Cuba and the Tampa Bay area are connected in so many ways. We are surrounded by wonderful people and food that have placed an indelible mark of Cuban culture on the area. But for over 50 years, we’ve been unable to visit the country, despite its proximity to St. Pete. Cuba is just a few hundred miles away but it might as well have been another world. Thanks to recent regulatory changes, Cuba is open for tourism!
We couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves, so we hopped aboard the Carnival Paradise and set sail for Havana. We picked up some tips and tricks during our trip and we’ve got plenty to share.
A Carnival Cruise is the best way to get to Cuba
It has never been this easy to travel to Havana, Cuba, though there are some government travel regulations that can be tough to navigate. Carnival makes it very simple by handling the paperwork, walking you through the process, and delivering you right to port. Back on the boat there’s shopping and entertainment around every corner. You can catch a show, hit the casino, dance all night, or just relax in the sun. You can’t go very far on board without crossing a bar or some fresh food (all-you can eat, by the way!). Carnival offers dozens of cruises to Cuba sailing out of Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.
Do Your Homework
Carnival handles the tough stuff, but we recommend doing a little research before your trip so you know how to pack (sunscreen, passport, more sunscreen…) and what to expect. Once you’re on board, keep an eye out for Carnival’s lectures on Cuba. The lectures are led by Carnival’s resident Cuba experts. They go through all the topics of importance and FAQs, but you can catch them around the ship if you have any unanswered questions about Cuba. We spoke to Cuba expert Heidi Siefkas after a presentation and her first-hand advice & experience was a game changer for our trip. Heidi has been traveling back and forth between the United States and Cuba for many years. We highly recommend you pick up a copy of her book, Cubicle to Cuba: Desk Job to Dream Job, for some pre-vacation excitement fuel or for poolside reading on the ship.
An Art & Culture Must See: FAC – Fábrica de Arte Cubano
This is the best way to experience Cuba’s modern art scene. On your way in, you’ll pay a cover and receive a punch card. You can use the card to get drinks and food (don’t fill up on the food downstairs! More on that later), which you will pay for on the way out. Do some exploring around this unique building and you’ll find a club, art performances, multiple DJs, and tons of art on every wall, nook and cranny. If you make your way upstairs, you can dine at Restaurante Tierra (if you can find it). The restaurant is seemingly hidden amongst the other experiences of the building, but it is well worth the hunt. The intimate space feels like you’ve been invited into a friend’s kitchen for the evening. It’s a perfect way to cap off your Cuban experience.
EXPERIENCE: Hotel Nacional de Cuba Tour
The Hotel Nacional is steeped in both Cuban and American history. We sent the hotel a message on Facebook to inquire about a tour and they were happy to oblige. On the tour we quickly found out that the hotel has a history of being a celebrity haven. The hotel has housed so many celebrities over the years that they keep a “hall of fame” in the lobby with pictures of famous guests and a description of what they ate when they visited.
Upstairs we were shown a set of suites that had been occupied by decades of actors, artists, politicians, mafiosos, and more. Famous Ybor City mobster Santo Trafficante Jr. stayed at the Hotel Nacional, as did Marlon Brando, Walt Disney, Diego Maradona, and many more. The world’s tallest man was a frequent patron. Even Frank Sinatra had a favorite room at the hotel. Fans of The Godfather movies may remember that scenes from The Godfather II are set at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, including the famous birthday cake scene.
As if the inside didn’t hold enough history, the grounds of the hotel are lined with memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We toured a collection of bunkers and tunnels where Cuban soldiers hunkered down for 13 days during the standoff between the United States and Russia. If you want to take this tour, wear some solid shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. The floors of the tunnels are slick, and the ceilings are low, making it tough for tall visitors, but the experience is worth it!
Treat Yourself to Lunch at Paladar El Idilio
Address: Calle G 351, Esquina 15 Vedado, Havana, Cuba
We were a little early for lunch at Trepiche, so our guide at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba highly recommended Paladar El Idilio, which is within walking distance from the hotel. The restaurant’s outdoor covered seating provided some time off our feet and a break from the sun. We ordered an array of appetizers and entrees to share, and the dishes did not disappoint. We recommend ordering a lot of food so you can sample from a wide variety. Our plates came out stacked high with taro bites, ropa vieja, tacos, and more. Pair the delicious food with some mojitos and Cristal Cuban beer, and it was the perfect way to relax before setting off on our next adventure.
