When cruising to Cuba it’s required to book an excursion through the ship for anyone who wants to get off the boat that didn’t book their cruise before June of 2017. That is if you are cruising from the USA, under which the ship and everyone on it has to follow USA rules regardless of where they are from. American restrictions don’t apply to people from other countries sailing to Cuba on ships belonging to other country’s cruise lines and not departing from the USA. Ships from non-American lines can even depart from Havana. Besides the cruise line people taking care of the mountain of required paperwork and obtaining the required Visa for passengers, Holland America Veendam’s excursions satisfied the USA’s people-to-people requirement for the visit. Anyone booking prior to June of 2017 and going out on their own had to take care of all those things for themselves.
We booked what was listed as a walking tour through old Havana. The ship docks in old Havana so walking there from the ship should not be an issue considering that’s where you are when you exit the port building. Speaking of the port building, Havana has 3 piers, one of which is in good condition where the ship docks and the other two unusable with their terminal buildings crumbling in decay. The Veendam docked at 2pm, having to wait for an MSC ship to first leave the one available pier. If your ship comes in early an 8-hour excursion is required, but with our late port arrival time the excursions from our ship only needed to last 4 hours to satisfy the USA’s rules and regulations. Despite warnings from the cruise director that we could be quite late in our arrival as we had to wait until the MSC ship cleared the channel before we went in and that it doesn’t always leave on time, we docked right on schedule.
Veendam was notoriously unorganized in getting their shore excursions going. Not just in Cuba, but at other port stops as well. While most ships would send someone from the crew along and keep each tour together from the start, this one just gave everyone a sticker with their tour number and sent them on their way when their excursion was called. For Cuba this means passing through customs, waiting in line at the money exchange, then going downstairs and finding your tour. They did not even seat people on the same tour together while they waited, leaving everyone to find their own seats at random. We were not near anyone else on tour number 7.
Though they called each group one by one, some people move faster than others getting to the customs line, and some customs lines move faster than others so by the time people got to the money exchange line different tours had all mixed together. At the lower level in the bus area we finally found people waiting with numbered signs for the different tours. We found 1-6, and 8, but no 7. It was supposed to be a walking tour so we weren’t expecting a bus, just a guide to lead the tour. The person with the number 8 sign said 7 was on the next platform over. We went over there and saw 3 busses, but no guide for our tour. Then the driver stepped off the last bus in line from the exit, which was the closest bus to us. He stopped to write “this is 7” on the back of a piece of paper that had something else on the other side and hung it in the window. By then a couple other people from our tour had found their way to that platform.
We were wishing we had brought either Canadian money which it is easy to exchange for in local banks near our home, or euros which we had leftover from a previous trip. Either of those could have been used for tips meaning we could bypass the money exchange since we had no plans for shopping. We were told before leaving home that using American money in Cuba is a federal crime and that no shops in Cuba would take it anyway. Out on the tour we did see some other people leave American dollars for tips and I couldn’t find anything online verifying if that is indeed still a crime or not. Or perhaps tipping isn’t technically spending, which is what is or was a crime. A Canadian passenger said the shops in Havana would take Canadian money, but as we didn’t have any or try to spend any I can’t say as to whether or not that is true.
Wondering why we needed a bus, the four of us who had found it got on. A few more people trickled over from the other platform, and eventually the guide showed up with the majority of the group. By the time everyone got settled in the two busses ahead of ours had left. They waited a bit longer, but no more people came before they finally left. After a drive through town up a street with a wide walkway down the center that the guide called a walking park, which he said went for about 2K, we ended up at Revolutionary Square, which probably was farther from the port than most people would want to walk.
There was a parking lot next to it full of the brightly painted 1950’s American cars Havana is famous for. A rainbow of colors with little taxi signs in the window. On the outside they are all American, but under the hood is another story. Whatever they parts they can fit or modify to keep the cars running are in there. Before the guide would let anyone off the bus he stood at the front and yakked and yakked. Some of the cars started to drive away. People wanted out to take photos, but he droned on and on. All about the Cuban version of history and who their national heros are. About each building you could see from there, and what was inside that we’d never see since we were at some point just going to get out of the bus for a few minutes to take a few photos around the square.
More of the cars left. People started standing up and trying to get photos through the windows. Some different old cars pulled in, but not as many as there had been. Finally he let us out and people got some pictures of the cars and the buildings. We only had 5 or 10 minutes there and when we got back on the bus all the cars were gone so had he blabbed much longer nobody would have gotten any car photos.
