How to plan a ‘support for the Cuban people’ trip

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.)

Cervezas and people watching at ‘La Cervecera’ in Plaza Vieja in Habana Vieja

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.

Cocktails at El de Frente in Habana Vieja

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).

Take a tour of Havana and the malecon in a privately owned ‘classico’

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.

Rock climbing with ‘El Escalada en Cuba’ in Vinales

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

Fabrica de Arte, Havana’s mecca of art, music, fashion and film

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.

Screenprinting at Clandestina

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.

9:30 PM | Taxi to Jazz Cafe or Jazz Club La Zorra Y El Cuervo for live jazz.

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.

Traveling to Cuba is simple, whoever told you it’s not is doing it wrong

The appetite to explore Cuba as an American maybe akin to something like wanting a forbidden fruit, at least that’s the classic trope. But Americans have been traveling to the island for years now, even before Trump’s recent announcement and Obama’s relaxed relations in 2015.

As more and more people travel to the island, the same old cautionary tales of the confusing logistics of traveling to Cuba seem exaggerated. In fact, traveling to Cuba is simple, and it’s happening more and more often.

Just think about it, over 500,000 Americans will travel to Cuba this year. American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest are among many airlines that operate daily flights to Cuba.

Traveling to Cuba is easy. Here’s what you should know when planning your trip.

First thing’s first: Book a flight.

Regularly scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba happen on a daily basis. Getting yourself on one of those planes is simple. Just book a flight online. Some airlines that have flights to Cuba include Delta, JetBlue, American Airlines and Southwest. 

If you bring luggage, just know, charges will apply if they exceed 50 pounds. Flights from the U.S. travel to Cuban cities like Havana, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos and Holguín. They should cost between $70-$180 dollars one way depending on when you choose to go.

Papers and Documents – OFAC and Visa

Which leads to the next step, “all that paperwork,” which really just consists of two documents, both of which can be handled at the airport before departure. First, you must categorize your trip, since only “authorized travel” is permitted by the U.S. Here are the options the federal government gives you:

  • Any type of support for the Cuban people
  • Family visits to any relatives in Cuba
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
  • Religious activities in Cuba
  • Humanitarian projects in Cuba
  • Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
  • Educational activities in Cuba for Universities (think study abroad)
  • Journalistic activities in Cuba
  • Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
  • Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations

Some travel-friendly options include: Family visits; support for the Cuban people; religious activities; professional research and professional meetings; and public performances.

So, if If you’re staying at a “casa particular” and eating at “paladars” that counts as “support of the Cuban people, if you plan an itinerary including church visits, you can check off “religious activities.” Or if you plan on seeing ballet,  live music or participating in community performances, check off “public performances.”

Next, you need your Visa. The Cuban government welcomes you as a tourist, but the card will cost around $50-$100. Keep an eye out with your airline service, sometimes this is already included in the processing fee. Or you can buy them online. That, or an airline will allow you to purchase your tourist card with them. Just in case, it always helps to call and ask.

When filling out the tourist card make sure you don’t cross anything out, because if you damage your original card you’ll have to buy a new one. Also, keep it in a secure place, somewhere all your other valuable documents are. You’ll need it for your flight back, too.

What to do if you were born in Cuba

If you immigrated to the U.S. before 1971, and you’re a U.S. Citizen, you’ll need a H11 Visa, which you can apply for at a travel company like OnCuba Travel, Marazul or Cuba Travel Services or with the Cuban Consulate.

If you’re a Cuban born U.S. Citizen, who immigrated after 1971, you’ll need a Cuban passport while in Cuba and a U.S. passport in the U.S. This is called dual citizenship, and many other countries require this as well, like India, Norway, China and the Netherlands (among others.) Cuban passport renewals are quite expensive ($400+) and can take 6+ months to process, so plan in well in advance. We recommend working with a travel company like OnCuba Travel, Marazul or Cuba Travel Services to help you through the process, but this can also be done at the Cuban Consulate.

What to do if you have Cuban-born parents

If you were born in America, you are an American. There are lots of rumors out there, but they’re false.

If you were born in America you are a U.S. citizen anywhere you go.

Upon arriving in Cuba

In Cuba you won’t be able to use credit or debit cards from U.S. banks. Make sure to take out money beforehand, and exchange it for the Cuban currency at the airport. There are currency exchange stores in Cuba, where you can do this as well.

