I am the daughter of Cuban exiles, and a member of the first generation born in the United States. For most of my 44 years on this planet, I have been listening to stories from my parents about what life was like before, during, and after the Cuban revolution. My parents have not wanted to return, but my MS is progressive and the current political climate will likely limit my opportunities to visit their homeland in the near future. So, I decided to take advantage and go on a five day cruise to Cuba on Norwegian Cruise Lines to explore my Cuban heritage. Despite reading over and over again how impossible it would be to visit as a wheelchair user, I was completely shocked at how many things I was able to see and do during my short stay. Here is everything you need to know as a wheelchair user about how you can visit Havana, Cuba on a cruise.
The Logistics of Cruising to Cuba
The Trump administration recently announced that it would restrict US citizen travel to Cuba to only those with family members living on the island. However, it did not say when these new rules would go into effect. As of right now, you can still book a cruise to Cuba on one of a dozen different cruise lines. I personally went on Norwegian Cruise Lines (the Norwegian Sun out of Port Canaveral), but there are also Cuba cruises available on larger lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America. They are still booking Cuba cruises until they get further notice from the US government.
You absolutely need a visa to visit Cuba. There are currently 12 categories classified by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under which you can visit Cuba. They include:
- Family visits
- Support for the Cuban people
- Educational (people-to-people)
- Religious activities
- Journalistic activities
- Humanitarian projects
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitionsofficial business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
For a Cuba cruise, your cruise line will take care of obtaining your visa. Through NCL, you fill out an affidavit online where you will select the group people-to-people category. NCL will automatically charge the $75 visa fee to your shipboard account. You must submit that affidavit online no later than three days prior to your sailing. When you check in at your departure port, NCL will give you the Cuban visa.
Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Havana
Havana is a complicated place to visit with a lot of rules to follow in order to stay in compliance with OFAC. Here are some important things that you need to know and rules you need to abide by in order to visit Havana as a US citizen.
If you are visiting Havana on a group of people-to-people visa, which is what you will use when visiting on a cruise ship, you absolutely have to arrange for a tour. There are no exceptions to this rule as individual people-to-people visas are no longer authorized. Cruise lines do not offer accessible tours in Havana, so you will have to book some sort of walking/rolling tour independently. I used Urban Adventures and can highly recommend them. Half of my tour was walking/rolling in the accessible parts of Old Havana and the other half was in an air-conditioned taxi since I can transfer to a sedan and my power chair collapses. If this is not an option for you, let them know what your needs are and they can arrange for just a walking/rolling tour. Ask for Marcos as your tour guide! Just make sure that you book with a tour company that is a US organization, or basically not affiliated with the Cuban government in any way.
The only currencies accepted in Cuba are the CUC, or the convertible dollar, and the CUP, the Cuban peso. The former is what foreigners use to pay for things, and the value is roughly equivalent to the US dollar. The CUP is what is used only by the Cuban people, and approximately 25 Cuban pesos are equivalent to one US dollar. You must exchange your currency in the cruise port terminal prior to visiting the city. You will not be able to use credit cards in Cuba.
Do not plan on having access to the Internet while visiting Havana. There are some Wi-Fi hotspots around the city, but service is spotty and can be expensive. If you do access the Internet while in Havana, assume that the government is observing everything you do online. You may have roaming cell phone service, but it’s also expensive. I use Sprint and my charges would have been $2.49 a minute for phone calls, $.50 for text, and $1.99 per megabyte of data.
You can only bring water into Cuba. NO food of any kind, no gifts or toiletries or donations of any kind. That is for a different kind of visa, and you can get in trouble for giving donations. Mind you, I don’t think this policy is being strictly enforced, but such items will show up during the security check and may get confiscated depending on the mood of security guards that day. You will get asked several times by random strangers if you brought any toiletries with you to give to people.
There are occasional curb drops and concrete ramps scattered around Havana, but they are about as rare as unicorns. I strongly recommend bringing a lightweight portable ramp if you plan to explore in your wheelchair outside of the pedestrian only area of Old Havana.
Most bathrooms don’t have toilet paper, so make sure your companions bring their own. There are no accessible toilets in Havana, so this probably doesn’t apply to you anyway. Just make sure you let your companions know!
Everyone in the cruise terminal speaks a decent amount of English, but most people in Havana won’t. Occasionally you may find a server or shopkeeper who might speak a few words, but this is another reason why having a Cuban tour guide is so valuable. Take advantage of an app like Google Translate where you can download Spanish translations that you can access without Wi-Fi or data.
