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.