Around Cuba’s Bay Of Pigs In A 1929 Ford Model T Convertible

Let’s play a quick word association game. I say “Bay of Pigs,” you tell me what comes to mind.

Fidel Castro? Communism? Failed CIA missions?

When I think of the Bay of Pigs, I think of crystal clear water stretching out as far as the eye can see. I think of black sand beaches and snorkel rentals. I think of a beautifully restored 1929 Ford Model T convertible, driven by a young man in a woven straw hat.

When my boyfriend and I traveled to Cuba last summer, we had few plans apart from exploring the cobblestoned streets of Havana. But after a few days in the capital, we felt the urge to escape. I wanted more culture and history; my boyfriend wanted nature and the beach.

We compromised with a trip to the Bahia de Cochinos on the southern coast of Cuba, better known to Americans as the Bay of Pigs. Guidebooks promised great snorkeling and scuba diving; I was more intrigued by the bay’s storied past.

The Bay of Pigs leapt to notoriety after an unsuccessful American CIA mission to invade Cuba in April 1961. Upon landing, the U.S.-trained troops were handily defeated by Fidel Castro’s forces in a matter of days. It was a turning point in the Cold War, proving the fallibility of the United States while reinforcing the strength of the Castro’s Communist regime.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the Bay of Pigs embroiled in anything but epic mosquito swarms. The bay holds the swampy Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata to the west, the black sand Playa Larga in the center and the rocky Playa Giron to the east. We arrived via taxi from nearby Cienfuegos and stayed at the Casa Enrique Rivas Fente in Playa Larga, one of a handful of privately owned casas particulares that dot the sandy strip. The rooms were basic but clean, and meal offerings included fresh grilled lobster and squid. Since we arrived on a Saturday night, we were welcomed by a private chanteur, who played Cuban music for a troupe of Ukrainian salsa dancers staying at the casa next door.

Between mojitos, we asked our host for the best way to explore the peninsula. We had in mind bicycles, or perhaps a CUC$2 motorbike ride from stop to stop. Instead, our host recommended a taxi service run by her son. “This is the best way,” she assured us, a hint of mischief in her eye. We balked at the CUC$35 fee, but given the remote nature of the guesthouse and region, we had little choice.

The next morning, we arose to breakfast and the sight of a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T convertible parked in the driveway. This would be our ride for the day, our host informed us. Budget concerns aside, it was difficult to protest.

We hit the road, bound for the Cueva de los Peces, an inland freshwater swimming hole formed from a flooded cave. The water is refreshing but deep, stretching 230 feet into the ground. Nearby is a stand where you can rent scuba and snorkeling gear, and across the road is a rocky bluff looking out onto pristine white-sand snorkeling ground. Beach chairs are available for hire, but the real draw is the water, with its clear visibility, bright coral and sprightly tropical fish. Our driver staked out a spot by the snorkel stand and traded car tips with his friends while we enjoyed the sea.

After working up an appetite from the ocean air, we continued to Punta de Perdiz, a popular spot on Playa Giron with an on-site restaurant and cabanas. A serving of arroz con pollo and a Cristal beer hit the spot. The cabanas at Punta de Perdiz were slightly more conducive to lounging and reading, so we alternated baking in the sun with more dips in the water.

At one point, I staked out a spot on a bluff and looked out onto the sea. I tried to imagine undercover sea craft entering the bay and helicopters dropping paratroopers into the jungle. I thought about America’s contentious relationship with Cuba, about the outdated judgments many still hold toward Cuba and about our trip thus far. There’s a widespread belief that once foreigners are freely able to visit and invest in Cuba, the island will become a wasteland of gringo tourists and McDonald’s. With travel restrictions continuing to loosen, it will require a serious commitment to sustainable tourism and development to ensure that Cuba can benefit from increased development, without losing what makes it so special.

A few hours later, we hopped into the Model T and headed back to reality, impressions of the bay forever changed.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Conscious Consumption In Cuba: How To Have A More Authentic Trip While Supporting Private Businesses

Flower stand in Old Havana

Until very recently, nearly every entity in Cuba was owned and operated by the government.

But in the past few years, the Cuban government has tried to promote private businesses in hopes that the shift will provide a much-needed boost to the economy. In late 2010, President Raul Castro announced that the government would start making it easier for individuals to open private businesses for the first time since a limited experiment in the 1990s. By July 2012, nearly 250,000 people had opened restaurants, shops and service enterprises, contributing to a total 387,000 Cubans that have chosen to be self-employed, according to the New York Times.

