One of the more exciting moments of an 11-day expedition was boarding a 150-foot motor-sailor, the Panorama II, for a one-week cruise off Cuba’s southwest coast.
Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic has chartered the Greek ship for its initial Cuba sea journeys, so our trip not only carried a twist of history — few Americans had explored these waters since the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 — but also a learned staff of lecturers and photographers. They led our group to meet Cubans and experience cultural highlights and sights unseen by most Americans in more than five decades.
We were 35 passengers and a crew of eight when we floated away, on the evening of Day Four, from Cienfuegos, a major Cuban port on the opposite side of the island from Havana, where we had spent our first three nights.
We were bound for Puerto de Casilda, port for Trinidad; the Cuban island of Juventud, formerly known as the isle of Pines, and Playa Giron, the port at the mouth of the Bay of Pigs.
Fifty-five years after the failed invasion, we arrived in Playa Giron for a visit to a museum that tells Cuba’s version of the battle.
But first, half of our group, all bird watchers, left the ship at daybreak for a woodsy walk at Bermejas in the Zapata Swamp National Park, with a local bird and natural history expert.
Bird-watching did not yield a Cuban green woodpecker but did lead us to exciting views of a dozen indigenous species, including the Cuban pygmy-owl and the bee hummingbird, smallest bird in the world at 2 ½ inches.
Touring the preserved city of Trinidad
For a visit to the former Indian village of Trinidad, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cuban national monument, we docked at Puerto de Casilda.
Trinidad is one of the world’s lucky cities, at least lucky for travelers, because world events passed it by, allowing the third oldest city in Cuba to survive in a way that its architecture and atmosphere have been preserved.
Once Trinidad was isolated from the rest of Cuba because there was no gold or silver to plunder. It became the center for sugar production, then was largely abandoned as sugar needs declined.
Today, its primary income is from tourism, and well worth the journey.
The city is a treasure, from the cobblestone streets surfaced with ballast from European ships more than a century ago, to low-slung arresting city buildings, many of which today house artists’ studios, small restaurants and developing bed and breakfasts.
Next: Dancing and music on Isla de la Juventud, where Fidel Castro once was imprisoned
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com