Havana, Cuba Day 1

I was up at 5 a.m. like other eager passengers to see a slow, cruising view of Havana, Cuba.  Some people were very emotional as this was their first time seeing their families and native land in a long time.  My first impression was how large and densely populated the island is compared to other countries I have visited in the Caribbean.  The second thing I noticed was how old the infrastructure was with a lack of environmental controls for the pollution. 

I was up at 5 a.m. like other eager passengers to see a slow, cruising view of Havana, Cuba.  Some people were very emotional as this was their first time seeing their families and native land in a long time.  My first impression was how large and densely populated the island is compared to other countries I have visited in the Caribbean.  The second thing I noticed was how old the infrastructure was with a lack of environmental controls for the pollution. 

Havana Harbor

There was a buzzing sound from an airplane which kept circling the area.  When we arrived to the Havana Harbor, along the port side of the ship was a view of the Fort of Saint Charles.  Not too far from the Fort is giant sculpture of Jesus.

Morro Castle Havana Jesus

We were not in a rush to disembark because we booked a private tour for our 2nd day in Havana.  The 4th of July was supposed to be a free day to roam on our own.  We went through the immigration process which involved handing over our travel visas which were obtained through Norwegian Cruise Lines in advance.  We had to show our passports and walked through to customs.  Customs was a simple metal detector screening before approaching the money exchange area.  The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Havana, Cuba customs and immigration

There are some establishments that accept U.S. currency, but I played it safe and ordered Canadian Dollars.  The reason for Canadian over USD is because the exchange rate from CAD to CUC is a better deal than USD to CUC due to an extra 10% tax on USD imposed by Castro in 2004.  Another option is to order Euros to exchange to CUC.  After careful calculations, I determined CAD gave me the best exchange. 

Havana Cuba money exchange rates CUC

I did not have enough time to gather as many tourist tips as I normally would for a new travel destination, however, I read that toilette paper is not to be expected as it is in the U.S.  I was well prepared with my own stash.  It is also very important to bring hand sanitizer because most of the sinks did not have running water, not to mention soap for cleansing.

What my Mom and I planned as a walking tour quickly changed when we were approached by some gentlemen offering horse carriage tours from the main square across from the cruise terminal.  We were quoted a price of 45 CUC per hour for the two of us.  Our guide was highly energetic and assured us that this was a tour of “the real life in Havana.” 

Havana Horse & Carriage City Tour

Our guide spoke fluent English that he attributed to working in Jamaica for some time.  He explained how a lot of Cubans learn English from picking up radio stations out of Miami.  In order to strive in tourism and being a vendor, speaking English is a necessity. 

The excitement of being in Cuba was a slight distraction from the heat and humidity.  I did not expect anything different with it being July.  We carried filtered water from the ship to stay hydrated.

Our buggy took off and we made our way through the streets of Old Havana.  The guide made us feel like family and gave us so many photo ops.  I ended up with nearly a 1,000 photos making this one of the most time-consuming posts I have ever composed for this blog.   

Old Havana Cuba Photos

Old Havana Cuba

Old Havana

After going through the narrow streets and getting a first-hand take on life in Old Havana, we went to Central Park.  It was nice to be in a shaded area and take in the Spanish architecture and vintage cars.

Havana Central Park

The Great Theatre of Havana, Jose Marti Statue, National Museum of Fine Arts.



Havana, Cuba vintage Cars

One person I found very interesting was a man with a vintage camera.  I cannot explain how hyped up our tour guide was.  He was very assertive, and anything that intrigued us made him elaborate to enhance our experience.  In this case it was having a photo taken by a 115 year old camera.

Central Park Havana Photos

Not far from Central Park is the building known as the Capitol of Havana.

National Capitol Havana, Cuba

Before our tour began, I made it clear that we needed to go to Hotel Nacional to purchase tickets for the Parisien Cabaret.  Norwegian offered tickets as an excursion package for $100/person, but I saved a lot by buying on my own from the source for only $30/person.  The only difference was having to pay for a taxi.  We still came out way ahead.  I also have to mention that the tour guide left his house at Central Park and we rode in a Taxi for the bulk of our tour.  He didn’t know the taxi driver.  It was a hustle type of thing where he worked out a deal to chauffeur us.  It was better than walking, and I knew that a car could take us farther than a horse.

hotel nacional de cuba

Hotel Nacional was the host of the Havana Conference in 1946 to determine the rules going forward concerning Mafia ties with the casinos.  The Chicago Mob invited Frank Sinatra to perform as their entertainment.

Being inside was a reprieve from the heat.  Hotel Nacional is located on Taganana Hill overlooking the water.  There was a nice breeze on the patio area.

hotel nacional de cuba havana

Patio of the Hotel Nacional- the most famous hotel in Havana.

Back inside, our guide took us to the hotel’s cigar shop and showed us various price ranges for cigars along with an explanation of the various types. 

Cigar Shop at the Hotel Nacional

Cigar Lounge in Hotel Nacional located underground.

