Alumni Travel: Cuba

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Inside Cuba

Dan Wackershauser, communications specialist/editor at UW-Platteville is joining 23 other UW-Platteville alumni on an eight-day visit to Cuba April 28–May 5. The trip is offered through a partnership between the UW-Platteville Alumni Association and the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Read about this unique experience in his blog.

May 5, 2014


The final day in Cuba began with a visit to a maternity clinic in Cienfuegos. The clinic includes nurses, family doctors and specialists. There are 60 beds for women who have been identified with at-risk pregnancies or who live a moderate distance from the city. Once the women are ready to deliver they are taken to the local hospital. Women can be admitted to the clinic 20 weeks into their pregnancy.

We left Cienfuegos for Santa Clara. While driving through Santa Clara we stopped at the burial site of Che Guevera.

The visits concluded with a stop at a professional arts school for high school aged students. In addition to general studies, the school offers theatre training, art and music. There are 203 students enrolled in the school. (See video.)

We arrived at the airport in Santa Clara. After clearing customs, we waited in the terminal for a couple hours sharing stories of our time in Cuba and a couple Bucaneros, a favorite beer in Cuba. Cheers!

—Dan Wackershauser

[See the photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

May 4, 2014


Today was spent in Trinidad. A morning rain storm finished upon our arrival. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We toured the Plaza Mayor in the center of Old Trinidad. The Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad, Cuba's largest church was also included on our itinerary. We also visited the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial.

The Mata family opened their home to show us what an average home in Trinidad looks like.

Trinidad, a port city, was founded in 1514. It is geographically  isolated with 50,000 residents. Last year 300,000 tourists visited Trinidad.

The day concluded with a visit to the studio of local pottery artist Azariek Santander. He welcomed the group with a demonstration. (See video.)

—Dan Wackershauser

[See the photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

May 3, 2014


Today was a travel day with memorable stops between Havana and Cienfuegos. The first morning stop was at a former sugar mill in the Village of Australia. Local residents showed us the old locomotive engines and discussed the history of Cuba's sugar cane industry.

Cuba was the second country in the Americas to have railroad access, following the United States. The railroad was needed for the sugar cane industry. (See video.)

There are currently 56 working sugar cane mills in Cuba. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sugar cane market in Cuba took a dramatic decline. More than 35,000 workers relocated, with the younger people going back to school. The next stop was the Bay of Pigs Museum. The building houses historical memorabilia from the event, including United States weaponry and photos and artifacts from Cuban soldiers.

A baseball stadium is located near the museum where the provincial baseball team plays. We had lunch at a favorite tourist restaurant on the beach near the Carribean waters.

On the road to Cienfuegos we witnessed local workers drying rice in the road. Our driver was careful to stay in the lane free from rice. Upon arrival in Cienfuegos, we walked through the downtown area. The main plaza included several shops. Our local guide noted Cienfuegos is one of the cleanest cities in Cuba.

We checked into the Hotel Jagua, met for dinner and prepared for the next day.

—Dan Wackershauser

[See the photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

May 2, 2014

Day Five

The day began with a tour of a cigar factory in Havana. It was explained that it takes nine months of training to learn how to roll a cigar. Of those who try their hand at cigar making only 10 percent will be proficient enough to advance to the professional level. The recent class had more than 140 participants and only one completed the training and was hired at the factory. Each worker, depending on the brand, is expected to produce 145 cigars each day. Eighty percent of the cigars manufactured are exported. Cameras were not allowed inside the factory.

Following the cigar factory we traveled to the Cuban Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. A museum guide explained the history of Cuban art during the one-hour tour. Cameras were only allowed on the main level.

Prior to lunch we visited the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. The museum contained several revolutionary artifacts and our local guide discussed the Cuban history. The museum formerly served as the presidential palace.

Following lunch we visited a children's cultural and artistic center. The students, ages 10-12, sang songs and the director discussed the programs they offer and the history of the neighborhood. (See video.)

The day concluded with a visit to a cigar boutique and another delicious meal.

On Saturday we will be traveling to Cienfuegos for the final portion of the trip. I will not have access to Wi-Fi during this time. The next blog will be posted on Tuesday.

—Dan Wackershauser

[See photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

May 1, 2014

Day Four

On Thursday we had the opportunity to travel an hour west of Havana. We visited Las Terrazas (the terraces). This is the only sustainable community in Cuba. Villagers work together with vegetable gardens, construction and education. A major reforestation project 45 years ago was the birth of Las Terrazas. During a 15-year period eight million trees were planted. There are also 900 species of plants.

