I rarely do travel pieces on my blog, but there’s always time to try something new….right? So this week and next, you’ll hear about our cruise and visit to Cuba and how NOT to be a tourist in Cuba.
We cruised out of Miami aboard the Norwegian Sky. Previous to this my only cruise experience was watching The Love Boat. As we left port, the ship’s Captain announced that this was Norwegian’s first cruise to Cuba and going forward the Norwegian Sky would be sailing to Cuba weekly.
If you know me, then you know that a whole week on a ship with 2000 other people could be my worst nightmare coming true! But surprisingly, I never felt like I was being overwhelmed by too many people. There were so many things to do on so many different decks that I never felt crowded out. There were also very few children on board, which surprised me. I’m not sure if this is normal for cruises, but that’s how it was for our trip.
And I can’t miss talking about the food and booze on the cruise. Almost all of it was free. Most, but not all, of the restaurants and bars are complimentary. Even room service had some complimentary options. From the moment you board the ship, the booze is flowing freely. While we give all the drinks high marks, we weren’t very impressed with the food. All of it was too salty, including in the restaurants that you pay for. But, that one issue would not stop us from going on a cruise again.
Why Americans Aren’t Tourists in Cuba
With Cuba only recently opening up to the US, there are still restrictions and one of them is tourism. While someone from Europe or Canada can go to Cuba as a tourist, US citizens cannot. We are not tourists, we can only be there for other reasons. There is an actual travel affidavit that we need to fill out indicating one of the reasons why were are traveling to Cuba. It includes reasons like business, visiting family, journalistic reasons, cultural exchanges or education. The form needs to be filled out and sent back a month before the cruise happens. This is in addition to having a passport and a visa.
Because of these restrictions, a lot of our travel was centered around educational tours. In actuality, that is more appreciated by the Cuban people than tourists who just come down to lay on the beaches and then go home–Canadians, I’m looking your way, at least that’s what the Cubans say. They are very happy to show off their culture, share their rum and cigars and talk about their life.
Rum, Art, and Cigars Today in Havana
While in Cuba, we had rum and cigars at three different stops and all of them were before noon! On the first day, I was drinking rum by 11 am and on the second day, around 9 am. It wasn’t just us, locals were drinking it, too. Rum is not a big deal in Cuba and while there is an 18-year-old drinking age, it is observed by no one. Cubans are very proud of their rum and with good reason, it is so smooth and delicious. Each of the rums that I drank can be sipped by themselves or in juice, the Cuban preference is pineapple juice. We bought two bottles of rum while we were there and we were told it is known as Vitamin R in Cuba.
We didn’t get to any museums on our tours. Instead, we were taken to neighborhoods that were filled with art. The first was to Fusterlandia, a neighborhood in Havana that artist Jose Fuster has decorated with mosaics.
The next day, we were taken to Callejón de Hammel, which is really just an alley that has been transformed by art. Art, African instruments, dancing and the religion of Santeria.
I’m not big on cigars. I quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago, so my least favorite part of the Cuban trip was being in rooms full of cigar smoke. It’s not something that you can get away from. It’s everywhere. Almost every stop included a discussion of Cuban cigars, which were the best, how to best light them and how to best smoke them. An interesting fact that I did learn is that in Cuba, they will light a cigar with a cedar strip. The cigars are either wrapped or packed in cedar boxes, and then strips of the cedar are used to light the cigar.
A Couple of Travel Tips
Here are some tips to help you enjoy your trip to Cuba:
- You can’t change your money into Cuban CUC’s (the official money of visitors to Cuba) until you get there. The exchange rate for US dollars is about 87 CUC’s for 100 dollars. Canadian money and Euro’s have a better exchange rate. If possible change your US dollars into Canadian or Euro’s prior to arriving in Cuba.
- Once you’re ready to leave Cuba, if you have any CUC’s left, change them back before leaving Cuba. You will not be able to exchange them anywhere else.
- Learn to go with the flow. Our first tour started almost 2 hours late. Then, the tour had changes, additions and an after party. Seriously, after the tour was over, the guide and bus driver decided to take anyone who wanted to go out for more rum. That wouldn’t happen in the states.
- Just go. Learn something about Cuba and the Cuban people. You will enjoy it.
For more information about Norwegian Sky’s trips to Cuba, please read this USA Today article.