by Don McCann
It’s always fun to spot ‘land’ off the bow of your ship, especially when it’s your first port following a day at sea. However, on this cruise there were FAR more people at the forward viewing areas of the ship waiting to see THIS land. As we cruised closer, it was quite the surprise to see the ‘skyline’ of Havana as it was more impressive and more developed than many would have thought. Once we were close enough to see more details, I could see another cruise ship in port and I had a feeling it would be leaving to make room for our arrival. Sure enough, it sailed out of the channel just in time to make way for our arrival.
First, you see el Morro on the port side; an impressive fortress & tower with the same name as the one in San Juan, but different in size & appearance. Then, I cannot explain it, but the real excitement was on the starboard side of the ship when we first saw the vintage cars of the 40’s & 50s cruising along the Malecon seawall area. WOW, those cars are just SO cool and there were so many of them. I started using my zoom lens to see how many I could capture. I don’t understand it, but those cars really set the tone for excitement that you are entering a bit of a time capsule…and that’s the term that the locals use, as well. They ARE a bit of a time capsule and the people of Cuba know it, too.
Sailing closer to the terminal, we could begin to see landmarks, such as the Capitol and several other domed buildings. As we pulled alongside at the cruise terminal, it was interesting to see that there are three piers for ships, but only one is in use. The other two are in very sad shape; one with all the rafters clearly exposed and no roof on top. So right away, you get a sense of the decay of some parts of the city, which are along side some of the preserved, or pristine sights of the city, as well. Just one of the many Cuban paradoxes.
Once we were docked, we were cleared to depart for our tour. First, you queue up for the lines at Immigration in the terminal. It’s not air conditioned, or at least not like we are used to, and it moves at its own pace. You proceed one by one to present your passport and your Cuban visa (which the cruise line has provided onboard). They take your photo, keep your visa, then stamp your passport. WOW – a Cuba stamp in your passport – not something all the neighbors have, for sure!
Once onboard our modern and comfortable motorcoach, we meet our tour guide, who speaks perfect English. We learned in our seminar yesterday that Cubans have a 99.8% literacy rate and they are taught English beginning in the fourth grade. The tour takes you first into a tunnel, under the port, to the “Rio-style” statue of Christ across the channel. There is great pride in that this is the tallest statue in the world which was designed by a woman. There are also great views of the city from this location. Afterwards, we continue through the city and along the Malecon seawall and we have our next stop at an artists’ community-type neighborhood called Fusterland (Fuster is a noted artist who uses tile mosaics and has adorned an entire area with his works).
Our third stop is Revolution Square; in reality, it’s a very large parking lot, but it is bordered by the very tall Revolution monument and buildings with the silhouettes of famed political heroes. However, the best part of this stop was the rotating collection of more of those really cool cars which came through with tourists, one after the other!
As for the current society, we have learned that Cubans attend school at no charge, both grade school and university. We have also learned that they have full health care, at no charge, and that they have housing guaranteed by the government. We have been told that money is a constant challenge and the food is rationed so that everyone will be supplied. Some of these facts cause you to wonder and be somewhat confused about Cubans and how they function, but the noted quote of the day was as our tour ended. Our guide (who was studying to be a dentist), said “Go out and enjoy Cuba, but don’t try to understand it”!
After dinner back on the ship, we went out again to walk on the Malecon. We’d been told that many people gather here at night and it’s an enjoyable walk with great views of the city. Well, yes, there were many more people here at night, but perhaps it’s partially because almost no one has air-conditioning and it’s a bit more pleasant outside, than inside. It was still plenty hot enough for us, but it was bearable. (Note, I recommend a cruise to Havana to any interested traveler, but just NOT in July – it was SO HOT!) After our seaside stroll, we ventured into the heart of the city, toward the Capitol and back over to our ship. We walked through some pretty dark blocks along our route, but we’d been advised that it was very safe as they have virtually no street crime and we had no issues. Perhaps it’s the indoor heat, or maybe it’s simply the Latin culture, but there were plenty of people out & about at 11pm.
We ended our day fascinated by all we’d seen & experienced in such a short time and we were looking forward to Day 2 and our Vintage Car Tour!
(this is Part 3 in my series of Havana cruise posts; Part 4, the last, follows tomorrow)