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.

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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.

Cuba Car Rental Advice

As we gear up for another busy summer season where the demand for car rentals usually exceeds the local supply, here are a few of my best tips for those preparing to pre-book their 4-wheeled holiday in Cuba. From both personal experience and client reports we’ve become aware of various ways that clients are unnecessarily separated from their hard-earned money and this we hope this post will help to make you aware of current policies and how you can protect yourself against unscrupulous operators when renting a vehicle in Cuba.

Cuba currently has 4 car rental operators to choose from, all of which are operated by the state. The Transtur group operates REX, Cubacar and Havanautos. The Transgaviota group operates Rent Car VIA. Accredited travel agencies contract preferred rates with these companies either directly with the car rental companies or via their ground handlers in Cuba, rates which are generally below the public prices established for payment directly by clients in rental counters for direct reservations. The rate you pay for car rental services descends depending on the duration of the rental. Rental companies accept advance reservations of 3 or more days in duration and rates generally go down incrementally for 7+ days, 14-15+ days, and at present just two companies (REX and Rent Car VIA) have preferential rates for rentals of more than a month in duration.

Few tour operator contracts include prepayment of insurance, except in some cases for US-based clients, whose government places restrictions on how much money they can spend in Cuba. In general, rates designed specifically for US-based clients traveling with OFAC licenses are higher than for other nationalities of travelers for many services in Cuba.

Our quotation process and invoicing includes specific information on the rates for local services including:
additional drivers (optional). VIA charges a set fee for additional drivers for the duration of the rental, while the other 3 companies have a daily rate for this service. Additional drivers must be registered on the contract when opened, and most companies won’t accept their incorporation after the rental has initiated. The damage waiver issued by the rental company will not cover unregistered drivers and the rental companies require that the primary driver be present upon return of the vehicle, and may charge a fine for violating that rule.
dropoff fees. REX is the only company which currently doesn’t charge dropoff fees in their Cuban rental counters. REX only charges dropoff fees for pre-arranged pickups or drop-offs in locations where they don’t have a rental counter/staff. We publish the official dropoff fees for all 4 rental companies so that you can have a very close estimate to what the actual charges will be if dropping off your vehicle in an alternate rental counter or province prior to traveling. Being familiar with those rates in advance helps to avoid being overcharged locally.
daily damage waiver. This is an obligatory fee as foreign-issued policies don’t cover rental cars in Cuba. VIA is the only exception, whose insurance policy is optional, but if you choose not to pay for their insurance package they will assess a significantly higher refundable damage deposit, payable upon opening the rental contract. As part of our booking process, we also express the local rates for this service which you should expect to pay the rental company when opening the rental contract. A very important rule to remember is that you should never pay anything to the rental company functionary unless it’s clearly detailed on your rental contract. My brother recently rented a vehicle where the Rent Car VIA functionary attempted to charge him double the actual established daily damage waiver rate when he picked up the car. Having the real rate printed on his information meant that he immediately called me to double-check before handing over his cash and I cleared up the confusion for the rental company’s employee. Although specific policies for each company may have different terms, in general none cover tires or audio equipment. We suggest you carefully inspect the condition of your vehicle’s tires (including the spare tire) when opening your rental contract to avoid disappointment later.
security deposit. This is refundable at the end of your rental providing you return the vehicle in the same condition in which it was rented. If paying by credit card (remember, you can’t use US-issued or affiliated credit cards in Cuba), the rental companies will only take a pre-authorization for the established amount for the deposit, and charges will only be processed at the end of the rental if there are discrepancies in the condition of the vehicle. In the event of an accident, you must complete a police report in order for the insurance coverage to kick in. If you are found to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs while operating the vehicle, you’d better have deep pockets and a lot of patience. It’s very important to have any dents, scratches, or missing equipment on the vehicle clearly noted upon opening your rental contract to avoid any discrepancies upon return of the vehicle.
fuel. This is a charge for which we receive the most frequent complaints, and it’s due in large part to the rental companies’ policies. Rent Car VIA charges for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental. If they try to charge you for fuel at the beginning, you’d better make sure it’s documented on the contract. This also recently happened to my brother, and only by being very convincing with the rental guy when I discovered what he’d done was my brother able to recover the funds, as there was no documentary evidence that he’d handed over $58 in cash when opening his contract and he was forced to pay for the fuel consumption again at the end of the rental. Charging for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental is clearly the fairest of the policies, but still leaves room for play for the rental counter functionaries as there’s no digital reading on their vehicles for the amount of fuel in the car when you pick it up or return it; it’s their estimate that will appear on the contract. They don’t take the vehicle to the gas station in your presence or provide a receipt for the amount of fuel required to fill the vehicle at the end of the rental. Make sure the vehicle is not parked on an incline when you do the initial inspection as that can skew the actual capacity of the vehicle’s fuel tank. If your vehicle is replaced at any time during the rental period, make sure that the fuel capacity of the initial and replacement vehicles when returned/replaced are also noted on your contract at the time of the change of the vehicle as these factors will all be taken into consideration at the end of the rental when you pay for your fuel consumption. As for the three Transtur rental companies, their policy is one that few clients (or we, for that matter) agree with and it works like this. They’re supposed to deliver the vehicle with a full tank of fuel and they expect you to return it empty. Obviously that creates a certain level of stress for clients at the end of their rental period when trying to gauge exactly how much fuel they’ll need to get back to the rental counter. It’s my understanding that this policy has been in place for more than several years now for a couple of reasons. One is a report I heard that some malicious Miami Cubans poured sugar into their luxury car’s gas tank at the end of the rental, effectively ruining the very expensive car for future use. But the other reason why the policy was actually put in place is probably closer to the truth. In Cuba the rental companies expect you to fill your car with the highest octane, or “Especial” fuel only for maximum performance. But since there’s also regular and motor fuel available at gas stations in Cuba, even though gas station employees are prohibited from dispatching the lower-priced fuel to rental vehicles with tourism plates, it sometimes happens. So the rental companies prefer that their own employees fill up the vehicles using company-issued gas cards at the end of each rental, thereby ensuring that the vehicles are always running with high-performance fuel for the next client.
airport pickup fees. These are in place for all Transtur rentals, but VIA (so far) has not implemented this additional charge. At present REX, Havanautos & Cubacar charge $20 when you schedule your vehicle for airport pickup.

