It has been a year since we first visited Cuba. Much has happened since then, as people on both sides of the Straits of Florida have been affected by the U.S. policy changes enacted in November 2017, and respectively June 2019.
As many of my American friends think that it’s not possible to travel to Cuba, I thought I would share what we’ve learned and shed some light on this complicated matter.
On December 25th, 2017, we arrived in Havana. From the airport, we went to the casa particular to drop off our backpacks, then headed straight to Calle Hamel to experience rumba on the streets of Havana, a unique event that happens only on Sundays. Surrounded by live music, fresh smells, and a crowd that didn’t seem to stop dancing, my wife Emoke turned and said, “Can’t believe we are back.”
Cuba is where the African drum fell in love with the Spanish guitar. Brendan Sainsbury
For Americans, traveling to Cuba has always seemed complicated. “Can I go? Is it legal?”
The short answer is yes, you can. (Updated April 2020). Even though the current US administration removed two of the categories of travel, individual and group “People to People” trips, the remaining eleven categories are still in place. For individuals without any affiliation to organizations such as schools or churches, “Support for the Cuban people” category of travel is the way to go. The only thing you gotta do is click the checkbox in the document provided by the airline when booking your flight, and there you went.
Let’s go back a few years in order to get a better understanding of where things stand today, and more importantly, how they got here.
On June 10th, 2010, seventy-four of Cuba’s dissidents signed a letter to the United States Congress in support of a bill introduced by U.S. Congressman Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota that would lift the U.S. travel ban for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. This bill would also prohibit the President of United States from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.
In 2011, former Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, blamed “embittered Cuban exiles in Miami” for keeping the embargo alive. Before visiting Cuba, he said:
It’s a stupid policy. There’s no reason why we can’t be friends with the Cubans, and vice versa. A lot of them have relatives in the United States, and some Americans have relatives in Cuba, so we should have freedom of travel …
Forward to three years later: in December 2014, President Obama historically improved relations with Cuba, ending a 54-year stretch of hostility between the nations. One month later, in January 2015, the Obama administration created twelve categories of travel for which no special license was required. These categories range from religious, educational, and journalist to family visits.
Almost two years later, in March 2016, Obama added an “individual people to people” category under “educational travel” to make it easier for individuals to travel to Cuba; it was similar in language to another category called “support for the Cuban people.” Both are meant to encourage cultural exchanges between individual Americans and local Cubans. U.S. travelers are expected to have meaningful interactions with the local Cubaneros and are advised to find ways to support Cuban civil society–by sleeping in casa particulares, private homes; eating in paladares, private family restaurants; and supporting cuentapropistas, entrepreneurs/family-owned businesses.
When we first visited Cuba in December 2016, we traveled under the “people to people” category. For both Emoke and me, all this seemed normal; it’s how we always travel. It’s not comfort we seek, but an authentic cultural experience.
Unfortunately, on November 8th, 2017, the current administration removed the “people to people” individual category of travel. However, the rest of the categories including “support for the Cuban people” have remained intact.
Why do Americans think they can’t go to Cuba? Three events led to this misunderstanding.
What happened this past year?
June 2017. President Trump gives a speech in Miami. His rhetoric is over-dramatized by the U.S. media; major news outlets use misleading headlines like “…going back to the Cold War era.” Many, including me, think “this is it” for travel to Cuba.
September 2017. The State Department puts out a warning, which is still in place today, regarding the unexplained sonic attacks. As one local, Yordenis said to me: “Americans cancelled all the casa particulares in September.”
November 2017. The current U.S. administration enacts Trump’s wishes from Miami in June, and the individual “people to people” category is eliminated. Additionally, more entities are added to the Restricted List of Entities. The newspapers go loco again. Americans stay home.
In the meantime, however, Cuban tourism has actually been booming. In the little town of Vinales, 500 new casa particulares were registered this past year alone. Cubans found ways to benefit from the increase of American travelers who started coming in record numbers in 2016. Some Cubans turned their apartments into casa particulares (private homes), others opened paladares (family restaurants), while in the countryside, farmers found innovative ways to make an extra buck by taking tourists on horseback to visit coffee and tobacco plantations.
