Written by Niiko on 09 Feb, 2010
Faded Grandeur could almost be trademarked by Havana, so consistently is the concept reflected throughout the city. In the well-worn Old Town and the peeling facades of the centre, this is an attraction in itself; a colonial heritage left to decay that has taken on…Read More
Faded Grandeur could almost be trademarked by Havana, so consistently is the concept reflected throughout the city. In the well-worn Old Town and the peeling facades of the centre, this is an attraction in itself; a colonial heritage left to decay that has taken on a greater, charming life of its own, infused with daily bustle and vigour. The appeal isn't universal, though. There are classic cars, and there are plain old ones. Whilst Havana certainly has its fair share of the iconic variety, every taxi we found ourselves in was a decaying 1970s Lada, far removed from the glamour of their pin-up cousins. Two of the four doors worked, none of the windows did, the seats were sprung like old chicken carcasses and the tyres were as bald as I feared I'd be the next time the driver attempted to drift round a corner. This relationship between the polished minority and the crumbling majority is multiplied exponentially throughout Cuba's capital. Crap transport has its place. Specifically, a cheap one - but not in Havana. Like just about everything else in the city, it's stunningly expensive for what it is (but only for outsiders, mind). For Cuba, thanks to its peculiar double-currency, is certainly a land of riches; although most of these are those assumed to be in every tourist's pocket. By the standards of any traveller on a budget, Havana is expensive. A combination of the aforementioned two-tier currency (one for Cubans, one for foreigners) and a pervasive perception of visitors as cash-cows to be milked at every opportunity combine to make travel here a frustrating experience. Although there is a stream of Cuban life that is accessible to those without considerable resources - and indeed, a desire to spend less tends to open this up somewhat - it can be hard to find, and in the capital, this is doubly true. ~ Orientation ~Havana is a sprawling city unlike anywhere else in Cuba for scale and intensity. Getting one's head around this mass can be trying, but there are really only a few areas of significant interest to visitors. Havana Vieja is the side of the city most often broadcast to prospective tourists, and contains the most appealing aesthetics; narrow, balcony-lined streets opening up into countless little squares with their crumbling edifices. Whether this is charming decay or a reflection of what is a very poor area is a matter of perception, I suppose. Vieja is bordered by the Bay of Havana to the east and the Straits of Florida to the north, while Central Habana sweeps around from the west. Centro is substantially less attractive than Vieja; a noisy, heaving grid of streets whose main attractions can be found on its outskirts. Towards its western extremities, the Plaza de la Revolution, vast Necropolis and City Zoo occupy an approximate border with Vedado ("Be-dow"), a leafier suburb that offers something of a retreat from the chaotic atmosphere and close heat of the central districts. North-west of here, and beyond the western extremity of the Malécon - the mile-long seawall (a lively, suprisingly safe place for a night-time wander) - Miramir is a similarly more agreeably-paced area. Transportation between these areas is best done by taxi or Coco-Cab - the tuk-tuk-style yellow pods that hang around the Capitol Building. It's a pricey way of getting around, but it's probably the best option. Officially, it should be around 2.50 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos; roughly £1.50 to a CUC) for a ten-minute journey, but unless you're especially charming or good at negotiating, expect to pay around twice that. If you're especially uncharming, or bad at negotiating, take a roomy wallet. Public transport exists - for the brave - and walking reasonable distances is uncomfortable in the hot, dusty city. ~ Chocolate, Rum and Imperialist Pigs ~ Mostly located on or near El Prado (or Paseo de Marti), the thoroughfare dividing Old and Central Habana, one can visit a host a museums - those of art, chocolate, rum and music. The most impressive, however, has to be - what else? - the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former Presidential Palace. Visually striking - especially the tribute to Versaille's Hall of Mirrors - and overflowing with information and memorabilia, the constant 'look at the wonders of socialism' rhetoric becomes a little tedious, but it's a fascinating visit. Look out the south windows of the museum to see Fidel's yacht, La Granma, housed in a glass fortress and under the watchful eye of a host of guards. Out of the north windows, you'll see Fidel's tank, on which he rode victoriously into the capital. Fidel's hoover isn't currently on display. ~ Filling Mouths and Resting Heads ~ Cuban food has a pretty bad reputation, and it's only partly deserved. Granted, the diet of meat, rice and beans quickly becomes a little bland and repetitive, but such is the reality of a society which severely limits the goods its citizens can buy. Better food is available, mostly in the prime spots around the most picturesque squares