Cuba has two currencies, the CUP, which is the peso that most Cubans earn and use, and the CUC, which is what tourists are given. The CUC has a purchasing power of 20-25x the CUP, and is the only currency accepted in many places like Casa Particulares and Paladars.

Another heads up, there will be about a 10 percent fee when you exchange American currency, if you want to get more “bang for your buck,” exchange your currency to Canadian dollars or Euros first, you’ll save 10 percent on fees, and make sure more of the money you spend in Cuba is getting into the hands of Cuban people.

Before arrival you can book a casa particular through a site like AirBnB. Casa particulars are like bed and breakfasts where Cuban citizens rent out rooms in their homes. They come with air conditioning, home cooked meals and if you’re so lucky maybe even a domino game and a mojito. Now as far as getting around, you could hire a private car or use Cuba’s taxis. If you’re brave you can take an almendrone or the bus too, but I wouldn’t recommend it, they tend to get crowded.

Ready. Set. Travel.

Now, you too, can pose against El Malecon and take pictures of the bustling alleys in Habana Vieja before “it changes.” And, yes, Cuba is changing. Last year alone, more than 500,000 small business owners had their own private enterprise in Cuba. And U.S. tourism has been growing by 60 percent a year.

The Cuban people are excited about the progress, and by traveling to Cuba now, you can help kindle the excitement by taking part of the change.

So please don’t be hesitant. Book a flight, if your heart desires, and see the island for yourself.

Living on the Hyphen

My parents came to this country from Havana, Cuba in 1990. Two years later, they had me, not on the island, but they may as well have. I grew up in Hialeah, which according to Wikipedia is home to the largest Cuban and Cuban-American population in the U.S. I was surrounded by Cuba everything, everywhere. I knew the impermeable smell of Violetas, most of the street names en El Vedado, the slang from the chusmeria, and the aroma of frijoles negros cooking on the stove. I even had the memories. The black and white store fronts and the sepia-toned images of el Malecon. I had never gone to Cuba and yet I missed it and longed for it as if it were my home. I recently learned there is a word in Welsh for this feeling–“Hiraeth.” The word means homesickness for a place that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was. I think the literal translation in Cuban would be ni de aqui, ni de alla.

Ni de aqui, ni de alla. That did not become more clear than when I left Hialeah for college. It is in the hallowed halls of the University of Florida that I realized how different I was and how unique my experiences as a Cuban-American in Hialeah had been. What do you mean there isn’t a Publix Sabor here? You mean, your parents have never asked you if you were a communist? How have you never tried tostones?! The list goes on and on. Suddenly I was too Cuban.

When I visited Cuba for the first time in 2012, I was ready to use all my Cubanidad. I felt like I had trained for this moment by whole life. Instead, I was met with cousins who said I dressed differently, that I spoke a little strange…se nota que tu no eres de aqui. Remember, I am not from here or there, ni de aqui ni de alla. Suddenly, I was too Yuma.

Nonetheless, that trip was amazing. I was able to see my paternal grandmother for the first time ever. Unfortunately, Paquita had Dementia and could not remember who I was. That did not stop her from constantly scolding me to peinarme el pelo. I soaked up every minute I could with my abuela Paquita who died shortly after our visit. I realized that that short trip, while incredible, was through my father’s jaded lens. I longed to have my own take on Cuba.

When I was selected to be a CubaOne participant, I was elated. This organization felt like I had an opportunity to make my own Cuba story with other women who had felt like they were neither from here or there. That is exactly what happened.

The most important thing that happened to me during my trip to Cuba was getting connected to my Afro-Cuban roots. I was so nourished by that aspect of my Tu Cuba trip. Growing up I only knew White Cubans, except for my father. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and was teased mercilessly because of my coiled, kinky hair and afro-centric features. You don’t look Cuban. Not only was I ni de aqui ni de alla, I was neither blanca or negra. I was a strange hybrid known as Jabada, as they called me. Seeing Cubans in Cuba, with my espendru, who looked like me, made me feel accepted.

