Since 1960, the U.S. government has allowed only a few U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba due to the government embargo that was imposed after the Communist government of Fidel Castro seized power. Travel was limited to journalists, government officials, academics, and those with family members living in Cuba.
In 2011, the government restrictions were modified to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba as long as they were participating in a People-to-People tour that was for educational purposes. These tour groups obtained licenses and visas for those U.S. citizens participating in their programs.
In 2016, the restrictions were modified again to allow Americans to travel to Cuba independently as long as they met one of a dozen authorized reasons, one of which is "education". Although Americans do not have to participate in a "People to People" tour, they do need to "retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities," according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Tourism is not one of the authorized activities, so don't plan (at least for now) to book a hotel in Cuba and spend a week on the beach.
Cruise ships with non-Americans have been traveling to Cuba for years, and when the restrictions were lessened in 2011, cruise lines like Celestyal Cruises added a People-to-People" (P2P) compliant program on their Cuba cruises. Their first program in 2012 had one American family; the one I participated in on the Celestyal Crystal in April 2016 had over 400 Americans. This P2P program included many educational presentations and activities onboard and almost all shore excursions. In addition, the ship featured Cuban entertainment in the theater and Cuban dishes on the menu.
Other cruise lines are now jumping on the Cuba cruise bandwagon. Fathom Cruises, one of the Carnival Corporation brands, had its first educational/experiential cruise in May 2016, and more cruise lines are hoping to obtain government permission to sail by the high winter season of 2016-2017.
What's Cuba Like?
The Celestyal Crystal 7-day Cuba cruise embarked and disembarked in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and featured one day in Santiago de Cuba, a day at sea, two days in Havana, one day at Maria la Gorda beach, and one day in Cienfuegos with a side trip to the colonial city of Trinidad before returning to Montego Bay.
Ever since I returned home from Cuba, many of my friends have asked, "What's Cuba like"? The biggest surprise to me was the tourism infrastructure already in place. Although Americans have not been visiting Cuba for the past 50 years, the rest of the world has. The tourism infrastructure is much more developed than Myanmar, where hardly any westerners visited for the past 50 years until it "opened" up a few years ago .
However, given the number of Americans wanting to visit, hotel rooms may soon be at a premium, which makes taking a cruise an even better bargain. In addition, like the hotels, most of the restaurants are government owned, so changes might be slow. We ate lunch in a restaurant in downtown Havana, but the power went out a half-dozen times (for just a few minutes) while we were there. Fortunately, the restaurant used gas for cooking, but no one other than us thought having a power black out was unusual. We also had lunch at a paladar, which is a privately-owned family restaurant in Cuba. La Casa Restaurant has been in business since 1995 and is located in a family's home in a Havana suburb. The Cuban food was delicious, and the price was much more reasonable than at the government-owned venue.
The Holy Trinity of Cuban Culture
The photo at the top of this page shows the "holy trinity" of Cuban culture--coffee, cigars, and rum. Every guide we had and every person we spoke with stressed the importance of these three products. I smoked my first cigar (and probably my last) in Cuba.
Authorized American travelers to Cuba are now allowed to bring $400 worth of goods and souvenirs—including up to $100 each of tobacco and alcohol products—back into the USA. You are not allowed to re-sell the items, but why would you?
This rest of this article shows some of the things I expected to see in Cuba and did. The first three pages show some of the many classic cars we saw in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.The next seven pages of photos show some of the many other things you should see and/or do when on your Cuba cruise.
Classic Cars of Cuba
Classic car aficionados will go crazy when they visit Cuba. We've all heard of the many US automobiles from the 1950s or earlier still being used in Cuba. This is true. However, although most may still have the original bodies, the engines and other equipment under the hood is much more modern. Cuba has many newer cars, but you don't have to look for long to see one that was built prior to 1960.
Most of the classic cars we saw on our Cuba cruise were used as taxis.
Classic Cars of Cuba
While in Havana, our Cuba cruise group took a tour of the downtown area and the suburbs in a caravan of classic convertibles. I started out in the 1914 Ford Model T. It was painted a caramel-orange color with black trim and black interior. Our driver said the car had been in his family for over 50 years. His grandfather had "traded" in his 1948 Cadillac for it, and the open air Ford runs as a taxi or tour car about 4-6 hours every day. The engine certainly didn't sound like it was the original!
Classic Cars of Cuba
Tropicana Club Dancer with Chandelier Headpiece
The cabaret show at the Tropicana Club in Havana has been operating at the same location since 1939. The showgirls were the stars then, and they are the stars now. Their costumes are amazing, but my favorite was this one--can you imagine walking with a chandelier headpiece on?
Street Musicians in Trinadad
Walking the streets of American cities, you'll see lots of people with ear buds listening to music from their smart phones. In Cuba, you'll see lots of live musicians playing music in every city. We all loved it, and this group in Trinidad was especially good.
Hemingway Corner in El Floridita Bar in Havana
A visit to Havana must include a stop at El Floridita, the bar that invented the daiquiri back in the 1920's. This bar was a favorite hang out of Ernest Hemingway and even has a "Hemingway corner" with both a bust and a statue of the iconic author, along with several photos of him either in the bar or with famous Cubans (like Fidel Castro).
Be sure to order a daiquiri and have your picture taken with Hemingway.
Daiquiri at El Floridita
The daiquiris at El Floridita were ice cold and delicious, and the price was almost a steal--$6 (April 2016). Actually, it's quite a bargain when compared to the price of a bellini at Harry's Bar in Venice (15 euros) or a Singapore sling at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore ($30). These two bars invented their signature cocktails, and visitors pay dearly to sample one. I wonder how long before El Floridita will catch on?
Cuban "Diet Coke"
I've traveled to many countries around the world, and the only place where they didn't have a McDonald's Restaurant (yet) was in Myanmar, Cuba, and Antarctica. Cuba doesn't have a McDonald's, and it doesn't have any Coca-Cola products like Diet Coke. As a big diet coke fan, I was glad they had them on my Cuba cruise ship the Celestyal Crystal.
I've heard that some people have found Diet cokes to buy in Cuba, but it cannot be legally marketed. The Cuban brand of diet cola was okay, but like diet Pepsi, it's not diet coke.
Cuba has three popular cocktails, and all are made of rum. As discussed on a previous page, daiquiris were invented in Cuba. The other two most popular cocktails in Cuba are mojitoes and Cuba libres. We also found the local beers to be good and served ice cold.
Trinidad Handicrafts in Cuba
I was pleasantly surprised to see so many souvenir and handicraft shops in Cuba. Visitors will find plenty of places to spend their money. These traditional Cuban dolls were in a shop in Trinidad.