Access to the Internet has improved significantly in the last year. New WiFi hotspots were installed throughout the whole island of Cuba.
In January 2017, there were only a handful of WiFi spots in Havana. Now there are many scattered throughout the city. You have to imagine that the Internet in Cuba is like what it was in the U.S. in the 90s, when it felt like the options were limitless. Even though not everyone can afford Internet access, it is an exciting time, as more people now have access to information and technology to easily communicate with loved ones outside of the island.
What is expected under “Support for the Cuban people” category of travel?
Simply put, you are supposed to “support the Cuban civil society and have meaningful interactions with the Cuban people.” The U.S. government does not dictate the types of activities you can engage in, nor the length of your stay. It is entirely up to you. You can spend your whole time in one place helping to build a school—one example used by the U.S. State Department—but you can also travel around the island, like we did. As long as your daily schedule does not include recreation time in excess (i.e. lounging on the beach at a resort owned by the government for a full week), you’ll be good.
In Cuba and specifically in Havana, there’s a sort of energy that turns every situation into something unexpected. Fernando Perez
The language of this particular category seems confusing at first, but don’t worry; the intent is the same as “people to people.” Below is a screenshot of the Code of Federal Regulations. I crossed off all the irrelevant language, as again, you are given a choice. Simply ignore the first two activities (“i and ii” under  and the second half of : “I” after “support civil society in Cuba.”) This is just a tourist visa. It’s outrageous that the U.S. government would expect its citizens to engage in political affairs while visiting Cuba on a tourist visa.
First, you are supposed to “support the civil society” in Cuba. Every person, save the military and government-owned entities, is part of the civil society. In fact, the chances that you would engage with a state-owned entity is almost zero, as there are over half a million cuentapropistas, entrepreneurs, and privately-owned entities mostly supplementing the tourism industry. Again, as long as you exclude big hotels and beach resorts owned by the local government, you’ll be fine.
You might ask yourself: how will I know if it’s government-owned or privately owned? The state taxis are not many and are labeled as such; the hotels are obvious. The list of hotels and other organizations on the “List of Restricted Entities” can be found on the US Department of State website. The good news is that the Viazul bus company, although a state-owned entity, is not on the list. If you plan to travel long distances, Viazul is the best option. Oddly, the famous local soda Cachito is on the list.
Everything we did in Cuba—from sleeping in private homes, eating in privately-owned restaurants, using private taxis, buying a painting from an artist, purchasing t-shirts from a local designer, visiting cultural centers, speaking with LGBT activists, bringing pencils to families living in remote areas—supported Cuban civil society.
Second, you are supposed to have “meaningful interactions” with the Cuban people. By meeting and speaking with locals, you will inevitably have meaningful interactions.
Latinos from South America are known to be friendly, but Cubans take friendliness to another level. People we had barely met invited us into their homes and fed us. Soon, like the Cubaneros, we were gesticulating and using facial muscles that hadn’t been stimulated for a long time. Cuba changes you from the inside out.
I live in Cuba because I love Cuba. Ernest Hemingway
I believe than the cuentapropistas, who have started their own businesses–as well as artists such as musicians, painters and writers are the driving force of an evolving Cuba. By supporting them directly, all of us can make a positive difference in the lives of the Cuban people.
What you need to do
- Buy the airfare. United, Jet Blue, American, Southwest and Copa Airlines all fly to Cuba. Click “support for the Cuban people” when asked. The airline will provide the tourist visa, and in the case of SW and AA, contact VisaCubaServices.com, as described on their websites. The cost of the visa varies from airline to airline: Copa: $25, Jetblue and Delta $50, Southwest $75, United $85 and American $100.
- Book the casa particulares on Airbnb.
- Create your itinerary and start planning your activities that will support this category of travel. I’ve included a few suggestions that would qualify you for this general license below.
- Check out my other post, Travel Tips to Cuba for advice on what to do prior and during your trip.
All of our papers, including our reservations to the casa particulares and also our fully planned-out itinerary with a daily schedule, were printed prior to boarding in case we were asked. No one asked. Remember, when you leave the U.S., the only person you’ll see is the airline attendant who will not only provide you your tickets, but also the tourist visa and a paper on which you need to check “support for the Cuban people.”
