Should I travel to Cuba?

Many Americans who’ve long wanted to visit Cuba were delighted when President Obama announced America was “changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.”

But the excitement was short-lived.

Some people thought airlines would start adding Miami-Havana flights right away. That would be just the first pairing; soon to follow would be flights from Newark, Boston and Dallas.

The flights haven’t started, and it’s unknown when they will. But they will start — we just don’t know when.

The appeal of going to Cuba varies from person to person. Some just want to go because it’s close. Some want to go because it’s been a forbidden destination their entire life. Some want to see all those cars from the 1950s and 1960s that are so “Cuban,” even though they were made in America. Some want to go because it’s a cheap place to visit. And I’m sure there’s a group that wants to go for the cigars.

But is going to Cuba the right thing to do?

Americans have been visiting Cuba even with the official ban in existence. How, you ask? There are the sanctioned ways, and then there are — ahem — the unsanctioned ways.

In the past, when Americans would go to Canada and then book a non-stop flight from Canada to Cuba and back, Cuba wouldn’t stamp the U.S. passport. So when an American’s passport was checked upon re-entering the U.S., it looked as if the person had only gone to Canada.

No longer. Cuba recently started stamping U.S. passports as a matter of policy.

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Bottom line: General tourist travel from the U.S. to Cuba is still prohibited.

Let’s talk politics

If you listen to people like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, whose own parents fled from Cuba, you’ll never go to Cuba. Shortly after the President’s announcement on developing better relations with Cuba, Rubio proclaimed, “This change is entirely predicated upon the false notion that engagement alone automatically leads to freedom.”

In the same article, Rubio equates improving relations with Cuba “to a decision made decades ago to normalize relations with China. The move helped boost China’s economic opportunities, and the country has grown into the world’s second largest economy.”

What Rubio conveniently omits, however, is the fact that it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who went to China in 1972 to begin opening up relations with China.

Note: here comes cynicism. It’s amazing how these brilliant politicians (I’m giving Rubio the benefit of the doubt) can recall only the facts that they want and not the ones that hurt their own case.

Why I want to go

I’m one of those people who would like to visit Cuba because I’ve never been there. Sure, I could probably get a license as a freelance journalist to write a story. But, I would rather go as a tourist and be able to see the countryside and the locals as they are, not as the people in power want me to see them.

And I think that the average Cuban, if such a person exists, would like to show us their country. I’ll bet that the workers are industrious, just like the ones I see in Mexico. They’re probably very proud of what they do; they enjoy cooking and sharing their foods, and they’ll tell you a story if you have time to listen.

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After all, they’re people, just like you and me. And who wouldn’t want to visit a place with wonderful weather, great food and friendly people?

Would you visit Cuba?

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Stuart Gustafson

Stuart Gustafson is a writer, world traveler and professional speaker. He’s channeled his love of travel into writing travel-based mystery novels.

  • Martin Keane

    Not sure where you are getting your info but I can tell you firsthand that you are dead wrong when you say that Cuba is stamping US passports “as a matter of policy.” Not true. Not even close.

  • Suzy Seraphine Kimel

    Check your facts, Mr. Gustafson. Marco Rubio’s parents came to the US 2.5 years before Castro took power. They left during Batista’s reign in 1956. They did not “flee” nor live under communism. They did voluntarily go back to Cuba during Castro’s regime but found it preferable to live in the land of the free.

  • William_Leeper

    Technically…their most recent policies clearly indicate that they are doing just that. May I ask when and where your info came from?

  • Obi Won Kanobi

    Marco Rubio is a liar, he also claimed your putting thousands of dollars, in the hands of the Castros each time you visit Cuba (funny considering a hotel is a maximum of $99). Rubio’s just worried about losing donations from elderly Cubans in Miami who support the embargo.

