Doors to Cuba About to Open
By Ellen Settler / June 1, 2016

With the historic reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, it would seem logical that we could just book a flight to Cuba. As of today Americans we still cannot, although it should be possible to do so by the end of 2016.

In the past, people wishing to visit Cuba had to list one of twelve permissible categories (including visits to close relatives, academic programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in public performances or sport competitions) and apply for a license. Now, any American wishing to travel to Cuba for one of twelve allowed purposes may do so without having to apply for a license on a case-by-case basis. Travelers were also expected to have a full-time schedule of activities related to their purpose of travel.

Sun and beach worshippers will be disappointed that beach vacations are still not allowed. A question remaining among travel experts is whether the government is going to monitor people's travel itineraries. Currently, if you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and in fact spend a week at the beach, you will be breaking the law. This situation should become clear by the end of the year as well.
Doors to Cuba About to Open

One of the twelve permissible travel purposes, "People to People" trips are educational programs. These types of trips are one of the most popular ways to go to Cuba because of the convenience of joining a group trip and your itinerary will be worked out for you. These are organized trips with full schedules of meetings, lectures, visits to artist studios, and/or community projects. Fortunately most of the major tour companies have these in their 2016 and 2017 tour schedules.

The U.S. airlines are now bidding for the right to fly to Cuba, which means that U.S. travelers hope to see new air travel options to Cuba as soon as late 2016, with the expectation that up to 110 flights to different airports around Cuba will be available. However, until commercial service is established, charter flights will remain a traveler's only option for getting to Cuba by air from the U.S. The majority of these charters are currently originating in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Tampa.

Cuba has a shortage of high-end hotels, and that will become more acute if the number of American visitors rises significantly. Some tour operators are already block-booking rooms through 2016. There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the tourism ministry, of which 65 percent are in four and five star category. Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels as they include the chance to make contact with Cuban families and often provide authentic homemade Cuban delicacies. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, known as Casas Particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns like Trinidad, Vinales, and Cienfuegos. Rates will vary depending on the season and location.

Last but not least, what can Americans bring back? Americans can now bring back up to $400 worth of souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars.

Here are some of the highlights of this great island nation.

There are many sides to the Cuban capital Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has the city's prettiest buildings. It is here you will want to spend time wandering. The Malecon, the miles-long promenade on the Havana waterfront, was built to protect the city from the water and is now used by strolling locals.

Visit the tobacco heartlands of Vinales, to see where the tobacco is grown. Rent a car and head west to Vinales valley, Cuba's most beautiful corner, where the striking limestone outcrops rise out of tobacco growing fields.

The crumbling, colonial town of Trinidad is also a UNESCO heritage site and for good reason. Old houses are filled with the finest crystal and porcelain bought with profits from sugar and slaves, while crumbling frescos and elaborate facades line narrow cobbled streets.

The town of Santiago de Cuba last year celebrated its 500th anniversary. This sultry former capital is known for its musicality and laid-back spirit and is well worth a visit.

Baracoa is where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 and was the island's first capital. It is in the far northeast of Cuba 620 miles from Havana. Cobbled streets, period buildings, and funky music make for a friendly and relaxed visit. Glorious isolated beaches are close by virgin rainforests, and overlooking it all is El Yunque, a table mountain 1,886 feet high.

San Miguel de los Banos is described as a cross between an alpine village and a ghost town, a once-thriving spa village that fell into decline. Now the faded ruined grandeur can still be wandered around.

Although Cuba's big draw is its fascinating colonial and 20th century history, it does have some marvelous beaches. Varadero is the main resort, the island's most accessible, where the best asset is its fine beach. There are 12 miles of soft white sands and shallow, aquamarine waters. Also try Playa Giron, better known as Bay of Pigs, or Maria La Gorda, which are both known for great snorkeling.

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