12 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Miami, Florida
Arrive in Miami where our Expedition Leader meets you and accompanies you to our airport hotel. Gather this evening for an orientation and welcome dinner.
Day 2: Miami / Cienfuegos, Cuba
Our Cuba People-to-People exchange begins as we fly to Cienfuegos, where we meet our local Cuban guide who joins us on arrival. Founded by French settlers in 1819, the city is recognized as an outstanding early example of urban planning in Latin America. A tour of its historic center includes the Tomas Terry Theater, which opened in 1889 with a performance of Verdi’s "Aida." The magnificent interior includes seats made from Cuban hardwoods and a lavish ceiling fresco. Later we attend a performance by Cantores de Cienfuegos, an internationally acclaimed choral group, before heading to dinner at a local waterfront restaurant.
Day 3: Cienfuegos
At Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, established as a center for tropical plant research in the early 1900s, we find thousands of tree and plant species imported from around the world. Meet with staff to learn about the history of the garden, which once had close ties with the United States and other nations through the exchange of rare botanical specimens. Our next stop is the Taller Grafico of Cienfuegos, a cooperative where young Cuban artists work on lithographs over stone matrices in a large, airy building. Our interesting day ends at Indio Hatuey, an experimental research station operating in conjunction with the University of Matanzas. We'll learn about cutting-edge work that scientists are doing to develop new food sources for livestock and sustainable systems to intensify livestock production. Enhancing food security is an important goal of this work, as researchers also study the socio-economic aspects of Cuba's people and their food supply.
Day 4: Topes de Collantes / Trinidad
Depart early this morning to drive to Topes de Collantes. Soon, we turn inland from the coast to climb into the Sierra Escambray, where the slopes are draped in Caribbean pines, ancient tree ferns, bamboo and eucalyptus. This area lies within the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, a protected reserve encompassing some of Cuba’s lushest natural scenery, including rushing streams and waterfalls. The wet winds coming off the Caribbean Sea have made the north face of the mountains a luxuriant refuge for plants and animals, while the drier south face also contains important ecosystems. We spend the morning on a nature walk that highlights much of the area’s natural biodiversity. There are more than 40 indigenous species of orchid and 100 species of fern, wild plantain and banana trees, several representatives of the ginger family and some 40 species of coffee. Birdlife here is also profuse, with several unique species of hummingbirds.
On a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, we admire its little-known but outstanding collection of 20th-century Cuban paintings before continuing by road to Trinidad, founded by Diego de Velasquez in 1514 as a base for expeditions into the New World. Trinidad is the crown jewel of Cuba’s colonial cities, and today the city remains much as the Spaniards left it during its period of greatest opulence, filled with fine palaces, cobbled streets and tiled roofs. This evening we enjoy classic Cuban fare at Sol Ananda, the city’s best private restaurant. Meet with owner Lazaro Orellana and learn about what it’s like to operate a small private business in Cuba. We have invited local musicians to join us this evening.
Day 5: Trinidad
Trinidad’s historic treasures and contemporary lifestyles are our focus today. Around Plaza Mayor we find the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad. The 19th-century cathedral is the largest church in Cuba and is renowned for its acoustics and altars made of precious woods. We stop at the home and studio of a local artist to discuss the role of art as a form of expression in Cuba. We then visit the Palacio Cantero, an early 19th-century mansion owned by a German planter named Dr. Justo Cantero who acquired vast sugar estates. The elaborate neoclassical decor of each room is a testament to the wealth he amassed. Don’t miss the view of Trinidad from the top of the tower.
Later, at the beautiful Trinidadian residence of Julio and Rosa Munoz, we have a chance to chat with the family. Julio is a photographer, business owner and esteemed horse trainer. This evening, we have arranged for a local dance instructor to join us as we learn about one of the most lively elements of Cuban culture—salsa dancing! Dinner this is evening is at a special private restaurant—Casa de Los Conspiradores—owned by artist Yami Martinez, who has achieved international recognition for her work depicting the strains of life on Cuban women. The building remains one of the oldest and architecturally significant 18th-century houses in Trinidad and one of the most photographed colonial facades in the city.
