Fathom Finds Havana Highlights in Cuba
PHOTO: Author Jason Leppert in the driver's seat. (Photo by Jason Leppert)
Cuba has been off limits to cruise travel from the U.S. for decades as ships have frequently come and gone, skirting the island nation on Caribbean itineraries but not being permitted to stop there. Now, the forbidden fruit is available to taste, and it is sweet. Fathom is one of the most convenient ways for American citizens to do so, sailing roundtrip from Miami, Florida.
Cuba is not only a singular port-of-call on Fathom, but the entire focus of its biweekly seven-day cruises, visiting three destinations: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. And Havana is an overnight port that facilitates the most cultural immersion, day and night. Mostly, the program is already set out for guests with extensive shore excursions included in the cost of the cruise, but there is still plenty of time on your own to reserve additional evening experiences or get in other people-to-people activities throughout the day.
Remember, outright tourism is still not permitted. As such, Tara Russell, president of Fathom, said, “Right now our focus in Cuba is around (those) 12 authorized forms of travel approved by U.S., OK with Cuba. And it’s really about beginning a series of learnings with the Cuban people.” In Havana, that translates to a walking tour on one day and a bus tour on the next with opportunities to engage with locals.
The briefings onboard, presented by the expert Impact Guides, give a very good overview of what to expect in ports, but a more detailed excursion timeline would additionally better inform guests. Traditional shore excursions are more specifically described to include exact expectations and schedules.
Compared to other ports in the Caribbean, Havana is definitely grander in scale. Cuba is the largest island in the region, after all. The capital city’s character gives off a vibe that is almost a cross between New Orleans and San Juan, Puerto Rico, particularly in regards to its eclectic architectural patina and live music spilling into the streets. Locals are very friendly, and Americans may feel somewhat at home when seeing classic domestic cars rolling down the streets.
The city really is a fascinating time capsule unearthed at the intersection of African, American and Caribbean cultures, and it’s a pleasure to see the remains of political posturing crumble to finally allow this very special travel exchange — one I never expected to be able to partake in, at least not this soon in my life.
The walking tour through Old Havana provides a wonderful primer to the city and includes a local lunch that brings the sights, sounds and tastes together for an unforgettable experience. The bus tour, like those anywhere in the world, isolates you a bit more from the surroundings, although the air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity is welcome. Other cultural highlights may encompass a cemetery tour, monumental plaza stop, Santeria dance demonstration, second lunch at Ernest Hemingway-favorite Floridita and a visit to Hotel Nacional de Cuba as well as the Cuban art museum.
Of course, after exchanging money, there are also opportunities to purchase local souvenirs and even world-famous Cuban cigars and local Havana Club rum. Overall purchases are restricted to $400 per person, only $100 of which can total from tobacco and liquor.
However, the real highlight is often the time spent away from the group excursions. I highly recommend renting a classic American car taxi and going on a short ride or extended tour. My friend and I enjoyed an excellent experience in a 1952 convertible Buick Super in baby blue, driven by Carlos Castellanos and led by guide Yordi (available at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org) until my friend and I took to the front seat for a final photo-op (pictured in the header above).
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Not only were we able to additionally explore El Morro Fort across the bay, but the adventure included getting caught in the rain and keeping dry under a makeshift tarp. Between my own broken Spanish, my friend’s superior language understanding and our shared laughs, a true local connection was made, leading our new friends to say we were Cubans now too.
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