After a calm winter’s night at anchor on Cuba’s remote Siguanea Bay, 34 American travelers on the 150-foot motor-sailor Panorama II awakened before dawn and collected their snorkeling gear, prepared for a ride on a local boat to the southwest corner of Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isle of Pines).
But on this day, the schedule, which had been arranged with and approved by top tourism officials in Havana, was not to be.
Communication about changing procedures is not an attribute of central government in Cuba, a country known for breakdowns in plans and mechanics and disincentives for individual decision-making. Military guards in charge of the island docks had received no written instructions from Havana (though an approving word would filter down for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic trips in weeks that followed).
So, no local boat would be coming to tender us from our ship to shore as the sun began to rise. Ever resourceful, expedition guides attempted alternative transportation, rolling out zodiacs that belonged to our chartered Greek vessel. Alas, Panorama II’s captain called off our morning journey to a white sandy beach for swimming and snorkeling at Punta Frances Marine National Park. Instead, we would cruise directly to Cienfuegos, our last city on the 11-day Cuba expedition.
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During the course of the cruise, our schedule changed almost daily from our printed itinerary.
The previous day on Juventud, we had reached shore without a hitch. We toured Presidio Modelo, where Fidel Castro and fellow revolutionaries were imprisoned in 1953 through 1955. We then made a delightful visit to Nueva Gerona’s Escuela de Arte Leonardo Luberta, a music school for gifted children.
We walked El Búlevar, a pedestrian-only boulevard where city residents turned out to watch us watch a terrific show. The show featured models dressed in minimalist pirate’s clothing made of newspapers, and two local bands, one playing for a presentation by children of a folkloric dance, a second performing music of the Santeria Church as dancers representing the orishas, Yemayá and Eleggua, swirled.
“After such an inspiring day among the creativity, talent and spirit of the local people, and after seeing the benefits from so many of the government institutions like art schools and hospitals, today we faced our share of difficulties,” said Tom O’Brien, our expedition leader, as we motor-sailed east to Cienfuegos (toasting with a spontaneous round of Bloody Marys).
Earlier in the week we had been turned away from two seaside sites, including famed Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) Marine Park, the attraction that had drawn some of the passengers to book this voyage. Now we had been outmaneuvered by the Cuban military, although they did it politely and respectfully.
O’Brien applauded passengers for their patience, flexibility, open minds and “surprisingly high spirits.”
Why not? While snorkeling and swimming were out — in fact, we never dipped our bodies into the water during the entire week at sea — we remained a satisfied lot of travelers, sailing in and around ports on the southwestern coast of Cuba, which largely has been closed to Americans since the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Fifty-five years later, we had floated up to the infamous Bay of Pigs and calmly walked ashore to visit a museum in Playa Girón for Cuba’s version of the failed invasion. We began the morning at daybreak for a woodsy birdwatching walk that did not yield a Cuban green woodpecker but did lead us to exciting views of a dozen indigenous species, including the Cuban pygmy-owl and the bee hummingbird, smallest bird in the world at 2 ½ inches.
The Lindblad/National Geographic expedition to Cuba — three nights in Havana at the venerable, outdated Nacional Hotel and seven nights cruising on the cozy Panorama II — was described as a people-to-people tour, as spelled out in a contract with the Cuban government. That’s what we did — meeting, listening to and/or watching talented Cubans speak, entertain and show off their homes, businesses and creations in Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Nueva Gerona. Even our free time one morning at the 60-block Havana cemetery, Cementerio Colón, seemed to qualify as a people-to-people visit.
In Havana, the Habana Compás dance troupe drummed and danced to blends of the rhythms of Cuba. In a private rooftop performance, Grammy-winning Septeto Nacional, founded in 1927 and now in its fourth generation, played Cuban music with special guest singers that included Pedro Godinez, 90. We rode in classic American cars from the 1950s; toured Ernest Hemingway’s former home, Finca Vigía; and met with artists and young journalists (at OnCubaMagazine.com, which is published in the United States).
In Cienfuegos, the Cantores de Cienfuegos choir sang religious and classical Cuban songs. In a specially arranged musical program, children performed “Cucarachita Martina” at a harborside pavilion.
We ate well, and viewed even better at seaside rooftop restaurants and in historic homes where Cubans are expanding their businesses and presentations for an anticipated rise in visitors.
Havana, said guidebook author and lecturer Christopher Baker, is in the midst of a gastro-revolution thanks to the creativity of cuentapropistas (private entrepreneurs). Cuban food was tasty, although without much in the way of fresh vegetables. On Panorama II, meals were more creative than those on land, all of which were well-prepared combinations of rice and either meat or fish.
Twice when we arrived at Cuban ports, passengers and guides lined up to have their temperatures taken by a local nurse. That was a first for me. In Cuba, at least on the southwestern coast, the government doesn’t want travelers bringing any germs ashore.
Travelers on this expedition unanimously reported a positive feeling about the island and their many contacts with its residents. American travel guides who have spent time in Cuba call it a country of scarcities when speaking of material goods but with no scarcity of enthusiasm and confidence among the people. That was an accurate portrayal of the Cuban folks we met, both the people we were guided toward and those we met casually on the streets.
By its nature, expedition cruising is significantly more adventurous than relaxing. Such a cruise draws a special breed of travelers who are flexible and patient about outcomes. Although Lindblad/National Geographic expeditions are well guided by experts of the land, nature and photography, travelers do not know for certain what expectations will be realized, and when. That is part of the fun.
New expeditions, such as cruising the southwestern coast of Cuba, require an additional degree of open-mindedness, anticipating a surprise every day.
▪ Eleven-day cruises of Cuba on Panorama II start at $9,500 per person double occupancy and are available through March, then again in December through March 2018. Information: 800-397-3348 or expeditions.com.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com