If you are not from the USA and are sailing on a ship leaving from anywhere else in the world then Cuba is probably just another cruise ship port without that much difference from any other. Some ships even embark passengers there. If however you are American or cruising on a ship sailing from the USA, Cuba is far from the standard port stop.
For decades Cuba was out of reach as a place where the average American could visit. Obama made travel there easier and cruise ships began to include Cuba in their itineraries. Trump came along and tightened the rules so while cruising to Cuba is still within the realm of possibility for now, it’s not as easy as it once was and only likely to get worse.
Cruising to Cuba comes with a mountain of paperwork and a lot of regulations. Luckily the cruise lines who sail there know what these are. We went with Holland America. They took care of all the necessary paperwork as well as supplying visas to anyone who booked shore excursions through them. Which is pretty much anyone who wants to disembark from the ship in Cuba because if you didn’t book the cruise before June of 2017 you aren’t even allowed to try and fulfill all the regulations independently due to the tightening of the rules. This would happen on any American cruise line as it is an American government thing.
Cruise ship tours in Cuba are designed to meet all the regulations and requirements imposed on visitors from America by the American government. The ship books all their tours through independent sources as they are not allowed to use any tour providers supported by the Cuban government. Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba just to be a tourist. There’s a multi-page affidavit with about 12 different categories people can visit under.
One of those is people to people, which is where the cruise ship passengers come in. This means every excursion has to include something involving the Cuban people. It’s often community projects or performance groups. The biggest benefit they get is the tips visitors leave them when they go. Wages are low in Cuba so any of the people who can provide any sort of service they get tourist tips for come out well ahead of those who don’t. Cuban people have free schooling and health care, and subsidies for necessities like food, but they don’t have a lot of material things and even basic products like soap can be hard to get.
Organic farming began there out of necessity following the collapse of Cuba’s sugar cane industry after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has become increasingly important as a means for Cuba to feed its own population rather than relying totally on imports from other countries. Though the organic farming started out of necessity due to the lack of availability of fertilizers and pesticides and the loss of the market for their sugarcane crops it has now become an example of how sustainable agriculture saved a population from starvation, and proof that crops don’t need to be poisoned with chemicals to thrive. Some of the farms are open to tourists.
When ships from America stay in a Cuban port all day 8 hours of people to people is required so that is how long the tours are. Once your tour is complete you are free to roam about for the rest of the day, however if your ship overnights or has a second Cuban port you have to start over again with another 8 hour tour because that is required for each day. Our ship did not dock until 2pm so only 4 hour tours were required since we were just there for half the day. The ship did stay overnight, but with an 8am departure nobody was allowed out that morning, though some did stay out late into the night after finishing their required tours. Some passengers even opted to do an additional late evening tour after their daytime tour ended.
Passports are required on voyages to Cuba, and the affidavit gets turned in during the boarding process. The visas cost $75 each and if lost it’s another $75 to replace it. Our ship provided the visas, which passengers had to fill out. Getting off the ship in Cuba requires 4 documents – passport, visa, ship card, and tour ticket.
You have to go through customs when you get off the ship, at which time they collect the required visa, stamp your passport, and take a picture of you in which you are not allowed to smile. You have to go through customs again on the way back, but it’s just the passport then.
There’s a money exchange at the port, but Cuba has a 10% tax on exchanging American money so it’s better to bring Euros or Canadian dollars. Mexican pesos work too if you happen to have any leftover if your ship stopped in Mexico on the way to Cuba. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything money is needed to tip tour guides and the folks at whatever people to people experience they bring you to. Those people count on the tourist dollars to provide them with a means for a better living, though some people do leave their tips in currencies other than Cuban. Credit or debit cards from banks in the USA are not accepted in Cuba so unless you have one from a different country you will need cash to make any purchases.
While the USA has had embargos against Cuba for decades, other countries have not so they aren’t as stuck in the past as some people think. There still are a lot of the old 1950’s American cars Cuba is famous for around Havana, many of which are taxis for the tourists. These are kept running with whatever spare parts from other types of cars the mechanics can modify to make them fit and work. The taxis are brightly colored with nice coats of paint, but there are still a few of the old cars not looking nearly as nice around town that people have for private use. There’s a lot of newer cars built in countries other than the USA, which is what most of the people there drive.
Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018