Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to plan a Cuba trip without an organized tour

How to plan a Cuba trip without an organized tour
April 6, 2017 at 12:01 am

I've always been one to abide by the important rules. I carry car
insurance. I don't cheat on my taxes, and when I decided to visit Cuba,
I wanted to comply with the U.S. government regulations for travel to
the communist island.

That would have been easy to do had I taken an organized tour, but at
$5,000 to $10,000 a person for a week, it was beyond my budget. Instead,
I planned the trip myself and saved about $2,500 for each of us.

It took some patience and ingenuity. Much of the tourist information
online was geared toward those who aren't subject to the U.S
regulations. Also, internet service in Cuba is limited, so email
exchanges sometimes took several days.

Still, the trip was worth the effort. I didn't relax at one of the
all-inclusive beach resorts (an activity barred for U.S. travelers), but
because the trip focused on the Cuban culture and people, it was

If that sounds appealing, considering these tips:

Know the law

So far, President Trump has left in place the looser Cuba travel
regulations implemented in 2015.

Tourism remains banned, but visits that fall under 12 special categories
don't require filing for a license from the Treasury Department. Some of
the categories involve various professional exchanges; others include
family visits, educational, humanitarian or religious activities.

I traveled under the educational/people-to-people option, which required
that I "maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange
activities" and "meaningful interaction" that would "enhance" contact
with Cubans, promote their independence, or support "civil society."

The wording was vague enough that I looked for some clarification. I
reviewed the itineraries from the tours that cater to Americans, and I
also found some specific recommendations on a Cornell University Law
School website.

For instance, it said that a bike trip exploring Havana, with casual
conversations with shopkeepers, waiters and hotel staff wouldn't meet
the government's standards.

The visa required by the Cuban government was simple to obtain through
my American Airlines reservation. Upon booking my flight, its partner,, sent me the forms. It cost $50 for the visa
and $35 for processing,

Have a plan

My husband, daughter and I were traveling during the peak New Year's
week and found that many of the bed and breakfasts known as casas
particulares were full by early December. Airbnb is relatively new in
Cuba, so there are few reviews. We took our chances and found
comfortable rooms for as little as $25.

I wanted to set up activities before we left to ensure we met the
people-to-people requirements. I started with the tours and guides
listed on TripAdvisor, but again, most were booked. Working off the
list, I was finally able to set up three half-day tours in Havana to
look at the Art Deco architecture, the history of the mob and a rundown
on the religions and culture. These cost $35 per person.

We also decided to take some lessons at Havana Music. My daughter, who
plays trombone, studied Cuban jazz, and my husband and I learned some
percussion rhythms on wooden claves and the guiro gourd. Others we met
were studying piano and voice.

The staff also helped me set up a last-minute tour of Old Havana, which
cost about half the price of the other excursions. This outing relied on
public transportation rather than a vintage car, but there were lots of
other opportunities to ride in the 1950s-era Chevys.

You can't ask too many questions

Before the trip, I asked everyone I knew whether they had contacts in
Cuba. That led a friend of a friend to put us in touch with some people
who run a music cooperative in the city of Matanzas, about 55 miles east
of Havana and best known as the birthplace of danzón and rumba.

Our new Cuba friends were generous with their time and knowledge,
inviting us to their home, sharing their stories and taking us on a tour
of the city and its art galleries. They spoke English, but that's
unusual in Cuba.

Mission accomplished

It wasn't until we arrived in Cienfuegos, a city of neoclassical
architecture that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, that we
encountered tour buses.

As I watched the huge groups following dutifully behind their guide, I
realized they may have stayed in more comfortable hotels or had better
meals, though perhaps not.

More important, I doubted that a large group would have had the intimate
discussions about life and politics we had been able to enjoy. To me,
those made my trip a true "people-to-people" experience.

Source: How to plan a trip to Cuba without joining a tour -

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