Yes, Cuba is an island in the Caribbean Sea. Her terrain is similar to other Caribbean islands, but different. Her history is similar, but different. Her culture is similar, but different. Indeed, almost everything about Cuba has some similarity to her Caribbean neighbors but Cuba is a destination like no other. Celebrated travel writer Kay Showker has the story.
Despite the appearance of a time-warp, Cuba is not living in the past. It is a vibrant, colorful country that throbs with activity. On a recent visit, I learned quickly to put aside any preconceived notions I may have had about this Caribbean island and to be ready for surprises at every turn.
My trip was unusual in that it was a cruise around the island offered by Cuba Cruise, a Canadian company, on Louis Cristal, a cruise ship it leases for the winter season from Cyprus-based Louis Cruises. I was able to tag along on a FAM trip for U.S. travel agents – to my knowledge, the first since the Obama administration’s moved to relax travel to Cuba.
Normally, passengers board Cuba Cruise’s ship in Havana but because of the big increase in demand after the Obama announcement in January, it was nearly impossible to obtain enough airline seats from Miami for our group and thus, fifty of us boarded in Montego Bay, Jamaica, one of the ship’s ports of call, 267 nautical miles south of Cuba.
The following morning, we woke up in time to watch our ship navigate the very narrow straits that open into the enormous Bay of Cienfuegos, which spans almost 34 sq. miles on the south coast of Cuba. Although the area was sighted by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1494, Cienfuegos was not settled until 1819, when Frenchmen from Louisiana created the first colony. Their traces in the charming colonial town with sidewalk cafes, lacey balconies, and other features are reminiscent of New Orleans.
Called the Pearl of the South, a long, wide tree-lined boulevard near the port, leads to the city’s heart at Jose Marti Park, a leafy square with a grand statue of Cuba’s national hero, and surrounded by historic, colonnaded buildings. The historic center, now restored, was named to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2005 – one of eight sites in Cuba so designated.
As with all our excursions, a walking tour was combined with a driving one. Our first stop on a walk in the historic center was the Thomas Terry Theatre, now restored to its Belle Epoque glory when it hosted such famous stars as Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt.
As the story goes, Thomas Terry, a wealthy sugar baron made part of his fortune by buying sick slaves, nursing them back to health, and selling them for a sizeable profit. He left funds to build the theatre after his death, as his way of “giving back to the region from which he had taken so much,” our guide told us. The richly decorated theatre has a beautifully-painted ceiling and walls adorned with posters of famous performers. A poster for an upcoming performance by Cuba’s famous National Ballet Company indicated the theatre is still hosting renowned artists.
One block from the Park is the newly renovated La Union Club, the town’s leading hotel built in 1868, with lovely interior courtyards. It is furnished in 1940’s style suggesting you might expect Sidney Greenstreet to step out from around the corner. For our group, the hotel was a convenient place to exchange money. [Exchange facilities are available at every port. Current rate: US$=Cuban CUC 1, but with government fees, you actually get equivalent of 87 cents.]
About 15 miles east of Cienfuegos are the Botanical Gardens, a national monument, boasting 2,400 species including a great number of palm tree varieties. Begun in 1899, by Edwin Atkins, an American sugar baron, to develop better strains of sugar cane, the gardens became a research center on tropical plants with the assistance of Harvard University in 1919. An excursion offered by the ship combines a city tour with the gardens.
Another ship excursion travels to Trinidad, Cuba’s third oldest city founded in 1514, by Spanish explorer, Diego Velasquez. Fifty miles away but almost a two hour drive, Trinidad is known for its beautiful setting with waterfalls and forested mountains as its backdrop. A slave trade and smuggling port for two centuries, Trinidad had become a wealthy center of the sugar industry by the late 18th century. In 1988, Trinidad was added to the Unesco World Heritage list.
Driving through Cienfuegos to lunch, we passed through Punta Gorda, a newer part of the city with the former palaces of Cuba’s wealthy elite, dating from the 20th century. The 30 minute drive took us to Finca Los Colorados, a private beachside restaurant and bed & breakfast inn on the eastern edge of town. The paladar, as such private ventures are known, is situated in the home of the owner, Jose Pineiro Guardiola, whose family were our hosts. [Recently, Airbnb announced it now has an inventory of 2,000 paladar in Cuba.]
To the music of a great Cuban combo, we dined on an elaborate spread of crab and other salads, grilled shrimp, fish, pork, beef, and steamed corn and washed down with mojitos and excellent Cuban beer. The music was so infectious, it didn’t take long for our group to form a conga line. The inn offers three bedrooms, a bath with shower, dining room and kitchen, and tables outside in a garden setting for US$35 per person per night. A rental car would be essential.
