As our airplane approached the Havana Airport a flight attendant announced that he wished to be the first to welcome us to Cuba. The passengers burst into cheering and applause, which was repeated when the wheels touched down a few minutes later. We weren’t used to such enthusiasm, and we asked the flight attendants about it. It happens all the time, they told us, Cubans are very proud of their country. That became clear as we explored Cuba – a complex country filled with gracious people. That, and many other things, hasn’t changed much for more than a half century.
We were in Cuba to research, photograph, and describe the reception and conditions Americans receive. Ours was not a particularly easy trip, but it left us with mostly favorable impressions and fond memories. We met wonderful people, enjoyed the 1950’s cars and ever-present salsa music, and appreciated the genuineness of a land that time forgot.
It’s a little tricky for Americans to get to Cuba. Despite what you may have heard, travel to Cuba is not wide open and Americans are not yet allowed to go to Cuba for pleasure travel. Instead, there are 12 categories of authorized travel, and only people who meet one or more of them are permitted to go to Cuba. We applied to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for authorization to travel to Cuba as journalists, and we sent them our resumes, evidence we had written and published travel articles, and an assignment letter from inTravel Magazine. In response, we received a letter that quoted the current U.S. laws and stated that if we felt we met those laws we could proceed without further authorization. So, after telephone conversations with staff from the Treasury Department, we made airline reservations and booked with a tour group.
The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba (as of May, 2016) are:
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 authorized export transactions.
What we didn’t know, and what the Department of the Treasury didn’t say, is Americans are not allowed (as of May, 2016) to use credit cards, debit cards, ATMs, banks, or money transfer facilities in Cuba. So, at least for now, travel within Cuba is a cash-based experience.
Flying to Cuba is also a little tricky. Currently, there are no commercial flights from the U.S., and the alternatives include charter flights or flying through other countries, such as Canada or Mexico. That will soon change, and by the end of 2016 there will likely be U.S. carriers flying commercial flights to and from Cuba.
Our 40-minute charter airline flight from Miami to Havana cost between $400-500 (round trip) per person, plus $100 for a visa and a departure fee of $50.
Land of Surprises
We signed up for an eight-day bicycle tour of Cuba put together by Explore, a U.K. tour company (www.explore.co.uk). Explore contracted with a Cuban company to supply a tour leader, bus, bus driver, and bicycles. Our tour package included transportation, bicycle rental, lodging, and breakfast. We were on the hook for all other expenses, including two meals a day. We were joined by a tour leader (Lismar), driver (Eric), and three other tour customers (Kate and Catherine from the U.K., and Hamish, an Aussie who now lives in New York City). It was a small and fun-loving group and we supported each other throughout the tour. Our primary responsibility for the next eight days was to show up, cycle, and enjoy our tour.