Americans Cruising to Cuba…what Havana is really like to enter…plus my experiences in Cuba

Read on for my experiences cruising to Havana, Cuba on Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas. Do you want to know the step by step process of entering Havana?  Follow me on Bloglovin’ or Facebook to learn more. 

Cruising to Havana, Cuba

Cuba was on my bucket list since I first heard that the doors were opening to Americans a few years ago.  There’s just something mysterious about a place that was forbidden, and that still lives somewhat in the past.  I did a lot of research, and found a cruise that worked for us on Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas.  

Be sure to try and watch as you sail into Havana, Cuba.  We came in at dawn, and it was just beautiful to watch as we passed by the Fort, the Lighthouse, and the statue of Jesus.  And our ship’s Captain Diego had managed to get our 8:00 PM departure changed to 1:00 AM, so we had plenty of time to visit.

Visa form

When you are at your point of departure Cruise Terminal you will give the Agent two copies of the Travel Certification Form that you received when you printed out your boarding documents.  We actually received ours in an email a week or so before we sailed.  On that form we checked off “Support for the Cuban People”.  The Agent will give you your blank Cuban Visa at that point.  Save it and fill it out later on the ship, they will give you instructions.  The Visa will cost you $75, and will be charged to your onboard account. 

You will get back one copy of the Travel Certification form.  You are supposed to keep this for five years, just in case the US Government asks for it.  You’re also supposed to keep a diary of what you did in Cuba.  I wrote everything down in a notebook after our day was over.

How hard is it to enter Cuba as an American?

I was pretty intimidated about entering Cuba.  I’d heard so many stories about how hard it was.  But let me assure you, the stories are wrong.   It was not hard to enter Cuba at all so don’t be as intimidated as I was. Your ship will give you information about what you need to do to enter Cuba during your cruise.  

We entered Cuba before 7:30 am.  After the ship gets to port, Cuban authorities will enter the ship and clear the passengers for entry into Cuba.  Empress of the Seas was cleared before 8 am, and those with Royal Caribbean excursions were able to exit the ship.  We had an independent excursion, so we were cleared before 8:30 am.  

Leaving the ship

As you leave the ship, you will need to have your Sea Card and Passport in hand.  The crew will look at both as you exit the ship.  You will walk out of the ship and then into the terminal.  Your ship’s crew will be stationed around the area to guide you where to go.  The terminal is a large building .  As you enter you will put everything you brought with you into bins and then you will push the bin onto the X-Ray machine rollers.  You will then walk through the metal detector just like you do when entering the ship.

After you go through the metal detector you will see a number of shorter lines of people waiting to go through Customs.  You will get into one of the lines and wait your turn.  As the person in front of you leaves the Customs booth, you will walk up to the booth.  Give the Customs Agent your Passport & the Visa form you have filled out.  See below for an example on what a Visa looks like.  Use the name that is on your passport, not your nickname.  Fill out both sides the same way and use eligible handwriting.

Money exchange (Cadeca)

The Customs agent will check your forms, then stamp your passport.  They will then take your picture.  Take hat and glasses off, and do not smile.  After they release you, you will walk down to the other end of the terminal.  There are souvenir shops on either side of the large terminal, the Cadeca (money exchange) is at the other end.  You can then stand in line to exchange any amount of money that you want to.  There are several booths similar to bank teller booths.  Bring clean dollars with no tears or writing. 

One US dollar is equal to $87 Cuban dollars.  American dollars have a 13% exchange rate, Euros and Canadian have 3%.  Make sure that you get CUC’s.  The way you tell the difference between CUC’s, the tourist dollar, and CUP’s, the local Pesos is that CUC’s have monuments on them and CUP’s have people on them.  Make sure everything has monuments.  The Cadeca’s seemed very honest and we had no trouble with our exchange.

There are bathrooms (banos) to the left of the money exchange.  There are no toilet seats on the toilets in Cuba, and it’s rare to find toilet paper.  Bring tissues.  Sometimes, if someone is handing out toilet paper, they expect a small tip.  

