Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Sunrise as we approach Cienfuegos.

Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.

After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.

 

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.

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Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.

It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.

We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.

We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!

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Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.

After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.

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As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.

“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”

“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.

In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.

We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.

We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!

Cruise diaries: Santiago de Cuba

We never planned to take a cruise that would visit the historical-cultural cities in Cuba. For Canadians, Cuba has been a prime all-inclusive vacation destination for over 30 years, and since that’s not the kind of holiday we yearn for these days as a general rule (never say never, though), Cuba has never been on our radar. Not so with the American-based cruise lines, though, so it seems. It all began a week before our final payment was due on our recent Caribbean holiday.

We awoke one morning to an email from Silversea telling us that there had been a slight itinerary change in our upcoming voyage. Not a problem, we thought. The cruise lines reserve the right to make changes to itineraries, sometimes because of weather, other times it’s operational. When we looked at the “new” itinerary, though here’s what we saw (minus sea days):

Original Itinerary New Itinerary
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Jost Van Dyke

St. Thomas

St. Kitts

Antigua

Samana, DR

LaRomana, DR

Fort Lauderdale

 

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santiago De Cuba

Georgetown, Cayman Islands

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Havana Cuba

Key West

Bimini, Bahamas

Fort Lauderdale

 

Not exactly what we bought, was it?  Our first thought, was, no, we wanted a relaxing putter around some laid-back Caribbean ports. This new one was nothing like what we bought and would mean several days of historical city tours, more in line with what we prefer on a European or Asian excursion. To make a long story short, they offered us the opportunity to re-book on a cruise more in line with our original thinking, at a discount, as week or two later from a different starting port, but this was really unacceptable. We had planned on the week in San Juan pre-cruise and had everything, including our airline tickets booked. At that late date, we would be hard-pressed to find suitable non-stop business class tickets to anywhere in the Caribbean. So, we asked them for the same discount if we kept our original date and sucked it up. We were going to Cuba.

After our wonderful six days in San Juan – replete with our mixology class at Casa Bacardi – we embarked on our unplanned journey. Like it or not, we were going to learn about Cuba, way beyond the beach resorts. First stop, Santiago de Cuba.

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The evening before we arrived in Santiago, we were informed that the ship would not, in fact, be docking at the port; rather we would be anchoring and taking tenders to reach the shore. According to the information we received on board, it had something to do with the fact that the dock had been damaged when a ship ran into it. Never mind that the next day we did note that another ship did dock at the one suitable dock. In any case, we were not too happy with the news that the tender ride would be some 45 minutes long.  In a crowded tender. Not very Silversea-like in our experience.

Arriving ashore, unlike other countries all throughout the world where you simply walk off the tender into the port, in Cuba you’re required to go through immigration and passport control at every single port. This means another line-up as you disembark the tender with your passport and visa in hand.

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About to enter the immigration “hut” on shore in Santiago.

Finally ashore, we boarded a modern bus for what turned out to be the single ship-organized tour that we would take on this trip. (You’ll figure out why.) Our Cuban group tour guide led us on a four-hour historical/cultural tour of Santiago with a very obvious emphasis on ensuring that we saw the aspects of Cuba that he (and his official employer) wanted us to see, minus the aspects he didn’t want us to see.  Let’s just say that there was much attempted indoctrination.

The truth is that Santiago de Cuba does, indeed, have an interesting and storied history. Founded in 1515 by Spanish conquistador Velasqeuz whom we all might remember from junior high school history classes, Santiago is today the second largest city in Cuba after Havana. Its historical significance to the Cuba of today, however, is based on the fact that a 27-year-old Fidel Castro, leading a group of rebels, kick-started the Cuban Revolution in 1953 in Santiago. On January 1, 1959 Castro proclaimed revolutionary victory from a balcony overlooking the square we’re in below.

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The city of Santiago, as we would come to learn of all the cities in Cuba, has a very well-kept façade of historically important buildings and monuments. However, the real Cuba of the citizens is very different. We only got a glimpse of it on this official tour, but later in our trip we would begin to form a more widely informed picture.

