The parapets of the stone fortress were empty of the cannon that used to guard the blue waters of the harbor of Havana as the cruise ship sailed into port. I gazed at the skyline of this infamous city of my youth. What would be like to visit the country that has been the home of the Spanish conquest of the new world, the Spanish American War, the Mafia, Fidel Castro , and the Cuban Missile crisis. I had 24 hours to find out.

I had arranged a 3 hour tour with Havana Vintage Car Tours via email a few weeks prior. I met my guide, Ernesto, in front of the Havana Club Rum Museum. He greeted me with a big smile and introduced me to our driver, Julio. We climbed into the 1946 Red and White Desoto convertible for our drive thru the streets of Havana. The springs of the rear seat were worn and it was covered in plastic but comfortable.   No seat belts in this 70 year old beauty.

We cruised along waterfront promenade called the Malecon passing numerous classic American cars containing more of my shipmates. Many of the these rare machines are allowed to operate as taxis in addition to doing tours of the city. The car entered a tunnel under the waters of the harbor and Julio shifted into a lower gear as we climbed a hill on the other side. We drove past a Mig 21 jet fighter among Soviet era military equipment displayed along the roadside.  We parked in a shaded spot a short distance from the stunning white marble guardian of Havana, a huge statute of Jesus. Ernesto pointed out the statue’s hands and said that local folklore believed they were meant to hold a cigar and a glass of rum making this Jesus a true Habanero.

The skyline of Havana was silhouetted by the slowing setting sun as we walked to El Moro. This is the stone fortress I saw as we entered Havana.   I climbed over its grayed stones streaked with black to the edge and looked into the deep blue waters of the Caribbean. This fort guarded one of the most important ports for the Spanish Galleons taking riches from the new world back to Spain in the 16th century. The many parapets for cannon would have made entering the harbor a gauntlet for enemy ships.

We continued our drive past several neighborhoods. Many of the houses were colorful and had laundry flapping in the breeze. The Rivera hotel building still stands that was once home to a Casino run by Meyer Lansky of Mafia fame. The Bacardi building still has the large bat symbol of the company atop its old headquarters even though the company left after the revolution for Puerto Rico.  The people on the street seemed content as they went about their business in the warm afternoon sunshine.

We passed the Capital building currently surrounded by a scaffolding for a major renovation. This building is slightly taller than the U.S. Capital that was its inspiration. The Plaza de la Revolution is the largest square in Havana celebrating the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. The faces of Fidel and Che Guevara decorate the government buildings that face the huge obelisk in the center. It seemed appropriate as I was taking Che’s photograph to see a 1950’s finned red Cadillac cruise beneath his metallic gaze.

Ernesto told me Cubans are proud of their history and really do like Americans but it is our governments who cannot seem to get along. Because of the embargo no new cars can be imported into Cuba and very few new buildings have been built since 1960. Cubans have become masters of getting, making, or fabricating parts to keep their cars going as even old used cars here are very expensive. Even our vintage Desoto had a Russian air cleaner, and a carburetor from another vehicle. Classic cars in Havana are called cars of the United Nations as they have parts from all over the world.

The government provides many of the basic necessities for the people in Cuba including jobs, food, medical care, education, and housing but that many Cubans must be “clever” to make ends meet.  While electricity is cheap, Havana suffers from regular blackouts and many people sleep on patios or on their roofs during the hot summers. Air conditioning in homes is rare here.

Evening approached as we pulled up to the most famous hotel in Havana. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is distinctive for its huge size, twin cupolas, and famous visitors. Presidents, Movie Stars, Sports Heroes, and gangsters have all stayed here. It hosted the famous Mafia conference of the late fifties and still has bullet scars from a Coup d’état in the forties . Havana is the birthplace of several famous cocktails such as the Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Mojito, and the El Presidente. All made with Cuban rum naturally. I sipped a Cuba Libre at a table in the bar as I glanced over the wall of fame and marveled at the faces of the rich and famous who had visited before me.

My tour ended back at the pier as darkness settled over Havana. I was a bit overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, and history of this city during my whirlwind experience in a classic car. Havana Vintage Car Tours had made my first few hours in the city memorable. Gracias, Ernesto!

My day was not yet over. I was going to experience the night life of Havana by visiting the famous Tropicana nightclub.

The show started at 10 P.M. with 500 people sitting under the stars with a bottle of Havana Club rum for every four of us. The next two hours was a colorful, loud, musical and dance extravaganza that has to be the inspiration for the famous Las Vegas shows. I did not understand hardly a word that was sung as everything was in Spanish but that didn’t matter. The show was mesmerizing.