After you exchange your money, you will see a large stairway.  Go down and then out into Cuba.  There is also a money exchange at the bottom of the stairway and some out in the town.  This all was a very easy process, and took maybe ten minutes to complete.  

And then there is Havana!

As you come out of the terminal you will be at a very busy street.  If you walk ten minutes to the left on the same side of the street you will get to a large market with artwork and souvenirs.  This market has a money exchange and bathrooms.  The vendors are pretty pushy though, and a lot of the souvenirs are the same things you can find at any Caribbean port.  

If you cross the street instead, you’ll get to a large concrete square with a fountain.  The street has a lot of traffic.  We just had to start crossing as a large group and the cars stopped to let us cross.  Just be careful.  There are taxi drivers around, and classic car drivers.  You can negotiate a tour with them, or just say no and keep walking. 

There are ladies dressed in old fashioned clothes wanting you to take a picture with them, but they do expect a tip if you do.  There are dogs and cats loose all over, and horse drawn carriages, so watch where you walk.  You don’t want to step in something. Some of the streets are cobblestone and rough, so be careful not to trip.

Exploring

We were supposed to meet our tour guide from HavanaCar.net at one of the buildings in the square at 10:00 am, but it was only 9:00 am at that point, so we decided to walk around the old part of Havana a bit.  Everything kind of looks the same, all the streets are narrow and full of people, tourists and locals alike.  It would be very easy to get turned around in this area, as we found out.  We never did feel unsafe, although some of the streets aren’t the cleanest.  We even found another large concrete square where a man was feeding pigeons and they were landing all over him.

See my review of HavanaCar.net at the bottom of this blog.

There was also a large group of school children in their red uniforms singing happily.  One of the old buildings was their classroom.  All schools, from elementary through college are free for Cubans.  After they are schooled, they are expected to serve their country for a certain amount of time.  However, even highly educated people make little money monthly.  They are given housing and some of their food.

Havana Classic Car Tour

We got back to our meeting place and waited a while.  Turns out our guide, Victor, had been waiting also…in a shady place.  Victor called the driver from HavanaCar.net to see where he was.  Since this was an independent tour they were not allowed to wait near the Terminal.  We walked to the classic convertible, a beautiful red 1960 Buick Invicta, and got in. 

We did see much newer cars on the streets, but were informed that most of those were either rentals, or belonged to government officials.  New cars are not normally permitted to be imported, so everyone becomes a mechanic out of necessity.  They use whatever materials they can find to keep their cars running.  Every car has a special decal on the side, and the owners have to pay $600 in taxes for their business every month.

Havanacar.net

I can’t remember the driver’s name, but he did a very good job of maneuvering that huge car around the extremely narrow streets of Old Havana with other cars parked everywhere.  The streets were built so narrow because there were only horses and carriages back then, and also, the buildings provide shade in the hot Cuban climate.  And boy, was it hot the day we visited in April.  At least 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and very humid.  

A little bit of history

We road through Old Havana and into New(er) Havana.  Old Havana is nice in parts, and very run down and dilapidated in other parts.  There are people sitting in the streets, the streets seem to be the place where everyone gets together for conversation.  Just about nothing was built anywhere in Havana after 1960, and a lot of the buildings are from the 19th century.  A lot of the architecture is beautiful and historic.  But you can see inside buildings and see that there is almost nothing left inside.  There is laundry hanging outside a lot of the apartment windows.

Some of the old architecture in Newer Havana is absolutely beautiful.  The government is trying now to restore some of the buildings that have been damaged.  We drove by the Museum of the Arts, which is absolutely beautiful.  They are also restoring the Capital Building, which is modeled after the US Capital.   We were told that nothing new was built after Batista lost power in Cuba.

