If you’ve ever wanted to go to Cuba, go now, please. No really, get off my website and book a trip now. Ever since Obama started lifting sanctions on Cuba, the once restricted country is getting more and more Americanized, day by day, and it won’t be long before there are Wal-Marts and Holiday Inns all over the island.
I was fortunate enough to sneak into Cuba in 2002, illegally of course, when the US did not allow many of its citizens to visit and the embargo was still in full effect. The payoff: an unspoiled tropical island country that looked like it was stuck in 1962. Throughout my entire week in Cuba I did not see one cell phone, pager, or computer. Instead I gawked at thousands of classic American cars, driven as every day vehicles; ate freshly caught lobster inside a Cuban family’s modest home; and enjoyed being truly “off the grid” for over a week. No email, no phone, no MTV. It was like I was in a movie.
It’s a common prediction that all this will change–it’s atually already changing–now that Cuban-American relations are improving. This may be good for the Cuban people, so who am I to disagree with it; but it was awfully nice to go somewhere and not see a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner. Cuba was amazing.
So how did I get to Cuba if it’s illegal? First let me clarify that it’s not Cuba that doesn’t want you to visit–no, they love American tourists. It’s our government. In fact, it’s not even that we’re not allowed to visit Cuba, but rather, it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to “spend American money” in Cuba. And how can you visit a country without spending any money, especially since Cuba charges an “exit tax” at the airport at departure. If the feds find out you’ve been, you can end up with a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars and even end up in the slammer. Crazy, right?
So, back to the “how did I get there” question. You can’t board a plane to Cuba from the U.S. unless you have permission from the government; like being a missionary, or a journalist, or “cultural” reasons, etc. It’s a little easier today, but before the US eased the restrictions, it was a major pain in the arse–and expensive–to get one of these “permits.” So I did what every other American who wants to go to Cuba did: I just got there through Mexico.
Here’s how it worked: I crossed the Arizona border into Nogales, Mexico and visited a travel agency to buy a round trip ticket to Cuba from Mexico City, in cash. I now had a paper ticket from Mexico City to Havana in my possession. Next I booked a tickets from the U.S. to Mexico City online. As far as the U.S. was concerned, I was simply vacationing in Mexico.
When I got to Mexico City I simply had lunch and then got on the next flight to Havana. Holy crap, I’m in Cuba! It was pretty exhilarating, and a little scary, I’m not gonna lie!
Disclaimer: I’m not encouraging you to break the law…but you should find a way to get to Cuba. Soon.
When I arrived at customs, I asked the Cuban officials not to stamp my passport, after all, that’s evidence! They are used to Americans coming into their country under the radar, so they happily obliged. Soon I was in a cab heading straight into the heart of Havana.
The cabbie dropped me off a few blocks from my hotel; it was located in a part of Old Havana where vehicles were restricted, so I had to walk a few blocks. Immediately two young men approached me and offered to help with my bags. Normally I’d refuse, but I got a good vibe from these guys and we had great conversation on the way to the hotel. Imagine my dismay and confusion when we arrived at the doors of my hotel and they were quickly snatched up by police, put in handcuffs, and in the back of the police car. Would I be arrested too? I started to freak out inside. Turns out these guys were “operating” without a “tourist license” and it was illegal for them to assist tourists like me. I felt incredibly bad (even guilty) seeing these poor kids hauled away for doing nothing but helping this gringo, and it quickly became starkly apparent that it was an iron fist that kept the public in check here in Cuba. I was now on guard. I wasn’t afraid of being arrested though–it should be noted that the Cuban government and law enforcement go to great lengths to keep me–and all “tourists”–super safe. They don’t go around locking up visitors like me for no reason–just anyone who might be a threat to their tourists. While a little over the top, it did give me a sense of safety. Seems the Cuban police stood for no shenanigans when it came to the locals bothering tourists. While I hated seeing these young men being carted off for “helping me,” as the trip continued, I was grateful I didn’t have to watch by back like I did in most foreign cities. By the end of my trip to Cuba, I was convinced that this was the safest place I’d ever traveled to. The government’s message to the people were clear: don’t hurt the tourists. Right or wrong, I felt good being able to walk down a dark street past midnight on not fear my life.