Rain Day in Santiago de Cuba

The El Morro Castle complex guards the entrance to Santiago de Cuba harbour. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

January 16, 2014

When I awoke just after six in the morning today aboard Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal , sun was peeking through the drapes of my Category XF stateroom on Deck 7. In fact, when I emerged out on deck via the doorway at the stern of the Deck 7 passenger corridor, the view from the aft end of the ship revealed a gorgeous morning.

The view from the bow, however, was very different.

The view at 7:45am aboard the Louis Cristal, looking aft. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders …and looking forward over the bow on our approach to Santiago de Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Once I’d ascended to Deck 10, I could see an immense wall of black clouds lying directly in our path. Avoiding the oncoming storm seemed unavoidable, and the few of us who were on the upper decks began to head inside as the wind picked up considerably and the Louis Cristal began to heel into the developing swells.

So began the first and only day of bad weather on our entire trip. When we sailed past the imposing El Morro Castle that guards the entrance to the harbour of Santiago de Cuba, it was cloaked in a thick veil of heavy rain, with large white swells pounding the breakwater at its base. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the El Morro Castle is one of six protected areas that guests aboard Cuba Cruise can visit on their trip, and I was fortunate to get an up-close look at the fortress later on in the day.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I was booked on the full-day Santiago Special tour today, and met up in the Metropolitan Lounge at 9:45am as scheduled, within sight of the rain that continued streaming down the windows like a waterfall. But then something interesting happened: the shore excursion manager took to the stage and apologized for the weather. She also stated that the tour would go ahead as planned, however, due to the inclement weather, those who no longer wished to participate could cancel and receive a full refund.

Disembarking Cuba Cruise’s Louis Cristal in a very wet Santiago de Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, I’ve seen refunds given if tours are cancelled, but I have never seen the option to cancel a tour and be refunded due to weather, nor have I seen the entire thing handled with the kind of courtesy that was afforded to all of us. No one had to make a snap decision, either: guests were given a full half-hour to notify the shore excursion team of their intentions, with new departure times schedule for 10:30am for those who wished to continue.

Being from Vancouver, a little rain doesn’t bother me – particularly when it is still 25 degrees Celsius outside – so I heartily continued with my plans to see all that Santiago de Cuba had to offer.

Our touring in Santiago de Cuba was somewhat stymied by the fact that the city had called a ‘Rain Day.’ As a result, many attractions and monuments were closed. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders A Soviet bomber used during the Cuban Missile Crisis sits outside the Bacardi Mansion. Bacardi was founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1862. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It turns out, however, that rain does bother the people of Santiago de Cuba. Our guide informed us that school classes had been cancelled for the day. Monuments, public facilities and some museums were also closed. Rain is fairly rare in this part of Cuba, so they treat it in the same fashion that we would treat our snow days. A few passengers grumbled about this, but what can you do? You’re in Cuba, and this is the way Cuba works.

Santiago de Cuba’s gorgeous Ifgenia Cemetary. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our tour took us to the absolutely beautiful Santa Ifgenia Cemetery, where Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti is buried. Born in Havana in 1853, Marti is an interesting figure in the rich history of Cuba. Rather than embracing the United States, he was one of the first to warn of the dangers the country represented to local Cuban business as the States became increasingly involved in the sugar trade in Cuba following the abolition of slavery.

The rain continued unabated for our visit – but those in our group didn’t care. Bring on the rain! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

He was also a famous author, journalist and orator in his own right; he is still seen to this day as a national hero and is spoken of with the same fondness normally reserved for that other benefactor of the Cuban people, Che Guevara. To see his tomb – presided over by two uniformed guards – was a wonderful experience, as was strolling through the rest of the elaborate, marble-clad cemetery that remains the final resting place for numerous intellectuals, thinkers and national heroes.

But something very interesting happened today. Our guide spoke with pride and passion about Jose Marti, the Revolution, and, yes, Fidel Castro. As he should. He is, after all, Cuban.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But one guest challenged our guide on the history of the revolution and the struggle that Jose Marti endured that would eventually pave the way for Cuban patriots like Castro and Guevara. He did this in front of the two guards overlooking Marti’s grave. It made our guide visibly uncomfortable, though he did his very best to answer in a most diplomatic fashion.

The two guards, however, had their eyes on our guide in the same way a vulture might cast a warning glance at its prey. They never said a word, but their message seemed to ring out loud and clear: chose your words carefully.

Climbing the steps to Antonio Maceo Revolution Square. The marble steps came from quarries located near Punta Frances, where we were earlier in the week. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I had read that it is unwise in Cuba to talk of politics – and particularly to criticise the government or anything to do with Fidel Castro. Such discussions simply do not occur here, though Cubans will speak frankly on everything from sex to the weather. But, I was also surprised the guest was challenging our guide. Our guide hadn’t said anything factually inaccurate, but instead spoke with passion about his country. It’s no different from how a guide in Washington D.C. might talk about the United States, or one in London might speak of past glories of the British Empire – despite the fact that neither country will be nominated for the sainthood at any time based on some of their past indiscretions.

