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!

 

Costa Rica: You just can't stump these guides!

Having had at least a dozen different guides in CR we have yet to run into one who mailed it in...
Randall helped us find all kinds of wildlife in the canopy, including crawling under the underbrush to find a sleeping Baird's tapir (Photos in our trip report) 

Randall helped us find all kinds of wildlife in the canopy, including crawling under the underbrush to find a sleeping Baird's tapir (Photos in our trip report) 

Costa Rica is a place where they run out of superlatives...is that a great frigate bird, or a magnificent frigate bird? Yes, it's hot and it's a jungle, teaming with things that creep and crawl, but it's also a place of amazing beauty and diversity. It's truly unbelievable how much wildlife can be seen during a day walking in a national park, or out on a boat. It's not just what you see but what you hear, the roar of the ocean, the bark of the howler monkeys, constant bird calls and cicadas, seemingly a different one trilling every hour. It's hard to see all this life all all around because of the dense foliage.

They not only know what it is, but what kind of behaviors to expect and why it matters to the ecosystem. (oh, BTW, it's a Purple Gallinule, I asked, and Carlos knew!!)

They not only know what it is, but what kind of behaviors to expect and why it matters to the ecosystem. (oh, BTW, it's a Purple Gallinule, I asked, and Carlos knew!!)

That's where Costa Rica's fabulous guides come in. A professional guide in CR is a highly trained naturalist who also specializes in hospitality. Having had at least a dozen different guides in CR we have yet to run into one who mailed it in. To a man (and one woman) our guides have been as passionate and enthusiastic about our tour of the sea or canopy, as if it was the first time they were seeing it. Sharing that passion is not just their job, but their life's work, and I have yet to stump one with a question! In the rare case a ready answer isn't available, out comes a dog eared wildlife guide and the matter is certain. Through excellent public education, Costa Rica has in one generation turned out a small army of environmentalists, many who told me their parents or even they as children caught iguanas to sell for meat or dug turtle eggs to eat and used the shells as dishes. Today they are the most passionate defenders and teachers of this amazing biodiverse, beautiful country. 

Carlos not only pointed out the birds in the mangrove, he also pointed them out in the guide book so i could spell their names!

Carlos not only pointed out the birds in the mangrove, he also pointed them out in the guide book so i could spell their names!

Click here to see our full trip report about our recent trip to La Paloma Lodge in Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula, gateway to the Corcovado National Park. it's multi media, with lots of exciting drama, excess luggage, civil unrest, and earthquakes, oh my!

Azamara Journey Cruise and Pacific Costa Rica Trip

The Azamara Journey after spending the day passing through the Panama Canal from the Caribbean/Atlantic to the Pacific

The Azamara Journey after spending the day passing through the Panama Canal from the Caribbean/Atlantic to the Pacific

We recently took a cruise on Azamara Journey. Our trip started with a night in South Beach Miami, where we embarked a newly refurbished Azamara Journey on Sunday, February 7 for a cruise to Cartegena, Colombia through the Panama Canal and into Panama City, Panama.

 


Modern Cartegena Columbia  

Modern Cartegena Columbia  

Our cruise took us north along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. We called on Golfito, a former banana plantation, on the Golfo Dulce, and sailed into Quepos, the jumping off point for Manual Antonio National Park and dozens of deep sea fishing charter boats. We ourselves jumped off Journey a day early in Quepos to travel back to the Osa Peninsula for a 5 night stay at LaPaloma lodge in Drake Bay. We had always wanted to visited the Corcovado National Park, and had been less than thrilled with how habituated the wild animals were in Manual Antonio, so leaving while leaving our new friends on the Journey a day early was sad, we loved the wildness of Corcovado NP and Drake Bay!


Fabulous flora in Costa Rica at the Casa Oraquideas Botanical Gardens in Golfo Dulce

Fabulous flora in Costa Rica at the Casa Oraquideas Botanical Gardens in Golfo Dulce

Over the next few weeks, I'll post a variety of trip reports for each port and our time in Costa Rica...will they be interesting? I don't know, not much happened, except marauding monkeys, a little civil unrest, getting invited to salsa with a hot Latin dancer, getting doors repeatedly slammed in our faces- by spiders and, oh yeah, a small earthquake. (But note that we never encountered an actual mosquito, much less one infected with Zika!) I hope you'll enjoy reading our reports, and seeing Jeff's photos.

Travel Isn't Scary!

But it can look that way sometimes!!  Just in time for Halloween, I thought I'd post a few "scary" travel photos. Most times the scariest part of our trip is the flight...but sometimes we do encounter some scary stuff!  Luckily it's almost always scarier looking than it really is!  Enjoy our  gallery of "creepy"  (and sometimes crawly!) photos!

Happy Halloween!

Our daughter is amateur actress and here she really sells her terror at this enormous grasshopper...made of grass by our guides in Costa Rica! 

Our daughter is amateur actress and here she really sells her terror at this enormous grasshopper...made of grass by our guides in Costa Rica! 

(Find our Costa Rica Trip Report here)

One of the icons of scary on Halloween is the bat. This tiny bat in Costa Rica and his brethren were sleeping the day away on the wall of our eco lodge.  Lots of people find bats terrifying, but I think he's pretty cute, and most of them eat the bugs that are really scary!! 

One of the icons of scary on Halloween is the bat. This tiny bat in Costa Rica and his brethren were sleeping the day away on the wall of our eco lodge.  Lots of people find bats terrifying, but I think he's pretty cute, and most of them eat the bugs that are really scary!! 

Did someone say SCARY BUGS?! A spider in Costa Rica 

Did someone say SCARY BUGS?! A spider in Costa Rica 

Sharks!  This one was safely in a tank at the New England Aquarium in Boston. 

Sharks!  This one was safely in a tank at the New England Aquarium in Boston. 

As was this huge great white in the Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Australia 

As was this huge great white in the Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Australia 

(Find our Sydney Australia trip report here)

However there was no glass between us and these black finned sharks in Bora Bora...just a bit more scary! But we were advised by our local guide that they only eat dead things, so we should just keep swimming! 

However there was no glass between us and these black finned sharks in Bora Bora...just a bit more scary! But we were advised by our local guide that they only eat dead things, so we should just keep swimming! 

(see our Paul Gauguin Ship tour here)

We didn't even need to go far to see this scary site...a coyote in our back yard! They sound scary when they howl at night, but when we howl back, they run off every time!

We didn't even need to go far to see this scary site...a coyote in our back yard! They sound scary when they howl at night, but when we howl back, they run off every time!

Some people find snakes scary, but I know they are like most wild animals, shy and they try to avoid people. This one was at the Cypress Knee Swamp in Southwest FL 

Some people find snakes scary, but I know they are like most wild animals, shy and they try to avoid people. This one was at the Cypress Knee Swamp in Southwest FL 

(see our post about "real Florida" here)

Those Teeth! A leopard at Duma Tau camp in Botswana. The rule on safari is to stay in the truck, and these predators will ignore human visitors, while hunting.

Those Teeth! A leopard at Duma Tau camp in Botswana. The rule on safari is to stay in the truck, and these predators will ignore human visitors, while hunting.

More teeth! A lion at Duma Tau camp in Botswana

More teeth! A lion at Duma Tau camp in Botswana

Even more teeth!! a 15 foot croc in Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica

Even more teeth!! a 15 foot croc in Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica

 (find our Costa Rica Trip Report here)

Happy Halloween...hope your travels are safe and just scary enough to be interesting!