LGBTQ cruise travelers should definitely consider this incredible city when making future cruise plans. An itinerary including an overnight in Havana, Cuba, made this among our top two cruises of all time. Be aware that a stop of the typical 6-8 hour duration is in no way adequate in Havana. We suggest you book a cruise with at least one overnight in Havana.
Our cruise, aboard the small-but-casual premium ship Azamara Journey, was made even more memorable by the addition of our group of LGBTQ cruisers from MeetMeOnBoard.
Cuba opened up to American cruise ships in 2016 for the first time in more than 50 years. Since then it has become increasingly popular with Americans for good reason. Later we’ll address some common concerns.
But first, what did it feel like to approach Cuba?
Sailing into Havana Harbor
It’s difficult to describe the excitement of sailing into Havana. The skyline isn’t New York, Istanbul or San Francisco, but it is beautiful in its own way. There is a mixture of 20th century high rise buildings outside the city near the shore, and the historic city center with a Spanish colonial flavor comes into view especially as you enter the port.
Most of all, the formerly “forbidden fruit” of Havana was calling to us loud and clear. Infectious Afro-Cuban rhythms were playing in our heads and we’ve never, ever been so impatient to get off a ship and explore a port city.
Havana boasts a narrow harbor opening lined with fortifications from the 16th to the 19th centuries opening into an expansive, protected bay. It is abundantly clear why the port of Havana was so important to the Spanish (and other) colonialists.
Myths about travel to Cuba
Cuba isn’t safe.
Not our experience. The tourist dollar is one of the few bright spots in Cuba’s troubled economy. Our Cuban guides explained that Cubanos don’t want to jeopardize the tourism that lifts up so many. As long as you practice common sense, walking around Havana anytime during the day or evening is safe.
The bathrooms are intolerable.
Again, not what we observed. True, facilities aren’t what you’d find in wealthy parts of the world, but when we were in Havana there were absolutely no problems. The sewer system can’t process toilet paper, so as in much of the developing world there were always covered receptacles available for afterwards. For some reason a toilet seat is a rarity, but even so a couple of the bathrooms we used were impeccably clean. Don’t let minor inconveniences keep you away from this enchanting city. What the heck, bring your own toilet paper, some wipes, and use the waste can like millions of others!
Isn’t it too crowded?
Even though it was spring break week in the U.S., Havana wasn’t overrun by visitors like many tourist cities. In port with the 685-passenger Azamara Journey, we docked next to the Norwegian Sky which can carry up to 2,450 passengers. Even with both ships there was no delay clearing Cuban immigration, only a passport stamp and each of us posing for a photograph. There was no wait time for the currency exchange, and coming back on board was a breeze, especially for the cruisers on our small ship.
Havana’s streets were virbrant with children playing and live music streaming from bars and restaurants. With the exception of a tourist hot spot or two boasting a Hemingway connection, bars and restaurants had plenty of room where we didn’t have to wait for a table and we never waited in a line to enter museums.
MMOB TIP: There are two types of businesses in Cuba. One is Government-owned and operated, the other private. Our guides said to consider using the private restaurants and businesses, which they explained would be excellent quality and a good value. How to tell the difference? Simply ask the staff.
Cubans live in poverty.
Yes, that’s true for the vast majority, especially compared to North American standards. They are also warm, welcoming, polite, helpful, and seem to be able to find happiness despite great hardship. They are beautiful people in so many ways, and carry themselves with dignity.
“Never have I been in a country so poor where the people were so rich and warm.” –Mark
The American embargo and later loss of Soviet support have been devastating. Currently Cuba depends almost entirely on unstable Venezuela for anything petroleum-related and for what little financial help they receive. Our guide expressed concern about the crisis in Venezuela and what the response of the United States might be. He hopes that the hours-long power blackouts of years ago don’t materialize again.
We observed no panhandling on the streets, although colorfully-dressed women on the square just off the terminal knew how to capture our interest and pose for photos. Over-tipping can appear to recipients as ostentatious, but a nice tip, some candy and little toys for the kids is much appreciated. In fact, both children and adults are ecstatic to receive a piece of candy from visitors. Don’t forget the guy you photographed standing by his classic car, or the street musicians you enjoyed on your walk or in a restaurant. Some generosity on our part brightened the day of our hosts, probably made a difference in the quality of their lives, and lifted our spirits as well. A pre-cruise trip to the dollar store is highly recommended.
