We all know that Cuba is just a hop, skip, and 90 miles off the Southernmost Point in Key West. But, what most of us don’t know is that it’s relatively easy to visit our nearby neighbor. 

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Jim Gilleran and Gigi Varnum of Amiga Travel run tours to Cuba. The pair specialize in custom itineraries. GIGI VARNUM/Contributed

Gigi Varnum of Key West-based Amiga Travel will speak at the Marathon Library’s weekly speaker series on Thursday, Jan. 16. Her presentation will highlight how to travel to Cuba and what to see and do there. “Anything that customers want to do, it’s my job to source that and match it with an ideal experience,” says Varnum. The experiences that Cuba has to offer, though, are quite different from your run-of-the-mill island vacation. 

On one trip, a widow and her two sons were on vacation in Havana. The youngest son had restored a classic car with his late dad and remained very interested in antique cars. Varnum arranged for him to spend the day with the president of the private classic car club of Havana, who inducted him into the club as its first American (and youngest) member. Then, a mechanic taught him how they keep antique American cars running in Cuba when they can’t get parts. “Travel in Cuba is very experiential; we do everything with local Cubans,” explains Varnum. “It humanizes a place that has mystique for some Americans.” 

Varnum, who accompanies clients on trips, also loves to bring them to the different art outlets around Havana. In the small fishing town of Jaimanitas, local artist José Fuster has covered what seems like his entire neighborhood with mosaic tiles. “It’s Seuss-ical almost,” describes Varnum. “There are fantastic curves and swirls; absolutely stunning art. It’s so exciting to wander around his house and neighborhood.”

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Local kids play in the streets of old Havana, or “Havana Vieja.” The capital city has traces of old grandeur, now falling into ruin. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Varnum first visited Cuba in 2016. Amiga Travel was founded to share this rich culture and history with others. “Americans can go to Cuba, they just can’t go for tourism,” Varnum continues. “People don’t know that all you need is a U.S. passport and a qualifying reason for travel.” The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury regulates travel to Cuba and requires that travel fall under 1 of 12 categories of travel. Varnum explains, “Supporting the Cuban people – our trips do that directly because we stay in private residences, use private drivers, and eat at paladares – private restaurants.” To ensure no snags, Amiga holds an American tourism license, an OFAC general license allowing them to do business in Cuba, and a license with a tourist agency in Havana.  

Varnum hopes her talk will dispel this biggest misconception about Cuba – that Americans aren’t allowed to go. “I spent a lot of time and energy explaining that yes, you can go to Cuba. You can’t lay on a beach there, but you can do that in South Beach already. If you want to learn about another culture and way of living, Cuba is an incredible educational tool for that.”

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In the Valle de los Ingenios in Trinidad, Cuba, farmers like José live a simple life. He welcomes visitors into his modest home for fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, a lunch feast, and some music and dancing. He said, “We are people of the earth; this is our home. We want to welcome you Americans with our whole heart. We hope you will welcome us into yours.” TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Varnum’s talk will take place at the St. Columba Episcopal Church in Marathon (451 52nd St., Gulf) at 2:00 p.m. Refreshments and time to meet with Varnum will begin at 1:30 p.m. For more information or to reach Amiga Travel, call 305-504-6500 or email Gigi@amigatravel.com.

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Local kids in Cienfuegos play in the fields. Much of Cuba outside of Havana is countryside. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

12 categories of travel qualifying for general licenses to travel to Cuba:
• Family visits;
• Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
• Journalistic activity;
• Professional research and professional meetings;
• Educational activities;
• Religious activities;
• Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
• Support for the Cuban people;
• Humanitarian projects;
• Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
• Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
• Certain authorized export transactions.

Note: Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. For more information, visit https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/