or in the higher-end hotels. La Dominica, on Calle O'Reilly, near the Plaza del Armas, is a good Italian restaurant worth trying when Cuban fare loses its charm. They do, though have a tendency to "run out" of all the cheaper items on the menu, and will try to steer tourists towards the most expensive dishes, which can be irritating, and is a practice not uncommon in the city. A good bakery is nearby on Calle Obispo if you fancy a cheaper lunch, while various stalls and shopfronts around Vieja sell cheap, if basic sandwiches and slices of pizza. Hotels, as with everything else in Havana, are pricey. If you've got the money and the inclination, there are plenty of options in the city with all the usual offerings. More appealing, though, in terms of budget and experience, are the Casas Particulares. These Guesthouses are dotted around throughout the city and the rest of Cuba, and offer decent rooms for around 15-25 CUC, with meals available for another 4-10 CUC. Identified by a blue double-headed arrow symbol, these residences are an appealing option not only for the rest they'll give your poor wallet but also for the chance you get to meet Cubans in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The Casa owners are inevitably welcoming, chatty and exceptionally generous, and you'll find some surprisingly luxurious accommodation hiding behind unexceptional exteriors. ~ The Waggle of the Cuban Tongue ~Cubans speak Spanish. Kind of. However, Cuban Spanish is to Castilian Spanish what Geordie is to the Queen's English. Heavily accented, speckled with all manner of influences and dialectal expressions and rattled off like the speaker fears losing the ability to do so, having come from slow-and-easy Mexico, I felt like I was hearing another language. You get used to it to an extent, but it's still pretty tricky to comprehend. Also, probably best not to ask for Papaya Juice in a restaurant. Fruta Bomba is the alternative name, and the one that doesn't refer to female genitalia. ~ Havana is certainly a fascinating place, but I'm not sure I found it an especially pleasant one. Noisy, polluted and expensive, it's in no way a relaxing stay, at least not if you're on a budget. However, the rest of Cuba is pleasingly a different story; much more laid-back and accessible to foreigners. For me, there are two ways to enjoy the capital; either find a nice, conveniently-located Casa to stay in, and take your time exploring the different areas of the city on foot, exploring the museums, open spaces and countless cafes and bars - or simply have a fair bit of money, and stay somewhere high-end. In truth, though, the latter is effectively blocking out much of Cuba, making the effort of getting there somewhat questionable. The same goes for staying at the mega-resort that is Varadero, away to the east of Havana. Cuba is often characterised as a land in a time-warp, and this is to a great extent true. Just try to get internet access, or buy anything but the most basic toiletries. It's easy to romanticise this 1950s-throwback image, but the reality is less idyllic. Nonetheless, as an experience the country is well worth the trouble, although in my eyes at least, the capital isn't the best exposition of Cuba's very individual charms. Close
Written by MichaelJM on 03 May, 2007
At the back of Cathedral Square towards Havana’s promenade is Tacon, a permanent street market, that is well worth checking out. It’s not the biggest in the world, rather compact, but absolutely crammed with work of local artisans. Instinctively you know to hang on…Read More
At the back of Cathedral Square towards Havana’s promenade is Tacon, a permanent street market, that is well worth checking out. It’s not the biggest in the world, rather compact, but absolutely crammed with work of local artisans. Instinctively you know to hang on to your valuables as the passage between stalls is tight and it’s difficult to stop to browse without obstructing other shoppers. In the end, we had to accept that people needed to maneuver around us otherwise we wouldn’t have stopped to view anything. Within seconds, a guy brushes past us muttering meaningfully "Sir, do you want fine cigars?" before disappearing into the hoards of shoppers. This approach became all too familiar as we wended our way around the market and several salesmen suggested if I didn’t smoke that they would make ideal presents for family. In fairness, the cigars looked pretty good, but I was reminded that it was always dodgy to buy on impulse on the street and secondly that such deals were frowned upon by the local police.
There were a lot of carved wooden automobiles in the market and, of course, much to do with smoking. Fine-looking cigar boxes at a fraction of the shop price, ash trays, cigar cases etc.
Rum was another theme with mock advertising memorabilia and other, often tacky, decorative ware. Momentarily, we were tempted with some fine ethnic statues around 10 inches tall with a fine ebony finish at a price of three for 10 pesos. I heard my wife utter those dreaded words "they’d just go with…" and decided it was time to find a distraction somewhere else in the market.
"Look at these handbags," I uttered. This was a suitable distraction but a close call as she handled the cheap leather bags considering that they "might be good enough for work!"
