We’re just back from a short 4-night cruise, the highlight and point of which for us was to finally visit Havana, Cuba. We actually booked the same Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise last summer, trying to beat the new Trump-imposed regulations on travel to Cuba, but were thwarted when Hurricane Irma canceled the cruise. This time, all went beautifully and we found our day in Havana to be fascinating and the travel easy and hassle-free. [Note: Find more practical info and links at the bottom of this post.]
I had lots of questions and some concerns about the new regulations, pre-trip, and learned a lot by researching online. Still, I had questions to which I could find no answers, so this post will have plenty of practical info and details that I wish I’d known in advance.
Choosing a Category of Travel Under New Restrictions: We settled on making our first visit to Cuba by cruise ship simply because it was easy and the most sure-fire way to travel there without worrying about U.S. restrictions on travel. These reasons seemed even more relevant after the new regulations went into effect, doing away with individual “People-to-People” travel which had previously been the main way for Americans to do a general visit to Cuba. “People-to-People” is just one of many so-called “licenses” that Americans much choose in order to travel legally to Cuba. This is a U.S. requirement and means nothing to Cuban authorities.
Group “People-to-People” is still allowed and that is the category under which most cruise-line-sponsored shore excursions fall. Given the ridiculously high prices and large-group/motor-coach nature of those ship-sponsored excursions, I wanted to book a private tour. Under the new regulations, the preferred license category for individual travel is now “Support for the Cuban People.” We checked that box on the form supplied by NCL used by them to obtain our visas, and in addition, checked “Journalism” as we both freelance from time to time in addition to writing this blog. Since we specifically wanted to visit and write about breweries and beer in addition to travel and that would comprise a part of our itinerary in addition to the basic “Support for the Cuban People,” we wanted to be sure we covered all our bases.
Private Tour with Havana Journeys: After doing my initial research, I chose Havana Journeys for our tour. At $120/100CUC for a 6-hour private tour (not including lunch which we paid for separately), it was one of the best prices I found, had solid reviews, included a vintage car for the driving portion of our tour, and offered to provide a written “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary. We paid a deposit of 20CUC online (which resulted in a modest extra processing fee) with the 80CUC balance due on arrival in Havana. Havana Journeys were very professional in the lead up to our trip, replying promptly to questions, sending a photo of our guide, Katiusca, and telling us where to meet her (“by the Chopin statue” in Plaza de San Franciso, just across the road from the pier). Our ship was scheduled to dock at 10am and we were concerned that formalities and money exchange (Cuba is a cash-only destination) would take time, so we agreed to meet Katiusca at 11am.
Tour Disaster Averted. The only issue that came up with Havana Journeys–and it could have been a huge one–was an unexplained change in the date of our tour. We were arriving on Wednesday the 12th. I initially requested that date and they confirmed the date, but somehow on the final itinerary document sent by Havana Journeys shortly before our departure, the date was changed to Tuesday the 11th. I totally missed the change, so bear some responsibility, but I simply never imagined such a change, this being a port stop set by the cruise line and fixed from the time we purchased the cruise months prior. We spent 11am-2pm Tuesday the 11th on NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, so had no Internet access although I’d bought ship wi-fi (something I had not intended to do) due to a last-minute situation at home that required my availability. Thank God I did! When we returned to the ship Tuesday, I found I’d missed several WhatsApp calls and messages. Havana Journeys was trying desperately to reach me: The guide was waiting for us. Where were we? Katiusca would wait 1h45m for us before giving up…and that time was passed by the time I got the WhatsApp messages. What to do?? I quickly tried to call back, but got no answer. I emailed every address I had for Havana Journeys, wondering what we’d do if I couldn’t reach them…and very thankful I at least had the notice I did. If we’d just showed up the next day, ignorant of the situation, we’d have waited in the heat, wasting our precious time in Havana, and eventually going off in search of some way to reach Havana Journeys. I had contact numbers for them in the U.S. and mobile and land line numbers for the contact in Cuba, but not a number for the guide since we would not have phone service in Cuba or on the ship. Internet is scarce in Cuba, so we’d have had some problem finding wi-fi before I could even begin to try to contact someone. Thankfully, I did finally reach Havana Journeys by WhatsApp call. While I waited on the line, they rescheduled Katiusca for the original, correct date and we were back on. Whew! Moral of this Story (which I knew and didn’t do): CHECK AND RE-CHECK DATES.
