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DIY Cuba - US Citizens - Havana + Viñales or Trinidad?

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Jul 1st, 2016, 11:20 AM
  #1
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DIY Cuba - US Citizens - Havana + Viñales or Trinidad?

Planning a winter holiday trip for our family - we're a fairly active empty nester couple w/ two 20- something sons. I'm fluent in Spanish and the others have a good working knowledge. Since the restrictions changed in March, it now seems relatively easy to book everything ourselves. I spent a month in Cuba in the 80s for a cultural exchange, and am hoping to use my old connections as well as friends of friends to set up some people-to-people encounters.

Thinking of 4 nights Havana, plus 2 nights in Viñales or Trinidad. We'd like to take a private tour to the one we choose - interested in hiking, waterfalls, scenery and music. Viñales seems more doable because it's closer...Pros and cons of each? Recs for a driver/local tour company? Would also love to hear from US citizens who have organized visits themselves (within the last few months, after the rules changed).
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Jul 1st, 2016, 07:23 PM
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Indeed, things have changed: Just booked a hotel in Viñales using a US issued Amex. I also put one of the new AA flights to Cienfuegos on hold, although we'll probably wait until the Havana flights are approved. And I contacted a local tour guide to get an official 'people to people' itinerary, but I don't think that is even necessary at this point.

Would love to hear if anyone else has booked independently.
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Jul 7th, 2016, 10:50 AM
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Following... I just returned from my summer holiday and am planning the next one, this time in Cuba!
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Jul 8th, 2016, 05:44 PM
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I know many people who have gone on organized tours, as well as Europeans or Canadians have gone on their own, but still haven't heard of any Americans who have planned their own trip.
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Jul 9th, 2016, 10:32 AM
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hi crosscheck,

I know that I'm not from the US but I was in Cuba fairly recently including 3 nights in Vinales and 4 in Trinidad.

I think that with the length of time you've got, if you are going to fly into Havana and spend 4 nights were, Vinales is a better idea than Trinidad - by the time you'd got to Trinidad it would almost be time to go back.

However if you can fly into Cienfuegos, I would spend a couple if nights there, and then on the way to Trinidad [it's only an hour's drive or so] go to the waterfall that's about half-way between the two. [i forget the name] and spend the rest of your time in Trinidad.

As I understand the rules for US travellers, it is open to you to plan your own "person to person" trip which can include all the sorts of things you'd be doing anyway, except perhaps the beach. These are however US rules - the cubans don't give a fig what you do when you get there so long as you abide by their laws of course!
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Jul 12th, 2016, 11:54 AM
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amy, Please let me know what you decide to do. The situation seems to be changing every day.

annhig, I was hoping to hear from you. We are clearly in a grey area before the onslaught of insane US tourism that will forever change Cuba.

We decided that Cienfuegos is too much of a schlep (a 5 hour drive from Havana) - seems a bit much for a 6-day trip.

So I now have flights on hold from Miami to Varadero (2 hours from Havana) on American. I also booked a Havana hotel, which we will have to pay for w/ cash, but that might change by December.

The hotel in Havana is outrageously priced for what it is, but still way less than what we would pay for a tour. I considered airbnbs, but I think our boys will want a pool. Of course we will be tempted to go to the beach, but will resist

For the people to people requirement, we will hire local guides, but I can't imagine getting hassled by the US govt. since we will legitimately meet people in the arts...and, as you pointed out, many of the scheduled people-to-people tours seem to feature cigar rolling and rum tasting.
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Jul 12th, 2016, 01:36 PM
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hi crosscheck - do you want to post which hotel you've booked in Havana? there is a lot of dross at high prices and what look like nice places at far less. But you're right, prices in Havana can be outrageous.

The one thing you don't have to worry about is taking cash - it is very safe. However at the moment the advice for US travellers is to take Canadian $ or € as changing U$ attracts big charges. Whether that will still be the case in December, who knows? if they drop the excessive charges on U$ cards by them, you might even be able to access ATMs which are definitely the best option. If not, changing money at a bank or a Cadeca [the cuban version of an exchange bureau come bank] is you only option. They require notes to be perfect - no tears or bits missing and even then they might reject them - we had some £50s rejected in one bank only to have them changed without any problem in the nearby Cadeca. [I think that the bank had never seen a £50 note].

I agree that if you are flying into Havana Cienfuegos and Trinidad are too far in such a short trip. Many people fly in Varedo and go to Havana though - that should be pretty easy to organise.

When you are in Havana, you can't avoid "people to people" contact - step out of your hotel and that's what you'll get! But if you want to hire guides, I won't try to dissuade you.
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Jul 12th, 2016, 02:19 PM
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Hi annhig, We booked the Mercure Sevilla in Havana and the Jazmines in Viñales. I wanted the Saratoga or Parque Central but one was sold out and the other was twice the rate of the Sevilla. I believe those are the only three with rooftop pools in Old Havana.

