Cuba is enigmatic – especially for Americans, whose contact with the island nation so close to US shores has been forbidden for so long. But even other nationalities are eager to see this tiny Communist country that has been embroiled in turmoil for at least the past six decades.
Read my account of how this trip came about.
As our shipload of 2,000 plus passengers departed from Key West, the excitement was palpable.
Havana lay just to the southeast. A reasonably swift vessel could make the 90-mile passage comfortably in about six hours. However, in order to adhere to a set schedule that would allow an entire day in Havana, the captain of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas slowed ship engines almost to idle. Crossing the Strait separating Florida and Cuba would take more than 14 hours. We departed Key West at 5 p.m., with no chance to enjoy either Mallory Square’s street performers or the famed sunset.
Then, even though we were on deck at first light the following morning, we did not catch a sunrise view of el Morro Castle or the lighthouse at the harbor entrance except in shadow. Our first real daylight view was of decaying warehouse structures lining the dock on our vessel’s starboard side.
It was a shock.
First thoughts about Havana
Old Havana lies just beyond what was once a thriving commercial seaport, according to our map, but out of view. We could not yet see the Plaza de San Francisco,first laid out in the 16th Century, nor its impressive fountain and ancient basilica dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We saw a few spires, glimpsed brightly-painted buildings and followed dock workers and delivery vans as the morning dawned.
On the street, old buses, small vehicles, and horse-drawn wagons rambled along the uneven stones. We did not yet see the gleaming vintage automobiles we expected.
Our impression was of a city waking up and readying itself for the day; however, there seemed to be no urgency in the movements. We had been told that commerce progresses in Havana on “Cuban time.” We wondered if the onslaught of visitors was a welcome occurrence now that cruise ships call regularly in Havana.
The transition was immediate. We had been transported overnight back across decades to a place that we did not recognize. even from the pictures we had seen.
In all the magazine stories I had read about contemporary Cuba, I had never, to my knowledge, seen a picture that depicted age and disrepair in such a graphic manner. Was this the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, I wondered?
In the distance, above other roofs, two impressive gold-clad onion domes caught our attention and drew our wonder in the thin early morning light. We learned later that they are atop the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was built under the aegis of Fidel Castro, as a lasting monument to Russian-Cuban friendship, according to his memoirs, and was consecrated October 19, 2008, with Raul Castro in attendance.
Across the harbor, we gazed at the impressive bulk of the white marble Christ of Havana statue, the work of Cuban artist Hilma Madera. It was commissioned in 1953 and inaugurated in 1958, facing east, looking over the city with one arm raised in blessing upon the land and people. Incidentally, only two weeks later, Fidel Castro brought the tide of revolution to Havana. The history of Cuba was forever altered.
The 67 huge blocks of Carrara marble used to form the sculpture, the same type of stone that also graces tombstones in Havana’s sprawling Colon Cemetery, had been personally blessed by Pope Pius XII before leaving Italy.
Stepping onto Cuban soil . . .
The ship was quickly and efficiently cleared by officials. Eager passengers began to make their way to the modern interior of the Terminal Sierra Maestra. Heat and humidity settled upon us, but Cuban officials in the bright and airy non-air-conditioned space seemed not to notice.
We had been cautioned not to snap photographs inside the port building. Functionally laid out, the terminal is designed to process visitors efficiently, not as a space to linger, to shop or to socialize. There were no cautionary signs, but we obeyed the rules as smartly-uniformed customs and immigration officials and currency exchange personnel quickly dispatched us onto by-now bustling city streets or to waiting tour buses.
If only we could shed our preconceptions, I mused—about people and places and cultures—as easily as we shed our clothes in a tropical island setting. I thought about those preconceptions as I disembarked in Cuba. The carefree ambience of Cuba was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I felt very American at that moment, and was mildly disappointed that there were no welcoming musicians or souvenir-sellers.
At first glance, Cuba was not at all what I had expected.
Despite the relative ease with which an American can now visit Cuba, it is not at all routine. A visa is required, a relatively simple procedure, but it comes at a cost of $75 per person when processed by the cruise line. There are rules and specific guidelines for filling out the forms, depending on the specific category of authorized travel. Visiting Cuba simply as a “tourist” is still not a valid option for Americans. Travel as a journalist, for humanitarian, agricultural or educational purposes, and for specific other reasons is allowed, but there are strings attached.
Participation in some sort of cultural exchange is a requirement, under “people-to-people” guidelines that are well-defined and controlled. Half and full-day tours of many types can be booked through the cruise line; third-party excursions are available. We chose the latter; two separate excursions from two different sanctioned companies. We also built in a few hours of time on our own with thoughts of a museum visit or a leisurely lunch or dinner.
