Holguin, Biran and Cigars

Stepping back in time on our way to Holguin, Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 15, 2014

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal anchored this morning off the small port city of Antilla in Bahia de Nipe. It was the site of the Battle of Nipe Bay which occurred on July 21, 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War, but today is a relatively sleepy little village that consists of a few buildings and the remnants of a crumbling pier.

Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal at anchor off Antilla, Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Because of the lack of a suitable pier apron, Louis Cristal ran stern lines to the concrete pilings of the century-old pier to hold her in place and guests went ashore aboard the ship’s motorized tenders. But here, signs of improvement are underway: the town has paved brand-new roads leading onto the pier just for Cuba Cruise, replacing the dirt roads that existed here just a few weeks ago.

One of the Cuba Cruise motorcoaches departs Antilla, bound for Holguin. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Antilla is the gateway to the Cuban city of Holguin, a rather industrial city of 1.5 million. It’s also noteworthy for being close to the small commune of Biran – the childhood home of Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul.

Four different excursions are offered in Holguin:

  • Paradise Island  ($149 Adult / $136 Children) – a catamaran sail to Paradise Island with a buffet lunch on the beach and snorkeling excursions.
  • Biran & Holguin ($88 Adult / $78 Children) – a full-day tour of both Biran and Holguin, including a visit to a local cigar factory to see how Cuban cigars are made.
  • Dolphins & Beach Time at Guardalavaca ($160 Adult / $150 Children) – A beach break in Guardalavaca and a visit to the Dolphinarium situated in the ocean.
  • Cuba Life ($92.00 Adult / $84 Children) – a visit to Cayo Barjay where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba, followed by a visit to a local farm to see his avocado and yucca plantation. The excursion concludes with a trip to the El Chorro de Maita archeological site.

To make the most of my time, I chose the eight-hour Biran & Holguin tour that included lunch in the cost of the tour, along with – as I have come to learn in Cuba – ample cerveza.

Since we had ample time on our hour-long drive to Biran, lunch orders were taken in advance to ensure meals were ready for us later on in the day. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Departing for the excursion was comfortable and easy. Guests met in the Metropolitan Lounge at 8:45am, where they were informed of the bus arrangements, as all excursions left at the same time. Because of the popularity of the tours, dedicated busses were offered on my tour for French and English-speaking guests, which is a great little touch. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one other line (Norway’s Hurtigruten) do something similar so consistently.

Taking in the Cuban countryside. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Once we’d tendered ashore, it was off to board the coach for our outing. But a word to the wise: unlike the other ports visited on the trip, there’s no little currency exchange booth at the pier here, meaning our coach had to make a 30-minute stop at the smallest Western Union branch I’ve ever seen in my life. Had I known I’d spend fifteen minutes standing in line listening to the circular fan on the ceiling go whump-whump-whump while sweating profusely, I would have changed more money in Havana. If you’re embarking in Havana, take the opportunity to change some money beforehand. The ship can’t change money for you, and currencies other than the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) aren’t accepted for purchases.

But our local guide graciously allowed the stop so that the ten or so of us who were unprepared – myself included – could make the most of our day.

Biran, the childhood home of the Castro family. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

You’ll need those CUC’s, too. A number of historic sites and monuments charge a fee to take photographs, and Biran was no exception. You’ll need $10 CUC’s on hand, though it seemed like you could negotiate the fee downward to $5 CUC per person if you were a couple.

The graves of Fidel Castro’s parents, Angel and Maria, are located in Biran. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Biran is quite modestly sized for the ancestral home of the Castro family. Constructed by Angel Castro, Biran has been open to the public since 2002. The family’s ancestral home is here, along with a wooden schoolhouse where Fidel and Raul were educated.

The schoolhouse built by hand by Fidel Castro’s father, Angel, where he and his brother Raul were educated in their youth. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If you wonder why the family needed all that space, the fact that Fidel and Raul were just two of twelve children fathered by Angel Castro might shed some light on that. Add in Angel and his wife Maria – not to mention the approximately 300 workers in Angel’s employ – and you get an idea of how bustling Biran was.

Other buildings have since been located on the compound to create a sort of romanticised village, but there’s no denying that Biran is quite fascinating, if a little eclectic. Memorabilia on-site includes Fidel’s childhood baseball glove (remember, Cubans are big on baseball), and the 1940’s-era family refrigerator.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

What’s most interesting about Biran, however, is that it’s not the rah-rah den of Communism and associated propaganda that you might expect. It’s pro-Castro, to be sure, but in a way that I didn’t find particularly offensive or alienating. It’s all fact, no emotion.

