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Santiago de Cuba – Second City

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Like Cienfuegos and Havana, Santiago is a harbor is on an inland bay protected by a narrow passage. Entering the harbor of Santiago de Cuba we saw the third UNESCO World Heritage Site of our cruise, the citadel at San Pedro de la Roca, a truly impressive fortress hanging precariously from a cliff.

Santiago Fortress

Castillo San Pedro de la Roche – UNESCO World Heritage Site

Established shortly after Trinidad and Havana by Velazquez, Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in the country today with over 400,000 residents. The city sits on the edge of the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel Castro began his revolt against the Batiste regime. It is also the location of San Juan Hill (correctly it should be Hills) where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders took on the Spanish during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Santiago Moncado Barracks

Moncada Barracks where Castro lead a failed attack in 1953

Our visit to Santiago on the Viking Star was from 10am to 3pm. With many on the ship taking tours, a 30 minute tender ride in each direction and a long walk to the central part of the city it was not possible to get off on your own to see the city. So we took the included Scenic Santiago tour which included a ride to El Cobre in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, a scenic ride through the city to see memorials, a stop at a government store for rum and cigars and finally a walk from the central Cespedes Square and around to central part of the city.

The Basilica in El Cobre houses an historic sculpture of the Virgin Mary and was recently visited by three popes – John Paul II, Benedict and Francis. From the Basilica you can view the mostly abandoned copper mines that were first used in 1532.

With time limited we chose not to stop at the Antonio Maceo Monument (also known as Revolution Plaza) where big political rallies are held. I didn’t get a great picture of the monument, but you can see a picture of the main monument on the right of the photo below.

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Antonio Maceo Monument (on the right)

Heading into town the Government Store was next to the old Bacardi warehouse. Santiago was where Bacardi was first produced before Castro’s government nationalized production. The local Santiago Rum,reputed to be the best in Cuba, is produced in the old Bacardi facilities.

The next drive-by was of the Moncada Barracks. Not long after organizing his resistance group, Castro decided to attack the barracks in Santiago believing that the Cuban people would rise up to oppose the corrupt government led by Batista. The attack in 1953 is considered the beginning on the Cuban Revolution. The attack was an complete failure. The Batista government filled in the bullet damage at the barracks. When Castro gained control of Cuba, the holes were unplastered and the building became an important historical symbol.

Our bus tour ended at Cespedes Square, the historic center of the city which features the oldest house in the city, built by Diego Velazquez, the Spanish conquistador who conquered Cuba. Also on the square is the Santiago Cathedral.

Then we toured the city streets where we saw several Son Bars where you can hear the local musicians (we were there to early). We walked through several shaded parks where locals were playing dominos. We passed by the Bacardi Museum which we were told displays items once owned by the wealthy family.

Santiago is a vibrant city with locals and tourists mingling on the many pedestrian streets. I wish we could have wandered around for a few hours on our own.

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Trinidad – Lost in Time

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Trinidad is Cuba’s second oldest European settlement after Baracoa. In 1988, Trinidad was named Cuba’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site (there are now 10) after Havana. The site includes the historic center of the small city and the Vallee de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) which is about 8 miles away.

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Vallee de los Ingenios – Valley of the Sugar Mills (from the Bus)

Trinidad was established by Diego Velazquez (de Cuellar) in 1514 who conquered Cuba for the Spanish. He went on to establish Havana the next year. He served as Cuba’s governor for most of the following 10 years before dying mysteriously in Trinidad. Seeing that the native Taino peoples were not suited to the hard labor imposed on them by the Spaniards, Velazquez started an African slave trade to provide labor for the local economy.

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Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor (photo: Donna Morn)

The golden age for Trinidad began in the late 1700s when sugar production moved to the forefront of the Cuban economy. Until the soil in the Vallee de los Ingenios was depleted in the mid-1800s Trinidad was one of Cuba’s richest cities. When the local sugar industry went into decline, the city started a slow descent into obscurity. According to our guide, at its economic nadir, Trinidad was only accessible by dirt roads. It is for this reason that the historic structures in the city have not been modernized or partitioned as they were in other cities on the island.

Driving past Trinidad, our first stop on the tour was in Vallee de los Ingenios at the historic Ignaza family sugar mill. We got to taste samples of the sugar cane juice, see a demonstration of the 19th century cane crushing technology and view Ignaza Tower which is the tallest watch tower (147 feet) built in the Caribbean for the purpose of keeping an eye on the slaves. You can climb to the top for 1 CUC. Time was very short, so didn’t have time to do the climb. On the walk to the Ignaza manor house, pure white crochet tablecloths, runners and other fabric items were on sale. This needle work is the most famous craft of the Trinidad region.

