Cuba has quickly become the hottest new destination of 2018. Many cruise lines have added Cuba to their itineraries and people are lining up to visit this hot destination. Before anything else, it is important to note that all policies and points listed below can be changed at any time. If you are considering a Cuba cruise, please be sure to check with your travel agent to find out exactly what the current guidelines are. If you are interested in going to Cuba but unsure how to get there due to the current government restrictions, traveling to Cuba is best through a group, like on a cruise where tours can be done through smaller tour groups once in Cuba. Recently, I traveled to Havana, Cuba via a cruise on the Norwegian Sky and here is what I learned through the process:

  • Passports are required
    • Don’t try to travel without one. In fact, your passport must be valid for six months after your return from the trip like all cruises. Be sure to check the expiration date of your passport upon booking your cruise to give yourself ample time to get a new one if needed. If your passport is not valid for six months after your return, you could be denied boarding.
  • Visas are required
    • These are fairly easy to obtain, especially if you get one through the cruise line. It was only an additional $75 per person and we received the visas the day we embarked on the ship. Once onboard, it is important to keep your documents in a safe place, such as the in-stateroom safe, to ensure that you can find them when you arrive in port.
  • Money exchange
    • Before leaving, we researched the currencies that can be used in Cuba. US Dollars (USD) will not be accepted in Cuba and US Credit Cards cannot be used. There is also an additional exchange rate, so you have to be prepared for that. After extensive research, we learned that it was best for us to exchange our USD to Canadian dollars prior to leaving, and then exchange the CAD to Cuba Dollars. However, as the exchange rates change constantly, you will want to check current rates before making your exchanges. There are also two different types of Cuban Currency, however the easier of the two for tourists to use is the Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC).
  • Souvenirs
    • The number one item people asked about taking back to the US was Cuban Cigars. Under current regulations, passengers can bring home a maximum of 100 Cuban Cigars per person. The second item people asked about? Rum. We were advised that we could each bring a total of two liters home.
    • Unlike many destinations, where souvenir shops can be found nearly every 20 feet, Cuban souvenirs are a bit harder to find. Ask your tour guides in Cuba for the best places to purchase different trinkets/mementos you are interested in finding. If you are on a bus tour, sometimes the bus will make special stops at shops for people to purchase different items if you ask at the beginning of the tour.

  • Shore Excursions (booked through the cruise line)
    • We participated in 3 different excursions while in Cuba –
      • Cuban Rum, Cigars & Art
        • This tour was fascinating! We went to an old rum factory (no longer in business) where they gave rum tastings and people were able to purchase coffee, rum, and cigars. We also went to a working cigar factory where we saw workers hand-rolling the cigars. This building was 4 stories high and each floor was designated to different steps of the cigar making process. The final stop of our tour was an alleyway dedicated to African culture and art. We were able to witness a local dance performed by high school students in the area as well.
      • An Evening Stroll in Colonial Havana
        • This tour was not just a stroll, but included dinner as well. We stopped at the famous Sloppy Joe bar and enjoyed an authentic Cuban sandwich along with two complimentary drinks: Rum and Coke and one beverage of our choice. The next stop was a bar that was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, where we received an additional complimentary drink – a Mojito (which was delicious and refreshing). The bar had live music and dancing and you could hear the energetic beat blocks away. Afterwards, we strolled through the city, pausing to see and learn of different monuments within the area.
      • Ultimate Highlights of Havana – Old & New
        • This bus tour truly brought you to some iconic locations within Havana. One of the first stops was Morro Castle, the Fort that still stands tall at the beginning of the channel into Havana. This Castle with the lighthouse is one of the most photographed buildings in the country. We were able to walk around the exterior and see the old cannons and brick walls built to protect the city. The next stop was Revolutionary Square, which is known as the political and administrative center of Cuba. This square is also known for the faces of the country’s national heroes on the sides of the buildings and the Jose Marti Memorial, which includes a star-shaped tower and statue. Finally, we received a tour of the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. Although Columbus is not buried in this cemetery, he is the one who discovered Cuba. The cemetery is 140 acres and regarded as the final resting place of over one million people.

          • Places to Travel
            • Due to current government restrictions, American Tourists are only allowed to travel to government owned businesses. This includes cigar shops, rum shops, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, bars, and more.
            • If you participate in tours through the cruise line, you do not need to worry about whether the locations you are going to are legal since the tours will ONLY bring you government owned businesses.
            • Old Cars
              • When you see pictures of Cuba, you will likely see photos of old style cars from the 1950’s. These cars are everywhere. Many of the classic cars are now used as taxis throughout the island. One misconception is that Cubans cannot buy new cars. They can buy new cars, but the cars must be paid for in cash and oftentimes, the price is higher than a new house. One of our tour guides referred to mechanics as magicians because in certain situations, the mechanics need to build parts from scratch since they are unable to get new parts for the old cars.
              • Old Buildings
                • When it comes to the living conditions, the buildings are in disrepair. Due to Cuba being a communist country, and the government owning all buildings, no money has been put into renovating many buildings within the country since the 50’s. These buildings look as though they are crumbling with every touch. There are minimal windows and many windows and doorways have grates over them. These buildings that look as though they may fall apart when touched, are actually homes to many families that have lived there for generations. Families can buy new homes or build new homes, but the cost is more than most can afford. Families do have the option of swapping homes from different areas as long as both families agree.
                • While these buildings are a bit different than what we are traditionally used to, they add to the overall culture and experience of visiting Cuba.

The people are warm and welcoming and Cuba has a fascinating story to tell. Locals look forward to sharing their history with anyone who is willing to listen. Even with our overnight stay in Havana, we felt as though we didn’t get to see as much as we wanted. Someday, I hope to be able to go back to see and experience even more of what Cuba has to offer.