Historic Santiago de Cuba

Our warm welcome at Santiago de Cuba was a pleasant surprise after the rigorous immigration procedures in Havana. We were greeted at the door of a bright, little building where we simply approached smiling clerks seated at open tables to have our passports and visas checked.

The first stop, on our Panoramic Santiago tour, was the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. One of the most important cemeteries in Cuba, it’s the final resting place of many historical figures, including José Martí, Carlos Manuel Céspedes, Fidel Castro, and Emilio Bacardi Y Moreau, of Bacardi Rum fame.

With much pomp and ceremony, the guards at José Martí’s imposing hexagonal mausoleum are changed every thirty minutes. Because we opted not to pay the five CUC photo-taking fee, we didn’t get any pictures. Being short, I could barely see the goose-stepping guards through the massive crowd.

After climbing the granite steps of the mausoleum, we looked down at Martí’s wooden casket, draped in a Cuban flag.

Fidel Castro’s monument is modest in comparison. A large boulder simply bears a plaque saying Fidel.

While in line to photograph Fidel’s monument (which is free to take), I surreptitiously snapped a few more.

José Martí’s mausoleum

La Barrita de Ron Havana Club is a tourist bar attached to the Santiago Rum factory, which was the Bacardi Rum factory before being expropriated by the Castro government. Along with rum tasting, entertainment and high-end cigars are also offered.

Santiago de Cuba’s humble streets, viewed from my bus window.

Broke my heart to see this poor little bird’s cage attached to an outside wall, with no way to escape the sunshine.

Santiago’s Plaza de la Revolucion.

Monument to Antonio Maceo y Grajales. General Maceo was a principal figure in the Cuban struggle for independence.

These twenty-three large machetes symbolize the fight of machete-wielding Cuban Mambís (mulatto revolutionaries).

Cuba’s National flag and Revolutionary flag.

Teatro Heredia Conference Center, with a depiction of Juan Almeida Bosque, a Cuban politician and commander of insurgent forces.

Loma de San Juan is where the final battle of the Spanish-Cuban-American War was fought. Next to the memorial marker stands the Tomb of the Unknown Mambí.

That’s quite the mint twig in my mojito, at the scenic El Morro Restaurant.

Known as El Morro Castle (same as the fortress in Havana), this military fortress’s official name is Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. El morro means ‘bluff’ or ‘headland’ in Spanish.

At the entrance, we were asked to pay 5 CUC or have our cameras confiscated. Hubby and I had our cameras tucked away, so didn’t pay or hand them over.

Built in 1638 to protect the Bay of Santiago from pillaging pirates, the fort was converted into a prison by the Spaniards in the 1800s. I could’ve spent hours exploring all the nooks and crannies, but we were hustled through quite quickly.

Fortress view of Santiago’s coastline, with the Sierra Maestra in the background.

The moat

Outside, vendors sell everything from artwork to clothing to cheap cigars.

In our entire week in Cuba, sadly, this is the closest we came to seeing a beach.

These little places remind me of mobile homes, only cuter.

These ones look like huge shipping containers.

Santiago de Cuba is a city of motorbikes. Everywhere, motorbikes. Some are even used as taxis.

Everyone wears helmets, and looks as if flip-flops are also acceptable.

Many riders had bandanas over their faces, I’m assuming to avoid breathing exhaust fumes.

Céspedes Park is the main square of Santiago de Cuba. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was the revolutionary hero who later became President of the Republic of Cuba.

Ayuntamiento (city hall), built in 1950, where Fidel Castro gave his first public speech in January 1959, after overthrowing the Batista government.

The Casa Granda Hotel

The Metropolitan Cathedral. Restored in 2015, some parts of the cathedral are more than four hundred years old.

It’s compulsory for young Cuban men over sixteen to do two years of military service. Women may voluntarily join.

Museum Casa de Diego Velázquez is the oldest building in Cuba. The mansion, built in 1522, was the official residence of Diego Velazquez, a Spanish conqueror and the island’s first Governor.

Santiago de Cuba has many colourful buildings.

The Communist Party Building.

Back at the Celestyal Crystal.

