Rick Steves’ Cuba Report

One of the hottest topics among American travelers lately is Cuba. Can we visit now? Is it legal? How does it work? I just got back from a (fully legal) trip to Cuba, and I’m excited to share the answers to these questions — and much more — over the next two weeks. It will be the most up-to-date report on Cuba for American travelers available anywhere.

Fidel Castro painting

Soon the Castros will be gone, and Dunkin’ Donuts and all of the international chain stores will arrive, heralding a tsunami of change that will submerge the time-warp, idealistic charms of this mysterious island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. I just had to visit now and share my experience.

If you have any friends dreaming of seeing Cuba — for so long forbidden to American travelers — please share my Facebook page with them. This promises to be an exciting ride!

Rick Steves' entry documents

Visiting Cuba comes with a unique set of travel experiences, challenges, and joys. As an American, you don’t know quite where the line of legality is. I booked my flight to Mexico City as I normally would, but needed to use a London-based service to buy my Mexico City-to-Havana connection. Because US credit cards don’t work in Cuba, I booked my accommodations through a company in Canada. In order to do either, I needed to have a “general license” to travel by declaring I was one of a dozen permissible kinds of travelers (family visit, educational, journalistic, and so on). “Professional research” made me legal. Every American tourist here checked one of these boxes…and no one seems to care after that. Traveling in Cuba, you have a feeling that everything — including the red tape involved to get there — is on the verge of an avalanche of change.

Rick Steves, family, and tour guide

I was joined on this trip by my partner (Trish), my son (Andy), and my daughter (Jackie). Each winter, we enjoy a little travel adventure together. For Cuba, I hired a local guide for our first four days to be sure we were in good hands. Our guide was Reinier Menéndez, who works for the Martin Luther King Center (the Cuban partner organization for Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education — more on that later).

Young Cuban students

I’ve long heard that the great joy of visiting Cuba is being with its people. From day one, the truth of that statement was clear. Whether poor or…less poor, the Cubans we met were friendly, good-humored, smart, and buoyed with self-respect and national pride.

Comments

34 Replies to “Rick Steves’ Cuba Report”

  1. I am traveling tomorrow through Road Scholar, formerly known as Elder Hostel, and it promises to be a fabulous adventure. We are a group of 24, and will speak with artists, musicians, the elderly, visit The Bay of Pigs and the memorial of Che Guevara. Am really looking forward to this!

  2. FREEDOM
    A government decides where their citizens can travel or not???
    Would that be considered “freedom” and be acceptable in the free countries of the world? Not easy to understand.

  3. Regarding the “Freedom” comment — the United States government prohibits its citizens from traveling to Cuba. There has been a travel ban on since the 1960s. The ban is finally being loosened up and (I hope) free travel will be allowed soon.

  4. I traveled to Cuba from Houston, TX via Mexico City, Dec 220-9th, 2015. We did a union tour set up by a person in Mexico who works with the union in Cuba. We stayed at a union owned hotel that was very friendly. Everyone else staying there were local workers. We were the only “tourists” there, 5 of us, and it was a great experience. We got to meet with artists, union representatives, Cuban teachers, an independent film director, her concert pianist sister, a pair of doctors and a gay activist. It was a wonderful trip. We wanted to meet the local people and see how their lives were. They loved to meet people from the US. English is required in schools starting in the 3rd grade but not as much spoken as I was expecting.

  5. We traveled to Cuba this last November. We went with a tour group (our first experience with a group). It was fabulous! We never felt unsafe or scared. The Cuban people are very welcoming to Americans. Our trip included visiting local artists, paladares (home restaurants), privately run farms, medical clinic, schools, ration stores and a cigar factory. We wanted to visit before there was a McDonalds on every corner. It is currently an ‘old run down town’. The government has not kept up with anything and public buildings are all but in ruins. Hopefully once American dollars start flowing back into Cuba things will improve!

  6. I am a Canadian and travelling to Cuba in a few days to do a Permaculture course for 3 weeks. I think that ine of the worst things to happen in Cuba will be if american investment and influence become prominent again. Normalization of relations with the US should not mean that Americans hope to step back into the role they played before in gambling, corruption and control. I am very much looking forward to learning about how thw Cuban people have developed sustainable agriculture through necessity due to the shortage of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. Let us hooe they cintinue to keep multinational corps like Monsanto out of Cuba.