Docking in Havana. Although scheduled to dock at 10am, we actually docked earlier, sailing past iconic landmarks I’d only see in photographs and video: El Morro fortress, the Hotel Nacional…It was thrilling. The cruise terminal in Havana is wonderfully convenient. We pulled up to the pier, “parking” like some mammoth car, just across the street from lovely Plaza de San Francisco. We joined other passengers on the bow of our ship smiling and waving at the people just below and the vintage American cars gliding by. I could even spot the head of the bronze Chopin statue were we were to meet our guide. Cruise ports don’t get much more conveniently located.
Group tickets assigning debarkation times were to be handed out starting at 8:30am, but they started early and David was only able to get us in Group 4. This turned out to be a non-issue as they started calling groups before 10am, called Group 2 about 10 minutes after Group 1, then called Groups 3 and 4 together. We stepped off the ship at 10:02am. Despite our concerns, we breezed through customs, security and money changing and were out on the street 20 minutes after we exited the ship. At the customs booth, the agent took the paper tourist visa we’d been given by the ship, snapped a photo, stamped our passports and we were off. Security is just a standard airport-style x-ray machine. Money exchange is at the far end of the rectangular terminal building. Many people were on duty there and there was virtually no wait. The man we dealt with was friendly and spoke good English, and was very patient as we exchanged both the last of our euros and U.S. dollars. (There’s a 10% penalty for changing dollars due to the chilly relations between our countries, so the exchange rate is better for euros.) Despite being warned repeatedly that foreigners must change money to the local closed tourist currency, the CUC, we found out later that many individuals and places apparently do take foreign money. I wish we had known. Havana Journeys did, however, require us to pay the balance of the tour (80CUC) to Katiusca in CUC.
With nearly 40 minutes before we were scheduled to meet our guide, we opted to visit the 16th century basilica and the monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) on Plaza de San Francisco. The building is undergoing renovation, but much is still open including the sanctuary, and two floors of the monastery surrounding an open central courtyard; it’s a lovely spot. A small orchestra playing in the main sanctuary added to the experience and the guides scattered throughout were helpful and friendly, even encouraging me to climb up on the wall of an upper floor terrace to take photos and a video of the lovely square below where I could see the bronze Chopin statue where we were to meet our guide.
Our Tour Begins. Although our plan was to meet Katiusca by the Chopin statue, it was hot and humid and Chopin sits on his bench unprotected from the sun, so we waited on the steps of a nearby building in the shade along with other ship passengers looking for their guides. The photo Havana Journeys sent me showed a platinum blonde woman, so there was a little hesitation on my part when I first spotted a brunette that looked plausible. Sure enough, we’d made our connection and were off. She began by taking us to a free open-air art gallery just across from the basilica of San Francisco. The gallery boasts a beautiful and enormous wall sculpture composed of a number of 3-D clay tiles as well as other quirky works of art. Katiusca described the central role of art in Havana and the privileged life of some artists who are allowed to travel more than average citizens. She got side-tracked, though, when she realized that David and I are attorneys. She is an intellectual property attorney and we spent much time talking about Cuba’s legal system, the proposed new Cuban constitution and her hopes or lack thereof for any positive results. I finally suggested we walk while we talked, and we moved on to walk the remarkably clean streets of Old Havana from Plaza de San Francisco to Plaza Vieja.
