Are you interested in visiting Cuba? I have been for the past few years, but I was somewhat reluctant based on mixed reviews. Professional travel writers have widely praised Cuba, but many actual travelers have given it a less than satisfactory critique. Many of the criticisms have centered around the high costs and poor accommodations. So I wondered, was there a way to just get a taste of Cuba without the full commitment of an expensive week-long tour?
Over the past year, I received information about various cruise lines that have scheduled Havana and a few other Cuban cities as ports of call. The cruises were very affordable, and they offered a day or two in a Cuban city. When an itinerary came through that featured a stop in both Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, I decided to take a chance.
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My adult daughter and I booked a 4-night cruise for early August that departed from Port Canaveral. The highlight of the tour was a 24-hour stay in Havana that allowed for day and night touring of the city. I knew that as an American citizen there were travel restrictions that I had to follow to visit Cuba. Amazingly, the process turned out to be remarkably easy. To secure my Cuba visa, I paid a $75 fee to the cruise line. They took care of everything. To fulfill my Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) People-to-People requirement, I booked a morning tour of Havana and an evening trip to the night time show at the Tropicana. The cruise line allowed me to document my programs online and will keep my travel affidavit for the next 5-years.
Concerns About Our Trip
Even though all of this seemed easy, I still had some concerns about Cuba. Visiting the tropics in the summer seemed like a potentially hot and tiring experience. Surprisingly, the temperatures in Key West and Havana were about the same as I was experiencing in the Northeastern United States. The humidity was a little higher and the sun was definitely stronger, but the ocean breezes in both towns made our visits comfortable. We also scheduled our major sightseeing excursions for the morning and night to stay away from the higher afternoon temperatures.
Our cruise ship, the Norwegian Sun, was an older ship that seemed to have many mixed reviews. The cruise lines appear to use smaller cruise ships that hold around 2000 people for stops in Havana. Most likely this is due to the limited capacity of the Havana cruise terminal and the difficulties of navigating Havana Bay. My concerns regarding the ship turned out to be unfounded. The ship was delightful, reasonably priced, and even included an open bar. I was also concerned about how I would be treated as an American in Cuba.
- Would I be watched by the Cuban government?
- Would the people of Cuba be hostile to Americans?
None of these concerns was an issue in Cuba. Tourists from all countries had access to the city, and the people graciously welcomed us.
It is important to keep in mind that American tourists are permitted to visit Havana to experience its culture, history, and people. The fun-in-the sun experience for our cruise was reserved for the ship and Key West. As it turned out, Key West was a great way to begin our cruise. The quirkiness of the city meant that we would start on a fun note. This was my third visit to Key West, but it was the first for my daughter. We decided to be very touristy for the day and began by taking a historical tour on the Conch Train. Next, we ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s Bar where we ate their famous Sloppy Joe sandwiches and drank Sloppy Ritas. Later, we visited the Hemingway House where we had an informative docent-guided tour. We finished by having a memorable dessert of frozen chocolate-covered Key Lime pie.
The next stop on our itinerary was our much anticipated day in Havana, Cuba. We planned a full day of activities in Havana to make the most of our time there. Our ship entered the Bay of Havana just as the sun was rising. I woke early to experience sailing into the city through the Canal de Entrada waterway that led to Havana Harbor. It was an amazing sight as the city took on a misty orange color from the rising sun. It looked so old, and it felt like we had sailed back in time to an era that had long disappeared in the rest of the Caribbean. The experience was so serene and mystical. I was especially amazed at the quietness of the city. There seemed to be very little traffic along the waterfront and very little activity elsewhere in the city. The contrast of the modern cruise ship amongst the old, worn gray buildings was a sight that I will never forget.
Old & New City Tour
We had purchased two tour excursions to make sure that we were OFAC compliant: The Ultimate Highlights of Havana – Old & New city tour for the morning and the Legendary Tropicana Cabaret for the evening. There were 1400 people taking tours in the morning, but the cruise ship was well organized and people departed in a quick, orderly fashion. Getting through Cuban immigration was very easy. When we got to the Cuba immigration station in the cruise terminal, an officer took our visa and stamped our passport. The visa was only needed for the first entry. All we had to do was show our passport when we re-entered later in the day.
On the way through the cruise terminal, we had the opportunity to exchange money. The exchange rate for American dollars to Cuban Convertible pesos (CUCs) was one-to-one. We found CUCs to be very useful when touring on our own in the Old Town section of the city. The stops made on the cruise tours took both American dollars and CUCs. The Cuban government charged a 13% commission to purchase CUCs. They also charged another 13% commission to convert unused CUCs back to American dollars. We found that when we paid with American dollars on the tours, government-run locations still charged the 13% commission. Independent retailers often do not charge the commission.
Our bus had a tour guide who was very knowledgeable about Havana and very open about her life in Cuba. She was willing to answer any question that was asked of her, and she encouraged us to ask anything we wanted. Many people asked questions, and there was a lot of exchange back and forth. Most of us were amazed at how the Cuban people survive on a small amount of money each month along with a few government provisions.
