How we traveled and what we were expecting…
Sunday 10/16/2016: We boarded the Adonia in Miami, a 600′ boutique cruise ship that hosts 750 passengers — far less of a behemoth than big sister cruise ships with 3000+ passengers. We were immediately attracted to the Adonia theme — a smaller ship of like-minded passengers visiting Cuba with a purpose. A purpose of having people-to-people encounters, sharing of cultures, one person at a time. The trip wasn’t about politics, a badge in Rosetta Stone Spanish, travel embargoes or governments — but simply meeting the Cuban people, learning more about their culture and sharing some of ours in return. We would have 4 days on land: 2 days at Havana, 1 day in Cienfuegos and the final day in Santiago de Cuba.
The Adonia is the only cruise ship departing from an American port –at this writing — allowed to travel to Cuban ports. Of course, all of that is changing. Direct flights are just now becoming available from Miami to Havana, and apparently, we are able to purchase unlimited quantities of rum and cigars. That’s assuming we have unlimited dollars to spend. We are on the 14th ship departure from the US to enter Cuban waters in 2016, and it was our goal to immerse ourselves into Cuban culture before it changes to modern society — fast food and strip malls.
Winds blew 30 knots from the east and our departure out of the Port of Miami was surprisingly rough. Having lived on a 44′ catamaran sailboat touring the eastern seaboard, I was expecting this big beast of a ship to barely bump in lumpy seas. But no. The ship rocked and tilted, and its passengers moved about as if everyone had been heavily drinking, stumbling to walk a straight path, and crashing into furnishings and walls like bumper cars. We attended a session on Deck 5 (total of 10 decks) to learn more about Havana and the expectations of people to people encounters, cultural exchanges. We grew more excited for what would unfold. (MORE Photos)
Arriving in Havana, Cuba
Monday 10/17/2016: Our room was on the starboard side on Deck 8, and when we awoke — while we couldn’t see land from starboard — we could tell that the ship had long passed across the bumpy Gulf Stream. The ride was gentle, and the ocean swells had lightened to calmer seas.
We rushed out of our room to go to the 9th deck on the boat, where we could see the view from the port side and sure enough – land. Cuba. It was a clear day, and guessing we were 10-15 miles offshore, still well east of Havana.
After reviewing a fantastical array of breakfast foods, we decided on something that would not bust the scales, and enjoyed watching the sights of Havana, Cuba get closer. After the feeding, we ventured to the 10th deck, and watched as the City of Havana grew vivid and tried to contain our excitement as the Captain of the Adonia made a final turn and headed into port.
With 750 people on board, it would have been mayhem for all to depart at once, so we returned to our cabins and waited for our group name to be called. Our group, “Travel” was the first to get summoned to the 5th deck, and we raced to get in line. Departing the ship, and stepping onto Cuba required 5 documents. A passport, an Adonia key, a Visa document, a Customs form and a ship’s ticket for a group walking tour. A group tour that we planned to avoid. Instead, our plan was to meander, away from the tourists, and see what happens.
We stood in line at customs until we were called to the booth. Cuban customs is serious business. There are no smiles or welcoming faces, and not being a worldly traveler perhaps this is how it works? I handed the officer my passport, and she smacked it back to me shaking her head no. She repeated “Passport” and then spoke in Spanish, while I insisted my Passport Card is my “Passport” speaking only in English. Neither of us understood the other, but one thing you learn quickly, you do not argue in any language with customs. After a bit of back-n-forth, with the Cuban customs officer insisting she needed a passport, and not recognizing my passport, I was pulled out of line by a second customs officer, who then took Paddy and I aside. The Adonia officer listened to our story in English and did his best to translate to the Cuban officer in Spanish, and everyone seemed incredulous that we did not have a blue passport book. Our passport card, which is valid for travel by land or sea to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean – for some reason is not valid in Cuba.
Another Cuban customs officer took both of our passports and disappeared, and we were taken to a bench where we waited. We waited for nearly an hour, while the entire Adonia registry of passengers passed through customs successfully – apparently they had the special blue book – and the likelihood that we were going to step onto Cuban soil was looking dim.