The 411 On People 2 People Excursions
It is now legal to travel to Cuba*. Did you catch that asterisk? We’ll explain: With a few exceptions, almost everyone traveling to Cuba from the United States will be under the umbrella of “People to People”. That’s a learning exchange from our culture to theirs. Legally, this is the easily accessible loophole that allows you to travel to Cuba. It’s kind of like when your class took field trips for the “educational value”. This is where Carnival comes in. All of the Cuban excursions are specially-tailored to comply with the U.S. government’s Cuban travel restrictions, so you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s very easy to set up your excursions with Carnival’s onboard Hub app. The excursions go way beyond basic walking tours. They offer classic car rides, jaunts through the Cuban countryside, visits to some of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, and culinary experiences with coffee, cigars, and rum. Carnival handles all the red tape, making it comfortable and exciting to explore Cuba for a day.
Money: CUCs vs Local Pesos
Cash is your friend. Your credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba, so cash is a necessity. Carnival has ATMs on board that you can use. Your U.S. dollars will not be accepted in Havana, so you’ll need to exchange them in the port once you get through security. Cuba has multiple forms of currency: Cuban Pesos and CUCs. Cuban Pesos are used by residents of Cuba. CUCs (pronounced like “kooks”) are used for tourism. As a guest, you will want to exchange your American dollars for CUCs. The exchange rate is 1:1, but fees will take a good chunk of your dollar. All currencies have a 3% exchange fee, and U.S. dollars have an additional 10% tax. So for every dollar you exchange, you’ll get back $0.87 worth of CUCs. Choosing how much to exchange can be tricky. We suggest exchanging about $100 to $200 per person ($87 to $174 worth of CUCs). This will give you enough to cover transportation, food and drinks, and some souvenirs (read: rum and cigars. We’ll get to that). Keep in mind that if you exchange too much money and want to go back to U.S. dollars, you’ll incur the 3% exchange fee again (no additional 10% tax this time), so your original $1 would go home at about $0.85. Be sure to ask the person exchanging your money to include some small bills for things like water bottles, snacks, and tips for taxi drivers.
Taxis & Classic Cars: Standing by to show you their city
When you get off the ship and through the port, you’ll be greeted by a beautiful view and a slew of taxis and classic cars. Either one will work, but you’ll save those precious CUCs by going with the taxi. Be sure to tip your drivers (that’s what the small bills are for). The cab drivers get a monthly salary from the government, but your tips bolster their income and help them provide for their families. Riding in the classic cars will cost a little more, so you’re better off sticking with taxis for simple transportation, and hopping into a classic car when you want a tour of the city. The pricey ride is worth it for that quintessential Cuban experience and, of course, Instagram! Be sure to check out Revolution Square for some Cuban history and head up to Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro for amazing panoramic views of the city. The classic car tour is must on your Cuba checklist. We thoroughly enjoyed cruising around Havana in a couple of cars our grandparents probably envied in their younger days.
Plaza Vieja is a Must for Daiquiris & Live Music
You may hear some recommendations for Hemingway’s old daiquiri spot, El Floridita. With all due respect to Ernest, it may not be the best bet for relaxing with a cold drink. El Floridita maintains a consistent stream of tourists throughout the day, and it can be hard to sit down, find a place to stand, or even get a drink. Drift over to Plaza Vieja, pick any of the restaurants you see across the sprawling square, and order yourself a fresh daiquiri or a Cuba Libre (rum and Coke). It’s a great spot to kick back, enjoy the live music, people watch, and experience the bustling square. Just admiring the beautiful multicolored buildings will keep you busy through a few drinks.
The Important Stuff: Let’s Talk Rum & Cigars
The good news: you CAN bring them back. That was the lingering question on board until we sat in on Heidi’s presentation, where she covered any and all questions about how much we can bring back, which brands to look for, where to buy, and which brands were preferred by famous connoisseurs of Cuba. Once again, Carnival had us covered way before we stepped foot in Cuba. We recommend buying a variety of cigars, but here’s some top brands to look for: Cohiba, H. Upmann, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta. If rum is more your style, look for Santiago de Cuba and Havana Club. You’ll see plenty of Havana Club rum, but you win some bonus points if you can pick up one of the darker varieties, like Havana Club Añejo 7 Años or Havana Club Añejo 15 Años. You can find shops for rum and cigars around town during your travels, but there are also two small shops in the port that carries all of those brands and makes it very easy. Keep in mind, the shops in the port can get very crowded, and by the end of the day, some brands may be sold out. Pro tip: you can get on and off the ship throughout the day so no need to carry your new rum and cigars around, just buy them before you go back to the ship to change before going out for dinner and drop them off in your room. Cuban rum and cigars make a great addition to your liquor cabinet and humidor or a fantastic gift because you can only find them in Cuba.
This is your chance to unplug from the world
Cell service and internet are few and far between for the most part. There are some ways to plan ahead for cell phone use during your time in Havana, but we recommend taking the day to step away from the outside world and embrace the city. A map of the city may come in handy though, so here’s our pro tip: You can download a Google Map of Havana to your phone before the cruise or using the ship’s wifi before you disembark for Cuba.