June 13, 2016: Havana, Cuba
It was just after 9:30 in the morning… I opened the door to our stateroom balcony, stepped outside into the warm humid sunshine, and looking towards shore saw Cuba and it’s capital of Havana for the very first time.
While I’ve been to many of the countries of the Caribbean where the shoreline is dotted with colorful buildings and beaches, the sheer number and height of the buildings making up the Havana skyline was unexpected. While most Caribbean nations carry less than half a million people in total, we were making our way towards a capital city of more than 3 Million and a country with a population of over 11 million in total. (Only the Dominican Republic and Haiti come close and have not yet had the privilege to visit these locations to date.)
Seeing Havana from afar, the excitement of seeing this city in person, experiencing the people, history, culture, food, music, and energy of this place just continued to increase exponentially, leaving the challenges and conflicts of our respective governments over the last 50 years a quickly distant memory. Between endless shutter clicks of the camera, I watched the captain draw us closer towards the Bay of Havana, its beautifully colored horizon, and our first port of call in Cuba with Fathom.
Look Closer… All Is Not What It Seems & That’s Why We Are Here
It took just over an hour to make our way along the coast, into the bay, and towards our cruise port terminal for an on-time 11:00am arrival. As the shoreline grew more detailed and defined, there were new and interesting elements coming into focus, providing a very different view from the one seen just minutes earlier. While the brightly painted buildings commanded attention during the previous views from the ocean, for every blue, yellow, orange, or green building, there were at least 5 more without paint at all. The dusty and crumbling facades of these buildings were encased in thick scaffolding, some devoid of windows, and yet others were just piles of concrete and rebar, leaving a gap along a line of what anywhere else in the world would be multi-million dollar oceanfront properties.
Entering the Bay of Havana, the scenes once again turned into works of art as we slowly made our way down the channel and saw our first view of the Malecon (Seawall along the Havana waterfront):
As the ship maneuvered slowly into position along the dock, we packed up our day packs, lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat (you will need it!), and barely containing our excitement, made our way to the atrium to exit the ship.
Arriving Into Havana (and all Cuban ports)
This is the cruise terminal for Havana, the Terminal Sierra Maestra San Francisco. As you exit the cruise ship, first stop for all passengers will be Cuban Customs and Security Screening. Here will you will need your Passport and Cuban Tourist Visa as you (slowly) file your way though the stack of Cuban custom agents reviewing your documentation and your temperature. Infrared cameras in the terminal will be checking to make sure that you are in good health as colds and flus are not allowed to be brought onshore… Once through the security booths, you will advance to a hand luggage screening, where all bags, parcels, and personal items will go through the X-Ray scanners. It seems a bit overwhelming, especially with Cuba so close, but this process can and does take time, so take a deep breath… You will have your feet on Cuban soil soon!
Once through the Customs and Screening, you are on the 2nd floor of the terminal where you have access to some tourist information, a few small shops, and currency exchange… This is your next stop!
Cuban Currency (CUCs) — You Pronounce Them… “Kooks”
Cuba has a unique dual-currency system in which most of its people leverage the Cuban Peso (CUP), a currency that tourists will see little (if any of) while you are here. Tourists and visitors utilize the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). This currency is not traded internationally and only has value within the country of Cuba, so the only place to get it is here… On the ground in Cuba and from a real person. There are ATMs in Cuba, though at the time of this writing, none accept a US based ATM card, so leave these behind and bring your cash.
CADECA is the national currency exchange provider and you will see these signs prominently anywhere currency exchange is permitted. Rates are fixed, so it really doesn’t matter where you make the swap, but the Havana Cruise terminal provides about 12-16 exchange windows, so this really is a good option, even if the lines seem long… (They are generally even longer once you leave the ship, if you want to try at a local bank or CADECA exchange house in town…)
The process is relatively simple, but some important things to note…
1) Present your passport along with your cash to exchange
2) Exchange rates will be posted or provided on a receipt and CADECA’s rates (like all exchanges) will include a service charge
3) NOTE: If you are exchanging US Dollars, you will be subject to an additional 10-14% tax to complete your exchange ***
4) It’s a good idea to ask for small bills and coins as making change (in CUCs) can be a challenge for some vendors
5) If you have the ability to do so, bring Canadian Dollars or Euros to exchange into CUCs, instead of US Dollars*** (see item #3)
6) Your CUCs will be provided along with a receipt of the transaction — you’re all set!
*** The US Exchange tax catches some off guard and they are not happy… If you don’t already have an alternate currency at home, you might want to investigate with your bank if you can purchase Euros or Canadian Dollars in advance of your trip. Even if you are charged 3-6% for this service, it is still much less than the up to 14% hit from US currency at the window.
(All of the information above is done and behind you in less than 3 minutes, so get your CUCs and let’s get exploring!)
To Sticker or Not To Sticker (Take The Provided Tour or Go On Your Own)
The rules for travel to Cuba are changing, so you now have the option of participating fully with Fathom’s People To People (P2P) tours provided by Havanatur (included in your cruise fare), going entirely on your own (there are very specific rules here you must follow, so know the requirements before you take off!), or creating your own mix of the two options. We chose the hybrid and found it a great way to be introduced to the ports of call and to gain valuable knowledge and insight before taking the opportunity to explore and seek out unique and individual experiences on our own.
