Our First Taste of Cuba in Cienfuegos
by Aaron Saunders
January 11, 2014
A little after 10am this morning, Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal arrived in Cienfuegos – but unlike most Caribbean destinations where you simply arrive at a barren pier situated on the edge of the island, our sail-in was a spectacular display of nature and inland navigation. For nearly 40 minutes, we navigated the narrow harbour channel, littered with red and green markers that determined the next swing of the helm.
At its narrowest point, the shoreline couldn’t have been more than 100 feet away, and it’s doubtful whether a longer vessel could have made the maneuvers the Louis Cristal deftly performed this morning.
Of course, there are plenty of outdoor vantage points to take in this scenic sail-in. I particularly enjoyed watching from the forward end of Deck 5, which allows guests to proceed directly to the ship’s bow – a real rarity among ships these days. It’s not always open, but when it is, the views from here are tremendous.
Once alongside, going ashore couldn’t have been easier. Guests embarking in Montego Bay are required to purchase a Cuban Visa for a charge of $30 Canadian, and a Customs form has to be completed. But unlike destinations that haul you up at six in the morning for a customs inspection, the Cubans are rather practical: they don’t want to see you at immigration until you have disembarked the ship and are on your way ashore.
Once at Cuban immigration, you have to present your passport, entry visa, and customs form to officials, who quickly heralded us through. A brief security scan of our backpacks later and we were officially in Cuba!
Just around the corner was a little white hut where we were able to change our currency into Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUC. These are the ‘tourist dollars’ in use in Cuba, and can only be acquired in the country. It is also forbidden to leave Cuba in possession of CUC’s. I handed over some Canadian bills, and in no time at all, I had my very own collection of CUC bills and coins.
Here’s what interested me: security and immigration officials were nothing but respectful, polite and courteous. To be sure, these people are doing their job – an important one at that – but I’d go through Cuban immigration over the oft-dismissive security at the airport any day. It was simply a very pleasant experience.
This afternoon, I also took my very first Cuba Cruise shore excursion: Cienfuegos City Tour & Jardin Botanico.
Running approximately four hours in length, our comprehensive tour began with a short, 30-minute drive to the Jardin Botanical Gardens, which were founded by Edward Atkins in 1901. It boasts one of the largest collections of palm trees in the world, and it is truly nothing like I had expected.