The news out of Cuba is fast and upbeat. December's announcement that commercial flights between the US and Cuba will resume later this year - for the first time in over 50 years - means that American travelers will no longer have to rely on expensive and restrictive charter flights. This week the White House released news that travel restrictions for individuals will be eased further, making it easier for Americans to visit this long forbidden Caribbean nation.
Visitors must still abide by the 12 permissible travel categories listed by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and independent travelers are required to retain their travel receipts and records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities for five years. What's new is that travelers visiting the island nation through a people-to-people educational exchange (the category for most licensed tour groups) now have the option of traveling independently. According to OFAC:
"Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba."
Cuba has inspired travelers who are eager to see, touch, hear and taste what has been unavailable for so long. Some visitors come for the music, some for the art, and still others to experience Cuban culture through its cuisine. Whatever your reason for visiting Cuba, the changes in U.S. policy are a definite plus.
How will the changes impact different kinds of travelers?
Perhaps the best news for solo adventure seekers is that travel to Cuba is now doable on an adventurer's budget. Do-it-yourselfers who are willing to rough it when necessary can now travel to Cuba on their own as long as they meet the people-to-people requirements. It's important to have a strong grasp of Spanish before you take the leap though, as outside of Havana's more touristy locations and Cuba's beach resorts, most Cubans only speak their native language.
With only 63,000 hotels rooms in the entire country, quality hotels and rooms in private homes are selling out months in advance. Keep a flexible attitude as the accommodations may not be as accountable as American travelers are used to. My tour company, Access Trips, uses only private accommodations for our small-group tours, and we've experienced a 10% cancellation rate by the owners of our rented villas, requiring quick action and excellent in-country contacts to ensure a trouble-free experience for our guests.
Travel outside of Havana is sparse, with few cars on the roads and fewer fuel stations, so a sense of adventure is a must. Rental cars can book out during high season, so book your car early. Bring a paper map as most American mobile phones still do not work in Cuba. Verizon and Sprint, currently the only US services that roam in Cuba, will set you back around $2 per megabyte. Intercity buses are available with limited departures, so you'll want to book in advance through Viazul. Since US credit cards are still not accepted, expect this to require some effort.
And finally, cash is still king. Bring as much as you think you will need, and then some, because if you run out of money, your ATM card will not yet work.
The city explorer is comfortable visiting an exotic city on their own, checking out local museums and attractions, sitting at cafes, and absorbing the local vibe. Not content to be on the outside looking in, these travelers seek opportunities to visit locations not easily navigable and enjoy experiences not easily found. Day tours are one way to satisfy this type of traveler, and while there is usually a fixed itinerary, there is also opportunity for unexpected surprises. We predict more of this kind of travel in the future as infrastructures are built within the Cuban hospitality system. Book your dinner reservations early, as the top paladares (private restaurants) are sometimes filling up weeks or months in advance.
With limited accommodations and Cuba more popular than ever, many visitors, including seasoned travelers, prefer to have a trusted tour company organize their-once-in-a-lifetime experience. This takes the stress out of the many logistics so they can fully engage with the Cuban people during this pivotal moment in history.
Quality tour companies build vital relationships with locals that enable insider access into the Cuban culture. With knowledgeable guides who are passionate about their culture, guests enjoy non-touristy, intimate, and often serendipitous experiences. And when things don't happen quite as expected - and this is the norm in Cuba - the guides smooth the way for Plans B, C and D.
The opportunity to fly commercially to Cuba later this year will lower the overall cost of your trip and shorten the amount of time it takes to get to the island. Book your tour well in advance, since tours are filling up quickly. And make sure to ask about the size of your tour group, as traveling in a group of 18-24 is a very different experience than exploring with a small group of 8-10.
While we're pretty sure almost anyone can find a way to make one of the 12 travel categories fit their Cuban itinerary, the fact is that relaxing at a beach resort is still not allowed. If your hope is to travel to Cuba to languish on the white sand beaches of Varadero, daiquiri in hand, you are out of luck for now. But stay tuned!
Lifting the restrictions on American travelers will welcome a new generation of visitors to Cuba, but finding "luxuries" like quality hotel rooms, fuel, or groceries at the store is not as simple as one might hope. Cuba has lived with limited resources for several decades and visitors must expect that if they go it alone there will be challenges. Whether you decide to venture on your own or explore with an experienced tour operator, traveling in Cuba right now is an incredible opportunity that you will never forget - one that may, in fact, change you forever.
Tamar Lowell is CEO of Access Trips, a culinary tour company operating licensed people-to-people tours in Cuba.
All images courtesy of Access Trips.