Support the Cuban People: US-Cuba general travel license category

If you carefully review the US Treasury regulations there are general travel license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, and opportunities for engaging with Cubans without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders or exorbitant prices from US group people to people tour operators. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. But being pragmatic, we think that ideology aside, travelers and Cuban travel intermediaries should be devising more practical ways to work within the existing guidelines that will both satisfy current US legal regulations and Cuban objectives/targets for tourism production without disrespecting Cuba’s right to self-determination and self-government as a sovereign nation. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant on the full-time itinerary component of this category within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (as this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the Revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity far more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.

“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA or United Nations to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.

Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses [note there are around 200 private entrepreneurial categories in Cuba]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.”

Ensuring Compliance

Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (generally understood to be ~ 6 hrs/day on weekdays) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), WoWCuba can confirm that’s definitely not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible (basically anywhere except a Gaviota or Habaguanex-owned hotel). License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).

Support the Cuban People full-time category compliance
WoWCuba’s suggested theme: Environmental Cleanup & Sustainability

If interested in pursuing an itinerary along environmental lines in the Havana area, following are some specific ideas on how to design a compliant program:
Volunteer activities could be with the United Nations or CITMA (Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment) and include cleaning up a section of public beach, for example, to promote non-proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or zika (also a benefit to public health). Landfills & garbage in oceans are major issues on planet Earth and Cuba is not exempt from the problem.

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

The Rincón de Guanabo is a Natural Protected Landscape in desperate need of immediate attention as it’s bordering on neglect, with a lack of financing to ensure its vibrant future. It’s less than 30 minutes east of Havana on the coast close to the Mayabeque provincial border. There’s a small interpretive center located at the Municipal Historic Museum. The UN is looking for help to conserve and sustainably manage the area which features mangroves, turtles in risk of extinction, beach, coral reef with abundant healthy elk coral just a short distance from the shore, and wetlands with local and migrant birds. Garbage and seaweed tend to collect on the beach and following are some photos taken in November 2017 (after Hurricane Irma). Evidently cleanup efforts haven’t yet made it to this section of the beach which is rarely frequented by visitors, but borders the wetlands and mangrove reserve area.

Natural Protected Landscape

Travelers could take this further by separating waste and donating aluminum cans to a private entrepreneur (often elderly people) who gather and return recyclable materials in exchange for a fee, thereby not only leaving a public area cleaner/more beautiful/safer for public health, but also economically assisting a vulnerable segment of Cuba’s society. Another extension of this type of project could include bagging seaweed to take to a local agricultural cooperative (such as the one in Alamar) to be rinsed and transformed into organic compost, where fresh (non-pesticide) materials are sorely needed to keep their urban gardening plots fertile and productive. Seaweed breaks down much faster than a lot of alternative organic matter. Or collecting seaglass for local artisans to be used for recycled art projects. The possibilities for collaboration with the private sector could be extensive.

Affidavits & Paperwork

Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign a do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a Sample Travel Affidavit Form-General for individual travel categories.

Travel Service Providers

OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. While the new US limitation on educational group people to people travel (§515.565b) requires that the organization sponsoring the group travel (not necessarily the travel agency employed for prepaying services itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance, the chaperone/group rules do not apply to the Support the Cuban People general license. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.”

For further information on Legal US Travel to Cuba, visit the US Travelers section of WoWCuba’s website.

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Is it time for a US Revolution?

When my father shipped me off to work in Cuba over half a lifetime ago, I recall being posed some political questions by a Canadian radio interviewer. Which I evaded, as I hardly considered myself an expert in the area of politics. I was only just beginning my adult life in this foreign land famous for its bearded leader and Communist party, in a world where only a handful of nations governed by a Communist Party remain. When Nixon was president and before we started elementary school, my parents uprooted their young family and moved us from Cape Cod to the birthplace of our paternal grandparents, the Canadian Maritimes. Growing up in rural Prince Edward Island in the era of Canadian television content, we were a CBC radio and TFC (two effin’ channels) household. My siblings & I fought for space in front of the family’s small black & white television (powered by our home’s windmill) to watch Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Fraggle Rock, The Edison Twins, Beachcombers, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, Degrassi Junior High, The Littlest Hobo, Seeing Things, Danger Bay, Video Hits with Samantha Taylor, re-runs of Don Messer’s Jubilee, the John Allen Cameron Show, On the Road Again, The Kids in the Hall, You Can’t Do That on Television!, and who can forget Hockey Night in Canada, a ritual for at least half the country. We usually avoided Question Period because who wanted to listen to a bunch of politicians arguing back & forth and insulting each other in Ottawa? Peter Mansbridge was a better watch on The National, but we’d only appreciate his journalistic talents (and be able to stay up that late) as we grew older. Sure, we had Disney, Sesame Street, Archie Bunker or American soap operas like Dallas and All My Children. But we watched a lot of purely Canadian tv when we weren’t running around outside, biking to friends’ houses, playing board games, listening to 8 tracks/records/tapes, studying, practicing music, reading, doing chores or actually working (because in Canada, unlike our counterparts in Cuba, we almost always had part time jobs as kids). We didn’t have an Atari, but my brother did get a Commodore 64 when home computers were just coming out. We sometimes wiled away entire afternoons on that thing taking turns doing the powerlift game. How’s that for nostalgia? Sundays when Dad was home we were usually forced to listen to the Royal Canadian Air Farce followed by an hour of Gilmour’s Albums and Clyde’s classical musical selections, much to our chagrin, as our popular preference, more in line with those of our peers, would’ve been Casey Casem’s Top 40. Once I began studying at university and moved to larger urban centers, we had access to cable television to distract us. And American shows like Oprah Winfrey, The Price is Right, Seinfeld, Friends. All very entertaining and a great way to fill the time on your lunch hour or during those cold Canadian nights at home with your roommates.

I’d like to believe that the media we were exposed to in Canada didn’t result in our dumbing down. I know we all look back fondly on a lot of those programs we followed as kids and the core values they instilled in us as Canadians. And of course I realize that the way people access and view media today in Canada and most of the rest of the world is a whole other story. But when I arrived in Cuba in the early 1990’s, it was clear that I still had a vast amount to learn about how the rest of the world works. Little by little, my view of world politics and media in general has expanded. I’m still far from an expert, but I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to step outside of the bubble of the developed world and explore how things operate on the other side of the spectrum. The family I married into has undoubtedly influenced my thinking and knowledge of the political system. My Cuban husband studied international relations in Kiev. My father-in-law’s career focused largely in Cuban diplomacy, followed by a very long and distinguished career in Cuban Parliament. My mother-in-law is spending her retirement writing historical books. She taught philosophy for a time at the University of Havana, and later worked in Cuba’s foreign ministry until her retirement. Conversations sometimes get so heated at our family gatherings that we have had to ban the subject of politics. The ban isn’t always effective.

One of the things that I discovered early on (and at first, in my immaturity and naïveté, I had a hard time swallowing this) is that propaganda in the United States is spread by both government and media entities. You don’t want to believe a nation has been duped and so you first think whoever is telling you this must be paranoid. While Pope John Paul was making a historic visit to Cuba that was supposed to be reported on by Christiane Amanpour, all of a sudden all of the CNN coverage (which we were “privileged” to have at the time in our state aparthotel) that was to be directed to the papal visit to Cuba was suddenly diverted to the story on Monica Lewinski and where Bill Clinton was directing her to insert Cuban cigars. As if that were an event that merited the amount of media coverage and resources that it was assigned. For weeks we’d been anticipating an historic visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church with the leaders and people of Cuba. Posters were everywhere, even the non-religious were excited about this kind of a visit. But for the US media, it was long forgotten the minute the Lewinsky story was leaked. Illicit sexual liasons in the White House? Obviously a higher priority for American viewers. Some of the best documentaries by Oliver Stone have been censored in the US because it is not convenient to US authorities’ interests that unflattering (but accurate) information about their activities be distributed to the US population. Did you know that in the US, data on ownership and market share of media companies isn’t even held in the public domain? Doesn’t that sound fishy to you? You wouldn’t think information on who owns the media should be shielded from the public that consumes it. Unless, of course, there were some convert operations or ulterior motives someone (or something, like the CIA, perhaps) were trying to keep hidden. Such as brainwashing the US public with American heroes, GI Joe crap, and scare tactics about the supposed “enemy”. Free speech, hold it dear. Except (psst), who exactly controls the content that dominates all your feeds, channels and theaters? Do you know? Take Michael Moore, for example. He independently produces some compelling documentaries on some of the top issues that you would think should be addressed by the US government today, including gun control, the fast food industry, health care, conspiracies and more. He even correctly predicted that Trump would win office. Yet the mainstream US media consistently portrays him as a propagandist, a leftist (as if that were a crime), an alarmist, and even (gasp!) an a—hole. Someone pipes up and talks about some of the most alarming issues in his nation, but in order to keep the status quo (and satisfy the interests of the transnationals that really control the US government), their media channels immediately swoop in to discredit the source of the information not on their agenda. The current US cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion dollars (or roughly 1/3 of the wealth of the entire country) are probably slapping each other on their greedy backs and having a great laugh over being able to keep the country entertained as long as they already have already with The Donald’s multiple deficiencies and colossal flubs. Meanwhile, they’ve effectively managed to move very efficiently during his presidency so far to:
-get out of the Paris climate agreement. We all know that the US is one of the largest contributors to global warming. But their president (in 2017) is in denial of science and publically declares this with a straight face. Do we believe this is possible, or is Trump the buffoon at the helm just extremely convenient to the pockets of the companies of his administration bros?
-set back Obamacare and get out of those pesky obligations to improve health care access for Americans
-roll back diplomatic advances Obama worked hard to make with Cuba, after half a decade of estrangement.
Really the list is too long to go on. But even those closest to Trump have declared that he’s easily manipulated. He must be equivalent to a transnational’s wet dream.

The veto powers of a US president are clearly too great, and what exists today in the USA does not even closely resemble a democracy. You have just two parties that have controlled the US Congress since 1856, both with weak central organizations. And there’s not much that really differentiates one from the other in terms of ideology – the fact that some US organizations contribute to both parties’ campaign funds clearly suggests that they fundamentally represent the same (primarily economic, not social) interests. Over the past several decades US presidents have worked toward achieving undivided control of the executive branch, to the point where they are now operating like kings without the checks and balances that were intended to govern their democratic systems. With a questionably sane chump like Trump at the helm, controlling the world’s most expensive military and second largest nuclear arsenal, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it deeply concerning. I mean the man over-uses Twitter, a social media platform limiting its user to 140 characters or less, to get his puzzling and polarizing messages out to the world. Is this what the role of the President of the United States has been reduced to? Dumbed Down Personified?

Participation in US federal elections (comically portrayed as national race between the political parties – I say “portrayed” because this seems to me to be just another, albeit very expensive, US-funded entertainment program, not an actual exercise in democracy), requires huge amounts of money. For advertising, which benefits…..(yeah, you guessed it)…the US media, who else? As has long been a criticism of international election observers, and became all too clear with Trump’s win, the imbalanced way in which US congressional districts are set up means the conclusions are really foregone, and that competitiveness of these election contests doesn’t truly exist as it would in a genuine democracy where the majority vote wins. In the USA, only the wealthy or those with wealthy donors in their pockets can afford to postulate as candidates. We the people?! The Occupy movement? The majority crushed by the 1%.

