Havana, Cuba Part 1: Why Cuba + A Recap Of Our Day
Before I jump into our day in Havana, I wanted to answer one question, that a lot of friends and family have been asking – Why Cuba? And of course, anything written here is from my touristy point of view.
If you know me, you know that I regularly nerd out on history and geography. I would study it for fun growing up and still do to this day. I can literally stand in front of a world map for HOURS (no exaggeration) and day dream about the beautiful landscapes, cultures and historical events that once took place there.
Like most people, I have a travel bucket list and at the top of that list has always been Havana, Cuba. Even before the “Cuban Thaw” when travel to Cuba was still restricted, I knew I wanted to visit someday. But with the borders closed, it would only ever be a dream.
The first time I fell in love with the idea of Havana and the Cuban culture was in 2004, when the below average prequel of Dirty Dancing, known as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights was released. Y’all can laugh at me, but the time period in which the film took place and the portrayal of the historical events pulled me in. I was completely captivated by the charm and antiquity of Havana. Any movie that can take me back in time and show me a new place immediately has my attention, historically accurate or not. Plus, I sort of loved the soundtrack – judge all you want!
Watching DDHN was only the spark that started my ongoing fascination with Havana’s beauty and Cuban culture. In the years since, I would gaze at photos of the beautiful, weathered architecture and read about the rich culture that brought the city to life. You may have heard me say this before, but I firmly believe that I was supposed to be born in another decade and that I should have been living in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s or 60’s. Maybe I was thriving in those decades in another lifetime, but I’M OBSESSED! The style, the cars, the way of life, the EVERYTHING!
A large portion of why Havana and Cuba as a whole has me enchanted beyond measure, is that time has stalled in the 1950’s/1960’s. It shows in the well-kept classic cars, the bright colors of the colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. Don’t get me wrong, Cuba is not entirely stuck in the past, but certain parts of the “backdrop” if you will call it, are reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s, while other elements show growth and forward-looking ways of living.
See now where my infatuation with living in a past decade meets my love for travel, culture and history? I’ll talk more on the culture and history that we experienced in a future post, but for now I wanted to share why we chose Cuba when looking for cruise destinations. In addition to being at the top of my bucket list for all the above reasons, it was a new place to Jared. He has cruised a lot in his youth which in turn gave him the opportunity to see a lot of places in the Caribbean and Central America, but Cuba was one place that we could explore for the first time together!
Pulling Into Port + Customs
As we moved closer to the port and more of Havana’s colorful buildings began to shine as the sun rose into the sky, my eyes began to well up with tears. Do I cry at just about everything, yes. Happy, sad, mad, etc., I cry. But again, there was a time when my dream of visiting of Havana would only ever be a dream due to so many unknown’s in the political climate of Cuba and the United States relationship. Pulling into that port meant a once out of reach dream was coming true!
As I previously mentioned, Jared has been to many ports from cruising in the past and when we pulled into Havana’s Port, he stated that it was hands down the most beautiful port he has been to, so that says a lot. One of the reason’s being the historic sites that you see as you pull into Havana Bay. We saw Morro Castle which was built in 1589 to protect the harbor. This photo was taken from the top of the ship.
Not far from there, we were able to view the El Cristo de La Habana (Christ of Havana) statue from the ship. It’s not quite as large as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, but still a beautiful and powerful spectacle.
Both the fort/castle and statue were to the left as we pulled into the harbor, and on the right side, the entire city of Havana opened up. The highway along to ocean was bustling with classic cars and the colorful structures and buildings went on for miles and miles.
By the way, we were sailing on Majesty of the Seas through Royal Caribbean. While it is one of the smaller ships in the fleet, it is the largest cruise ship to pull into Havana’s Port. Huge shout out to Captain Daniel for arriving in Cuba a few hours early, allowing us to experience the sun rise over the city as we pulled in and the Port Authorities were able to board earlier than expected to get everything in order for us to get off the boat a bit sooner.
The process of going through customs was very pleasant and not as intimidating as we thought it would be. We did have to purchase a travel visa prior to boarding the ship back in Ft. Lauderdale. It was required to enter Cuba. Royal Caribbean facilitated the visa process so we did not need to do anything prior to the trip. The cost was $75/visa. This trip did require a lot of additional paperwork specific to Cuba. In addition to our passports and visas, we were required to complete multiple copies of other forms stating our business in Cuba. We checked “People to People Exchange” which meant that we were there for educational purposes and participating in a tour facilitated by Royal Caribbean.
Once we were through customs (which took at most 5 minutes), we walked to the end of the terminal to exchange our money. We knew we wanted to buy a good bit of gifts/souvenirs (a.k.a cigars and rum) + we needed money for food and tipping all of our guides and drivers. We decided to exchange $240 USD which came out to $218 and change in CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Peso’s for tourists). It was enough for everything that we planned to spend and with the remaining CUC’s, we ended up keeping a few bills and coins for souvenirs and then converting back the remaining money.
Now I get to dump all of the history that we learned on you all!
Immediately out of the terminal, we loaded onto a coach bus for our excursion through Royal Caribbean. We chose to do the Classic Car Tour for a few reasons and remember we HAD to do an excursion because of the paperwork we completed prior to our arrival. It was the only excursion that I had my eye on from the beginning because I thought it would be the best way to cover more of the city and it absolutely was!