Since you will probably not have Internet access while in Havana, you will need to either bring a paper map or take several screenshots of a Google map. The city has street grids in sections, but you can still easily get lost.
Electricity is sparse at night, and most things go very dark after 10 PM. This will make navigating and dealing with obstacles like cobblestones much more difficult. Plan on returning to your cruise ship before complete nightfall.
The crime rate in Cuba is extraordinarily low. If you find yourself somewhere that looks like a bad neighborhood, always remain vigilant, but you don’t have to be paranoid. The Cuban people are some of the kindest and most helpful on earth, so instead of harming you, most likely they will approach you to see if you need any assistance. They will be happy to help as much as possible.
Modern wheelchairs and especially power wheelchairs are virtually nonexistent in Cuba. Prepare to receive a good amount of attention and awe directed towards your equipment. If you meet a fellow wheelchair user in Cuba, make sure you exchange some words or at least some smiles and a handshake. They will appreciate the company.
Arriving in Havana
NCL requires passengers to obtain a disembarkation ticket for Havana. Our arrival was scheduled for 8:00AM (we actually docked at 7:15AM), and they started handing out tickets at 6:30AM. Your ticket will show a group number, and you can’t disembark until your group number is called. They do this to prevent a huge line of people waiting to go through Cuban immigration and security. Our tour wasn’t until 10:00AM, so we got our ticket at 7:15AM after the early cattle call. We got Group 5 and were able to disembark by 8:00AM. We actually left the ship at 9:00AM and there was no line at all for immigration.
The gangway to disembark is on the narrow side with a sharp 90-degree turn to the right and another to the left. Once you enter the terminal, the immigration lanes will be immediately to the right. Everyone working in the terminal speaks English. Lane 9 is for wheelchair users, and is wider than the others. The immigration officer didn’t ask me any questions, and since the camera doesn’t move, they just took a picture of my passport photo and stamped my passport. After that you will go through a standard security procedure with an x-ray machine and metal detector. It was not particularly thorough. After this, you can come and go between the city and the ship without having to go through immigration again, only security.
Once you go through security, you will pass a few shops. I had read online through other people’s posts that there’s no air conditioning in the terminal, but there was when we visited. It was a very comfortable temperature. Straight ahead after the shops, you will see the line for the Casa de Cambio, or currency exchange. Here is where you will change your US dollars for the CUC (Cuban convertible currency), which is roughly a 1-to-1 exchange rate. You can convert CUCs back to dollars (roughly 21 CUCs for $20). Technically you can exchange dollars in a few places in the city, but your exchange rate will be abysmal, and many currency traders aren’t legitimate.
To exit the terminal, you will leave the Casa de Cambioto the left and go around the stairs to the elevator. Take the elevator to the first floor and head to the right towards the city exit. After going through the sliding glass doors, you’ll go down a short ramp and take the sidewalk to the left and down another short ramp. Look for the large crosswalk that leads to Plaza de San Francisco across the street. There should be a guard or police officer helping people cross the street, but if there’s not, traffic is pretty good about yielding to pedestrians. The curb at the other side of the crosswalk is too high, so veer to the right about ten yards and enter the plaza under the chain that prevents cars from entering. From the Plaza de San Francisco, you can explore all of Old Havana.
Rolling Around Old Havana
I had read so many horror stories about the lack of wheelchair accessibility in Havana, so I was prepared for the absolute worst prior to my arrival. Trust me, it was a source of great anxiety, but completely unnecessary. Havana is in the process of completely renovating the nicer part of all Havana in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Cuba. Many of the rougher cobblestone sections of the streets have been replaced with flat pavers. There are still many cobblestone sections, but they are no worse than the average cobblestones I’ve come across in Europe.
To the west of the touristy area of old Havana (roughly outside Calle Habana) is what I call the “real” Old Havana where typical Cubans live. This is where the buildings are positively crumbling. Here the roads are paved, but they have enormous potholes in random places. You also have to share the street with occasional cars and bicycle taxis, unlike the touristy area where cars are prohibited from entering. However, they are very good about avoiding you and on most streets there is enough space for them to go around you.
There are so many beautiful buildings and areas of Old Havana to see. You can visit most of them from the outside in a power wheelchair, and definitely in a manual wheelchair. This includes the squares, like Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza Vieja. Unfortunately, you will not be able to enter any buildings, as all churches, museums, shops, and restaurants have at least one huge step to enter. However, you can learn so much from a good tour guide that will point out all the historic buildings, murals, and other points of interest accessible to you from the street.
