Last week our Cuba Trip Expert Lara and I returned from our annual Cuba "dry run," where we prepared for our upcoming Backroads Cuba trips starting in November. We were once again reminded that the vibrant personalities, artists and friends we encounter on this trip make an impact that lasts a lifetime. Cuba is changing so rapidly that the time to visit is now, and our Cuba Walking, Biking and Multisport trips are the best way to experience it!
Day 1, Cuba Regional Manager Michelle Muench
We shared our first day with our good friend Esteban Grau, world-class speleologist and director of the UNESCO natural protected areas of Santa Catalina. His passion for the Cuban underworld started when he was around eight years old and he'd hang out with older kids who shared their secret pastime exploring local caves.
Today he captures mind-boggling cave formations with a 3-D camera. His team has been working hard to continue exploring and discovering new Cuban sites with the hope of encouraging education and preservation. Backroads has partnered with them on their Bellamar project to support their mission of protection and reforestation. Our groups have planted many trees here, and on this visit we learned that our trees had grown so large that they'd earned the endearing name Bosque de Backroads ("Backroads Forest"). It was wonderful to see how we've helped make a positive impact together with our Cuban friends in this special community.
Day 2, Cuba Trip Expert Lara Petinal
Last time I saw Dariel we talked about surreal art and bicycles.
He shares an atelier in Matanzas with two renowned Cuban artists, Osmany Betancourt Falcón (also known as "Lolo") and Manuel Hernández Valdés. A promising young artist himself, Dariel cheerfully assists in wrapping up his colleagues' masterpieces that have been sold to international art collectors. Although some of Dariel's art is on display, it's often overshadowed by Manuel's ceramics and for Lolo's masterpieces of social criticism.
On my last visit, Dariel showed me a two-foot-high iron model of what was going to be a sculpture five times its size: an undernourished piggy-bank teetering on stilt-like legs, balancing on a half-deflated balloon. I was immediately captivated by the creature, symbolic of our global economy but also of humankind's perseverance.
"That's brilliant!" I exclaimed. "Who's done it? Lolo?" Nope, not the famous sculptor. "...Dariel?!!" The underdog! I was impressed!
Because he finds it extravagant that I've cycled across Cuba several times, Dariel and I joked about having the skinny creature riding a unicycle instead of dancing on a balloon. I promised one day to pay them a visit on my bicycle, and Dariel promised to recreate his sculpture with the creature riding on a wheel.
Eight months later, when I was back in Matanzas, I decided to drop by the studio--without any advance notice--to say hi and share a cup of strong Cuban coffee.
And there it was! On the patio stood Dariel's nine-foot-tall sculpture and, by its side, the smaller-scale one riding...a unicycle! "That one is yours. It is the one I told you I was going to make for you."
I was in shock. I stayed in shock for a while, holding onto it as if it were a trophy of some sort. I even fought back when they tried to pack it for me! "You should check it in your main luggage," Dariel told me, "otherwise it might not make it through security."
"Do you mean that a customs officer will dare to oppose a passenger trying to take onboard a 10-pound stylized cycling iron pig? Nonsense!"
It's such a Cuban characteristic: generous and welcoming in such a way that friends feel like part of your family.
And Dariel is just one of the many fascinating friends we see on a trip to Cuba. Every time we pass by our friend Fuster's Gaudi-inspired home on the outskirts of La Habana, we have to stop in stroll through his colorfully tiled Garden of Eden.
And we never miss the chance to visit our dear friend Hector Correa and his wife Odalis at their ceramic artists' retreat Finca Coincidencias, where our topics of conversation often include the meaning of life and the search for happiness.
The moon was up in the sky by the time we were done visiting Cuban friends. It was truly a perfect day!
Day 3, Michelle Muench
Later in our trip, we visited a truly inspirational Cuban art school, Escuela de Arte in Matanzas. It's one of many schools throughout Cuba where children are given a free education while being exposed to and immersed in the arts. We had the good fortune to share the afternoon with these budding artists. Upon arriving at the school, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by children in costumes. They led us to their stage in a double line of fast-clapping hands, huge smiles and big bright eyes.
Kids between first and sixth grades work hard putting together self-directed performances, where they dance and play musical instruments with passion and pride. I was taken aback by just how beautiful it was, and how wonderful it is that they have the opportunity to attend this school. Tears welling up, we applauded them as they finished and encircled us to chat and share what it's like to be a student.
Later we meet at the studio of Compas Dance Company, a group of professional dancers and musicians who travel internationally to share their unique style of dancing. A mix of African beats, modern dance and the elegant arm twists and firm foot-stopping rhythms of Spanish Flamenco, the routines are accompanied by drumstick tapping on wooden chairs. I've never seen anything like it!
Exposed to such a rich education in dancing and music, the young people in Cuba today will go on to be the leading artists in Cuba tomorrow. We are proud to have a small hand in their journey, and we hope you'll join us on a Cuba Walking or Multisport trip so that you too can be a part of the nation's transformation.
Cuba Trip Expert Lara Petinal contributed to writing this post.