Day 6: Valle de Los Ingenios / Santa Clara / Playa Giron
Important elements of Cuba’s history are on display as make our way northward to Santa Clara and on to the Bay of Pigs. First we reach Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), once the center of Cuba’s sugar industry. Trinidad’s immense wealth was created in this verdant valley from the late 18th to the late 19th century, though most of the 50-plus sugar mills were destroyed during the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Today the area’s cultural significance is recognized in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here we admire the Iznaga Tower, a regional landmark constructed in 1816 that once was Cuba’s tallest structure at 147 feet. Its height and elaborate design were a testament to its owner’s vast material wealth during the Spanish colonial period, much of which was created via the labor of more than 30,000 slaves in the valley.
Driving through dramatic landscapes to Santa Clara, our next stop is the Che Guevara Mausoleum, which houses the remains of executed Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and 29 of his fellow combatants who were killed in 1967 during Guevara's attempt to spur an armed uprising in Bolivia. This site includes a museum dedicated to Guevara's life and an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro in Che's memory. Cuban officials chose to pay tribute to Guevera in Santa Clara because his troops took this city in the Battle of Santa Clara—the final skirmish of the Cuban Revolution—which forced dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee.
En route to Playa Giron this afternoon. we stop at Bermejas Forest Reserve, a haven for many endemic birds and plants. We’ll hope for a chance to see the world’s smallest hummingbird, which is generally found here in the late afternoon, and we learn from park staff about steps being taken to protect the park’s unique ecosystem. At the Bay of Pigs Museum, we learn about the significance of this site in Cuba's history. Our accommodations for the next two nights offer a rare opportunity to stay with a local family in a "Casa Particular." Our Cuban hosts welcome us into their home and provide a window through which to witness the culture and customs of everyday life in Cuba.
Day 7: Zapata Peninsula / Zapata National Park
This morning we rise early to explore the Zapata Peninsula, a remote, sparsely populated area of tremendous ecological significance. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve covers 1.5 million acres, much of it marshes and brackish lagoons that comprise the largest wetlands in the Caribbean.
At the heart of the peninsula, Cienaga de Zapata National Park harbors some 1,000-plant species, of which 130 are endemic to Cuba, and a great diversity of habitats such as grasslands, mangroves, varied types of forest, coastal lagoons and coral reefs. We'll be joined by a local naturalist at Las Salinas, home to huge numbers of winter migratory birds as well as rare endemics. If we’re lucky, we may see the highly endangered Zapata wren and Cuban screech owl.
Day 8: Havana
As we snorkel the turquoise waters off Cuba’s southern coast, learn about the elkhorn coral formations that support myriad tropical fish. Cuba’s reefs demonstrate a level of health long since lost in corals elsewhere in the Caribbean, in part due to Cuba's decades of isolation from mass tourism and its sustainable agricultural practices.
Then it's on to Cuba’s vibrant capital of Havana. At the city’s heart, the Plaza de la Revolucion is the most politically important square in Cuba, standing witness to many rallies and revolutions that altered the course of Cuban history. Enjoy a welcome mojito here at the Hotel Nacional. This iconic landmark overlooking the Malecon waterfront opened in 1930 when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans. Later this afternoon we gather for a conversation with Dr. Rena Perez, formerly with the Ministry of Agriculture and retired advisor to the Ministry of Sugar. Dr. Perez’s slideshow discussion will address "Living in Cuba Today," with an emphasis on some of the current economic changes. A
private roof-top cocktail reception is in store this evening, followed by dinner.
Day 9: Havana
Meet with University of Havana Professor Raul Rodriguez this morning for a round-table discussion on U.S.-Cuban Relations, a subject on which he is a noted expert. Then, it’s time to explore our historic environs further. The strategic and commercial importance of Havana as Cuba’s capital is reflected in the fortifications surrounding the city. The original city was built around the plaza, one of the largest city squares in the world, in 1519, followed by the construction of the 17th-century walls that ring what is now Old Havana. We join a prominent architectural historian for an overview of Havana on foot and by bus. A highlight is an inside peek at the splendid Riviera Hotel, considered a marvel of modern design when it was opened in 1958.
We also stop at Havana’s new arts and crafts center located at the former Almacenes de San Jose at the Port of Havana, a harborside warehouse built in 1885 that is considered the oldest depository in the city. After a painstaking three-year restoration, the edifice is now a vibrant cultural center featuring art exhibitions, theatrical performances, recreational activities for children and a space for local artisans to display their wares.
