Cuba is Cool; and Hot too
As our ship slowly navigated through the Havana Bay towards the port, the sun was just coming up from the Atlantic Ocean. It was the crack of dawn; puffy white clouds in the sky had a crimson tint on the edges from the rising sun. The gentle breeze was a bit soothing yet it was hot and humid. Many of us with cameras were on the upper deck to watch the ship's approach to the harbor. As the skyline became clearer, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of skyscrapers, and other buildings painted with bright colors: some old, historic, and yet others revealed neglect.
The waters in the inlet and the bay were calm, clear, and reflected the blue sky. Gentle waves with white peaks welcomed us along with a few people on the shore. We sailed past Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle), named after the three biblical Kings, overlooking the bay. Felt like it is still guarding the city against enemies.
The shoreline lit with early morning sunrays and the reflection in the blue waters of the bay looked picture perfect. I could see smokestacks of the refineries, and other industrial plants standing tall and protruding into the sky. This was not at all the scene I was expecting. Perhaps, I was a bit apprehensive, as I didn’t know the whole story of Cuba.
The woman next to me commented, “Hope it wouldn’t become another Miami in 10 years’ time.” Perhaps, her wish was to keep the land the way it is, somewhat ‘guarded’ and innocent in nature, without much commercialization. Due to the U.S embargo, Cuba is still not on many cruise ship itineraries. But, it’s all going to change in the near future.
After clearing immigration, customs, and exchanging money to convertible Cuban Pesos, we walked out onto the street from the terminal building. Tour guides escorted us to the San Francesco Square opposite the terminal. A few hawkers and street vendors followed us around selling cigars, peanuts, and other trinkets. There were a few panhandlers asking for handouts. Overall, they were docile: a Peso, a verbal no or a gesture kept them away. They didn’t look impoverished either.
Our young guide, English-speaking, eager and friendly, provided a brief historical background and certain statistics as we started our walking-tour of the old Havana. Cuba, located 90 miles south of Key West (Florida), is the largest island (about 800 miles long) in the Caribbean surrounded by Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. It has over 11 million people, and population growth is the lowest compared to other nations in the Western Hemisphere. Her culture is predominantly Latin American and the main language is Spanish. Like her famous rums and cigars, Cuba has oil, nickel, and cobalt. After Spanish occupation, Roman Catholicism emerged as the major religion in Cuba. As Cuba is a socialist country, the government runs majority of the businesses. However, that situation is changing and individuals are permitted to own certain types of businesses.
History of Cuba is riddled with colonization, dictatorship, rebellions, unrests, instability, wars, and socialistic movement. Originally, various indigenous tribes inhabited the land. Then came Christopher Columbus and his ships (La Pinta, La Niña and the Santa María), thus started the Spanish Colonization of Cuba. In the late 1800s, after the Spanish-American war and the Treaty of Paris, Cuba became an American protectorate. On May 20, 1902, Cuba gained independence from the U.S. The Cuban revolution started in 1956 under Fidel Castro, and his Communist Party came to power in 1959 and is the ruling force since then.
During the post-revolutionary period, Cuba lost about 10% of her population as they migrated to other countries especially to the U.S. A. Our young guide shared certain personal perspectives: with a few degrees on hand she had to work hard holding two jobs to make a living even though many benefits are provided by the government. Like many young Cuban couples, she too decided to postpone having children due to bad economic times. Her statement amplified the state of the economy and the country.
Havana is the largest city and capital of Cuba. According to PBS.org Havana was a "glittering and dynamic city” before the revolution. Old Havana, Habana Vieja, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. With over 900 historical buildings boasting a variety of architecture, from ornate neoclassical to art deco and other styles, represent the Spanish colonial era. There are cobblestone streets, sidewalks, pathways, and narrow alleyways bordered by huge century old buildings. There are buildings with vaulted ceilings, artwork, and sculptures. Some stained with mildew, rainwater and in disrepair, others brightly painted and looked amazingly beautiful. As we walked around in the hot and bright sun, we were surprized to see the regal and majestic buildings representing the colonial times contrasted by buildings that are neglected by post-revolution inaction. Havana is not only known for the 16th-century buildings, but also for the museums, art, music, dance, and the 1950s American made cars. There is an overall cleanliness everywhere, absence of garbage, and trash, and signs of renovations. I noticed an upbeatness in people’s outlook.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asís
This old town square was established in the 1500s and is right across from the port of Havana. The square is surrounded by 18th-century Basílica Menor y Convento de San Francisco de Asís (basilica and Franciscan convent) and its tower, the Lonja del Comercio (old stock exchange) building, and the Aduana (customs building). There in the Square, we found the Carrara marble sculptures of lions (Fuente de Los Leones) by Italian artist Giuseppe Gaggini.
Plaza Vieja square is located in the old part of Havana. It has buildings of many architecture styles, bars, restaurants, cafes, and a fountain in the middle of the square.