Beer! Or not. “It’s Cuba.” One of the three small breweries we’d asked to visit, Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja, occupies one of many elegant colonial buildings on Plaza Vieja. We didn’t expect a lot from Cuban breweries based on what little we’d been able to find in our pre-trip research, but we were looking forward to trying the closest thing to local “craft” beer and talking with local brewers. This was something new for Katiusca, so she was intrigued, too.
Although just opening, Katiusca was able to get brewer Nivaldo to talk with us and we got a private visit to the working area of the brewery. Nivaldo explained basic brewing with which we’re familiar, but was also able toa answer some of our questions about ingredients used in their three beers, uninspiringly labeled simply Clara, Oscura and Negra (light, medium and dark). Local yeast is provided by a Havana “Center of Research”and Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja uses local cane sugar, but that’s where any semblance of intriguing local ingredients ends. They use Austrian hops imported via Panama and there’s absolutely no attempt and innovation of flavors and techniques. Part of this is due to the sheer difficulty in obtaining supplies of all types given the U.S.-led embargo; part is due to government control and lack of vision. When we urged the use of rum barrels to age dark beer, local fruits for flavoring, brewery-collected wild yeast and the like, Nivaldo just shook his head. Katiusca, both translating for Nivaldo and adding her own input, tried to explain how completely stifled enterprise and innovation is in Cuba. We asked about maybe home brewing creative beers and they both said it would be impossible and illegal.
So, while not expecting much, we were ready to try Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja’s beers. Not so fast. Nivaldo informed us that the equipment had been broken for seven days and they had none of their own beer. Maybe a local bar had some of their beer? No. And it would be 3 weeks before they could get the equipement fixed. Wow. We were disappointed, but Katiusca just shrugged, “It’s Cuba.” So, we’d have to visit one of the other breweries on our list that was nearby. Nivaldo informed us the equipment at that other brewery was broken, too, and that it broke at the same time and would be fixed around the same time. Maybe we misunderstood and it was the supply chain that was “broken.” No, it was the equipment. We were incredulous. How could that be? Another shrug. “It’s Cuba.” Hmm. This was turning into a beer story that wasn’t exactly about beer. We thanked Nivaldo for his time, slipped him a little compensation for his time and continued our explore of Old Havana.
Old Havana is beautiful, parts of it are derelict, most of it is very clean. Lots of restoration has happened since Old Havana was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a whole lot more needs to be done. Some of the old colonial buildings look to be in great shape; others are literally falling down, and people live in both. The renovation is mandatory, so people are moved in and out as deemed necessary by the government. We passed or wandered briefly through hotels, art galleries, museums. There was so much more to see than we had time for and I was already thinking about coming back.
We met our driver, Danni, around 1pm and climbed into our big, gorgeous warm-brown-and-white 1955 Ford Fairlane. Havana Journeys offered us a convertible for an extra fee not understanding that I would have paid extra for an enclosed car. I know all about hot and humid and I wanted air conditioning. Boy, were we happy with our choice! We enjoyed watching other people in convertibles, but they can have them. Everyone we met who opted for a convertible was hot and sunburned. No thanks!
After rolling along the famed Malecón seawall, past the Hotel Nacional and Mafia-spawned hotels from the 40’s and 50’s, we drove down “5th Avenue” viewing mansions in the exclusive Miramar neighborhood before arriving at Buenaventura, a paladar (privately-owned restaurant) in the residential neighborhood of Marianao. Eating at this sort of restaurant was part of our “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary and the family-owned outdoor restaurant turned out to be nicer than expected. Prices are geared towards foreigners and are undoubtedly much, much higher than the average Cuban could afford. We paid 59.40CUC ($68.30) for lunch. Not cheap, but then again, we ate and drank well: a shared ajiaco appetizer (a thick soup made of pork, pumpkin, sweet potato, malanga and plantain), rum-glazed lobster/langosta tail for David, pork ropa vieja for me, 2 mojitos and 2 piña coladas. At the end of the meal, we were comped 2 cigars and our choice of a small glass of coffee, chocolate or pineapple liqueur…while we enjoyed an impromptu music and dance performance by the owner and cooking staff. Good fun!
