World Adventures blogger and avid Holland America Line cruiser Jeff Farschman was aboard our first cruise to Cuba on Veendam, and we’re sharing his adventure and stunning photos with you! Take a look and read about everything he experienced on his memorable journey.
I was very excited about my trip to Cuba — a country that for 50 years I was not able to legally visit. Well, the day finally arrived and it was worth the wait. The sail into the port of Havana was one of the most beautiful and scenic that I have ever seen and I have seen my share!
What an amazing day! I was the first passenger from the Holland America inaugural Cuban voyage to set foot on Cuban soil, followed by Ann and Cathy. I was beyond excited to start our tour. We were immediately met by our guide, Irina from CubaOutings, who, by the way, spoke perfect English. In accordance with the regulations, we are required keep a record of our Education and People to People itinerary, which I have outlined as follows: Visit Old Havana, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1982, (Armas square, Cathedral square, San Francisco de Assisi square, Hemingway Hotel and bar). Tour through New Havana mainly Vedado and Miramar districts. Visit Revolution Square. Drive by the Capitol Building. Visit the El Morro- Cabaña fort complex and the Christ statue. Our focus was to learn about Cuba, its people, government and culture, and take the opportunity to talk with the people and get a good understanding of their lives in this communist country. So … where do I begin?
We spent the first four hours on a walking tour of Old Havana. Our first stop was the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, a beautiful square named after the church with the highest bell tower in the city, a white marble fountain in the center and the amazing eclectically built trade center in Havana. We made our way to the Plaza Vieja resembling the rich neighborhood of the 18th century in Havana, where we saw luxurious houses with columns, arches and stained glass windows and we made a stop at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived for seven years. His room 511, nowadays is a small museum…we went to the rooftop restaurant for spectacular views of the city and surrounding fortresses. We also saw some of the residences where the buildings were in a state of disrepair, clearly seeing the difference where the government had its hands involved in infrastructure and where they had not.
Onto the Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in Havana that originally dates from 1582, to view the fountain and government buildings surrounding the square. Next, we visited La Fuerza, the first fortress built in Cuba. Then we made our way to the beautiful Plaza de la Catedral, the cathedral square is considered the most perfectly built colonial square on the whole island with a lovely baroque style. As we walked along, Irina took us to a Bodega, a food bank issuing monthly rations. I was shocked to see what a paltry amount of coffee was available for a month’s ration along with what appeared to be a cup of cooking oil to last a month. That evoked allot of discussion during the day.We then went to a local market where we had excellent interactions with the vendors and their customers. I took the opportunity to capture some nice photos of people in their everyday life.
Our next stop was the House of Arabs, Ibanez Habana and Mosque Mezita Abdullah. Of course, as I wandered through the streets of Old Havana, I was on the lookout for souvenirs which to my delight Havana did not let me down! Our first memories of Havana are ones of delight at every Cuba cliché: American classic cars; the sounds of song and salsa drifting from every bar; old gents and ladies sitting in doorways smoking cigars and watching the world go by; the crumbling but colorful architecture of Old Havana. There are no advertising billboards on the walls, instead, we saw images of Che and Fidel, Cuban flags and propaganda. The time spent wandering the streets of Old Havana was simply amazing, I did not know what to expect in Cuba and I was truly amazed and in awe of the buildings and the architecture.
Our next adventure of the day was to explore New Havana in a 1951 Chevrolet Classic car. Seeing all the classic cars took us back to our early childhood memories…what a collection of history and resilience on the part of the Cuban people. All loaded in the 1951 Chev convertible, this two-hour joyride in an American classic vehicle showed us the highlights of New Havana. We began our panoramic drive along the Malecón, past the famous Hotel National and the U.S. Embassy through the Miramar and Vedado districts, seeing some of the city’s most famous hotels and embassies. A small glitch, flat tire…this gave us the opportunity to walk around the block past the Canadian Embassy and lovely mansions while the driver changed the tire.
