Ah, Havana. It has a certain mystique, doesn’t it? Since watching The Godfather movies it has been a dream of mine to experience the culture of this city. Of course, as an American, until recently it has been impossible to go to Cuba. And, due to President Trump’s new restrictions on travel to Cuba it is much more difficult now than it was just a few weeks ago.
When we booked the cruise last summer it had been announced that new restrictions would be put I place. People that had already booked the trip would be exempt but unfortunately, we booked too late and were unsure what the new regulations would be and how they would affect us. We booked the trip through NCL. We would each pay $75 for a visa and the cruise line would deal with the paperwork. Our visas would be given to us when we checked in for the cruise (we filled in a form on-line prior to the cruise). We verified that we would be able to do an independent tour (as opposed to through the cruise line) and decided to book. I decided to book a classic car tour with Yosel Vasquez since he was rated #1 on Trip Advisor and so contacted him via email to reserve a tour. I had heard that wi-fi was very difficult to find in Cuba so was pleasantly surprised to hear back from him promptly to confirm our tour. I also posted a message on Cruise Critic and found another couple that wanted to join us.
A couple of weeks before we embarked the new travel restrictions were announced. We were a bit worried that the cruise line might change their guidelines and insist that we book a tour through them; we have had experience with NCL doing something quite similar in Vietnam and China on a cruise we took last year. I contacted them via their Facebook page to confirm whether or not they were changing their policy so that I would have something in writing if there was an issue on board. They responded that nothing would change and that their guidelines were fully compliant with the new governmental regulations. I was hopeful that we would be allowed off the ship to take our private tour but in the back of my mind, was a bit worried that we would have a problem.
We embarked on our cruise from the port of Miami. We would spend a day and a half in Havana. Our plan was to take the car tour on the first day and then walk around on our own on the second day. We had also tentatively planned on taking in a show with Steve and Rochelle, our new friends from Cruise Critic. We had looked into the Tropicana Cabaret show which started at 10 pm. We figured we could decide after taking our full-day tour if we had the energy to stay up that late to go to a show.
Steve had read that we would need a ticket to disembark so as soon as we got on board I went to Guest Services to ask about what the procedure would be for debarking in the morning. The man behind the counter assured me that we would just be able to walk off the ship; no ticket needed. Imagine my surprise when we received directions later that night on how to pick up our disembarkation ticket and what the procedure would be to disembark the following morning!
Since we are early risers we were up early enough the following day to get tickets for the four of us for the first disembarkation group. We assumed that they would let the NCL tour people go through immigration first and that we would be waiting around awhile to get called. We were supposed to dock at 8 and were told that we could not get off the ship until 9 or 10. We had made arrangements to meet Steve and Rochelle at 8:30 in the Atrium.
We went up to the top deck of the ship to watch the ship enter the harbor. We chatted with a gentleman that had grown up in the Ukraine; he said that from what he could see, the city looked very “communist”. I think he meant run-down looking because the buildings that we could see on the waterfront were indeed quite destitute-looking. Surprisingly we could also see a large statue of Jesus across the harbor and a Russian Orthodox Church near where we were docking. I was not sure how Cuba handled religion after the revolution so was a bit surprised to see evidence of Christianity. I took some pictures as we docked. As you can see, we docked right in the heart of the city!
By 8 am they were letting the first group off the ship. Surprise, surprise! Ten minutes later the second group was called and ten minutes after that, the third group. By the time Steve and Rochelle joined us in the Atrium there was no line at all to get off the ship. We went through immigration where our visas were collected and passports stamped, then through a security line, and finally to trade our money in for “CUC”, the tourist currency used in Cuba. 1 CUC= 1 USD, but there is a penalty for accepting US dollars, so we really on received .85 CUC per dollar. This penalty does not exist for Euros or Canadian dollars so some Americans will pre-purchase other currencies to exchange when they visit Cuba to avoid paying the penalty. You also pay a penalty when you exchange any remaining CUC when you leave the country. No credit cards are accepted here so you must carry cash.
We had assumed that immigration and money exchange would take much longer so we were very early for our tour. As we left the port building we immediately saw many classic cars. Pink seemed to be a very popular color! There were also horse-drawn carriages and coconut cabs waiting to pick up passengers. One thing that surprised us was that many (if not most) of the cars here were not older cars. We had been told by the cruise line that citizens here could only purchase cars built before 1959. We were assuming that the newer cars must be owned by the government; something to ask our tour guide about.