The Cuban stalls carried straw sun hats by the score and I did hear a Canadian voice offering to negotiate his baseball cap for some items off a staff. Now that’s proper bartering for you! Unfortunately, I was whisked away and never did find out how well he’d done.
Leaving the cluttered stalls of t-shirts behind us, we take time to gaze at one of Cuba’s ancient fortified ditches where barrels of old cannons appear to have been ceremoniously laid out. It’s a bizarre but interesting sight
Just opposite the market is a street café, D’Giovanni’s, where we went for a mid-morning snack and coffee. It really was nothing special and the baguette was "not a patch on" the one we’d enjoyed at El Floridita, but the service was friendly enough and it was well positioned for a spot of "people watching". As is standard with Cuban cafés, there’s no hurry so you’re not discouraged from sitting and watching the world go by. What better way to rest those weary feet and restore the batteries before the next bit of sight-seeing?
Written by MichaelJM on 27 Apr, 2007
Our first day and the hotel's courtesy bus dropped us in Plaza de Armas where we were orientating ourselves when Benjamin approached us. He was proudly standing next to his horse, Lindo, and was offering us an hour's guided tour around Havana in his carriage.…Read More
Our first day and the hotel's courtesy bus dropped us in Plaza de Armas where we were orientating ourselves when Benjamin approached us. He was proudly standing next to his horse, Lindo, and was offering us an hour's guided tour around Havana in his carriage. The cost was 20 convertible pesos (around £10) and we reckoned that was a great way to introduce us to the City and to focus our attention on the things that we "must see". He claimed that he would show us all the important sights and would explain, as best as his English would allow, the history and culture of HIS capital city, his home.
Having explained to us a little about the place where we were standing we climbed aboard and Benjamin lowered the carriage’s canopy, as he explained, "to give us a better view". A few gentle words to Lindo and we gently clattered off down the streets. A couple of times we had to stop for some "minor repairs" to the carriage’s wheel arch caused as the wheels crashed over Havana’s notorious potholes. "Well", explained Benjamin as he almost apologetically climbed back into the driving position, "it is an extremely old vehicle and it needs a lot of care."
Our first stop was in Plaza de San Francisco which is dominated by the impressive early 18th Century Church for Francis of Assisi. This now houses the Museum of Religious Art and has a superb tranquil garden crammed with art work, beautiful cloisters, and views from the bell tower across most of Old Havana. It’s a colourful square with brightly clad buildings and some fine architecture. Back in the carriage and we’re back on the main road passing the working port, the old structures of the harbour buildings and a 19th Century promenade that was reserved for the Cuban gentry of its day. Now, work is being carried out to restore this feature to its former glory. This is something that is evident throughout the town. Cuba clearly has its eye on increasing its tourism business and there are numerous public buildings that are being given a serious renovation, hopefully retaining their original charm.
Sometimes, it felt quite precarious as we trotted the streets of Havana, but vintage cars, seemingly the majority in Havana, gave us a respectful distance as they roared passed us. I’m not suggesting that they sped through town, only that they were incredibly noisy.
At one point, we detoured off the tourist trail and were in the heart of the Cuban quarter with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day Cuban life on display—small shops with limited product lines, roadside vegetable stalls, and a lot of folk in "serious" discussions with each other. This, Benjamin explained, was his home. People have described Cuba as being poverty-stricken. No outward signs of wealth here, but there was passion, happiness, and excitement in this residential zone. Everything is not always as it seems!