Finally, a Cuban customs officer returned wearing a beaming smile, and in all languages a smile is a good thing. After speaking with el Capitano, our temporary visa was granted and we were granted permission to step onto Cuban soil. I was still shaking with fraught nerves for some time with the thought that we were going to spend our entire Cuban tour on a boat. Fortunately, that was not the case, and another passenger friend (a woman named Pat) who we met yesterday, waited the entire duration outside of customs for us…which completely brightened my mood. Ms. Pat, opted not to leave us behind, and I knew we would be in for a good day moving forward.
Passing though the formalities of customs, we entered the money exchange area – where dollars are exchanged for “CUC”s – the Cuban currency. The exchange is 1:1 – but the Cuban government takes 10% or more — depending on the day — so your $300 could be worth $270 or maybe less. Such it is, we would learn. There is no state of “is”. What “is” is in the moment, and “is”, is a moving target.
Exiting the Terminal Sierra Maestra San Fransisco we connected with one of the last walking tours (Havantours), and while our preference was to be independent explorers, we had the option to depart the walking tour at any time. Our Cuban tour guides Ernesto and Yane had an uncanny patience for Americano tourists, and their knowledge of the history of Havana, and desire to meander and deviate from the main group quickly helped us forget our encounter with customs.
As we strayed from our tour group, Ernesto hung behind and it didn’t take long to realize that we were wearing a neon sign that said “Americano tourists – ask us for money”. We were approached by the musicians, entertainers, and street artists who would love to perform for a few of those CUCs. Ernesto, noticing that we were wide-eyed and somewhat green in Havana, helped us maneuver though streets and city squares and indulged our need to try a Café con Leche. Soon we learned more about our guide. Ernesto had a masters in education (industrial engineering), worked as a state sponsored tour guide and is versed in 6 languages, with a deep love of music, dancing, and strong curiosities about the American government (why they don’t recognize global warming?) and especially what is up with The Donald and woman? Ernesto went on to point out that in Cuba, the men love their woman, love to talk poetry with a fine woman, dance with her and could not understand what was going on in America.
In the meantime, Paddy met some street musicians, and a guitar slinger whom he formed an immediate bond. After exchanging hats, the Cuban musician passed his guitar to Paddy who played an impromptu performance with the Cuban street band. Returning the guitar to his owner, Paddy donated his pick, and apparently CUCs were what the musicans really wanted, so we gave up a few of those too before returning to see what our Americano group was doing. It became clear, that we were having much more fun with our small group of 3 (Paddy, Ms. Pat and myself) – privately guided by Ernesto, than the group of 20 that was busy tagging along behind Yane.
We passed by a Café in the Factoria Plaza Vieja that served espresso drinks, and in Cuba drinking espresso all day is a part of the culture – one facet I could easily incorporate. Ernesto checked with the tour leader Yane who gave permission for our group to continue with it’s deviant practices, and sit and have an espresso – and by the time our drinks were served – we had enough time to enjoy two sips before Ernesto decided it was time to move along as he didn’t want to get into trouble with Yane.
It is now 2PM, and time for lunch. While I would have preferred a smaller setting, the lunch choice was in a beautiful state operated restaurant – Cafe Del Oriente – with fancy tablecloths and air conditioning. AC is not the norm in private operated businesses, but considering the heat was well into the 90’s and we were drenched in sweat, I didn’t feel the need abandon the group at this point. You have 3 choices for your meal – fish, chicken or pasta – and the vegetables (corn and peas) permeated each dish.
After a hearty lunch, we continued with our group for another hour. We wandered through Viejo Habana, in awe at the architecture, the markets, and finding ourselves picking up more Spanish phrases along the way. We had one last stop before the tour ended – to the state run Rum, Cigar and Coffee shop – where we can now officially purchase unlimited quantities. We didn’t go “unlimited” of course, because there are limits. Cash and weight. There is only so much one can carry around in your backpack, and while the latest embargo has no limits on rum or cigars – we did not go crazy. So, we filled our small backpack with a few items after waiting in long lines, and then returned to our tour guides Yane and Ernesto. One American tourist was complaining about the walk and the uneven pavement, and we watched the faces of Yane and Ernesto. They continued to smile and remain polite to all of the Americanos.
