Cuba Travel, What's New(s)?

By: Kathy Klofft

Photo Essay: People of Cuba by Jeff Klofft

 Two gentlemen read the news on the stoop on the outskirts of Old Havana

Two gentlemen read the news on the stoop on the outskirts of Old Havana

Cuba travel has been in the news again.  The President of the United States recently announced some changes in the policy of rapprochement that had been set by his predecessor in December 2014.  I'm not going to get political, because I've never been one to determine whether a place I travel to is "right" or wrong" (or even "Right" or "Left", for that matter)  We travel to experience the people and the place as it is and hope that our connection to other people helps bridge the gaps of our differences.  If we refuse to visit places where we disagree with the way they are governed, we'd probably not even be able to leave our own back yard!   Since the announcement about changes to Cuban American relations, I've had many readers and friends ask about how to go about seeing Cuba now.  They wonder if they should go before things change again, and what is the best way to do it.  So I'm revisiting our experiences and giving advice based on what I've heard and read in the last week. If you don't plan to go, you may enjoy Jeff's photos of the people we met in Cuba!

 A young man shares his art and a smile with visitors

A young man shares his art and a smile with visitors

We decided to visit in June 2016, shortly after the announcement and posted about it here:

Cuba Posts

As for the latest news, no one can predict what will happen next, but the President has asked the Treasury Department to revisit the current rules.  It appears from emails travelers I know have received from their cruise lines with itineraries to Cuba, that they have been assured they can still make Cuba ports of call.  As i understand it, individual travel that is not part of a cruise or People to People program will be examined in a different way and possibly restricted.  So with this scanty information and not knowing what the Treasury Department rules will eventually look like, here is what I'm telling my friends.

  A couple entertains during a visit to a state run restaurant in Old Habana

 A couple entertains during a visit to a state run restaurant in Old Habana

1- Nothing appears to be happening immediately.

It seems it will be some time before new rules are made and implemented.  If Cuba is on your list, I would definitely not hesitate to go as soon as possible.  The issue with Cuban travel is not safety, we felt Cuba was very safe, safer than most major cities we have visited anywhere in the world.  The problem seems to be the change in the political approach to the island nation by the United States, and Americans ability to visit freely or do business there.

 Dancers perform during the cabaret at the Hotel Nacionale in Havana

Dancers perform during the cabaret at the Hotel Nacionale in Havana

2-I would not go to Cuba "illegally" right now.

While many Americans have gone to South or Central America and simply visited Cuba from there without getting any approvals or passport stamps.  I would not do that now. There is no way to predict how immigration officials will react upon return to the United States. Also, there is no predicting that over the next 4 to 8, or more years how an "illegal" visit to Cuba might affect your ability to receive government clearances, or government benefits of any kind. We simply don't know.

 Children from an arts school in Matanzas pose just before leaving for summer break

Children from an arts school in Matanzas pose just before leaving for summer break

3-I would take a cruise that has Cuba on the itinerary

.Cuba is likely just one of the places you'll visit on a cruise, and the whole vacation wouldn't be canceled if things change rapidly.  Also, I've read that the uptick in tourism since rapprochement has lead to some food shortages for people in Cuba.  Cruises, which carry their own food on board, are a good way to lessen any of those effects. Our experience with Cuban food was that it is not very varied or spiced; most of the food we ate in both paladares (privately owned home restaurants) and state run restaurants was fairly bland, but filling.

 A man on the beach expresses his enthusiasm for Americans with his shirt and his gestures!

A man on the beach expresses his enthusiasm for Americans with his shirt and his gestures!

4-I would take a well established People to People Trip

If I wanted to take a trip to Cuba now, and didn't want to cruise or had a special interest, I would go with one of the outfitters that have offered People To People tour for years.  These trips usually revolve around meaningful connections between people with similar interests. Our trip was focused on Jazz and Art, which was of interest to our family.  Other trips involve bird watching and nature. With rapprochement, many new travel companies applied for and were approved to travel to Cuba with less developed programs.  However, the ones that were doing it first have the best connections and resources in Cuba.  If things are changing rapidly, a well established outfitter will have a better handle on how to adapt to changes than a newcomer.

