01 of 11
More Americans than ever are now planning a visit to Cuba. After limiting USA passport holders who could travel to Cuba for over 50 years, the government lifted or modified many of the restrictions in 2011, and travel to Cuba is much easier. The travel regulations continue to change, and more cruise lines and airlines are traveling to Cuba.
Although USA citizens can travel independently to Cuba now, they must still participate in one of the 12 categories of permitted travel to Cuba. Since "education" is one of these categories, it's a matter of maintaining some type of documentation in order to certify that the visit was not for tourism, but was for educational purposes. The USA government may/may not ever ask for this documentation, but it's best not to post on facebook that you spent a week lying on a Cuban beach drinking Cuba libres!
Why Cruise to Cuba?
I think a Cuba cruise is still the best way for US citizens to see the highlights of Cuba. The Cuban tourism infrastructure was better than I anticipated since millions of travelers (other than USA citizens) have been visiting Cuba for years. However, in some cases, the hotel, restaurant, local transportation, electricity, water, and tour operator quality might not be as good as found in more developed countries. With a cruise, you get to sleep and eat on board, and your tours and transportation are arranged by the cruise ship.
Cruise travelers still get to spend much of their time in port, learning about the people, culture, and history of this fascinating country. Currently using a USA credit card or ATM card is not possible in Cuba. This will change, but paying cash for everything is not something most American travelers are used to.
I sailed to Cuba with Celestyal Cruises as part of their "People to People" (P2P) program. Until March 2016, all USA citizens had to travel with an organized group either on a land tour or on a cruise ship. When Celestyal Cruises booked their first American travelers in a P2P program a few years ago, only one family participated. On our cruise, over 400 Americans were in the program, and all I spoke with thoroughly enjoyed the onboard educational and cultural presentations as well as the shore excursions developed for the USA travelers. Celestyal has more Cuba cruise experience than other cruise lines, and their bookings continue to grow rapidly.
The cruise ship included a Cuban Visa with the fare, so we didn't even have to worry about getting one of those. (The Cuban immigration officials kept the Visa at our last port, so we didn't get to save it as a souvenir.)
This article provide sinformation on how the Celestyal Crystal was transformed from a Greek-itinerary ship to a Cuba-itinerary ship, and a travel log from the ports of call and Cuba-related onboard activities.
These articles provide an in-depth look at Cuba and the Cuban ports of call:Continue to 2 of 11 below.
02 of 11
Cuba Cruise on the Celestyal Crystal
Greek cruise line Celestyal Cruises has operated 7-day Cuba cruises for the past several years on its 1000-guest ship the Celestyal Crystal. Travelers can board in either Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, sail for seven days, and disembark in the same port in which they boarded. Cruises are operated in multiple languages, but the Cuba cruises usually have about 50 percent English-speaking guests, with most from North America (USA or Canada).
The Celestyal Crystal offers a "People to People" program for USA citizens that includes the cabin, food, onboard Cuban entertainment, shore excursions in each port of call, and onboard educational presentations on a wide variety of Cuban topics of interest including the history, culture, food, politics, cigars, and rum of Cuba.Continue to 3 of 11 below.
03 of 11
Celestyal Crystal - Dining on Cuba Cruise
Having sailed on the Celestyal Crystal in Greece and loving the Greek food on board, I wasn't sure how the cuisine might change on a Cuba cruise. Although the menus still carried Mediterranean and Greek dishes, a Cuban or Caribbean dish was featured at every dinner. We all enjoyed items like marinated grilled jerk chicken, Trinidad vegetables and rice, rum "baba", pan fried coconut crusted fish, Santiago tart, and Cuban style lamb osso bucco.
The ship also had cooking demonstrations of Cuban dishes, and many of the wait staff were Cuban and always familiar with the selections.Continue to 4 of 11 below.
04 of 11
Celestyal Crystal - Education and Entertainment on Cuba Cruise
The onboard entertainment definitely fit the Cuba cruise theme on the Celestyal Crystal. We had four Latin or Cuban musical groups performing in the bars around the cruise ship every night, but also had Cuban musical groups performing in the main lounge. For example, one night the main lounge had dance and musical artists from the Circo Nacional de Cuba. Other evenings, the onboard musical troupe performed a selection of Latin music, or a musical entertainment program on the traditions of Cuba.