Thanks to CubaOne, I was able to meet the oldest living relative on my father’s side, my great aunt, Tia Amparito. I was introduced to a whole other part of my family that was rarely talked about. This was the Black side of my family and, as such, record keeping was not the best. In fact, we can only go as far as my great, great, grandmother, Lucila, and there are no pictures of her to date. Lucila fought with Maceo en la Columna invasora de Oriente as a freed slave. The void of not being able to retrace that part of my lineage hurts. I imagine who my ancestors were, where in the continent of Africa they resided before being shackled and what that harrowing journey was like for them across many seas. After meeting Tia Amparito, I was humbled and filled with love for the lineage of headstrong, resilient, and brilliant Black women who came before me and have guided my path onward. It is vital that their stories be heard and conserved.

Prior to my trip to CubaOne, I thought everyone wanted to leave the island. That was my understanding based solely on my family. Now, I know that there’s a growing number of people who are proud of their island and are investing in its future. Activists and human rights advocates included. Revolutionary women like Magia from Obsesion, shattered all my preconceived notions of Cuban people in Cuba being powerless to the system. People are fighting back and organizing in their own ways. Much like my work in the U.S., I want to work to decolonize the unjust systems in place and uplift the voices of marginalized communities on the island. I want to dismantle structures of oppression and end racial and economic inequality. My first step in doing so? Honoring the legacy of my fore-mothers and telling their stories.

It is in the here and there, somewhere between Africa and Europe, that I find where I where I belong–nestled comfortably on the hyphen between Cuban and American.

Let Monthly Giving be a Part of Your New Year’s Resolution

Make your giving to CubaOne as simple as possible by setting up a recurring monthly donation. 

Your sustainable monthly gift allows CubaOne to continue providing programming and Tu Cuba trips that focus on Reconciliation, Engagement, Heritage, and Community

Contributions made to CubaOne are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law.


Why I make a monthly donation to CubaOne – a Q&A with Tu Cuba fellow Rebecca Carriero

“…the eight of us who went on this trip and the hundreds of others who have gone through CubaOne are making small cracks in the road towards a relationship with Cuba not shaded by black and white debates of the past but informed by a colorful pallet of complexity and reality.”

Rebecca Carriero, CubaOne Tu Cuba Fellow

Q: How has your life, both professional and personal, been impacted since your participation on a TuCuba trip?

I was set to arrive in Cuba, along with 7 other CubaOne fellows,  just a day after Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz Canel officially was inaugurated as Cuba’s new president. The first non-Castro to act as the nation’s figurehead. Leading up to the trip, many international news outlets wrote long features about what this would mean for Cuba.

I work in media relations so I was already paying attention but this heightened my attention towards how Cuba was being presented to the world and who shapes the narrative. With CubaOne, I was able to meet reporters on the Island to talk about the media landscape and the complex system that goes into reporting there.  The trip also provided a great opportunity to have in-depth conversations with my brilliant colleagues at Bloomberg News who are based in and/or cover Latin America. Thanks to their questions, insights and curiosity I was able to go into Cuba and to return from Cuba extremely informed.

Rebecca speaks with ABC reporter Hatzel Vela outside of the privately owned Clandestina in La Habana Vieja during her Tu Cuba trip

I was also able to make inroads in my goal to use Spanish in a professional capacity. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and did not learn how to read and write the language until I was in my early 20s. As a communications professional – and a woman of Cuban descent – I have long felt self-conscience about it. Speaking in mostly Spanish throughout the trip gave me confidence to employ the same skills at work. Since returning from Cuba, I was assigned a project liaising with Spanish speaking governments and am proud to say that I was able communicate fluently and effectively. Going forward, I see it as a growth for me professionally.

Personally, a huge gap in my life has been filled by visiting the Island and since returning, the trip to Cuba has helped open lines of communication with my family in the U.S. and Cuba. They showed me their refugee cards, passports, obituaries and a mountain of photos that I had never seen before. I can now tell you my great grandparents’ height and eye color. Details that make them feel real and present. Once on the Island, I connected with family.  

Q: When did you decide you would support CubaOne’s mission by supporting the organization as a sustainable monthly donor? How has this experience been for you?

I decided to support CubaOne the moment I landed back in the U.S. It’s not as difficult to go to Cuba now as an American but the intense, unique emotional experience that I shared with seven others deeply impacted me and could only be provided by an organization like CubaOne.

For most Cuban Americans, Cuba has been a mythical, untouchable place where our families fled and couldn’t return. I think we all processed this experience in a profound way. I even feel a sense of responsibility for what happens next. To get to do that with other people is almost a relief – I did not want to do this alone. I now have a sense of community that I didn’t have before.  

