Viva La Habana!

A Day in Havana with Carnival. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Thursday, August 17, 2017

You could feel it in the air: an electricity pulsating across the decks of Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise as she made her way into Havana, Cuba for just the third time in her 19 year career.

Rarely have I ever seen people line the decks at 6:30 in the morning. It takes a lot to drag the average cruiser out of bed. Havana did it. People posed for selfies, took photos, or just watched from the rails. Many hugged each other; a few broke down as we pivoted slowly in the narrow turning basin before docking alongside the Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal. Adjacent, two ruined and nearly identical piers hint at Havana’s prosperous past – and provide a tantalising “what-if” glimpse into the future.

Arriving into Havana’s Sierra Maestra cruise terminal aboard Carnival Paradise. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Sail-in to Havana is amazingly picturesque. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

While Sierra Maestra has been refitted fully, the abandoned adjacent piers hint at Havana’s glory days of ocean travel. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Even though we sailed in just after six in the morning, guests flocked to the open decks of Carnival Paradise… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…eager to get a glimpse of Cuba. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This is my second time sailing into this incredible city, past El Morro Fortress and the oceanfront Malecon promenade where shiny 1950’s American-built automobiles glide past, their headlights illuminating the darkened roads and shuttered buildings. Three years ago, the thought of Carnival sailing here seemed impossible. As of this June, it is a reality – and the FunShip line has just announced another five sailings for 2018.

Havana is on the precipice of modernization. The largest and capital city of Cuba, Havana – or La Habana – is home to over 2.1 million citizens. Almost a million international tourists visit here each year. The historic 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.

Carnival Paradise, docked in Havana. She is the first Carnival ship in the history of the line to call on a Cuban port. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Carnival offers a total of 13 different excursions in Havana, with morning and afternoon tours complying with the People-to-People guidelines set forth by the US Government as a condition of visiting Cuba. Two evening excursions are offered that do not comply, but that are well worth your time.

Today, I chose to participate in the morning Local Flavors & Traditions of Havana, and the Hemingway’s Hideouts and Cuban Culture tour in the afternoon. You’ll need to pack your patience in the morning, as guests must go through Customs and Immigration, as well as security, at the Cruise Terminal before disembarking. Then, you have to exchange your US Currency for Cuban Convertible Pesos – or CUC’s (pronounced, “kooks”) – at the exchange booths. Canadians, bring Canadian Dollars – you’ll get a better exchange rate.

Outside the cruise terminal, you enter into the heart of Old Havana. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

All of this takes time (Carnival estimates about 45 minutes from start to finish) and my tour departed over an hour late because of delays in the terminal. It also returned three hours late to the ship, causing me to miss my afternoon tour but still fulfill my P2P requirements of seven to eight hours ashore.

I wasn’t even upset that I missed my afternoon tour – my morning tour was, without exception, one of the best shore excursions I’ve ever taken. Carnival has knocked it out of the park with its Carnival Adventures excursions in Cuba, and I couldn’t be happier with the way today turned out.

Our Man in Havana

Our first stop on our Carnival Adventures tour of Havana: Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro whipped crowds of thousands into a frenzy of Cuban patriotism. This memorial honours the memory of influential Cuban, Jose Marti. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Once we got rolling, our personable Cuban guide began to tell us about Cuba: its rich and often complicated history; its beautiful sights; and its friendly, perennially-smiling inhabitants.

We stopped first at Plaza de la Revolucion, where monuments to Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and Jose Marti are located. This sprawling square is where Castro would hold his Communist Party rallies, sometimes orating for up to six hours in temperatures that soared above 36°C. From end to end, Cubans would crowd the square, hanging on ever word. Regardless of what you may think about Castro or Communism, there is no denying the man’s lasting impact on Cuba, or the reverence with which he is still spoken of here.

Buildings are adorned with images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos; both important figures in Cuban history. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Before you draw conclusions, consider this: those American cars you see driving around are doing so on old diesel engines imported from Eastern European cars. Roads are in excellent condition, and buildings and public spaces are impeccably clean. Cubans are nothing if not resourceful.

Having been to Cuba before, I thought this tour might cover familiar ground. I was wrong. With the exception of this one stop, the rest of my day would present a side of Havana to me that I never knew existed.

After a panoramic coach tour of the city, we arrived at a craft market not far from the Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal. Situated in the open-air courtyard of an old colonial building, we learned about Cuba’s three national sources of pride: coffee, cigars and rum. Our hosts showed us how to properly light (and smoke) a cigar; how to sip that perfect glass of Havana Club Rum; and how to properly enjoy Cuban coffee.

Our next stop allowed us to indulge in three very Cuban experiences. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

We were invited to taste some Havana Club rum; learn how to smoke a Cuban cigar; and appreciate thick, rich Cuban coffee. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This was something I never did on my last visit to Cuba, and one of this tour’s great advantages. After a demonstration on how to properly light a cigar, guests were invited to try it for themselves. Romeo y Julieta cigars were placed in front of our little group of 20, and we began to light them with long strips of paper placed over a wax candle flame.

