The Escambray Mountains are home to Topes de Collantes National Park
Published February 2014

Cuban Culture

From artists to farmers, get a behind-the-scenes look at the people of this Caribbean island

BYBeverly Burmeier
Curiosity has drawn us to the island that lies just 90 miles from Florida’s coastline — but a world away in culture and ideals — because Cuba has been off-limits to American travelers for more than half a century.
 
And now, as part of a “people-to-people” tour, we have the opportunity to see how Cubans live and work every day, including a visit to a tobacco farm, organic farm, elementary school, artists’ colony, pottery workshop, planned ecological community, and a nature park in the mountains.
 
After spending a night in Miami, we flew into Cienfuegos, one of the prettiest, and most colorful, cities in Cuba: palm trees with coconuts, gardens with tropical flowers in bloom, and buildings painted turquoise, pink, green, blue, and yellow. Located on the central southern coast, and situated on the Caribbean Sea, Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 by five French families from New Orleans. Cienfuegos, or 100 hundred fires, is very spread out, yet occupies less than one percent of the total area of Cuba. Although it has 500,000 inhabitants, traffic is mostly bicycles and horse-drawn carts, with a smattering of old cars on the road (just as everywhere else in Cuba).
 
“Cuba is not a typical tourist place,” says our local guide, Jessie Castro. “I hope you brought a spirit of adventure.” It’s an honest approach that allows us to appreciate her point of view.
 
Upon our arrival to Hotel Lagua, in Cienfuegos, the state choir treated us to a concert of classical pieces in Spanish and a melodic English version of “Shenandoah.” Pride in their art and in their country is evident in the smiling faces and trained voices of these talented young people.
 
Dinner and a Drive
One evening we have dinner at Palandar La Rosa, a private restaurant in the home of Jorge Ortega and his family. Restaurants set up in private homes are among the few private business models that are allowed in Cuba now.
 
Collectively, the Ortegas make dining arrangements for tourist groups: Jorge’s wife prepared us a delicious meal of soup, broiled snapper topped with shrimp, vegetables, and the standard Cuban salad of tomatoes, shredded cabbage, and cucumbers. I admire the determination of this family to forge their own path, as their restaurant has become their source of income.

Jorge arranged transportation for us in several vintage cars-turned-taxis. Just as we’ve seen in pictures, automobiles in Cuba date back to the 1950s or earlier (prior to the Revolution in some cases) because new cars are rarely available.
 
These vintage heirlooms are passed from one generation to the next, and, according to our young, hunky driver, his blue 1952 Chevy — with cherry-red leather interior — originally belonged to his grandfather. He keeps it rumbling along with duct tape, wire, and salvaged parts (never mind the dangling interior door handles).
The town hall building in Cienfuegos, Cuba
The town hall building in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Vintage vehicles, like this Chevrolet in Trinidad, are commonly passed from one generation to the next in Cuba
Vintage vehicles, like this Chevrolet in Trinidad, are commonly passed from one generation to the next in Cuba
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