The U.S. government expects you to keep your receipts as proof for five years. There are couple of funny things here. First, Cuba is a cash economy, and although some businesses may be able to provide you with a hand-written receipt, most places won’t. Second, it’s hard to imagine that someone will contact you in four years to ask where you were on such-and-such a date in Cuba. But just in case, we took photos of every place we visited and spent any money.
I would recommend creating a short journal/list of daily activities in Cuba in case you’re asked by U.S. customs. Again, this is highly unlikely.
Activities for “Support for the Cuban People”
- Gain a deeper understanding of the African roots of Cuban music at Caje de Hamell. Every Sunday starting at noon, you can experience live music with rumba drummers playing on the streets of Havana.
- Meet local artists at Fabrica de Arte. Open Thursday-Sunday from 8PM-4AM. A fusion of various types of art and music under one roof.
- Take a private tour at Lizt Alfonso Dance company. Great opportunity to experience the unique Cuban interpretation of a range of dance traditions, including traditional ballet. If the schedule permits, watch young performers practice, and if you are lucky, you may see an actual performance.
- Support local artists such as painters and musicians in old Havana. Visit Studio o’028, bringing together four artists under one roof and among them, our good new friend, Simon Dayron. Learn about the vibrant artist community in Havana. Dayron’s cell phone: 53396943
- Visit and support Clandestina design clothing store in old Havana near Plaza del Cristo. Opened recently in 2015 by young designer, Idania del Rio, the store opens a window into Cuban contemporary design. Buy a couple of t-shirts and learn about the cuentapropista entrepenour movement in Cuba.
- Eat in privately-owned family restaurants, paladares. In Old Havana, dine at Dona Eutimia and El Bambu, where you can have a delicious Ropa Vieja, the Cuban national dish of shredded beef, for only 6 CUC. It can be difficult to find to a good place to eat for a reasonable price in Havana. If you are wandering in the Vedado neighborhood, check out El Cuarto de Tula–a small and quaint coffee house/restaurant that opened in late 2017.
- Sleep in casa partiulares, private homes, that can be booked through Airbnb. We slept in seven homes during our eleven day visit.
- Have breakfast at your casa particular. We did every morning.
- Take private taxis, and if you fancy a ride in the old American cars, Havana is the place. It costs $50/hour. There are plenty of choices, but if you want to ride in a 1954 Ford with original engine, call Yasmani at 52426010. If you are low on cash and need a ride, call Joel at 53306922.
- Get lost in the city and go beyond the touristic sites to meet regular Cubans in Centro Havana and Vedado.
- If you are into yoga, MihaiYoga near Havana could be a great retreat to support entrepreneurs and yogis who come from all over Cuba.
- Learn from local craftsman how they make traditional instruments. At Casa Colibri, watch how the owner, Alejandro, and his friends turn a local plant, a gourd, into “guiro,” an authentic South-American percussion instrument. Alejandro’s cell: 54595967.
- Take a pottery lesson at Hostal Casa El Ceramista or Casa del Alfareo, run by the Santander family known in the area for creating unique pottery for many generations.
- Explore the UNESCO World Heritage colonial town and learn about its rich history.
- Sleep in casa particulares, private homes.
- Have breakfast at your private home to get to know your host family and learn about Cuba.
- Purchase local art at Plaza Mayor, an open-air market where local artists and entrepreneurs make and sell different types of handmade crafts.
- Visit farms outside of town to get a taste of rural Cuba.
- Take a horseback ride to visit the natural beauty surrounding Trinidad. There are a few options, Casa Munoz Horse Trek, being one of them.
- Visit Topes de Collantes Natural Park. Take a private tour, or simply hire a taxi, which would be considerably cheaper. The Salto de Caburní hike is amazing.
- Rent bicycles and check out the natural beauty surrounding Trinidad, including Playa Ancon.
- Take dance lessons at Casa de la Musica in the center of town. There’s live music every single night.
- Visit Valle de los Ingenios, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, which used to be the center of sugar production in Cuba and is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. As a bonus, hike to the top of radio tower hill for the best views of the valley.
