The ability for Americans to travel to Cuba has been a hot topic recently with a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. The updated rules and regulations will be covered at another time, but the takeaway is that Americans are still permitted to travel to Cuba through a couple of different ways. The easiest and most cost-efficient way is via a cruise. There are a few cruise options available with a variety of itineraries, but this review will focus on Carnival’s long-awaited cruise to Havana, Cuba out of the Port of Tampa in Florida.
Who would enjoy and benefit from this cruise?
Families looking for a convenient way to travel to Cuba without having to worry about a lot of advanced planning
Travelers who want a good intro to the city of Havana and Cuban culture
Travelers who would like to experience Havana with modern comforts and conveniences of air conditioning and familiar foods for the picky eaters
Travelers who want the flexibility of choosing from Carnival’s shore excursions or setting up their own independent itinerary
Frequent cruisers who would like to see a new port of call
As a first-time cruiser (I know, I’m a travel consultant and it’s a little embarrassing that I haven’t cruised before), I was nervous about the embarkation procedures especially on the inaugural cruise to Havana out of Tampa; however, the process was relatively easy since I filled out the health questionnaire as well as the travel affidavit to Cuba the night before. Carnival provides the travel affidavit online and lets you know the appropriate boxes to check. There is a box to check if you are meeting your People to People (P2P) requirement via a Carnival sanctioned excursion (Carnival will let you know in the excursion description whether the activity meets the P2P requirements - the evening excursions do not) or if you have independently found an appropriate activity that meets the P2P requirement. At the check-in desk, we (my mom and I) received our Sail & Sign cards as well as the visas needed to get on and off the ship in Cuba. The visas had to be filled out prior to disembarking in customs in Havana.
The energy on board was amazing as everyone thought about what a privilege it was to be on the first cruise to Havana out of Tampa. The Cuban and American flag hung side by side in the atrium to represent this occasion. Latin music permeated the sound waves and many Cuban themed events were scattered in the schedule for the duration of the cruise. Within our stateroom, there was a Cuban flag and an American flag as well as commemorative pins. After muster (the mandatory emergency drill), we waited on the Lido deck to say goodbye to Tampa as we made our way towards Havana. The shore excursion desk was open for people to book their activities, but many of the most popular ones sold out quickly. When I went to pre-book our excursions about 2 weeks prior to the cruise, the Havana tour in a classic car had already sold out. Our cruise director Jaime held two very useful informational sessions on the debarkation process in Havana as well as information on currency exchange, tipping, and what to expect once you arrived.
Day in Havana – scheduled arrival: 11 AM
After breakfast, we attended a lecture on popular attractions in Havana given by an expert on Cuban culture. This lecture was incredibly helpful in teaching us about the general layout of the city as well as what to look for within Havana…which came in handy when my mom and I got slightly lost when we ventured out on our own the following day. An announcement was made when we were approaching Havana and almost everyone went up onto Decks 10, 11 and 12 to observe the ship going into port. The brevity of this occasion was not lost on us as we were reminded of history over the intercom. There was a wide range of emotions from all those on board, and many tears were shed from the people around me. It was a beautiful moment to experience.
Side note: The US government has set regulations on the amount of time travelers need to spend doing P2P activities. For a full day in Cuba (arrival around 8 am), travelers are required to participate in at least 8 hours of P2P activities. For travelers arriving around 10 or 11 am, only 4.5 hours are required
Debarkation and Customs
On our excursion tickets that were delivered to our stateroom, it had a meeting time and place. Those who had booked independent activities had to visit Guest Services to obtain stickers with letters to help streamline debarkation. Jaime had made it clear that it would take a while to get everyone off the ship since it was the first time something like this had been done. First, the ship had to obtain clearance for entry. Then, as the throng of people exited the ship, we needed to wait for the congestion to clear before we could move forward. We went to our meeting point at 1 pm per our instructions and received a sticker with a number on it. This number was our group number.
Items you must have when getting off the ship: Sail & Sign Card, filled out visa, passport, and excursion ticket (if applicable).
When our number was finally called and we made it out of the gangway on Deck 5, we were immediately hit with an intense heat and wall of humidity not unlike the heat and humidity in Tampa. The line into customs was long, but Carnival had a lot of staff on hand to help the process move more smoothly. Once you reached the customs official, you would hand him/her your passport along with your visa. They do not need your Sail & Sign card or your excursion ticket. My mom gave them her passport with her excursion ticket inside and the official forgot to give that back to her (she was still able to get on the excursion). The official would take your visa and stamp your passport. For the duration of your visit, all you would need to get on and off the ship would be your passport and Sail & Sign card. After getting your passport stamped, you would proceed to a bag scan and through a metal detector. This is to make sure you aren’t bringing any weapons or fruits into Havana. They WILL confiscate your fruits. Once you’ve proceeded past the security check, you have the opportunity to exchange money from USD to CUCs. If you’ve done your research on traveling to Cuba, you’ve probably read that there are two currencies that are used on the island: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible (CUC). The only one you’ll need to focus on is the CUC. It is a 1:1 ratio from USD to CUC, but after the 10% embargo tax and the 3% fee, you’ll end up with less. I received 176 CUC for 200 USD which was more than enough to buy 8 bottles of Havana Club rum and 10 Romeo & Juliet cigars. After exchanging our money, we proceeded downstairs to the bus and found the guide holding up our group number. By the time we got onto the bus and started the tour, it was 2:45 pm.
It should be noted that throughout this entire process, Carnival staff were on hand directing folks to where they needed to go and were ready to answer any questions.
