Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cuba's Botanical Garden a tropical treat

I saw the most beautiful flower at Cuba's Botanical Garden but couldn't identify it until I got home.

Greenhouses at Cuba’s Jardin Botanica Nacional are designed to keep plants shaded and catching breezes, unlike those in our own more northerly latitudes. I was delighted to have a visit there on our group’s itinerary because I wanted to know more about the unusual flowers and plants I’d been seeing.
The garden was en route to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, which is now restored and welcomes visitors. Follow my newspaper series on Cuba and you’ll find out more about Hemingway soon.

A guide is included for touring the 1,400 acre botanical gardens which is laced with more than 20 miles of roads. Our guide came aboard the small bus which transported us everywhere except on our walking tours of Havana. His English was quite good and his botanical knowledge was impressive, but I still needed to turn to my friends at the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden to identify many of the plants I saw there and photographed. That’s probably because our guide’s heavy Cuban accent on plants’ Latin names totally befuddled me and the plants themselves were quite unlike those seen at home.

One can understand why palm with the furry trunk is called an Old Man Palm.

The botanical garden not only showcases Cuban ecosytems and their plants but also has areas of other plants found in tropical  countries. Its center has palm trees from around the world and I had no idea there were so many varieties of them., including the rare cork palm, otherwise found only in western Cuba.

Our guide retrieves a fallen palm leaf

Our guide showed us how palm leaves have many uses, such as thatch for roofs and even for fashioning into easy biodegradable trash cans.

This trash can was fashioned from a palm leaf.

The botanical garden was established in 1968 and opened to the public in 1984. A highlight is the Japanese garden which is laid out with tiered cascades and a small lake filled with koi fish.   The huge greenhouse has areas for ferns, cactuses, epiphytes and tropical mountain plants.  Just like our own Cleveland Botanical Garden it has an area dedicated to the plants of Madagascar, which includes a baobob tree — which looks like it has its roots in the air which, there as here, inspires the nickname “upside down tree”.

Other nicknames names are easy to guess, such as the sausage tree, native to South Africa and identified by the Holden Arboretum as  genus Kigelia. In South Africa its large oblong sausage shaped gourds are used to make containers.The hanging "sausages" were at least as long as my forearm.

Cuba’s national flower is the lovely white bloom Cubans call the mariposa — Spanish for butterfly. This sweetly fragrant bloom became a symbol of rebellion and purity in Cuba. Ann McCulloh, curator of plant collections for the Cleveland Botanical Garden identifies it as Hedychium coronarium or Butterfly Ginger .

We saw begonias, bougainvillea, anthuriums, and poinsettia beyond number and I was proud to be able to identify the purple flowered jacaranda  -which I first encounters in Los Angeles.

 But the flower I loved the best was the large brilliant orange bloom as large as my fist with strangely shaped almost tenacle-like blossoms. I sent my photo to McCulloh who identified it as a Brownea grandiceps also known as a Rose of Venezuela, or Scarlet Flame Bean. She said its’s a small tropical tree from South America, that will not take temperatures below 55 degrees.

Although she said the Butterfly Ginger can sometimes be grown as a houseplant, I guess there’s no large orange Scarlet Flame Bean flower in my future.

I never did learn why the bark on this had many colors but I thought it was pretty so photographed it. 

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Meet some Cuban artists, see their work

Music in Havana is everywhere  - from balconies on decaying houses from which laundry lines are strung, at dinner and over drinks on breezy rooftops, in immaculate and beautifully restored public squares, and among street vendors hawking peanuts.

Street art in Havana includes this fish and others hung along a pedestrian street

But others arts in Cuba also are just as public .

Fuster's work is reminiscent of Gaudi

Ceramicist Jose R. Fuster, who lives in the suburbs near the off-limits compound  where Fidel Castro resides, has transformed his home and the entire neighborhood surrounding it .
 It’s reminiscent of Gaudi, the over-the top Spanish artist known for his work in Barcelona.  Fuster welcomes folks to the open-air workshop in his home. His surreal world of ceramics has spread to benches, entryways, facades and roofs of nearby houses.