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Driving back to Trinidad from the Valley we saw the stunning scenery of the river valleys.

Back in the small city, we rode on the cobblestone streets made from the Massachusetts gravel used as ballast for trading ships sailing to pick up sugar. Most of the buildings in Trinidad are one story with a few two story structures in the center of town, mainly around the pretty little Plaza Mayor. We toured the Historical Museum of Trinidad which was the family home of the Canteros. We heard the history of the family, the slave economy and the boom and bust years of the 1800s.

Other groups were taken into alternative museums (perhaps to ease crowding or to give each facility some of the tourist dollars?) The other museums in the vicinity of the square are the Architectural Museum, the Archaeological Museum, the Romantic Museum (all in the 19th century homes of the city’s wealthiest citizens) and the Museum of the Struggle Against Bandits (in the former Franciscan Monastery) which has a famous tower pictured on some CUCs.

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We also visited a few craft stores not far from the historic center. We had a nice Cuban dinner at a local restaurant. Cuba has many pizzerias and other restaurants with ethnic cuisine that also serve traditional Cuban cuisine. Some of our fellow travelers did not even see the Cuban items on the menu, so they ordered pizza. We had Cuban entrees that were decent but not exceptional.

Trinidad Restaurant

Trinidad Restaurant

If you have already visited Havana, Trinidad is a nice alternative.

 

 

 

Viking Star – A Cruise to Cuba

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In 2015, the Norwegian owned river cruise line started sailing the oceans with 900 passenger ships offering the same amenities as the riverboats. Viking includes in their fares – select wine and beer with lunch and dinner, a free shore excursion in each port stop, access to the spa facilities, internet, complimentary laundry with washers and dryers and specialty dining. Not included are the gratuities of $15 per person per day. Viking’s ships are small by today’s standards and are relatively roomy per passenger. They also have a good guest to staff ratio. This means that they compete with the other upper premium brands such as Oceania and Azamara with prices generally starting $400 to $500 per person per day range (sometimes less, occasionally more).

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In Santiago de Cuba harbor

They currently have six ocean ships sailing and plan to have four more in the next few years. That will make them the largest line in their class, just as they are by far the largest river line.

Viking does things their own way, often ignoring what other lines do. This can be seen in their policies and sometimes on the ships. For example, they ask for final payment as much as one year in advance, while nearly all other lines expect final payment 75 to 120 days before the cruise. (Penalty policies are fairly generous, so there is no greater risk of losing your payment than with other lines.) The cabins on the ships have bedding for two…no cabins with more beds are available and none are connecting. And recently they announced they will no longer allow children. And while nearly all other lines offer a huge variety of options on their buffet, Viking limits their offerings to perhaps a half dozen hot entrees for lunches and dinners.

But none of these differences has affected their sales or their success. Their cruises are mostly sold out well in advance. And the reviews are very strong. Donna and I also enjoyed ourselves. I have some criticisms, but nothing that was even close to a deal-breaker. Viking has an excellent product that I can recommend to most adults.

The Ship

The Viking Star was built in 2015, but you would never know it was over 3 years old. Beside the lack of a new ship smell, the ship seems brand new. There seems to be an obsession with cleaning and maintenance. And the simple clean design and modular accoutrements make the replacement of worn or broken items easy.

Our Cabin

As you can see from the pictures the bathroom was roomy. I must confess I hit my eye against the corner of the sink, but only because I had not turned on the light.

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Our cabin when we arrived

The cabins is roomier than your normal Balcony cabin. Notice the two club chairs rather than the sofa. The TV was in front of the bed and could not rotate. The remote only worked if you were pointing at the TV from the bed. The closet was good sized but drawer space was not sufficient for a longer cruise. Most likely you would need to keep some clothing in your bags under the bed if you sailed longer than a week. The bathroom, on the other hand, had lots of storage and shelf space for personal items. The balcony had two chairs and a small table – heavy and well-made. The night stands had European and American outlets and USB ports to charge your electronics. A carafe of fresh water was always available. The mini fridge had a few items for sale and more space for personal items. The safe was nice sized but not big enough for most laptops.

Food and Beverage

Donna thought the included wine selections were good. They change each day and in the specialty restaurants they offered appropriate options. They also offer draft beer on the included options. The free beverages are offered during lunch and dinner hours anywhere on the ship. The hours are long, so most of the time you want an alcoholic beverage there will be something available, except later in the evening. If you want a more inclusive beverage package, that costs $20 per person per day, adding a greater variety of wines and beers, plus liquor.

