Cruising Through Cuban Culture

Discovering "the Cuban Beat" and its vibrant culture on a one week circumnavigation of Cuba aboard the Celestyal Crystal.


Understanding the Cuban Beat means understanding how extremely proud the Cuban people are of their identity, tracing their Taino ancestry back through the Amazon Basin, and continuing with many of their ancestral beliefs. From Columbus’ landing to the Spanish invasion, the arrival of the African slave trade and up to current day, they have only become stronger with each stage of their cultural development.

The Celestyal Crystal is a 25,611 (gross tonnage) vessel, which can carry as many as 1,200 passengers and approximately 570 crew. The same level of pride demonstrated by the Cuban people is also evident in the way crew members speak of their own homes, ancestry and history. The Cuban Beat was carried over by the ships’ crew as they spoke about life on a cruise ship, their home away from home for the next eight months.

Our first night on board, we thought we would explore the ship to become familiar with our surroundings, fellow passengers and a few more crew. We opted to try our chances in the casino, followed by a late evening stroll on deck before turning in for the night.

Once the capital of Cuba and the island’s nerve centre, Santiago de Cuba’s Parque Céspedes (Birthplace of the Revolution) draws locals and tourists alike to enjoy a calmer people-watching and outdoor concerts. This was the official residence of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who was instrumental in the beginning (1896) of Cuban independence. This is also the site where Fidel Castro stood on the balcony (1959) and  announced the success of his revolution. In the heart of Santiago is the Moncada Barracks, where the Cuban Revolution began on July 26, 1953 when a small band of 135 revolutionaries, led by Fidel and Raul Castro, attacked the barracks.

A couple of days at sea on the Crystal meant it was time to enjoy some of the activities available on board. But how to choose? Cuban cooking lessons, a short dissertation about the history behind the Cuban cigar, learn how to make our own Cuban cocktail, indulge in a spa treatment, or simply relax on deck while soaking up some sun and making new friends.  

With four restaurants to choose from, you can select from hamburgers to lobster, and everything in between, with something to satiate every appetite. After a perfectly prepared repast, it was time to attend the live acrobatic production, Cirque Fantastic. Steeped in Cuban history and culture, these evening shows gave us a better understanding of the Cuban people and enhanced our shore visits. Still revved up from our Cuban dance lessons earlier in the afternoon (anyone for Salsa or Mambo?), we joined a group of other passengers to continue our evening in the disco.

We began our Havana tour with the historic military fortress of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, completed in 1630, located on the far side of the harbour. As we stood on the parapet gazing out over a beautifully tranquil, never-ending sea with a sky to match, we tried to imagine what it was like here during periods of war and the plight of pirate permeations in the mid-16th century.

Travelling in one of the vintage American automobiles that are famous in Old Havana, we visited many of the city’s historic sites. Several of the older buildings, seemingly in disrepair, were in various stages of restoration. Viewing inside many of these buildings, we could see the original beauty and opulence they once held and imagined a life that ended more than 50 years ago.

Wandering through Old Havana, we felt the need for an obligatory visit to John Lennon Park. Having your picture taken with a life-sized monument to the British musician is a must. At the unveiling ceremony, Castro spoke of his respect for the former Beatle, saying: "What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas," he said. "I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality." Across the street is the Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine), a bar whose decor is dedicated to Beatles’ albums and songs.

Time for a rest? Not yet. Having seen the documentary, it was time for a sampling of those famous Cuban cigars, which meant the inclusion of some nice Havana Rum, for each to complement the flavour of the other.

Feeling a little earnest about Ernest, we couldn’t leave Havana without exploring a few of Hemingway’s favourite watering holes. To start, blue daiquiris at La Terraza (bar/restaurant) in Cojimar. It was here that Hemingway docked his 34-foot boat, Pilar, and came to indulge himself in the delights of fishing, or perhaps stop by La Terraza for lunch and a cocktail. Back to the city, we enjoyed mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio, where we left our own hand-written message on the wall. Before returning to the Crystal, we had time for just one more of Hemingway’s favourite cocktails. El Floradita is well known for the Papa Doble, Hemingway’s version of the daiquiri, but with twice the kick. Emblazoned behind the bar, they brag that they are the “The Cradle of the Daiquiri.”

While on the Hemingway trail, we made our next visit to San Francisco de Paula, where he purchased ‘Finca Vigía’ (Lookout House), and wrote two of his greatest works, completing For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, and The Old Man and the Sea in 1952.

Cojimar, 60 kilometres outside of Havana, the mid-way point to Finca Vigía, is where Hemingway started his annual big-game fishing competition. In 1960, when the 10-year-old contest was named after Hemingway, Fidel Castro decided he wanted to participate in this competition and won. Allegedly, this is the only time the two men met. Travelling around Havana, we spotted black-and-white photographs of the pair, one taken as Hemingway presented Fidel with his trophy.

After a long and active day, it was nice to “come home” to the Crystal where, no matter how tired we were, we always found a smile for our cabin crew’s colourful animal de jour (crafted from bath towels) displayed on our bed. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

Our final day in Cuba brought us into port at Cienfuegos, a bustling town of 150,000 residents, often referred to as “La Perla del Sur,” or “Pearl of the South” (a city we will someday return to for further investigation).

For now, we proceeded to drive the 80km to Trinidad de Cuba. Founded in the early 16th century, Trinidad and its neighbour, Valley de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) was built on the sugar industry. With the remaining sites of 75 sugar cane mills, plantation houses, barracks and various other facilities, Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a living museum of the former Cuban sugar industry. Plaza Mayor sits in the heart of the 37-hectare historic centre. Under the watchful eye of Convento de San Francisco sits the Palacio Brunet, an authentic dwelling from the “golden” age, and the neoclassical-style Palacio Cantero, now the municipal history museum.

The entertainment crew on the Celestyal Crystal was especially successful in recreating the legendary stories of their beginnings. These, combined with our interactions on shore excursions, repeatedly showed us the strength and pulsating vibrancy of today’s Cuban “Heart” Beat.

- Editor, Source -

Alan Luke & Jacquie Durand,