Santería. Our tour took an unexpected but fascinating turn after lunch when we made a stop at lush Parque Almendares on the Almendares River. Katiusca wanted us to see yet another side of Cuban culture; she told us some people hesitate to visit the park because of its popularity with practitioners of Santeria, a voodoo-like religion with roots in Africa and mingled with Catholicism. As she talked, two men on the waterfront held two for-the-moment-live chickens by their legs, moving back and forth between dipping the chickens towards bowls placed on the riverbank and wading into the flowing water. The squawking of the chickens was disturbing, and as we walked and Katiusca gestured, we realized the ground around us was literally covered with feathers and chicken bones. Grim. Katiusca said that Santería had bloomed after Russia pulled back from Cuba and, although the government had driven practitioners from the seafront, their numbers had grown. They met regularly at Parque Almendares and their children sported amulets and “protective” bracelets, despite laws prohibiting the wearing of religious iconography at schools.
Later in the afternoon, we visited Plaza de la Revolución a vast expanse of pavement bracketed by government buildings sporting giant metal portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and the immense memorial to José Martí, the revered Cuban poet, author, national hero and inspiration of Fidel Castro and so many others.
Still No Beer. A stop at another small brewery at Antigua Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco on our list confirmed that the equipment there was broken just as at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja and none of their beer was available. “It’s Cuba.”
Katiusca encouraged us to buy tickets for a night of dancing at a “social club” claiming it was more authentic than elaborate shows at the Tropicana and the like. We swung by to look at the place, but decided against it not wanting to tie ourselves to one place on our only night in Havana. Located on the top floor of a 3-story building surrounding an open courtyard, the club shared the building with a girls’ school and an old theater. The middle floor was absolutely derelict, an unpleasant smell wafting up from the rubble and old theater chairs.
Life in Cuba. We discussed Cuban life with Katiusca and asked about the nearly empty shelves we’d seen through pharmacy windows. She explained the ramifications of the U.S.-led embargo and how many things were hard to get. I told her I wish I’d had a way to contact her before we came; we’d have been happy to bring hard-to-get items. Before our trip, I searched online regarding things to bring, having brought school supplies and the like on other trips to countries in need. I told Katiusca that some of what I read indicated that offering items might give offense, implying some sort of inferiority. Her response: “Cubans don’t take offense,” need trumping pride. At one point, I asked Katiusca if she thought things would get better for people in Cuba if relations with the U.S. normalized. “It would have to be better,” she answered. “It couldn’t be worse.”
Katiusca and Danni dropped us off back at the ship at 5pm, sweaty and tired. We opted to reboard to shower and eat before heading back out to wander Havana. Katiusca assured us Old Havana was safe to explore on our own and that the buildings looked beautiful lit up at night.
On Our Own: Havana at Night. With the general idea of heading toward’s Hemingway-favorite El Floridita Bar and walking the wide Prado boulevard, both of which we’d passed with Katiusca, we left the ship and walked to Plaza Vieja. As promised, the elegant buildings looked pretty at night and cafés with outdoor seating boasted bands and couples dancing to Latin rhythms.
Pausing to watch the dancers at a restaurant just down from Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja, we found ourselves in an extended conversation with Alejandro, a 28-year old who’d initially just been trying to lure us into the Italian-owned café. More than eager to talk, he vented his frustration at opportunities in Cuba. Despite his IT Engineering degree, he found the pay much better at the café. He confirmed what Nivaldo and Katiusca told us about the impossibility of starting a business like the craft brewing we’d imagined (then added that the beers at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja were “very, very, very bad”). He expected no improvement whatsoever from the new Cuban constitution being developed and thought nothing would change for the better going forward. He said his mother had felt the same way when she was his age…and now here he was. Nothing changes. He wanted to emigrate to the U.S. (His brother was in Florida.), Canada, Europe, Australia, anywhere.
