Lake Panorama Couple Takes in Sights of Havana

Janet and Darwin Luing spent two days exploring Havana, Cuba, using the cruise ship behind them as their home base. A view of downtown Havana taken from the fort built on a rocky point near the city’s harbor. Officially called the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, this fort was built by the Spanish beginning in 1589 and completed in 1640. The lighthouse was added during the 19th century. In this government-owned cigar shop, a framed photo of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is proudly displayed.Darwin Luing is shown with one of 12 large cannons located adjacent to a fort built to protect the Havana port. Vintage American-made cars are painted in bright colors and used as taxis. These cars were on the island before the Castro revolution in 1959.

By Susan Thompson

For decades, travelling from the United States to Cuba has been a complicated endeavor. In December 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the two countries would normalize relations after more than 50 years. This led to U.S. citizens being allowed to visit Cuba without special permits, although most still must go on a supervised group tour.

Darwin and Janet Luing have lived full-time at Lake Panorama since 2006. While a trip to Cuba may have been on the bucket list of many travelers, that wasn’t the case with the Luings.

The couple has been friends with Dave and Anne Noah of Des Moines since they all were students at Drake University in the 1960s. They’ve traveled together before, so when the Noahs decided to take a four-day cruise to Cuba, they invited the Luings to join them.

Their cruise ship departed from Miami June 19, and made the 90-mile trip while passengers slept, arriving in Havana at sunrise.

“It’s not a big port compared to some where you see several cruise ships,” says Janet. “The Havana port only has room for two ships to be docked at the same time. There was already another cruise ship there when we arrived.”

Some guided tours were available to cruise ship passengers. The Luings and their travel companions chose an afternoon tour for the first day, and spent the restof their two days in Havana exploring on their own.

Cuba’s population is 11 million, with 2.1 million of those in Havana. The two Iowa couples spent their first morning and second day walking the narrow streets of the nation’s capital city. “You would see buildings that are nicely painted, right next to buildings that were in bad shape,” Janet says. “The streets weren’t littered, but everything was very old.”

“It’s pretty ‘third world’ because of Cuba’s government-run society,” Darwin says. “You can tell most of the nicer businesses are government-owned. The police force was very visible and there are lots of government jobs.”

Vintage American-made cars are used as taxis. “Those are cars that were already there before the Castro revolution,” Darwin says. “We were told Havana in the 1950s was a pretty nice, fancy place.”

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and nationalized all U.S. businesses on the island, President Dwight Eisenhower blocked nearly all trade between the two countries. That meant for decades it was illegal to purchase Cuban cigars to take back to the United States, and is one restriction eased during the Obama administration.

During their first morning in Havana, the couples were approached by a woman who asked if they wanted Cuban cigars. Their friend said he did, so she had them follow her to an old building, and through a gate. They had to wait behind a locked door for a bit, then were ushered into a room where colorful boxes of cigars were displayed and could be purchased.  

Despite the clandestine description of the cigar purchase, the Luings said they always felt safe and welcome. “The people are very friendly, very nice,” Janet says. “There are lots of beautiful flowers and landscaping, and many of the buildings are painted bright pastel colors.”

Direct purchases also can be made in various open-air markets, where handmade jewelry and other craft items were available. The tour company encouraged cruise ship patrons to exchange dollars for the Cuban peso in advance, which the Luings did. But those selling items in the flea markets would bargain and negotiate, and were happy to take American dollars.

The afternoon tour included a bus ride through a tunnel that crossed under the bay to a large fort. Officially called the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, it was built by the Spanish beginning in 1589 and completed in 1640. It is built on a rocky point near the mouth of the bay area, with 12 large cannons on the harbor side of the port. A lighthouse was added during the 19th century.

The fort now is a museum, and houses some government-owned businesses. One was a room where Cuban cigars were being rolled, with a framed photo of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, on display.

Another tour stop was El Capitolio, which was built in 1929 to look like a replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In the past, the building housed the parliament, as well as a few museums. It’s been undergoing renovations for a few years.

Revolution Square, the political and administrative center of Havana, was another tour stop. The group also toured the Colon Cemetery, named for Christopher Columbus. The 140-acre cemetery is noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials and 500 major mausoleums.

The guide on the group’s tour bus was a government employee, and also a teacher. “It seemed a lot of people with jobs also did something else,” Janet says. “It was really interesting being there, and seeing how the people live.”

The cruise ship served as home base for the Luings. Darwin says if given the chance, he would go again and next time rent a taxi to explore other parts of Cuba. “We were told about a fancy European resort area on the other side of the island, and I’d like to go there. But I would only come on a cruise, so we could sleep and eat on the ship,” he said.

While the Luings say they don’t have a travel bucket list, they’ve got a history of international trips, including a South American cruise that included stops in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina and a visit to China. Their next big trip will be in early October from Montreal to Quebec and Nova Scotia, ending in New York.