June 14, 2016: Havana, Cuba
After an amazing (and exhausting in good way) first day in Havana, we had a 7:30am start to a full day of panoramic touring with Havanatur, the state run tour agency, and today, one of our impact guides, Paige was on board to experience Havana along with all of us!
Customs and security screening was much easier this time around, and with no immediate need for additional CUCs, we headed downstairs to the waiting buses and boarded for our full day tour. Today, we would be reaching much further out than the center of Old Town and our fully air conditioned buses provided a safe haven from the hot, humid day that we would again be working our way through.
As we left the cruise terminal, we made our way to the Malecon for a drive along the waterfront as we viewed the Parque Cespedes, the monument to Maximo Gomez, and a daytime view of the beautiful Hotel Nacional, where we had visited the evening before for the Cabaret Parisien:
As we continued along the 7.5km (4.5 mile) long Malecon, we were also introduced to the new United States Embassy, which re-opened its doors after a 54 year pause in Cuban/US relations on August 14, 2015:
Our first stop of the day was focused on learning as much as we could about Cuban History as it would serve us well in later stops on today’s tour. Interestingly enough, one of the best places to learn about Cuban history is within its cemeteries. Colon Cemetery is considered the one of the most important historical and architectural cemeteries in the world, even rivaling or surpassing La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. With more than 800,000 graves, Colon Cemetery has a colorful past amongst its interred, though today, space is at a valuable premium that most Cubans cannot afford:
On the way to our next stop, we got to see one of the many methods of transport available to the Cuban people and visiting tourists. If a ride in a classic car is not quite your thing, you can hire out a CocoTaxi! The name comes from the shape of the vehicle looking strangely close to that of a coconut. The name stuck and provides simple, inexpensive transport in a very brightly colored bubble:
Our second stop of the day was at Plaza de Revolucion, the primary location of many great moments in Cuban history, where speeches were made by Fidel Castro and other political leaders, but also the location of masses held by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis during their respective visits to Cuba. Today the square is a massive open expanse surrounded by buildings with iron artworks showing two of the most important deceased heroes of the revolution, including Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos below (This is not Fidel, though it is commonly mistaken due to the quote to the lower right):
Following our short stop at Revolution Plaza, we made our way back towards the center of town and to the Paseo del Prado, a long north/south corridor with a central pedestrian walkway. It reminded me a lot of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, but without the severe incline! Along the Prado we saw a number of sights as we made our way to our next stop, the Museo Nacional de Bella Artes:
Unfortunately, no pictures were permitted at our next stop, the Museo Nacional de Bella Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013, but we were able to receive a 15 minute introduction from one of the museum docents (translated by our tour guide) and then allowed one hour to visit the collections, which hold only Cuban artwork from colonial times (17th century) to present day.
At 12 Noon, we made our way back towards the coast for our next stop, lunch. Today, lunch was presented and prepared by another state run restaurant called El Aljibe. Today’s setup was efficient, very tasty, and took us just under an hour to enjoy wonderfully prepared roast chicken, cuban rice and black beans, cabbage salad, crusty bread, and an appetizer and dessert sampler tray with all sorts of tasty options, including plantain chips, chicken wings, croquettes, and sweet fried plantains to close out the meal:
As we continued on our art focus this afternoon, we ventured all the way out to Calle 226 where we arrived at Fusterlandia, a small community based on the work of modern Cuban artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, he has always said that once he had made a name for himself with his art, he would bring it back home and make a difference in his own community. The result of this work is the restoration and development of artwork and incorporating his style of colorful tile mosaic into more than 80 buildings in the section of Havana, an old fishing town, where he lives. The results present his style of artistry and combines this with the individual personalities of each member of the community to develop and incorporate designs into each home and property:
Making our way back into Havana, we had one final stop before returning to the ship — a 45 minute Shopping Stop at the Mercado Artesenal San Jose. This massive warehouse provides individual storefronts for hundreds of artisan shops in the areas of woodworking, painting, canvas art, music, and leather goods:
As we left the Mercado, the sky threatened with dark gray clouds and the temperature had decreased substantially. We made it back to the Cruise Terminal dry, and as we settled back into our stateroom for the night, we said goodbye to Havana, as we sailed away shortly before Sunset:
It was an incredible two days in Havana — Meeting so many people, experiencing so much of this massive Caribbean capital city, and have the honor and privilege to be amongst the first to do so will make this one of our most memorable travel moments. We’re relived at the prospect to take a little breather with a sea day ahead, but excited to see a different side of Cuba with upcoming ports of call in Cienfuegos and Santiago still to come!