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Havana, Cuba's capital city, truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared to many Caribbean ports of call, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and a couple of musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. Even now, it boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, breathtaking vistas and more. Still, these days, it is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are literally crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a literal pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies, and on others, walls are crumbling. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends on the city, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
Regardless, for tourists lucky enough to visit Havana –- and only a few cruise lines, such as Fred. Olsen, offer stops there -- the city is rich with rewards. The core of "Old Havana" or "La Habana Vieja" itself is a treasure trove of architectural gems. Across Havana Bay, the iconic 16th century Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) guards the city and the harbor and provides panoramic views. The graceful and elegant avenues and mansions of "El Vedado" offer a glimpse of times gone by. Today, it's also the center of the modern government at the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion.
Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was key in colonial times for its strategic location and rich agricultural base, which developed into the world's foremost sugar industry. (Today, it's almost extinct.) Havana itself was founded by Diego Valazquez in 1514, and, with its sheltered harbor, it prospered for centuries as a key center for trade.
Spain ruled Cuba for four centuries until the island gained its independence in 1899. In the 1900's, Cuba was mostly run by a series of leaders, who were greatly influenced by the United States. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, and a year later, Castro announced his allegiance to the Soviet Union and Communist principles. Thus, he alienated Cuba from the United States and, in the process, thousands of U.S. tourists that regularly visited the island. The United States' embargo on Cuba, which began in the 1960's and has been modified several times throughout the years, basically prohibits U.S. citizens and U.S. companies from conducting business with Cuban interests. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton modified the embargo to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and he also authorized the sale of certain specific products to Cuba.
The island remained politically aligned and economically dependent on the Soviet Union until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Following very difficult economic times in the early 1990's (known as the "Periodo Especial"), Castro's regime began encouraging foreign investment, resulting in increased tourism -- predominantly from Canada and Europe. This marked the beginning of capitalism and renewed opportunity for the Cuban people. Cuba now attracts more than two million visitors each year.
Recently, due to Castro's failing health, his brother Raul was named president of Cuba, and many are anxious to see what, if any, changes this brings. And, in the United States, President Barack Obama has somewhat eased travel restrictions to Cuba for those of Cuban descent. When and if cruise travel to Cuba is allowed on the major lines, it will no doubt result in great interest from both the cruise lines and the traveling public. With its convenient location, just 90 miles from South Florida, Cuba is an ideal port of call for lines sailing Caribbean itineraries.
For now, those lucky passengers who do get to take a cruise that calls in Havana are probably better off leaving the beaches and sunbathing to other ports and spending their time visiting the many sites and museums that are easily accessible from the cruise port.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Mobile • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Tampa
It's a toss-up between three of Cuba's famous rum concoctions: the Cuba Libre, the Daiquiri and the Mojito.
The Cuba Libre is basically rum and cola and is rumored to have been created by U.S. Soldiers during the war of independence in 1898. Note that, although Coca-Cola products are not common in Cuba, there is a local "Kola" that is available both in regular and diet versions.
The Daiquiri is a frozen drink that's made with rum, lime, sugar and maraschino cherries. It was invented by miners in the Cuban port town of Daiquiri.
The Mojito combines rum with sugar, muddled lime and mint and is served over ice with sparkling water.
The most popular local beers are the relatively light Cristal and the stronger Bucanero.
Spanish is the official language, although many in the tourist industry speak some English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Two currencies circulate in Cuba. The Peso Nacional or Peso Cubano (CUP) is used by locals and is virtually worthless to tourists (except for use in public phones, local buses and some cinemas).
The Peso Convertible (CUC) is currency used by tourists, and just about everything can be bought with it. The exchange rate is roughly 1 GBP to 1.53 CUC, but check www.xe.com for the most up-to-date conversions.
Credit cards and traveler's checks issued by U.S. banks are NOT accepted in Cuba, and other credit cards incur transaction fees of between seven and 11 percent. U.S. dollars are the least desirable currency in Cuba and are charged up to an 11 percent fee to exchange. Some establishments will accept Canadian dollars or euros.
Money can be exchanged at official Casa de Cambio (CADECA) locations that are located throughout the city.