Paying all local fees by credit card seems to be more effective in reducing fraudulent charges for many services, as there’s also a paper record that can’t be tampered with on your end. If paying for any local charges in cash, again make sure that everything is fully documented on the rental contract. At the end of your rental, retain a copy of your rental contract. If the rental counter functionaries attempt to convince you otherwise, you should be suspicious as it’s your official receipt, a record of the service and all transactions and without a copy of your rental contract, it’s difficult if not impossible to present a claim for services afterwards.

Regarding the exact model or condition of vehicle that you’ll be assigned, note that only VIA confirms specific models in advance, although they reserve the right to substitute other models in the same price category or superior categories in the event of breakdown. The other three rental companies confirm only categories. In terms of our client feedback, REX obtains the best evaluations in terms of the quality and maintenance of their vehicles, followed consecutively by Havanautos, Cubacar and lastly Rent Car VIA. Many of our clients choose VIA for summer rentals based on rates alone, but for more demanding clients, we recommend weighing the option of spending a little more for a more comprehensive guarantee with one of the other rental companies. For those who only drive automatic vehicles, the Havanautos fleet is comprised exclusively of automatic transmission vehicles. REX has several mid-high to luxury automatic transmission vehicles which receive consistently good reviews, and Rent Car VIA has several attractively-priced automatic vehicles, but some of these are often disappointing in terms of overall condition. There are exceptions of course, but the Peugeot 207 SW automatic model seems particularly problematic and can be very hit or miss depending on the vehicle assigned. VIA has fewer options in their fleet for replacement vehicles when mechanical problems arise, which sometimes results in delays and sometimes even disappointing last minute service cancellations by the rental company when they aren’t able to substitute a similar or superior vehicle for prepaid bookings when availability of certain models is limited or at full capacity.

Rental companies in Cuba are contractually obliged to guarantee the vehicle/category that you’ve prepaid in technically sound condition (meaning that it will pass inspection with Cuban Motor Vehicles) or substitute with one of a similar or superior category within a reasonable amount of time. On paper that’s nice to know, but in reality when mid-July or New Years rolls around and all operating vehicles in their fleet are sold out, our experience is that they’re occasionally not able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. In an ideal world, if you are able to be flexible with the type of transmission of your vehicle, that can open up more options, but many our US-based clients only drive automatics, which limits the replacement possibilities in the event of total breakdown of their rental vehicle. The first and most important step if you encounter technical difficulties with your vehicle after completing the rental contract is to report the problem, your vehicle’s license plate #, your name, location and contact information to the rental company’s 24-hour technical assistance number listed on your rental contract. We suggest getting the name of the person you speak with as well as noting the time of the call as they are obliged to respond with a tow truck/mechanic or replacement vehicle within a reasonable amount of time. This of course depends on your location and previous service calls registered at any given time, but having the incident officially registered and on record with their operations office is the first step to getting the problem resolved. We’ve found that reporting mechanicals to individual rental counters is not necessarily a guarantee that a report will be issued to the operations office, and often results in undue delays since the official procedure requires clients to report mechanicals directly to the rental company’s operations office. As an intermediary in securing your reservation, we are happy to provide advice if required, and intervene on your behalf with the rental company if the process has completely broken down or you feel the rental company is not being responsive, but in general the most efficient way of resolving technical issues with your rental car is for you to personally contact their 24-hour technical services number to report the issue. We had a client reserve a 7-passenger Peugeot Partner Tepee from VIA in January for a recent rental in May. In the interim, it appears that the rental company has been gradually removing that model from their fleet without issuing notification to their partners, and when the client showed up at the rental counter to claim their minivan the rental company tried to substitute a 5-passenger Peugeot Partner with no notice whatsoever to our ground handler or our agency. We intervened on the clients’ behalf and insisted that the rental company comply with their contract and substitute a vehicle of a similar or superior category, and luckily they were provided with a 9-passenger Peugeot Expert Tepee at no extra cost, albeit 3 hours after their scheduled pickup time. That there was actually a 9-passenger vehicle available for the substitution unfortunately isn’t always the case in extreme high season. The rental company should have contacted us in advance, shouldn’t have tried to substitute a lower-cost vehicle for a prepaid reservation, and should have automatically known to upgrade, but the level of customer service in VIA simply isn’t always up to international standards. On the very odd occasion where a prepaid advance reservation isn’t able to be fulfilled by the rental company for whatever reason, unfortunately the only option we’re left with is to refund the service.

