The improved relationship between the United States and Cuba is making travel between the countries more accessible.
Traveling to Cuba from the United States is still not easy, but at least it’s legal.
How long have you been wanting to go to Cuba? The country holds so much cultural appeal: the unique music, the distinctive rum and cigars. But until this year, it’s been illegal to travel to Cuba from the United States—at least technically. The Cuban Assets Control Regulations did not prohibit travel per se, but they did prohibit U.S. citizens from making any financial transactions in the country—even airfare ticket taxes—and the U.S. Treasury Department considered spending even one day in Cuba proof that the rules had been violated. Thousands of U.S. travelers every year risked fines or prison and circumvented the travel restrictions by flying first to other countries and not getting their passports stamped in Cuba. But now, thanks to warmer political relations between the two countries, the gorgeous island 90 miles south of Florida is no longer a forbidden destination. But some rules still exist, and it’s still tricky to navigate them. Here’s what travel to Cuba is like now:
Flying to Cuba
Unless you’re traveling with one of the few existing “people-to-people” groups, you still can’t fly directly from the United States to Cuba. But the travel industry is working on it, and hopes to offer direct flights to the public “sometime in 2015,” according to Chris Chiames, Orbitz’s vice president of corporate affairs. In the meantime, it’s now legal to book a flight elsewhere (typically Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica or the Bahamas) and then make connections to Havana, Cuba.
You’ve Got To Have A Reason To Go
Strangely enough, “tourism” is still not permitted. There are 12 specific reasons or categories for travel that are allowed by the authorities, so if you can somehow place yourself in one of the following categories you’ll be able to go. If not, you might have to try the people-to-people trips, which are moderately expensive and have very specific itineraries. Most travelers will be able to cite one of the following reasons for going:
(1) family visits
(2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
(3) journalistic activity
(4) professional research and professional meetings
(5) educational activities
(6) religious activities
(7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
(8) support for the Cuban people
(9) humanitarian projects
(10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
(11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
(12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Buying Goods, Spending Money in Cuba
There is still a strict limit on what you can bring back to the United States from Cuba—just $400 worth of goods, and only $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol (the rum and cigars for which the country is renowned). But the biggest issue is that you still can’t use credit or debit cards—something that is supposed to be rectified in the future but is not currently possible. One other thing to note is that there’s no wifi to use, so if you’re traveling there you will truly have a vacation and be disconnected for a while.
A Few Things Not to Miss
Nancy Craft, a travel expert on Japan, recently spent a week in Havana. She says that was barely enough time to dip her toes into the cultural scene, but these are a few of her suggestions:
—Ride in an old car taxi with locals. They cruise around and you just flag them down.
—Eat at paladars, which are family run restaurants
—Explore all of the beautiful Plazas in Havana. Sit in one place and watch the world go by
—Hear music (not hard, as it’s everywhere)
—Meet some people. The best way to do this is to stay at a Casa Particular, a private house
—Go to the mosaic village near Havana to see the amazing work by Fuster.
*Nancy also said she loved that the body image thing is very different in Cuba. It doesn’t matter if a woman is overweight, they just wear what they want to wear and let it all hang out—a refreshing cultural perspective for visitors from the United States.