Home

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Forums Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

trinidad cubaFor more than 50 years, Cuba has been a travel taboo for U.S. residents. Going there wasn’t technically prohibited — particularly if you were able to get special clearances as a journalist or Cuban expat, or if you traveled with an authorized tour operator — but spending money there was. Sure, there were ways around the restrictions, but this week we’ve gotten closer to the day when independent American travelers will no longer have to make sneaky pit stops in Mexico or Canada along the way.

Earlier this week, after Cuba and the U.S. came to an agreement that released prisoners on both ends and returned them to their home countries, the rules about spending money in Cuba were relaxed. Travelers will soon be able to use their credit and debit cards to make purchases on the island, and lovers of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy knowing that won’t have to smuggle their Caribbean souvenirs back into the U.S. anymore (not that anyone has ever done that, of course).

Congress will discuss lifting further economic sanctions next year.

Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember

What does this mean for Cuba travel right now? Is it likely that you’ll be able to just pack your bags and book a trip on a whim without a U.S.-sanctioned reason? Not just yet. But anyone wishing to explore the country might find it easier to fit into one of the allowable categories (which include family visits, humanitarian projects, educational activities and “support for the Cuban people,” among others).

Are you interested in Cuba travel? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below.

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

trinidad cubaIn this month’s featured review, reader Shareagift writes about visiting Cuba for the first time. “With its markets, colonial architecture and arid setting, Trinidad is reminiscent of North Africa and its souks,” writes Shareagift. “Trinidad is also home to one of the main Cuban music scenes. Each night the local bars are filled with drunk European tourists dancing independently of the rhythm while being spurred on by attractive locals. Like with most of Cuba, the atmosphere is warm and inviting.”

Read the rest of Shareagift’s review here: Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember … A Travel Guide. Shareagift has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cuba cruiseOn my second night onboard the Canada-based Cuba Cruise, the first cruise line to offer sailings around the island, Captain Stathis Goumas added a caveat to his welcome speech that resonated with all of us onboard:

“If you want to experience a typical Caribbean cruise, then you have come on the wrong ship. Is that what you’d like?” he asked us. A chorus of “No!”

He went on: “Don’t expect cruise ship tourism that you might have experienced in other parts of the Caribbean: We’re leaving 2014, and stepping back to the 1950s.”

And so it has proved, just a few days in to my seven-night trip. The town of Antilla has nothing at the port, one tin shack which acts as the passport office, a disused gangway and the remains of another one, storks sitting on the exposed posts.

As we arrive from our tender, we’re met by a band of local musicians playing traditional Cuban music (“Guantanamera” is the crowd pleaser, but other tunes also make an appearance, including ones by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who was from this area).

Read Cuba Trip Reviews

We’re bundled into buses from Cubanacan — the state tourist organization — and driven off to our various excursions. In an hour and a half we pass maybe five cars, a truck, a school bus and a tourist bus or two. The primary means of transport is horse-drawn cart or donkey.

And yet: front porches are immaculate. There is no sign of rubbish anywhere. Kids are smartly dressed in school uniform. The villages we drive through seem lively; people wave as we drive by.

It’s a landscape of sugarcane, much like Jamaica, and that’s the primary source of income around these parts. We learn that up until the mid-90s the sugarcane was transported around the island by steam train. It’s a far cry from Havana, that’s for sure.

Cuba Cruise, which leases Louis Cristal ship from Louis Cruises, is the very first cruise line to offer such a service in this mysterious country. It’s such a significant development for Cuba’s tourism that Fidel Castro’s son was invited onboard for dinner as guest of honor on our first evening, before we departed Havana.

I’ve learned that Cuba Cruise tried something similar five years ago, but too much red tape prevented it from happening. Launching an operation like this is always going to have its challenges. The biggest is perhaps the most obvious: you can’t source the biggest cruise market in the world, and the one on your doorstep: the United States.

Instead Cuba Cruise has concentrated on Canada, Europe and the Far East, and onboard we have mainly Canadians, Koreans, Chinese and then a smattering of Europeans — Brits, French, Germans, Greeks and Italians. There is also a U.S. educational group and two U.S. citizens, who got on in Jamaica’s Montego Bay and wish to remain nameless.

So far, everyone we’ve met on our tours is welcoming. There’s no hint of the weariness that you notice in other Caribbean destinations: instead there’s a charm, and a real sense of gratefulness that we have chosen to visit here.

Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

The areas that we go to are not traditional Cuba, and could leave you with a poor impression if you were on a more common all-inclusive land vacation. Take Guardalavaca Beach, which has an all-inclusive resort and a slightly tacky flea market. This area was first developed for tourism back in the 1960s, when Cuba welcomed Russians from the former Soviet Union, and many Soviet-era apartment blocks and the two main hotels were built to cater for the influx.

cuba farmer car cigarLuckily Cuba Cruise has made some adjustments to get us beyond the obvious. Our final stop is the one I will remember: a traditional farm, where we stroll through the farmer’s banana plantation, suck on sugarcane pulled from the ground and eat a sweet banana, before enjoying a local snack and a strong coffee.

The farmer keeps a Plymouth car from 1948 in his garage and assures us that he still drives it every day from his house to the market and back. To prove the point he starts up the engine and poses beside it, chomping a fat cigar.

It’s quite overwhelming. But if you’re intrigued, hurry up and go; it’s changing as you read this.

