Hola lovely readers! Today I am giving you a special Wanderlust Wednesday post created by a guest writer (who also happens to be my dad), about a recent cruise to Cuba, embarking from Miami. You will read about what visiting this elusive island is like for Americans who have lived their whole lives unable to catch much of a glimpse of the Cuban lifestyle. Happy reading!
Our trip to Cuba came about because we were traveling to Miami to see a baseball game. If you are willing to go that far, why not extend the trip to something a bit more adventurous? Cuba has always been intriguing, both culturally and politically, so once the decision was made to visit, the next step was to determine how to get there and make the most of this unexpected opportunity.
A local travel agent suggested that the best way to visit Cuba is by means of a cruise-ship, due to the fact that the infrastructure is not able to support what we are accustomed to in most of our travels (i.e. no cell phones, and wi-fi service and hotels that are often a hit or miss). So we booked a Norwegian Cruise that spent two full days in Havana.
When we woke up after the first night of the cruise we were docked at the Siera Maestra Terminal in Havana, which is located at the San Francisco Square. The terminal has been updated to accommodate large cruise ships, but can only handle two ships at a time. The dilapidated other sections of the terminal are clearly visible and indicates the infrastructure has a long way to go to build a robust tourism industry (and tourism is the number one industry in the Cuban economy). After a buffet breakfast on the outdoor deck, we disembarked for our first adventure.
Going through customs was really not that hard; we were photographed and our passports were stamped and we were set to go. The next step was to convert our money. The US dollar is worth 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) but US citizens are not allowed to be in possession of Cuban currency; we instead had to exchange for convertible pesos (CUC) at a rate of one for one. Essentially there are two currencies: one for locals and one for tourists.
We decided to book a tour for each morning and then explore in the afternoon each day we were in Havana. Our English-speaking tour guide, who previously worked as a teacher, announced that our first stop was to a cemetery (which made one of us very excited). The Colon Cemetery is the third most important cemetery in the world, in terms of architecture and history. The 140 acres of beautiful marble monuments, tombs, and mausoleums is named after Christopher Columbus, who was supposed to have been buried there, but ended up elsewhere. The cemetery holds over 800,000 graves and a million interments, made possible because of above-ground tombs that hold multiple family members. I could have spent most of the day here but I would have been left behind by the rest of the tour group. We also got our first look at the classic American cars that were parked in the center square of the cemetery. All the cars are pre-1959, before the revolution.
Speaking of the revolution, our next stop was to Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square, the square where political rallies take place. Addresses have been made by the Castro family of course, but also other notable speeches include speakers such as Pope Francis and President Obama. The Rolling Stones even held a concert there in 2016. Walking around the square, which is one of the largest city squares in the world, you can see the Jose Marti monument and the Palace of the Revolution, which is the headquarters of the Cuban government and communist party. Other large buildings depict heroes of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Here in the square we got a closer look at the cars, classic American models in beautiful condition!
After our official tour ended the first day, we went out on our own, walking the busy streets of Old Havana. Our first quest was lunch. We found an open air café and tried to order a local beer, but they were sold out of the national beer so we settled for a Guatemalan brew called Presidente. We ordered a traditional Cuban sandwich, which was naturally delicious. After lunch, our self-guided tour continued, looking at crumbling colonial buildings and rebuilt squares. It was a surprise to see a large tourist crowd roaming the streets, but then we realized that most were Europeans and Canadians who do not have any travel restrictions like Americans do and have in fact been traveling to Cuba for decades.
I am not sure how we found the Hotel Ambo Mundos, but when we found it we thought that it looked like a place that Hemmingway would hang out. We learned the next day on our tour that the beautiful five story pink colonial building is now a tourist destination because Hemmingway actually lived here for several years. We had made a good choice for our Mojito and a Cristal Cuban beer while listening to live music.
Our last mission was to locate some quality Cuban cigars – if you go to Cuba you have to get cigars. It’s essentially a requirement. Many street vendors had them for sale but we were looking for a factory or tobacco shop. We didn’t find a factory but we found several stores that offered a good variety. Americans are allowed to bring up to 100 cigars per person back to the United States – that’s a lot of cigars and they aren’t inexpensive. We found what we were looking for and purchased two boxes to bring home with us.
Our biggest surprises:
- Cuba has not been languishing away all these years, waiting for American tourists – the Europeans have been vacationing there for decades and the city of Havana seemed much more able to accommodate tourists than we had believed; maybe it’s just the increased volume, popularity, and attention that’s causing a few problems
- English is now mandatory in school- When Fidel was in power, Russian was taught in school, but when Raul came into power, he quickly realized that wasn’t going to get them far on the global stage, and has since made the change to English
- A Cuban citizen can make more money as a tour guide than as a school teacher- indicating the importance of the tourism industry in the Cuban economy
- While many of those classic American cars are virtually unchanged on the outside, under many of the hoods you can find Chinese or Korean engines and parts
Special thanks to my parents for embarking on this journey! Until recently, Cuba has been much out of reach for American travelers and it has been especially enlightening to hear what visiting this unique and charming island has been like since the doors for exchange have opened.
Been to Cuba? Share your experiences!