Moving on to the country that I actually reside in most of the year, here are some facts that you may not be aware of… Municipal elections begin tonight in Cuba, where they don’t claim their system is perfect. But it’s their system. If there are things you don’t like about it, as a Cuban citizen there are outlets to voice your concern or file your complaint. Voting isn’t compulsory but it’s indeed popular here. The information slip my husband received to vote today Oct. 20 at 8 pm from the Electoral Commission reads quite simply that according to the Electoral Law, he has the right to vote in the Assembly for the Nomination of Delegates to the Municipal Assembly of the People’s Power. It gives him the time & place to go (within walking distance of our home, of course) should he choose to participate in the election as a Cuban citizen. He knows he should take his Cuban Identify Card (every single Cuban has one of these, with a unique #, their thumbprint and photograph attached). No one will rebuke him, consider him un-revolutionary, or threaten his job if he were to skip the vote. You laugh? I do too, as I’ve actually repeatedly read some of those theories in US media and I just can’t believe that anyone in Cuba (in their right mind) has actually reported that’s the case. So I can only assume it’s simply more disingenuous US propaganda.

Some of you out there don’t realize we have democratic elections in Cuba. Well, surprise, surprise, they exist, and they start from the bottom up. In the first phase, delegates are elected to the Municipal Assembly, and in the second phase, deputies are elected to the Provincial and National Assemblies. Surprisingly, no political parties (including the Communist Party of Cuba) are permitted to campaign. Which means we don’t have to put up with the stupid slander, lies or insulting behavior that you often see in elections in countries where big money is at stake for the power-grab. Or, better yet, waste a whole lot of money on that funny business when it could be put to better use improving the quality of life for the country’s citizens. It’s not to say a little more real debate at the grassroots and national levels wouldn’t be a bad thing. But the expensive media circus isn’t what I’d like to see, of that I’m sure.

So how do Cubans know who do vote for? Simply consult the candidates’ biographies/photos which are posted in public locations. Vote based on their merit – a choice of municipal candidates will be available, nominated by individual electors or grass-roots organizations in nomination assemblies rather than by small committees of political parties. Voter turnout in Cuba is exceptionally high (95% or higher) because not only Cubans but many other Latin Americans today know and accept that it’s their civic duty to participate in choosing their government leaders, and they fully recognize that every vote counts. Most Cubans actually care about politics. In the US, many ordinary citizens have given up, believing they are powerless to counteract the influences of the wealthy interests/corporations/unions/PAC’s on their political system. Fidel’s famous literacy campaign in the early years of the Revolution eradicated illiteracy in Cuba, meaning the peasants could no longer be kept in the dark. Especially those of the disenfranchised, the poorest citizens, those who want their voice heard. Our neighbors to the north would do well to learn that lesson when the 2020 US federal elections come around again – barely half of eligible voters in the US bother to cast their ballot. Many others (especially minorities) are prevented from doing so for a lack of transportation, resources, viable identification, economic inability to leave their workplace and a host of other issues impeding their voter registration. In countries like Australia you can actually face a fine for not voting. Of compulsory voting, Obama once said: “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

The President of Cuba (referred to as the President of the Council of State) is also the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba, the head of government. The Council of Ministers (the Cabinet consisting of the President, Vice President, 7 Vice Presidents of the State Council, heads of national ministries, the Executive Committee Secretary and other lawfully-established members), is Cuba’s highest ranking executive and the administrative body of the nation’s government. The Executive Committee consists of the President and Vice Presidents of the Council of State, the Secretary and ministers chosen by the President. Policy agreements are authorized by the National Assembly, and the Council of Ministers is responsible for their implementation, designating that task to individual ministries. General plans for economic and social development are proposed by the council, which the National Assembly authorizes twice yearly. Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, will step down in 2018. If he is elected to the National Assembly, many assume that Miguez Diaz-Canel Bermudez could be Cuba’s next President.

Cuba’s foreign policy and its relations with other governments is directed by the Council of Ministers. It approves international treaties before they are passed to the Council of State for ratification (much like the Senate, in Canada). It oversees and directs the State budget and foreign trade. Laws authorized by the National Assembly are passed by the Council of State and enforced by the Council of Ministers. They can sometimes be almost maddeningly slow in their pace of implementation with certain national policies (for example, the perfection of the new non-agricultural cooperative systems). And sometimes it seems like they’re learning and adjusting as they go – Cuba’s ironing out a lot of wrinkles right now with their taxation and audit systems for the private sector, a recently expanded sector of the national economy. Cubans haven’t had to pay much in taxes until relatively recently, and on the overall scale, they’re still coming off fairly easily compared to Canadian income tax rates if truth be known. Being largely a cash economy, a considerable amount of tax evasion appears to be going on and the authorities are struggling with how to control that. Although they tout efficiency as one of their lofty ideals, bureaucracy is the real norm here. In Canada we’re somewhat used to things being bureaucratic, but admittedly, Cuba goes above & beyond.
However, Cuba certainly doesn’t end up with a cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion accepting bribes left & right and shielding their money in offshore accounts, of that you can be absolutely certain! In Cuba, with the exception of the President, politicians live in regular neighborhoods, in regular houses, and live many of the same day-to-day routines as working class Cubans, and largely they can still relate closely to the problems in Cuban society. In Cuba they’d have a cow if their system were that corrupt. I can recall the story of a lady selling black market cheese door-to-door, when she unknowingly knocked on Carlos Lage’s door some years back, seeing if he would be interested in purchasing some of the cheese she was selling made with milk diverted from the state’s supply. In the US you couldn’t get that close to someone that high in the government without having a security detail all over you. It probably shouldn’t have happened here either – something was obviously remiss, but you get the point. He wasn’t living in some gated/gilded mansion with a pool in Miramar, despite all of the responsibility he was assuming in his government position.

Although they disingenuously claim they want “democracy” restored to Cuba, our neighbors to the north have violated the United Nations charter through countless assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, and even in modern days continue to attempt to undermine Cuban democratic processes, often under the guise of “USAID”. But Cuban officials have been on to their underhanded tactics, which have largely been a colossal failure, for years. It’s almost part of their doctrine. They try and sneak in, then Cuba exposes them. Cubans don’t believe that the US is promoting their watered-down version of “democracy” to the rest of the world out of the goodness of their own hearts, rather they promote their own interests above all others, which has always been and continues to be America First. This concept was not invented by the Donald. The US is not out there to save the world, the environment, or all of a sudden interested in ensuring those who work in the garment trade in India are paid a fair working wage, or that desperately-needed vaccines are provided with affordable prices by US transnational pharmaceutical companies to those in dire need in Africa, in order to preserve lives. Is anyone really that naïve? Maybe, but in Cuba the wool was torn off Cubans’ eyes more than half a decade ago. The United States wants to retain their dominance of the world economy, and in order for a small segment of Americans to live a lifestyle of relative (and in some cases extreme) excess, then the overwhelming majority of citizens of the rest of the planet must sacrifice. This is the only doctrine the US insists on actively ensuring is followed. Many Cubans would like to see changes implemented in their system, and in a more efficient manner. They would like more transparency on government spending, on projects like Mariel. For youth to feel like their country has a promising economic future, to stem the flow of talented professionals out of Cuba. They want mechanisms to truly support the private sector, rather than in name only. And for a media that offers constructive criticism of their system and its leaders, not one that pats everyone on the back and neglects the real issues facing Cuba today. We’re in the midst of some important transformations and many Cubans want to see their vision of Cuba realized from the inside out. But some are getting tired of the bureaucratic wheels and their lack of grease / ability to adjust to today’s challenges at the rate at which they are being presented.

In Canada we can elect a Prime Minister to as many terms as we wish. We don’t limit ourselves to 8 years of good leadership if we have one that is doing a bang-up job and willing to continue to serve us. In July an unpopular tax reform was introduced in Canada and after public outcry and debate, in October the government stood down as the private sector is the backbone of Canada’s economy. It didn’t take them 8 years to come to their senses. It seems to me that this is a sensible way to keep one’s citizens content, with effective and admirable leadership and a sound moral compass to guide us through good and difficult times. It’s too bad that Obama couldn’t have run for another term because in his absence, and after Bernie Sanders very unfortunately loss to Hillary Clinton (do take another read through the link on his political positions – it might make you nostalgic like it did me, and wonder “what if”….), the US voting public was left with 2 unappealing choices and the unthinkable transpired. The US voting public elected an idiotic, pu—y-grabbing, lying, unqualified, egotistical, bullying, incompetent excuse for a man to be the leader of their “democratic” government. By allowing that to happen, the US government has chosen to abandon universal goals and their offensive choice for their nation’s world representative is isolating them abroad. They are not an ally to be trusted. As Winston Churchill once said, “There are no eternal friends or eternal enemies, only eternal interests”. In Cuba, as in Canada, on the other hand, the continuity of the nations’ long-term national and sustainable global development goals is ensured. Cuba is not abandoning its commitment to the planet, to supporting other nations in need and within its means. According to the WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report, “Cuba has the most sustainable model of development on the planet”. That’s something to be proud of and to look to as an example of what to strive for in the future as a nation and as a planet. According to a Telesur article (our really great news source in the southern part of the Americas, conceived as a joint nations project to counteract the US propaganda machine): “Cuba…was found to have implemented a good — yet not perfect—combination of human development and environmental footprint, with a high level of alphabetization and a high level of life expectancy, while using little energy and natural resources.” In Cuba & Canada we have universal health care. Education is free up to Grade 12 in Canada, and through post-secondary institutions in Cuba. We are committed to global goals. It’s high time the  citizens of the country in the middle started standing up for their rights and demanding more humane, rational action from their government. Maybe they need a new political party to stir up some real change because it’s certainly not happening with the establishment. Maybe a Revolution is what they need.

3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!

Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

As responsible travel agents, we at WoWCuba do our utmost to ensure our clients are aware of what they can reasonably expect from Cuban accommodation & transportation providers before they dive in headfirst and commit to services. The unfortunate reality is that car rentals in Cuba often fall short of client expectations, and more so at this point in time when demand is at record levels and tourism authorities are struggling to keep up. WoWCuba is a travel intermediary. We are not the rental company, we do not control or maintain the Cuban state’s car rental fleets. We do process reservation requests with our Cuban partners, and only process payments for car rental reservations if a confirmation has been received in writing by the service provider in accordance with the exact parameters of client requests. There are admittedly operators out there who may not even have direct contracts with Cuban tourism operators who will promise the moon, only to disappoint; you should beware of undertaking arrangements through questionably ethical/legitmate websites against which the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has published warnings. The following is meant to provide potential visitors to Cuba considering renting a vehicle the low-down on the rental company’s obligations, and what one can reasonably expect when undertaking a self-drive holiday. We hope you read, absorb and carefully consider the information we offer to best plan your travel in Cuba and reduce stress to a minimum.

At an meeting held by the Cuban Minister of Tourism to conclude the record year of 2016 which saw over 4 million entries to Cuban territory, as accredited Cuban travel professionals we were provided with statistics on the industry’s growth, and problem areas that the various ministries are addressing and attempting to solve with the unprecedented and sudden surge of the tourism sector of late. With just 13, 592 vehicles existing in the fleets of the 4 Cuban state-owned car rental companies, only 5,116 were imported in 2016. That makes your chances of being assigned a late model rental vehicle roughly 1 in 3, not particularly great odds.

