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“I want to come to Cuba before it changes” (credit: the Gringos, 2015)

Kristen MacQueen, 27/10/2015

Cuba before it changes, Cine Warner

If I had a dime for every US client email that I’ve received since December 2014 from an American looking to visit Cuba before it changes… It’s starting to grate on me because for those citizens of the rest of the world who’ve been traveling to Cuba for the last 20+ years), of course you know that a lot of things have been gradually changing for some time now. But not due to increased US presence or because of restored diplomatic relations. For the old timers who are familiar with Cuba from its pre-revolutionary days, you’ll know that it’s already come a long way, baby. If Cuba has held fast to its revolutionary principles despite more than 55 years of an economic blockade from its closest neighbor and great economic challenges suffered because of that failed policy, well it’s not terribly likely that it’s all of a sudden going to do an about-face now. Cuba might be a third world country but its citizens are educated; Cuba’s revolutionary government eradicated illiteracy in the country in 1961 and most Cubans are no dummies. They got rid of a corrupt government that was in the pockets of the United States, and nationalized the oil companies and the United Fruit Company, none of which were contributing to (or even concerned about) the well-being of Cuban citizens, their health or education, but rather lining their pockets and extracting profits from Cuba. Goodbye Esso & Shell, hello Cupet.

I was complaining the other day to a long-time Canadian client-turned-friend of mine as my workdays get increasingly longer as I try to keep up to the new flow of US clients anxious to come to Cuba, demanding a five star foreign-managed hotel experience from where they expect the country’s history, culture and beauty can be contemplated and appreciated. Besides having no real clue about what they really want to do once here (which makes my job even more laborious), space at the five star hotels in Havana and certain other highly-demanded areas is about as scarce as cheap cars in Cuba these days. (Insider joke; the price of cars has gone completely through the roof here for those of you who aren’t in the know). Her response was priceless and a much-needed infusion of humor into my work day:

I’ve been musing over this email of yours, and thinking what a great assistant I could be to you if only I could speak Spanish. If I lived in Havana I would want to run small group tours for intelligent tourists (this would be identified by their interest in my tour, of course). It would be a historical tour of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Taking them to buildings and places where all the monkey business went on. I could say “Yes, here is the former police station #3, where they would extract the eyeballs of those who challenged  Batista’s dictatorship”, and take them inside to tour the cell block. I might lock up a couple of the Americans for 15 minutes or so as a punishment for the blockade. Or show them the house that some filthy stinking rich dirt bag of a person associated with US business interests lived in with his three mistresses. All the best and most interesting scandals that occurred before the Revolution. Followed by lunch at El Aljibe and a few Bucaneros, of course.

Over the past 2+ decades, we’ve been privileged to host some of the most intrepid visitors from the US who have traveled here through a third country, despite their country’s travel ban. The risk of getting “caught” or assessed a fine by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control for traveling to Cuba on an unlicensed basis is now at an all-time low. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the possibility still exists since the US government so far has not changed its stance on Cuba travel, although it would appear that they may be poised to do so sometime in the next year. For anyone looking for no-risk travel to Cuba, however, the only options are still to undertake travel in one of their 12 general (paperless) categories, or through one of the US companies offering pricey people to people trips. All these options require you to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that you will be undertaking licensed Cuba travel if you board a direct flight from the US to Cuba. Some US citizens are knowingly (or unknowingly) falsifying that information, but I’m not certain that’s really such a good plan as you never know when Uncle Sam will catch up to you. Some of the agencies holding people to people licenses offer some interesting trips, but all have content designed to be compliant with their license. Although the categorization of exactly what qualifies as people to people contact nowadays is fairly loosely interpreted. Throw in a dance class, talk to some people in the street, visit a church and tweaking how the itinerary is worded to satisfy US government regulations seem to be key. The kind of independent, unstructured travel that most US travelers would probably prefer to take, combining independent visits of colonial cities, maybe a beach or two and perhaps some excursions (just for fun) into the mountains is still not possible under OFAC regulations. That doesn’t stop the more adventurous US traveler from undertaking travel on their own terms though. They simply travel through a third country and avoid declaring their Cuba travel on their return. If it were all up to Obama, I figure he’d say kill the embargo now. If some extremist like Marco Rubio ever gets into power though, you just never know what kind of twists & turns the road will take.

