In December 2014, the United States announced an easement for travel restrictions to Cuba for Americans.  Less than a year ago, a sweeping directive set forth new United States policy partially lifting  a half-century trade embargo against Cuba’s government, and in August 2016 flights between the two nations resumed for the first time since the 1963 missile crisis.  For U.S. citizens, this represents a renewed opportunity to legally travel to Cuba following a fifty year hiatus.   Whether you love, hate or are indifferent towards the new U.S. President, the Trump administration is unwinding a number of initiatives enacted under the Obama administration.  It’s unclear what posture will be taken towards our neighboring island nation.  One thing is clear, however; if you’ve ever had a desire to experience Cuba, now is the time to make it happen!

For U.S. travelers and non-U.S citizens alike, there are countless reasons to visit Cuba:  the history, people, culture, music, art, rum and cigars to name a few.  AND THE RUM!!  Assuming U.S. and Cuba relations continue to stabilize, hotel/resort development and an influx of tourist dollars have the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of the country shortly.  What currently sets Cuba apart from other Caribbean destinations, and adds to its charm, are the city streets lined with pastel houses, 1950s-era cars and Spanish-colonial architecture from the 16th-century.  Due to the U.S. embargo, these aesthetics have remained largely unchanged for the last half century, almost as if stuck in time.  While renovations may preserve some of the buildings, they also have the potential to transform them.  Construction and modern hotels is already encroaching.  If you want to beat the crowds and see the country before western resorts and American tourists move in, now’s the time!

Walking through Havana is like taking a step back in time.  Horse drawn carts are commonplace, and an array of 1940’s and 1950’s automobiles occupy the road.  These cars have been scratched, bumped, scrapped, painted and put back together.  To glimpse Hemingway’s Cuba, stroll along the Malecón (pedestrian promenade and sea wall) and stop by Hemingway’s two favorite bars in Old Havana for daiquiris and mojitos, Floridita, The Cradle of the Daiquiri, and La Bodeguita del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito.

Delve into the history and culture of the country by exploring Old Havana and visiting the Plaza de la Catedral, Museo del Ron Havana Club (sponsored by Havana Club, not a rum tour) and Prado Art Walk.  Further expand your horizons by stopping at the Plaza de la Revolución or book an overnight excursion to Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara & Topes.  If you have limited time, taking the Havana City Tour (~$25US) and booking an overnight excursion to Cienfuegos (~$175) through the Cuba Travel Network (www.cubatravelnetwork.com/) is a good value and way to make the most of your trip.

Logistics

Taking advantage of renewed relations, we recently traveled to Cuba and here’s what we learned.

1) Bring euros, British pounds or Canadian dollars to exchange.

There’s a 10% penalty tax on the exchange of U.S. dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) – this tax is not applied to currencies other than U.S. dollars.  Additionally, U.S. bank cards and credit cards will not work in Cuba due to the continued embargo applicable to U.S. financial institutions.  This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs with U.S. bank cards, so take enough cash to cover your entire trip.  Non-U.S. credit cards may be accepted in high-end establishments and resorts, but Cuba is still largely a cash based economy.  CUC is the only currency widely accepted, and ATMs are few and far between.  $50 – $100 CUC (~$55-110US or 47-95EUR) per day is a good gauge of how much cash you’ll need for your trip.

If you can arrange pre-paid or hotel transfer from the airport on arrival, take advantage of it so you don’t have to stand in line at the airport for over an hour to exchange money to pay for a taxi.

Once in Havana, or your destination, exchange money at the reception desks of upscale hotels in order to avoid long lines at the Casa de Cambio, or CADECA (money exchanges).

2) Hotels in Cuba will cost a pretty penny

While there are hotels & resorts in the most popular tourist cities like Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero, there is a shortage of hotels in Cuba, and they tend to be relatively expensive.  If you’re traveling on a budget, and particularly if traveling under the category of ‘people-to-people’ education (discussed below), you’ll want to stay in casas particulares.  A “casa particular” is a homestay, or guesthouse in someone’s home, similar to a bed and breakfast.  Casa particluars start at $20 – $30US per night for a double room; high-end versions can be found for $50-70US a night. Casa particulars are registered with the Cuban Government and can be found on a number of websites, such as casaparticularcuba.org and casaparticular.com, as well as AirBnB.  Book and pre-pay for hotels or casa particulars via online websites when possible, so you don’t have to cover the final bills with cash.

