When passengers came ashore for the inaugural voyage of Carnival Corp.’s Fathom cruise service to Cuba, they were unsure whether they’d encounter a thicket of red tape before they could begin exploring the city.
But the Cuban immigration and customs process passed the test with flying colors.
“It was fast,” said Emma Pendergrass, an attorney from Alameda, California, who organized the Cuba trip for a group of 41 of her friends from all over the United States.
The only mishap was when one member of her group couldn’t find the paper visa that Cuba requires for entry. In other countries, visas are often attached to passports.
Despite some anxious moments and “some delay,” said Pendergrass, the woman eventually found the visa and could clear Customs.
For most passengers, the entire Customs and Immigration process took only about 15 minutes from entering the air-conditioned Sierra Maestra cruise terminal to passing through a metal detector.
Booths like those that travelers encounter at airports were set up in the cruise terminal. In my case, the immigration official spent a few minutes staring at the picture in my passport and looking at the visas in it, but she asked me no questions before finally stamping my arrival in the passport. That was it.
The Customs check was walking through a metal detector and putting purses, cameras and anything travelers were carrying for the day through it.
But lines moved quickly and soon passengers were greeted with a free rum and Coke and dance performances by several Cuban troupes. At the end of the cavernous terminal, which was painted white and sported large travel posters on the wall, travelers could buy souvenirs and exchange money.
After taking an elevator or a flight of stairs, they could walk directly on to the Malecón and begin their tours.
Across the street from the terminal, a large crowd of Cubans were waiting to greet the arrivals. They shouted welcome, snapped pictures and high-fived the Americans before spontaneously parting and forming a corridor so the visitors could get through.
For many of the cruise passengers, that warm greeting was one of the high points of their first day in Havana.
“They were all high-fiving us. It was just touching and very warm and then the way they parted the sea to let us through,” Pendergrass said.
Passengers could get on and off the ship at will during the day.
It was just a simple process of showing their passports and going through metal detectors again to regain entry.
At the gangplank of the ship, one Fathom employee checked to see if passengers had their small plastic boarding cards and a few steps away, another employee swiped the cards through a machine.
On the Fathom passengers’ second day in Havana Tuesday, they were scheduled to have lunch at various paladares (private restaurants) and talk with their owners, tour the city’s landmarks in an air-conditioned coach, and visit the Plaza de la Revolución, the National Museum of Fine Arts and neighborhood art and organic farming projects before capping the day with shopping at the San José crafts market at the port and a trip to the small town of Cojímar to trace the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway.