This past summer I went on a cruise to Cuba and here is my recount! Now that Cuba is more accessible I went on a Norwegian cruise, from Miami, with my family to the island of Cuba and the Bahamas. I read that flying to Cuba can be a real hassle, and then finding a hotel in Havana is an adventure. Also the food in Cuba can be dicey and expensive. So I felt the best way to see Cuba and be comfortable was to go on a short cruise from Miami.
I flew on an early American Airlines morning flight from Chicago with my husband. Landing pretty early, around 10 am, we were able to enjoy a full day in Miami. Our Hyatt hotel was actually on South Beach which is a different city than Miami but you get the gist.
You know I’ve been to South Beach several times and it’s a nice city. But there really isn’t much to do besides day drinking and the beach. And can we talk about how much the beach costs on South Beach? You’re easily going to pay around 20 plus dollars for a chair, and an umbrella! In the end my husband and I aren’t hardcore beach goers and will only spend a couple of hours there. It’s hot, crowded, and loud. There are several other beaches around the world that are more luxurious than Miami, I’ll say that.
However Miami and South Beach have excellent restaurants. The top choices are expensive but it’s a chance to try excellent Cuban/American food and that’s exactly what we did. From our prior time in Miami, we went back to a restaurant called Havana 1957. It’s classic Cuban food with a touch of Americana but it’s absolutely worth it. And it’s located right on the main stretch of South Beach on Ocean Drive. This was a perfect way for our family to become acquainted with Cuban culture and food.
Cruise to Cuba
All cruises out of Miami go out of the Port of Miami and everybody must take a taxi to get there. We went with Norwegian Cruise Lines. I’ve never traveled with them before and I’ve always heard mediocre reviews. The cruise they were offering had the best schedule though. They were the only cruise line offering an overnight in Cuba and that’s exactly what I was looking for. All the cruises heading to Cuba, even if it was Norwegian or Royal Caribbean, were sending their oldest ships so I wasn’t expecting much.
Overall I was not impressed with Norwegian. The lines to get on the cruise were some of the worst I’ve experienced. The food quality was by the worst. But I feel like this was still a step up from any hotel in Havana and they did offer free drinks on Norwegian so that’s a plus. And the fact that if you decide to take a cruise, you aren’t spending much time on the ship anyways. We spent most of our time on land and the cruise was really just a place to sleep.
The cruise did arrive on-time and we entered the Havana harbor at around 7:30 pm. I did not have to step on land to get an impression of Havana. The harbor is filled with leaking oil from old ships. Garbage is floating everywhere. And if you’re on deck, you can get a panoramic shot of downtown Havana. It is as dirty and run down as you’d think it would be. I was expecting what I saw but it’s always more surreal in person.
That’s not to say that it ruined my mood. No, this is exactly what I was expecting and it’s true what people say. In a weird way Havana is quite charming. They have so many old buildings that are in utter decay yet they are still beautiful.
Roman and I left the rest of our family for a day trip to the Viñales Valley in western Cuba. It’s far. Like really far. It’s a 3 hour drive on mostly open highways that sometimes have donkeys hauling people. We did our own personal tour so we had our own personal car and driver. Almost all the tours will certainly come with a vintage 1950’s car as well. It’s like stepping back in time with no seatbelts, not a lot of traffic and limited regulations.
Although the drive is long, there are glimpses of everyday life that are compelling. Like people hitchhiking. Factories in the distance. And the occasional town or city that looks like it’s in the projects. Pinar del Río is like that. Our driver was from there and is most certainly run down. The people live in what look like Soviet Style apartment blocks and it makes me thankful about where I come from.
Most tours offer the same schedule with slight differences. We went with Discover Viñales and did the “Discovery Viñales.” They offer tours in several different languages and were professional. We had a driver for the day as well as a guide while we were in the Viñales region.
