This is the first part in Caitlin Martin’s recap of her 7-day Cuban adventure with Celestyal Cruises.
From cruising Havana in a classic convertible car and walking along cobblestone streets in Trinidad to uncovering history at Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the island nation of Cuba has so much to offer the curious traveler. I spent seven nights cruising around the island nation with Celestyal Cruises and their “people to people” Cuban itinerary aboard the Celestyal Crystal.
I can’t imagine a more comprehensive Cuban experience in only seven days. (More on why cruising with Celestyal beats any other way to do Cuba later this week.)
Celestyal Cruises’ exploration of Cuba is full of diverse places, emotional experiences, meaningful moments, and so much more. The Cuba I discovered was not only full of life but also paved the way to a deeper understanding of the culture of this communist nation.
Here are 14 meaningful moments you can’t miss while in Cuba—all of which I discovered from my Celestyal cruise.
1. Walk the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and eat on fine china)
In central Cuba lies Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town with cobblestone streets, neo-baroque architecture and grand colonial buildings around the Plaza Mayor. You can visit a 19th-century cathedral with a vaulted ceiling, carved altars and a private house from the sugar mill era, as some of their houses have been turned into a museum. The city is now commemorated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Trinidad was built after the 19th-century sugar and slave trade. The wealth of the area at that time shaped the town. Today, you can even have an entire meal served to you on fine china. Visit 1514 Restaurant for a great dining experience complete with beautiful china. Lunch starts with seafood soup, then a main course of lobster and a dessert of flan and guava on top.
Tip: On your way into Trinidad, stop to visit Cuban potters at Alfarero Casa Chichi. They are well-known for their work and were the creators of the beautiful ceramic vases on display in Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor and Havana’s Teatro Marti.
2. Touch the bullet holes on the railing at Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba
A visit to the Moncada Barracks today offers visitors a walk through the events leading up the Cuban Revolution. It’s home to a museum and a primary school.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro’s coup on the fort failed. This date was later adopted by Castro as the name for his revolutionary movement (Movimiento 26 Julio or M 26-7), which eventually took over the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Today, you can still see bullet holes from the attack (note that only the ones on the railing are real bullet holes; the rest were re-done with the building improvements). Today, the museum is filled with photos and exhibits from the Cuban perspective.
Tip: The museum is marked in Spanish so you’ll need a tour guide. Celestyal provided the tour guide for us.
3. Visit Plaza de la Catedral for church…
A visit to the Catedral de La Habana in the Plaza de la Catedral is a special experience as it’s a popular place of devotion in Cuba—not just for Catholics but for anyone, including those who aren’t religious. This shrine of the Virgin Mary is the most important religious site on the entire island. The Virgin of Charity was declared the patron saint of Cuba by the Pope in 1916. She was said to protect the fishermen in stormy water—and anyone having a hard time. The church is Havana’s finest example of 18th-century Cuban baroque.
4. …and have lunch with a view at a privately owned paladar in Havana
After the church, have lunch at the privately-owned paladar (privately owned restaurant) La Moneda. It was here that Obama and Raul Castro, the Cuban president and brother of Fidel, ate during Obama’s famous trip to the nation to establish relations. There was even a poster created of Obama and Raul that was hung for a while in front of the restaurant.
Tip: La Moneda has an excellent seafood stew with lobster, shrimp and fresh fish pulled straight from the sea. The pumpkin cream soup was also yummy. Stick around for a bit to enjoy the sea view and also great local music. How do you know if a restaurant is private? You simply ask them; they will tell you and appreciate you asking.
5. Have a picnic at Loma de San Juan overlooking the Sierra Maestra mountains in Santiago de Cuba
It was here that the Spanish soldiers established themselves in the most famous battle of the Spanish-American War: the Battle of San Juan Hill. The smaller hill near San Juan Hill was known as “Kettle Hill” by the Americans, and the higher southern hill was called “San Juan Hill” (or Loma de San Juan in Spanish) after the battle in 1898.
Today you can see a magnificent view of the Sierra Maestra mountain range. It’s a popular spot for locals to sit, for lovers to relax and for picnics to happen.
6. Experience colorful Fusterlandia
Just northwest of Havana is Jaimanitas, the home of José Fuster. Fuster began working with ceramic pieces and eventually became a well-known artist—and then, he decided to remake his entire town in his own art. In the adult wonderland of Fusterlandia, you’ll see roofs, walls, doorways, and benches in brightly colored mosaics made of ceramic tile. In tile are images of mermaids, fish, palm trees, roosters and much more. Come prepared to see something like you’ve never seen before! More than 80 neighbors allowed Fuster to use their homes as a canvas. And it looks so cool!
7. Climb Castillo del Morro and overlook the entrance to the bay
Castillo del Morro (or its more formal name, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca) is a fortress on the coast of Santiago de Cuba that sits about six miles from the city overlooking the bay. (It’s not to be confused with Morro Castle in Havana Bay.) Castillo del Morro was built as a defense against raiding pirates and to protect the port of Santiago. The Spanish word morro means a rock that is very visible from the sea.
The overlook is just stunning with the Spanish-American architecture of the fortress and the blue ocean in contrast. In fact, it was cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
If you take a ship to Cuba like I did (onboard the Celestyal Crystal), you may get lucky in seeing the “rock” fortress from the sea as the ship gets closer to Santiago de Cuba (you can see it from miles away). It’s quite a sight perched up high.
