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Flying the Fast Lane to Havana

Weekly charter from L.A. is easy and legal, but old rules keep most Americans underground.


HAVANA — There is a right way, a wrong way and a very wrong way for an American living in Southern California to go to Cuba. I've tried all three.

On my third try, the right one, it took me two phone calls, one check and 41/2 hours to get from Los Angeles to Havana.

For you, depending on where your family lives, what you do for a living and how good your imagination is, it might take as many as four calls and maybe a letter. Or you might have to take a package tour. But, 40 years after Congress barred commerce with our communist neighbor, you can go to Cuba legally and more easily than ever.

Technically, it's not illegal for Americans to come to Cuba, only to "trade with the enemy"-purchase goods and services here. And they do come, by the tens of thousands, most by way of a third country.

Two years ago a direct route was opened from Miami, then from New York, in the form of charter flights. Last April a Los Angeles charter was added. Tickets are sold to approved travelers by outfits licensed by the Treasury Department. For the flights from LAX, that's a new firm, Cuba Travel Services, based in Long Beach.

Cuba Travel Services has an exclusive license and offers weekly flights on an Airbus 320 from Grupo TACA, an airline based in El Salvador. The agency screens potential passengers to ensure they qualify. Generally, those who make the cut include people with relatives in Cuba, journalists, people doing research in a professional field and athletes in international matches. I passed as a journalist but never had to prove I was one.

At check-in for a Saturday afternoon flight last month, I chatted with pediatricians who teach at UC San Francisco and were off to have a close look at pediatric care in Havana. My seatmate was a Cuban American on his third visit back to see family.

Lisa Perez of Cuba Travel Services was there to see us off and to tell us how to stay out of trouble with the Cuban government-and our own.

'There are 130 seats on the plane, and we're three-quarters full," Perez told me. "Nearly everybody is either visiting relatives or doing research. Officially, there are no tourists on this plane."

It was a happy flight. Drinks were free and unlimited-Chilean wine, Salvadoran beer, Puerto Rican rum. For dinner we had a choice of pasta or spicy Creole chicken, one of the best airline dishes I've had in years. The movie was "Charlie's Angels," shown on drop-down screens in front of each seat.

We landed in Havana on time and walked under a starlit sky to the baggage claim area at Jose Marti International Airport. A young woman from Havanatur, the government tourist agency, whisked me out to an air-conditioned van. In 25 minutes I was checking into the Hotel Habana Libre Tryp, the former Havana Hilton.

Made over by the Spanish Tryp chain into a palace with a gleaming gold and white interior, the Habana Libre is the biggest and liveliest hotel in town and among the five most luxurious. My enormous room, illuminated by nine spotlights and three lamps, with a wall of glass facing the Florida Strait, cost me $108.50 a night.

By midnight I was on my way to the lobby bar to drink my first mojito-rum with lemon juice, sugar, bitters and soda poured over a mint leaf. On the way, I watched security guards herd young Cuban women wearing hot pants, halter tops and stiletto heels into an express elevator to the rooftop disco. Cubans who are not hotel employees are forbidden to enter guest rooms, and security people were everywhere in the hotel. Still, it was Saturday night, the lobby was humming, and fun was in the air. Nearly 13,000 Americans disembarked at Jose Marti in January, according to Maritza Rodriguez, a marketing researcher for Havana's luxury hotels. This projects to 156,000 this year, up from 140,00 in 2000 and 130,000 in 1999. The vast majority of them were scofflaws.

Technically, an American who visits Cuba without our government's permission is in violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act. Although no American tourist has been prosecuted in years, the Americans I met who had come to Cuba by way of Canada or Mexico feared being found out.

Sunday morning, the Plaza de Armas in Havana's Spanish colonial old city was swarming with Americans. They were friendly and eager to talk. But not about how they got here.

I met just one couple willing to come clean. Danny Epner and Mindy Wexler of New York had flown from Montreal on Cubana Air, the Cuban government airline, for $275 round trip. "We're planning to spend four weeks in Cuba," Wexler said. "We're holding the budget down by staying in casas particulares."

She was referring to the privately owned bed-and-breakfast inns legalized to bring in dollars.

That evening, I asked the desk clerk at the Habana Libre how many Americans were staying there. "Not more than 10 or 20," he said. "I think they usually stay at casas particulares."

I heard a reproachful voice: "Because you don't meet the real Cuban people at five-star hotels."

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