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The World Cafe

As mentioned above, the World Cafe (buffet) offerings were limited. Each side of the ship had 4 buffet stations:

  • Beverage with coffee, tea, juice and more (unattended),
  • Salad with lots of fruit including berries and cereal and yogurt at breakfast,
  • Hot selections with a carving station and ethnic specialty items and
  • Bread and dessert.

The hot selections area has limited options as mentioned above. However, there was never a meal when I didn’t enjoy what was offered. And I suspect that their approach is less wasteful than the vast options offered by some lines. Also, the buffet trays were refreshed very frequently.

Some buffet items were not easily accessible for the guests and staff serving items was limited, which meant there were times when you had to wait to get a bagel or a piece of their crusty French bread (says the bread lover!)

The pool grill offers thick juicy burgers, BBQ pork sandwiches and more. The Explorer Lounge has a deli that offers Norwegian pancakes with berries in the morning and the traditional Scandinavian open faced sandwiches at lunch.

Dinners were very nice. We waited only a few minutes to be seated at the Restaurant (main dining room). The food was very high quality and cautiously spiced. (This could have been the particular items I ordered.) Unlike other cruise lines you were not encouraged to have 4 course meals…though you could if you wanted. The Restaurant had the typical menu with several items for each course offered all nights and another side of the menu that varied each night. There were many items which catered to special needs, such as vegetarian, gluten-free and others.

We booked the Veranda 1 category which does not allow pre-arrangement of specialty dining, so we had to book once we got on board. As it turned out, this was not a problem even for our sold out cruise.

There are two complementary Specialty restaurants. The Chef’s Table has a rotating menu with different international cuisines offered. Manfredi’s (named for the owner of Silversea cruises) offers Italian cuisine. Without realizing it, we booked the Norwegian cuisine night at the Chef’s table which meant that Donna would have nothing she wanted. However our waiter handled this beautifully by offering items from the main dining room. Reindeer consume was a little gamey, but the lamb main course was excellent. Manfredi’s was more to Donna’s taste. It was excellent.

Overall, I would say the cuisine was very good, but not exceptional. Spicing was conservative which many people would like, but I do not. However, there was great attention to detail. Meat was well-selected and trimmed appropriately limiting the amount of fat. Vegetables were carefully culled. I’m not sure how they still had fresh blackberries at the end of the week, but I appreciated that.

I enjoyed the food a lot and respect their efforts to limit waste with their menu and buffet design.

Service

The service was consistently good. All the staff I met seemed well-trained and hard-working. It was not as personal and attentive as I’ve found on Oceania and Azamara or the luxury lines.

Anthony, at the shore excursions desk, was the one staff member who stood out for me. Donna liked our waiter in the Chef’s table. No one else stood out.

I really enjoy meeting and connecting with cruise ship staff from other parts of the world. It was pretty clear from the service we got on the Star that time was limited and it was more important to do what needed to get done than to make a personal connection with the guests. However, almost every single staff member you meet on the ship says hello. This is especially noticeable at 6am in the World Cafe.

There were innumerable and unmemorable instances of solid service on the ship. On the other hand, there were a very few examples of inattentiveness. The one that stuck out for me was the several times when my water glass was empty. Since that is normally all I drink and glasses tend to be small, it was a bit annoying. Part of the way through the cruise, I started asking, “please make sure I have water.”

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Itinerary and Shore Excursions

The itinerary for Viking’s Cuba cruise this Winter is unusual. Unlike all the other Cuba cruises I have seen, they do not dock in Havana. You can visit there on a day trip from Cienfuegos or do an over-night trip which includes a hotel stay. The ship anchors in the harbors of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. You are in Cienfuegos for parts of 3 days. You arrive on Saturday midday and leave on Monday midday. The ship anchors in Santiago de Cuba harbor for about six hours. Ours was the first time Viking was visiting Cuba this season, so there were a few hitches in the process for them.

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On the Tender

These ports do not have docks for cruise ships and may not have a deep enough harbor to accommodate them. So everyone had to take a tender from the ship. Passport control and security checks when the ship first docks in Cienfuegos was another bottle neck in the process. Hopefully there is a way to make this process a little faster, but there may be little Viking can do.

The price of the cruise includes one short excursion in each port you visit. In Cienfuegos, we did the 3 hour walking tour of the city and in Santiago we did the scenic tour that was offered.  We also paid for an 8 hour tour of Trinidad that was about an hour from Cienfuegos. (I will be writing about these in separate blog posts about those cities.)

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They also offered a variety of other tours in each port. Most of those who took the tours that we missed seemed pleased with their experience. The only complaint I heard was about the length of the drive to Havana which was 3 to 3.5 hours. You can also book private tours through other companies. ShoreTrips.com offers these, including the day or overnight trips to Havana.