After tipping our guides well, and exchanging FaceBook accounts, we departed from the guides and the Americanos and went on a walking tour (unassisted) toward what we hoped to be a market and less tourista streets. It is important to understand that an American version of “market” may not be the same interpretation in Cuba. We did find a small square of 3-4 artists selling their wares and that would be good enough. We met a lovely Cuban Artist named Pinot, who painted on any medium she could find – including banana leaves, braille paper, tobacco leaves. Her paintings were bright and vibrant, and who could resist purchasing a few of her originals? We returned to the ship to spend the night, and were excited to spend one more day in Havana – immersed in Cuban culture. (MORE Photos)
A second full day in Havana, Cuba…
Tuesday, 10/18/2016: We woke to the Adonia’s announcement for final call to disembarkment, which is code for ‘get your ass going’ if you plan to head to shore. And we did.
We handed our passport card to the custom officials, who immediately looked at us, then the passport card, and asked us to hand over our passports. Déjà vu. We explained these “are” our passports, and fortunately we had a Visa that showed we were allowed into the country – courtesy of the prior day. There were tense minutes of wary inspection, before our documents were returned to us and we were motioned to continue toward shore. In the meantime, my FitBit recorded a sudden heart rate spike.
After exchanging more dollars for CUCs, we left the Port and headed toward El Malicon by walking along the Habana harbor. I got in a short jog – not the distance I was hoping for, but a jog is a jog – and there is nothing quite like jogging along the shoreline, listening to the waves crash, over and over. Yes, there were other runners out – but I did not see any Cuban runners. All were touristas like myself — which was easy to tell by the brand name sportwear.
Meeting back with Paddy (Senior Patricio) — who was walking and taking pictures — we then passed by a group of local fishermen who were fascinating to watch. Dozens of fishermen swarmed the area along the pier where the fish seemed to be biting. They wear their fresh catch on their belts, and if you walk behind them, beware of their casts because they don’t look to make sure anyone is behind them. A quick flick and you could easily find yourself hooked. As soon as a feeding frenzy is observed, the men yank in their lines and follow the fish, running along the shore, recasting lines and bait as they race in the direction of the frenzy.
We continued to meander past the mouth of the Havana harbor, along the Malicon toward Nueve Habana, but Senior Patricio was working up a huge sweat and we had a shortage of agua. Did I say how hot is it here? Ok. It’s hot, and while some may argue that October is not the hottest time of the year, it is HOT, and hot starts early in the day. Surviving the heat is all about pacing yourself and hydrating, and by 10AM we were out of drinking water. This is about the time that we encountered the horsemen, soon to be known as the banditos.
With Senior Patricio melting into a puddle, and without a map to guide us on our self-tour, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to accept their offer for a carriage ride back to Plaza de Armas? After a quick detour for frio aqua in Callejon de Hamel, a local Santaria neighborhood (way of the Saints), we were visiting raw unfiltered Cuba. Here we watched bean soup cooking in the street, bathtubs painted and converted into religious shrines and a new tour guide emerged Michel (Alexandor Caron) who explained the neighborhood, colors, religion and wondered if we could explain the American upcoming elections? Seems to be a recurring theme and questions for the Americano tourists who arrive in Cuba.
We returned to our horse-pulled carriage tour where we decided our guides were less than trustworthy and asked to depart ways. They wanted double the amount of money that was quoted for a ride, and we refused, and they dropped us off in a unpopulated area. The good thing about Cuba is the knowledge that violence is rare, guns are nowhere to be found, and arguments are how disagreements are solved. We argued in english with our bandidos who argued in spanish, gave them more CUCs than we should have and parted company deciding that it was better to appreciate our moment with Michel and the Santaria neighborhood rather than obsess on the bandidos.
