Going to Cuba has been very pretty much off-limits to Americans for such a long time. As the U.S placed sanctions against Cuba in the early 1960s, some people end up not even recognizing that there is a potential to visit. The relations between Cuba and the U.S. changed during the Obama administration and the potential to visit Cuba became even more of a reality. It’s not that Americans could not visit Cuba before, but there were just a lot more hoops the jump through in order to get there.
Now how did I get to Cuba? Well, it just so happened that my travel companion had a work conference in Florida and since I had not visited Florida before and going to Disney World was on my list of things to do, I kind of jumped at the chance to fly over and see what it’s all about.
We started our journey to Cuba via Norwegian Cruise Line out of Miami. We found that was one of the easier ways to get there. Norwegian really made everything easy as far as obtaining the Cuba visa and providing excursions that meet OFAC compliance. You can get your visa or tourist card at the airport just prior to leaving the states if you’re flying to Cuba. Most airports that have service to Cuba usually have separate sections or terminals for Cuba flights. Then…enter hurricanes Maria and Jose! (insert ominous music) As the days counted down to the cruise departure date my travel companion and I watched in horror as the two hurricanes gave the Carribean area a strong run for its money. We debated canceling our plans and prayed that the hurricanes would die out at least to not also hit Florida. There were a lot of varying opinions on the paths of Maria and Jose all over the news channels and it probably would have just been easier to ask a Magic 8 Ball where the hurricanes were headed. Eventually, after ravishing parts of Florida, the two hurricanes died out but not before leaving behind massive devastation. Miraculously, the hurricanes died out a few days before the departure of the cruise. I was also still able to visit Disneyworld.Our cruise ship departed from Miami. We cruised from Miami to Havana over the course of a day and when we woke up in the morning we were in the port of Havana. Our first day in Cuba started around 10 am. We started at this time to allow time for the people who booked tours through the cruise ship to disembark early. This made it easy for us to clear customs in time to meet our tour guide. We also wanted to have enough time to see a bit of Havana on our own. We took our visas and passports and disembarked from the ship and headed to Cuban customs/immigration which was right across a bridge from the ship. Once we cleared customs, we decided it was best to convert our money in the terminal rather than try to find a bank or currency converter place outside. Cuba uses two forms of currency, the CUP and CUC. The CUP is the currency the locals of Cuba use and the CUC is the convertible currency mainly used by foreigners/tourists. You’ll know you have the right currency if the word “convertible” is written in English text somewhere on the bills.
Cuba is primarily a cash-based economy so take cash as your U.S. credit cards will not work in Cuban. Your cell phone and data-using electronics will most likely also not work due to restrictions on telecommunications and also internet.
You’ve probably heard that traveling to Cuba is like stepping back in time. It’s probably because since your cell phone doesn’t work and you can’t be on the internet, you are forced to experience life in a much simpler way. I don’t say this negatively because often times it is nice to be able to really take it all in without the distraction of technology. There is so much to see in Havana and other areas of Cuba that I urge you to stay within the moment and experience Cuba with all your senses.
As you head away from the terminal, be prepared for the onslaught of “tour guides” offering classic car tours, horse & carriage tours, walking tours, alcohol and wine tastings, cigar tours, and just about anything you can think of that could be offered in a tour. My advice is to just keep walking. Do not stop and converse because then the others will come and attack you as well. Be wary of locals who strike up a conversation with you as if they are just being nice to you. Most likely they are trying to get you to engage in a tour. On a side note, the Cuban people are very nice and will strike up a conversation in general, but just use common sense and maybe don’t be overly friendly. If someone asks you if you’re a tourist or “where are you from?”, then you can probably guess where the conversation is going to go.
Once you clear the gauntlet, it’s clear sailing. All the streets kind of run to the same points. I did take some screenshots of the location of the tour meet up and had printed the map that came with the tour as well. We walked up some of the lanes and made it to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Art) which is right across from the Granma Memorial which is on the south side of the Museum of the Revolution. (FYI: Be careful of taking photos near the Granma and don’t capture any of the military personnel in your photos) The Granma Memorial is behind the Museo de la Revolucion and has the yacht that transported Castro and several guerrillas back to Cuba from exile in Mexico in 1956. Since we had to time to spare, we paid the entry fee of about $5 CUC per person at the fine art museum and headed in. You have to leave your bag at the bag check by the way.
