A July 2001 trip
to Havana by El Gallo
Quote: The hot way to get to Havana--an ocean liner voyage from Cancun that costs LESS than airfare!
Except that what exactly The Boat is depends a lot on who you are and what you're all about. If you're a tourist on a Cancun beach, it appears as a pretty mini-ocean liner that mysteriously anchors off shore then disappears. If you're a Cancun tourist who is looking for a new pastime after doing the sunburning, ruin visiting, nightlifing, dolphin molesting, and eco-touring, it's the ultimate side-trip: a cruise to an exotic and slightly disreputable destination. If you're a traveler, it represents the best, most fun, and cheapest way to get to Cuba. If you're a businessman, or somebody's Man In Havana, you "take The Boat" as the ultimate alternative to a red-eye special. If you collect cruises, this has got to be the cheapest one in the world, and one of the most unique. If you just want to hole up for three days with an unlimited open bar and buffet, sundeck and TV movies, it'll be that for you, too. If you're a smuggler, it's a golden opportunity.
The Boat itself is neutral on the topic. It's of moderate size at 130 meters and 10.000 tons, and much more in the cozy old "ocean liner" mold than today's "floating office building" mode of Princess-class monstrosities. Compared to the glass box designs it looks smooth, sporty, and well...shipshape. It is given to round lines (even the disco and pool are round) and takes a pretty good stab at that feeling without going overboard on needless luxury. The interior has been described as a glorified ferryboat. Low ceilings look like aluminum siding and some of the larger salons resemble a VFW bingo hall in a double-wide mobile home. But there is nevertheless some class about the layout. There might be Formica and fairly cheesy carpeting, but there is also brass and polished hardwood. Electrical and plumbing fixtures are fist rate and in good repair. Cabins are cozy, and the beds are soft and comfy, with simple linens--a sort of Norwegian look. Sparkling white baths have little soaps and shampoo and cool little showers with lots of very hot water and nice thick fluffy towels. The cabins don't look like hotel rooms because nobody saw any reason to make them look that way. They look like cabins on a ship. They have portholes, marine plumbing, bunk beds, clever little drawers and closets and foldaways. Denial is pointless: you're on a ship, not the 34th floor of a Howard Johnson's. The point is this: you aren't on a cheap version of a cruise ship, you're on a very luxurious ferryboat...
Which is one way to look at The Boat--as one of the major portals into Cuba. Any given trip has a large contingent of "I'm a traveler not a tourist" types, business people, visiting families, This diversity of motives on The Boat create an interesting cross-section of passengers and make it a fun place to meet people. International roadwarriors with "hostel bum" written all over them loll in the unaccustomed luxury and get wide-eyed over the showers rub backpacks with junketeers from Cancun who are essentially treating their kids to a sort of floating Disneyland. Retirees discussing grander cruises of years past with jaded businessmen whiling away their nteenth crossing with unlimited drinks in the piano bar. Cuban-Mexican families look askance at the sprinkling of retro-commies hauling in medical goods for Solidarity, unaware of the bureaucratic nightmare they are about to step into. MTV Spring Breakers going over for a week or two, intent on music/dance, international politics, cheap sex, and punching an envied "I been there" ticket end up sharing dinner tables or jacuzzis with "their parents" who are chatting about cigars and deals on paintings for their rumpus rooms. At my table in the second meal seating: a ballerina from Philadelphia going over to learn Spanish, an Irish family just trying to do something totally-unIrish, a permanently traveling Argentine trio speaking every known language without accents, two busty American blondes who spent the whole trip on the sundeck in bikini bottoms and fragrant marinade and didn't really seem to have a very good grasp of where they were heading or why. In fact, they didn't even go ashore in Havana, just sunned themselves, nursed hangovers, and got completely drunk all over again. The motto of The Boat could well be "To Each His Own".
But even judged as a cruise, The Boat stands out as an amazing bargain. For under two hundred dollars (plus $45 port tax for those reconstructed communists) You get two days and two nights at sea, plus the port call in Havana. That includes all you can eat and drink, 24 hour closed-circuit movies in your cabin, pool and sundeck, jacuzzis, sauna, two Cuban floor shows, casino gambling, duty-free store, and a round of activities ranging from nitwit games to music lessons with the dancers and band. It wouldn't take much imagination to see the trip as a return to the glory days of liners from Miami to Old Havana. Take in the rumba show, then go play some roulette and picture the guy over at the blackjack table as Ernest Hemingway running guns to rebels for the Mob.
