The following Cuba series was written by students enrolled in Independent Study: Cuban Hospitality and Tourism Industries, a one-week intensive course taking place in Cuba over the 2016 Spring Break. As a course assignment, students were required to submit blog posts to the Tisch Center Blog highlighting each day of the trip. The following post was written by Emilie White Hidalgo & Elizabeth Kim.
UNESCO Towns and History (Emilie)
In the morning we stopped for a short tour of Cienfuegos, a French-inspired town between Varadero and Trinidad. The town center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the best example of early 19th century Spanish urban planning. After a rooftop lunch and Q&A at a paladar, we went on a short walking tour with Yvet, learning about the history and remnants of colonialism in the town. One park we visited was dedicated to writer Jose Marti, considered a Cuban national hero and an “Apostle of Cuban Independence” from Spanish rule.
After a short but scenic bus ride, which included driving over Cuba’s highest bridge, we arrived in the scenic city of Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the first moment, the entire group was enchanted by the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets filled with vibrant people. We met with Julio Munoz and his wife Rosa, who set up accommodations for us in local casa particulares, or private houses. Every building we visited retained its colorful, colonial charm; it seemed like a land stuck in time. Yvet described the practical sides of the beautiful architecture: high first floors, open windows, and inner courtyards for temperature control, sloping streets to draw water into the myriad of caves beneath the city, and squares outside of the churches for social gatherings. Our walking tour led us to the Casa de la Musica, an open plaza with wide stairs, where live music and dancing took place every night.
Our visit to Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad, the only 5 star hotel in Trinidad and the top hotel in all of Cuba according to TripAdvisor, illuminated more commonality of the challenges among Cuban hotels. Even basic supplies like produce, meat, fish, and exotic fruits are hard to come by. Special menus must be planned out months in advance to ensure all the ingredients will be readily available. Our guide cited these struggles primarily with the embargo, not with the Cuban government. Currently, this is the only hotel in Trinidad to be a joint venture between a foreign company and the Cuban government, though Iberostar is looking into opening a beach resort nearby in the future. Like many hotels in Cuba, the occupancy rate is very high at over 95% throughout the year. Even during the usual low season in June and July, the volume of visitors was so high that planned renovations had to be canceled. However, by the end of this year an expansion will take place, doubling the 40 rooms and adding a pool, spa, and gym.
We made a brief stop in Cienfuegos for a short tour and luncheon at Te Quedaras. There, we were able to indulge in some great authentic Creole dishes. It’s located on the second floor of a busy boulevard. The staff was very welcoming and kind, and we were immediately seated near the patio that overlooks the boulevard. Sr. Vicente Rodriguez Léon was able to answer all our questions about the restaurant business and paladar scene during our Q&A session after the wonderful meal. Similar to the other paladares, he mentioned that the main challenge was accessing and gaining control of the supplies and resources. He also shared information pertaining to his marketing strategy (primarily using TripAdvisor), staffing, tax regulations, restaurant competitors, and future projects such as a rooftop bar/lounge scene on the third floor of the paladar. Creating this additional F&B outlet would definitely bring more revenue for the restaurant and attract new tourists and locals.
Soon after, we left to Trinidad. We were able to tour Iberostar Grand Hotel, which is a 5-star hotel that is listed as #1 in Trinidad on TripAdvisor. It’s located in the heart of Trinidad, and within very close proximity to the historical centre. We received a thorough tour of the hotel and were able to see the rooms and junior suites. The architecture of the hotel resembles that of the elegant colonial style (since it is a refurbished 16th century World Heritage building). The hotel offers a number of services and facilities that other smaller hotels do not provide such as a conference room which can hold up to 70 people and a large gourmet restaurant (buffet-style). Most of the guests that come to stay in the hotel are business travelers and European and Canadian leisure travelers. The occupancy rates are relatively high (well-above 95%). I can definitely see why it’s a 5-star hotel, and the employees certainly provide and exhibit the outstanding service that is expected to be found in a luxury, grand collection hotel.