Biran celebrates the Castro family, but not in the over-the-top fashion you may expect. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The Castro family homestead. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Following our guided tour of Biran, we made the hour-long journey to Holguin, where we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Here, both the English and French groups from the Louis Cristal met up but were seated in separate sections of the restaurant, which made perfect sense from a conversational point of view.

Lunch! Very good overall, but maybe take a pass on the pork. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The food was generally very good, with choices offered including beef, pork, fish, and a vegetarian option. I had the pork, which was quite tough. Others raved about the beef and the fish, so I’d stick with one of those two options if you’re going to take the tour. Everything else was quite tasty.

After lunch, we had about an hour to wander Holguin’s town centre before making our way back to the Louis Cristal. The city isn’t as vibrant or as impressive as Cienfuegos or Havana, but there’s still plenty to discover here nonetheless.

We stumbled upon an impromptu school concert in the center of Holguin. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

One of our little pieces of happenstance luck included stumbling upon what looked like an elementary school concert in the small Parque las Flores square. Over a dozen schoolgirls dressed in matching uniforms were trotted up on stage, where they were meticulously arranged. A few girls were out of order and had to switch places. There was much jostling around and shifting until they all fell silent and began to sing. The preparations lasted longer than the song they sang, but it was neat to see, nonetheless.

After our stay in the town center, it was off to a Cuban cigar factory on the outskirts of town. We weren’t allowed to take photographs here, which struck me as sort of odd as there was nothing particularly spectacular about the single-story squat building we walked into. I can’t imagine rolling cigars is a huge trade secret, either, but this is Cuba, and I am a visitor in their country, so who am I to say?

Holguin is a more industrial city than those we have previously visited. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Coming into Holguin. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The first thing that hits you – like a brick – is the smell. A pungent, almost sickly-sweet aroma of tobacco leaves mixed with the dust and scraps that litter the floor. The working floor is a hub of activity, with roughly 50 rows of desks stretching from one end of the room to the other. There’s room for ten people on either side of the hallway that runs down the center of the massive building.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the cigar factory. Breathing in all that tobacco can’t be good for your lungs, but only three workers that I saw wore masks. Nearly everyone was in their late 20’s or early 30’s – roughly my age. The chairs and work tables looked older than the building itself, the scent of decades of tobacco leaves permeating through the porous wood the way oil might.

One of Holguin’s more restored classical structures. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders An outdoor market in Holguin. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Workers here can churn out 100 Cuban cigars each day, and some of the more experienced workers can push those numbers to 140 or 150 in a single shift. It’s a prodigious output when you consider how many workers were present at the factory.

It also looked like an oddly romantic workplace. Workers seemed to alternate man-woman-man-woman, and there was a bit of a budding romance going on in the corner of the third row as we walked in. A girl was having some difficulty rolling her cigars, so the guy sitting next to her reached over to give her a hand – like one of those scenes in bad romantic comedies where the guy tries to teach the girl to play golf or hockey or something like that. Lots of hand-holding, lots of close contact. It was quite sweet.

Rural villages and homes like this one litter the 90-minute drive from Antilla to Holguin. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

And yet, there was something Dickensian about the cigar factory. Something vaguely exploitative. I have no idea what a cigar-roller earns, but it can’t be much. On the same token, it’s a job, and probably one of the better ones in Cuba.

After that, we re-boarded the motorcoach one last time, bound for Antilla.

Sunset aboard the motorcoach as we race for Antilla. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

For me, the key to beating long motorcoach rides is to come prepared. I like to pack my iPod in my backpack (you’ll want one of those, too) so that I can have something to listen to when the guide isn’t speaking. It makes the trip more enjoyable and tends to pass the time more quickly. A few people brought books with them and E-Readers to while away the 1.5-hour journey back to the ship.

Tendering back to Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It was getting dark by the time we arrived at Antilla, where we were ushered onto the last tender of the evening back to the Louis Cristal. By the time I’d reached my stateroom, I could hear the tender being winched aboard, and we bade Antilla farewell with a blast from the ship’s whistles shortly after.

And so began yet another evening onboard the Louis Cristal, one filled with good food and great entertainment, followed by what is quickly becoming my trademark cognac on Deck 5 at the Caruso Cigar Bar all the way aft, within view of the ship’s wake.

It’s a great way to look forward to tomorrow’s adventures.

Enjoying another evening of entertainment in the Metropolitan Lounge. 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