With a deficit of vehicles to meet the current demand for rental cars, delays in their delivery are admittedly frequent. We regularly field calls from clients who appear at the agreed-upon rental counter at the confirmed time to collect their rental vehicle, only to be informed by the rental counter functionary that there are no cars. Morever, they are rarely able to provide an informed estimate on how long the client may have to expect to wait before their will can be delivered. They aren’t denying the existence of the prepaid reservation, and we’ve not had a single case in over two years where a WoWCuba client didn’t receive a rental vehicle on the same date scheduled for its pickup. But delays (and sometimes up to 5 or more hours, especially for rentals programmed for early morning or early afternoon pickup) are not out of the question. It can be frustrating for clients and for agents, but is an unfortunate reality with car rental services in Cuba today. The upside is that the rental company has a contractual obligation to our ground handlers to supply a vehicle to clients who have prepaid their services, while others must seek alternative modes of transportation. Their failure to provide a vehicle on the date reserved for pickup could result in the rental company being obliged to assume additional expenses that clients incur, but only once they have analyzed their claim, supporting documents and corroborated evidence. In our experience the claims process can be maddeningly slow, and it often seems to us that Cuban authorities attempt to take advantage of any possible loophole to avoid forking out funds. Some examples we’ve encountered include:
-clients who fail to report their issues to the rental company’s Technical Assistance numbers to document issues.
-clients who fail to present official receipts to corroborate their claim, or (and this one is key) have failed to retain a copy of their completed rental contract to submit as evidence for any adjustments corresponding to documented issues at the end of their rental period.
-clients who ask for compensation for loss of activities that have not been prepaid (and for which verifiable receipts cannot be presented)
-clients who present receipts for inflated and non-approved taxi fares. Ex.: A $20 taxi between 3ra & Paseo and Linea & Malecon is clearly a scam. If your rental car is scheduled at 3ra & Paseo, but they tell you to go to an alternate location to pick up the car, call us first. We will give you instructions on how to proceed and ensure that (if it’s actually necessary for you to change locations rather than have them deliver the vehicle to where it should have been waiting) you retain an official receipt and that we ensure a record of the incident is immediately put on file with our ground handlers.
-Partial compensation is occasionally approved for clients who’ve reserved, for example, an economy category car for 9 am, but not received it until well into the afternoon. While it’s not much, at least it’s something to recognize the serious level of informality demonstrated at times by some Cuban state service providers in terms of compliance with reservation parameters. We’ve handled claims for other clients who’ve lost more than 5 hours of their anticipated rental awaiting the vehicle, but were ultimately provided with an upgraded vehicle at no additional cost (which they’ve not requested). Disappointingly, claims for partial refunds for lost time have been denied in those cases, as the rental company’s logic is that they made up for the lost time by providing an upgraded vehicle. While our stance is that the practice is questionable, thus far we’ve not managed to convince authorities to budge on that particular point, despite persistence and insistence that they reconsider their rulings.

WoWCuba recognizes the need for contractual compliance, and regularly makes note of its importance with our ground handlers. Sometimes, however, we believe those suggestions fall on slightly deaf ears. Just this week I met with the heads of Sales, Quality Control and the International Department Chief at the offices of one of our main ground handlers. My agenda was to hash out some fully documented and corroborated claims that they’ve failed to respond to within a reasonable period, as well as to request that they provide us with the details of some of the specific contractual obligations and terms with the car rental companies. These sometimes seem to be well-guarded state secrets to me. My logic was that when an agency accepts prepayment for a service through their contracts, we should be able to offer more specific information to our clients on exactly what the maximum established compensation might be, when and if things go astray. Despite having spent my entire adult life (over 2 decades), working in the Cuban tourism industry where customer service levels can often be qualified as deficient, and the ratio of quality-price is questionable at times, I still fully believe this is a reasonable and logical demand. But the answer I received demonstrates that there’s a culture of complacency, and even resignation even at the highest levels in the Cuban tourism sector. Perhaps it’s precisely because I’m not a newbie to the Cuban tourism industry, but they didn’t seem to show any shame when responding telling me that there are not enough cars. No hay carros. We have to be real, this is Cuba. That we should be lucky they’re confirming anything at all this year; last year it was almost impossible to get a written confirmation issued by a rental company. That what’s written into the contracts they sign with the rental companies is not always exactly what transpires in reality. That’s the sad truth of this system. When the four rental companies and their ground handler all ultimately belong to the state, I’ve often said that as the agents accepting prepayment for their services it’s a little like playing with a stacked deck, or batting in a ball game where the umpire and the pitcher are on the same team.

Some clients arrive in Cuba with the misconception that as an intermediary agency we have some degree of control over which model of rental vehicle they will be assigned, when in reality Cuban rental companies only confirm car reservations by category. Others believe we are able to ensure that they are assigned a vehicle with low kilometers. If an agent trying to sell you a car rental claims they have absolute control over those issues, you should be skeptical as the ultimate assignment of vehicles normally occurs the evening prior, or on the same day of the service initiation, and it’s impossible to know in advance with any degree of certainty, the exact model or year of the vehicle you’ll ultimately receive. To avoid being slapped with a claim, the rental company’s contractual obligation is to deliver the same category a client has reserved or superior, on the scheduled date of service initiation, with the transmission type requested, functioning air conditioning (for those categories featuring a/c), and passenger capacity as described in the parameters of the client’s reservation. The vehicle must pass documented Cuban technical inspections and be roadworthy. According to the rental companies, cosmetic imperfections (dents, scratches, upholstery which may be stained or have rips/cigarette burns, etc.) do not contractually constitute a valid reason to reject a rental vehicle, but if there are technical or mechanical deficiencies which affect the integrity or safety of the vehicle, those would be considered acceptable reasons for their rejection.

When opening your rental contract, it’s essential that you perform a full inspection and ensure any dents/scratches, or other imperfections are duly registered on your rental contract as it will be inspected upon your return, and you are responsible for any new dents/scratches etc. Take your time, turn on the lights/blinkers, a/c, windshield wipers, carefully inspect the condition of the tires and the spare tire, ensure the jack & tire iron are included in the car inventory, etc. If there are technical issues with the vehicle, you are under no obligation to accept it or sign a contract expressly indicating your conformity with the vehicle. Signing the contract indicating that you received the vehicle in acceptable technical conditions is one of the loopholes the rental company can later use in the rejection of a refund claim. If a technical issue occurs while the rental is underway and the renter fails to duly report the issue, the plate/contract #, exact location of the vehicle, and provide the rental company’s Technical Assistance staff with the tools to contact them at a local number and the opportunity to repair or replace the vehicle, that is another loophole which we often see used as justification in the rental company’s rejection of claims. Contacting WoWCuba or random rental counter functionaries to complain or report a problem does not mean that your issues will be documented as verifiable incidents on file with the rental company. They don’t take the client or the intermediate agency their word, but rather put the onis on the client to ensure they have all issues fully documented in their system and on the rental contract for analysis. From the time an issue is reported to the Technical Assistance office whose telephone contacts are listed on your rental contract, they must respond in a reasonable time frame with a solution. Taking note of the time your report is submitted, and the name of the rental company functionary with whom you spoke is highly advisable.

If the rental company functionary attempts to assign a vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or unfit and does not offer an acceptable alternative, then you should immediately contact a WoWCuba to request intervention. If there is evidence available to corroborate your claim, then we can contact their superiors/operations office on your behalf to report the difficulty and request intervention for replacement of the vehicle. If no alternative acceptable solution is ultimately available through those channels, and you choose to reject the vehicle they’ve assigned to your rental, then upon verification, refunds for prepaid rental fees are available. To avoid being left without a rental car altogether, some of our more flexible clients have accepted older/inferior vehicles which they’ve been able to switch for alternative models at the earliest opportunity. In our experience this strategy can be hit or miss, especially when heading outside of major urban centers where the availability of vehicles may be more limited. Some clients have had to travel through several cities before finally encountering some luck replacing their vehicle, and most report the experience to be inconvenient at best.

If you do elect to reserve a rental car in advance, following are some suggestions worth considering to maximize your time and itinerary goals:
-If picking up a vehicle after your international arrival (not directly at the airport upon arrival in Cuba), consider programming pickup of your rental vehicle the evening before you’ll actually need it. Especially if planning on travelling several hours or more from the planned pickup location, this strategy can often result in the best guarantee for an on-time departure.
-Consider upgrading to REX, the “luxury” rental company. Their rates are certainly higher than those of the other three Cuban rental companies, but in our experience they have the highest rate of client satisfaction. It’s not to say they’re perfect – we have had a couple of cases where even REX ultimately disappointed clients by delivering an inferior category than that which was initially confirmed, but always with reimbursement for the difference in contracted rates.
-Arrive slightly earlier than the programmed pickup time to collect your vehicle. Lineups at the rental counters, especially in Havana, are common, and the earlier you mark your spot, the faster you will hopefully complete the process and be on your way.
-Ensure you have all documentation on your person (printed voucher if one has been issued in advance by WoWCuba, a copy of your invoice with contact information, your driver’s license issued at least 2 years prior to the date of initiation of the rental, and passport corresponding to the primary driver on record, demonstrating that he/she is at least 21 years of age (or 30 for sport car models). If registering additional drivers they must be present with their identification at the time you open the rental contract.
-If your rental vehicle is scheduled for routine maintenance while under your care (typically this is every 5000 kms; the rental company will advise when the vehicle’s next maintenance must be performed), ensure you take care of that detail. There are penalties if you fail to have the maintenance completed when due. It’s not always convenient for the client, but the manufacturer’s warranties require the maintenance to be performed. If the designated rental company garage does not have the corresponding filters/cannot perform the maintenance for any reason, simply ensure you have them issue an official document (duly signed & stamped) attesting to the fact that you attempted to have maintenance performed but that X reason(s) prevented that task from being completed. You should submit that document to the rental counter functionary upon conclusion of the rental for compliance/justification.

Traveling independently in Cuba can be a wonderful adventure, but things aren’t always rosy. WoWCuba continues to offer car rentals as many of our long-time clients would be disappointed if we discontinued the service. Being prepared for the realities of what to expect/the limitations of local systems & infrastructure, and planning accordingly can make the experience much more fulfilling and relaxing.

Previous car rental posts you may want to reference for additional information:
Cuba Car Rental Advice
Cuba Summer Car Rental Adventures

The Black Box

Cuba has been making advances over the past few years with free public access to digital television. I recall several years ago now when they first began selling the digital tv decoders in Cuban stores, swarms of locals rushed to the local TRD (Tiendas de Recaudacion de Divisa, where they charge in CUC for all merchandise) to get theirs before the stock ran out. I can’t blame them. With no legal cable television for the population, the local options are limited. Sure, there are still illegal shared satellite connections around and there’s the bootlegged “paquete” with all kinds of weekly digital entertainment for a fraction of what it costs Netflix users. But for $44.95 if there’s an option out there to get access to local/international news, movies, soap operas, and a host of other locally-offered programming for no monthly fee, with the option to pause it and view it in (hold your breath) High Definition, why wouldn’t you jump on that bandwagon?
We have always had pretty bad reception on 3 of the 4 channels we received at home, despite trying a multitude of different antennas and positions. Having largely turned into workaholics of late, only being able to watch Buenos Dias (the morning news magazine) and Multivision for an hour’s worth of entertainment after work was not really a big issue for us. But friends & family kept planting the bug in our ear about the improved reception and features of the digital decoder box so we figured that after several years on that market, what the heck. While running errands a couple of Saturdays ago we decided to drop in to the mini shopping center at 5ta & 42 in Havana. Lo and behold, they had the cajitas in stock; several other places we’d asked over the previous weeks didn’t. But there was a lineup. And no air conditioning. In August. My husband & I looked at each other and shrugged. Both of us know the rule: if it’s in stock and not astronomically priced and you need it, buy it and don’t wait until later. You never know if they will be in stock when you return. Alright, might as well do it, we’re committing to the lineup. ?El ultimo? we asked. ?Y detras de quien vas? Because you don’t want to get caught screwing up the lineup. And then we settled in for a long wait. The lineup itself was my entertainment so you get to hear about it (as it’s much more exciting than work these days).

