by Doug Kaye
Some time ago I spoke with Doug Kaye about visiting Cuba, what restrictions are still in place, especially for US citizens, and how things are changing. That conversation is available at TTIM 24 – Cuba With Doug Kaye. The situation is changing rapidly, however, and things are not the same as they were six months ago. Doug has kindly provided us with an update about restrictions on travels to Cuba and the problems caused by an unexpected influx of visitors. I hope the following proves useful to travelers from the US and elsewhere.
Cuba continues to face many challenges and the loosening of trade restrictions by Barack Obama nearly two years ago has actually aggravated many of the problems. As soon as Obama announced the changes in late 2014, the word from Europe (particularly the U.K. and Germany) became, “You’d better get to Cuba before the Americans make a mess of it.” The result has been a flood of tourists that has stretched and occasionally exceeded the Cuban infrastructure.
In Havana, Cuba’s largest city, the influx of visitors isn’t visually noticeable other than some of the most-popular locations now being clogged with tour busses. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is already densely populated, so tourists don’t make all that much difference. But in the smaller cities and towns such as Viñales or Trinidad, the influx is far more obvious.
The #1 problem is housing. There simply aren’t enough hotel rooms and their prices have skyrocketed. For example, a room at the Hotel Iberostar Parque Central, a popular hotel in the center of Habana Vieja, now goes for more than US$600 per night. In order to keep costs reasonable for my own workshops, we’ve had to move farther and farther from the center of Havana, and increasingly depend on busses and taxis to get from place to place. The Capri La Habana (our favorite from a year ago) now costs more than US$400. The famous but aging Hotel Nacional and the Tryp Habana Libre (where our November workshop group is staying) is north of US$350 per night.
To some extent the need for tourist housing is met by Cuba’s unique casas particulares – private homes with rooms for rent. They’re a great solution for individuals, couples and very small groups. You can even book them through Airbnb.com. I’ve had workshop students return to Cuba on their own and rent through Airbnb with good results. The casas particulares are regulated and inspected by the Cuban government, include a basic breakfast, and can be booked for less than US$100 per night.
When I first visited Cuba, there were no privately owned restaurants. Everything was government owned and operated. Then the government allowed private “paladares” with up to 20 seats, which was later bumped to 50 seats max. Even between last November and January, I noticed continuing improvements in the quality of the food. I asked one manager, whom I’ve gotten to know, how this has happened. He said that there were two reasons: First, the competition – they’re all listed on Tripadvisor – the other is the fact that increased revenues have allowed them to bring in skilled chefs and consultants from outside the country. So while Cuban food still isn’t what you’d call world class, the top 50 Havana restaurants on Tripadvisor are all good. If I have one complaint, it’s that some of the classic Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja aren’t quite as available as in the past.
There are also some changes that are unique to travelers from the U.S. In the past, all travel from Miami to Havana and elsewhere in Cuba was limited to relatively expensive charter flights. But now, along with other loosening of restrictions, a number of U.S. airlines offer regularly scheduled flights from Miami, New York and other American cities. (Starting with our January 2017 workshop, we’re switching to scheduled flights on American Airlines.)
And finally, the restrictions on bringing alcohol (rum!) and cigars back to the U.S. have been virtually eliminated. So long as they’re for personal use (ie, not for resale) there are no limitations other than what would apply to such goods imported from anywhere else. (You can even buy Cuban cigars and rum in Mexico or Canada and bring them back to the U.S. – a big change.)
Yes, Cuba is changing rapidly and it’s already noticeably different than it was even a few years ago. But as they continue to say, get there as soon as you can. Old cars, crumbling but beautiful architecture and some of the most friendly people in the world await you.
About the Author
Doug Kaye teaches photography locally in San Francisco and online, and was chosen as an Inception Master in Trey Ratcliff’s “Arcanum.” He leads street-photography workshops locally and in Cuba, which he has visited five times. Doug was the founding co-host of the All About the Gear podcast on the TWiP network and currently is producing new reviews with Gordon Laing on Cameralabs.com.
For information on Doug’s 2017 Cuba photo workshops, visit DougKaye.com/workshops.