Devoted to bringing guests to ‘bucket list’ destinations, Azamara® brings you Cuba, a country that has been on our own destination bucket list for years.
Larry Pimentel, President & CEO of Azamara, recently visited Cuba for the first time, so we were eager to hear about his experience. From Cuba’s complex history, rich culture, and fascinating people, to its iconic music, incredible architecture, coffee, cigars, and—of course—fine rum, read on to learn about what he loves most about this amazing destination.
What are your top two recommendations for anyone visiting Cuba for the first time?
Personally, I like to seek out places that give me the essence of the culture. There are two things I highly recommend on a visit to Cuba.
First, seeing Cuba at night is important because I think the country presents itself differently. Keep in mind, this is a country of paradoxes. While there might be a lot of buildings that haven’t been perfectly maintained, this just adds character, and I don’t get myself too excited about that. What I try to look at is the beauty, the essence and uniqueness of the architecture, and I think walking the streets of Old Havana is fantastic, especially at night. The character of this architecture is one of the most prominent things you’ll see coming right out the cruise terminal, and it’s even more special at night.
Second, and also focused on night time, is you absolutely must experience the concerts and cabarets, like the Tropicana Club and Legendarios del Guajirito. These are a reflection of really cool music in a country with a lot of award-winning performers and artists. Going to one of these night shows and listening to the Cuban music, the beat, the rhythm, the exciting Latin flavor of it all on full display, to me it’s pretty exciting.
What about Cuba resonated with you the most?
Cuba resonates with me because it’s such a unique, fully contained culture that’s been there for hundreds of years, with centuries of rule under the Spanish, then independence, then the revolution under Castro... There’s so much history insulated and protected on the island, but it’s made more unique from the outside influences that did make it in over those periods. There are areas I walk into that if I was blindfolded beforehand, I’d think I was in the middle of Spain. There are lots of other examples in the architecture, too, especially with Austrian and German influence.
What about your trip stuck with you most when you got home?
One of the experiences that stuck with me most by the time I got home was—imagine this—ballet! I mean, given the Russian era, the ballet movement in Cuba is stunningly beautiful. The number of Cubans of all ages who can dance at an advanced level is incredible, and the performances are amazing. In my opinion, I thought the ballet in Cuba was every bit as good as St. Petersburg, if not better, because their ballet has an intriguing Latin flavor to it. I don’t know how to explain it, but when I saw it, I was absolutely enticed and charmed. It’s something I love a great deal about Cuba.
What do you ask locals when you visit?
I want to know where they go to eat, the best places for fine rum, and where I can get the best Cuban cigars! They’ll all have their own unique choices, for their own reasons, so the more you ask, the more you’ll discover. I like to see the destination through a different lens, through the lens of a local. I think engaging people is a great part of travel. The more you engage, the better, because you’ll find more and more appealing places.
In fact, I want to mention this, and I think Cuba shows itself this way: I think it’s actually less of a destination for a tourist who wants everything refined. I don’t think Cuba is perfect. I think it’s imperfect, and in its own way, this makes it perfect, because it’s a reflection of culture as it is. When I go to a destination, I like to see it in a way that’s organic and honest, and I think in the next three or four years, Cuba’s going to be that way.
We've heard you talk about immersing yourself in the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of new destinations to truly get a feel for them. What are some sensory experiences that stood out for you in Cuba?
I think Cuba has the sound—like I mentioned about the music—and I think it has the sights, like walking the Malecón, the sea wall that’s about a six or seven-mile walk, it’s just fantastic. Old Havana is also absolutely incredible. I think there are lots of sensory experiences that happen there: the smell of the cigars, the taste of rum, the music at night—all of these combine to make the visit that much more interesting and engaging.
Who was the most memorable local you met? What was special about your interaction with them?
In terms of memorable experiences, there were lots, but one of the best was meeting a man named Nelson Dominguez. He’s the Gauguin of Cuba, a phenomenal painter, and his art is eclectic. He’s also been involved with the art department at the University of Havana, and he is beloved throughout the country. His works are just fantastic—a bit dark, often reflecting the cultural norm of a bygone era—but I thought he was amazing and kind, and I loved walking into his gallery and meeting him. He even took me aside and said, “I’d like you to help me paint a picture.” I’m definitely not a painter, but he put a brush in my hand, dipped it in the paint, and now I have a few strokes on a painting of his! Just like he was, I found the Cuban people so happy, upbeat, and engaging. They were so outgoing and friendly!
If you could only visit one location in Cuba, where would it be?
There are too many, really. I think Cuba is a place you’re going to want to see before it changes. I think it’s unique in so many ways. I happen to think in the Caribbean it’s one of the most interesting cultures and intriguing places. I really feel like I’m in a foreign country, but it’s so close to the United States—just 90-something miles from Key West—yet in so many ways it’s removed and remote.
Can you share an off the beaten path experience you'd recommend for a first-time visitor?
Seek out the art galleries and artistic areas. A good one to start with, about a mile from the ship, is a vibrant flea market with artists painting these absolutely beautiful pieces, they’re completely stunning. You’ll be astonished and I’d be surprised if you didn’t come home with a piece.
Azamara is known for their immersive shore excursions. Did you take part in any while in Cuba? If so, what would you recommend?
In terms of the shore excursions, we have so many options to choose from. For me, I think the ones that are most interesting are at night. I love to follow the path of Hemingway. I love to follow the paths of the artists, the poets, the musicians, and I think especially through immersive excursions, there are so many paths to take in Cuba depending on what you’re interested in.
Any final thoughts?
I really loved Cuba. I was welcomed by the people in a way that I thought was really endearing, unlike anywhere else, and it was the 128th country that I’ve been to! It’s just opening up more to tourism, and I don’t think it’s perfect, but I know it’s a great place to have a perfect visit. And especially when you can stay in Havana overnight, or multiple nights as we have on Azamara itineraries, I think you’re in for a real treat.
Thanks for reading! Have questions about Cuba destinations and Azamara® itineraries? Want to hear more about my travel experiences in other destinations? Let me know in the comments or learn more here.
Please note: This interview was conducted before the recent absolute restrictions from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. For more information about the new regulations, visit our FAQ here.