But whoever you are and whatever your reasons for boarding The Boat, there is a universal bottom line: you get a hell of a lot for your money. With Havana thrown in.
Probably the biggest memory will be of the first half hour, that being the period during which everybody is shuttled out to the waiting ship (Cancun waters are too shallow for big ships to put in) which is done in a pirate ship. And I don't mean some design knock-off, I mean a full-sized, fully functional, real-life pirate ship made of forbidding black iron plates, bristling with gun ports, hung with ratlines and Jolly Rogers, and with a figurehead of Captain Hook his own self. Kids love it, and express that love by swarming around like vermin, trampling decent folk and generally running amok from sheer novelty and untapped gene malfunctions.
Then, once aboard, every guest gets a picture taken standing behind a life ring between two beautiful chorus girls. Well, actually, I liked that part better than the kids did. When they arrive in their cabins they find that the TV gets only two channels, but both show nothing but movies with no commercials, and half of those movies are about dinosaurs, animated villains, Japanese mind rot and the sort of things kid love to stunt their minds with.
Then they surge out onto deck like a modern pestilence and find a whole new world to explore...a world largely composed of places to swim, free sodas, friendly people in white uniforms, and places where adults don't show up. Even the swimming pool has a surf. It's just too much, apparently.
Or they pillage around below decks, where there are gambling devices disguised as video games, stores full of candy and games, a ping-pong table where the ball (and players) lurch at odd angles, huge spiral stairways, bingo games and crafts in the salons, and even--on the last day of the cruise--a chance to visit the navigation bridge. Actually it's amazing the little buggers behave themselves at all.
Then there are meals, with unlimited seconds, including on DESSERTS, which can be snagged and bolted without Mom knowing about it, and more bottomless soda pops. After dinner there's a big show with dancers and noise. Which can be fun in itself, but also tends to anchor the adults, allowing kids the run of the amok. If I was a kid I'd stow away on this sucker and never go ashore, like Tim Roth in the that weird "1900" movie.
If you've noticed a theme about this story, it would probably be, "Not bad...and great for the money." Well, the same could be said about the food. Michelin wouldn't give it five stars, but you could do worse in a lot of decently expensive restaurants. I never heard the slightest complaint about the food. I personally thought it was good to great. I'm thinking specifically of a heart of palm/mushroom mix on the salad bar, absolutely excellent eclairs and pastries, fried bananas for breakfast, and some spiced sliced pork ala Cubana.
The chef is Mexican (which always works out well), with Cuban helpers. So they can do their regions, but have an international and eclectic taste, using what works best. For instance, they sensibly stick pretty close to American ideas of breakfast food: eggs (as you like them...as long as you like them scrambled), bacon, hotcakes, cereals...but throw in refried black beans, a lot of tropical fruit, and some flaky croissants.
Lunch and dinner both feature long salad bars (with an odd dressing selection restricted to Thousand Island and Mayo, but offering several bottles of balsamic or pear vinegar) and a selection of rolls and bread by their anonymous but gifted baker. Lunch always offers a choice between hot dishes and cold meats, cheeses and sandwiches. Dinner entrees range from Caribbean pork dishes to steaks, fried fish, damn tasty drumsticks...and some real dessert romps by those pastry guys. Kiwi tarts and mocha pies and such. And remember...it's "all you can eat". Not "all you should eat without making a total slobbering swine out of yourself", but "all you can eat". It's buffet-style service, grab a plate and load up. Other than the self-serve aspect, service is excellent, as it tends to be anywhere aboard. There don't seem to be many waiters for the number of diners (200 at each of the two sittings) but they provide excellent coverage. No glass stays empty long, no dirty dish lingers, no trip out to the bar takes long at all, no problem in replacing your dropped fork or cloth napkin. They cover the waterfront through sheer hustle and are full of good spirits, charm, and tips on places to visit in Havana. The waiter in my section had even prepared a xeroxed slip of recommendations. And did I mention you can eat all you can eat? Not to mention drink all you can drink. The short itinerary trip includes seven meals, plus snacks several times each day in the poolside bar and at midnight in the piano bar. Beats the hell out of airline chow.
It's also where you can lounge there slathered and steam-pressed by the too-high tropic sun, in the exact center of a perfect circle of that deep indigo you only see here in the Caribe. Why sweat "King" when you're the Center of the Universe? And now that wake is not just thumbing through dark pages, it's constantly weaving a long train of lace and trailing it in hypnotic patterns. You feel you could stare into it all day. Which you do, for fifteen minutes. Then you start looking around the topsides.