Local Flavors and Traditions of Havana – 1:30 pm, ~4.5 hours
Vibrant and exuberant, the flavors of Cuba can be found in the culture, food, art and music of Havana. Delight your taste buds with a traditional Cuban food tasting at a local Paladar (privately owned restaurant), while enjoying the rhythms of Cuban music with a live performance. After learning about the efforts being made by private restaurateurs to train and employ young Cubans, be introduced to the ‘Cuban marriage’. The perfect combination of coffee, cigars and rum, the Cuban Marriage highlights Cuba’s finest exports, and a local expert will teach you the proper methods for enjoying each product like a Cuban. Peruse the items for sale that include a collection of rums, coffees, and cigars before setting off to explore Havana via panoramic bus tour on your way to Plaza de la Revolucion. After visiting Plaza de La Revolucion to learn about Jose Marti’s influence on the island, travel to Muraleando. Located in Central Havana, local artists have turned an aging water tank into the Muraleando art space and community center, revitalizing their community through large murals that stretch up and down the street walls. Artistans volunteer to teach classes at Muraleando in exchange for the privilege of selling their works of art in the Muraleando gallery. Dance alongside local adults and children inside the water tank, as a local live band provides the soundtrack to your afternoon.
The People to People excursion I chose familiarized participants with rum, coffee, and cigars as well as a community center where teenagers can take workshops on art and music. After a great lunch experience at El Aljibe, we passed through some residential neighborhoods towards Revolution Square. Throughout the drive, our guide Anabelle gave us a lot of interesting facts about how the Cuban people lived including the cost of living (low), education (free), and healthcare including dental (free). Even though the Cuban people receive these amazing benefits, the average Cuban makes only makes the equivalent of 20 USD per month.
Our stop after Revolution Square was a community center called Muraleando where teens can spend their free time learning art and music. We received a hospitable reception from the musicians there and were able to dance some salsa and mambo with the locals. Our next and final stop was an artisan market where we sampled Cuban coffee and Havana Club rum; furthermore, we learned about the different types Cuban cigars and had the opportunity to taste one (my mom and I passed on the cigar tasting but brought back our cigars). We were supposed to have had the opportunity to purchase souvenirs, art, and rum; however, the market was closing shortly after we arrived. Because we started much later than scheduled, the tour felt a bit rushed. Also, we had to get back on the ship in time for our night time excursion at the Tropicana. Another security check was required prior to boarding the ship.
This tour is great for those looking for a more local perspective but not the best option for those looking to see every famous Havana landmark. After the tour, I felt like I had gotten to know the local culture a bit better at the expense of not seeing many of the landmarks. The Panorama tour would have probably been a better option to see more of the sites, especially when time in Havana was so limited. Luckily, we had time the following day prior to leaving port.
Tropicana Cabaret - Rhythms of the Night
Enjoy an evening under the beautiful Cuban Sky with a performance unlike any other at Tropicana Cabaret, Cuba’s largest nightclub. Elaborate costumes, entertaining showgirls, and a live orchestra – you’ll enjoy it all and much more in this Las Vegas-style extravaganza. Your cabaret package includes admission, assigned seating, a welcome drink plus ¼ bottle of rum with mixers.
Established in 1939 and hosting iconic singers such as Celia Cruz, I knew I had to book this excursion to the world-famous Tropicana cabaret show. We met around 8 pm to disembark the ship and followed a similar process through customs. We had a different guide for the night named Johnny who was very amiable. We arrived at the beautiful theater, and upon entry, all the ladies received a carnation and all the men received a cigar. When we got to our table, we had a welcome cocktail of champagne, a small glass bottle of Coke, and each table of 8 received two full bottles of Havana Club rum. A sign outside the theater said it would cost 5 CUC for photography with a cellphone and regular camera, 10 CUC for using an iPad for photos and video, and 15 CUC for a video recorder. I was looking for someone to pay once we sat down, but there was no one to pay. I decided to take photos and videos and wait for someone to say something. I think that was the consensus between the cruisers. At the end of the show, no one from Tropicana requested payment. The show itself was an amazing experience to witness first hand. The costumes, music, and dancing were incredible!
After each of these excursions, the guides made it a point to thank us for being there and providing them an opportunity for more work. Being able to support the Cuban people in this way made our time there that much better.
Half day in Havana
Because I wasn’t able to see everything I had wanted to the day before and because I didn’t get a chance to purchase any Cuban rum to bring home, I knew that I needed to see Havana once more prior to 11 am when we were required to be back on the ship. My goal was to walk along the Malecon which is the famous promenade along the water. What ended up happening was that I walked towards every cool thing I saw, turned into too many side streets, inadvertently saw every famous landmark I wanted to, and ended getting lost in the process. Imagine my poor mother and me wandering the Havana streets under the blazing sun for over 2 hours. One of the unexpected results of getting lost was gaining a glimpse of the daily life of Cubans from the shopping at the vegetable and meat markets to hanging laundry on the balconies. We saw the poverty as well as the joy of the Cuban people. We experienced the hospitality and the welcoming nature of Cubans as well. At one point, I gave up trying to figure out the streets and asked some security officials which were stationed all around the city about where to find the Malecon. We never felt unsafe during our wandering. We eventually found where we needed to be which was the Fundacion Havana Club where we spent the rest of our money on 8 bottles of rum. We returned to customs around 10:45 am (along with almost everyone else) and turned our rum into beverage collection where they would be held until we debarked. The line to get back on the ship was insane. Fortunately, Carnival provided a refreshment station with ice water so people could remain hydrated.