  • Obi Won Kanobi

    When I went they stamped a piece of paper, that they took back when I left.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    I never said when they left Cuba; perhaps “left” might have been a better word, although the dictionary says that ‘fled’ just means ‘ran away from a place.’ I’ll stand by my article.

  • Joe

    It’s been a dream of mine to one day take my sailboat and tie up in Havana Harbor with a daiquiri in hand. I’d love to tour the island and experience Cuba first hand. Several of my international friends have been and enjoyed their time immensely; I can’t wait to do the same.

  • My daughter is a Canadian citizen, she’s been several times. She brings back great pictures, has a wonderful time, and she tells me that it’s really cheap. I would love to go and see the sights myself. Maybe someday….

  • MarkKelling

    Why not go? I have never been there but all the things I hear and see about Cuba lead me to believe it would be a wonderful place and I want to go some day. True there are many issues with the government and it is definitely not a tropical paradise given the extreme embargo they have had to endure. But I think it would be eye opening to see how the Cuban people have made do.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Good points, Mark. I view going to Cuba similar to going to Russia or China. I don’t agree with their politics, but there are some amazing cultural items that I’ve enjoyed seeing in those countries.

  • sunshipballoons

    ” I’ll bet that the workers are industrious, just like the ones I see in Mexico.”

    Seriously? Why the comparison to Mexico? Because people in both countries speak Spanish? Why not compare Cubans to Americans, or Canadians, or Dominicans, or Vietnamese for that matter?

    There are some weir cultural assumptions here that don’t make sense.

  • Steve Case

    Politicians often create legislation with unforeseen consequences and
    Cuba is a great example. Cuba is a country that is too small to exist
    by itself and must rely on trade partners. So, if we legislate the US
    out of the picture, a country like Cuba would have to become buddies
    with the Russians or the Chinese and that may create more problems that
    the legislature is trying to fix. Does anybody remember the Cuban
    missile crisis?
    Cuba is two years away from seeing mainstream US
    visitors because that is the amount of time needed to improve and expand
    the hotel and visitor infrastructure.

  • John Baker

    How soon we forget… The embargo did not cause Cuba to become socialist. The embargo was a response to Cuba nationalizing (ie seizing as part of a socialist country) US Corporate property like oil refineries, hotel etc.

    In fact, one of the biggest hang ups in actually ending the embargo, which can’t be simply wished away by the President, is the $6B (yes, that’s billion with a B) in claims against the Cuban Government over this property. By law, the debt must be paid before the embargo can end.

  • I visited Cuba nearly a year ago as part of a group of photographers who joined a tour from Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. They’ve been visiting Cuba for years under the “People to People Exchange” program.

    Here’s what I can tell you. The people were wonderful. The food was not. Those classic American cars have engines made from Russian tractors or dishwasher motors. In rural farming areas, it’s common to see ox pulling plows. Toilet paper (and toilet seats) are more valuable than gold. Capitalism is very much alive and well (everyone has something to sell). Entertainment can be grand or sedate, but it was always good.

    Pollution is everywhere. There is no EPA. About 10 buildings a day collapse in Havana due to structural weakness. 80% of the hotels are run by the military because that’s how they fund the army.

    If you’d like to see some photos, I posted them here –

  • MLS

    I just returned (last month) from my second (legal) trip and yes they stamp your passport. The country and the people are amazing. Both are beautiful. They are friendly, warm, kind and delightful. I wandered about freely (by myself) talking to people in the street and was invited into homes. It is almost like one of those favorite places you don’t want others to find and ruin with crowds and franchises.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    I enjoyed your “5 minute read” the photos were delightful. Question: would you go back?