The most popular souvenirs are rum and cigars, as well as arts and crafts. The most widely available rum is Havana Club, which comes in several varieties. It is recommended that cigars be purchased in reputable shops, as many street vendors try to sell knock-off, low-quality or fake cigars.
Wood carvings, papier mache, musical instruments, items made from shells, paintings and other arts and crafts are available at a number of street markets and shops.
Where You're Docked
Terminal Sierra Maestra is the cruise terminal where your ship will dock.
On foot: One of the first things that tourists will notice is the lack of traffic; there are few cars on the road. Plus, there are several pedestrian zones. La Plaza Vieja, La Calle Obispo and La Plaza de Armas, among others, are all ripe for walking. In addition, the four-mile seafront Malecon and the central marble promenade of Calle de Prado will entice and delight walkers.
Please note that many of the streets in Havana are cobble-stoned and/or lack conveniences for wheelchairs and scooters.
Taxis: Official taxis are metered and are widely available at a number of taxi stands throughout the city. Official taxi services feature newer vehicles with official taxi logos on the side, uniformed drivers and, usually, air-conditioning. An hourly price of about 10 to 15 CUC can also be negotiated with these drivers. In addition, there are numerous unofficial taxis, many of which are vintage cars that are not metered or insured. Be sure to negotiate a price in advance.
CocoTaxis: These bright yellow, three-wheeled, open-air vehicles carry two passengers and the driver. They are a fun alternative for short trips, but they aren't metered, so be sure to establish a price in advance.
Horse-drawn Carriages: They offer sightseeing tours of La Habana Vieja. They can be a bit pricey, but they do offer a memorable and narrated tour of the old city.
Since Terminal Sierra Maestra is so centrally located, there's no reason to hang around the facility.
Watch Out For
Havana is a peaceful and safe city. That being said, take precautions against pickpockets and petty crimes: Do not wear lots of jewelry; avoid handling cash in plain view; keep valuables safe or, better yet, on the ship. There are many beggars, and even employees at museums and historic buildings will ask for some change or, more often, items like tissues, pens, notepads, etc. If you are so inclined, take things like pens and pencils to give away. In many plaza and tourist areas, men and women dress in local costumes and ask for some change in exchange for having their photos taken. In addition, be careful of those trying to sell cigars and rum on the streets. Often, they're fake or of an inferior quality.
In addition, due to restrictions on locals changing currency, be wary of those asking to exchange money. The currency they try to exchange with you may be counterfeit.
Prostitution is rampant in Havana, but it is illegal. And, be warned that the government is not tolerant of any drugs, so buying even a tiny bit of marijuana can lead to significant trouble with the law.
Havana's Plazas -- Among those on the must-visit list is Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, which is chock-full of excitement, musicians, booksellers and arts and crafts vendors. Touts, beggars and more gather in this atmospheric and shady plaza, which is flanked by historic buildings and museums. Plaza Vieja, also in the old city, was laid out in 1559 and served as the main square of Havana until the 19th century. It now houses restored examples of architecture that span the centuries, as well as several cafes and bars -- including Cafe La Taberna (which boasts el Rincon de Benny More), a favorite spot of the renowned Cuban musician known as "the barbarian of rhythm" -- that offer Cuban music.
The Malecon -- On stormy days, the seas crash over the walls of the wide breakwater that lines this four-mile, winding seafront promenade. It attracts a hodge-podge of people: families, couples, fishermen, tourists, those out for a stroll and more. Architecturally, the wide boulevard is lined with numerous attractive and important buildings, many of which are now faded from the sun and sea air.
La Habana Vieja -- In this old Havana neighborhood, you can visit
Palacio del los Capitanes Generales (9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Plaza de Armas, calle Tacon e/ O'Reilly y Obispo), now a museum, formerly the home of the Spanish colonial rulers. This museum is an excellent example of Cuban Baroque architecture and features an overview of the history of Havana.
Other places include the Catedral de San Cristobal (Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Calle Emperador 156). Havana's Baroque main cathedral towers over the Plaza de la Catedral and its 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings.
