Crumbling buildings, classic cars and mojitos: What it’s like to spend 2 days in Havana

Friday, 17 November 2017, 09:05:40 PM. On a cruise to Cuba in the last weeks before the Trump administration tightened rules for people-to-people travel, we took guided tours but also had a few hours to explore Havana on our own.

When the rumble of the cruise ship’s engines abruptly increased around 6 a.m., I knew immediately what the noise meant: We were approaching Havana’s harbor.

I drew aside the curtains over our porthole. The sky was still dark, but pinpoints of light stretched in a straight line across the horizon. I reached for my phone and snapped a photo. Every few minutes, I snapped another. Each time the gray of the night had lightened slightly, and the pinpoints got bigger. And each time I thought excitedly, “I’m going to Cuba!”

Cuba, for nearly half a century forbidden to U.S. tourists, a prohibition that has eased only slightly in recent years. Cuba, the homeland of many who are desperate to leave but can’t. Cuba, the island that has shaped Miami, that drew thousands into the streets, cheering, dancing and banging pots on the November night a year ago when Fidel Castro died. Cuba, which holds a spot on almost any avid traveler’s wish list.

Many cruise lines have added Havana to their itineraries in the last year. I was on Norwegian Sky, an older ship that sails out of Miami and is small enough to dock at the port in Havana. Like most people on the ship that I talked to, this was my first trip to Cuba, where we would spend two days of our four-day cruise. The trip was in August, before the Trump administration tightened the rules for travel to Cuba. I would be able to explore Havana on my own for a couple hours each day, a freedom that the new rules no longer allow.

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The gray grew lighter still, and the pinpoints of light became rectangles that resolved into a skyline. Then the ship turned into the harbor and lumbered upstream.

Near the former presidential palace, two Havana icons — a classic car and a deteriorating building. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

We passed a stone fortress at the mouth of the harbor, cars hurrying on the road that runs along the shore, buildings and monuments, docks and deteriorating boathouses, and then a flame in the sky that I finally understood was from a refinery. A long ribbon of black smoke streamed from it.

Two hours after I first heard the engines rev up, our ship docked between a big sailing ship from Ecuador and a small cruise ship operated by a company in Cyprus. Across the way, a giant statue of Christ looked down from a hillside, and I saw on both sides the remains of forts that had once protected the harbor.

I knew what landmarks I wanted to see — there are guidebooks for Cuba just as there are for Paris — and I had booked two tours that meet the U.S. government’s requirements for people-to-people cultural and educational experiences. The first tour introduces tourists to Cuba’s food and beverages, the second to its art and artists.

But I didn’t know what else I would find, what I would learn from my encounters with Cubans. Of course, I did not expect to gain great insights in two days, especially not in a country where many people are afraid to speak openly. But I was ready for a cultural adventure. I stepped off the ship, was processed through Cuban Customs, and crossed the street to one of the city’s four plazas.

Old Havana is full of once-beautiful colonial buildings that are crumbling or being rehabilitated. I wasn’t prepared for the extent of the deterioration — or the elegance of the few that have been rehabbed.

The streets were dotted with small numbers of restored buildings, gorgeous with balconies, ornate trim and fresh pastel paint. A few buildings had been gutted and wrapped in scaffolding, their restoration in progress. But most of the buildings seemed to be crumbling from the top down, parts of their roofs and walls gone, railings and shutters askew, formerly lovely facades scarred by missing plaster and peeling paint. Residents peered out from their windows.

I had seen stark evidence of poverty in other countries, but the scene in old Havana was different. These weren’t shacks made of wooden crates, cardboard and corrugated tin. These aged buildings, some constructed more than 200 years ago, had once been beautiful and sound. Now they were dying of neglect.

As I walked along a quiet back street, I raised my camera to get a picture of an old apartment building, and an elderly man with an accordion appeared in my viewfinder. When he saw me, he spread his arms in a star-like pose, then approached. I guessed that he wanted a tip for the photo, but he asked, “What country are you from?” When I replied USA, he launched into “Guantanamera.” Tickled, I tipped him well. He reached up and stole a kiss.

An accordionist in Old Havana sang "Guantanamera" to a tourist who said she was from the United States. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

Around a corner, I stumbled on the National Museum of Contemporary Ceramics, housed in an 18th century building that once was a home. As I paid $3 in pesos for admission, a young woman joined me, asking “Spanish or English?” “English,” I said. She gave me a tour in Spanish.

I know only about 50 Spanish words. She seemed to know approximately the same number in English. We were alone, and she asked me the English words for objects portrayed in the artworks. She pointed and I said “Bones.” “Clock.” “Fist.” She showed me her favorite works and said she was studying economics.

Artwork in the National Museum of Contemporary Ceramics in Old Havana. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

The museum tour guide and the accordionist were like others I met in Havana — friendly, curious people who speak at least as much English as I speak Spanish. But except for one person who talked about badly wanting to win the lottery for a U.S. visa, people steered away from conversations about our two countries.