When the ship was sailing, the daily program included presentations and demonstrations on topics including:
- Cuban Cigars: The Story Behind the Smoke
- Authentic Cuban Cooking Lessons
- Unusual Cuban Musical Instruments
- Latin Dance Lessons (merengue, salsa, mambo)
- Movie Documentaries on Cuba
- Cuban Culture
- Afro-Cuban Artistic Program
- Cuban Flora and Fauna
- Cuban History: Republic and Revolution
- Spanish Language Lessons
- The Musicality of the Cuban People
- Open Discussion on Cuban Cultural Exchange during P2P Programs
- Making Cuban Cocktails
- Havana: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Attendance at the presentations was not mandatory, but everyone on the cruise wanted to learn more about Cuba and these presentations/activities were excellent.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Embarkation in Montego Bay, Cuba
Celestyal Cruises makes traveling to Cuba (pronounced KOO-ba, not Q-ba by the locals) easy. We flew to Montego Bay, Jamaica and boarded the ship there. It's very easy to fly to Jamaica, but not so easy to fly to Havana for USA citizens. In addition, direct flights to Cuba might be more expensive than flying to Jamaica.
When boarding the ship for the first time in either Havana or Montego Bay, a Cuban Visa was provided to each guest. We had to sign that we had received it, but the visa was part of the fare. You fill out this Visa form with a pen and then show it along with your passport and ship boarding card every time you go ashore and return to the ship. Easy. The 300-400 hundred non-American guests (the ship seems to be split about 50-50) have completely separate tours, but do/see basically the same things. Theoretically, the P2P guests have paid for shore tours and are supposed to go with those tours, but nothing prevented someone from just going ashore and doing their own thing. I imagine most guests would feel like me--if you've paid for a tour as part of your cruise fare, you might as well take advantage of it.
All visitors traveling to Cuba have to be covered by Cuba's "free" national health insurance. Policies from other countries are not valid. So, a European company provides coverage to all cruise passengers, and the health insurance is included with the basic fare, just like the visa is. We were emailed a copy of the policy before the trip and told to bring it with us.
Montego Bay and Sailing towards Cuba
Arrived in Montego Bay right on time, met the transfer to the ship, picked up my Visa and boarding card, and was on the ship quickly. Ate lunch at the buffet and explored the ship, noting a few changes to make the ship look more "Cuban". I also attended the P2P briefing for the 400 Americans on the cruise, where they regurgitated the same things we had been sent via emails over the past few weeks. They also went over some basics for the first time cruisers, and I got a sense that some in the group had not been on a cruise before. Many of the Americans seemed to be in travel agency groups, based on their name tags, shirts, etc. that identified them.
By the time we had the lifeboat drill and unpacked, it was time for dinner. The menu had a good selection of starters, soups and salads, and main courses. Each course had a Caribbean or Cuban items listed. I had a corn fritter, salad, and jerk chicken, with ice cream for dessert. Good meal, and it was fun to meet new people and exchange travel tales.
After dinner, some of us at my table went to the 9:15 show, which was a Cirque du Soleil type show called Cirque Fantastic!, with great costumes and very talented, flexible acrobats. They also have an early show for those who like to dine later. This show was not Cuba-related, but five of the seven shows were. The ship also has four groups of Cuban musicians onboard.
After the show, it was time for bed. The Celestyal Crystal had sailed away from Montego Bay during dinner, and we would be arriving at our first port of call, Santiago de Cuba, in the early morning. It's on the far eastern edge of Cuba and not far from Jamaica if you look at a map.Continue to 6 of 11 below.
06 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's Second City
I had breakfast in the buffet by the pool the next morning so I could watch the ship arrive at Santiago de Cuba. This one was okay--crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, and roasted tomatoes. To enter the harbor at Santiago de Cuba, the ship had to pass through a very narrow passageway that larger ships could not navigate. On one side of this narrow strait was El Morro Castle, which was built by the Spaniards to guard the city in the 1500's.
Santiago de Cuba has a population of about 500,000, and the "state" of the same name has 1.5 million. The city was built in 1515 and celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2015, so I think a lot of clean-up was done in anticipation of this special anniversary. The city has played a key role in many Cuban wars--the first war of independence in 1868, the Spanish-American War, and the Cuban Revolution of the 1950's.
As we had been told, we had to show the visa, passport, and ship card to leave the port building. We also had to pass our bags through a scanner and a food-sniffing-dog was on alert to make sure no one brought food or contraband ashore. After leaving the port office, we all exchanged a little money into the Cuban tourist dollars, called CUCs (pronounced "kooks"). American credit cards or ATM/debit cards do not work in Cuba, so Americans have to pay cash for everything. Not much of a problem since our lodging and meals are included in the cruise fare. Most of us exchanged $20 for walking around money. Some places take US dollars, but you never know if they will or not.
Our group had our own bus, and it was nicer than expected with good air conditioning. It did rank of some type of air freshener, but the smell was better than smoke or other disgusting odors. The guide's English was excellent. His name is Aurelio (he said just put all the vowels together and you can pronounce his name), and he used to teach English, but makes more money as a tour guide. He said many professionals with language skills have left their jobs as teachers or other white collar jobs to become tour guides the past several years.
