Traveling to Cuba

  by Michael I. Niman
Blue Dog Press,
May 17th, 2001


  For Buffalonians, more so than any other Americans, Cuba is an easy and relatively affordable trip, with direct flights from the Toronto airport leaving on a daily basis. Because of State Department trade regulations, however, US issued credit cards, checks and traveler’s checks are not accepted in Cuba.  

The Law

The regulations, cold-war era dinosaurs enacted over 40 years ago, effectively curtail tourism by prohibiting American citizens from spending money in Cuba. Still, about 60,000 Americans a year, including hundreds of wealthy Floridian yachters who pack Havana’s Hemingway Marina, exercising what they call their “right to freely travel,” ignore the edict.  Put bluntly, Cuba is chic.  It all started about three years ago when The Washington Post published a travel piece puffing Cuba, turning blowing off the embargo into a jet set sport.  More recently, the June 2001 issue of Cigar Aficionado devoted a full 85 pages to, as their cover promises, stories about how to “travel” and “invest” in Cuba, sponsored by the likes of Dewers, Hennessy, Lincoln and Netjets, a personal aircraft broker.  If you expected Cuba’s hotels to be populated by bohemians and communists, you will be sorely disappointed.   The presence of so many wealthy conservative tourists in Cuba, however, has so far kept the State Department, for political reasons, from aggressively enforcing its tourist spending ban.

If civil disobedience isn’t your game, however, another 80,000 or so Americans travel to Cuba legally each year under State Department sanction.  Currently full time journalists and researchers, Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under “self-defined” circumstances of humanitarian aid, students enrolled in licensed Cuban Studies programs such as the one at UB (645-3912) or Americans traveling on “fully hosted” trips paid for by foreign nationals such a Canadians, can all travel to Cuba without applying for a specific State Department license.  Other Americans who wish to perform or lecture in Cuba, attend a religious or cultural event, engage in athletic competition, work on a humanitarian project or study or independently conduct research for a book can apply for a specific State Department license to travel in Cuba.  For more information see or 

The State Department also licenses a number of travel agencies to provide legal tourist travel to Cuba.  It works like this: built into your package tour is a tuition or membership fee which makes you a “student” or “member” of a licensed “educational” or “humanitarian” group.  These trips, which usually depart from New York City or Miami, usually cost three or four times the price of a Canadian tourist package departing Toronto, but include a full itinary of guided tours.  Global Exchange (800-497-1994), Cross Cultural Solutions (800-380-4777) and Marazul Tours ( all have good reputations and a long history of arranging legal travel to Cuba.

The above information deals with US regulations.  The Cubans, on the other hand, have thrown the door wide open to American tourists.  All you need is a US passport and a tourist Visa which is provided by travel agencies and airlines, and you are welcome to enter and leave Cuba as you wish, though they seem to check your paperwork more carefully as you leave.

Where to Go

Given the red tape hassles or legal risks, minimal as they are, it really doesn’t make sense for US citizens to go to Cuba for a beach resort type vacation.  Granted Cuba’s beaches are among the best in the world, but what really makes a trip to Cuba unique is its culture.  And nowhere in Cuba is the culture richer than in Havana. 

Havana’s oldest neighborhoods were laid out in the early 1500s.  The newer ones date to the 1700s.  There’s no other city like it in the hemisphere.  Various economic booms and regional migrations have also, over the years, bestowed Havana with the hemisphere’s most eclectic architecture.  The economic isolation of the 40-year long US embargo has also served to strengthen Cuba’s cultural landscape.  There are no McDonald’s here.  Though there are ominous clouds of commercialization on the horizon, Cuba so far is relatively free of the homogenizing corporate culture that is sweeping the world. 

And since the US embargo meant no new cars or parts, industrious Cubans kept their old ones running as symbols of resistance to the embargo.  Tailfins still rule in Havana, as refurbished American jalopies from the 1930 through late 50s ply the streets.  The Cuban government recently declared these antiques protected symbols of their national heritage, making it illegal to export them.  The visual impact of these dinosaurs, with their dim headlights glowing on Havana’s dark thoroughfares, is nothing less than surreal.  It’s also an auto buff’s dream.  One Habanero I spoke with insists that Lee Iacocca is a regular visitor, often flagging down old Chryslers, examining their engines and berating their owners for replacing the tired American iron with Russian diesel truck motors.

Getting There

Your trip to Havana usually begins in Fort Erie, Ontario.  Travel agencies such as Glenny Travel (US phone: 716-853-3572) sell package tours to Cuba.  This is the cheapest way to go.  Currently, a one week trip including round-trip airfare, tourist card and taxes, a first rate hotel (such as the Plaza or Riviera which are mentioned later), buffet breakfasts, and ground transportation to and from the airport, costs approximately $630 (US dollars) per person.  The same hotel room would cost $130 per night for walk ins.  The best packages are handled through two tour operators, Hola Sun and Magna Tours, with Hola Sun having both better rates and a better selection of hotels in Havana.