I’ll wrap up our day in Santiago de Cuba on Monday. Click here for that post.

 

 

Went To Jamaica – Didn’t See A Beach!

Montego Bay sparkled brilliantly, the morning our cruise ship arrived in Jamaica.

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The few photos I captured from the window of our swiftly moving tour bus are a bit blurry, but show the houses in Jamaica are more similar in style to our North American ones, than they are to neighbouring Cuba.

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The Jamaica Swamp Safari Village where parts of the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die were filmed.

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Established in 1769, Falmouth, a former slave port in the parish of Trelawny, is the best preserved Georgian town in the Caribbean. Water Square, in Falmouth’s historic downtown, derives its name from a stone reservoir that once stood in the middle of the square. When the reservoir was built in 1798, Falmouth became Jamaica’s first town with running water.

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Given time alone to explore, Hubby and I wandered down Duke Street, which is narrow and busy.

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William Knibb Memorial Church

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Falmouth Post Office, on Market Street

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According its plaque, the Trelawny Parish Courthouse was built in 1815, then destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1926.

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Albert George Flea Market, Upper Harbour Street

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Historic downtown

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Clever use of water bottles to hold down the tarps at this flea market.

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St. Peter’s Anglican Church

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First time I’ve seen drums used by a church choir.

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Trelawny Parish is the birthplace of Olympic great, Usain Bolt.

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There’s so many unfinished houses because it can take up to three generations to acquire enough money to build them. Some homes looked almost complete, others seemed as if they’d been abandoned for a long time.

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As we entered the wealthier Parish of St. James, the homes grew increasing finer.

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Situated high on a hill overlooking St. James Parish, the Greenwood Great House, originally owned by the wealthy Barrett family (relatives of English poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning), looks much the same as it did when it was built over 200 years ago. The unassuming exterior doesn’t reveal that it’s one of the finest antique museums in the Caribbean.

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Its interior, however, retains the elegant atmosphere of the 19th century. There’s quite the collection of musical instruments, all in working condition.

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These two instruments are called polyphones. The music, played on discs, is enchanting and speaks of days gone by.

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Many windows have stunning views of the Caribbean.

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I saw at least two large rooms used for dining.

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There are several smaller parlours and sitting rooms.

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This Victorian love seat is designed so legs wouldn’t accidentally touch during courting.

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The bedrooms are massive enough to contain more than one full-sized bed.

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The back deck offers an impressive 180 degree panoramic view of the Caribbean. It’s so expansive the curvature of the earth is discernible.

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Even as I marveled at the grandeur of it all, I was acutely aware that this opulent lifestyle was achieved, in large part, on the backs of slaves. The guide sharply brought this into focus with her story about slaves whistling as they carried food trays from the outdoor kitchen to the dining room. They were instructed to whistle because a slave couldn’t whistle and eat food from the trays at the same time!

This interesting gadget is an original beer dispenser.

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On our way back to Montego Bay, traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl and we saw lots of cars parked along the highway. The bus driver nonchalantly informed us there was a car accident and people had gathered to watch. I was shocked and horrified to see at least thirty people, maybe more, crowded together at the side of the road, ghoulishly watching as emergency responders worked on the victims of a very serious accident. Apparently in Jamaica, this morbid behavior is a common form of entertainment.

Known for taking pictures of signs that catch my fancy or tickle my funny bone, I found no shortage of worthy subjects that day. From names of businesses in Falmouth:

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To various signs around the small town:

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Apparently being of Christian faith is important enough to advertise.

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At Greenwood Great House:

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The highway offered an abundance of photo ops, too. One sign I didn’t capture said, “Speed kills. So kill your speed.”

(Less Corruption = More Investments = More Jobs)

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There’s also lots of advice to parents.

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(Take The Time: Respect Your Child)

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Our guide had earlier explained that schooling is very expensive; therefore, illiteracy is high in Jamaica. That might account for one sign that said, “Take the time: Read to your child.”

This sign was posted at the exit of the cruise terminal. The cruise ship was docked only few yards away and we walked.