Driving under the ocean

We drove through a tunnel.  What I didn’t realize was that we were actually driving under the water in the bay area that the ships pass over to get to the port.  And this is why only small ships can sail to Cuba.  They would not want a large ship to pass over and damage the tunnel.  That would be catastrophic. Makes you a little nervous when you’re inside.  Two of our new cruise friends, Vicky and Don, remarked that the same person built this, Bautista, that built all the other buildings that are falling down.  How safe can it be? 

On the other side of the tunnel you enter a military area.  We first stopped at a spot that celebrated the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Cuban perspective.  You’re going to see a lot of military items.  Just check your own facts after you see it. The Cuban perspective is obviously a bit different.  Victor told us if we wanted to do something later that night, to take a taxi over to this area and watch them shoot off the Canon Nacional.  Guess they shoot off a cannon at 9 pm every night.

After that we went to see the Jesus statue that watches over the city.  It’s in a large park.  Victor told us that Batista’s wife commissioned the statue before he was overthrown by Fidel Castro to protect him.   And then we went to the other side of the fort that we saw coming into Havana in the morning.  This is where we got a wonderful view of Old Havana and the Port.  At this stop, there were small stalls with people selling souvenirs along the pathway.

Havana Greenery

After that we drove to a beautiful green area, with some open air bars to get some bottled water.  Too bad they were out of water.  They wanted to sell Mojitos and Daiquiri’s, which cost $5 instead of the $1 for bottled water.  We passed on the alcohol, it was too hot already.  But there were some beautiful and unusual trees in this park.  I believe it was a banyan tree, although it had a different name there.  Victor also pointed out where one of the African originating religious groups had sacrificed an animal.

Revolutionary Square

We also went to Revolution Square, of course.  There were a lot of people visiting in the heat of the day.  Everyone’s seen the pictures.  It has the area where Fidel Castro gave all of his speeches.  I guess that one speech took 8 hours, don’t know if I could have stayed for that one.  One of the buildings is dedicated to national hero and poet, Jose Marti, another has a picture of Che Guavara, and another, a picture of Camilo Cienfuegos.  These buildings are on a huge concrete parking lot like square that is full of tourists, of course.  

And John Lennon

We then stopped by a park to see the statue of John Lennon on a bench and get our photos taken with him.  Cubans love John Lennon, I guess and the song Imagine. There is even a little restaurant called the Yellow Submarine nearby.  We went over to a little bakery in someone’s house to get some bottled water finally.  We did take some Gatorade with us, but it was really hot.  The driver got himself a piece of cake. I bought bottled water for all of us.  

Colon Cemetery

After that we drove past the extremely large Colon Cemetery, named after Christopher Columbus, although he is not buried here.  I would have loved to stop there but there just wasn’t time.  We passed it for blocks and blocks.   You can see a lot of graves and mausoleums from the street, with a yellow wall all the way around it.   I also wish that we could have stopped at Fusterlandia, an eclectic collection of art created by Jose Fuster.  It kind of looks crazy, but it looks interesting also.

We drove through the rich areas with nice houses.  Before Fidel all of the large business owners owned these houses.  When Fidel Castro took over the country, the houses were taken away from them and given to government officials.  The business owners mostly just left Cuba.  I think that the tallest building in Havana is around 28 stories.  Plus, there are a few nice hotels, and one was a Casino owned by the mafia at one time.  Some of the buildings look really nice, some are in disrepair.

No cigars for me

Victor did try to convince us to buy cigars to take home.  I told him that my dad smoked cigars, that I hated the smell, and that I was not interested in the cigar factory.  After a few tries, he gave up on that.  Cigars were not going home in my luggage.  Victor also asked what we’d like to eat for lunch, and we told him something easy, like sandwiches.  I guess I was thinking something like empanadas.

After our three hours of our car tour was up, it was a little confusing.  Victor wanted to know who we were doing our walking tour with, but we hadn’t been told that by Stefano, our contact in Miami from HavanaCar.net.  The driver made a call, and we found that Osvy would be our walking tour guide, and would meet us at Sloppy Joe’s, a favorite bar of Ernest Hemingway.  We met up with Osvy, paid Victor and the driver their part of the fee, and tipped them both.