We rode through Santiago de Cuba to our first stop, the El Morro Castle we had passed sailing into the harbor. Aurelio filled us in on Cuba and his city as we drove along. The town looked poor, but no worse than I've seen elsewhere in the Caribbean. Multi-generational families often share the same house, and people own their homes, but don't own the land. They cannot sell their home without permission. All of the businesses in Cuba are government owned, even the joint ventures with non-Cuban companies like many of the hotels.
Aurelio proudly told us that all health care and dental care in Cuba was free (none of us asked who paid for it), but he also readily acknowledged that supplies and medicines were often not readily available. For example, a doctor might prescribe a drug that a patient would find was out of stock when he went to the pharmacy. The same thing with dentists--they might not have novacaine when you needed to have a cavity filled. Thinking of cavities, sugar is rationed in Cuba. Each person gets 3 kg of white and 3kg of brown sugar per month. Since 3 kg is about 6.6 pounds, that's a lot in my opinion. Aurelio said that Cubans love sugar and add it to everything. He said he drinks about 5 cups of coffee per day, and adds 3 or 4 spoons of sugar to each cup. He acted like this was common. Not sure what else is rationed.
We immediately started seeing the old cars from the 1940s and 1950s that Cuba is famous for. Our guide said most have been completely rebuilt on the inside (the engine), but look the same on the outside. Very fun, and the Cuban mechanics must be pretty creative to keep these old American vehicles together when they haven't been able to get parts for decades in Cuba.
The El Morro Castle was as imposing up close as it was from the sea, and the views were spectacular. All the signage was only in Spanish, but they had exhibits of old weapons (guns and machetes) that were self-explanatory. Our guide walked with us a bit and explained that the dry moat surrounding the castle was used as a cemetery/burial ground for the fort when it was used as a political prison. Kind of gruesome, but life back then was.
Before leaving the castle, we had time for a mojito (what else) at a small cafe adjoining the UNESCO World Heritage site where the castle was located. Kind of weird at 10 am, but appropriate. The views from the outdoor cafe were terrific, too, since it also sat on the hilltop overlooking the sea.
Our next stop was at the large downtown Cespedes Square, where Aurelio pointed out and described the buildings surrounding the square--the huge Santiago de Cuba Cathedral, the city hall where Fidel Castro gave his first speech in 1959, the oldest house in the city, the 4-star Hotel Casa Granda, and a large building that used to a private club and casino until 1959 when casinos were outlawed in Cuba. The cathedral was freshly painted in 2015, and on the lowest level of the cathedral were several retail shops. We had to remind ourselves that Cubans didn't get to celebrate Christmas until Pope John Paul II visited, and only got to start observing Good Friday after Pope Francis visited. So, at least Castro didn't tear down the cathedral.
We had about an hour of free time, so I walked with a friend around the downtown area. First stop was at the local fresh market to check out the vegetables and fruits, but skipped the meat area. We also strolled a long pedestrian street that must have stretched for a dozen or more blocks, checking out the stores, cafes, and bars. It was Saturday afternoon, and everything was busy. We stepped in the Hotel Casa Granda to check it out. The hotel was very classic looking with a open-air bar and rocking chairs on the first floor and a rooftop bar with good views.
Back on the bus, we stopped for a photo at the Moncada barracks, which was the second most important military stronghold of the Batista government in the 1950's. Fidel Castro and his rebels attacked the barracks on July 26, 1953 (the day following the annual Carnival), and the building is still covered with bullet holes. He chose Santiago de Cuba rather than Havana for the attack because the mountains were nearby that would shelter those rebels who survived the attack. He chose to attack during Carnival, hoping that the soldiers would be drunk or hung over. Castro had intelligence that told him that 200 troops were in the barracks. However, the intelligence was wrong, and the barracks had over 800, more than a match for Castro and his 135 men (and 2 women).
Six rebels died in the fighting and another 55 were captured, tortured and executed. The others escaped to the mountains but were captured 5 days later. The officer who captured Castro was sympathetic to the cause, so put him and his rebels on buses and paraded them around the city so that the citizens would know they were alive when captured. (Batista had said the 55 executed were killed in the battle, but word got out quickly that none of those captured had bullet holes in their uniforms when they were buried).
Castro was in prison for months before he escaped to Mexico where he partnered with Che Guevera. A group of 82 Mexican and Cuban revolutionaries eventually boarded a boat to go back to Cuba, but were attacked by Batista's troops and all but 25 died. To shorten the story, Castro eventually won out and Batista fled Cuba with his money and eventually settled in Spain. Many rich Cubans also left the country and settled in the USA. We saw some of their palatial homes, all of which are now government owned.