The area is actually pretty hilly and mountainous with tons of limestone caves. The original idea was to first explore the Cave of the Indian first but that already had tons of tourist and the wait was around an hour. So our tour guide took us to another cave where we quickly took some photos. We could have explored this cave be we opted to later go to the Cave of the Indian and do the boat tour later in the day.
Next we went to the despalillo which is the factory between the cigar farmers and cigar factories. Here people, by hand, pick, dry and process the tobacco. Let me tell you, there is no air-conditioning in these places, are basic and they really aren’t allowed to listen to music. It’s pretty cool to see how tobacco is rolled and processed though. The Cuban government owns all the tobacco grown in Cuba and Viñales happens to be the largest producer of tobacco in Cuba.
What I found interesting was how communism still plays a role. It use to be that the workers were allowed to listen to western music and literature. It would be read to them while they worked. Names like ‘Montecristo’ and ‘Romeo & Juliet’ cigar took hold from the workers listening to western literature. Now they only get to listen to communist literature as shown below.
The Paradise Restaurant
It’s hot in Cuba, especially in July. The heat sucks a lot of energy and generally makes you tired. With such a long car drive we were hungry so our tour guide took us to the famous “Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso.” It certainly has the best views in Viñales. We were treated to authentic Caribbean dishes, and of course Cuban food. Yes it was delicious! The best part was the anti-stress alcoholic drink that comes with a rum bottle for the table to top yourself off. It’s perfect to get drunk in the middle of oppressing heat.
We were then treated to see how cigars were processed on a farm and smoke authentic cigars. All cigars are processed in Cuba basically the same way and it’s much cheaper to by directly from the farmer. The best part is the old man who smokes 10 cigars a day. He usually has a cigar for breakfast dipped in coffee. One in the afternoon for lunch dipped in honey. And then one dipped in rum for dinner. He was a tiny man and only spoke Spanish but we bought 50 cigars from him for rather cheap.
El Jardín de Caridad
This botanical garden runs out of two deceased older women’s home. What’s cool is that it has many native Cuban tropical plants and many others plants across the Caribbean/World. I had one plant I loved that was white on the outside and black on the inside. It’s correctly named as a “mother-in-law” plant because like a mother-in-law, it’s two-faced. White and nice on the outside but dark on the inside. We had to rush through the botanical garden pretty quick as we were running out of time.
This place is pretty cool however it was by the far the place with the most tourists. We waited for probably 45 minutes to go on a 5 minute boat ride inside the caves. There is supposed to be paintings on the wall but it’s dark in the caves and hard to see. To be honest it was just cool to take a boat ride in a cave. It’s great if you have time but we were behind schedule so we had to rush.
Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria
This is a cool stop that we did in like under 5 minutes. It’s basically a huge mural on a rock face. It’s cool but definitely only a 5 minute stop.
Finally we ended the day with two beautiful viewpoints. There is the Mirador Los Jazmines where I took a beautiful video of the surrounding Viñales Valley. And then a viewpoint when you first get into the Viñales Valley. Both offer great views of Viñales and it was the perfect was to end our day.
Our way back was eventful though and not in a good way. First there were thunderstorms for half the journey with down-pouring rain. And then we also hit a dog like halfway to Havana but he turned out okay. A little nerve-racking and I was happy to be back in Havana just after sunset. We were able to see Revolutionary Monuments on our way back in Havana and University of Havana.
As you can tell, it was an eventful day. It was worth it but perhaps maybe too long. We treated ourselves to a nice mojito and Cuban rum back on the ship. We did tour the city at night for a bit but there wasn’t any action near the ship.
On the second day it was all about Havana. I’m glad we had two days to explore Cuba so we could do the country and the city. And I think Havana really needs at most, 2 days. Like I said earlier Havana does have its charm and it is decayed but it has a lot of potential.
Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market
As a group my family first went to the Artisans Market. Now this market is geared towards tourists, however that doesn’t mean you can’t find authentic Cuban souvenirs. It does have an impressive selection of Cuban gifts like humidors for cigars and wooden crafts. What I really wanted was to buy Cuban cigars and a humidor. We lost the cigars we had bought in Viñales and to this day we think they were thrown out. No idea what happened but felt sick after we discovered they were gone.