Back in Old Havana, a street mural along a cobbled pedestrian walkway near the handsome Plaza des Armas chronicles much of the city’s history and its people, who are carefully drawn and attired in the garments of their time. It's a popular meeting place.

 Nearby is a shady pocket of a park dedicated to Hans Christian Anderson.

Salvador Gonzalez 

Step into an Havana alleyway transformed by painter Salvador Gonzalez into statements about the African influence in Cuba, including obscure references to voodoo-like santeria beliefs evolving from the slave years. The saint worship called santeria, entrenched for 300 years in Cuban culture, is a fusion of Catholicism with that of African Yoruba tribes.
Henry Aloma talks about his work.

When we visit Henry Aloma in his studio perched on a hillside in   Las Terrazas about an hour outside the city it’s immediately clear that he is a fine artist.

Lovely Las Terrazas is an artists community  in a valley centered by a lake and guarded over by giant mahogany and teak trees planted in a long ago reforestation effort.
We meet Aloma's pretty daughter when we step into his studio to look at his works in progress. Later we also meet his wife.

He explains that his work comes from his unconscious without any preconceived ideas or objectivity. “Every idea is an island,” he tells us.
Visit his Las Terrazas community in the Aug. 10 travel section.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tocororo reveals Cuba as a birding paradise

The brilliant blue white and red tocororo is Cuba's national bird.

I've been stopped in the street, at the grocery store, library and at wine tastings by those asking about my recent trip to Cuba.  The story ran on July 13, and by the response I've had I know that many folks still are reading the print editions of The News-Herald.

Most are surprised to learn this was not a journalist- only visit, but a trip that anyone can take. I not only paid for it out of my own pocket but took some vacation time from my job to join Bob Older's Creative Travel group.

 Bob is a Delaware- based travel agent  who secured a license from the US. Treasury Dept. to put together legal trips to Cuba. Licensed companies must develop and stick to an itinerary framed around people to people contacts in Cuba, usually based around a specific subject. Travelers are issued visas, which are presented at every overnight, so both Cuban and American governments can check to see that the itinerary is followed.

Bob speaks only a little Spanish but has developed many valuable contacts in Cuba during the course of leading several trips a year to this previously  forbidden island nation of Cuba. They are able to interpret for his guests. Older once worked as a chef and has done TV cooking shows so has a special interest in food. That's why the trip I joined had a culinary focus.
Bob Older of Creative Travel hopes to put together a photography and birding trip to Cuba. 

Like many folks, he follows his own passions in developing trips. As an an avid amateur photographer he wants to host a photo based trip. During our visit to Las Terrazas, in the lush Sierra del Rosario mountains, about 45 minutes west of Havana, we were greeted by birdsong and butterflies.

Our six-person group joined a walking and driving tour to learn more about this pristine place, while Bob held back to take photos. Birds that have largely disappeared in other parts of the Caribbean find safety here in Las Terrazas, and Cuba has more than 350 species of birds. Hearing the call co'-co co'-co co' co, Bob knew that the tocororo, Cuba's national bird, was around. He also identified the trill of the Cuban green woodpecker and haunting song of the endemic Cuban solitaire.

It's no surprise to learn that a birding trip is on his wish list for Creative Travel, although dates have not yet been set.  He needs six like-minded travelers to begin the official planning process.

I loved La Terrazas so much I knew I could live there. Find out more about this very special place in the Aug. 10 Travel section. Click on the underlined words above to read my recent story and learn more about Creative Travel

This is a yellow-bellied flycatcher

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

A guide to staying hydrated in Cuba

Guarapo- fresh squeezed sugar cane - is made for a nearby guaraperia where a Hemingway-inspired drink that also uses fresh squeezed pineapple is served. 

It's important to stay hydrated in tropical Cuba and the natives do it in style, notably with mojitos and daiquiris, good local beer and guarapo. The latter is freshly squeezed sugarcane juice sold at roadside guaraperias, often served with rum but quite thirst-quenching, if sweet, served straight up..

I first saw it being squeezed at a stand near Hemingway's Vinca Vigia, the home he bought with his first royalty check from "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The author, who loved Cuba and lived there 20 years, has achieved cult status among Cubans and fans from all over the world make Hemingway pilgrimages there.