Discovering Havana on foot
We first strolled through Old Havana on our way to meet up with a designated guide. Our planned walking tour promised a sampling of traditional “street food.” We stopped for a morning coffee at an outdoor café where the menu surprise was espresso delivered with a cigar on the side. We opted to forego the cigar, ordering tall iced coffees instead. Served with ice cream, they were cooling and delicious on a morning already steamy with tropical heat! Service was prompt and cordial, and prices were reasonable.
This was no ordinary tour, and the conversation was as satisfying as the food samples.
Our group of six enjoyed typical fried treats, akin in some ways to warm American jelly-filled doughnuts, followed by pizza slices, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, cooling fresh fruit cocktails, and roasted ears of corn dripping with melted butter!
Our young guide, Marcos, a history student at University, was knowledgeable and informative, even leading us to a local B&B to see typical tourist accommodations and meet the proprietors. He gave an impromptu history lesson, answered all the questions we asked, and our time with him concluded over shared beers at a delightful local establishment on another old city square.
Walking through La Habana Vieja is quite an experience!
. . . and from the backseat of a convertible
A bit later in the day, we embarked on our second scheduled Havana experience. We had booked three hours with a car, driver and guide for a tour that would take us to many of the various neighborhoods that comprise Havana, a city that is now home to more than two million people.
Yes, the car was vintage American, a 1958 Thunderbird convertible; bright red, shiny and impressive despite its age, still with its original engine. And Florida plates!It was a whirlwind excursion; we saw ancient forts, business and residential districts, numerous monuments and families out to enjoy the city’s parks and playgrounds. We drove past massive art galleries, the national opera house, expensive hotels, stark Russian apartment buildings, modern steel and glass office buildings, and residential areas crowded with nondescript apartments. We drove the five-mile length of the Malecon, a broad avenue and seawall bordering the bay and frequented, perhaps equally, by fishermen and lovers, according to our guide.
We returned once again to Old Havana, circling el Capitolio, completed in 1929 as the seat of government. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the “House of the People” had no real purpose, and today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its dome has been under repair for the past several years, but the building and its adjacent statuary are still impressive.
We both walked and drove past La Floridita, the bar that served Ernest Hemingway’s favored daiquiri. The stool he occupied when he drank there is said to be cordoned off with a velvet rope.
So much to see and do
We also drove past former mansions and beautiful seaside estates, remnants of an age when Havana was the playground of the rich and famous; when what was characterized as “the good life” was also rife with mafia activity. Some storied nightclubs and bars from Havana’s glory days still exist, and overnight visitors have the opportunity to drink and dine in the outdoor atmosphere of the fabled Tropicana Club and former casino.
We sipped Mojitos from a street vendor at the site of el Morro, were awed by the view of the city from hilltop site of the looming Christ statue, and were mesmerized
by the park that has preserved remnants of the military exploits on Cuban soil, including missiles and wing pieces of American planes.
Revolution Square and those bigger than life likenesses of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be forever etched in memory. So, too, will the sight of the American flag
waving from its pole on the grounds of an embassy now staffed only by a skeleton force of diplomats. An August 28, 2018, U.S. State Department advisory once again recommended “Increased Caution” for American travelers to Cuba, following the illnesses and purported “attacks” on embassy personnel.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we visited Havana’s “forest,” a sprawling domain of greenery that winds along what is, sadly, a polluted river. Families still picnic by the river, however. Amid the overhanging boughs and grassy expanse, we sipped icy Pina Coladas, savoring a day filled with new insights and a wealth of lasting impressions, before our classic red Thunderbird returned us to the cruise ship terminal.
Cuba is a sensory experience. We sailed away that evening in deepening twilight, with an overwhelming sense that we had barely scratched the surface of Havana, let alone the country, during our brief encounter. The next morning at breakfast onboard, our table-mates agreed that it will take some time to process the total experience. Now, after a full week to consider, my husband and I are still attempting to digest all that we saw and did during our 12-hour stay in Havana. It was not long enough. And, although not my preferred way to visit a country for the first time, it was a delicious and uniquely palatable first taste.
Its people are charming, proud, gregarious, curious, talkative, hopeful, guarded and resigned — all at the same time. Cuba cannot be easily dismissed, even after such a short stay.
Do I want to return? As yet, I have not decided. For now it is enough to report that a cruise ship call in Cuba is unlike a port visit to any other nation on earth.
It changes a person.
I have many more thoughts to share: Look for additional insights and photos Wednesday, October 31.