Travel to ‘Planet Cuba’ ready to take off
Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune Updated: February 14, 2015 –
Some restrictions remain, but travel to this storied Caribbean island
has eased considerably and will get easier still after airlines and
hotels launch new service.
Young adults gathered outside the large front windows of the opulent
Hotel Parque Central, in the cultural core of Old Havana. Many wore
designer jeans. They raised their arms high. For a moment, I thought
they were holding lit matches, rock-concert style. Then I moved close to
see what glowed in their hands.
Those teens and 20-somethings, whose entire lives were shaped by the
United States’ 54-year embargo, had come to access the hotel’s Wi-Fi.
They were using 21st-century technology to connect to a vast world, just
as we giddy Americans arrived to devour the lost-in-time mysteries of
their long forbidden island.
Of every marvelous, multicolored memory I could share about my September
trip to Cuba, this one is my favorite. Even then — three months before
President Obama’s dramatic call to “chart a new course” through the
re-establishment of diplomatic ties and the easing of sanctions — I
sensed profound change.
During an eight-day “people-to-people” educational exchange, my group of
18 saw a nation in flux. That was evident as we walked beneath
blocks-long scaffolding abutting architectural restoration projects. We
tasted it at numerous privately owned restaurants, called paladares,
springing up throughout Havana. We heard it straight from the Cuban
people, gracious, welcoming and surprisingly candid about their
political and economic frustrations.
The new rules, in part, allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba without a
special government license, though they will still need to declare one
of 12 purposes, including family visits, professional research,
humanitarian projects and educational activities. U.S. travelers can
bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100 worth of rum and
cigars, two no-nos before December.
But as exciting as Obama’s announcement is, “Planet Cuba,” as our
captivating Cuban tour guide called it, will remain elusive, and
expensive, at least until the country’s infrastructure catches up with
With the exception of high-end options, hotel rooms are limited. The
bed-and-breakfast industry is promising, but young.
Many city streets remain torn up. Few shop owners have the capacity to
process credit card charges, though U.S. citizens are now free to use
Then there’s getting there: U.S. airlines won’t be flying regular
commercial routes for a year at the earliest, according to predictions
from those in the know.
Airlines seem keenly interested in expanding commercial service to the
Caribbean’s largest island, a mere 90 miles from U.S. soil, but they
cannot rush in.
Delta Air Lines operates about 250 charter flights to Cuba annually,
“and seeds have been planted to allow things to start moving forward” on
the commercial end, said spokesman Anthony Black. “But we will have to
take aircraft from somewhere else, allocate slots, determine the price
of tickets and flight times.”
Sun Country also takes charter flights to Cuba; the airline did not
respond to questions about whether it plans to offer regularly scheduled
air service there.
For now, most people who want to travel to Cuba will need to go with a
tour company, and those prices can be steep.
According to our knowledgeable Cuban tour guide, an estimated 250,000
Americans visited Cuba in 2013, about half of them on sanctioned tours.
(The other half likely entered illegally through Canada or Mexico, which
could lead to sizable fines and serious heart-racing while clearing U.S.
Former U.S. diplomat William Bundy, who has traveled to Cuba for 15
years, predicts that a complete end to travel limits would send 5
million U.S. tourists to Cuba in the next three years, and that would
not be good for anybody.
“The tourism infrastructure isn’t there to support an influx like that,”
he said. “Tourists would be sleeping in the streets.”
“The last thing you want to do is advertise a product that everybody
wants to buy and you can’t provide that product,” he added. “No one will
ever come back to your store.”
Frozen in time
Adventurers have long wanted a glimpse of Cuba. The challenge, of
course, is figuring out when to experience the island, after travel
becomes more affordable but before the country may become overrun.
The U.S. embargo was imposed in 1960, shortly after the
American-supported Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban revolution.
And there Cuba remains.
It’s that Cuba — of horse-drawn carts galloping down highways,
immaculately preserved 1950s car bodies painted turquoise and bubble-gum
pink, ubiquitous street music, and not a single McDonald’s anywhere
(with the exception of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base) — that drew us there
like children to an ice cream truck.
The Cubans don’t want a Starbucks on every corner any more than we do.
“I do think the Cuban people will try to maintain their culture,” said
Bob Stacke, retired chairman of the Augsburg College music department,
who has absorbed Cuban rhythms during five trips there.