The tour guide, unfortunately, made the mistake of thinking that everyone on the tour was American. This meant that Patty seemed to be the only one on the bus who had actually been to Cuba before (that was before The Discerning Travelers years!). Unlike other tour guides we’ve known who always ask at the beginning of a tour where all the guests hail from, he did not. This seemed to have an impact on his behaviour toward us, the guests, as he barked orders at us to stay with the group (wholly unnecessary, but after all, he thought we were all Americans), and after telling us that we would all meet at the bus in 20 minutes, yell after the two of us to come back, as we headed out on our own. At one point, Art actually had to say to him quite severely, “You told us we’d meet at the bus in 20 minutes. We’ll be back in the bus in 20 minutes,” as we went off to photograph the fort

Ninety percent of the rest of the guests seemed to be too frightened of a communist country to leave his side. Canadians have much more freedom to come and go in Cuba, and we feel that way.

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[Some images of the real Cuba – Note the local “buses” at the top. Two of them are trucks with canvas tops over chairs – most are like this.]

The most obnoxious part of the group tour, though, was during the ride back to the tender dock. The tour guide told everyone that he was going to sing the Cuban national anthem, after which he wanted the guests to sing theirs. He did, and they did – breaking out into the Star-Spangled Banner as we sat there fuming. Not something we ever want to hear outside the USA. So inappropriate. As we disembarked the bus, Art handed him several bills as a tip, the uppermost one Canadian. As Art pointed to the Queen’s face on the bill, and the word CANADA emblazoned on it, he said, “A word of advice. Never make the assumption that all your guests are Americans.” The guide took an audible intake of breath and looked up at us sheepishly. He isn’t like to make that mistake again.

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[Street images of Santiago: The bottom shot is of the Bacardi museum…this is where it all started.]

The moment we got back to the ship we checked the cancellation date for the group tour we had booked of our next Cuban port, Cienfuegos. Thankfully, we had a port stop in Grand Cayman before that so were rushed to the tour desk and cancelled. No more group tours for us. Cienfuegos would now be on our own, and we had a private guide booked for Havana, so we were now safe! On to Grand Cayman!

Visiting Lima, Peru: A private guided tour

We live in Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. But our population is just shy of 3 million (LA is just shy of 4 million). When Canadians think about Toronto, they have a perception that it is large…enormous…populous…crowded…massive. Well, that’s because they’ve never visited so many of the cities on other continents. Take Lima, Peru. Who knew that the population of Lima is in the vicinity of 10 million with a population density of over 3000 inhabitants per square kilometre! Until we visited the city a few weeks ago, we certainly didn’t.

Lima locator map

We arrived at the port city of Callao, 14 kilometres west of Lima. Since the city of Lima is largely built on oceanside cliffs overlooking a long stretch of beach, no cruise ships – or ships of any type for that matter – dock in the city itself. So, we boarded the cruise line shuttle, a modern, air-conditioned bus, that transported us from the pier to a part of Lima called Miraflores. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there is a very good reason for taking this shuttle and not meeting a tour guide at the entrance to the port, but we need to back-track for a moment.

We really are not fans of shore excursions organized by cruise lines. The reasons for this are many and we’ll spend a bit more time on those reasons in a future post. For now, let’s just say that we like to be in control. However, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be completely self-guided; we just want to be able to go at our own pace and see the things that interest us. Enter the world of the private guide.

When we planned the recent cruise to South America, we perused the cruise-line’s offerings for shore excursions then surfed on over to Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based, internationally-focused tour company that offers private, licensed, vetted guides in some 158 countries. We had the pleasure of discovering them a couple of years ago when we were searching for a guide in Ephesus and Istanbul. [See our post here.] After that wonderful experience, it only made sense to see what they had to offer in a few of our port stops. In Lima we discovered a tour-guide whose offerings looked like just what we wanted.

We contacted Aaron through the Tours-by-Locals site, and conducted all our preparations directly through him, using the site as a way to document and pay for the experience. It was during these preparations that Aaron mentioned that he would meet us in the “safe” spot that the cruise shuttle would drop us. We wondered about the 45-minute drive into Lima (only 14 km. but lots of traffic!) to meet him, but as soon as the shuttle bus pulled outside the port gate, it was clear to us why he had wanted us to meet him in Lima.

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The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima where the Silversea shuttle dropped off passengers

The port shuttle took passengers from the pier only to drop them in a seedy spot just outside the gate populated by unlicensed taxis, questionable characters, and lots of grime. We considered how we might have felt waiting for our guide at that spot, or later on waiting for the shuttle to be dropped off. All in all, it was much preferable to be dropped in front of the uber-modern J.W. Marriott Hotel in Miraflores, one of the chicest neighbourhoods in the city of Lima. Yes, it was a good call on Aaron’s part. We called him as we left the port on the bus and as promised, he was waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrived in Lima.

