Travel to Cuba: Yes, You can still go


One of Havana's vintage taxis

Once again, average Americans are the ones who will suffer by the Trump Administration's efforts to beat foreign governments into submission with erratic changes in economic policies.

This time, it's not tariffs, but travel restrictions putting a halt to popular cruises and people-to-people group tours in Cuba, after years of surging demand.

The reason, according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, "is to hold the regime accountable for its repression of the Cuban people and its support of the Maduro regime in Venezuela." 

Yeah, sure. 

Given the fact that Orange One seems to have no problem cozying up to world leaders with human rights records far worse than Cuba (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt etc.), we can only surmise this is a political move designed to win Florida in 2020. 

The good news is that new restrictions, announced by the U.S. Treasury Department this  week, will make it harder for Americans to legally travel to Cuba, but not impossible. While cruises and people-to-people group tours made travel to the island easy and hassle-free, there's a chance that better and less expensive opportunities await for those with the patience to delve a little deeper. 

Americans still can go to Cuba for family visits, official U.S. government business, journalistic activities, professional research and meetings; educational activities (such as those from U.S. academic institutions and secondary schools); religious activities; humanitarian projects, and perhaps most important for average travelers: trips organized around support for the Cuban people. 

Trips that fall into that category require travelers to take more responsibility if they decide to travel to Cuba, such as having evidence of staying at privately-owned bed and breakfasts, eating at privately-owned restaurants, shopping in privately-owned stores, visiting art galleries and interacting with locals on a meaningful level,  Sarah Arizaga, of Cuban Adventures, told USA Today. The company’s tours are already compliant with the condition about support for the Cuban people, she said. 

The U.S. government can ask for documentation of such activities for up to five years, but there are no requirements that travelers apply for a special visa or give any notification to the government in advance.

For independent travelers interested in making their own arrangements, companies such as Viahero.com can help plan a trip for $30-$40 per day.

Keep in mind that "The Support for the Cuban People" category requires that you adhere to a full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people. It means avoiding staying in big hotels banned by the US State Department because of the fees the government and military collect.

The truth is that this has always been the best way to travel in Cuba, and it's the way most Europeans and South Americans visit. 

Some of the U.S.-based people-to-people tours were costing as much as $500 a day, with much of the money going to the Cuban government for licensing fees and government-approved guides and buses. 

Cruise companies also paid big fees while doing little to help ordinary Cuban people since passengers mostly eat and sleep aboard the ships.

In that respect, the Trump Administration is right to say that curtailing these types of group trips will deny the government and military badly needed foreign currency. On the other hand, it may mean that the U.S travelers who decide to go to Cuba under the new rules could end up having a more authentic experience.


Local transportation
I visited Cuba a few years ago, partly on an organized tour and partly on my own, and found through my reporting that most of the commercial tours involved a relatively closed circle of architects, performers, economists and performers who cycle through American tour groups. Traveling on my own, staying in people's homes, hiring local guides, and eating in locally-owned restaurants was far more rewarding. I was surprised to find, for instance, that most of the people I knew who went on tours never made it to La Coppelia, an outdoor Disneyland of ice cream who Cubans line up for hours just to get in and indulge in five or ten dishes in one sitting. 


La Coppelia, a Havana landmark



Getting to Cuba is still relatively easy. The U.S. government so far is continuing to allow commercial flights, eliminating the need for expensive charters. Alternatively, Air Canada and Cubana Air offer daily commercial flights into Havana (Air Canada from Canadian cities, Cubana from Cancun and Mexico City) that can be booked and paid for online or through travel agents. 

TripAdvisor offers hundreds of reviews for Cuban hotels and bed and breakfasts (called cases paticulares), offering what may be the best way to interact with Cuban people. Cuba Junky, a long-time and reliable online agency for Cuban travel, provides booking services. Some casa owners even have Facebook profiles. Airbnb lists more than 800 casas on its website. It charges a booking fee which may be worth of the convenience of booking online and paying for the reservation with a credit card.  



Our homestay in Vinales
On our visit to Cuba, my husband and I took a bus three hours from Havana to the rural community of Vinales, a UNESCO site known for its national park, limestone cliffs and traditional farms harvesting tobacco and corn. Scenic hikes and cave explorations await, but the best reason we could find to come to Vinales was to stay in a casa particular.

I looked over reviews on TripAdvisor, then made an online booking at Casa Papo y Niulvys. They requested no deposit, only asked that I call the day before to reconfirm. 

Papo met us at the bus stop on his bike, and we walked to the peach-colored house the couple built few years ago on what was a vegetable garden next door to his parents. Niulvys was a gracious and talkative hostess, and a great cook. 

We paid $20 per night for the bright, spacious room below, with windows overlooking the garden, AC and a private bathroom. A breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, juice, coffee and cereal was an extra $4 each. Dinners (lobster one night, chicken the next) were another $8. Add a couple of Papo's pre-dinner Mojitos spiked with fresh mint from the garden, and we paid around $50 a night for the room, breakfast, drinks and dinner.

I do feel for the thousands of cruise ship passengers who had trips scheduled. The cruise lines usually reserve the right to change itineraries for any reason, so chances are they will do this. It's really to early to know what the full impact will be.

In the meantime, if you were thinking about a trip to Cuba, don't give up hope. Consider going under the "Support the Cuban People" license. There are options out there already, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the major people-to-people group tour organizers don't quickly reconfigure their itineraries to comply. 

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