Do you want to cut through all of the paparazzi about travel to Cuba and how it may be different than before?
As someone that beat not only Beyonce and Jay Z to Cuba, but also President Obama, here's my two cents on my travels to Cuba over the past several years and a visit just last week!
First, let me just debunk the common misconception about US tourism to Cuba.
Travel for tourism purposes for Americans is still illegal.
Yes, travel for Americans to Cuba is NOT open and legal. Regardless of the changes, travel to Cuba for tourism is still illegal. Most think that this is imposed by Cuba, but it is not. This is only from the US side. Because of the recent news about more open relations and increased flights, you may have assumed something has changed, but nope. Nada has changed! (See amended note below as of March 16, 2016 & another as of September 1st, 2016)
Even though you have had acquaintances go on missionary work trips, exchange programs, or even the popular people-to-people educational tours over the past several years, these trips have been given a license and permission to legally travel to Cuba from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Now, don't be fooled! Travel to Cuba for Americans isn't R&R at one of the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero like our Canadian and Spanish friends. Each American traveler must fit into one of these 12 OFAC’s categories to make it legal.
However, there have been minor changes with the OFAC. There is no more paperwork like before, but you still need to abide by a full-time itinerary with purpose. There have been NO changes on allowing Americans to hang out on the beach imbibing mojitos with a Cohiba cigar for a long-weekend or week. If you are a fortunate candidate fitting amongst the OFAC's categories, you will still need to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba with specialized travel companies such as Cuba Travel Services or ABC Charters. So, if you want to go legally and don’t fall into the categories, check out Gate1Travel’s five and nine-day Cuba trips.
(**After this post, on March 16, 2016, solo travel has been permitted by President Obama. However, don't be fooled a full-time educational, people-to-people itinerary must be met. Also, the only flights until Fall of 2016 will continue to be charters. See L.A. Times article. As of August 1st, 2016, commercial flights have commenced to Cuba with the option to self-certify as traveling to Cuba under one of the twelve OFAC categories. You no longer need to travel under an agency with a license.)
Second, Americans are NOT the only ones wanting to travel to Cuba.
Travelers from around the world are trying to see Cuba before it changes.
Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, and more are flocking to Cuba. Things are getting crowded. The tourism industry had barely enough hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and buses for the past numbers of travelers. With the increase, Cuba is at capacity. This week walking through the four Plazas of Havana Vieja and the lobby of the Hotel Nacional, it was BUSY and crowded like multiple versions of Times Square without the neon lights.
(*As of March 16, 2016 changes, note that finding accommodations and other travel necessities will be a challenge. Tourism in Cuba was at capacity before the slight amendments. There are only 61,000 hotel rooms. Casa particulares (private homes) may be the only option.)
So, if you are traveling as an American or other, be prepared to wait. I tell most that they better leave their internal clock at home. Life in Cuba is at another pace. You have heard the expression of island time. However, Cubans have made an art of waiting and watching the world go by. I suggest taking the advice of a very wise Cuban friend of mine who told me in 2013, “In Cuba, there are no problems, only mojitos. One problem, one mojito. Two problems, two mojitos.”
Third, is it worth it to travel to Cuba?
Absolutamente (Uhhhh, yes absolutely!)
Yeppers, you should travel to Cuba. It is a beautiful, rich culture AND at a very exciting time. It's changing by the day (changing by the minute is too fast for the Cuban pace).
Here are some highlights that may whet your appetite to travel to Cuba:
You will see the famous American classic cars in vibrant colors!
Cubans aren't letting the "Pimp My Ride" show stand all alone. Classic car owners in Cuba are modernizing or pimping out their own rides with video music and interior light displays. This is all the while under the hood they are jury-rigged with parts from used Ladas or Chinese cars. For this very reason, mechanics in Cuba are called magicians. As if the old cars weren't fascinating enough, on any street in Havana, you can see simultaneously American classic cars alongside Moscovich cars, horse-drawn carriages, bici-taxis (bicycle taxis), coco-taxis (moped taxi shaped like a coconut), and even public buses packed to the brim. Cuba is eye-candy in so many ways.
Private businesses are increasing!
Over the last several years, I have seen the increase of private businesses of all types. It is not only in the paladar (private restaurant) or casa particular (private home) of the 90's, but the entrepreneurs are expanding into nail salons, invitation-only house parties, and even make-shift movie theaters in garages. Remember running a sidewalk lemonade stand wasn't part of the Cuban childhood. Now the sky's the limit with the possibility of entrepreneurship! The challenges are in marketing and of course materials just like in the tourism industry.
