cuba

Episode 17: New Cuba Travel Policy and Other Travel News

Cuba

Today the Trump Administration announced they are reversing some of Obama’s Cuba Travel Policies. Although previously Trump had said he was canceling the policy altogether, this new stance is only a partial shift from Obama’s.

Travelers currently in Cuba, or those who had purchased a ticket to Cuba before June 16th, are technically exempt from the new changes. The Treasury and Commerce Departments have 30 days to start writing in new regulations based off of Trump’s order. These regs won’t take effect until they are complete.

One major change is how strict US Custom will enforce the current 12 categories for legal travel to Cuba. Previously, in my experience, Customs didn’t ask me or anyone I was traveling with, for proof that I had legally adhered to travel under one of these categories. This was referred to as an ‘honor code.’

The only category for travel that appears to be changing is the ‘educational activities category’, which will now require that you travel with a tour group. Travelers can also be subject to an audit by the Treasury Department, for five years after travel to Cuba. This is meant to dissuade traveler from illegal transactions.

The administration claims that these new restrictions are aimed at preventing money from going to the Cuban Military.

You might be wondering how travel to Cuba can benefit their military, and we were wondering that too. So we’re going to break it down.

In Cuba there’s this company called GAESA, it’s an acronym which loosely means the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group. GAESA is a conglomerate of businesses owned and operated by the Cuban military. They own nearly all the hotels and resorts, they own the rental car companies, all the grocery stores, gas stations, and pretty much every restaurant in Old Havana.

GAESA is operated by General Luis Alberto Rodriguez, the son-in-law of President Raul Castro. The company earns 40 – 60 percent of Cuba’s foreign exchange income, so basically money spent by travelers.

The Trump Administration is trying to make it harder for GAESA to profit off of American Travelers. His new policy would ban most US business transactions with this company. So staying at one of their hotels or renting one of their cars would be illegal for Americans.

This shouldn’t be that hard to avoid, since most people stay at a Casa Particular, which is essentially an Airbnb. Renting a car in Cuba isn’t really necessary either, since transportation is relatively inexpensive.

There will still be no limit to how many Cuban Cigars you can bring back to the US, as long as it’s valued under 10,000 dollars.

So what’s the takeaway here?

It looks like travel to Cuba will be a little harder to Americans. It doesn’t look like these changes will take effect for another 90 days, so if you want to avoid the hassle, you should go now.

In other news, the TSA Is Testing New Biometric Fingerprint Scanners.

TSA Biometric Fingerprint scanners

International Airports in Atlanta and Denver are the first to receive the new scanners, where they’ll be tested. The plan is to use your finger print as both your boarding pass and ID. The scanners will rely only on volunteers and available only to those enrolled in TSA PreCheck. This technology is expected to make travel easier and quicker for passengers. So you won’t have to worry about printing your boarding pass at home or trying to find it in your email.

Las Vegas Hotels

Las Vegas hotel rates are skyrocketing for the Aug 26th showdown between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor. Less than 24 hours after the date for the fight was announced, hotel prices jump over 60%. 40 Year old Mayweather will be coming out of retirement to fight the UFC Fighter. Mayweather retired in 2015 with 49 wins and 0 losses in his professional boxing career. McGregor has a 23 win and 3 lose record in the mixed martial arts sport. He has never fought in a professional boxing match.

Ethiopia

The US State Department issued a travel warning for Ethiopia this week. With reports of civil unrest, the US is warning travelers to steer clear of the East African nation. The Ethiopian government has recently been shutting down cell phone and internet access due to demonstrations against the government. If you do go, stay away from live demonstrations, enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and have alternate communication plans..

British Airways

1,400 British Airways cabin crew members have announced a two-week strike, to start on July 1st. The union is striking over a pay dispute and travel concessions. There has already been 26 days of strikes since January of this year. A British Airways spokesperson said travelers would be unaffected by any planned strike.

Big Sur landslide highway 1

A huge landslide on California’s coastal Highway 1 last month, continues to block access to Big Sur. Earlier in March, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, also in Big Sur along another section of Highway 1, was demolished. The road is expected to open in September, after the peak of the travel season.

Grand_Prismatic_Spring,_Yellowstone_National_Park_(3646969937).jpg

In Yellowstone National Park, a 21 year old man suffered sever burns when he fell into a hot spring. The man was near the Lower Geyser Basin just north of the Old Faithful geyser, when he fell. Park Rangers stress that visitors stay on the marked trails and boardwalks for their safety. Last year, a man from Oregon man died after he fell into a boiling acidic hot spring in Yellowstone. His body was never recovered.

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Check out our other great content below:

Episode 12: A Journey to Trinidad, Cuba.