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The Caribbean waters shone a lovely turquoise in the afternoon sunlight.

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Tequila Sunrise and Cranberry Juice.

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The evening show, Cirque Fantastic, showcased the acrobatic talents of the entertainment team. They excelled, despite some turbulent movements of the ship.

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Fitbit clocked us at 7.74 kilometers.

Friday, we’ll explore historic Santiago de Cuba. Click here for next post.

Cienfuegos – Eclectic Architecture and Fishing Pelicans

The Celestyal Crystal arrived in Cienfuegos, in southwestern Cuba, at 7:00 am, just in time for a glorious sunrise.

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Our group met at 8:00 for the Cienfuegos city tour. Cienfuegos was originally inhabited by Taino indigenous people before being founded by French colonists in 1819. Bright and modern, “The Pearl of the South” is one of the cleanest cities in Cuba.

Our tour started at Boulevard Paseo del Prado. This long tree-lined boulevard has a central paving-stone strip flanked by benches. It crosses the entire city, about two kilometers in length.

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Benny Moré, a Cuban musical icon, was a talented singer and songwriter.

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We then took Cienfuegos Boulevard, one of the most frequented places in the city. El Boulevard is only open to pedestrian traffic, and it reminds me somewhat of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica with its mix of services, stores, restaurants and street entertainers.

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Hotel la Union

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Parque José Martí (former Plaza Armas) is the traditional central square of Cienfuegos.

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Arco de Triunfo, the only existing Arch of Triumph in Cuba.

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The Palacio de Gobierno, where the provincial government operates.

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Cathedral de la Purism Concepcion (The Cathedral of the Most Pure Conception)

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Officially called Teatro de Cienfuegos, Teatro Tomás Terry is the only building we entered.

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Like many places we visited in Cuba, there’s a fee for taking photos. Not knowing whether it’d be worth it, we opted not to pay the 5 CUC fee (approx. $6.75). Turns out, the theatre’s interior is far more impressive than its exterior. It’s beautifully designed, with superb fresco ceilings and original wooden chairs. Hubby snapped this pic of the lobby prior to entering.

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Colegio San Lorenzo stands next to the theatre.

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The public is allowed to climb to the dome-shaped cupola of the Casa de la Cultura Benjamin Duarte (formerly the Palacio de Ferrer) for spectacular views of Cienfuegos.

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Bar Meson el Palatino

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Several small museums and galleries line the square, and we peeked into a few of them.

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Street views from my bus window.

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While parts of Cienfuegos are decidedly rundown, I got the impression the city is more prosperous and in better general shape than Havana. The Punta Gorda, a preferred location of the wealthy on the southern side of the city, has many choice properties and great views of the bay.

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These homes, small by our standards, are impeccably kept.

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The somewhat gaudy and eclectic Palacio de Valle is a top landmark in Cienfuegos. Today it’s used for cultural events. It also has a restaurant and bar.

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Zoomed-in shot of Celestyal Crystal from Punta Gorda.

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We stopped for drinks and entertainment at Club Cienfuegos.

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It used to be an exclusive yacht club, and many boats still moor nearby.

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Not sure of this rum drink’s ingredients, but it was tasty and refreshing.

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The Cuban band performing that day (didn’t catch their name) spoke of touring in British Columbia and then played a song they’d composed about our hometown. The Russian couple up dancing had quite the Cuban moves.

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Celestyal Crystal from Club Cienfuegos.

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Next door is the popular Palacio Azul Hotel.

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Back onboard the cruise ship, we spotted several landmarks we’d visited earlier that day.

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Palacio de Gobierno

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Teatro Tomás Terry

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Casa de Cultura

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Palacio Azul Hotel and Club Cienfuegos

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Picturesque views along the harbour.

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While taking photographs, we noticed a couple of pelicans feeding right beside the ship.

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Their kamikaze fishing style is amazing.

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A wily seagull buddied up with this pelican, hoping to share (or perhaps steal) its meal.

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We became so entranced with these antics we missed Dr. Arocha’s documentary on Cuba. Disappointing, but the show taking place on the water was very entertaining. As the ship left Cienfuegos later that afternoon, I grabbed a spot in the bow on deck five to watch the scenery.

