My first visit to Cuba surpassed all my expections

Cuba has been on my bucket list for many years. I was very interested to immerse myself in the Cuban culture, mingle with the local people and investigate the country’s tourism potential for my valued clients.  Since the travel embargo to Cuba has been partially lifted for American citizens I wanted to visit Cuba before it changed. As of this writing American citizens must participate in a cultural and educational itinerary commonly referred to as a people to people program to legally visit Cuba. After investigating my options I decided on a cruise departing from Jamaica on the Celestyal Crystal. The reason I chose this ship was simple, all the ports of call would be in Cuba. I was not going for the cruise ship, I was going to experience Cuba.

The Celestyal is a Greek cruise line, usually sailing the Greek islands.  Due to the increased demand for Cuba, the Crystal is sailing year round from Montego Bay on a 7 day cruise calling 2 days in Havana, and 1 day each in Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. The current promotion they offered included unlimited beverages, gratuities and shore excursions in each port of call. Our 5 included excursions were with the other American passengers participating in a government approved cultural program that would allow us legal access to Cuba.  We even received a certified diploma at the conclusion of the cruise to meet United States Treasury department requirements.

Prior to the journey I had high expectations for Cuba and low expectations for the Celestyal Crystal. I was pleasantly surprised with the cruise portion. The staff was very accommodating, friendly and professional. The food and service was very good most nights in the dining room. The evening entertainment for a smaller vessel was excellent highlighted by their Cuban dancers and Cuban band.

cuba-buick cuba-group-in-car

First Day in Cuba
The first day started with a nonstop flight to Montego Bay Jamaica. We were met and transferred to the ship by our private taxi arranged through the cruise line.  It was about a 25 minute ride to the pier and check in procedure at the ship took about 10 minutes. Surprisingly, our luggage was waiting for us in the room.  The first day we met Jose, a Cuban professor, who would provide us with a daily educational seminar about Cuban culture and history. This is part of the people to people requirement for USA citizens.

The next day the ship arrived at Santiago De Cuba.  We had a modern bus with a private clean bathroom for the tours in every port of call.  Some of the highlights of the day included the El Morro Castle, Antonio Maceo Revolutionary Square and the original Bacardi Rum Factory now known as La Barrita De Ron Caney. We ended the tour with a visit to San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders defeated the Spanish in the Spanish American war in 1898.

Visiting Havana
After a relaxing day at sea highlighted by Cuban cooking lessons, we eagerly awaited the first of two days in Havana. We sailed by an old fort as we pulled into Havana harbor in the early morning. Today we had an included 3 hour morning walking tour and a 4 hour afternoon tour via motor coach. In the morning the highlights included Royal Forces Castle, St Francis Assis Square and Cathedral Square. We got to talk to some of the locals while we were walking around the city. The old American cars from the 1950’s were everywhere.

Lunch at a local restaurant
We decided to try a suggested local restaurant for lunch instead of going back to the ship. We sat on the rooftop level at the Cafe Modena and feasted on lobsters, shrimp and fish. After lunch I talked to a driver standing in front of a Classic 1956 Buick convertible.  I negotiated with him for a 30 minute ride around the city and a drop off at our ship. The cost was around $25 and the experience was incredible.  The city of Havana has a very unique Latin flavor and is filled with positive energy.

Our afternoon tour included stops at the Old Capital building, Central Park, Grand Theater of Havana, and the University of Havana. We ended the tour at San Jose Market, which is like a giant flea market filled with local crafts at ultralow prices.

Prior to the trip I made a dinner reservation at the Habana 61 restaurant. It was the number one rated restaurant in Havana by Tripadvisor and we were not disappointed. We walked about 25 minutes from the ship to the restaurant in the evening and we always felt very safe. The restaurant was incredible. We ordered the most expensive offering on the menu. Twin Lobster tails in a spicy red sauce with rice and vegetables for $14.00 per person. Most dinner entrees were under $10. The Mojitos, a Cuban specialty, cost about $2.50. The staff at this small family restaurant speaks good English and were very accommodating. I would estimate they have seating for about 35 patrons.

2nd Day in Havana
The next day in Havana included stops in the famous Plaza Vieja and Fusterlandia. Fausterlandia is a very unique street inspired by the artistic works in of Gaudi.  It was one of our favorite sights in Havana and we were able to converse with the local artists. We also enjoyed a local dance performance and interaction with the Cuban dancers near Plaza Vieja.

Our final stop in Cuba would be the ocean side town of Cienfuegos, the city center is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were treated to another local cultural dance performance and ceremony near the town center. We were also able to interact with artists in a local gallery. Cienfugos  has a very colonial and quaint feel. I wish we had more time to visit the nearby city of Trinidad.

Cuba surpassed all my expectations
In summary, Cuba surpassed all of my expectations. All of the local people were very friendly and happy to see Americans visit their country.  Most of the locals will only speak Spanish. Luckily I was able to communicate and joke with them with my limited Spanish. The prices for food, shopping and taxis were very inexpensive. As of 2017, USA issued credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, so you must bring cash. US Dollars must be changed into the local currency, however, some restaurants and merchants would take US Dollars. I also found Cuba very safe for a tourist. Havana is supposed to be one of the safest cities in the world.  All of our dining experiences in Cuba ranged from very good to excellent. All of the locals we encountered were very friendly. Luxury hotel space is very limited but a future boom in hotel and infrastructure development will alleviate the problem. I did not see any American fast food establishments such as McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC etc.  I would suggest visiting Cuba now before it changes and starts to lose its local and unique charms.

I plan on returning again in the near future. Contact me for assistance in planning your Cuban journey. I can be reached at gtalewsky@colpittswt.com or 781 471 2310.

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