We drove down the Prado Promenade which is an area with a lot of people hanging out and socializing with each other.  The atmosphere was very calm and laid back.  The Promenade features a lot of lion statues.

Statues in Havana

Monument to victims of USS Maine, Primavera sculpture facing the sea along the Malecon, Lion statues on the Paseo del Prado.

Our guide was very expressive about his love for Barrack Obama.  He was excited about Obama’s visit to Cuba in addition to Bey & Jay, and Rihanna being there also.  Several tourists went to the San Cristobal Paladar, because that is where the former POTUS dined during his stay in Havana.

Hotel Saratoga

Kid Chocolate Recreation Center, The hotel Beyoncé stayed in, the Saratoga Havana.

The guide’s sentiment was the exact opposite when he talked about Chinatown.  It had something to do with the working conditions and the treatment of Cubans.

Chinatown Havana Cuba

Chinatown, Havana

We walked around for a while and experienced Cuban life up close.  Everyone was so friendly towards us and, the tour guide was claiming my Mom as his Madre.  He explained how much Cubans loved pop and soul artists such as James Brown and Michael Jackson. 

Havana Cuba Culture

Open Air Markets with pigs feet, Barbershop, James Brown mural, life in Old Havana, Statue of Abraham Lincoln.

We ran out of water and made a pit stop at a corner store for bottled water.  I was leery about drinking it, but I felt like it was my safest alternative versus having a heat stroke.  Water would not be my only beverage since we stopped at the Havana Club Rum Tour.  We did not take the actual tour, but we did walk around due to our guide’s finessing.

Havana Club Rum Factory and Bar

The band was setting up for the late afternoon crowd, and the guide insisted that they play the poem by José Martí turned song called “Guantanamera.”  Next, he requested a dance with me and his new Madre.  Talk about being outside of my comfort zone, but I obliged.

Havana Club Cuba Dancing

We said our goodbyes to the taxi driver who I’m sure felt like he was on a whirlwind just as much as we were. 

Bar Monserrate

Bar Monserrate on the lower level with apartments above.

On the way back to the cruise port via the horse, I spotted the Floridita.  The guide parked the carriage to the side of the road so we could go inside.  We took a photo next to Ernest Hemmingway’s bronze statue and walked across the tightly packed room.  That’s when I recognized the actress/producer, Tasha Smith.  She was so kind, down to earth and complimentary towards us.

El Floridita Havana Cuba

Bar Floridita, Ernest Hemmingway’s spot for strawberry daiquiris.  Actress/producer Tasha Smith.


We passed a few more sights before our day in Old Havana ended.

revolution che guevara

Havana’s Museum of the Revolution

When we returned to the ship a long shower was mandatory along with a good meal.  We lounged poolside to get ready for a night out in Havana.  This time, we hopped in coconut cab.  It may have been a bad idea considering we were dressed up per the requirements of attending a Cuban cabaret.  I was amazed and the number of Cubans who were posted along The Malecón.  Most of them were just sitting and talking or looking at their cell phones.  We had to pull over so the driver could put more gas in the cab which was located underneath the seat.

Coconut Cab Havana Cuba

Coconut Cab

The Cabaret Parisien is a smaller scale version of the Cabaret Tropicana.  Norwegian wanted $200/person for those tickets and they were a fraction of the cost when buying direct.  What I factored in my decision for the Parisien over the Tropicana was the distance from the cruise ship resulting in higher cab fare and the fact that Tropicana is an outdoor venue.  It started raining and that confirmed that I made the wisest decision.

Havana Cabaret

Cabaret Parisien.

The seating at the Parisien was tightly packed with dinner tables.  The ticket included a mojito that might as well had been water compared to the mojitos at the Havana Club Bar.  We sat with a lady who visits Cuba often by way of Airbnb.  She gave us several suggestions on what to see and do the next day.

The Cabaret was in Spanish and different from what I was accustomed to attending as cabarets in Detroit, where it’s a BYOB club like setting mostly for UAW or “Grown and Sexy” events.  This was live entertainment with a theme which I did not fully understand not knowing Spanish.  I just went along with the vibes and was impressed by the costumes, dancing and stage makeup.

Hotel Nacional Cabaret ParisienParisien Cabaret Havana

When we arrived to the Hotel Nacional, I kindly asked the taxi if he could come back to pick us up.  There was that slight fear of doing the activity on our own versus a group excursion that we would have a hard time getting back to the port.  The driver was loyal and came zooming around in his little coconut to get us to the ship safely. 

That was the end of day 1, and how Mom and I were fortunate to spend July 4th in Havana, Cuba.  The only thing I missed on my “To-Do” list of Havana was a visit to the Habana 1791 (Museo Del Perfume) for custom-made perfume. 


About Kelsie Lou

Teacher on the move.
This entry was posted in Art, landmarks, Photography, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Havana, Cuba Day 1

  1. OMG!! Seriously…we need to stop talking about it and actually HAVE dinner. I want to hear more about this adventure. What an experience!! You and your mom take the best trips!


  2. Cherryl says:

    Fabulous shots – thanks for sharing ☺️🔆


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