This week, the Trump administration announced that they were “cancelling” the Obama administration’s policy of “easing of restrictions on travel and trade” with Cuba, and signing into law a new policy that would “strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services” of the Castro regime.
Like many people, I’ve listened to Trump’s rhetoric over the past two years and was confused, and a little worried; I traveled to Cuba for the first time in 2016, and wanted to go back — next time, I hoped, with my dad, who was born in Havana in 1954 and hasn’t been back since he emigrated to the United States seven years later.
As a recent college graduate, I can’t really afford to pay for a trip with a travel agency. So I had two questions about Trump’s Cuba policy. The first: Would it be legal to go to Cuba, as a U.S. citizen, with no family on the island? And the second: Could I plan a trip myself, and visit many of the places and people I did two years ago, without booking through a travel company?
The answer to the first question is clear, and the news is good: Under the Trump administration’s policy, it will be legal to travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen, with a U.S. passport, from the United States. Airlines including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United currently offer direct flights to Havana from southern Florida (and connecting flights from other U.S. cities), and will continue to do so even after Trump’s policy changes go into effect.
The second answer is good news, too. You can travel to Cuba as an individual, by traveling under a category called “support for the Cuban people.” A category meant to encourage kitchen table diplomacy with a full time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people and interacting with ordinary Cubans in a way that promotes civil society and independence from Cuban authorities.
Planning a support for the Cuban people trip is a great option if you’re a general traveler who isn’t going to Cuba for a more specific purpose (e.g., journalism); wants to travel by yourself (or with a small group of friends or family members); and don’t mind doing a little extra work to plan your own itinerary.
Luckily, if that sounds like you, you’ve got this guide to make it easy.
What is “support for the Cuban people”?
Here’s the deal: Currently, there are 12 categories of Cuba travel that are pre-approved by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), under what are called “general licenses.” These include journalistic activities, professional research and meetings, and visits to close relatives. (If you have questions about any of these categories, a good place to start is the Treasury Department’s FAQ page.) One of the broad categories remaining is support for the Cuban people.
News articles are talking about a previous category, people-to-people, because it was the one removed by this weeks’ policy changes. Under the new U.S.-Cuba policy, “people-to-people” travel has been removed as an option.
But there are 12 other travel categories, and one of them, support for the Cuban people, allows you to do many of the same things that were covered by the people-to-people license. And you can still plan the trip yourself.
In many cases, it’s simply a matter of reframing the purpose of your trip; people-to-people travel focused on fostering “meaningful interactions” between U.S. travelers and Cubans, while support for the Cuban people focuses on promoting independent “civil society” in Cuba. The easiest way to do this is by supporting the growing Cuban private sector. In Sen. Rubio’s own words, your travel plans will be considered support for the Cuban people if you do things like “shop, eat, and stay at small businesses owned by individual Cubans” — all things many people-to-people travelers were doing, already.
What documents do I need?
To travel under a support for the Cuban people license, you’ll need a valid U.S. passport (with at least two blank pages) valid for 6 months from travel, a plane ticket, and a Cuban travel visa (or “tourist card,” as the Cuban government calls it).
The visa is required by the Cuban government, and is basically a one-page pink tear-sheet that asks for your name, date of birth, country of citizenship, and passport number. Your airline will give you the visa to fill out either when you book your flight or at the gate before departure. See this article for a helpful breakdown of visa prices and procedures by airline. (If for some reason your airline doesn’t provide Cuban travel visas, you can purchase one online here. Most major U.S. airlines have specific pages on their websites about Cuba travel with information on necessary documents and how to get them, so if you have any questions, check there, first.)
The last things you’ll need are documents associated with the support for the Cuban people license.
To be clear, the license itself isn’t an actual form, and you don’t have to apply or pay for it. Most airlines will simply ask you to check a box that specifies your purpose of travel (or “OFAC category”) when you fill out your visa and again during the flight. You’ll also be asked a few standard questions about your reason for travel and where you’re staying when you go through Customs. So just be aware of which category you’re traveling under. (If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can print out a generic travel affidavit like this one to take with you; but doing so isn’t necessary.)
Generally speaking, the only license-related document you’ll really need to worry about is an itinerary, which shows that your travel plans in Cuba constitute “support for the Cuban people.”