Reboarding the bus, we rode by San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and his men fought the Spanish alongside the Cubans. Like most battlegrounds, it's very peaceful today.
Our next photo stop was at Revolution Square, which honors the first revolution of Cuba from 1868 to 1878. It is impressive, with 23 giant machetes soaring into the air. Plus, there's a statue of Antonio Maceo, one of the local war heroes from that war.
Our last stop of the day was at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where we saw the changing of the guard at Jose Marti's memorial and toured some of the cemetery to see the graves of notable figures like Emilio Bacardi (rum empire) and Compay Segundo of the Buena Vista Social Club. The largest and most impressive mausoleum was that of Jose Marti, the George Washington of Cuba.
Back on the ship, we had a very late 3:00 pm lunch (a Cuban sandwich for me), and then a free afternoon. Dinner was at 7 pm in the same spot as the night before and I had a pasta appetizer, a cold zucchini soup, and lamb. No dessert since it had only been 3 hours since we had finished lunch. The show was "Afro-Cuba Folklorico", but we arrived late. After the show, I joined a few of my fellow travelers to sit at the nice bar outdoors aft. Didn't stay too late although we had a sea day the next day while sailing to Havana.Continue to 7 of 11 below.
07 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Day 1 in Havana - Classic Cars and Cuba's Trinity
The next day was a relaxing day at sea. Guests on the Celestyal Crystal attended lectures, went to dance classes, or just relaxed in the sun (or shade) outside on the deck. The next two days in Havana would be busy, so we all needed to rejuvenate a little.
The Celestyal Crystal arrived at the dock in Havana at about 7:30 am. Our excursion didn't start until 9:30, so it was nice to not have to be in a rush. The cruise ship pier is within easy walking distance of the old town area, making it a perfect place to start a tour.
Overall, I've been impressed and surprised by this city. It doesn't look like a Caribbean city at all; it's more like one in South or Central America. Havana is also clean--hope that's normal and not just a hold over from when President Obama was here two weeks before us. Havana doesn't have the huge number of construction cranes I've seen in Asia, but I did see 4 or 5. We also saw one building with scaffolding covering it--the scaffolding was so old, it was covered with vines! Very spooky appearance.
However, our group's first activity was a ride around the city in seven of the old classic cars the city is so famous for. The seven open convertibles (glad it was a nice day) picked us up at the pier. It was great fun to ride around the city, horns blaring (sometimes) and us giggling, waving, and taking photos of the city (and each other).
Like Santiago de Cuba, Havana has many newer cars, but you don't have to look very far to find one more than 50 years old. Hopefully, as the country opens up, the old cars will continue to be seen on the city streets since they definitely are an icon of the country. Many operate as taxis, but some (less well cared for) are used as private cars. Many of the cars (especially the taxis) are painted in brilliant colors--hot pink, purple, orange, yellow, or lime green. Others are two toned like the original Buicks or Oldsmobiles (or other cars) were. From what we've heard, everyone who has one these either learns to be a mechanic or has a car-mechanically-inclined relative.
My car on the tour was a 1914 Ford Model T that was painted a caramel color with black trim and black interior, but most of the cars in our caravan tour were old Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs from the 1950s. I had forgotten how big these "land boats" were.
Enough about the cars. The cars picked us up at the ship, but those who wanted to hire one on their own could do so on the streets or near one of the parks where they seem to line up like hookers on display for potential clients. Highly recommend this activity, and we saw impressive sites in other parts of the city that weren't in walking distance.
Our first stop was at the central park near the Great Theater of Havana where Mr. Obama recently spoke. The Cubans don't seem to really care what he said or what Fidel said or even what's been done or not done thus far. They are just so thrilled that he came. Guess it's like a recognition of existence. The theater was closed, but we peeked in the window, and the lobby certainly looks Grand. Legendary singer Enrico Caruso sang at this theater (but not when President Obama was there).
Across the street from the theater is El Capitolio, the old Cuban capital, which looks much like the USA Capitol building. It even has scaffolding all around it. El Capitolio is no longer used as the Capitol building of Cuba, but is a government building.
Our next stop on the car caravan was at the huge, open Revolution Square. This square has a large, towering obelisk (140 meters tall) that is a monument to the "father of Cuba", Jose Marti, who was the hero of the revolution in the late 1800's. Fidel, Raoul, and Che have all spoken at this square, and the last 3 popes have held masses there. Every city in Cuba has a Revolution Square, but this one is the largest and most famous.
