Travel: Cuba

In July, Clara and I traveled to Tampa Bay to catch a Royal Caribbean cruise ship to Key West and Cuba.

We arrived in Tampa the day before the cruise was due to depart. It was the first time I had been in Tampa so late in the year and I had no idea how hot it would actually be at that time. For someone like me that wasn’t used it, it amounted to standing still and being drenched in sweat from the heat. It wasn’t so much fun. We usually tried to time our outdoor activities for either early in the morning or in the evenings when it was more pleasant. On the plus side, coming back to Louisville, the heat here didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

Entering Havana, Cuba after clearing customs

We stayed overnight at the Airport Marriott and the following morning took a cab to the pier where we made our way through the check-in line and boarded the boat.

After departure from the dock, the boat hit a strong thunderstorm. Some of that is in the video at the bottom of the page but it was fun to watch from the covered deck 6, which just happened to be our favorite spot on the boat.

We arrived in the Port of Havana a couple of days later in the early afternoon. The crew asked that the people who had a scheduled tour that day to disembark first and for the rest of us to hang around a couple of hours until the initial crowd of people exited the boat and made it through customs. Clara and I took the opportunity to do some sightseeing from both deck 6 and the top deck. The top deck offered sweeping views of Havana and gave some spectacular photos.

Sunset over Havana

Later that afternoon we made our way through customs and set foot in Cuba for the first time. For me, it was a dream come true. I’ve been fascinated with Cuba since before the revolution, during the time that Cuba was a playground for the rich and famous like Hemingway. We wondered the streets of Havana for a few hours, talked to locals (in Spanish!) and were amazed at how friendly people were. Usually, when I go abroad I have some minor concerns about how I, as an American, will be received. I can tell you that in Cuba, they welcomed everyone and were the most friendly people I’ve ever meet in the Caribbean and Latin America. It was a very enjoyable experience.

In the US, we have this idea that in Cuba everyone drives classic cars that have maintained over the decades and that’s all there is. It isn’t true. Most of the classic cars are used by tour companies that charge tourists $50 or so to sight-see on the island. The majority of people living there have newer cars and motorbikes. No doubt this will be a disappointment to some that visit the island hoping to relive their past.

Old Cuban lady

After walking around, visiting shops, parks, and various museums, we returned to the boat to get ready for our tour the following day.

The next morning we woke up at 5am, had breakfast and met our group. Together, we made our way through customs and to a motor-coach where we met our tour guide.

The guided tour included many stops where we got out of the bus and were told a brief history of the location. Then we were given 10 minutes or so to wander around on our own.

The first stop was a huge Jesus statue. It didn’t interest me much, not being a religious person, but the location was high and it provided for some fantastic panoramic views of the city. As well as some outstanding photos, see the picture to the right as an example.

Cruise ship and Havana skyline

The next stop was El Malecon, Havana’s 8-kilometer- long seaside walkway, which has long served as a popular gathering place for locals and as a “natural air-conditioning” we were told. Our tour guide said many people meet their significant other there and it was true for him, as he met his wife there many years ago.

Our next tour stop was La Plaza de la Revolución, this large square has been the location of many political rallies over the years and the buildings surrounding it are the offices of the Cuban government. It’s also the site of the Pope’s visit to Cuba not long ago. This place was the number 1 place I wanted to see and to get a photo taken of me and the building with Che on it. Which I was able to do!

Next, we made our way to an artist community called Fusterlandia. It was started by a local Cuban artist called Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Inspired by a trip to Spain where he saw a similar community, he wanted to bring that idea to the neighborhood where he lived. He started by decorating his house murals and it spread to include around 80 houses. I loved the community and can’t recommend seeing it enough. Check out the photo of it below this paragraph.

Classic car in Havana

Our final stops included El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building that served as the seat of the Cuban Congress until 1959, before stopping by El Morro Castle. Built in 1589, this hilltop fortress guards the entrance to the bay in Havana and is the first thing you see when you come into the Bay of Havana.

After the tour, we spent some time in the main square and had lunch at a local restaurant. We both wanted to try the local Lechon Asado and see how it compared to a Cuban Restaurant in Louisville called Havana Rumba. While it was good, I think that Havana Rumba was better. Which was a surprise to us.

After a full day of sightseeing and eating, we headed back to the boat, happy with everything we had been able to see and do. We departed Cuba late in the afternoon and set sail for Tampa Bay. We would spend the next week at a beach house in Clearwater, Beach where we enjoyed the sun, sand and a week of peace and quiet. Sadly, our 2-week getaway came and went far too quickly but we will always have the great memories we made.

Want to see our trip with your own eyes? Check out the video below and watch everything I wrote about and more!