It’s not a complete success story, though. According to the Times, Cuban entrepreneurs regularly run into high taxes, steep customs duties and arbitrary red tape. Cubans that rent out rooms in their homes as casas particulares, for instance, must write down their guests’ full information in log books the moment they check in, lest a surprise inspection lead to heavy fines. License fees for these types of businesses are high, and often prohibitive.

Still, the loosened regulations are a positive sign for the future of private business in Cuba, and travelers can have a positive, and powerful, impact on this growth. One big reason is that most travelers to Cuba use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), rather than the Cuban national peso (CUP). The CUC is most often used by foreigners for tourism-related transactions, like hotels and meals, while the CUP is used by most Cubans for everyday expenses. The difference between the two currencies is vast – 1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP – which means that spending CUCs at privately run businesses can have a large impact on the proprietors’ pocketbooks.

If you are visiting Cuba independently, there are a number of ways to have an authentic travel experience, while supporting private business owners and the local economy. Here are a few.

Terrace at the Bella Perla Marina casa particular in Cienfuegos

Stay in a casa particular

Cuba’s answer to Airbnb, casas particulares, are privately run bed and breakfasts, usually run out of people’s homes. Staying in casas particulares are a great way to interact with locals and get an inside look at how Cubans (or at least those with access to tourist dollars) live.

The government imposes strict regulations on casas particulares, so you can generally expect rooms to be clean and stocked with a fan, air conditioner, mini-fridge and bottled water for sale. Rates are standardized, and usually range from $20-50 per room, per night. For an additional fee, your host will also provide meals. One casa particular in the Bay of Pigs even offered musical entertainment!

Casas particulares are easily booked through international booking websites like or, or through Cuban sites like or Or, you can just roam the streets on the look-out for a white sign with blue writing that reads “Arrendador Divisa” – they are ubiquitous in most city centers, particularly Havana. If that host doesn’t have a room, he or she will more often than not call upon their network of friends to find you another one.

Dine at a paladar

Paladares are privately owned restaurants, often run by families out of their living rooms. They tend to have much better food and selection than the government-run restaurants, which are pretty uniformly bland.

Like privately run restaurants elsewhere, paladares run the gamut in terms of quality and atmosphere. One of the most renowned is Paladar la Guarida, an elegant spot at the top of a 20th-century tenement in Central Havana, famous as a setting for the film “Fresa y Chocolate.” The menu changes regularly but tends to feature inventive dishes with ingredients not often found in spice-strapped Cuba. My cantaloupe gazpacho with dried shrimp was superb.

Another popular spot in Havana is Paladar San Cristobal, which lives up to its five-star TripAdvisor rating. We felt instantly welcome from the moment we stepped into the colonial Spanish courtyard. Our host and waiters lavished us with free wine refills and shots of ron, then lit our first Cuban cigars to top off the meal. When they heard it was my birthday, they disappeared to the back of the restaurant and reemerged with an antique amethyst brooch, which they presented to me as a remembrance of Cuba. The thoughtful service overshadowed my slightly oversalted ropa vieja.

A private salsa class in Havana

Take a private salsa class

Nobody wants to be that awkward gringo doing the two-step on the dance floor at the salsa club. Brush up on your Latin dance skills with private lessons from one of Cuba’s informal dance schools. The best way to find a private instructor is to inquire at your casa particular, or ask around at popular salsa venues, like the bar at Hotel Florida. Rates are about CUC$10-20 per person per hour, and longer intensive courses are available.

Buy a used book in Havana’s Plaza de Armas

The charming, tree-shadowed Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a hub for used booksellers, many of which operate independently. Most books are in Spanish, but you can usually find an odd English or French title left behind by an itinerant traveler, as well as bootlegged copies of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” set off the Cuban coast.

Hitch a ride in a classic car

Rumbling along the Malecon in a classic car is a Cuban experience that can’t be missed. Look out for classic cabs with yellow license plates, which indicate that the car is privately owned. Some of the most beautiful and well-kept cars congregate at the Parque National in Centro Habana, but their rates tend to be high. Be sure to negotiate a fare before you start your joyride.

A final note

Traveling in a country with such a complex economic structure can be eye-opening, but also frustrating. If you are a tourist using CUCs, you will often be charged more than the local CUP equivalent. An ice cream shop charging 5 CUP for a cone (US$.20) will probably charge you a full CUC (US$1) instead.

