Cuba is complicated. Controversial. Hard to wrap one’s head around. Surprisingly, our last-minute girl’s trip to Cuba with Fathom Impact Travel last week was not. Considering the destination and the short lead-up time to our journey, my friend and I enjoyed some pretty smooth sailing. We made the most of the recent geopolitical shift, drank countless mojitos, sparked some new friendships, and felt truly transported by this confounding communist outpost and its soulful people.
Unlike most trips from the United States to Cuba, our adventure was fairly spontaneous. In late March, my longtime friend Maria mentioned that Fathom, a new “impact travel” cruise line, was planning a historic, inaugural sail. Cuba had just granted approval for Fathom to begin travel there; the first time in more than 50 years that a cruise ship received permission to sail from the United States to Cuba.
Talk of a girl’s getaway had already been percolating, so when this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself, we embraced it with the same fervor we once reserved for after-work Cosmos on the Lower Eastside. Suddenly the stars were aligning. Well, in reality, we forced those suckers into alignment.
I usually spend months charting my travel course, comparing accommodations, pondering restaurant reviews, delving at least knee-deep into the history and geography of a destination. But I knew if we had time to vacillate, life would inevitably get in the way. Plus, we wanted to be on that inaugural sail.
We slapped down our credit cards for a shared cabin with a balcony, and before we could flip through a Lonely Planet guide, we were pulling out of the port of Miami on Fathom’s Adonia, a smallish 704-passenger vessel en route to this once-forbidden island, located just 90 miles south of Florida.
An Unexpectedly Warm Welcome.
We departed Miami on Sunday, May 1. The next day, the 30,000 ton Adonia glided into Havana with an intense rush of flag waving, salsa rhythms and rum-fueled fanfare. Teary Cuban-born American passengers got their first glimpses of their homeland since they were children. One elderly former serviceman told us he had served in Guantanamo when he was young man. There were lots of stories. We were just thrilled to be along for the ride.
The disembarkation in Havana blew our minds. Hundreds of locals crowded around the mouth of the terminal building shouting “Welcome to Cuba!” “We love you, America!” Cubans gave us high fives, hugs, and squeezed our hands tightly as we walked out into the streets. It felt like a cross between a presidential welcome and the reuniting of long-lost family members. We were not prepared for that kind of loving exuberance. I didn’t have my camera at the ready, but thankfully the jubilation was caught by news cameras.
Travel to Communist Cuba Can Be Tricky.
With loosening restrictions and warming relations, travel to Cuba from the United States has accelerated, but Cuba’s travel infrastructure is fragile and rickety. Americans still need a “reason” to go. Traveling with Fathom on an authorized “people-to-people” educational program meant we were granted a Visa when we embarked the ship.
You need an open mind and plenty of patience to really enjoy this dichotomous destination. Literacy linger around around 99% in Cuba. Health care is free and infant mortality rate is well below that of the U.S. and many other wealthy countries. Racism is frowned upon, and there is virtually no homelessness, but living conditions are often cramped and primitive. Crumbling buildings sometimes collapse, crushing inhabitants. Credit cards are not widely accepted and cell phone and internet service is unreliable. Beautifully curated museums are sprinkled throughout the Caribbean island, showcasing Cuba’s complex history, sophisticated modern art and impressive military forts. And yet, toilet paper and restroom hand towels are scare. BYOTP, kids!
Cuba has a a dual currency system, which means slightly confusing Cuban pesos and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs). Travelers use CUCs (like “kooks”), although there’s not much to buy, at least on the surface. I used my CUCs to buy beaded jewelry and art on the street and to tip the servers, drivers, and government-appointed tour guides. The government guides are well-paid compared to other professions including Cuban doctors. Many guides are careful about what they say about their country, while others speak freely and probably earn higher tips for their courage and candor.
Like many fellow travelers, I couldn’t help but quietly slip a little money (and hair barrettes) to some moms along the way. Giving money and gifts on the street is questionable though. The act can lead to throngs of needy locals, as well as some thorny debates by American travelers.
Sadly, more than a few Cubans asked us for soap or anything we could spare. Maria and I appreciated having a warm, sudsy shower, plenty of food and cocktails, and a clean bed waiting for us just up the gangway. Cruising with Fathom also meant that we could circumnavigate the biggest island in Caribbean while we slept and visit three ports with ease including Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. That was pretty sweet.
Unless something major happens, travel to Cuba from the United States will keep getting easier. Starwood Hotels and Resorts recently received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to operate in Cuba and will be opening three new hotels. They will be the first U.S. hotel company to do so in almost in 60 years.
Some Americans I know who were among the earliest waves to visit Cuba now cringe at the idea of the country being discovered by the “masses.” I just think of that quote, “The only thing constant is change.” And I imagine most changes will be for the better. I certainly hope so.
When I returned home on Mother’s Day, I mentioned that it was nice not to see a Starbucks or McDonald’s on the streets of Havana. “Maybe the Cubans would like a latte,” Mr. Scout joked. “Yeh, mom, maybe they’d want a Happy Meal or a McRib,” mini-Scout added. “Maybe they would,” I said.
Who knows. Only the Cubans know, I guess. What I know is that I’ll be watching to see what happens next for the Cuban people. I also know that I have a newfound appreciation for my laundry room, and that I’m so happy that Maria and I seized the opportunity to hop on that first Fathom trip to Cuba when we got the chance.
Please note: Like all the destinations and trips you’ve seen on Sunshine Scout, this trip was paid for by Sunshine Scout. No freebies or upgrades contributed to this post. All photos are property of Sunshine Scout. All rights reserved.