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Most taxis in Ha­vana are Amer­i­can clas­sics painted in bright col­ors, and tend to be fa­vorite at­trac­tions for nostalgic tourists. Left: Thing 2 moored at the Guarda Fron­terra dock at Ma­rina Hem­ing­way. This is the first stop for any cruiser en­ter­ing the coun­try. Our ex­pe­ri­ence with Cuban Cus­toms was quick, pleas­ant and pain­less. Right: My wife and me at the Pal­ador in Jaiman­i­tas over­look­ing Ma­rina Hem­ing­way.

read­ily avail­able, so I was happy to have down­loaded free GPS-based app with off­line maps of Cuba.

As you’ve seen in pho­tographs, Cuban au­to­mo­biles are pri­mar­ily 1950s-era Amer­i­can cars and trucks, as well as boxy Soviet cars from the 80s. The vast ma­jor­ity of cars are used as taxis, and are more often than not shared by mul­ti­ple rid­ers. Fares are ne­go­ti­ated rather than metered. Other ve­hi­cles in­cluded three-wheeled scoot­ers and non-mo­tor­ized bi­cy­cle rick­shaws (also used as taxis), as well as a fleet of horse and buggy de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles.

We walked around Old Ha­vana and saw the capi­tol, some of the more fa­mous mu­se­ums and ho­tels, and what ap­peared to be a typ­i­cal res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood. Many of the homes are plain, mod­est apart­ments in what were once beau­ti­ful build­ings. Most were open to the street due to the lack of air con­di­tion­ing. My fa­vorite stop was the Museo de la Revolucíon. Housed in the pre-Rev­o­lu­tion pres­i­den­tial palace, the mu­seum is a trib­ute to Fidel, Che, Raul (to a lesser de­gree), and other lead­ers of the Rev­o­lu­tion. The high­light of the mu­seum is the Rin­con de los Cretinos (Cretin’s Corner), which holds life-size ef­fi­gies of Cuban pres­i­dent Batista, as well other anti-revo­lu­tion­ary lu­mi­nar­ies such as U.S. Pres­i­dents Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge W. Bush.

Choices for meals in Ha­vana in­clude ei­ther a pri­vately owned restau­rant called a pal­adar, which is now le­gal in Cuba, or a govern­ment-owned restau­rant where the lo­cals eat. Qual­ity and va­ri­ety at the pal­adares varies sig­nif­i­cantly, and prices here are not al­ways in­ex­pen­sive. State-owned res­tau­rants tend to be no-frill af­fairs with less va­ri­ety (eggs, bread, rice, and beans) and lower pric­ing. A pan con tor­tilla (egg sand­wich), or rice and beans, for ex­am­ple, will cost around $.25. These res­tau­rants are ob­vi­ously not geared to­ward tourists, so bot­tled water or pro­cessed drinks are not avail­able.

Af­ter lunch we took the ferry ($.04 per per­son) to Casa Blanca where we tried to walk to El Castillo del Morro, the iconic 16th cen­tury fort that guards Ha­vana’s port en­trance. A tes­ta­ment to the rel­a­tive lack of tourism even in Cuba’s largest city, there were no other tourists on the ferry and no signs di­rect­ing us to El Morro. Af­ter walk­ing about an hour in the heat, climb­ing cen­turies-old steps (hun­dreds of the steep­est stairs I have ever climbed), walk­ing across fields, and not see­ing a sin­gle per­son, we ar­rived at the back en­trance to a huge fort over­look­ing the har­bor. We later learned that we had ar­rived at La Cabaña, an 18th Cen­tury fort used by Che Gue­vara as his mil­i­tary head­quar­ters, rather than our in­tended des­ti­na­tion of El Morro.

Ex­hausted af­ter our first day in Ha­vana, we climbed back down to the ferry—this time via a road—and re­turned to Ha­vana. We flagged down a 1953 Dodge, which my kids dubbed “the Bat­mo­bile” be­cause of its black paint, to take us back to Ma­rina Hem­ing­way. Upon our re­turn, we saw a flotilla of boats that had ar­rived from Texas via Key West. They were part of the Texas Mariners Cruis­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. We spoke to their com­modore, Jerry Si­moneaux, who ex­plained that they had ar­ranged an ed­u­ca­tional trip with the Ha­vana Yacht Club where they are teach­ing a sem­i­nar in Cuba on how to cruise from Texas to Cuba. They were also made hon­orary mem­bers of the Ha­vana Yacht Club. Most of the boats had come all the way from Hous­ton, but at least one, a 50-foot Foun­taine Pa­jot pow­er­cat, was bare­boat char­tered from Key West. I saw a num­ber of iden­ti­cal boats around Ma­rina Hem­ing­way, which, in my mind, in­di­cates the com­ing pop­u­lar­ity of char­ter­ing to Cuba.

