June 17, 2016: Santiago, Cuba
With a slightly later arrival (9am) into the port of Santiago de Cuba, this provided enough morning sunshine to catch an amazing sail in towards today’s full day port of call. As we wound our way though many twists and turns in the 6 miles from the channel entrance, we had the fortune to see the Castillo (the fortress) from the water and eagerly anticipated visiting it in person later in the day:
Continuing further inland towards our cruise port, we passed by many waterfront buildings (and even a few islands) where the locals were out in numbers waving, saying hello, and fishermen pulling their rowboats up towards the ship at a furious pace, just to show off their catch to those of us on balconies and watching from the open decks:
Once docked in Santiago, we made our way to the small terminal building, where once again, we passed through customs and screening. This time was a bit different as our Cuban Tourist Visas were taken from us and replaced with a plastic “transit” card. As this was our last port of call for our Cuba cruise, this was essentially code for “we’re so glad you are here, but you will return to your ship to finish off your itinerary…” Without the Tourist Visa, our time in Cuba was quickly counting down to zero, so we decided to make the most of the day.
Once through security, we arrived in a small parking lot where waiting buses were parked and ready to take us for the day. In addition, a small set of shops were set up to offer us plenty of opportunities to spend the last of our CUCs and a small set of CADECA exhange booths (5-6) were in place. While this was more than sufficient for the start of the day, these booths would quickly become a choke point in the afternoon as nearly 600 passengers worked feverishly to get their dollars, euros, and other currencies back from the CUCs that would be worth absolutely nothing the moment we set sail.
A bunch of us from the ship had formed a loose collective of like minded passengers that were interested in spending the day together and using our similar interests in Cuba, music, food, and our port day to make the absolute most of our People 2 People interactions, so we all commandeered one of the buses for our group and headed out for an amazing day of sightseeing and Cuban life:
Our first stop (and it was only 10am) was a very small outdoor music club near the Plaza de Marte called El Patio de los Dos Abeulos where a wonderfully loud and energetic band of retired gentlemen played for more than an hour on a terra cota colored tile patio that barely contained enough small tables and chairs for the 20 or so of us from our tour bus. The local couple below shared Cuban dances with the crowd, and then, with the help of our dance leads, turned our morning into a non-stop sweat fest of dancing, fun, smiles, and laughter. It was a blast and connected us as passengers, as new friends with our Cuban musicians and dancers, and even our Havanatur guide got in on the experience:
From here, we arrived at Parque Cespedes, the main plaza of Santiago de Cuba. The towering cathedral kept watch on the square below, and we were allotted some time here for pictures and to meet some of the locals. I met a chef who knew 6 languages and so desperately wants to see the world and expand his culinary skills, but “that is just not possible — not with the Cuba we live in today… ”
From here, we headed towards lunch at an exceptional paladar (private restaurant). A Paladar is a restaurant owned and run by a family or sole proprietor without governmental ownership. These enterprises are some of the most thriving in Cuba at present as the laws begin to ever so slightly soften for individual ownership of these businesses. As we arrived and made our way up the the tile staircase to the 2nd level restaurant (the family’s home is on the first floor), we turned the corner at Restaurante Italiano Marino and looking through the window, the smells of fresh and fragrant Cuban food immediately stopped me in my tracks. The kitchen staff and chefs all asked me if I wanted to take a look at today’s menu and we got to talking immediately about their love of food, how this job and this restaurant has opened their eyes to so many new paths that their careers can take them, and it was evident in their energy, their responses to my questions and their love of this work:
Soon, we all settled into a room not much larger than your kitchen at home (20 of us) for a sit down lunch of Cuban specialties. While the room was cramped, the conversation was fun, the food was exceptional, and then an amazing guitarist came in and she performed the most amazing music (which with our group quickly became a sing-a-long) as we feasted on shrimp, fish, pork, chicken, rice, beans, bread, potato, and salad. Dessert was a coconut ice cream with fresh tropical fruit. It was an epic lunch with some of the most humble, generous, and warm people we have met during our visit to Cuba. We were truly lucky to have had this experience and to be able to share it with such amazing people:
While no one wanted to leave the amazing paladar lunch, we had so much more to see and do today, so we headed back to the bus after many thank yous and good byes to our new friends at Restaurante Italiano Marino, and made our way to nearby San Juan Hill to see the location of one of the decisive battles of the Spanish American Cuban war at the turn of the 20th century:
Making our way back towards Santiago center, we found a number of buildings, flags, and callouts to the great leaders and actions within Cuban History… It seemed that Santiago provided many more of these displays than in other cities we have visited:
One of our next stops to view was the Cuidad Escolar 26 de Julio, formerly the famous Moncada Barracks and now a local school:
Our last stop in the city was the Mercado Plaza de Revolucion, with its massive monument of Antonio Maceo Grajales:
From here, we made our way to the Masoleum de Marti, where the guards are constantly watching over one of Cuba’s greatest historical figures:
Taking the Outer Highway Loop (Circunvalacion) we hopped around the outside edges of the city and made our way 6 miles towards the coast and to the edge of the Bahia de Santiago, where we visited the Castillo (The Fortress). It was an amazing sight and presented many moments to capture:
Returning to our ship, we had a tremendously enjoyable day in Santiago de Cuba, doing and seeing more than was ever thought possible in an 8 hour day… As our ship sailed away, the experiences of the last 4 days in port were almost too many to count, and so we did our best to document as much as we could for this travel log and with the photos and videos taken along the way.
We have one more day at sea before we return home to Miami and will do our best to bring one last entry for this travel log together, rounding off an amazing cruise with #FathomTravel and look forward to more opportunities in the not too distant future to #TravelDeep.