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  • Writer's pictureRichard Phillips

Cigars. Rum. Cuba!

View of Havana from the top of the Hotel Habana Libre

How I got there: Cuba, as far as travel goes, should be one of the easiest places to visit. 90 miles off the coast of Key West, on a clear night you can see the lights of Havana. A boat could get you there in a few hours and a flight could land in under 30 minutes. But historically for American citizens it might as well be the moon. Luckily, about 10 years ago the Obama administration loosened the restrictions on traveling to Cuba. It still wasn't a 100% "come-and-go as you please" type of experience, but it made it possible for the average Joe to take a journey to the small, secluded island. Restrictions on travel have recently returned under the Trump administration, so visits to Cuba are no longer allowed except under very limited circumstances.

Never turning down the opportunity to explore a new place, my friend Aimee Wilson and I learned from a local travel agent, Travelin' with the Mouse, that Cuban cruises were up and running. A few conversations later and we were booked on a Carnival cruise to Havana. Lori Fendley had us an itinerary compiled and made sure we had everything we needed. I was very comfortable with the entire notion of visiting Cuba. My only reservation was: How will they feel about Americans? Will they welcome us? Will they shun us? Will they beat us with sugar canes and throw mojitos on us? I was ready to find out.

How much it cost: Our Carnival cruise, which of course is all inclusive except for alcohol, was about $1,200. That was double occupancy in an interior room. We ported out of Jacksonville, FL and had to get ourselves there, so we road tripped through Tallahassee and checked it off my bucket list. The cruise itinerary also included a stop in Key West, which was a fun addition. If you've never been to Key West it is a unique place all its own. Worth a visit even if you aren't passing through en route to Cuba.

Is English widely spoken? Most of our exposure to Cuba was led by a tour guide who spoke English very well. But, even when we were on our own it was easy to communicate as most Cubans know enough English to get by. Spanish is the primary language of Cuba.

Can I bring back cigars? Yes! You are limited in the number (I don't recall what it was) but we each brought back one box of cigars with no issue.


Our trip started on July 2nd and would last until July 6th. Oddly enough, we would be in Havana on July 4th...our own Independence Day.

I won't detail the #CarnivalCruise experience. If you have ever been on a cruise, this particular experience was very run-of-the-mill. It was a smooth ride with plenty of onboard entertainment to keep you occupied. So let's skip ahead to the meat of the trip, Havana!

The day we ported in Cuba I was ready to explore! First thing, I ran to the pool deck and watched us sail in to the eastern side of Old Havana. It gives an awesome view of the Plaza San Francisco, one of the four main cobbled squares in Havana built in the 16th century.

The process for entering Cuba is not like your normal entry into most foreign countries. The cruise staff has you corralled like livestock where you wait to disembark (this part is the same no matter where you are). First, you obviously have to have a passport. Second, Cuba requires a visa for entry. Luckily the cruise takes care of that for you (for a $75 charge that goes on your cruise tab) and gives you a document to fill out when you board the ship. Just pay attention...the rules for filling out the visa are strict and if you fill it out incorrectly, NO ENTRY FOR YOU! Once you make it to customs, however, you flash your passport and hand over your visa to enter Cuba quite easily.

If you have traveled internationally then you are accustomed to exchanging currency. The process is really no different in Cuba but for their use of two different currencies. If you are Cuban and live in Cuba, their day-to-day currency is the Peso. For us tourists the CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, is used as currency. The exchange rate from the USD to the CUC is one-to-one, meaning one USD gets you one CUC. Great, right? Not so fast. There is a little "welcome to Cuba" present for us Americans: a 10% conversion fee. And yes, it only applies to American currency. But at the end of the day who cares? You always pay a conversion fee to exchange currency. And before I forget, you can only us cash. Cash is king in Cuba. Since the US has no trade or formal banking systems in Cuba, your debit card, credit cards, Google Pay, Apple Pay, Venmo are all dead as a doornail, so leave them on the ship. You'll also have zero cell service, which I must say I didn't mind dealing with for a while.