Las Terrazas includes 1,020 residents, with an average age of 33. There is a senior center that houses the older residents. The seniors make crafts, which they sell to visitors. There is also one doctor in the village.

A hotel inside the village draws visitors interested in eco-tourism. Those visitors can enjoy a ride on a zip line. We capped off the visit by planting a pear tree inside the village. (See video.)

Upon arriving back in Havana we stopped at a Catholic senior center. The director provided a tour and answered questions.

The day ended with dinner in downtown Havana. Our local guide noted that it is good luck to get rained on during the first rain in May. Prior to dinner, we were all blessed with good luck.

Until tomorrow...

—Dan Wackershauser

[See photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

April 30, 2014

Day Three

The themes for the day were culture, education and dance.
The day began with an unforgettable ride in a classic convertible. (See video.) The hour-long excursion took us along the shoreline and throughout Havana. The ride ended in Revolution Square, the headquarters of Raul Castro, Cuban president.

We then traveled to a Jewish community center for a presentation about the Jewish community in Cuba. There are five synagogues in Cuba and three in Havana.

Prior to lunch we were treated to a private performance by the Ebony Contemporary Dance Studio.

Lunch was served at the famous Hotel Nacional.

A visit to the University of Havana followed lunch. The university is free for students who earn admission. There are 32 areas of study between 18 colleges. Enrollment is approximately 18,000.

Next, the Cuban Ballet School Havana Compas Dance entertained us. The musicians combine percussion and dance to provide a unique musical experience.

We were briefed on the economic history of Cuba prior to dinner. Juan Triana, professor of economics, discussed Cuban history and the challenges currently facing the country.

The day concluded with dinner at 9 p.m. We were guests at La Terraza, a paladar (privately owned and operated restaurant). Once again, live music accompanied the meal.

It was another memorable day.

Until tomorrow...

—Dan Wackershauser

[See photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

April 29, 2014

Day Two

The first full day in Cuba did not disappoint.

Following breakfast, the group was led on a walking tour by the local guide. The morning sites included Havana's Cathedral, Havana Square, and the Palace of the Governors, as well as other parts of Old Havana.

Before lunch, the group visited an elementary school. The principal, a teacher and a student spoke about the school system and answered questions.

The k-6 school has 447 students in 19 classrooms. The students learn music, Cuban history and geography, as well as Spanish. They are taught English beginning in third grade.

Miguel Coyula, a well-known Cuban architect spoke to the group about urban planning in Cuba. He discussed the history of Cuba and the architectural challenges in Havana.

The afternoon was spent at the Muraleando Cultural Center, which provides artistic opportunities for Havana's youth. The center is operated separately from the official school system and is self-sufficient. Artisans sell their artwork to help support the center. The group was treated to a concert and had the opportunity to buy handmade artwork.

Prior to dinner the group was treated to a basic salsa lesson atop a Havana hotel. A spectacular view accompanied the rhythms of the music as visitors learned some new dance moves.

Dinner was served at La Moraleja, a paladar, or a privately owned and operated restaurant.

Until tomorrow...

—Dan Wackershauser

[See photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

April 28, 2014

Day One

The first day in Cuba provided an overwhelming number of sights and sounds. After arriving at the airport and clearing customs, we boarded a deluxe motor coach and drove through Havana, before stopping for lunch at La Ferminia. Lunch consisted of black beans and rice, along with a variety of meat options on a skewer. A three-piece band provided entertainment.

After lunch we traveled to the Museum of the Revolution. Unfortunately, the museum was closed due to a pre-scheduled event.

After a short break, we walked through downtown Havana, before arriving at La Valencia for dinner. Our meal consisted of salad, pallela, fresh bread and ice cream.

Our night officially ended shortly before 10 p.m. by organizing donations for the coming days. To cap off the night, the search for Internet access was successful.

Until tomorrow...

—Dan Wackershauser

[See photo gallery at the bottom of this page for more photographs.]

April 27, 2014

Travel day

Today began with the alarm clock buzzing at 6:50 a.m. Two flights and a couple of complimentary bags of peanuts later, I arrived in Miami, Fla. As I write this from my hotel, it is 9:40 p.m.

