Sailing into Havana on a hot summer day, visitors can’t help but simultaneously be impressed with the tall buildings lining the harbor and feel anxious about what to expect.
The view from a U.S. cruise ship — denied Americans during the five-decade embargo on Cuba — now is possible again with incremental changes that have eased restrictions on travel and business.
There we were, my wife and I, among 700 other adventurous passengers aboard Carnival’s 25-year-old Fathom Adonia, the first American cruise ship to regularly visit Communist Cuba. Also, the first Carnival vessel captained by a woman, Sarah Breton, a native of Great Britain.
Besides two days in Havana, the nation’s largest city, our seven-day, all-inclusive $2,399 cruise out of Miami included a daytime visit and tour of Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos, second- and third-largest cities. Recently, travel to the island got a little easier when JetBlue began regular flights to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale.
Visitors must have a visa and must vouch that they’re traveling for one of a dozen purposeful reasons, including visiting family or doing humanitarian or educational work.
Dealing with the country’s monetary system was a challenge. U.S. dollars and credit cards aren’t accepted at most retail establishments. To exchange dollars for convertible pesos known as CUCs, the preferred Cuban currency as opposed to lesser-valued pesos, we were charged a tax and a commission totaling 13 percent at a government monetary exchange booth.
With the temperature topping 90 during our first day, we opted to explore Old Havana on our own instead of joining a complimentary six-hour walking tour. The section is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with buildings dating back a century or two. Standing out is a domed structure, once the national capitol building and now the Cuban Academy of Science.
Along the tour, we met a couple of costumed buskers posing as statues and two elderly women on a curb who were nonchalantly smoking cigars. The people we ran across were friendly and courteous, and spoke English.
The streets weren’t crowded, and cars were old school because of a ban on foreign-vehicle imports. Still-functioning 1950s and ’60s Chevrolets, Dodges and Buicks, symbols of the retro nature of the country and resourcefulness of its people, drive the streets.
The next day we took a nine-hour bus tour, visiting Revolutionary Square; a cemetery with ornate marble sculptures; an art colony/entertainment complex; the national art museum, and the 5-mile coastline known as the Malecon.
We enjoyed a five-course lunch in a palatial, government-run seafront restaurant called 1830. We were welcomed with a chilled mojito, the traditional Cuban highball made with lime juice, sugar, white rum, club soda and mint leaves. A fresh vegetable salad followed, then the entree — two huge grilled lobster tails separated from their shells and served with asparagus and wine.
Ice cream with cake, espresso and rum cordial topped off the feast. Before departing, each passenger in our group was presented with a Cuban cigar.
In Cienfuegos, a resort city of 140,000, we were treated to a performance by a local choral group that had recently toured Europe.
“Life is not easy,” our guide admitted. “We get monthly rations that cost just pennies, but they usually last only 15 days. You have to have another job or find some way to buy more.”
Most necessities are provided and controlled by the government. Housing, health care and higher education are free.
Salaries average less than $50 a month, he said, and young men undergo two years of military service.
Mix of cultures
Santiago de Cuba is where the first shots were fired in the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, leading to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista government. It’s a city of 500,000 residents with a rich mix of cultures, Afro-Caribbean heritage and lively festivals.
A tour included lunch in a private family-owned, open-air restaurant; stops at a 17th-century fortress built to fight off pirates; the cemetery tomb of Jose Marti and fleeting glimpses of San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders helped defeat a Spanish force in 1898, leading to Cuba’s independence.
Our three sea days allowed more than enough time to unwind after a long day’s tour, attend lectures about the next day’s tour, and participate in scheduled activities. The ship’s talented Craze Band kept things hopping most nights in one of the lounges and at times on the pool deck.
For Mirta Izquierdo-Raia, 66, of Daytona Beach the cruise was a bittersweet sentimental journey. She left Cuba with her family when she was 8 years old, she said, just a few months before the revolution. “My father was a policeman in Havana, In America, he did carpenter work.”
For me, the cruise was a fascinating learning experience.
Si Liberman, Palm Beach Daily News
September 11, 2016