Destination Snapshot: 15 hours in Havana
If you love to travel, then you probably have Havana, Cuba on your bucket list of places to see. A few of my friends and I decided that the best way to see Havana was on a cruise. This allowed us to experience Cuba, but we didn’t have to deal with the logistics of getting there, finding a place to stay, etc. We ended up taking a four-day Royal Caribbean cruise that included stops in Key West and Havana.
Overall, I was glad I had the chance to see Havana and what it looks like today. Our tour guide said it best, “Havana is changing, but very very slowly.” If you do go to Havana, you’ll have a chance to see some incredible places, but don’t expect to have access to some of the conveniences you have at home. Havana is a place for those that are looking to learn about the Cuban culture and history, which hasn’t been accessible to many Americans for some time.
Things to know before you go:
Visas are required, but the process is easy! Royal Caribbean has you fill out your visa paperwork before boarding and there is a fee of $75 per person.
WiFi is restricted and limited to various outdoor parks and cost $1 per hour. Do not plan on having access to WiFi. If you plan on touring on your own, do all of your research beforehand and download a map to your phone since you won’t have access to WiFi.
Bring cash. Credit cards are not widely accepted. Once you are in the cruise terminal, there is an area where you can exchange your money. There are two currencies (CUC for tourists and CUP for locals). When you get change from a vendor, make sure you receive CUC (it has monuments on it).
Bring toilet paper. Many restrooms do not have toilet paper (or toilet seats). You can either bring your own toilet paper or tip an attendant.
Bring bottled water. Shops with supplies like water and snacks aren’t always nearby so plan on bringing water with you.
I highly recommend doing a tour in Havana because your guide will be able to tell you interesting facts about the people, the culture, etc. that you won’t get from touring alone.
We chose a 9 hour “Havana Bucket List Experience” tour. This tour included a 2.5-hour walking tour, a stop at a cigar and rum store, lunch, and visits to many sights via motor coach. At night we went off on our own and went to the Tropicana Show (amazing!).
St. Francis Plaza
As soon as we exited the cruise terminal, we walked into St. Francis Plaza. This was the first of the many beautiful plazas that we would see, which included bright colored buildings, businesses, and the Church of Francis of Assisi.
Outside of the church is a bronze statue of a former Spanish resident who was sent to jail for a crime that he didn’t commit and he later became homeless. It is said that if you touch his foot, his finger, and beard at the same time, you will have good luck.
Next, we headed to the Plaza Vieja, which historically was a place where the wealthiest looked down from their balconies to watch fiestas, bullfights, and executions. Today, it is a peaceful plaza with many people walking through. There is a primary school nearby and while we were there, children from the school were having fun doing their morning exercises.
On one side of the square there is a brass statue, called Viaje Fantástico. It features a nude woman sitting on a rooster holding a fork. There is speculation regarding the meaning of the sculpture, which was installed in 2012. Some say it is a tribute to the long history of prostitution in Havana and the fork represents the need for the woman to put food on her family’s table.
Plaza De Armas (Square of Arms)
The Plaza De Armas, which was once the center of political power, is the oldest and most important plaza in Old Havana. Today it is a beautiful area with banyan trees, historical buildings, and a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who set Cuba on the road to independence in 1868.
One thing that our tour guide pointed out was that the bricks on the road were actually made of wood. Legend has it that the Governor and his wife enjoyed afternoon naps and wood was used to dull the sound of traffic.
Plaza De Catedral
The Plaza De Catedral is the site of the Cathedral of Havana, which once held the remains of Christopher Columbus. It includes large mansion-style homes that were once owned by Cuba’s social elites. Today these buildings are historical landmarks and museums.
This square has a large area that can hold up to a million people and has been a place for leaders to talk to the masses. Here you will see a building with an outline of Camilo Cienfuegos, which states, “Va Bien Fidel,” or “You’re doing fine, Fidel.”
Cigar and Rum Shopping
Finally, time for some souvenirs! We made a quick stop at a local cigar and rum shop where we had a chance to sample rum and purchase souvenirs.
Lunch at La Cecilia
La Cecilia is a large club and has featured Havana’s best reggaeton and salsa bands. During our time there, we were able to sit in their garden area. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, had a Cuban coffee, sampled rum, and learned how to smoke cigars properly (try dipping them in rum!).
Colon Cemetery is the final resting place for over one million people. Our guide pointed out many of the features on some of the larger graves and also explained that it might not be the final resting place for some. Many people want to be buried in Colon Cemetery because of its beauty, but due to space constraints might be moved after a few years (note the handles on the graves to open them).
Christ of Havana
The Christ of Havana statue is a must-see sight when visiting Havana. It was built in 1958 and is 66 feet high. The area also has an amazing view.
After stopping back at our ship to change and grab dinner, we headed to the famous Tropicana Show. Getting to the show was easy! Outside the cruise ship terminal there are plenty of taxis so we opted for a 1950’s convertible. We drove along the Malecon, which is a roadway along the ocean that stretches 5 miles. It was a beautiful ride, especially during sunset.
When we pulled into the Tropicana it was like stepping back in time. Women were handed roses and men were given cigars. This outdoor venue is spectacular. The set is surrounded by huge tropical palms, multiple stages, and a full orchestra on a riser.
We purchased premium seats online a few days prior and were seated right at the stage, although I don’t think it was necessary. With so many stage levels and dancers in the aisles, I can’t imagine a bad seat at this venue. Once seated, a bottle of rum and soda was given to each table to share.
The show was absolutely amazing and a highlight of our trip. We enjoyed the outdoor setting, the chance to talk to others at our table, and the music.
Interesting facts about Havana…
Yes, Havana is a city that is frozen in time. However, after the revolution in 1959, many buildings were confiscated and have not been maintained. Therefore, MANY buildings are on the verge of collapsing. Between 2000 to 2013 it was reported that there were 3,856 partial or total building collapses. If you go, don’t be surprised to see people living in buildings that are not in good condition.
Cuban citizens that work for the government make $25-$35 a month. According to our guide, you won’t see many banks in Havana because many citizens keep their extra money at home. Even doctors work multiple jobs to help support their families.
You will not see many private boats in Havana even though you are along the water. Per our guide, it is very difficult for Cuban citizens to purchase a private boat. This is done to prevent citizens from fleeing.
While Havana is a beautiful city, it is still lacking the modern conveniences that Americans tend to expect. If you plan on going, we recommend doing a tour so that you can see everything Havana has to offer and to hear firsthand experiences.