Walking Tour of Havana
As it was our very first time in Cuba, we grabbed our sticker, headed to the bottom of the stairs and met our guide and our group for the day. At 11:40am, we exited the terminal, crossed a two lane street, and stepped onto the cobblestones of the Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi, the first of the 4 plazas of Old Havana we would be visiting today.
Not gonna lie… It was hot… It was humid… But it didn’t matter… Everyone in our group was simply mesmerized by vibrant colors, the music bouncing down the walls of the small alleyways branching from the square, the architecture, and the simple fact that we were now one of the first to visit this amazing country.
In each location, our guide knew the struggle she was going to face trying to keep us all confined with a traditional tour, so she provided a short 10-15 minute history and introduction to each of our stops, pointed out important sights or experiences/views not to miss, and then let us all roam for 15-20 minutes to explore, take pictures, and interact with the people of Havana.
Seek and You Shall Find…
Our impact guides on board Fathom were 100% right. Take the opportunity to seek out what you wish to see, do, and experience in Cuba, and it will provide a sizable return on your investment. As we had our free time in the Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi, I took off to the belltower for commanding views of Old Havana and the Bay. For a 1 CUC fee, you can make your way up to the top by way of the winding and narrow stairs with a rewarding 360 degree view at the top. Unfortunately, the belltower was closed today due to a music festival taking place within the church, but a quick conversation with the security guard and he tells me “come tomorrow morning at 9… Officially we open at 10, but someone is always here to let you in at that hour… It’s quiet and you sometimes have the tower to yourself.”
And so began our positive, warm, generous, and memorable interactions with the Cuban people. Everyone was friendly and approachable. Some Cubans walked right up to us and began to inquire about “if we had come with the ship” and wanted to ask about where we are from, what we were looking forward to seeing and doing in the country, etc. In addition, we were careful to be courteous and always respectful by asking for permission to go anywhere (rarely were we ever denied and generally it was only because no one is allowed, Cuban or otherwise…), but when granted access to non-descript doorways, some led to incredibly beautiful courtyards within:
From the Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi, we headed north to the Plaza de Armas, arriving at around 12:40pm. Here we enjoyed the sights of the Hotel Santa Isabel, El Templete, La Giraldilla, a lush green park with four fountains, and an open air book market:
The oldest square in Havana, this open air market has both literature and antiques and is a bustling space with locals and tourists alike. The books were most intriguing as most sellers presented many many titles on Cuban History, Castro, Che, the Stories of the Revolution, etc. and very little beyond that single genre. Every once in a while you might come across Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or other semi-current titles, but they were few and far between. In speaking to one of the sellers, he said simply, “I sell what the people want to read and this is what they want.”
Another turn to the north and west and we arrived at the Plaza de Catedral, the newest of the four squares. Dominated by the Catedral de Santo Cristobal it was beautiful both on the outside and from within:
We ended up taking a longer than expected break here when one of our tour group fainted from the heat — thankfully she was alright, but a stark reminder that the heat of Havana is intense. It requires constant hydration, taking frequent rests, and finding the shade when available.
Lunch at Santo Angel, & The Music… Beautiful Cuban Music!
From there, we wound our way through the streets of Old Havana and headed south almost 7 blocks to reach our lunch stop and Plaza Vieja. Lunch was at a state-run restaurant called Santo Angel, where although the staff and management struggled to handle the large groups all arriving at the same time (resulting in long wait times for food and drink), almost immediately the meal became secondary to the 6 member band playing live music on the patio:
We were here for nearly 90 minutes and the band didn’t stop once until we were ready to leave. The intensity of volume, the both well known and completely unique instruments, the interplay of Latin, Cuban, and Afro-Cuban influences, and the singing kept all of us toe tapping, clapping, (and for a few folks) dancing for the duration of lunch. These were the sounds of Cuba and they were on every corner, in every restaurant and bar, and blaring out of car radios… And it was amazing.
Plaza Vieja and Time To “Get Lost”
Finishing up lunch, we headed back out into Plaza Vieja where our tour guide introduced us to the square and helped us to better understand all of the building work and restoration going on in Havana and throughout Cuba. Given the age and the lack of ongoing maintenance for many buildings, many are simply falling apart. While the government helped to boost some key locations with the arrival of the Pope over the last decade, some areas saw far overdue work begin on basic infrastructure like roadways, paint, and structural retrofit, but there is still so much to be done. A careful balance is attempting to be reached between bringing in foreign investment, maintaining the central and dominating government ownership within the Socialist Republic, and ensuring that everyone gets their share, even that means years or decades before everyone can get their turn.
It was at this point of the tour that we let our guide know that we were going to head out on our own to explore Old Havana. She offered her thanks for our sharing the day with her and we asked her one question as we said our goodbyes… “What’s a good direction to get lost in?” She pointed down one nearby alleyway and we were off.
Next Up: Day 1 continues as we get lost in Havana, find some more amazing music, make a new friend, tour the city at sunset in a classic car, and experience the music and the intense energy of Cabaret Parisien!