Mojito Days, Havana Nights

Hola, Habana! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 13, 2014

Today has easily been the most spectacular part of this voyage so far aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal . We sailed into the port of Havana, Cuba on a hot, cloudless morning; the panoramic view of the city obscured only by a thin layer of mist. But it did not feel like we were sailing into any ordinary Caribbean port; it felt more like arriving into a spectacular city in Spain or Portugal.

The Havana skyline comes into view early this morning. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We made our way along the narrow channel to the inner harbour, where three massive piers jut out like fingers into the bay. Arrival here feels surprisingly like arriving at New York’s Manhattan Cruise Terminal, and Louis Cristal swung her stern around and slowly backed in to our berth as the sounds of early-morning traffic filled the air, along with the belching black smoke emitted from some of Havana’s older automobiles.

Sailing into La Habana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Backing into our berth at the Havana Cruise Terminal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The pier has been entirely renovated and refurbished – signs of a massive infrastructure upgrade that can be seen throughout Havana. “Island Time” may be alive and well here, but the Cuban people really know how to get things done. Ironically, the refurbished interior looks remarkably similar to the passenger terminal in Naples, Italy, where I was just two months ago.

Inside the newly-renovated Havana Cruise Terminal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Havana, or La Habana, is Cuba’s capital and largest city. Over 2.1 million citizens call Havana home, and nearly one million tourists from around the world visit the city annually. The city’s Old Town – or La Habana Veija – was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 in recognition of its stunning array of Spanish Colonial architecture.

I could go on about the rich history of Havana and rattle off names, places and dates, but let’s cut to the chase, shall we? A visit to Havana is a life-changing experience. In fact, chances are it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced – and everything – all at the same time. There’s European influence. Latin American influence. African influence. And yes, even American influence. It’s crumbling but sexy; modern but ancient. Welcoming and mysterious.

Our first stop of the day: Revolution Square. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

For me, Havana is high up on a very short list of places that have completely changed how I view the world. It’s a list that includes cities like Athens, Cape Town, Maputo, Siem Reap, and Venice.

To make the most of my time here, I booked two excursions: the four-hour Havana City Tour in the morning; and the four-hour Havana City & Walking Tour at Night.

At $45 Canadian dollars per person, the morning Havana City Tour is a great way to orient yourself with the fabulous and often-contrasting city of Havana.

A massive monument to Che Guevara adorns the Ministerio del Interior building. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We stopped first at Plaza de la Revolucion, or Revolution Square. The epicentre of Cuban government since the 1950’s, it is here that Fidel Castro gave some of his motivational harangues in this sprawling plaza book-ended by various government offices and a massive monument to Jose Marti.

Classic cars are a real draw in Revolution Square. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

A memorial to Che Guevara is affixed to the Ministry of Interior building on the north side of the square; a sight made all the more impressive when cars pass on the street below, revealing its true scale. There’s nothing impressive about the architecture here, but the square and the monument are notable for their historic and cultural importance. Reportedly, Raul Castro maintains an office here. During the May Day parades, the square is packed to a standing audience.

Being a major tourist attraction, there’s no shortage of classic American cars that roll up to the square – and they are an attraction in their own right.

The massive El Morro Castle complex in Havana is the largest fortress in the Americas. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Following that, we drove up to the Parq Historico Militar Morro-Cabana, a massive fortress complex located on the opposite side of the harbour. Made up of the El Morro Castle and San Carlos de la Cabana fortress, we had the chance to explore the grounds and do a little shopping for cigars and rums. I passed on the Cohibas, but did buy a bottle of extra aged Havana Club for the low, low price of about $7 for a litre.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Making a stop at the fortress to shop for Cuban rum and cigars. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Fancy a fine Cohiba? Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We’d be coming back to the fortress later in the evening to witness the firing of the 9pm cannon, letting us see this impressive complex – reportedly the largest in the Americas – two ways.

Back across the channel, we went on a walking tour of Habana Veija, or Old Havana. Naturally, this also included a stop at La Bodeguita del Medio, a small restaurant on Calle Emperado that is perhaps most notable for keeping Ernest Hemingway on the sauce with their superb mojitos. Today, not much has changed – the mojitos are fantastic and pleasantly less sweet that what you might be used to, and the great author’s spirit lives on here in pictures and quotes.

We stopped at La Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway liked to have his Mojitos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Mixing the famous Mojitos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Cheers! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our comprehensive walking tour oriented us with Havana’s historic old town district, from Parque Central with its Abraham Lincoln-esque statue of Jose Marti to the Spanish-themed splendour of what I think is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen: the 18th century Catedral de La Habana.

Along our walking tour, we stopped in front of this church – the Catedral de La Habana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

In front of the Capitolo – an Art Deco building constructed to very closely resemble the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., I also had my photograph taken by a man with a 114-year old camera for $1CUC. I still think it’s the best souvenir I’ve purchased so far.

