La Habana

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-3: Miami, FL
  • Days 3-9: Cuba (Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba)

Dates: October 13-23, 2016

Our Odyssey:

Our Cuba adventure began, naturally, in Miami, Florida. We spent two days lounging by the pool of our hotel and at the beach (and I spent a few hours running Friday morning as part of training for my half marathon in a few weeks). It was lazy and easy and a
perfect way to unwind before embarking on the adventure ahead of us.

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Miami, Florida

On Sunday October 16 we headed to
the Port of Miami to board our ship – Fathom’s Adonia. We settled into
our room (we were upgraded from our interior room to one with a window!),
unpacked and explored the ship. While Tim and I don’t consider ourselves
“cruise people”, we’ve taken a cruise every year since 2013, making
this our 4th. The first we went on was an Alaskan cruise along the Inside
Passage. It was beautiful, but limited in terms of free time in the locations
and crowded with thousands of people. Our two other cruises were polar
expeditions with Quark on ships of fewer than 200 people. Our decision to visit
Cuba via a cruise was one based on both legal necessity (at the time we booked,
Americans could travel to Cuba only via “people to people” certified
tour companies), budget (the cruise was cheaper by far than the overland
itineraries we found through other companies), and the promise of lazy
traveling (unpacking only once, having all meals provided, etc). Fathom’s Cuba
cruise with about 700 people is much bigger than our Quark trips but still much
smaller than the overwhelming Alaska cruise we went on in 2013. So while not
our top choice in travel, it made a lot of sense for the experience we were
seeking.

Monday morning we pulled into the
port of Havana – our first stop on Cuban land! While only 90 miles from Key
West, Florida in the United States, making it to this foreign and
formerly-forbidden island felt as we had traveled much, much further. Getting
the Cuba stamp in my passport was definitely a major travel milestone for me!

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Cars driving along El Malecon. 

Once we were all off the boat we
were broken into small groups for a guided walking tour of Old Havana. The tour
focused on the main plazas of Old Havana, the first being Plaza San Francisco
immediately in front of the port. This was the site of a market in the 16th
century and later a church was built here in 1608. Today, this church is a
theater which was restored in the 1990s. But it wasn’t the church and the
architecture that immediately struck me in Havana – it was the vibrant colors
of all of the buildings. Yellows, greens, blues, reds – there is definitely no fear
of bold hues in Old Havana.

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Beautiful vibrant colors in Havana. 

The second square we came to was
Plaza Vieja, where I promptly succumbed to a little tourist gimmick like a
rookie traveler. A woman dressed in traditional Cuban clothing and bright
lipstick offered to take a picture with us and smooch Tim on the cheek in
exchange for a CUC. It was cute and silly and a little embarrassing, but Tim
wore that lipstick on his cheek the rest of the day!

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This photo cost us 1 CUC

Plaza Vieja is the most
architecturally eclectic square in Havana, showcasing Cuban Baroque, Art
Nouveau and the best stained glass in town. But it was not always so lovely –
during Batista’s regime, this square was home to an underground parking lot
that was later demolished in 1996 in order to rebuild the plaza as part of Old
Havana’s restoration efforts. Although the economic odds were stacked against
these efforts, the rebuilding of Old Havana is considered a miraculous outcome
of the “Habaguanex” – a holding company founded in 1994 that makes
money via tourism and then re-invests it in historical preservation while also
making the neighborhood more livable and beneficial for residents (with
contributions to schools, senior homes, etc.).

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Plaza Vieja, showcasing the stained glass and well-maintained buildings of the square, with dilapidated housing just behind. 

We stopped for lunch at a
government-run restaurant (considered one of the finer restaurants in Havana)
called Café del Oriente. While there are more and more entrepreneurs in Cuba
since it became legal to run restaurants and shops out of individual’s homes,
most establishments are still run by the government. The service at the
restaurant was impeccable, and the décor had an old-world 1920s ritz – the
food, however, was pretty mediocre (thankfully there were many more authentic
Cuban meals in our future).

Back on our walk about town we
strolled down the Calle Mercaderes, a pedestrian street with shops, as well as
an old 1930s Hemingway hangout – the Hotel Ambos Mundos. That said, Hemingway
seems to have hung out everywhere in Havana.

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Hemingway’s Havana hotel hangout. 

The third plaza was Plaza de la
Catedral, named for the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana – the
asymmetrical cathedral at the focal point of the square. Built in the 1700s,
the baroque cathedral is one of the oldest in the Americas and was home to the
remains of Christopher Columbus from 1795 to 1898.

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Havana Cathedral

The last stop on our guided tour
was Plaza de Armas, the oldest in Havana, dating from 1520. This square is more
like a park or garden than a city plaza – it’s very lush and green. Every day
there is a used book market on all sides of the square, which was really
interesting to explore for the old books, including those glorifying Cuba’s
revolution.

After the tour we went with some
of the others from our ship to a cigar and rum shop. It was crowded with other
tourists from our ship and frankly not a very enjoyable visit – we bought the
requisite souvenir cigars and got out of there.

Cigar shopping in Havana

Before heading back to the ship, we sat for a few minutes in Plaza San Francisco, people watching and taking in the place. We saw a family gathering outside the old church and hundreds of birds flying about. It was a perfect way to close out the afternoon before heading back to the ship to rest up before our night out in Havana.