Avoid driving at night when at all possible. Especially on the highway, be on the lookout for loose livestock and avoid speeding. Cubans have a hand signal where they raise their index and pinky finger to indicate that there’s a cow or otherwise large animal on the road, indicating that you should immediately slow down as their movements can sometimes be unpredictable. Flashing your headlights at someone is the universal signal to warn of police ahead. It’s very commonly used in Cuba.

If you commit a traffic violation while driving, you can have a fine applied to your rental contract. For visitors to Cuba, the amounts usually range from $10-$30 CUC depending on the infraction committed. Under no circumstances should you deliver cash to the police officer issuing the ticket, which could be considered bribery. Outstanding fines are resolved upon completion of your rental company directly with the rental counter functionary upon closing the rental contract and the amount to be paid will be reflected on the rental contract. Besides opening the doors to larger problems, offering to bribe police officers to avoid accepting a legitimate ticket only encourages deviant behaviour and in my humble opinion creates a bad precedent for future visitors to Cuba.

Hitchhiking is commonplace in Cuba, and while it admittedly might be nice to extend the favor, you should be aware that opportunistic crime is also occasionally associated with the practice. Petty theft is the most common report I’ve had from clients who’ve unwittingly picked up unsavory characters, even some of the most experienced travelers have fallen victim to unsuspecting drivers of vehicles with tourism plates. I’ve had more than a couple of clients be unwittingly relieved of their cash and valuables on the route between the Jose Marti airport and Havana, one of whom was so unnerved by the experienced that she cut her trip short, and another gentleman who luckily followed my advice to immediately complete a police report as he had been relieved of his driver’s license in the process, and this on the first day of his holiday. Fortunately, the document had been verified by the rental counter functionary upon opening the rental contract and when he was later pulled over by a police officer, the client presented his rental contract and the police report and the police officer allowed him to proceed without even issuing a ticket in light of the bad experience, even though the visitor was no longer in possession of his driver’s license.

Lastly, always use an official parking attendant, especially for overnight parking. You can expect to pay $0.25 for most short-term local parking and $1-$2 for overnight rates. Most official parking attendants in Havana wear a red Havana Club vest and all of those who are officially designated for this type of employment also possess an official document identifying them as such. This is the best way to protect you and your possessions. Keeping personal items and valuables out of sight and reach in the vehicle is also key to avoiding attracting petty thieves in the first place.

The huge majority of our clients rent vehicles without incident (or at least without reporting incidents to us), so the above isn’t meant to be alarmist, but simply to alert you to many of the ways you can avoid being taken for an innocent traveler. Now you can consider yourself “in the know”.

Keeping Busy

We’re smack dab in the middle of high season but I’m taking a breather. Besides having our fourth cycle tour of the season (a 2-weeker) underway, we’ve also hosted a group of young baseball players from the USA, and we’re anxiously anticipating the arrival of a container full of motorcycles from Panama at the end of this month. The owners are sending their bikes to take part in the annual gathering of the Harlistas Cubanos and other motorcycles from Cuba & abroad in Varadero from Feb. 6-10. We’re anxious because the ship’s expected to arrive from Panama on Jan. 31 (a Friday, right before the blasted weekend). The group is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Feb. 4 (Tuesday) and registration of their bikes is supposed to be taking place on Feb. 5 if all goes according to plan. Wait, that should say IF all goes according to plan. Because this is Cuba, and despite the best-laid plans something can always go wrong when you least expect it. But so far everything seems to be running smoothly and all the paperwork’s been delivered to the corresponding authorities, permission letters issued by our ground handler, reservations confirmed, suppliers paid. Now it’s just up to the weather, Cuban Customs, the import agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it too much to ask that they all come together to make this come off without a wrinkle for Feb. 5? I must remember to light some candles and send up my wishes for positive things to happen. Especially for the occasion I had a seamstress neighbor of mine make a new orange canvas cover made for our old event tent last week (I provided 12 meters of canvas fabric that we found in Havana for $66, and when she finished and told me she wanted to charge me less than $5 for her work, I almost fell off my chair). On the weekend I drew and cut out all the lettering for our logo (a painstaking job, by hand for all 4 sides of the tent). These are the things you do when they don’t sell event tents in Cuba. Repair, reuse.

We have 5 cycle tour groups left to go before we wrap up the group tour season the end of March. So far it’s been a good season. We had a young videographer friend of ours put together a video clip from the first three cycle tours of the season. She told me yesterday that it was the first time she’d been to Cienfuegos and loved the city. I’m hoping to get the files to PEI via a willing client for uploading the end of this month. Our dial-up connection speed here in Cuba doesn’t support video. We had a custom group of male friends do a Central Cuba trip in November and they stayed at the luxurious Iberostar Trinidad for 1 night of their tour. I secured one of only 2 dates available for them in November and planned the rest of the trip around that. We love the hotel, but man it’s hard to get group space there. And while it drives up tour costs, for some the luxury is well worth it. We had a couple of families on a smaller tour in December, and another family & friends group do the Western Cuba cycle tour for New Year’s week and we were able to treat them to a night at La Moka as part of that tour. La Moka’s another one that’s hard to secure for groups no matter how far ahead you plan. That group left some exceptionally generous tips which were much appreciated by the tour team. So far Jagua’s come through with quite a few of my waitlist requests for space in Cienfuegos which puts a smile on my face (and the tour leader’s too). We prefer to stay 2 nights in the city of Cienfuegos whenever possible on the cycle tours rather than the beach.