Across the street from the cruise terminal was San Francisco Square which was where we were to meet our tour guide. Since we had an hour to wait, the four of us decided to wander around a bit to take some pictures. We wandered a few blocks and took a few photos. We returned to the square and waited. We were offered horse-drawn carriage rides by multiple vendors, as well as being offered classic car tours. If we had not pre-booked a tour we would have had no trouble at all finding an English-speaking person to take us around. There were also women dressed in costume that you could pay to have your picture taken with (we passed). There was also a guy that drew caricatures of Clayton and I. He was quite the flirt but not a very good artist! Nonetheless I gave him a couple of pesos (CUCs); he wanted 5 (ha!).
We decided to walk around the fountain to see if Mary (our guide for the day) had arrived (Mary worked for Yosel); we found her holding up a sign with my name on it. She walked us over to the 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air that was to be our car for the day. The driver was named Diego. He explained that although the car is a Chevy, the engine was a Toyota diesel! It is impossible to get parts for these old cars so when they break down, the local people have to get creative. Lots of parts-trading goes on and lots of creativity is used to fix them up and keep them on the road. We asked about the newer cars. Mary told us that private citizens are allowed to purchase them but that cars are very expensive here and less than 10% of the population own them.
We drove along the Malecon, a sea wall around Havana. Across the harbor were the fortresses that we had noticed from the ship. These are UNESCO heritage sites. Every night at 8 pm a cannon is fired from the furthest fortress. We stopped for a red light; a peanut seller came up to the car. Apparently roasted peanuts are a common treat here. In the evenings, along the Malecon one can see strolling musicians, peanut vendors and kissing couples. We saw many fisherman casting their lines into the ocean.
We passed through the Miramar tunnel (under water). Miramar was a very rich area before the revolution. Many mansions are found here. These houses were confiscated and given to the poor in 1959 when the revolution took place. Many are now embassies and museums. We passed by an embassy with long lines of people around it. We asked Mary about it. She explained that it was the Spanish Embassy and that if you had enough Spanish blood that you could apply for a passport there which would allow you to travel anywhere in the world. Obviously there were plenty of people wanting to get that passport! We also passed the US Embassy which is now closed. I didn’t see them but Steve said that he saw guards in front of the building.
As we drove we asked Mary about the education system here. It is quite similar to the US. Students start school at age 5 (kindergarten) and attend an elementary school until 6th grade. They go to Junior High and then can either attend a trade school or attend High School (education is only compulsory through 9th grade). After High School, anyone can attend college for free. There are 14 provinces in Cuba; each has their own University. Of course, health care is also provided by the government.
Mary told us that her boyfriend lives in the US; coincidentally, he lives about 5 miles from where Clayton and I live! He is originally from Cuba but married a US citizen and then divorced. He now sends products back to Cuba and visits occasionally. There is a shortage of many items here and so the people that live in Cuba depend on those that have been able to leave to send them what they need. There is considerable angst here right now due to the new travel restrictions. Cubans have been depending on our tourism dollars being spent to improve their standard of living. Much renovation has taken place due to US spending here and that will now come to a halt. Flights have been canceled by major airlines and even if you can get to the island, it is illegal to stay at a hotel here. So, for the immediate future, cruise passengers are the main visitors to the island from the US.
By now we were approaching our first stop, “Foster Land”. Kind of sounds like a theme park, right? Foster was a Cuban that admired the work of Gaudi so decided to decorate the outside of his home in mosaic. His neighbors admired his work and asked him to decorate their houses as well. There is now an entire neighborhood that is decorated with his work. He started this in 1992 and is still at it today (he is in his 70’s).
He was from a fishing village and this can be seen reflected in the tile work. You can also see elements from Santeria, a religion developed by African slaves that were forced to follow Catholicism. It is one of the main religions practiced here in Cuba. Catholic is the predominant religion, but Santeria and Evangelical Christianity are also practiced. Since we saw a Russian Orthodox Church near the ship I can only assume that there are some Russian Orthodox Christians as well. I also saw a sign for a synagogue so there are some Jews here.
There were plenty of tour buses parked near the entry to Fosterland so it must be a popular destination. The neighbors had lined the streets with stalls selling trinkets and Cuban artwork to help take advantage of the many tourists that visit here.
La Alegria de vivir (the joy of living) is Foster’s inspiration. From the upper levels of his “home” you can see water tanks that have also been embellished.
Diego picked us up and we headed to the Havana jungle. I noticed that there are small hexagonal booths at many of the intersections that we drove through. These house traffic police. We also passed many hitchhikers; it is legal and common due to the lack of cars here.
To get to the jungle we drove down some side streets that had not yet been cleared after Hurricane Irma. There were massive banyan trees that were laying across the road. They had been cut up enough to allow cars to pass by but had not yet been hauled away. Mary told us that the hurricane caused considerable damage and that they are still cleaning up after it.