No stop in Havana is complete without a visit to Plaza Vieja or Old Square. It’s was fairly easy to navigate thanks to offline maps by Google and fun to walk through the streets. They are run down, I must tell you in advance. And some parts seems sketchy but if you’re in the old city of Havana, it’s probably safe.
In Plaza Vieja there are many restaurants to sit down and have a nice cocktail. Keep in mind that most of the restaurants, if not all, are owned by the Cuban government so service may not be the best. We first sat down at the Cerveceria Plaza Vieja which is on the southwestern part of the square. However by midday it was packed so we went right across to an American style restaurant called La Vitrola and drank mojitos. Listen I’ve drunk many mojitos but in Cuba it’s the perfect mixture of rum, sugar, mint and soda water.
We also tried some Cuban cigars and I’m not a fan. It was all for fun and I’ll never smoke again but those cigars were pretty terrible. In fact I ended up getting sick from smoking too much. I have a few photos and videos trying to smoke and you can clearly see I’m not enjoying it.
Old Havana / El Capitolio
The old city is pretty walk-able and easy to navigate. There are some sites to see and souvenirs to buy but most of the joy comes from observation. Havana is a city not like most, with colorful buildings that are breaking down. The people are of course pretty polite and actually not pushy. They let you simply look at whatever you want to look.
A bunch of us meandered our way to the old capital building called El Capitolio. We took some pictures of it and I believe it’s possible to go inside but we didn’t feel the need to do so. We did notice that to the right of the capital is where all the 50’s cars park when waiting for tours so we went over to take some photos. Now this is truly a unique experience because I can’t think of any place in the world to see so many old cars, out on a street, and free to snap some photos.
Now we didn’t do any of the next bars or clubs but there are two places to at least walk by and see. First is the El Floridita Bar, where Hemingway visited quite often when he visited Havana. In all honesty it’s a normal looking bar but serves some of the best daiquiris apparently.
The second is the Tropicana Club which is more of an experience. They offer dancing, drinks, and is way more of a touristy thing. Havana is not really cheap for tourists and going to see this show will set you back around 100 dollars just to get inside.
For the rest of the day my dad, husband and I walked around, would stop to have a Mojito or a Cuban Libre, and stopped at places like Cafe Paris and Hostal Valencia. For me this is essential what it should be like for tourists coming to Cuba. You’re on Cuban time where all you need is a nice cocktail that you drink slowly and enjoy the present. Havana has no wifi, and no mobile service. Just a nice cool cocktail, in a non air-conditioned lounge and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Cuba is tough. Traveling to Cuba is tough and being in Cuba is tough. The food can be hard on your body and traveling throughout the country takes time. However if you have a chance to travel to Cuba, you most certainly should. I wanted an experience that was unique and Cuba offers something that no other country can exactly deliver. As a traveler, those are the places I want to go.
And I’m glad I got to see this Cuba. It’s poor and tourism most certainly will change a lot of Cuba in the future and to me this is a great thing. I know some tourists will argue that no Cuba should be left as is, but in reality Cuba has people who make very little and opening Cuba to the world will inevitably help them. I don’t want to keep people in poverty so I can take awesome photos and spit out some narrative of my own.
What’s sad about Cuba to me is that it has the potential. I see why before 1950’s, Cuba was the spot to go in the Caribbean. It has so much great things going for it and yet it still lags behind the rest of the Caribbean. I’m glad I got to go to a place that is much different from where I come from but I’m also glad to live in the United States.
Cuba is that perfect place to go if you’re escaping for a while. Travel is difficult and good luck finding any reliable internet or phone service. And what’s so surprising is that this wonderful messed up place is just 90 miles away from Florida. I’m curious to see what will happen in the future for Cuba but I’m sure I’ll be back!