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What to expect on a cruise to Cuba

I’m on the Fathom cruise ship bound for Cuba from Miami and our mandate is “impact travel” for the next seven days.

It’s a new concept and one that I’m excited to experience along with about 700 others, mainly Americans, now able to venture to Fidel’s homeland thanks to Obama’s easing of the trade embargo between the two countries.

Fathom is a new one-ship cruise company dedicated to creating socially engaging tours to, so far, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The brain child of Tara Russell, a young, (38-year old) social entrepreneur and good friend of Carnival CEO Arnold Donald. She convinced him of her vision for a cruise that would appeal to those who want their vacations to make a difference – as well as traveling in style. Fathom is Carnival’s first foray into Cuba.

Their mantra is “travel deep” and that suits the still tight restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba. Charter flights have also begun operating out of Miami, but Americans are supposed to undertake cultural understanding and other doings and keep a diary of who they’ve spoken to and where they visited. For five years! The ones I met weren’t bothering figuring the US government has more things to check up on than people’s personal Cuba journals.

Russell’s idea of traveling with a purpose comes out of her personal traveling style, and I love it! But I think the Cuba cruise is less about making an impact on them and more about having our own cultural horizons widened.

Havana Cuba from the sea
Welcome to Havana!

I’ve been reading a bit of press lately about how hard Fathom is finding it to appeal to cruisers who are looking for volunteer and community work opportunities and I’m puzzled. Certainly our Cuba cruise took us off the beaten track to meet locals working on neighbourhood projects and to have lunch in private homes, but there was no expectation – or even opportunity – to get involved in any community work. In fact these Cuba itineraries are incredibly popular.

From what I can see, this kind of full immersion volunteer work, like teaching English and carrying water in villages, happens on the Dominican Republic itineraries every alternate week, and right now you can get amazing deals ($500 for a week) as this new style of vacationing to make an impact slowly gains popularity. (Hint: go now!)

Cruise to Cuba
Our ship Adonia docked in Old Havana

But here’s what I found on our 7-day Cuba cruise on Fathom’s fifth visit to the country, only a 30 minute flight from Miami…

We set off from Miami at about 5pm and the launch party on the Adonia, Fathom is a former P&O ship, is underway. There is Cuban music on the lido deck and passengers are getting to know each other in the pool. After all the mercury is hitting about 32˚C. Thankfully there is no organised conga dancing or belly flop contests and none of these cringey activities happen on Fathom!

But just like on the cruises you’re used to, dinner is taken in the fifth deck restaurant with white table cloths, but you don’t have a set time. Show up when you’re hungry and you’ll either get a table to yourselves or be offered to join a larger group. The latter is always fun, so don’t shy away. You can order three courses from the a la carte menu, OR you can nip up to the lido deck where the buffet is serving the same thing – only up here you can help yourself to morsels of each and hedge your tastebud bets then sit on the back verandah watching the Caribbean sun set.

At about 9am the next day we sailed into Havana where, this time five cruises ago, the locals lined the boulevard waving American and Cuban flags, honking the horns of their classic cars and welcoming the first American ship in 52 years. Passengers on the inaugural cruise where emotional and tears flowed freely, I’m told.

Havana Cuba restaurant
A corner restaurant with live music in Havana
Classic car taxi Cuba
You can’t beat a car ride for an hour in one of these!

Day 1 – Havana

From the ocean, arriving into Havana drew me into an unexpected view. So many highrise buildings! Such a big city!

We pulled into San Francisco port and deboarded into Old Havana where classic cars and coco taxis were lined up to take us wherever we desired. But as all the shore excursions are included on Fathom with local guides from Havanatur, I didn’t want to miss out on anything, so saved my car ride up for the end of the day and instead followed the lovely Noema on our walking tour of this historical part of Havana. (You can read about my day in Havana here >>)

Being New Zealanders we didn’t have any restrictions on our visas for visiting Cuba, but the Americans were meant to document their people-to-people interactions in the above mentioned journal and keep it for five years. This is so bizarre! Not many bothered with it. But the point being that while the restrictions are being eased due to Obama’s relaxing of the embargo, there’s a long way to go. Also, interestingly so far only American airplanes can fly to Cuba and not vice versa, so it’s a little one-sided right now.