Trinidad Cuba

Listen to our second podcast on Cuba by hitting the play button below. Or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

A Casa Particular is your key to getting the Cuban food experience. Each one I stayed in, offered breakfast and dinner.

"You can always get breakfast at the casa particular; it’s five dollars. You will be stuffed if you finish everything that they give you," according to travel vlogger Shayla Hohiesle. "It's coffee and juice and water and bread, and then they would come with an omelette; ham and cheese is a staple in Cuba."

Jon Barr, another video blogger I spoke with, had a similar experience, "I always got a different kind of pork in the morning. Like sausage links, ham, bacon."

 

Cuban Breakfast

First Course of a Cuban Breakfast

First Course of a Cuban Breakfast

"And you’re like, ‘I can’t finish this all,’ it’s way more food than you should ever eat for breakfast," Hoheisel said. "It’s so cool because you’re in their home and they’re making breakfast for you."

You’ll find ham is an option in almost every dish in Cuba. In spaghetti, in sandwiches, burgers, and salad. Beef is less common and a little more expensive.

A Casa Particular is basically like an Airbnb, you can even book one on Airbnb.com, click here for $40 dollars off an Airbnb stay for first time users. These Casas are run by local Cubans, who are great sources of information. My first host in Havana, gave me the basic run down for what I could expect to pay for, for things like coffee and meals. For long taxi rides to places like Trinidad, it’s best to ask them to book the cab for you.

You can expect to pay 25 to 30 dollars for a ride from Havana to Trinidad. These rates usually match the price of the bus fare, but you’ll arrive a lot quicker. The trip should be around 5 hours, but be prepared for an interesting trip.

"Two hours into the trip, the driver pulls over to the side of the road, and he’s like, ‘ok guys, go to the bathroom,'" said Barr.

The car I rode in, had no seat belts, and you had to adjust the windows by pulling or pushing on the glass by hand. You’re lucky if you stop at a gas station.

"Instead of going to a gas station, this guy pulls over at his house and his dad comes out with a gallon of gasoline, and literally, they’re pouring the gasoline into his car," Barr said.

Once you get to Trinidad, you’ll know why it’s worth the hassle.

 

Trinidad

Casa de Musica, Trinidad

"That was our favorite spot. All the buildings were different colors, which is so cool. And the streets were cobble stone and horse were a real means of transportation," according Hohiesle.

Trinidad was once known as the largest sugar producer in the world. At it’s peak in 1827, 56 sugar mills were in full operation. Founded in the year 1514 by Diego Velázquez, It’s cobblestone streets and historic buildings are hundreds of years old. Today, the city center is a Unesco World Heritage site.

 

Trinidad Sounds

Trinidad Market

Trinidad Market

"It was definitely the sounds of just hearing animals running around in the streets. The butchers chopping meet when you walked by. It seemed like every little house had something to sell, so you couldn’t walk a few feet without being surround by something completely different," Barr said.

I was woken up everyday by chickens, horses and people selling onions or garlic. Listen to the podcast episode to hear some of them:

 

Sugarcane

There are a lot of things to do here, like a horse backing riding tour through the sugar mills, where you can squeeze the juice out of a sugar cane.

 

Horseback riding

Trinidad Horseback Riding

Trinidad Horseback Riding

You can find horseback riding tour in Trinidad that cost anywhere from 10 to 20 Cuc a person. Your local Cuban tour guide can take you to a coffee farm, a local waterfall, a restaurant in the mountains, or all three.

 

Disco Ayala

The Entrance to Disco Ayala in Trinidad

The Entrance to Disco Ayala in Trinidad

One thing unique to Trinidad is Club Ayala, a huge three story tall cave that's been converted to a nightclub. It’s hard to find, because it’s located up hill, at the highest point in Trinidad.

"We were like, waking up this hill, and I’m like, where are we going? It’s not well lit, but all of Cuba isn’t well lit. And then all of the sudden there’s like someone out on their porch with like disco lights and music and drinks," Hohiesle said.

I didn’t know what to expect, because it was this foreign land, almost forbidden land that you weren’t allowed to go to.
— Shayla Hohiesle

You’re going to have to walk through a residential area, on a dirt road to get to the club, where you’ll find locals bartending on their porches.

"It’s just like this homemade business for all the people on there way up to the cave. So you’re like porch hopping on your way up to this road, and all of the sudden there’s a giant line of people waiting to get into the cave," Hohiesle said. "And then you get into the cave and you go down, it’s like a normal cave that you go to during the day, but then it’s nighttime and there’re TVs on the wall and there’s a DJ, 20 feet up into the cave, 3 bars, and so many people. It was amazing and I had never been to anything like that."

