CUBA TOUR 2014 (Part of THE FLYING HOPPERS Mexico and Cuba Tour 2014)

Published: Tuesday, 23 December 2014 Written by Walter 'Wasabi' Marthaler

As I was not able to join the Mexican part of this exciting FLYING HOPPERS tour, I can only convey hereafter my personal observations and thoughts about the CUBAN part. I was indeed very happy to tour CUBA together with my Flying Hoppers mates!

For a full report of the whole tour, you will have to consult the ‘Reisebericht’ in German, i.e. Gusti Engeler’s write-up.

In my case, it starts as follows:

NOVEMBER 1st - from Zurich to Havana

I wake up early in a hotel near Zurich airport and it is a really miserable foggy day in Switzerland…. The fog delays Air Canada’s take-off a bit, but otherwise the trip to Toronto is a smooth one and the same holds true for the follow-up leg from Toronto to Havana, where the flight is landing on time. However, waiting for the baggage and other airport formalities are quite lengthy – but luck was with me and I seemed to be sailing through all those procedures with ease, and after some searching even found the party that was there to pick me up for a taxi ride to the elegant ‘Iberostar Parque Central’ Hotel.

I very speedily completed the check-in formalities and moved my baggage to my room in a hurry in order to be able to still hear some of the live music that was being played in the lobby of the hotel - alas, midnight had arrived and the music just stopped when I got there… So, all I could do is enjoy a night-cap in the form of a glass of red wine to round off a very, very long day.


NOVEMBER 2nd - Sightseeing on my own in Havana


The Parque Central Hotel is ideally located to explore ‘Old Havana’ on foot – which I did extensively during this day. Havana must have been an unbelievably beautiful city in its better days. Nowadays, sadly, many of those beautiful old buildings are in a shocking state of disrepair, truly dilapidated.

From the hotel I walked across the Jose Marti Square and along OBISPO (a kind of high street through Old Havana). Casual strolling around in the area, whilst admiring many beautiful buildings, took me to the following:

- Plaza de Armas

- Castillo de la Real Fuerza

- Plaza Viela

- Museo Fundacion Havana Club

In the evening I took the advice of the Parque Central Hotel’s staff and walked down Obispo once again to have dinner at ‘El Europa’ - quite a pleasant looking restaurant, but with very ordinary food which was really nothing to write home about.

When getting back to the hotel and about to take the elevator up to my floor, I was holding the door for a lady. This turned out to be a most fortunate coincidence. She took the elevator up to the top floor to have a view across the city and suggested that I should take that view in as well. We got talking about Havana/Cuba and it turned out that Madeleine P. Plonsker is a great expert with regard to the Cuban arts scene, and that she had been coming to Havana many, many times over a long period of time.

As she promised me, she followed up on our conversation and sent the following notes to me, which I promised I would publish in my travel report:

Quote from email received from Madeleine P. Plonsker (Glencoe, Illinois, USA):



Cultural exchange has been my personal quiet diplomacy tactic. For the past fifteen years I have been traveling legally to Cuba to work with the vibrant artistic community that exists in Havana. Single handedly I created salons where Cuban artists could show their work to visiting Americans. Year by year I worked with the Fototeca de Cuba to meet with photographers who began to work after the Soviets left, the U.S. embargo began, and hunger arrived. I encouraged their talent and collected their work. Recently I created a total cultural exchange between the Frank Fernandez Chamber Music Festival and a Quartet from the Steans Institute on the Ravinia Festival Campus in Highland Park, Illinois. The Cuban Government, the U.S. State Department, and the Cuban Artists Fund all cooperated to make this happen. My new photography book, The Light In Cuban Eyes, being published by Lake Forest Press in March, will hopefully be a testament to the triumph of cultural exchange over economic embargo.


NOVEMBER 3rd - Organised sightseeing for myself / arrival back in Havana of all my Flying Hoppers mates on this tour


At 09.00 in the hotel lobby I met up with LUIS, our guide for the WHOLE Flying Hoppers tour in Cuba – and what a charming man Luis turned out to be! Right from the start I had a very frank exchange with this very nice 53 year old gentleman. However, I shall not necessarily comment in detail about our lengthy discussion, as some of it might not be considered ‘politically correct’.


Luis and I then set off and walked down Obispo, but this time around I got many more insights and detailed information about the things I had admired the day before. However, my programme for the day was severely shortened to a morning tour only as Luis had to do preparation work in the afternoon for the whole group’s programme for the next day – especially finalising those hockey game details….


