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Making History While Sailing into Havana

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This week, TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti is in Cuba on the first US cruise to the country in more than 50 years. Read on for her thoughts and experiences from the first two days on board the ship and in the city of Havana. Be sure to keep up with her travels on Twitter and Instagram.

Hola from Havana! As you might have already heard, I’m on board the inaugural sailing of Fathom’s Adonia ship this week. Fathom is a new brand under the Carnival umbrella of cruise ships that focuses on meaningful, people-to-people cultural exchanges.

This is definitely not your average Caribbean cruise. For starters, you have to sign an official affidavit — that you have to keep handy for the next five years — that legally states that you’re visiting Cuba for the sole purpose of meeting, interacting with and learning from its people. That means you’re agreeing to participate in mandatory shipboard and land-based cultural activities for at least eight hours per day — at least that’s what we were told, but I have yet to see it strictly enforced, especially during our days at sea.

On the first night, I went to an Intro to Cuba seminar. It was really informative and they told us all about how to exchange our money (a very complicated process involving switching your American dollars to euros on the ship, then cashing in your euros for CUCs, the convertible Cuban dollars used by tourists) and what to expect when you get on land. The list included important things like how you should never drink the water, ice or any drink not prepared with bottled water, how you should always carry your own toilet paper or tissues since they’re not available anywhere and that you should never take photos of policemen or government buildings. So far, I’ve also attended a visual storytelling class, a dance class where we learned Bachata and a Spanish language refresher course to help me brush up. There have been a number of classes offered every day on board, and they often overlap or take place during dinnertime, which is something the cruise line should definitely work on improving.

Arrival in Havana

We were awakened bright and early around 7:30am when the captain’s voice came over the loudspeakers announcing that we’d be pulling into the Port of Havana in a half hour. He explained how this was truly history in the making, as it had been more than 50 years since an American ship was allowed to sail to Cuba. In true cruise ship fashion, there was a big party on the upper deck with free mimosas and live music.

As we pulled close to shore, we began to see more and more people lining up along Havana’s famous Malecon seawall. All at once, the people lining up started cheering, waving Cuban flags and whistling at the passing cruise ship — some even pulled their a-m-a-z-i-n-g 1960 Chevy and Ford model cars over to the side of the road and ran to the wall to wave to us. All of us on the ship were so taken aback by this, we all started grabbing the American and Cuban flags that were being given out and started waving and shouting right back! Some people called out “Buenos Dias, Cuba!” and started chanting, “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!” to the crowd. As we got closer and closer to the port, the energy on the ship — and on land — was electric.

We had to go through Cuban immigration/customs each time we left the ship or went back on, which involved handing over our passports, Cuban Tourist Visas (provided by Fathom for American citizens, I’m not sure what paperwork was involved for Cuban-born citizens) and our voucher explaining that we were on an official People-to-People tour that day.

We walked single-file into the crowd awaiting our arrival at the Port of Havana, an incredible moment I'll never forget.
We walked single-file into the crowd awaiting our arrival at the Port of Havana, an incredible moment I’ll never forget.

Stepping out of the cruise terminal onto Cuban soil was incredible. There were huge crowds of people lined up by the dock holding up their cameras, iPads, video cameras and chanting things like “Viva Cuba! Viva USA!” and “Bienvenidos a Cuba!” welcoming us to their country. Many of us — Americans and Cubans alike — had tears in our eyes as people randomly reached out to touch our shoulders and hold our hands, smiling and saying thank you for visiting us. It was such an unbelievable moment and one that will stay with me as long as I live.

Vendors and street performers were also waiting for us to arrive at the Port of Havana.
Vendors and street performers were also waiting for us to arrive at the Port of Havana.

That being said, we were also swarmed by vendors — women in traditional Cuban dress who kissed men from the cruise ship on the cheek leaving a big lipstick mark and men with cigars and giant Castro-like beards who jumped into people’s photos and then asked for money. Be prepared to carry small bills or coins to hand out in instances like this.

Highlights of Havana

One of the first stops on our guided walking tour was Plaza Viejo, one of the oldest parts of the city.
One of the first stops on our guided walking tour was Plaza Viejo, one of the oldest parts of the city.

Stay tuned for more detailed posts about the cruise itself and what you should do in each of the cities we stopped in. For now, here’s a taste of some of the on-shore activities we did during the Havana portion of the trip.

Day 1 of our time in Havana involved a walking tour through the historic city streets of Old Havana. We stopped every few minutes for an explanation of a beautiful square like the Plaza Viejo, a description of what happened here in the past or to spend a few minutes exploring an artisan marketplace.

We kept driving our tour guide crazy stopping to gawk at and take photos of all the old classic American cars that lined the streets or drove past us.

Seeing these rolling through the streets of Havana was a real treat!
Seeing these rolling through the streets of Havana was a real treat!

One older man in our group stopped suddenly and said, “Oh my God, I used to have that car!”