We sold 1913 car rental days for rentals beginning Dec. 1 to Jan. 21 (applause, applause). Rent Car VIA’s rates are much lower than the competition’s in extreme high season, and 73% of our car rentals for this period were booked with VIA followed by Cubacar, Havanautos and REX in descending order. I had to field quite a few troubleshooting calls for VIA car rentals, but I guess that’s to be expected when almost 3 out of 4 clients have chosen them as their car rental provider.

So far in January we have a 12% return rate on customer feedback. While much of it is positive and we like that, complaints for car rental services are somewhat more frequent during extreme high season due to limited availability of vehicles, glitches with maintenance, and delays in delivery. We’ve had a few people report (after the fact, note to alert clients that you should always notify us immediately if things aren’t as described in our invoice) that the rental counter functionaries charged them a mysterious $5 CUC/day damage waiver supplement for high season. It seems the rental counter functionaries are the only ones privy to this fee as it’s not in our ground handler’s contracts. One functionary returned the $50 CUC he “inadvertently” charged our client to us in cash and now it’s our problem to see how we can reimburse the client for something not paid to our agency. The other claims are pending analysis by the respective rental companies. Note to smart clients: If you’re in doubt, make sure it’s written on your rental contract and save the contract to send us at the end of the rental. Cubans love their signed & stamped paperwork. The more stamps and signatures, the better.

Overall the travel feedback we’ve received this season from clients who’ve chosen Cubacar, Havanautos & REX has been much more positive than for VIA. I attribute that to a combination of factors including newer vehicles, larger fleets, and better supply of replacement parts. I seems to me that most of VIA’s problems are concentrated in a few vehicle categories including the Peugeot 207 SW automatic and the Peugeot 3008 automatic as two that stand out most in my mind. The latter hybrid vehicle has a very attractive price and most of the models in their fleet should have less than a year of use, but nevertheless we’ve had a couple of clients comment about technical difficulties. For those of you who only drive an automatic car and don’t want to shell out for the Havanautos or REX automatic vehicle prices, be duly warned that selecting the above vehicles from VIA can be a “cajita de sorpresas”. If the one assigned you has any technical difficulty prior to or during the rental period, securing a replacement within the VIA fleet is no easy feat.

We have quite a few fishing packages coming up over the next months for Cayo Paredon & the Zapata Peninsula. And diving, which continues to grow in popularity. Just remember that we don’t recommend overbooking diving on Cuba’s north shore in the winter. Those darned cold fronts make it unpredictable. Other places to consider pre-booking diving in the Cuban winter: Maria la Gorda (whose transfer prices were raised to fairly astronomical levels this year, so think rental car as a less expensive alternative to get to Cuba’s westernmost tip), the Isle of Youth (who changed their minimum dive boat departure policy this year to 8 divers which I think is going to kill their dive product), Trinidad, Guajimico, Cienfuegos, Jardines de la Reina, or Santiago de Cuba. Varadero is another destination which has a good guarantee for divers when there’s inclement weather. The dive center transfers clients to the south shore to the Zapata Peninsula if diving on the north shore is cancelled. No extra charge for the transfer. We like diving in the Zapata Peninsula better than Varadero anyway.

So as the wind picks up and another cold front rolls in to Havana, I’m signing off and unless I’m feeling super-inspired, I may not be back to check in until this pace and season slows down.

Cuban Summer Car Rental Adventures

Some people think working as a destination representative for a travel company in Cuba is a dream job. Sometimes it’s great, but mine is a 24/7 job and although I’m very conscientious and extremely detail-oriented, this is Cuba and despite my best efforts, services don’t always go off without a hitch. Alot of our Canadian clients mistakenly assume that Cuba’s tourism industry dies off in the summer when the Canadian geese are happily flying around northern skies. Not so. Cuba has a very large influx of Cuban-American and European visitors in July and August, so much so that the demand for many categories of rental cars is traditionally exceeded by the local supply of vehicles. Man, do we book a lot of car rentals in Cuba for the summer months. Hoping that a rental car of any category will be available last minute during high season in Cuba is a big gamble. A certain

Rental Car

segment of the Cuban-American traveling public is very wary of prepaying services, and we receive numerous messages from them wondering what guarantee they’ll have if they reserve and prepay a car rental only to arrive in Cuba and have the rental company try to pawn off a different category of vehicle or one that’s in rough condition. Some of them even have their local family members act as amateur detectives, calling the rental counters to double-check our work once the service has been confirmed and documents/instructions issued to the client. Unbeknownst to them, this is often a futile attempt to obtain information on their part since bookings and operations are handled through a central reservations office and the actual rental counters don’t usually have information on upcoming rentals until the day prior to the initiation of the service. Funnily (to me anyway), some of them even call us up at the local contact numbers we’ve provided and ask if we’re legitimate. If I were wondering about a company’s credentials and reputation the first person I’d ask probably wouldn’t be the company itself, but maybe they do it just to see if someone actually answers the phone on this end. I’m not really sure. Being one of the few companies that actually publishes unedited and real client feedback (the good, the bad and the ugly), I personally think that’s the best place for any Doubting Tom to begin research on WoWCuba before committing to services. Not only does it give a potential client an idea of what to expect from us as a company, but more importantly to compare experiences of past clients of ours with the various service providers with whom we contract services.

