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A Day of UNESCO Adventures in Cuba with Viking Cruises
At first glance, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with your time in Cuba. Sailing aboard Viking Cruises’ Viking Sun on Viking’s weeklong Cultural Cuba itinerary from Miami, guests have two-and-a-half full days to explore this fascinating island nation.
Unlike other cruise ships, Viking Sun doesn’t dock in Havana. Instead, it sits at anchor off Cienfuegos, Cuba – a pretty little town on the southern coast of the island. Viking has always been particularly adept at crafting unique itineraries, and what at first seems like a disadvantage is actually a massive win for the line on many fronts.
From Cienfuegos, Viking offers nine different shore excursion options – all of them complimentary. That’s right: once you’re in Cuba, the tours are free of charge – even the massive, 1.5-day Havana Sojourn that includes an overnight stay in the Cuban capital at a five-star hotel and a performance at the iconic Tropicana.
I chose to do the full-day Streets of Trinidad tour – and I was not disappointed in the least. Here’s what you need to know to get the best experience out of this fantastic excursion.
When you first arrive in Cienfuegos, make sure you get up early to watch the sail-in. Viking’s gorgeous ships provide plenty of open deck space, and the entry into Cienfuegos Bay is nothing short of breathtaking.
Viking Sun is about the largest vessel that could make it in to this port, and as such it has to negotiate an incredibly tight turn to starboard. It seemed touch-and-go four years ago when I sailed in aboard the much smaller Louis Cristal (now Celestyal Crystal), and aboard Viking Sun, this incredible turn – in which the bow swings clear while the stern is still very much attempting to negotiate the channel markers – is best experienced on the ship’s upper decks.
Logistics, The Viking Way
Here is where Viking’s decision to anchor off Cienfuegos pays off. On a cruise to Havana in August, I waited for hours for security clearance, customs checks, and money changers. My tour that should have left at eight in the morning left closer to ten, and returned after three in the afternoon instead of one.
Today in Cienfuegos, it took me 38 minutes from the time I stepped off the Viking Sun until I was on the coach and on the roll. Customs and security couldn’t have been nicer, and spoke perfect English – not always my experience at the Havana Cruise Terminal. Changing money was quick, but they really screwed me on the exchange rate – and I brought Canadian dollars, which should have a better rate than U.S. Dollars. Not so – but what can you do? This is Cuba.
From the Cambio exchange, a Viking representative checked my tickets and pointed me to one of a massive line of identical motorcoaches. All are labeled with a group sign (I was Viking Group 20), so take a photo of it with your iPhone if at all doubtful.
After a few minutes, we were on the way to Trinidad, introduced to Cuba by our friendly, humorous and funny guide, Jose.
From The Deck Chair’s Guide to Knowing Your Limits
Now we enter a touchy subject: mobility issues. This is a demanding tour, and Viking has labeled it as such in its print materials, tickets, and online booking forms. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a kind old lady, equipped with a walker, having to be assisted by three staff members down the steps and onto the ship’s tenders for the journey ashore.
This poor lady couldn’t walk down one single step, let alone negotiate uneven, rocky, and frankly treacherous cobblestones that we would encounter all day long. Even the sidewalks – when available – are uneven and narrow. In one case, the sidewalk just disappeared entirely, revealing a large empty hole occupied by a water main.
A full-day tour of Trinidad is not, under any circumstances, for those with mobility issues. If you have hip, knee, or joint issues, or you can’t walk over uneven surfaces unaided, please do not take this tour. Listen to Viking’s advice in the daily program, the shore excursion form, and online. Viking isn’t trying to punish you; it is trying to keep you safe and ensure an enjoyable experience for your fellow guests.
The Lovely Streets of Trinidad
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad has become one of my favorite places in Cuba, perhaps second only to Santiago de Cuba. Located about 70 minutes’ drive to the southeast of Cienfuegos, Trinidad is a place where the past truly comes alive.
To walk down its streets is to wind the clock back 150 years or more, in some sort of odd, Back To the Future-ian alternate reality. Seriously. If Doc and a DeLorean materialized, you probably wouldn’t even bat an eye.
Horse-drawn carts and buggies travel over cobblestone streets, and old men smoking gigantic Cohibas’ sit, dressed in their best, in the amber rays of the afternoon sun. With every puff of their cigar, their worldly cares seem to slip away. Time stands still. This same scene would have been as applicable in 1857 as it is today in 2017.
The women seem to be more modern. They wear modern leggings and tights, designer t-shirts with slogans emblazoned on them, and trod down the streets on platform shoes.
Then, another anachronism: an old 1957 Chevrolet might speed by, followed by a beat-to-hell Lada. The Chevrolet will always – always – be in excellent condition. The same can’t be said for the Lada. I haven’t seen a single one that isn’t substantially banged-up yet.
This will be followed by a gigantic truck from the 1940’s, carrying farm workers to and from somewhere.
Then, cue the horse-and-buggy thing again.
If the cars are a constant fascination in Trinidad, so too are the streets. Brightly-coloured buildings in various states of disrepair line the roads, punctuated by window displays filled with white linen dresses and Panama-style hats.
Music, too, is a huge part of the on-the-ground experience in Trinidad. But don’t expect to hear Guantanamera blaring from passing cars. Cuba’s most famous song wasn’t heard during my visit, but I did hear The Beatles sing Penny Lane as it blared from a 1950’s Chevrolet taxi parked to the side of the road.
Photography bugs, load your camera up with extra batteries and memory cards. The images here are just a few of the 332 I managed to rattle off on my visit today, and don’t include the few I took of the Escambray Mountains during our picturesque and scenic drive in.
So What’s the Transportation Like?
Since I’ve rattled off all manner of vehicles, you’ll be happy to know that Viking (and most Cuban cruise operators catering to North Americans) use new Yutong coaches imported from Asia. These were brand-brand new when I first came to Cuba in January of 2014, and they’re still nice and new today. In fact, the coaches in Cuba were in better shape than the one that took me from Miami International Airport to the Port of Miami to embark Viking Sun, so there you have it.
…this is one shore excursion you shouldn’t pass up. Most cruise lines that visit Cuba don’t even offer a trip to Trinidad as an option, and many that do charge greatly for the price of admission. Take advantage of this opportunity that Viking offers on its Cultural Cuba cruises, which will resume in November of 2018 with four special sailings from Miami aboard Viking Star.
Viking Cruises' Cuba
|Part 1||Why Viking Sun Embraces the Art of Hygge|
|Part 2||Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba|
|Part 3||A Day (Or More) In Havana|
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