I deeply believe in the mission of CubaOne. The timing of our arrival in Cuba was perhaps a tiny footprint in the history books but the bigger picture is that on a small scale, the eight of us who went on this trip and the hundreds of others who have gone through CubaOne are making small cracks in the road towards a relationship with Cuba not shaded by black and white debates of the past but informed by a colorful pallet of complexity and reality.

Cuba will require and benefit greatly from cultivating deep relationships between individuals capable of breaking through the limited color spectrum of politics du jour. Cuba needs deep systematic changes to enter the 21st century on its own terms. It will  require ingenuity, foreign investment and most of all – collaboration.

Q: What do you feel are the perks of being a monthly donor?

I’m in New York so I don’t get to experience the alumni gatherings that CubaOne often hosts in Miami so for me, I’m motivated by the sense of community and knowing that I am helping send someone else on a transformative trip. It’s important for future generations of Cuban Americans to maintain connections so that we can collectively contribute nuanced views on immigration, diplomacy and development.

Q: Would you encourage other alumni, friends, and family of CubaOne to join the monthly donor program?

Yes, of course. The biggest challenge is getting people to care about an Island like Cuba when there are arguably so many places in the world that command our attention and empathy. But that’s where our experience as CubaOne alumni makes the difference. We all went to Cuba for the first time because of CubaOne and for those who had a positive experience, we are uniquely equipped to understand the magnitude that this can have on Cuban Americans and Cubans.

For those who have not experienced a CubaOne trip, there is still a case to be made that establishing relationships now with Cuba can be mutually beneficial. For those who wish to shape policy or business in Cuba, the insights of hundreds of CubaOne alumni is an asset and support for this network pays dividends.

To make a one time donation, visit cubaone.org/donate. For major gifts and corporate social responsibility programs, please contact Community Engagement & Special Gifts Director, Luis Quijano at luis@cubaone.org

Important things for first time visitors to Cuba, by Cubans

Cuba: beaches, mulata, tobacco and rum. That’s it? Or is it just a marketing slogan? Come see for yourself.

In 2016, over six hundred thousand Americans (many of them Cuban-Americans) came to Cuba, an increase of a 33% compared to 2015. Although in 2017 & 2018 the number remained almost the same because of the changes in relationship between the US and the Cuban government, many Americans continue traveling to the island.

If you are thinking about visiting Cuba, here is some advice for new visitors: by someone that lives here.

Best season to visit Cuba

The sun is out practically the entire year. Nevertheless, dry weather and a light winter can be found between December and February. The traditional tourist season is mainly between November and March, including the end of the year, when temperatures are more moderate and prices are highest. For those who want to visit natural landscapes, it is good to decide whether or not to come in the rainy season (May to September), when rivers are high and there is everything is green.

Book a flight and get your VISA

Since 2016, there are up to 20 round-trip flights are landing in Havana daily from the US. It is not difficult to book a ticket online for one of the planes. Among the airlines that travel to Cuba are American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and Southwest.

Before obtaining the visa (a Cuban government requirement), you need to categorize your trip according the 12 authorized travel categories set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (a US government requirement). Some of the categories are:

  • Family visit.
  • Journalistic activities.
  • Professional research and professional meetings.
  • Educational activities in Cuba for Universities, including people-to-people exchanges for group travel.
  • Religious activities.
  • Public performances, athletic/non athletic competitions, exhibitions.
  • Support for the Cuban people.
  • Humanitarian projects.
  • Activities by private foundations, or research or educational institutes.
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use.

Many people travel under the category of “Support for the Cuban People”, which is very broad. Staying at a private guesthouse and eating at private restaurants classify as supporting the Cuban people, although they are not sufficient.  An example of a trip in Support of the Cuban People by written by the US government is:

> While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Frequently asked questions related to Cuba

You can also make good use of the cultural events and festivals season in Cuba (all year in fact) for your option “public performances and exhibitions”. Make “people-to-people exchanges for group travel” when booking a tour via an agency, which can lead to activities that involves interactions between foreigners and locals.

Basics upon your arrival to Cuba

First, let’s start with the Cuban currency (of which there are confusingly two). To avoid be fooled and to save money it is essential to be familiar with the money. There are the Peso Convertible (CUC) and the Peso Cubano (CUP). This former is the one you will use more often for buying food, taxis, accommodation, but you can carry both. The exchange rate is 1 CUC x 25 Peso Cubano.