I met the guide for my first tour, focusing on Cuba’s food and beverages, by a statue of Frederic Chopin in the plaza across from the port. I was early, so he walked me to a currency exchange and made sure I knew which kind of Cuban pesos to buy with the euros I had brought in order to avoid the 10 percent surcharge for exchanging U.S. currency.

Visitors on a food-and-beverage tour of Havana sample churros sold by a street vendor. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

At our first stop, we sampled mojitos, a drink invented in Havana. We also visited a cigar shop; a street vendor selling churros; and a restaurant where we ate traditional Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and were entertained by a trio of musicians.

At the Havana Club Rum Museum, where we had a tour and a tasting, I focused my camera on a young woman in a traditional ruffled Cuban dress and turban. She immediately set a basket of silk flowers on her head, flourished a flowered fan and stuck a fat cigar in her mouth. I took a picture. She told me in Spanish that she works for tips. I handed over a $1 peso.

At the Rum Museum in Havana, a woman in traditional Cuban dress poses for a photo, then asks the tourist for a tip. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

At one point, busy with my camera, I fell behind and got separated from the tour group. I didn’t know where we were going next, but I knew the Floridita — the bar where daiquiris were invented — was on the itinerary. I was pretty confident I could get directions from passersby. Donde esta la Floridita, por favor? I asked every few blocks, and each time, people pointed me in the right direction, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English.

I sat on the curb across from the bar, reading the signs on its pink exterior — “la cuna del daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri) — and examining the tall building next door, roots from rooftop shrubs growing through crumbling walls beneath. My tour group arrived a short time later.

We stepped into the Floridita, once frequented by Ernest Hemingway. It was so crowded that we could barely get a clear shot of the bronze statue of Hemingway sitting at the bar. So we walked down the street for our daiquiris to Sloppy Joe’s, another Hemingway favorite that was popular with Americans before the Cuban Revolution. Unlike the Floridita, though, without its American customers, Sloppy Joe’s closed — and stayed closed for almost 50 years. It reopened in 2013 after a painstaking restoration.

Behind the Floridita, the bar where the daiquiri was invented more than a century ago, a deteriorating building with the roots of rooftop plants growing down through its walls. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

Although the tour was built around food and beverages, we learned about Havana’s history and its buildings too — the 19th century aqueduct that brought water from the Almendares River to the center of town; the Capitol, with its dome shrouded in scaffolding while it is restored; an arms museum in a former gunsmith’s shop; a mosaic mural that depicts people who figured in Cuba’s history and arts; the beautiful Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana with its baroque features fashioned from rough limestone.

Our tour ended with the requisite ride along the Malecón in classic American cars. Five of us plus the driver were jammed into a red convertible Ford Super Deluxe from the late 1940s, the sea on our left, crumbling buildings on our right, weaving through Ford Fairlanes and Chevrolet Bel Airs, Russian Ladas and Moskvitches, Chinese Geelys, Polish Fiats, cartoonish coco taxis and other vehicles. In Miami, the Super Deluxe would have turned heads, but here, only the occasional tourist paid us any attention.

Classic American cars ready to take tourists for a ride along the Malecon. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

I was traveling with a friend, but she had signed up for different shore excursions. That first day, she took a day-long trip to the Vinales Valley and its tobacco farms. The second day, she did a history tour. Each night we met for dinner and shared our adventures.

The second day I took an art-themed tour of Havana, spending time at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, notable for its political modern art by Cuban artists. I was impressed by the art, but also intrigued by the neighboring Museo de la Revolución.

The museum commemorating the Cuban revolution is housed in the grand former presidential palace. There wasn’t time on our itinerary to go inside, but our guides gave us a few minutes to walk around the outdoor pavilion where Cuba shows off its firepower: tanks, missiles and planes from the revolution and the Bay of Pigs, as well as Granma, the yacht that took Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and others from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution.

Wall art at Muraleando, a community arts project in Havana. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

From there we went to Muraleando, a community art project that for almost 15 years has been teaching children about visual arts and music. The site and the streets around it were full of brightly colored art that could lift a person’s spirits — murals, mosaics, sculptures created from found objects and whimsical figures that might have been made of resin or papier mache. We talked to artists, were entertained by singers, and some of my shipmates got up and danced.

The tour ended in early afternoon, a few hours before the ship departed. My friend and I had agreed we would try to meet that afternoon in the bar of the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba and share one experience in Cuba.

The American-built hotel, once owned in part by gangster Meyer Lansky, was nationalized by Fidel Castro in 1960. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, bunkers and tunnels for anti-aircraft guns were built beneath it, and later, a small museum. Over the years, many celebrities and other prominent people have stayed or drank there or gambled in its now-closed casino, from Winston Churchill and U.S. presidents to Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra.