On Sunday morning I was contacted by some clients from New Zealand who’d reserved a 5-passenger vehicle for 4 days to drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. The car was reserved for 9 a.m. but still had not appeared at the rental counter by mid-morning. Unbeknownst to the rental counter functionary, the clients found a telephone and contacted me for advice. They were worried that the rental company wasn’t going to deliver the model they’d confirmed since the clients who were ahead of them in the rental contract lineup were upset with the rental counter for delivering a model that wasn’t what they’d reserved. I informed them that this is high season and that from mid-July on some of the rental companies (and particularly the one they selected for their rental) occasionally experience deficits in their rental fleet. It can be due to breakdown, problems with replacement parts supply (which aren’t always sourced in the country), and sometimes is simply the fault of clients who elect to return their rental vehicle after the agreed-upon date and pay a penalty to do so. I advised that if this were the case, then the rental company’s contractual obligation is to replace the vehicle they’d reserved with another of the same category or provide an upgrade. I next contacted the rental company who first indicated the vehicle they reserved was on its way, but immediately thereafter they leaked the bad news that the 5-passenger vehicle was broken and they were offering a smaller economy vehicle as a substitute. It took me just under 3.5 hours of calls back and forth between the rental counter, the rental company’s operations office, their head office, and that of our ground handler until I finally convinced them that all hell would break loose if they didn’t live up to their end of the bargain and deliver a vehicle of the same or superior category. I begged, I pleaded, I explained, and I even got a little mad with the rental company when they kept trying to force the economy car downgrade on my clients. In addition to my elevated stress levels, I probably spent $30 CUC of my cell phone credit on resolving the issue. Which comes straight out of our profits; noone compensates us for the rental company’s inadequacy or poor planning. In the end they did somehow pull a vehicle out of a hat and delivered a car large enough to get the couple and the wife’s parents plus all their luggage across the country without having to tie someone to the roof. When I was finally able to advise the clients that the larger vehicle was on its way, we also agreed that I would begin a claims process with the rental company asking them to consider refunding one of the rental days in exchange for the significant delay in delivering the vehicle. The clients had prepaid for 4 rental days, but since the 4th day was scheduled for an early return, effectively they only were going to be using the vehicle now only for 5 hours on the last day of the rental. I thought that it was reasonable to expect the rental company to extend that refund considering the circumstances, and indicated that I’d be happy to process the claim with our ground handler and the rental company, who can ultimately take up to a month to get back to us on service claims, but I am nothing if not persistent. Pshew. I thought the saga was over and that I could go on enjoying my “day off”.

Actually, my plans for Sunday morning included meeting a group of U.S. graduate students that I’d organized to visit a local agricultural cooperative. I really wanted to get some pictures of their experience there and also to say hi to their tour organizer who I’d met previously here at a Sustainable Tourism conference. While I did get the visit to the “farm” in, it was much briefer than I’d have liked and I was worried the whole time about trying to offer a viable solution to the New Zealanders transportation problem. When the clients finally were completing the rental contract, they called me back to see if the rental company couldn’t throw in the extra driver fee ($30 CUC each) for 2 additional drivers to compensate for their almost 5-hour delay in delivering the vehicle. While I totally understood that they were hot & bothered by that point, I think they were under the mistaken impression that the rental car company and myself actually have the authority to make that kind of decision, which absolutely isn’t the case. There are so many layers of bureaucracy here that sometimes it’s hard to see your way to the end of the tunnel. They called me back while I was just about to have lunch to question the rental company’s local dropoff fees, which are clearly published on our website and coincided 100% with what the rental car functionary was charging on their contract. But apparently they had misunderstood the calculation and wanted us to pay for almost half of the local fee, which definitely wasn’t part of our deal. At that point they were implying that OUR customer service was deficient and that they were going to make it known on Trip Advisor upon completion of their holiday. Sheesh. I was thinking to myself at that point that I should have just told them to accept the smaller vehicle from the get-go, that it was out of my hands, and gone on my merry way. I was speechless when I got off the phone and when I finally tried to tell my husband that they implied I’d been less than professional when I’d just dedicated half of the day to going to bat for them, I simply broke down in tears and told him that some days this job is a thankless one.

