Havana, Cuba in 2 days
Aaah, Cuba – the actual goal of our 7 day cruise. Actually, we were meant to visit 2 places in Cuba. Being Santiago de Cuba as a first stop and then Havana (Habana in Spanish) as a second port of call. We had planned a private tour with a local organization for the stop in Santiago de Cuba and actually were only alerted of the rescheduled itinerary by them a few days before departure. No word from Royal Caribbean, which is weird to say the least. We were also pretty disappointed, as the two different places to discover in Cuba were the main reason for choosing this cruise. But anyway, it’s what it is and we made the best of it.
Shago Tours, the organization with whom we had booked our trip in Santiago did everything they could to offer us a similar experience in Havana. They were actually very flexible and super friendly to give us the experience we were looking for. Originally they had proposed a visit to a cigar factory – typical for Cuba, of course – which doesn’t really appeals to us. So we asked for an alternative, which we got very easily. More about what we did with them below.
First a few words about the entry to Cuba. We had heard about the severe and complex procedure for days by then, so were really expecting tight controls. Not really… I mean, you have to fill out a visa (nearly every country in the world except for 18 (of which I couldn’t find the list anywhere) have to do this) which costs you 75 US dollars per person. Nothing unexpected to put on there – Name, birth date, nationality and passport number. And, oh yeah, you have to do this twice as the visa has a left and a right part which asks for exactly the same information. But that’s it. When we entered the first morning, we handed over this visa, together with our passport, then needed to take a picture on which you can’t laugh, pass through security controls (as you do at the airport), and that’s it… Quick and easy. It took us a whole lot longer to get of the ship in the first place. As we hadn’t booked a shore excursion with Royal Caribbean, we had to wait until the end before we could debark. We exited the customs building at around 10am.
Once you get out of the building, the typical Habana sounds immediately welcome you: cars honking and passing by. When you cross the street (the cars do stop for you to get over safely), there’s a bunch of guides waiting for you and the other tourists holding signs with your name on it. That’s how we found Livand. We were ready to go.
We started with a walking tour showing us all the historical plazas, monuments and buildings in Old as well as Modern Habana. Both were separated with a wall, of which you still see some remains. By 12pm we had finished this first part and went for Lunch in “La Piña Plata”, next to “La Florita”, which is the famous pub where Ernest Hemingway liked to come and enjoy the best Daiquiri in the world.
Afterwards we walked a little further and were picked up by a classic pink Chevy convertible. We deliberately chose that before – for sure it needed to be a pink one. The driver was totally in tune with the car. We took place at the backseat and enjoyed the right while soaking up the views. We made a stop close to the Plaza de la Revolucion, the Bosque de La Habana and before the hotel that was run by the mob and more in particular Al Capone back in the days.
They dropped us off at the flee market not too far from the cruise terminal at around 3pm. Perfect timing to get cooled off in the pool.
After some relaxing and finishing our novels by the pool, getting a shower and dinner, we headed back to check out the night (or evening) vibe in Habana. Getting through customs was nearly a joke this time. We just went through, without anyone checking our ID’s. On the contrary, they were getting annoyed because of the fact that we were hesitating to just pass the security booths. Strange…
We wandered the more tourist venues. Although it was said that it’s perfectly safe, still I don’t think it’s too smart to seek the narrow dark abundant places. As in every big city, bad things can happen. So we played it safe. I guess it was still early, as there was little going on. In a restaurant or two / three a band was playing typical salsa music, but no big crowds. So we enjoyed getting some pictures instead. We then walked back to the ship to hear and see – at 9pm – the canon firing at the other side of the water. Apparently this is still something they do every day. We heard it alright, but didn’t see anything, so that was a bit disappointing.
The next day we decided to hike to the Bosque de La Habana and back, which was pretty intensive: about 24km, taking us about 5 hours. We started a lot earlier, to beat the hottest part of the day – we left at about 8am. We made a stop at the Plaza de la Revolucion to get into the tower up onto the Mirador which overlooks the entire city. This costs you 4 CUK per person. On our way back we spent our last 6 CUK at a classic Daiquiri in the Florita. Our feet were happy to have arrived at the ship at around 1pm. And that was it for Habana…
What did we enjoy the most?
· The classic cars, for sure! There’s still a lot of them, although most of them (or at least the prettier ones) are for the tourists. Next to the classic Chevys there’s the tiny Ladas and then newer cars having made their way in, after the embargo was abolished. This was the main reason we wanted to see Cuba and we were rewarded!
· The combination of old and new in the City. There’s a lot of renovations going on and they are being done pretty well. It’s ideal for pictures.
· Our talks with Livand, our friendly guide. We were really glad we choose a local private organization, as they are actually getting the money we pay for these excursions. For the ones that are organized by the cruise lines, the government is involved and the money goes to them – only an ridiculous small part goes to the people actually performing the service. It also allowed us to get a better insight in how the economy and politics in Cuba go. And Livand’s a funny guy
· We were also amazed by the progressiveness of the people. We had been told that the Cubans were so friendly and always wearing a smile. We can’t confirm that, to be honest. We have been to other places where this was a lot more obvious (Hawaii!). But it was striking to see how the girls and women were dressed – in comparison to them you could say we are pretty prude. We had thought religion would have been more dominant here, but apparently only about 30% of the residents are still religious (and next to Catholicism a lot of other religions are practiced) – that could explain it partly. And we’ve never seen more beautiful looking people together into one city as here, that’s for sure!
So, although we’re not fond of hectic vibrant cities, Habana is certainly worth a visit and two days should do it to see most of it.