A Cuba cruise travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go
BY MIKE CLARY
So you’re thinking about taking a cruise to Cuba.
As the Fathom ship Adonia launches a schedule of biweekly cruises from
Miami to Cuba, passengers will find a few changes in scheduling and
activities from the inaugural May 1 trip, the first to the island by a
U.S.-based passenger ship in nearly four decades.
Four weeks ago, when the first cruise ship in more than 50 years sailed
from the United States and around Cuba, the Sun Sentinel’s Mike Clary
was aboard. He shared the story of the historic journey aboard the MV
Adonia, and you can find the reports at SunSentinel.com/CubaCruise.
With the 704-passenger ship set to leave PortMiami every other Sunday
for a weeklong voyage to Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, here’s
what we learned on the first cruise:
Question: Is traveling to Cuba by ship a good way to see the country?
Answer: In a seven-day trip around the island, passengers spend
two-thirds of their time at sea, and only about 50 hours on the ground
So a more time-efficient way to explore Cuba is to take a charter flight
directly to Havana, Santiago de Cuba or one of several other Cuban
cities and begin exploring from there. There are several ways to get
around once in Cuba: Cuba’s domestic airline, state-run train or bus
systems, or rental cars.
The journey from Havana to Cienfuegos by train, bus or car takes about
four hours or less. On the Adonia, the trip from Havana to the city on
the south coast takes a full day and a half at sea as the ship sails
around the western end of the island. During that time you could be
reading about Cuba, or practicing your salsa moves to live music
onboard, but you won’t be seeing Cuba.
If you do decide the cruise option isn’t for you, travel agents and
charter companies in the U.S. can make reservations for travel within
Cuba before you go.
Most Adonia passengers, however, are making their first visit to a
communist-ruled island that is just being opened up to American
visitors, and many said the cruise provided a good introduction for
Q. What are the advantages of traveling by ship?
A. After a day of exploring a city on foot, many passengers appreciated
being able to return to a floating hotel at the dock where they could
find a hot shower, a good bed in a comfortable cabin and a cafeteria
that is almost always open. Although there are fine restaurants in
Cuba’s major cities, finding light fare while on-the-go touring is not
always easy. There are no Starbucks, no fast-food franchises. So the
availability of consistent and plentiful food on board can be attractive.
The cruise line also will schedule optional onboard programs related to
For those not comfortable wandering the streets of Cuba on their own,
Fathom offers walking and coach tours to places such as national
historic sites, organic farms and artist studios, and outside of
Santiago de Cuba, the shrine to Cuba’s patron saint in the town of El
Cobre. The cost of the tours is included in the price of the voyage.
Q. What changes has Fathom made as a result of the first cruise?
A. Cuban tour guides are to get more training after complaints they were
too inflexible and too stingy with information, and onboard programs on
Cuban art, architecture and music will be beefed up, according to
officials of Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand.
Perhaps most importantly, passengers will be told they are free to leave
conducted tours to wander around on their own.
Travelers also will be offered more choices of activities and
restaurants in each of the Adonia’s stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and
Santiago de Cuba.
Q. What is the ship like?
A. Launched in 2001, the Adonia has a capacity of 704 passengers, with a
crew of more than 350. It is smaller than many cruise ships, enabling it
to get into ports such as Havana, too shallow for bigger vessels. Many
of the senior officers are British, and the crew includes men and women
from more than 20 nations, including India and the Philippines.
The Adonia does not have a casino, and there are no Broadway-style
shows. What it does offer, in addition to cruise ship basics such as a
swimming pool, workout room, restaurants and bars, are various classes,
such as Spanish, yoga, Cuban history, meditation and storytelling.
Q. What is the difference between Adonia’s three stops, Havana,
Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba?
A. Passengers spend two full days in the Cuban capital of Havana, a
sprawling city of more than 2 million. The historic attractions are
many, the restaurants and privately run “paladares” catering to tourists
first-rate, and there are plenty of taxis, tour guides and shows to see.
In a visit that lasts a total of 36 hours, passengers can get only a
taste of the largest city in the Caribbean, a dynamic cultural mecca
founded in 1514.
Cienfuegos, the Adonia’s second stop, is a city of 150,000 residents,
filled with charm and French-influenced neoclassical architecture. Known
as the “Pearl of the South,” Cienfuegos invites casual exploration, but
the stop here is brief – just six hours. Many travelers said they would
have enjoyed more time here.
Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s eastern
end, is the home of rum and revolution. Flanked by the Sierra Maestra
mountain range, this is where Fidel Castro launched the revolution in
the early 1950s, and is a city with distinctive Afro-Cuban cultural
influences. There is much to see – the old Bacardi factory, and the tomb
of José Martí, for example – but Adonia passengers are on the ground for
only about eight hours. As in Cienfuegos, the stop here is brief,
forcing travelers to make hard choices about how to use their time.
Q. Can I plan my own trip to Cuba?
A. Yes. You can book a flight to Cuba through a charter service. The
flight from Miami to Havana takes about 45 minutes. The average
round-trip fare: $400. The U.S. and Cuba have agreed to license 20 daily
flights to Havana and 10 each to nine other Cuban cities. American
Airlines, JetBlue and several other airlines are applying for those
routes, but they have not been assigned. So you cannot yet call up an
airline and book a flight.
Q. Are hotel rooms available and what are they like?
A. Hotel rooms in Cuba can be in short supply, especially during the
winter season, from November through April. A room at Havana’s famed
Hotel Nacional, for example, goes for about $300 U.S. a night. But there
are many rooms for rent in private homes for as little as $30 a night,
often with breakfast. Airbnb, a U.S. website that lists rental lodging,
also now operates in Cuba.
The big hotels in Cuba, including many operated by the Spanish firm
Melia, are very similar to big hotels anywhere. They offer restaurants,
bars, room service and Internet connections. But for a more intimate
look at Cuba, many travelers prefer to stay in private homes, known as
“casas particulares,” which are licensed by the government. In these
casas, interactions with residents are often personal. The residents can
tell you about local eating places, share family stories, and talk about
the daily economic struggles of Cubans who have no access to visitors
and tourist dollars.
Q. What about car rentals and driving around Cuba?
A. Rental cars are available, but driving even Cuba’s major highways can
be a challenge, thanks to potholes, roadside vendors and free-ranging
animals, not to mention trucks that frequently stop to pick up Cubans in
need of a ride. Signage is inconsistent, and finding your way around the
interior of maze-like cities such as Camaguey can be frustrating.
To explore a city or local region – especially for those without good
Spanish or experience on the island – hiring a car and driver might be a
better option. Negotiate the rate.
Q. Will I need to get a visa before I go to Cuba?
A. Visitors to Cuba are required to have a visa. When you book a trip to
the island, Fathom and other tour operators provide the visas at an
average cost of about $80. Cuban-born travelers who came to the U.S.
after 1970 are required by the Cuban government to have a Cuban passport
in addition to their U.S. passport. The cost of the visa and passport
for those travelers is about $430.
Q. Who can go to Cuba?
A. Americans can go to Cuba as a member of a tour group or as an
individual traveling under one of the 12 categories authorized by the
U.S. government. Those categories include family visits, religious,
educational or humanitarian activities, journalism and professional
Before leaving port, passengers are asked by Fathom to check a box on an
affidavit that most matches the purpose of their trip. But passengers
also may declare they are going on a Fathom-guided program, and agree
that they “will participate in the full-time schedule of educational and
people-to-people exchange activities arranged by Fathom.”
This led to some confusion and complaints during the first days in
Havana when some passengers wanted to drop out of the walking tours and
return to the ship. Some tour guides, provided by Fathom’s Cuban
partner, the state-run Havanatur agency, told travelers they could not
leave the group. Fathom quickly issued a clarification that passengers
could “self-certify” that they are following U.S. regulations and do
whatever exploring on their own they choose.
No one is watching individual travelers to see if they are engaging in
so-called “people-to-people” activities while on the ground in Cuba. In
effect, the only remaining U.S. ban is on tourist activities, such as
spending all your time at a beach resort.
Q. Is Cuba safe?
A. Yes. Although Cuba doesn’t report crime statistics and state-run
media rarely cover crime, rates of violent crime on the island are
considered low, especially compared to the U.S. Violent crimes against
visitors are rare. Uniformed police are visible on the streets in areas
where tourists usually go.
At the same time, Cuba is governed by an authoritarian regime that
restricts speech and assembly. On its website, the U.S. State Department
warns that the Cuban government has detained U.S. citizens it suspects
of engaging in activities perceived as a threat to state security.
Q. Are Cubans welcoming to American visitors?
A. Yes. In all three cities, people greeted Adonia passengers warmly and
seemed eager to engage. The enthusiastic greeting from hundreds of
high-fiving Cubans at the dock in Havana was the highlight of the
journey for many passengers. At Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, there
were many fewer people at the dock, but there were groups providing
traditional music and dancing, and the welcomes were festive.