  7. Where does the intel on the international chain stores arriving come from? The possible ending of the U.S. embargo doesn’t mean that Cubans will throw away everything they’ve worked for so that they can get some cheap donuts. Their neighbours all around them are perfect examples of what happens when you become an outlet for United States corporations.

  8. Cuba is an anachronism as a travel destination. We Canadians have had unlimited access to travel there for 40 years…many go but it lacks many amenities…so I have avoided it and will not go there ever…it will take 50 years to catch up and correct it’s economy. But open to the U.S. should help.

  9. Thanks! I will be following your series as I am in the beginning stages of planning my independent and solo trip there.

  10. I’m headed to Cuba next week. First trip, but I don’t expect that it will be my last. The rules on who needs to apply for a license have changed, so that Rick’s comment is now outdated. For me, I hope that the Cuban government will be sensible about what outside investment is allowed, and what isn’t. Otherwise, the country will revert to being a US-supported playground and backwater. We already have Florida for that!

  11. We are just back from a wonderful winter trip to Quebec Canada and as another of your comments says, the people there have been going for vacations to the beaches in Cuba for years and they say their dollar is much better spent there than in the USA now. I think there is much need for improvement in Cuba, where you are implying that they are fine as they are and we had better get there before the US economy ruins it.

  12. I am going with a small group of college art students and professors to Cuba in May. (I am retired.) Our group leader scheduled the trip through a Canadian tourist agency. We plan on converting euros when we arrive. I’m concerned with possibly getting sick from “germs” in our hotel and restaurants and mosquito bites. I have travelled overseas many times and not had a problem. I’m getting a hepatitis shot and updated on any other immunizations. Any suggestions for a safe and enjoyable trip would be appreciated.

  13. Hi Rick, did you talk or visit with any of the peaceful dissidents?Did you watch the peaceful march by the Ladies in White asking for freedom for family members jailed for peaceful dissent and promoting human rights?
    If you had you would probably had seen Castro’s thugs repressing them and jailing them
    Just hope to see a free Cuba with no political prisoners and elections for the first time in 57 years!

  14. We went to Cuba about 10 years ago ,. We are Canadians so we had no problems at all. We spent a week on a small tour bus with fellow Canadians ,wwe visited a school ,cigar factory,tobacco fields,rum factory,etc.
    We had a very interesting adventure,.Downtown Havana was fantastic,we went out at night ,felt very safe.We toured the Revolution museum,ate ice cream with the locals,toured their shops.
    I would say forget Varederro ,nothing there but the usual all inclusive .
    My advice go ,go,before it becomes Americanized,,commercial. It is a very unique country.

  15. Re: traveling with Road Scholar. They have great trips. However they are too expensive for me. Have a great time!

  16. I’m leaving for Cuba in two days through a sanctioned People to People Photo Enrichment tour. I look forward to capturing this unique island country before the embargo is lifted.

    We’re used to traveling with a Rick Steves book in hand but will have to travel this time without the benefit of your insightful observations.

  17. We traveled to Cuba in September 2015 on a People to People Ambassador program titled “Arts, Music and Culinary.” We did all things possible under that heading – amazing food at private restaurants, visited arts and galleries, saw many amazing performances, etc. The good news about the inevitable changes is that the Cuban government is making plans now to put some controls around it. For instance, no foreigner will be allowed to buy land. They must lease it from a Cuban land owner then build as per rules currently being crafted. If there is an existing structure, at least the facade must be incorporated into the design. This is happening a lot in old Havana where there is a lot of rehab going on. It was an amazing place to visit and will definitely go back when we can legally tour around on our own.

  18. My only question is what took you so long?
    Charles Spencer King
    author of: Havana My Kind of Town

  19. Mike Hayden wrote:
    > The rules on who needs to apply for a license have changed, so that Rick’s comment is now outdated.

    Mike (or anyone else), could you elaborate on that, please? Are you referring to that ‘declaration for travel to cuba’ form? Have the options changed, or is it no longer needed at all?

  20. Why don’t you all who think Cuba is fine as is, ask the Cuban people if they would like it to change?
    I bet you will be very surprised, they do want it to change and to see Mc Doanlds, Burger King and Dunkin Donuts come into Cuban.
    It’s very good to be living in countries with complete freedom and abundance and wish something completely different for other people.
    None of you who talk about he fabulous experiences you had in Cuba know the hell that the Cuban people go through every single day in order to subsist. And as far as sustainable agriculture, you have seen what the Cuban government want you to see.
    Wake up and smell the roses, Cuba is no paradise! And I do know because I am Cuban.