Passenger do not have to take a tour with the cruise line or take a tour at all. You can simply get off the ship and wander around. I would still recommend the tour as most people you met on the street will not speak English. Also, the city center if Cienfuegos is about one mile from where the ship docks. In Santiago it is several miles. There are taxis waiting. Technically you are supposed to keep a log of your people-to-people exchanges with Cubans and hold onto it for 5 years. I don’t think the US government has ever check to see if people are doing this.

The tours offered by the cruise line are through the Cuban government. However, in general I would say they are good and well-managed. And the guides are very accommodating. (See my blog post Reflections on Cuba for more on this.)

One last comment. The stay in Santiago is too short. If you take the free scenic tour there, you will have no additional time to wander around. And the center city has a lot to offer as far as shopping and culture. Hopefully they will be able to adjust that.

Entertainment

Like with most small ships, the entertainment is simple. I don’t have high expectations, but it was still disappointing. We saw two shows featuring the ship entertainers. I confess to being a music snob. Having been involved tangentially in the music business, I like good musicians and performances that are authentic (think not Las Vegas). Our Cruise Director was a fine singer, but the ship band was cheesy during his featured show. The Viking Star singers and dancers were unmemorable in the Beatles / ABBA show.

This ship also had a classical trio, a pianist and a guitarist who sounded quite good.

Mulatason

Before the show

The only stage production I enjoyed was the local musicians they invited on the ship, an all-female Afro-Cuban jazz band called Mulatason (Son is a particular Cuban rhythm.) Led by the timbale player, they were very entertaining.

The TV system in the rooms offered a wide variety of recent first run movies and we watched two comedies.

They offered a few other activities like trivia, but none of the typical pool and parlor games. There is no casino.

Onboard Enrichment

Vikings enrichment program was excellent and well-attended. They had 3 guest lecturers on the ship with different areas of expertise. Every day there were two or three presentations about Cuban culture and history. We didn’t attend them all, but I enjoyed one that offered a good summary of Cuban history, one about the Cuban people today, one about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and one about the impact of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also offered were small group discussions with the experts. Donna and I went to one of those with our favorite expert. Unfortunately, these presentations were not taped and offered on the ship streaming service.

The port presentations done by the ship staff were blandly scripted, but useful if you were trying to decide what to do.

Conclusions

Overall we had a great time. Viking offers an exceptionally clean, well-organized cruise experience with solid cuisine and service and wonderful inclusions. My complaints are for the most part picky. However, Viking is not for everyone.

When there is a sea day, you may need to entertain yourself. Unlike many cruise lines, there is no real effort to provide a variety of activities. No problem for me, but for Donna it was a bit disappointing. On the other hand, if you are interested in hearing from experts you will love Viking Oceans.

And with all that is included, Viking is a good value on many itineraries. Discounting is not common. They usually stick with their initial pricing. However, they may occasionally add free or discounted air when cruises are not selling as quickly as they like. Also, I suspect that as they release more ships, they will feel more pricing pressure and discounting will become more common.

Reflections on Cuba

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After two visits to Cuba in the last two years, here is a summary of my impressions of the situation for the Cuban people, based on what they have said and what I have seen.

Che Billboard over Cafeteria in Cienfuegos

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Welcome to Socialist Cuba!

On the drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Trinidad in southern Cuba our guide Claudia told us, “Ask me anything. I will tell you the truth. The government has not told me what to say. Whatever I say I am not worried that I will get in trouble.” Later when asked who she works for she told us the company is government-owned. As a large organization that was the only possibility really. Only very small businesses are privately owned.

As an American, I wonder how free the Cuban people are and whether I can believe what they are telling me. And I wonder how much the average Cuban benefits from Americans visiting their country.

  • Can an employee of a government-run company say negative things about the government?
  • Are the guides told what to say and provided with scripts which defend the Communist and Socialist system?
  • Is the people-to-people cultural exchange tourism mandated by the US government playing into the hands of the Cuban government in their desire to eliminate the embargo?

Personal stories and opinions of our guides and hosts. (Names have been changed.)

Roberta hosted us in the AirBnB we stayed in in Havana. She was a lot of fun and seemed extremely open. She was required to fill out a government booklet about each guest. But otherwise I don’t think she had any connection to the government. Roberta lived with her daughter who was in her early 20s. Her main concern was helping her daughter. She was not interested in finding another husband having developed a jaundiced view of the usefulness of having a man around. She told us that most people earned the equivalent of $25 US per month in their jobs. Though that sounds impossible, when you consider that Cubans don’t pay for many things (more on this below), it may be possible to live on that.