Q. Is not being able to speak Spanish a problem?
A. The state-run Cuban tourist agencies have guides trained in English,
French, Italian and other languages spoken by visitors from various
countries. Off the beaten tracks, especially in the Cuban countryside,
most Cubans do not speak English. But the friendliness and eagerness of
the Cuban people to engage with arriving Americans made for memorable
encounters even among those who did not have a common language. For
example, Fathom passengers stopped in at barber shops for haircuts,
bought fruit or souvenirs from street vendors far from the central
plazas, and were invited into the homes of people they ran into while
exploring on their own.
Q. Will my cellphone work in Cuba?
A. Some U.S. carriers have or are beginning to make agreements with
ETECSA, the Cuban national telecommunications company, to provide
roaming services in Cuba. Sprint and Verizon, for example, currently
offer roaming services in Cuba.
Specialized mobile phone companies such as Cellular Abroad, Cello Mobile
or Mobal rent phones for use in Cuba, according to the Federal
Communications Commission’s website. Fees average $3 per minute of call
time and up to $1.50 per outgoing text message.
You can also rent a Cuban cellphone from Cubacel, ETECSA’s mobile phone arm.
Q. What about Internet connections?
A. Many of the larger hotels and resorts across Cuba offer WiFi, as do
scattered Internet cafes, charging varying hourly rates. Increasingly
there are also government-provided hot spots on the street, marked by
groups of Cubans sitting or standing while working their cellphones.
WiFi access costs about $2 an hour, but you need to buy an access card
Aboard the Adonia, Internet service is available for 50 cents a minute
or through a package buy of 250 minutes for $62.50.
Q. Can I spend U.S. currency and use my credit cards in Cuba?
A. Cash is king in Cuba. Cuba has two forms of currency, the convertible
peso, called CUC and used by tourists, and the Cuban peso, used by
Cubans in the markets and ration stores. Money can be changed at the
airport, Havana’s seaport and at CADECA exchange houses located in every
city in Cuba.
Although the exchange rate is about 1 U.S. dollar to one CUC, Cuba
imposes a penalty on changing U.S. dollars. Result: $1 U.S. equals about
87 cents in CUC. (Some travel websites advise changing U.S. dollars to
British pounds or Canadian dollars before leaving for a better exchange
rate in Cuba.)
With few exceptions, U.S. credit cards are not accepted.
Q. What can I bring back from Cuba?
A. Travelers returning to the U.S. from Cuba can bring home up to $400
worth of goods acquired for personal use. This includes no more than
$100 worth of alcohol or Cuba’s famous cigars.
Q. So how much rum and how many cigars will $100 buy?
A. That depends. The best Cohiba and Montecristo cigars are pricey. But
for $100 you can come home with a bottle or two of Havana Club rum and a
handful of the less expensive smokes.
Q. What should I bring that I might not have thought of?
A. The availability of fast food and sanitary conditions of public
toilets in Cuba may not be what most Americans are used to. Tissues,
hand wipes, and easy-to-carry snacks such as granola bars are easily
packed. Comfortable walking shoes are a must. And it is hot, hotter than
Florida. Bring hats, sun screen. Bottled water is usually available for
purchase for about $1.
Q. Cruises can be susceptible to outbreaks of illness. What should I do
to stay healthy?
A. Wash your hands, thoroughly and often. A small outbreak of suspected
gastroenteritis was reported on the last full day of the Adonia’s
inaugural cruise. Hand-sanitizing stations are available throughout the
ship, which follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
guidelines for reporting and combating any suspected contagions.
Q. What does a voyage to Cuba on the Adonia cost?
A. Fares start at about $2,700 per person for an interior cabin, and
rise to about $4,000 for an outside cabin with a balcony. Suites start
at about $8,000. While at sea, all meals were provided. In port,
breakfast and dinner were served onboard, while lunch at a Cuban
restaurant was included as part of a guided tour.
Q. So, in conclusion, how was the visit?
A. Cuba is complex, endlessly fascinating, and impossible to fathom in a
visit that is at least partially scripted and measured in hours. Yet
aside from some complaints about the scheduling and conduct of tours and
some confusion over what travelers were permitted to do on their own,
many Adonia passengers said they enjoyed the trip. And that was chiefly
due to their interactions with the Cuban people.
As Sherlock Robinson, a 66-year-old former New York City photographer,
said, “The warmth of the people of Cuba, the reception they gave us, and
then everywhere we went in Havana showed that they have a wonderful
spirit about them. And you don’t see that anywhere else.”
Source: A Cuba cruise travel guide: Everything you need to know before
you go | In Cuba Today –