While in Havana, we stayed at M y M Eco Rent House (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/10860665).  The proprietors, Miguel and Martín were very helpful and friendly.  They arranged taxis and provided recommendations our entire stay.  Additionally, as they were fully booked when we returned to Havana after traveling to Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, they went out of their way to help us find alternate accommodations on one of the busiest nights of the year.

3) Internet access in Cuba is limited

While there are wifi hotspots available in restaurants, hotels and some public parks, don’t expect continuous service.  You connect through Cuba’s state run ETECSA Telecom Company by using scratch-off type cards that provide a username and password for the network.  Buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards from hotels or at kiosks for $2 – $3US per hour of service.   Cell phone service is also limited, dependent on your provider.  When we visited in Dec 2016, AT&T service was good and T-mobile was nonexistent.  Check with your wireless provider before traveling to see if you’ll have service while in country.

4) Cuba is very safe

Although the exterior of buildings may appear worn, this is simply a function of the lack of repair materials for the last half century due to the embargo.  The people of Cuba are inviting and helpful.  Taxi prices are largely controlled and the Cuban government has made it known that tourists should be treated with respect.

SPECIAL NOTE Specific to U.S. citizens ORIGINATING from the U.S. traveling under the APPROVED category of ‘people-to-people’ education.

If you’re a not a U.S. citizen, this doesn’t apply as you’ll travel under a normal tourist visa. Additionally, if you’re traveling under anything other than the category of ‘people-to-people’ educational activity, ensure to research the specific requirements.

First, let’s clarify a common misconceptions.  Many people mistakenly believe the Cuban government previously restricted travel of U.S. citizens to the country.  In fact, Cuba has always welcomed American tourists, and has always allowed U.S. citizens to enter.  The U.S. Treasury Department, or United States Government, mandated that “persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction be licensed to engage in any travel-related transactions pursuant to travel to, from, and within Cuba.”  While this requirement has been ‘relaxed,’ as of Jan 2017, the trade embargo still bars U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba for the purpose of tourism.  Although this is publicized, many of its nuances are not. Trips that used to require a “specific license” issued from the Department of Treasury are now authorized by a “general license,” meaning that people who meet any of the 12 ‘approved categories of travel’ do not need to apply for a license to visit Cuba.  While it’s no longer required that individuals gain a license before traveling to Cuba, any persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are required to self-certify that they’re traveling under one of the approved categories of travel.

Overall, the Cuban immigration process is relatively simple.  When you purchase your plane ticket on one of the carriers authorized to fly to Cuba (Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit or United, as of Jan 2017), the airline will either direct you to purchase a visa from a third-party provider (Cuba Travel Services) or at the airport upon check-in.  Cuban medical Insurance ($25US) is required to enter Cuba; however, this is normally included in the price of your plane tickets.  You’ll need to make your declaration of ‘reason for travel’ while purchasing plane tickets, Cuban visa and when checking in for your flight, so make sure to know your category of approved travel and be ready to state it.

What does ‘people-to-people’ mean?  Good question!!  It has never been strictly defined, per se.  To be compliant with the approved category of ‘people-to-people’ education, the activities of the trip ‘in its entirety’ can’t be solely for tourism purposes.  Is that vague enough?  To paraphrase:  the intent with people-to-people travel is to not do solely tourist activities; e.g. not stay in a fancy, all-inclusive resort on the beach for your entire stay.  To qualify under this travel category, you should plan to meet Cuban people and exchange cultural information; talk about life in the United States and learn about life in Cuba.  There is no strict itinerary to follow; no ideal path to take.

On a final note, we haven’t heard of anyone encountering issues while re-entering the U.S.  However, to be safe, do your best to abide by the law and structure your trip to qualify under an approved travel category.  Keep records of your applicable receipts and make note of your interactions that qualify as people-to-people exchange, just in case you’re ever asked.