Being workaholics and living in Cuba where there’s always something we need/can’t find, we took turns holding our place in the lineup while the other would check out the adjacent mini supermarket, hardware store, or housewares to see if we could cross anything else off our list and make the best use of our time. They guy who marked his place behind us struck up a conversation with me, asking if the box had HD capability. I told him yes, but in order to view television in high definition you first have to have a high definition television, and then the programming has to be recorded in high definition. If all those requisites are met, then in my experience watching tv in high definition compared to what we’ve had until now is a huge difference. You can see every flaw and detail in an actor’s complexion if your screen is big enough. He wasn’t sure if his mother in law (who he was buying the box for) had an HD tv, but there was no way he was leaving the line. Another dude came into the store who had a lot of information to share about the decoders. He targeted the same guy in the line behind me and started telling him the white box was better than the black box, and all kinds of other information before I realized he was a re-seller trying to recruit customers. My husband returned and I told him if somebody tried to do that in Canada they’d be escorted off the premises. In Cuba, most of the people (and the guy behind me who had also caught on by then) just tried to ignore him. He lost any potential fish he might have had the hook for his unit, but he told everyone in the line (in a typically loud Cuban voice) that he was an electronico, an electronics specialist, and his box was the best box, why were they wasting all that time in the lineup, blah blah blah. So then, still having no bites, he left. People wait in the lineup because they get the store guarantee (which is a heck of a lot more complicated than an exchange at Walmart, I can tell you that, but it’s something).

More people came into the store. “El ultimo?” they asked, marking their place in line, and then “Pa’ que es la cola?” because if there’s a line there must be something worth buying, right? In walks a pretty young Cuban woman and she approaches me asking what the line’s for. Well, it’s either the automatic washing machines or the decoder. That’s what people are after today. She asks if they’re on sale. No, $44.95 is the regular price. “What are all the reduced price tickets for?” she asks. “Merma”, I answered. Stock that’s either broken or so freaking out of date that the Cuban retailers have to reduce the price to see if they can move it off their shelves. She’s looking for a rice cooker though. So, being a foxy Cuban, she approaches one of the male store attendants who looks her up from head to toe (front & back) and tells her she doesn’t need to wait in the line for that, go see the third counter attendant (by that time lunch was over, so all 3 were back behind the counter). She waited about 10 minutes while he was attending to another customer, only to be told when it was her “turn” that the rice cookers were defective. Merma. See? I told you so, but nobody wants to believe the blue eyed, blonde haired foreigner as you figure she doesn’t know what a CDR or a libreta is, right?!

My husband is back with something from the hardware store and we’ve moved up considerably in the lineup. The couple in front of us is pointing to a dvd player in the merma section and the store attendant kindly tells them that although it’s his job to sell merchandise, he wouldn’t recommend investing their hard-earned money into a technology that’s outdated and probably won’t even read all the codecs that are out there nowadays. Being from Remanga la Tuerca (Cuban for Timbuctu), they insisted they needed a DVD. The poor souls, I thought, they probably don’t realize that if you get the paquete on a flash drive you can just watch that on the (cheaper) decoder. But let the salesperson do his job, it’s not the customer’s job to interfere. Not being able to convince them otherwise, he finally told them that if they had to have a DVD, to go to La Puntilla (another department store) where they had more modern versions available that might read more codecs than the model at 5ta & 42. So off they went, having waited 1.5 hours in the rotten lineup instead of first asking the question. Finally, it was our turn and I told my husband I was buying 4 units. “4 UNITS?!?!” he retorted. “You’re darned right, 4 units”. If we have 4 tv’s and I’ve waited this long you can be sure that I’m not doing this again. I smiled at the clerk and told him 4 units, 2 people buying them, and he had to agree to that, so the paperwork began. They have 3 clerks working just on the task of selling the boxes as one person takes it out of the box to get all the serial #s and plug it in to a power source to prove it’s working before you take it from the store. Another accepts your money. And a third fills out the store guarantee along with your identity card so if it blows up before the 3 months expire, at least you might have a chance of getting it fixed or replaced. This is not the Walmart mentality, remember, where time is money. As we’re working on that, another couple walks into the store and the woman is excited that there are decoders in stock. But it seems to me that her husband a) doesn’t want to wait in the line or b) spend the money on the box because he’s poo-pooing everything she says. Oh yeah? But they’re the black box and everyone knows the WHITE one is the best. The store clerk says, no, these Konka ones are actually the latest technology. They’re the same as the white ones, just a different color. Oh yeah? But it doesn’t have Alta Definicion he tells his wife. She asks me, “Tiene alta definicion?”. Mmm, hmmm. See the HDMI cable? Her husband retorts: “Sure, but does it have HDMI 1 and 2?” I didn’t bother answering that as by that time I was onto his game. He wasn’t buying it, wasn’t doing the lineup, either that or he was just a complete imbecile and that’s OK too.

On our way home I was telling my husband a few stories about the line and he told me that in Cuba people don’t know that HD = Alta Definition because it’s an English term. Yeah, I know. I should be more understanding right? Sometimes these macho men can be a little infuriating. And I know too that many have never experienced high definition tv or movies before, heck I’ve only seen it while visiting family & friends in Canada. But it is pretty amazing. So back at home once we got everything put away, the dog fed, and supper heated I was stoked to connect up our box and see if this little black box was going to really make a difference in our Saturday night movie viewing pleasure. But my husband wanted to eat first. So I plugged in everything except the HDMI cable. I didn’t see a plug for that on the side of the tv (which, as in most Cuban households, is placed not at eye level while you’re sitting, but higher up on the wall). Momentarily confused and recalling something about having previously hooked up my laptop to the tv with a monitor cable, I asked my husband if our tv had HD. “CLARO” he retorted, as if I were born yesterday. So I patiently waited for him to finish his dinner and then (being taller than me) he deftly hooked the HDMI cable up to the back of the tv. He sits down on the bed and takes possession of the 2 remote controls and then pauses for a moment to say, “But what I don’t remember is if this tv has High Definition”. OMG!!!!!! After our conversation in the car, I couldn’t believe he actually said that. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg, or if he really did clue out for a second. But the little thing works like a charm. We now even get Cubavision International. Radio Stations. Can pause/record our tv programs and everything. Pretty luxe compared to 1 clear channel and 3 fuzzy ones.

So what are we watching? The latest and most talked-about show on Cuban tv this season is a Cuban singing talent show called Sonando en Cuba. They have 3 judges who are giants on the Cuban salsa scene: Paulito FG, Haila and Mayito (formerly of los Van Van). There’s a great amount of talent on the show, but way too much talk. And for some reason I find it particularly annoying that a show that’s obviously conceived to promote Cuban culture has all of the contestants calling their mentors (the three aforementioned artists are each assigned different talents to train) their “Coach”. Like a knock-off version (and poor relative of) The Voice. Come ON already! And then I saw Haila on another show the other night where, after she admits she’s on a diet as he no longer boasts a svelte figure, she states that there are two things in life she loves: the kitchen and shoes. Haila is a self-proclaimed Cuban Diva who actually got a sign made for her car that said Diva. Who does that?! A friend who’s been on tour with another famous Cuban orchestra in Europe was once in the same hotel as her and told me a story about her shoe fetish. Always wanting to give her beloved public the impression that she’s wildly successful economically, she had been bragging in the hotel elevator about how much money she’d just spent on a pair of jeans. My friend, who earns a much more modest income as a musician touring with someone else’s orchestra (and possibly could make even more money being an impersonator or a comedian), says that he later spied her at a discount store not only shopping for shoes, but diving into the discount box after them. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining in the end, watching Cuban tv or listening to Cubans tell stories. I’m strongly inclined to say the latter, however.

Last weekend we had to drive my brother to Varadero for a flight. On the way back I asked my husband to stop at the TRD in Santa Cruz. Being a smaller town, they often have stock that other stores don’t. Are you guessing where I’m going with this? Yup, you’re right. 3 employees in the store. No customers. As we walked in the man was holding a newly-arrived black Konka box in his hand and all 3 workers were wondering about it. OMG!!! I just waited 1.5 hours in Havana last weekend to buy that very same unit!!! Apparently they’re bringing in 1000 units a time into 5ta & 42 from the warehouse, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. No kidding, they said. Is it any good? Marvellous. What a difference. That’s the way life goes here. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Extraordinary Havana Experiences Recommended by WoWCuba for Independent Travelers

This post is in response to the flood of recent requests we’ve been receiving from potential independent travelers who claim they’re too busy to plan or research their Cuba travel but want to see the country’s culture, people and beauty. Yawn. First, we’d urge you to reconsider that stance, since any wise person knows that arming oneself with knowledge about a destination’s people, services, history and even politics will only serve to make one’s independent travel experience richer and more fulfilling. Travel is as much about anticipation and expanding your human horizons as the moments one will live contemplating the sunset from a different perspective while physically present in the destination. Having a solid background or at least even just some basic information about Cuba and the (hopefully off the beaten path) places you intend to explore prior to arriving will impart greater significance to your travel experience and enable you to have more meaningful interactions once here. Put down your selfie stick for awhile, quit taking that shaky video from the top of the double decker bus that you’ll never watch again, and instead resolve to engage in meaningful activities. Observe and try to relate to what you see, smell, taste, feel and hear. Don’t be a tacky tourist but rather make a conscious decision to travel with purpose. You might even thank me for that later.

