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Visiting Cuba Has Never Been Easier

Written by  Robert Selwitz

CARIBBEAN CUBA
Here’s a reality check for travelers wanting to visit Cuba. This is the best time in your lifetime to do it.
Government restrictions are now easily dealt with, and daily non-stop and direct flights to Havana are plentiful, inexpensive and easy to book. Travel agents can arrange for local tour operators to meet US clients and provide a personalized itinerary just for them.

Also, Havana remains a remarkably safe and walkable city, with little or no visible police presence. Indeed, the greatest possible danger your clients might face is tripping and falling on poorly paved, or pot-holed streets.
Access to Cuba is now granted if travelers can match one of twelve reasons to go. These include visiting friends or family, or, participating in activities that could be described as “benefitting the Cuban people.”

That could include gathering material for a story or article that would be published in a magazine, newspaper, social media venue, or community journal. Or, your clients could take pictures that would be the basis of an exhibition that could be shown to neighbors, club members or church groups.

Keeping a diary noting where one went and who one met would be evidence your client fulfilled his or her obligation if they were asked to justify a trip. But the chances of that actually happening appear to be quite small.

Do note that quality hotels remain in short supply, and the rates they charge - particularly centrally located, top quality options - rival those in major European cities. However, regular taxis - not the old US cars - are quite inexpensive so booking a less expensive room and relying on taxis to bring you to key areas or attractions, is definitely a viable strategy.Sightseeing in cuba
Havana is a great walking town and the best place to start is Havana Viejo that dates back to the mid-1500s. Investigate the Plaza de Cathedral with its 18th century Cathedral of San Cristobal, featuring a stunning baroque facade. Also explore the Plaza de Armas, and the imposing 16th century Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of three staunch defenses built to defend Havana from naval attacks.

The old town is also home to two must-see museums - the branch of the National Museum of Fine Arts, which has an impressive collection of works by Cuban artists, and the Museum of the Revolution.

The latter is housed in the former home of Cuban presidents from 1920 to 1959, when Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro. It’s a treasure trove of military artifacts, and photos of a century and a half of Cuban history. Decorated by Tiffany Studios of New York, it includes a replica of the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

Exhibits run chronologically and start on the building’s upper floor. Key topics include pre-Colombian Cuba, the colonial years, and War of Independence, fought against Spanish rule in the late 1800s. However, the prime draw is the massive collection of military artifacts, and pictures detailing Fidel Castro’s successful revolution.

Also, outside the main building is “Granma”, the original yacht that in 1956, Castro and 81 soldiers sailed to Cuba from exile in Mexico and launched the concluding portion of his successful revolution.
For casual dining near these museums, check out Sloppy Joe’s Bar at the corner of Zulueta and Animas Streets for cold beer and sandwiches in a decidedly mid-20th century atmosphere.

Other Havana highlights include the 85-year-old Capitolio, Cuba’s recently renovated capitol building. While you can circumvent the exterior - which looks like an elongated version of the US Capitol in Washington, DC., - don’t miss a guided tour of the interior. There, visitors see fascinating artifacts, dual legislative chambers, magnificent chandeliers and statuary.
Excellent food is also findable in Havana. Recent dining highlights were enjoyed in two of the three restaurants housed in the centrally located Asturian Federation of Cuba, Prado 309, near the Parque Central hotel. In the rooftop Terraza, grilled local lobster was absolutely the best thing I ate in Cuba. And at Gourmet Havana, the restaurant one floor below, exquisite preparations involving octopus and squid were also memorable.

After a fine meal, taxi to the Malecon, the seaside promenade where locals love to walk and fish, watch waves crashing into the walls, and enjoy breezes that neutralize the often-intense heat and humidity. Or head for throbbing Obisbo Street, where you’ll find locals and tourists strolling or dancing to ever-present salsa rhythms.

Do note that while wintertime is Havana’s high, and most costly, season prices drop radically in summer months leading into the fall hurricane season. But, those arriving in March or April, or late September through November, can enjoy the island’s best weather along with the most affordable rates.

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