If you are a US citizen booking travel to Cuba through a third country you will want to be sure that the airline you fly with doesn’t require you to sign any affidavit regarding licensed Cuba travel. Flying with Aeromexico, for example, you might think you would be off the hook. Read a little more closely, however, and you will see that CitiBank (US-owned) has a stake in the airline. So they still ask for a signed affidavit before boarding. Cubana de Aviacion, Copa, Bahamas Air, Cayman Airways, and most Canadian airlines are frequent choices for non-licensed US travelers to Cuba. Some can be difficult to book from the US and may require payment outside of the US. Others may require you to book your air segments separately (not offering a thru fare from the US, but rather two or more separate tickets). And you can’t check your luggage from the US straight through to Cuba when flying through a third country. So you need to gauge for additional connection time. The US recently announced the possibility of adding scheduled flight services to Cuba as early as December, but that may have been a little premature as a few things still need to happen in Congress still before travel to and trade with Cuba is normalized.

If you’re a US traveler considering visiting Cuba for the first time, here are some of the most frequent questions that I field:

  • Are you going to go the licensed or unlicensed route? That’s the first decision you’ll need to make as if you’re only considering licensed travel, then the list of travel service providers who can assist you will automatically be greatly reduced, and the price tag for your travel will automatically be higher. WoWCuba and many other Canadian agencies have forged partnerships with US agencies who have coverage for people to people licenses, and are happy to pass on referrals to those agencies and collaborate with them to deliver your travel services on the ground in Cuba.
  • If you’re going the unlicensed route, congratulations. You’re getting closer to how to see Cuba “before it changes” (eye roll) on your own terms. First you’ll need to decide where it makes the most sense to fly from to get to Cuba. Various Canadian cities offer flights to Cuba, with Toronto being the major hub for most year round flights, and other cities offering direct charter flights to various Cuban airports concentrated mainly in the winter months. Cubana Airlines offers daily morning flights from Mexico City to Havana, and mid-afternoon flights between Cancun and Havana. East coast travelers often travel via Nassau, the Cayman Islands, Panama, or Santo Domingo to Cuba. If you require assistance with reserving flights or checking schedules WoWCuba can help. Once your flights to Cuba are secured, then proceed to reserve your connecting flights from the US to/from the Cuba gateway. If traveling in the winter months, do keep in mind that snowstorms can interfere with departures, and planning for an overnight enroute to Cuba can be a good precautionary measure. And do be careful about avoiding connection times that are too tight, especially when dealing with air travel in the Caribbean with air carriers that may not have a good record of on time departures.
  • Trip Cancellation and Medical Insurance is currently only available from US insurance providers for travelers who are undertaking licensed Cuba travel. Medical insurance can be purchased locally upon arrival in Cuba (before going through the immigration counters) from Asistur.
  • Once you get to Cuba, where are you going to stay, how are you going to get around, and what kind of activities do you want to engage in? For the first-time traveler, the options can sometimes be confusing. We have a Trip Planning Resources page that we highly recommend as a starting point. Check out the helpful links there to guide books, maps, distance charts, apps for restaurants, entertainment and accommodation recommendations and much more. Talk to friends that have traveled there, spend a little time reading, peruse the internet. And then get back to us with your general ideas when you’re ready to have us put a quotation together for your travel elements.

Please DON’T tell me you want to experience Cuba’s beauty, culture, and history and expect me to magically produce your ideal itinerary. Because those parameters are too general for me to make any conclusions about what you really want to do and where you want to go in Cuba, the largest Island in the Antilles, 1200 kms long. The experienced traveler will find these things everywhere if their eyes are open, and of course your enlightenment can often be enhanced when interpretation is provided by a knowledgeable local. Unless you are my family or a personal friend, then I don’t know you/your tastes/budget, and can’t possibly know if adventurous for you means just stepping foot outside of your all inclusive hotel to take one of those swim with the dolphin tours on a bus with 40 other tourists. Or if you’d be happy stuck on a back road somewhere tooling around with a local mechanic (who’s questionably sober) after your motorcycle breaks down following a day of zipline/cave exploration. It’s all relative and we need our clients to be more specific about their needs and expectations if we’re to be of any help in offering them direction on which services we can assist in pre-arranging on their behalf.