During the course of the morning Luis showed me the following:

- Museo del Chocolate: Not really a full-fledged chocolate museum but a rather small chocolate shop (artisan) that also exhibited some old chocolate posters and some dated chocolate making equipment. It was pleasing indeed to drink a hot chocolate in the nice outdoor setting at the back of the shop. After this, Luis and I proceeded to the

- Tobacco Hotel ‘Conde de Villanueva’. A splendid house with a fantastic inside patio, as one finds in so many luxury homes of the sugar plantation barons or other former wealthy people. To me as a non-smoker the house rather than the tobacco room was clearly the highlight. However, the coffee served was excellent and the shot of rum with that went down a treat as well.


That visit meant the end of my morning tour with Luis and I continued on my own during the afternoon, visiting the ‘Museo de la Revolucion’ and the ‘Memorial Granma. The way everything looked, and in part due to the omnipresent old American cars in the streets, I felt almost constantly in a kind of time-warp. I remembered that as quite a young person I regularly read in Swiss newspapers about the development of that revolution in far away Cuba, i.e. the fight of Fidel Castro against the Batista dictatorship. A lot of photos and other mementos are displayed in the museum, and in the adjoining ‘Granma’ one can see actual tanks/planes etc. which were used in those long ago fights.


I then hurried back to the hotel, as I had earlier on booked a taxi there to take me to Havana airport to welcome my fellow Flying Hoppers in style! This in spite of the fact that Luis had during our morning tour clearly warned me about the punctuality (respectively the lack thereof!) of AIR CUBANA by teaching me the following saying:






which translates roughly into:


When flying with Air Cubana

You may arrive today or

You may arrive tomorrow

(‘Cubana’ nicely a rhyming with ‘manana)


In this particular instance, Air Cubana was in fact getting into Havana earlier than scheduled!


I welcomed the arriving Hoppers by shouting ‘WASABI- TOUR! and mentioning that I had become their new guide for CUBA, having asked Luis to hide away for a while. But in the end, when all the Hoppers were assembled in the arrival hall, I called upon Luis to take over again, naturally!


The flight having arrived early on allowed different groups to go out for dinner. The group which I joined was led by Coen, who had arrived separately in Cuba on this day as well. Given Coen’s unerring expertise to find good eating places, he had made a booking for a table at the ‘Nao’ restaurant, where the food was significantly better than my previous day’s dinner – thanks, Coen!


At the end of the evening, most of us found ourselves on the roof of our hotel for some late drinks – a kind of modified Terazza experience’ for those who participated in the Torino/Bra outing in 2013….


NOVEMBER 4th - Sightseeing in Havana and a memorable Hockey Game


In the morning we started fairly early on to have a good look at Old Havana, which is rightfully a World Heritage site.

Having been around this part of the town quite a bit the previous two days, to me the new highlight was the visit to the museum ‘Capitanes Generales’, a really beautiful historic building and extremely well preserved.


After lunch at ‘La Barca’ we had to hurry back to our hotel to pick up our hockey gear and travel across town (luckily, there is very little car traffic in Cuba!) to a suburb of Havana to play against what we assumed to be the Cuban National VETERANS’ side. To our mighty surprise the currently active Cuban NATIONAL TEAM showed up and unsurprisingly gave us a beating of (I believe to remember) 7 : 0 ! We were heavily out-classed by this young and fit team, the members of which on average must have been about 25 – 30 years younger than our Flying Hoppers side.


The beers right after the game tasted nice regardless. And it was also good to see those National players showing up for a dinner together that night. A lot of photos were taken by our star photographers, i.e. both Silvia and Reinhard. And pictures will tell the story much better than many words.


Different persons have different sleep patterns and some must have stayed out until really late, but others retired to our nice hotel quite early to get enough rest in view of the long road trip the next day.


NOVEMBER 5th - Leaving Havana for ‘Aldea Taina’ / Cienfuegos / Trinidad


We all checked out and settled into the comfortable bus together with our splendid guide Luis. From Havana a long drive through completely flat country side ensued until we got to the first highlight of the day:


An extremely speedy boat ride took us to ‘Aldea Taina’, which is a reconstructed Indian village, to honour the original inhabitants of Cuba. South American Indians formed the indigenous population in Cuba, but after the arrival of the Spanish they got ruthlessly exterminated, which is certainly not a proud part of Spanish colonial history.


I did not really enjoy the visit to this ‘Indian village’, not because I do not see a need for some form of remembrance for those Indian people and their culture, but due to the fact that this village was really nothing more than just another tourist trap. To me the really exciting part of the visit were the two boat trips to and from the village at very high speed and with minimal kind of safety precautions displayed!


