KyForward’s VP Carolyn Richardson was among the group of Lexingtonians who went on a recent 10-day Commerce Lexington trip to Cuba, experiencing the sights, sounds, history and customs of an island so close to U.S. shores – but a world away in so many ways. Her journal provides insights into the mysterious place it has become for many Americans. This is the second of two parts.
By Carolyn Richardson
Special to KyForward
Day 6 – Cayo Santa Maria – Che Guevara, art school
A 22-foot statue of Che Guevera bearing his rifle stands at a memorial to the revolutionary in Santa Clara, Cuba. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
After a long bus ride from Havana to the Cayo Santa Maria region, our first stop was at the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara. This impressive memorial is dedicated to Guevara’s life and houses Che’s remains and those of 29 other fellow Marxist revolutionaries who were killed in 1967 during his attempt to start an armed uprising in Bolivia.
Along with the mausoleum, there is a museum depicting his life and located in the plaza is a 22-foot bronze statue of Che with his rifle. An eternal flame in his memory was lit by Fidel Castro in 1997 when his remains were discovered in Bolivia and returned to Cuba with full military honors. The memorial and the surrounding plaza are used today for large events and celebrations.
Santa Clara was chosen as the site for this memorial because Guevara’s troops took the city on December 31, 1958 during the Battle of Santa Clara. This was the final battle of the Cuban Revolution and resulted in the Cuban dictator Batista fleeing into exile. To this day, Che Guevara is Cuba’s most celebrated hero.
Our next stop was a visit to the Santa Clara Art School and Cultural Center. We were treated to a special musical performance by a group of talented young people, ranging in age from 5 to 14. These young performers study dance, music and acting following their regular day at school. Following their musical, we talked with the children and distributed pens, pencils and other school supplies that we had brought to the students. A wonderful and rewarding experience and a definite highlight of the trip.
Again boarding the bus, we embarked on a two-hour ride that lead us to the Melia Sol Cayo Santa Maria hotel. The resort is located on an island that is reached by travelling a 30-mile causeway from the mainland. This area is a favorite vacation spot for tourists from Europe and Canada and is renowned for its beautiful beaches. After checking into the hotel and having a very late lunch, we all relaxed around the pool area and enjoyed some down time for the rest of the evening.
Day 7 – Caibarien and Remedios – a printing house, sugar mill and fun
This antique printing press is still used daily in the village of Caibarien, Cuba. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
This morning we traveled back across the causeway to the quaint seaside village of Caibarien. Our first stop was the Printing House where we saw early 1900 vintage printing machines that are still in use today. Of the three working machines, two came from Chicago and one from Germany. This visit brought back childhood memories of watching the folks at The Cadiz Record typesetting the entire paper on these type of machines. Very tedious and time consuming process. I’m not at all sure any of us have the patience today for this sort of endeavor.
Next came a visit to a local art gallery located in the home of one of the artists. The artwork was representative of the various styles of Cuban artists, depicting the various lifestyles of the Cuban people.
Bandstand's, like this one in Santa Clara, are found in most small towns throughout Cuba. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Most of the cities and villages in Cuba have a town square with a grandstand in the center where the locals gather to listen to music or speeches. Today we were treated to a musical concert by the local youth orchestra. They were talented young musicians who played several lively marches that the crowd enjoyed. This event was another part of our cultural people-to-people experience and an opportunity to talk with the locals.
The Marcello Salado Sugar Mill Museum was our next stop. This region used to have over 50 mills, but in the 1990’s when the sugar market bottomed out most were closed, leaving only nine in operation today. Over time as the mills became more modern and automated most of the large machinery was purchased and shipped to Cuba from the United States. In this particular mill, one of the machines had been built in Louisville, Kentucky by Schmutz Manufacturing Company and was still in working order.