Upon our return to Cienfuegos, we made a quick stop at the Sociedad Grafica de Cienfuegos, the workshop of a graphic art cooperative, headed by Rafael Cáceras, a leading Cuban graphic artist. Along with his co-workers and students, we watched the artists at work and viewed their art available for sale. Upon our departure, each of our group was given a small, signed print by the artist.
Our last stop was the Provincial Museum bordering Jose Marti Park where we enjoyed a concert by the Cienfuegos Coral Society, a group of young men and women who has performed abroad on exchange programs.
Back on the Louis Cristal, passengers could attend a lecture on “Visual Arts in Cuba” given by Dr. Jorge Arocha, a professor from the University of Havana and one of the 70 Cubans working on the Louis Cristal. Arocha offered several lectures on aspects of Cuba during the cruise.
Punta Frances/Isla de la Juventud
Cuba, most newcomers are surprised to learn, is an archipelago of several hundred islands. Isla de la Juventud, or Island of Youth, about 60 miles south of the mainland, is the largest. Our ship dropped anchor off Punta Frances, an isolated stretch on the island’s northwest corner with miles of golden sand beach backed by thick low forest. Passengers were tendered to the island for a morning at beach.
Punta Frances with warm, clear water is known for good snorkeling and scuba diving on the nearby reef. In addition to a snorkeling excursion, passengers could participate in aqua exercise and dancing-in-the-water sessions. Most passengers were content to lie on the beach and enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the sea. Passengers could buy vouchers on board for snacks and drinks on the beach.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, the Louis Cristal weighed anchor for Havana, 157 miles away.
The excitement began from early morning as the ship entered Havana Bay and we could see the famous city stretched out before us. To the west we could make out the high rises along the seaside Malecon – most being Miami-style hotels built in the last days of Batista. I had not realized until we docked that the piers were immediately in front of San Francisco Plaza at the head of Old Havana, the most desirable location for visitors in the city.
But first, we assembled in the spotless, modern terminal to wait for our coach to take us across Havana Bay to Regla where a very special program awaited us. While we waited a dozen or more vintage cars in mint condition passed by, some to take passengers from our ship on a city tour.
The Museum of Regla is devoted to Afro-Cuban history and a cultural center for Santeria, the Afro-Cuba religion in which its deities (mostly based on Yoruba ones) brought to the New World by African slaves became identified with Catholic saints. Our guide attempted to translate as the director of the museum explained in Spanish the ritual dances we were about to see. Her explanations didn’t help much. As each costumed dancer came before us, with drummers and singers chanting and providing the rhythms to invoke the spirits, we were left to our imagination to understand which deities were being beckoned.
Before we left the area, we visited the Nuestra Señora de Regla church, built in 1810, dedicated to the Virgin of Regla (the black virgin). The church has two altars: An elaborate golden Catholic one and a simpler Santeria altar where two ladies were on their knees in prayer. Both altars picture a black Madonna holding a white child.
Rather than return to the ship for lunch, a friend and I were ready to check out Old Havana. From San Francisco Plaza, you can head in almost any direction to begin a walk of Old Havana. Two blocks north is Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in Havana, now restored, surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars. Another two blocs north is the Plaza de la Catedral with the Cathedral of Havana, dedicated to San Cristobal, Havana’s patron saint. It would be easy to linger here as the nearby lanes have museums, mansions, and monuments, now restored, marking some aspect of Cuban history.
Near the Cathedral on Calle Empedrado, Hemingway fans might want to stop at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the great writer’s favorite haunts where the walls are covered with mementos and signatures of the many writers and artists who have frequented it. It’s one of several bars that claim to have created Cuba’s national drink, the mojito.
From San Francisco Plaza, we turned south on Calle San Ignacio to Plaza Vieja, one of the oldest and most beautiful squares surrounded on all side by handsome colonial houses, now housing art galleries and hotels.
I was on a mission to check out the Buenos Vista Social Club, the famous music group that skyrocketed to fame in the 1970’s when their music and film about them was release. I knew the original club no longer existed and only one of the original band members, now in the 90’s, continued to perform.
One of the Cuban musicians on our ship had given me the address for Café Taberna where the group was said to perform several nights a week. We found it on a corner across from the Plaza Vieja and it looked so inviting, we decided to stay for lunch. We dined on delicious red snapper served with fresh vegetables. The bill for the two of us was only US$16, including Cuban beer.