I'm not that concerned about paying for incidentals with cash, but the hotel is a hefty amount. (We were able to prepay the one in Viñales but not in Havana.) We have Euros because we go to Europe so often, so we thought we'd bring those. We also had the idea of borrowing a relative's Canadian credit card - Do you remember if people asked you for ID with purchases?

We have to stay in Miami on both ends of the trip, but otherwise the logistics don't seem too daunting. I do want to book a few drivers in advance through a tour company so we have some sort of on-the-ground support.
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Jul 12th, 2016, 02:48 PM
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Crosscheck - I had the Jazmines on my radar but left it too late to book, so well done. The views are great and the HOHO bus stops there so if you haven't got a car or don't want to drive it's an excellent choice.

I don't remember being asked for ID with purchases - in fact I'm pretty certain that I wasn't but I don't think I'd feel comfortable using someone else's card especially in Cuba - you really don't want to end up in jail there. [or anywhere else come to that]. Honestly, carrying cash is not a problem - that would be my preference.

re the Hotel Mercure Sevilla, the map shows that it's on the outskirts of Veija [nothing wrong with that] quite close to the Museo de la Revolucion so well placed for seeing Centrale as well.

https://www.google.co.uk/maps/uv?hl=...vyAFIQoioIfDAK

[BTW you can get a great citron presse in the cafe in the museum, but the loos are dreadful!]

Vieja is organised on a grid system - O'Reilly and Obrapia are great streets for shopping [who knew?] - and there is a terrific artisan market on Obrapia ? at the Centrale end. There are also shops where you can buy rum quite cheaply and all sorts of other interesting things.

Walk further south into Vieja and you get to the more touristy bit - but still a lot of fun - and of course you have to visit one of the cafes in the Plaza Vieja where all the bands play [they play everywhere else too!] You would not believe that you can get bored of hearing "Guantalamera" but you can! While we were don't there we came across the camera obscura which was surprisingly good - you buy the tickets from the little booth at the northern end of the square. The micro-brewery is on the other corner of the square and the food is surprisingly good as is the beer but the music was too loud for us. Finally the best coffee to drink [and beans to buy - hence the queues!] are from the cafe on the south-east corner. We brought back 2 kilos and wish we'd bought more.

ok, hope that helps - keep the questions coming!
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Jul 12th, 2016, 06:54 PM
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Wow - can't believe they have a HOHO bus! Your Havana info is just perfect. There were certainly no artisan markets the last time I was there!

My main question is whether to wait for the approved commercial flights to Havana or book the Varadero flight now. Of course nobody has a crystal ball, but I feel as if the HAV flights will be up and running by the fall. I'm wondering where all the travelers will stay!
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Jul 13th, 2016, 12:31 PM
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I'm wondering where all the travelers will stay!>>

that was our question too crosscheck. if you've read the start of my TR you'll have seen that we ran into trouble as we had wrongly assumed that we'd have no difficulty finding places to stay as we went; actually once we got away from the tourist hot spots I think that was probably true but that's not where the US tourists are going to be; they are going to be in Havana, Vinales and Trinidad and possibly at Varadero or other beach resorts along the north coast. The lovely beach that we went to at Cayo Santa Maria [which we only learnt about from a cab driver in Havana!] is at the end of a long isthmus which is covered with hotels full mainly with Canadians who fly into an airport which has been built on that coast to service them. you even had to go through a check point and show your passport to get there - no local tourists allowed, sadly.

However to return to Vinales the HOHO bus was very good, and a real bargain at $5 pp person for all day whereas the "guided walk" we had into the national park was a rip off; I can't see why you can't just go for a walk and our aussie friends did just that. BTW don't listen to the taxi drivers who tell you that the HOHO bus has been cancelled or left early or....whatever. There are timetables at the stops and you just need to wait for the next one. You could I think also walk down into Vinales from the hotel Jazmine and then get a cab back if you wanted to eat in the town in the evening. And don't miss the night time mobile take away pina colada maker in the centre of Vinales - $2 a glass.

There is also [are you sitting down?] a HOHO bus in Havana. In fact there are two! one costs $10 pp and goes west out to Vedado and Playa, servicing the hotels out there, the aqaurium, and the cemetery; the other one costs $20 pp and goes over to the other side of the river to Casablanca. We didn't do that one as we thought that it was too expensive - the boat across costs virtually nothing [though if you have health and safety concerns it might not be for you] and when we needed a cab back as DH wasn't feeling well, it cost less than $10. Anyway the HOHO buses go from Parque Centrale just on front of the hotel. Also in that area are some of the beautifully restored american cars which you can hire for an hour for about $30 -40 or so. [it's worth bargaining a bit but don't try too hard as we found that they got the hump!]

Going back to the artisan market, there were some very nice things; we were particularly taken by the girl who makes jewellery out of forks and spoons. We saw them one day but weren't sure so said we'd go back and she was so thrilled to see us again when we did, as I think lots of people must say that and never do. And my friend at home who is a jewellery maker was thrilled with her fork bracelet!

As for flights, who can tell. My feeling is that they will sell out very quickly when they are released but who knows?
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Jul 14th, 2016, 06:52 AM
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I believe that technically the "people to people" category is still only open to those traveling with organized groups; it is not a valid choice for individuals. The other categories of the 12 can be selected by individuals. You are technically required to keep a record of your activities for (US government) inspection for 5 years.
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Jul 14th, 2016, 07:56 AM
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As of March, individuals can now plan their own 'people to people' tours. We are arranging events with some of the people friends have met on organized tours and also hiring a local tour operator to oversee our excursions. The only stipulation is that you keep a record of your activities.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifes...74e_story.html
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Jul 14th, 2016, 01:27 PM
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Legal Reasons to Visit:
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 export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines


The people-to-people tours or individuals putting together their own similar travel fall under the category of "educational activities."
"Support for the Cuban people" is actually a very narrow category in which you travel to Cuba with an international organization dedicated to promoting peace and democracy. That one would have to be a highly structured trip and not possible to do on your own.
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Jul 14th, 2016, 02:07 PM
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and you point is, Sambachula?

Crosscheck knows the regulations and is going to comply with them.
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Jul 14th, 2016, 05:37 PM
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SambaChula, you have copied and pasted my words from another board, beginning with "The people-to-people tours or individuals ..." You're taking my words there and using them out of context here. They have nothing to do with this situation. It does sound as if crosscheck is preparing a legal trip.
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Jul 14th, 2016, 06:48 PM
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Well, I guess I was misunderstanding. Private US citizens can now organize their own educational tours? I understood the concept of "educational" to be quite narrow, according to the US government's official definition, limited by being affiliated with a recognized educational institution and attending a recognized educational institution/program in Cuba.
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Jul 14th, 2016, 07:25 PM
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"Educational activities" is the broadest category and, realistically, it's the only one that most Americans can make happen. It became more open this year with the allowance that individuals could construct their own people-to-people activities.

The "Support for the Cuban people" category has much more stringent requirements than going there and talking to people on the street and breaking out into a chorus of "Getting to Know You."
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Jul 14th, 2016, 08:29 PM
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Thanks, Jeff and annhig, Yes, look for us in doing a conga line through the streets with all of our new amigos. No naps in the afternoon - just lectures!

SambaChula, Mr. Crosscheck and I work in the arts and we do intend to meet some of our Cuban counterparts and also check out the Hemingway stuff, go to a baseball game, etc. so I think we're cool. But at this point I think we'd be fine no matter what.

We have friends who are going about a month before us. They organized a self-guided tour through a UK travel agency and booked their own charter. The common wisdom is to keep a list of the locals you cross paths with. If you click on any of my trip reports, you'll see that we're the type of travelers who end up being invited to the homes of artisans we meet, or spending time in the kitchen of a restaurant, or playing soccer with locals, so I'm not very concerned.

It was a different story the last time I was there as part of a cultural exchange (in the late 80s). Cuba was still under Soviet control. Nobody had ever met an American. People would ask "Are you from Spain? Chile? Argentina? Uruguay? Italy?" They would guess every European and South American country until I usually said I was from Canada (even though Canadians only went to the beaches at that time). If I did mention the US people immediately thought I was part of the CIA. There were no stores, no restaurants and only a few hotels in Havana. Anyone could rent a car with US cash, which was curiously the currency of choice for travelers. We ended up driving all over the island - with no maps...quite an adventure. Expecting everything to be a lot different now, but not as different as it will be in five years.

I still haven't heard about other Americans who have booked a trip independently, but going at the height of the holiday season is my primary concern. Will report back.
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Jul 15th, 2016, 01:24 PM
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crosscheck - travelling independently you will meet a lot of cubans - not just in bars and restaurants but also in museums; for example we had a wonderful tour of an obscure but most interesting museum in Spiritus Sancti during which we learnt not only about the journey made by a group led by a cuban scientist from the source of the Amazon to the West indies but also quite a lot about the museum guide as well.

They are probably a lot more open now than they were when you were there over 25 years ago but I suspect that you will also find people a lot keener on "tips" too, often for doing nothing at all! Still, who can blame them? the tourist CUC [1 CUC = 1 U$] is highly prized and those with access to it seem to have a standard of living noticeably higher than that of those who are wholly reliant on their cuban salaries.

you will also meet a lot of people of other nationalities - we talked to people from over 20, excluding other brits and cubans. But not, interestingly, any americans.
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