Next, we visited the Plaza de la Revolucion, it is a gigantic square that symbolizes the Cuban Revolution due to the huge rallies that were always held right after 1959. At the Plaza Revolution pastel-colored classic Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobile’s greet you with bright chrome smiles that belong to a different era. We drove past the massive Havana cemetery, the largest cemetery in the Caribbean. We drove to downtown Havana and stopped at Parque Central to snap some photographs of some of Havana’s most iconic architecture, including the Capitol Building which models Washington’s Capitol Building and El Gran Teatro.
On our return to The Old Havana district we stopped at the Almacenes San José market to interact with the local souvenir vendors for a piece of Cuban memorabilia. We returned to the ship, took a short rest and Cathy and I went back to the Plaza Vieja to experience the nighttime in Old Havana. In Cuba you really do hear music everywhere, with the sounds of live bands emerging from many bars and restaurants. The bands we saw were excellent and the locals who inevitably got up to salsa to them were just as good. We watched them spinning around the dance floor…we loved every minute!
Our People to People interaction requirement was very easy to fulfill as during our walking tour of Havana, we were able to communicate and interact with many locals. It is interesting that there are people representing different professions or social classes. I posed with the flower lady, street performers, one in particular was the gentleman I photographed and danced along with, he was so original in his act that he utilized both his head, arms, legs, fingers and feet to sing, play the guitar, maracas and harmonica as well as juggling 5 puppets to the beat of his music.
There are a lot of street sellers, some of them work independently or in a market. A big eye opener for us was the elderly gentlemen we spoke to at the Bodega who was shopping for his monthly rations of approximately 150 grams of ground coffee and 6 ounces of cooking oil to sustain him for the month. Ann visited with a guide at the La Fuerza about her family and her daily life in Cuba. We talked to artisans doing their handicrafts and paintings, one highlight was the shop Ann and Cathy visited selling lovely hand made and painted hand fans. The art scene is just as vibrant as the music scene. In Havana especially, there are many little artist workshops and galleries that you can pop into and see artists at work and buy direct from them. Our tour guide Irina explained her family and educational background and our driver told us about his vehicle.
To sum up our day in Habana, we have a few things to share with you…Life is lived on the streets in Havana! In Old Havana traffic is minimal with as many cycle rickshaws, bicycles and horse carts as cars. Instead people fill the streets — kids playing soccer, baseball with broom-ends and bottle caps, women hanging laundry from balconies, vendors pulling carts overloaded with fruit and vegetables, customers queuing outside the bodega shops, waiting to use their ration cards. There really are classic cars in Cuba! And they are everywhere—1950s Buicks, Chevys and Plymouths in varying states are used as everyday vehicles, as taxis and private cars. You can follow Cuba’s history in its cars from the pre-revolution American cars through the Soviet Ladas to more recent Asian and European modern vehicles and added to Havana’s magical feeling.
Cuba is unlike anywhere else we’ve visited. It’s a place that provokes strong feelings and before we even arrived we encountered a huge amount of fervent pro or anti Cuba propaganda. We didn’t know quite what to expect and even now it’s hard to make sense of this bewildering country. What we do know is that we don’t fall into either camp — Cuba isn’t perfect, and it isn’t evil either, but it is unique. We felt like we’d almost stepped back in time with the classic cars from the 50s, bare shops like something from the Wild West, a lack of advertising and ATMs, and the most limited internet of any country we’ve visited (aside from China perhaps). Some of these things seemed like disadvantages at first but they turned out to allow us to escape from the hectic world of non-stop bombardment of information. Havana is decaying, colourful, vibrant and gorgeous. The buildings are beautiful despite the peeling paint. The ship docked in Vieja Habana (Old Havana) and we spent most of our time there wandering the streets and feeling like we were on a film set amongst the vintage cars and lively street scenes. People sit in doorways smoking cigars, peer down from balconies, and front doors are left open. Cuba felt very safe and the locals assured us there is very little violent crime in Cuba. Cuba is changing! Our hosts and the people made us feel at home and were warm, welcoming and friendly. I loved every minute we spent in Havana and wished we had more time; What a day we had! I just wonder what path the Cuban people will take once the shackles of Communism are lifted. I am very excited about our next Cuban port of call, Cienfuegos and our tour to Trinidad.
If Jeff’s post makes you want to cruise to Cuba with Holland America Line, check out our special 14-day summer Cuba cruises from Boston or our next season of cruises from Ft. Lauderdale.