Starting with Havana…
The following two options are available for advance arrangement only as part of your WoWCuba travel package:
Cuban cooking classes
El Ajiaco Café, a Cuban specialty restaurant in the fishing village of Cojimar just east of Havana, offers instruction in Cuban cuisine. Their offer includes:
-visit to a local herb grower (and their supplier, just 3 blocks from the restaurant) where you can learn about their production process and hand-select herbs to use in food preparation.
-an introduction to Cuban cuisine and its origins, presentation delivered in the El Ajiaco patio (with a restaurant employee providing English translation if required).
-demonstration of how to prepare local dishes including ropa vieja (shredded beef), plus lobster & shrimp enchilado (in tomato sauce).
-instruction on preparation of the Cuban mojito at the bar, followed by making your own version of this, one of Cuba’s 3 signature cocktails.
-your lunch includes bread service (accompanied by several of their own sauces), ajiaco (a typical Cuban root vegetable-based soup/stew), rice, salad, beans, yucca, sample the beef/lobster/shrimp dishes that you learned how to prepare in the kitchen, accompanied by a national brand beverage, your choice of several typical Cuban desserts, traditional coffee, and aged rum to finish of the meal.
Cost: $60 CUC/person includes prepayment to guarantee the service
Schedule: begin @ 10:00 a.m.
Excludes: transportation, gratuities
Group size: 2-6 participants
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Escorted Art Tour
With advance notice, we can arrange for a Cuban curator as the perfect escort to squire you around the most captivating artistic corners of the nation’s capital. The curator counts on a wide range of connections in the Cuban art world including the most celebrated contemporary Cuban painters such as Kcho and Fabelo to lesser-known and more affordable up & coming artists. Stops on your itinerary can be customized to your particular interests, whether they be art galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Cuban artist cafes, studios of Cuban designers, or browsing the wares of private antique collectors.
Cost: we offer 1/2 day or full day packages with or without transportation, on a group or private basis. A private 4-hour tour + transport for 2 travelers goes for $112 CUC/person.
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Following is a selection of DIY activities for cultural exploration, education and enjoyment
Music/Performing Arts
Online Cultural Events Guide: this is one of the best sources of current performance information including artists, details on venues, performance dates and more. Research on planning your ideal independent cultural itinerary should start here. Another option is La Papeleta. The Google translator is a tool you may need to employ for both websites. Some suggested venues:
Fabrica de Arte Cubano: for live music, drinks/snacks, art/sculpture/photography gallery
Corner of 26 & 11, Vedado (53) 7-838-2260
Privé Lounge: for mellower live music, Cuban troubadors, and drinks in a smaller venue
Calle 88A #306, between 3ra & 3raA, Miramar (53) 7-209-2719
Casa de la Musica Miramar: for diverse local acts and salsa dancing (they offer both late afternoon and late evening performances)
Avenida 35, corner of 20, Miramar, Playa (53) 7-204-0447 or 7-202-6147
El Sauce: where you can catch the most contemporary & popular Cuban acts
Calle 9na #12015 between 120 & 130, Cubanacán, Playa (53) 7-204-6247 or 7-204-7114
Jardines de 1830: for salsa on the weekends in a picturesque open air venue at the mouth of the Almendares River
Malecón & Calle 22, Vedado, Plaza (53) 7-838-3091-2
The Magic Flute for later evening jazz performances accompanied by very decent dining and a prime elevated view of the Malecón and US Embassy. Indoor & outdoor seating available.
Calzada #101 (Penthouse) between L & M, Vedado (53) 7-832-3195
La Zorra y el Cuervo is perhaps the most famous jazz venue in Havana, in a basement venue in the middle of the action on La Rampa.
Avenida 23 between N & O, Vedado, Cuba (53) 7-866-2402
Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís: for classical music performances at 5 pm on Sundays
Plaza San Francisco de Asís, Old Havana
Cuban National Ballet: performances are a spectacular bargain and provide insight into Cuban culture at its highest levels. National performances are currently at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba and occasionally at the newly-inaugurated Teatro Marti, but usually at the Gran Teatro (currently under restoration).
Cuban Contemporary Dance Troupe offers performances, a twice annual festival (Cubadanza) and workshops geared more towards intermediate-professional dancers.
Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Paseo & 39, Plaza, Vedado (53) 7-879-6410 or 7-879-2728
Cuban Dance Classes
La Casa del Son offers instruction for beginners to intermediate dancers in a variety of rhythms including salsa, son, cha-cha-cha, danzon, rumba, casino & folklore in a large restored colonial house.
Empedrado #411 between Compostela & Aguacate, Old Havana (53) 7-867-1537
Spanish Language Courses
The University of Havana offers morning instruction and course length as short as a couple of weeks (40 hours for $200 CUC), to a month or even up to 9 months. With the exception of the month of August, enrollment takes place at the Faculty of Foreign Languages the first Monday of every month. High level of instruction, quality instructors, social activities are often arranged amongst participating students outside of classroom time, and if continuing Spanish education upon your departure from Cuba you´ll find that the transition into your next level of study will often be seamless. More info
The animation departments of most all-inclusive hotels in Cuba offer introductory Spanish classes to their guests for free. But there are of course also a number of private instructors located around the city and country.
Yoga
Eduardo Pimentel of Vidya Yoga studio is Havana’s (and perhaps Cuba’s) most celebrated Yogi. Allow him to help you find your holiday zen with a private or group class.
Calle 26 #514 between/ 5ta & 7ma, Miramar (53) 7-203-3147
Culinary / Agriculture / Wine
El Divino / Finca Yohandra: restaurant, exemplary in community integration/environmental education, 110+ fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, Cuba’s most fabulous wine cellar and in-house sommelier.
El Mediterraneo restaurant is unique in that they cultivate much of their own produce in two farms they operate in Guanabacoa, plus raise small animals, produce their own cured meats, keep goats for milk which they turn into their own cheese, and even maintain a family boat on the south coast in Batabano for the freshest of seafood.
Reading / Relaxing
If the hustle, bustle, bongos and maracas around every corner in Havana gets to be too much and you need a retreat, then Cuba Libro (corner of 19 & 24 in Vedado) is one of my personal favorites for English books, magazines and conversation. I must admit I’m partial as the owner is a friend. But Conner’s café/bookstore/oasis project is unique and a great example of an ethical business model that benefits employees, community members and patrons alike. Sip on a fresh fruit juice, try out a frappuccino, or re-fill your own travel waterbottle from their cooler (without contributing to plastic waste) and then chill out in the garden in a hammock under the shade of the almond tree while browsing your chosen reading material. Check out one of Conner’s Trip Advisor posts (on their review page) for a great list of donation material if you’re inclined to pack anything extra in your suitcase to leave behind after your travels. There’s a good bakery just around the corner (that belongs to another friend!) if you’re looking for something sweet to eat as you indulge in the Cuba Libro’s non-alcoholic beverage menu.

The Old Havana Hotel Crisis

Since 1993 WoWCuba has been exploring Cuba’s backroads, private gastronomical delights, and hidden beaches. Now that even some of the favorite non-resort areas (such as Old Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales) are becoming difficult in terms of securing accommodations at preferred properties, it’s time to share some of my favorite alternatives. This post will focus on what’s happening right now in terms of the private restoration efforts in Old Havana.

Cuba’s high-end hotel room availability can’t meet the current demand for high-end lodging. The private sector is beginning to emerge as the next best alternative until the high end hotel chains can catch up for the masses. One of the most desirable neighborhoods at the moment is known as the Loma del Angel (for the 1604 church there, the Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio). Facing the church is a small square called the “Plazuela del Santo Angel” where a scene of a legendary Cuban romance “Cecilia Valdes” by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde took place. Check out the statue here. Some of the neighbors will tell you the gentrifying of the neighborhood began with the arrival of Cuban fashion designer Jaqueline Fumero. When the changing of local laws 3 years ago allowing buying/selling of property in Cuba amongst Cuban residents, she converted the corner building facing the church, which sits on elevated ground at the top of the street, into a lovely boutique/café. They have a pleasant outdoor seating area in the Plazuela and my husband and I have shared and enjoyed their $6 complete breakfast (plus crepes on the side, just for weekend decadence). The classic apartment building with the winding wide marble staircase in front is where you’ll find the Hostal del Angel, featuring an even higher view of the neighborhood from their terrific front balcony. The same family has opened up their doors to visitors to Cuba in another couple of properties (one of which you can see from the balcony), restoring the exterior and renovating the interior of a former rundown architectural gem into comfortable tourist rooms plus a rooftop bar/terrace from which to enjoy the surroundings and view of museums, colonial architecture and El Morro fortress across the bay.

Complimentary businesses have sprung up ranging from art galleries, dance studios, an alley of barbers (for anyone looking for a haircut/shave/or maybe even just some local gossip while on holiday), juice bars (some the same juices you can buy in national money from the back side of the apartments situated behind the Cohiba hotel by the way, but of course it costs more to drink lovely fresh local fruit juices in their beautiful Old Havana location). Sit in the shaded indoor restaurant or catch a breeze in the sun, if you prefer, on the upper deck. We like some of the small/creative Cuban restaurants like Chef Ivan Justo (or Aguacate 9 as it’s also known), housed on the second floor of a 1776 colonial home with sight lines to Museum of the Revolution, just steps from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). Donde Lis, or Al Carbon are also worth a visit. Casa Pedro Maria has made the most of their space in their prime location behind Al Carbon (because who doesn’t like the smell of barbecue), with their inner courtyard/dining area, a common living room area, and 3 tasteful rooms with private bath separated by curtains from the sleeping areas. With no one living above them, in all likelihood getting permission from the City Historian’s office to add a second floor would be a wise investment. Over 8 years (they were ahead of the curve) the folks at Casa Vitrales have gradually unified their 3-story treasure into a really funky space which spans two pedestrian colonial streets and of course the view’s hard to beat from their 3rd floor rooftop lounge/breakfast bar. Just down the street it’s nice to see that the City Historian’s master plan in this neighborhood also includes beautifully restored and pleasant gathering spaces for the elderly.

Keep heading south from here, about as far as Teniente Rey Street (which we also really like, by the way), to Aguacate and you’ll be treated with views to Plaza Vieja on one end and sightlines to the Capitolio on the other, and picturesque streetscapes in between. If you’re keen on investigating further, you’ll discover that almost every corner building has been purchased by someone or other (from Argentina, China, Italy, France, and of course Cuban Americans with family here, or in some cases Cubans who also have residence abroad) intending to convert it into a small-scale inn with the possibility of other commercial operations on the ground floor. Nice to have all those balconies and exterior ventilation/illumination for guest rooms. Bit by bit the real estate is being picked up (and no longer at a song, by the way). As families relocate (I imagine into more modern and coveted non-shared spaces), the fractured spaces of even the most rundown Old Havana properties, the divided interior courtyards, ceilings (barbacoas) where they never should have been, are now receiving considerable facelifts. Some of these properties face complete reconstruction on the inside (making some of us wonder how long it’s going to take their owners to make their investment back, in fact), but bit by bit some of the jewels are being returned to their former glory. We like the apartment-style accommodations surrounding the tranquil interior courtyard of the Cafe Bohemia building. Bohemia apartmentIf you had a lot of money to burn and someone to invest it with in Cuba, you could buy 3 bedrooms/1 bathroom for 285,000 EUR right in Plaza Vieja. But that’s still pretty much right in the thick of things and the loud Cuban music at La Vitrola might wear on you if you sit next to it for too long.

If you want to get off the beaten path, you can do that by heading further south to the Jesus Maria neighborhood by the Santa Clara Convent. That neighborhood’s still not overdeveloped, although it probably won’t take much longer for things to start rolling. There’s a new port overhaul going on now that the main industrial shipping port’s been moved out of the city to Mariel. The Cerveceria (beer gardens on the bay) and the largest indoor handcraft fair in Havana are just a few blocks away, and new cruise ship / Havana Bay ferry terminal / train station restoration projects are underway. A new floating promenade has just been inaugurated on San Pedro, extending out into the bay.

