After breakfast, we check out of the Hotel Presidente and head out of Havana on the A1 for the City of Santa Clara. It is the capital city of the province of Villa Clara and located along the northern flank of the Sierra del Escambray Mountains, midway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. With a population of about 250,000 people, Santa Clara is the 5th largest Cuban city.
Soon after leaving Havana, the landscape turns rural with sparse housing and villages surrounded by agricultural fields — many of which seem dormant. The rural areas and small towns have the similar look of those in other Latin American countries. There is something so simple and immediate that visually and emotionally draws me to rural places like this.
Enroute we see billboards of "The Cuban Five," who were arrested in the US (1998) and later convicted in Miami on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, murder, acting as agents of a foreign government, and other illegal activities. The Cuban government said they were spying on Miami's Cuban exile community, not the US government. Hector tells us that in Cuba, the Five are viewed as national heroes and portrayed as having sacrificed their liberty in the defense of their country. Ultimately all five Cubans were released starting in 2011.
Lunch today is at the cultural center known as "El Bosque," which is at the community project NaturArte. Founded, in 1999, by Ermes Ramirez Criado on what was once empty land filled with garbage, it is now one of Santa Clara's most beautiful sites. Most of the garbage has been disposed of either through recycling, repurposing or discarding in a proper dump area, and the money received from these sales has helped NaturArte expand their project. There is also a wonderful restaurant on site.
Our tour is led by Ermes who enthusiastically discusses the center's efforts in raising environmental awareness and the need to contribute positively to the surrounding communities. He comes across as a proud man and justifiably so —NaturArte is open free of charge to everyone, and has forged links with the local schools who comes to visit, learn about the environment as well as grow vegetables. The project also offers employment and volunteer opportunities to artists and craftsmen and craftswomen, gardeners and those who care for the animals and birds. They also offer an apprenticeship program that encourages at-risk youth to become involved that has received national attention for its successful work in helping young people turn their lives around.
Not surprisingly, at the main entrance to the project stands a statue of Ché Guevara as a soldier in the Escambray mountains during the Cuban revolutionary wars!
The drive to the hotel is picturesque with horse-drawn carts and farming operations. A major turn-off of the Central Highway takes us to the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean Sea dotted with mangrove islands. Cuba, I learn, is an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands filled with coral reefs and some of the world's best white-powder beaches and crystal-clear water. It would fun to come back someday to explore the country's underwater beauty!
Hotel Meliá is a 50s modern-style resort with a large central area with pools, a swim-up bar, and lots of chaises for lounging. Around this are buildings housing a variety of international cuisine restaurants, guest rooms, and a large entertainment pavilion. Liv's and my room is spacious and very clean with sliding glass doors that open onto a small balcony and a garden view.
After unpacking, we order drinks and nibbles — still feeling marvelously full from lunch — at a small café at the resort, followed by a stroll around the grounds before settling in for the evening. A wooden pathway outside the our second floor guest room, we discover, leads down to the pristine white sand beach. There are cabanas, stacks of lounge chairs with umbrellas, and a volleyball court — but no one is there. Instead, all of the Canadian and European guests are still hanging out at the pool . . . go figure!