American tourists found themselves caught in rough seas as the political winds began to change in 2019 for ships visiting Cuba. Trump’s hardline approach towards cruise line tourism would shut down the relatively new industry by June of 2019. Tighter rules and alluding to the possibility that Cruise Companies could face lawsuits if they continued to dock in Cuban ports, the Trump Administration effectively took Cuba off the map.
But in January of 2019, the same month Fidel Castro oust the dictator, Batista 60 years prior, I boarded the Norwegian Sky in Miami along with friends and family who were thrilled to visit Cuba. Cuba had an allure for us. We imagined a country that still vibrated with the rich music, food, and flair portrayed in movies of long ago. We were old enough to recall our fathers’ 1957 Chevy or 1958 Impala, Buick, or Cadillac: classic cars that were left behind after America’s embargo in the 60s yet a big part of Cuba today. We could appreciate the lure the island had for such celebrities like Ernest Hemingway. But most of all, the men in our group fantasied over Cuban rum and cigars they imagined were the best in the World.
Barely understanding the hardships and political controversy that was part of Cuba(I was a toddler when the United States and Cuba discontinued diplomatic relationships), I focused on what made Cuba attractive. Graced with pristine beaches, crystal clear waters, vivacious, talented people, and great food, I wondered what I would see in the mere 28 hours I had during the ship’s overnight stay.
It was in the early morning hours of twilight that I pulled myself out of our cabin’s bed while my husband slept. The night before, passengers on the ship were told that disembarkation was going to be organized by obtaining numbered tickets available in the midship lounge at 6:00 a.m. Groups of numbers would be announced over the ship’s PA system, indicating when you could leave the boat. I needed to get one of the earlier releases since we were meeting a local guide with HavanaJourneys.com., a tour company that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor.com.
As I waited in the lounge with a few other passengers, a soft “awe” escaped the lips from those standing by the ship’s large bay windows. Morro Castle slowly floated past like some kind of apparition. It seemed the past had been summoned to appear, released from its restrictions of natural law. The twenty-first century melted away, and I was transported to the 1600s, a tumultuous time to survive with wars and pirates descending on this young nation.
Floodlights bathed parts of the imposing fortress in golden light while the rest remained in stark shadow. As I took in the impressive granite battlements, parapets, towering walls, sitting on a bluff over the bay, an overwhelming feeling washed over me. Apprehension, anticipation excitement, stirred. I was about to see a nation that was, for the most part, “off-limits” for the casual American tourist.
Waiting in the midship lounge, I had a chance to talk to other passengers. Each had their reasons for visiting Havana. One man had been born in Cuba but had left at the age of 11. With his circle of friends, he hoped to see the house that he had once lived in. He said that it was a 57-year-old dream. But the dream still relied on a couple of factors. Would the house still be standing? If it was around, would the current occupants allow him entry?
Others were excited to relive Havana’s heydays when nightclubs and casinos came alive at night. Taking a joyride in one of the many classic American automobiles that were maintained as if they rolled off the assembly line yesterday was on a lot of visitor’s itineraries. Still, others wanted to tour Cuba’s cigar factories and later enjoy drinks at the many bars in Old Havana.
In order to visit Cuba, we had to fill out a Travel Affidavit required by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, declaring that our visit to Cuba complied with a set of regulations set forth by the United States. Norwegian Cruise Lines directed all its passengers to a link on their website that electronically recorded your signature stating that you were “in compliance” to visit Cuba.
Americans can enter Cuba under 1 of 12 categories. We qualified under “Support of the Cuban People”. This category meant our movements in Cuba were documented, and the businesses we engaged with had to be approved by the American government. There were some businesses connected with the military that we were told not to enter. These included some hotels and restaurants. A list of these businesses was given to each passenger before they disembarked.
At 8:00 a.m., we cleared customs. To our surprise, the lines were short, the agents efficient. Walking through the shiny, clean terminal, we headed straight for the money exchange counters provided at the end of the hall. All cash transactions had to be in Convertible Pesos, the local currency. American credit cards were useless. Banks from the U.S.A. cannot conduct business in Cuba. Also, our cell phones operated by U.S. carriers would not work(the United States continues to maintain its commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba).
From the terminal, we emerged outside into the bright morning air to find San Francisco Plaza right across the street. We were all pleasantly surprised at the spacious, clean cobblestone square. The church of San Francisco de Asis, towered on the south end, austere and ancient. Directly across from the church stood a tall neo-classical building with a bank and coffee shop occupying the bottom floor. Modern bronze statues decorated the far end of the Plaza. And a beautiful, white marble fountain, Fuente de Los Leones (Fountain of Lions) stood off-center, water running idyllically from the mouths of lions into a basin.
Our guide, Monica, would be waiting for us beside the Chopin statue, according to the itinerary HavanaJourneys.com sent. Referring to my printout, which provided a photo of her, I had a difficult time recognizing her as crowds began to form. As I tried to match faces with the picture, I tentatively walked up to a young lady standing with a gentleman.
