Havana – The Mould and the Magnificent
A sea day, as we headed for Havana, gave us the chance to catch up in more detail with our US shipmates. Current restrictions for US citizens mean they can only legally travel to Cuba as part of an organised tour, which non US citizens are not allowed to join. Thus the three Europeans on Panorama were treated to our own guide and driver on excursions. Taking advantage of the chairs and loungers on the Sun Deck, we exercised our jaws about our shared or individual experiences of Cuba so far. At the same time we could top up our suntans and enjoy a cool drink from the bar (just steps away). See, men can multi-task too!
From the dock at Havana we headed off to the UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve region and the eco-community of Las Terrazas. Originally a reforestation project in 1968, it now is a thriving community for artists and craftsmen, as well as offering accommodation popular with tourists wishing to hike in the lush surroundings. Our guide took us on a tour of the facility, including a visit to the internationally exhibited artist Lester Campa. We then drove 1.5 Km up the hill to Cafetal Buenavista for spectacular views of the valley from the ruins of the oldest coffee plantation in Cuba. This included a look at the so called “tourist tree” because the bark peels like the skin of sun burnt tourist. The Master’s House is now a restaurant and whilst we had lunch we were entertained by the best group we had heard in Cuba. A statement not be taken lightly as music is in the blood here and few activities take place without some sort of live music (see small sample video below).
Back on Panorama it was Greek evening, including some impressive Greek dancing from Stefanos and Niko and some fine Greek cuisine.
We were ideally docked opposite Plaza de San Francisco and we used the four plazas in Old Havana (with liberal wanderings to the side streets) as a basis for our initial discovery of Havana. Did I come to Havana because I love mould, decay and crumbling buildings, or perhaps I enjoy being hassled twenty times a day by someone offering me a ride, or cigars, or to take me to this or that amazing festival? To have let those minor irritants deter me though, would have been like not enjoying a fine meal because the waiter had a stain on his uniform. Even in the slowly perishing buildings I saw the grandeur of the architecture and in the restored ones the magnificence. I could use my imagination and wonder if, had its history not resulted in economic deprivation, Havana would be one of the most eye catching cities in the world, or is it anyway? I imagined the ingenuity at work to keep the time-locked Cadillacs and Chevys running, when it must be virtually impossible to get parts. I was grateful a unique collection of vehicles have survived and not been replaced by the modern jelly moulds on wheels seen in most cities. I was enchanted by the shopkeepers who sit in doorways and ply their wares from the tiny space at the foot of their stairs and took pleasure at the absence of worldwide brands plastering their signs all over the city. I put up with being offered a menu and then being told that there were only three dishes available, because I could sit in the pretty square and admire the clarinet player without having to suffer McDonalds or KFC in the background. It was a city of contradictions, where children play marbles in the gutter, or a boarded up seemingly derelict building had washing hanging inside. The streets never seem threatening though, even at night, and so often the crumbling masonry gives way to a small park with trees and fountains, an Oasis devoid of decay. Then comes the guy on an extended bike sitting eight feet in the air peddling through a busy junction, what happens if he has to stop? Amazing Havana!
The Captain’s dinner meant that we’d soon be leaving Panorama (sadly) but we had the pleasure of some fine food and being on the Captain’s table, plus charming company. The Captain and his crew have an approachable and friendly demeanour but at the same time have a professional and assured manner that reassures you that you are in good hands. As well as keeping things running smoothly in normal circumstances, they are quick to deal with change e.g. quizzes were arranged, Bridge visits, lunch was provided at short notice when an excursion was cancelled. When our dinner plans in Havana were scuppered, they even put on dinner just for the two of us (made us feel like we had our own luxury yacht for a few hours).
To enjoy the comfort of your cabin, the lounge, bar and sun deck, stairs need to be negotiated, plus access to the Tender (required on two occasions) is via a short vertical ladder. Cuba itself has many cobbled streets and few lifts or ramps to avoid steps. Sadly, anyone with mobility issues may feel this isn’t the trip for them. For us though, this was a brilliant way to be introduced to the sights and sounds of Cuba.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Variety Cruises