Last week I was lucky enough to be on the first cruise ship allowed to sail from the US to Cuba in more than 50 years. (see post) Wow! I’ve been on many fantastic trips during my career as a frequent traveler, but it’s rare to participate in something as historic, and truly emotional. (The only other trip that comes close is a ride on the Concorde in its final days.)
During my weeklong journey from Miami to Havana, then around the 750-mile-long island, calling on Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, I learned a lot…and took hundreds of photos.
If you ever get a chance to travel there, be sure to bring a good camera, extra batteries or portable chargers and fat memory cards because everything…and I mean everything makes a great photo. Seriously, every time I turned around I saw a great picture, whether it was a crumbling building, a beautiful face, unusual or exotic art, a sunset, cemetery or a tranquil courtyard. And then there are all the old cars– they draw your eyes like flowers draw bees and it’s impossible not to stare at them, and of course, snap photos.
Anyway… a few things before I launch into a captioned slide show…
Cost: Even though Cuba is a dirt poor country, it’s not cheap to travel there due to high demand, and as we all know, that demand is going to continue to surge as more Americans fulfill their urge to get there. The problem with all that demand, is that there is not nearly enough supply to handle it, which means prices are already soaring. For example, I was on the Fathom Adonia, which offers a 7-day cruise from Miami to Cuba for a minimum of $1,800 (for a windowless inside cabin). That’s a big price to pay considering most other decent Caribbean cruises run in the $100 per night range, so about $700 for a week. How does Fathom get away with charging that much? Demand! At an onboard news conference in the inaugural voyage, Fathom execs told TravelSkills that they are “charging what the market will bear.” Just this week Fathom expanded is Cuba cruise schedule through the end of 2017. The influx of Americans is driving up prices so much that it’s scaring away tourists from other countries. For example, Aerolineas Argentinas recently suspended its nonstops to Cuba due to lack of demand from Argentines who can no longer afford the island.
Commercial flights between the US and Cuba are expected to commence later this year, but as of now, no fare information is available. Currently, to fly to Cuba, you must book trips via travel agencies and be part of groups traveling there under special licenses.
The emotional highpoint of our trip? The warm Cuban welcome to Havana. We all felt like rock stars! Here’s a slideshow of what it was like. Look at those faces!
People: Cubans are as curious about us as we are about them. Luckily, I speak Spanish, so it was easier for me to communicate on the island, but I was surprised by how many Cubans speak and understand English very well. While we enjoyed a big, fat emotional welcome at the port in Havana, I was surprised to find that elsewhere, many were not aware that a boatload of Americans had just landed on the island. Cruise ships are not new to Cuba— it’s only those from American ports that are. So I found out that unless I told the folks I met that I was American, they did not know. And did not ask. Once I said that I was American, though, their eyes lit up, they shook my hand, smiled, patted me on the back or, in many cases hugged me and said, “Welcome, we are so glad you are here.” Or “It’s been too long” and of course, “You are from America? I have a sister, cousin, brother, friend, etc in Miami!” Anyway, one lesson I learned during my trip is that Cubans are eager to chat and interact with Americans, but as a visitor, you have to initiate the conversation or interaction— once you do that, the results are fantastic and heart warming.
Poverty: There’s no mistaking that Cuba is a poor country. We heard that the average Cuban brings home about US$28 per month. That means most have to get their basic necessities at “ration stores” throughout the country. While there are other types of stores selling flat screen TVs (about $300), air conditioners ($900) and other luxuries, few Cubans can afford them. From what I saw in the cities we visited, nearly all Cubans are poor, but they are not destitute like you see in other developing countries or neighboring Caribbean islands. I did not see any homeless people living in the streets like I see daily in San Francisco. No evidence of drug addiction. Most Cubans were well-groomed, well-fed and appeared to be in good health.
Begging: I was startled at the large number of people who were begging. Most were pregnant or nursing mothers who asked for money to feed their kids. Knowing that just one US dollar is a full day’s wage for most Cubans, I occasionally obliged, but the problem was that I frequently found myself without any small bills, and found it hard to find places willing to change my larger bills. In the end, I just resorted to using the US one dollar bills I had in my wallet, which were gladly accepted. I found that a more fulfilling way to distribute my American largesse was to tip the ubiquitous musicians, dancers and buskers on the streets, in restaurants and elsewhere– Cuba is overflowing with infectious and really good live music that’s impossible to miss. I noticed that there was a big camaraderie among the women on the ship and the women on the street when they handed out make up, soap, lotion, small toys and other sundries. Do you have a bag of lotions and potions from frequent hotel stays? An old unused cell phone? Bring it to Cuba! They really appreciate it.
Cruising. Even if you don’t like cruises, seeing Cuba via cruise ship is perfect for the first time visitor. The pros of the visiting via ship: a guaranteed clean, air conditioned space to sleep in with a good shower every night. Hotel guests in Cuba face a lot of uncertainties due to the country’s faltering infrastructure, so access to wifi, air conditioning, hot water, etc can be sketchy. Not so when you have a cruise ship to sleep on each night. The cons of a cruise ship are of course, less immersion in local culture, and less control of your itinerary. But until Cuba can build more hotels and improve the few that are already there, it’s increasingly likely that many Americans will visit by ship in coming years. Carnival Corporation’s Fathom line is the first to get permission to enter, but nearly every other cruise company has applied for access to this forbidden fruit of the Caribbean.
Don’t miss my first post from this trip: Cruising into Cuba- It’s complicated!
Have you been to Cuba? Do you plan to go? Please leave your comments below!
Don’t miss my first post from this trip: Cruising to Cuba- It’s complicated!
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: United’s newest, longest flight + Tipping Uber drivers + Qantas 747 Trip Report + Confusion over PreCheck policies + No-fee earlier flights