Late afternoon in Plaza San Franciso 

We had booked tickets to see one
of the traditional Cuban cabarets at the National Hotel – Le Parisien. We
expected it to be a little hokie but it was actually a great show. The music
was fun and lively, the dancing and costumes were beautiful, and the
athleticism of the performers was worthy of a Cirque de Soleil show. The venue
itself reminded me exactly of Ricky Ricardo’s Tropicana Club in “I Love
Lucy”, with circular tables in front of the stage instead of auditorium
seating. As a life-long “Lucy” fan, this was particularly exciting
for me.

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Le Parisien show

After the show we walked around
Old Havana looking for a pub. We never found one that had much going on (it was
a Monday night after all), but we did find some great dogs who followed us
around and got some great night time views of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
This fort dates from the 1500s and was built to defend the city against pirates
(real-life pirates of the Caribbean!) – though it never really did all that
good of a job, being too far into the bay to protect it from invasion.

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Castillo de la Real Fuerza

 

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A pup tagged along with us on our walk in Havana Monday night. 

The next day we took a tour out
to greater Havana. Our first stop was to a neighborhood art project whose
mission is to attract tourists with their art and dance performances to make
money to support their community and keep the youth of the neighborhood engaged
in meaningful cultural and artistic work and out of crime. The space is
decorated with recycled materials – bathtubs cut in half to serve as benches;
an old penny farthing; scrap metals – and painted whimsically with Le Petit
Prince
-inspired images and quotes.

Bath tub art

Our visit ended with an insight
into the Santeria religion. Before this trip, I didn’t know anything about
Santeria aside from that it was a Caribbean religion (in my mind, more of a
superstition) and mentioned in a Sublime song. What we learned is that Santeria
developed as a result of the slave trade. When the Spanish brought Africans
over to the Caribbean as slaves, the ones in Cuba were not separated from their
traditional ethnic groups the way they were in other places. As a result, the
groups were able to maintain their cultural practices more strongly. Even
though the Spanish were trying to force Catholicism on the slaves, the slaves
would practice their traditional African religion disguised as Catholicism.
This blending of African and Catholic tradition resulted in the practice of
Santeria, which is practiced by most Cubans still today.

Musicians and dancers at the art
project performed on traditional drums used in Santeria rituals and dressed in
clothing associated with different Santeria “saints” (known as
Orishas in Santeria), representing the ocean, hurricanes, romance and children.
At one point I actually got pulled up to dance with them with a few other
tourists – while I’m not a good dancer at all (Tim makes fun of my lack of
rhythm), I tried to fake it, probably unconvincingly. At least it was fun!

Santeria-inspired music and dance

After the art project we traveled
by bus to the Cementario de Cristobal Colon – a Recoleta-esque
cemetery on 140 acres where there are still today at least 40 funerals a week
(there was a procession there during our visit). Containing more than 500
mausoleums, memorials and family vaults, it is considered the most important
historical cemetery in Latin America (the second being Recoleta in Buenos
Aires, Argentina).

A mausoleum at the cemetary

One of the most notable memorials
and tombs in this cemetery is that of Amelia Goyri, known as La Milagrosa, who
died during childbirth when she was 23 in 1903. Legend has it that both mother
and baby were buried together with the baby at her feet. Every day her spouse
visited the tomb, and when he would leave he would back away so he could face
her for as long as possible. When the remains were exhumed, the baby was
miraculously in his mother’s arms, and not at her feet. Some take this as a
sign of a miracle and will make prayers and requests to her, leaving plaques and
tokens around her tomb to give their thanks.

Thank you notes by La Milagrosa’s memorial and tomb. 

After the cemetery, we stopped in
the Plaza de la Revolucion, which feels like less of a plaza and more of a
large parking lot surrounded by the images of Cuban heroes – the giant iron
faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and large tower and statue
dedicated to José Marti. Marti was a hero of the revolution for independence in
1895 and a famous poet who poet Cuban ideals into beautiful words.

Che overlooks the Plaza de la Revolucion

Memorial to Jose Marti. 

Our next stop on this whirlwind
tour of Havana was the Gran Teatro de la Habana. At the theater we went on a
guided tour and had a complimentary cocktail overlooking the capital building
next door. We had a Cuba libre, of course – which is actually just rum and Coke
(more specifically, Cuban rum, and the Cuban version of Coke).

The capital as seen from a balcony in the neighboring theater. 

By this time we were very hungry
and a little tipsy and ready for lunch! We visited a local restaurant which
served up traditional Cuban chicken, rice and beans with Cristal beer – a Cuban
brew. Given that we had two free drinks with lunch in addition to the free
drink at the theater, and that our next stop was the Almacenes San José
Artisans’ Market, I’m pretty confident they were trying to get us tipsy so that
we’d buy more at the craft market. I think it probably worked for many in our
group, who got back on the bus with large paintings rolled up. As for me and
Tim, we bought some magnets as little souvenirs for coworkers.

Along the drive around Havana, we
learned some interesting insights into Cuban life. For example, it’s illegal to
privately take out a fishing boat in Havana because of the risk of individuals
sailing for Florida. Also, school is mandatory up until college. College is
optional but also free. The only catch is that after college you must work 2-3
years in a government-assigned post to “pay back” your free
education, and men are required to serve 1 year in the military.

After these jam-packed days in
Havana we were more than happy to have to spend the evening and all of the next
day on the ship en route to our next port – Cienfuegos!

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