Aaron had arranged for his brother to be our driver. We knew from previous experience touring other cities (Rome & Istanbul come immediately to mind) that having a driver in addition to a guide makes city touring even more enjoyable. That obviates the necessity for a guide doubling as a driver who is forced to spend time searching for parking spots. It also means that we can be dropped off at any corner, in any amount of traffic with plans to meet the driver at some other point. The we can walk which is, of course, the best way to see a city.

DSC00775Aaron started our tour in the historic area of Barranco. Considered to be the city’s most romantic and bohemian districts, Barranco was at one time a summer beach resort. Aaron took us to a lovely, small café for coffee before we carried on to Lima’s downtown financial district then on to The Larco Museum, which must hold the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world! It consists of over 50,000 pieces of ceramic art including a large selection of pre-Columbian erotica. It is not to be missed.

Of course, no visit to a Spanish colonial city is complete without spending some time in its Plaza des Armas, a central fixture of every city with Spanish roots. The plaza was originally building the sixteenth century and of course has as one of its most important features, the Cathedral of Lima. Completed in the seventeenth century, 1622 to be precise, it still stands in the square today.

 

A lively square populated with all manner of tourists, the square gives the that sense of history that holds the key to the city’s past. But after that visit, it was off to lunch. At Aaron’s apartment.

We arrived at Aaron’s apartment where his mother was already hard at work preparing for us a typical Peruvian lunch whose centrepiece was her ceviche which she taught us how to make.

But it was Aaron’s Pisco sour lesson that, for us, was  the highlight. We didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of our remaining two weeks in Peru and Chile, we would have one every chance we had.

A brandy-type of liquor, Pisco is distilled from grapes and is a staple of bars in both Peru and Chile, although the actual process for making the liquor is slightly different in each country. It can be used as the basis for a number of cocktails, or taken over ice, but Pisco is best know for it use in the ubiquitous Pisco sour. The drink’s ingredients are Pisco, fresh lime juice (which Aaron squeezed from tiny Peruvian key limes), and egg white in a blender with ice. Then he topped it with a drop of orange bitters – Aaron’s own recipe. We swooned.

Soon, however, lunch was over and Aaron deposited us back in Miraflores where, true to his promise, he led us to a shop where Patty began her search for an alpaca sweater. It wasn’t successful that day, but we still had a week in Peru! She’d find one.

Bottom line: our top pointers for visiting Lima via a cruise ship:

  1. Meet your tour guide in Lima rather than in the port of Callao. You will be happier and safer. Take the cruise line’s shuttle, sit back and enjoy the mostly beach-side drive.
  2. Book a private guide on Tours-by-Locals. We have found them to be a terrific value and have given us experiences you just cannot get with a group.

Cruising to Chile: Our first stop in Chile

We first touched land in northern Chile in the port of Arica which calls itself “the land of the eternal spring”, and for good reason. With its temperate climate and terrific beaches, it was an inviting way to begin our eight days in Chile.

[Arica is a real, working port just south of the border between Peru and Chile. There is no cruise terminal just like everywhere else we traveled along the western coast of South America!]

Leaving the port and driving inland toward the Atacama Desert, we found ourselves in a new world. On the edge of the desert, 17 kilometers outside Arica, we come upon the Presencias Tutelares sculptures, emerging from the desert landscape.

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Funded by the state arts council, the behemoths are the work of Arica sculptor Juan Diaz Fleming, and evoke a sense of the region’s pre-Columbian civilizations. Then we head inland.

Like a moonscape, the sand stretched out for miles as we made our way into the Codpa Valley. As we drove further inland, cacti began to dot the landscape and deep in valleys we could see small villages clinging to the river. We were making our way toward one of these villages: Codpa where we discovered a tiny, isolated community deep in a valley where time seems to have stood still.

A local shaman introduced us to a local ceremony and we wandered the streets wondering what life must really be like living in such an remote spot.

But our Chilean adventure was just beginning. The next day we visited the Elqui Valley farther south, then it was on to the magnificent, cosmopolitan city of Santiago. But that’s a whole story on its own!