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Remarkable how these houses are situated right on the edge of the water, considering the rise and fall of the tides.

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Castillo de Jagua can be seen in this photo. The fortress was built in 1742 to protect the Bay of Jagua from the real pirates of the Caribbean.

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I’m always happy to spot a lighthouse. The Guamuhaya Mountains (also known as Sierra del Escambray) are in the background.

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Both evening cocktails, a Mojito and Party on the Beach, earned top yummy marks.

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The evening show was Azucar – the traditions of Cuba.

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Fitbit says we covered 9.94 kilometers that day.

Monday’s post will be about our stop in Jamaica. Hope you’ll join me, Mon. Click here for next post.

Beach Day Becomes Sea Day

Hubby’s early-to-rise habit allows him to experience many beautiful sunrises. Cuba was no exception.

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We were supposed to have a beach day at Punta Frances on La Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth), but apparently Cuban authorities have concerns about damage to the coral reefs so they’ve prohibited cruise ship access to the island. I was slightly disappointed to have our only beach experience canceled; however, I totally understand the need to protect that fragile environment.

So Day Two became an at-sea day. Hubby and I used the time to get acquainted with the ship. By today’s standards, the Celestyal Crystal is quite small, with a 1200 passenger capacity. Although the aging ship isn’t terribly fancy, it has all the important requirements, including a friendly and helpful staff.

Our small, yet functional inside cabin on deck four.

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We always took the stairs to get around. Lots of stairs, both inside and out.

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Deck five’s Thalassa Terrace Bar, aft outside, is a good place to relax with a drink while soaking in the sea air and sunshine. It’s also the location of the only hot tub. We didn’t partake, but plenty of others did.

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A few pieces of artwork decorate the area.

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The photo store, duty-free store and reception are located mid-ship on deck five.

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Reception area artwork.

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The ship’s promenade encircles deck five.

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Deck five forward is a quiet spot to watch the scenery go by, as long as you don’t mind a stiff sea breeze.

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Service was great and so was the food at the a la carte Olympus Restaurant on deck five. Special shout-out to our waiter, Lobo. He always remembered us and was wonderful at anticipating our needs.

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We don’t drink much alcohol, but this cruise came with a drink package, so we had fun trying new cocktails. I often questioned the knowledgeable young bartender in the Eros Lounge, on deck eight, about the various ingredients. He was such a good sport, listing off drink after drink until I found one I wanted to try. He’d always give me a smile and a wink when I thanked him.

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Muses Lounge, also on deck eight, is used for various daily activities, as well as the nightly entertainment. We found the seating arrangements too maze-like, making it difficult getting to and from the seats when the place is busy.

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There’s a larger a la carte restaurant and a casino on deck eight, but we didn’t try them.

Mornings, a waffle/pancake station is set up by the Helios Bar, on deck nine. Didn’t take long before the chef started preparing my daily waffle as soon as he saw me approach.

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The little saltwater pool on deck nine.

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The Leda Buffet, deck nine aft, has a fair assortment of tasty food and usually the selections are kept replenished. Incredible desserts!

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One of the kitchen staff made these impressive statues.

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The back terrace off the buffet is a great place to eat a relaxing breakfast, enjoy a cappuccino, or take in the sunset.

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Loungers are located on Zeus Deck, which is mid-ship deck ten. You can look down at the pool and Helios Bar from there.

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There’s dancing every evening at Horizons Bar, deck ten aft.

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All the usual daytime entertainment is offered, but we preferred to hang around outside. We usually attended Dr. Jorge Arocha’s presentations on Cuba, though. Dr. Arocha is a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, and his lectures are informative, entertaining and often humourous.

That morning’s presentation was Cuban culture: “El ajiaco”. Dr. Arocha used ajiaco (an indigenous Cuban soup made with many ingredients) to characterize the Cuban people: a diverse combination of races, religions, and practices, all mixed together like the ingredients in the ajiaco.