We’ll cover how to create a support for the Cuban people itinerary, next.
Planning your support for the Cuban people trip
Now’s the fun part: planning what you’ll actually do while you’re in Cuba.
The support for the Cuban people license requires that you have a full schedule of activities, and keep records of these activities during your trip. The best way to do this is by planning your schedule before you go, typing it up in an itinerary, and saving any receipts, business cards, etc., that you pick up during your stay for at least five years. (Photographs, emails or even journal entries can do the trick; basically, the idea is just to show that you spent your time — and money — supporting private businesses.)
Most likely, no one is going to ask to see your itinerary or transaction records at U.S. Customs when you return from Cuba, but you still need to have them on-hand at the airport, just in case. (If you’re traveling with friends or family members, each person needs to have her own copy of the itinerary.)
The main things to account for when planning your itinerary are where you’ll stay, where you’ll eat, and what you’ll do for major activities each day. These can’t include “tourist activities” or “free time” (e.g., lounging at the beach), and should for the most part be connected to supporting private (i.e., non-state-owned) businesses.
We’ll walk through the major points of the itinerary, and then give you an example of what one might look like.
Where to stay: Casas particulares
Most hotels in Cuba are owned by the government, which means you can’t stay in them on a support for the Cuban people trip. However, many Cubans have started renting out their homes (or private rooms in their homes) to tourists as bed-and-breakfasts. These casas particulares, as they’re called, often come with Wifi, air conditioning, and a home-cooked breakfast with fresh mango juice each morning. Staying in one, and having breakfast with your Cuban host, is also a great way to get to know local Cubans.
Casas can be booked through Airbnb. (Lonely Planet has a thread on casas on its Cuba forum — see FAQ #20 — that includes other ways to book.) While U.S. credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba, you can send payments through Airbnb and other third-party rental sites to Cuba while you’re in the U.S., so you can book a casa particular in advance. (If disaster strikes, don’t panic; you can find a casa pretty easily once you’re in Cuba by asking around or walking down any residential street and looking for a blue-and-white “rent room / arrendador divisa” sign, and pay in cash.)
Where to eat: Paladares
In addition to casas particulares, many Cubans have received licenses to open paladares, or private restaurants, in recent years. The food at paladares is very good — better than at most state-owned restaurants — and they’re extremely popular.
You can figure out which paladares you’d like to visit by reading TripAdvisor, or by searching AlaMesa, which is like a Cuban version of Yelp or OpenTable. It’s wise to make reservations ahead of time (particularly if you’re visiting Cuba during tourist season, which runs from late-November through mid-March and all of July and August). But with over 1,700 paladares on the island (and hundreds in Havana, alone), you’ve got options.
Here are a few of my favorites: El Bukan (Matanzas), Piraterias (Santa Clara), La Marinera (Trinidad), La Catetral (Havana), La Guarida (Havana), La Paila (Havana), Versus (Vedado/Havana), El del Frente (Havana).
What to do: Support small businesses
While many Cubans have gotten licenses to open private restaurants or B&Bs, there are hundreds of thousands of Cuban small business owners — or cuentapropistas — licensed to do everything from screen printing to leading bike tours to running tech start-ups.
Need a haircut? Go to Papito’s, an ornate barbershop (and hairdressing museum) in Old Havana. Want to see the lush landscape of Western Cuba up close? Get in touch with one of these groups through AirBnB experiences, which lead rock climbing or horseback tours through Viñales Valley — past the endless rows of yucca and towering mogotes. Want to do a walking tour of Old Havana? Book a guide through Airbnb. Need a ride from Trinidad to Havana? Have your Casa host arrange travel in a private taxi. Looking for handmade crafts and artworks? Check out the galleries on Calle Obispo.
Overall, the thing to keep in mind is that if there’s something that you want to do in Cuba, odds are there’s a small business associated with it. Everyone has a side-job in Cuba, where the average state salary is about $24 a month — and with 123 professions currently eligible for small business licenses, having one is easier than it’s been in decades.
Next, we’ll take a look at an example of what a support for the Cuban people itinerary might look like.
36 hours in Havana, Cuba
Day 1: Saturday
9:00 AM | Arrive at José Martí International Airport.