Roberta’s cell phone, land line and hotel registration booklet

Roberta was happy that the Americans were coming. We asked was the money tourists brought getting to the people. She told us that most of it went to government leaders who lived in big houses. She said this was partially accomplished with their convertible currency – the CUC. Technically CUCs are worth 87 US cents, but a citizen who has CUCs can exchange them for 95 cents on the street. So what happens to that extra 8 to 13 cents? Especially if you spend the money at a government-run business. Of course, the leaders would point at that government funds are used to provide food and services to the people of Cuba.

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View from our Apartment Porch in Havana

So Roberta felt American tourists were a small plus for local people. It put more money into the economy and provided more work and a little extra cash for the locals, especially those with small businesses. Roberta also expressed sincere pride in Cuban history and accomplishments.

She was a wheeler-dealer. She offered us cigars and other tourist items. The government (and its employees) often warn not to buy cigars outside the government stores as they may be fakes. And they may be. Or perhaps they are not. We bought the cigars from her and they were beautiful fakes if they were fake. And the smokers said they were sublime. Perhaps that is what matters most.

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Street Food in Havana

Roberta wanted to help us any way she could. On the other hand, Roberta had ulterior motives for telling us what she did. By saying Cubans are poor, she was encouraging us to offer a larger tip. I think that she was doing quite well in comparison with the rest of her compatriots. And this was because she was working on the burgeoning gig economy of Cuba. Still we were happy to tip her well because of the wonderful help she gave us.

Roberta found us Julietta, our tour guide in Havana. She was working for an independent tour company. She was a college student studying English at the University in Havana. Her family was from Santiago. She did not talk much about her family. She loved American pop music. She told us about much of the pre-Castro history of Cuba. The one political comment she made began with, “Back when we were Socialist…” I don’t recall the end of that comment. All of us were struck by the fact that she believed that she was living in a post-Socialist Cuba. And perhaps she had a point. She was not working for the government. She had a hopeful attitude about the future and was studying English because that made sense to her.

Claudia was one of our guides during our Viking cruise. As mentioned above she promised to be honest. She was also diligent about making sure everything went well for us and any other American tourists. This really became clear when we ran into some members of another group who were lost. It was not her responsibility to solve this problem, but she immediately came to the rescue. When one of the lost women whined, “but it wasn’t our fault, our guide just ran off,” Claudia simply explained she was going to find someone to help them find their group.

Claudia was in her mid-thirties and married with children. They live with her mother and her grandmother on a small farm. The owner of the farm was always the oldest living family member. She said this was very difficult because her grandmother was 100 and often did things that the others did not like. When asked why she didn’t live with her husband’s family. She said that sometimes it is best to live with the devil you know. She and her husband, like many young couples were not legally married.  They had a common-law marriage which she said was far more common in Cuba as there were financial advantages.

Claudia told us much about Cuba’s Special Period, the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell and the subsidies which had been provided for decades suddenly ended. She commented, it was called the Special Period because that was part of Cuba’s sense of humor…a way of making light of a tragedy. Oil, electricity, food, clothing and everything else were in desperately short supply during Claudia’s childhood. But her family and others found a way to cobble things together and make it work. She didn’t say it, but it seems likely that some did not survive the tragedy.

When she was in her teens, spent one year at home because she was ill. That year she watched an educational station broadcast by the government which included lessons in English (and other courses). This was how she started learning English. Of all our guides her English was the best though we still did not understand everything she said.

When Raul Castro started allowing private businesses, she had tried working freelance in the resort areas catering to European tourists. But after she was harassed by a few international tourists and she realized that she had no defense from these men, she decided to work for the government. That made me think of young Julietta in Havana and the issues she might face.

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Fruit for sale at Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills)

She said she enjoyed her work and ran tours two or three days a week during the busy season (October to April), implying that she wanted to work more, but the work was not available. This is a common theme – underemployment. While nearly everyone is employed in Cuba, some jobs were not what we would call full time. And some private gig economy jobs, offered long hours but very little pay. These included the various types of taxis (car, pedal, horse-drawn) and the flea market stalls.

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A ride in Cienfuegos

We asked Claudia many questions about life in general. And she gave thorough, detailed answers. Health care is completely free to everyone in Cuba. Everyone has a family doctor. If more is needed you are referred to clinic and if the situation is more serious you are sent to a hospital. Medicines are not free but are very inexpensive.

Education is free at all levels including doctoral students. You must pass tests of course to get into different types of schools and colleges. Many Cubans go to college, but often when they get out there are no jobs in their field so the end up working at jobs not related to their field of study – labor and service jobs. Claudia said that 87% of Cubans go to college. This seemed extremely improbable to me. It was one thing she said that I immediately felt was not true.

