Travel To Cuba, Fame Not Required

While travel to Cuba has come a long way recently, not everyone can visit as easily as Beyonce and Jay-Z who chose Havana as the place to celebrate their anniversary. Still, even for super stars, travel to Cuba is not like buying a ticket from New York to Chicago and there are a few hoops to jump through. But a new program by a trusted source might just be the answer for travelers who want to visit Cuba.

People to People Ambassador Programs, the educational travel experience company that sent students to Japan after the earthquake/tsunami is back with a new twist on an old way of traveling to Cuba.

People to People is the company that partnered with actress Holly Robinson Peete to award five students with travel scholarships and helped college students complete degrees with international travel programs designed to do just that.

Applying their expertise of sending students around the world for global educational experiences, People to People acquired a travel operator license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury for adult travel programs in Cuba starting in July 2013.

That travel operator license is required to satisfy requirements of the Trading with the Enemy Act, which is the major roadblock to unrestricted travel to Cuba. Exceptions to the ban are allowed by licenses issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department.

People to people will not be the first enterprise to do this. USA Cuba Travel specializes in travel to Cuba and arranged for over 100,000 Americans to get there last year.But People to People’s Citizen Ambassador Programs are designed not for college-age students, but for career professionals who want to get a first-hand look at Cuba for business reasons. Those “business reasons” open up an extremely wide field that many would-be travelers to Cuba can qualify for. Enrolled in medical, educational, business, law or sociology-related programs, delegates have an immersive cultural experience through the program that sounds a lot like an ecotourism trip.

Taking part in a walking tour of a village, going to a street party, interacting with locals or being part of a local community project are all bona fide activities and part of the curriculum. Being in the program, on the ground in Cuba, will also require sleeping and eating there, much like a trip to any other destination around the world.

Trips are seven nights in country with regularly schedule departures from Miami in July 2013 through December 2013. People to People programs typically cost from $4,500-7,999, depending on length, destination and itinerary but are all-inclusive. Transportation, meals, accommodations and activities are part of the deal. Good news, the price range for Cuba programs currently run $4,699-$4,999.

Not part of the deal? Cuban cigars – so here is a little video about how they are made:

Photo Of The Day: Urban Decay In Cuba

Oi from Rio de Janeiro, where I’m traveling and soaking up some serious holiday sun. Staying at a guest house in bohemian Santa Teresa, I got to talking to artists and curators from all over the world the other night about cities. We talked about cities going through urban renewal and creative renaissance, such as here in Rio, Berlin, Havana, and even Detroit. The meaning of the phrase “ruin porn” made sense across multiple languages and cultures, and how popular that type of photography is with travelers. Today’s Photo of the Day shows some urban “decay” in Cuba‘s Havana, but I wouldn’t call it a ruin. It’s a more hopeful image; we can imagine that it’s not a decaying building, but a house in transition. The fraying image of the Cuban woman and the colored buildings are proof that someone tried to make it beautiful.

Share your beautiful urban images in the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user irr.licht]

Conscious Consumption In Cuba: How To Have A More Authentic Trip While Supporting Private Businesses

Flower stand in Old Havana

Until very recently, nearly every entity in Cuba was owned and operated by the government.

But in the past few years, the Cuban government has tried to promote private businesses in hopes that the shift will provide a much-needed boost to the economy. In late 2010, President Raul Castro announced that the government would start making it easier for individuals to open private businesses for the first time since a limited experiment in the 1990s. By July 2012, nearly 250,000 people had opened restaurants, shops and service enterprises, contributing to a total 387,000 Cubans that have chosen to be self-employed, according to the New York Times.

It’s not a complete success story, though. According to the Times, Cuban entrepreneurs regularly run into high taxes, steep customs duties and arbitrary red tape. Cubans that rent out rooms in their homes as casas particulares, for instance, must write down their guests’ full information in log books the moment they check in, lest a surprise inspection lead to heavy fines. License fees for these types of businesses are high, and often prohibitive.

Still, the loosened regulations are a positive sign for the future of private business in Cuba, and travelers can have a positive, and powerful, impact on this growth. One big reason is that most travelers to Cuba use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), rather than the Cuban national peso (CUP). The CUC is most often used by foreigners for tourism-related transactions, like hotels and meals, while the CUP is used by most Cubans for everyday expenses. The difference between the two currencies is vast – 1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP – which means that spending CUCs at privately run businesses can have a large impact on the proprietors’ pocketbooks.

If you are visiting Cuba independently, there are a number of ways to have an authentic travel experience, while supporting private business owners and the local economy. Here are a few.

Terrace at the Bella Perla Marina casa particular in Cienfuegos

Stay in a casa particular

Cuba’s answer to Airbnb, casas particulares, are privately run bed and breakfasts, usually run out of people’s homes. Staying in casas particulares are a great way to interact with locals and get an inside look at how Cubans (or at least those with access to tourist dollars) live.

The government imposes strict regulations on casas particulares, so you can generally expect rooms to be clean and stocked with a fan, air conditioner, mini-fridge and bottled water for sale. Rates are standardized, and usually range from $20-50 per room, per night. For an additional fee, your host will also provide meals. One casa particular in the Bay of Pigs even offered musical entertainment!

Casas particulares are easily booked through international booking websites like or, or through Cuban sites like or Or, you can just roam the streets on the look-out for a white sign with blue writing that reads “Arrendador Divisa” – they are ubiquitous in most city centers, particularly Havana. If that host doesn’t have a room, he or she will more often than not call upon their network of friends to find you another one.

Dine at a paladar

Paladares are privately owned restaurants, often run by families out of their living rooms. They tend to have much better food and selection than the government-run restaurants, which are pretty uniformly bland.

Like privately run restaurants elsewhere, paladares run the gamut in terms of quality and atmosphere. One of the most renowned is Paladar la Guarida, an elegant spot at the top of a 20th-century tenement in Central Havana, famous as a setting for the film “Fresa y Chocolate.” The menu changes regularly but tends to feature inventive dishes with ingredients not often found in spice-strapped Cuba. My cantaloupe gazpacho with dried shrimp was superb.

Another popular spot in Havana is Paladar San Cristobal, which lives up to its five-star TripAdvisor rating. We felt instantly welcome from the moment we stepped into the colonial Spanish courtyard. Our host and waiters lavished us with free wine refills and shots of ron, then lit our first Cuban cigars to top off the meal. When they heard it was my birthday, they disappeared to the back of the restaurant and reemerged with an antique amethyst brooch, which they presented to me as a remembrance of Cuba. The thoughtful service overshadowed my slightly oversalted ropa vieja.

A private salsa class in Havana

Take a private salsa class

Nobody wants to be that awkward gringo doing the two-step on the dance floor at the salsa club. Brush up on your Latin dance skills with private lessons from one of Cuba’s informal dance schools. The best way to find a private instructor is to inquire at your casa particular, or ask around at popular salsa venues, like the bar at Hotel Florida. Rates are about CUC$10-20 per person per hour, and longer intensive courses are available.

Buy a used book in Havana’s Plaza de Armas

The charming, tree-shadowed Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a hub for used booksellers, many of which operate independently. Most books are in Spanish, but you can usually find an odd English or French title left behind by an itinerant traveler, as well as bootlegged copies of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” set off the Cuban coast.

Hitch a ride in a classic car

Rumbling along the Malecon in a classic car is a Cuban experience that can’t be missed. Look out for classic cabs with yellow license plates, which indicate that the car is privately owned. Some of the most beautiful and well-kept cars congregate at the Parque National in Centro Habana, but their rates tend to be high. Be sure to negotiate a fare before you start your joyride.

A final note

Traveling in a country with such a complex economic structure can be eye-opening, but also frustrating. If you are a tourist using CUCs, you will often be charged more than the local CUP equivalent. An ice cream shop charging 5 CUP for a cone (US$.20) will probably charge you a full CUC (US$1) instead.

Remember that the difference might be negligible to you, but could mean a lot to the vendor. Exercise patience, and try to avoid being stingy. And when you experience great service, don’t be afraid to tip!

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Stranded In Cuba

We were ready to leave Cuba. We had toasted our last mojitos, danced our last salsa steps and bid farewell to our home-stay hosts with promises to return.

But Cuba had other plans for us – or rather, Cubana Airlines did.

We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport two hours before departure. One counter was open, with a line at least one hundred deep. Yup, we were ready to leave Cuba.

Thirty minutes passed, and the line didn’t budge. We decided to buy postcards. An hour later, the line had moved forward a few feet. I went for a beer. Two and a half hours later, tensions were high and patience was thin. My boyfriend and I had spent the last twenty minutes trying to head off the Italian girls behind us, who were obviously trying to cut in line. This wasn’t the time nor the place for generosity. It was every man for himself.

We finally reached the counter. I handed off my passport, glaring at the counter agent who was preoccupied in conversation with a co-worker. Five minutes later, she hadn’t given my passport a glance. Finally, she looked over my information, checked my name off a list and handed the passport back to me. “Go outside, the bus will take you to the hotel.”

“Hotel?” I sputtered, torn between the urge to burst into tears and strangle her.

“Yes, the flight has been canceled. You will leave tomorrow,” she said, reaching out her arm for the Italian passports behind us. Nonchalant. Dismissive. I, on the other hand, was about to lose it.

%Gallery-172016%After ten days in Cuba, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier in our vacation, we had encountered some of the frustrations of life here. Internet? That’ll be $6 an hour, and only in hotels. But this hotel’s 24-hour cyber café is closed, the next hotel has computers but no password tarjetas and the next hotel has password tarjetas but no computers. So you volley between three different hotels until finally you reach a PC from the 1990s that, after an excruciatingly long wait, allows you access to the HTML version of Gmail.

Lo siento,” says everyone I encounter along the way. “Es domingo.” I’m sorry, it’s Sunday.

But today isn’t Sunday. It’s Monday, and we have a flight that is supposed to transport us to Mexico. Instead, we are herded onto an air-conditioned bus and shuttled to the Hotel Panorama, a 317-room monstrosity in the affluent Havana suburb of Miramar. It’s an odd place, this Panorama, and as we check in and check out our room, we wonder who would actually pay to stay here. The air is stale, the decorations charmless and the paper on the free soap sticks to the bathroom sink – a sure sign it’s been sitting there for a while.

But today, the hotel is bustling as dozens of harpooned travelers occupy the lobby and common areas. The receptionists are accustomed to dealing with frustrated travelers; it seems that Cubana Airlines has a reputation for delaying and sometimes outright canceling its flights, without rhyme or reason. No one is sure if the delay is due to maintenance or weather. We could depart this evening, or we could depart Thursday. When I ask the receptionist if we can leave the hotel, she smiles apologetically and says that we probably shouldn’t, lest the airline deign to make an official announcement. “We have a swimming pool,” she offers.

And so we head to the swimming pool, and we lie on the pool chairs, stuck in limbo between work mode and vacation mode, anxiety and relaxation, the real world and Cuba. There’s nothing to do but wait, swim and avail ourselves of the plentiful, if mediocre, free buffet. All out of local currency, we opt not to take advantage of the extra night out. We’re in bed by 9 p.m.

The next day, we head to the lobby at 10:30 a.m, the time our bus driver told us we’d be shuttled back to the airport. But that’s not happening. Reception tells us to check back at noon, then 1, then 3. Powerless at the hands of Cuban bureaucracy, the travelers begin camping out in the lobby out of protest, or perhaps just boredom. Friendships are made; alliances are formed. One German guy breaks out his guitar, and an international chorus joins him in Bob Marley songs. I’m too frustrated to join in the camaraderie, so I glare while typing cynical observations on my laptop.

In time, we make it back to the airport, past security, onto the airplane and into the sky. When we finally touch down in Cancun, the plane erupts in cheers. For a while there, we weren’t sure we’d ever make it out.

Cuba is a fascinating country with a rich culture, beautiful scenery and hospitable people. But it is also a country plagued with bureaucracy and inefficiency. My frustration with Cubana Airlines is nothing compared to the frustrations that face many Cubans as they go about their day-to-day business. The 36 hours we spent stranded was a pain. But perhaps it was one of the most authentic looks at the reality of life in Cuba, beyond the mojitos and salsa music.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Explore Cuba’s Rich History And Culture With GeoEx

Adventure travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has announced that it has been awarded a license to begin offering historical and cultural exchange tours to Cuba, giving Americans a rare opportunity to visit a country that has essentially been off limits for decades. The first scheduled tour will take place November 3-10 of this year and travelers who book by October 1 will receive a $500 discount.

The GeoEx itinerary, entitled “Connecting with Cuba’s Living History,” puts the focus squarely on that country’s rich culture. Visitors to the island nation will get the chance to meet with local artists, musicians, dancers and historians while exploring the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Trinidad and Cienfugos. They’ll also roam the streets of Havana, a city that has remained nearly frozen in time for the past 50 years, while learning about Cuba’s ambitious social programs during a visit to a state-sponsored maternity clinic.

One of the culinary highlights of the trip will be regular stops at paladars, which are private restaurants commonly run out of local homes. These unique eateries not only offer a savory sampling of Cuban food but are a prime example of how entrepreneurship is alive and well in the country. Owned and operated by an emerging group of restaurateurs, the paladars offer a glimpse into the culture while simultaneously serving up an excellent meal.

GeoEx, who was named the best adventure travel company in the world by “Outside” magazine, has charged their top Cuba experts with putting together an unforgettable experience for travelers. Judging from the itinerary it seems they have more than succeeded at that task. If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting Cuba for yourself, this is a great opportunity to do so and at a discount no less. Find out more by clicking here.