Our bus then took us further to CIENFUEGOS, where we all enjoyed lunch in the beautiful ‘Palacio del Valle’ - a great house in a fantastic location near the sea. After lunch we visited the old part of Cienfuegos. The highlight of the tour in this town was the theater ‘Thomas Terry’, built in 1883 and preserved in absolutely pristine condition.


After a further bus drive to the city of Trinidad and checking into yet another great hotel there, nobody could have anticipated that the absolute highlight of the day was yet to come! The dinner reservation was in the private restaurant ‘Paladar 1514’, which gives one the feeling of being transported back in time since all the glassware, crockery and cutlery are antiques. The food was very good indeed. However, the really big hit was the band and most especially the main singer who made this an unforgettable evening/night. The exciting live music led to dancing and singing along until very late. For sure the best way to appreciate what happened will have to be a close look at the many, many pictures taken during this top-notch evening. The memories will stay forever – with our without photos!


Rumour has it that some hardcore party animals thereafter went further afield and only arrived back at the hotel towards the early hours of the morning….


NOVEMBER 6th - Train ride to Iznaga / lunch at ‘Casa Cuachinanco’ and Trinidad sights


The train ride from Trinidad to Iznaga was sort of interesting at the start but then became, at least in my view, a bit of a bore because a loud but not very skillful singer was singing non-stop all the way.


After managing to get past the tourist-oriented stalls with souvenirs (very repetitive offers), a climb onto the ‘slave tower’ afforded those who went up a beautiful view across the surrounding area, which as far as the eye could had all been under the control of one very rich Spanish ‘sugar baron’ who employed many black slaves, brought to Cuba mainly from Nigeria. After the extermination of the Indians, yet another dark chapter in the history of Cuba under Spanish rule.


Thereafter, we all had lunch at the ‘Casa Cuachinanco”’, during which some interesting discussions came about, mainly instigated by Bruno and Retus. And last but not least, Natalja entertained both Stefan and Bruno by demonstrating on them a brand new version of the ‘Frère Jacques’ tune, to the words of ‘snails up’?! (Schnägge ufe)

We then returned by bus to Trinidad, where some more sightseeing took place. Eventually we headed for cocktails at ‘Canchanchara’, enjoying a special type of alcoholic drink based on honey and sugarcane liquor.


In the evening we went for a second dinner in a row in Trinidad in a PALADAR (private restaurant) venue, this time to the ‘Vista Gourmet’. This restaurant has beautiful views across the city of Trinidad during daytime, but of course we were there when it was dark already. We enjoyed another pleasant dinner occasion and to everyone’s surprise, the earlier ‘missing in action’ Bruno suddenly showed up when we had almost finished the meal. Bruno joined the table I was sitting at, and Carlos and Bruno soon started – for us non-Basel types – a lecture regarding the greatness of the RIO Bar (near Barfüsser Platz) as well as the meaning of the Basler Fasnacht. With regard to the latter, however, Bruno might have to do some further research since some the ‘origin’ logic did not seem to hold water…


NOVEMBER 7th - Transfer via Sancti Spiritus to Santa Clara, and Hockey Game


This day’s bus drive took us inland, first to Sancti Spiritus. On many occasions our very knowledgeable guide Luis was kind enough to answer questions about Cuba. Of course he already more or less knew the kind of questions tourists would ask. What I clearly remember from among the many topics covered are the following exchanges:


a) What do Cubans see as their top three problems nowadays in Cuba? Answer: Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner !

b) What is the composition of Cuba’s population today? Answer:

Whites (Blancos) = approx. 60%

Mixed (Mulatos) = approx. 30%

Blacks (Negroes) = approx. 10%

c) Do Cubans pay taxes and have insurance? Answer: Most Cubans (more than 90%)

do not pay taxes and do not have insurance.


And Luis also explained the kind of work ethic attitude summed up in the following translation of a Cuban saying:

‘We’ simulate / pretend to be working and

‘They’ simulate / pretend to be paying us a fair salary for our work …


Having arrived at Sancti Spiritus, we first crossed the famous ‘Yayabo’ bridge and then made our way up to a strikingly blue-coloured church – something I have never before seen anywhere! Then we visited a local market, and we also saw a lot of traditional shops nearby.


The continued bus ride took us further along, and just before entering Santa Clara we had a look at the massive memorial statue for Che Guevara; Santa Clara was the place where Che Guevara scored his biggest military win in Cuba.


A short bus ride later we were able to check-into the hotel ‘Los Caneyes’ in Santa Clara, and after a quick lunch proceeded across town to a sports ground to play (on a kind of hard surface grass/sand pitch) our second game of hockey in Cuba, this time against a young and skillful side. Santa Clara quite regularly becomes the side to win the Cuban championship and also supplies most of the players to the National Team.

