How to visit Cuba as an American

The thought of visiting Cuba had never really entered my mind until my wife asked me a few months ago if I wanted to take a tour. I didn’t know if Americans could visit Cuba because of the decades-long embargo and strained relations under the Castro government. Do Cubans even like Americans? We found out that yes they do. She sent me the itinerary and we decided to go.

I thought I better do a little research before we visited last month. I found out through the itinerary and research that Americans can’t just go to Cuba and hang out at the beach. The US government has restrictions on how Americans can visit Cuba. Americans must be part of a tour group visiting Cuba as part of the “people-to-people” program. Americans can only stay at hotels that are not on a prohibited list from the US government. For the most part, the US government doesn’t want Americans spending money at places owned by the Cuban government. That includes restaurants, hotels, shopping etc. You can do it in your limited free time, but the tour can’t take you there.

This website has a little more on how to travel to Cuba.

The 12 Categories of Permitted Reasons for Travel to Cuba

When you book or check in for your flight, you will be asked to certify the reason for your visit. There are currently two ways to gain permission to travel to Cuba: with a general license or with a specific license.

If you meet the regulations and conditions of a general license, you will not need to apply for a specific license. There are 12 categories of general licenses related to Cuba travel.  These are listed below.  When purchasing your airline ticket, choose “Support for the Cuban People.”

  • Family visits
  • Official government business
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research or meetings
  • Religious activities
  • Sports and public events
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Research
  • Informational materials
  • Authorized export activities
  • Non-immigrant Cuban National

We used the travel group Globus for our 10 day tour. You can find more information on their website. After booking our travel we had to apply for a Visa. That was $200 each and came from an organization in Southern California.

Cuba is only a little over 90 miles from Florida. About the same as it is from Sacramento to San Francisco or Lake Tahoe. Our trip took us from Sacramento to Dallas then to Miami where we spent the night before leaving the next morning for Havana. The flight from Miami to Havana was around 1 hour.

After arriving at the airport we were greeted by someone from the tour company to take us to the hotel. The ride to the hotel was about 30 minutes through Havana. We stayed at the Hotel Grand Aston, which is probably the newest and nicest hotel in Cuba. This was the only hotel in Havana that Americans on a tour can stay at. That is mainly because the hotel is newer and not on the US list of prohibited places to stay. The hotel was right on the ocean in Havana, about 3/4 of a mile from the US Embassy. There were several local restaurants nearby that we had the opportunity to try on our own.

The image below shows our stops. We spent the first 3 nights in Havana. Then spent a whole day traveling to Camaguey. We stopped several times to visit certain places and take a bathroom and lunch break. Then we spent 2 days in Camaguey before spending 2 more in Trinidad and then back to Havana for 2 days. There were two fairly long travel days, where we were on the bus for several for over 6 hours.
Our American and Cuban tour guides were very knowledgeable and gave us a lot of interesting information.

As part of our tour, breakfast and lunch were included every day, as well as probably 7 of the 10 dinners. There was not a lot of free time. Breakfast was at 7 am and most days we left on the bus around 9 am. A couple of times we did leave around 7:30 am, but that was on longer driving days.

One of the concerns many people probably have is how safe is Cuba. After spending 10 days there, I can say I never felt unsafe. There is very little crime there. Drugs are not allowed. Guns are essentially prohibited. We saw very little law enforcement or military. We walked amongst the locals and they were very friendly.

On our tour, we had an American guide who works for Globus and a Cuban guide who works for Havana Tours. We learned a lot about the history of Cuba. From Spain establishing it as a colony in the 1500s to Cuba’s fight for independence in the late 1800s to the Cuban revolution in 1959.

Cuba has a very strong African influence. Slaves were brought to Cuba to work in the fields, and that had a lot of influence on Cuban culture that still exists today.

We were able to visit local artists, musicians, schools, a farm, and a ballet company. The Cuban people were all very nice and appreciative of Americans. They are very talented and very resilient. Cuba has a lot of poverty. Wages are very low. A doctor makes about $30 US dollars a month. A teacher makes about $20-25 a month. People in the tourist industry are making much more.

Most people do not have a car. They walk, use a bike, moped, motorcycle, or limited public transportation. Transportation between cities is very limited. There is very little train service. Few busses go between cities. People who need to get from one city to another and don’t have a car, often stand along the road waving money asking for a ride. Some even use horses.

Food there is fairly inexpensive compared to the US. In some places, it is probably half-price. Of course, rum and cigars are big things there. The mojito is their favorite drink. The food was very good. They have chicken, pork, beef, fish, soups, salads, pizzas and pasta. Very similar to American food. Beans and rice are a staple of their diet.

So what has happened between Cuba and the US? The US supported the previous regime in Cuba before the revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra in the late 1950s. After Castro took over he took land and businesses away from private citizens and corporations. Many fled to Florida. In 1961 some of the former Cubans with help from the US tried to overthrow the Castro government in the Bay of Pigs invasion. That was one of the breaking points in US-Cuba relations and something that still plays a part today. Cuban exiles in Florida have fought against normalizing relations with Cuba.

During the 1960s Cuba became a close ally of the USSR. Russia put money and infrastructure into Cuba. Russia and its Eastern Bloc counterparts were responsible for a lot of the tourism in Cuba. Once the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and 1990s, Russian support for Cuba fell dramatically. The Cuban economy took a huge hit. Tourism fell way off.

Much of Cuba, especially Havana, looks as though time stood still since the 1950s. Buildings that were once home to Cuba’s wealthy families and businesses have remained empty and untouched. 60+ years have led to significant decay of many buildings.

The US eased some travel restrictions under the Obama administration that allowed Americans to travel to Cuba more easily. The Trump administration then reverted to a little more strict policy. Now the Biden administration has again eased some of the travel restrictions. The Cuban people would love to have more American tourists. There is no animosity towards Americans. The reasons for limiting American tourism are mostly political on the US side, and due in part to pressure from Cubans living in South Florida who still harbor anger towards the Cuban government after the revolution. It would be in the best interests of the US and Cuba to establish better relations between the two countries which are only 90 miles apart. If visiting Cuba is on your bucket list of places to visit, I would encourage you to do it.

Starting in 1995 Havana began a restoration project for some of the buildings. That process continues very slowly.

One of the more iconic things about Cuba is the old American cars. After the revolution, American cars were no longer exported to Cuba. Everywhere you look there are old American cars built before 1959. Parts became impossible to find so car owners learned to work on their own cars and in some cases make their own parts. Many of the cars have engines from Russian vehicles. a lot of the cars are used as taxis for tourists. On our final day in Cuba, we had the opportunity to cruise around Havana at night time for about an hour. That was one of the highlights of our trip.

Here are a few more photos from our trip.

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