By Kirsten- March 2016

With all the excitement of a new destination and a new era for travel to a forbidden place, I along with 5 fellow travelers, set out on our trip from Cancun to La Habana.  It was a very complicated trip to arrange as there is more misinformation than correct information.  Trying to book hotels, tours etc was frustrating and time consuming…..but ultimately worth all the effort.

We arrived in Havana where we were met by a representative of Avalon, the diving operation, who assisted with a transfer to our AirBnB, which would be our home for the next 3 nights.  There we were met by a wonderful young man, Ariel, who escorted us into the apartment block off Ave. de Italia.  It is a very ‘local’ part of town but certainly within walking distance of Old Town and everywhere in the central part of Havana.  It ended up that our group was split up into 3 separate apartments, on different floors, but it worked out great as we all had our own bedroom.  The apartments all had kitchens but we had pre-ordered breakfast from Ariel who would deliver eggs, fruit, juice & bread at the appropriate time, sometimes we all ate together but not always.  We designated an apartment to gather for breakfast and plan our day.  I had not pre-booked tours for the group, as we were a very independent bunch and exploring, with Ariel’s help and advice, worked out fabousley.

Ariel’s soon-to-be mother-in-law was able to change our US dollars to Cuban Cucs (the currency that US citizens have to change money to) without us having to leave the apartment, so that was a huge help.  Trying to change money at the airport was a 45 minute line and quite the lesson in patience.  Ariel was a fountain of knowledge and helped us with lots of information, not only about tourist details, but also about Cuba and its people.

The first night we went to eat at Los Nalgas, a fantastic and very authentic Cuban restaurant that has a large, inexpensive menu that catered to everyone’s pallet.  After, we walked a few miles getting our bearings and digesting our wonderful dinner.

It is hard to explain the feeling of Havana but, for me, I was immediately in love.  Today lots of the buildings are in total disrepair but renovations are happening so fast that it won’t be long before the old part of Havana will be a different place.  I was not expecting to feel like I was both in a European City and in the 1960’s… was incredible.  The architecture is amazing, the old cobbled streets, sidewalk restaurants and plethora of churches take you back in time.  I kept thinking that I was in the movie “Midnight in Paris” and, at any moment, Earnest Hemmingway, Humphrey Bogart and …… would walk around the corner. 

I think what hit me most were ALL the old cars.  Now, I was expecting a few but honestly there are SO many it was astonishing.  There is every style, colour and shape you could imagine and you just can’t help but take pictures of them all.

Every day we walked…..and then walked some more.  We explored El Morro, the fort that sits at the mouth of the river that runs past Old Town Havana.  We had to take the local bus, as you go through the tunnel that runs under the river and there is no walking path.   The Fort is quite something with a moat, cannons, chapel and what a view, not only of Old Town but out towards Key West.  We met a local along the waterfront who had pictures of the Officers Club houses that used to exist along the water back in the day.  Today there are only ruins of what was once the heart of the seafront in Havana.  Another day we headed to tour a cigar factory in the suburbs that was absolutely fascinating then headed off to explore Old Town Havana.  There is so much to see and you can get lost in taking pictures and soaking up the ambiance. 

The Cuban people are lovely.  Culturally, they are definitely a mixture, which I think is a part of what makes this place so vibrant.  We explored so much of the city that we got to see the ‘local’ Cubans as well as the ones that are around the tourist areas so got a great sense of life here.  Even though it is hard, due to all the restrictions, I think that life is going to get better for a lot of the residence with more and more tourists coming in and more jobs being produced.

Finally we were off to the diving portion of the trip.  Leaving before the crack of dawn, we headed out for the 6 hour bus ride and then 3 hour boat ride to our ‘home’ for the next 6 nights, the Tortuga in the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen).

The houseboat was surprisingly nice with twin rooms with ensuite bathrooms.  The food was amazing and the chefs do a great job, not only with the flavor but with the quantity….even producing homemade pizza for afternoon snack each day.  We did 3 dives a day (2 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon) and then a night dive (if there are 3 or more).  The whole time we were there it was quite windy and by the end of the week the visibility had gone down significantly.  One of the main attractions was Tito, the resident American Crocodile that hangs out and come when you call…no kidding!  I was lucky and got to snorkel with him (behind the dive master with the big stick of course) but he is a little intimidating as he is about 7 feet long!  We did get another opportunity to snorkel with a much smaller Crocodile (about 3 feet) and this time I didn’t need the Dive Master for protection!!

The diving is the usual Caribbean type diving with the browns, yellows & oranges but the reef is full of life with schools of snapper, damsels, angel fish, tangs, grouper (large and small) as well as the resident Caribbean reef sharks that follow you around like puppy dogs.  Lion fish are present and an invasive species to the area, so the Dive Masters would spear them in an effort to keep the population in check.  The groupers and sharks are learning to eat them so hopefully that will become a learned behavior for them and a natural balance will be resorted.   Tarpon are just coming into season so we saw small groups of them.  Eagle rays, sting rays, turtles and barracuda are also a treat.  The corals, sponges & fans are prolific and pristine, it was so lovely to see.  The dive sites are varied but 5 days of diving was perfect.

At this point, our dive adventure came to an end and we embarked on the long journey back to Havana and our wonderful hotel, Hotel Santa Isabel, located on the Plaza de Armes in Old Town.  This lovely property  is one of the original Havana hotels, beautifully restored,  and has such a wonderful feeling.  The public areas are all marble with an open courtyard and several seating areas on each of its 4 floors.  The rooms are large with a terrace and overlook Old Town or El Morro and the river.  Breakfast was included and was an assortment that we hadn’t seen in Cuba. 

Our last evening was spent wandering around soaking up the last of our trip to Cuba with a slightly heavy heart.  This is definitely a city that I would love to spend more time in, wandering and taking in all the wonderful architecture and ‘old time’ feel.  I hope to return in the not too distant future.