The Spanish and neo-classical architecture is what I loved on our walk through Old Havana and lunch was served at Cafe Taberna where monstrous lobster tails were dished up by the hundred. Heart breakingly mine was over cooked and tough! But washed down with a mojito and live music, I was in a forgiving mood.

We walked around four squares, or piazzas, took hundreds of photos, had free time in each to wander off for a drink and a cigar or to buy art and talk to local shop keepers, then on again we wandered. I’d do it this way again.

Being on a cruise meant that dinner could be taken on board, as the reputation for Cuban food isn’t great. (Maybe the lifting of the embargo will allow plenty of fresh meat and produce from the USA for the Cuban chefs to play with. After all a flight is only 30 minutes).

I had no problems with it however. But while we did eat on board because the ship was docked right there on the edge of Old Havana, we wandered into one of the squares before hand and found a bar with an upstairs balcony for a cocktail and just people-watched as the evening slipped away. Kids played football and threw neon gadgets high into the air, live music played in a restaurant below us. People rode bicycles through the square, families wandered past. It was a magical moment.

Cocotaxi in Havana
I didn’t ride in it, but the Coco Taxi is cute!
Cocktails in Cuba
It’s never too early for a sangria in Cuba!

Day 2 – Havana

Our allocated time to deboard in small groups of about 25 was earlier on day two as we’d stayed over night at the port. While yesterday was walking tours (in the 30+ heat!) today was mainly in the sanctuary of air conditioned coaches to take us a bit further afield.

The Museum of Fine Arts was our first stop and we had about an hour here, learning about the art and artists from the museum’s curator then left to our own devices, we were on alert to watch for political influences over the centuries. Just opposite the art gallery is the Museum of the Revolution in the former Presidential Palace decorated by Tiffany’s. Yes, THAT Tiffany’s, but we didn’t get time to visit. If I did this day again I’d skip the art and head for the revolution, just meeting back at the bus at our designated time.

We then drove to Revolution Square where the famous portraits of Che Gevara and Camilo Cienfuegos adorn the walls of the administration buildings (Castro’s office).

Time was limited, so at the end of the day’s tour, this is where we asked our classic car taxi driver to bring us back to so I could set up the perfect photo!

Lunch was in a state-run restaurant and we were told service might be slow. It was fine. The food was chicken and veges. Unremarkable, but good. Of course there were a couple of hundred of us and other tour groups in matching T-shirts too, so what can you expect with that many plates! We did all get mojitos 🙂

An hour at the portside Art Market was not long enough and I whizzed through with my husband trailing behind me agreeing that they were all good. I finally settled on a painting which will adorn our spare bedroom with the other stretched canvasses I have from my travels.

Because the Fathom mandate is about cultural immersion, traveling deep, having an impact… this afternoon we visited various community projects. Our coach went to a poor neighbourhood that has been transformed by a single man who started decorating his street with mosaic tiling and roping in the kids to express their creativity. Today it’s grown into an after-school program for about 250 children aged 7-18 in a disused concrete water reservoir where they learn music, dance, painting, sculpting and work with all sorts of crazy textiles. Their work is also for sale and 50% goes back into the project. Visitors can buy stuff (including drinks at the bar!), make donations or bring gifts like crayons and pencils.

Jose Manti quote, Cuba
“One principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army” Jose Marti – Museum of Fine Art, Havana
Castro military vehicles Cuba
The vehicles used by Castro et al during the 1959 revolucion
Cuba art market
The art market is overwhelming in Havana!
Lobster Cuba
A lobster tail just for me!

Day 3 – at sea

So plan to spend a little extra because today you’ll get the chance to have massages at the spa. I even tried acupuncture for my tight lower back and right shoulder and you know what? Two days later I had forgotten about them! The gym is free to use, as is the pool surrounded by sun loungers. There are also seven bars, including a library and smaller spaces for relaxing away from the crowd.

Laundry facilities are also free. If you don’t have washing powder you can buy a small bag (it would last five or six loads) for $3.50 from the gift shop on the fifth deck.

Day 4 – Cienfuegos

Founded by the French in 1819 this used to be the beach resort town for the rich and famous who would skid on sea planes to spend a weekend of revelry and merriment. Dubbed the Pearl of the South, its name literally means one hundred fires, although it was named after a general – Mr One Hundred Fires, clearly. It’s about 250km from Havana on the south coast of Cuba and used to be a significant port for the trade of sugar cane and as a conduit between Jamaica and South America.