Finally bidding Alejandro goodnight, we decided to walk down Teniente Rey towards the Capitol. Katiusca had indicated that was the way to walk towards the social club, so we figured it would be a nice stroll. Teniente Rey between Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja was clean and beautifully restored; we expected the same continuing on the street on the other side of Plaza Vieja. Boy, were we wrong. With each block, the road got seedier and the lack of street lights made it more uninviting. People were scattered about, clumped in small groups; occasionally, children joined the mix. For blocks, there were no open restaurants, clubs or shops. At one intersection, we looked up to see the second floor of a building completely collapsed…and fresh laundry hanging on lines amongst the rubble. I’d have loved to have photographed the area, but felt it wiser to keep striding along. People called out to us from time to time, offering taxis, usually, but we just said “No, gracias,” and no one hassled us. Beyond a small, public wi-fi-equipped square crowded with people looking at their phones, we finally reached the Capitol and shortly thereafter a livelier area and Floridita.
El Floridita, self-proclaimed birthplace of the daquiri, exceeded expectations. It’s a pretty period bar with bartenders inverting two rum bottles at a time into perpetually busy blenders. Decorated in red, beige and black with a long dark wood bar, the place was full, but not unpleasantly packed, and a great little band by the front door added to the experience.
We staked out a spot at the bar and ordered a couple of the famous daquiris, striking up a conversation with another couple from the ship. We had to step aside every so often to let people pass who wanted to pose with the bronze statue of Hemingway propped against the far edge of the bar. When a woman singer began to belt out classic Spanish songs in a clear, strong voice, we ordered another round. Floridita may be a tourist staple, but the old lady has class and we had fun.
Leaving El Floridita, passed the Hotel Inglaterra and the ornate Gran Teatro de la Havana. Strolling down the wide, paved median of the boulevard Prado, I found myself pulled into an impromptu street dance with a man whose dark features blended with the night. Scattered along the median people sat and talked, danced and drank. A group of young people did tricks on skateboards.
People in once-elegant buildings in various stages of repair along the way looked out of windows and rooftops or chatted with neighbors across balconies. When the Prado reached the water of the Canal de Entrada, we turned right to stroll the seawall towards the port, passing a Spanish fortress and small fishing boats anchored and bobbing with the huge statue of Christ of Havana lit brightly and shining on the far bank. We reached the Cruise Terminal at midnight to find it well-lit and security and immigration waiting to pass us quickly back to the ship.
More Practical Info:
Katiusca would like to book tours independently. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ve found her quick to reply. I can highly recommend her as a guide. In addition to being an attorney, she’s the mother of two teenage daughters and needs the guide work to support her family. Her English is excellent and she’s very knowledgeable about Cuban history and culture.
Despite the date mix-up, I’m happy with Havana Journeys and recommend them as well for those more comfortable with a go-between.
Click here for a fascinating and not-so-clear list of examples of what does and does not qualify as “Support for the Cuban People.”
Click here for a list Cuban government- and or military-owned entities and subentities with which Americans are forbidden to have direct financial transactions. Note: “Entities or subentities owned or controlled by another entity or subentity on this list are not treated as restricted unless also specified by name on the list.” Many bars, restaurants and shops are thus not covered by this restriction.
We did everything we could to qualify under the “Support for the Cuban People” category of “license,” and I feel comfortable we met the somewhat nebulous requirements. Still, I see very little chance of anyone questioning tour qualifications for the “Support for the Cuban People” category. Simply check that category on the cruise line affidavit that arrives well before departure, the cruise line will then obtain a tourist visa which says absolutely nothing about why you’re in Cuba. Local Cuban authorities only look to see that there is a visa. Upon returning to the U.S. (the only country that cares about the “Support for the Cuban People” and other “license” requirements), we were just one of hundreds getting off a cruise ship from Cuba. We went through passport control in Miami without question. We are, of course, keeping all our records for 5 years as required, but it seems like a pointless exercise. I’d like to return to Cuba for a longer stay someday and feel comfortable about doing so, even under the new regulations.