When booking a hotel “in Havana” it is important to make sure you are actually in Havana and not an outlying suburb, unless that is your preference.  Most people prefer either the Habana Vieja or Vedado neighborhoods.  They are separated by a $4 taxi ride or a 40-minute stroll down the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront promenade.  In Vieja, The Hotel Plaza offers 1800s colonial charm and a convenient location near Central Park, theaters, nightclubs and the Prado a promenade connecting Central Park to the Malecon.  It is also convenient to museums such as the old capitol and the Museum of the Revolution, and clean inexpensive restaurants and bars.

The Vedado neighborhood is more modern, repleat with 1950s architecture,  and is home to some of Havana’s pricier nightclubs.  The place to stay in Vedado, if for no other reason than its campiness, is The Riviera.  Built by mobster Meyer Lansky, it was the last hotel built in Havana before the revolution.  Though the rooms have been renovated, the lobby, bars and casino area are still vintage 1957, down to the origional sunken lounge chairs and cocktail tables.  The Rivera embodies the history of the Cuban revolution.  It’s wall of fame features early guests such as Rocky Graziano, and proceeds through the revolutionary years with photos of Angela Davis and other revolutionary dignitaries.  There are also photos of gun emplacements in front of the Riviera during the missile crisis. 

For a variation on the urban theme, you might want to book a room at Playas Del Este, the eastern beaches.  Here, travelers can experience the small Cuban resort town of Guanabo (frequented mostly by Cuban tourists) the beach and the outlying area, while being a 20-minute taxi ride ($10-$20) or 1 hour bus ride (2 cents) from Habana Vieja.  Magna tours books tourists into two inexpensive apartment complexes in this area.  Travelers should avoid the gaggle of airport style hotels in the Miramar neighborhood as they are overpriced, ugly and above all, isolated in a rather sterile neighborhood.

Whatever hotel you finally settle into, please remember, this is Cuba.  The Riviera has new beds but awful solid foam block pillows.  The Plaza has feather pillows, but their tired old beds sink in the center.  Apartments on the beach can have a musty smell and unreliable plumbing.  No matter where you go expect leaky faucets, broken towel rings and so forth.  Again, just remember why you are in Cuba.  You’re not there for a comfy bed.

Food & Entertainment

Anything can cost anything in Cuba.  The idea of tourism is, first and foremost, to support heal;thcare, education and economic development by extracting money from tourists.  Beyond that, Cuba is the friendliest place I have ever been to.  Cigar Aficionado writes of $50 dinners and $250 hotel rooms.  You can also, if you wander away from the tourist neighborhoods, get an edible meal for well less than a dollar.  Cuban health standards are very high and most Cuban food poses no risk to travelers.

Tourist nightclubs have cover charges from $10-$50 or more.  You can catch the same quality show in a much more interesting venue at a club frequented by locals for about $2.  Some clubs offer a tourist show at night and a cheaper show at 4PM for locals. The best guide for finding your way around Havana is Christopher Baker’s Havana Handbook, published by Moon Publications (in stock at Talking Leaves Books).  Baker has also written a larger Cuba Handbook for travelers planning on going beyond Havana.  Both books are extraordinarily well researched, candid and accurate. Things are changing rapidly, however, in Havana, quickly making any published resource obsolete, so keep an ear to the ground and ask around for info on nightlife and food.  Keep in mind, however, that many of the new private restaurants pay a commission to Cubans who guide tourists into their establishments. Sometimes your best information might actually come from other tourists.

Spare Change & Culture Change

Currently the Cuban peso is worth about 5 US cents.  The average monthly wage in Cuba is 223 pesos, or roughly $11.  Rent is capped at 10% of income and Cubans receive free health care, available medicine, education through graduate school, and a basic food ration.  The peso is quickly becoming an obsolete form of currency.  Public transport, admissions to certain cultural venues, ice cream and street food are all priced in pesos, and for a tourist the cost is negligible.  Consumer goods are all priced in dollars.  A doctor earns $5 per week.  A bellboy might get a $1 tip for carrying your bags.  Do the math.  Tourist workers are the ricos (rich) of Cuba.   Panhandlers are extremely professional.  Some are Quadra lingual. Some are actually in dire need of dollars.  Some are hustlers.  None, however, are violent.  Despite the economic inequality between tourists and Cubans, violent crime in Cuba is almost nonexistent.  While panhandlers and the occasional pickpocket will work tourist areas, outside of these areas few people will bother you. Havana is probably the safest large city in the hemisphere. Wherever you wander, however, Cubans will want to converse with you to practice their English or query you about life in the US.

Things are changing extremely rapidly in Cuba.  The tourist industry is currently experiencing a 19% annual growth rate.  Budget tourists on cheap package tours are quickly becoming a thing of the past as the Cigar Aficionado crowd muscles its way back into Havana after a 40-year hiatus.  Things are also changing culturally.  The new mixed economy is introducing extremes of poverty and wealth to a country whose people have not experienced such inequality in over a generation.  With social inequality comes crime.  Currently Cuba is still safe, friendly and affordable.  It’s also relatively free of corporate culture, though this is changing by the minute, with US companies already jockeying in Cuba to protect brand recognition.  The window of opportunity to visit the Cuba that I write of is rapidly closing.

Cuba Travel

Buffalo-Havana: A Tale of Two Cities

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Copyright 2001 Michael I. Niman