There were times when you’d probably think twice about wandering around many parts of Old Havana at night by yourself. That’s certainly changing now, although if you don’t know your neighborhoods/plan on drinking/being out really late you’re probably still better not to leave your room with lots of flashy jewelry or be flashing cash around. While violent crime here is minimum, quick thefts or minor scams are not necessarily uncommon. We were stopped driving to work the other day at a routine checkpoint and the officer wanted to know if my husband had a machete in the car. Seriously. He thought his steering wheel locking device lodged beside the driver’s seat was a big mother knife. Or at least that was the first question we got when we got pulled over. If we didn’t have a knife in the car (which presumably would be assumed for self defense?) he could have been given ticket for leaving the car running (since I was sitting in it enjoying the a/c) because when a driver in Cuba exits the car I guess he’s supposed to turn it off and take out the key. Yes, seriously. Not the first time we’ve been told that when being pulled over for doing nothing wrong either. But I’m straying from my topic…

The payment system for many of the 100% Cuban operated b&b’s is still awkward for the most part, with many establishments not having a way to accept credit card payments, others who have little or no internet presence or email access (or an unreliable Nauta account – the local communications company has been struggling with their email servers for several days now), and I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say that most just really prefer to work in cash leaving them freer to engage in tax evasion. Many of the newer establishments have travel operators (with foreign accounts) looking to secure rooms for their guests as backers, so prepayment and guaranteed reservations in their inns won’t be an issue. But small scale inns featuring more than half a dozen rooms that are actually operating at this point are still few & far between. Many of the newest spots with increased capacity (more than the traditional 2-room rentals that used to be permitted under local laws) that will serve the short-term accommodation crisis have yet to open their doors. I’ve also only seen a handful of private establishments that even publish an online availability calendar/fixed rates yet, which makes the work of checking space and confirming accommodations considerably more laborious. I’ve even encountered a “bumping” already with a prepaid private homestay this season, where the owner inadvertently double-booked the same apartment for two different clients on the same date. Thankfully they were able to protect the clients in a higher-priced property very close by. But even prepaid bookings can sometimes go slightly astray.

There are other areas of Havana, of course, besides Old Havana. There are even some surprisingly luxurious spots that have cropped up in decrepit Central Havana, not too far from the action in Old Havana or just a short bike taxi ride to neighboring Vedado. You can find penthouses or mansions in Vedado, beautifully-doted mansions in Miramar, oasis homes on the ocean in Guanabo, and of course a lot of the lower-end $25/night room family-run establishments in the Capital are still open to visitors. But in that price range you should usually be prepared for satin bedspreads, horse or tiger rug wall art, and in some cases very rustic shower facilities as for that price not all the owners can afford to invest in modern comforts or just aren’t aware of all those home renovation/design shows y’all love to watch on tv so much in the developed world. There aren’t too many $25/night undiscovered Architectural Digest candidates out there in Havana these days I’m afraid. We checked in at one place whose online pictures looked considerably more inviting than the reality. The owners (unwittingly?) revealed that the private Cuban accommodation booking site who they list with helped them a lot with removing crowded furniture from their common space and making their space look optimal when he came to take their pictures for his website. Except they then proceeded put everything back where it was when he left, as it was pret-ty rus-tic and cramped, and while certainly a good base for exploring location-wise, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time in that room or its ensuite bathroom. I’m no princess but at this stage in the game I would absolutely be happy to pay more for a superior room and comfort while on a well-deserved holiday.

Booking as far in advance as possible with a reliable operator who will prepay and guarantee your lodging is key right now and will continue to be so for some time. On Sunday I was speaking with some professional drivers who were accompanying clients and they told me that there were actually tourists sleeping in the park in Viñales. With one of the highest concentration of private home accommodations in Cuba, that’s a sure sign that the hotel situation in key areas in Cuba can now be accurately compared to that of Bethlehem upon the birth of Christ.

“I want to come to Cuba before it changes” (credit: the Gringos, 2015)

If I had a dime for every US client email that I’ve received since December 2014 from an American looking to visit Cuba before it changes… It’s starting to grate on me because for those citizens of the rest of the world who’ve been traveling to Cuba for the last 20+ years), of course you know that a lot of things have been gradually changing for some time now. But not due to increased US presence or because of restored diplomatic relations. For the old timers who are familiar with Cuba from its pre-revolutionary days, you’ll know that it’s already come a long way, baby. If Cuba has held fast to its revolutionary principles despite more than 55 years of an economic blockade from its closest neighbor and great economic challenges endured because of that failed policy, well it’s not terribly likely that it’s all of a sudden going to do an about-face now. Cuba might be a third world country but its citizens are educated; Cuba’s revolutionary government eradicated illiteracy in the country in 1961 and most Cubans are no dummies. They got rid of a corrupt government that was in the pockets of the United States business community (and mafia), and nationalized the oil companies and the United Fruit Company, none of which were contributing to (or even concerned about) the well-being of Cuban citizens, their health or education, but rather lining their pockets and extracting profits from Cuba. Goodbye Esso & Shell, hello Cupet. Following are some images someone recently shared with me, de-classified from pre-revolutionary public works files.

I was lamenting the other day to a long-time Canadian client-turned-friend of mine as my workdays get increasingly longer as I try to keep up to the new flow of US clients anxious to come to Cuba, demanding a five star foreign-managed hotel experience from where they expect the country’s history, culture and beauty can be contemplated and appreciated. Besides having no real clue about what they really want to do once here (which makes my job even more laborious), space at the five star hotels in Havana and certain other highly-demanded areas is about as scarce as cheap cars in Cuba these days (for those of you who aren’t in the know, the price of cars has gone completely through the roof here). Her response was priceless and a much-needed infusion of humor into my work day:

“I’ve been musing over this email of yours, and thinking what a great assistant I could be to you if only I could speak Spanish. If I lived in Havana I would want to run small group tours for intelligent tourists (this would be identified by their interest in my tour, of course). It would be a historical tour of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Taking them to buildings and places where all the monkey business went on. I could say “Yes, here is the former police station #3, where they would extract the eyeballs of those who challenged Batista’s dictatorship”, and take them inside to tour the cell block. I might lock up a couple of the Americans for 15 minutes or so as a punishment for the blockade. Or show them the house that some filthy stinking rich dirt bag of a person associated with US business interests lived in with his three mistresses. All the best and most interesting scandals that occurred before the Revolution. Followed by lunch at El Aljibe and a few Bucaneros, of course.”

Over the past 2+ decades, we’ve been privileged to host some of the most intrepid visitors from the US who have traveled to Cuba through a third country, despite their country’s travel ban. The risk of getting “caught” or assessed a fine by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control for traveling to Cuba on an unlicensed basis is now at an all-time low. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the possibility still exists since the US government so far has not changed its stance on Cuba travel, although it would appear that they may be poised to do so sometime in the next year. For anyone looking for no-risk travel to Cuba, however, the only options are still to undertake travel in one of their 12 general (paperless) categories, or through one of the US companies offering pricey people to people trips. All these options require you to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that you will be undertaking licensed Cuba travel if you board a direct flight from the US to Cuba. Some US citizens are knowingly (or unknowingly) falsifying that information, but I’m not certain that’s really such a good plan as you never know when Uncle Sam will catch up to you. Some of the agencies holding people to people licenses offer some interesting trips, but all have content designed to be compliant with their license. Although the categorization of exactly what qualifies as people to people contact nowadays is fairly loosely interpreted. Throw in a dance class, talk to some people in the street, visit a church and tweaking how the itinerary is worded to satisfy US government regulations seem to be key. The kind of independent, unstructured travel that most US travelers would probably prefer to take, combining independent visits of colonial cities, maybe a beach or two and perhaps some excursions (just for fun) into the mountains is still not possible under OFAC regulations. That doesn’t stop the more adventurous US traveler from undertaking travel on their own terms though. They simply travel through a third country, avoid signing any affadavits implicating themselves, and skip declaring their Cuba travel on their return. If it were all up to Obama, I figure he’d say kill the embargo now. If some extremist like Marco Rubio ever gets into power though, you just never know what kind of twists & turns the diplomatic road will take.

If you are a US citizen booking travel to Cuba through a third country you will want to be sure that the airline you fly with doesn’t require you to sign any affidavit regarding licensed Cuba travel. Flying with Aeromexico, for example, you might think you would be off the hook. Read a little more closely, however, and you will see that CitiBank (US-owned) has a stake in the airline. So they still ask for a signed affidavit before boarding. Cubana de Aviacion, Copa, Bahamas Air, Cayman Airways, and most Canadian airlines are frequent choices for non-licensed US travelers to Cuba. Some can be difficult to book from the US and may require payment outside of the US. Others may require you to book your air segments separately (not offering a thru fare from the US, but rather two or more separate tickets). And you can’t check your luggage from the US straight through to Cuba when flying through a third country. So you need to gauge for additional connection time. The US recently announced the possibility of adding scheduled flight services to Cuba as early as December, but that may have been a little premature as a few things still need to happen in Congress before travel to and trade with Cuba is normalized.

If you’re a US traveler considering visiting Cuba for the first time, here are some of the most frequent questions that I field:
1) Are you going to go the licensed or unlicensed route? That’s the first decision you’ll need to make as if you’re only considering licensed travel, then the list of travel service providers who can assist you will automatically be greatly reduced, and the price tag for your travel will automatically be higher. WoWCuba and many other Canadian agencies have forged partnerships with US agencies who have coverage for people to people licenses, and are happy to pass on referrals to those agencies and collaborate with them to deliver your travel services on the ground in Cuba.
2) If you’re going the unlicensed route, congratulations. You’re getting closer to how to see Cuba “before it changes” (eye roll) on your own terms. First you’ll need to decide where it makes the most sense to fly from to get to Cuba. Various Canadian cities offer flights to Cuba, with Toronto being the major hub for most year round flights, and other cities offering direct charter flights to various Cuban airports concentrated mainly in the winter months. Cubana Airlines offers daily morning flights from Mexico City to Havana, and mid-afternoon flights between Cancun and Havana. East coast travelers often travel via Nassau, the Cayman Islands, Panama, or Santo Domingo to Cuba. If you require assistance with reserving flights or checking schedules WoWCuba can help. Once your flights to Cuba are secured, then proceed to reserve your connecting flights from the US to/from the Cuba gateway. If traveling in the winter months, do keep in mind that snowstorms can interfere with departures, and planning for an overnight enroute to Cuba can be a good precautionary measure. And do be careful about avoiding connection times that are too tight, especially when dealing with air travel in the Caribbean with air carriers that may not have a good record of on time departures.
3) Trip Cancellation and Medical Insurance is currently only available from US insurance providers for travelers who are undertaking licensed Cuba travel. Medical insurance can be purchased locally upon arrival in Cuba (before going through the immigration counters) from Asistur.
4) Once you get to Cuba, where are you going to stay, how are you going to get around, and what kind of activities do you want to engage in? For the first-time traveler, the options can sometimes be confusing. We have a Trip Planning Resources page that we highly recommend as a starting point. Check out the helpful links there to guide books, maps, distance charts, apps for restaurants, entertainment and accommodation recommendations and much more. Talk to friends that have traveled there, spend a little time reading, peruse the internet. And then get back to us with your general ideas when you’re ready to have us put a quotation together for your travel elements.

Please DON’T tell us you want to experience Cuba’s beauty, culture, and history and expect us to magically produce your ideal itinerary. Those parameters are simply too general for us to draw any intelligent conclusions about what you really want to do and where you want to go in Cuba, the largest Island in the Antilles, 1200 kms long. The experienced traveler will find beauty/culture/history around every corner in Cuba providing their eyes are open, but your enlightenment can often be greatly enhanced when interpretation is provided by a knowledgeable local, especially true if you don’t speak Spanish. Unless you are family or a personal friend of someone working with us, then we don’t know you/your tastes/budget, and can’t possibly guess if “adventurous” for you means just stepping foot outside of your all inclusive hotel to board a bus with 40 other tourists and taking one of those (questionably ethical) swim with the dolphin tours. Or if you’d be happy stuck on a back road somewhere tooling around with a local mechanic (who’s questionably sober) after your motorcycle breaks down following a day of zipline/cave exploration. It’s all relative and we need our clients to be as specific as possible about their needs and expectations if we’re truly to be of any help in offering them direction on which services we can assist in pre-arranging on their behalf.