Written by Slug on 20 Dec, 2006
My father was a big radio dx fan. Equipped with a grey wartime valve radio, and a huge ariel in the back garden, he would wake during the early hours to listen to different stations across the world. After writing to let them know that…Read More
My father was a big radio dx fan. Equipped with a grey wartime valve radio, and a huge ariel in the back garden, he would wake during the early hours to listen to different stations across the world. After writing to let them know that he had found them, some stations would reply with a simple postcard. Others were far more generous. In the 70s, communist countries would send out a whole heap of propaganda freebies to radio fans in the west. For years, we had a whole series of calendars decorated with pictures of swarthy, grandly bearded revolutionary heroes dotted around the house courtesy of Cuban Radio. I blame my lifelong fascination with Cuba on those grainy black and white pictures of Che Guevara and his comrades. With such childhood memories, one of my must see Havana museums was the Museo de la Revolucion. I had to find out a little more about those distant folk heroes from my childhood. The Museo de la Revolucion The Museo de la Revolucion is towards the centre of town in the former palace of the president. Castro, like his predecessors, used the palace when he first assumed power. He moved into new digs in the mid 60s. Don’t make the mistake of one of our party, and assume that the museum is at the Plaza de la Revolucion. The Plaza, with its grand open spaces and huge images of Che, is further out of town. Once you are near the museum, you won’t miss the place. Although it is sadly crumbling, the building is a white wedding cake affair, with an interior designed by Tiffany’s of New York. Slap bang outside the front of the museum stands an abandoned tank used by Fidel during the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. This mix of bizarre and the haphazard set the general tone for the layout of the museum. The area around the Museo de la Revolucion is a particularly tumble down region of Havana. There are a considerable number of half-collapsed buildings to gawp at. I was almost as fascinated with the outside view from the open windows of the upper floors of the museum as I was with the exhibits. Entrance to the Museo de la Revolucion is four convertible pesos ($4.50). I felt I almost got a “two for one” bargain with the entrance price, for as well as the museum exhibits, we also had the opportunity to wander round the almost deserted presidential rooms. The State Rooms Downstairs are a series of abandoned and gently rotting state ballrooms and offices. As the museum was so quiet when we visited, it felt rather eerie as we wandered around, although I loved looking at these abandoned and empty rooms. I could really appreciate the dramatic sense of light from the huge grand floor to ceiling windows (and the ceilings must have been about 20 feet high). The rooms were set off with their age spotted and warped mirrors, gaudy crystal chandeliers, and delicately painted ceilings. The yellow marble dining room particularly stood out as the marble walls gave out a sick-making, slight yellow glow. I’m sure eating here every day would have put me off my food. In the UK, these historic rooms would have demanded better care and attention, but for Cuba they simply form a symbol of the decadent and corrupt former regime. It seems as though they had been deliberately left to slowly rot. The only room that was fully furnished was the original president’s office, where the president of the day would spend most of his working life. The room was an ornate but very male dominated vision of leather inlaid writing desks and bound books. After so many years hiding in the mountains, I can only imagine how Fidel must have felt as he finally managed to enter the room and look around. Viva la revolution! The main part of the museum starts upstairs. While the exhibits are old fashioned, pedantically detailed, and stuffy, the Museo de la Revolucion comprehensively tells the tale of the revolution. Rather than simply focusing on the struggle of Fidel and his comrades, the exhibits stretch further back in time to the early struggle for independence against the Spanish (and then American) occupation of the 1800s and early 1900s. I suppose the government is keen to ensure that the people remember that this independence was long fought for. Of course, some still feel independence is still a little way off in Cuba. The museum tells the story well, by use of display cases containing original exhibits and written explanation in Spanish and English. More modern museum techniques, such as sound recordings and interactive displays, have passed the museum by. Despite the old-fashioned feel, by giving snippets of story about some of the young men who paid for Cuban independence with their lives, I felt engaged with the exhibition. It seems as though almost every scrap of evidence about the struggle is here; from bloodstained bullet holed shirts worn by revolutionaries, a mangled pair of wire-framed spectacles lost in the street fighting, to the shoes Fidel wore when he arrived in Cuba. Presented with such reverently produced information, I always feel that the communists simply replaced one kind of religion with another. To give the staterooms and the display full justice, and if you seriously want to learn about Cuban independence from a Cuban perspective, I would spend at least 2 hours in the museum. The level of detail in the museum, together with the old-fashioned method of display, means that the casual observer would soon get bored. We certainly found that we lingered longer in the exhibition than most of the other (few) visitors. One part I especially found memorable were a series of photographs showing all the Spanish and American backed former presidents and their adjoining captions. The museum curator liked the use of the words "traitor", "collaborator", "weak", and "spineless" rather a lot! Some of these guys lasted as president for 8 hours or less during these turbulent times. One of my major criticisms of the museum is that the exhibits don’t appear to have been updated since about 1990. The last part of the museum display boasts about some of the successes of the Castro regime (for example, in education and health