The evening went well as most of the group met at the hotel for dinner. Many great stories were shared and everyone seemed excited for what is on the horizon.

On the eve of entering Cuba for the first time, I have several thoughts racing through my head. My prime concern is that my paperwork is in order and that I make it to the airport on time. Earlier this evening the group was informed that we will be leaving the hotel at 7 a.m. tomorrow for the 11:30 a.m. charter flight to Cuba. The immigration and customs process isn't expected to be speedy.

I am also looking forward to descending through the clouds tomorrow and seeing Cuba from the air. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I plan to soak up every detail.

Tomorrow's itinerary is bursting with places to visit. I hope to capture all of the sites and post them here. Stay tuned.

—Dan Wackershauser


April 23, 2014

Preparation is key

Preparation is the key to success. That adage is being tested with my preparations for this trip to Cuba. I can’t recall the exact day that I was informed that I would be traveling to Cuba with the UW-Platteville and Wisconsin alumni associations. I do know it was several months ago. At the time I knew there was quite a bit of planning that had to take place in order for the trip to go seamlessly. Like everything else on life’s horizon the days moved swiftly, and now I am only a few days from boarding the airplane for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The first major call to action late last year was to apply for my passport. As a young boy several years ago a passport was not required to travel to Canada. This is a different circumstance. I visited the Platteville Post Office to submit my application after getting my photo taken and filling out the forms. After a few days, my passport arrived in the mail. It was a painless process and it was the first piece of evidence that made me realize this was actually going to happen.

As the days followed, various forms and checklists sent by the travel agency arrived in my mailbox. They also provided an itinerary and tips for visiting Cuba. I have checked all of the information more than once and am confident that I am prepared, I think.

I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with my fellow travelers in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 25. Ricardo Gonzales, a Cuban native and owner of the Cardinal Bar, hosted the group. He tries to travel to Cuba at least once a year. The meeting provided valuable information and pages of notes, ranging from the process of exchanging money to what will be available at the hotels and how the locals will receive us. “Cuba is about as safe a place as anywhere in the world,” said Gonzales, noting the Cuban people enjoy meeting American tourists. “You’ll make friends with strangers.”

An additional conference call was held in early April with representatives from the travel agency to tie up any loose ends.

After glancing over the robust itinerary, I am looking forward to every day of the trip. We will be visiting the university in Havana, the Bay of Pigs site, a community farm and tobacco plantations, private businesses as well as several other locations. I plan to post photos and additional blog entries as frequently as possible throughout my excursion. As I have learned, there is no Wi-Fi in Cuba and Internet access is somewhat accessible at the hotels, however, intermittent power outages can cause problems.

On Sunday, April 20 I began to pack. By the time I leave Platteville on April 27, I am hoping to be ready; fingers crossed.

—Dan Wackershauser

April 16, 2014


Thanks to the UW-Platteville Alumni Association’s collaboration with the Wisconsin Alumni Association, I, along with a group of more than 20 alumni will be traveling to Cuba from April 28-May 5. When you tell people in Southwest Wisconsin that you will be traveling to Cuba they usually respond with something like, “Oh, that’s nice. I have been there. It’s close to Platteville.” In this case, the Cuba I am traveling to is an island less than 100 miles south of Florida.

I don’t think I am overstating it when I say that having the chance to travel to Cuba is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Access to the country was halted in the 1960s after Fidel Castro took power. The tourism restrictions have lessened in the recent years, making these trips possible. Of course, it isn’t as easy as buying an airplane ticket and flying to Cuba. I will explain the process of gaining access to Cuba in an upcoming post.

This trip is something that I never thought I would have the opportunity to do. I have never been much of a world traveler, except for a couple brief vacations to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and to South Padre Island, Texas for spring break during my college days.

This will not be a political event, but rather a people-to-people educational exchange. We will have the opportunity to visit a health care center, a tobacco plantation, cultural centers, privately owned restaurants, the Bay of Pigs and many other sites. In addition, we will be able to speak with the Cuban residents to get their thoughts on a variety of issues. We will be spending five nights in Havana and two nights in Cienfuegos.

This blog will provide a sampling of the sites and sounds I encounter along the way. It will also provide an insight into a country that has been isolated for more than 50 years. I hope to post photos and videos in this blog as often as possible, leading up to the trip, during the trip and upon my return. I hope you will come along for the ride.

—Dan Wackershauser

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