10:00 AM | Rent a private taxi from the airport to a casa particular. (Book casa in advance through Airbnb)
10:30 AM | Arrive at the casa in Vedado, a bohemian neighborhood of Havana, and unpack.
11:00 AM | Get familiar with the neighborhood of Vedado: Local money changers, for exchanging money; Etecsa, for buying cell phone cards and internet; grocery stores for buying snacks and water; and local Wifi spots. Speak with local shop owners about running a small business in Cuba.
12:00 PM | Walk to the Paseo del Prado for lunch at El Cafe, a paladar in Habana Vieja.
2:00 PM | Bike tour of Havana with Vélo Cuba (Habana Vieja). (Book tour in advance)
5:00 PM | Non-yellow cab or bike taxi back to Vedado
5:30 PM | Head back to the casa to get ready for dinner.
7:30 PM | Dinner at El Cocinero (Vedado)
9:30 PM | Sharing a building with El Cocinero is Fabrica del Arte, a one-of-a-kind art gallery, bar, and performance venue. Wander through, and talk with la Habana’s cosmopolitan hipsters in bright converse, talk with them about millennial life in Cuba and their hopes for the future. Check out the exhibitions (and hold onto your drink ticket or you’ll be charged for the full ticket when you leave!)
12:30 AM | Back to the casa
Day 2: Sunday
8:30 AM | Breakfast at the casa with your Cuban host. Ask about running a small business in Cuba, and maybe help with setting up a facebook page or Instagram account for their business.
9:30 AM | Walk through some of the many outdoor corner markets in Vedado.
11:00 AM | Walk to the Hotel Nacional to buy an internet card and use WiFi, if you need to. Hotel Nacional is run by the Gran Caribe Group and is permissible under the new rules — it also has an incredible view of the Malecon from its porch.
12:00 PM | From the Hotel Nacional, grab a non-yellow cab or bike taxi to Habana Vieja for lunch at El del Frente.
1:30 PM | After lunch, walk to Plaza de Vieja (Habana Vieja) for coffee and people watching at Cafe El Escorial.
2:30 PM | Walk to La Marca (Habana Vieja), the first (legal) body art and tattoo studio in Cuba.
3:00 PM | Walk to Clandestina or Dador (Habana Vieja), privately-owned fashion and design shops that sells t- shirts, prints, and more. Speak with the business owners about how they’ve set up an online store that delivers to the U.S.
4:00 PM | Rent a bike taxi back to Vedado.
4:30 PM | Exchange money at Banco Metropolitano, if you need to.
5:00 PM | Head back to the casa to get ready for dinner.
7:00 PM | Dinner at La Guarida, one of the most famous paladares in Cuba located in the apartment where the famous Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate was filmed.
12:30 AM | Back to the casa
Day 3: Monday
7:00 AM | Breakfast at the casa with your Cuban host.
8:00 AM | Leave for José Martí International Airport.
10:00 AM | Depart to Ft. Lauderdale
* When planning your trip, you should aim for at least three support for the Cuban people activities per day. (Your casa particular and meals cover two of those, so find at least one more, and you’re good.)
* Not everything you do has to be connected to the Cuban private sector, but all of your transactions should be.
* Your itinerary doesn’t need to be super detailed — “Lunch at a paladar” is fine — but the less familiar you are with Cuba, the more planning the specifics in advance will just make your life easier. Just remember to have this available for Customs when returning to the U.S. and keep a record of it for 5 years (potentially by archiving it in your email.)
* Remember to include your dates of travel in your itinerary.
* Examples of things that don’t fall under a support for the Cuban people trip: Hanging out at the beach, excessive “free time and recreation,” visiting the Museum of the Revolution, staying at a hotel, eating at a state-run restaurant (e.g., La Ferminia), booking a walking tour with a state- owned travel agency (e.g., Havanatur).
* Examples of things that are fine to do but should be accompanied by activities that focus specifically on supporting private enterprise: visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, seeing a movie, going to a ballet, attending other arts and culture events.
There’s never been a better time to visit Cuba, and by travelling under a support for the Cuban people license, doing so as a U.S. citizen can be simple and affordable.
At the same time, it means you’ll be supporting Cuban artists and entrepreneurs — some of the most talented and ingenuitive people the world over.
So have fun, and pa’lante.