Do you like biking, yoga, ziplines, rock climbing, cave exploration, diving, cave diving, diving with sharks, snorkeling, hiking, birdwatching, fishing, sailing, photography?
Are you more interested in cities, colonial architecture, mountains, beaches, waterfalls, agriculture, restaurant diversity, shopping (note to shopaholics: Cuba’s probably the not for you!), relaxation, spa experiences, museums, cooking classes?
Would you be comfortable driving a rental car? Or would you rather have your own driver, take taxis, or a bus service?
These are some of the questions you should be considering if seeking assistance from a travel professional in arranging your ideal Cuban vacation.

TIPS:
Group tours are often the best way for first-timers to get oriented in Cuba. Something with a pre-designed multi-day itinerary, support team, transportation, and local guide to interpret history/culture and answer the myriad of questions you’re sure to pose. But be selective about what kind of trip you sign up for. If you’re not a fan of traditional bus tours, then maybe a bicycle tour with van support might be more up your alley. Cycling is one of the best ways to see Cuba up close & slowly, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of the country at your own pace. For weaker riders, we even have electric-assist bikes to take some of the work out of hills. Our bicycle tours are multi-center holidays, allowing you to get a flavor for different areas of Cuba. You’ll combine an active holiday with some of the best restaurants available in the country, and free time to explore or just chill in the afternoon. There’s a support van too, for any non-cycling companions or those interested in less of a physical challenge on holiday.

Accommodations: If traveling independently, book as far ahead as possible if you’re looking for hotel space in Old Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos or Trinidad. These destinations are highly demanded and hotel rooms are limited.
Looking to get off the beaten path or see more of true Cuban culture, in all of its glory? Take a deep breath and get ready. First rule of thumb: avoid all-inclusive properties/tourist enclaves that the government created for the sole purpose of collecting foreign currency to support its economy and social programs, while at the same time protecting real Cuban culture from the nasty stuff that comes with increased tourism. Places such as Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco/Guillermo, Guardalavaca, Cayo Santa Maria, or Varadero. Head east instead or into smaller villages and spread the wealth around. Santiago de Cuba receives less than 1/10 of the visitors to Havana, and offers a number of nature tourism options. We also like Soroa/La Moka, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Baracoa, Gibara, and Maria la Gorda/Cabo San Antonio, although that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

Transportation:
ANTIQUE CARS are the vehicle of choice for nostalgic Americans visiting Cuba. And entrepreneurial Cubans know it. With the ongoing economic reforms, several years ago there was a boom in purchase of some of the old relics to be transformed into convertible roadsters for city tours. You’ll see the colorful cars parked in Havana near Central Park awaiting fares (these are usually 1-hour cruises). They’re also a popular mode of transport between Varadero and Havana for the all inclusive crowd looking to head to the Capital for the day. The Matanzas antique car owners have mostly converted their cars to diesel-powered engines and have added air conditioning for the comfort of passengers. In Havana there are many collective taxi routes which are one of the cheapest/fastest (if not the safest) ways of getting from point A to point B within the city.
CAR RENTAL may not be the right choice for your first trip to Cuba, but for repeaters it’s often the preferred mode of travel when looking for a multi-center holiday. Signage is lacking in Cuba, and it’s sometimes even hard to find one of the detailed road guides/maps at local shops. It’s definitely an adventure though. First-timers might want to avoid picking up hitchhikers until they have a better grasp on local culture/customs. I imagine that as tourism increases, so too might scams directed at tourists. So far not a huge problem, but not unheard of for petty theft to be directed at unsuspecting visitors. Always avoid driving at night as loose livestock can be a hazard on roads.
CHAUFFEURED CAR RENTAL Several of the local rental companies also offer chauffeured car rental service, which is more costly than a self-drive holiday, but takes some of the pressure off since you know you’re in good hands with a local. Only one of the four Cuban car rental companies (REX) can guarantee English-speaking drivers, so keep that in mind if your Spanish (or sign language) skills are lacking.
TAXIS Taxi transfers between destinations are how some people prefer to travel, then exploring locally by bike taxi/coco taxi/horse & carriage or on foot. We can book state taxis in advance, or you can always book/pay locally. From the airport, they’re often the best way to arrive to your hotel and we recommend local (rather than advance) payment on that route.
BUSES There are a couple of collective bus services connecting the various provinces. One is Viazul, the national bus company. They offer the most extensive list of routes and you can usually reserve locally just a day in advance with no space issues. Viazul accepts bicycles for carriage at a 10% surcharge. There’s also the Connecting Cuba bus service for the most popular routes for visitors to Cuba, which has the advantage of offering hotel pickups/drop-offs across Cuba (except in Old Havana where access is sometimes difficult for interior properties, so you need to make your way to the nearest designated street-access property). WoWCuba reserves this service as part of client travel packages, or you can purchase locally at Cubanacan tour desks if preferred. Connecting Cuba uses comfortable Transtur tourist buses for their service.
TRAIN service is not recommended for visitors to Cuba as it’s unreliable, uncomfortable and involves too much time to be practical compared to alternative options.
DOMESTIC FLIGHTS can also be arranged in advance by WoWCuba as part of client travel packages. Flight schedules especially to some of the keys in Cuba can sometimes be irregular and are only confirmed the day prior to departure. To avoid disappointment, WoWCuba never recommends planning for same-day international/domestic flight services in Cuba.

Excursions: If not traveling as part of a group, we would caution you to avoid overplanning your day-to-day activities. This is a novice mistake. You can easily purchase optional excursions locally from any hotel tour desk without having to be locked into a fixed itinerary which may be affected on arrival by delays/weather/illness. Take care of your basic accommodation and transportation needs in advance. But unless you’re looking for something super-specialized not offered by the national excursion operators (like a ½ day cooking class) or need to ensure a certain schedule/activity (such as a dive course, where the course material needs to be in place in your language for arrival), in our experience booking these services locally with the hotel tour desks is the best way to go. In Havana, San Cristobal (the City Historian’s Office travel agency) offers a number of very interesting guided city tours, many of which can be purchased on an exclusive basis, so you’ll have the guide all to yourselves.

Dining: Except for restaurants within foreign-managed hotels, we don’t have any foreign (American or otherwise) restaurant franchises in Cuba. And it’s not likely to happen either, for those of you who still refuse to understand that Cuba’s principles are not negotiable and fear its impending Americanization. Michael Moore films have made it to public Cuban tv, and Cuba’s admirable public health system is based on prevention. We know all about Super Size Me and the unhealthy model of US fast food franchises. Experiencing local cuisine and trying out different paladars (privately-owned restaurants) is one of the activities that will enrich your Cuba travel. Cuba’s emerging restaurant scene is vibrant, and if you carefully select the venues to visit, it’s indeed possible to create an extraordinary gastronomical experience. One of the best apps for restaurants in Cuba is http://www.alamesacuba.com, and it should be downloaded in advance of arrival. Only a very few select establishments (such as La Guarida or San Cristobal) in Havana will actually require advance reservations if you hope to get in the door, but most places accept and can easily accommodate walk-ins. In Varadero we love Salsa Suarez; in Trinidad don’t miss Paladar San Jose; in Viñales El Olivo is one of the best spots to dine. Sweet Cuban coffee, pulled pork sandwiches, tostones (fried green plantains), sugarcane juice, some of the best avocados and mangoes in the world, organic fruit juices and smoothies, and flan or bread/rice pudding (arroz con leche) should all be on your list of things to try while here. We wholly recommend diving into the local restaurant scene and trying out a diverse selection of paladars while in Cuba.

And perhaps my last tips are the most important of all. Cuba is home to various protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and to the largest wetlands in the Antilles (in the Bay of Pigs area). There are major programs in place for the protection of its coastlines, coral reefs, forests, and endangered species. We sincerely hope that Cuba continues on its sustainable path as tourism numbers increase. We ask that you respect Cuba’s flora, fauna and local customs to the maximum of your ability while you are exploring its nooks & crannies. Leave the shells where they are. Don’t touch the coral. Be respectful of locals and their customs. Observe and learn rather than imposing your own values or opinions. Be generous with your gratuities, but only distribute them when a service has been provided. Learn how to say “por favor” and “gracias”. Tread softly and we can at least hope that Cuba’s natural beauty and unique culture will be conserved. As an island nation with a very insular culture, I believe it’s reasonable not to lose that hope. As the gringos lament change in Cuba, meanwhile Cubans are celebrating the potential economic benefits that increased US tourism will hopefully bring to Cuba. We’re all for that.

FIT Cuba 2015 (behind the scenes)

This past week we attended the 35th annual Cuban international tourism fair FIT Cuba 2015, held this time around in the tourist enclave of Jardines del Rey (Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo). After 20+ years of working in tourism in Cuba, when our partners at Havanatur asked if we would be attending, we responded with our usual frankness and told them that we’ve been avoiding the fair the past several years. Not being avid brochure collectors, and as an agency that maintain offices in Cuba we’ve not found it to be especially enlightening with the amount of industry and on the ground knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years. For those that come intending to concentrate signing their annual contracts all at once over a period of several days in just one place, I suppose it might be convenient. But being on the ground here on a year-round basis we aren’t in that boat. However, this year the US division of our ground handler’s offices suggested they’d like us to put together a presentation on our cycle tour programs for a delegation they were handling of over 100 US agencies and airlines, so we reluctantly relented and scheduled a few days out of the office to attend.


We like road trips, so decided to break up the longish drive from Havana and overnight on Sunday in the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus, which just celebrated its 500th founding anniversary this year. One of my goals while there was to check out the newest boutique hotel Don Florencio on the boulevard and see if there was anything new on the restaurant scene worth exploring. We toured a new Palmares restaurant with a wine cellar by the bridge and then dined at a local paladar where my husband only complained once about a reggaeton song that somehow slipped into the otherwise very good playlist in the bar. Lots of great Descemer Bueno tunes mixed in with some Ricardo Arjona and that catchy new (to me anyway) song by Pharrell Williams “Come and Get It”. I’d heard it the week before in the Piragua in Havana and it was one of those tunes that you like the very first time you hear it, especially that line “take it easy on the clutch”. On the walk back to our hotel a local rock band was preparing to perform in the square. My husband wanted to stick around, and I sensibly told him I’d much rather sit in comfort in the covered hotel porch rather to listen to the very same music standing next to booming speakers in the rain surrounded by freakies. When one of the local drunks swaggered by leering down my dress, I decided to just ignore my husband’s pleas to stick around with him and go with my gut, so off I strode across the square to watch the scene unfold. My husband loves disco music and classic rock & roll, so as soon as the first notes of the lead singer’s voice were broadcasted over his microphone, I knew I wouldn’t be waiting long for him to join me. They were one of those yelling rock bands that people our age don’t “get”. Perfect. I was up for some rest and surfing through satellite tv channels anyway at that point. A treat for us, since we usually only have 4-5 channels at home. As I made my last pit-stop of the day in the bathroom, I had a surprise monthly visitor top off the day, one I had totally forgotten about when packing for the trip and wasn’t entirely prepared for, considering I was going to be away from my stockpiled home supply of feminine hygiene products for a few days. I started counting the meager supplies I always have stored away for an emergency in my overnight toiletries bag, and told my husband that we were going to have to make a beeline for the international pharmacy as soon as we arrived in Cayo Coco the next day. Being one of Cuba’s major tourism poles I figured that would be my best bet for tampons instead of having to resort to Cuban maxis.