Do you like biking, yoga, ziplines, rock climbing, cave exploration, diving, cave diving, diving with sharks, snorkeling, hiking, birdwatching, fishing, sailing, photography?

Are you more interested in cities, colonial architecture, mountains, beaches, waterfalls, agriculture, restaurant diversity, shopping (note to shopaholics: Cuba’s probably the not for you!), relaxation, spa experiences, museums, cooking classes?

Would you be comfortable driving a rental car? Or would you rather have your own driver, take taxis, or a bus service?

These are some of the things you should be considering if seeking assistance from a travel professional in arranging your ideal Cuban vacation.

Tips

Group Tours

This is often the best way to get oriented in Cuba. A pre-designed multi-day itinerary, support team, transportation, local guide to interpret history/culture. But be selective about what kind of trip you sign up for. If you’re not a fan of bus tours, then maybe a bicycle tour with van support might be more up your alley. Cycling is one of the best ways to see Cuba up close & slowly, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of the country at your own pace. For weaker riders, we even have electric-assist bikes to take some of the work out of hills. Our bicycle tours are multi-center allowing you to get a flavor for different areas of Cuba and combine an active holiday with some of the best restaurants available in the country, and free time to explore or just chill in the afternoon. There’s a support van too, for non-cycling companions or those interested in less of a physical challenge on holiday.

Accomodations

If traveling independently, book as far ahead as possible if you’re looking for hotel space in Old Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos or Trinidad. These destinations are highly demanded and hotel rooms are limited.

Looking to get off the beaten path or see more of true Cuban culture, in all of its glory? Take a deep breath and get ready. First rule of thumb: avoid all-inclusive properties/tourist enclaves that the government created for the sole purpose of collecting foreign currency to support its economy and social programs, while at the same time protecting real Cuban culture from the nasty stuff that comes with increased tourism. Places such as Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco/Guillermo, Guardalavaca, Cayo Santa Maria, or Varadero. Head east instead or into smaller villages and spread the wealth around. Santiago de Cuba receives less than 1/10 of the visitors to Havana, and offers a number of nature tourism options. We also like Soroa/La Moka, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Baracoa, Gibara, and Maria la Gorda/Cabo San Antonio, although that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

You can find the right hotel with WoWCuba.

Transportation

ANTIQUE CARS are the vehicle of choice for nostalgic Americans visiting Cuba. And Cubans know it. With the ongoing economic reforms, several years ago there was a boom in purchase of some of the old relics to be transformed into convertible roadsters for city tours. You’ll see the colorful cars parked in Havana near Central Park awaiting fares (these are usually 1-hour cruises). They’re also a popular mode of transport between Varadero and Havana for the all inclusive crowd looking to head to the Capital for the day. The Matanzas antique car owners have mostly converted their cars to diesel-powered engines and have added air conditioning for the comfort of passengers. In Havana there are many collective taxi routes which are one of the cheapest/fastest (if not the safest) ways of getting from point A to point B within the city.

CAR RENTAL may not be the right choice for your first trip to Cuba, but for repeaters it’s often the preferred mode of travel when looking for a multi-center holiday. Signage is lacking in Cuba, and it’s sometimes even hard to find one of the detailed road guides/maps at local shops. It’s definitely an adventure though. First-timers might want to avoid picking up hitchhikers until they have a better grasp on local culture/customs. I imagine that as tourism increases, so too might scams directed at tourists. So far not a huge problem, but not unheard of for petty theft to be directed at unsuspecting visitors. Always avoid driving at night as loose livestock can be a hazard on roads.

CHAUFFEURED CAR RENTAL Several of the local rental companies also offer chauffeured car rental service, which is more costly than a self-drive holiday, but takes some of the pressure off since you know you’re in good hands with a local. Only one of the four Cuban car rental companies (REX) can guarantee English-speaking drivers, so keep that in mind if your Spanish (or sign language) skills are lacking.

TAXIS Taxi transfers between destinations are how some people prefer to travel, then exploring locally by bike taxi/coco taxi/horse & carriage or on foot. We can book state taxis in advance, or you can always book/pay locally. From the airport, they’re often the best way to arrive to your hotel and we recommend local (rather than advance) payment on that route.