Which is pretty much one long strip of mindless pleasures. There are several levels of decks with lounges and plexiglas windshields, and two areas of shaded deck for those peoples of the world who regard sun-baking as nuts. One of the sheltered decks offers further nurture in the form of an open bar and occasional snack buffets. Food and shelter, clothing not a big issue. It's also down by the bar on the pool apron that the activities director stalks. Personally I find trivia contests through bullhorns, aerobics episodes, and salsa lessons right up there with lifeboat drills under live ammunition, but a lot of passengers not only refrained from keelhauling, but seemed to enjoy it all. Those who don't can escape the whole vibe (and pretty much the known universe) above and forward in the deck chair zone. Here behind the plexi shields, but with just enough slipstream to avoid being auto-sauteed, is the Void. The biggest excitement here is watching books and walkmans falling from numbed hands. It is a sort of adult area by default (and a few surreptitious defenestrations, I suspect) and from lounge to lounge the ambiance ranges from singles bar to nature worship to non-stick physical shells of zombies plugged into the mini-CD matrix.
The pool itself turns out to have hidden aptitude. At first glance, it seems like a relic brought up from the Lusitania--a small cistern of riveted boilerplate smaller than a backyard dip and surrounded by rims and troughs resembling girders around a pit designed to hold dangerous animals. Good for little more than sluicing off sweat, which could be done just as easily with the two showers on deck. And filled with salt water. Once underway, this weird little void reveals a few tricks. The ship's motion surges pool contents back and forth in unpredictable patterns. The troughs keep it from sloshing out on deck, while bathers bob, sway and generally waft around like olives in a drunk's martini. Of course it's a major hit with kids, but lots of adults find that lying on little foam floats and being safely wave-tossed up the walls of the pool is relaxing as well as enjoyable. If it's not relaxing enough, there are always the three jacuzzis with view at the aft end of the sun deck. They are shallow and square and the water is never extremely hot (you want hot, just tread your tootsies on the steel deck or stand in the sun for a hot minute) but are very congenial for logging around like captive crocs and chatting up other bubble-bathers. If straight-up sunlush and hot tubs don't get you hot and sweaty enough, there are also twin saunas and a shower located just steps from the jacuzzis.
The first night's show was a Cuban Rumba review: mambo, merinque, salsa, and a soupcon of caramba samba bamba. Don't get me started on the dancers. Again..."Cubana" says it all. Tall slim and just plain gorgeous, with wide-open smiles and latte complexions, these girls are all about movement and burlesque sex appeal. Tricked out in minuscule tops, electrifying bottoms, and towering headdresses that would give Chiquita Banana pause, the four girls created a standing wave of flurryblur, girlyswirl, and shimmysimmer. The troupe is led by "Angel", a short, muscular bundle of fluid kinetics wearing mostly big puffy mambo sleeves and a sheen of sweat on the chiseled anthracite of his chest. His fevered energy and smooth control keeps him from being upstaged by the girls, and it's his choreographic talent that optimizes the impact of the small troupe in the tight time and space constraints. It might seem surprising that The Boat can front such talent, but Cuban economics make the stable ship gig a plum job and the dancers are pure cream--years of formal dance study and heavy journeyman experience in the glitzy clubs at Varadero beach.
And behind them a band of stone cold pros coming on with the licks they grew up with. This is one red hot house band...they're Cubans. They can play anything, but really mob up on mambo and other "Cuban jazz". One interesting innovation came from the brass guy. Everybody talks about the drums and percussion and strange guitars and such, but the best part of this kind of music is the trumpet, which takes it all out of the class of "afro-latino percussion" and gives it that wild, jazzy, international, premeditated, ART sound. In the ship's band, the horn man replaced it with a trombone. So he had a whole different range of portmanteau and slur available, along with bigger blast and general muzzle velocity...but could still get intricate due to sheer chops. There are two keyboard players, one playing "piano" the way you're used to thinking of it, and the other doing the Latino thing, where a row of keys is a percussion instrument.
Four different singers are featured, slipping in and out and combining under cover of the dancers. A tall, black-haired alto likes to go all fey and flamencoesque, dripping black lace and sequins. It you needed somebody to sing your elegy after you were killed in a bullfight, this would be your girl. The contrasting contralto, even taller and wreathed in blond frizzies, goes with blazing colors, a winning smile, and green eyes that look backlit, somehow making even a sad love song seem sunny and fuzzy. Their male counterparts are also a mixed pair, the darkly Latin macho doing Banderas in tux delux relieved by a short, slick tenor in suit and tie, all sophistication and humor.
