Traveling to Cuba has been a hot topic for quite a while now. With the President’s latest announcement on travel restrictions, I thought Cuba might be a timely topic this week.
A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit my husband’s family in Cuba. His mother, father and most of his father’s family left in the early 1960’s but his mother’s family stayed. This was a very special trip for my husband since he had never met his cousins or aunt. For his Aunt Margarita’s 80th birthday, we ventured with his mother to Cuba. Following are pictures from our trip and an excerpt from a blog I wrote several years ago about our trip.
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My husband and I joined his cousins for a walk through the neighborhood where his mother grew up. Portions of most buildings were crumbling, while others stood proud, weathering the years much better. We saw the school his mother and aunt attended. The upper floor was for the children from the rich families; the lower floor was for the poor families. It still serves as a school today.
Signs in the neighborhoods of “Socialism or Death”, it becomes clear that we are seeing Cuba much differently than most tourists. There is no hot water in the majority of homes. We learned that families receive no milk once children in a household reach the age of 7; to buy powdered milk on the black market you pay $15/pound. A family is given 7 eggs a month; to buy eggs on the black market you pay anywhere from $2-3 per egg. Shelves in the grocery stores are bare and little to no meat available. I wandered through three different stores, wondering what I could pull together to make a meal if I had to – and came up empty. Finding bread on a daily basis is no better. One day we found none and resorted to eating cookies for breakfast. Always a fan of sweets, this didn’t concern me, but I couldn’t imagine living like this every day. What really bothered me was that we saw an abundance of chickens, goats and cows, yet there were no eggs, chicken to eat, milk or red meat. Cuba is surrounded by ocean, yet where is the fish? Where does all this food go? Government officials? Embassy officials? Tourist hotels? Tourist restaurants? Your guess is as good as mine. The life of a Cuban and the life of a tourist are in such contrast it is surreal.
Old Havana is beautiful, but here you find more of the same. Some buildings restored, others crumbling and people living in homes that are falling down around them, with electrical wiring that scared even me. This building was a convent, built in the late 1800’s. It was turned into apartments sometime in the 1920’s and people still live there today.
But if you stay on the path that most tourists do, you will see things such as The National Hotel, a favorite amongst tourists, where the rich and famous stay and food is abundant; the Malecon, where people take leisurely strolls; and all the grand buildings that have been restored. One will also pass by the old fort, art galleries and tourists shops.
You will find music everywhere – in restaurants, in the streets, in the plazas.
I’m sure most tourists are also driven through Miramar, where the grand old homes are impeccable and most occupied by government and embassy officials. Unbelievable what a difference a couple of blocks can make.
We also visited Varadero, a beach community about two hours from Old Havana. Beautiful vistas abound on the drive, striking green hillsides and turquoise blue waters. Varadero has an abundance of tourist resorts, most just a few years old and others under construction.
When I think about what we saw and what we experienced, I am still at a loss for words. A harder life in general with limited opportunities; the daily struggles of life. How do these people continue to do it? Despite all of this, it is amazing to see that the people, overall, are very positive about the future of Cuba. Once again, I have been dealt a lesson in perspective. And I more thankful than ever for what we have and the opportunities that await.
Oh, Cuba….how haunting you are; how glamorous you once were. What if history had been different?
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So what about traveling to Cuba today? What restrictions will be coming into place? Here’s a brief summary as it has been described these last few days:
Obama allowed U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba under 12 different categories which included education, religious reasons, journalism and family visits, but tourism was still prohibited. Trump is eliminating the people-to-people trips, which helped Americans go to Cuba on their own. Here are the important points you should be aware of:
- Americans will only be able to visit Cuba as part of a tour group if you want to go for educational purposes, and it must be approved through the Treasury Department
- Any financial transaction that benefit the Cuban military’s business is prohibited – which includes many hotels, restaurants and other entities
- There could be increased enforcement, either from customs agents at the airport or through audits occurring after travel (hold on to your receipts)
- All visitors will be required to maintain full schedules while in Cuba and keep detailed logs for five years
- The Treasury Department will be conducting regular audits of travelers
- Anyone caught violating Cuban sanctions could face civil or criminal penalties, with fines up to $65,000 per violation
Please note: this list may or may not be all-inclusive, as no official restrictions have been drafted yet
Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines were quick to send out statements immediately clarifying their cruises that include Cuba ports all meet the new government restrictions. Land providers are making changes to ensure they will comply with the new restrictions as well. Treasury and Commerce have 30 days to start drafting the new rules and changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued. The State Department plans on publishing a list of prohibited hotels and businesses.
If you already have a trip to Cuba scheduled, you can proceed as long as the new regulations aren’t in effect.
A trip to Cuba is still one of those once in a lifetime experiences for people from the U.S. It’s a startling contrast to see a country that has almost stood still in time. If you have any interest in going, now is the time to see Cuba before it undergoes even more modern-day changes. Or before all travel is restricted once again.
Our biggest advice to anyone wanting to travel to Cuba is to call your travel agent. Please make sure you are booking a trip that meets all qualifications so you don’t face criminal charges or penalties down the road. A travel agent will ensure that any arrangements meet the travel restrictions and the tour providers are reliable and financially stable.
Don’t have a travel agent? We’d love to help you. Visit our website at http://www.takeoffandgo.com for the latest travel deals and to contact us!