Three hour walking tour

And now to our walking tour.  We told our guide Osvy that we wanted something simple to eat for lunch, and was hoping for some authentic Cuban food.  He kept talking about this BBQ restaurant, which sounded Cuban to me, and then ushered us in to what looked like a fancy restaurant with a doorman.  We are not fancy, but felt pressured to go in.  I asked him if it was expensive, he said no.  Well, obviously Cubans think that all Americans are rich, because to us it was expensive.  The restaurant was called MekedE.  To make money, a lot of restaurants are opened in people’s houses and are private. 

Not exactly local Cuban food

The restaurant was beautiful, and the waiter was very nice, but this is not what we asked for.  My husband ended up with a small plate of Brushetta and I had a simple tuna salad over lettuce, because we had to order from the appetizer menu.  Everything else was too expensive for us. We felt that Osvy was getting kickbacks for bringing people into this restaurant.  I probably would have preferred something from the Sloppy Joe’s restaurant.  Osvy only wanted water, so we got him a bottle, and then he sat there and watched us eat.  Very awkward.  We did enjoy hearing the birds singing from the other room.  There is a restroom in the restaurant.  It’s clean, and actually did have toilet paper.  This was a very disappointing part of our tour just because we had wanted authentic Cuban food.

At that point he said that doing walking tours was only his hobby, that he was really an entrepreneur.  He said if we didn’t like the tour we didn’t have to pay. Then he brought out a business card advertising Karatbars Cuba and had me take a picture of it.  I felt that he was trying to get us to buy the gold bars.  Again, not good.

Walking tour

After we finished eating he did take us on a walking tour of Old and New Havana.  There is a lot to see, and a lot of walking to do in the heat.  When the day was over I logged 20,000 steps on my Fitbit.  We walked past the Art Museum, the Capital building, and lots more beautiful old architecture.  Osvy’s English was hard to understand at times, so we didn’t really get the jist of what everything was.  We walked by the Floridita restaurant, Hemingway’s favorite.  I walked in.  It was very crowded but I managed to snap a picture of the Hemingway statue through the people.  We walked past Sloppy Joe’s, another favorite of Hemmingway.

We walked through a lot of Old Havana.  Not many homes, especially in Old Havana, have air conditioning.  The streets were built narrow to keep everything shady and cooler.  A lot of the doors and windows were open to catch the breeze.  Laundry was hanging on a lot of the balconies.  A lot of buildings looked dilapidated.  We walked through some really bad areas. 

Safety

We didn’t feel unsafe, although there was begging.  There was a lot of garbage in the streets, although there were trash cans around.  There were buildings that were totally demolished inside, although the outside still stood.  Osvy kept stopping to have conversations in Spanish with people, everyone seems to know everyone in Old Havana.  Then we walked past the courthouse and jail.  

We walked past some steam locomotives in a small park.  These were used in the sugar cane industry to haul slaves to the sugar cane fields.  Sugar cane is used to make rum and sugar.

Beautiful Churches

We saw three different Catholic Churches which were all beautiful.  The buildings were taken better care of than some of the other buildings.  The Catholic church does not want its churches falling into disrepair.  

Rum Factory

We then visited the Old Havana Rum Factory.  You can get good prices on rum.  We got a 1 liter bottle of Old Havana gold rum for less than $6.  This factory is located on the same street as the Cruise Terminal.  Cross the street then turn left.  It’s just a couple of blocks down.  I was told that the factory closes at 4 pm, but I think it was open later.  Go into the factory and the shop is to the left through a door.   

With bathrooms!

Bathrooms are in this factory to the back right.  There is a lady that dispenses toilet paper, and she expects a tip.  I gave a little bit of change, although she didn’t seem happy with what we gave.  There are no toilet seats, you don’t put your toilet paper in the toilet, but in the basket.  The attendant flushes the toilet with a bucket of water after you’re done using the toilet.  There are doors on the stalls, but they don’t lock.  While I was in the restroom, Osvy gave my husband another business card with all of his information on it.