Later we meet Dr. Norma Guillard, a University of Havana professor who studies psychology and gender. She is featured in the documentary film La Maestra, which we’ll view, which tells the stories of young women literacy workers who traveled across Cuba to teach and found themselves deeply transformed in the process—Dr. Guillard was among them. Afterward, dinner is at your leisure, with a chance to try your choice of one of Havana's many popular paladares, or privately owned restaurants. Radically altering Cuba's food landscape, paladares have made dining out a growing highlight of life in modern Cuba.
Day 10: Havana / Viñales
Today, more of Cuba’s beguiling rural scenery awaits as we drive to the western part of the island where the small town of Viñales sits surrounded by jungle-covered summits and limestone cliffs. Part of the UNESCO Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, this area’s complex geological structure produces special soils that support endemic flora including the tiny orchid (Bletia purpurea) that is a symbol of the reserve. In Valle de Viñales, we admire Cuba’s most famous landscape. This area was the last refuge of the Ciboney, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe. The mountains here are riddled with caves, some running underground for many miles, in which Ciboney burial artifacts and rock paintings have been found. Enjoy vistas of steep-sided limestone mountains called mogotes that rise starkly from flat valleys where farmers cultivate the red soil for tobacco, fruits and vegetables.
As we explore Viñales National Park this afternoon, we are accompanied by Emma Palacios, the leading gastropod biologist and conservationist in Cuba, for a close-up look at this fascinating ecosystem. The famous mogotes of the Viñales Valley are dramatic 250-million year-old loaf-shaped limestone mountains laced with caves. These karst formations have been worn away by hundreds of years of erosion, becoming small islands that are self-contained ecosystems. A walk along the Coco Solo Palmarito Trail reveals rich plant and birdlife. Over lunch at an organic farm, we meet the family, learn about their ecologically supportive growing techniques, and sample some fresh produce. The views are spectacular across this tropical plain famous for its tobacco plantations, rice paddies and hibiscus, bougainvillea and flame trees.
Our visit to the valley also includes a typical Cuban tobacco farm. With the development of the European tobacco market in the early 19th century and the perfection of the Havana cigar, Cubans realized Pinar del Rio guarded a treasure: soil and climate that produced the world’s best tobacco. The timeless scenes here epitomize rural Cuba—thatched homesteads and farmers, called guajiros, driving ox carts with their faithful dogs trotting at their heels.
Day 11: Havana
The morning begins with a roundtable discussion with economist Ricardo Torres on the “Changing Forces of Cuba’s Economic Structure.” Mr. Torres, a professor at the University of Havana, reviews the monumental economic changes afoot in Cuba as forces for liberalization and privatization continue to gain greater hold.
We stop at the National Theater to watch a dance class at the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. This extraordinary dance group melds classical ballet and American modern dance with folkloric Afro-Cuban dance, Cuban rumba and Spanish flamenco. Then it’s on to the Havana Botanical Garden for lunch, where we’ll take in a panel discussion on the conservation of biodiversity in Cuba. We also visit the new Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: Arte Cubano (Cuban Collection), accompanied by curator Lucila Hernandez. The museum dates back to 1842, when the San Alejandro Art Academy started its collection that became the nucleus of the museum founded in 1913.
Our grand Cuba adventure wraps up with a farewell dinner at La Guarida, perhaps the best known of the trendy new paladares in Havana. Radically altering Cuba's food landscape, privately owned paladares have made dining out a growing highlight of life in modern Cuba. La Guarida is the most elegant of Havana's offerings and attained fame as the locale where the 1994 Oscar-nominated Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate was shot.
Day 12: Havana / Miami / Depart
Our People-to-People tour concludes today as we fly from Havana to Miami.
All This Included
Experience Cuba’s stunning tropical ecosystems and hospitable culture on this educational exchange journey designed to provide a human perspective on the natural side of this Caribbean island nation. Our “People-to-People” approach offers personal encounters with contemporary Cubans eager to share their rich natural and cultural history, as well as details of modern life in a rapidly changing Cuba. Explore World Heritage Sites and UN Biosphere Reserves and learn about rural life on the land as we share personal interactions with our Cuban hosts. For decades, Cuba has been off-limits to most U.S. citizens, but doors are opening via educational journeys that offer a rare chance to exchange ideas and insights with Cuban scientists, naturalists, academics, farmers, community activists, artists, business owners and more. Join us for an authentic Cuba travel experience you won't find anywhere else!
Miami: Pullman Miami Airport Hotel
Trinidad: Grand Hotel Trinidad
Havana: Parque Central
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