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Joy Tipping
Dallas News Staff Writer

HAVANA — Florida is only 90 miles from Cuba. It took me eight months and two days to get there.

The first question when I tell people I’ve been to Cuba inevitably goes something like, “What, did you sneak in? Americans can’t go to Cuba!” Well, actually, we can, as part of a group. And while it still involves some bureaucracy, it’s not nearly as difficult as it once was.

I went for a week last summer with Credo Choir, a mixed, ecumenical choir of about 50 members that meets at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Its music minister, Jonathan Palant, founded and conducts Credo.

December through April is actually Cuba’s high season — and the most comfortable. Because it can take several months to get your Cuban visa to make the trip, now’s the time to start doing your research for late 2014 or anytime in 2015.

Our visa process took from November 2012 to June 2013. We added a day in Miami at each end of the trip, because the Cuban charter flights are notoriously loosey-goosey about departure times. Hence, eight months, two days. But so worth it!

While 90 miles is the shortest distance as the crow flies, it’s actually about 230 miles to Havana from Miami. Since the 1960 U.S. embargo, travel there by Americans had been off-limits except for educators, journalists and a few others under rigorously controlled conditions. Technically, it’s never been illegal to go to Cuba, only to spend money there. So unless you wanted to sleep on the ground and eat nothing but the occasional fallen mango or slow-moving cricket, you were out of luck.

However, in 2011, President Barack Obama opened what’s called “people-to-people” travel, allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba with groups that go for religious, cultural and similar excursions. Several companies now offer these tours.

On the choir trip, we put on several casual concerts, with sightseeing in between.

The Cuban countryside boasts some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen, with mountains, the Caribbean and lush vegetation competing for your gaze. Havana’s architectural marvels have taken a beating-by-neglect, but the flaking paint and dereliction make for their own sublime beauty. The city has, little by little, started restoring its wonders.

I defy you to find an unfriendly Cuban. The only remotely snooty creature I encountered was a billy goat tethered near our bus on one stop. I stupidly tried to pet him, and he shoved me onto my tush. (I was unharmed, but as a Capricorn, was especially offended; he’s supposed to be one of my people.) Mr. Goat left me alone after Credo members rescued me; I think he just didn’t want to share his grass.

Our hotel, the Hotel Plaza in central Havana, boasted glorious colonial architecture and caged cockatiels in the lobby, but with excessively warm temperatures in the public areas and the simple guest rooms that you’ll find in most tourist hotels.

Our room was spare but comfy, almost aggressively cool, with an enormous shower and lovely view, minifridge and adorable maids who put new “towel sculptures” on our beds each day. Rates can be as low as about $35 per day during the heat of summer to twice that or more, depending on location, during high season. (Your hotel will almost certainly be included with your tour price.)

Of course, luxury hotels have more amenities (such as a swimming pool or lobby Wi-Fi) and are more costly, and won’t be as “luxurious” as you’d expect in, say, Paris or London.

Just remember, Cuba is a poor country; much of it is still Third World threadbare. What we might consider “necessities” sometimes aren’t available — for instance, the public restrooms can range from truly atrocious (no seats, no toilet paper, not anyplace you’d want to touch) to what you will suddenly considerfabulous (toilet paper! It flushes!). We made sure to pack campers’ toilet paper and took it with us everywhere. You’ll be expected to tip the restroom women $1 or so, for mostly doing nothing but standing there smiling at you. Go with a spirit of adventure and you’ll be fine.

Our most exciting times were singing with local musicians; we joined with professional choral groups, a superb student orchestra, and, in my favorite moment, sang with another group in a deconsecrated church atop a hill overlooking the countryside. Utter magic.

We explored both modern and historic Havana, including the spectacular Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), which sports amazing treasures but whose un-air-conditioned humidity would make a U.S. museum curator cringe with horror. (Cuba is doing its best with limited resources.)

“We have always been rebels,” our guide Omar Díaz Liria told us. “That will never change.”

This was borne out by conceptual artist Lázaro Saavedra’s 1989 tongue-in-cheek “ideology detector,” purporting to show whether you are “problematic,” “without problems or diversions,” “revolutionary” or “counter-revolutionary.”

You’ll see lots of ugly Soviet-block-type buildings but also gloriously beautiful structures and even some that will remind you of American midcentury architecture. The Riviera Hotel in Havana looks startlingly like the old Statler Hilton in Dallas.