Credit cards from US banks don’t work in Cuba, so it is recommended to bring cash and exchange it for the Cuban currency. You are able to do this upon your arrival at the airport or at an exchange store or bank. A levy of 10 percent is charged when you exchange your American dollars, so depending on the exchange rate you get in the U.S. it’s often (but not always) better to change USD to another foreign currency first: Euro or Canadian dollar, and then to CUC.

For foreigners, the entry fee to some places like museums and historical sights has to be paid in CUC. Locals have to pay the same number but in pesos, for instance, to enter into the Plaza de la Revolución (Square of Revolution), it’s 8 CUC for tourists and 8 pesos for locals. In situations like this, you may feel that there is a currency for Cubans and another for foreigners, but this is no longer the case.

To getting around in Cuba, you need to know all the options you have. To rent a taxi from one of the Cuban taxi companies or travel in a fancy American vintage car are maybe the most renowned means of transportation. There is a wide range of options for moving inside the city. Private taxis called almendrones is a popular choice. Nevertheless, the taxis colectivos (shared taxis) are the proper alternative if you know exactly where you want to go. They run in specific routes where you normally could see passengers doing hitchhiking and getting in and off the colectivos in a rush. Pretend to be a local and don’t ask anything, only pay 10 or 20 pesos a trip. If you dare, please feel like canned fish in the public buses, jam-packed most of the time (don’t pay in CUC, just give them the smallest CUP coin you have).

In the case of government-run transportation for travelling around the country, the better option for tourists is the company Viazul. These buses are quite comfortable and usually on schedule.

Accommodation and food

If you are travelling via the “Support to the Cuban people” option you’re most likely to want to book a casa particular beforehand, through one of the online booking sites like AirBnB. In the casas you will experience the daily life of locals and contribute to their economy. Often breakfast and meal service are included.

Be careful though: it is common for some “friendly” person on the street to take you to his “uncle’s” or “aunt’s” place, if you look lost wandering in the streets. Keep in mind this person will get a commission from the householder bringing in clients.

Cuban food is worth a try. Some private restaurants or paladares offer nice dishes, but often the food in the casas could be very appetizing and cheaper. The authentic roast pork, the moros y cristianos and the home-made stew ajiaco criollo are delicious. What about drinks? When in Cuba you might as well sample the traditional Cuban cocktails: mojito, daiquirí and the like.

Attractions

There are many places to go for having fun. Cuba has reputation for the beautiful beaches and historical places. The beach is really a economical place to go, if you only want to spend a day in the sand, take a bath and avoid the temptation to purchase cocktails and souvenirs. The coral reefs of Cuba are beautiful, well conserved and suitable for scuba diving if you are into sea sports.

The nightclubs and bars are well-known for being very entertaining places. All of these places offer the Cuban rum and the cocktails, sometimes at a higher price than street bars or stores. There is also a cultural ambience most of the year at the festivals in Cuba. The principal venue is Havana, but you can find cultural activities all over the country. There are many museums in Cuba, ancient squares and marvellous architecture you will see for sure.

For those who like hiking, there are many landscapes to visit. Some guided excursions are booked via companies like AirBnB experiences, Viazul or Ecotur. Some places are easy to visit by yourself, without the necessity of booking a tour, but if you are a novice, please be careful.

Internet

The internet connection in Cuba is limited and still evolving. Mobile 3G internet was only recently introduced and roaming can be quite expensive. Wi-Fi hotspots are spread all over the country’s main cities. You can find it in the parks mainly, and especially in Havana are very common. To navigate you need to buy an internet card in Cuba. Spend 1 CUC for one-hour internet connection card, but you better learn where to buy it, as some private establishments tout the cards for the double. Some street traders sells the Wi-Fi cards at the very park in which the hotspot is located, but try to avoid them, as their activity is illegal.

On the other hand, mobile internet with no restrictions is a newest thing you will notice in Cuba. The people are now getting used to this, as they weren’t able to use it in the past. Although it is a good idea, it is often a requirement to have a Cuban SIM card to be capable of connecting the web by your mobile data.

Decide for yourself!

Of course, not everything you need to know has been said yet; you have read some useful beginner’s advices, though. If hesitant, find further details and decide now. Cuba is waiting for you; don’t let your friends tell you: “I told you should go”. Besides, if you are reading this, it means that you are already thinking of going soon, doesn’t it?