From the moment Royal Caribbean announced that the cruise line would be adding the Caribbean island of Cuba to its itinerary, Randy wanted to go. So we are off on the Majesty of the seas with our friends Doug and Sue on a 5 Night Havana Overnight & Cozumel cruise.
I was not so keen to travel to Cuba, however Randy was. I asked him, “What is it that interests you about traveling to Cuba?”
“I have heard so much about the condition of Cuba and its people after the revolution, its socialist government and all the classic American cars from the 40s and 50s that I wanted to see it for myself”.
The ship was scheduled to dock at the Sierra Maestra Cruise Ship Terminal in downtown Havana. Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean and has a population of just over 11 million people. The city of Havana is Cuba’s largest city and its capital.
Our first afternoon Sue attended an enrichment talk by Janis Lidar called “Discover the Essence of today’s Cuba: Havana Restoration”. In her lecture, Ms. Lidar covered a great deal of Cuba’s architecture and mentioned that Old Town Havana had been named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
After a delightful dinner, we all attended the evening’s entertainment featuring the comedy of Lenny Marcus. What fun! I loved his sharp, New York humor so much so that Randy said that I even snorted a time or two. Oh my!
We were up early the next morning and down to the dining room for a delicious breakfast. We did not anticipate arriving in Havana until early afternoon. So we planned to attend another lecture by Ms. Lidar called, “Cuba Enrichment Lecture: Traditional Delights: Cuisine, Classic Cars, Music, Mojitos and More!
According to Ms. Lidar, there were over a quarter million Detroit made cars were imported to the island between the 40s and 50s. These cars have become classics and are passed down from one generation to another.
The information packed lecture was followed by a question and answer talk by the ship’s hotel director and activities manager covering such important information as going ashore, the immigration process, money exchange, etc.
We listened as we were told about the Cuban currency system. There are two: the Cuban Peso for the Cuban residents and the Cuban Convertible Peso for the tourists. I was amazed that the conversion rates depended on where you were from. Canadian dollars and Euros can be exchanged for a rate of 3%. American dollars can be exchanged for 13%. If Americans wish to exchange their CUCS back to American dollars before leaving the island, they are charged an additional 13%. Fortunately, we brought Euros with us.
One thing that was very confusing for me was what we could actually do during our visit. We had to sign a form stating that we were either on a Royal Caribbean sponsored tour or a Third-Party tour during our visit. It was never made clear if we could just get off the ship and tour on our own. Fortunately, we signed up for two ship sponsored tours for this visit.
I thought it was interesting that we were advised to bring toilet paper , soap and a small cloth along on our shore excursions. We were also advised that tourists were obliged to pay a fee for using the toilets. I did not find this odd as we did the same during our European visit some years before.
Before the talk was even over we were entering Havana Harbor. We quickly made our way up to the promenade deck to watch the ship come into port. Unfortunately, by the time we made it outside we had already passed the entrance to the harbor and the beautiful sight of the lighthouse and fort.
We remained on deck as the ship slowly pulled up to the dock. My eyes immediately were attracted to the beautiful cars. I saw 40s and 50s American cars driving along the shoreline on The Malecón (Avenida de Maceo). We also saw horse and buggies go by and these funny looking yellow vehicles called Cuba Coco Taxis. They looked very interesting indeed.
We decided not to go ashore until it was time for our evening excursion to the Café Taberna. Randy and I spent some time taking pictures on deck and then went on the hunt for Doug and Sue. They had mentioned that they were going to enter a bean bag toss competition. When we found them they were playing against each other. We joined in with Sue and Randy on one side and me and Doug on the other. It was fun and we were all rewarded with blue ribbons. Too funny!
Our tour started with a torrential downpour keeping us at the terminal for a while before we started our trek to the nightclub. One piece of advise that we received from Ms. Lidar was to do one of three things as we walked the cobble stone streets: walk, talk, or take pictures but never do all three. The walk was an easy one across the plaza and down a narrow alley. The club was nice with a beautiful bar along one wall, high ceilings, rows of tables and chairs leading to a dance floor and the stage.
We were each given a Mojito and a snack of olives, cheese and slices of meat. The music was wonderful and I really enjoyed watching as members of the band encouraged club goers to come up to dance. There were two professional dancers and, they too would walk among the tables and bring people up to teach them how to dance. But, oh my, I must admit that the music was so loud that we retreated back to the ship before the tour was over.
On our way down the alley we came across a metal sculpture of a monk. Intrigued, I looked into the open door and loved the interior of what I learned was a hotel. I walked in and came across the manager. I told him that I just loved the interior and could I please take a few pictures. He was so kind and said, “Yes”. We learned that the building had once been a convent and then a home for monks and is now a local hotel. When the manager learned that we had gotten off the ship so late he asked if we had had a chance to exchange our currency.
We said that we did not and he offered to exchange it for us. “What a kind thing to do,” I thought to myself. We knew that we had to meet our tour very early in the morning and wondered if we would have the opportunity to exchange. And, there is no credit cards used on the island so, we accepted his kind offer.
It had been a very busy, somewhat confusing and musical day but it was time to return to the ship and get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we are off on a day-long bus tour around Havana.