– written by Adam Coulter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot was taken on a quiet, colorful street in Trinidad, Cuba.

trinidad cuba horse street


Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

trinidad cubaLast month we reported that U.S. citizens can once again put Cuba on their bucket list. A number of license renewals have finally been issued to cultural tour operators by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), after an unexplained delay.

This week I caught up with Michael Vanderbeek of the Port Everglades Department, who told me that the port has been speaking to cruise lines for a number of months, with a view to operating day trips from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (about a five-hour journey), so sure are they that the travel ban to this wonderful island will be lifted. Vanderbeek and I spoke about this yesterday, ahead of the election, and judging by last night’s result, they could well be right. Cuba could soon be closer than you think to the U.S.

I’m lucky — as a Brit, I can travel to Cuba whenever I want, and I fulfilled that dream back in 2006. The island had always been on my bucket list, but I’m not sure exactly why: Perhaps it was the romantic image combined with its uniqueness in a largely homogenized world.

I spent two weeks there: a few days in Havana, then to the far west to a tiny village called Maria La Gorda, and then on to Trinidad via Varadero. My trip was in turns maddening, exhilarating, saddening, fascinating, surprising and moving.

Maddening because nothing seemed to work, and you had to change your money into a tourist currency, shop in tourist stores and fill up with tourist-priced petrol; exhilarating when I talked politics and Fidel with locals (who, back then at least, were still “officially” not allowed to talk to tourists); saddening to see the poverty, the appalling food and the crumbling architecture; fascinating to get a glimpse into a culture that has been trapped in time for the best part of 50 years; surprising when I’d stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant or a sight; and moving when I gave away soap or pens, or gave someone a lift.

IndependentTraveler.com Readers Share Their Cuba Experiences

I spent much of my time there trying to reconcile a country that has some of the finest doctors in the world and the best education with one that, back then, banned free movement of its citizens (this restriction will lift in January) and where food stamps still exist, food is rationed and the gift of a bar of soap can move people to tears. It’s that all-too-common dilemma for a Western citizen who yearns to find a place in the world that isn’t full of Starbucks and McDonald’s and mobile phones, but at the same time sees a country whose people are yearning for just those things.

What I did pick up in my two weeks there was that things take a long time to change in Cuba. Stuff in the West that we take for granted is hampered by a glacier-slow bureaucratic process, wrapped up in years of inefficiency.

But things do change, and that is happening right now. The danger is if it happens too fast.

Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. playground. Should all the barriers come down in one go, it may become that again.

My advice: Go there now, before the changes alter the country forever.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

– written by Adam Coulter

cuba taxiIn August, we reported that Cuba trips could be in jeopardy for U.S. travelers, as many tour operators and cultural institutions that offered educational excursions to the long-verboten nation had not had their licenses renewed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Fortunately, Americans can put Cuba back on their bucket lists, as a number of license renewals have finally been issued over the past few weeks. Organizations including Friendly Planet Travel, Insight Cuba and Grand Circle Foundation are now once again authorized to offer “people to people” trips to the Caribbean nation. These trips, authorized by the Obama administration last year, are required by the government to have a focus on cultural exchange with “meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba,” according to the OFAC’s guidelines.

We asked Peggy M. Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, why it took longer than expected for licenses to be renewed. “We were not given any explanation by OFAC as to the delay,” Goldman told us. “However, there was a change in the rules for granting people-to-people licenses in May of 2012, and that change, coupled with fewer people to work on the many applications, no doubt added to the delay in reviewing the applications.”

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

The rule change was sparked by a speech from Cuban-American Congressman Marco Rubio that questioned whether the trips were “cover-ups for tourism,” reports the Associated Press. After this, the application for a license got significantly longer, incorporating increased scrutiny of the day-to-day itineraries of each proposed trip to Cuba. (Rubio had taken issue with such activities as salsa dancing and visits to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.)

“For Friendly Planet Travel, it meant a lot of extra time in preparing very detailed descriptions of each day on tour, plus other information,” said Goldman. “The sheer scope of the new applications must have been daunting for OFAC to review, and from what I understand, there was less staff than before to cope with the work. However, it appears OFAC has gotten on top of the work, because from what I’ve heard, a number of renewals as well as new licenses have been granted in recent days. We are obviously thrilled that we’ve been renewed for a period of two years.”

Given the high demand these trips have seen over the past year, we’re betting many travelers are thrilled too.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

– written by Sarah Schlichter

havana cubaAt the beginning of this year, IndependentTraveler.com named Cuba one of its 9 Destinations to Visit in 2012, thanks to the relaxation of travel restrictions for Americans wanting to visit the long-forbidden nation. Under the loosened rules, many tour operators and cultural institutions began offering educational trips to Cuba that any traveler could book (prior access had largely been restricted to Americans visiting family in Cuba or traveling for religious purposes).

But these trips appear to be in peril once again. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the U.S. Treasury, has been extremely slow to renew licenses for travel organizations who want to offer educational Cuba tours — putting future trips in jeopardy.

InsightCuba.com, for example, has “pending OFAC license renewal” at the top of its list of tour offerings; the Free Press notes that the company has had to cancel its last two months of trips because its license expired in June. Other companies affected include National Geographic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and more.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

It’s not clear if license renewals are not being promptly issued for political, bureaucratic or other reasons. In a statement provided to the Free Press, the U.S. Treasury had only this to say: “We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.”

For now, if you see a company advertising Cuba tours, avoid disappointment by calling to ask when its OFAC license expires and whether the trip is guaranteed to run.

– written by Sarah Schlichter