We continued walking until we discovered familiar territory in Viejo Habana along O’Rielly Street and decided it was time to take a break and enjoy a Café con Leche. This would be one of many Café con Leche’s and there has to be something sinful in these little cups of coffees because they are more delicious than anything I’ve experienced in the states. The café’s are open verandas, with fans pushing around air, and while the air was hot, and the drinks were hot we had the sensation of feeling slightly cooler.
Hydrated and caffeinated, we returned to walking the streets of Habana. Not once did we observe a traffic light, and traffic consists of walkers, bicyclists, bike taxis, old car taxis, trucks and military vehicles. Bicycles are utility vehicles here, not designed for speed by designed to navigate rough roads, carry goods or carry other people.
It does become obvious if you spend any time in Habana that the street people are quite aggressive at panhandling the tourists. And the tourists are not simply Americanos. Tourists arrive daily into Havana from Canada, Mexico, European countries and more. If you take a pictures of statues or buildings, if you put on that confused look that indicates you might be lost, if you stop for a moment to catch your breath – you are approached, and any interaction will cost you CUCs. Once you figure out that out, you are on your way to navigating less expensively in Cuba.
We stopped for lunch at a second floor cafe on an open verranda overlooking the plaza square. Here we enjoyed lemonade, a vegetable baguette, grilled vegetables and falafel. After paying off the bandidos and a small purchase of trinkets, we were down to rationing our CUCs and preserving the remaining moolah to ensure we made it back to the boat – which might require paying to get beyond customs. What “is” yesterday, is not always the rule for today.
After one last Café con Leche at the modern Café Habana, we said goodbye to our amazing experiences in Habana to return to the Adonia. We set sail at 8PM for our next destination – Cienfuegos. (MORE Photos)
A travel day – at sea…
Wednesday 10/19/2016: The Adonia cruised around the western tip of Cuba by daybreak, and then we spent the next 24 hours heading east along the southern Cuba shoreline. This provided for a full day of boat activities that included:
- Running on the jogging track amidst rough seas and finding it was less than enjoyable
- Abandoning the notion of keeping up my running agenda, and opting to eat breakfast instead. Now, the boat doesn’t serve vegetables for breakfast, so I’m learning to like yogurt.
- Opting to try out the gym, which is air conditioned and overlooks the starboard side of the boat. An elliptical should be far less difficult on a bouncing boat than running on a jogging track, right?
- 30 minutes of the elliptical and nope, feeling dizzy from the lumpy seas
- Is it lunch time yet?
- Joined a group to discover your “superpower”. I don’t know if this is my superpower, but the Fathom persona decided I was “go go Jane”.
- Paddy and I participated in a dance class with Deborah and Douglas – the professional dance instructors. A group of 20 Americanos tried to dance latin moves like D&D, and after an hour, we could count Uno, Dos, Tres, (4 is skipped), Cinco, Seis, Siete….but good luck getting the feet and arms and hips to follow the numbers
- Is it dinner time yet?
- Likely we’ve each gained 10 pounds, but that doesn’t stop us from eating yet another meal
- Return to the room
- Oh, there is the presidential debate. I need to find something else to do.
- Sit on the balcony, and the seas are huge and boisterous. The boat is rockin, so maybe I do have to listen to the debate. Noooooooo…..
- Put a pillow over my ears, while Paddy listens to politics
Thursday 10/20/2016: Awake at 7AM and watch land get closer as the Adonia makes her way into the Cienfuegos harbor. It’s still dark, but the city lights are soon replaced by dawn, and the temperatures are a delightful 72 degrees. We hustle to a quick breakfast aboard the ship, along with hundreds of other passengers waiting for our 8AM call to depart the ship.
Knowing the challenges, we might face with our Passport Card – a card that seems to be foreign in Cuba, and doesn’t look anything like the typical blue passport book – we were somewhat concerned whether customs would allow us to land. As we exited the boat, and walked along a large parking lot, we made our way to what looked like a cargo bin. We fumbled for our passports and had our visas ready for inspection. True to the unpredictable nature of Cuban customs, we were quickly told that passports were not needed to disembark. Huh? We didn’t argue and quickly put our passports and visas away. However, they have infrared sensors as you walk thru the cargo bin looking for anyone who might have a temperature above 98.6. Paddy, who actually was coming down with a cold, was pulled aside – so we know their technology works. The man stuck a thermometer device on Paddy’s forehead, asked him some question in Spanish, Paddy nodded yes for no good reason other than it seemed like the right thing to do, and Paddy was waved through customs. So that’s how that works. Yes, you might have a fever, but money trumps, so go on through.