We chose a tour of Old Havana which included lunch and a cigar/rum tasting. Once we were through customs we boarded a bus that drove us along the coast to where we would have lunch at the Hotel Habana Libre. Just like you see in photos, the streets in Plaza San Francisco were lined with classic American cars from the 1950's, all in incredible condition. I did learn that while these retro cars are a widely known Cuban attraction, they are mainly there for tourists as the average Cuban doesn't have a car. If they do have a car, it is typically an old Soviet/Russian model or European car. When we arrived at the hotel, we zoomed up to the 25th floor where we had a very, very nice lunch. We experienced local cuisine, cocktails and music with a little lesson on how to Salsa. It made for a very nice morning and I found the locals to be more than inviting.

We left the hotel after a few hours and set out to Old Havana where we were able to sample cigars and rum, particularly "Havana Club" which used to be Bacardi before they bolted out of Cuba when political unrest began to take over. Everyone was pleasant and seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing their country's past and culture. I didn't know that Cuba and the US used to be "besties for the resties" just over a hundred or so years ago until everything fell a part and we broke up. Nonetheless, the food and other delights made the afternoon a fun and educational trek.

Once the official tour was over, we had a few hours to do a little sight seeing on our own. What I couldn't get over was the architecture. It was breath-taking. You could stand in front of a gorgeously ornate building, obviously built with extravagance and attention to detail, and see inside through a massive crumbling hole. Inside, as if frozen in time, was the original grand staircase covered in crumbled stone and dust, with an elaborate chandelier barely hanging on from above. I felt like I had just missed a high society party...only it had been in this condition for the past 50 years.

Despite the poor condition of most of the buildings there was a charm to the streets of Havana. It has an old world atmosphere that almost makes you feel sorry for Cuba. A country that once flourished in the sugar business is now a fossil of what once was. I could visualize in my mind the glory days when American millionaires poured money into Havana, building over-the-top homes, buildings, nightclubs and resorts. Just 80ish years ago Havana was America's playground. Now, people live in crowded buildings, most of which are eroded and barely standing. Even with the conditions they face, the streets of Havana were lively and colorful. Cubans gathered around music and dance, often echoing down the avenues for miles. Art is everywhere. Graffiti, street artists selling their work on cobble-stone paths through downtown and yards of brightly colored fabric hanging for sale.

I scooped up a pastel crayon drawing of Don Quixote that I fell in love with. The artist had a wooden table set up along the sidewalk and sat beside it drawing all day long. I walked by him a few times before I made the decision to buy his work. I wanted to make sure it wasn't a scam...some imported drawings from China or the like.

There are some very nice areas of Havana. The government has refurbished a number of areas in Old Havana, particularly those areas where there will be large crowds of tourists. In walking around, Aimee and I got to see the Cuban Capital building which, to my surprise, is an exact replica of the US Capital building. Although it is a scaled down version, the Cuban people will quickly tell you that their dome is 12 feet taller than the D.C. original. (Let 'em have it).

The rest of the day was spent just wondering around, seeing what we could find along the way. Old mansions, crumbling opera houses, busted streets and decaying structures made up most of the scenery; but still, there was an innate beauty to the decay. I really did fall in love with Havana.

After a quick respite on the ship, Aimee and I crawled back out to discover Old Havana's nightlife. Just a few blocks from the port we were drawn to the bright lights and sounds of a particularly bustling area of the city. It was there we found the "Havana Club" crowded with locals and tourists alike. We were lucky to get a table and for over an hour we sat, talked, ate, drank and took in the scenery. It was a fun vibe, just like a nightclub in Havana should be.

Being the old, tired tourists we are, we headed back to the ship around 10:00 pm, but not before ducking into a Cuban "hole- in-the-wall" for a local classic...the mojito. This place was a much dumbed down version of the Havana Club, but with it's own attraction of Salsa dancers decked out in white suits and dresses. First off, it was 1,289 degrees so I don't see how those poor folks managed to dance in full costume, but they did and it was spectacular! We were never made to feel unwelcome or even out of place. They just kept the mojitos coming and we enjoyed seeing the lively groups dance the night away.

All-in-all, Cuba was an amazing place. It still blows my mind that this little treasure is just south of us, right out of reach. If relations ever thaw again and Americans are allowed to visit casually, I highly recommend the trip. It's surprisingly affordable, authentically welcoming and all-together unforgettable.

Enjoy the journey folks, it's never over.

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