Along the way, we were given constant narration about the areas we saw outside the windows of our bus. The tour bus drove through La Habana Vieja (Old Havana); made a stop at Revolution Square; drove slowly through the Cristobol de Colon Cemetery; drove through the Miramar section of newer Havana; drove along the Malecon; stopped at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña for sightseeing and shopping; and stopped at the statue, El Cristo de La Habana, for an overview of the city of Havana.
It was a hot day, so the combination of seeing sites from the bus was well balanced with the three stops. The tour began around 9:30 AM and ended at 1 PM at the cruise ship terminal. We really enjoyed the tour and felt that we had seen a lot in a short amount of time.
I purchased some Cuban cigars for family members at the government store at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. We also purchased decorative souvenirs at an independent stand located in the bus parking lot at the fort. The selection seemed small, but we did not see many different choices in the streets and vendors of Old Havana. We also found that the prices were similar regardless of where we shopped. Unlike the government stores, the independent merchants at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña were willing to bargain, especially if we were buying multiple items. We used American dollars and were not charged with any exchange fees.
After this, my daughter and I did our own walking tour of the plazas and architecture of Old Havana. There were some restored sections, but also many that showed their age. It was fascinating to see the people of Cuba going about their daily lives. The restored American classic cars added an unbelievable color and excitement to the grayness of the buildings. The cars serve mainly as taxis and can be found everywhere there are tourists.
After walking for a while, we were hungry, so we decided to seek a Cuban meal at the La Bodeguita de Media which was famous as the birthplace of Mojito and as a regular hangout of Ernest Hemingway. We later found out that both of these stories may or may not be true. Our lunch was basic Cuban fare, but tasty. It consisted of shredded beef flavored with a little green pepper, beans, rice, toasted fried plantains, croquettes, and of course, some mojitos. Even though the bar and restaurant were touristy, we felt that we had experienced a little bit of Cuban culture. We even left our mark by writing our names on the wall as multitudes of patrons have done over the years.
After lunch, we walked towards Centro Habana, the downtown government and business section of Havana. We saw many more people going about their daily life and noticed that the longest line of the day was at the government-run cell phone store.
We visited bookshops, artist stalls, souvenir stores, restaurants, and old hotels. There were many people, but not much buying was going on. By around 3:30 PM, I felt I had too much sun, so I headed back to the cruise ship for a rest. My daughter toured more plazas in the southern section of Old Havana for another hour.
At night, our show at the Legendary Tropicana began at 10 PM. We arrived an hour early and used the time to get acquainted with the theater, select our seats, and meet the other people attending the cabaret. The show was performed outside, and even though we were there in summer, the temperatures were still relatively comfortable. There was a dress code for men and women. Men were required to wear slacks and a collared shirt. No shorts or flip flops were allowed. We wished to take photographs during the show, so we had to pay an additional charge of $5 for a photo pass. We were glad that we bought the pass.
On the way in, each person received a cigar in a glass tube. We were told that sometimes the women receive flowers, but for this performance, the women also received a cigar. Smoking was permitted during the show, but fortunately, no one in our group smoked. We were assigned to sit at long tables very close to the right front side of the stage. They were good, close seats.
The price of admission included a glass of champagne, a bottle of Coca Cola, a bottle of Havana Club rum to be shared by four people, a snack bowl of nuts, and a piece of chocolate. The waiters did not serve these items until the show began, most likely because they wanted us to buy drinks while we were waiting. We did buy frozen strawberry daiquiris and some bottled water. The daiquiris were very good and the price was reasonable.
The cabaret lasted for about 1 hour and 45 minutes. It was performed non-stop and consisted of constant singing, dancing, incredible colorful costumes, and even some acrobatics. It was very entertaining and lively. One song seemed to blend into the other and the performers often came out to dance in the aisles of the theater. At the end, various patrons were asked to join the dances in the aisles and on stage. Even though all the singing was entirely in Spanish, we were able to understand most of what was going on. Visiting the Tropicana was an opportunity to take a step back in time to experience an era of entertainment that has long since disappeared. Overall it was an enjoyable night, and we were glad that we stayed out late.
We woke up early the next morning as the ship departed the harbor of Havana. During our last day at sea, we had some time to reflect on our cruise itinerary. We really enjoyed the contrast between the contemporary fun of Key West and the historical exploration of Havana. During our short stay in Havana, we did gain some insight into the history, culture, and people of Cuba. That was what we were looking for, and we were very pleased with our exposure to Cuba. It also did make us want to see more. We accomplished our goal and we were really pleased with our overall experience.
If you like cruising, are interested in Cuba, or just like visiting new and unique places, then consider a cruise to one or more Cuban cities. My daughter and I were curious about Havana and found that it exceeded our expectations. The mix of history, culture, and friendliness of the Cuban people captured our hearts. The cruise itself was very enjoyable, and we definitely increased our overall awareness and understanding of Cuba. Using a cruise ship as our home base made Cuba easily accessible, comfortable, and affordable. It is definitely a travel option that you may want to consider if you want to satisfy your curiosity about visiting Cuba.
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