Our First Taste of Cuba in Cienfuegos

Our first full day aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal has us docked in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

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.

Our picturesque arrival into Cienfuegos aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal was unlike that found in most Caribbean ports of call. Our first full day aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal has us docked in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Looking astern from Deck 5, our wake reveals the circuitous passage the Louis Cristal has to traverse to dock in Cienfuegos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

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.

Walk forward along Deck 5 aboard the Louis Cristal (when open) for some fantastic views. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Deck 5 aboard Louis Cristal stretches from the ship’s stern to the very stem of her bow, pictured above. Some great views can be had here when this area is open.  Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

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!

Cuban Officials were kind and efficient. Here in Cienfuegos, we had to carry our passports and tourist visas along with a Transit pass. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

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.

The Jardin Botanical Gardens span nearly 100 acres, and were founded in 1901 by Edwin Atkins, who came to Cuba in search of sugar cane. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

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.

Flowers and plants of all kinds can be found at the Jardin Botanical Gardens, which also boasts one of the largest collections of palm trees. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Instead of being a small sanctuary, these gardens are spread out over 90 hectares of land and encompass over 2,000 species of plants from five separate continents. It’s sprawling and massive, and there are plants, trees and flowers here like you’ve never seen before.

We were all invited to pick an ‘Indian Apple’ straight off the tree they were going on. Bright yellow in colour, you peel the skin off of them in the same way you would an orange and eat the gooey center. But the taste is very sharp – almost lemony – and confounds the senses a little.

The gardens are so large, directional signage is needed. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

On our drive back into Cienfuegos, I admired the rolling hills and lush foliage of the Cuban countryside. Cuba is like no other Caribbean island I’ve ever been to. The landscape, the terrain, even the textures here – they’re all unparalleled. It reminded me more of Sicily and less of the Caribbean.

On our way to the Botanical Gardens, we drove down lonely, deserted highways, populated only with the odd classic car. It’s like stepping back in time. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Along the way, the coach passed the occasional car – maybe a 1940’s vintage American automobile, or a smaller, 1970’s European import. Seeing massive cars that I’ve only ever laid eyes on in films or museums actually driving down the highway – packed with five or six Cubans apiece – was a surreal sight.

When you didn’t see a car, you saw a horse pulling a carriage. When no horse and carriage was to be found, you’d just see someone strolling down the shoulder of the highway, cigar wedged firmly into the corner of their mouth, hat riding low on their face.

The grand Palacio de Valle, where we enjoyed an afternoon Cuba Libre on the rooftop patio. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Cuba is a living time-capsule if there ever was one, and it stirred up something deep inside me. It’s cinematic and oddly detached in a way. Even just being in Cuba has a surreal, dream-like quality to it. Can this be real? Am I really seeing horse-drawn carriages and cars from another century motoring along as if it’s 1934 again?

The Palace is a striking combination of Spanish-Moorish architecture, and construction took place between 1913 and 1917. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Back in Cienfuegos, my senses were once again confounded as we arrived at the jaw-dropping Palacio de Valle. Looking like the Moroccan adaptation of The Great Gatsby, this architectural jewel was constructed in 1913 and was the place to see and be seen in 1930’s Cienfuegos.

A wrought-iron staircase lead us to our rooftop patio at Palacio de Valle. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Everywhere you look, details pop out. There’s not a pillar, floor, railing or staircase that isn’t ornately sculpted, tiled, or engraved in some fashion.

Situated by the sea, the cool ocean breeze rolls through the main corridor of the Palace and hits you like the world’s greatest air conditioning. Temperatures hit 31C today, and the relief provided by standing in the central corridor was more than welcome.

On the rooftop, overlooking the sea in Cienfuegos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Up to the roof we went, ascending via a Tiffany-coloured wrought-iron spiral staircase for a refreshing rum-based drink on the rooftop patio overlooking the sea. Even trying to describe the beauty of this place, I come up short. It rivaled anything I have seen or experienced in some of my favorite Caribbean locales like Barbados and St. Lucia.

We then went for a walking tour of the historic old town centre of Cienfuegos – and disappeared.

Looking down the wide expanse of Paseo el Prado on our walking tour of Cienfuegos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I say, ‘disappeared’, because that’s how the locals treated us: as a local. As a friend. During our entire stroll down Paseo del Prado – the city’s pedestrian-only boulevard and UNESCO World Heritage site – not a single person hassled us. Compare that to the people selling all manner of tricks and games in most major tourist cities around the world, and you’ll see a startling difference here in Cuba.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I also noticed another thing: Cienfuegos is meticulously clean. You could eat right off the sidewalk. There’s not a single piece of discarded trash, stray cigarette butt, or rubbish to be found.