I hired an open-air coco taxi, which took me out of Old Havana, along the Malecón, to the Nacional. At the bar, I sat under a photo of one of the hotel’s more recent visitors, Kevin Costner, and ordered a daiquiri. My 50 Spanish palabras were more than adequate for both the taxi driver and the bartender, who — alerted by my bad accent — answered my questions in English.

The bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where a photo of Kevin Costner shows he was one of the many U.S. celebrities who have visited the landmark hotel. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

But I didn’t see my friend. It turned out she was fascinated by the hotel’s gardens and its bunkers and ran out of time to meet me. We headed back to the ship separately.

On the drive back, my taxi driver, who had not been talkative, suddenly spoke up. “I hope some day there will be a better relationship between our two countries,” he said stiffly. “So do I,” I said, then made a snarky remark about a particular U.S. politician who might stand in the way. The driver was silent, and I thought, “I’m free to say that and he’s not,” and wondered if my criticism of an elected leader had made him uncomfortable.

View of the Havana skyline as the Norwegian Sky leaves Cuba, dominated by the scaffolding-encircled dome of the Capitol, which is being renovated. MARJIE LAMBERT mlambert@miamiherald.com

An hour later, the Norwegian Sky pulled out of the Havana harbor and turned east to our next stop in the Bahamas. Again, the skyline stretched above the horizon, its details clear against the bright afternoon sky. Once more I pulled out my camera, and I watched through the lens as Havana, dominated by the scaffolding-encircled dome of the Capitol, dwindled until it was just a line of dots in the sunlight.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert

Cruising to Cuba

A number of cruise lines added Cuba to their Caribbean itineraries this year. I chose Norwegian Cruise Line because it spends most of two days in Havana, while most of the others spend only one.

Norwegian Sky alternates between the four-day Cuba cruise on weekdays and a three-day Bahamas cruise on weekends. It leaves PortMiami around 5 p.m. on Monday, arrives in Havana at 8 a.m. Tuesday and departs at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The ship spends Thursday at Norwegian’s private Bahamian island, Great Stirrup Cay, and arrives back in Miami early Friday morning.

Norwegian Sky is doing Bahamas-only cruises starting in January, then will resume the Cuba itinerary in late March. In May, the ship’s Cuba schedule will change, with the ship leaving Havana at 6 a.m. Wednesday. The change will still allow passengers to take part in the island’s nightlife but not spend a second day there.

Also in May, a second Norwegian ship will start doing Cuba trips, sailing out of Port Canaveral. Like the Miami cruise, that ship will leave Havana at 6 a.m. the second day.

Norwegian’s Cuba cruises are more expensive per day than its other Caribbean cruises, only partly because the price includes an open bar. For a Norwegian Sky cruise in April, prices on the cruise line’s website start at $829 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin for the four-day cruise. Information: 866-234-7350, www.ncl.com.

Under the U.S. government’s new travel rules for Cuba, people-to-people visitors must be accompanied by a guide when they are off the ship, so shore excursions are critical. Norwegian offers a variety of cultural and educational excursions, focusing on topics from art (including the one I took) to Ernest Hemingway to an evening at the historic Tropicana Cabaret. But you may be able to book tours through other operators, often a less expensive option. I booked my food and beverage tour through Shore Excursions Group.

Because of the size of Havana’s cruise terminal, ships that go to Cuba are smaller than most of the fleet — no more than about 2,100 passengers. Among the mainstream lines, they are older as well, which means they typically don’t have the scope of restaurants, entertainment and recreational amenities as newer ships and have fewer balcony staterooms. Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Carnival sail regularly to Cuba; other lines sail to Cuba less often.

OTHER CRUISE LINES

Here are some of the cruise lines that depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Tampa and offer port calls in Cuba at some point during the next eight months. The ships represent a wide range of prices and amenities; a travel agent can help you decide which one is right for your interests and your budget — and tell you about any ships that aren’t mentioned here.

Carnival Paradise sails from Tampa to Havana, usually on cruises of four to six nights with a one-day stop in Havana.

Royal Caribbean offers a variety of four- to six-night cruises on Empress of the Seas from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Tampa that spend one day to a day and a half in Havana.

Azamara Club Cruises offers cruises of four to 10 days with stops in Cuba in November, January and March.

Holland America’s Veendam will sail seven-day cruises from Port Everglades, with a one-day stop in Havana or Cienfuegos, and some longer cruises with stops in both Cuban ports starting in late December.

Lindblad Expeditions’ Harmony V will sail 10-day all-Cuba cruises from Miami starting in December and running to late March.

Viking Ocean Cruises arrives in Miami for the first time in November and does four week-long Cuba cruises (three days in Cienfuegos, one day in Key West).

Oceania Cruises offers cruises from Miami in May that spend four or five days in Cuba.

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