat crystal, original tile and Carrera marble sculptures. Chronological exhibits are in the mansion's rooms. The gallery with the history of slavery in the region is outstanding, informative and not to be missed. The kitchen has a locked water supply. One slave was entrusted with the key because they feared that one of their 30 domestic slaves would poison them. 

    La Canchánchara is located near the plaza. It is famous for serving a drink, 2/3 rum and 1/3 lemon juice, that was carried by Cuban warriors. Bottles of Canchánchara have come to symbolize freedom.

     Photo credit for images of courtyard and kitchen above, Jackie Finch.

    TRAVEL TIPS:

    1. The best, hassle-free and most affordable way to see Cuba is on a cruise and Celestyal Cruise recently won the Cruise Critic's Cruisers Awards for "Best Embarkation" and "Best Shore Excursions". @celestyalcruises

    2. Take cash. You can exchange money at each port. There are no ATMs and very few people take credit cards.

    3. Beware of the sun. Use sunblock, a hat and carry an umbrella. 

    4. Wear sturdy shoes.

    5. Take lots of pictures. You will want to remember the trip of a lifetime!

    6. Do not buy cigars on the street. They are of an inferior quality. Better cigars cost about $25.00.

     

     

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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