We didn’t see tour buses in the parking lot for the jungle but we did see plenty of classic cars! Really, really beautiful classic cars. We noticed lots of feathers along the path we were walking on. Mary explained that the area is very popular with Santeria and that initiation rites take place here. One of the parts of the initiation is for the new initiate to make a sacrifice (kill a life before starting a new one). Chickens are commonly used for that purpose. The Santeria will then wear white for a period of one year (and colorful beads which are protection against the evil eye).They also change their name. We also saw some clay bowls strewn here and there; they are apparently part of the initiation rite as well.
Besides Santeria initiations, the area is also popular for Quinceanarias and weddings. It was quite lovely (other than the dead chicken…).
On to Revolution Square! I must give credit to Fidel and the communists for their minimalist approach to this very important place…it is a patch of asphalt large enough to have 1,000,000 citizens congregate. Literally, it is a patch of asphalt. It is surrounded by governmental buildings. One is decorated with an image of San Fuego with the quote,”Vas vien, Fidel” (You are OK, Fidel); another has an image of Che Guevara. There is a statue and a tower behind it; behind this is the parliament building. Fidel used to give long speeches here. Apparently Raul is much less verbose; he has also implemented more changes than his older brother. People are now allowed to buy houses and can have cell phones (though internet is not part of the deal). There is also more trade. Raul is more reclusive and is only seen on tv for special occasions.
The best part of the visit was seeing more really beautiful cars!
The internet can only be accessed from hotel lobbies after purchasing a card that allows Cubans to hook up. Every time I emailed Yosel about the upcoming tour, he would have to go to a hotel to access the internet and respond to the email. Very inconvenient. Later in the day as we were walking through old Havana we saw crowds of people on their cell phones outside of a hotel, trying to get on-line.
It was now time for lunch. On the way to the restaurant we passed by an enormous cemetery (built in 1871). All of the dead are buried above ground here. Mary told us that there is also a Chinese cemetery. Chinese were brought in to fight for freedom (the Revolution) and stayed after the fighting was over. There is a Chinatown in Havana, though we did not get to see it.
We stopped at a restaurant that seemed to cater to tourists. We were given the choice of ordering ala carte or ordering from a fixed price menu for 20 CUC (cheaper than buying ala carte). The meal included soup, a main course (I had lobster, fish, and shrimp) with rice and black beans, some fried plantains, and flan for dessert. It also included a beverage. Clayton tried a Cuban beer (he said it was pretty good); I had a glass of wine. My guess is that either there is a separate menu for locals with lower prices or only tourists go here; I doubt too many Cubans could afford to spend that much for a meal given the standard of living here. Twenty pesos is the typical monthly salary.
Of course, no trip to Havana is complete without a stop to buy cigars. We really had no interest in cigars but Steve and Rochelle wanted to pick up some rum and cigars so we stopped at a shop. The rum prices were very reasonable but we didn’t want the hassle of flying home with bottles of alcohol. We are all about packing light and those bottles were fairly heavy (not to mention the risk of breakage). I got a kick out of seeing the cashiers smoking cigarettes as they rang up customers. Not something one would see at home! There also seemed to be no concern with air pollution in Havana – the car exhaust smoke and smell were really strong when we were driving around.
As we headed to the Hotel Nacionale we continued to ask Mary questions about life in Cuba. I was curious about military service. Men are required to spend one year in the military if they attend college; otherwise they serve for two years. Women do not have compulsory military service. Baseball is the national sport (and national pastime). Children here grow up with a bat and ball from a very early age. Football (soccer) is also very popular.
The Hotel Nacionale is a famous spot in Havana. The Havana Mob Conference took place here in 1946. When the revolution took place, gambling was outlawed so the casino was eliminated. We paid 5 CUC for entry which also entitled us to a mojito. There were multiple posters around the room we were in that told us all of the important people that had visited here. Jimmy Carter visited, which surprised us. I didn’t remember that he had done so. I thought Cuban visits were strictly vedado (forbidden) during his presidency. I liked the posters that showed who visited by decade. There was also a guitar on display that had been donated by Peter Frampton. There was a model of an astronaut’s helmet that was from the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
While sipping our mojitos we were serenaded by a trio of musicians. I had been wanting to get a cd of Cuban music for my bestie, Richelle, and so took advantage of the opportunity and purchased a CD from these musicians. We also ran into Yosel, who arranged our tour (we had also run into him at the cigar shop). He is a very energetic, likable guy who really didn’t look stereotypically Cuban – he has red hair and could pass for British. We chatted with him for a bit (he is a huge baseball fan, as is Steve) and then headed outside to walk around the grounds for a bit.
We headed back to the main part of the touristy part of town (Old Havana) for a walking tour. Diego drove us through some of the back streets that many tourists probably never see. This is the part of town where most live; it is the part that is crumbling and has not been renovated at all. It reminded Clayton and I of being in the slums of Mumbai. The streets were very narrow and the buildings were literally falling apart. There were piles of garbage on many of the corners. Many people were walking about; being out on the street and socializing with those around you is a common way of passing the time. If you ever visit here be aware that cars, not people, have the right of way. Mary thought it was quite funny when I told her that in the US it is the other way around.
