For more than fifty years, Havana (and the rest of Cuba) has been out of reach for American travelers. As a result, far too many Americans suffer a common delusion that Havana is a sparsely developed frontier town.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While much of Havana (particularly the Old City) is in dire need of restoration, it is, in fact, a sprawling city of two million people. Tourists from Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Europe — virtually every country except, until late 2016, the United States — wander the streets safely every day.
There are many four star hotels, including the modern Melia Habana and the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. (There are many other hotels, including some very large ones. Our guides did show us some that, apart from restaurants operating on the lower floor, appeared deserted.)
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in the 1930’s, harks back to Cuba’s glory days.
There are fancy government-owned restaurants (primarily for tourists) and small privately-owned eateries (serving tourists and locals alike). There are taxis (yellow cabs, but also refurbished classic American cars from the 1950’s) on every corner.
It’s hard to resist the charm of those classic cars from the 1940’s and 1950’s!
And, of course, there are all the usual treats (and tricks) associated with life in a busy tourist destination.
Direct, public flights from Miami to Havana won’t start until the end of 2016, so we arrived in Havana by way of a Fathom cruise liner, the Adonia.
Havana from the sea. Many Americans seemed surprised to see skyscrapers and modern developments!
From a distance, Havana looks surprisingly developed and modern, with sherbet-hued two- and three-story buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Spanish colonial architecture, the occasional art-deco edifice, and blocky, brutalist Soviet-era apartment buildings and monuments.
As the ship comes closer to shore, you get a closer look at the buildings along the coast. Roofs sag. The faded paint peels away from the crumbling concrete walls. Many buildings in the Old City are deserted: hollow husks with ornate (but weathered) facades. As evening falls, pervasive darkness envelopes ninety-five percent of the buildings we can see, revealing that much of Old Havana — like Detroit — remains uninhabited.
In the cruise terminal, a crew of dispassionate border control agents in wooden booths peeked at our passports, checked to see that we had the required visa, stamped it, and let us right in.
The cruise terminal looks like a more shopworn version of any other cruise terminal you’ve wandered through. Beyond the border control agent stations lies a long, broad stretch of hallway with high ceilings, punctuated with booths selling government sanctioned cigars, bottles of rum, and trinkets. At the end of the hall, you’ll find several booths for changing U.S. dollars into Cuba’s tourist currency: the CUC (pronounced “kook”).
After that, a long staircase leads down from the terminal entrance, and from there, to the mysteries of your first port in Cuba: Havana.
Welcome to Havana
The Fathom cruise ships dock right in the heart of the Old Town, putting you within easy walking distance of the squares that tourists are encouraged to see (Plaza San Francisco, Plaza de Armas, Parque Central, and the Plaza de Catedral) . You can go anywhere you like, of course; these squares, though, play host to most of the kinds of things most visitors are interested in: restaurants, galleries, cathedrals, etc.
The Adonia docks right in town, at the Terminal Sierra Maestra, on Plaza San Francisco (San Francisco Square).
(These squares represent only about ten percent of the Old City. Much of the rest, unfortunately, is currently an uninhabited ruin.)
We were the tenth set of visitors in history delivered to Havana by the Adonia. One woman on this voyage was on the Adonia’s first visit, and she tells us, “Havana is already changing. Since the first visit just four months ago, there are people on the streets and the four squares we visit have been dressed up for company and given fresh coats of paint.”
The rate of change, then, is mind-boggling. Just four months after the first cruise ship arrived, we’re already too late to see how Cuba looked before the coming of American tourists!
Fathom’s Walking Tour – Day 1
On Day 1, Fathom offers a walking tour (with lunch). The tour is included in the price of your cruise.
Our advice? Skip it.
In fact, as a general rule, if you are adventurous in the least, we advise you to skip all Fathom-provided tours. Based on our own experiences (and those of others on our cruise), we found these tours spent far too much time herding guests from A to B and far too little time (often fifteen minutes or less) exploring each stop.
On big group tours, it’s hard to get photos that show anything but tourists!
Worse, the quality of the tour experience can vary wildly, depending on the guide leading your group. On Day 1, we had a young man who knew facts, but lacked the ability to weave them into a meaningful story. He also — much to everyone’s despair — often headed off on his own, leaving the group behind, so we spent many precious minutes looking for our guide when we could have been seeing the sights.
What to Do in Havana
Instead of taking Fathom’s tour, we recommend you disembark the Adonia, avoid the costumed ladies who want to plant kisses on your cheek for tips, and walk the four squares on your own. You’ll get off the ship faster (without waiting for your group to be called) and be more mobile (and not encumbered by twenty other people).
The next time we come to Havana, we will absolutely book a private tour with any of several highly-rated tour guides reviewed on TripAdvisor.com. Frankly, this is your best bet for maximizing your limited time, getting into the best restaurants quickly and easily, and hearing the history of Havana from a skilled storyteller.
That said: especially if you’re more of an independent traveler, you should also consider wandering around at your leisure. It would be very hard to get lost in this part of the Old City (if if you lose your way, just head for the waterfront.) When you’re tired of walking (or too hot to walk any further), plant yourself at any of several beautiful cafes, order a four-foot tall pillar of iced beer or a cup of genuine Cuban coffee, and watch the world go by.
Too tired and hot to keep strolling? Plant yourself at any of several lively cafes and bars. (We should have!)
Classic Car Taxis
If cafe life and people watching don’t amuse you, there are many, many, many people eager to give you taxi rides around Old Havana. For these purposes, ignore the (lower priced, but functional) yellow cabs, and, instead, treat yourself to a tour of the city in any one of several hundred beautifully restored 1950’s-era automobiles.
Under the hood? Probably a Toyota engine.
