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Approximately two hours east of Havana, the resort town of Varadero is home to some of Cuba's most beautiful beaches. (Image: Jeff Hosley)

Getting to Cuba still isn't easy. Here's how to go

The doors to Cuba have been closed to most U.S. travelers for more than half a century. But in the last few years, President Barak Obama has worked to push the doors wide open.

So is tourist travel to Cuba now legal? No, absolutely not.

You might be asking yourself how is this possible? Didn't I just see President Obama there with his family taking in a baseball game?

Head to the U.S. State Department's website and you will clearly read that "tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under U.S. law for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and others subject to U.S. jurisdiction." This seems pretty straightforward, right? Wrong.

The key word is "tourist." U.S. law bans tourism to Cuba, however, it does allow non-tourism visits. As is the case with most legal mumbo jumbo, it comes down to understanding the fine print.

In this case, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury has 12 categories of authorized travel to, from or within Cuba. They range from official government business to humanitarian projects.

The category that concerns the average U.S. traveler is the one for educational activities. Once limited to purely academic purposes, this category has broadened to include more general travel and is commonly referred to as "people-to-people" travel to Cuba. Now, any American may now travel to Cuba as long as his or her activities are educational in nature.

Under the people-to-people provision your visit to Cuba can include such activities as taking a guided tour of Old Havana (yes, you can even do it in one of those classic convertibles you've heard about), visiting a cigar making factory, and checking out museums and art galleries. Heck, you can even go bar hopping if it's part of a program to learn about Cuba's famous rum and signature cocktails. And trust me, the mojitos rock.

You're likely thinking that these people-to-people activities are what you would generally do as a tourist -- and you would be right. In many cases, "tourist" activities and "educational" activities in Cuba are simply an issue of semantics. However, U.S. law does state that travel to Cuba "must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule in Cuba." So a full day at one of Cuba's beautiful beaches is not possible but a couple hours as part of fuller schedule of activities would be OK.

Previously, all people-to-people travel to Cuba had to be part of a group tour and with a business or organization licensed by the U.S. government. Now under new rules self-organized, individual travel is allowed.

It's understandable if you still find all of these travel rules for Cuba a little confusing. Things have been changing rapidly (almost daily) but the bottom line is that you are now free to visit Cuba - just not for a vacation.