UPDATE: The travel restrictions to Cuba for U.S. citizens have been reinstated. Read more about it here.
Whenever we would go on a Caribbean cruise that passed Cuba, the captain would usually make an announcement saying that we were passing by the island. For us, Cuba was an elusive place that US citizens were not allowed to go. We were always so curious to see it for ourselves, and when the travel restrictions were eased we booked a cruise as soon as we were able to. Because we love Royal Caribbean, we chose their cruise on the Empress of the Seas that was brought back to the fleet specifically for these cruises to Havana, Cuba. While the cruise also stopped in Key West and Cozumel, Havana was the main attraction and focal point of the cruise.
Since this was our first time in Cuba, we decided to take one of the tours through the ship. There was some conflicting information that we read before we got on the cruise. We were under the impression that you had to take a tour through the ship or another official tour company to be able to go ashore in Havana. Evidently this was wrong as on-board the ship the crew said you can just get off and walk around on your own. Since this was our first time here, we still would have gone with the tour. We chose the Old Havana Walking Tour because we did not want to be stuck on a bus all day. We were really pleased with how our tour went. There actually was a portion of the tour where you do get on a bus to go to a cigar shop, Revolutionary Square, and we also went to a restaurant called El Tocororo in the Miramar district for a cigar and rum tasting. We also got to drive down the Malecón and see Hotel Nacional de Cuba and US Embassy from the bus, which was really neat. Our tour guide, Tony, really kept the group moving, which we appreciated even if other people maybe did not like it. That’s one of our least favorite parts of doing group tours is you can’t go the pace you want to.
After our tour was over (it took up most of the morning), we decided to walk around on our own. We were glad that the majority of the walking part of the tour was so early in the morning, because it got really hot in the afternoon! We then wanted to try to find a church that we had seen during the walking tour, but got very confused while walking around Old Havana. Definitely bring a map or have one saved on your phone if you’re going out on your own. There is an app called Maps.Me which is free to download, and you can load maps onto your phone to use without any internet. A couple crew members on the ship suggested this to us.
We then decided to go to an indoor market that was suggested online called Almacenes San Jose. This was fantastic for souvenir shopping. Everything was pretty cheap, and we got some fun artwork to bring home. However, it was not that fun to walk around just because it was hot and stuffy inside. We did appreciate not being hassled too much by the shop owners. After shopping, we stopped for lunch at a small cafe in Old Havana. It was a fun place to eat with an outdoor courtyard. We did get a kick out of the fact that they were out of pretty much everything on the menu, but we still had a great time. After lunch, we headed back to the ship to enjoy the views.
Usually when you see pictures from Havana, you see colorful buildings and the classic cars. While this is certainly a part of visiting Havana, there is so much more to see, both good and bad. One of the first things we noticed was the European-influenced architecture coupled with the Soviet-style block housing buildings. This was an incredible contrast to see, and almost all of the buildings looked like they were in bad shape. Every person that we talked to on the ship after our stop in Havana said they were all given the same speech about how Havana is going through a restoration project. Apparently this project has been going on for many years. That being said, there is some absolutely gorgeous architecture here. We can only imagine how stunning Havana was back in its heyday. We were able to see a couple different churches as well that had very detailed facades.
We would like to give props to Royal Caribbean and the crew aboard the Empress of the Seas. They did a really fantastic job of preparing us to go aboard in Cuba. They had so much information and seminars to talk about what to expect while here in Havana. We were lucky that we were able to get off the ship pretty quickly, but immigration and the currency exchange can take a really long time because the Cubans like to move at their own pace.
So, now we want to know what you thought of Havana! Have you visited just for the day or did you spend more time here? Let us know in the comments!