Buildings throughout the old part of town are all ancient. Some are well kept up and at least from the outside look beautiful and appear to be in great condition while others look more like ruins. I wish I’d had my camera out when we passed by one where a whole corner section of the building had fallen down leaving a vacant lot littered with building debris, yet people still lived in the part of the building that remained on both sides of the fallen corner. Though it looked like a ruin, many of the balconies had laundry hanging out to dry.
Next we went to a place called Quisicuaba, which was not on our schedule of places to go. Everyone has to do a people to people thing and it was listed on some of the other tours the ship offered, but we were supposed to go somewhere called Retazos Dance Company. The bus parked and after a short (for him) yak from the guide we got out, had another short yak and then walked about half a block to the Quisicuaba Museum.
The first door we entered went into what they said was a typical Cuban house, but they must have just meant the building structure because the inside of this one was quite fancy and had a very lot of things. Way more and nicer things than the average Cuban family could afford, or that would fit comfortably in that house if anyone were actually living there. All sorts of things from furniture to figurines to artwork, even pictures hanging on the wall where the whole picture frame bent around a corner. Once out of the main first two rooms a hallway ran down one side of the house that was open to the sky other than wire fencing. One of the people who worked there said that is typical of the row houses like that one that have no windows other than at the front and back of the house. All the rooms in between have buildings on both sides of them so there is nowhere to put a window. There were plants under the open space, but not enough to catch all the water that would come in if it rained so that hallway must get wet at times. The back of the house had a little kitchen and a dining room with all sorts of fancy dishes displayed on the wall. There were lots of things in there that would have made interesting photos, but taking pictures inside was not allowed.
Next we went a couple doors down and inside a similarly sized, but much plainer house. It had the same open hallway, and one side that was several rooms in the other one had been opened up into one room in this one. It was full of plastic chairs where everyone was directed to sit for a performance from 5 rapping grannies. After filing out past their tip bowl we went back to the bus. Even after dividing it up among the grannies and the rest of the museum workers, tips over a month probably add up to considerably more money for each of them than the average Cuban makes in that same month.
Next the bus took us through a tunnel under the harbor to see the giant Christ statue and a fort built in the 1500’s on the other side of the bay. The bus parked near the statue and we got to walk down and see it up close.
Along the way to the fort we passed a roadside display of Russian and American military planes and missiles which prompted a brief stop for a history lesson from the Cuban point of view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to our tour guide the Soviets had snuck missiles into Cuba without Fidel Castro’s knowledge, and their national hero Castro stopped an invasion from the Americans and prevented a nuclear war by having Kruschev on one phone and Kennedy on the other and talking both of them out of blowing up the world. I suppose every country teaches their children the version of events they would like their people to believe. Once again we could only take photos through the bus windows because it was more important to our guide to give us his version of history than to let us get out and see anything.
We stopped in front of the fort and listened to another long yakking session before the guide let us out of the bus near a small booth where locals hand cranked sugarcane into juice on a small mill. Only one person wanted stay there long enough to wait and taste the juice so he stayed behind while everyone else walked up to the fort, anxious to finally get inside. We could see one small section of an outdoor area that had a couple shops, but had to wait there for the guide to return with the last person. After walking up through the outer fort area he stopped us in front of an archway into the main part of that section of the fort so he could talk some more. Why can’t we ever get a guide who can manage to walk and talk at the same time? Instead of standing there seeing nothing while he yakked on and on we could have gone inside where he could have told us about the different areas of the fort we could have seen if we’d gone in while we still had time to see them.
Instead we had a good long look at the entry arch while wishing we could go in while he yakked endlessly. Mostly it all went in one ear and out the other. Basically bla bla bla, Fidel Castro is our hero, bla, bla, bla, Fidel saved us from this or that, bla, bla, bla, what a great guy Fidel was. You would think he was required to say all that except that he seemed to truly believe in what he said and seemed intent on convincing everyone else as well. I don’t suppose anyone who doesn’t support the government gets a job as a tour guide even on tours Americans are allowed to take, which can’t be government sponsored. He also said they have free health care for everyone and that schooling is required to the point that parents could go to jail if their children don’t attend. Even attending the University is free, but not required, though up through Community College is. Three years of military service is required for males, but voluntary for females.
He didn’t say much about their actual living conditions, but did say that material things aren’t important, just people. He also said getting a heart transplant is easy, but finding a bar of soap is hard. After at least 20 minutes of yakking we finally got 10 minutes to see the fort, most of which he spent in a room full of pictures of Cuba’s heros yakking some more to whoever stayed in the room while everyone else went outside to a nearby viewpoint to take photos of the sun setting over Havana and the ship across the channel.