“Hi, are you, Monica?” I asked. Unlike other tour organizations that use a placard, displaying the name of the party they are looking for, I had to use my best guess. It was indeed her. The photo didn’t do her justice. Standing nearly 6 feet tall, with Burnette hair flowing down her back, I wasn’t expecting such a tall, statuesque lady.
A native of Cuba, her English was excellent. After introductions were made, she went over the itinerary, making sure that everything was in order. I was keen on having lunch at a Parador that she wasn’t aware of but which I had requested through prior correspondence with HavanaJourneys.com. Monica made a quick call on her cell and secured reservations for our party of thirteen. Monica and her colleague, Roley, would serve as wonderful hosts throughout our tour as we would find out as the day wore on.
Our tour began with a stroll down Mercaderes (Merchant street). It ran parallel with the harbor. Colors of sea green, pink, and ocean blues adored the buildings. Somehow, they stood harmonious with the polished and rough limestone tans that decorated others. The street was quiet, with a few tourists striding off on their own adventure. A stray dog slowly meandered by, sniffing the road, glancing expectantly at passersby. As we walked, an old man standing in the street began strumming a tune on his guitar. His battered straw hat and clothes had seen better days. Walking beside us, he earnestly sang a song. I couldn’t help smile into his watery, blue eyes. I searched for a peso in my pocket and handed it to him.
Like a bunch of school kids on a field trip, we followed Monica until the narrow street opened up onto Plaza de Armas. A gentle breeze drifted off of the ocean, stirring the warm air that hung between buildings. The sun’s rays were intense on this tropical island and seemed to sizzle on my skin. I was grateful for my long-sleeved shirt and hat.
Monica gave us a brief history lesson on Cuba, focusing on its formative years. At the center of the Plaza, stood a marble statue of a man. His name is Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. We learn that Cubans call him the “Father of Cuba”. He was instrumental in leading a fight for independence from Spain. The year was 1868. In unison, I hear my friends and family expel a soft breath of sorrow when Monica explains that he lead the Revolution at the high cost of losing his son.
She then turns her attention to a Ceiba tree in the park. “The people believe that it is a spiritual tree,” she says. “You will see someone circling it, performing an incantation. The indigenous people, along with some Spaniards, hope their efforts will summon a force that will help them with their troubles.”
At the east end of the Plaza stands a Greek-style temple memorializing the spot where Havana was founded in 1519. On the west side, and dominating the square, is the 18th-century baroque Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales—the former governor’s palace and jail. We learn that the Governor of Spain laid wooden tiles on the road in front of the castle to soften the noise of carriages that passed by. Finally, on the north side is the angular stone fortress, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Both are imposing structures once used for the military. Today, they are museums.
Old Havana is undergoing an ongoing effort of revitalization. The facades of buildings are getting a facelift, streets are retiled, and pieces of artwork are put on display. Merchant Street and Obispo, along with a few others, are cordoned off for pedestrian traffic only. This makes for a pleasant stroll on these streets. One of the revitalization projects is a newly completed Mural on the entire side of a building. Colored pebbles are used to create sketches of folks walking on Merchant Street 400 years ago. On a lifesize scale, one can imagine the street during its heydays of commerce. Today, it is a quiet corridor that takes us to Plaza de la Catedral.
Cathedral San Cristobal is the centerpiece of Plaza de la Catedral. It’s twin bell towers along with the exterior part of the nave is a mixture of baroque and neoclassical styles. We notice fossilized marine fauna and flora in the stone walls of the Cathedral and learn that many buildings in Havana were constructed out of blocks of coral. The Cathedral once held remains of Christopher Columbus. Along the rest of the perimeter of the square are Palaces in classic baroque style still standing from Cuba’s prosperous past. Today they house museums, restaurants, and shops.
We merge onto another narrow street, Empedrado, and walk up to the Bodeguita del Medio, a favorite bar of Hemingway’s. At the early hour of 10:00 a.m., the bar was closed. A larger-than-life sketch of Hemingway is drawn on the exterior wall, and Monica tells us it is the only wall where graffiti is allowed. Signatures from locals and tourists are scribbled on the wall. We add a few more.
With our brief history lesson near an end, I glanced at my watch and discovered that we had only spent an hour walking through the plazas and streets. Monica, however, had taken us thousands of hours through history, and we were captivated! Nearby, our second part of the tour was waiting. Parked by the Malecon were four cars, seemingly pulled out of a time machine. We were going to immerse ourselves further into Havana, traveling to the neighborhoods of Vedado, where Revolution Square stood, Miramar, where most of the embassies occupied mansions abandoned after Fidel’s revolution and Central Havana. Cigars, serenading waiters, and incredible hospitality awaited.
A few navigational tips:
- Flights from the U.S. still land in Cuba. Most airlines provide the necessary paperwork for entry into the country.
- Money. Exchanging dollars in Cuba comes with a 10 percent fee. I found a site that suggested changing your dollars into Euros or Canadian before arriving. These currencies didn’t get hit with the 10 percent service charge.
- I like to use my phone as a map when I’m in an unfamiliar place. I downloaded Maps.me, which gave me a map of Havana to use offline.