“Open the door to travel and commerce and ...
improve the lives of the Cuban people”
- Barack Obama
By Barbara Barton Sloane
Special to the Vindicator
A history-making event occurred on May 1, 2016. For the first time in more than 50 years a cruise ship from the United States set sail for Havana, Cuba.
History-making, as well, was the fact that for the very first time in decades individuals born in Cuba were permitted to enter the country by sea. However, for two weeks before departure, it sure looked as though this crossing would be snarled in the red tape of an anachronistic Cuban law (barring Cubans to return by sea) and we travelers would be denied the thrill of this momentous occasion.
After intense negotiations between Carnival Corporation and the Cuban government, there was a happy ending to the glitch and a joyous beginning to this cruise. Cuba, aqui vamos.
Bienvenida a La Habana
The time had come. Early in the morning, we were given small Cuban and American flags to wave as we entered the narrow strait into Havana’s harbor.
As we cruised along the city’s Malecon walkway, (aka “Havana’s sofa” or living room because it’s where locals hang out), hundreds and hundreds, young, old, babies and kids gave high-fives and blew kisses.
They lined the sidewalk shouting “Hola,” and waving American flags, all to the cacophony of our ship blasting out its own greeting. The emotion on both sides of the water was highly charged and deeply moving, particularly for the Cubans on board.
Pulling up to the ship terminal, it seemed that all of Cuba’s media and dignitaries were waiting to greet us. Walking through the terminal to exit onto the street was a trip in itself.
This long passageway was filled with dancers and singers in colorful costumes, setting the stage for what was to come.
Finally, in the city of Old Havana, built in the 16th century and a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site, we found ourselves in the breezy Plaza de San Francisco de Asis.
Built when Spanish galleons stopped by on their passage through the Indies to Spain, this plaza is notable for its uneven cobblestones; also, around the corner is the white marble Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of Lions) carved by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaggini in 1836. I’ll remember this square always as one of the gayest places ever. Teeming with folks waiting to welcome us personally, we were surrounded by smiles and handshakes and the men in our group had both cheeks kissed by pretty girls offering fat cigars.
OK, that was 2016, and this is now, three long years (and many U.S. government changes.) later.
Of course you’re wondering where we stand on visiting Cuba today, and here’s the situation: It is still completely legal to travel to Cuba with a U.S. passport. The question is how to do it?
Because you can’t now just hop on a flight or a cruise, some pre-planning is necessary. You’ll need some documentation in addition to your passport, and you’ll need to make sure you’re following U.S. regulations. Visit www.viahero.com/travel-to-cuba/travel-to-cuba-with-a-us-passport to break down exactly how to travel there legally, precisely what documentation you’ll need and how to get it.
Castro was here, the Pope was here … and now Me!
Plaza Vieja is Havana’s most architecturally eclectic square where Cuban baroque nestles seamlesslynext to Gaudi-inspired art nouveau.
Plaza de Armas is known for its famous booksellers’ market. Here one can sit under a tree and people watch or browse around the numerous stands selling books on “Che.”
Then, of course there’s Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel Castro has addressed millions of Cubans on numerous occasions, and where Pope Francis held Mass on his 2015 visit. Conceived by French urbanist Jean Claude Forestier in the 1920s, this gigantic plaza was part of Havana’s “new city” that grew up between 1920 and 1959.
Cuba’s Cars: Bright & Beautiful
Adding to the vibrant color of this entire scene: Havana’s famed “old cars.” We’ve all heard about Cuba’s famous 1950s cars and I think some have a mental image of antique “junks” held together with a few rubber bands and a prayer. Think again.
These Chevrolet Bel Airs, Buick Skylarks and Ford Fairlanes, painted in riotous colors of cherry red, chartreuse, turquoise and bright yellow, their chrome polished to a stunning brilliance, are one of the beautifully maintained wonders of the city.
They continually cruise proudly through the streets and many are available as taxis. My memorable ride checking out the faded glory of colonial Havana was in the back seat of a Dodge Wayfarer convertible, one of the coolest ways to experience the people and rich history on display.
Although there are many Cuban towns that claim an Ernest Hemingway connection, there is one that has good reason: Cojimar. This town lies just 20 minutes east of Havana and is a picturesque fishing village where Hemingway docked his boat El Pilar. Not only did he use the town as a base for fishing, Cojimar was the background for one of his most famous works, “The Old Man and the Sea. “
I made sure I had a Cuba Libre at La Terraza, a bar/restaurant where the view from its seaside dining room overlooks the basin where El Pilar was typically moored. The room is ringed with photos of the author himself on his numerous fishing expeditions. For aficionados of Hemingway and his work, this is a must-see.
Old Men and the Sea
Our next port of call was Cienfuegos, Cuba’s so-called Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South).
Here there is an elegant colonial spirit blended with feisty Caribbean panache that I found irresistible. Trekking down to the waterside I spied three very senior gentlemen making music on guitars and a violin.
I requested one of my old Spanish favorites, Quizas, Quizas, Quizas, and they were happy to oblige.
I found a seat on the bayside’s wall and spent a sweet half hour with these charmers serenading me as I requested other songs such as Besame Mucho and Chan Chan.
Cienfuegos was founded in 1819, one of Cuba’s newest settlements. With its French-influenced, neoclassical buildings, wide boulevards and sparkling bay, it is also one of the most architecturally interesting, a factor that earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site honor in 2005.
Salsa, Rum and Jose Marti
The third and final city on this cruise: Santiago de Cuba, a city that was the capital of the country from 1522 to 1589. It contains a rich and colorful history including San Juan Hill and a UNESCO site, Castillo de San Pero de la Roca, a coastal fortress constructed in 1637.
Santiago is a glittering, cultural capital that has played an instrumental part in the evolution of Cuban literature, music, architecture, and politics.
Enlivened by a cosmopolitan mix of Afro-Caribbean culture, it is situated closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than to Havana. Nowhere else in Cuba will you find such a colorful combination of people with a resounding sense of historical destiny.
Castro used it to launch his embryonic nationalist Revolution; Don Facundo Bacardi based his first rum factory here; and just about every Cuban music genre first emanated from these dusty, sensuous streets.
Santiago’s Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia is important in its grandiosity and the fact that it is the site of the mausoleum of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.
Erected in 1951 during the Fulgencio Batista era, the imposing hexagonal structure is positioned so that Marti’s wooden casket (draped solemnly in a Cuban flag) receives daily shafts of sunlight. This is in response to a comment that Marti once made in one of his poems – that he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun. The mausoleum’s round-the-clock guard changes every half hour with much pomp and ceremony.
Worth it? You Betcha!
A few reasons to visit Cuba:
It has great weather and grand beaches; there are lots of inexpensive joints to have a beer or a Margarita and just kick back; where else can you be in the midst of a living museum of old (but beautiful) cars, a place truly frozen in time.
Above all, if you want to understand the complex cultural fabric of Cuba, you must first start with its people – and Cubans are some of the friendliest and most honest people on the planet. They’ll talk to anyone and everyone, and are generous with their time and money. Put simply, the Cuban people are the very thing that make this country special.