But then the very next day I received a call from a repeat Spanish gentleman who comes here year after year and stays for an extended period each time and always reserves his car rental with my husband. After a month in Cuba, he was scheduled to leave the country that night. But before he flew out he wanted to meet with Abel. When he stopped by in the afternoon he mentioned his vehicle had been vandalized while parked overnight at the private house where he was staying and that Abel had intervened on his behalf to have it replaced with a different model. After he completed the police report, the insurance covered all the damages sustained to the vehicle. He was totally thoughtful and brought a bottle of rum as a gift and (more importantly) expressed his thanks for our work on his behalf. I almost started crying again because not many people realize how many hoops we actually have to jump through to make things happen on this end. I think that the very fact that he’s visited here as often as he has in the past has made him more appreciative of the small things. And knowing that he has someone here that is looking out for his best interests is also very comforting. For me, having someone actually express that to us and take the time to personally do so meant more than he probably knows.

Beached-Whale

If anyone tries to tell you that everything always goes smoothly in Cuba, they’re either lying or very naive. But having experienced and honest intermediaries on your side to defend your interests when you most need them is a good thing. It could mean the difference between driving across Cuba in air-conditioned style or improvising in one of those Chevy Chase-style family vacations with everything but the kitchen sink tied to the roof of your rattle-trap rental car.

Dad’s Cuban Walking Adventures

“Not all those who wander are lost”. J.R.R. Tolkien. My father takes that to a whole new level. My earliest recollection of him getting lost was while I was still a preschooler. He was walking in the back woods on my grandfather’s 100-acre woodlot in Prince Edward Island all day long. My mother was so worried that she called the police to start a search for him when he hadn’t returned by nightfall. Eventually he found his way out of the woods, by following a railroad if memory serves me right.

My father had a heart attack about a decade ago and took the recommendations to change his diet and exercise habits very seriously. Rain or snow, he faithfully took brisk morning walks every day, most days for 90 minutes or more. Going on vacation to visit my and my brother’s family in Cuba did not alter his walking routine in the least.

For almost the first half of our marriage my husband and I lived in the house he built above his great uncle’s home in Barrio Obrero, San Miguel del Padron, which is anything but a tourist municipality. In fact some sections of San Miguel are downright rough. Our home was only a few kilometers to Old Havana though, and very close to the train tracks. One of Dad’s first narrow escapes was when he was walking back to our place from Old Havana one day. He doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t use a cell phone, carry a map (or even our street address) or a watch. All he would have been able to tell someone was “Barrio Obrero”, and for him that must have been enough. He figured he’d follow the train tracks back home and he’d be able to find our place, no problem. Maybe it escaped his logic that the trains actually run frequently in Cuba because he was about halfway across a rather long rail bridge when he realized there was a train coming straight for him and there was nowhere else to go but backwards. His walk turned very quickly into an unexpected run, while the conductor of the train was having a great laugh watching him scramble. Sunburned and quite tired, he eventually wandered back home from what would be the first of his walking scrapes in Cuba.

The next time he got lost was on his international departure day. We should have known better than to let him out of the house to walk on such an important day, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. We dropped him off in the city in the morning and let him walk back home. Thinking he was taking a shortcut, he took the ¨anillo del puerto¨ (ring around the port), the road that goes all around the Havana Bay . But instead of taking what would have been the closest route (first exit) to Via Blanca he walked all the way to Regla and came out at the traffic lights at Via Blanca, at least a couple of kilometers from our place. And instead of turning right (at this point  a compass might have come in really handy) and heading back to our place by way of Via Blanca (the main road), he kept going straight and unwittingly ended up exploring most of Guanabacoa as well. By this point my husband and stepson had each taken off in their respective cars to begin searching for him. Right in the nick of time, without even 10 minutes to spare, he wandered up our street to be whisked off to the airport to fly back home. Pshew! Nothing like living on the edge.

About 6 years ago we built a new home and moved out of the city to a fairly rural area. Our house is on a hill adjacent to a military zone with 2 large radar towers. You can see them for miles around. A few years back Dad left the house just after 4 a.m. I know this because I´d left my cell phone on the counter for him to check the time when he left, and the last time was still displayed when I woke up several hours later. Two hours would usually be the max that he´d walk in the morning, so my husband and I were just a little worried that he hadn´t returned yet.  So we gave it about another ½ hour and then decided we’d better start checking around the village of Guanabo and went as far as the fishing port with no sign of him anywhere. We were really concerned but didn’t want to alert the authorities yet. He had left the house with no personal identification whatsoever, not such a big deal in Charlottetown PEI, but a big no-no in Cuba. We drove home again and asked the neighbors if they’d seen him, but no such luck. So we left again to try looking in another direction but shortly thereafter the neighbors called us to advise that he’d finally shown up. Once again, he thought he’d take one of his famous shortcuts to get back home. It was still dark out though, so his orientation was all off. He ended up walking through field after field and came out quite a distance south of our place in Campo Florido. All the neighbors had a good laugh at that episode and have never let him forget it.

Dad’s had a rough year health-wise but with a recent pacemaker operation is feeling more energetic than ever. He arrived in Cuba earlier this month and almost immediately began to take brief therapeutic morning walks. On his first day, my husband reminded him to take i.d. and I told him not to be climbing any hills. After only about 10 or 15 minutes my husband was having a cow and took off to look for him in his car. He found him at the bottom of the very steep hill by our place and drove him back home. After that he gradually increased his morning walking time and the other day he had breakfast at 08:30, but by 10:30 had not yet returned. I was starting to get worried as I walked to the back patio to speak to my husband, and on the way back there I heart a train whistle blow, something I’ve never heard in all the years I’ve been living in Mirador de Marbella. The first thing that crossed my mind was “Crap, Dad’s on the train tracks again”. About 10 minutes passed and my husband called out for me, saying that the police had arrived and were parked out front with several other officials. My heart immediately sunk, thinking there’d been an accident. I ran as fast as I could only to see my father being assisted out of the back seat of the police car.

