CUBA VOYAGE MARCH 2018
Azamara is our favorite cruise line having sailed on the sister ships Quest in Asia and now in Cuba, and the Journey in Central America. These ships carry less than 700 passengers affording access to ports that larger ships are unable to enter.
Hispaniola, with a population of about 14 million split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and Cuba with a population of about 12 million, are the two largest islands in the Caribbean. There were 1 million Tiano Indians when Columbus landed but have since succumbed to disease. The Spanish and later the French imported African slaves to the region.
Days 1 & 2 – at sea unwinding and enjoying the amenities of the ship and meeting fellow passengers at our Cruise Critic welcome party.
Day 3 – Labadee – the scenic cove on the north coast of Haiti is owned by Royal Caribbean. We were here almost 30 years ago when it was quite primitive. Today there are many Disney-like attractions but we chose to spend a quiet day at Nellie’s beach our preferred sandy beach in the cove. The beach on the ocean side is too rough for swimming. Nellie operated a trading post for buccaneers at this location. The watchtower still stands.
Day 4 – Santiago de Cuba , the first capital of Cuba with a population of about ½ million, is located on the southeast coast not too far from the US naval base at Guantanamo. The day started with a visit to Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. This is a national cemetery with the graves of Cuban notables such as Jose Marti – an influential literary figure and revolutionary philosopher in Latin America. Fidel Castro’s grave is also located here along with monuments to the revolution.
We then drove into the countryside to the basilica El Cobre which is the most important shrine for Cubans and is considered the most important church in the country. This area was noted for copper mining until mining ceased in 1998 before the price of copper rose drastically.
We visited the Casa de Diego Velazquez – the home of the first governor of Cuba built in the early 1500’s. Solidly built, it contains furnishings from the different periods of life in the city.
We also visited a cultural center that was formerly a Lasallian school where the poor did not pay any tuition. The director gave us a private tour of the facility including the rooms with ancient and modern artifacts from around the world.
In the evening, we had an “AzAmazing Evening” when on each cruise the ship provides a special feature on land for all of the guests who wish to attend. The evening with various types of Cuban music was held at the Teatro Heredia constructed during the city’s refurbishment in the 1980’s.
Day 5 – Sea Day – another sea day to enjoy the breezes on the Caribbean Sea.
Day 6 – Cienfuegos – population of about 175,000 is a port located midway on the southern coast was our departure point to visit the colonial city of Trinidad (population about 75,000) which is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 90 minutes up in the hills. Sugar cane and tobacco are important crops in this region. The center of the city is well preserved from colonial times. Cobblestone streets were laid out from ship ballast originating in the Mississippi river. We had lunch at a five-star hotel that we did not expect to find in the hinterlands.
In the evening we enjoyed Azamara’s “White Night” on deck. There are no formal nights on Azamara but almost
everyone tends to wear white for these festivities with the ship’s officers and crew.
Day 7 – another delightful sea day provided a break to rest up from the shore activities.
Days 8 – 9 – 10 - Havana (population over 2 million) is on the north coast of the island about 90 miles from Key West. We were impressed with the city. Although much more restoration needs to be completed, the city is changing quite rapidly. Many construction cranes are visible with new hotel construction. The people were friendly and welcoming and, with the heavy tourist police presence, we felt safer than in most large cities elsewhere.
The city spread from Habana Vieja (old Havana), a UNESCO World Heritage site with its protected harbor and colonial Spanish architecture to the Habana Centro (city center) and the western areas of Vedado and the more exclusive Miramar and Marianao. The mansions in these exclusive areas have been taken over for government offices and embassies.
Day 8 We rode in a classic American 1950’s convertible during the evening, passing the Capitol, Revolution Square and Central Park areas and then along the Malecon seawall boulevard, then through a tunnel under the harbor to Fort San Carlos de la Cabana for the famous 9 p.m. cannon shot ceremony.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at the five-star Hotel Nacional. This famous hotel has greeted many guests over the years including Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Rita Hayworth. Although the hotel fell into some neglect during the early years of the revolution, it was reopened to tourism in the early 1990s and now houses the Café Taberna surpassed only by the Tropicana.