She talked a lot about cows. Part of the food rationing is the providing of milk to seniors and children to ensure they have good nutrition. Because cows do not thrive in the tropical environment, it is illegal to kill a cow without government permission. So beef is not common and when it is killed it is commonly served as Ropa Vieja (old clothes) which is a pulled beef dish cooked with tomatoes and other vegetables. It is a tasty way to serve meat from an old cow.

She said that the Catholic church claimed that well over half the population was Catholic, but she said that some of these so-called Catholics were members of Afro-Cuban sects. (More on religion below.)

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Basilica in El Cobre

When asked if it was safe to walk around, she confirmed what we had heard repeatedly. There is very little crime in Cuba. She said this was because people have what they need. She also mentioned that drugs are completely illegal and uncommon in Cuba. Those caught with marijuana would get 15 years in jail.

Near the end of our trip someone asked how she felt about Castro. She said he was the hero of the nation and had done much to make Cuba a better place. But it was time for a change.

Cuba is in the middle of a time when constitutional changes have been proposed and will be decided. The proposals have been published for everyone to discuss. In January the leadership will decide which new proposals will be accepted. She mentioned that some of the proposals involved increased opportunities for private business.

Claudia was our most impressive guide. I found her forthright and positive.

Jose lead our tour in Cienfuegos was a lady’s man who reminded me a bit of a Cuban Colin Farrell. And he knew everyone in town. He was wearing a wedding band but did not mention anything about his family that I recall. Unlike the other guides we had, Jose was not particularly political. He explained a lot about shopping in Cuba, how in some markets you could only use the Cuban pesos. While in others, you can also use the convertible tourist currency known as CUCs. He took us into a lot of stores encouraging us to buy items. The stores he promoted were government-run, barely mentioning the nice flea market stalls on pedestrian street where we later bought a couple items.

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Government-owned store in Cienfuegos

For our tour of Santiago de Cuba, our guide was Duny. He was a young married man who had a wife and twins. He expressed great satisfaction with his life. He went into great detail about the wonderful medical system in Cuba. When is wife became pregnant with their twins, extra care was taken since the babies would be small. His wife spent two months in a hospital to ensure all were safe. And they stayed after the birth as a precaution.

Duny called himself a Christian which was what he called Protestant. He said there were no Jews or Muslims in Cuba, but in Cuba you can worship as you wish. He also said most of the population was Catholic. He went on to say that some Catholics belonged to Santeria and Voodoo sects. When we visited a beautiful Catholic Church, we saw young women wearing pure white dresses and head scarfs. Duny explained that these women were becoming saints in their Santeria sect, going through a process which would last several weeks and end with a ceremony where animals would be sacrificed. The sects have repurposed Catholic saints as their minor gods. Duny seemed non-judgmental about the sects, but seemed to enjoy the salacious appeal his descriptions had.

Duny also told us that one new constitutional change would allow same-sex marriages. I’m not sure why he told us this. At that moment, I thought he was implying that Cuba was not a backward country.

Observations about public places.

In each of the places we visited during the day there were large number of locals loitering, clustered in groups just talking or playing dominos or sitting on park benches. There were fewer on Sunday, but on Monday and Tuesday there were large crowds.

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Sunday in the Park in Havana

When we visited Havana last year, we were not approached by those asking for money and not many on the street offered us items to buy. In Cienfuegos, there were a few begging or trying to sell something. As we often do everywhere, we avoided speaking with them. In the central square in Santiago, there was a guitarist who looked like familiar so I looked at him. He offered to be in a selfie with me. And there were several others hustling there. These people were clearly on the far edge of the gig economy, trying hard to add a little to their meager incomes. And they were very persistent as in many places. I suspect the increased amount of begging and hustling is a natural evolution.

As we found in Havana, there were historic buildings which had been beautifully renovated including a few historic hotels, but mostly buildings were crumbling. In the suburbs as we drove out of town there were many half-built multi-story buildings clearly meant to be apartments that had been abandoned. Houses of all sizes were mostly unpainted and patched. We were told that the insides were often cozy and well taken care of because they were family-owned. This is a relative term. The family could not sell the house, but they also did not pay rent to the government. Many large houses that had been built by the wealthy before Castro had been partitioned for multiple families.

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Prado Apartments

Few have cars. There are more scooters. Both vehicles and gas are too expensive for most people. Busses were common even in the countryside, but they were nothing like the luxury Chinese vehicles the tour company owned. Some looked fairly nice, but many were trucks that had been adapted with a windowed steel box outfitted with enough seats for perhaps half the passengers to sit. With no air conditioning, they must be stifling to ride in.