We gave them the best we could muster, but in the end they deservedly won 4 : 0 in a game that was not as one-sided as the score line might suggest. There were two goals very early in the game and two goals at the very end.

As so often, the Cubans made us feel very welcome indeed. Both Silvina and Carlos went into translation overdrive mode to enable very enjoyable communication. It would seem that most likely The Flying Hoppers are the only European hockey team (or one of very few thus far) ever to have played in Santa Clara.


Since Luis is originally from Santa Clara, we took his advice regarding a restaurant in the old part of this city, which resulted in yet another pleasant experience.


NOVEMBER 8th - Transfer from Santa Clara to Varadero


Most of us were quite happy to leave the Hotel Los Caneyes quickly behind and transfer to the luxury of the beautiful Iberostar Varadero Hotel for some relaxation in this well equipped place with a nice sandy beach just in front.


We started relaxing immediately, and in the evening most of us met up for cocktails and dinner thereafter. This was followed by after dinner drinks, and some of us held out until midnight to sing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ to Retus at the very first opportunity.


NOVEMBER 9th - Relaxation in Varadero – Retus’ birthday & Japanese dinner


NOVEMBER 10th - Continued relaxation in Varadero


Not being extremely fond of beaches/beach resorts etc. myself, I nevertheless had to admire the extremely nice setting of this luxury resort and the extended sandy beach, which inspired some of the younger crowd in our group to go jogging there in the mornings.


Naturally we also celebrated Retus’ birthday in style. All of us sported the new white Mexico/Cuba Tour shirts (which attracted quite some attention from other holiday makers!) and then proceeded to sit down around the Teppan Yaki in the Japanese restaurant according to the number of one’s shirt.


The sea was warm enough even for me to venture into it and having a good swim and a very interesting chat along with Bruno.


Overall, I am convinced that our whole group enjoyed having some relaxing down-time after a fairly hectic tour programme before. Apparently ‘Varadero’ derives from a Spanish verb meaning ‘getting/being stranded’ – but having been ‘stranded in Varadero’ was most definitely a fantastic experience!


NOVEMBER 11th - Transfer from Varadero back to Havana, and another Hockey game


On the way to Havana we visited a bar in Cojimar, where Hemingway used to hang out getting drunk. Interestingly, the bar just looked like time had stood completely still since those days.


We also paid a visit to the Morro-Cabana fort, which has spectacular views across both old and new Havana. Here I learnt about an interesting piece of history: England fought and occupied Havana, and hence Cuba, and then held this island for a period of less than two years before agreeing a trade-off with the Spanish by giving up Cuba in order to gain Florida, which was a Spanish colony at the time.

From the fort we drove into town to visit the Havana Club Rum Museum and thereafter quickly to the Hotel Capri to be in time for today’s hockey game. This time around we were assured we would be playing the Cuban National VETS team. However, the Cuban side once again was loaded with young and fit current National Side players – especially during the second half. The Flying Hoppers were leading 1 : 0 at half-time (thanks to a great strike by Fedor), but with only 2 Vets players remaining on the field in the second half, of course we ended-up losing by 1 : 3.

The beers we shared thereafter tasted great regardless, and we also acquired some of those National Cuban players shirts. We wished the Cubans the best of luck as they were about to depart to Pan-American games, they being the third strongest hockey side in the Americas.


NOVEMBER 12th - Last touring/sightseeing day in Havana (in my case)


Coen already having left in the early hours of November 12th, I was becoming acutely aware of this being my last day on tour this time around – and a very interesting day it turned out to be!


Our first visit in the morning was to the famous ‘Fabrica de Tabacos PARTAGAS, which gave some in-depth insights into how much manual labour is involved in the production of high-grade Cuban CIGARS. I found it very interesting to learn that today’s most famous Cuban Cigar brand (Cohiba) was in fact the brainchild of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara!


The second stop was a visit to the massive cemetery ‘Colon’, which contains more than one million graves, some of which having incredibly beautiful decorations. Our trusted guide Luis filled us in on the interesting background to some of the most famous graves.


The third stop on today’s tour took us to the ‘Rafael Trejo’ boxing ring. Having arrived there a bit too early to watch the boxing, we strolled off to a nearby local supermarket. By chance a clever sales lady in a nearby ‘Fine Arts Workshop’ spotted us and invited some of us to view the work of the artist working there, i.e. Manuel Lopez Oliva.

