For well over a year I’ve been on a personal journey to the island of Cuba.
And I’ve literally never arrived.
But figuratively, I feel that I’ve spent years living there.
My journey began in the third week of April of 2015 when I was asked to film a presentation on Cuba travel that would be given at a local bookstore in July by guidebook author, tour guide, and professional photographer, Christopher P. Baker, and turn that footage into a program for MarinTV, the public access television station for which I’d been producing shows for about two years.
For various reasons, I decided not to do that project.
But I was keenly aware that Cuba had become a trendy travel destination for Americans after President Obama announced on December 17, 2014 that he was easing restrictions on travel to the island as part of a move by the governments of both nations to re-establish full and formal diplomatic relations.
And so without a clearly defined idea of what I would ultimately produce, I began working on a film that would, in some fashion, explore U.S.-to-Cuba travel, with the first step being the filming last summer of interviews of Baker and four other travel writers who had visited Cuba.
By October, I had finished a trailer for the film, but it would still take me another three months of hard work to complete the feature-length documentary I entitled Cuba, Libre?
Cuba, Libre? aired on MarinTV in January, had two public screenings in February, and was shown at a film festival in April. In two days from now the fourth public screening of will take place in San Francisco.
Travel to Cuba has changed a bit since I began work on the film, but the logistics of making the trip are still somewhat problematic.
You Can’t Be An “Ordinary Tourist”
If you are a U.S. citizens you can’t legally go to Cuba just to lay on the beach.
There are twelve legally permitted categories of travel, many of which wouldn’t not apply to most Americans headed to the island.
You will probably be given a form on which you’ll check off a box indicating the category that applies to your trip.
Last month I outlined the plans for regularly scheduled airline flights between U.S. and Cuban cities. I’ve just learned that the first of those flights will take off on August 31st.
While getting to Cuba is going to be easier, finding a place to lay your head after you arrive may not be easy.
Hotels are often booked up far in advance by tour companies, so you might look into renting rooms in a Cuban family’s home instead.
Last July, New York magazine published this story about Katie Van Syckle’s Airbnb stays in Havana and in the town of Trinidad in which she discussed using that service versus a local property manager or the home owner. And here’s what Amanda Macias, writing for Business Insider, said about her less than satisfying experience with her Airbnb accommodations.
Despite President Obama’s December, 2014 statement that Americans would be able to use their credit and debit cards in Cuba, a month ago Christopher Baker told me that only one Florida bank was issuing cards that could be used to pay for things or obtain money from ATMs.
So Americans still need to bring cash, and perhaps a lot of it, to exchange for Cuban convertible pesos (the currency travelers, but not Cubans, use), since the island isn’t always “Third World” when it comes to prices.
Buses and trains connect cities and towns, but figuring out how to travel on them might be mystifying or frustrating, or both.
Christopher Baker told me that rental cars can be hard to come by.
Hiring a taxi or car and driver may make sense for getting around town and getting between places.
Traveling on a group tour might still be the best way to deal with the logistical issues and have a more unique and satisfying travel experience. But be prepared to pay for having someone else plan your trip and escort you around the island: Two tour companies that sent me information this week were charging roughly $500-$1,000/day, or about $3,500 to $7,000 a week, per person, double occupancy double occupancy (more if you are traveling alone) for the tours, not including airfare, gratuities for guides, etc.
What Others Say
When I introduce Cuba, Libre? at film screenings, I remind the audience the film is a documentary, not a travelogue, so they won’t see me on-camera traveling from place to place, in a Cuban version of the Rick Steve’s European travel shows that they may well have seen on PBS television.
As it turns out, some of the most helpful advice for Americans headed to Cuba comes from that very European travel guru, who spent ten days on the island with his family at the end of December of 2015 and beginning of January of this year. He didn’t take his TV crew with him, but this recently-released video combines lots of photos from Rick’s trip with several practical tips for having a great time.
Finally, for another recent take on Cuba travel, check out this July 28, 2016 story in The Washington Post by Moriah Balingit, one of series of such stories that newspaper has run.
(August 5, 2016 update to this story: If you’re an American, don’t worry about be homesick if you travel to Cuba. In the first four months of 2015, 50,000 of your fellow Americans went to the island, up a third from 2014. And in the first four months of 2016, that number skyrocketed to over 94,000, nearly double just one year ago.)