La Calle Obispo -- Walk this somewhat restored pedestrian street to get the best feeling of old Havana and its architectural styles. At one end is the classically colonial Plaza de Armas. At the other are buildings from the more modern Art Nouveau period. The restored buildings include hotels, shops and cafes like the Farmacia Taquechel, a pharmacy that sells cosmetics and natural and homeopathic remedies. Its picturesque shelves are lined with an impressive collection of antique Italian and Majolica ceramic pharmaceutical jars. Also on Calle Obispo is the lively and restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is famous for its literary past. Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in room 511.
Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for a time, has created mystique around numerous island bars. At one end of La Calle Obispo is El Floridita (Avenida de Belgica esq. Obispo), one of his legendary haunts; he developed quite the taste for daiquiris there. (El Floridita claims to have perfected the recipe and calls itself the "cradle of the daiquiri.") Near the Cathedral in Old Havana, La Bodegita del Medio (noon to 12:30 a.m. daily, Calle Emperador 207), another Hemingway haunt, is regarded as a temple to the mojito and is probably Havana's most famous restaurant. Its walls are covered with photographs, graffiti, drawings and more. It's usually crowded, but it's fun and is definitely worth a visit.
Central Havana -- Visit Museo de la Revolucion (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Calle Refugio 1, e/ Avenida de las Misones y Zulueta). This museum is dedicated to the revolution and is housed in the former presidential palace. This neo-classical building was built in 1920 and was decorated by New York's Tiffany and Company. It served as the home for 25 presidents, so the fact that Castro chose it to house the museum of his revolution is quite symbolic.
The national fine arts museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; San Rafael, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate and Calle Trocadero, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate) is contained in two buildings. One is dedicated to Cuban art (colonial, academic and 20th-century art), and the other, two blocks away in the Palacio del Centro Austuriano, focuses on international art, especially European painting and sculpture, as well as ancient art.
Take a stroll down Paseo del Prado, the quintessential Havana boulevard, with its gracious central promenade that's made of marble. Originally laid out in 1772, the street continues to be popular for locals, especially in the evening. Marble benches, wrought-iron street lamps and eight bronze lions line the avenue. Some of the buildings along the avenue have been restored and painted bright, pastel colors. Often there are street musicians along the central walkway.
Parque Central and el Capitolio (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, Paseo de Marti esq. a San Jose), the heart of the city center, is lined with monumental 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including the classic Hotel Inglaterra, the newly opened Hotel Parque Central and the Centro Gallego, which houses Gran Teatro de la Habana. Diagonally from one corner of the square is Cuba's Capitol building, which was inspired by the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Although the building is somewhat run-down (missing several windows and such), the Capitolio is open to the public for tours and still houses the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. In 2008, in an effort to house victims of the three hurricanes that hit Cuba, many families were moved onto the upper floors of the capitol building, where they still live.
Been There, Done That
Vedado is a prestigious neighborhood where wide boulevards, gardens and grand residences grace the tree-lined streets. Several of the mansions have been restored and are now used as embassies and offices for foreign corporations. This is also the home to the University of Havana, the massive Necropolis de Colon (the city's most impressive cemetery) and several important museums, including the Museo Napoleonico or Napoleonic museum (Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; Calle San Miguel, esq. a Ronda). This museum boasts the largest collection of Napoleonic artifacts outside of France but is currently closed for renovations.
Also in El Vedado, though not significant from an architectural or design perspective, Plaza de la Revolucion has been the heart of the Cuban government and politics since 1959. Fidel Castro renamed the square, formerly known as the Plaza Civica, and it has been the site of many important events, ranging from Castro's famously log speeches to a mass given by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
On the outskirts of Havana is Finca La Vigia (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; calle Vigia y Stheinhard, San Francisco de Paula), Ernest Hemingway's farm. He purchased the home in 1940 and lived there, off and on, while in Cuba. The home was made into a museum in 1962 and remains, essentially, as Hemingway left it. It features his 9,000-book library, hunting trophies, photos, artwork and even his fishing boat, the Pilar. The Finca Vigia Foundation (www.fincafoundation.org) in the United States is working to preserve this historic home.
Varadero -- Cuba's renowned beach resort sits on a 12-mile-long peninsula and has been a fashionable beach resort since the late 19th century. From 1920 to 1950, American millionaire Alfred DuPont bought up much land in the area and developed it into an exclusive resort for the wealthy. The centerpiece was DuPont's Mansion Xanadu with its expansive gardens and private golf course. Inside the mansion is elegant restaurant Restaurante Las Americas (lunch and dinner, Avenida las Americas, Varadero), which specializes in French cuisine.