When he came out and had everyone follow him it looked for a minute like we might actually tour the fort then, but no. We just went to the nearest stairway and back to the entrance. So we saw a very small portion of one section of the fort. A semi-distant lighthouse marked the end of the fort nearest the sea and we got nowhere near that part of the fort. Back at the area that was within the fort, but beyond that archway into the main interior he led everyone to a gift shop to buy rum and cigars – something they could have got in giftshops right at the port after the tour was over.
He said 20 minutes there and I had no desire to go into a smelly cigar shop so I went back through the arch intending to walk up a ramp I’d seen when we were by some cannons before we went down the stairs. I got to the ramp, but since it had a barricade nearly all the way across I thought it might not be wise to go up there. There were Cuban military people all around the fort including at the top of that ramp and it wouldn’t be a good thing to go somewhere tourists didn’t belong all alone with the rest of the group nowhere nearby. So I went down to the plateau where we hadn’t gone before and found several rooms with different displays, all far more interesting than anything the guide showed us – which was basically nothing. Most just had small stuff in glass cases, but one room had a catapult and another was set up like a chapel.
Even with my extra loop around the fort I didn’t get in a whole lot of walking during our tour, though probably double what anyone else did. The sun went down before we left the fort and headed into town to walk through 3 plazas in the dark. All were quite close to each other so the total distance we walked through town was not very far at all. So much for the 4-hour walking tour. They really should have called it a bus tour with a bit of walking. Or maybe a Cuban history lesson on a bus since that’s where most of the time went.
Once in town the guide offered for anyone who didn’t want to walk around to take the bus back to the port. A couple people had been whining about needing to get back because they had another excursion, but one of them got off the bus to take the walk when the guide said it would take about half an hour.
We only walked a few blocks before stopping at the first plaza for another 15 minute yak session. The guy who needed to get back should have known better by the way things had gone so far that day. A few blocks to the next plaza with a stop along the way to talk about a castle had him well over the half hour without even reaching the second plaza – even though it was right next to the castle.
The first plaza had a church in it and an open–air restaurant under a roofed area boarderd by Roman style columns. The second one had somewhat of a parklike area with fenced in plantings. One of the planting areas seemed to be a favorite hangout of neighborhood cats. Whether they were strays or people’s pets heading for the only greenery around I have no clue. While the guide yakked about the statue at the center of that square a black and white spotted dog ran through and scared all the cats up a tree. When we left there the dog followed along for awhile, marking his territory on nearly everything we passed.
The final square was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal. It had a pink building as well as the usual stone colored assortment. The street in between was quite busy, where we saw very little traffic walking from square to square. Although the total amount of walking we did was small we gave the guide a tip anyway. They depend on that money and we did get to see some stuff in Havana.
There was a crossing guard in a crosswalk between the square and the terminal, stopping traffic so people could cross. It did have the sort of striping that means pedestrians have the right of way in the states, but whether it doesn’t have that meaning in Cuba or the drivers just don’t care I can’t say. At least the crossing guard was there. Once the excursion concludes people have the option of wandering around on their own rather than going straight back to the ship if they want to for the rest of that day, but if they spend another day in Cuba whether at the same port or a different one they again have to fulfill the excursion requirement in order to get off the ship.
Back in the terminal the line at the money exchange was quite long. Cuba takes a 10% tax when you use American money to change for their money, but other currencies just get the 3% exchange fee. They change it back for just the 3% fee, no tax, but that still means losing money on both ends of the exchange. On the way out the line moved fairly quickly, but by evening it went quite slow. Though it had a lot of stations, all but one person had gone home for the night so just one guy had to take care of the whole line on his own.
Some people skipped the long line by visiting the gift shops and souvenir booths along the sides of the long hallway and buying stuff just to use up their money and wait in the shorter gift shop lines. The rest waited in the barely moving exchange line. And waited. John checked out the shops while I held our place in the line, but didn’t find anything worth buying. After moving about 15 feet in 45 minutes and having more than 3 times that distance left to go it occurred to me that we could tip our cabin steward in Cuban money. He wouldn’t be disembarking when we got back to Florida and the ship goes to Cuba every week so he’d have a use for it. Might even save him from waiting in that line. Great solution, just wished I’d thought of it 45 minutes earlier. We saw him in the hallway on the way back to our cabin and he said he was planning on going out later that night so John just gave him the Cuban money as an extra tip right there and we left him a tip in American money at disembarkation.