Diego dropped us off a few blocks from “Old Havana” (we were in “Modern” Havana). Mary led us on a walking tour of the old town. We went into a large Catholic Church. There was a display honoring Christopher Columbus (who discovered Cuba) as well as one for the patron saint of all Cubans. We passed by a “shop” (not exactly like you’d see in the US) selling goats. Besides being eaten for their meat, these goats are also sold to be used as a sacrifice into the Santeria religion.
We walked down the Prado (promenade). Mary said that on weekends people will line both sides of the promenade with signs offering things for sale as well as apartments and homes for rent. They will list their phone number and all information needed so that you don’t actually need to talk to them at the time; you just call them later. The Prado also separates old and modern Havana. We saw the Grand Theater and the Capital building.
We continued down Obispo Street. If one wanted to shop for souvenirs, this would be the place for it. We no longer purchase souvenirs so were content to just glance at the shops as we walked by. There were bands playing Cuban music in some of the lobbies and some couples salsa dancing. Steve and Rochelle were Hemingway fans so we stopped in the hotel that Hemingway always stayed at when he visited Havana. He wrote, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” here (in room 511, apparently).
We walked through several large squares and passed by some much smaller plazas. Mary explained that when buildings collapse, rather than rebuilding, a plaza will be erected. These are like small parks with lots of plants and benches for people to relax. The streets were quite crowded. There were some tourists but mainly local people. We were getting tired by now because the streets are cobblestone and they are hard to walk on. We passed by a gun museum; the guns here were donated by Fidel after the revolution.
We ended up back at San Francisco Square. There is a convent located there which is now a concert hall. There is a statue outside that people like to pose with (we took a picture there earlier). There is also a larger statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a younger boy.
Mary was a great guide but we had had a very full day and were quite tired by now. We decided against going to the show because there was no way that we would have the energy to stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning. There was Cuban music onboard so we would be content with that.
The next day we had until 1:30 pm to explore the city on our own. As usual, we were up bright and early so decided to get off the ship and explore the city as it “woke up”. We spent the morning exploring the back streets taking pictures of every day life around town. People were very friendly; they would stop us on the street to say hello and try to talk to us. One man said that he had seen us earlier and told his wife about us; they were now together on the street and wanted to chat with us. He told us that he had relatives that had moved to Wisconsin; I told him it was very, very cold there! He (and many others) we spoke with were big baseball fans. Several people seemed to know about the Mariners, our baseball team. We had plenty of offers for taxi rides, horse-drawn carriage rides, and classic car tours as we walked along.
One of the stranger things we saw was a man dragging himself down the streets with a large stone attached to his ankle. There were some policemen watching him. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to take a picture but did sneak one. I walked over the ask the police what was going on. Only one spoke any English; he just said, “promise”. I am assuming it was a ritual to promise himself to perhaps some Christian sect given that there was a statue of Jesus in his basket. I assume the rock was the weight of his sins he was dragging behind him. I found out later that it was about paying a blessing or favor that the person had for him or somebody in his family by Guadalupe Virgin, which typically takes place on or about December 12th (we saw it on the 13th).
We sat in a lovely park and relaxed for a bit. A couple of stray dogs came by to say hello. I petted one of them and it seemed to adopt us. Whenever a man would walk by us the dogs would bark and growl at them, as if protecting us. There were many dogs wandering around; many looked malnourished. I only saw a couple of cats (one at the restaurant where we ate lunch; that one spent the meal begging for chow).
We walked along the waterfront for a bit and found a nice place to perch along a wall to watch the cars go by I took some pictures of the various vehicles that passed by. Apparently we weren’t supposed to sit there because a policeman whistled at us and told us to move along. Oops! So glad we are not in a Cuban prison for our offense…
We continued our walk and saw a bus driver pulled over receiving a traffic ticket. That’s not something I have ever seen before! We also saw a couple of classic car owners pulled over with the hood up, trying to get their vehicles started. I am sure that it is a constant challenge.
We headed back to the port building to exchange our remaining CUC back to USD and to pass through immigration one final time.
I am so glad that we had the opportunity to visit Havana. The people here were so lovely. The city itself is crumbling; there is so much that needs to be fixed here. Communism has not been kind to the infrastructure. As usual, it is the people that suffer from the political ramifications of decisions that are made. They hope for a better future and are very worried because the glimmers of hope that they have experienced through increased US tourism are now fading. I doubt that we will return here though we enjoyed our visit tremendously. My guess is that things will continue to modernize and that the Havana that exists today will no longer exist ten years from now.