Welcome to Cuba: New Ways to Visit the Island Legally
By Paul Motter
Published July 01, 2011
After taking more than 100 cruises, I am well acquainted with the
Caribbean, but the region's largest island, Cuba, is virtually invisible
to me. Because I have no personal knowledge of the place, it's a black
hole in my Caribbean universe.
The official U.S. policy to "ignore" Cuba was invoked in 1961. Perhaps I
know so little about Cuba because that is just the way certain people
Policy changes by President Obama has the Treasury Department once again
granting "people-to-people" licenses, which greatly expand opportunities
for U.S. travelers looking to visit Cuba.
A few years ago there was talk about opening up Cuba to American cruise
ships, but the idea was largely shot down by some experts claiming Cuba
couldn't handle it. I find that ridiculous: two U.K. cruise lines
already include Havana on their itineraries and Cuba is home to many
all-inclusive resorts that attract thousands of Canadians and Europeans
For decades Havana was the crown jewel of Caribbean tourism–especially
during the Prohibition Era in the U.S. Many aspects of Havana's glory
days still exist largely unchanged, although you rarely hear about it.
But is Havana really ready for unbridled U.S. tourism? Let's put it this
way: Cuba could handle the tourists, but things there would certainly
There is no place in the world like Cuba anymore. The island is much the
same as it was in 1960, and while it is inevitable that Cuba will open
up someday, it will probably lose some of its charms.
That's why I want to see Cuba as it exists now. And for the first time
in eight years, I have a chance to visit the country legally as an
American tourist; no stipulations, as long as I go with the right tour
Tom Popper, owner of the travel company Insight Cuba, just received a
special U.S. Treasury Department "people to people" dispensation to take
American tourists directly to Cuba. Popper started Insight Cuba in 1999
and operated tours through 2003, until the State Department put his
license on hiatus. Last January he was allowed to reapply and was
granted official clearance again.
To qualify, Popper had to design a program to bring Americans into
contact with Cuban culture. Insight Cuba now offers six different
itineraries ranging four to nine days in length that all begin in
Havana. The trips visit children's schools, museums and venues that
feature distinctly-Cuban music and art. From there, some tours go
overland to various places of interest throughout the Caribbean's
Prices for the packages include transportation on the island, hotels,
meals and all tours. It also includes the Letter of Authorization to
visit Cuba that the company must issue to you in the name of the U.S.
State Department. The tours start with a 35-minute flight from Miami to
Havana. Accommodations include four- and five-star hotels, some of which
were places renown during the American Prohibition era, like El
Presidente Hotel and Hotel Nacional.
The six different itineraries vary from a "Weekend in Havana" to
seven-night adventures. One package takes travelers through Havana and
then to colonial Trinidad amidst the coffee plantations in the Sierra
del Escambray Mountains. Another seven-night tour starts in Havana and
then takes participants to the Pinar del Rió region where farmers grow
tobacco for Cuban cigars.
Most tours include a meeting with the Committee for the Defense of the
Revolution, a 50-year-old organization that promotes social welfare and
community relations in neighborhoods throughout Cuba. The Cubans are
surprisingly open to political discussions, and all points of view are
After this serious meeting, guests will attend a neighborhood block
party to eat, drink and talk with the locals. Mixing with the
people–without government intervention–is the beauty of the Insight
Cuba cultural program.
If you have seen the documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club," you know
Cuba's music heritage runs rich and deep. The eight-day "Havana Jazz
Experience" (organized in conjunction with JazzTimes Magazine) offers
different musical experiences daily, with evening visits to Havana's
famous jazz nightclubs. You'll visit Egrem, Havana's largest record
label, and then spend an evening at La Zorra y el Cuervo jazz club.
You'll see the favorite haunts of Hemingway, enjoy a private jazz
concert in the afternoon, and visit the famous Jazz Café at night. The
tour also includes a visit to the Cuban Music Institute, followed by an
evening at the world-famous Tropicana Cabaret. The next day features a
private music and dance workshop, followed by a two-hour "All Things
Salsa" rhythm workshop, then dinner and music at the Hotel Nacional. The
last day provides a percussion workshop in the morning followed by a
lecture at the Museum of Music. Popper says these music itineraries
often turn into impromptu jam sessions between the locals and Americans.
More politically-minded travelers may choose the Bay of Pigs itinerary.
It starts with four days in Havana before traveling to the Zapata
Peninsula to visit the Playa Girón battle site, including a museum
depicting the events from the Cuban perspective.
The more artistic-minded may opt for the Pinar del Rió itinerary, which
visits an orphanage, a school for deaf and blind children, a community
project to promote art and music (Callején de Hammel) and the Copellia
Ice Cream Emporium.