BUSES There are a couple of collective bus services connecting the various provinces. One is Viazul, the national bus company. They offer the most extensive list of routes and you can usually reserve locally just a day in advance with no space issues. Viazul accepts bicycles for carriage at a 10% surcharge. There’s also the Connecting Cuba bus service for the most popular routes for visitors to Cuba, which has the advantage of offering hotel pickups/drop-offs across Cuba (except in Old Havana where access is sometimes difficult for interior properties, so you need to make your way to the nearest designated street-access property). WoWCuba reserves this service as part of client travel packages, or you can purchase locally at Cubanacan tour desks if preferred. Connecting Cuba uses comfortable Transtur tourist buses for their service.

TRAIN services is not recommended for visitors to Cuba as it’s unreliable, uncomfortable and involves too much time to be practical compared to alternative options.

DOMESTIC FLIGHTS  can also be arranged in advance by WoWCuba as part of client travel packages. Flight schedules especially to some of the keys in Cuba can sometimes be irregular and are only confirmed the day prior to departure. To avoid disappointment, WoWCuba never recommends planning for same-day international/domestic flight services in Cuba.

Excursions

If not traveling as part of a group, we would caution you to avoid overplanning your day-to-day activities. This is a novice mistake. You can easily purchase optional excursions locally from any hotel tour desk without having to be locked into a fixed itinerary which may be affected on arrival by delays/weather/illness. Take care of your basic accommodation and transportation needs in advance. But unless you’re looking for something super-specialized not offered by the national excursion operators (like a ½ day cooking class) or need to ensure a certain schedule/activity (such as a dive course, where the course material needs to be in place in your language for arrival), in our experience booking these services locally with the hotel tour desks is the best way to go. In Havana, San Cristobal (the City Historian’s Office travel agency) offers a number of very interesting guided city tours, many of which can be purchased on an exclusive basis, so you’ll have the guide all to yourselves.

Dining

Except for restaurants within foreign-managed hotels, we don’t have any foreign (American or otherwise) restaurant franchises in Cuba. And it’s not likely to happen either, for those of you who still refuse to understand that Cuba’s principles are not negotiable and fear its impending Americanization. Michael Moore films have made it to public Cuban tv, and Cuba’s public health is based on prevention. We know all about Super Size Me and the unhealthy model of US fast food franchises. Experiencing local cuisine and trying out different paladars (privately-owned restaurants) is one of the activities that will enrich your Cuba travel. Cuba’s emerging restaurant scene is vibrant, and if you carefully select the venues to visit, it’s indeed possible to create an extraordinary gastronomical experience. One of the best apps for restaurants in Cuba is www.alamesacuba.com, and it should be downloaded in advance of arrival. Only a very few select establishments (such as La Guarida or San Cristobal) in Havana will actually require advance reservations if you hope to get in the door, but most places accept and can easily accommodate walk-ins. In Varadero we love Salsa Suarez; in Trinidad don’t miss Paladar San Jose; in Viñales El Olivo is one of the best spots to dine. Sweet Cuban coffee, pulled pork sandwiches, tostones (fried green plantains), sugarcane juice, some of the best avocados and mangoes in the world, organic fruit juices and smoothies, and flan or bread/rice pudding (arroz con leche) should all be on your list of things to try while here. We wholly recommend diving into the local restaurant scene and trying out a diverse selection of paladars while in Cuba.

And perhaps my last tips are the most important of all. Cuba is home to various protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and to the largest wetlands in the Antilles (in the Bay of Pigs area). There are major programs in place for the protection of its coastlines, coral reefs, forests, and endangered species. We sincerely hope that Cuba continues on its sustainable path as tourism numbers increase. We ask that you respect Cuba’s flora, fauna and local customs to the maximum of your ability while you are exploring its nooks & crannies. Leave the shells where they are. Don’t touch the coral. Be respectful of locals and their customs. Observe and learn rather than imposing your own values or opinions. Be generous with your gratuities, but only distribute them when a service has been provided. Learn how to say “por favor” and “gracias”. Tread softly and we can at least hope that Cuba’s natural beauty and unique culture will be conserved. As an island nation with a very insular culture, we can hold onto that hope. As the gringos lament change in Cuba, meanwhile Cubans are celebrating the potential economic benefits that increased US tourism will hopefully bring to Cuba.


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