You’re standing in an underwater cage only about three feet below the ocean’s surface, breathing from a hookah when, suddenly, a streamlined, 600-pound torpedo armed with lots of teeth comes …
Vamos a la Habana with Guy Harvey Outpost!
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist
[Havana, Cuba–] Speeding down Havana’s main highway in a rickety Daewoo taxicab, my heart is in my throat. Heavy rains from the remnants of June’s Tropical Storm Colin are lashing the windshield, reducing visibility to nearly zero. Suddenly the driver pulls to a stop and jumps out into the downpour carrying a can of ether. He sprays it under the Daewoo’s hood, then nonchalantly gets back behind the wheel and continues speeding to our destination– La Floridita– where we arrived shaken but in one piece.
A harrowing journey for sure, but one sip of the famed restaurant’s signature lime daiquiri — a favorite of the late author Ernest Hemingway– settles me right down. Time to enjoy the food and entertainment in the packed bar and dining room on my first night in the Cuban capital.
I’m here along with 22 companions on Guy Harvey Outpost’s inaugural Cuba expedition conducted with the non-profit Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and Scuba Radio. Everyone seems to be enjoying him- and herself as the drinks flow and an acoustic salsa band energizes the crowd. My entree is served in a lobster shell arch stuffed with lobster meat, fish, and chopped vegetables– delicious! I order another daiquiri to prep for the taxi ride back to the Hotel Quinta Avenida– a white-knuckled repeat but otherwise safe.
In daylight, I take in the enigma of the Caribbean’s only Communist-ruled island: 1950s American cars beautifully repainted and humming along on diesel engines alongside dilapidated 1970s Russian Ladas; newly-repainted storefronts near museums and apartment buildings that look like they haven’t been pressure-cleaned in 50 years; the Acuario Nacional Cuba (national aquarium) opened in 1961 with now-crumbling cement fish tanks but still housing a robust coral restoration program and fisheries research center; revolutionary slogans in fading paint on concrete walls next to cutting-edge medical research labs.
Later, touring the Pinar del Rio province on Cuba’s southwestern tip, we got an in-depth tour of the San Juan y Martinez tobacco plantation– maker of internationally-acclaimed cigars. Cuba is very proud of its cigars, which start with specially-grown seeds from a lab in Havana that are planted in September and harvested during the winter months. The leaves are dried over a period of several months, then undergo a multi-step fermentation process and later are hand- rolled, cut and pressed. We watched a worker at his rolling table who told us he could turn out 100 per day. But by the time you buy one of these fine cigars, it is probably four to five years old. Several members of our party eagerly purchased samples.
On our last night in Cuba, many of the group dined at Club 21– a small Havana restaurant serving everything from roast pork to grilled snapper. I ordered a plate of shrimp pasta — scrumptious, but so large I couldn’t finish it. Later we visited the Hotel Nacional where the grand dining room and outdoor plaza reminded me a lot of the posh Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. A must-see is the celebrity wing decorated with photographs and memorabilia of American movie stars, pop musicians and political leaders from around the world. We attended a music and dance revue in the hotel theater featuring elaborately-costumed performers in feather headdresses and jeweled bodices. The show opened by re-enacting Latin America’s early history in song and dance, but then veered off in a helter-skelter of narrative directions. Nonetheless, it was dazzling to watch.
Heading back to our hotel, we passed the Malecon– Havana’s signature seawall where it looked like thousands were just hanging out and enjoying the simple pleasure of the cool ocean breeze.
Cuba is about the world’s hottest destination right now among American tourists forbidden from traveling there for the past 50 years and hungering to visit a living time capsule of the previous century free of fast-food chains and strip shopping malls.
Guy Harvey Outpost will be conducting another guided expedition to Cuba soon. Visit guyharveyoutpost.com for upcoming details. And check out part two of my Cuba blog on July 7 to learn about the wondrous scuba diving opportunities at Maria La Gorda in the Pinar del Rio province.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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