Institutional-like government office buildings from the 1960s surround Revolution Square, and like we saw in Santiago de Cuba, one of the building has a huge likeness of Camilo Cienfuego looking down on the square. Written next to the several-story high likeness are the words, "Vas bien, Fidel", which loosely translated into English means "You are doing fine, Fidel". Cienfuego was one of the heroes of the revolution of the late 1950s that resulted in Fidel becoming president of Cuba. One of the Cuban-Americans in the group said that many Cubans looked to Cienfuego as the leader of the revolution rather than Fidel, and there was possibly some conflict between the two. However, in an important rally in January 1959 right after Batista has fled Cuba, some of the army leaders were looking to Cienfuego for leadership rather than Castro. Castro sensed this and asked Cienfuego how he (Castro) was doing. Cienfuego said, "you are doing well Fidel." This slogan, "Vas bien, Fidel" became one of the slogans of the revolution. Cienfuego died in a small airplane in Cuba (over the ocean) in October 1959. Most believe it was an accident, but rumors remain.
Ernesto "Che" Guevera is also seen as a hero by the Cubans, even though he is not Cuban. His face also looks down on Revolution Square. He was an Argentine Marxist who became a major figure in the Cuban Revolution. Young people see him as a symbol of rebellion, but I think it's because of his likeness rather than his deeds. Worldwide, he certainly is reviled by some and revered by others--one of those politicians everyone has an opinion of. He did significantly assist Castro in the Cuban revolution.
We rode in the classic cars down "5th Avenue" in Havana, which was lined with embassies and grand homes rather than department stores. Our next stop was at the National Hotel of Cuba, where all the movie stars, presidents (Obama, Carter, and Putin all have their photos taken at the hotel in the bar) have stayed and partied. We looked at all the old black and white photos in the bar and took time to have a drink.
Last stop before our late lunch was at the Palace of the Artisans, which was a large open courtyard surrounded by handicraft shops. We all experienced the Cuban holy trinity--rum, cigar, and coffee. The coffee was strong, as was the cigar. The dark rum Havana Club was okay to sip, but some in our group liked it better with Guarapo Frio, pure sugar cane juice. (They also added some pineapple juice to the mixture, but still too sweet for me.) I couldn't decide which I liked the least--the coffee or the cigar--but don't plan to take up either habit any time ever.
We had to pay for our own lunch if we didn't want to walk back to the ship, but we all wanted to try Cuban food, so they made reservations for us at a nice place near the Palace of the Artisan shops. It was fun, but lunch was lengthy. Plus, the electricity went out frequently, which I guess happens often in Havana. Just 20-30 seconds each time, but must be frustrating for the locals. We all got a set meal with a pumpkin soup (didn't taste like pumpkin, but very good), meat (I had grilled shrimp), white rice and some mixed vegetables, and a mint dessert. Meal was okay, but not as nice as I would expect for $30. We were in a restaurant that catered to visitors, which probably explains the price.
Since it was hot, we walked slowly along the malecon back to the ship. I took a little nap before dinner at 6:30. Not too hungry, but of course we ate. Then, we left the ship at 8:30 pm to go to the Tropicana, a live Latin cabaret show that's been in Havana since 1939! Very fun outdoor grotto-like setting about a 30-45 minute drive from the port. Show started at 10 pm and was over a little after midnight. Back to the ship by 1 am. The show advertised 200 dancers, and I think sometimes they were all dancing--not just on the stage, but in the aisles and on the "set" that went up about four stories. Reminded us of a movie set from the 1930's, and given the wild, towering headgear, I thought Carmen Miranda was going to appear any time. Our package included a welcome glass of sparkling wine, a 1/4 bottle of Havana Club rum per person, and one Cuban cola (not diet) per person. Some in our group drank their share and mine (and the others who were light drinkers). A very fun night, and worth the price and the time.
The People to People program had two other night time optional tours--a Buena Vista Social Club Tribute and an Opera of the Streets. Both got good reviews from Celestyal Crystal guests who participated.
Our second day in Havana would be mostly on foot--a walking tour of the old town.Continue to 8 of 11 below.
08 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Day 2 in Havana - A Walking Tour of the Old City
Our second day's tour in Havana didn't start until 10:30, which gave those who partied too much at the Tropicana a chance to rest a little before another busy day.
Our walking tour of the old town included stops at the four main squares of Havana. These squares were mostly barren, grassy areas when the city was first established, but evolved into lovely colonial squares. Havana has put a lot of effort into restoring and maintaining this large old town area. (although there's much left to be done) As I noted earlier, it was very clean, and our guide said the restoration committee group had done a good job of cleaning it up and instilling pride in the people, which made them realize that clean was better. She quickly acknowledged that the rest of the city was not as clean. I asked her if they had done a special clean up for Obama's visit last month, and she acknowledged there was "some of that".
