Why do you want to take a cruise to Cuba?
Written By: Joseph Cromwell & Alfredo Cruz
Most people tell us it’s because they want to enjoy Cuba’s unique culture and heritage without too much of the commercial tourism component. However, seeing Cuba before mass tourism changes it means a sometimes-shocking lack of modern-day comforts and conveniences. This third world destination has been cut off from Americans, modern technology and commercial businesses for 60 years. Only in the last 20 years have American tour groups been allowed restricted visits. But in 2016 the proverbial sea will part for us to cruise to Cuba; although, even a cruise to Cuba will present some limitations that prevent the free-flowing experience you have come to enjoy on similar Caribbean island cruises. There are currently no port-side shops, bars or restaurants laid out in a safe and sanitary plaza. Fully escorted and mandatory shore excursion groups are required, and deviation from the scheduled itinerary or separation from the group are prohibited. You may have some free time for lunch and maybe an hour to shop or explore but expecting a full or even half day to relax on a beach or wander the port cities freely is not possible until the U.S. Embargo is overturned by Congress.
We currently escort tour groups to Cuba under the People to People licenses. Four years ago, the president reinstated this program and permitted the lifting of some travel restrictions to Cuba for U.S. citizens. Under the rules of this educational and cultural exchange license, Americans are legally allowed to visit this island nation in preplanned escorted travel groups. The results of President Obama’s announcement to open diplomatic relations last year has boosted tourism and opened up allowances for the purchase of previously restricted merchandise like cigars and rum. Under the new rules, you are now able to bring home to the U.S. up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, which includes up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco products for personal consumption.
Communications access is expanding but travelers have limited availability since cell phones and internet cafes are just now becoming popular. Currently, we recommend using any hotel business office or the ship resource center. Banking access has also been approved to expand into Cuba; however, you will need to take and exchange American dollars into the local tourism currency called a CUC, which is technically on par with the dollar but you will pay a 13 percent commission to exchange it each way.
On our first visit, we arrived in Havana and made our first stop at Plaza de la Revolución. It is one of largest city squares in the world, most notable as the place where Fidel Castro addressed Cubans on many important occasions and where two large Catholic Masses were held during papal visits. The square showcases revolutionary heroes such as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, as well as José Martí, a national hero from Cuba’s claim of independence against Spain in 1895.
We enjoyed chatting with the locals and found that they are relaxed and friendly. Most speak some English and make their best efforts to communicate. They don’t have much but are very resourceful and try to be as accommodating as they can be. Americans are new to them, but basic tourism is not since they have been welcoming other foreign visitors for decades. Shop owners know how to bargain with you, local guides are knowledgeable and restaurants are high on service standards.
We ate Cuban-style pizza for lunch at La California, a beautiful paladar—a term used for newly allowed family-owned restaurants. They served a wonderful family-style meal for our group of 15 people, and everything was hot and delicious. The festive music set the right tone, and the family greeted us personally adding to the experience. We discovered that Cuba has such limited resources that many of the small restaurants did not have a unique, stylish or customizable menu selection. From the restaurant, we appreciated the centuries-old buildings literally crumbling away, leaving only empty shadows of the city’s former glory, and observing the tourists riding by in classic car taxis reliving the 1950s and their love of these haphazardly preserved icons of Cuba.
After lunch, we hopped back on the bus for a tour of the Hotel Naciónal. The hotel is uniquely historic and is worth a visit and perhaps a meal at La Baraca, located outside and behind the entrance lobby which we enjoyed later in the trip. They are known for their slow-roasted chicken and the use of malanga in their dishes, which is a root said to be an aphrodisiac with healing properties.
What people don’t know about Cuba is that the things that we take for granted are in fact luxuries for the natives. Items such as bug spray, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and over-the-counter medications are difficult to find. As we walked around on some limited free time during the tour, we found only a handful of shops that offered anything beyond handcrafted souvenirs and museums that poorly executed displays of valuable artifacts. We were somewhat surprised that public restrooms rarely had toilet paper, and air- conditioning was rare. However, the misconceptions that upset traveler expectations most are the misleading media stories: Cuba is simply an independent nation that is economically challenged by the blocking of international trade by the USA.
Gay Cuba seems to flourish at night, so we ventured out on the Malecón to discover the scene. The seaside roadway stretches for five miles along the coast from the beginning of the harbor in Old Havana, along with the north side of Centro Havana, and ending in the Vedado neighborhood. People, gay and straight alike, congregate along “The Great Sofa,” where they sit and relax. Speaking with some, we learned that homosexuality for men is somewhat acceptable, while women have a much harder time. We heard that evenings can be a great time to cruise for a date using a simple nod or smile—the meaning carries across all languages. But beware that you may be propositioned by male prostitutes, also known as jineteros or jockeys, to engage in sexual fun and that they may be straight men looking to rob you. The police rarely intervene in male prostitution situations and the economic need drives these men to sell themselves or steal.
