Last week, I was onboard the second sailing to Cuba with Fathom Cruises. Fathom does cruising a little different - they have the focus of social impact travel. Their goal: combine the love of travel with the desire to make a difference.
They currently offer two itineraries: one is social impact through volunteering in the Dominican Republic, and the other includes people-to-people programs in three ports in Cuba - Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba.
For Americans, travel to Cuba must still fall under a special classification. The most common reason for tourism travel is a people-to-people exchange. This means, as a traveler, you should be interacting with the local people and culture. Fathom includes these programs in their itinerary, and they are so fun and easy to do.
Traveling to Cuba via cruise has many benefits that a land tour cannot provide. You unpack only once, and get to enjoy the ease of getting from port to port in a floating hotel. Activities onboard the ship ranged from relaxing by the pool to jamming with local Cuban bands.
Between being on the ship to touring Cuba, I had a great week! Here is my rundown of how everything went…
Day 1: I boarded the ship with ease! The process of check- in, from signing my Cuba affidavit to getting my visa, was seamless. I was on board by 12:30pm to grab lunch and my stateroom was ready by 2pm.
Everyone was on deck around 4pm when we sailed away to the sound of Craze band playing lively tunes. That evening, I attended a lovely cocktail party with some new friends, and after dinner we had a brief orientation about what to expect from our time in Cuba and the tours we would be doing. I even squeezed in a dance class and learned some basic salsa moves!
Day 2: After waking up, I stepped out on my balcony and saw what looked like the Miami skyline, but we were actually pulling up to Havana! I was surprised to see how much the city of Havana was built up.
Disembarkation was broken up into groups so we could stay on the air conditioned ship as the lines died down. Once my group was called we headed down and waited in a short line to present our visas and clear customs. I exchanged some American dollars for the Cuban Convertible Pesos.
The ship docks right in Old Havana! We set out on foot in our group of about 20 and our guide, Osimo, took us to the old city. My walking tour of Old Havana was fantastic!! The streets were alive with music, vendors, people, and a hint of cigar smoke.
Throughout the tour we stopped in the four main plazas of Old Havana. In Plaza Vieja, we learned about the history of the city. For lunch we enjoyed a multicourse meal at La Bodeguita Del Medio. This funky restaurant was full of writing all over the walls and stories of Ernest Hemmingway sipping on Mojitos.
Continuing on we saw an art studio, Plaza de Armas, and then made our way through the streets to San Francisco de Assisi Square near the ship port. We cleaned up a bit and had a quick dinner in the buffet before heading out to Hotel National for the Parisian Cabaret. This “Las Vegas meets Moulin Rouge” show told the story of Cuba.
Other options included going to the El Canonazo ceremony, the Tropicana show, heading out to explore Havana on your own, or staying on the ship for some music, movies, or dance.
Day 3: The next morning, we went on a bus tour through the rest of the city. Our first stop was the Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes, full of Cuban art. Our tour was led by Danielle, a passionate and knowledgeable woman who worked at the Museum. Danielle led us through her favorite artists and shared information about their works, and how each piece related to a time in history.
Next we did some shopping at the market for some souvenirs and art. We then headed to a Paladares (a family-owned in-home restaurant) called La Fontana for lunch on the outskirts of Havana. This gorgeous garden-filled restaurant offered yet another great meal, plus a local singer for entertainment. After lunch, we visited Plaza de la Revolucion and checked out the row of classic cars used as taxis.
One of the last stops was a transformative community project in Havana. Our group went to the funky, Afro-cuban art gallery and hangout called Callejón de Hamel. Back on the ship, we sailed away to the music of a local Cuban Madera Buena Band.
Day 4: Wednesday was a well-spent day at sea. There were the usual cruise options - hangout by the pool, spa, gym, or games. However there were also many classes and workshops to attend if you wanted to learn a little while you cruised.
My visual storytelling class gave tips on how to use your camera or phone to make your pictures look their best. We also looked at what makes a picture truly tell a story.
I then attended a “Travelers of Fathom” session, a play on Ashoka ‘s “Humans of New York” project that offers blurbs about people’s pasts and the obstacles they have overcome. We paired up and shared stories about times in our lives when we felt strength, appreciated, overcame an obstacle, or experienced a big change in our lives.
That night our local Cuban Band, The Pancho Amat Band, performed a show and I practiced my new salsa moves. Our dance instructors were even there to lead us on the dance floor!
Day 5: Cienfuegos was our next stop. We walked around the streets of this French-influenced seaside town and saw local shops, ration stores, and a barber shop. We stopped at the Tomas Terry auditorium to watch an impressive performance by a local choir.
This charming town was the perfect place to buy some cigars and handmade crafts, after which I sat by the pier with a piña colada and listened to a jam session!
Back on the ship a new Cuban band, Quinteto Cumanay, played as we sailed away. Before dinner I even snuck in a session on herbal medicine and learned it can help improve the body. The night would not have been complete without the beautiful acoustic set by one of the impact guides and a guitarist from the Craze band.
Day 6: I woke up to the city of Santiago De Cuba and had a great day exploring this fun city. In the morning, we saw a casual performance by Sandunga dance school at the Casa De La Trova “Pepe Sanchez”. We even saw one of the guitarists from the Buena Vista Social Club enjoying a beer at the bar connected to us!
We walked around the picturesque city streets a bit before heading to lunch at another Paladares. We then visited the World Heritage site of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a fortress constructed in 1637 to protect Santiago de Cuba.
The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery was our last stop before we headed back to the port to say goodbye to Cuba. That night on the ship I tried painting, creating a “masterpiece” during a wine and paint session. The fun continued on with “band-aoke” - karaoke with a live band. I enjoyed watching the other guests dance and try to sing along to some classic pop songs.
Day 7: I enjoyed my last day at sea as we sailed back to Miami. As the Adonia only holds 704 passengers, I easily made friends with quite a few fellow guests. We relaxed on the ship, enjoyed some time by the pool, and ate in the specialty restaurant, Ocean Grill. We enjoyed a fine dining experience with delicious food, good wine, and even better conversation about our time in Cuba. As the Craze Band put on one last performance, I danced the night away with my Cuba Libre in hand.
I am excited to see the opportunities and upgrades that Fathom has planned for their Cuba Voyages. Despite this only being their second sailing to Cuba, all of our ground programs ran very smoothly.
This only skims the surface of my trip with Fathom. There were so many other options for classes and entertainment that I didn’t have time to experience for myself. I always love to share my stories, and am glad to answer any questions you have!