He says he reached the top of the hill and decided to return home but was a little disoriented on how to get to our street coming from the other direction. He knew that we lived close to the radar towers so when he was close to them and could see the water to the north, he saw a horse & cart pull into a dirt road behind the radar towers and he followed it, thinking there’d be another road from there that would take him north to our street. Little did he know that he’d unwittingly wandered in the back way to the military zone. Apparently the gate was down because personnel were constantly going in and out that morning. As he got deeper into the military zone the officials were saying “Alto” (Halt), but of course he didn’t understand and he continued on his merry way until he was escorted off the property by the local police and immigration officials who had been contacted by the military to remove him. He’s darned lucky he doesn’t look dangerous or things could have gone in a whole different direction. Because my Dad traveled here on his U.S. passport, we had to accompany him down to the police station and we were there for several hours while they assembled their interrogation team of military, police, immigration and counter-intelligence to investigate what happened and find out more about his background. I really don’t think they considered him a threat at any time; in fact they were most accommodating and did their best to make him comfortable while they completed routine procedures. Sometime after 2 p.m. we were all released and allowed to return home. As I was opening the gate I turned around and noticed for the first time what he was wearing. You see, my Dad is so modest that he only brought 2 t-shirts, 1 shirt, 2 pairs of pants and 2 pairs of shorts for a 7-week stay in Cuba. And thankfully at least a week’s supply of boxers. But I had been complaining the night before to my brother that I was doing laundry more frequently than usual. He hauled out an old Obama shirt that he’d grown out of and gave it to my father for a spare. Wouldn’t you know that was the shirt he was wearing when he got caught in the Cuban military zone?! Of all the days NOT to wear his Canada shirt.

Dining Out in the Capital

Used to be this was a no-brainer question, but these days it seems like there’s a new restaurant opening around here on a weekly basis. It’s sometimes hard to keep up on the latest paladar (private entrepreneur-run) restaurants. But don’t despair, there are a couple of handy online tools that might help to guide you.

A La Mesa Cuba is an easy to use online resource of restaurants in Cuba, available in English and Spanish with search categories for type of cuisine and location to narrow down your selection. Their webpage also has a section for new / popular restaurants. Restaurants can register for free. Some restaurants even publish their menus with pricing here, certainly a great tool for someone who’s never visited an establishment before. They regularly send some pretty enticing updates on their Facebook page.

If you’re an app fan,  then there’s always expat resident Conner Gorry’s Havana Good Time, compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. For just a few bucks, you’ll also get all kinds of entertainment ideas thrown in, many of which you’d never find out about otherwise as a visitor to Cuba. Heck, I’ve been living and working in travel here for almost half my life and Conner sometimes surprises even me with some of the places she knows about. The fact that her app is dynamic and regularly updated makes it so much more attractive than a guidebook  for this type of information.

The folks at Cuba Absolutely magazine have published a fairly comprehensive review of a considerable number of Havana restaurants. Although I have to tell you that a few of my favorites didn’t make their list. And the reviews seem largely geared to an expat crowd. Unlike a decade ago, in today’s Cuba there are a surprising number of Cubans who dine out, but they’re not necessarily frequenting the same restaurants as the expats. Which brings me to the question of what makes a restaurant stand out to and attract different crowds of people.

Quite a number of years ago on Valentine’s Day my husband and I made some last minute plans to get together for a dinner out with his sister, her husband and their family. For most Cubans dining out is a special occasion, much more so on the “Dia the los Enamorados”. They asked my opinion on where to go, thinking we’d pick somewhere different than the usual spots which are habitually inundated with diners on Feb. 14. I racked my brain for somewhere we could try that would impress them, and ended up suggesting something that had been very recently recommended to me by a client but that I hadn’t test-run myself. The client, a server in a 5-star Vail, Colorado restaurant had raved about the place. So who was I to question his judgment? Big mistake. The place ended up being not a particularly attractive Centro Habana rooftop, with a section divided off for what appeared to be some kind of disco. Their menu was the same typical fare that you can get at any restaurant in Cuba, with a few illegal dishes such as crocodile and turtle (eek to my eco self!) thrown in. And the prices were obviously geared to a tourist clientele. The service was slow, and the servings not too plentiful (another huge drawback when you’re dining with Cubans who often judge by quantity, not necessarily quality). What had impressed my client so much? This quote by Dagobert D. Runes kind of sums it up: “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” And sometimes to go to restaurants they wouldn’t frequent at home either, apparently! Good thing my sister & brother in law have a good sense of humor – we still occasionally laugh about that botched Valentine’s Day dinner outing.

