For many years Melek and I had been interested in going to Cuba, but travel restrictions from the US made it somewhat difficult. (Of course, we could have gone to Canada and taken a flight from there.) After the Obama administration relaxed the travel ban we decided to take a tour of Cuba. Instead of land travel, we decided to cruise around Cuba. This one-week trip started in Jamaica (Montego Bay), where we stayed two days and boarded the cruise ship. Our good friend Nur Çalıka also liked the idea and joined us.
When you think of Jamaica the first things that come to mind are beautiful beaches, luscious flora and fauna, rum, reggae (and Bob Marley) and Usain Bolt. We had a chance to experience each during our short stay.
On day one the first order of business was to go to a traditional rum factory, where we tasted both light and strong (140 proof) rum and learned how rum is made. On the way we stopped to see the tracks Bolt trained at when he was at high school. The resort we stayed at played reggae and served jerk chicken around the clock. We were quite rested when we boarded our cruise ship, Celestial Crystal.
We liked Crystal a lot. It was not big (about 500 passengers, a plus for us), well equipped, newly renovated, with attentive staff. The food was excellent (we stuck with Mediterranean cuisine).
Our first port of call was Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city (and rival to Havana in terms of Cuban history). The Cuban revolution started in Santiago with an attack on barracks by an armed group led by Fidel Castro (1953). It was also in Santiago that Castro proclaimed victory from the city hall balcony six years later.
We spent a day in Santiago, touring historical sites, including the San Juan Hill representing the Spanish-American war of 1889, Fidel’s unassuming tomb and the 17th century fortress Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. We were also treated to a taste of Cuban culture with a cultural show of music and dance.
After a full day at sea we reached Havana. Over the next two days we walked the streets, saw Hemingway’s stomping grounds, enjoyed cocktails at the National Hotel, and rode old American cars. The latter is a treat you can only do in Havana (and at a reasonable price). Our favorite ride was with a 1914 Ford Model T convertible, in excellent condition. Per capita income is quite low in Cuba (average government worker salaries, we were told, were about $30-40 per month.) But this figure hides the benefits every Cuban enjoys: free education, health care, free or subsidized housing and food assistance. With the relaxing of some controls, families are able to run a small business (like a café) using their home, or the owners of old cars like the ones we rode, can run a taxi or sightseeing service for the tourists. As there are (literally) two currencies (one for the locals and one for the tourists), the taxi operators do quite a lot better than average civil servants.
We found Cuban people quite warm and hospitable. On our last stop in Cienfuegos (Southwest of the island) we were exposed more extensively to Cuban art and Music. Practically every band played Buena Vista music a la Ibrahim Ferrer. We saw young children being trained in art. We roamed the historic town center (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and remembered remarkable poet Jose Marti under his statue.
Of course, no one returns from Cuba without a sample of its prized cigars. I did the same (as did Nur for his brother) and enjoyed one on the rear deck of the Crystal during our return (my first and only smoke since I quit in 1991.)
The following galleries provide a glimpse of our experiences.