Boris is celebrating a milestone birthday and would rather take a trip than celebrate in any other way. He challenged me to come up with a special place that he had never been. I rose to the challenge by selecting a cruise out of Miami to Cuba, a place he had always dreamed of going.
Cuba sits so close to the coast of Florida that the captain’s biggest challenge is to not move the ship too quickly. At this slow pace there is no fear of anything flying off the shelves. The one-hour delay out of Miami-a cargo tanker was in the channel-proved to be no big deal.
I want to preface my comments for my international readers. Visiting Cuba is a unique experience for Americans, having long been denied the opportunity to do so by our own government. My comments will be colored by this history. Of course, many enterprising patriots traveled to the island by simply booking a flight out of Canada or Mexico and asking not to have their passports stamped. I preferred to wait until I could make the trip legally.
Americans have to travel to Cuba through an approved form of cultural exchange, which is one reason we chose the cruise route. The cruise line, in our case Azamara Club Cruises, takes care of those details. To board the ship, you have to fill out a form designating whether you will go on the ship’s excursions, a combination of ship excursions and approved tour company offerings, or self-guided touring. Choosing options 2 or 3 means a lot more paperwork to fill out.
Our full first day on board meant a slow crawl to Havana. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy the spring sun and also go to talks on the excursion offerings and the history of Cuba.
I had read about shopping in Cuba and about the 10% tax on the exchange of American dollars in addition to the currency exchange rate. With Euros, Canadian Dollars, and British Pounds there is no tax. What we found was that it was a steep service charge on the exchange, 13%. How bad is that? Although we were told the exchange was close to one to one (actually .98 to 1), our $400 only got us 350 cucs (convertible pesos). You cannot secure Cuban currency prior to entering the country. Upon arrival, you visit a Cadeca to make the exchange. This is a country of two currencies. The locals use cup (pesos) while tourists trade in cuc (convertible pesos). One convertible peso is worth about 5 pesos. There is talk in the country that the dual currency system will be eliminated. With a change in the Cuba’s leadership anticipated on April 17, 2018, this may be sooner rather than later.
Your credit cards are no good in Cuba, so we’ll leave those in the safe in the cabin. Americans are now allowed to bring a limited supply of Cuban cigars and Cuban rum home with them. Boris once purchased Cuban cigars in Mexico and smuggled them in. All went well until about two feet after leaving the immigration officer, when a young Rocky-who had been coached not to say anything about the cigars to the official-announced that Dad was very lucky that he had not been caught. To this day I am convinced that the officer must have chose to ignore the comment of a child and let us go. We were still so close to the US immigration official that there is no way he wouldn’t have heard Rocky.
This evening we dock in Havana. It was a scenic ride into the port and it gave us the opportunity to enjoy our balcony. I was on the look out for the classic American cars still found on the island. We sailed along the Malecon, a seawall the locals refer to as the “world’s largest bench”. It is popular spot in the evenings, especially on warm nights when you want to enjoy the cool ocean breezes.
We arrived in port early, but customs officials did not clear the ship until 5:30. There were lots of people ready to head straight ashore. We dressed for our special evening out. Tonight is our show at the historic Tropicana. It will be a late evening. We meet our buses at 8:15 for an 8:30 departure. The doors open at 9 and the show starts at 10 pm. We made sure we got to the dining right at 6 pm when the doors opened. Lots of other people had the same idea. There are 7 buses going to the Tropicana tonight, by far the evening’s most popular excursion.
The ship’s excursion guide told us that we could go ashore at 8 pm, clear customs, exchange cash, and still have time to make it to the bus at 8:15. We decided to give ourselves an extra 15 minutes and left the ship at 7:45. I am so glad we did. The lines at immigration were long and slow. There were two ships at the pier so everyone on the Azamara Quest was trying to get off and others were trying to return to their ship. It was our first trip through Cuban immigration and customs. We purchased the Visa in Miami at the terminal when we checked in. It’s a serious process; when your picture is taken they tell you not to smile. It also took a long time. Fortunately, the money exchange was quick and we made it to the bus right at 8:15. We were on bus 3 of 7.
Our guide Jaime told us it was just luck of the draw on where our seats would be in the 1000-seat open-air theater that is the historic Tropicana. The Tropicana opened in 1939. They do have an indoor theater that seats 600 and is used when it rains. Jamie told us that it rarely rains. We arrived just before the opening time at 9 and I don’t know how he did it, but we were dead center in the first row of tables next to the stage. I might have cropped out a few of the heads that got in the way, but none of the pictures were shot with the zoom lens; we were just that close.
As we entered, women were given a carnation and men were given a cigar. You also paid a fee if you wanted to use a camera (5 cuc), tablet (10 cuc), or video camera (15 cuc). Our package includes a welcome glass of sparkling wine served when the show starts, a bottle of rum to be shared by 4 people, a mixer (a small bottle of coke), and a snack (peanuts and a wrapped piece of candy). You could purchase additional drinks or food. Since we still had an hour before the show started, Boris and I each ordered the specialty daiquiri. The daiquiri was invented in Cuba.
We spent the time getting to know the other people at our table. There was an older, single widow from San Francisco of Indian decent and we talked a little about the Bollywood show tradition. She had also been to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The other two couples were from Tennessee and Arizona. The single remaining seat was filled near show time with a man from Argentina who spoke no English. Of course, he could understand the show; it was sung entirely in Spanish.
While we waited, we drank the very disappointing daiquiris (definitely not sweet and I couldn’t even taste the rum or vitamin R as Jamie called it) and got rained on. It was just a little drizzle and I was more worried about my camera than anything else. The guides kept running around telling us not to worry, that it wouldn’t really rain. It was fine by show time.
The show ran continuously for 1 hour and 40 minutes. There were 112 dancers and over 10 singers. It is a tough life for the performers. They arrive at 3 pm each day. The first show is over just before midnight and then after an intermission there is a late show. They perform 7 days a week. The advantage is the pay, 400-600 pesos a month. That may not sound like much, but a Cuban doctor only makes 200 pesos a month. Their career is over by age 30-at least in the case of the dancers-but most don’t make it that long. 90% of the dancers are age 18-20.
There is a main stage, a high platform, mid platforms on each side and staircases. There are a few remote stages and a separate wall with three levels for additional performers. They also come out into the audience.
Talk about over the top! Talk about sensory overload! There are incredible costumes and seriously tall headpieces. Nothing is modest and these people are in terrific shape. I have never seen so many feathers (or G-strings). Jamie called it Vegas on steroids.
The dancing was beyond anything I have seen. Although I don’t speak Spanish, the singers conveyed the emotion of the music so well, it didn’t matter. At one point, Opera Singers came out in white tuxedos and gowns and entertained us. This was the only part of the show not sung in Spanish; it was sung in Italian. It was such a dramatic contrast to the rest of the show, but somehow it worked.
I loved it! I loved it all!
I went because of the historic significance, but will remember it for the entertainment. The shows are done each day for tourists; the locals could never afford to go there. Jamie said that he has seen the show hundreds of times as a guide and it never gets old. There are some remote locations where locals have a chance to see this type of entertainment. Did I say I loved it? I loved it all.
Coming back to the ship, there were once again horrible lines at immigration in the hot terminal. It was a late night, but totally worth the lack of sleep. Welcome to Havana, Boris; Welcome to Cuba, Natasha.