In contrast with Jamaica where I felt totally hounded, I found myself enormously comfortable today in Cienfuegos. Crime against tourists in Cuba is quite rare, thanks to stiff penalties enacted by the local authorities. Even while we strolled through the rectangular expanse of Marti Park, the local policia weren’t far away, ensuring a trouble-free path for us. But far from being obvious, they operated largely in the shadows.

Spanish colonial architecture is evident throughout Cienfuegos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

One of my favorite things to do in any new city is to sit down at a local watering hole and have a local drink, and I did just that with my hour of free time in Cienfuegos following our walking tour.

Along with a few other people, I stopped in at Bar Mason El Palatino for a cold cerveza, or beer. A can of emerald-green Cristal beer – brewed in Cuba – was quickly brought forth, for the very agreeable price of $1.40 CUC.

Now, here’s what I didn’t know during my enjoyable hour here sipping cold beer and enjoying the slow pace of Cuban life: I was actually sitting in the oldest building in all of Cienfuegos!

Cerveza – appropriately named, too! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

When the time came to board the coach back to the Louis Cristal, the sun was already turning the white-accented buildings of Cienfuegos crimson-red. The faintest of ocean breezes swirled through the square as our guide beamed with pride at her city and answered our questions in perfect English and even better historical knowledge.

The Thomas Terry Theatre was completed in 1888, with the first performance taking place in February of 1890. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

This tour wasn’t just good; it was great. My biggest complaint with mainstream shore excursions are walking tours that don’t actually cover any ground, opting instead to focus more time on the ‘port approved shopping’ stop. That doesn’t happen here. There are no awful stores hawking diamonds, rubies, emeralds and who-knows-what-else. There’s no Starbucks. There’s no Margaritaville.

The interior of the theatre is grand and ornate. Keep some CUC’s handy; you’ll have to pay a small charge to take photographs inside. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

That this all exists just 180 kilometres from the Florida coast is astonishing; Cuba is a world unto itself; one that increasingly reminds me of a sun-splashed Mediterranean island instead of the Caribbean locale it is.

Tonight just before 9pm, the Louis Cristal’s thrusters rumbled to life, pushing us away from the pier in Cienfuegos. We then navigated our way back down the channel and out into the open Caribbean Sea, where the swell caught us and began to gently sway the ship from port to starboard.

Returning to the Louis Cristal in the evening, in the glow of the setting afternoon sun. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, local entertainment was brought onboard in the form of Compania Flamenca Joel Zamora, a troupe of Flamenco artists that put on an incredible show that featured traditional Cuban songs and even a take on some of the hits from the Gipsy Kings. Lasting 45 minutes in duration, it more than held my attention for the entire performance and cemented my need to see the production show each night.

The lower level of the Metropolitan Lounge on Deck 8, the entertainment hub aboard the Louis Cristal. Additional seating is available one deck up on Deck 9. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But this was just one of three shows featured tonight in the Metropolitan Lounge on Deck 8. At 9:15pm, dancing with our shipboard Cuban-band “Havana Moon” was on-tap, followed by “Cristal’s Got Talent” – the always-enjoyable crew show featuring the talented staff here onboard the Louis Cristal.

As for myself, I whiled away my evening listening to the live music in the Rendezvous Lounge on Deck 8 until well past midnight, where I typed this report in between.

All of the daily activities are outlined in the Cuba Cruise Daily News. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Tomorrow, we hit the beach in Punta Frances on Cuba’s Isle of Youth. Think of it as a private island stop on a Caribbean cruise – just without the crowds, and with far more exclusivity.

“Your Cuba Cruise” may be a marketing phrase, but it’s not far off the mark!

Departing Cienfuegos, Cuba at night. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Circumnavigating Cuba with a Canadian Twist

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Thursday, January 8, 2014PreviewFlying to Jamaica.
Thursday, January 9, 2014Montego Bay, JamaicaArrival in Jamaica; overnight stay.
Friday, January 10Montego Bay, JamaicaEmbark5:30 PM
Saturday, January 11Cienfuegos / Trinidad, Cuba10:00 AM9:00 PM
Sunday, January 12Punta Frances / Isle of Youth, Cuba10:00 AM2:00 PM
Monday, January 13Havana, Cuba8:30 AM01:00 AM +1
Tuesday, January 14At Sea
Wednesday, January 15Holguin, Cuba7:30 AM6:30 PM
Thursday, January 16Santiago de Cuba, Cuba9:00 AM9:00 PM
Friday, January 17Montego Bay, Jamaica7:00 AMDisembark