The Pearl of the Antillies, Willow Valley Residents Travel to Cuba

The U.S. and Cuba have had a tenuous past. Sanctions were ratcheted up on Cuba in 1960 and 1961; U.S. President John F. Kennedy made the embargo official in 1962. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba broke off in 1961. Not long after, President Kennedy prohibited travel to Cuba and made financial and commercial transactions with Cubans illegal for U.S. citizens. Recently, the travel restrictions to Cuba have been greatly relaxed, making it easier for Americans to visit than it has been since the early 1960’s. Willow Valley Communities residents jumped on the opportunity to travel to this newly opened region. Not ones to lounge by the beach or pool, Willow Valley residents wanted to see, explore, and experience as much of this colorful, mysterious country as they could.

As a resident of Willow Valley Communities, it couldn’t be easier to travel to Cuba and other far-off lands. Residents simply lock the doors to their residences and travel worry-free. There’s no yard maintenance to plan for, no housesitting that needs to be arranged. Residents can pursue their travel passions, pack their bags, and go. Along with their escort, Travel Coordinator Sue Albright, six Willow Valley Communities couples—Keith and Debbie Mink, Nick and Sara Kaebnick, Don and Sharron Nelson, Robert and Susan Highfield, William and Carolyn Loue, and John and Doris Lyons—did just that as they enjoyed this trip of a lifetime.

During their two weeks in Cuba, the group enjoyed a wide variety of experiences with their own guide escorting them to many different sites and facilitating their immersion into the Cuban culture. They were treated to several private dance and musical performances where they were special and elite guests, watching live, private demonstrations by local artists.

The group also learned about the history of Cuba and its future through several educational presentations they attended and through many events at which Willow Valley residents socialized with locals at the towns they visited. They even had a chance to play dominoes, a Cuban national pastime, with those they met. Of course, the schedule included ample free time for residents to explore on their own.

The Willow Valley group started their trip by flying from Miami to Camagüey, Cuba. Camagüey is the city of tinajónes, the famous red pots found outside homes and symbols of the city. Camagüey is home to one of Cuba’s most vibrant artistic cultural scenes. There, the group got to explore local galleries and studios by bici-taxi (the Cuban version of rickshaws). They were also treated to a private rehearsal at En Dedans Dance Company, visited a remarkable leather sculptor, and even tried their hand at making their own tinajóne at a pottery studio. Also in Camagüey, the Willow Valley Communities residents visited an actual working ranch and met authentic Cuban cowboys. Carolyn Loue commented how special it was when two of the cowboys on horseback held an American flag and a Cuban flag as they led their bus to the ranch. “The Cuban people are warm and wonderful,” she says.

Next was the town of Remedios. Founded in 1513, its colonial core is the Plaza Marti, where the late 18th century church Iglesia de San Juan Bautista is located. Here, the Willow Valley residents toured the church while marveling at its unique artwork. They also toured the workshop where carrozas (parade floats) are made for the town’s Las Parrandas (street festivals) held on Christmas Eve.

Remedios was the favorite part of John and Doris Lyons’ trip because of the interaction they had with the townspeople. “We had Salsa dance lessons from a local dancer/instructor, met members of the Drivers’ Bar, and got to ride around town in their restored cars,” Doris remembers. She adds, “We hope that as tourism increases in Cuba, they can keep the charm we found in the village of Remedios.”

Just outside Remedios is the coastal town of Caibarién, where the group enjoyed touring its fishing fleet, walking its sandy beaches, and feasting on fresh crabs during their stop there.

In Havana, the capital of Cuba, the group had a historical walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), lovingly restored to its historical splendor, and visited Sloppy Joe’s, the legendary hangout of Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Nat King Cole.

Of course, a trip to Cuba would not be complete without a visit to a tobacco factory to watch local artisans roll cigars by hand. Residents visited the Tabacuba tobacco factory in Camajuaní, near Caibarién, and watched some of the workers demonstrate their precise craft mastery up close.

Sue Albright, Willow Valley Communities Travel Coordinator, says, “The people of Cuba were very friendly and have a simple lifestyle.” She also describes Cuba as a lively country where the arts are very much a part of their culture. An added bonus for Sue was watching how Willow Valley residents got to know each other and become closer on the trip.

Resident Debbie Mink commented that she loved learning about Cuba’s history, experiencing the culture, and watching live performances of a wide variety of native music. She said the people of Cuba were extremely welcoming. “The trip,” she says with a smile, “was fabulous, just fabulous.”

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