During the bus ride to where the cars were located, our guide gave us a brief history lesson on a few of the landmarks that we passed by + a little bit of information on life pre and post “Cuban thaw”. Once we arrived at the car lot, we picked our car/driver. We ended up with this 1954 Pontiac Chieftain and an awesome driver named Gabriel.
We drove through new and old Havana, passing by beautiful buildings, embassies, gardens and plant life we have never seen + a ton of new construction sites for massive hotels. The reason I mention the new constructions are because of how neat it is to see them create an exterior that matches the antiquity of the older buildings even though they are brand new. These 5-star hotels were popping up on every corner!
Our first stop was Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). This place is famous for the political rallies that took place on its grounds, but now it is a giant, empty parking lot. Surrounding the plaza are several government buildings, two of which feature steel artwork of the two most influential deceased figures of the Cuban Revolution. The first, you have probably seen before. The photo in which this was modeled after, is the most reprinted photograph in the world. The man pictured is Che Guevara, with the quote “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always). The next building over, housed the artwork of Camilo Cienfuegos followed by the quote “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel). The steel artwork was beautifully done and is now a memorial for the two historical figures.
Across the street was the José Martí Memorial Tower, which stands at 358 ft and is the tallest point in the city. This stop was a neat photo op but was more for the history buffs. Our guides did a great job recounting all of the events that took place here!
We hopped back in the car and continued through Old Havana and then we reached our next destination which was a bucket list visit for me, Hotel Nacional de Cuba (The National Hotel). It was unequivocally the most gorgeous, historical hotel that I have ever set foot in. The hotel sits right off of the harbor, with ocean views from the lively courtyard. Speaking of the courtyard, we came across a peacock just wandering around, so there’s that!
The hotel was completed in 1930 and was designed, developed and financed by U.S. firms and the National City Bank of New York. It once housed a lavish showroom and casino up until the casinos closed following the revolution, but it now serves as an empty ballroom. We did enjoy hearing some of the notable guests that have stayed there through the years. A few to be named are Jimmy Carter, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway (who has really cool ties to the entire city), Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and many, many more. If you plan a trip to Havana, add this stop to your itinerary!
Following our history lesson in the courtyard, we received complimentary Mojitos and I just need to say as a Mojito drinker, it was life-changing. I will be writing more on this in a future post so stay tuned!
Our next stop, was right off the street where we were treated to traditional Afro-Cuban music and dance followed by a street art walking tour. If you enjoy art, you will love Havana! I wish we could have viewed more galleries during our time there, because I would have brought some home.
We boarded the bus again for another history lesson as we drove back to the area in which our ship was located, La Habana Vieja. This is where our guide gave us some tips on which cigars and rum to buy (this will be in the future post as well). With our rum and cigars in hand, we returned to the ship to drop off our goodies and freshen up. From there we returned to La Habana Vieja to walk around and soak in all of the color building through the maze of alleyways. In the square, we found an outdoor restaurant to grab a beer and food while people watching and immersing ourselves in the culture. While walking around we found a cute little street vendor selling churros and let me tell ya.. this foodie approves! Best churros I have ever had! That sums up everything we did with our limited daylight hours in Havana!
I feel very blessed for the time we spent in Havana learning about a new place and seeing all the sights, BUT I do wish we had more time there. I was left wanting to experience so much more. I know how large the city is and that it has so much more to offer than the few highlights that we got to see. With that being said, I will suggest flying into Havana and staying there for several days as opposed to cruising in for less than 24 hours. It just isn’t enough time to take it all in! I have heard from others that staying at an Airbnb is the way to go when staying for days/weeks at a time.
A few specific things that I would want to do upon my return to Cuba are visit the Tropicana, hit the gorgeous beaches, explore outside of Havana and try more food! But more than anything, I just wish we could have walked around and explored more. I love capturing my travels in photos, but I feel that we didn’t even have the opportunity for nearly as many photo ops as I had anticipated. This was partially due to being on the move in the car a good bit of the time. I feel like it all went by so fast. Additionally, the sun went down after 6:30 which limited our exploring options and photo taking abilities.
We 10/10 recommend the Classic Car tour if you are planning a visit to Havana! It was a great way to see a lot in a short amount of time and the pros of choosing this excursion, far outweigh the cons, but here are a few cons to leave you with:
Con: More driving means less photo ops.
Con: This was one of the most expensive excursions listed (but still worth it)
Why One Day Wasn’t Enough + Why We Will Be Returning
All in all, we really enjoyed our trip and felt safe the entire time. My outlook on travel is “Been there, done that. What’s the next, new vacation destination?” But not here. One day (and hopefully soon), I will be returning to this beautiful and friendly land. Seriously, the second I got back on Wifi, I was researching cost of flights and places to stay!
I hope you enjoyed reading about our day in Havana and I hope that it has persuaded you to visit one day! I will be following up this post with a two more on the common misconceptions that ensue when traveling to Cuba + a fun post all about the cigar and cocktail culture! Stay tuned!
What place is at the top of your bucket list?
Shop The Post
Havana, Cuba Part 2: Cars, Cigars & Cocktails – A Look Into Cuba’s Vintage Aesthetic & Cocktail Culture
[…] You can read my first post on our day in Cuba here […]