After lunch, we relaxed on deck nine’s back terrace. A variety of weather patterns were briskly rolling through, and it even showered for about five minutes. We found the cross-current movement of clouds quite fascinating. Sometimes the sun broke through to sparkle on small patches of water.

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Joe Cool bunny, the only towel art we got.

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Later that afternoon, we listened to The Cuban landscape in the 20th century lecture. Dr. Arocha started with Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, then discussed the Cuban-Spanish-American wars. He finished with the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and the rise of Fidel Castro’s communism. Fascinating insight to Cuba’s turbulent history.

Clouds obliterated the sunset.

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The Latin Souls, a talented Havana band, play in Muses Lounge before the evening show.

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My drink of the night, and my favourite of the trip, was a cranberry mojito. So very tasty!

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The evening show was Welcome to Cabaret – the world of musicals. The team did an admirable job entertaining us.

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Fitbit says we covered 7.22 kilometers despite being confined to the ship all day.

On Friday, I’ll share our day in Cienfuegos, the “pearl of the south”. Click here for next post.

 

 

 

A Stroll Along Havana’s Malecon

Because I have so many photos and stories to share from our week in Cuba, I’ve decided to supplement my Monday Musings with a few Fascinating Friday posts. At least I find them fascinating and I hope you will, too.

On our return to the cruise ship after the city tour, Hubby and I grabbed a quick lunch before heading back out for a stroll along Havana’s Malecon. We were in a hurry because we only had a few free hours, so imagine our dismay when we were greeted by a massive lineup for the x-ray scanner. Apparently another cruise ship had docked and their passengers were debarking.

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Fifteen minutes later, our belongings had gone through the scanner, and we’d escaped the metal detector unscathed. The weather was breezy and warm, perfect for walking, and we were very happy to finally be out there enjoying it.

Havana is slowly giving its old beauties much-needed facelifts, often leaving the streets an interesting mix of rundown and restored.

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The Malecon runs along Avenida Del Puerto to the mouth of the harbor where it turns onto Avenida de Maceo. Tour buses line the avenue and there’s a constant stream of old cars and taxis.

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View across Havana Harbour to the east.

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The Christ Statue

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The Malecon is a hangout for the locals, and many of them fish along the water’s edge.

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Statue of Neptune

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The picturesque Havana Harbour with El Morro fortress and Castillo del Morro lighthouse in the background.

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On the east side of the harbour is Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (Fort of Saint Charles). Better known as La Cabaña, this large fortress was built in the 18th century to strengthen the fortifications of nearby El Morro.

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At the mouth of the harbour, where the Malecon curves and widens, stands the San Salvador de la Punta Fortress.

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Just like El Morro on the opposite side of the harbour, La Punta was erected in the late 16th century to protect the entrance to Havana Bay.

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The fortress was joined with El Morro at night, using a thick chain whose ends were tied to guns on both sides, in hopes of preventing enemy ships from entering the harbour.

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Hubby was quite taken with the brass etchings on this cannon.

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El Morro fortress from across the bay.

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The Faro Castillo del Morro was added in 1845.

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The deep curve to the shoreline makes it appear as if there’s water separating the city skyline from where I stood on the Malecon.

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We didn’t get to explore very far down Avenida de Maceo before we ran out of time and had to turn back. Because foreigners are only allowed to buy Cuban money in Cuba, we were relieved to find a money exchange inside the terminal building. Cuba has two different currencies, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Both are legal tender, although Cubans are paid in CUPs, and tourists must use CUCs. One CUC is equal to one US dollar and worth twenty-five times as much as the CUP. Confusing, right?

While Hubby converted some Canadian funds into CUCs, I perused the colourful display of artwork set up along the terminal’s expansive second floor. I bought this cute little painting for three CUCs.

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Our cruise ship looked more like a large yacht in its deep berth at Havana’s Terminal Sierra Maestra.

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The surrounding area is mostly abandoned and very rundown.

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Hubby got a bit nervous during the emergency mustering drill.

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Not really, haha.

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The evening entertainment was called Fiesta Latina, a musical voyage through Latin America. The singers and dancers are all Cuban, and we enjoyed the show, even though at times their enthusiasm outshone their talent.

