Talking Travel (and Cuba) with award-winning travel journalist Christopher P. Baker

Christopher Baker is the 2008 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and has visited Cuba more than 30 times. He’s personally met with Fidel Castro, as well as leading members of the Cuban government and is personally acquainted with key figures within Cuba as well as key industry figures outside Cuba. Baker is not only a Cuba fanatic who is intensely interested in Castro’s family life and lovers, Cuban cigars, Che Guevara, and classic American cars, he happens to know a great deal about other parts of Central America, too. Baker has appeared on ABC, CNN, NBC, and NPR Public Radio.

I had the privilege of corresponding with Baker about his contributions to his Moon Cuba handbook (for which he keeps a very informative blog) as well as his future endeavor in Colombia. As my Cuba Libre posts come to a close, I feel it may be most poignant for Gadling readers to get some perspective from Baker, whose insight on Cuba is not only enlightening, but also educational and inspiring.

BY: How many times have you been to Cuba, and how much time did you spend them collectively?

CB: More than 30. I shall be there for three months total this year over three trips. Most visits I fill my days and evenings researching for my guidebooks and magazine stories. I’m always looking for what’s new.

BY: What is your favorite place in Cuba — and why?

CB: No doubt about it. I have two. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) simply astounds with its wealth of historic buildings, and its heady atmosphere and endless this to see and do. But I am never happier than when simply rocking in a rocking chair, with a rum and cigar, watching the pretty Cubanas go by. Meanwhile, I always long for Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage site, for its intact colonial charm and sleepy pace of life.
BY: What is one of your fondest memories in Cuba?

CB: After 15 years of traveling to and reporting on Cuba, I never cease to be amazed by its surrealism tinged with sensuality. I often regale the tale of having gone to pick up my girlfriend Mercedes (a showgirl dancer at the Tropicana nightclub) after work. This night she had shaved her head entirely and was dressed all in white, from turban to white high-heeled shoes and bobby-socks. She wore many colorful collares (necklaces) and bangles. She had just been initiated as a santera, in the Afro-Cuban santeria religions and for a year henceforth would wear only white and follow specific proscriptions. We hailed a 1950s taxi and settled into the back seat. Passing through a narrow dark street in Centro Habana, a policeman jumped out and stopped the taxi. A man lay at the side of the road, bleeding profusely. The policeman was commandeering the taxi to take the man to the hospital. Mercedes wound down the rear window and poked her turbaned head out.
“You can’t do that!” she said in Spanish. “I”m Santa Teresa!”
The black policeman looked aghast, fingered his own collares, and shouted at the taxi driver to go. He waved us on and ran off to look for another vehicle.
“What on earth did you tell him?” I asked her.
“I told him I’m Santa Teresa, the patron saint of the dead. If he’d put that man in the car I might have killed him!”

BY: Why did you pursue Cuba and not some other place in the world? What did Cuba have that piqued your interest more than any other country?

CB: Cuba pursued me! When asked to author a guidebook in 1991, I instantly knew that this would be a unique adventure. Cuba seeped into my soul. More so back then, but still today. Its unique combination of socialism and sensuality, its unique history, combined with its Hollywood time-warp settings, twine to produce a haunting realm of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma.

BY: You wrote a book about motorcycling through Cuba. What was that like?

CB: Well, it was one of my greatest adventures. The bike opened me up to the people, made me more accessible as well as more of a curiosity. It permitted me to go places I could never go in a car — the bike was a BMW GS adventure tourer. There was never room for males, but somehow I did managed to squeeze a few slender females behind, although not all at the same time (alas).

BY: What is your take on the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo? How could a lift of the embargo affect Cuban life?

CB: Here’s an extract from my op-ed piece, “Save Cuba first, ruin it later,” in today’s National Post newspaper (Canada)

Possibility hangs in the air like intoxicating aromas of añejo rum. After more than a decade of traveling to and reporting on Cuba, I’m suddenly feeling quite giddy.

What this means for Cuba is another matter. An invasion of U.S. tourists should prove a godsend for the impoverished Cubans. Then again, as American influence spreads more, the isle may be spoiled. It doesn’t take great imagination to envision how Cuba could again become, in Somerset Maughan’s piquant phrase, “a sunny place for shady people.” The country’s demimonde bubbling beneath the surface is just waiting for someone to marshal it.