We left the ship and walked out of the terminal. Not sure if I mentioned this is a very nice cruise dock, much better than I expected. I keep forgetting that Celestyal Cruises and MSC Cruises have been coming into Cuba for at least three years, so the terminal has nice shops and fairly efficient screening (in and out) of bags, along with having to show our ship ID, passport, and visa each time.
The first square is the one just across the street from the Terminal Sierra Maestra San Francisco, where the ships dock. What a great location for a cruise ship dock! Our guide said this square had the original Havana Gate, where all goods coming into the country had to be brought in. The square has an interesting commerce building, with each floor displaying a different architectural style to reflect Cuba's many trading partners of the 16th through 19th centuries. This square also has a large Greek Orthodox church and a nearby Russian Orthodox church. The other buildings around the square are cafes and boutique hotels (with about 20 rooms). Very cute.
Walking down a cobblestone street to the second square, we couldn't help but notice the many tourists in town. The week we visited was the spring holiday for Cuban schools, so there were lots of children with their parents, but many tourists looked European or North American. Funny how sometimes USA residents forget that just because we can't go somewhere doesn't mean the rest of the world stays at home too. Although we sat outside on the cruise ship every night and enjoyed the music, the sea, and the starry skies, It would also be very nice to sit in one of these squares at night and enjoy drinks, dinner, and some Latin music.
On the way to the second square, we passed the remains on the underground aqueduct built in 1565 to bring fresh water from the northern part of the city (where there's a freshwater river) to the southern part of the city. This aqueduct was used for 200 years.
On one corner of the second square, which is the oldest square and almost completely restored, is a trade school where they teach students the skills like plastering that are necessary for restoring historical buildings. All Cuban children must go to elementary and junior high school. At the end of junior high, their grades are evaluated and they are tested. Those with good grades and good marks on the exams go onto high school for 4 years. The others go to a trade school for 4 years. At the end of high school, those with good grades and good test scores go onto college. All education is free. In Communist Cuba, most citizens do not pay income taxes directly to the government unless they have a license to have a private business, which is still rare. Since all companies and businesses are government owned, the government. makes its money from selling goods back to its citizens, so it's like a sales tax built into the price of everything, with all profits going to the central government.
Our guide also told us about how difficult it is to move, since you almost always have to find someone to exchange a house with you. Since an even trade for housing is almost impossible, there might be money involved, but it might be under the table. For example, Jack and Jill agreed to trade residences, but Jack has to pay Jill 50000 pesos to seal the deal since her house is nicer. All these deals are done over coffee in public cafes or wherever since you can't really talk about price on a place you don't own. An unlicensed agent sometimes gets involved to help negotiate and also has to be paid (under the table). Very weird concept, but then it's hard to understand no private ownership.
On another corner of the second square is the Cafe Taberna where tourists can hear music from the Buena Vista Social Club.
As we strolled down to square number three, we passed by the chocolate museum (with a long line) and by the building where Ernest Hemingway lived in room 511 when he first came to Cuba. He eventually bought a farm outside the city where he lived with his wife. He returned to the USA in 1960 and committed suicide in 1961. His wife returned to the farm after his death to collect personal items.
We also walked by the Arms Museum, which also looked very busy. Not surprisingly, Cubans have not been allowed to own guns since the 1959 revolution. I guess the "forbidden" is fascinating to kids of all ages in Cuba, too.
Square number three was the Armas Square, so named because soldiers who lived in nearby barracks used the square to practice marching. This shady square was grassy rather than covered with cobblestones, and wasn't as large as the first two. It also has a large statue of the first president of Cuba, Cespedes. The old US Embassy borders this square. It is large and is now a public library, but looked kind of run down. Most countries moved their embassies out to the 5th Avenue suburbs after the USA broke off relations with Cuba.
Square number four was Cathedral Square and the large Catholic cathedral is used today. Much of this square except the cathedral was under construction.
Our last stop before lunch was at the El Floridita Bar and Restaurant. This lively bar was a favorite of Hemingway and is where the dacquiri was invented. Every tourist wants to come here for a dacquiri and to make a picture of Hemingway's corner. There was a small combo playing music, and we had a great time sipping our mini-frozen dacquiris. (I doubt if the first dacquiri from the 1920's was frozen, but it hit the spot.) They advertise on the building that Floridita is one of the "7 best bars in the world". Wonder where the other six are and who picked them. I've now been to the bar in Venice where the bellini was invented, the bar in Singapore where the Singapore Sling was invented, and the bar in Havana where the dacquiri was invented!