In Old Havana we saw several “mercados,” all of which had just a few items for sale, perhaps two or three of each. There were never more than a few items total, with the only light coming in through the open side of the room facing the street.
MMOB TIP: A special mercado intended for tourists was recommended by our gay guides.
The San Jose Artisan’s Market is a huge assortments of stalls right on the waterfront a few blocks to the left of the cruise port as you exit. Walk off the ship and there is a beautiful white Russian Orthodox Church about half way there. The market entrance has several steps down into an enormous space. You’ll find Cuban Rum (you can bring back 2 liters per person) Cigars (100 each) as well as wood carvings, art, textiles and other arts and crafts. We can’t wait to frame and hang the painting we purchased.
Crumbling, drab buildings sit next to beautifully-restored, often brightly-painted Spanish Colonial or late 1800’s grandness. El Capitolio (the Capitol building) is still in the process of restoration, which is proceeding at an excruciatingly slow rate. Building materials, tools, money, electricity, even restoration and construction expertise are in extremely short supply.
Some parts of the old city’s narrow streets have a bit of congestion, but the high price of gasoline means that many of the vehicles are used only for tourist activities. Are you old enough to remember Fidel Castro’s hours-long speeches to the people of Havana? In Revolutionary Square where he would speak, the hub of what should be Havana’s traffic pattern is so devoid of activity there were no traffic lights visible and very few cars.
Yes, old lovingly-restored American automobiles abound in Havana in great number and are everything you’d expect. The drivers take great pride in their cars which have been a route out of poverty for many. This is despite the fact that these cars cobbled together with spare parts make an average of 5 MPG. We saw cars painted every color of the rainbow and then some, from polka dots to a very popular not-found-in-nature magenta!
When asked “How do you repair your car?” the driver smiled and said: “We make it work.”
LGBTQ Private Tour
MeetMeOnboard’s travel expert Adam arranged an extensive private tour with Out In Cuba, custom-designed for our LGBTQ cruisers, and breaking into three small groups. Two out of the three guides were gay men. While Andy was straight, he certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of attractiveness. As we said goodbye he kissed Mark on the neck as he would an amigo.
Cubans are resourceful and have to be creative to earn money. In Old Havana we had a ball watching street performers who did choreographed Latin dance moves on stilts. These people pay a portion of their tip income to the government in taxes.
Andy and our guides explained life in Cuba, answering questions truthfully and completely. It was clear that a great deal of time and energy goes into affording and obtaining food. During parts of the 1990’s after the Soviet pull-out, hunger was an especially serious issue. In fact, Andy explained that it wasn’t uncommon during this period for people to put worn-out old rags between two slices of bread to make a sandwich.
Cubans do have free healthcare, of which they are proud. Nobody is turned away from housing because of the inability to pay rent, though they may share with multiple family members from 3 or 4 generations. This housing is often substandard by our metrics, and yet homelessness wasn’t visible on the streets.
The ship excursion to this famous nightclub, which opened in 1939, was so over-the-top spectacular that we found ourselves laughing with delight. Nobody in the cast or audience seemed to be taking themselves too seriously. We’d heartily recommend this exuberant experience if you have an overnight in Havana.
Each table of four shared a bottle of excellent Cuban rum, soft drinks, peanuts, chocolate, and optional special cocktails. There is a dinner show available as well, but this evening was all about the show. The beautiful young dancers got even more attractive with each costume change. One set of showgirl costumes consisted of about a square foot of fabric along with a three-foot lighted chandelier headdress. Every muscle in their flexible bodies was in motion except their heads. The biggest ovation of the night was for the chorus boys tap dancing. In flip flops! No shortage of eye candy on this ship excursion!
Plan on a full night at the Tropicana. We gathered on the ship for the bus at 8:30 or so and came back on board about midnight, still pumped up from the performance. Over even more drinks, our group members who saw the show couldn’t stop talking about it. I was relieved that Azamara Journey didn’t have any crystal chandeliers on board.
Would we visit Havana again? At the drop of a Cuban fedora!
Let us know if you think we should plan another MMOB cruise to Cuba.