- Take private tours to explore Vinales and its surrounding beauty. A World UNESCO Heritage site, where no modern machines are used to cultivate the land, Vinales Valley is a living cultural landscape. A horseback ride tour lasts 4-5 hours, which includes a visit to a tobacco farm and a coffee plantation.
- Take a private taxi to visit the world-renowned Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation in San Juan y Martínez, a 50-minute ride from Vinales, known for growing the highest-quality tobacco in the world.
- Support local artists and craftsman at Mercado de Artesanía, open every day at Calle Joaquin Pérez.
- Take salsa lessons at Casa de la Cultura in the main square. Arrange at the Paradiso office across the road.
- Go salsa dancing at night to Casa de Musica and Centro Cultural Polo Montañez.
- Purchase coffee, cigars, and rum from local farmers. The local rum, Guayabita del Pinar, is one of the best in the country. This unique drink is made from a small guava, grown only in the mountains of Pinar del Rio.
- Visit the family-owned little oasis, Casa de Caridad Botanical Gardens, at the edge of town to learn about the native flora and see how tropical fruits are harvested. Hummingbird lovers: check out Jardin Botanico de Vinales in the town center.
- Sleep in casa particulares, private homes.
- Have breakfast at your casa particular to get to know your host family and learn about Cuba.
- Eat at paladares. In town, Cocinita del Medio, Cafe Ortuzar and El Olivo. For a unique authentic experience, we highly recommend Balcon del Valle, which is 3km outside Viñales overlooking the magnificent Vinales valley. This family-owned restaurant offers delicious country-style, traditional food.
- Visit the protected natural area of Parque Nacional La Guira, one hour NW from Vinales.
- Support young local artists at Plaza de la Independencia in Pinar del Rio city, the hub of the art scene in the region. Check out Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas gallery and also the workshop-gallery of the renowned Cuban artist Pedro Pablo Oliva.
- Have a coffee or two at Cafe Pinar in Pinar del Rio. Live music and dancing every night.
- For all transport needs in the Pinar del Rio region, call my good friend, Victor, at 55451703. Arrange a pickup in Havana and he will drive you to Vinales for 20 CUC/person, up to four people. Hustlers at the Viazul bus station could charge you 30 CUC for a one-way ride to Vinales.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
- Meet musicians and learn about the roots of the Cuban music at Casa de Cultura Josué País García Sonarte, Casa de las Traditiones, and Casa de la Trova.
- Visit Galeria Rene Valdes, an amazing collection of Cuban contemporary art.
- Take a private taxi to visit Baconao and Pico Turquino National parks. Our good friend Jejo has an awesome 1954 Willys Jeep and will take you for half the price of the tour agencies in town, which you are not supposed to use anyway as they are state-owned. Jejo’s cell: 53687526
- Take salsa lessons at Casa de las Traditiones or Casa de la Trova. For private dance lessons, call the talented Luis Alberto Perez cell: 53049327
- Get lost in the city and go beyond the touristic sites to meet regular Cubans. Start at Plaza Cespedes and walk to Santa Ifigenia cemetery to see where Jose Marti and Fidel Castro were buried. On the way there, check out the original Bacardi factory.
- Experience traditional Trova Cuban music with Sonarte music band led by Radames Gonzalez Diaz. You can catch them from noon-2PM at Patio de Artex, near plaza Plaza Cespedes. For specific times, call Senior Radomes’ son, Atzel: 54256604.
- Sleep in casa particulares, private homes.
- Have breakfast at your casa particular to get to know your host family and learn about Cuba.
- Eat at paladares. Lonely Planet has many good recommendations.
- Bring pencils and erasers to your host at casa particular. They will know someone who works in the schools nearby.
- Observe Cuban life and meet local musicians at Plaza de Marte.
- For transport needs, call Orleans at 58557352.
Even though you are here to support local communities, a trip to Cuba will help you discover your inner core in ways that is simply impossible in the busy world we live in. The life lessons that you learn here are invaluable. And don’t worry. Cuba is not changing in the ways that many people have made us believe.
Take your time, polish your Spanish, and then, when you are ready, come to the Island of Salsa and let the warmth and love of the Cubaneros touch your heart.
You will not be the same when you return home. I promise.