Instead of sticking around in Sancti Spiritus until the shops opened, we got an early start the next morning and drove through the drizzly May weather to Ciego de Avila where we visited a few shops (because you never know what supplies you’ll find in the Cuban provinces that you never come across in Havana). We picked up some glassware, long fluorescent lightbulbs, sponges, and a few other odds & ends before continuing north. Leaving Ciego, as we drove by the local police station we noticed a car belonging to the head of the provincial government pull in, and we surmised they would be spending the morning going over last minute security preparation for the FIT Cuba 2015 event. After a mediocre lunch in Morón we made our way to the toll booths at the entrance to the causeway where the local authorities were checking everyone’s credentials before they were allowed to proceed. Out came our delegate credentials, identity cards, and with a friendly warning from the PNR to be careful driving in the rain we were off on the final leg of our journey, destination Iberostar Mojito. They checked us in but our room wasn’t ready yet, so to best make use of the time and be prepared for the worst, we inquired with the helpful ladies at the reception counter as to where we should start to look for period supplies. We started at the hotel store where they had nothing in stock except diapers. They sent us to the international pharmacy at the Sol Cayo Coco. Which, after driving over, we found out was closed for the day since the pharmacy worker didn’t make it in. I wasn’t about to tell the four Cuban men at the adjacent car rental company what kind of a mission I was on, so just asked for directions to the next pharmacy. They said to try the Melia Cayo Coco. When we pulled up at the gate, the security guard was circumspect about letting us through as we weren’t registered guests at the hotel. After showing him our event credentials, I decided just to spill the beans. He wasn’t going to turn me down with that request, no way no how. Despite the fact that the lobby was crawling with added security detail with all the foreign & local dignitaries present for the event. I promised I was only going to go to the hotel store and right back to the car. No luck there either unfortunately. Assuming I was a hotel guest, the woman clerk at the store suggested I check with the front desk staff, that maybe they would have some supplies on hand there to get me through. I explained that I was staying at another hotel, and that with my canary yellow all inclusive bracelet from the Mojito I’d stick out like a sore thumb. I asked where the next pharmacy was, and off we went to the Tryp Cayo Coco. We were getting a royal tour of every hotel installation in Cayo Coco whether we wanted to or not. At the Tryp, one of the internal hotel security ladies escorted me straight down to the hotel pharmacy which (surprise, surprise) had no supplies. The woman attending the pharmacy told me that she had some clients who had recently gone through every hotel in the destination and didn’t find anything until the very last hotel at the tip of Cayo Guillermo, either that or go 100 kms (each way) back to Morón. As it was approaching 5 p.m. already I wasn’t keen on starting out on a wild goose chase at that point in the day after all the driving we’d already undertaken. So I told my husband that we were moving immediately to Plan B and cutting short the Jardines del Rey pharmacy tour. Plan B was to plead with the front desk/maid staff at our own hotel. Cuban solidarity is among the finest in the world. Some of the most thoughtful hotel visitors often leave behind supplies that can be expensive or hard to find in Cuba (not just their used t-shirts), and one of the receptionists offered up a ziplocked bag with enough tampons to get me all the way back to Havana without having to resort to wine bottle corks or toilet paper contraptions. I’d actually even considered buying those diapers I saw at the hotel store, and asking the office staff for scissors and tape before the real supplies were beamed down from all inclusive tourist heaven to save the day.

We somehow managed to squeeze in a last minute reservation at one of the hotel’s specialized restaurants. As we were waiting to be seated, my view fell on a Cuban man in a fedora hat sitting behind the piano player. I said to my husband under my breath, I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks on me, but that guy over there in the hat looks an awful lot like Descemer Bueno, don’t you think? That’s because it IS Descemer Bueno, my dear (ok, that’s really not what he called me, but we’ll pretend it is). How exciting…my thoughts began to race. If he’s here at our hotel, then it’s probably because they invited him to do a concert somewhere for this tourism fair. I wonder where it’ll be, and if we’ll still be here when it happens. Man, I love his music so much I’d even consider staying on longer if it’s going to be after our planned departure. It better not be though, with all the work we have to get back to once our presentation is over. I’d love to get a picture with him but he’s having a nice romantic gourmet dinner and I’m NOT going to interrupt that, no way, no how. It’s funny all these tourists here putting tips into the piano player’s glass and they don’t even recognize the huge international star who’s sitting right behind her. His song “Bailando” was even playing in Canada when I visited last summer, and a lot of the people here seem to know it. Or at least have heard Enrique Iglesias’ English version of it.

After feasting on shrimp and imported beef we headed back to our room where I began to comb through the multiple email messages that downloaded at warp speed into my laptop from the lobby wifi connection. At 11 pm I returned to the lobby to send off my work so that I didn’t fall too far behind while out of the office. This nose never gets far from the grindstone.

The next morning I was anxious to get going early as I wasn’t sure exactly how far the new Melia Jardines del Rey hotel, the site of the tourism fair, was from our hotel. With the poor signage in Cuba that my husband’s always complaining about, you just never know what could go wrong. The fair was to be inaugurated at 9 am and I wanted to be there for the Minister of Tourism’s opening comments. We ended up taking an unexpected detour to Playa Prohibida before we finally got back on track after asking another carload of local Cubans headed to the same place for directions. Cuban tourism signage (or the lack of it) is one of my husband’s pet peeves. As we left Ciego de Avila the day before, he couldn’t see a single road sign for Cayo Coco. There was one for provincial Ministry of the Interior Delegation, he scoffed. Sure, I said, so at least the police don’t get lost and know where to find their buddies. Tourists are expected to know that “Polo Turistico Jardines del Rey” = Cayo Coco / Cayo Guillermo if they ever make it to the point after the rotary where that sign even exists. Eyes crossed.
CAM01098E
Journalists scrambled to get in position as the ministerial delegation pulled up to the hotel, the ribbon was cut, speeches & Cuban and Italian cultural performances delivered (Italy was the invited country of honor this year), announcements made about new projects and collaboration and as the opening ceremonies came to a close we made a beeline for the bathrooms. My husband waited outside with the few promotional brochures and magazines we did bother to accept, and when I exited he handed them over to me while he visited the throne. As I looked around there seemed to be a considerable security presence and, oddly enough, even several reporters standing outside of the bathrooms. The head of security took up guard at the door to the ladies room. I put two and two together and realized that the tourism minister and my husband were in the bathroom at the same time. My husband emerged first. I was giggling to myself, with a mental image of them standing beside each other at the urinals and wondering if my husband took advantage of the opportunity to pass along his constructive criticism on the road and signage conditions in Cuba that I’d been treated to with great frequency over the past couple of days. I asked him and he said no, they were washing their hands together and all he could think of to say was, Minister, the conference was very good, the fair’s a great success this year, muy buena la feria. Laughter and eye rolling from me. Your big chance, and THAT’S what you decide to say?!?!
descemer
Back at the hotel’s lunch buffet I managed to get our picture taken with Descemer Bueno who happened to be sitting directly behind us, hooray hooray. We did have the decency to wait until he finished his lunch to solicit the favor. And once we did, every other Cuban in the restaurant, staff included, wanted to follow our lead. Sorry about that, but they love you too. The foreign visitors appeared confused but curious about the goings-on. Heavy rains flooded the hotel parking lot in the afternoon, so the concert was moved to the hotel lobby. Conveniently for us, at our very own hotel, no less (nice, meant no driving afterwards and a relatively early night). After dinner we parked ourselves at a table near the back and the place was soon packed with excited Cubans and clueless tourists. With all the local Cuban participation in the tourism fair, it didn’t take long for the news to travel and by the end of the night most of the tourists had packed it up but the Cubans were still dancing up a storm. We had to deliver a presentation at 8:30 the next morning in Cayo Guillermo and when we were walking through the hotel lobby at 7 am it looked a little like a disaster scene as the maids hadn’t been around yet to clean up after the considerable festivities. One guy had fallen asleep on one of the lobby couches the night before and was still there at 7 am in his shorts and flip flops. Party on, dude. I would have liked to have been around to see the look on his face when he finally woke up in the middle of a public space.

My husband figured that he’d actually have a little time on this trip to swim at the beach in Cayo Coco, which turned out to be wishful thinking. The Celimar presentations to the US agencies, tour operators & airlines began at 8:30, but it was almost lunchtime before we ended up getting out of there. Check-out, quick lunch, one last download of email on that fabulously speedy wifi connection I wish I had at home, and then it was on the road again for a 5.5 hour drive back to the capital. I took over driving for about half an hour (at my husband’s request) to give him a rest from the wheel, but since he started offering driving suggestions about 30 minutes into that experience it didn’t last long. He is a nervous passenger, highly annoying to me as a driver. More eye rolling.

So now it’s back to dial-up internet, making my own coffee, and picking at leftovers in the fridge for lunch. But I’m not complaining. I’m usually quite allergic to all inclusive hotels and avoid them at all costs. The main redeeming feature this time around was the truly authentic contemporary Cuban cultural performance to which we were treated, and for that, MINTUR event organizers, I’m eternally grateful. Muchas gracias, Ministro. Valió la pena.

The Big Bang Tour

It’s now official that we’ll be ending our 2014-15 Cuba cycle tour season with a bang of El Morro cannon proportions. Revolutionary travel gurus Michael Kaye, Richard Bangs and their families will be cycling Central Cuba from March 22-29 as part of the last group tour on our roster until November 2015. Michael, a tour operator and hotelier in Costa Rica and his lovely wife Yolanda have traveled with us on our Cuba cycle tour programs four times already (he really likes us!). This time he’s bringing along his sister in law, and if you don’t already know who Richard Bangs is, go ahead and click on that link. Richard is organizing a hiking trip with the Dalai Lama later this year. We are very honored that he has chosen us to host his family’s cycle tour in Cuba. Hiking with the Dalai and biking with our very own Danny. Something Danny will be bragging about for some time to come we’re sure!

Following is the blurb from Richard’s dispatches about the trip: “Join this special departure with Michael Kaye and his wife Yolanda Amaya and Richard Bangs and his family. Michael Kaye is the founder and co-owner of Costa Rica Expeditions, one for the first eco-touring companies in the world with among the first eco-lodges. Michael has often been called “The Godfather of Ecotourism” for his pioneering and relentless efforts to forge ecotourism values and practices throughout the international travel sector. He will share his many stories of the battles fought on the eco-fronts, and his vision for the future of responsible travel. Richard Bangs has been called “The Father of Modern Adventure Travel” and was the co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, as well as part of the founding executive team of Expedia.com, and founder of a number for travel media properties for such as MSNBC, Slate, MSN and Yahoo. He has authored 19 books, and produced many award-winning shows (Two Emmys for his Adventures with Purpose series on PBS). He is currently the chair of White Nile Media, which produces travel media for Orbitz and other properties. His wife, Laura Hubber, has been the Arts & Culture reporter for the BBC World Service for 14 years. Richard and Laura will be joined by their son Jasper, 7. A seasoned traveler, Jasper is looking forward to making Cuba the 37th country he has visited. All will share their true stories and tall tales of careers on the bleeding edge of travel. Space is limited. Cost is $3,450 double occupancy; $3,750 single.”

Danny got quite a kick out of such an extensively-traveled 7-year old when I shared the news with him late last week. We’re going to outfit Jasper with a trail-a-bike but Michael suspects he’ll probably also be spending some time in the van with Yolanda’s sister (whom he likes very much) and our top-notch driver Javier. We’re stoked to have such a great mix of travelers forming for this tour and if you act quickly, you could also be among the lucky participants to sign up before space is sold out to ride with WoWCuba & friends on this tour in sunny Cuba in less than 2 months.