care, and rather more surprising, given the state of Havana, in housing). In 1990, the Soviet Union’s financial support of Cuba ended. I would have been very interested to see how they would have described the severe economic recession immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how they have made progress since. Another interesting aspect of the museum is with the negative spin placed upon America. The museum devotes a board to describe how the CIA introduced dengue fever to the island, along with sugar rot and pig disease. It seems that Cuba (in common with many nations) likes to score a little political capital by blaming all its ills on its enemies. The museum also contains some rather ill equipped (no toilet seats) and I have to say, dirty, toilets, and an unexciting and small shopping area. Overview Of course, one would hardly expect the Museo de la Revolucion to offer an impartial account of the years fighting for Cuban independence. Then it’s a rare British museum that tells the story of the world war from a German perspective! That said, although the museum offers a fanatical amount of detail in describing the struggle, they don’t actually use too much hero worship to tell the tale. The role of Fidel, in particular, seems quite understated. He is a modest dictator. For me, a large part of the attraction to Cuba lies with its complex history and revolution. The Museo de la Revolucion allows the visitor to get a better understanding of the long years of fighting, and gives an interesting overview of the conflict from a Cuban perspective. ________________________________First published at Epinions.com under my identity of cr01 - deleted and relocated to IgoUgo Dec 06 Close
Written by makmak on 06 Jun, 2000
The one great thing about Cuban Communism, as opposed to Chinese Communism (Cultural Revolution), is that the government has never supressed the arts. Cuban art and music is very colorful, and very pervasive in Cuban society. People are constantly dancing in…Read More
The one great thing about Cuban Communism, as opposed to Chinese Communism (Cultural Revolution), is that the government has never supressed the arts. Cuban art and music is very colorful, and very pervasive in Cuban society. People are constantly dancing in the streets, in public squares and in restaurants and clubs. The combination of Spanish and African influences have created rich blends of music like rumba, son and mambo. We went to a great CD shop on Obispo Street where the owner spent a long time with us, opening CDs and playing them for us. Now that the Buena Vista Social Club has revitalized Cuban music, 'Chan Chan' and other songs can be heard over and over again.
We travelled to Cuba via Toronto, which I would definitely advise against (especially if it is during the winter, since you will have to come up with a good story as to why you are tan)! Apparently there has been a lot of collaboration between the US and Canadian governments as of late (the guy driving over the border with explosives over New Year''s and Y2K issues, just to name two examples), and so they have been getting stricter about cooperating with US citizens going to Cuba. The only benefit for going through Canada is that it is easier to work with the tour operators, and they can also book you hotels if you need them. The downside is that they are fairly rigid and they only can book expensive 5-start hotels. Chartered flights are definitely cheaper, but unless you are actually on the package tour for which the flight is chartered for, it''s not worth the hassle and the uncertainty - they can change the flights at any time and you have no recourse.
If you are planning on going to Cuba illegally, it is better to go through Central or South America. Cubans are so used to having US citizens and are so eager for their cash that they will not stamp your passport. In addition, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit organization in New York, has a staff that is dedicated to assisting US citizens who have trouble traveling to Cuba, which they classify as 'Government Misconduct.' They have a publication outlining travel tips before you go to Cuba, and they also provide post-trip assistance if you are caught at customs on your way back. Unfortunately, they do not have a Web site yet.
Written by am331 on 19 Sep, 2005
It makes a world of difference that we visited Cuba as medical students. I think I noticed an inherent respect afforded to students of the "healing professions" here, in a country which takes it so seriously.
Cuba’s primary causes of death are similar to those of…Read More
It makes a world of difference that we visited Cuba as medical students. I think I noticed an inherent respect afforded to students of the "healing professions" here, in a country which takes it so seriously.
Cuba’s primary causes of death are similar to those of developed countries – heart disease, cancer, and stroke. This is amazing given that for the rest of Latin America and the developing world it is still infectious diseases! There are 23 medical schools in Cuba! Medicine is a popular profession and there is a doc in every neighborhood, not even one is unemployed! The doctor that I was able to visit on occasion lived in a modest house provided to her by the government, from which she took care of the 1000 patients who lived in her area. She told us that none of them had AIDS and it happened to be that there was no doctor in the neighboring town because they had gone on mission. Mission means that the doctor will spend about 2 years traveling to another country to offer medical services, but you can ask to opt out if you had small children at home. The doctor would also make house calls for any patients who could not come to her house for an appointment. This doctor is on call 24 hours a day! Doctors only make about $25 a month, which is the highest salary except for some people who work in the tourist industry. Some doctors even get other jobs to help with finances, like waitressing! Although it is difficult for anyone Cuban to leave the country, there are some ways, if you are invited by someone you can be on a waiting list for a few years and go, or you can enter a lottery to go. But doctors and some other health professionals are not allowed to go because in the '60s (right after the revolution) almost half the doctors in Cuba left.