After a bit of interaction on the Malecón, we took a short walk and ended up at Esencia Habana, a small gay-friendly tapas bar with International music videos. Located in an older home and remodeled to make a restaurant that fits the Havana style, the dishes were composed mainly of tapas with familiar favorites such as olives, prosciutto, chorizo, corn, and plantains. There were also a few entrées to choose from, such as chicken piccata and paella. The service staff was attentive to our needs and it was very affordable.
After a few hours of walking and talking, we found ourselves on Humboldt Street, ironically known for the gay Prussian geographer Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. We stopped at Humboldt 52, which is marked by a small rainbow sign. It was Havana’s first openly gay nightclub, opened in 2013. Once through the doors, we
were shocked that they were listening and dancing to our American favorites like Katy Perry. The dance floor was a little small and the nightclub itself proved to be a crowd of gorgeous Latino men dancing salsa and conversing. The bartenders were sexy and asked for our drink orders in pleasant voices. Que desean tomar? So we ordered the national drink, Cuba Libre (Havana Club rum and tuKola) and a Bucanero cerveca (dark beer). The environment was like stepping back in time to the smoky bar scene of the ‘70s with a disco ball and a “back room,” but this one used mostly for smoking rather than other, more libidinous, activities. Cuban men are not ones for public displays of affection. Machismo still permeates throughout the culture. The party went on until 4 a.m., but we had to get back to our rooms for a bit of sleep before the required tour excursion the next morning at 9 a.m.
The one thing that amazed us most and something that Americans are lacking was common courtesy. Buenos Dias was a common greeting as we passed people on the street. As Americans, we are so caught up on our cell phones that we can no longer just admire the day or the people around us. The country is struggling—multiple families often occupy a single-family home, they wait in lines for their rationed food supply and they have limited conveniences. Yet they have time and decency to say hello when they pass you on the street and are always up for engaging in some light conversation as they practice a bit of English. This is what visiting a third-world country is about. You come to Cuba for the culture, the history and most importantly, the people. Understanding them is understanding Cuba.
Cruise Lines to Watch
As they come online in 2016, a few cruise lines to watch are: Carnival Corporation’s Fathom brand starting up in May 2016 using the 710-passenger vessel that now sails as P&O Cruises’ Adonia in the United Kingdom. Al & Chuck Travel have secured space on the 480-cabin Celestyal Cruise’s ship the Celestyal Crystal. There are three sailing dates this winter, Jan. 16, Feb. 26 and April 8 starting at around $800 and set sail from Montego Bay, Jamaica (alandchuck.travel). Pearl Sea Cruises is a luxury small ship company offering seven- and 11-night Cuban cruises on their 100-balcony cabin Pearl Mist vessel, departing from Miami on various dates (PearlSeasCruises.com). Haimark Luxury Cruises (HaimarkLine.com) is another company offering similar sailings in 2016.
While cruising may be a new option, you may also want to consider the People to People motor coach tours offered by American-based tour operators that we work with, like Gate1 Travel (Gate1Travel.com) and Cuba Travel Services (CubaTravelServices.com), or others that have both cruise and motor coach tours like Globus at (GlobusJourneys.com) and Insight Cuba (InsightCuba.com).
Before you book your Cuba experience, you need to be aware of a few important details: First and foremost, all cruise and tour programs require travel insurance and foreign health insurance that can be purchased through the tour operator at booking. U.S. insurers are allowed now to issue policies and pay claims related to group health, life and travel insurance for authorized travel to Cuba. Authorized travelers are allowed to use local transportation to get around the city, region or island, but arriving in Cuba must be on an approved and licensed vessel. Travelers may use credit and debit cards in Cuba provided their banking institution has established necessary mechanisms for the cards to be used in Cuba. You will be able to exchange American dollars into the
local tourism currency called CUC, which is technically on par with the dollar, but you will pay a 13 percent commission to exchange it each way. Since access to banking, ATMs, etc., is limited, we highly advise that you take enough cash to cover your expenses and potential emergencies.
Alfredo Cruz and Joseph Cromwell are international tour directors and travel writers based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Between them, they have traveled to more than 400 cities in 35 countries on six continents. They enjoy showing people around the world and sharing their experiences on their blog at Getaways-for-Couples.com.