We enjoyed a late lunch at La Casa, a private home in the suburbs that has been both a home for the owner and a restaurant since 1995. They serve traditional Cuban food and it was delicious. We had a choice of two soups--pumpkin or chicken vegetable; six main courses--fresh grilled snapper, rabbit, lamb, Cuban pork, roasted chicken, or vegetarian (an eggplant pasta dish kind of like moussaka). White rice, black beans, and roasted potatoes were the sides. We had two desserts--a flan and pineapple ice cream. All were delicious.
Back to the ship by 3 pm with 30 minutes to spare.
Another "routine" evening. Had dinner and sat outside and enjoyed the cool ocean breezes at the bar on the back deck. After two busy days in Havana, a beach day at Maria la Gorda sounded very good.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Maria la Gorda Beach Day and a History Lecture
The next morning was a beach day, and we all enjoyed the white sandy beaches and clear Caribbean waters at Maria La Gorda on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula in Cuba. There was a small hotel and beach bar right on the beach and we were allowed to use their beach lounges. The beach was quite lovely and lined with tall palm trees. Much like you'd see elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Although tenders ashore (the Celestyal Crystal had to anchor) started running before 8 am, our group went ashore in the mid morning (9:45) to have a little time on the beach before going snorkeling from a large tour boat. A couple of people went in earlier, but I'm not much to sit in the sun on the beach, and we weren't sure how much shade there was (there was some, but not a lot).
Three in our group who are certified divers went SCUBA diving since the diving here is supposed to be some of the best in the Caribbean. They shared their diving stories at dinner and it sounded quite amazing--lots of fish and spectacular coral formations. Nice to know the reefs hadn't been torn up by boats and anchors like in some places.
The snorkeling spot was about a 10 minute boat ride from the small pier, and we shared the boat with others from the ship--about 25-30 snorkelers in all. It was a nice reef and the water was fairly calm, making the snorkeling easy. The water was about 10-20 feet deep and so clear we could see very easily. I think most on the boat were experienced snorkelers, which was good since we didn't get any type of instruction, and were allowed to go as "far as we wanted", as long as we were back in an hour. Like many, I took along a life vest (one of those we used to wear to water ski) in case there were currents. They had nice flippers and snorkels. I didn't see any marine life I hadn't seen before, but did see many reef fish and pretty corals. Back on the boat, a couple of people said they had seen a barracuda while others saw a sting ray.
We were back at the tender pier by about 12:30 and didn't have to be back on the ship until 2:30. I decided to go back and have a nice shower and lunch.
Celestyal Cruises now visits Punta Frances instead of Maria La Gorda on its all-inclusive seven-day Cuba cruise itinerary. Punta Frances features two miles of white sandy beaches and one of Cuba's most memorable marine sanctuaries--Punta France National Marine Park. This area has abundant bird species, marine life, and untouched sponges and corals much like we saw at Maria la Gorda.
Cuban History in the 20th and 21st Century
I went to the history lecture at 4 pm on Cuban history from 1898 to the present. The young Cuban university history professor from the People to People program was very good. He used historical political cartoons from USA and Cuban newspapers to help show the political situation at different times in history. It also helped get over some of the dry information, although given the relations between Cuba and the US over the past 100+ years, it's hard to imagine that anyone would not be interested.
Cuba has had three wars of independence. The first was from 1868-1878. The second 1895-1898 is called the "necessary war". Many Americans think the war started because our ship the USS Maine sank in the Havana harbor in 1898. Although it couldn't be proven, the USA believed the Spanish had sunk the ship and the "remember the Maine, to hell with Spain" slogan drove President McKinley to take the US into the war to fight with the Cubans against Spain. We call it the Spanish-American War, but every guide along with this professor has told us that Cuba was already fighting Spain before we got in. Julio the professor also said that Cuba was winning the war before the US entered, but that may just be the Cuban perspective. Cubans call the war the Spanish-Cuban-American War.
What is very ironic is that many experts today believe the Spanish did not sink the Maine; they believe it was an accidental explosion.
When the Celestyal Crystal was in Santiago de Cuba, we visited San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders fought an important battle against the Spanish. I always thought Teddy was in command of the Rough Riders, but he was second in command. The leader was Leonard Wood. After re-taking San Juan Hill, the Rough Riders forced the Spanish fleet of ships out of the protected harbor, leading to the battle of Santiago de Cuba where the US fleet sank the Spanish ships.
After only 15 weeks of the USA involvement in the war, it was over on August 12, 1898. Polls taken in the US thought Cuba was not ready for its independence. On December 10, 1898, Spain turned Cuba and Puerto Rico over to the USA and sold the Philippines to the USA for $20 million. Cubans believe the only winner of the war was the USA since they did not get their independence.