The second night was a mixture of Mexican, from old-timey rancheros to current pop, and American standards--"My Way" and "New York, New York" with accented vocals, but pure Broadway Boogiewoogie from the boys in the back. The singers shifted effortlessly from Cuban hotties to serape-draped chinaca or Liza Minelli. The many Mexican travelers liked it, and lots of foreigners seemed to enjoy hearing English lyrics for a change. Both shows included a magic act and ended with audience participation numbers; hand-picked suckers acting out scenarios the first night, and a general passenger dance-fest the next. There are two shows each night, following each sitting of the evening meal, but even after two shows, the dancers always looked ready to keep it up all night. Photography, even flash permitted and encouraged.
Not all of the cruiseship accouterments work out as well as the floor shows. The disco goes virtually unvisited, possibly because it looks like a prom set designed by Wayne's World. Most people take one look at the black walls with dayglow planets and start giggling. It's hard to say if the disco is not popular because it's tacky, or if they just let it get tacky because nobody goes there. Same way with the tiny gym. There are a few broken rowing machines, but the only way to work out would be free weights and (maybe) a treadmill. But again, it's unlikely that the paucity of the facility keeps people away: it's more likely that it's been neglected because not even the looniest gym rats feel it necessary to go for a rip on an overnight tropical ocean cruise. But if you really feel your biceps atrophying away, you can duck in and pump up.
There is also a small, but efficient casino, with tables for roulette, poker, and blackjack. Since gambling is illegal in both Mexico and Cuba, the casino only opens in international waters, but didn't seem to make a big hit, at least on my voyage. There was more action on the dozens of slots and video poker machines--a lot of it by children who probably thought they were playing weird, expensive forms of Mario Brothers. Nobody was troubled by these aspects of cruising writ small...in fact most seemed to like being able to ditch the kids at the slots for an hour or so.
It is also possible to remain in Havana for a period of a week or more, returning on a later boat. This, or course, has to be scheduled with the company when buying tickets.
Current prices can be seen and reservations made at the company's website, but they start at around $189 dollars for the 3 day trip in the cheapest cabin. At this writing they are offering a two-for-one deal, which is not unusual in the slow summer months. There are additional costs involved. Passengers pay port fees, $40-45 US dollars depending on exchange rates. There is also a "drinks bracelet" to buy if you want to drink anything. This ranges from around $30 to $60 USD due to a complicated tier of national or imported drinks allowed (or for bar service, but not including alcoholic drinks). Bracelets allow unlimited drinking at meals of any of the four bars. Gratuities are not included in the fare (and richly deserved).
For comparison, a Cubana flight from Cancun to Havana runs around $200 USD, but arrives at (duh) the airport, which is way the hell out of even Havana's sprawl and involves exorbitant and time-consuming transportation into the city--possibly costing as much as $80 USD. The Boat, on the other hand, arrives at the Malecon--you just step ashore and are deep in Old Havana, facing old stone buildings, horse-drawn carriages, and streets leading directly into the heart of things.
Transportation from the dock is widely varied. There are state cabs, safe and expensive, to take you anywhere in town. Little "coco" cabs are at least worth a photo: they are orange fiberglass globes seating three people, looking like oranges or football helmets rolling around. Gypsy cabs are cheap, offer no guarantees from anybody, but can be super cool--what price cruising in a 1950 Chevy or 1962 Studebaker? There are also antique horse carriages for stately clip-clopping through the old stone streets, and even human-powered pedicabs.
Foreigners need to carry a valid passport (you will have one by that point--the ship requires them for boarding and hangs on to them during passage). You fill out a tourist card but the system, from ship to Cuban immigration is careful to segregate and tag American passports to avoid saddling US passengers with a Cuban visa stamp. In view of the recent Bush "crackdown" on Cuba visits, this is a wise precaution, and paranoia about proofs of visiting Cuba runs high--possibly because of the rattling of $55,000 fines. Don't worry about it, but make sure you are complying at all steps.
And DON'T traipse into US customs with Cuban cigars. They used to just destroy them, these days you could actually get into trouble--at the very least a delay and major hassling. Cigars without labels, by the way, are ASSUMED to be Cuban and destroyed. Illegal and unconstitutional, or course, but what are you going to do?
Monkey Junction, Afghanistan