"Natural and Traditional Medicine" as they call it has really flourished in this country, due to necessity, after the crisis time of the 90s. Since medications and resources (even things as simple as latex gloves must be washed and reused!) were becoming scarce, they sent doctors to China and other parts of the East to learn acupuncture, acupressure, floral and herbal treatments, among others. Now these modalities are also taught to Cuban medical students in their 5th and 6th year (theirs is a 6 year program) and is used extensively around the country, and it seems to be working well. We visited two centers which used Natural Medicine in their practice and it seemed to be quite successful. One was a pain clinic and we observed a woman with a back problem that caused her to walk hunched over go in for treatment with acupuncture and come out ten minutes later without pain and walking normally! We also observed acupressure treatment for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
They have places called "Cases de Abuelos" (Grandparents houses) in every neighborhood. This is a place for older folks to go when their families are at work or school and they get free meals, medical care, exercise, games and they seem so happy. They get to meet other folks their age to hang out with, dance, talk, go on trips, they told us some even meet and get married! We heard from one 82 year old women about how much better things are for them after 1959 because of Fidel, they now have somewhere to go instead of deteriorating alone at home, they get food, and in general the society has more racial and gender equality.
Written by alex b on 04 Sep, 2002
There is a dangerous lack of basic medical supplies in Cuba. Hospitals find themselves overstaffed (the medical education in Cuba is top notch) as their are more doctors than medicine. Items that we take for granted, band aids, condoms, asprin, are not readily availible…Read More
There is a dangerous lack of basic medical supplies in Cuba. Hospitals find themselves overstaffed (the medical education in Cuba is top notch) as their are more doctors than medicine. Items that we take for granted, band aids, condoms, asprin, are not readily availible on the island.
Keep this in mind when packing for your trip. Giving out extra medical supplies is as valuable as giving out money. I found it best to do this discreetly. Approaching someone on the street and handing them a box of condoms may not be a great idea (just imagine yourself on the recieving end in your home). If you are staying in a hotel, when you check out, leave the supplies on your bed. The staff will much appreciate this, believe me. Or say to someone "I have some extra supplies that i don't want to lug back home in my suitcase. Do you know anyone who could use these?" This will make your deed seem less condescending.
Also, tip as often as possible. There's no need to go over board with the amount. Dollars go a long way in Cuba. It is a responsibity of every traveler to Cuba to give a little back. Remember, the very act of getting on an airplane and leaving your country is a priveledge most Cubans are denied. This is a very poor country with a great deal to offer the world. It will go a long way to show some appreciation and support for the people you will meet.
Written by El Gallo on 14 Oct, 2001
There are several possible itineraries for the Cancun Havana cruise. At present the three day itinerary leaves Friday morning, allows passengers ashore in Havana from around 11:00 to 19:00 on Saturday, and returns Sunday evening. The four day trip leaves at midday…Read More
There are several possible itineraries for the Cancun Havana cruise. At present the three day itinerary leaves Friday morning, allows passengers ashore in Havana from around 11:00 to 19:00 on Saturday, and returns Sunday evening. The four day trip leaves at midday Monday, allowing passengers a night and day in Havana, then returns by Thursday.
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?
A special bonus of taking The Boat is the after-dinner show. There are shows in the main salon every night after dinner. Two shows a night, in fact, since there are two sittings of dinner. This is the "cruisiest" event on the…Read More
A special bonus of taking The Boat is the after-dinner show. There are shows in the main salon every night after dinner. Two shows a night, in fact, since there are two sittings of dinner. This is the "cruisiest" event on the cruise a special treat for passengers who do the one-day itinerary and don't get to sample Havana night life. And they are really nice shows. Nobody would mistake the salon for a night club. Waitresses bring drinks, but there are no tables. The rows of chairs, low ceiling, and lack of scenario might remind you more of a recital or high school talent show. There's nothing Las Vegas or Copacabana about it, either. It's all done right in your lap and you can see people sweat. There's a conviviality and intimacy about the performance...BUT, it's totally professional. There are no flies on the talent of this troupe, singers or dancers.
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.
Ultimately, a cruise has to be viewed from the perspective of being on a boat in the water: otherwise you could do it all in Vegas. Whatever diversions might offer themselves below, you aren't really there until you walk out on deck. That's…Read More
Ultimately, a cruise has to be viewed from the perspective of being on a boat in the water: otherwise you could do it all in Vegas. Whatever diversions might offer themselves below, you aren't really there until you walk out on deck. That's where you see the deep range of stars in the far black dish undimmed by ambient light, where your very passage strews white streaks into the night, peeling slices off the dark fruit of the sea under a cartoon Caribbean moon. Go ahead, do your King of the World thing, nobody out there's watching: you're just a ship in the night.
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.