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Published: January 16th 2019
Kevin trying to pick his ride.
Cuba was the most eagerly awaited port of our December cruise. This tiny island has held such a big role on the world stage for most of our lives. From Batista to Castro to the Bay of Pigs to the Soviet Blockade and Missile Crisis to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has dominated headlines. Once a notorious gambling mecca and mobster hangout ruled by an infamous dictator, only to be replaced by another strongman and it became a hardline Communist country that endured decades of embargos, travel restrictions and isolation. In the 19th
century, Havana was one of the wealthiest business centers in the Americas. Now it is a rather impoverished country making its way into the 21st
century. As Castro once said, "A revolution is not a bed of roses."
Since some of sanctions have been lifted, cruise ships and tour companies can take Americans to Cuba to see for themselves what has transpired over the last 60 years on this tropical isle. Only 90 miles from the United States, Cuba is a world away politically, economically and socially.
Havana has one of the best natural harbors in the Caribbean. We docked at the San Francisco cruise terminal on a sunny,
CRUISE TERMINAL SIERRA MAESTRA
The old colonial style buildings are still here, but most are in need of care.
cool morning. Prior to our arrival the ship’s personnel had briefed us extensively on the protocol and procedures for going ashore in Havana. It took quite a while for the ship to clear all the entry formalities. So about 600 anxious passengers cooled their heels in the theater awaiting the “all ashore” call.
After a thorough immigration inspection, it is necessary for visitors to change their U.S. dollars to Cuban pesos. Credit cards and American currency are not accepted in Cuba and it is not possible to exchange money once you leave the cruise terminal. Black market money deals are strictly prohibited. Not wanting to spend anytime inside a local jail, we exchanged the amount we figured we would spend in town at a 10% fee. We heard that Euros and other foreign currency are accepted and that would be one way to avoid paying the exchange fee. This 10% fee is also charged if you need to reconvert pesos at the end of your stay in Cuba. So, they get you coming and going.
We chose to take a walking tour of Habana Vieja or Old Havana. Now a World Heritage Site, this is the heart of
These buskers played simple salsa numbers and were very friendly. They spoke several languages.
Havana filled with colonial history. The elegant buildings and churches reflect that history. The first thing we noticed and very much appreciated was the absence of motor vehicles in the old town. This made for delightful touring on foot. We also noted all the tree shaded squares every several blocks which come in handy on this island noted for its hot, hot climate. There are many beautiful buildings covered with frescoes and also small shops selling the usual tourist fare. We visited one store that specialized in the famous Cuban cigars and Havana Club rum. The cobblestone streets and alleyways are reminiscent of many European cities we have visited.
Our guide explained some of the changes that are taking place now for this country in transition. Since Castro’s death there has been a relaxation of many of the communist rules and regulations. Housing, medical care and education is supported by the government for all citizens. The country’s constitution is being rewritten and private ownership of business is encouraged.
We had very little contact with any locals not engaged in the tourist trade. Cubans are famous for their friendliness and outgoing nature. Cuba was the last country in the
OLD CITY COURTYARD
The old city has many courtyards that are perfect for midday relaxation in the shade.
Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1886. The slaves worked under brutal conditions in the sugar cane fields. Once slavery was outlawed, Cuba imported around 100,000 Chinese laborers who worked under similar cruel circumstances. We didn’t see any evidence of these Chinese descendants. However, about 65% of the Cuban population are descendants of African slaves. The guides we did talk with are happy with the changes but frustrated by the glacial pace of them. The week before we arrived, internet became available. However, it costs $10 a month. Since the average income is only about $20 a month, the internet is not within reach for most people. As our guide said, he can either eat or be connected to the World Wide Web. Choices!
There are no chains such as McDonalds or Costco as each person is only allowed to own one business and also the United States has placed heavy restrictions on American companies doing business in Cuba. Cars are extremely expensive and for that reason there are only 1 million cars on the island of 11 million people. The situation has given birth to the iconic pre-revolution (1950s) American cars that are restored to their original vintage
She was awaiting customers at a popular restaurant.
Music is everywhere. It seems to be the main occupation of older men who fill the squares with the sounds of their Latin beat. The Buena Vista Social Club is famous for its music around the world. Ernest Hemingway who lived, loved, wrote and drank in Cuba, is well remembered. Some of his haunts like Sloppy Joe’s Bar, La Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio are still serving mojitos and daiquiris to selfie-taking tourists.
In the evening we went to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to see La Parisienne Cabaret. After talking with some old timers, this famous dance revue is quite a toned-down version of the cabaret offerings of the pre-Castro era. The costuming was very flamboyant and the music quite lively. At midnight on the way back to the Voyager, we saw throngs of people everywhere, on the sidewalks, lining the harbor and crowding the squares. Apparently, this is when the Cubans socialize. With the relatively high cost of electricity and lack of residential air-conditioning, people take to the streets at night to cool down and party up.
This was our first visit to Cuba, so it is difficult to get an in-depth view
BOOK STORE ON THE PLAZA
This outdoor bookstore is the only one in Havana that sells books in English.
of this unique island. It has been through a lot in the last 100 years and seems to be in a period of recovery. We would like to visit the areas outside of Havana to get a sense of country life and also to try out their renowned beaches and we would especially like to mingle with Cubans on a more personal basis. Hopefully we will travel to Cuba again in the near future. It is well worth a visit.
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