Remember that the difference might be negligible to you, but could mean a lot to the vendor. Exercise patience, and try to avoid being stingy. And when you experience great service, don’t be afraid to tip!

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Next stop: Cuba’s Vinales Valley

Cuba’s Viñales Valley is home to the Parque Nacional Viñales, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The area is one of Cuba’s top-level tourist attractions. It can be reached by bus from Havana for CUC$12 ($13), a journey that takes between three and three-and-a-half hours.

Located in the far western province of Pinar del Rio, Viñales is comprised of a beautiful and otherworldly karst landscape of enormous outcrops of limestone, called mogotes, which are surrounded by green fields. The contrast between the red, even orange, soil and the super verdant foliage is dramatic and very picturesque. A media-primed visitor might wonder why this landscape hasn’t featured in any Hollywood films, at least before remembering about that pesky embargo.

Pinar del Rio is tobacco country, and in fact much of the agricultural production here is devoted to tobacco. Other crops include sugar cane, corn and various tubers. Farms in the valley sell their products to wandering tourists. There are fruits and vegetables on offer, as well as cane juice and cords of cigars. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to visit a tobacco farm during your hike and witness the various stages of tobacco production.

It is possible to tour the fields, mogotes, and caves independently, though most tourists plump for a local guide. Ours was extremely reasonable, at just CUC$3 ($3) per person per hour. Guides can be organized through casas particulares or hotels. Most walks are not particularly challenging, though shoes with a good grip are more or less obligatory.

For greater adventure, check out Viñales’ burgeoning climbing scene via Cuba Climbing. More adventurous travelers might also be interested in taking a day trip to the Santo Tomás cave system some distance beyond the town of Vinales. Santo Tomás is Cuba’s largest cave system.

Accommodation Tip:

Check out the simple, two-room Villa El Mojito, a casa particular run by an affable couple named Tita and Juanito. Tita serves up outstanding home-cooked dinners, and Juanito, formerly a bartender, goes by the nickname “El Mojito.” He mixes delicious mojitos with muddled yerba buena grown in the casa‘s back garden. A twin bedroom at Villa El Mojito goes for CUC$20 ($21). Breakfast is CUC$3 ($3) per person; dinner begins at CUC$8 ($8). The freshwater shrimp and pork are dinner standouts.

Cuba Libre: Trinidad

From Havana to Trinidad
The 8 hour bus ride to Trinidad was pretty uneventful, as the road is pretty flat and straight. We passed a lot of farm land and occasionally parts of the southern coast. There were just two notable sites along the way: Playa Giron (a.k.a. the Bay of Pigs), which Castro and Kennedy made famous in 1961, and Cienfuegos, where tourists can enjoy a little of the beach and a bit of the outdoors. I had initially planned on stopping through Cienfuegos after Trinidad, but my plans quickly changed after the events that night.

My first casa particular
I arrived in Trinidad at 2:30 as planned and was eager to experience my first casa particular. Peter and Frank were staying at a casa near the Plaza Mayor, and there should have been someone waiting for me at the terminal, but I instead found my way to the casa on my own by foot. Margarita and her husband Roberto greeted me warmly and showed me my lovely room set in a courtyard. The room was spacious with its own bathroom with a hot water shower. There was a kitchen just for guests that was separate from the kitchen for the family. The resident dog (a part German shepherd) served as our guard at night. This being my first taste of a casa particular, I must say I was spoiled. Not all casas resemble mine, nor do they have such nice, accommodating and helpful hosts. Casas particulares can only (by law) host two separate guests in two rooms. The families that host them pay a steep tax, but get paid in convertibles rather than the local national currency (which is 20 times less expensive).
The Plaza Mayor
Peter and Frank were out and about, exploring the steam train that took them to the Valle de los Ingenios, an hour east of Trinidad. I left them a note and took off toward the old part of the city, which is situated around Plaza Mayor. Trinidad as a colonial city is pretty cute, with cobblestone streets and colorful homes. It reminded me of a more colorful version on Barichara, a small town in Colombia. Aside from the church and some mildly informative museums and towers with nice vistas of the city and its surroundings, there’s not much to speak of in terms of things to do (other than shopping).

