The opportunity to experience the culture of Cuba is one that is destined to make a lasting impression.  An American passport provides entree into nearly anywhere in the world…and now, for the first time in over half a century, Cuba is on that list.

Havana nights, hazy with humidity, steamy with its famous coffee, hot salsa and smoky hand-rolled cigars, has long been left to our shuttered imaginations. Now we are finally able to experience it! and I did via a Royal Caribbean cruise.

It is still illegal for Americans to enter Cuba solely as a tourist, you technically can’t just go to ride in a vintage convertible or smoke Cuban cigars with the locals. Visiting will require you fit into 12 categories. If you choose not to abide by the rules, I hear the penalties are steep.  We were told to save our paperwork for 5 years so I suppose there is a reason behind that.

Most people will choose education activities, where you will need to have a full itinerary designed for people-to-people contact with the Cuban citizens. When you book excursions with a reputable company they make sure the itinerary covers all the requirements.

American credit cards and debit cards are banned in Cuba so you need to make sure to bring enough cash to get you through your entire visit. If you plan on shopping, do not expect as many options as you would in any other Caribbean port. Shops do have strict restrictions so you will not have many options.

I do recommend rum, coffee and even cigars if that is your thing. Shop local!

There are two types of currency in Cuba: the tourist CUC & the local CUP. Cubans carry both types of cash and know where to use each. But, in most cases, tourists just need CUCs. Once you clear customs, they will take your photo, check your visa and YES! stamp your passport! It is easy to exchange money right after you pass through customs.

And while Havana holds pleasant surprises as well as heartbreaking sadness, it is neither the living hell nor the propagandist paradise we see and read about. But the only way to even begin to understand its true nature, of course, is to see it for yourself.