What to do ashore in Havana, Cuba – a Cruise Port Guide for Cruisers.
I am going to preface this Havana Port Profile with an explanation and a warning. Whilst Cuba is an amazing place to visit, unfortunately President Trump listed it as a ” State Sponsor of Terrorism” as he left Office in 2021. This means that tourists from the USA are NOT able to visit and no American cruise lines visit the port. However three European companies (Marella, Ambassador and Fred Olsen) have added Cuba itineraries from January 2023 onwards so we thought information will be useful to those passengers. The main point to consider if you are booking a cruise to Cuba is to keep up to date with the latest situation in relation to subsequent ESTA applications to the United States. The current situation is that a previous visit to Cuba effectively bars you from using the ESTA system. This will mean an application for a full visa via a face to face interview at the the American Embassy. Potentially this is only a theoretical problem as there is anecdotal evidence of US Border officials ignoring Cuba stamps in passports bearing an ESTA and, in addition, President Biden has pledged to reestablish connections with Cuba during his office. Obviously if you have no intention of visiting the States in the future none of this is important but we would be remiss not to point out the potential pitfalls of entering Cuba.
A very short history of Havana…
The city played an important role in the 14th Century in funnelling the wealth of the Spanish Colonies in the Indies back to their rulers in Seville. The Spanish influence on the churches, plazas, cloisters, and courtyards that they built is still visible today. The old Colonial Spanish city became heavily influenced by American culture in the early 20th century until the abrupt Communist Revolution of 1959 when Fidel Castro became leader, resulting in the extremely serious tensions of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962.
Cuba still has a Communist government
but it encourages tourism as an income stream for the country, Castro said that tourists are to be welcomed and they are. The lack of capitalism in the country is apparent in various ways – for example there are no advertising hoardings and even shops tend not to have a sign saying what they sell – you are expected to go in and look! You won’t be bothered by pushy sales people either, as everyone in the country in on the same wage there is no such thing as a sales target, so in the majority of shops you are left alone to wander – which almost comes across as rudeness or indifference if you are used to a more capitalist approach to service! This applies less to real “touristy” shops in Old Havana than it does anywhere else but you certainly won’t feel hassled or need to haggle or barter in shops.
The other thing about everyone being paid the same is that the only way to “better” yourself is either to work a second job (our local guide was a University language professor in her day job) or to have a small business on the side (previously discouraged, but now allowed by the government) so the man offering to sell you a bunch of flowers on the street may also be a local doctor! The level of education in the city is very high too because you can remain a student for as long as you want and be supported by the state, this means that a huge proportion of the population that you will come into contact with speak two or more languages fluently. Since the Revolution money has been spent on new buildings built in the Communist Style (think East Germany levels of concrete monstrosities and vast parade grounds ) but none on maintaining or restoring the older buildings which have sadly settled into a level of picturesque decay.
Similarly the iconic 50s cars are maintained and used because most people have little alternative, although you do also see some communist car makes such as Lada and Moskvitch. It is also worth mentioning that the 50’s cars are pumping out a 50s level of pollution that we’ve completely forgotten elsewhere in the world…
It is hard not to think of Havana as a living museum with this haunting charm and decay. Havanawas designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982 so some restoration is slowly occurring but basically the iconic Havana you see in all the pictures – colourful buildings,50s convertibles, crumbling architecture and ladies chewing on cigars is right there in front of you in Havana Viejo
Havana Viejo (Old Havana) is
the city’s Old Town and popular tourist area. The Modern City is quite well spread but Old Havana is best explored on foot. You could easily spend a whole day strolling through the narrow streets taking in the colours and history attached to them. Music and dance are very important culturally, you will hear live music everywhere you go. There are many historic colonial buildings, museums, galleries, restaurants, shops and lovely plazas to explore. If you want to learn more about the city and culture I would advise a private walking tour – a quick check on Tripadvisor will find many local suppliers, many offering free tours – obviously a tip would be expected following these (CUC 5/ 10 per head would be fine – more if you like). Cuban people rely heavily on tips and most people you come across in restaurants, bars, rest rooms and tourist attractions will expect to be rewarded for good service so try to keep some small notes to hand.
The Cuban currency
is quite confusing as it has a dual economy which takes some getting used to. There are two currencies in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$) and Cuban pesos (known as moneda nacional, abbreviated MN). You cannot get currency outside Cuba but will need to change it on arrival. Unlike anywhere else it is better NOT to bring US Dollars to change, they will either be refused or you will be given a lower rate. The best currency to bring is Canadian Dollars or Sterling £. The currency situation is made more confusing since Cubans will refer to both CUCs and Moneda Nacional as Pesos. To a Cuban it will be obvious which they are referring to, but it can be confusing for tourists so make sure you specify CUC at the start of any negotiation. In reality most visitors will not come into contact with MN as accommodation, food in most restaurants, taxis, bus tickets, nightclub entrances, tips etc are all expected in CUC. Nobody would ever refuse to take CUC so don’t worry about trying to find MN.