These shiny relics from America’s golden age of autos have been lovingly restored — not authentically, but enthusiastically. You’ll see Cadillac hood ornaments on gleaming Buicks, and underneath the hoods, you’ll often find Toyota or even Russian-issue engines ingeniously retooled to fit inside an American shell.
Always, always negotiate prices before getting into the vehicle. You should expect to pay about 40 CUCs for a two-hour tour of the Old City and a few nearby neighborhoods.
Several friends from the ship said their drivers offered to take them to their homes and allow tourists to meet their families. Everyone who took their drivers up on these offers had a wonderful time, and there were no reports of anyone feeling unsafe, unhappy, or unsettled by the experience. In fact, the opposite is true: everyone we met who had this experience said it was one of the best travel experiences of their lives.
The Booksellers’ Market
Our favorite stop on Day 1 was the booksellers’ market in the shady, tree-lined Plaza de Armas. There we found Cuban young people hawking posters of Fidel, books about the Revolution, old Cuban coins, antique lighters, and more. This is prime real estate for rooting around, bargaining, and finding little treasures to take back home.
We loved the shady, cool, retro Booksellers’ Market.
Don’t miss the only street in Cuba paved with wooden cobblestones! Built to soften the sound of passing (horse-drawn) traffic in the 19th century, the wooden street runs down one side of the booksellers’ market.
Wooden cobblestones near the Booksellers’ Market.
Locals line the benches along this street (and within the park at the heart of the market), so this stop provides you with many opportunities to interact, chat with, and joke around with the locals (many of whom speak perfect English).
Virtually everyone we spoke to on the ship found the Day 1 lunch experience provided by the ship to be sub-par. Most were served unremarkable paella, dry chicken, and tasteless flan. Worse, because local restaurants aren’t really prepared to deal with the volume of traffic tour groups generate, the lunch stop consumed two hours (or more!) of the day.
By contrast, our meal at El Cafe Mercurio was actually quite good — and the only time we can ever recall being given the choice of “pork, chicken, or lobster.” Our lobster was actually tastier than the lobster served in the Adonia’s $30.00 per person upcharge restaurant!
When I’m asked, “Chicken, pork, or lobster?” what do you think I say?
But like everyone else on a Fathom excursion, we lost two and a half hours to this stop. (At least we were treated to a performance by a pretty good quartet of musicians.) The simple truth is this: service in Cuba moves at a different pace than service in America. The best way to deal with that difference, frankly, is to embrace it.
After a day of walking, we headed back to the ship to cool off, get a bite to eat, and take the ship’s excursion out to the Cabaret Tropicana (an expensive add-on option you should avoid).
Fathom Tours – Day 2
On Day 2, we had a better experience with a bus tour that began with a visit to the El Tanque community center, one of our favorite experiences of the entire trip.
The day also included a visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts (where some works on display, presented as originals, were actually just prints, according to a member of our group). The art that caught our eyes, though was the museum itself, graced with an elaborate skylight featuring a a stained-glass mural of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
At the National Museum of Fine Arts, the central staircase impressed us more than the collection!
Without a doubt, you should also make your way to the cafeteria on the third floor. Instead of your run of the mill cafe, you’ll find an exquisite space, lavishly decorated with custom azulejos (ceramic tiles), serving amazing Cuban coffee. The full bar also decants chilly draft beer, killer mojitos, and more.
Back out in the heat, we staggered around in Parque Central. In the time allotted to us, we could see (but not enter) the Opera House and see (but not enter) the capitol building. (That said, I’m not sure anyone gets into the capitol building. In fact, we aren’t convinced it’s even in use.) We did snag some great photos here, though — as you can in most any square in Havana, thanks to the presence of all the classic cars and colorful characters.
On Day 2, our group took lunch is at a government-owned restaurant constructed exclusively for tourists. The fare was forgettable (chicken with rice, beans, and vegetables — or fish, if you asked for it), but, once again, the little quartet of musicians provided us with good music.
What better way to follow up a two-hour lunch … than a long, quiet walk in a massive graveyard?
The Colon Cemetary covers 145 acres and is a true “City of the Dead,” housing more than 2.5 million people (or former people, I suppose). In the phone above, Clyde is taking part in a ritual that locals take very seriously: approaching the grave of Amelia, referred to as “La Milagrosa.”
The story goes like this: Amelia died in childbirth; her child died soon after. Her loving husband would come to the grave, knock three times as a sign of affection, then back away reverently, never taking his eyes off Amelia’s statue. At one point, when Amelia’s tomb was opened, locals claim the deceased infant was found in Amelia’s arms and that neither body had decayed.
Today, people approach the tomb, knock three times, make a wish, and retreat in the same way Amelia’s husband did: backing away without averting one’s eyes. We found out about the ritual precisely because, on the day we were there, a young mother approached the grave, knocked, and retreated … and we wanted to know why. After asking permission, we gave it a try. (I can’t share my wish, but you can ask me about it in 30 years or so.)
After our trip to the graveyard, we opted to skip the remainder of our Day 2 tour (an opportunity to shop at a touristy market), choosing instead to head back to the ship a little early.
We’ve cruised often, so you’d think the charm of a sail-away might be lost on us. Not so! In fact, given how many local people crowded the sea wall to bid us farewell, I have to say our departure from Havana was one of the most touching we’ve ever experienced.
As we departed, the sun set, shadows grew longer, the skies shifted from gold to rose to purple, and the (very few) lights of Havana flickered to life. The drivers of classic cars parked along the seaside, honking their horns and flashing their lights. And even when we were far out to sea, we could still hear very faintly the rhythm of drumming and the sound of brass instruments: the music of Havana, following us out into the night.