Yes, America, You Can Get to Cuba from the United States
By Mary Minor Davis
On a recent trip to Havana to attend a jazz festival, my husband and I were amazed at the vast number of people in the United States who do not realize you can still fly commercial airlines directly from America to the Caribbean’s last Communist bloc.
Robert Curley succinctly summarizes the history of Cuban travel embargos in a recent article published last August. Since then, the Trump Administration closed access to all Cuban airports by US commercial airlines except for Havana, and in January further called for all US corporate and charter flights to cease flying to Cuba from the United States by the end of March.
It’s no wonder people looked at us in confusion when we told them we were off on a vacation to Cuba!
While it is true that you must obtain a visa to travel to Cuba, there are 12 categories that provide Americans the opportunity to do so. “Support for the Cuban people” is the broadest description and is generally used by most of the Americans we ran in to during our eight-day stay. What this means is that visitors commit to staying at a Casa particular, or private home, and try to visit paladares, or privately owned restaurants. It is difficult to know the difference between the two types of restaurants, especially in the busier tourists areas in Havana. There are a couple of good books to help guide you, including our favorite, “Best Eats Havana”, by Fernanddo Saralegui. It provides information on pricing, whether eateries are paladares or government-run operations.
For lodging, there are many casa particulares listed on Air BnB and other online vacation rental sites, as well as tours and activities you can purchase to add to your experience. This is highly recommended since you cannot use credit cards in Cuba; everything must be paid for in Cuban currency, known as Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP), or Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).
We booked our travel from the US to Cuba on Southwest Airlines, which can also issue your Visa (we completed the request online and received our Visas in less than a week). Cuba requires all international visitors to have Cuban health insurance; our ticket on Southwest included the fee to cover us while we were in country.
It is worth noting that Cuba is a very inexpensive vacation, with apartments renting for as little as $23 per night per person (our Air BnB was an apartment shared by seven of us in five bedrooms). Meals and beverages will average $25-$35 per day per person depending on how much you imbibe! Your airfare will be your highest expense.
Once you arrive in Cuba, you will quickly discover how easy it is to meet the terms of the visa. In Havana, the dining scene offered a wide array of choices throughout the city. As you moved further away from the downtown area, there were more affordable eateries that offered homemade, authentic Cuban cuisine, local pizza restaurants and a few higher end restaurants with extensive wine lists. Visiting the neighborhoods also allows you to have the experience of ducking in to a local bar and enjoying a Cuba Libre with the locals. You have the chance to experience the lives of Cubans as they interact with their neighbors and families in the narrow streets, talking together, playing ball or just sitting out and enjoying the balmy weather. More often than not, we were greeted with “Hola!” as we passed, or invited to stop for a few moments and engage in conversation about where we were from as we shared pictures of our home state.
Havana is a very walkable city and we tried to walk as much as possible! We found everyone to be welcoming and helpful if they could see that we were not sure of the direction we were heading. We felt safe walking the streets day or night, stopping along the way to pet one of the many stray dogs who eagerly accepted our affection (and scraps of food I often kept in a doggie bag I carried with me when we went out).
If you get tired of walking, there are plenty of sources of transportation that are very inexpensive including taxis by both car or bicycle, and of course, the classic cars that fill the streets. You’ll pay a little more for the classics but the drivers are very knowledgeable and can enhance your experience with their knowledge — and love — of Havana and Cuba as a whole. We took a taxi to the closest beach, Playa del Este, about 30 minutes outside of the city and enjoyed the beautiful sea and sand on two separate days. Always ask what the fare will be before you agree to a ride.
The history, the culture, the food, the music, the people — Cuba seduced us with all of these and so much more. On our next trip, we hope to go further in to the island to explore the shores, forests and more.