That’s my biggest fear. That the yanks will ruin Cuba. But it’s a risk I’m prepared to accept in order to advance the long-overdue right of all U.S. citizens to smoke the finest cigars in the world, and hire a 1950s Caddy to explore this wonderful realm.

BY: What is next for you? Will you return to Cuba, or do you have your heart set on another destination?

CB: See my website for my travel schedule. Colombia is calling… but this year my time will be filled with Cuba!

Cuba Libre: Baracoa

Baracoa was the site of devastating Hurricane Ike just 7 months ago. To even imagine the degree of damage to Baracoa’s coastline, you might take a look at this video from the Associated Press:

If you are paying a visit to this gorgeous little fishing village on the northwestern coast of Cuba, there are still opportunities to lend a hand in rebuilding projects and the like. As long as you’re staying for longer than a day (as I did, which is just not enough time), you should have plenty of time to help in one way or other, as there is not a whole lot to speak of with regard to activities in Baracoa.

This place is all about the outdoors and relaxation. With the enormous plateau called El Yunque, the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, and beautiful Playa Maguana, there’s plenty of exploration and nature for every type of traveler.Getting to Baracoa
This town is one of the most remote parts of Cuba. With just one daily flight from Havana, and one daily bus from Santiago de Cuba, visitors really have to want to get there and must be patient with travel time. I took the bus from Santiago and the ride was lengthy. We passed through the famous city of Guantanamo (though the U.S. sanctioned part of Guantanamo is farther toward the coast). The last half of the ride to Baracoa winds its way along La Farola, which is a two-lane byway that cuts its way up, around, and down the Sierra Maestra mountain range. When you finally make it to Baracoa, it’s like being dropped on a perfect cloud.

Sightseeing by bici-taxi
Baracoa was at the tail end of their Culture Week and transitioning into its biggest celebration of the year: Carnaval, which would lead straight into Holy Week (better known as Semana Santa). I decided to hire a bici-taxi to take me around the town and show me the most important sights around town. I visited the two museums in town, Museo Matachin and Museo Arqueologico, neither of which were really worth the $2 entry fees. The best part of my tour was interacting with my guide, Edar. He insisted that he had never met a nicer tourist than me, and I think he was genuinely serious about his compliment which made me really happy.

Edar lives in a neighboring town about 20 minutes from Baracoa and runs a farm with his family. He works as a bici-taxi driver to earn extra money to feed his 8 year-old son. My experiences interacting with local Cubanos is that they are extremely curious about our lifestyle here in America. They want to understand how democracy and society works. They are also desperately searching for happiness amid financial woes and (in Baracoa’s case) natural disaster.


Baracoa by foot
After my bici-taxi tour, I did a bit of sightseeing by foot. I visited the Hotel El Castillo, which is an old colonial castle that was converted into a hotel. From there, you can see a nice view of the Bahia de Miel (Honey Bay). I highly suggest walking along the Malecon, too. Because Culture Week was in progress and other festivities were right around the corner, there were tons of food booths and kiddie rides set up along the promenade. I made small talk with the vendors in a peso pizza booth, who told me they follow the traveling Carnaval. The next stops would be Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba. I asked them why pizza was such a popular food in Cuba, and they said it’s cheap and it’s tasty. At least with pizza, Cuba and America can agree.

Moped excursion to Playa Maguana
I was so tired from travel that I couldn’t wake up from my after dinner nap and slept through the whole evening. I had planned on going out, as Baracoa (though small) is well-known for its raucous nightlife. Amid dreams, I could here reggaeton being played from the Malecon, but just couldn’t get my body moving.

Instead, I woke up early and decided to rent a moped and drive myself to Playa Maguana, about 15 miles west of Baracoa. This was a scenic drive the whole way. I had grown used to men whistling at me as I passed by, but they were even more curious here, craning their necks and squinting their eyes at me (probably thinking, “Is that a girl and is she Asian?”) as I whizzed by.