Not to mention those exquisitely restored American cars from the 1950s; the plushest typically serve as cabs. You can also take a rickshaw-type “coco” taxi, teensy and named for its resemblance to a coconut.

Expect to eat a lot of rice, beans and chicken, with little seasoning. Get your flavor fix from the ubiquitous rum-infused mojitos and daiquiris.

The shopping is incredibly inexpensive and you’ll find fabulous stores not only on the streets, but in alleyways, stairwells and other out-of-the-way spots. I bought seedpod necklaces for everyone on my gift list (about 25 people) and spent less than $50 total. I also bought myself a Che Guevara beret for about $10, to wear when I’m feeling feisty.

Some of our best days were visiting sites less than a couple of hours drive east of Havana: Las Terrazas, a bucolic mountain community focusing on eco-tourism, sustainability and reforestation; and a beach break at the DuPont estate’s (yes, those DuPonts) restaurant at the Varadero resort, where we also frolicked on its pure-white beaches and cooled off in crystal-clear Caribbean waters.

We also took in Ernest Hemingway’s home near Havana, which he moved into in 1940. During World War II, he often took his boat Pilar out hunting for German warships off the coast. One especially poignant sight: a bathroom wall where the author recorded his declining weight as his terminal liver cancer progressed. (He died in 1961.)

We encountered virtually no anti-American sentiment. President Abraham Lincoln, in fact, is revered, as is actor Charlie Chaplin. The Museo de la Revolución does sport a cartoon mural showing pre-Revolutionary dictator Fulgencio Batista (whose ex-palace now houses the museum), along with U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, with the slogan rincon de los cretinos, or Corner of the Cretins. No John F. Kennedy there, but sobering artifacts from the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis lurk in the museum’s park.

Our bus tour guide had the best advice: the “secret key words” to having Cubans instantly fall in love with you. They adore our movies, especially Westerns, and a favorite is 3:10 to Yuma. So say, “Yo soy un Yuma,” or “I am a Yuma,” and you’re an instant best friend.

My advice? Go be a Yuma soon, before that embargo gets dropped and suddenly Havana overflows with American tourists. Yuma’ll have more fun while it’s not so crowded.

When you go

Itineraries with various companies focus on classic/vintage and “undiscovered” Cuba, art and architecture, performing arts and more. Individual Cuban visas arranged through tour companies can be obtained fairly quickly; special licenses for mission trips and the like can take several months, so plan ahead as far as possible. Check the U.S. State Department website (✓), for general information, travel warnings and more. Here are some of the most reputable tour operators (all prices are per person, double-occupancy, and do not include airfare; prices subject to change):

Insight Cuba: Five to 13 days, $2,695-$5,695. 1-800-450-2822.

National Geographic Expeditions: Nine days, $5,995. 1-888-966-8687.

Smithsonian Journeys: Eight days, $4,995. 1-855-330-1542.

No U.S. credit cards or debit cards are accepted in Cuba; take cash. U.S. dollars, Canadian dollars or euros are easily exchanged, but you’ll pay a premium for exchanging U.S. dollars. If you get euros here and take them with you, you’ll probably save money. Carry only as much as you plan to spend that day; virtually all Havana hotels that cater to tourists have room safes. Traveler’s checks are iffy, but usually will be accepted if from American Express or foreign entities such as Thomas Cook. Many companies advise taking a mix of cash and traveler’s checks.

Prepaid phone cards and Internet cards for communal computers are available at most hotels (you purchase a certain amount of time; at our hotel it was $6 an hour, and checking U.S. email was easy but slow). U.S. carriers have no service there, so your cellphone or tablet will be useless except for contact info or taking pictures, etc.

You are not officially allowed to bring back any Cuban goods except original artwork, paintings, sculptures, informational printed materials, and recorded music, videos and DVDs. Customs agents and dogs get especially testy about rum and cigars.

Meet the choir

Hear Credo Choir at 6 p.m. June 8 at Kessler Park United Methodist Church, 1215 Turner Ave. in Oak Cliff. Free, with free desserts after the concert. For information, visit The choir will also perform at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Concert Festival and Community Concert at 6 p.m. June 11 at Kidd Springs Park, 711 W. Canty St. Free. (click on “Education & Community”).