For $1CUC, you can get your photograph taken with a camera built in 1900. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Around 1:30pm, our tour concluded with a short bus ride back to the Louis Cristal. But I was only onboard for barely an hour to have lunch; by 3pm, I was back walking the streets of Havana. Some photos from the morning and afternoon of exploration:

A book fair was taking place in Parque Central. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders One of Havana’s more vibrant, restored streets. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders …even the crumbling streets have a certain beauty to them. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The Cuba Cruise postcard shot. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Tributes to Ernest Hemingway are almost more numerous than those to Jose Marti or Fidel Castro in Havana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders I never tired of watching the classic cars roll along the streets of Havana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

During the afternoon, we wandered the streets of La Habana, not caring particularly about where we went. Left on this street; right on this street. Straight for a few blocks, then left again. Or maybe right. Just like in Venice, you can lose yourself completely in Havana without ever being truly lost. You merely go towards what interests you. Eventually, we ended our afternoon stroll with cerveza (refreshing!) at a restaurant patio in the 15th century Plaza Veija, followed by Cuban espresso (strong!).

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

At one point, a Cuban passed by our table with golden-coloured balls stacked on a tray. Locals were quickly gobbling these things – which resembled candied apples –up, so we purchased two for $1 CUC. It turns out they were balls of coconut glazed with candied sugar. Delicious, but very sweet towards the end.

The Havana Cruise Terminal illuminated at sunset. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Louis Cristal at sunset in Havana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

From Plaza Veija, the Louis Cristal was just a quick ten-minute stroll away. But there wasn’t time to linger; after a quick shower and a change of clothes, it was off to the Metropolitan Lounge on Deck 8 to disembark once again for our next adventure: our night tour of Havana.

The Louis Cristal prior to boarding the coach for our night walking tour of Havana. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Over the next four hours, we’d stroll nearly every street in Havana’s UNESCO-recognized Old Town, then head back to the amazing El Morro fortress complex to witness the firing of the nine o’clock cannon; a nightly tradition that draws hundreds of locals and tourists alike.

Havana’s Plaza Veija at night. Stunning! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We’d cap the evening off with a traditional Cuban dinner at La Bodeguita along with another one of Ernest Hemingway’s much-loved Mojitos – which I think they should just call ‘The Hemingway’ – all included in the price of the excursion. Meal choices for the evening were consisted of chicken, shredded beef, pork, or fish, accompanied with white rice, beans, and salad. My recommendation: get the beef. It’s what the locals were eating, and those who had ordered the chicken seemed to be disappointed. Remember: this is Cuban food. It’s simple and flavourful, but not haute cuisine.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

A side note to this excursion: it’s extremely active, with numerous sights and locations to visit. The fortress is quite dark – particularly from 8:30pm on when they kill the lights in advance of the cannon firing – and problems with some of Havana’s uneven cobblestone streets are magnified at night. I’d heartily recommend this excursion, but not for those guests with mobility issues or those who have difficulty walking over long distances or uneven surfaces.

Some photographs from this beautiful, memorable evening:

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders A beautiful mural lines one of the streets in Old Havana at night. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The great debate here on the ship, of course, is what would happen to Cuba – and Havana – should the United States embargo of Cuba ever be lifted. It’s a difficult question with no easy answers. On the one hand, trade and tourism would flourish. Cruise ships would call here as frequently as they call on other Caribbean ports.

The El Morro Castle complex at night, where we enjoyed the firing of the 9pm Cannon. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Since we had more than enough time before the cannon firing, we enjoyed some cold cerveza’s at this funky tavern tucked away at the end of the Castle’s upper level. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But on the other hand, opening up trade exposes Cuba to rampant commercialisation. Brand names would pop up everywhere. Starbucks cups would litter the ground, McDonalds would set up shop, and there’d probably be a Wal-Mart or two thrown in for good measure.

It is precisely the lack of this that gives Havana its charm. The food is local; the drinks are local. The Cuban people are friendly, outgoing and pleasant. They’re fiercely proud of their country – and spectacularly well-educated. Bookstores are everywhere, and both of our guides today switched between English, French and Spanish with ease.

Arriving back at La Bodeguita for dinner – and, let’s face it, another mojito. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Perhaps most importantly, Cubans are fiercely proud of their culture.

If you haven’t been to Havana, my advice is this: come now. Not in another year, or five, but right now. Cuban history has always been a fragile thing; nothing stays the same here for long. Perhaps that’s why the Cuban people are so adept at changing.

Traditional Cuban cuisine. My advice – the shredded beef is excellent. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Inside La Bodeguita del Medio, people have signed their names to nearly every surface. Bring a Sharpie! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

At just after one in the morning, we slipped our lines and started to pull away from our berth. I wasn’t alone. Right up until two in the morning – when I finally decided to call it a night – handful of passengers were still up, enjoying the Caruso Bar outdoors on the aft portion of Deck 5. I watched Havana disappear into the night, illuminated by the powerful glow from the full moon.

The gorgeous Catedral de La Habana, illuminated at night with digital projectors and piped-in choir music. Chilling. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Then there came a shout: someone had seen a shooting star off the port side of the ship. Heads whipped around gasps were let out from those who saw the spectacular celestial display. Beneath us, the screws of the Louis Cristal bit into the water and our wake hissed and foamed in the distance. Our glasses of cognac vibrated ever so slightly on the table.

Everyone fell silent for a few moments, content with our surroundings. Content with life.

An ending as unique as Havana itself.

Louis Cristal shines brightly in Havana 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