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According to Hubby’s new Fitbit, we logged 13.63 kilometers that event-filled day.

I’ll be back on Monday with photos taken around the cruise ship on our first sea day. Click here for next post.

Learning Havana’s History

Despite our long day of travel to the cruise ship in Havana, there was no sleeping in the next morning. We met with our City Tour group at 8:00 am, and were soon eagerly aboard the buses.

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, on the west side of the harbour, is considered the oldest stone fort in the Americas. It was built in the sixteenth century to defend the harbour against pirate attacks. It’s since become a maritime museum.

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Our walking tour started where the city itself started – at the main square. In colonial times, the square was the site of military exercises which led to it being called Plaza de Armas.

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In 1923, the square’s official name became Parque Céspedes, after Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. In 1868, the revolutionary hero freed his slaves and encouraged them to join him in the fight for Cuban independence. Céspedes became President of the Republic of Cuba the following year, until his deposition in 1874.

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I feel the need, at this point, to sheepishly admit my surprise at how many Cubans are black. I’d assumed they’d have the olive skin, dark hair and eyes of most Hispanic people. This is what I learned about this heritage. When the Spanish ‘discovered’ the Cuban islands in the sixteenth century, they were already populated by the Taino Indigenous people. As part of the often brutal colonization process, the Spanish enslaved and eventually wiped out the Taino. To replenish this slave workforce, over a million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Cuban territories. Approximately sixty percent of the Cuban population are descendants of those African slaves.

On the east side of the Plaza de Armas is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former official residence of Havana’s governors. Today, this impressive limestone building houses the Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City of Havana).

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A stroll down busy, eclectic Calle Obispo.

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Originally a swamp, Plaza de la Catedral became the site of Havana’s grandest 18th-century aristocratic baroque mansions.

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La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada.

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El Floridita Bar, a favourite hangout of Ernest Hemingway.

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It’s never too early to enjoy a Hemingway Daiquiri, not even 10:00 am. Made with grapefruit juice and lime. Yum.

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Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

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Parque Central is a large square near the Capital Building, where the locals gather for boisterous discussions.

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José Martí statue in Parque Central. I’ll discuss this great Cuban hero a little later.

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The National Capital Building, like much of Havana, is undergoing restorations. No longer the seat of government, nowadays El Capitolio houses the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry.

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Across the street from El Capitolio, and facing Parque Central, is the Gran Teatro de la Habana, an architecturally awe-inspiring building.

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Havana’s colourful and diverse streets as viewed from my bus window.

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Many political rallies have been held at Revolution Square. Originally called Plaza Cívica, it was renamed Plaza de la Revolución following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The Ministry of Interior buildings in the background feature two heroes of the most recent revolution, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara.

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The massive José Martí Memorial dominates Revolution Square. The tower stands 358 feet tall and the statue is 59 feet tall. José Martí is probably the most revered man in Cuba. A Cuban patriot and freedom fighter, his goal from the time he was a teenager was to see Cuba a free democracy without slavery. Although he never lived to see his country achieve independence from Spain (dying in the 1895 uprising) he is considered a national hero for his dedication to the cause.

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I could’ve spent hours admiring all the old cars congregated at Revolution Square. We saw so many beauties, I plan to dedicate an entire post to them.

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A queue of cute little coco-taxis.

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Our last tour stop was at Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (The Three Morro Kings Fortress), more commonly known as El Morro Castle. It offers one of the finest views of the city.

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The picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana’s bay was built in the last decades of the 16th century and is one of Havana’s most visited places.

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At present El Morro Castle is used as a museum, and there’s a market where local artists sell their wares.

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As is the case at so many Havana locales, the fortress is a great place to observe the parade of classic old cars.

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Thank you to everyone who hung on to the end. I learned so much on that tour and am excited to share my newfound knowledge. Next week, please join me for a stroll along Havana’s Malecon. I’ll try to be a little less wordy. Click here for next post.

A Few Bumps enRoute To Smooth Sailing…

Hubby and I recently returned from a cruise around Cuba and, although it was an interesting and action-packed week, my love-hate relationship with travel has been reconfirmed. I still love to go away. I still hate getting there.

