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MEET ME IN CUBA!
Mya Reyes
So the question remains…can Americans legally visit Cuba?  With over 600,000 of us traveling to the Pearl of the Caribbean last year, the answer is a resounding YES!  In December 2014, President Barack Obama relaxed the travel restrictions to Cuba and there's been no looking back since.  With over 11 million inhabitants and nearly 43,000 sq. miles, Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and has always enjoyed the largest tourism numbers.  With the influx of visitors from Maine to California taking the quick flight from the U.S., that number jumped to over 4 million in 2016.


 
Actually, it's surprisingly easy.  There are 12 approved travel categories, under one of which we must self-certify we are traveling, and they include:
1.   Family visits
2.   Official government business
3.   Journalistic activity
4.   Professional research and professional meetings
5.   Educational activities / People-to-People travel
6.   Religious activities
7.   Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions
8.   Support for the Cuban people
9.   Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
 
About 95% of all Americans traveling to Cuba do so under category #5.   As long as you can demonstrate you are including cultural, historical and/or people-to-people interactions in your itinerary, you're good to go!  Of course this is easy-peasy as you surely wouldn't want to visit a nation that's been off limits for most, or all, of our lifetimes, without engaging in as many of those activities as you can.  It's important to keep in mind, however, that Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for pure tourism, in other words, you cannot book a beach vacation and lay in the sun every day you're there.


 
Upon arrival at the airport you will immediately see that Cuba is quite different than anything you've experienced and at the same time, quite the same.  Processing through immigration is quick and easy, and when you enter the baggage area, it looks the same, smells the same and pretty much is the same, only slower.  After handing over the health form that is provided by the airline, you exit to what appears to be paparazzi, but is actually a throng of Cubans waiting for their family members and loved ones visiting from afar.  The looks on their faces depict their pride, and are a precursor to the many wonderful people-to-people interactions you will enjoy while visiting the island.


 
Like anywhere, hotel accommodations range from 1 to 5 star, and the 5 star properties will be an unexpected surprise, as they provide everything from swimming pool to art gallery to cigar lounge and include beautiful guest rooms with stunning bathrooms, hair salon, workout facility, several restaurants and lots more.  You will definitely feel quite at home and also be able to communicate with home, as in these hotels, Internet service is available 24 hours a day.  That doesn't mean you can get online throughout the city however, so if you need to access the internet away from the hotel, be on the lookout for 'hot spots' which are easily identifiable by large groups of Cubans on a corner with their heads buried in their mobile phones or laptops.  Cell phone service is iffy at best, but within a couple of days, you will welcome the freedom from technology you'll feel, and thoroughly bask in a 'real' vacation, knowing just about anything can wait until your return.


 
Many hotels also offer excellent meeting space, and with the close proximity to our shores, provide a wonderful alternative for conferences and conventions.  Meeting attendees will have access to most of the same options available in the U.S. with the addition of cultural and experiential opportunities that can't be found elsewhere.
 
It's often said the Cuban food is bland, but if you know the right places, that couldn't be further from the truth.  Over the past decade, the government has allowed restaurateurs to open private dining establishments and with nearly 700 in Havana alone, you have quite a selection. 
 
Music is everywhere and private salsa classes allow you to learn enough steps to head out on the town with your instructor, and hit the dance floor with style.   History and culture is around each corner and you'll find unique photo opps, wherever you look.  Every restored and/or dilapidated building is an architectural treasure, every person is a portrait in waiting, every experience is one you'll want to share with friends and family because words could never explain just how spectacular and memorable the sights and sounds you'll experience will be.


 
But the best part is by far, the people.  With a mix of African and Spanish heritage that continues to thrive throughout island, the faces you see are alluring and full of character and soul.  And since Fidel Castro prided himself on equality for all, and providing both completely free medical care and education, just about everyone you meet has a university degree including taxi drivers who are often trained engineers or doctors.  Cubans love Americans, and it's effortless to strike up frank conversations with people you meet, learn about the history and lifestyles of our neighbors of only 90 miles, and take home memories to last a lifetime. 
 
Cuba is a diaspora that illuminates the heart and touches the soul of everyone who experiences it.  Your first trip will leave you wanting more and more and more.
 
Mya Reyes is the owner of Remember Cuba and creates custom experiences for Americans to travel to Cuba, and experience the best the island has to offer.  For more information on traveling to Cuba for leisure or business travel, contact her at mya@remembercuba.com and visit her website www.remembercuba.com .
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