Conclusions

So were the guides being honest or was there some propaganda goal of the Cuban government being promoted? The three guides we had during our recent cruise all worked for the same government-owned company, but they were very different in their narrative. There were some similarities. All conveyed the image of life in Cuba as a struggle due to the resources and circumstance of the island nation. While they partially blamed this on the US led embargo, they all said the Cuban people all respected the American people and hoped the embargo would end. And they all suggested that Cuban cigars, rum and coffee should be purchased in government-run stores.

When I think about my experience with tour guides in other countries including those that are free democracies, their message is very similar. Where ever you go, tour guides tout their nation and culture, expressing pride in their heritage.

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The Cuban guides even took pride in how they had handled the tragedy of the Special Period in the 1990s. The Cuban people see themselves as resilient and ingenious. There is a lot of evidence that they are.

So can the guides criticize the government? It is my impression they don’t want to. They are convinced that their government is mostly good. Small complaints might occasionally be expressed. And they did not seem frightened to say what they felt.

Did the guides follow scripts? The only evidence I found for this was regarding government-run stores. Otherwise each said different things in different ways. And each had grown up with the Cuban educational system which presents their history from a Cuban perspective…just as it is in other countries. That is where the guides got their script.

Is the people-to-people tourism playing into the Cuban government’s hands? Perhaps. On an island with limited resources, tourism from a large, wealthy neighbor can be an important boost to the economy. On the other hand, having some many Americans walking around Cuba cannot help but impact their culture as well.

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Sancho Panza Park

Unless something gets in the way, I think that the embargo will end in the not to distant future. And I think that will be good for everyone.

Tarragona – New for Cruisers

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The Catalan port city of Tarragona is a large shipping port which has been occupied since before the time that Romans settled (perhaps 5th Century BCE). The Azamara Quest docked at the end of a massive breakwater-pier-jetty that was well over a mile long. Taking the free shuttle bus into the center of the city (we usually walk), we passed the industrial port including mountains of coal, presumably stored there prior to shipping. It was an oddly beautiful sight. After passing the security gate of the port we traveled north along the Mediterranean before we got to the entrance to the walled city.

Between the old city and the sea are the ruins of the Roman Amphitheater. As in many other places much of the stone used in the arena was hauled away centuries ago to be used in other buildings. So much of what remains is a reconstruction. Interestingly within the amphitheater are the remains of two early Christian churches.

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Roman Amphitheater (photo by Donna)

The old city itself has two sets of walls – the Roman originals and more recent walls built by the British. Within the old city are narrow winding alleys with old foundations and much newer structures built on top. I suspect during the peak of the Summer tourist season, these alleys are packed with visitors, but our early November visit was busy enough so that the stores were open, but cool and quiet enough to make the visit very relaxing. We did not visit the archaeological museum just inside the walls, near the amphitheater, but it gets excellent reviews.

The Tarragona Cathedral is the largest in all Catalonia. Begun in the late 12th century, the major architecture is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic, but the interior is much more mixed with stunning chapels in many style including over-the-top Baroque. Perhaps the highlight of the visit was the cloister with orange trees and fountains.

We walked past the Placa de la Font near City Hall past the old Ramblas to the new Ramblas, where we walked a few blocks. It was a nice with interesting shopping and attractive restaurants, but definitely did not compare to the Ramblas in Barcelona.

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Shrine of the Barefoot Carmelite – Neogothic

Since Tarragona was a replacement port due to congestion in Barcelona, the ship tours mainly took passengers up to Barcelona where the ship was scheduled to arrive at 7pm. And if you haven’t been to Barcelona, you should definitely take a Barcelona tour. But Tarragona is definitely worth a nice walking tour in the old city.

Ajaccio – Not so proud of Napoleon

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Sailing into the Gulf of Ajaccio the sun rose over impressive rows of mountains, like the rows of shark teeth. Dolphins were happy about our arrival. Large ships stir up the local fish giving predators such as dolphins a nice meal.

Ajaccio is the capital of the French ruled island and about one in four Corsicans live in the area near Ajaccio. Corsica is a large island with a sparse population of only one-third of a million, almost half of whom are not native to Corsica. The island has the highest mountains of any Mediterranean island and the rugged interior has the old medieval hilltop villages where the historic population lived, avoiding the dangerous and pirate-ridden coasts. Genoa ruled the island for much of the 500 years before 1755 when Pascal Paoli declared independence. Corsica was nominally a nation until the Genoese signed a treaty turning over the island they did not rule to France in 1768. By 1780, the French Army had turned back the rebels. In 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio. Among his other accomplishments, Napoleon ensured that Corsica did not regain its independence. That explains the local’s ambivalence to their most famous native son.