  • Travelnut

    Like William Beem, I traveled to Cuba last year with a people-to-people exchange. Ah, you certainly brought back memories of the shortage of TP. Not only that, but at any public restroom you are greeted by a lady who sells you maybe 3-4 squares of the TP for a few CUC (the currency). I had even brought several rolls with me so that I wouldn’t have to do that, but in the end I just gave in. I actually thought the food was pretty good, just lacking in variety. If you like black beans and rice, you will be very happy because you will get that for breakfast and lunch, every single day. And for sure, everything you do comes with the locals wanting to sell you something – if there is a band at the restaurant, you will be offered their CD. I did come back with several CDs and pieces of art that I really like. Also true about the oxcarts, flatbed trucks with 15 people on them, chickens running around everywhere except in downtown Havana. But very little traffic due to the lack of autos; I saw nothing like a rush hour. Also, it’s customary to bring small gifts for the places you will visit, things that they cannot normally get or afford (although there is a fierce debate as to whether this is a good idea). Another interesting thing is that there are no billboards. Any billboards have political messages.

    I wasn’t thrilled with the constraints of the P2P, and some of the “educational” things we did are things you definitely would not ever do in a normal vacation – like go to the medical clinic that was very poorly equipped and not very clean. Our tour guide lectured us constantly on the ways the US had contributed to their conditions. Our Havana hotels were nice, the others were “rustic”; but we always had a sense that we were living like very rich people in a land of poverty. Nevertheless, I loved Cuba and found it beautiful and utterly fascinating. I would go again in a heartbeat.

  • joe

    Isn’t cuba basically a dirt poor country where the majority of the population lives in poverty? Sounds like a horrible place to be. Why would anyone want to go there?

  • I’m undecided. The hotel was fine and modern and the people I met were very friendly. There are a lot of photo opportunities I’d like to re-visit there, and that could possibly lead me back.

    Our tour also went to Vinales on the western tip. I wouldn’t really plan on going back there to the tobacco farms. They make pets out of huge tree rats, which apparently also taste like pork.

    If I ever return to Cuba, it will likely be with a group that’s in touch with locals there, rather than wandering around on my own. I don’t speak Spanish, so having an interpreter and guide was very helpful to me. Your mileage may vary.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Travelnut.

  • DavidYoung2

    Why should I, a free American, be told by Rubio I can’t travel somewhere because his parents are pissed off at somebody?

    If Rubio doesn’t like Cuba, then he shouldn’t go. But where does he come off telling me I CAN’T go because he doesn’t like Cuba. Let me go and make up my own mind. If I like it, I’ll go back. If not, then I won’t. Isn’t that the American way?

  • Obi Won Kanobi

    Yo mama

  • Lindabator

    My Canadian friends are afraid once WE can go, prices will soar!

  • Chris Johnson

    There are a lot of foreign governments out there whose policies and leaders I don’t care for but it wouldn’t stop me from wanting to visit and see the beautiful sights. I’m also sure the Cuban regime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, with or without my tourist dollars “supporting” them. I’m also certain there are plenty of foreign tourists who don’t think much of our current and/or past presidents but it hardly stops them from from spending their money here.

  • Chris Johnson

    Great photos William! I liked them too.

  • I have heard the exact same fears mentioned to me as well ;)

  • y_p_w

    I’ve traveled to parts of Asia. Even in high-priced department stores, the toilets would have coin-op machines that sold TP in small pouches, or perhaps someone selling it outside. However, I kind of held off using them because I don’t have a good feel for squat toilets. Most of this was in China, where although they’re more affluent these days, they still hold onto these little things like buying TP or bringing your own.

  • Dutchess

    Don’t forget they moved to Canada in there for a few years as well.

  • Dutchess

    Please stay home. Nobody wants you as our ambassador to anywhere.

  • Ken

    My mom visited North Korea, another prohibited country, a couple of years ago. She said it was quite boring. She liked South Korea a lot better. So I guess an exotic and prohibited place doesn’t necessarily make it a fun place to visit.

