My Canadian friend had heard of a lovely natural hot spring southwest of Havana called San Diego de los Banos [the baths at San Diego], so we decided to hire a driver to take us there. We went to a sort of taxi stand where there were dozens of old American cars parked. After haggling with a few of the drivers on price, we eventually settled on $15 one way to make the roughly 75 mile trip.
We crawled into his mid '50s Chev and soon we were off. About 4 or 5 miles outside of the city, all traffic seemed to vanish. Here we were at midday, on what appeared to be a major 4 lane superhighway, and we were the ONLY car on the road! It was eerie passing under one freeway overpass bridge after another and seeing absolutely no other cars! Eventually we came to and overtook a horse drawn wagon carrying what appeared to be 8 or 10 farm workers slowly moving down the right hand lane of this major thoroughfare. Bizarre! After another few miles, we eventually saw another car, and after a few more miles, yet another. But for long stretches of time, it was only us. It had the feeling of being in a strange Twilight Zone episode!
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It wasn't long before the landforms around us began to change. Slowly, they got more hilly and then mountainous. We were enthralled with the incredible beauty and peacefulness of the Cuban countryside. We were truly in the tropics, and they were gorgeously lush, green, and forested, with beautiful palm trees everywhere.
Eventually, we reached our destination. We went inside the structure at left, paid our admittance fee and locker rental (both were a mere pittance), and then were advised to strip completely naked before entering the bath. We put our clothes in a locker and then went down a long descending walkway, and suddenly there we were. It was a large pool, for males only (the females had a similar one nearby, which we understandably didn't see). In each separate pool, fresh hot spring water was piped in. It was only us and maybe 2 or 3 other bathers. Funny thing, though: off to the side was a middle-aged WOMAN sitting there minding the pool! She didn't even bat an eye at us as we went into the delightfully warm (93 degree) water. We joked that it didn't really matter because she had obviously seen it all many times before in her job, but it still seemed weird to be swimming like naked jaybirds right in front of this lone female. Unaffected, though, we swam stark naked for about 15 minutes under the watchful eye of this onviously disinterested woman. Then we got out, toweled ourselves off and headed back up for a relaxing massage. This time, we were advised to cover ourselves with our towels before we each climbed up onto our own individual massage table. None of these also-female masseuses was notably attractive, but could they ever give a massage! For the next half hour, we were in massage nirvana! At the end of our session, we were fully relaxed and went back to our lockers, put on our street clothes, and reemerged back into the ticket area. Here we began speaking in half Spanish, half English with one of the attendants. She asked where we were from, and where we were going. We told her, and mentioned that we wanted to see some tobacco and sugar cane fields. She told us to wait for about an hour; she would be off work at that time, and then she and her boyfriend who had a car would be along to pick us all up and take us on a little tour. We couldn't believe our luck! For the next 45 minutes, we walked through the small village we were in, noticing several thatched-hut dwellings and one small but very ornate Catholic church. During Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba three years before, he persuaded Fidel Castro to allow more freedom for the church. Both this church and the one in Havana were open during our stay, as a result. We also saw a unique above-the-ground cemetary during our walk around.
Sure enough, an hour later the boyfriend came by. He spoke no English, so after a short explanation from the attendant, we hopped into his back seat. It was getting near supper time by then, so we decided to treat them both to supper at a nearby private establishment. At that point in time, the Castro government was allowing private restaurants seating no more than 12 people to exist in private homes. The owners of these restaurants paid a fee to the Cuban government for the privilege. I am not certain if this is still the case ten years later, but the policy was definitely in effect back in 2001. This couple knew of a spot like that nearby, so we all settled in for a nice authentic Cuban supper of beans, rice, pork, banana chips, Havana Club rum and Cristal beer. We were already in Pinar Del Rio province, so the boyfriend said after our meal that he would drive us to the nearby provincial capital city of the same name, where he said he knew of a couple who could put us up for the night. Then, the next day at 10:00 AM, he said he would pick us up and give us a tour of nearby tobacco and sugar cane fields. After that, he would take us back to Havana - all for the unbelievably low price of only $40!!! We happily agreed. (I learned later that baseball players Tony Oliva, Jose Contreras, and Alexei Ramirez all hailed originally from Pinar Del Rio)! Regrettably, though, I was never able to attend a Cuban baseball game, although if I do ever return, that will be at the top of my priority list!
We stayed that night for $25 each in two separate rooms with a nice young Cuban couple who had 2 young boys. She spoke no English and he only a little, but it didn't matter. He was brimming with curiosity about the United States and Canada. Where were we from? How cold did it actually get there? How did we like Cuba so far? He mentioned that he had applied for an exit visa to move he and his family to Spain, where he said his great-grandfather had originally come from. He mentioned that it may take a few years to get that coveted visa. That was as close as we came to a political discussion; we were never in a situation where one was called for, really. We told him so far we had very much enjoyed our stay in Cuba, and how much we loved the kindness and hospitality shown us by its people. Our Canadian friend took a photo of this Cuban family sitting together with my high school friend and I before we parted the next morning. We mailed him a copy after our return home, and we hope he got it. Perhaps he was successful in finally getting that visa. We can only hope so, but have no way of knowing!
True to his word, our driver from the previous night showed up with his girlfriend at precisely 10 AM. He took us out to a nearby tobacco field and I got out for a picture. Workers around us continued their tasks and didn't even take notice. It was an incredible experience to stand right among those who were producing the finest and most sought-after tobacco in the entire world! My own smoking days had ended years before, but I had always wondered what it would be like to stand in a Cuban tobacco field, and now here I was with them!
On the way back to Havana, we stopped briefly on that previously described abandoned superhighway and ran across to the other side, where there were huge amounts of sugar cane growing wildly. We each snapped off a stalk and sampled it. I had never tasted sugar cane before, and I was amazed at the liquid and part-granular texture of what came out of the stalk and its pure sweetness! Wow, I thought - this stuff was so pure and good, it could be drunken by the gallon!
We made it back to our spot in Havana, collectively $40 poorer, but immeasurably richer in the rewarding experience. We bade the couple farewell, and they were back off to San Diego de los Banos once more while we returned to our apartment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. That night, we would attend a jazz club and partake of Havana night life. It would definitely be a very full and rewarding day!
For some SUPERB videos, Google Havana: City: City Guide, weather, and facts galore from Answers.com.
UP NEXT IN PART IV: HAVANA NIGHT LIFE, AND SHOPPING IN CUBA!