Prado Avenue: Paseo del Prado or Paseo de Martí
Like in Madrid, Spain, this is the central artery of the city, the Prado (also known as the Paseo de Martí), is a boulevard dividing the city between the old and the new. The renowned national ballet school, El Capitolio (similar to the Capitol in Washington D.C), theaters, museums, restaurants, etc. are located nearby. The building of this famous street started in 1772.
Square of Arms: Plaza de Armas is another one of Havana's oldest squares built in the early part of 1500. The architecture styles of the buildings vary from Greek to Italy with high columns, ornate facades, and related artifacts. City Museum and the old Post Office buildings are located here. There are fountains, old-fashioned street lamps, stone benches, and shrubs and plants enhance the beauty of the square.
Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral) is one of the oldest squares in Havana. Many 18th-century aristocratic and magnificent colonial mansions surround the square. The square gets its name from the Catedral de la Habana (Havana Cathedral) located on one side of the square that was built in the seventeenth century and has two unalike bell towers.
Christopher Columbus’s remains were kept here at the Cathedral from 1796 until it was moved to Spain in 1898. Cathedrals and Churches in Cuba have much historical importance. They represent not only the bygone era architecture (baroque to neoclassical) but also their influence in the lives of Cubans. There are other churches to explore in Havana, such as Iglesia de la Merced and Iglesia Parroquial del Espíritu Santo.
National monument: Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón
Havana’s Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón cemetery is a national monument. It is one of the largest and grandest cemeteries with more than 500 major mausoleums and family vaults. Many of the famous and not so famous people found a final resting place here.
Gleaming marble, and other natural stone mausoleums filled with religious iconography, statues, and sculptures provide a glimpse into Cuban history. It is a beautifully maintained national monument: not at all has that ‘strange’ feeling while observing and walking past the many tombs, or listening to the historical backgrounds. There is the tomb of General Máximo Gómez who was the Cuban independence leader. Not too far, I found the resting place of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, and the magnificent monument built to honor the memories of firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of 1890.Our guide lead us to Necropolis Colón's most visited and revered tomb of Señora Amelia Goyri: she is known as ‘the miraculous one.’ It tells us a story about a young mother and child, love, and dedication of a heartbroken husband mixed in with certain adoration turned cult.
Revolution Square: Plaza de la Revolucion
The Revolution Square has much historical significance as it is the place where many of the major political rallies, events, and celebrations happen. The Jose Marti (writer, poet, and Cuban freedom fighter) memorial is located in this square. Government buildings surround the Square. Two of the buildings adorn murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, a leading figure of the Cuban Revolution. In January 1998, Pope Jean Paul II conducted a mass at the square that was attended by over a million people.
Cuba's culture is predominantly a mixture of Spanish and African. Cuban culture is very evident especially in Havana: art, architecture, ballet, cabaret, history, songs, and dance, keep Havana alive and vibrant. Music is everywhere, on street corners, in the restaurants and bars, inside the city square. It looks like music is the link connecting the different genre of people. Genres vary from Steel bands, folk music, Afro-Cuban jazz, Spanish fusion, Son-Cubano adaptations, Bolero, Mambo, and Salsa.
Taller-Estudio José Fuster, known as the "Picasso of the Caribbean", is the Cuban artist who transformed a neighborhood with his colorful, and whimsical art. He turned his home and neighborhood, Fusterlandia, into a living, breathing, vibrant arts compendium.
We spend time walking around and observing the art and watching a performance by a local folk music/dance troupe. There are many museums, National Museum of Fine Arts, Earnest Hemmingway museum, National Museum of Fine Arts, José Martí Memorial Museum, Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Cigar, National Museum of Natural History, to name a few.
It is worth mentioning Cuba’s Escuela Nacional de Ballet and Gran Teatro de la Habana where Cuba’s best opera singers and ballerinas perform. Yet, another attraction we missed was the famed Tropicana Nightclub. Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San José is Havana’s arts, crafts, and everything in between ‘flea market'. Here free market entrepreneurialism is thriving in spite of socialistic controls. A visit to the market beside the wharf in the old part of the city is worthwhile to gather a few mementos. Soccer, boxing, bullfight, cockfight are still alive and thriving in Cuba. Baseball is the most popular Cuban sport.
Black beans, rice, pork, beef, fish, plantains, and fried yuca (cassava) with beer and Cuban-style tamales are the staples. Dishes are mainly bland, as Cubans do not use many spices. Cuban cuisine is a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cuisines with a lighter emphasis on spices.