Cover charge is 5 CUC, which is the Cuban Convertible Peso, and comes with one free drink. 

 

Canchánchara

Canchánchara

Canchánchara

The Cancháncara is a cocktail unique to Trininda.

"Canchánchara. That’s like my favorite to say but it’s also very delicious," according to Hohiesle.

It's made with lemon, ice, aguardiente (an anise flavored liquor made out of sugar cane),  honey, and soda water. If you don’t have aguardiente, Cuban rum is a good alternative. They’re served in these round clay cups, also called a Canchánchara.

 

The two currencies

The Peso Nacional

The Peso Nacional

One thing you should know about Cuba before you go, is that they have two different currencies.

"There’s the Cup and the Cuc," Hohiesle said. "The Cuc is the tourist currency, there’s literally two different bills, and then there’s the Cup.

The Cuban Convertible Peso (Cup), pronounced 'kook', is technically valued at 1 to 1 with the US Dollar, before you take exchange fees into account. Like Hohiesle said, this currency is meant for tourists. The other currency the Peso Nacional (Cup), pronounced ‘coop’. 25 Cup are worth about as much as 1 Cuc, but it can vary depending on who you ask. Cubans are paid in Cup and if you find a cafeteria for locals, you can get food for really cheap with some Cup.

 

Cafeterias

Cuban Cafeteria

Cuban Cafeteria

"It’s almost like their version of fast food," Hohiesle said, "you step up to the window and then you’re out."

These places are called Cafeterias. Most of them are run out of the window of someone’s home and the prices are incredibly cheap. If you can read where it says, Pan c/ tortilla de J. y Q, you can see that its costs 12 Cup.

 

Cheap Bites

A 0.47 Cent Cuban Breakfast Sandwiches

A 0.47 Cent Cuban Breakfast Sandwiches

That's about 0.47 cents for an egg sandwich with ham and cheese.

 

Visa and permission to travel

Cuban Visa

One of the most common questions people have asked me is: 'how did you go to Cuba? Don’t you need permission to go?'

The answer to that is, yes and no. So a little bit of background first: The US Embargo against Cuba restricted certain commerce and business transaction, and technically, the embargo is still in place, but there are a lot more exceptions to the rules now.

Like the new 12 reasons that give US Citizens permission to go to Cuba.

Cuba doesn’t care about these reasons, they want US travelers to visit and spend money on their economy. It's the US Department of the Treasury that created these permissions. They're very broad and I won’t get into all of them, but they range from family visits, to US government business. The most common one I’ve heard used is the, 'Support for the Cuban People,' reason. 

You’ll only have to deal with these permissions twice. Once when you buy your plane ticket to Cuba online, and a second time when you return to the US through customs. When I returned, the customs agent didn’t ask me anything about my trip, he just stamped my passport and let me through.

 

School and Healthcare

Young Cuban Students

Young Cuban Students

A lot of poor countries lack standard services like healthcare and a decent education system, but none of these things are true about Cuba.

A 2014 report by The World Bank found that Cuba has the best education system in Latin American. Students at all levels, can go to school for free, all the way up to a PhD. Cuba spends 13% of its national budget on education, the highest in the world. 

All students receive free lunch and uniforms. University students get free housing and a small monthly stipend. This encourages a lot of Cubans to stay in school. Overall, the country is well educated and they have a lot of doctors.

Their healthcare system is better than any in Latin America and they have the region’s lowest infant mortality rates and the longest life expectancies. Best part about it, is it’s all free.

Free education and healthcare are great benefits for Cuban citizens, but there is a drawback.

For example, since the Cuban gov’t has complete control over the healthcare system, they determine how much healthcare workers get paid. The highest a doctor can earn is around 67 dollars a month, and there are no private medical practices either, at least no legal ones. So a lot of doctors have to work second jobs or leave the medical field all together. Other professions can easily make more money, like being a tour guide, and even street musicians can earn more.

 

Apps and Downloads

Maps.me

Maps.me

The app store for Apple or Android phones, doesn’t work in Cuba. A lot of downloadable features don’t work there either. So download all your apps and ebooks before arriving.

Download Maps.me. This isn’t a paid endorsement; this is just the best map that I’ve found to work without an internet connection.

We’ve covered most of the travel basics in our two Cuba podcast episodes, but there are a few more things you need to know. We’ll be covering them in our next podcast. We’re going to release an episode called the Cuba Quick Guide, where we sum up all the points we’ve made about traveling to Cuba in one short episode. We’ll even add tips like, where to buy cigars and what to pack before you go.

Thank you Shayla Hohiesle and Jon Barr for being a part of this episode.

 

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