Arts are flourishing more than ever!
Not surprisingly that a culture of artists is continuing to push the envelope in music, theatre, and various other arts. Look at what Jose Fuster created by starting a mosaic on his own house! Now Jaimanitas and Fuster's home, Fusterlandia, are a neighborhood of mosaics, including bus stops, street signs, benches (see below), and even the neighborhood doctor's office.
Lastly, Cuba is changing, but not as quickly as the press stresses.
Let me give you my real-time feedback from my last week in Cuba regarding some of the pretty big changes that have been mentioned in the news.
Conversion of the dual currency CUP (National Peso) & CUC (Convertible Peso) into one
Yes, there are two currencies in Cuba. The CUP is the national currency; whereas, the tourism industry in Cuba works with CUCs, which are more or less the Cuban version of the US Dollar. Although I have spent many trips working out the numbers with my iPhone's calculator, most Cubans have known no different. So, they have a built-in, natural CUP to CUC calculator. On this trip, I saw my first stores that were accepting both currencies. It reminds me of the years that Europe was converting its national monies into the Euro. The only major difference is that Cuba is proposing to convert to the CUP, which is worth peanuts (25 CUP = 1 CUC = $1). There will need to be work done to raise its economic value. I'm no economist, but I don't have to be one to say there is a lot of work ahead before this can happen. Wowza!
Credit and Debit Cards in Cuba
Although some credit card companies have said they would allow a debit card system for Americans in Cuba. I haven't seen any advancement with easing the struggles of American visitors and cash ONLY. It's true that others from Europe and around the world can use credit cards, but not those from American banks. It is cash, cash, or cash.
(*As of March 16, 2016, I have read that there will be some changes with this. I won't believe it until I see it. As of June 2016, I saw no changes in spite of one Florida bank opening credit cards to Cuba. I will return to Cuba in September, November, and December this year and let you know.)
Internet hotspots in Cuba
After the few recent hotspots added in a select number of Havana's neighborhoods and across the major cities, I was eager test it and did last week. At these public spaces like near La Rampa in Havana (pictured above) and in La Punta in Cienfuegos, the Internet is slow. However, it is a big improvement for tourists from using pay-per-minute PCs in hotels. It is an even bigger improvement from little to no Internet for the Cuban public. In fact, with a price of 2 CUC for an hour, almost every evening the sidewalks and curbs surrounding the hotspots are lined with Cubans emailing and calling family members in Miami and abroad. On my nightly walks, I witnessed numerous families that parked in the areas for a hour of family entertainment: children on tablets with games and parents on laptops or cellphones connecting with family. Do keep in mind; 2 CUC is still very expensive for the average Cuban. So, internet is not accessible by all. Nor is everything available. During my stay, I tried snapping in Cuba, but the app didn't work. I will continue to try on my next trip in April and create a recap of my saved snaps. (BTW, it is said that broadband internet access will be available across the country by 2020.)
Will Obama lift the Embargo and change travel to Cuba?
Obama alone cannot lift the embargo. Contrary to most beliefs, it will take the Congress to lift the Embargo. Most importantly, with the embargo in place, travel to Cuba will have a hard time growing without more of everything: hotels, beds, restaurants, buses, etc. Some think that cruises are the answer. I've already seen a couple small-ish European cruise lines come into Cienfuegos and Havana, basically taking each city by storm. Neither is set up like Nassau or Cozumel. There aren't enough restaurants, bathrooms, buses, or water to accommodate tourism at that level. So changes to travel can be made, but a huge influx of more travelers will be impossible to handle without timely improvement in infrastructure. It could end up an example of the cart before the horse or in Spanish empezar la casa con el tejado (starting the house with the roof).
(As of May 1, 2016, Carnival Cruises has started to operate every two weeks from Miami to Cuba. The passengers are still under the same people-to-people activities upon arrival in Cuban ports. See article.)
With all politics, family history, and economics aside, Cuba has taught me valuable life lessons and provided me with great friendships and really good stories. I have no doubt it will teach you a thing or two too!
If you have questions about Cuba or would like to share your story or feedback about travel to Cuba, reach out to me.
BTW, I'm releasing a book about my travels to Cuba and beyond. It's called Cubicle to Cuba, check out the preview.
Here's to looking up!
**I wasn't able to Snapchat as I promised, but I have put together a recap. View it here.**