The USA occupied Cuba for about two years and withdrew in 1902. We did not withdraw from the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or Guam. As a condition of our withdrawal, we got Cuba to amend its constitution with the Platt Amendment. This amendment said the USA would leave Cuba, but keep Guantanamo Bay. It also said the USA could intervene in Cuba at anytime; the country was like a protectorate of the USA.
As the USA pulled out of Cuba, the country's first president was elected and served from 1902-1906. After that, there was a civil war from 1906-1909 and the USA intervened and appointed a governor. The next three Cuban presidents were retired military generals, and many Cubans think the best symbols of the first four administrations were fraud, extortion, civil war, corruption, and gambling.
In the 1920s, there was another revolution that continued up to 1940. The revolution failed and left the door open to Batista, who ruled until the 1959 revolution. Conditions were horrible in Cuba under Batista, so most welcomed the revolutionaries led by Castro.
The professor continued his discussion of Cuban American relations. He suggested we read a speech on "Communism in the Americas" given by Roy R. Rubottom, the Assistant. Secretary of State for Inter-America Affairs in the late 1950's. It's hard to believe that the economic embargo has been going on since October 1960 and that the USA broke off relations with Cuba in January 1961. The professor said his opinion is that sanctions cause ordinary people to suffer, but don't really affect the rich.
The professor also touched on the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, both of which I remember. I also remember the strained relations between the two countries in the 1970's and 1980s. The professor thinks that Obama has now cracked a historic window, much like the one in 1902 and that we have a chance to change history. I guess time will tell. The next few months and years will be interesting.
After the talk, we had dinner (I had gazpacho, a salad, and salmon) followed by lively conversation and music outdoors under the stars by the pool.Continue to 10 of 11 below.
10 of 11
Cuba Cruise - Cienfuegos and Trinidad
The Celestyal Crystal docked in one of Cuba's best natural harbors at Cienfuegos the next morning. This city was founded in 1819 by immigrants from France and French Louisiana, so it's much different than the old cities from the 1500's we visited like Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
We disembarked the bus before 8 am and went through the usual immigration and security--showing our passports, Cuban visas, and subjecting our bags to a screener. Our group took a bus tour from Cienfuegos to the colonial city of Trinidad, which was about an hour and a half drive away. This was our first drive into the countryside, and we all enjoyed seeing the farms, small villages, and fields of sugarcane, tobacco, and other crops.
The bus stopped at a fruit stand, and we all sampled the tiny bananas, also called lady fingers, because of their small size. They were delicious and very sweet, but not mushy. Back on the bus, we continued on towards Trinidad, at times driving close to the Caribbean Sea and at other times skirting the Escambray Mountains of the southwest part of Cuba.
Arriving in Trinidad, we left the bus and walked the narrow cobblestone streets of the city, which was one of the first seven cities of Cuba founded in the early 16th century. We visited an artisan/handicraft shop where some in our group bought pottery or jewelry. (This was also our bathroom stop.)
Next, we walked up to Mayor Square, the main plaza of Trinidad. On the way, we stopped for a few minutes to listen to some street musicians. The group was very good, much like we had heard on the streets of Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
Our guide pointed out all the important buildings surrounding the square. It wasn't surprising that one was a church and the others were colonial mansions that are now museums. We visited the inside of the Museum of Colonial Architecture before strolling down to see the Municipal Historical Museum a few blocks away. Both of these were in old colonial mansions.
The Municipal Historical Museum had a tower that visitors were allowed to climb to get a panoramic view of Trinidad. The stairway to the top of the tower was steep and very narrow, but the views from the tower were worth the climb.
Before returning to the Celestyal Crystal in Cienfuegos, we had a nice buffet lunch with Cuban dishes and cold beer at the Santa Ana restaurant, which was in an old prison.
Soon it was time to go back to the ship, and we were all a little sad when the immigration officials in Cienfuegos kept our Cuban visas. Our visit to this amazing country was over, and we would be disembarking in Montego Bay the next day. The passengers who boarded the ship in Havana also had to relinquish their Cuban visas, but would get new ones before the ship docked in Santiago de Cuba the day after leaving Montego Bay.Continue to 11 of 11 below.
11 of 11
What to Expect on a Cuba Cruise
A Cuba cruise is a wonderful introduction to this Latin neighbor. I found the Cuban people friendly and open to visitors. The tourist areas of the cities were cleaner than I've seen in some countries, but the infrastructure will be challenged if hordes of Americans suddenly swarm into the hotels and restaurants. That's why a cruise like the one I did with Celestyal Cruises is a good idea. The prices are set in advance, and the cruise line takes care of your cabin, food, the visas, and paperwork. All the guests have to do is enjoy learning about this fascinating country by seeing some of its history and culture, experiencing the sights and sounds of Cuba, and having a memorable cruise vacation.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.