  • LFH0

    I, too, have the same tension within me. On the one hand, having long been a railway enthusiast, the Hershey railway in Cuba is such a throwback that I so want to visit and experience it (and the other railways there). On the other hand, having long been pro-America, I am very much opposed the repressive government operated by the Castro brothers. I have yet been able to reconcile this tension and come to a firm decision on whether Americans should, or should not, be permitted to freely visit Cuba. (But when the day does come when travel to Cuba is eventually resumed, I do hope that ferries will return so that people like me–who do not fly commercially–will be able to make the journey.)

  • joe

    What are you talking about? Who said I wanted to be an ambassador for anywhere. If you think Cuba is such a nice place then why don’t you go and move there yourself. I’ll enjoy myself here in my hometown, while you can go and drive beat up cars from the 50s

  • Kairho

    Remember, laws can be changed.

  • bettyblanco

    Yes, same thing when I went. No passport stamp.

  • bettyblanco

    Yes Joe, do stay home, and why bother making recommendations about a place you’ve never been and know nothing about??

  • bettyblanco

    How ridiculously insulting is it that “free” Americans cannot travel freely to anywhere they want, but citizens of other countries (some not so free) are allowed to travel to Cuba or wherever they want?? Why do Americans accept this loss of liberty?

  • y_p_w

    Cuba still has a vibrant culture and a zest for life. North Korea is dominated by a cult of personality around their leaders.

  • Brooklyn

    Without the embargo, Cuba might have evolved from Soviet-era communism to the kind of socialism that we see elsewhere in Latin America, or even in parts of Europe. Even with the embargo, its maternal and child mortality rates and its literacy rate are among the best in the western hemisphere. We’ll never know what the country would be like today if the US had kept the lines of trade and communication open.

  • John Baker

    Where are you finding the votes to do that? After you take out the FL delegation (voting anything Pro-Cuba is a non-starter in most of the state) and the members of Congress who are the bag of the companies owed the $6B, who is left to vote? Not the numbers you need in either the House or the Senate.

  • M B

    Fled is a past participle of “flee” which means “run away from a place or situation of danger”. This is hardly synonymous to merely leaving. Use of such language only perpetuates the ignorance that politicians rely on to pander to certain constituencies. It’s unfortunate to see this in what is usually an informative and useful blog.

  • joe

    So your saying im wrong? Everyone knows the country is poor and oppressive. If it was such a great place half of its residents would not have tried to come to America for a better life

  • S363

    I went to Cuba, legally, with my then 17 year old daughter in 2002, so my info is rather out of date. We went with a group called Global Exchange which was able to get educational exchange licenses. We flew in from Cancun on Cubana airlines on a Soviet-built Yak 42 aircraft. I asked to have my passport stamped. That was two passports ago and it’s a nice souvenir. We stayed in the Deauville Hotel in downtown Havana, which was basic but clean and nice. Our window had a very nice view of the sea and the old Spanish fort at the entrance to Havana Harbor. It also had a view of the mostly ruined building next door, with people and chickens living on the 3rd floor.

    For two weeks we took Spanish classes from a full professor at the University of Havana, and also had all sorts of seminars, field trips, speakers, etc. We found the food, the people and the music wonderful, not to mention the mojitos. It was an experience to drink a mojito on the open air fifth floor of the Ambos Mundos Hotel where Hemingway used to drink mojitos. We also visited Hemingway’s country place and saw his boat Pilar, but couldn’t enter the house. Looking in the window it appeared he’d just stepped out for the afternoon.

    At that time many buildings in Havana were in extremely poor repair, with parts being held up by wood planks and posts. I don’t expect things have improved a lot. People were poor — our full professor made around US$20 per month, but she had a house supplied and could shop at the ration store very cheaply, and had a free bus from home to the University — but very friendly. Many people tried to sell us things, but they were fairly polite and not too pushy. The ladies of the evening avoided me, probably because I was with my young daughter. Everywhere we went people were playing music for tips, and I’d usually toss a dollar in the hat.

    I’ve been waiting for the place to open up, but have feared that when Americans do swarm to the place it will be somewhat ruined. When it does completely open up I’ll probably try to go again. I’m not a fan of Communism, but I think the embargo was and is the exact wrong way to hasten its end.