I spent two hours at Playa Maguana, a beautiful and secluded beach with just one beachside restaurant and one hotel called Villa Maguana nearby. Save for four other tanning tourists, I had a long stretch of beach to myself, and swam in the ocean with my goggles (though there were no fish).

Too soon after feeling completely relaxed, I had to head back to Baracoa to catch my bus and return to civilization. I was able to slowly take in the gorgeous Cuban countryside. There were kids playing the Rio Toa, men working hard to transport cultivated crops by oxcart, music playing from several houses, and of course signs to show how the Revolution was still very much alive. There is huge unrealized eco-tourism potential right through Baracoa’s backdoor. If/when Cuba opens up, Baracoa will be a much different place.

Hurricane recovery is both quick and slow along Baracoa’s Malecon

Too soon was it time for me to leave. Edar gave me a ride to the bus terminal to see me off and waited for thirty minutes until the bus finally departed just to wave goodbye. We had exchanged addresses and I’ve promised to write to him, which I will. As I peered out the bus window at the houses facing the sea, I wondered how different this town would be in five years.

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

Cuba Libre: Santiago de Cuba

Since it is almost on the other side of the island from Cuba’s most popular destination, Havana, few tourists make the long journey to Santiago de Cuba. The few who do, however, are treated to a unique cultural experience, as Santiago de Cuba has a strong Afro-Cuban history and also is the sight for many Revolutionary events such as the historic July 26 attack on the Moncada barracks and Fidel’s victorious march into the Plaza de la Revolucion on January 1, 1959. In addition, Santiago boast its own brand of salsa called “son,” which means steamy, sizzling nights are ahead of you in such well-known establishments as La Casa de la Trova or Casa de las Tradiciones.

Getting to Santiago de Cuba
From anywhere west of Trinidad, there is only one bus, flight, or train per day that goes to Santiago de Cuba. Normally, it takes 12 hours to get to Santiago from Trinidad, I had a stroke of good luck at the Trinidad bus station when I found out a taxi was heading to Santiago directly, thereby saving me 3 hours of needless stopovers along the way! was in luck! I was very grateful for the ride, got to sit in the front seat, and practiced my Spanish the whole way down, asking lots of questions to my driver Jiovane. Nine hours seemed to whiz by, but I certainly got a better sense of the transportation system in Cuba.

As you would guess, transportation all over the country is quite unreliable. There are essentially two bus lines that travel across the island: Viazul and Astro. Viazul is the preferred bus line for tourists and richer Cubans. Astro is about 20% cheaper, but sometimes a little less reliable and more crowded with Cubans. The other option for nationals is to stand on the side of the road, hold out a peso or two, and hitch a ride with any passerby. The only problem is that few Cubans have enough money to own a car or travel long distances, so you could be waiting a long while for a single car to cross the national highway.

It is impossible for tourists to hitchhike in Cuba. The government considers it illegal to give tourists a ride — even if it’s a few blocks. There are hefty penalties including imprisonment if private transport is picking up a local Cubano or if locals are spotted giving tourists a ride.

My taxi ride to Santiago
National taxis like the one Jiovane drives are not allowed to pick up Cubans, or the driver will lose his job. It’s common to find at least a dozen Cubans at any given bus stop waiting – some patiently, others not so patiently. On our 9-hour drive, we passed at least 10 men waving money in the air, visibly upset that we weren’t stopping to let them in. It didn’t help that there were plenty of seats available in our taxi van. Only once did we pick up a mixed-race couple with their daughter from the side of the road on the last hour of our journey. Jiovane kept repeating, “Lento! Tan lento!”, complaining how they hopped in the car so slowly, which reconfirmed the risk he was taking to give them a ride. We dropped them at a junction about 20 minutes later.

My journey covered the southern and central coast – nearly half the island. We passed through several small towns, but more notably Sancti Spiritus (known only for a scenic bridge), Camaguey (a fairly well-kept colonial city), Las Tunas, and Holguin (with some good northern beaches closeby). We also passed through Biran, the town where Fidel was born. They turned his childhood home into a museum.

