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Michigan Radio travelers visit Cuba

Group photo at the Hotel International de Cuba
Christa Quinn
Michigan Radio
Group photo at the Hotel International de Cuba

Michigan Radio Stateside producer Mercedes Mejia and major gifts officer Christa Quinn traveled to Cuba with a group of Michigan Radio listeners in late February 2023. These are Christa’s impressions of the trip.

It’s hard to describe the sensory overload that one feels when stepping out of the airport in Havana for the first time. We were greeted by our wonderful Cuban tour guide, Eric, who was appropriately donned in a University of Michigan hat. Marla Whitesman from Premier World Discovery was our American tour guide on the trip. Once on the bus, the first words that Marla told us were that our experience in Cuba would change us, and that the Cuban people and culture would leave an indelible mark on our souls. She couldn’t have been more correct.

From the airport to the hotel, we made a stop in Cuba’s Revolution Square (Plaza de Revolucion), where thousands used to gather to hear Fidel Castro speak. This is also where we caught a glimpse of our first of many classic cars, before we were taken to our hotel which was located right on the seaside.

Day one of touring brought us to old Havana, where a walk through the streets unveiled the rich history of the city, including a stop at the beautiful Cathedral de la Havana, built in 1748. We walked on streets made of dirt, cobblestone, and even wood block, which, according to our guide, were designed centuries ago to protect the cherished naptime of a woman who couldn’t sleep due to the sound of horses’ hooves clomping on the cobblestone streets.

Next, it was on to learn about "vitamin R" at the Havana Club Rum Museum where we learned about the process of turning sugar cane into molasses and eventually into the rum that we all came to love throughout the week. Of course, no tour of such a facility would be complete without a tasting, and despite it being before noon, that’s exactly what we did!

In Cuba, there are two types of restaurants; government owned (which are said to not be very good), and family-owned establishments called Paladars. Lunch on our first day was the famous Paladar ChaChaChá, where our group was welcomed Cuban style with tall, cold mojitos that were delicious. Food in Cuba mostly consisted of some sort of meat (roasted or shredded), with beans and rice on the side, which is what was served for lunch at ChaChaChá.

After lunch, we made our way to the home and workshop of Cuban artist Jose Fuster, who has decorated his home and much of his neighborhood with whimsical tile art. Fuster is known as the Cuban Picasso and as you can see by the pictures, it was a feast for the eyes!

There were two nights that the itinerary of the trip indicated that we would be on our own for dinner. The whole group voted to go to one of the famous Cuban jazz clubs, so our American and Cuban tour guides made reservations and transportation arrangements for us to go as a group to the Buena Vista Social Club for dinner and a show. And what a show it was. Legends in Cuban jazz performed for an audience from around the world and we were the only American group there!

Of course in Cuba, you can’t enjoy "vitamin R" without an expertly rolled Cuban cigar, so on day two of touring, we went to La Corona Cigar factory to learn how these highly sought after cigars are made. The workers roll cigars in three layers, the outer layers being more moist, while the inner layers are dry to semi-dry to control flavor and flammability. The workers must meet a quota each day, and are paid extra for extra quantity, but there are strict quality standards that each cigar must meet before it is allowed to be packaged and sold. No photos are allowed of the process so as to not publicize any secrets. After the tour, cigars were available for purchase for enjoyment in Cuba as no cigars are legally allowed to be transported back to the U.S.

Next was a drive through the streets of Havana to visit the amazing Habana Compas Dance Group. This small group of young women combined African and Caribbean rhythms with dance that created a vibrant and electric performance. They are a professional dance troupe and the women spend all day, every day at the school perfecting their art. They are able to tour to many different places, but not the U.S. at this time. Lunch on this day was served at the only government owned restaurant that we visited in Cuba, where we shared the spacious open-air dining area with a group who was in Cuba for the Cuban Cigar Festival. Many linen suits and fedoras were worn by the men whose lunch was documented by a press contingency.

After lunch, we heard from our guest at the meal: a former professional Cuban baseball player who told us about his choice to stay in Cuba to play baseball, after turning down the opportunity to play professional American baseball three times. Then it was onto the Cuban craft market for some shopping. Vendors were happy to see an American tour group, and their offerings didn’t disappoint! The last stop before a few hours of downtime was to the Hotel de National de Cuba. This beautiful, historic hotel has been a Cuban home to many American celebrities before the current ban on American hotel guests went into effect. While Americans aren’t allowed to stay at this hotel, we were most certainly allowed to tour its beautiful grounds and sip a Cuba Libre. Dinner that evening was at another wonderful Paladar, El Carbon.

On day three of touring (day four of the trip) we boarded the buses early in the morning for a journey out of Havana to the Cuban countryside of Vinales. As usual, our amazing Cuban tour guide, Eric, spoke to us about the landscape, the history, and our surroundings as we made our way to the hills.

Our destination: a working Cuban tobacco farm where we watched Benito, the farmer, roll cigars in the tobacco drying hut on his land. Inside the hut it was cool, which was a welcome escape from the Cuban heat.

After a short drive through the village, we arrived at an organic farm for a farm-to-table lunch of local root vegetables, rice, and meat. There was another large group at the other side of the restaurant from, of all places, the University of Michigan. What a small world! After the long day on the road, we were back at the hotel for an evening on our own. Some people went into Old Havana, some went to see another jazz show, while others dined at local paladars near the hotel.

Our last day of touring began with a walking tour of the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón Cemetery, founded in 1876. The cemetery features above ground tombs and mausoleums that are beautifully sculpted and preserved. Spanning 60 city blocks, the cemetery is the final resting place for famous Cubans, including artists, writers, musicians, and ballplayers.

We then drove through the city to Ernest Hemmingway’s farm, where he lived with his wife Martha for 21 years. This beautifully preserved property features Hemmingway’s boat, Pilar, and views inside the home of artifacts, books and furniture from his life on the island. A rooftop paladar with music, mojitos and majestic views capped off our morning before we made our way to our next stop: the art museum. Cubism was a theme for many of the paintings we saw in this multilevel beautiful museum located in the heart of Old Havana. We heard from a fascinating docent whom we all wished could’ve spent hours upon hours with us talking about the art.

After the museum, a brief stop at the Morro Castle for sweeping scenic views of the bay and Havana before going back to the hotel to get ready for the evening. That evening, we became part of the Cuban culture as we hopped in vintage cars for a tour of Havana before being dropped off at a mansion that was open just for us for dinner. We were greeted with a welcome cocktail and were treated like royalty as we sat on the upper patio enjoying the last evening of the lovely Cuban air.

From all walks of life, 36 people came together bonded by one common passion: Michigan Radio. Our group ranged in age from 15 (what an amazing young woman) to 80 (equally amazing). People mingled, people bonded, friendships that will last well past this trip were made. Throughout the tour, Eric was our mobile historian, teaching us all about Cuban culture each step of the way, answering our questions, and making us feel a part of this beautiful country. We would not have had such an experience without him, and our American tour company and its guide, Marla, made everything smooth and packed our days (not too packed) with culturally rich experiences. A trip we will never forget.

Christa Quinn is the Lead Major Giving Officer at Michigan Public. She spent the first five years of her time at Michigan Public as a member of the Corporate Sponsorship team. Christa came to Michigan Public in late 2018 with many years of experience in the media industry.