  • bodega3

    But you had to fly out of Cancun not the US.

  • lcpossum

    I visited Cuba in the mid-70s in an approved manner. I was passing about 15 miles off Cuba when we had an engine failure. After about two hours of drifting a Cuban patrol boat appeared and offered help with our problem. They sealed our bonded locker after inspecting our firearms and then towed us into Havana harbor. Our passports were stamped and we were given a document explaining the details of our visit. The port master invited us to his office and had a diesel mechanic sent to our boat. Repairs took about six hours after which another patrol boat towed us back out to our approximate previous position. Repairs on the engine cost $4.70 and I gave the mechanic a ten.

    Everyone we encountered on that occasion was completely professional and acted as if our situation and visit were everyday occurrences. I would visit Cuba again in a skinny minute.

    Personally, I feel that another country’s internal policies are none of our business, especially since “the land of the free” is no longer thus. There are much more repressive regimes in the world than Cuba and the US State Dept allows us to freely visit most of them. The Cuba embargo is a dinosaur that should be allowed to die gracefully.

  • Tyler Doe

    Please stay home Joe.

  • Tyler Doe

    You know why. Don’t be simple.

  • joe

    Nice answer. You know I’m right that is why you cant give me a legitimate point to debate.

  • Tyler Doe

    It’s not a debate when what you said makes no sense. People aren’t going there because it’s rich and free.

  • Martin Keane

    Hi William, what Obi and bettyblanco said is what the agents at Jose Marti were doing when I was there a few weeks ago, and have been doing for as long as I’ve lived in Miami (15 years).

  • sunshipballoons

    It bothers me that the author is here commenting, but doesn’t address this comment or revise the post. This website should not be a forum to casually disclose your racial prejudices, even if they aren’t particularly virulent.

  • joe

    So what else is there that makes it a desirable place to vacation? At least in the other third world countries in the Caribbean they have enclosed resorts that you don’t have to leave so you don’t have to deal with poverty and crime.

    Unless they have that in Cuba then there is no reason to go.

  • Tyler Doe

    It is beyond you. Stick to Club Med.

  • joe

    What is beyond me? Please enlighten me to this beautiful country of cuba. If it is a nice as you say maybe I will consider moving there when I retire.

  • Loretta Martin-Halpine

    We have not been to Cuba ourselves, but our neighbors went in the recent past and were disappointed and would not return.

    They travel several times each year to areas of the globe that are not typical tourist locations. Their disappointment in the people-to-people trip was influenced by the level of external control on where they could go/who & what they could see.

    I can certainly understand making a decision to travel or not to a country based on personal/political philosophy. It also seems that the satisfaction of travel depends on how much choice you have in visting any country.

  • Carchar

    Yes, I would go to Cuba again. I was there with my parents pre-Castro. With faint memories, I went on a sanctioned tour last May and fell in love with the island, its people and its food. I met artists and performers of all ages and in different stages of success in their careers, who spoke candidly about their lives. I do have other places on my bucket list, but I will try to fit in at least another trip to Cuba.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I would love to see Cuba and meet the people, it’s supposed to be the most beautiful of the Caribbean islands. But I’d want to do some research first, places with lots of poverty make me too sad to enjoy them.

  • bettyblanco

    No, tell me why its only acceptable to Americans.

  • bettyblanco

    They get almost a million Canadian tourists some years. They are not all masochists. Sure beats going to Jamaica for example. No guns in Cuba, in fact very little crime, no kidnappings, beautiful beaches, low prices, great music and dancers, good looking women. Should I go on? Nobody suggested that you go.

  • joe

    Okay if the place is so great then why are 85% of their people living in poverty. And why is it that they are using things such as cars from 40 years ago.

    I bet you would cry like a baby if you found out you had to live in Cuba. You wouldn’t last 2 weeks living there.

