My cruise on the Norwegian Sky was amazing. The ship was beautiful, and it was a great getaway. However, the real reason I booked this particular cruise was that I wanted an opportunity to see Havana before it changed too much. This left me in a quandry. I very much respect American Treasury regulations, and I didn’t know that country. That suggested booking a Havana shore excursion through the ship. However, I speak Spanish, have an adventurous soul, and have vacationed in places like Nicaragua and Indonesia. That suggested striking out on my own. I wound up booking the Cuban Rum Cigars, and Art tour. I later found dinner on my own. This combination worked very well.
While my experience is specific to NCL, I suspect it is fairly common to most cruise lines visiting Havana. The tours are led by a Cuban government agency, and I suspect they follow a similar script. That said, I like cigars. I like rum. I also need to learn more about art. That combination made this morning tour an excellent introduction to Cuba.
First things first– getting off the ship is similar to doing so in Cozumel. However, there are two important differences. If you are a citizen of the United States, you will have pre-arranged a visa. That costs $75. As best I can determine, the qualification for getting the visa is having $75. Second, you pass through immigration on your way in to the country. That means that you must bring your passport with you. You do not typically do that at most Caribbean ports.
Passing through immigration is painless. Also, the Cuban authorities do not care whether you have booked an official shore excursion. The ship will absolutely let you debark if you are on your own. That is an excellent option for many non-American passengers. U.S. citizens who are returning to shore after completing a tour also have this option. It is easy since the ship is docked and does not require a tender. After debarkation you are in a welcome hall with bathrooms and typical gift shops. The difference is that these gift shops also sell Cuban cigars, rum, and coffee. The prices seemed similar to prices in town, and that makes them an excellent option.
One last note before you go on your excursion. Be sure and stop at the currency exchange desk so you will have Cuban convertible pesos to spend. Spending foreign cash is tricky at best, and it is extremely hard to use credit cards. Once you have done that, head downstairs and meet the bus for your excursion.
Our bus was comfortable, and the driver was safe. Our tour guide was also excellent. She was not quite fluent in English, but she was very strong in it. Our first stop was the Havana Club rum factory, which was only a few minutes away. Better said, our first stop was where the factory used to be. It is now an excellent museum which details the rum-making process. You also get a small sample of rum at the end, which put me in an excellent mood for buying more rum in the gift shop.
From there, we went to a Cuban art demonstration. We received a small non-alcoholic drink during the presentation. The drink was extremely refreshing, and nobody seemed to suffer any illness from drinking local product. We were initially inside an old home which had been set up as an art gallery, and later we saw a presentation on the street outside. I am not a particularly artistic guy, but I still enjoyed this very much.
After the arts presentation, we went to my favorite part of the tour: Cuban cigars! I learned several things. Most significantly, one government-run factory can make multiple cigar brands. I got the sense that the workers would show up each morning to learn which brand to make that day. The workers were using very basic equipment, but were all focused on their jobs and were working incredibly fast. There were no cigars for sale at the factory. However, we immediately went to a cigar shop nearby. These shops routinely also sold coffee and rum. Protip: The shops visited on the shore excursion get extremely busy. It is easier to simply visit the store at the cruise pier or one of the ones in town. The store at the pier stays open until 8, and the stores in town close between 5 and 6.
We were told to expect a three and a half hour tour, and it was nearly that time when we left the cigar factory. Unfortunately, we were driven to another art installation. This was interesting, but at this point I was tired. I was also hungry and needed to use the bathroom. I think we would have been better served to simply go back at this point.
When we returned to the ship, I discovered something important for Havana shore excursions. It is easy to get on and off the ship. There is an immigration check each way, but that was professionally handled. I went on board, got lunch, and showered. I was then able to return to shore. The return involved a much shorter immigration line since my passport was already stamped. This led to the highlight of my day in Havana. I smoked cigars and drank mojitos with other cruise passengers I randomly met in town. Later, I did dinner on my own. I even ran into a spontaneous street party. I absolutely encourage you to take the opportunity to walk around this beautiful city. It was an incredible day.