Cruise ships visiting Cuba
pass through a narrow entrance overlooked by an impressive castle and moor in a deep water berth on the eastern edge of Old Havana. Immediately outside the Cruise Terminal is Plaza San Francisco, one of the four main cobbled squares of the town. A HOHO bus stops here which you could use to see some sights in the Modern town such as the Plaza de la Revolution but it doesn’t actually go into the old town. There is a small tourist train that makes a limited local circuit but to be honest, as you are literally on the doorstep, it is easiest to explore the Old Town on foot.
In Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, the square outside the Cruise terminal, you will find a few small shops and the 17th Century Convent and Basilica which is now a concert venue fand may be holding a recital. Look out for the statue of El Caballero de París nearby, you should step on his toe, hold his hand and tug on his beard for good luck – but just make sure its the real statue first!
The old presidential Train is (oddly) parked just around the corner and is worth a quick look. Entrance it is free but a tip will be expected by the custodian. The best Sugar Cane bar in town can be found further up the street on the right (now is a good time to tell you that the Cuban for Rum is Ron!).
Turning into the old town at the bar you will soon reach Plaza Vieja where there is a beautiful old fountain, many restaurants and bars and also a Camera Obscura.
Close to Havana Cruise Terminal and easily visited on foot
- Calle Mercaderes has various tiny museums, including one on chocolate and another with a full scale model of old Havana, as well as old mansions with shady courtyards.
- Plaza de Armas home to the National Museum in the old Governors Mansion (look out for the wooden cobblestones outside – laid that noise from passing carriages didn’t disrupt his sleep!) and the Natural History museum.
- The Cathedral de San Cristobal with asymmetric bell towers – look out for fossilised coral in its stone walls and steps.
- Museum of the Revolution in the old Presidential palace
- Teniente Rey street with its Museums of Perfume and Armaments and an old Pharmacy
- The Presidential Train as mentioned above
- Havana Club Foundation – a museum with free rum sampling. This is along the sea front to your left away from the Cruise terminal
- Maritime Museum in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Plaza de Armas is along the sea front to your right.
Further exploring in the newer part of Havana
If you want to travel a little further afield than either take the HOHO bus or hire a vintage 1950s convertible taxi, prices for these range from $30-45 CUC for an hour. Hiring a cab means you can
- Blast along the windswept waterfront of the Malecon that stretches along the sea front from the Old Town to the mansions and embassies in the Varadero area.
- Visit at the famous Hotel Nacional for a Mojito on the terrace and maybe a quick tour.
- Drive around the huge Plaza de la Revolution which apparently has room for a million people. Look for the huge steel memorials to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, two of the heroes of the revolution.
- Visit the 358ft star shaped tower which is a memorial to José Martí, the “Father of the Revolution” where for 3CUC you can take a lift to the top for one of the best views of Havana.
- Also in the square is the Gran Teatro, home of Cuba’s famous Ballet company, and the Capitolio, a replica of the Capitol in Washington, now containing a planetarium and museums and open daily for for tours.
- Cuban cigars are said to be the best in the world – Fabric de Tabacos Partagas – an old cigar factory and museum – is right by the Capitol so easy to find but there are others.
- El Morro is a taxi ride from the cruise terminal through the tunnel under the inlet. In 1774 this was the largest fortress in the Americas, it is now home to a museum on Christopher Columbus. From the Fort and the lookout point at the entrance to the harbour there are wonderful views back across the harbour to both Old and New Havana.
Follow the Hemingway trail
Hemingway lived in the city for nearly twenty years – it is the setting for one of his most famous novels,The Old Man and the Sea.
- Finca Vigía – his former home – is on the outskirts of Havana and is now a museum which you would have to visit by car.
- Hotel Ambos Mundos is the hotel in Havana Viejo where he always stayed. His room is restored as a mini-museum and there are photos of the writer throughout the hotel.
- La Bodeguita del Medio apparently Hemingway’s favourite bar. It is a tiny, bustling bar where Hemingway supposedly drank his mojitos. Now its pretty touristy but (along with Harrys Bar in Venice and Raffles in Singapore) sometimes these things just have to be done! Otherwise try El Floridita which serves what Hemingway once called “the best daiquiri in the world”. There is often live music and a fun atmosphere to enjoy while you make your own decision on the daiquiris!There is so much to see and do and it is such an amazing place that if you have an opportunity for an overnight there, grab it with both hands and ask us about nightclubs…
I hope you enjoyed reading this Cruise Port Guide and that it will be useful to you. If we’ve tempted you to visit Cuba yourself you can search for a cruise here..
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