We had our lunch at El Rum Rum restaurant, one of the few private restaurants. In Cuba, businesses are owned by the public sector, but there are definite changes happening and the control is being loosed to allow private entrepreneurialism to grow. The restaurant is located in an old colonial building with vaulted ceilings, and huge doors, windows, and Cuban paintings adorning the walls. It has a unique décor. I felt an old-world mysticism and appreciated the charming ambiance. The place was crowded with patrons. We enter through the huge bar into the rear seating areas. Lunch at Rum Rum, with a cold Buchanero beer, and a mojito was super cooling. There were lobster, shrimp, and meat dishes along with soups, and salads. For the hardy spice-lovers in our group, Cuban dishes were disappointingly bland. Black pepper and Tabasco sauce came to their rescue.
El Floridita restaurant is known as the Cradle of the Daiquiri (La Cuna del Daiquiri). Ernest Hemingway frequented this place while he lived in Cuba. People say that El Floridita is the birthplace the Daiquiri. The place was crowded, but we managed to get to the reserved room. There was a band playing Cuban folk music in the bar. There were more bar patrons than the lunch crowd. With lunch, we enjoyed their renowned Daiquiri. For a brief moment, I imagined myself seated next to Hemingway reflecting on certain scenes from his work, The Old Man and the Sea, over a few drinks, and a cigar!
Havana is the ‘house of old American cars'. There are plenty of them, the 1940s and 50s Chevrolets, Fords, Buicks, and Pontiacs, on the roads, or in parking lots ready to be photographed. Korean made luxury buses, seemingly ‘precarious' commuter buses, muscle-car taxis, tuks-tuks, auto rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages, motorcycles with sidecars are prevalent on the roads.
As we saw many big, small, majestic, and historical buildings with gates, grills and grates, one curious traveler asked the guide about the crime situation in the island. Cuba is much safer than most of the Caribbean islands, but there are petty crimes just like in any other country.
The new part of Havana has broad tree-lined boulevards, and vistas, newer/renovated buildings, offices, hotels, and museums. There are pedestrian only streets with small boutiques and shops selling trinkets to t-shirts, and arts and crafts catering to the tourist crowd.
From Havana, we set sail for Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of Cuba on the Caribbean Sea. It is located about 250 km from Havana and it is known as the "Pearl of the South". It has a unique culture, as it was once a French region. The beautiful square (Plaza Jose Marti) is surrounded by buildings of varied architectural styles (a combination of Spanish, French, Italy, with ornate and intricate works), statues, and theaters, park benches, and trees to entice and entertain visitors.
The Blue Palace (El Palacio Azul), Benny Moré Arts Cultural Center, and the Thomas Terry Theater are also located here. Benny Moré who contributed to Cuban music and culture was from Cienfuegos.
We attended an impromptu concert in the magnificent Thomas Terry Theater. It is modeled after the Italian Coliseum where audience seating is on four levels. Our visit to the elegant Hotel Jagua and the Palacio del Valle was enjoyable.
Santiago de Cuba
After a day’s sightseeing in Cienfuegos, we moved on to Santiago de Cuba. Obviously, it is the most picturesque cities in Cuba. It was the original Spanish Capital before Havana took over that title. Like in Havana, the inlet of the bay from the Caribbean Sea is watched over by the San Pedro de la Roca (El Morro) castle, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Afro-Cuban cultural influences are predominant here due to the Spanish, and French speaking Haitian population.
The Spanish founded the city in early 1500. It has 16th century Parque Céspedes square with many colonial style buildings, Santa Ifigenia Basilica Metropolitana, museums, shops, and the Hotel Casa Grande bordering the square. The Square is an active hub of activities. There are trees, and plants, and benches to sit and relax and watch the world go by. It was a pleasure to see colourfully costumed people, dancing to the rhythm of Cuban folk/Son/Salsa music.
Our lunch was at a small mom and pop private restaurant: usual Cuban fare with various meats, rice, beans, and a salad. It was nothing spectacular, or outstanding. The place was neat and clean with friendly owners and waitstaff.
Like Havana's Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, Cemetery of Santa Iphigenia of Santiago de Cuba is a national monument. Our visit to the cemetery was educational. The cemetery holds the remains of José Martí, Cuba's national hero and others like Emilio Bacardí y Moreau (Bacardi rum fame). A guard of honor at the Martí’s mausoleum is changed in a ceremony every 30 minutes.
Even though it was a 7-day tour, it felt like a whirlwind. It was fun, educational, and eye opening in many ways. My initial apprehension gave way to curiosity and wonderment. A delightful mindset dawned on me as I slowly realized the intricate history of Cuba, her humble and hospitable people, and their culture. Cuba has a rich history that is steeped in colonization, wars, turmoil, freedom fights, and socialistic movement. Through it all, her people survived the ebbs and flows of resentments, reprisals, and reforms. Just for a moment forget about the Cuban rums, vintage cars, colonial architecture, and the cigars, simply look around and enjoy her art, music, theater, museums, World Heritage sites, and the bountiful nature: her flora and fauna, and the white sandy beaches. Cuba has certain unique charm and a distinct character, unlike other Caribbean Islands.