A TRIP TO CUBA’S IN­TE­RIOR The next morn­ing, our ad hoc driver Vic­tor and the Bat­mo­bile were wait­ing on standby to make our ex­cur­sion to Viñales, our only trip to the in­te­rior of the coun­try. We drove ap­prox­i­mately two hours from Ma­rina Hem­ing­way along the shore road past Mar­ièl, then onto the high­way fol­lowed by a se­ries of paved coun­try farm roads. Viñales is an agri­cul­tural area in the Pi­nar del Rîo Prov­ince and is listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site be­cause of its land­scape and tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural meth­ods.

In Viñales, we toured a to­bacco dry­ing house where we were told that 90 per­cent of the to­bacco is sold to the govern­ment and the other 10 per­cent is left over for the work­ers and their fam­i­lies. From there we went to see a pre­his­toric mural where the kids also rode an ox.

Then, it was on to La Cueva de los In­dios where we took a guided tour through the caves, then a short boat ride through an un­der­ground river that ran the length of the caves. We had a nice lunch of lamb stew, fried chicken, beer, and flan at a paradilla be­hind a farm house in La Can­de­laria. We were the only cus­tomers and had a nice chat with the owner who was anx­ious to hear about the United States and Florida.

While we en­joyed our time in Viñales, the high­light was the drive there and back. It was on that drive that we got our first view of Cuba out­side Ha­vana. The coun­try­side re­minded us of the many small towns we had seen in Latin Amer­ica over the years. The houses and peo­ple also looked very sim­i­lar and we could eas­ily have been in the moun­tains of Colom­bia.

The high­way and the sec­ondary roads were not pris­tine but were in far bet­ter con­di­tion than many of the roads we had trav­eled in Latin Amer­ica or the Caribbean. It was a se­ries of con­trasts. There were nu­mer­ous signs along the road es­pous­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion, com­plete with pic­tures of Che and mes­sages from Fidel. We did not see a sin­gle sign that ref­er­enced Raul.

There was not a lot of traf­fic on the roads save for com­merce, in­clud­ing trucks, horses and car­riages car­ry­ing cargo, and taxis. In­ter­est­ingly, the main high­way dou­bles as a land­ing field in times of war, and there are long, straight sec­tions of high­way with cutouts to pull air­craft off the road.

Our Dodge ran well with its Soviet-built diesel en­gine, though we were told that parts were ex­pen­sive and hard to find. This be­came ap­par­ent when we ran into a heavy rain storm along the road and re­al­ized the car had only a sin­gle, func­tional wind­shield wiper. For­tu­nately it was on the driver’s side.

Armed with a rag for clean­ing the pas­sen­ger side of the wind­shield, we pro­ceeded on through the storm. There was also only a sin­gle hand crank for the win­dows, which we passed around to close all the win­dows as the storm hit.

Dur­ing the re­turn trip to Ma­rina Hem­ing­way Vic­tor told us that his step­fa­ther and half brother live in the United States. He men­tioned that he would like to visit them, but is not in­ter­ested in stay­ing in the U.S.. He was equally un­in­ter­ested in dis­cussing pol­i­tics, which was less typ­i­cal of the peo­ple we met.

We re­turned to Ma­rina Hem­ing­way and read­ied the boat for our morn­ing de­par­ture and the be­gin­ning of our cruise to the more re­mote and un­ex­pected parts of Cuba’s north­ern coast. We would learn that the rest of Cuba is an­other world from Ha­vana, or even Viñales.


Ed­i­tor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part story of one fam­ily’s dis­cov­ery of Cuba, from ex­plor­ing the fa­mous cap­i­tal city of Ha­vana, to an­chor­ing in the most re­mote reaches of the is­land’s north­west coast­line. Fol­low along as au­thor Jim Leshaw and fam­ily clear the bu­reau­cratic hur­dles nec­es­sary in or­der to ex­plore this unique Caribbean is­land so newly open to U.S. cruis­ers.

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