I’ve wanted to visit Cuba for a couple of years now, before it becomes overrun with Pizza Huts and McDonalds. After reading many horror story reviews of overcrowded and understaffed resorts, I realized the rest of the world was also rushing to get a taste of authentic Cuba.

Just when I’d decided I’ve missed my chance, I discovered Celestytal Cruises, which sails around the island of Cuba, starting and ending in Havana, with excursions in three other ports of call included. I was instantly intrigued, and it didn’t take much to convince Hubby this was an ideal way to see Cuba.

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Lucky for us, the unpredictable mountain highways were in good shape for our winter drive to Vancouver. My brother and his lovely lady, along with our youngest son, met us for dinner that evening. With a 3:00 am wake-up call, we hit the hay soon afterward. Hubby’s an early to bed, early to rise guy, so this was routine for him. But me? I’d rather go to bed at 3:00, then get up at that ungodly hour.

We washed down a stale muffin with a few swigs of chocolate milk before joining the surprisingly large group catching the 3:45 shuttle the next morning. We’d intended to grab a more substantial breakfast at the airport before our 6:00 flight, but only a couple of donut joints were open, all with long lines, so we decided to wait for lunch on the plane. Rookie mistake. But first I have to go on a bit about the airplane.

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I’d never flown on an Airbus 330 before. It was huge, with nine seats across and about 50 rows deep. We were seated over the massive wing, which completely obliterated the view below. Hubby liked the individual touch screens that offered a variety of TV shows and movies. And lots of washrooms, so no lineups.

It took us awhile to realize we weren’t getting fed. There was a for-fee menu, but not a for-free one – not even pretzels or stale cookies. I must be naïve, in this age of cutbacks, to expect to be served something to eat on a six and a half hour flight. We made due with a handful of peanuts I had in my carry-on.

I somehow had the mistaken impression we were flying directly to Havana. Wrong, again. First we stopped in Santa Clara, where we debarked the plane and were left standing on the tarmac, inhaling jet fumes, for about fifteen minutes before entering the terminal to have our carry-on luggage scanned and to present our passports (and of course I got picked to be wanded). Then we sat in the airport lounge for over an hour before returning to the airplane. Twenty-five minutes later, we landed in Varadaro, not Havana.

My experience with Cuban immigration was disappointing. Each traveler approaches the wicket individually. A sullen looking person took my ID, then motioned me to remove my glasses and look forward to have my picture taken. Strange scratching noises ensued, and a few stamps, before she returned my passport and motioned me to leave. I understand she might not have spoken English, but civility is universal. I gave her a smile and said hello when I approached, I gave her a smile and said thanks when she handed me my ID. She gave me nothing but suspicion and latent hostility. Not exactly welcoming to a visitor to her country.

We found our transfer bus without a problem, but then had to sit and sit, and sit some more. We overheard the couple in the seat behind us explain to their companions how someone had taken their red luggage in error, so the bus driver was trying to track down the missing suitcases. Apparently the driver hauled our red luggage off the bus for them to check whether it was theirs. When our names were mentioned, Hubby hightailed it off the bus to ensure our luggage had been reloaded. It had. Whew! By the time we left the Varadaro airport, the sun was setting on a long day.

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We hadn’t eaten anything since our muffins thirteen hours earlier. And we still had a two-hour bus ride to Havana. Thankfully, the embarkation process went smoothly, we were able to fill our bellies at the buffet, and fall gratefully into a comfortable bed. Yes, I really do hate traveling.

But I also really love exploring new places. And I couldn’t wait to explore this intriguing country with its complicated history.

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This is Cuba:

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And this is Cuba:

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But this is also Cuba:

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Cubans proudly display their flag everywhere.

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And they love their monuments. Jose Marti, freedom fighter and national hero:

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Carlos Manuel De Cespedes, 1st President of the Republic of Cuba:

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And all those classic cars! Wow!

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In the coming weeks, I’ll share some of what we learned on our travels in Cuba. I promise there’ll be lots of beautiful photos. Click here for next post.