Our host shows us how to properly handle… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…light… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and smoke a Cuban cigar. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Everyone in the group joined in! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I expected a tepid response. Instead, the whole group starts lighting up. An older group of women at the table next to me lean back and start puffing away like George Burns. One takes a swig of the Havana Club, double-fisting two traditional Cuban sources of pleasure. Our guide tells us how to properly smoke one (choose the right end, don’t inhale, blow the smoke out). Socially lubricated by the rum, everyone leans back in their chairs like they’ve just closed the biggest deal of their lives. One man kicks his feet up. Our Cuban hosts nod knowingly; theirs is not a wealthy life, but theirs is the good life.

Live music accompanies our uniquely cultural experience. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Meanwhile, Our Man In Havana (that’s me) slams back his black, sludgy coffee with reckless abandon after polishing off the Havana Club glass. For caffeine lovers, Cuban coffee is the ultimate indulgence, with a consistency somewhere between Greek and Turkish coffee. It’s black, slightly syrupy, and delightfully strong.

The tour could have ended here and I would have given it high marks. Despite the fact that we were running late, our guides never cut corners; never attempted to cheapen the experience. I loved that. They asked if we were enjoying the tour; all twenty of us cheered back in the affirmative.

On the road in Havana. What year is this? Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Much of Havana’s charm comes, ironically, from the embargo placed on Cuba by the United States. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Classic American cars – most of which have been kept in working order through the resourceful pillaging of parts from cheap Eastern European automobiles… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…still roll down the streets of Havana. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Lunch was on the menu next. We drove perhaps 25, maybe 30, minutes into suburban Havana, arriving at a local casa particular, or local house. Inside this impeccably-kept house, our lunch included a drink, a series of authentic Cuban appetizers to share, and a choice from among four main courses, with beef, chicken, seafood, or fish on offer.

All I can say is this: it was stunning. The service was so kind and generous, and the food was genuinely excellent. I was so busy eating I forgot to take photos. That’s what happens when I have really good food: I forget I’m here to write about all of this.

We headed into the suburbs of Havana… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…for a traditional lunch at a local “Casa Particular”, or Private Home. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

We left the casa particular and made our way down to a market near the pier for a shopping opportunity: cigars and rum. I don’t smoke, but I do enjoy a good glass of rum. I can get Havana Club in Canada, but not for this price: less than six CUC’s for a 750ml bottle of five-year old rum. Yes, please!

Despite being now over our scheduled return time to the ship, the tour continued – and I was absolutely okay with that. I’ll be honest: I get bored easily with tours. There are times I just want to go back to the ship, or wander around on my own, or leave the group. Not one of those thoughts crossed my mind on this tour; I was all-in, and so was the entire bus.

In the afternoon, we stopped for a visit to a local market… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…where I shopped for books and rum. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our last stop was Muraleando, or “Mural Land”, loosely translated. This local neighbourhood is about a 15-minute drive from the start of La Habana Veija. Fifteen yeas ago, it was on the brink of squalor. Now, it is one of the city’s most noteworthy neighbourhoods thanks to its unique revitalization project that earned it an award from the Cuban government and international recognition – which is why Carnival offers it on this tour.

Muraleando is located in an ageing water tank that dates back to 1911. Or, as our guide put it, “A year before Titanic,” which sank in April of 1912. Local artists have turned this nondescript space into a vibrant art and community centre, where artists and teachers volunteer their time (in the form of art, restoration, or educational classes for the community) in exchange for selling their music and artwork in the Muraleando’s gallery.

Arrival at Muraleando… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…where one of the community residents welcomes us… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and leads us on a guided tour. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This is truly one of the most moving spaces I’ve seen. Local children with Down’s Syndrome have painted works of art that can be purchased for less than you’d get a cup of coffee for at home. Members of the community have designed and created artwork that is truly beautiful and original. If this stuff was in a gallery in New York, you’d pay hundreds for it. The most expensive piece I saw was going for 40 CUC’s – about $40 US.

A local band also performed stirring and exciting Cuban music for us, sung with a passion that’s missing from most Caribbean islands. A little Cuban girl started to dance; soon members of our own group started dancing. The band kicked it up a notch; the dancing became more fervent. Hands clapped to the beat; smiles widened; camera shutters fired on burst mode, trying frantically to capture a moment that was already escaping.

Locals have turned an otherwise nondescript 1910-era water tank… Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…into a spectacular community centre, art project, and education space. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

All of a sudden, everything slowed down for me. I became vaguely aware that all of this was taking place in a local neighborhood in Havana, with true locals whose sole desire is to improve their community. It couldn’t be more different, more moving, from the rest of the Caribbean, overrun with businesses run by folks who don’t even live there full-time.

I teared up. Maybe it’s the heat, or the rum, or the warm afterglow of a good meal. I’m not sure. I do know this: in spite of all of its history, its landmarks and beauty, Cuba’s greatest asset – its most endearing quality, the thing that will move you to your core – is its people.

Music and Dance at Muraleando, Havana, Cuba. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report from onboard Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise in Cuba continues tomorrow as we depart Havana and set out for one last Fun Day at Sea. Follow along with our latest cruise adventures on Twitter: @deckchairblog.

Carnival Paradise - To Cuba from Tampa

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
Monday, August 14, 2017Tampa, FloridaEmbark4:00pm
Tuesday, August 15At Sea
Wednesday, August 16Key West, Florida8:00am5:00pm
Thursday, August 17Havana, Cuba8:00amOvernight
Friday, August 18Havana, Cuba / At Sea6:00am
Saturday, August 19Tampa, Florida8:00amDisembark
 

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