At that point we’d really had enough of Osvy because he kept pressuring us to buy tickets to some night club.  Sorry, Osvy, but we are already worn out, we have no desire to go and party till midnight.  I’m pretty sure that he gets commission on these things.   So, we asked him to take us to the market and leave us there.  We paid him, tipped him, and said our goodbyes.  He still showed us where the Cadeca was, and the restrooms, then he left.

Souvenir market

The market, as I said before, is about ten minutes from the Terminal.  Turn left as you leave the terminal, it’s on the same side of the street.  It has bathrooms which I didn’t use, and a money exchange.  It has a lot of artwork, and a lot of souvenir kiosks.  To me, it was mostly the same stuff you can buy at any Caribbean port. I felt that the vendors were pushy. They do not mark the items with prices in most places.  I just don’t like that kind of market.  They will bargain with you.  There is a lot of artwork that you can buy also. 

There is a small rum store that seemed to be decently priced.  We didn’t buy a lot, but we sure walked a lot trying to find something that we’d like to buy.  We’d toured for almost 6 hours and were worn out, so we headed back to the terminal. There are taxis right outside, and they’ll try to get you to ride with them, but we decided to walk since it was so close.  There is construction on the way and a very narrow walkway through part of it, but we managed.  

Back to the terminal

To get back into the terminal have your passport and sea card ready.  Show them to the guard, and you’re back into the terminal.  There is an elevator, but it’s easier to just go back up the stairs.  There are money exchanges at the bottom and top of the stairs to change your money back into American.  It was a little hard because they only have larger bills.  I gave them $21 CUC’s and got $20 US dollars back.

There are also shops in the terminal, if you want to do some last minute souvenir shopping.  We didn’t go in.  Go down to the other end of the terminal and back to the ship.

Review of HavanaCar.net

I had heard of HavanaCar.net on the internet.  I emailed them and Stefano got back to me right away.  Their prices are much better than cruise ship excursions.  I set up the excursion, a three hour classic car tour in a convertible, and a three hour walking tour of Havana afterwards.  Stefano was consistently prompt in getting back to me.  I had to put a $45 deposit on the tour with Paypal.  The price was much better than the ship excursion cost.

Classic Car Tour

Victor and our driver were very good, and we enjoyed the car tour.  Victor made it a point to make sure that we were okay because it was very hot, and he was very good at taking pictures of us so we could keep the memories.  He went out of his way to make sure that we could get bottled water.  I  would recommend asking for Victor.  Even though he really tried to convince us that we needed to buy cigars for souvenirs, everything else was great.  He was easy to understand even though English was his second language.  

Walking Tour

I would not recommend the walking tour, or at least ask not to have Osvy as your guide.  Now, it may be that people in Cuba have to work around the system and get commissions by referring people to other businesses to make a decent living for their families.  I can’t begrudge them that, but I would have liked to have been warned about that before booking the tour. This is something that you need to know before booking so that you can make an informed decision. My feeling is that I’m paying for a tour, not a sales pitch, and therefore it was harder for me to enjoy the tour.  I would have enjoyed more getting an unbiased tour, and I would have liked to have the chance to enjoy real Cuban food, instead of an expensive tuna salad. The walking tour was disappointing.

I have been asked how much I tipped the guides?  We gave them an extra $10 CUC’s, even Osvy, whom I did pay even though I didn’t enjoy some of the tour.

Would we go back to Havana?

At this point, we feel that we’ve seen enough of Havana.  Yes, it’s very interesting, and it’s quite an experience.  The people that we met were mostly very nice.  It was good to help the Cuban economy a bit.  But, at least in Havana, I don’t think that we’d learn more from another trip.  We have no plans to go back at this time.  Who knows what the future may hold though.

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