After exiting the cargo bin, we had hoped to meander aimlessly through Cienfuegos, but were ushered onto one of 20 buses. We are now part of an official “tour” with other Americanos. Not exactly what we had planned, yet we weren’t sure if this was all part of the deal between the boat company and the Cuban government for not needing passports. Best not to make a fuss, and take in Cienfuegos as best as possible – via bus.
Now, our tour guide, Luis, struggled to speak English, and not knowing much of what was being shared, we did our best to nod heads, smile, and hope this would be a short bus ride and morph into a walking tour. Did I mention that I had not gotten in my morning exercise? Let’s just say my mood is better with exercise.
For the highlights –
- Cienfuegos is much quieter than Havana. Less traffic, less people, less street hustlers, and maybe much of that had to do with the fact we were on a bus.
- The architecture is stunning, historic – dating back to the 1800’s
- We walked into a pharmacy, where the population receives medication free of charge. However, the tour guide mentioned that currently it is hard to get shipments of medicines in from other countries (the Cuban government must pay for meds up front), and there is currently a supply – demand problem. She also indicated there is a quality problem with meds, but unclear how much impact this had…
- We enjoyed a 45-minute performance by a chorus singing a capella in the Teatro Tomas Terry — a theatre built in the late 1800’s
- After another escape from the bus, we walked down a busy local street and eventually a market where the items for sale were all Cuban made, and locally made. We enjoyed talking with the artisians.
- Saw 3 Cuban runners – the first witnessed. Two ran barefoot. Good on them! I’m on a bus. Arrgh!
- Our tour guide Luis was not concerned about “time”, and continued talking long after we were instructed to return to the boat.
- We were the last bus to return to port, and the boat did not depart without us. The Cuban customs did not request our passports or visa, upon our return, and while this seems incredibly puzzling, we chose not to ask any questions.
- By 1PM, we exited the harbor, and headed for our final stop. Santiago de Cuba. (MORE Photos)
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba…
Friday 10/21/2016: The Adonia arrived into the port of Santiago de Cuba in the early AM, with magnificent views of rugged mountains, fishing villages, and power plants.
We were advised by the crew that the Cuban street hustlers were extra predatory in Santiago de Cuba, but that didn’t change our minds. We had no intention to get on any of the tour buses for a tour of historical landmarks around the city. Instead our plan was to absorb the smells, sights, and peoples by walking around a 3-mile radius from the boat – and letting the day unfold.
We were called to exit the boat and proceed through customs. Customs in Santiago de Cuba was almost as informal as customs in Cienfugos. They did not have any infrared cameras looking for passengers with a fever, and when we showed them our passport card, they simply looked up our names on the ships register and allowed us to proceed. A card, a blue book, whatever.
According to the Adonia staff, if we walked straight down the road from our finger pier for 10 minutes we would be in the heart of the city – a city square.
There was no question, during the first few blocks we became magnets for street hustlers – people who wanted to offer us cab tours, horse drawn rides, or provide us with walking tours. Americanos who arrived off of the Adonia. And the Cuban people spotted us immediately despite the fact that they have Canadian, Dutch and French tourists on a regular basis. The Adonia is code for Americans, and Americans have a reputation for being good tippers. Likely the reason why we are such popular prey.
Paddy was especially a magnet, and part of that has to do with his easy-going style of talking to anyone and everyone, and the street hustlers followed him, talking with him for blocks before giving up. But we had departed ways with those taking the tour buses – probably 90% of the passengers – so we were happy simply to be away from the masses of tourists.
