World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: Besides Old Havana and its cathedrals, museums, music, and atmospheric Malecón, Cuba has some of the least crowded beaches in the Caribbean. Outside Havana there are two resort strips, golf courses, and romantic honeymoon accommodations; divers should head for Playa Maria la Gorda, while wannabe castaways will prefer the tiny southern island of Cayo Largo del Sur. Trinidad and Matanzas are Spanish colonial towns full of sugar barons' mansions and architectural heritage. Back in the capital, the Hotel Nacional has kept its 1930s grandeur intact (Tel: 53-7-836-3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com). Compared to the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba is a bargain, with restaurant meals costing less than $20, and that includes the mojitos.
Why not go: Although he has started to loosen the economy, permitting citizens to stay in hotels and buy DVD players and cell phones, Fidel Castro's brother and Acting President Raul Castro still runs a repressive police state that denies citizens the rights of free speech, assembly, and due process. The U.S. trade embargo aimed at weakening the regime outlaws U.S. citizens spending money or conducting any financial transactions within Cuba. Americans caught re-entering the U.S. with a Cuban visa stamp and other evidence of a paid stay, such as cigars or hotel receipts, risk a $7,500 fine and jail time if the U.S. Treasury Department chooses to prosecute. Accredited journalists, researchers, and travelers hosted by Cuban family members are not subject to the U.S. embargo. Other U.S. travelers can apply for a license from the Foreign Assets Control Department of the U.S. Treasury, normally granted only to students and travelers on full-time religious or humanitarian missions.
Experts say: Even as Americans stay away, vacationing Canadians, Europeans, and Latin Americans are already contributing to Cuba's growing tourism economy, helping create opportunities for ordinary Cubans, such as the entrepreneurial cooks who run paladares, home-based restaurants that serve some of the best food in Havana.
If you go: U.S.-issued travelers checks and credit and ATM cards are not accepted in Cuba, so bring cash. You can obtain a visa through your Cuba flight airline ticket office or on arrival at Havana Airport. Frequent visitors to Cuba say they ask the immigration authorities not to stamp their passports, to avoid detection. If you prefer to apply for a license and travel aboveboard, Marazul Charters is a U.S. government-approved agent (Tel: 201-319-1054; www.marazul.com).