We couldn't help stopping to admire them along the walking tour — kudos and brownie points to our super-patient tour guide!
We couldn’t help stopping to admire them along the walking tour — kudos to our super-patient tour guide!

That night, we had the option of going out and exploring the city at night on our own or the chance to do one of three shore excursions.

I was able to sneak this photo of the dancers as the show began. What an incredible night!
I was able to sneak this photo of the dancers as the show began. What an incredible night!

I chose to see the famous Parisien Cabaret show at Hotel Nacional, which cost $129 and an amazing Cuban cabaret-style show full of latin dances and music.

I’d always wanted to visit the legendary Hotel Nacional, where mobsters and movie stars stayed when they visited Havana until the revolution.
I’d always wanted to visit the legendary Hotel Nacional, where mobsters and movie stars stayed when they visited Havana until the revolution.

We got to do a quick tour of the hotel, known for being a popular hotspot for American movie stars and mafia members before the revolution, so this was an amazing chance to explore the lobby, gardens and history room where photos of the hotel’s most famous guests are on display.

The beautiful lobby of Hotel Nacional.
The beautiful lobby of Hotel Nacional.

Day 2 consisted of a full-day guided bus tour of some of Havana’s most popular attractions, including the Museo Nacional de Belleas Artes de La Habana (Museum of Fine Arts) — unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the galleries.

We also visited the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever been to. Here, we heard stories of some of the more famous Cuban people who were buried in this cemetery since 1876.

Here, we heard stories of some of the more famous Cuban people who were buried in this cemetery since in 1876.
The Cementerio de Cristobal Colon was beautiful.

Our group drove through Revolution Square (more on that later), and I managed to snap this photo of the famous image of Che Guevara on the wall as the bus passed by. I really would have liked to get off the bus and talk to the folks gathered in this square and see how they felt about us being there. Sadly, there was no time.

I really would have liked to get off the bus and talk to the folks gathered in this square and see how they felt about us being there. Sadly, there was no time.
The famous Che Guevara image in Revolution Square.

Another highlight, and my favorite stop of this guided tour, was Muraleando, a colorful place that had once been a city garbage dump until members of the community came together to decorate the neighborhood and turn an abandoned water tower into this amazing center for the arts. It was such an inspirational story and an honor to meet people who are so passionate about creating positive change in their community.

It was such an inspirational story and an honor to meet people who are so passionate about creating positive change in their community.
The Muraleando center for the arts was amazing.

We also did a side-trip to Cojimar, the quaint seaside village that inspired Hemingway’s classic, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

These kids were all smiles as our big group of American tourists approached the Hemingway bust.
These kids were all smiles as our big group of American tourists approached the Hemingway bust.

Both days, we stopped for lunch at local in-home restaurants called Paladares, where each has its own specialty meals — pork was the big thing at Cafe Taverna, while we got to sample chicken wings, taro fritters and other goodies at El Aljibe Restaurante.

The entree itself was delicious, but my favorite part of our meal at El Aljibe Restaurante was the Cuban sampler plate we got as an appetizer, featuring Cuban-style chicken wings, tiny pork sandwiches, taro root fritters and fried plantain chips.
The entree itself was delicious, but my favorite part of our meal at El Aljibe Restaurante was the Cuban sampler plate we got as an appetizer, featuring Cuban-style chicken wings, tiny pork sandwiches, taro root fritters and fried plantain chips.

Both restaurants had live Cuban bands playing music and offered the chance to dance — I actually got pulled up to the front for a mambo dance as we waited for our food at Cafe Taverna, and it was so much fun!

Lunch at Cafe Taverna was certainly an event! We were treated to live Cuban music and a free dance lesson.
Lunch at Cafe Taverna was certainly an event! We were treated to live Cuban music and a free dance lesson.

There are a lot of elderly travelers on this trip who sometimes have trouble walking or can’t physically participate — some of whom were allowed to return to the ship early — and I’ve seen people relaxing and enjoying the ship pool on our days at sea. So, it seems there’s at least an option to opt out if you can’t keep up or want to turn in early.

The wide range of ages and mobility on this trip has definitely led to some interesting situations, the most memorable being during the bus tour portion of the trip on our second day in Havana. The driver, seeing most people were falling asleep on the bus, asked us if we’d like to get out and walk through Revolution Square (I did!), but the majority said no, so we just drove through it instead. Another couple I spoke to said the people on their bus didn’t even want to go on the 15-minute drive from Havana to Cojimar, so their bus group simply headed back to the ship an hour early — the woman I spoke to was incredibly disappointed in this outcome, as she’d been a high school literature teacher and had always wanted to see this beautiful place.

Overall, though, it’s been great so far, especially getting the chance to interact with the Cuban people who have been so friendly and seem just as thrilled to see us as we are to see them. Keep an eye out for more posts from my trip — I can’t wait to share this experience with you!

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