Tip: As you’re approaching Santiago de Cuba, head to the top of the ship to see Castillo del Morro in the distance. As you get closer you’ll notice the waving people on the docks past the fortress.
8. Make friends with the locals at Plaza Vieja in Havana
The most architecturally diverse square in Old Havana is Plaza Vieja. It was once a residential neighborhood for the rich in colonial times. The wealthy citizens used to view executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas from their balconies. This plaza has been largely restored but the restoration process is still taking a long, long time elsewhere in Cuba.
Tip: Today you can watch children outside at recess or wave to the locals on their balconies as they hang clothes out to dry. Check out the plaza’s bars, cafes, some of Havana’s finest vitrales (stained-glass windows), and even its very own micro brewery.
9. Dance to “Guantanamera” at the African Cultural Center
At the African Cultural Center in Santiago de Cuba, my group met with the director to learn more about the melting pot of cultures in Cuba ranging from African and Chinese to Russian and German. The staff at the center are so proud of their city (they shared that they felt it was the most important to Cuban history). And here, you’ll enjoy a traditional dance performance.
A crowd favorite was the dance to “Babalú.” And before the performance ended, a few lucky crowd members got to join the dancers in moving to “Guantanamera,” an iconic song on the island. Noticing that we were from America, they told us how happy they are that the U.S. and Cuba have established diplomatic relations.
10. Live like Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was a fixture of Havana and stayed in the country longer than many Americans when relations between Cuba and the U.S. started to deteriorate. Retrace some of Hemingway’s steps in the diverse city. The writer frequented the Floridita Restaurant and Bar, which is credited for inventing the frozen daiquiri in the early 1930s. The drink (and Hemingway) made the place famous and now its motto is la cuna del daiquiri (“the cradle of the daiquiri”).
The Floridita still shows off much of the atmosphere of the 1950s with Regency-style decoration. It will likely be crowded, with mostly standing room only, but you have to see it. There’s great music and it’s a great spot to hang out and enjoy a frozen daiquiri just like Hemingway did.
After, take a walk to the Hotel Ambos Mundos—which displays 20th-century-style architecture—where Hemingway had a room from 1932 to 1939.
11. Wander the four plazas of Old Havana…and end the evening dancing in Plaza de San Francisco
You can start off having a bite to eat at a café on the corner overlooking all of Plaza de la Catedral or make friends with the locals on the side streets. (They may even invite you in, as our friend was welcomed into a Cuban household to celebrate a young Cuban boy’s birthday!) Perhaps you may want to visit Cafe Taverna, where the Buena Vista Social Club started started (locals call it Cafe Bene). You must try manyay ice cream (made with manyay fruit) while here.
While wandering the plazas, you just never know what you’ll find. While heading back to the ship, we were passing Plaza de San Francisco when we stumbled upon the sweetest surprise: the taping of a Cuban music video starring the famous Mayito Rivera! If you aren’t lucky enough to see a live Cuban musician in the middle of the plaza, nearby bars will keep you doing the rumba all night long. And don’t forget to look around the plaza; back in the day it supplied water to the ships trading with the city. It also served as a place to stockpile the goods arriving from the harbor.
12. See the spot where Fidel Castro and José Martí were laid to rest at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery was known first as the place that famous Cuban national hero, poet and journalist José Martí was laid to rest. The cemetery now also houses Fidel Castro’s ashes and an additional 10,000 graves. The headstones are guarded by Cuban soldiers at the entrance. During our visit, we noticed older Cuban citizens viewing Fidel’s grave with emotion.
Tip: If you stick around long enough, you can see the changing of the guard proceed at Josê and Fidel’s grave sites.
13. Smoke a Cuban and experience maridage
Since Cuba is famous for its cigars, rum and espresso-like coffee, a Cuban experience cannot be complete without experiencing maridage. Experiencing maridage means having the combination of Cuban rum, a Cuban cigar and Cuban coffee.
So go to a restaurant or bar and make sure you can purchase all three. First drink the rum, then smoke a Cuban cigar and then finish it all with Cuban coffee. There’s plenty of opportunity to learn about the art of rolling a Cuban cigar, as you’ll see people rolling them carefully around town in restaurants and bars.
14. Take a drive in a classic convertible
A trip to Havana may not be complete without a ride in one of the classic cars you literally see everywhere in Cuba. The bright-colored cars look as good as new. And they’re a blast to ride around in and beautiful to look at. Our ship set us up for a ride in advance through new Havana, so we didn’t have to worry about hailing one.
On my first day in Cuba, I noticed a man repairing a car on a side street in Santiago de Cuba. He had that entire car taken apart…in the middle of the road! It was a nice welcome to Cuba. I bet it worked better than it ever did when he was done with it.
On moving Cuba forward…
Many people are inspired to go visit Cuba, especially now. Go to Cuba to support the Cuban people through tourism and understand their perspectives on what they’ve been through, what Cuban life is really like, and what they think about their government and change. You can’t imagine what it’s like unless you’ve heard about and seen it firsthand.
Many of the once-beautiful mansions seen around Havana show peeling paint and even crumbling structures. There’s beauty in the people that keep going despite these conditions, but that’s really why Cuba needs to change—and quickly. When in Cuba, support the privately owned paladares (restaurants) and casa particulares (small hotels/ bed and breakfasts) owned by the locals whenever possible…and allow Cuba to change for the better of its people. Because everyone deserves that chance.
In part 2: The secret to getting around Cuba easily.
For more on sailing to Cuba with Celestyal Cruises, visit yourcubacruise.com.