What to know before you go to Cuba

What To Know Before You Go To Cuba
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At Plaza de la Catedral.
At Plaza de la Catedral.

It wasn't until very recently that American travelers were allowed to visit Cuba legally. But since The U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) lifted some of the travel restrictions and granted People-to-People licenses to select tour operators in 2011, Americans have been traveling the short distance between the U.S. and Cuba in droves to participate in one-on-one cultural exchanges with Cuban people.

As more Americans learn about this fantastic travel opportunity, we've begun fielding questions about travel to Cuba. Travelers realize that Cuba is different from other destinations, and they have lots of questions about the rules (what is and isn't allowed) and how Americans are perceived after so many years of embargo-fueled shortages of just about everything. Here are some questions--and my replies--to a few of the most frequently asked questions about legal travel to Cuba.

Why should I visit Cuba?

After years of embargo, Cuba lives in a state of something like suspended animation. Time there has stood still, which is readily apparent as soon as you step off the plane. It's truly the shortest distance you'll ever travel to enter an entirely different world. But if you're open-minded and appreciate history, culture rich in art and music, resourcefulness in the extreme, and exquisite tropical scenery as a backdrop for classic automobiles, you'll fall in love with the island of Cuba.

You should visit Cuba if you are ready to engage, on a daily basis, with the people. This isn't a typical tour, with visits to the national monuments, shopping, and relaxing on the (gorgeous) Caribbean beaches. Instead, you'll spend your time meeting teachers, doctors, dancers, professors, farmers, young entrepreneurs, and more--in short, people from all walks of life. You'll engage with them in lively conversations about how they live and how you live. You'll exchange ideas about work, play, medical care, senior citizens, preschool education, the arts, food, and many other topics.

You'll also get to see how Cubans are learning to be entrepreneurs, despite their Communist system, in businesses such as restaurants (known as paladars) run by families. These are just a few of the reasons why you should visit Cuba. The fact that Cuba has been off limits to U.S. citizens for 60+ years and has been a symbol of "forbidden fruit" that avid travelers have been dying to taste goes without saying!

What are the people like in Cuba?

Cubans are passionate and welcoming people, who have a deep-rooted love of music, food, and sports. They are resilient and patient as they wait for their great Revolution to give them the many basics of life that are missing on the island. They are incredibly creative and resourceful, making due with very little. The streets in Cuba are surprisingly free of litter, but if you ask where the trash is, Cubans will smile and tell you they have nothing to throw away. They especially enjoy spirited conversation, but they prefer to avoid politics with visiting tourists. They suffer from the embargo, yet they welcome American citizens and have a great fondness for all things made in the U.S.

Kids in Cuba don't get to play with Xboxes or iPods, but they do learn to play sports, musical instruments, sing, dance, and engage in many cultural activities. As music is ingrained in the society, you'll find in every town a "casa de musica" where the locals gather in the evening (and in some places, all day long too) to play and listen to music, sing, dance, and socialize.

For the most part, people will reach out and help you wherever you are on the island. If you speak Spanish, it'll be amazingly easy for you to engage in conversations with people you've just met in a plaza, over a coffee, or on the street. If you don't speak Spanish, Cubans will do their best to understand you and make themselves understood. They are intensely proud of their heritage, but they aren't blind to their circumstances. More than anything, you'll discover that the Cuban people love having a good time, and it will be impossible for you to avoid having a good time with them.

What do Americans need to know about visiting Cuba?

In order to travel to Cuba from the United States, you'll need a passport that must be valid at least six months after your travel date. You'll also need a visa, which you'll get through your licensed travel program.

No vaccinations are required to enter Cuba. And although the food in most restaurants is generally safe to eat, we recommend that visitors drink only bottled water or prepackaged drinks.

Under current regulations enforced by OFAC, all licensed travelers to Cuba who are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are permitted to spend a maximum of $187 per day. If you're traveling on an inclusive tour, nearly all your expenses are pre-paid, hence a majority of your limit is accounted for. Travelers will be able to spend approximately $70 - $80 per day on non-included souvenirs, like clothing, trinkets, and beverages. Although there are monetary limits set for some items, there is no spending limit on books, art, sculptures, and paintings.

And forget about bringing home some of those hand-rolled cigars and rum. You can indulge as much as you want while you're in Cuba, but don't even consider packing any souvenir smokes or bottles for family and friends. Those items, along with coffee and other food items, are strictly banned by the embargo. But you can bring back as much art as you can carry, and believe me, you'll want to shop for art in Cuba. There are galleries galore in Havana and throughout the country, and you'll find some of the most talented artists selling magnificent pieces for substantially less than you would expect to pay elsewhere.

What do I need to do while in Cuba to comply with the People-to-People license?

As long as you participate in a tour with a licensed company, you won't have to worry about compliance. Your program is designed to include all the People-to-People activities you need, and as long as you don't go AWOL from your tour, you'll be fine. Per OFAC rules, travelers should keep a travel journal as a record of their trip. This is easy to do since licensed programs prepare detailed itineraries and these form the basis of the journal. It's crucial to document all of the educational excursions you go on, because this will help prove you traveled to Cuba for educational purposes, should you need to do so. You should store the journal somewhere safe in your home for at least five years after your trip, just as you keep your tax records and other financial receipts.

While you're in Cuba, you must participate fully in your tour program. That means you need to attend the meetings and other activities that are included by your tour provider. You can't "take a day off" and head to the beach, although you can certainly go for a swim once the daily activities have ended.

But from experience, I can assure you that going to the beach will never be as interesting or rewarding as the activities that are part of the People-to-People experience you've signed up for. In a way, it's ironic that the law makes you do the very things that every real traveler would want to do but couldn't under normal circumstances. Try to remember the last time you went to a new country and had a chance to visit kids in a school, chat with young dancers, observe entrepreneurs learning to engage in private business, and experience how life is actually lived--all while sharing thoughts and ideas about your own life in the U.S. All of this, and so much more, is what complying with the People-to-People license is all about.

If you're planning to visit Cuba and have questions of your own, I would be glad to try and answer them, or tell you where to get the answers you need. And if you're wondering if a trip to Cuba is worth it, the answer is a resounding YES!

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