Since sidewalks are extremely narrow and the space is at a premium on the street, you will not find too many sidewalk restaurants or cafés. There is one café in the Plaza Vieja and a few more scattered throughout old Havana with sidewalk tables where you can grab a beverage and a bite to eat. The food is safe, but make sure you drink bottled water. Remember that you can go back and forth between the ship and the city as often as you like, so I returned to the ship after my tour to comfortably use the bathroom and grab lunch before returning to the city.
If you can transfer into a sedan taxi — there are actually no minivans — and your scooter or wheelchair can fold or separate and fit in a trunk, this will open up some more touring options for you. Of course you can do what many Americans do and ride in one of the hundreds of classic car taxis, but that will set you back 50 or 60 CUCs. I would not advise this on a summer day as they do not have air conditioning, and those cars kick out a lot of nasty exhaust. This can be obnoxious for longer rides, and definitely for people who are sensitive to the smell of fumes. There are many air-conditioned yellow cabs available which I would recommend.
During the taxi portion of my tour, we drove through the Cabaña military base (where my father was born), the Fusterlandia mosaic-walled neighborhood, the 5ta Avenida Embassy Row, and the El Bosque park. We then drove by the famous Malecón boardwalk (my mother lived two blocks away), the Capitol, Parco Central, El Morro fortress, the Christ of Havana, and la Plaza de la Revolución. I did not get out of the taxi with my chair at any of the locations, but we did stop in a few so that my traveling partner could get out and take some more photos close-up. There are probably some spots that you could roll around for a few minutes, but we were more interested in saving time and seeing more places.
How to Have the Most Authentic Visit Possible
Most American visitors to Havana, and especially those only in the city for 24 hours or less on a cruise, will not have an authentic experience. This is a danger for visitors to most parts of the Caribbean, but it is especially true in a place where Communist oppression and poverty are around every corner — and often hidden quite well. If you only stay in the touristy part of the Old Havana, which admittedly is the easiest place for wheelchair users to visit, you will have what my travel partner and I call the Disneyland experience. Here is what I mean.
The touristy part of old Havana is absolutely beautiful. The building façades are freshly painted, the architecture is historic and stunning, and on some days and nights, Cuban music is pouring out of every corner. You will see performers, musicians, and even ice cream salesman entertaining you for a tip for a sale. The restaurants are gleaming, the stores offer tons of reportedly handmade souvenirs, and many things look new and pretty.
This is not reality. If you were actually able to go inside many of these new -looking buildings, the interiors are either deteriorating or outright crumbling. In between these buildings, your tour guide may point out what’s called a solar. These are condemned buildings where multiple families still live. They look like they’ve been hit by more than one earthquake, but either the families who live inside refuse to leave the only home they’ve known for decades, or have nowhere else to go. You may see what’s called a bodega, or food market. Many of the shelves are empty because food is just not available. The Cuban people have to use ration cards, which means they only get a certain amount of rice, a protein like chicken if it’s even available, soap, and other necessities. They cannot just go to a food market and buy what they want or need whenever they want with money. You need to look for this or you probably won’t see it.
Talk to people and ask them about their lives at every opportunity. Again, there may be a language barrier, but they will find a way (and so will you) to communicate. After all, you will be there on a people-to-people visa, so make the most of it. The Cubans want to know all about you! Some Cubans will freely express their discontent with the government or the economy, and some won’t. If they resist a particular topic of conversation, don’t push. Many Cubans will love the opportunity to take a picture with you, and some won’t. Make sure you ask permission before you take photos of the Cuban people whenever possible as a courtesy. They don’t want to be objectified as some sort of exotic icon.
I really can’t repeat this enough. Make it a point to roll through the non-touristy part of Old Havana to the west of Calle Habana. The streets are definitely passable and drivers will not get impatient with you if they have to wait for you to roll out of the way. The buildings and the people can be difficult to look at because they are in such dire condition. But it’s important to understand that what the government presents to tourists isn’t the reality of Cuba.
What is the reality of Cuba, and the real soul of Cuba, is the people. They have endured so much hardship, but their spirit remains strong, as does their kindness and friendliness. Look for the kids playing with pigeons in the squares during school recess. Look for the juveniles playing handball against the side of a building in the street. Look for the men playing a vicious game of dominoes on the sidewalk. Look for the service workers passing each other on the street and shaking hands or giving eachother hugs on their way to work.
Are you interested in an amazing cruise adventure in your wheelchair to Havana? Please contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!