There are certain restaurants and paladares in Havana that are distinctly geared towards an expat crowd of foreign diplomats and representatives of foreign firms with deep pockets. La Guarida used to be one of these before it was as well-known as it is today. But then they were discovered by the tourist masses who don’t blink at $15 and up for main courses. They are one of the few restaurants with so much demand from international visitors that they offer  just 2 sittings a night by advance reservation only. If you’re a visitor here you will surely enjoy the well-prepared food and unforgettable ambience. I’m not sure if they get many expats there as clients nowadays; it’s been at least a few years since I’ve eaten there. But I do continue to send the occasional group of travelers. Although  nowadays they have alot more serious competition than they did for this market than they did a couple of years ago.

Several nights ago my Cuban husband and I were returning from the airport and decided that it was too late to cook at home so we were going to head to El Beduino, a relatively new spot that we love in Vedado serving Middle Eastern food at very moderate prices (the two of us can easily drink & dine for $25, and have leftovers to take home for the next day’s lunch). It was Tuesday night but when we arrived we were disappointed to realize they don’t operate on Tuesdays. So we drove a little further down the street talking about where we might try next, when I saw an attractive building lit up and recognized the restaurant name from a review I’d read on Cuba Absolutely. We decided to go in and try it out. From what I’d read their menu was constantly changing and offered some fare that makes it stand out from the regular staples in most Cuban restaurants. As we made it up the stairs to the landing my husband immediately said, “Uh oh, this is a tourist spot, I can tell already”. We’ve been to a LOT of restaurants over the past year, trying to keep abreast of the changes so that we can make informed recommendations to our clients. And he now knows that while some places we have visited don’t do a bad job on the meal, there are certain spots that just aren’t memorable enough meal-wise for the price paid to make it onto our list of spots to revisit. Ambience seems to be a deciding factor for the patrons of a lot of these more exclusive private restaurants. I reminded him not to judge a book by its cover, that you never know, and I’d read some good things about this place. So in we went, and sat on their nice semi-circular sofa to peruse the menu while I gazed around the room and saw that everyone there was either a tourist or an expat. Not a single Cuban diner in the place. Imported bottled mineral water was being served. In places like this San Pellegrino usually costs about three times the price of the local brand. Ciego Montero’s perfectly acceptable for me, so I’m not quite sure why it’s stylish to drink brand name sparkling water. Is it because it’s poured into your goblet from a glass, not from a plastic bottle? And as we took a closer look at the menu which had some pretty expensive appetizers (what we’d have paid for a main at our first restaurant choice had they been open), my husband told me that he honestly didn’t want to pay $50 for a meal that he figured he could eat somewhere else for much less. Maybe the choices are more exotic on this particular establishment’s ever-changing hand-written menu on some evenings, but all we saw were dishes such as ropa vieja (shredded beef), pollo supremo (supreme chicken), and pretty typical Cuban fare. As we drove away my husband said that he might have tried the place out if they’d had something really enticing like, for example, garlic octopus (one of his favorite seafoods of late), but not for comida criolla. No way, no how. Not with those prices.

So where else could we try out? I’ve been wanting to try out the new Swedish place in Centro Habana but didn’t have the street address on me. And even if I did have a Smartphone, there’s no wi-fi connection here except in a few select Havana hotels, and even then you have to pay for it. So we had to rack our brains. He opted to head to La Pachanga, also nearby in Vedado. They serve a variety of Cuban dishes, and also some Mexican tacos. Since we’d had lunch there once already (in the a/c indoor section) we figured we’d try out the outdoor cafeteria seating that night. Until he was informed that he couldn’t wash his hands unless he was a patron of the indoor restaurant. Rather than argue about the questionable policy with the restaurant staff, in we went. With a name like La Pachanga, the first time we went there we expected to be bombarded with reggaeton music, but thankfully it’s peaceful and subdued inside (they even have signs reminding their clientele about keeping the noise level down). The only thing that I don’t really like about it is the funky lighting, which (depending on where you sit) doesn’t allow you to see the true colors of your food. It can be a little unsettling to be eating a blue or neon green colored pesto and wondering if anything made it into your dish that shouldn’t have, but you can’t discern because of the distortion of color. My husband ordered what else? Garlic octopus, of course. It was only $6. The other patrons included a couple of families (one of the teenage girls had a smart phone with an annoyingly loud musical ringtone), two pudgy Mexican fellows accompanied by a couple of young Cuban girls in very short skirts who totally put “The Walk” on for the 4 steps it took them to get to the washroom from their table, another Mexican fellow flying solo and drinking daiquiris, and a very well-known Cuban academic  with his companions. As diverse a mix of guests as you might expect from a country like Cuba. Content we were with our meal, my husband happier still with the $24 tab, and he felt pretty good about the experience as we drove home satiated.

All in all, Cuba’s dining scene is become much more diverse. You can now choose from Cuban, Japanese, lots of Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian or Mexican fare. Restaurants are being combined with entertainment such as belly dancing, musical acts, or comedy shows. I heard of a breakfast spot (Cubans aren’t big on breakfast so this must be for the tourist crowd), and have been to a couple of pretty nice new cafes, never part of the scene here before. And for the most part, satiating your hunger or quenching your thirst in Cuba is still very much a bargain compared to dining out in the rest of North America. As for picking the spot that’s right for you, that’s a pretty personal question. But hopefully you can narrow down the choices with some of the tools above, and from there, try your luck. !Buena suerte y buen apetito!