  • bodega3

    If you wish to stay enclosed and not experience the culture and be with others just like you, that is your type of vacation. But Cuba is untouched and unspoiled by to much corporate developments, much like Cabo was before the corridor was developed. I have not desire to go back to Cabo as I have seen it both ways and the way it was before huge tourism came to be was nicer. That is the draw to Cuba for many who wish to go there, including me. My BIL visited last year with a Chamber group and he ditched the group and went out on his own. He wants to go back. The people were fabulous.

  • bodega3

    Most 3rd world countries live in poverty compared to how we live. Stepping back in time is what many travelers want to experience. Experiencing other ways of life opens your mind. Try it, you might actually like it.

  • bettyblanco

    I’ve been there 22 times, up to a month at a time, so you lost that bet. There poverty is nowhere near ours. The gov’t gives them housing, food, medical. You should learn a few things instead of spouting off about stuff you know nothing about.

  • jim6555

    They also moved to Las Vegas for a time where they converted to Mormonism. When they moved back to Florida, they again became Catholics.

  • Tyler Doe

    If your neighbor tried to help your enemy blow you up, you wouldn’t appreciate that too much. That is what they get and “informed” Americans agree. If the same thing happened to any other country, the same thing would happen. It didn’t. It happened to us. And it’s not a “loss of liberty” that we couldn’t travel to Cuba. Don’t be so dramatic.

  • joe

    So why don’t you move there and start a family if it’s so great

  • joe

    I dont think so. I have been to plenty Caribbean countries that are third world and it sucks. Im sure cuba wont be any different. They are dangerous, dirty and just generally depressing. Unless im going for an all inclusive resort the. There is no reason for me to be in the Caribbean

  • joe

    So move there if its supposedly so great

  • bodega3

    What is so fabulous about travel is that that the world is so big, there is something for everyone and you can do your thing one place and someone else can enjoy what they like. Happy travels to your fenced in compounds.

  • joe

    That’s true. Thanks happy travels backpacking through slums. I’ll be relaxing pool side at my 5 star resort.
    And fyi, I’m quite bias because I am from NYC and out of all the places I have been to, NYC is still the best by far

  • BillCCC

    I think what you meant to say was “We’ll never know what the country would be like today if Castro had not been a brutal communist dictator.”

  • bettyblanco

    why don’t you do a little traveling and learn things for yourself instead of just spouting uninformed babble???

  • joe

    Ok so completely ignore my question lol. But I will answer yours.
    I have traveled to numerous places over my life time and have been to Caribbean islands on multiple occasions

    The only thing the Caribbean has going for it are there all inclusive resorts that shield travelers to the real everyday country. Other than that the countires are dirty, dangerous, and extremely poor. I have seen children chasing after cars in Jamaica and Haiti hoping for a little bit of money or just some food. I have seen endless plight in the Dominican Republic and I have seen a dangerous environment in the bahamas. So why should I think Cuba is any different. If these countries were such great place to live and have families then millions of their people would not have came to America looking for a better life.

  • bettyblanco

    I guess you just ignore the fact that some Americans have blown up other Americans, as well as blowing up other places, whereas Cuba has never attacked our soil. Of course the loss of free travel is a loss of liberty. What else do you call it? Not a choice! Never voted for. Does it really need to take over 50 years to realize the embargo doesn’t affect Castro one bit? If so, I feel sick about your “informed” Americans.

  • bettyblanco

    Ignore your question? I have traveled to 33 countries around the world and you ask why I don’t move to all the ones I enjoy? That didn’t deserve an answer.
    You obviously deserve to stay in your 5 star resorts with fellow narrow minded tourists who don’t care what country they are in, as long as they get their 5 star treatment. Personally I travel to get educated and meet citizens and residents of other nations.
    I assure you that there are 100 times the amount of bums living on the streets in NYC that there are in Cuba, but without seeing that, you’ll never believe it.

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