After lunch, we continued exploring Old Havana, wandering along the narrow streets, stopping briefly at the newly restored Hotel Raquel with a spectacular baroque façade. Built in 1905, its marble-filled lobby has a beautiful skylight reminiscent of Belle Époque hotels on the French Riviera. All its 25 guest rooms are decorated with paintings by famous Cuban artists. On a nearby corner we watched some school boys buy fresh pineapples from the vendor. They looked so good, we bought some ourselves.
A few blocks away on Calle Obispo, we came upon Hotel Ambos Mundos, a Hemingway favorite where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and where his room is kept intact. The hotel’s roof-top bar, a popular tourist stop, has a great view over Old Havana. The hotel’s inner courtyard displays works by a Cuban artist, available for sale. Further along, a tourist market had the expected Cuban souvenirs and tee-shirts as well as some sophisticated apparel and accessories.
Calle Obispo, the earliest street to be renovated and the first to be made into a pedestrian lane, starts at Plaza de Armas and ends at Parque Central, where on a corner just before the park is El Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar for daiquiris. Indeed, no matter where you start, any lane heading west from Plaza de Armas or San Francisco Square at the pier lead to Parque Central, a leafy, large square centered with a statue of Jose Marti and surrounded by buildings of magnificent architecture housing the National Arts Museum, the National Theatre, the National Capitol, and others which have been renovated into hotels, restaurants and art galleries. [Note: All museums in Cuba are closed on Monday]
In front of the magnificent Gran Teatro on the east side of Parque Central is a taxi stand with an array of vintage American cars and newer Russian, Japanese and European models. We wanted to take one of the vintage American cars, but were quickly pointed to the first in line of waiting taxis — a Russian car. Our plan was to drive along the Malecon to the famous Hotel Nacional, the favorite of Hollywood stars and celebrities in Batista times, for a quick look-see and then to the Hotel Melia Cohiba, the city’s newest international chain hotel, where we were to rendezvous with our agent group for dinner and a special show. The taxi, including waiting time, was US$15.
From the Melia we walked a block to the ArteChef, a teaching restaurant of Cuba’s Association of Chefs, where we had dinner. The first lesson was making mojitos. In a separate room, we could attend a class by one of the chefs teaching a group of wanabees. Our main course for dinner was shredded beef – not my favorite – accompanied by rice and beans and flan for dessert. I’m sorry to say, if this was meant to be an exemplary sample of cuisine by Cuban aspiring chefs, they have a long way to go.
After dinner, the group made its way to a barrio south of the Malecon for a performance of the Opera de la Calle. I had no idea what to except but took the name literally, imagined something like the troubadours who went from town to town in olden days and are still a tradition in Mexico. I could not have been more off base.
The group of young Cuban singers and dancer performed a rock musical, in Spanish, closer to “Rent” or “Hair” in a cavernous former theater where the ear-shattering music was all the louder bouncing off metal walls and ceiling. My friend and I were happy to make a fast retreat to Café Taberna in time to hear the cool Latin beat played in Buena Vista Social Club style. [Later, I learned that the Buena Vista Social Club had become something of a brand and its style of Cuban music is played at different venues around the city under the name.]
Reluctantly, we had to call it an evening and make our way back to the Louis Cristal for its midnight departure. Clearly one day in Havana is not enough.
The next day was our only day at sea and a chance to enjoy the ship as we sailed east to Antilla, a small town and the port for Holguin Province where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, declaring Holguin “the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.”
As in every port, we were greeted by dancers and music and shiny new buses imported from China. This day we drove inland to Biran, the childhood home of the Castro brothers, more than an hour’s drive away. The country roads — better than I had expected – pass through nice scenery of rolling hills, grassland and farms dotted here and there with simple houses and an occasional small village. At the turn off from the main road for Biran, a huge sign had a picture of Fidel and Raul. Upon seeing the sign, I reflected that on this trip, I had seen more posters of Che Guevara than of Fidel.
I was surprised to learn that the Castros grew up on a large, prosperous estate of 23,000-acres with its own school which the brothers attended to age 8, a hotel for travelers passing through their land, cock-fighting arena, stables, large estate house and small family cemetery. The property, now a heritage site and museum, was the first to be nationalized after the 1959 Revolution. Both the schoolhouse and the estate house remain furnished as they were when the Castros lived there with an array of family photographs, particularly of Fidel as a child and a young man.