 Three men struggle to maneuver a fruit cart in the streets.

Three men struggle to maneuver a fruit cart in the streets.

5-Check the rules frequently.  

What is allowed in and out of Cuba could change at any time.  Another reason to travel with an experienced outfitter is that they stay on top of these rule changes for you.  If the limits of cigars, art or rum change, they can let you know before you invest in something that could just be confiscated. They will also stay ahead of any itinerary changes required by either government. 

 A local musician who connects young jazz acts with Americans coming to learn about Cuban Jazz reacts with joy to his protegees set.

A local musician who connects young jazz acts with Americans coming to learn about Cuban Jazz reacts with joy to his protegees set.

6-If you do travel to Cuba with a cruise or tour company, be sure to keep the paperwork

The tour outfitter or cruise line will provide official paperwork that explains the legal reason for your trip to Cuba. You will need this when you return home and for future travel.   I keep mine with my passport, but remove it when passing through immigration in any country, including my own until someone asks to see it.  No one has asked to see it yet, but we never know when they might ask, so I have it ready to show that I traveled to Cuba on a legal, Treasury Department approved People to People trip.

 A young couple enjoys the sunset on the malecon in Havana

A young couple enjoys the sunset on the malecon in Havana

One of the reasons we travel is to see places that are different from where we live, to connect with people in a way that emphasizes our similarities, and seeks to understand our differences. We found the people of Cuba to be open to meeting Americans, and excited for the future. Hopefully, all your travels will be the same!

 

Dramatic Video of Polar Bears of Churchill

Posted by Kathy Klofft

Photographs by Jeffrey Klofft

Video by Cathy D

One of the most dramatic moments I have ever had watching wildlife occurred while I was in Churchill Manitoba in early November on a Natural Habitat trip, when a mother polar bear led her cubs fleeing, just feet away, past our polar rover. She was trying to put some distance between them and a huge male bear headed their way.  I've been blessed to see many animals in their wild, natural setting, but the drama of seeing polar bears interacting with and responding to each other on the tundra in Northern Canada was one of the most exciting wildlife trips we've been able to experience. So you can imagine the tiny bit of heartbreak I felt when I realized on my second full day of "safari", I had left my iphone with the video camera on the charger in my hotel room.  I'm sure any of you who have 'lost" photos on your phone or forgot to take your camera to an important event probably knows what this feels like...an opportunity lost, regret at not being able to capture the moment forever.

Our blog post with more photos about this encounter with the bears can be read here, if you have not seen it:

Polar Bear Mama Drama

Of course, seeing these amazing sights with my own eyes is an incredible privilege and I would never let the photography get in the way of the experience, but re-living the experience through photos and videos and sharing it with others is a large part of the joy of the experience.  So far, we have shared our polar bear adventures with all of Natural Habitat's Twitter followers, a local GFWC Woman's club and upcoming, we will present to a class of first graders and possibly the Woman Working for Oceans group.  So our photos, videos and stories not only spark our memories but also, hopefully, the curiosity and engagement of people young and old who can make a difference in protecting the environment that both we and the polar bears depend on for life. 

As I prepared for the first presentation, I emailed the others from our tour group with Natural Habitat and asked if anyone may have captured the dramatic mother and cubs moment on video.  We had already shared every one of my husbands images with our whole group...he had the biggest lens and the most experience with a camera, so each day on the tundra, our group affectionately referred to him as the "official photographer", and made sure he was positioned to get great photos to share with the whole group.  So I was delighted when Cathy D, a member on our tour from Michigan, immediately emailed me with video from the exact moment I had requested- that dramatic escape by the mother bear and young cubs. 

Words can't really describe the delight I felt when I saw her video and remembered the thrill of this encounter in the wild. As I share it here I am reminded of this about travel...good karma is good karma, sharing with fellow travelers and the locals we visit is it's own reward, but sometimes it rewards us back in ways we couldn't have anticipated! Thank you Cathy D for sharing this memorable encounter on the tundra with us, both in real life and by sharing this video with all of us!