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As the birthplace of Napoleon, Ajaccio has more than its share of Napoleon statues, museums and historic markers which are popular with tourists. We took the Ajaccio city tour that included walking in the city and near the Iles Sanguinaires, three small scenic islands that provide a wonderful view with several of the Genoese towers that were constructed to protect the island from pirates. The entire island coast is dotted with these stone monuments. At the view point for the three island the water is calm and stunningly clear, allowing Donna to notice a small pink jellyfish floating below a pier. It was a bit cool, but if we ever stay there in the Summer the beaches would be wonderful, since pirates are no longer an issue.

After the islands and several monuments to Napolean in scenic parks and squares, we visited the Ajaccio cathedral where Napoleon was baptized. It is a small church that featured trompe l’oeil walls (3D painting used especially during the Baroque period) were meant to look like marble and other more expensive ornaments. The island has never been rich, even in the capital. The end of our tour was at Place Foch where there was a small but attractive farmer’s market.

The other popular tours offered from Ajaccio included a trip to the verdant Prunelli Gorges with long blue lakes and dramatic cliffs or the Vizzavona Pass with views of the Monte d’Or and rustic town of Bocognano. The setting of the Gulf of Ajaccio is wonderful, but the natural wonders of Corsica are even more dramatic as you explore the central mountains. Oh, well. Next time!

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Place DeGaulle (photo by Donna)

Palamos: Costa Brava

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Barcelona is one of the most popular cruise ports in the world with good reason. But the entire region of Catalonia has much to offer. Costa Brava (Wild Coast) north of Barcelona offers dramatic coastal views and cultural attractions. Palamos and Roses have recently attracted the cruise lines who want to spend a little more time in Catalonia.

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View of Palamos and Azamara Quest from Cap Gros

(See Comment about Catalonia unrest below.)

Palamos is situated on one of the longest stretches of beach in the area and it had that post-Summer resort feel. Many store and restaurants were closed and the beaches were sparsely populated. There were several excellent para-sailing athletes providing entertainment when we stopped for a drink after our long day.

The cruise lines offered tours focusing on Dali (the Dali Museum in Figueres or the Dali Castle plus some other hilltop towns and castles), food (Fish Museum in Palamos, a local farm tour, rice farms in Pais and a winery) and Girona, the historic regional capital of the area. We decided to do our own private tour and stayed in town. North of the beach is the old town built on a finger peninsula with narrow streets and a lovely church – Santa Maria del Mar. Traffic was light and sadly nearly all the stores were closed. I love traveling to places when they are quiet, but the downside is that stores and restaurants are often closed.

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Once we got to the north side of the peninsula we had a striking view of a large marina and Cap Gros, the next peninsula which looked like a challenging climb from a distance. At this point Donna and I discussed the difference between a walk and a hike. I had worn my hiking boots, so I was ready. Donna said she was only interested in a walk, not a hike. We continued. The area was residential with coastal apartments facing the water and large houses high on the rocks with paths down to tiny beaches. There was a large fancy campground on the slope of Cap Gros. The end of the peninsula was a park with striking views of Palamos to the south and more of Costa Brava to the north. This was when the hike started so Donna didn’t climb the last part of the hill and I got to see one of the area’s most popular beaches, Platja Fosca as well as Castell de la Fosca in the far distance. We had done the first part of a three hour hike along the rocky coast north of the city. If you are a hiker, this is a beautiful walk (or hike).

We walked back and had our drink on the beach and watched the para-sailing.

When we got back I heard from others that the Fish Museum tour was fascinating. They got to see the fish auction, here about the local catch and each some of the super-fresh product. For those who enjoy fish, sounds like a fun tour.

Away from the hustle of Barcelona, Palamos is a nice daytime stop for a cruise.

(Political turmoil in Catalonia: We visited Catalonia about 10 days after the elected leadership of the Community of Catalonia declared independence and the government of Spain responded by removing that leadership. It was not certain we would go there with the political uncertainty. Despite the dramatic events, there were no acts of violence by the rebels or the government, so our cruise made three stops in Catalonia – in Palamos, Tarragona and Barcelona. The only evidence we saw of the revolt were many flags waiving from windows and locals handing out leaflets at the ports. We did not see increased security anywhere. We did not spend much time in Barcelona, so we may have missed some stronger evidence of the troubles. Nonetheless, the Catalans seem to be maintaining a vocal, but peaceful stance. It is unclear from all that I have read if the rebels have the support of the majority in the region. Hopefully Catalonia will continue to remain peaceful.)