The sugar cane was brought to the mills by steam trains from all over the region. The museum has a wonderful, well maintained collection of old trains and we were given a short ride on one. Again, a visit to Cuba is like taking a step back into time. From the wonderful vintage cars everywhere to the working printing presses and steam trains. Truly, a trip down memory lane for a lot of us.
Next we visited the village of Remedios which was founded by the Spanish in 1578. Here we toured a beautiful cathedral with a spectacular gold altar and had the opportunity to talk with one of the Monks. This village also had a wonderful town square full of locals selling their wares and enjoying each other’s company.
As had been promised, we had most of the afternoon off to enjoy the resort and beach. The beaches of the area have beautiful white sand and crystal clear water. All up and down the beach are small thatched roof huts for tourists to shield themselves from the blistering sun and “runners” to provide you with your favorite beverage. The resort itself had a beautiful pool, gift shops, open air bars, a bank, and several restaurants.
That evening we were treated to Salsa lessons for those whose energy level was still high, although many of us enjoyed just being a spectator. Dinner tonight was in the hotel followed by a number of opportunities to enjoy a variety of Cuban music and entertainment. Then back to our bungalows to repack for the return to Havana.
Day 8 – Cienfuegos and Havana – ‘Pearl,’ music, great food
Today we departed the beach and drove to the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, founded in 1819 by French settlers. Cienfuegos is know as Cuba’s “Pearl of the South,” and offers both wonderful architecture and some degree of urban planning.
The Thomas Terry Theatre in Cienfuegos, Cuba, wasbuilt in 1889 and is still active today.(Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
It is home to a very large and active port and was the most prosperous of all the areas we visited. There appears to be a higher standard of living in this city and a larger variety of businesses and activities. Overall, a bustling area that is well maintained and very clean. Located on the town square is the Thomas Terry Theatre, built in 1889 and very active today and has been maintained in its original state with beautiful ceiling frescoes.
After visiting the straw market, a local art gallery and the square we were bused to a beautiful waterfront area of the city for another musical performance. This performance was held in a theatre/nightclub that was attached to a fabulous resort hotel. Here we were introduced to a local chamber music group who were studying under the direction of a well know Cuban violinist. Their performance was very professional and we learned that they would be part of a group of musicians from Cuba who would be touring several countries this year.
Following the concert, we had lunch in the hotel next door and were able to enjoy the spectacular views of the city and waterfront before beginning our three- hour ride back to Havana.
In Havana we returned to the Melia Havana Libre for our last evening in Cuba. For dinner that night several of us went to the well-known restaurant, The Hideaway, which was where the movie by the same name was filmed. We had watched the movie on our return trip to Havana. The restaurant was on the 3rd floor of a crumbling historic building in Central Havana. Once you climbed the steep circular marble stairs, you walked into a charming and intimate restaurant.
By all accounts, it lived up to the recommendations and we had a wonderful farewell meal with a variety of Cuban appetizers and fresh seafood. The perfect end to a great trip.
Day 9 – Havana and Home – time for reflection
After an early breakfast, we boarded our bus for the final time. Our only stop before the airport was at the Plaza de la Revolution, Havana’s largest plaza where huge rallies and celebrations are held. Here we took a group picture of the tired but happy folks of the “Orange” bus.
Once at the airport, we had to say goodbye to our competent bus driver, Alberto and our fabulous guide and new friend, Israel. After making our way through customs we boarded our charter and begin our long day of travel that would eventually end in Lexington.
As I reflect on my Cuban Adventure, I know it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and a chance to see first-hand a culture and a people that are so closely tied to our past and our future. Ninety miles off our Florida coast lies an island that in many ways represents a trip back in time, but whose people have great hopes and dreams for the future. While its people are still suppressed and their quality of life very low, there is a sense of pride and a love for their culture and their land.
Perhaps, someday they too will be free like their American families.
Thank you, Commerce Lexington, for making this trip a reality and giving us the opportunity to experience first-hand the interesting culture, the wonderful people and the beautiful island of Cuba.
Be sure to check out the complete Slide show of Carolyn’s travels below