The last time American tourists could freely pack their bags and travel to Cuba, Elvis Presley was topping the charts with Jailhouse Rock.
Cuba has been the forbidden fruit for Americans for the past 50 years, but on March 21, 2016 Fathom Cruise Line became the first cruise line approved to sail to Cuba from the U.S.
Recently one of our writers, Jane Archer, cruised to Cuba with the Canadian company, Cuba Cruise. The seven-night voyage took her counterclockwise around the island and included an overnight in Havana, and visits to Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Maria la Gorda and Montego Bay in Jamaica.
Follow along as Jane takes us through her authentic experience and watch as a captivating chapter in history begins to turn the page…
1. Cuba feels like it has been frozen in time since the 1950s. These classic American cars are everywhere. In the capital city of Havana, they are used as taxis or you can just pose for a picture in one (for a fee of course).
2. The Classic cars are a fabulous way to get about, but you have to give one of these Coco taxis a go as well. They are small, noisy and great fun. But with no windows, you don’t want to go out in one after doing your hair!
3. Looks familiar? Cuba’s National Capitol Building in Old Havana, El Capitolio, was inspired by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (except theirs is taller). Built between 1926 and 1929, Fidel Castro saw it as too much of a link with the American-influenced past so he moved his government out, and the Cuban Academy of Science in. Fifty years later, brother Raúl has once again made it home of the country’s National Legislature. Restoration efforts have been made to save Cuba’s Capitol Building. The beautiful building on its right is the Gran Teatro de la Habana.
4. Who said the immortal words, ‘My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita’? Full marks if you said Ernest Hemingway. Papa Hemingway lived and worked in Cuba for 21 years (1939 to 1960) and loved his Havana watering holes, including La Bodeguita del Medio (pictured above and mentioned in his quote).
The walls are mostly covered with obscure signatures but if you look closely you’ll find the signatures of Mohammad Ali and Nat King Cole. Cubans love Hemingway so much that his former home, Finca Vigia, in San Francisco de Paula, 10 miles east of Havana, is a museum-cum-shrine that none can enter. Instead visitors pay 3CUC$ (Cuban Convertible Peso) to peek through the windows.
5. Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca has stood guard high above at the entrance to Santiago de Cuba bay since 1700. It was designed by an Italian and built by the Spanish (it took 62 years to finish) to protect the city from marauding British (and other) pirates. In the late 1800s, the Spanish used it to lock up political prisoners. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is open to visitors. You enter at the top; about 262 feet above sea level and can walk down through four levels for fabulous views over the bay.
6. One of the top attractions in Santiago de Cuba is Cemetery Santa Efigenia, which houses the mausoleum of José Marti. A hero (and poet) in Cuba, he led the first revolutionary party created to oust the Spanish and gain independence for Cuba. He was killed in battle in 1895 at the age of 42. His mausoleum is open to the sky because he wanted to be buried with his face to the sun, and covered by the Cuban flag.
7. Every 30 minutes between 8am and 5pm they change the guard at José Marti’s mausoleum to the sound of the Cuban national anthem. You’ll also find Emilio Bacardi’s black granite tomb in this same cemetery, which is shaped like a pyramid to honor his Egyptian origin.
8. On July 26, 1953, Fidel and Raúl Castro led an attack on Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, in an attempt to unseat the Batista government. Many of the rebels were killed or captured in the failed attack, which inspired Castro to name his revolutionaries the 26th of July Movement. The bullet holes on the barracks remain in memory of those who died; a fascinating museum inside that tells the story of the revolution.
9. In 2006 Raúl Castro replaced his brother as president of Cuba and a year later passed new laws allowing Cubans to open their own businesses. It was a pragmatic move rather than anything to do with a newfound liberalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was such an economic body blow that Cuba’s government could not even deliver the austere standard of living it had provided in the past 30 years. There are private businesses all over the country, from street stalls to souvenir shops, restaurants, taxis and bars.
10. There is a saying in Cuba that all roads lead to Rum, well they also lead to cigars. Around 190 people are employed to roll cigars in Havana's Upmann Factory (pictured here), where they produce 25,000 smokes per day. Their hands move like lightening as they select, roll and cut the leaves, stopping only now and then to light up a freshly rolled cigar (a questionable perk is they can smoke as many as they like provided they hit the target of 135 a day).
11. One of the things I loved about Cuba was the laid-back vibe. Children can hang around on the streets without fear of being run over (apart from anything else, there are not that many cars!) or abducted, older folk play chess in the park, strum a guitar or sit and watch the world go by. This was my second visit and I noticed locals are more savvy when it comes to making money from tourists, but it’s done in a pleasant no-hassle kind of way.
12. I also loved the shabby Spanish colonial style with its big squares and ornate balconies. Sadly, too many of the buildings are just a bit too shabby. Restoration work is desperately needed to prevent further loss of the historic buildings in Havana.
13. It’s hard not to be absorbed in its history and culture, but there is more to this intriguing country than war and revolution. On the penultimate day of the cruise, our ship anchored off this fabulous beach at Punta Frances on Isla de la Juventud, where the locals had set up a bar. It was time for a swim and a mojito… or two!
Editor’s notes: Carnival Corporation announced on March 21, 2016 that have approval from Cuba authorities to sail there with a “people-to-people” tour of the island. The cruise tour will depart out of Port Miami to Cuba on Carnival’s newest cruise line, Fathom. Adonia, Fathom’s 710-passenger ship, will cruise to Cuba on a 7-night cruise, with a focus on the historic cities of Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba beginning on May 1, 2016.