We arrived on board the Celestyal Crystal yesterday afternoon and spent our first afternoon rattling around the ship. Rattling is the operative word.. our ship has a capacity of 1200 people and there are a little over 130 paying passengers on board. In fact, I would hazard a guess that there are more crew on board than passengers!
So day 1 and Santiago de Cuba. Our day began with us getting in some breakfast (the real problem with cruising is food and alcohol… on this one everything is included so I need to get ready for food and drink overload) and heading down to the bottom deck to begin our tour of Cuba. I’ve decided that our cruise should be considered a Cuban Sampler… we’re only visiting 3 of the cities and two of them get less than a full day- so a sample is a nice way of thinking about our cruise.
From the ship we passed through customs and into Cuba! First stop- cash station… Non- Cuban citizens have to use the CUC (the “cook”) as opposed to the CUP which is the local currency. The CUC is a pegged currency.. I converted Euro to CUC and basically converted 1 for 1! Ouch! If I had’ve converted US Dollars I would have paid a premium but gotten a better conversion rate!!! Crazy huh? Also discovered that many places will accept US dollars so pretty pissed that I brought Euro all this way to get diddled at the border crossing! Like all countries with a pegged currency though, you just have to suck it up. D however, whinged about the currency conversion and the unfairness of it all…. I didn’t bother!
So after getting diddled at the government run cash agency we boarded our cruise bus and headed into Santiago de Cuba. SdC is the oldest city in Cuba and was the original capital city until the mid 1700s when the capital was moved to the new port of Havana. Its hot today here in SdC so I was glad we were on board an aircond’ bus. So first impressions, yes there are still plenty of old cars trundling around, and the houses are in differing levels of disrepair… but, there is a definite modernisation air about the place. Half the cars are modern (and not too old), the state owned buses are modern and aircond (although pretty over crowded) and the central square received a fresh coat of paint not too long ago (for Pope Francis’ visit) so the city feels fresh and lively.
First stop was out to El Morro castle. El Morro was originally built by the Spanish as a fort to protect the fledgling colony of Cuba from the bucaneeros (privateer pirates) + corsairs (govt backed pirates- Francis Drake as an example). Today, it is a very well preserved Spanish colonial fort that is UNESCO listed. Views from the headland were impressive! Plenty of old canon + muskets on view and probably some good stories about the raiding pirates. All the information was in Spanish though so it was a little difficult to tell- I caught some tell tale words that gave me a very general overview of the stories. El Morro was also the home to many revolutionary figures.
So to Revolución.. When Cubans talk about Revolution they generally mean “the” revolution; when the locals overcame Spanish ownership (with the backing of the Americans) and founded the republic of Cuba at the end of the 19th Century. The “other” revolution you hear about is when Fidel over threw the Bautista regime in the 1950s. In the case of El Morro the revolutionaries who were housed in the castle (in the dungeon) were the original revolutionary figures. Most notable to me (by dint of the surname) was Baccardi. Baccardi were the family who created the infamous Cuban rum that is now sold world wide. It is not produced in Cuba. (I’ll get to that a bit later on)
At the castle D and I also went on a shopping spree and purchased some Cohibas!! $35 bought me a box of cigars (in a nice wooden box) and a sample pack thrown in for good measure. D bought the big Cuban Cohiba cigars also in a wooden box for $40.. I definitely got the poorer of the deal but I’m not interested in the big thick cigars.. I mean, what would I am going to do with the small ones anyway?!? Later downtown we went into a shop and saw the same cigars for well over double the price so I’m guessing we got a good deal—and no, I checked, they weren’t black market cigars (well I was told they weren’t black market cigars…..)
From El Morro we drove down town to see go to a graveyard, the national one but still the graveyard! It was a pretty impressive graveyard! Home to many of “the” revolutionaries and also the last resting place of Fidel. Big white family mausoleums + two large structures representing the revolutionary sacrifice. First stop was to stop and see Fidel’s grave…. Hmmm.. Its hot today (I think I might have mentioned that before) and we were standing out in the sun in a crush waiting to see the great leader’s head stone… Now, it is an impressive head stone but it is still a head stone.. its not like we were likely to actually see him come back to life! After at least five times of nearly being crushed we finally got to do our walk past (stopping not allowed)… Strangely enough… it was an anti climax! No Lenin viewing here in Cuba!!! The highlight of the visit was seeing the changing of the guard over the revolutionaries’ monument.. Amusing! Plenty of military style marching music was blaring out of speakers and the goose steeping guards.. Very shiny shoes!
From the heat of the graveyard we then started a drive around SdC to see some of the beautiful old houses and buildings. In particular, we stopped in the wealthy suburb- home to plenty of big ole’ mansions + well manicured lawns. Most of the Cuban wealthy and elite left Cuba after Castro took over the island. When Castro took over the nation all of the companies were nationalised by the govt. Most of the owners all took to boats and left Cuba for the United States or elsewhere abroad so these mansions turned into schools/ hospitals etc, even govt buildings. The most impressive was the Baccardi mansion… even before the takeover Baccardi was a huge rum brand and was the national drink of Cuba. Today, Baccardi rum is made OS.. but the factory still exists and makes rum under the Santigo de Cuba brand. I bought myself some today at the ridiculously cheap price of $9.. In fact, the white Havana Club rum was $1.50 for 750ml!!! I was tempted to buy the 30yr aged stuff for $30 but decided I wasn’t enough of a connoisseur to be able to tell the difference and I’d save my $$!
Last stop was downtown in the main market square. Gorgeous old buildings line the square, including the oldest building in the New World- built in the 1550s!!!! It looks amazing for such an old building! Well preserved, you might say! The highlight of the main square was the cathedral and the govt building, both opposites on the square. Apparently the govt building is where Castro declared the new Republic of Cuba and the cathedral where Pope Francis talked to the masses when he visited.
The market square ended our whirl wind visit to SdC.. before we knew it we were back on the boat consuming more food and pulling out of the port. Next stop is Havana!