We then made it back to the ‘Rafael Trejo’ in time for the three boxing matches we were going to watch. Not all of us liked the experience; I am not a fan of boxing myself, and both Bettina and Marianne seemingly also do not care too much for this sport. However, it was fascinating to see (or rather hear) the huge vocal support one of the fighters got from his mother and sister.


We then went on a relatively long bus drive across Havana to have lunch in yet another ‘Paladar’ restaurant: Il Divino. This restaurant was in the vicinity of the site of our final visit, namely the very interesting Hemingway Museum. Hemingway must have led quite an exquisite life-style; he had his elegant house (complete with tower and impressively big swimming pool) built in a commanding position on top of a hill, surrounded by a vast expanse of parkland. Later on a guest-house was added nearby. We could also view Hemingway’s famous yacht, in which he often sailed over to Cojimar to have some drinks with his fishermen friends at the bar we had visited the day before.


In the evening Fedor secured for all of us a reservation at another ‘Paladar’ restaurant, this one within walking distance from the Capri Hotel. As this was the very last day in Cuba for all of us, we ate and drank (especially the latter) well into the night. Together with a first group I got back to the Capri Hotel after midnight and knew there and then and that I had to get up at 04.00 am to reach the Havana airport in time for my Air Canada flight to Toronto…


CLOSING REMARKS respectively an EXPRESSION OF MY PERSONAL GRATITUDE to all The Flying Hoppers mates who were on this fantastic tour in CUBA, one by one, in alphabetical order.


But first up one person whom I did not have the pleasure to meet this time since he was only on the Mexican part of this Flying Hoppers Tour: Patrick Stutz. I am convinced that you, Patrick, contributed both as the Captain and as a player massively towards the WINNING of the two hockey games played in Mexico – many THANKS for that!


And then:


Carlos Andermatt: Talented Vice-Captain on and off the pitch. Carlos’ knowledge of the Spanish language was very helpful on many occasions!


Claudio and Fabio Dornbierer: The two youngsters in our team helped us a lot to keep the scorelines somewhat decent in Cuba. Thanks guys!


Silvina Dullio: One of our two hockey ladies in the front line (attack). Same as for Carlos, Silvina’s knowledge of Spanish was of great help many times. Thanks a lot!


Silvia and Gustav Engeler: Both are long time friends of mine and both were for the very first time on a Flying Hoppers Tour. Gusti took lot of notes and Silvia kept taking an enormous amount of photos (about 2’500!). Gusti will do the travel report of the whole tour in German and Silvia will create two photo books. Many thanks!


Natalja Fischer: The other member of the two hockey ladies in the front line (attack).

Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing your efforts bear fruit. i.e. to take a group of ‘The Flying Hoppers’ to St. Petersburg for a long weekend with hockey sometime next summer. Many thanks in advance!


Reinhard Fischer: Very reliable goalie and photographer, as usual. Reinhard was doing some great saves in all the games. Thanks!


Retus Gieriet: Many thanks for taking on the ‘CFO on tour’ role during Coen’s absence. Also thanks for taking the ‘Happy Birthday To You’ singing so calmly in your stride!


Patrick Huber: Very solid defender as usual. And as always a great guy to talk with. Thanks!


Stefan Leuenberger: MANY, MANY THANKS to you for having organised this fabulous Flying Hoppers Tour to Mexico and Cuba. I am sure that this tour will rank among the most favourite ones with quite a few Hoppers.


Lorenz Noethiger: Another solid defender/midfield player. And rumour has it that he was also a photographer on a special mission?


Fedor Plambeck: Captain of the team. And he did lead by positive example, scoring our only goal during our 3 games in Cuba. Many THANKS!


Bruno Schurter: Playing up-front in exchange with one or the other of our two attacking ladies. Even more noteworthy (for me): The only person I know of who swims in the sea with a straw hat firmly on his head!


Bettina and Mirco Sommavilla: Migi was flexible enough to play in defence or in the frontline – or even to do the referee’s job. Thanks!

Bettina wants to have a special TV channel only showing boxing all day….not!


Coen Van Rosmalen: Great midfielder (especially on grass) and also as usual a most reliable ‘CFO on tour’. Many thanks!


Marianne and Thomas Voltzenlogel: Another couple for the first time on a Flying Hoppers Tour, which I am quite sure they enjoyed. Hope to see you again in the future!


Claudia Waldvogel: Great hockey skills on display as a defender. Also inspiring to see how she could create postcards ‘on the spot’ to be mailed out…. Thanks!


This is it from me. I am happily looking forward to seeing some/all of you again during future FLYING HOPPERS outings/tours.


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