In darkness our ship sailed down Havana Harbor past Fort Del Morro which protected the City of Havana since the 16th century.
Then as dawn appeared another guardian of the harbor came into view. The transition was eerie as we cruised toward the city panorama.
After seeing the morning sites from a country which had such an intense and prominent role in American history any thought of breakfast seemed absurd. I merely wanted to disembark to touch and see this land.
Leaving the ship at 8:30 am my fellow solo traveler and I easily made our way through customs. Seeing their TSA gals set the tone for this country. All were uniformed in tight mini-skirts with patterned black hose and heels. Directly after TSA came money exchange. The exchange rate was 13 percent and they readily accepted my left over Japanese currency converting it to Cuban Pesos.
From here we climbed onto a Chinese made bus which was clean and comfortable. Due to the embargo there are no American made products in the country. At one point Cubans could be jailed for having American currency and we were unable to use credit cards in the country, making currency exchange a necessity.
However, out of bad comes good, and we certainly saw this in the eclectic, colorful cars of the 40’s and 50’s which provide most of the Cuban transport.
Our first stop was the Jesus statute. Known as the Christ statute it is made out of Carrara marble and stands 66 feet or 20 meters high. It was brought from Italy in 1958 and is composed of 67 blocks. Jesus is quite heavy weighing in at 320 tons and locals joke he has a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other.
A short ride away was Fort Del Morro. Several vendors sold license plates depicting cars, interesting hand made dolls and other unique items. I picked up great souvenirs here and glad I did as there were few shops elsewhere.
As we left the Fort there were folks selling pina coladas and even though it was 10 am I shared one with my solo traveler. Very tasty. In Havana not all speak English and I am told if you venture beyond the City you better know Spanish. Also, be ready for panhandlers and people approaching you especially if you are a solo female. Stay with the crowd and venture during the day time hours.
Our next stop was the magnificent Christopher Columbus Cemetery. While we didn’t see his grave there was much to take in. Since masoleums are works of art, please indulge me as I share the following pictures.
From here we journeyed to the rum factory where samples were plentiful. We all bought our allowed 1 liter bottle which was tasty and reasonable. Cigars were also available, but costly. I bought some female cigars, however, they didn’t light up once home as I think they got wet in transport. So, buy the rum or protect the cigars once purchased.
Upon leaving the store we drove through some very poor areas, however, the former beauty of these structures still shows through. Cuba is a country hostage to the 1940’s and 50’s. Their health care, education and some housing is paid for, (houses have squatters rights and are handed down through generations). Salaries are 100 to 400 Pesos per month. WiFi is challenging and costly, television is limited to government channels and movies are only available through boot leg versions.
That said the country has 80 universities that graduate 8000 doctors a year. We drove by several. Doctors make only 20 percent of their income once graduated with the remainder going towards the improvement of Cuba. They are allowed to “doctor” elsewhere for a certain period of time to make additional income, however, must return to continue their service to the country. Interesting and hope I heard this piece of info correctly.
Lunch was next and the food not what we expected. We ate in a former casino from the 50’s run by the mob. It was obvious little had been done to maintain or update its former glory. A Cuban band played and sang. I was able to eat a roll. The cruise ship fare beckons.
Next we toured the beautiful Cathedral Square area. As we walked from the bus we past a bust of Father Felix Verela. He was a Cuban born Catholic who attempted to promote independence in Cuba. Raised in Florida after his mothers death he returned to Cuba as an independence fighter. He narrowly escaped death from the military and returned to St. Augustine, Florida where he continued his ministry at the Cathedral in St Augustine till his death. He is currently on track for sainthood and though buried in St. Augustine, Cuba requested his remains returned and their request was honored. He is much revered in his native country.
Cathedral Square is Havana’s crown jewel as is Main Square. Seeing these pictures I’m sure you’ll agree.
Main Square is where President Obama made a speech and government buildings are located.
This area is lively with bands and school children playing.
Sadly, our Best of Havana Tour had concluded. Later that night I would return to the Tropicana and as the ship’s excursion sales person said, “A very different experience.” You shall see. Stay tuned.