I'll have more about our visit to that 20-acre hilltop estate soon.

Havana Club is the rum used in almost every drink. The rum and coke called the Cuba Libre  is probably the simplest drink though I didn't see any Coca Cola (or any other brand name) during my visit to  Cuba.

People seem perfectly content using TuCola, a knock-off of sorts.

El Floridita, one of the downtown Havana bars regularly frequented by Hemingway, today carries his signature on its marquee and inside a lifesized size bronze statue of the author leans with an elbow on the bar.

Hemingway wrote about the daiquiris served at El Floridita and today they still are sold there but are said to be overpriced.

The sugarcane being squeezed below Vinca Vigia was near a sign boasting the Hemingway tasted his first pineapple there and a pineapple drink is made and sold in his honor.

This is the pineapple juice, lemon juice,  sugar cane juice and rum drink offered near Hemingway's Cuban home. Note the sugar cane stalk, pineapple slice and lime used as a garnish.

Bartenders using  Cuban rum  to top off a multiple variety of drinks  often look to the imbiber to "say when"

One of the best beers I drank in Cuba was Bucaneros, a heavy bodied lager with good flavor. Cristal, which is more commonly available, is a lighter beer.

 I'd heard that Hatuey was a good beer, but I couldn't find it.  

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Rum, cigars the forbidden fruits of Havana

  Partagas,  one of the oldest cigars in Cuba, were begun in 1843 by an immigrant from Spain. The Trinidad is made exclusively for Fidel to present to dignitaries and diplomats.   

Cigars and rum are the forbidden fruit of Cuba, at least when it comes to bringing them home. But both can be enjoyed during a visit to this island nation and some visitors sample both every day. In Havana you can also tour a museum that showcases the making of rum and visit one of several cigars factories where workers sort the tobacco leaves and roll the cigars.
The cigar process is fascinating but unfortunately no photography is permitted  and note taking is likewise not allowed.
Our small group arrived early to see the cigar process which turned out to be good, because by late morning lectors step up to their stand at the head of the rolling room to read to the workers. The custom was begun long ago to relieve workers of the tedium of rolling one cigar after another and to educate them in the process. The day begins with the news, read in Spanish of course, and changes each hour. By mid afternoon the lectors are reading from romance novels, finishing a chapter or two at a time.
The workers are paid $12 a month plus four cigars a day our guide told us. The cigars given to employees all have been rejected in the quality control process.  The H. Upmann factory, which we visited in Havana, has 400 employees and turns out 18,000 cigars a day, most of which are exported. Cigars are tested by official smokers and carefully aged before being sold.
A shop next to the cigar factory sells all kinds of cigars, including many not produced there. A walk-in humidor controls temperatures and humidity to keep them at theri best.
Young rums like this 3 year old one are best used in drinks such as mojitos.  Older rums are sipped straight like a cognac.

The Museo de Ron is in an old mansion near the Plaza de San Francisco where sugar cane presses, sugar boiling pots and  barrel making are showcased. Bubbling vats and copper stills are part of a mini-distillery to show the process of making rum. A highlight,  especially for model train buffs, is an elevated platform from which an  early 20th century sugar plantation is showcased, complete with working scale model steam locomotives. Some of those old steam locomotives now are displayed near the waterfront
arts and crafts market.
Our rum museum tour ended in the adjacent Bar Havana Club where we drank mojitos and listened to a great band.

A walk-in humidor at the cigar store next to the factory keeps fine cigars at the perfect humidity to preserve them

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Old cars of Cuba have a few surprises

This is a typical Havana traffic scene with a mixture of cars old and new

The cars of Cuba were one of the biggest surprises during my recent visit.
I expected to see many old 1950s cars, American cars remaining after their owners left Cuba during the Revolution, when Batista left the island and Castro took over.
But I’d thought they would be the only cars I’d see.
The traffic light here counts off the seconds until it will change.

