PHOTO: Home of Cuban artist José Fuster. (photo by David Cogswell)
For the first two nights of our seven-night Group IST/Variety Cruises exploration of Cuba, the Voyager was docked at the Port of Havana, so we had two days to take in the wonders of the city. Sunday was a full day, our last crack at Havana before heading out to explore other parts of the island.
On Saturday evening when I went out for dinner, my lovely housekeeper from Indonesia placed a sheet of paper in my cabin that laid out the next day’s activities. Sunday morning began with a walk around Old Havana, which was right across the street from where we were docked.
Our tour was directed by Ned, an employee of Group IST, and we also had a locally based Cuban guide named Vladimir, who stayed with us the whole week. Those are the guys in the tour industry who play the role of miracle workers. They lead you where you need to go, answer your questions, help solve your problems and take care of everything so you can relax and enjoy the ride.
Everyone should always have someone like that around. I wish I could afford it.
We walked off the ship, through the port terminal and across the street to Plaza de San Francisco, the gateway to Old Havana, the glorious ancient city.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is no mystery as to why: Its old buildings are breathtakingly beautiful. The city is almost 500 years old, one of the oldest cities in the New World.
It’s the nation's showcase for tourism, with many of the buildings beautifully restored and refurbished. Today, Old Havana’s ancient plazas are inhabited by cafes and shops, all clean and spruced up—in stark contrast to many parts of Havana that are practically in ruin.
The lack of commercial signage and advertising is jarring. It just is not there. There are so few places today that don’t have a commercial overlay of corporate logos; they are conspicuous in their absence. Though there is a growing tourism industry in Cuba, it is devoid of the tawdry commercialism that springs up in so many places.
After a couple hours strolling around the old city, we hopped on a motorcoach and rode through Havana to the old fishing village of Jaimanitas, now known primarily as the home of mosaic artist extraordinaire José Fuster.
Fuster created a giant alternate reality out of his wild, comic sculptures and architectural constructions. Nearly every surface of his home is covered with wild, child-like images of kings, soldiers bats, fish, cats, horses… (fill in the blank), all built out of irregular chunks of ceramic tile.
Strange mosaic sculptures rise up over the house: a huge open hand sitting on a giant eyeball, arches and architectural features that can only be called squiggles. It is dizzying. Fuster’s narrow three-story house looks like the life’s work of a compulsive madman, obsessed with creating an endless stream of creations, unable to ever stop producing art.
Practically everything on all three floors is encrusted with colorful tile. It is imagination run wild. It’s hard to believe the man ever slept a day in his life.
The neighbors, who at first wondered what on earth was taking place here, eventually got with the program and decided they wanted Señor Fuster to decorate their homes as well. So now the whole neighborhood is one gigantic Fuster work.
What was once an undistinguished neighborhood has become a major tourist attraction. For the surrounding community, it has provided a steady flow of customers for their vending concessions, selling crafts or souvenirs. Typical of Cuba, it is done with taste and dignity. They don’t do cheap commercialism. They have no consciousness of that mentality.
READ MORE: What Travel Got Wrong About Cuba
Fuster’s work is beyond description without the help of a picture. However, the standard description is calling him “Cuba’s Gaudi,” comparing him to the Spanish architect whose Catalan Modernism, as exemplified by Barcelona’s late 19th Century Sagrada Familia, was a radical departure from the Gothic style it grew out of.
But Fuster's work makes Gaudi's look tame by comparison.
We broke for lunch at a restaurant called El Aljire, whose specialty is all-you-can-eat of its private family chicken recipe, handed down from the owners’ mother back in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The place is high-profile now, with international illuminaries such as Jimmy Carter and Jack Nicholson on its list of customers.
It was one of two places that had had live music when I had been there before but that didn’t have this time. I hope that is not a trend. One of the greatest things about Cuba is live music practically everywhere all the time.
After lunch, we stopped by a little art gallery called The-Merger, with arresting works by a group of three collaborators. The pieces were brilliant in conception and execution, each challenging the way you think. There was a sculpted head with USB memory sticks radiating from the skull like a headdress; a globe composed of cubes like a large Rubik’s cube; an image of Classical Greek heads with glass-and-steel skyscrapers growing out of the craniums.
We then went back to the Voyager for a break before going out for dinner and a night at the legendary Tropicana nightclub.
The Tropicana provides a glimpse of the 1950s when the Mafia had its heyday in Havana, and the city was the playground of the rich and famous. Some of the biggest stars in the world, such as Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Tito Puente, Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker were regulars there.
It was a place to be seen for the top international celebrities of the ‘50s and was frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Ernest Hemingway and Marlon Brando. It was the ultimate hip place for the swingers and jet setters of the period before the Mafia was kicked out and moved its center of operations to Las Vegas.
The cabaret was founded in 1939, but it was built on a tradition of entertainment already developed by then in Cuba, with voluptuous showgirls draped in blindingly colorful floral costumes, high energy dance, intense conga-driven music and soaring vocal performances.
The outdoor theater was constructed on a suburban estate, preserving trees within the enclosed space so that the experience really does take place under the Havana moon and stars. It has a complex of stages, with one main platform, another large stage to the left of that, and a series of platforms above and around the main stage.
The performance begins like an explosion of dancers streaming out of nowhere and flooding the aisles, then filing onto the stage, over-amping your senses. And the performances continue nonstop in foot-to-the-floor velocity for two hours. When it is over, no one is unsatisfied. It is a full dose.
The Tropicana is uniquely Havana. It is a vivid link to the city's historical past but totally justifies itself just as a night of riveting music and dance. It’s a hundred-dollar cover charge, with generous portions of rum and Coke included, really rounding out the Havana experience.
It is way over the top and a perfect way to close out our Havana adventure: satiated, for now. But Havana is something I could never get enough of.
Catch up on the rest of "My Cuban Journey" here:
Part 1: Catching the Winds of Change in Cuba
Part 2: My Cuban Journey Begins
Part 3: My Cuban Journey: Small-Ship Cruising on the Voyager
Part 4: My Cuban Journey: Car Magic