Almost immediately I spotted Peter’s recognizable backpack and we were promptly reunited at the Museo de la Lucha Contra Banditos. I accompanied the two of them as they did some last minute souvenir and gift shopping in town. Frank bought some a really cool fish carved from a bull’s horn, and Peter bought a cool Afro-Cuban mask made out of wood.

Lobster dinner in an unofficial (illegal) paladar
We returned to the casa and readied for dinner at an unofficial paladar that they had made a reservation at for our last dinner together. By the time we made it to the paladar, Frank and I were pretty buzzed, as I had brought with me what I had left of our stash of Havana Club rum from Habana. We each ordered the lobster dinner and enjoyed our unofficial paladar meal tremendously.


Live music
After dinner we went to the open stage by the Plaza Mayor to listen to live music. After one kind of dreary set, Frank discovered the official Casa de la Musica, which was situated just above where we were sitting. We sat down at a table and watched as a band set up for their concert. When they finished with the sound check I overheard that they wouldn’t begin playing until midnight, but confirmed with one of the band members (the cutest one, mind you) to make sure of their start time. He and I started talking, and I asked him as many questions I could think of to keep him conversing. His band had traveled from Santiago to Trinidad just for this concert, and would be leaving the next morning (Saturday) at 9:30. The band’s name is “Suena Cubano” and they’ve actually played abroad in Mexico (all over the country for two months) and Italy (Milan for a few weeks). I was excited to hear them play, but we returned to the open stage for an hour, where an Afro-Cuban band and dance team played to pass the time. Meanwhile, Peter, Frank, and I drank several “canchanchara’s,” a local drink that is made of lime, vodka, and honey – quite tasty!

Midnight was almost upon us and we returned to the casa, where I talked some more with the band member. I learned his name was Odernis and he has been playing with Suena Cubano for six of its eight years of existence. He plays the guiro, which is a percussive instrument made of a dried gourd. There are 12 members in the band, and they play mainly salsa and son music. He told me his band traveled a great deal around the country and hoped to travel abroad even more. (I told him that, as a travel writer, I would try my best to promote him and his band). He said that only a few Cubans are allowed to travel – mainly just doctors, business professionals, artists, and musicians. The host country must sponsor their visit, pay for their travel expenses, along with their accommodations and food, and explain the request.

Suena Cubano singing “Cuidado, Cuidado”

The music started soon after, and the band was stellar. It turns out Odernis plays the guiro and also raps for certain numbers. I must say I was immediately smitten by him, as he was not only an attractive Afro-Cuban that could dance, but he honestly looks like a smaller version of Kobe Bryant! (Even Frank and Peter agreed that if they were women they would dig him!). The band played several different numbers – most fast, some slow, but almost all of them were danceable. The locals outnumbered the tourists here about 4:1.

Odernis (a.k.a. Mini Kobe Bryant) rapping a modern salsa tune

The cave disco
When 1:30 rolled around (and the band was still going strong), Peter and Frank wanted to make sure we got to experience one more thing: a cave disco on top of the hill past the ruins. While most discos resemble caves, I’ve actually never heard of one that is housed in an actual cave! We snuck out of the concert (and in my mind I hoped we would return in time to say goodbye to Odernis), and made our way to the cave disco.

Had I been by myself, there is no question that I would neither have found nor wanted to find the cave disco. The place sits on top of the hill and to get there you have to walk 10 minutes in the dark and uphill. It’s a pretty scary sight as you make your way there because the abandoned ruin glows up top like a haunted house. We made our way to the top with no problem and were surprised to find several other locals and tourists enjoying the club scene inside. The entire club is inside the mountain – even the bathrooms are tucked into smaller caves inside. The dance floor is sizeable, and it has an enormous ceiling. There were two bars – one on the dance floor level and another near the entrance, and three levels (a patio, a seating area, and the bar/dance floor).

Frank singing to Bob Marley in the cave disco

Needless to say, we had a blast. The music was a mixture of Latin and American club tunes, and the locals outnumbered the tourist here 3:1. I even snapped a shot of Frank and a gay Cuban clubber! I had read that gay/homosexuals were sometimes imprisoned, but was pleased to discover liberal Cubans enjoying the Trinidad nightlife.

Change of plans
We were sufficiently tired by 2:30, and made our way back to the Casa de la Musica to see if he band was still playing. To my dismay, the band had not only finished their set, but already packed up their gear and left! I think it was at that point that I reformed my itin
erary to try to find Suena Cubano and Odernis again. Instead of visiting Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Matanzas, I would head to Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —