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Traveling to Cuba is safe, easy and legal for Americans

Traveling to Cuba is safe, easy and legal for Americans

Jan 21st, 2019, 06:48 AM
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Traveling to Cuba is safe, easy and legal for Americans

I thought I would create a new thread, but with same answer I just posted in an older thread that I started a few months ago.
Short answer: Go. Make your arrangements without worry. It is safe, legal and easy.

Longer answer: It seems there are at least two issues that makes travel to Cuba confusing for first timers. First, the rules seem to change every year or two. We were there in November, so I think we are current with things. Second, the US State Department seems to want to discourage tourists from going, but that seems to be "political" rather than law. When we read their and other websites before we went we were confused as to what's what. Its not a problem though.

Southwest Air and other US airlines fly there every day, so it made me wonder "just how illegal could it be then?". All you need is a regular US passport. When you get tp the Florida airport, just ahead of your flight the airline opens a little booth to sell "Cuban Tourist Cards". These are informally called "visas" but I don't think they are visas in the traditional sense of the word. It took 5 minutes and costs $50. I suppose you need to have one but no one in Cuba even asked to see it, your mileage may vary so you should get one. Once in Cuba, the immigration people look as bored as anywhere else and don't care you are from the US. Cuba is a great place to visit. I suggest people spend a few days there to get a feel for what its like to live in a socialist run country. As others have said, many streets look dangerous at night, but street crime seems very rare there. My wife and I walked anywhere that looked interesting and never were bothered, other than street musicians coming up to us in some bars and playing bad music until we paid them to go away, but even that was fun. We took a local bike tour and got insiders view of life in Cuba. The locals do not recommend life in Cuba as everyone is paid between $25 and $50/month. Its a great place to visit but our experience doubled down our appreciation for living in the states.

As stated, do not stay in hotels owned by the government. We stayed in an airbnb in Old Havana for $60/night; the landlord's mom cooked breakfast for us for $7/person; it was enough food for breakfast and lunch and was very good. Everyone we met was lovely. My wife kept a list of local places we visited as indeed we were there for "support of the Cuban people", just in case we were asked about what we did there. When we got back to Florida and were exiting customs the US official asked why we were in Cuba. "Support for the Cuban people". He said OK, did you buy any cigars (I think you can buy up to 15). We had not bought any, so he let us through and that was it.

I highly recommend you go. Best wishes.

Mack Stud

Last edited by Moderator1; Jan 21st, 2019 at 08:25 AM. Reason: moved to Caribbean forum
mackstud is offline  
Jan 21st, 2019, 07:28 AM
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Thank you, but this should be in the travel forums, not the lounge.
sylvia3 is online now  
Jan 21st, 2019, 10:51 AM
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LucieV is offline  
Jan 21st, 2019, 03:53 PM
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Good and timely report, Mack. The current administration’s efforts to discourage travel to Cuba has worked, even with minimal changes to the rules for travel. Some airlines are flying mostly empty planes, based on press reports.

We went to Havana in 2017 before the rule changes, stayed in an airbnb, walked miles of “sketchy” looking streets we might avoid elsewhere, and had a wonderful few days. We went to a Beatles themed night club where the cover band was top notch and the locals knew every word of every Beatles song. We found a guy with a beautiful 1950’s Chevrolet (via an orphanage that we brought gifts for), and he was our driver/guide for part of our visit at a pice that was good for him AND good for us.

If you like old cars, this is your chance to go back in time. We also took so many fabulous photos, not only of cars, but of beautiful architecture, some of which is unfortunately crumbing away.
whitehall is offline  
Jan 22nd, 2019, 05:55 AM
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Originally Posted by whitehall View Post
The current administrationís efforts to discourage travel to Cuba has worked, even with minimal changes to the rules for travel. Some airlines are flying mostly empty planes, based on press reports.
It seems odd that the current administration is attempting to discourage travel to Cuba, if it's true that Americans visiting Cuba come home confirmed in their conviction that living in the USA is a blessing.
As the OP states: The locals do not recommend life in Cuba as everyone is paid between $25 and $50/month. Its a great place to visit but our experience doubled down our appreciation for living in the states.
LucieV is offline  
Jan 22nd, 2019, 06:50 AM
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Originally Posted by LucieV View Post
It seems odd that the current administration is attempting to discourage travel to Cuba, if it's true that Americans visiting Cuba come home confirmed in their conviction that living in the USA is a blessing.
As the OP states: The locals do not recommend life in Cuba as everyone is paid between $25 and $50/month. Its a great place to visit but our experience doubled down our appreciation for living in the states.
You are correct that we do come home even more appreciative of what we have. However, we also came away surprised that we didn't feel like we were being watched by someone; that the local police seemed young, harmless and more interested in checking drivers to make sure their many licenses (taxes) are in order. Our "taxi" driver showed us something like a dozen separate permits he had to carry. We talked to a lot of local people, some of it via our English speaking driver/guide. Based on those discussions, we also came away understanding that many, if not most, of the people there are relatively happy with what they have, and they are not interested in moving to the US (except maybe if they have a family member they want to join).

Perhaps it was my growing up in the 60's with a best friend, who was from a prominent Cuban refugee family, but I don't think I was the only one who has been told by multiple administrations that Cuba's repression made this a police state that might be difficult to visit. In fact, didn't we evacuate part of our Embassy there over concerns about alleged microwave attacks there fairly recently? And, you hear little about the apparent truth that this sonic attack was probably only crickets. Finding out that the people there are relatively happy, have ways to earn extra money, and don't have the stress of mortgages, tuition and the other bills many have here might not be a message that the current administration wants to get out. And, even though there are concerns about anything south these days, why would the current administration want us to know how a relatively gun-free, but impoverished society, has so little crime and violence?

Last edited by whitehall; Jan 22nd, 2019 at 07:49 AM.
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Jan 22nd, 2019, 07:36 AM
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Very interesting, whitehall. Thank you for that perspective, which seems quite different from that of the OP, at least vis-a-vis quality of life as perceived by the "locals".
LucieV is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2019, 06:44 AM
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Thanks for the comments Whitehall. Obviously, it depends on who one talks to and then how you interpret what they say, just like what happened in front of the Lincoln Memorial the other day. I just interviewed a residency applicant the other day who participated in the University of Miami assessments of diplomatic personnel reportedly hurt at the Havana embassy. It will be interesting to see if it turns out they were victims of a superweapon or chirping crickets, but my money is on the latter.

My main sources of information about life in Cuba came from our airbnb landlord, our bicycle guide, and a waitress/recent emigre from Cuba who we met at the Tampa airport restaurant, and a person here or there.

The landlord is allowed to work construction in England 6 months a year, which is how he got money to buy and renovate an Old Havana apartment. He is making money off it but isn't allowed to buy a second unit as it would be showing off. He and his mother are angry at grandfather for donating their family farm to the government 50 years ago. "What an idiot"!

The bicycle guide showed us his ration book. He gets 7 pounds of rice a month, one half kilo of chicken and some cooking oil. He gets free tuition. That's it. Otherwise, he says in Havana it is impossible to buy an apartment or a car unless you do something illegal or are hooked up with the Commies/government. He was making $25/month as a full time teacher, now makes $100/day most days doing bike tours. We asked him about his permit to do this and he has none; "the cops turn their head for now but any day they could arrest me". He says everyone he knows lives with family. If he wants the apartment to himself and his girlfriend, he pays his brother and uncle (the owner) to leave for a couple hours.

The Florida waitress said she just was allowed to emigrate from Cuba. Her aunt and uncle just got out of a Cuban jail after 1.5 years "for having too much red meat"; they were snitched on by a neighbor. She said people in Havana were rich because they got $25/month; out in the countryside they apparently get $10. We went to a cigar farm out in Vinlayas (sp?) where they explained that the government takes 90% of the crop each year.

Yes, the locals we met seemed happy, because one learns to live with what they have, and you can't terribly miss what you never had. But every person we met seemed eager to get to America or Europe and willingly take on the stresses of everyday life there.

Mack Stud
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Jan 23rd, 2019, 08:22 AM
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Thank you for your thoughtful post. I don’t think the variations between our observations is so much who we talked to but perhaps the mixed messages that we found there. And, nothing I say defends, in any way, the lack of freedom or other hardships that many Cubans experience.

Yes, you are correct that happiness or content sometimes can be the result of a comfortable situation, simply being at home, with family and what someone is used to. We attended a local festival for children, went to the heavily subsidized (used to be free) ice cream park, and, as I mentioned, the Yellow Submarine nightclub. We saw and talked to some of these fun-loving people at these events (in some cases, as best as we could communicate).

We spoke to maybe a dozen people at length, admittedly many via our driver who obviously does well in the Cuban economy (nice antique car, a home an hour outside Havana, and time to devote helping an orphanage which brought us together). I don’t think he identified as a “commie” and had many criticisms of government, but he was optimistic of the changes that have allowed more entrepreneurship, and he seemed to know how to work his way around the system’s many imperfections and limits.

He introduced us to a friend who owned a very successful restaurant that was a house, turned into a rather large and elaborate place in a Havana area not far from where Cubans still proudly display the remains of one of our U2 planes they shot down. This friend may be a “commie”, since he honors Raul Castro with a large photo on his business sign, but his staff seemed like they could be in any restaurant USA.

The one theme we heard was that they all have issues, but they told us most of their family and friends want to stay in Cuba, a country they are proud of. Fidel is still a hero (although it’s hard to defend something as obvious as his executions of political opponents; and we heard over and over how proud they are of their free medical system (which most people agree has some bright spots); and their free educational system.

At the time we were there, which was two years ago, those who were doing well, our landlord, our driver, and their friends seemed full of hope with the direction things were taking. This was when the upward trend of tourism peaked.They had just added a fleet of fancy tour buses to meet cruise ships; a fleet of new taxicabs that park near the Hotel Nacional (we didn’t like that from our selfish view that we wanted Havana to stay in the 1950’s for our enjoyment). Perhaps the decline in tourism and the return to more cold war dialogue has blunted some of the optimism since we were there.
whitehall is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2019, 09:37 AM
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Mackstud/Whitehall - how interesting to read about both your trips and your impressions of Cuba.

I think that I can echo the experiences that both of you had, in one way or another. We were there for 3 weeks exactly 3 years ago, and though as Brits we didn't have to comply with US laws, we still had to apply for the "tourist card" which as they are not sold at UK airports involved sending £63 in postal orders to the Cuban Embassy in London which gave our cornish postmistress a bit of a laugh as not many people buy postal orders at all any more, and certainly not to send them to the Cuban Embassy. She was very impressed when I told her that they had arrived within a week.

I recall that when we got there there were people with immigration forms [which in retrospect were probably the same as the tourist cards, but they were free, so possibly not - they asked for exactly the same information,] so we filled them in anyway while we waited for our luggage and then handed them in as we left to an official who had got studied disinterest down to a fine art.

We stayed in casas particulares in the main, which were a great way of meeting some locals and fellow tourists [we met people from over 20 nationalities in our 3 weeks, and by met I mean talked to; sadly I can't count any of the americans we came across who were all in organised groups and didn't seem to mix with any other tourists] but we did splash out on a hotel in one place where it was nice to have soft towels and rather more comfortable beds and bedding. The owner of the casa we stayed in in Havana helped us to book places round the rest of Cuba which I'm not sure I would recommend as a general method of finding accommodation, TBH, but you live and learn. We stayed in nice areas in some places, and pretty ropy areas in others, in fact the first casa in Vinales was so ropy that we decamped after one night and found another, but like you both we never felt unsafe, not even in Centrale in Havana.

The impression we had was that anyone who could get access to the tourist "dollar" did so, in order to supplement the very basic government wages. We met several people [taxi drivers, one casa owner] who had given up professional jobs in order to work in tourism. They had nice houses, electrical equipment, american style fridges, and best of all, cars of their own, mostly 10 year old Fiats etc. The husband of our first casa owner was thrilled when a group of Slovakian salsa dancers turned up with their luggage full of parts for his car, but was less thrilled when it turned out that one of the essential parts was missing, but someone else who was going to be visiting a month later was going to be entrusted with it so disaster was averted. People seemed quite hopeful while we were there but it was difficult to tell because there is no reason why they should be honest with us. And there were definitely problems with basic supplies like water - when we were in Santa Clara they had run out, and when we went back through there a few days later en route to Havana, the situation had not improved.

It's a place that works on who you know - our casa owner knew other casa owners [this didn't always work!] and taxi drivers, and guides etc. etc. but there were some things that were inexplicable, like the time that the local bank rejected my £50 notes "because the system was down" [though I think that the real reason was that they'd never seen a £50] but the Cadeca round the corner changed them with no problem at all [and had air con!]. And organising transport was pretty hit or miss - we mainly found out about buses by accident. And then there is the plethora of tourist offices all of which seem to do something slightly different but never talk to each other. And the one place we stayed where we were informed that there were no excursions at all - what was that about? And the lack of computerisation was startling - when was the last time you saw anyone use carbon paper? [though OTOH the most popular evening pursuit was for people to gather around the local internet point and try to log in on their laptops - Apple is very popular]

Our main problem was with our tummies - I think that one or other of us had problems to one degree or another almost the whole time. Someone here told us to take 3x the amount of diarrhoea medication than we thought we'd need and we used all of it.

Even so we had a great time and I'd happily go again.
annhig is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2019, 10:15 AM
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Another excellent perspective.

I noticed that, in the last month or two, Cuba has rolled out 3G internet services on mobile phones and 70,000 people now have home internet. A lot slower, and less reliable, than we have become used to, but perhaps an epic change there.

Besides the seeming lack of much police or military presence, (except for the shy-looking young men I mentioned), I did take notice of the security at the airport. Not the security getting on a plane but the security to come into the country. I am not used to going through screening upon arrival into a country, but they doit there. And, most of their security personnel were all young, attractive women in short khaki uniformed skirts. A leftover from Fidel’s lothario style?

We stayed in an airbnb that was a spacious apartment on a high floor of a modern high-rise overlooking the sea. We had a hard time dismissing the very nice and helpful cook/maid, who spoke little English, so we could get on with our first day. We soon guessed that she came with the place; she would pretend to say goodbye, but we eventually discovered a lockout bedroom and bath (even a second elevator maybe for service people) off the kitchen. Not disclosed but a surprise extra in a $60 luxury apartment.

When we first met our driver (whose tip was a generic cell phone that we brought with us), we asked him to show us only restaurants where we would not get sick. And, for us, that seemed to work. Our daughter was braver, buying pizza at a walk-up place that sold pizza for 13 pesos. And, it was a place for locals which accepted the peso designed for locals. Not the “tourist” peso that equals a dollar but something like 4 or 5 cents. We noticed that some places took both, such as the cover charge at the Beatles night club. I guess we could have tried to pay there with the one worth 4-5 cents, but we felt that even tourist prices were fair, and we wanted to be a positive contributor.

We also would be happy to return.
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