The Holguin region, rich in natural attractions, is seen as having potential for eco-tourism. To that end, several farms are being developed for camping while rustic accommodations are planned. We visited such a farm with a thatch roof restaurant where we were greeted with music by a Cuban combo and enjoyed a Cuban lunch. Horses were available for riding. Afterwards, we visited the farm where a short walk through a sugar cane and banana grove brought us to a lovely shaded area where a feast of fresh fruits grown on the farm awaited us.
Santiago de Cuba
All major early Spanish settlements were placed strategically on a deep bay with a narrow entrance to guard against pirates and other foes. Santiago de Cuba’s entrance is especially dramatic with the massive El Morro fortress towering over the straits. Built in 1637, the Castilla de San Pedro de la Roca, as this Unesco World Heritage site is named, is the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish American military architecture in the Cuba. Another special feature of Santiago is its magnificent scenery backed by the Sierra Maestra Mountains where Fidel Castro prepared his guerrillas for the revolution to overthrow the Batista regime.
Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, is celebrating her 500th anniversary. She is the birthplace of revolution – not just Fidel’s but of revolts as early as the 16th century and of many of Cuba’s national heroes. The most African, the most ethnically diverse, and most Caribbean of Cuba’s cities, Santiago is often credited with being the birthplace of Cuba’s music, as well.
Our visit began in the heart of the city at Parque Cespedes, up the hill from the port. At the center of the square is the monument to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a lawyer and plantation owner, who in 1868, freed his slaves and declared Cuban independence, sparking the Ten Years’ War against the Spanish government of Cuba. Although the revolution was not successful, Cespedes is called Padre de la Patria (Father of the Country) and credited with laying the foundation of Cuba’s Second War of Independence led by Jose Marti in 1895.
The square is dominated by the Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, dating from 1524, but rebuilt many times, and surrounded by historic buildings. Left of the cathedral is the Hotel Casa Grande, once the gathering place of the city’s elite and famous visitors, including Babe Ruth. Apparently, it also became a popular hangout of Cuban rebels and U.S. spies prompting writer, Graham Greene, to use it as the setting for his book, Our Man in Havana.
Across the square from the cathedral is the Ayuntamiento or town hall from where on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro declared the victory of the Cuban Revolution. On the west corner, Casa de Velazquez is the oldest house in Cuba, built in 1516, in pure Moorish style for the governor soon after Santiago was founded. Now renovated, it houses the Museo de Ambiente Historico Cubano with a collection of European furniture, paintings, ceramics and other antiques contributed by Cubans from around the island.
If you have time to linger, the streets around the square are replete with historic homes and buildings, some housing cafés, museums and centers of artists and musicians.
Our tour took us to the western edge of Santiago to the large Santa Ifigenia Cemetery where many famous Cubans are buried — none more important than Jose Marti, Cuba’s national hero who died in the island’s struggle for independence. His monumental mausoleum is surrounded by the figures of six women, each representing a province of Cuba. The sarcophagus of Marti, draped in the Cuban flag, lies at the center of the mausoleum, surrounded by wall plaques and earth from each of the Latin American countries whose independence was inspired by Marti. Every 30 minutes, an honor guard of three soldiers goose-step to martial music in a changing-of-the-guard ceremony.
En route to lunch, we stopped at the shop of the rum factory that was the Bacardi Rum factory before the 1959 Revolution. There, we sampled several rums available for sale, starting at US$8, as was Cuban coffee about US$3 per pound and Cuban cigars from US$3. After lunch at El Cayo waterside café, we drove to the east side of the harbor to the hilltop commanded by the amazing El Morro fortress and enjoyed a spectacular view over Santiago stretching from the coast to the Sierra Maestra mountains behind the city.
Upon return to the city, on a hill about a mile from the port, we stopped briefly at San Juan Hill, site of the famous and decisive battle in the Spanish–American War, which Cubans are quick to tell you it was the Cuban-Spanish-American War. In fact, there’s a plaque at the site with precisely that reminder.
So much of Cuba’s history and culture is tied to this beautiful, charming city, we wished we could have stayed longer. We left Cuba knowing we wanted to return.
Kay Showker was destined to be a travel and cruise writer, having taken her first trans-Atlantic voyage at age two. Over the intervening years, she has visited 120 destinations around the world and authored 15 guidebooks. Following a10-year tenure as an editor and travel journalist at Travel Weekly, a major U.S. travel trade publication, Showker became a freelance writer/ photographer. In addition to guidebooks, she has appeared as a travel expert on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and The Travel Channel.