Recently, we took an amazing cruise to Havana, Cuba on Norwegian Sky*. Despite our pre-cruise excitement, we didn’t realize how powerful the experience would be until we were there.
It is incredibly liberating to completely unplug for a week. Having to dust off our rusty Spanish vocabularies only added to the richness of the experience. Carefully choosing our words as we tried to speak Spanish as much as possible was both challenging and rewarding.
Stepping off the ship and into Old Havana was like walking in a dream. Despite many of the building’s crumbling facades, there were moments when the light acted as a veil– revealing glimpses of what used to be. In the middle of it all was the central square, which almost looked out of place with it’s refurbished exteriors and brightly colored buildings.
Looking for a map, we strolled along the cobbled roads, often accompanied by stray dogs, and stumbled upon a Visitor’s Center. For some reason, no one on the cruise ship or around Havana had a freaking map. However, an employee of the Center motioned at us to go to the roof so, without a second thought, we all squished in an old elevator and away we went. The roof was an incredible little oasis with a bar and breathtaking views.
Without an explicit plan in mind, we ended up beginning our day with Mojitos on that quaint rooftop- looking out over Havana. With little time actually in Havana, we wanted to make sure we combined planned activities with a substantial amount of wandering. For our excursion, we took a bus along the Malecón to a traditional Cuban marriage. But not just any marriage– this was a special Cuban experience…the marriage of Cigars, Rum and Coffee. Those three items are Cuba’s most popular luxury goods, and are celebrated together, as such. We then ventured to a cigar shop where we learned the specifics of several types of cigars and purchased top-of-the-line Cohibas for friends and family back home. We made sure not to forget to pick up some coffee on the way out.
The final set of stops on our first day’s excursion was at a collection of art centers around Cuba. We visited the studio of Cuban sculptor, Alexis Leiva Machado, known as Kcho. Google partnered with him to bring free high-speed wifi to his studio as part of the company’s broader efforts to improve internet access in the country. At his studio, we walked through a seemingly ordinary, yet truly impactful brick wall. The opening is meant to symbolize the open borders now between Cuba and the United States.
We walked through Callejon de Hamel, which is the largest and most established Afro-Cubano cultural center in Cuba, located between two streets Calle Aramburu and Calle Hospital on Hamel. It was exploding with creativity and color! We learned that it wasn’t just the home of an abundance of art, but also the frequent location of live music and dancing, as well as a hub for the practice of Santeria.
Later that night we walked down the suggested road, Obispo, in search of some dancing and fun. We had almost given up when we were brought upstairs at a dance studio. Low and behold, there was a small bar with room for no more than 20 patrons, and a band performing dance-worthy music. It was far from a typical tourist spot, and we enjoyed the opportunity for a more authentic nighttime experience.
After returning to the ship for dinner, casino and sleep, we woke up the next morning back in Old Havana where we happened upon a fresh pina colada stand. By fresh, we mean in-the-pineapple fresh…a wonderful way to start the day! Then we went to a lot full of vintage cars and found drivers who took us to Ernest Hemingway’s house and back to the main city. Enter, Yudal. He drove us (the four ladies) around in his restored pink and white Ford convertible, with the boys not far behind in their own red one.
The local-guided tour around the outer edge of Havana was amazing, but the 45 minute drive out of Havana, in the blazing, blistering sun, resulted in some unavoidable sunburns. Walking around Hemingway’s property was also quite an experience. It is so well preserved that it felt like someone still lived there. While we would have liked to go into some of the rooms, we were unfortunately confined to the entrance ways. We definitely got a glimpse of how he lived, and the sheer magnitude of it added to it’s grandeur.
In between blasting music on the way back, Yudal told us about himself and pointed out where he lived on one of the side streets. Learning the personal stories of Cuban citizens, like Yudal, enabled us to connect with the experience beyond simply being tourists.
We ended our last day in Cuba at a restaurant by the dock. We all indulged in some delicious authentic food, empanadas, vaca Frita and vegetable risotto, followed by some after-dinner Cuban cocktails and espresso. As with many of the places to eat and drink, we were serenaded by a live band and danced our hearts content.Well, some people did at least.
It did not escape us that we were visitors to another culture. We tried to absorb as much as possible and join in on local experiences, without getting in the way of the Cuban citizens’ ways of life. We are extremely grateful that we now have the opportunity to venture to Cuba, something we do not take lightly. We look forward to the opportunity to visit again and highly recommend it to all.
*In regards to eating GF, It was very easy in Havana (especially with my Gluten Free Passport cards). On the ship, the Norwegian Cruise staff was incredibly helpful and accommodating for each and every meal. They made me eggs to order (away from the buffet line) and not once did I worry that I would have a reaction. Just make sure you disclose any dietary restrictions with the cruise line before the trip, and remind the dining staff at your meals.