Cuban curiosity
Jiovane was very curious about life in the U.S., and even spoke openly about the injustices in Cuba. I was very interested in snapping photos of the propaganda scattered on “billboards” along the highway (Cuba propaganda will be discussed in greater detail in a post tomorrow) , so Jiovane purposefully slowed down at nearly every one of them to let me take good photos. I explained to him that we don’t have any patriotic signs like these in the U.S. When I told him the only signs we have on the side of the road are advertisements for Coca Cola and commercial products, Jiovane laughed and then proceeded to ask me how much my iPhone cost or how much money I make as a teacher per year and how many taxes I pay. I was honest in my reply, and Jiovane was quite silent in response (he was probably struck by the unfathomable numbers I gave him).

Is this the right casa particular?
Ask any independent traveler in Cuba about how they came upon staying at their casa particular, and nearly every one will tell you it is a purely arbitrary happening (unless that traveler made plans several weeks ahead of time). If you’re using the Lonely Planet guidebook to Cuba, there is little to no chance you will actually be able to stay in one of the recommended casas particulares in any given city. This is because of the casa particular two-guestroom policy. It is illegal to rent out more than two guestrooms at a time.

So I wasn’t that surprised when the casa that Margaret (the host of my casa in Trinidad) had reserved for me was unavailable, and I was promptly transported across the street and a few houses down to another casa particular. Manrique, my host, was a perfectly nice gentleman, the casa was in a perfectly convenient location just blocks from Parque Cespedes (Santiago’smain plaza), my room (though smaller and more expensive than the one I had in Trinidad) suited me just fine. I also had to share the bathroom with the other guest, an Italian guy by the name of Andrea, who served as my travel companion for the rest of my stay in Santiago.


Suena Cubano, where are you?
I had come to Santiago on a mission to find Suena Cubano (the band I had liked in Trinidad) and possibly serve as their “groupie” for the remaining days of my stay in Cuba. I circled the city twice over, asking every music venue in Santiago whether they knew of the band or where it played. The only lead I got was from a man at Santiago’s Casa de la Musica, saying he had seen the band’s director earlier that morning, and that if I really wanted to find the band, I should find the director. He gave me the director’s address, and I embarked on an hour-long manhunt along the streets of Santiago looking for this person.

By the time I found the director’s place, I had been discovered by two “jineteros” (or Cuban escorts who latch onto tourists hoping to serve as longer term companions). When I finally spoke face-to-face with the director, informing him that I was a writer hoping to write about their band, he looked at the men on both sides of me and pretty much scoffed, told me they wouldn’t be playing until Wednesday night (the day I was leaving for Baracoa), and shut the door in my face. My conclusion: my request got me nowhere because I was surrounded by Cubans requesting my attention. I kindly told the “jineteros” that I preferred to walk alone, and they promptly let me go.

Salsa and Son
Andreas and I enjoyed two evenings out in Santiago listening to Santiago’s unique salsa music. On our first night, we went to the Casa de las Tradiciones, a smaller, more authentic music house in the quaint residential neighborhood of Barrio Tivoli. Here, we listened to an 8-piece salsa band as we sipped on mojitos and danced to slow son-bolero music.


The next evening, we made our way to the more touristy Casa de la Trova, just a block from Parque Cespedes on Calle Heredia. The dance floor was twice as big here; the live music twice as loud; and the drinks twice as expensive.

The following morning, I would be heading to Baracoa along a scenic and winding mountainous road, so I retired at an early hour and readied for my final destination.

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

Photo of the Day (4.18.09)

My Cuba Libre posts will be ending in a few days, but until they do, I feel it’s only appropriate to continue with my Cuba-themed posts! Our photo of the day comes to us from JKEvgen, who snapped this gem five years ago in Havana. This photo really captures how timeless the country and its people are, which in my opinion is one of the greatest things about Cuba. The nations bright colors, photogenic faces, and enormous cigars are still thriving today as they did fifty years ago.

As the photographer so eloquently states it, “In a country where a doctor or lawyer can expect to make the equivalent of 12 U.S. dollars per month, many Cubans of varying ages hang out in the old city center, eager to gratify a tourist’s romantic notion of a people whose day-to-day lives are anything but romantic.” Indeed, while there is something awfully romantic yet sadly realistic about Cuba and its people.

If you have some great travel shots you’d like to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day!

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 —