HAVANA, CUBA-There’s a feeling of urgency about visiting Cuba these days. We all understand that big changes will be coming, much of it for the good, but we know that the authentic Cuba, which has stolen the hearts of visitors for many years, will begin to disappear. That frozen-in-time simplicity, the faded grandeur, the slow and friendly pace – these things will go, and if we want to experience the Cuba of legend, it must be done, now.
So I was more than thrilled to be flying to Havana to board the Your Cuba Cruise tour to circumnavigate the island for seven days, with stops in the colonial cities that I have only read about.
Your Cuba Cruise is a Canadian company that offers ship departures from Havana, Cuba every Monday and from Montego Bay, Jamaica every Friday, from December to late March. – (See more at: http://www.yourcubacruise.com)
Day One: Hello, Havana!
The wind was blowing and temperatures were sinking as we boarded our Air Transat flight in Toronto. Going somewhere warm was looking better every minute. Plus, I had left behind a house still festooned with Christmas glitter – it could wait. It would all be there when I got home and I would be in a far better mood to pack it away after I had put some distance between us. After the happy but all too busy days of the holiday, it was so nice to contemplate a week of sea and sun.
Your Cuba Cruises offers an air and cruise package that includes direct return air to Havana from Toronto, as well as transport to and from the ship, so that was what we had elected to do. It made for effortless travel, both down and back, made even easier by the fact that there is no time change and no jet lag to deal with.
Three and a half hours after we left Toronto, we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana where the sun was warm and the temperature was nudging up to 30 degrees (90+ F).
There was a long wait to clear customs and the process of issuing the visa and perusing our passports seemed to take a long time.
But as soon as we exited customs, a representative from Cuba Cruises was there to guide us to some shiny new buses. The drive from the airport to the cruise terminal in Havana took about forty minutes, and there was an on-board guide who gave us some information about Cuba and the city. I was immediately struck by the absence of advertising signs, (except for ones with pictures of Che or Fidel on them ), by the large number of late fifties cars on the roads, and by the fact that there were no malls and no large stores, only the occasional gas station or small food outlet.
Once we arrived at the cruise terminal, we got our key cards, had our picture taken and then passed through customs again. We also had our temperature taken – the Cuban authorities are very worried about Ebola, and we were asked at each customs point if we had been in Africa in the last month.
Once on board, we found our cabin – #6009 – and dropped our things. By now it was almost 2:00 pm and since this was the only day we would have to see Havana, I didn’t want to waste a moment. We immediately left the ship again and walked into the old city.
That’s easy to do – the Plaza de San Francisco, in the heart of the old city, is just across the street from the ship terminal.
Had I had more time, I would have added on a few days, either before or after the cruise, to see more of Havana. This is a city that oozes atmosphere, with stories to tell, with a faded beauty that hints at what it must once have been. It is a place that photographers and artists can’t get enough of.
And despite the decay and decline, the streets are clean. Everyone appears well dressed and well fed, and there were no beggars on the streets. We walked past the Hotel Raoul, a dignified establishment that looks to have been recently renovated, but most of the buildings have not been repaired. Plaster is faded and crumbling, columns are cracked, and wooden doors are faded from the sun and from the years. Yet it is a happy place. As we neared the famous Capital Building, there were small market carts with fresh vegetables. Locals were buying food for dinner, walking with their families, or sitting in the sun on their doorsteps, talking with neighbours.
Now and then on the side streets, we passed by paladares, private homes where families have opened small and intimate restaurants, – they’ve sprung up since Raul Castro came to power and eased some of the restrictions. I wished I had time to try out some of them. While the Cuban cuisine is pretty basic – mostly roast pork, rice and beans, many of the new paladares are bringing in other cuisines, fused with local produce, to create some memorable and affordable dining.
This is a city that demands much more time than I had to give to it, so I have promised myself that I’ll come back.
We took a bike taxi back to the ship – for 3 CUC’s ( Convertible Cuban dollars – one CUC is about the equivalent of one US dollar) and discovered that our bags had not made it to our room. A call to the reception desk got a search going, and in the meantime we grabbed a quick meal in the dining room.
By the time we were done, the bags had been found – delivered by accident to cabin #6006. We changed and headed out on our first ship excursion, an evening at the famous Buena Vista Social Club!