I was really surprised by the quality of work in the museum. There are three floors of art and quite a lot of art with the spaces. You really could spend 2-4 hours here if you’re an art lover.
You can’t take pictures in the majority of the museum and the workers there watch you like a hawk to make sure you’re not being cheeky trying to snap a shot. Like I said earlier, take it in with all your senses. In this case, your eyes.
After winding around all the corridors, we completed our journey around the museum with a few minutes to spare before our tour.
We headed to the meetup point at the corner of Paseo de Marti and Boulevard de San Rafael.We had booked our tour separate from the tours provided by the cruise ship as it was cheaper and we wanted a more authentic experience. We booked with Locally Sourced Cuba Tours. We did the Half Afternoon Delight Tour which includes Old Havana Walking Tour, Classic Car Tour, Mojito Making Lesson)
Our guide, Joe, greeted us and then we headed out. This meet up point is also another place where there are guys offering tours like I mentioned before near the cruise ship terminal, so again be aware. I could tell from the beginning that our guide was a good one. Not only because he advised us he was a university graduate but he seemed to really have a passion for teaching and a love for his nation. We walked the blocks taking in spots that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent, like El Floridita.
El Floridita is a casual bar but very busy as a tourist attraction, as well as an important fixture in Cuban history. As we walked, we had a discussion about the slave trade and how similar the trade to Cuba was in comparison to that of the United States. We talked about the current and past Presidents of United States and he noted how impactful the visit from former President Obama was to the Cuban people. I’m not making this post political but it’s interesting to hear how people feel about the United States and the government of the United States from people outside the U.S. It was also interesting to hear how inspired the hopes of some of the Cuban people were when President Obama lifted some of the sanctions against Cuba.
We walked past key pieces of architecture like the Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, and the Plaza Vieja.
Then we headed back toward the Plaza San Francisco de Asís (St. Francis of Assisi Square) and had a beer at a local bar while waiting for our classic car to arrive.
Many cars are claimed to be “classic” in Cuba but most are just shells with components from all over Cuba to make up the rest of the car. Our guide let us know that they haven’t imported cars into Cuba for quite some time so almost all the cars are a mish-mash of old parts. We hopped in the car and headed south. The car basically made a circle along the sea wall then north past El Capitolio.
We then headed to the Plaza de la Revolucion & Interior Ministry/Ministerio del Interior & Ministerio de Informatica y Comunicaciones and past the Old Chinatown and finally down one of the streets to where the mojito making would be.
The mojito demonstration was done on a rooftop terrace which appeared turn into a bar/hangout place when the sun goes down. They weren’t shy about the alcohol so if you are worried about getting tipsy, they can make a non-alcoholic version. Although it wasn’t scheduled, we also learned how to make a caipirinha. It was much simpler and felt much more alcoholic. See this video on how to make a caipirinha similar to the one we tasted in Cuba.
It was a perfect setting to just drink authentic adult beverages, dance a little to the sounds of the local music tracks that the mojito demonstrator had on his cell phone, chain smoke several packs of cigarettes and talk about life while the sunset over the city of Havana.
FYI: I don’t smoke but my sister and the guide did. Cigarettes are super cheap in Cuba as well. After a few mojitos and caipirinhas, we set out.
He walked us back down to the Havana Cathedral, we parted ways and my sister and I had a late night drink near the Cathedral plaza to take in the day.
I was actually sad to see our guide go because it was honestly one of the best times I’ve had with such a knowledgeable and humble guy.
I really loved this tour because it wasn’t rushed and there was so much time to take photos and talk not from a script. When we were on the rooftop during the mojitos, I asked our guide what makes him proud to be Cuban. He said that wherever he goes on the island, people treat him like family even if they don’t know him. In the U.S. we work so hard to be individuals and set ourselves apart from others, that we forget how to just be human and care about someone else other than ourselves. Technically the tour was supposed to be 4 hours long but it ended up being about 9. Don’t let that dissuade you from doing this tour because if you’re actually on a time schedule (which we were not) they will be able to complete the tour within your time constraints. I also liked this tour because it wasn’t just one long script which ended in being forced to buy souvenirs from a crappy shop. It just had a really nice flow to it.
We didn’t get back to the cruise ship until around 10:30 pm ish. I’ll post about my second partial day in Cuba in an upcoming blog along with some tips for traveling to Cuba as well as other sights to see that may not currently be on your itinerary. Thanks for reading and be well!
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