Today, Varadero boasts dozens of hotels (mostly all-inclusives) that cater predominantly to Canadian, German and Spanish tourists. It is two hours from Havana and is best visited via an organized tour.
Las Playas del Este (the eastern beaches) -- Starting about 20 minutes by car outside of Havana are Las Playas del Este, a series of beaches and beach towns that stretch for nearly 30 miles. From Havana, the first one you arrive at is Bacuranao, a quiet and family-friendly spot. The most popular for tourists is Playa Santa Maria del Mar, with its pine- and palm-lined beaches, hotels, restaurants and water sports. Locals flock to Playa Guanabo, which can be particularly crowded on weekends. Scuba-divers will enjoy Bajo de las Lavanderas. Visit these beaches either via an organized tour or by negotiating a roundtrip taxi ride with an official taxi.
Eating in Havana can be a bit of a challenge, due to the lack of quality and inconsistency of ingredients. Popular bars, such as El Floridita, can be quite expensive, offering entrees that range from 35-45 CUC. The more moderately priced La Bodegita del Medio also serves meals.
A few blocks from the cruise terminal is the Spanish-style El Templete (Avenida del Puerto, no 12-14, esq. Narcisco Lopez) in La Habana Vieja. It's known for the freshest seafood in the city and offers an impressive array of appetizers, as well as a wide variety of main dishes.
Some locals are now allowed to develop small businesses that offer meals in venues called paladares. These typically offer traditional Cuban food (such as roast pork, black beans, rice and plantains) with a limited or set menu and can be quite affordable, fun and interesting. Often, paladares are in people's homes, have only 12 seats and are somewhat quirky in terms of hours and service. Paladares change frequently, due to ever-evolving government regulations, so it's best to ask around to find what you're looking for. The most famous paladar in Havana, La Guarida (lunch and dinner, Concordia 418 e/ Aguila y Escobar), was featured in the popular Cuban film "Fresa y Chocolate" and must be reached via three flights up a poorly lit, steep staircase. Signature dishes include ahi with sugar cane glaze, mutton braised in papaya juice, seafood risotto and more.
Staying in Touch
Good luck! U.S.-based cell phones do not work in Cuba, and Internet centers are few and far-between. For U.K. travelers, cell phones should work -- U.K. networks like O2 and Orange offer roaming services in Cuba. However, be prepared to pay at least £1.50 per minute to receive or make calls. Check with your network provider for details before you travel for exact costs.
Some of the major hotels have business centers with Internet access. Prices are steep (about 6 USD for 15 minutes), and connection speeds are slow.
Best for Night Owls: Pay a visit to Tropicana, an outdoor nightclub, known for its entertainment and lively atmosphere.
Best for Local Specialties: Enjoy hand-rolled Cuban cigars when you tour a cigar shop. While you're at it, visit some of the local rum-making facilities, and see how it's done before you have a taste.
Best for Sightseeing: Take in the sights on a tour of Old Havana, declared a UNESCO site in 1982. Check out Parade Square, Cathedral Square, the military fortress Castillo de Los Tres Santos Reyes del Morro, the National Capital Building and more.
Best for Literary Buffs: Pay a visit to the Ernest Hemingway Museum, located in the old home that Hemingway purchased in the mid-20th century and in which he wrote several of his famous works. Then, stop for a drink along the way, before touring the town of Cojimar and Old Havana.
Best for the Environmentally Conscious: Take a trip to Sierra del Rosario Reserve, and see Cuba's first UNESCO-sanctioned biosphere. Check out the nearby Buena Vista Coffee farm, and shop for local arts and crafts, including pottery. Then, dine at a local restaurant before taking a dip in the San Juan River.
For More Information
On the Web: www.travel2cuba.co.uk is the official Tourist Board Web site for U.K. travelers. Alternatively, visit www.caribbean.co.uk/cuba for further information.
www.gocuba.ca is the official site of the Cuban Tourist Board in Canada. Due to the U.S. Embargo, there is no official U.S. site.
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--by Rose Abello, Cruise Critic Contributor