I could almost imagine some of those rich and famous faces I saw on the wall at the hotel sitting among us like it was the 1950s. Even the sign above the stage said Tropicana 1939 2018 in neon lights. I was invited to dance with one of the showgirls as performers entered the crowded seating area as part of the performance. A fantastic finish to my first 12 hours in Cuba.

A few hours of sleep and I was up and headed to one of Old Havana’s four main squares or Plazas . The Plaza de la Catedral is cobbled stoned square with a beautiful church surrounded by the grand houses of old Havana. In the square, I encountered my first “Costumbrista”. She was dressed in a colorful local dress with a green head cover and a basket of bright flowers. These are government employee s who interact with tourists. Tips are expected and it is better to negotiate your experience beforehand. Greeters and street performers normally get about two CuCs (Cuban Convertible Peso) about two dollars for a posed photo. A few blocks away at the Floridita Bar you can have your picture with Ernest Hemingway (statue) and have a daiquiri at the place it was invented.

Ernest Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and loved Havana. I travelled to the fishing village of Cojimar to visit a monument there to the famous writer.  A bust of Hemingway gazes out on the harbor near an old Spanish fort.   Ernest Hemingway lived nearby at Finca Vigia or “Lookout House” which has a viewing tower and hence its name. The house is now a museum filled with his books and mounted hunting trophies. His famous fishing boat, the “Pilar”, sits on wooden supports on the property near the old swimming pool.   The house is located in the small, working-class town of San Francisco de Paula about ten miles from Havana.

My 24 hours was up and my boat was preparing to sail back to Florida. Havana is such a great city with so much to experience. Hopefully the future will be brighter for these friendly, clever, and industrious people who strive to welcome all the visitors to their city that has seen 500 years of history. It is like a living time capsule just waiting for you to experience it. Don’t Wait. Progress is sure to come very soon to this unique city of Havana.

If you Go:Here are some tips from my recent trip that should help you have a great time in Havana.

Know the Rules: A Visa is required for all visitors. U.S. Citizens are under restrictive rules that do not allow tourist visits and only allow 12 types of visitations ( See U.S. State Department rules). You are required to fill out a Cuba Visitation form in advance to boarding your ship in which you identify the type of activities you are participating in. The most common is the People to People activity. This requires you to have 8 hours of interaction with Cubans for each day(24 hours) in Cuba. Cruise ships tours make this easy to accomplish.

I did not see any U.S. officials checking on my fellow passengers and cruise line employees will not enforce the rules but it is better to comply with the regulations than risk more restrictions on travel to Cuba for violations.

Money and Tipping: Visitors to Cuba must use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC or “Cuke”). One CUC is equal to about one dollar. Cubans use the Cuban Peso (CUP). Money exchanges are common at the cruise port and airport and some hotels.   Credit cards are not excepted here so Cash is King. The types of currency are easily distinguishable. C.U.C has images of monuments and buildings on them. C.U.P. have faces of Cuban heroes on them. Be aware the Cuban pesos (CUP) are worth 25 times less than (CUC) Cukes. Check you change closely when you make purchases.

Tipping is usually in lower amounts and all tips are appreciated. Tour Guides should get around 5 to 7 CUC. Drivers around 3 to 5 CUC. Waiters 3 to 4 CUC. Bathroom attendants .50 to 1 CUC.   Street performers 1 to 2 CUC.

Street beggars may approach you for money. Don’t pay them even if you feel sympathy or you might find yourself surrounded by several others who will also expect to be paid.

Buying Rum and Cigars: Cuban rum and cigars cannot be imported into the United States. However you can bring home some of each legally from your visit. The most common rum is Havana Club. It is fairly inexpensive with a liter of costing about 5-7 CUCs for the 3 year old white rum. Aged rum costs a little more with the 7 year old Anejo Especial being perfect for Cuba Libres.

Cigars should not be purchased on the street. You might be buying banana leaves not tobacco or the scrapings from the factory floor. Buy Cigars from a brick and mortar store. Prices vary from a few dollars to over 30 dollars for some of the best cigars in the world. 3 of the popular Monte Cristos Double Emundo will run about $40.00.

Personal Safety:  All the tour guides I spoke with as well as the cruise directors stated that Havana is one of the safest cities in the world. All of them said you can safely walked around the squares in the old city in the evenings to enjoy the bars, restaurants, and music.

I saw police officers regularly. However, if you’re a night owl and want to walk to your cruise ship or hotel late at night or early in the morning you could encounter the rare bad actor. Always be aware of your surroundings and take taxis when in doubt. A few dollars is not worth a bad encounter.

Cuban words and phrases: In addition to the normal Spanish greetings here are a couple of Cuban words and phrases you may wish to use during your visit.

Que Bola: Whats Up, Almendron: Classic Car, Pari: Party, Mango: Good Looking, Chama: Child or Kid