The square and its associated monuments were inaugurated in 1991. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Personally, I wasn’t offended at all. I expect my guides to speak passionately about their country and their history, whatever it may be. I can chose to agree or disagree with it, but at the end of the day, I am a guest here – not the other way around.

In many respects, modern Cuban history is still in the same state of flux it always has been. But I have to admit that I am surprised such animosity still exists between the United States and Cuba. When I visited Vietnam last September, the Vietnamese were driving American-made cars in Ho Chi Minh City. Coca-Cola has taken over, and more than one McDonalds crowds street corners. But just a few decades ago, Vietnam was a sea of gunfire, napalm and prisoner-of-war camps as the Vietnamese and Americans battled for supremacy in the reion.

Cuba, on the other hand, is still sitting in the ‘naughty’ corner despite the fact Kennedy and Khrushchev avoided armed conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But on to the present: Santiago de Cuba is a real gem of a city; a diamond in the rough if there ever was one. Architecture is an interesting mix of grand old Colonial and European-style buildings, bordered by bland, post-war architecture and topped off with the odd modern building. But like the other cities we visited on this trip, restoration work is proceeding at a breakneck pace.

As far as I am concerned, it’s all the more reason to visit Cuba now; the Cuba that exists in two or even three years will be very different than today’s Cuba.

Seafood lunch at Cafe Matamoros in central Santiago de Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Because of the inclement weather, we enjoyed a fantastic seafood lunch indoors at Café Matamoros instead of outdoors on an island as scheduled. The lunch was the best so far, and included shrimp, fish, lobster and rice, along with salad and dessert. Coffee and a drink were also included in the price, and I took the opportunity to enjoy another Bucanero cerveza. Our group also decided some extra-aged Cuban rum was also appropriate given the damp weather, and several glasses were dutifully brought out, with each going for a very affordable $3 CUC.

The wet streets of Santiago de Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After lunch, we drove to the El Morro Fortress that we had sailed past in the morning. Dating back to the 16th Century, this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site was a real highlight of our full-day tour, even in the spitting rain that still held out during the afternoon. Bring some extra cash with you; the Fortress (like many other sites in Cuba) charges $5 CUC for a ticket to take photographs.

For me, it was $5 CUC well spent:

Approaching Santiago de Cuba’s El Morro Castle, also known by its more formal name, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Walking the drawbridge into the Castle. Have some CUC’s handy for the necessary photo permits. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Overlooking the Cuban coastline from one of the castle’s many turrets. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Looking back toward the castle from the same turret. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The views from the castle are unparalleled. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Watch that first step; it’s a doozy! Note the absence of guard rails on this bridge suspended above the ground. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We capped our evening off with a rooftop Cuba Libre (cola and Cuban rum) on the fifth floor of a local hotel, in full view of the Louis Cristal and the Santiago de Cuba harbour. The rain had finally stopped, and the faintest rays of the setting sun peeked through the mountains in the distance; mountains where Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries had met and planned to overthrow the Government.

We also enjoyed a special tasting of the Cuban rums produced in Santiago de Cuba, as well as the opportunity to buy more cigars. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Capping the evening off with a rooftop Cuba Libre! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The view from the 5th floor of the hotel we had our Cuba Libre’s at. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders Restoration work continues throughout Santiago de Cuba. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders The streets of Santiago de Cuba at night. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Back onboard the Louis Cristal, there was time for one more dinner, more drinks, more great conversation. And for the first time in years, I went to nearly every production show onboard, missing only one. Tonight’s was one of the best: a show-stopping local group from Santiago de Cuba who came onboard before we set sail.

But as my Cuba Cruise comes to a close, I have to say that this voyage in particular has shocked and surprised me. For eight months out of the year, Louis Cristal is a mainstream ship sailing the splendours of the Mediterranean. But for four months this year, she’s been transformed thanks to Cuba Cruise into a ship that’s comfortable and relaxed, yet enormously personalized. I’ve been blown away by the quality of the service and food here onboard. The mix of local Cubans onboard – both in the entertainment and food and beverage departments – is wholly unique within the industry. So too is the entertainment, which absolutely blows the doors off of the ho-hum shows you’re probably accustomed to seeing on cruise ships. Other cruise lines, take note: this is what good cruise entertainment should be.

Tonight, a local Cuban group came onboard to perform what I personally feel was the best show of the week. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I came onboard expecting a good but simple cruise that would allow me to see one of the most fascinating countries in the Caribbean. What I got was a fantastic, complex cruise that is performing far better than I would have expected – particularly considering it’s only been operating now for just over a month.

In a region of the world that’s overrun with cruises, Cuba remains the Caribbean’s undiscovered gem, and Cuba Cruise is pioneering the way here. The locals are happy to have the ship here. The crew are excited to be here. The guests have come from all over the world to circumnavigate Cuba.

There’s truly nothing else like this afloat.

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