We were joined by fellow ship-mate Ms. Pat, a lady who was equally interested in touring Santiago de Cuba with a yearning for raw flavors. The few blocks of walking away from the boat, quickly turned into a steep ascent up a mountain, and there was some question whether this walking tour was a good idea for her and for us. I convinced Ms. Pat to go at it slowly, and helped her up the hill where we eventually reached the summit. Still no sight of the city square, so this was time for Paddy to pull out his phone GPS and paper map of Cuba. In case anyone wasn’t sure we were tourists, it was evident at this point.
A thin man in his late 20’s approached offering to help, and at some point you begin to think it is finally time to answer yes. “Are you Americans?” he asked. I didn’t answer, guessing he already knew. He said all of the things that we knew were untrue. He would help us “for free”. He would take us to where we wanted to go and we could tip him “any amount”. And yet still we wanted to answer yes. We stood at the top of the mountain we had just climbed, where the traffic was hustling with motorcycles, bicycles, cars, trucks and yes, the buses. We started walking in the direction our guide was beckoning, and then agreed that a guide would indeed be useful. We laid down the ground rules. 5 CUCs for the hour. One hour was the limit. He agreed, and the introductions were made.
We walked to the Parque Cespedes that turned out to be 1 block away, where we decided it was time to sit, and have a Café con Leche at the Casa Granda Hotel, and watch the band perform. The band is paid for by the government and brought in when the tourist ship (Adonia) arrives. Regardless of this obvious staging, the music, the beats were rhythmic and distinctly afro-cuban, and our guide – Hiroshy Salizar – pointed out a man who was blind off in the corner of the square who arrives daily, walking 2 kilometers each way, playing the conga for pesos. No subsidies. No state sponsorship. A hard life.
Hiroshy shared his dreams of making a living in the US — possibly following in his father’s footsteps, who lives in Miami and has been in the states for 10 years, or like his brother who has lived in Houston for two years. Yet, fearing the sharks and boat travels, Hiroshy’s options for arriving on US soil hold further complications. Making the travel to the US border via Mexico is not safe either. According to Hiroshy, in Mexico, many Cubans are killed, and their IDs are stolen. A Cuban ID is worth $5K on the Mexican streets, because if you are Cuban and arrive in the US, you may stay, but if you are Mexican and arrive in the US you must go.
We learned that Hiroshy is college educated, speaks 4 languages, is married and the father of a 2-year-old daughter. While he currently makes his living by providing tours to the touristas who arrive in Santiago de Cuba, he has a Plan B in case an exodus to the US doesn’t pan out. Santiago de Cuba is second to Havana in terms of tourists, so plan B involves making enough money – twenty thousand – so that he can buy a house in the city, where he can rent rooms out to the tourists. A bed n breakfast, without the breakfast.
Hiroshy took us to the Casa dela Trova, to become immersed in the history of unique Cuban music and beats, and by now we were thoroughly charmed by our guide, who paid special attention to our third mate – Ms. Pat, calling her “ma ma”. He offered his arm for her support, carried her bags, and completely doted on her to make sure she was comfortable. Hiroshy was simply endearing, and the longer we spent touring with him, we realized we would be paying him for the day plan.
We meandered the streets, bustling with Cuban people, the Museo Del Carnaval, bodegas and stores that sold birds and live fish. Hiroshy took us to a palador (private) restaurant called Restaurante Sabor Cubano , where we had lunch, sitting in the top floor — an open veranda — with only the breeze to keep you cool, and ordered fresh catch Grouper with rice. I was either very hungry or this was the most delicious fish I had ever tasted. After our bellies were full, we continued to meandered into markets, where we watched painters and artisians make wares to be purchased by the tourists. Some, absolutely beautiful vases were sold for 10 CUCs and we relented to doing the tourist thing – buying.
Eventually we returned to the general location of the Adonia – 5 hours after we had initially met Hiroshy, and with much sadness we parted ways with a man who had become more than just a tour guide. We paid him well for his time with us, and could see by his reaction to our parting of ways – many minutes of kissing and hugging – that none of us really wanted to say goodbye.
It was time to make one last pass through customs, board the ship, say goodbye to Cuba, and relive the memories of the good people we were so fortunate to meet. (MORE Photos)