Havana, Cuba with My Little Girl
When I found out my mom was going on a cruise to Cuba, I wanted to go, too. “Why,” the cruise director asked when we boarded the Majesty of the Seas headed for Havana. “Because I can.” I love travel and I especially love traveling to the “less traveled places.” (Which I am putting in quotes because Cuba has millions of vacationers every year… just not from America.) As all Americans are aware, up until very recently we simply weren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. That fact alone made we want to go. I was curious if I could experience something untouched by typical American travelers. A place where I stepped off the boat and didn’t see a Margaritaville or a Hard Rock hotel. What I found was what I wanted… a place still figuring itself out.
Cuba is undergoing a massive change and we saw evidence of that in our tour. Our guide was still telling us of the grandeur of Fidel Castro and how, amazingly, he personally coached the baseball team, how Hemingway’s wife donated their house and ALL of their belongings to the Cuban government and how Cuban’s are free to travel as they please… if only the other countries would let them have visa’s. At 30 yrs young our guide was sweet and charismatic, but seemingly living in a dream world. We were told that other guides were a little more honest and realistic about Cuba’s policies.
We started by going to Revolution Square a structure reminiscent of the Tower of Babylon. Our first view of it showed black birds circling around the top. We parked in a giant concrete parking lot across the street and walked around for 10-15 mins. Most people stayed close to the bus but our group of 4 walked closer to get a better look. A large statue of José Martí sits at the bottom. Being in the middle of a giant empty parking lot you could really feel Havana’s heat. Across the lot was the famous depiction of Che Guevara and to the side Camilo Cienfuegos.
Once back on the very nice bus (owned by the state) we headed to Fusterlandia. A community project started by José Fuster in the 1970’s. Upon returning from a successful art tour he decided to spruce up his own neighborhood, starting with his own art studio. His house is now covered in mosaics and has a childlike feel. Even the swimming pool has artwork at the bottom. The surrounding neighborhood has become a vibrant area attracting many tourists. Our stop there was brief, honestly too short. I wasn’t aware until afterwards that it is free to enter Fusterlandia. The surrounding houses have become little art studios and artists stand outside selling goods. We had no time to even check out these studios before having to return to the bus. Tip: if traveling here with small children they can not walk above the second level. I was allowed to go all the way up as long as I was wearing Isla.
Now, the part of the trip my mom was most excited about. Our visit to Finca La Vigía, or Hemingway’s house. Hemingway bought the house in 1940 after his current wife was tired of living in a hotel. He originally didn’t want to move to the suburbs, but, after renting for a year, purchased the home. He would go through several more wives, but keep the house until he “donated it” to the Cuban government upon his suicide. The donated part seems to be debated. I find it dubious that the Hemingway’s would have donated all of their personal belongs, leaving clothing and books, but when someone commits suicide I am sure things get confusing. Anyhow, the house is currently in excellent condition and further protected because tourists are not allowed to enter the home.
Feeling hungry I was glad lunch was next. We headed to old town. We were served a delicious meal of what I would call ropas viejas and a baked fish. We had plantain chips, crochets and pork rinds for an appetizer. Rice and beans accompanied the main dish. Everyone was given a mojito, non-alcoholic for those who wished. At one point we were joined by a band in the room and Isla and I danced around with each other. It was a memory I will always hold dear.
With our bellies full, shopping was next. We walked along some very clean streets (oddly clean in my opinion for city streets) to the cigar and rum store. It was a beautiful wood walled two story room when you entered. The goods were displayed on lit shelving with easy to read and clearly labeled price tags. You could pay with American money, but you paid a premium. We ended with a trip into the shopping market; row after row of basically the same goods. Everything priced in CUC’s and not exactly the deals I expected. After our shopping experience I do wish I would have exchanged money from American dollars to Cuban CUC’s but honestly I probably would have been left with extra CUC’s that I didn’t need. I go back and forth on what I will do next time I visit. You certainly paid the 13% (I believe it was that) exchange rate either way… you always paid a higher amount when using dollars to the CUC price and the people took the US dollar reluctantly. (If you happen to have Euro’s or Canadian money check the exchange rate for those before you go.)
Our time in Havana was a cultural explosion. Even though we were only there for such a short time Cuba is an experience like no other cruise port left in the Caribbean. It hasn’t fully “grown-up” to meet the standards and demands the cruise lines will inevitably cause to happen. I say with absolute certainty that if you can go to Cuba… go now!