Former diplomat Bundy agreed. He believes that even with an influx of
money, Cuba will not turn into just another tourist destination. “I am
quite convinced that the Cubans are well aware of this problem and will
not open the country willy-nilly,” he said.
Still, say many, don’t wait to find out, and if you can afford it, go now.
“People want to go now because you’re going to see the authentic Cuba,”
said Robyn Hawkinson, Cuba product manager for international tour
company Go Next. Since its first tour to Cuba in 2013, Bloomington-based
Go Next has organized more than 30 trips, and expects to do at least 40
“I always say, ‘Go now,’?” said Tom Popper, president of New York-based
InsightCuba, the first travel company to receive a people-to-people
license in 2000.
“This is such a historical time,” said Popper, whose organization offers
six types of tours annually with 170 departure dates. Since Obama’s Dec.
17 announcement, Popper’s Web traffic has increased sixfold, and
bookings have tripled.
Tours range in price from a low of $2,800 to as high as $6,000. Many
include four- and five-star hotels, entrance fees, most meals and
airfare from Miami.
Steve Loucks, spokesman for Twin Cities-based Travel Leaders, predicts
that Cuba will eventually be “a lot less expensive than any other place
in the Caribbean … and you won’t need to do a people-to-people exchange.”
“But when? I don’t know,” said Loucks, who visited Cuba last February.
“I’ve been telling everybody since I was there, you’ve got to go.
“It was surreal.”
Education in vitamin ‘R’
My luck in seeing Cuba, especially at this fortuitous juncture, came
courtesy of my world-traveling 82-year-old mother, Estelle. Our
people-to-people exchange was developed for the University of New Mexico
Alumni Association, in partnership with Go Next.
Don’t let “educational exchange” scare you. Yes, we were required to put
in eight hours daily of engaging with the country and its citizens in
Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. But “engaging” with Cubans
was generously interpreted. At 9 a.m. on our first Sunday, we were
welcomed with our first lesson: a tall glass of “Vitamin R,” which
stands for rum.
Our days included a concert by the world-class Orquestra de Camara and a
demonstration by elite young dancers at an art high school. We practiced
our salsa skills at lunchtime (prompted by Vitamin R consumption),
shopped at open-air markets and visited master novelist Ernest
Hemingway’s retreat, largely intact since he left it in the early 1960s:
There’s his typewriter, which he used while standing up, and his liquor
bottles, still on a cart in the living room.
We stepped inside Che Guevara’s somber mausoleum, visited a coffee
plantation and an organic farm. We toured the massive Christopher
Columbus cemetery, where the guide joked that, “until four years ago,
this was the only place in Cuba where you could own private property.”
In 500-year-old Trinidad, I hiked with fellow travelers up 167 steps to
the top of a bell tower overlooking railroad tracks and sugar cane
fields, then climbed down and gave my straw hat to a grateful lace
vendor working under an oppressive sun.
One evening before sundown, our group rode in a procession of
ridiculously fun and noisy “Coco Taxis,” basically covered seats
fashioned onto a scooter, to Havana’s famous Palace Hotel.
On our many scenic bus rides, our 26-year-old Cuban guide, Laura,
regaled us with an encyclopedic knowledge of her country, the good and
Education is free, through graduate school. Everyone enjoys excellent
government-funded medical care. Literacy is reported to be nearly 100
percent. Voter turnout is 97 percent. Forty-five percent of legislators
But with jobs scarce and the average salary $40 a month, people rely on
ration packets to make ends meet. (Those packets limit Cubans to 5
pounds of rice per person per month, as well as a pound of chicken and
10 eggs.) The black market is alive and well for everything from fresh
fish to car parts to “Breaking Bad” reruns.
Surprisingly, we had lots of time to venture out on our own once our
educational day was complete.
One afternoon, I walked past horses, hanging sides of beef and men
smoking jumbo cigars and soon realized I was lost. A kind young man with
a cycle rickshaw pedaled me back to the hotel.
Toward the end of the week, others in my group and I piled into a taxi,
held together with duct tape, it seemed, and took a laugh-inducing,
nonsanctioned taxi ride to the beach, where we swam in pristine waters
alongside tourists from other countries, for whom Cuba is a regular
I saw the future there: Americans traveling in droves to finally
experience a country that is safe, rich in history, abundantly gifted
with artists and musicians, fiercely independent and capable because it
had to be, and warmly welcoming.
Go now to Cuba. Or go when you can.
Source: Travel to ‘Planet Cuba’ ready to take off | Star Tribune –