We had only a half day here, so leapt into our coaches and began a sightseeing tour. After driving past some impressive houses and hotels in former mansions we pulled over next to a park and herded into a bodega – a corner store where a poor (I mean that literally as well as figuratively) man was buying his rations. Everyone gets paid $40 per month in Cuba. That’s it. There is, understandably, an ageing and declining population issue in Cuba as families struggle to live on this. The rockstars of Cuba’s economy, therefore, are the tour guides and waiters and taxi drivers. Basically anyone who makes tips.

In Cienfuegos we drove past medical schools, hospitals, dental hospitals. The Cuban medical scene is well known for being not only free to every citizen, but also has some of the best in the business. University education is free, but you only study medicine (or any other complicated degree – I’m looking at you, law) for the pride and prestige. $40 per month is all you earn.

We stopped for a special performance at the beautiful Teatro Tomas Terry, a theatre completed in 1889 to honour Venezuelan industrialist Tomas Terry. It seats 950 and you can see the influence of French and Italian architecture with marble and local hardwoods and ceiling frescoes.

Cienfuegos buildings
Former mansions now hotels and bars, as seen from the bus
Cuba truck
A truck of many parts grunts into life
Cienfuegos bodega
The bodega where locals come to buy their rations
Theatre Cienfuegos
Teatro Tomas Terry, a theatre completed in 1889 with handcarved Cuban wood

Day 5 – Santiago de Cuba

We set off from Cienfuegos early afternoon and arrived in Santiago by 9 the next morning. Founded by the Spanish in 1515, it has some wonderful architecture – like a castle with a prison overlooking the harbour. But maybe it was just because of the heat and our half day, but I didn’t love Santiago.

However, if you have more time, there are some very cool things to see in Santiago de Cuba. The UNESCO fortress Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca is at the end of a cobblestoned walk past a couple of restaurants with spectacular views that are worth stopping for at least a beer. If you haven’t paid homage at the majestic cemetery in Havana, then you might like a visit to Santa Ifigenia cemetery where revolutionary Jose Marti has a mausoleum and a changing of the guard occurs on the half hour each day.

We also popped in on a local dance troupe, who also dance in America and around the world, for some hands on dancing and to watch them move to the percussion in their dance hall which drew the neighbours who wondered what the buses were doing on their usually quiet street.

Lunch today was on the rooftop of a private home. This is a new kind of business that has been allowed under Raul Castro since 2011 when he relaxed rules around businesses. You’ll also see a symbol on several houses that show they are certified to take guests. Yes, Cuba is on Air BnB!

Jose Marti mausoleum cuba
Changing of the guard at Jose Marti’s mausoleum
Guest house in Cuba
The sign out front means this is a guest house
Shopping Cienfuegos
Shopping in Santiago de Cuba
Street artist cuba
Street artists and buskers earn a few CUCs
Art in Santiago de Cuba
Picking up local art is a highlight of traveling!
Street tat in Santiago de Cuba
I might have succumbed to a tall perky figurine 🙂
Fabric shop Cuba
Pink towels on sale at this shop had everyone in a frenzy
Buying eggs Cuba
Counting out the week’s ration of eggs
Furniture store cuba
This furniture is made locally and sold here along with small appliances, clothes and shoes
Little girl in Cuba
A little cutie!
Selling art Cuba
Art for sale at the community project
Salsa in Cuba
A salsa lesson for our group at the community project
Artist in community project cuba
An art teacher works on a painting to be sold at the community project
recycled flower cuba
Love the flower! Everything is useful at this community project
Sculpture with real teeth
This freaky statue has the actual set of false teeth of the man it depicts!

Day 6 – at sea

Day 7 – Miami

I loved my week in Cuba and would totally recommend it for groups or families!


Update 28 November 2016: I’m saddened to read that the Fathom ship philosophy of “deep travel” has not been successful and the Adonia ship is going back to Carnival from summer 2017. However Carnival hopes cruises to Cuba will still happen under their other brands, and of course other cruise lines are also now running Cuba itineraries.


Read my 20 things to know before you go to Cuba post too 🙂SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!