At the airport I saw many late model Japanese cars, much like my own Toyota, mixed among the older 50s cars. There also were models I didn’t recognize, such as 12-year old Russian Ladas. The Russians also left their cars behind  after the fall of the Soviet Union.
  Near the airport was the only traffic congestion I saw during my week in and around Havana. Trucks, old cars and newer cars were among them.
I quickly realized that not everyone in Cuba has a car. Jam packed buses ply regular routes, but don’t pick up tourists. You’ll often see locals waving a fistful of cash as they stand beside the highway, hitching possible rides

Here I am trying to choose if I'll ride in Lola or Nadine
One evening our tour arranged rides for us in a pair of meticulously restored 1965 Chevys operated by Nostagicars, a group of restored vehicles organized by Julio Alvarez and his wife, who is an American.

 Lola was the pink car and Nadine was the blue one and soon we headed from our home stay accommodations in Miramar for dinner in Old Havana.

I chose Nadine because blue is my favorite color
But Lola was just as gorgeous
Recognizing that visitors want to experience the old cars, the Alvarezes have organized a handful of their friends with restored cars dating from 1950 to 1959 provide transportation for folks like us, airport transfers, island or city tours and weddings.

Most have been converted to diesel, since diesel fuel is less expensive in Cuba.

 They’ve also passed a rigorous annual government  safety inspection.
To restore the cars the owners create parts by machine when they cannot import what they need, so a close inspection reveals these cars are somewhat different than the originals.

Member cars carry a Nostagicars decal on a window. Their website shows some of the one to two-day tours they offer which visit places I didn’t get to on this trip. It’s

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cuban money and legal purchases in Cuba

Five  CUC and  three CUC convertible peso notes are shown with a souvenir Cuban flag. The CUC currency, designed to be exchanged for other currencies brought to Cuba by visitors, isn't used by Cubans

Cuban money is confusing to say the least. You'll exchange your U.S. dollars, probably at your hotel, since if ATM machines exist, I didn't see any. You'll get  convertible pesos, worth about 25 times more than the national peso used by Cubans. Convertible pesos are called CUCs, pronounced Kooks. If you have euros or Canadian dollars to exchange for CUCs  when you get to Cuba you'll get a slightly better deal. That's because there's  a 10 percent penalty for exchanging American dollars, something that's most likely part of the ongoing political posturing  surrounding the five decade long U.S.embargo of all things Cuban. It's more recently been fueled by  the fact that the U.S. has imprisoned a trio of Cubans now in prison in this country, popularly known as the Cuban Five, even though two of them have been released. Their actions resulted in us calling Cuba a terrorist nation, something  at which the peaceful Cubans take great offense.

Since I always save some money from a trip I had a stash of euros and a couple of Canadian 20s with Queen Elizabeth's picture on them. Elizabeth ages on the Canadian  20 and on the ones I had she was obviously quite young. So those 20s had been hanging around long enough in my stash box to occasion comment when I exchanged them. Plenty of Canadians visit Cuba and they have for years, so Canadian money is familiar to those who exchange it for CUCs.They'd probably never seen such a youthful Elizabeth.
These peppers for sale in a Cuban farmers  market  will cost a native something less than 20 cents each. Their price is shown in CUPS, the Cuban peso that fluctuates between 23 and 25 per dollar.

Shops that deal only with Cubans deal in Cuban pesos, also called CUP.  You likely won't have occasion to buy a bag of rice, bananas on the street or peppers from a farmers market as shown here. You'll see they are priced at 5.00 CUPs, which translates to something under 20 cents each
As I understand it, it was the U.S. embargo against Cuban sugar that caused the Cubans to look to Russia for economic help in 1960. Before that their money was pegged to U.S. dollars and after that it was pegged to the Soviet ruple. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 the peso  lost much of its value and fell to a rate of 125 pesos to the U.S. dollar, throwing most into poverty.  Nowadays it fluctuates between 23 and 25 pesos to the U.S. dollar. But you don't really need to know any of that, since you'll be dealing in CUCs.

I wanted to bring a Cuban flag home but was told it was technically illegal since as a U.S. citizen I was only permitted to purchase art works and a few other craft- type things. I knew I couldn't bring back rum or cigars but I'd hoped that an exception would be made for the delicious Cuban coffee. But no dice. The flag came back with me because my carryon bag was with me and wasn't searched.

 Just between you and me, I talked to an American man at the airport who bragged about bringing back the forbidden cigars. I didn't see him again after we landed in Miami, so who knows how he fared.

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