  21. Rick, Thanks for your post on Cuba. My family left Cuba when I was 2 years old in 1960 to start a new life in the US. I have never been back but would like nothing more than to visit on one of your tours. We have deep roots in Cuba, as my Grandfather was an architect and built the Pharmacy and Vetenerary buildings at the University of Havana. Our family fled oppression and are so glad for the sacrifices made by Father to provide a better life for his family. My wife and I will be joining you this summer for “The best of Europe in 14 days” and can’t wait for our trip. Hopefully one day we can go back to Cuba to reconnect with our family heritage. Thanks for all you do to keep us abreast of all the great places we need to visit.. All the best, Eddy Garcia-Meitin, Texas.

  22. We are visiting Cuba next month from Australia and are really looking forward to it. It will be interesting to experience it firsthand and away from the USA prism as reflected in movies such as Scarface and The Godfather!

  23. Just returned from 2 weeks in Cuba with Global Volunteers under a humanitarian license. We took a charter flight out of Miami arranged by Cuban Travel Servies. There were 17 in the group. We spent 10 days in Sancti Spiritus, about a 5 hour drive east of Havana in the center of the island. In the mornings we worked on various projects the Presbyterian Church there asked us to do. My main activity was sorting rice and beans and delivering drinking water and meals to homes of the elderly or disabled. It was very interesting to get into Cuban homes. Everyone is very gracious and friendly. More people are starting to run small businesses in their homes. We were able to wander around on our own in the afternoon. In the evenings we tutored English. It was my 2nd trip to Cuba. I went on a People to People tour with the same organization in 2013 when volunteer work was not allowed. Most of the time then was spent in Havana. This time there was only 2 days in Havana, but I did see that some renovations going on the last time I was there were completed.

  24. Hello, Ian from Soltura Cuba Travel here. I’ve been leading small, culturally-immersive -and legal- trips to Cuba from the U.S. for several years.

    I think that it is very important for people to know that in addition to checking the box that states that we are going to Cuba under one of the U.S. Treasury’s general licenses, we also need to maintain proof for up to five years that we actually did lead a full-time itinerary of activities defined by that license. Those who cannot furnish proof if audited can face very steep fines. I highly recommend to anyone serious about visiting Cuba to look up the Cuba FAQ on the U.S. Treasury’s website.

    The benefits of going with a group, aside from the obvious depth of immersion and ease of cultural transition, are that you are legally proteced.

  25. Your report was well done and truthful for the most part.It has never been illegal for Americans(or anyone else)to travel to Cuba. The Trading with the Enemy Act imposed by JFK prohibited spending money in Cuba, not going there. My friends and started going to Cuba in the 1990’s. Some of us have been there over fifty times, usually via Cancun or Mexico City. The US Government never tried to stop us or fine us,since they had no way of proving we spent money in Cuba. This is because US banks were not allowed to honor US credit cards. FYI.

  26. My husband and I visited Cuba for 10 days in October. We used Cuba Travel Services and flew from Tampa to Havana. They provided us with the required visa and medical insurance. On returning to Tampa, we checked the box “support for the Cuban people,” which we definitely did, and had absolutely no problems with immigration.

    We traveled alone to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad (husband is fluent in spanish), and only stayed at casa particulars (private B&Bs), only ate at paladars (privately owned restaurants), and only used local Cuban guides and drivers. In this way we not only supported the new entrepreneurs, but we learned about the Cuban economy, attitudes, and day-to-day life by speaking directly with our casa owners, guides and drivers. They were all open and willing to speak about any part of their lives and country, especially to just the two of us.

    Although in many ways Cuba feels like a third world country, it is different because the people are educated, healthy with good medical coverage, and we felt very safe everywhere. Even in streets in Havana with buildings falling down, there is no trash. Once you go inside the buildings, up the chipped and cracked stairs, past the rickety railings, inside the cases and restaurants are very clean and beautiful.

    Cubans have very complicated lives, trying to survive with their limited official income and subsidies, and what they can make or trade on the black market. Speaking with our drivers with just us in the car, we learned how a doctor can live on $60 a month, how a teacher can live on $35 a month, why an electrical engineer is now making more money driving a taxi, and why a job as a butcher in a government facility may be the best job of all.

    The trip was fascinating, difficult, enlightening, and sometimes scary because we had to put our trust in the hands of strangers. But the Cuban people are incredibly good at just making things work. You see the old American cars held together and still working. That is how all of Cuban life is.

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