Day 9 We visited Finca Vigia, once the “look out house” of Ernest Hemingway during his days of fishing and carousing in Cuba. The house was left to the Cuban government by his last wife Mary. We were able to view the house and writing tower in its condition at Hemingway’s death. He wrote much of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea” while here. We also saw his fishing boat – the Pinar.
We went to the artful neighborhood of Fusterlandia containing the unique sculptures. Artist Jose Fuster created tile sculptures around his studio. He then got his neighbors interested and the area now looks like some version of Gaudi’s works in Barcelona.
We stopped at the important historical Colon cemetery noted for its elaborately sculptured white marble monuments and over 500 mausoleums.
On the way back to the ship, we visited the Museum of the Revolution, once the presidential palace of the dictator Battista, that now depicts the days of the 1950’s revolution. The yacht Granma which took the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and others from exile in Mexico to begin the revolution is on display along with a US plane shot down during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
We spent the evening at the open-air Tropicana set in lush gardens featuring an elaborate nightlife spectacle with over 200 showgirls. The Tropicana started in 1939 when Havana was an international playground for the jet set. Mobsters including Meyer Lansky and the Trafficante family ran the show and casino in those days. Seeing the show was a unique experience back to the glory days of Havana before the revolution.
Day 10 Before a late afternoon departure for Miami, we did a walking tour of old Havana visiting the four main squares as well as La Bodeguita del Medio – the famous bar where Hemingway and other luminaries frequented and where the Mojito cocktail was allegedly born.
The buildings in the four main squares have been completely reconstructed after falling into some disrepair after the revolution. The side streets are coming alive with many reconstructed buildings housing restaurants, shops and museums. The income generated by this touristic area is reinvested into more renovation in the rest of Old Havana.
Day 11 – morning arrival in Miami After a leisurely departure from the ship after most of the passengers left for the airports, we were back in Fort Lauderdale in about an hour.
Cuba is changing little by little. Many have a second side job to advance their status. There is now a list of 201 occupations where Cubans can be employed without working for the government. This has created some imbalance where those in the private sector such as tour guides and bartenders can make more in tips than doctors who still work for the state although state salaries have been increasing. There are no homeless - everyone gets free health care and food rations.
Since 2008 when Raul Castro allowed Cubans to have cellphones, they now have access to worldwide news sources. Raul is planning to step down in April when a new leader will take charge. There is some question regarding who this will actually be.
It is ironic that Castro initially wanted to have relations with the US but was spurned. The nationalization of US corporation property spurred a CIA plot to overthrow the regime. This led Cuba into the hands of the USSR and US military support of the mercenary exiles Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
Although Obama tried to improve relations with Cuba, the Republican congress and Trump have stymied normalization of relations primarily due to the political clout of reactionary exiles in Miami.
There is worldwide condemnation of the embargo which is only hurting the Cuban people as well as US interests. There are now about 400 joint ventures with companies around the world. Meanwhile, China is now becoming Cuba’s main trading partner and is supplying the goods to increase tourism. All of the new first-class tour busses we saw in each city were made of the Chinese firm Yutong. New rental cars sport the names of Chinese companies such as Geely (that took over Volvo).
I believe that Cuba will again become the pearl of the Caribbean with or without US support. It is well worth a visit and is only 90 miles from our shores.
Recommended tour agencies:
Santiago de Cuba – Shago Tours. Luis designed a customized tour for us. Our guide Fabio was excellent and gave us a warm welcome to the country.
Cienfuegos Trinidad - Used ship's tour in case of any transportation issues since Trinidad is 90 minutes from the port.
Havana- Fertours2havana – Fernando worked with us to develop a 3 day tour. Our guide Cristina escorted us on the first and second days and arranged the route to maximize the time at each location. Yanelis provided interesting perspectives on each of the locations we visited during the walking tour on the last day.
Ellen Friedrich - our port lecturer on the cruise helped to inspire a greater appreciation of the sights.