Cycling Safely in Cuba

mark twain
Is your well-being paramount to the tour company you’re considering for your cycle trip in Cuba?  Should your eyebrows be raised if they are they promoting cycling experiences after dark, in the urban core of the city of Havana, or riding activities during the summer rainy season?

Yes, everyone knows that biking is coming back in vogue in Cuba (for us die-hard bike fanatics it never went out of style…), but as much as we love the sport, it’s not for everyone and it’s essential to be realistic when making your travel plan. Travelers engaging in short-duration bicycle excursions on a holiday are not always frequent riders, and may lack experience navigating urban traffic or otherwise underestimate some of the challenges of riding a bicycle in a foreign tropical country. WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours takes client safety very seriously and so urges anyone considering incorporating cycling into their travel itinerary in Cuba to keep in mind some of the red flags that are being raised at WoWCuba / MacQueen’s with several of the promos we’ve seen for new 2-wheeled adventures popping up around Cuba.
 
Biking in urban centers comes with certain risks.
Is the tour operator trying to sell you a Havana City Bike Tour focused only only gushing about the benefits…like appreciating the sights/sounds/smells of its busy streets from the seat of a bike? Are you picturing the wind running through your hair while your selfie stick sticks precariously out of the super-cute wicker basket on your beach cruiser’s handlebars and everything always turns out hunky-dory? If that’s the case, then they are probably sorely remiss in preparing you for the reality and risks of riding a bike in Havana.

One of them is traffic, especially in the urban center of Havana where designated bicycle lanes are practically non-existent. While Cuba’s capital was ahead of the times in the early 1990’s with its bike lanes and infrastructure, much of that has gone by the wayside. To get to/from Old Havana the bike (and passenger) boats still operate between Casablanca & Regla. When I see groups of tourists taking up the limited # of spots on these “shortcuts” originally intended for moving the local (not visiting) population, I sometimes feel that it’s unfair to locals who depend on these methods of transportation to conduct the essential activities of their daily lives. We also have the bike bus that connects Habana Vieja to Habana del Este, but the special bike lanes in the city core disappeared with the Special Period. So don’t let them kid you with clever travel copy. Yes, a trip designer can always try and pick some of the lesser-travelled streets when designing a cycling route without leaving Havana’s urban center. But if you ask anyone in Cuba with half a notion of what the term elevated liability means, they’ll agree that you almost need an extra set of eyes in the back of your head to safely navigate Havana streets by bicycle these days.
Havana drivers (and their sometimes rickety cars) are not particularly courteous to each other, much less to cyclists, and there are several areas where cycling is in fact prohibited. Even along the iconic Malecon seawall and 5th Avenue in Miramar, where the non-allowance of cycling activities is signaled by a sign with a bicycle in the middle and red circular band around the outside.

Noxious vehicle fumes (or the stench of garbage rotting in heat) are another negative for cyclists in Cuban cities. This remains a frequent report of detracting factors to city riding. Getting out of the city altogether and heading east or west are two of the best ways to avoid some of the above hazards. .

Helmets are not the law in Cuba, but if you value your head…
We’re not sure what self-respecting bicycle company would not provide helmets for their clients, or neglect to ensure that they use them while riding in Cuba, but as advocates for helmet use based on a lifetime of professional and retail experience, we suggest you don’t leave your safety up to chance. Just use a helmet while riding. Brain injuries happen when you’re least expecting them, and not protecting your non-returnable hard drive with one of today’s lightweight/vented helmets is simply not smart. A company that offers you a bike tour while claiming they look out for your safety, but then neglect to take responsibility for something as basic as committing to providing a helmet on a bicycle tour is probably not a true specialist in cycling activities.

Biking in the rain in Cuba can be hazardous.
With a high number of diesel-fuel vehicles on Cuban roads, a film often coats paved road surfaces, making them very slippery when wet. This is especially true at intersections where concrete is more common than asphalt. It can be a braking hazard for those unfamiliar with local road conditions. Rainy season in Cuba typically runs from May to October and rain is more common in the afternoon than morning.

WoWCuba’s tour leaders inform riders of what to expect in rainy conditions before they occur, and our support vehicle is always present when needed as back-up. The decision to ride is ultimately the client’s, but our team always makes participants aware of potential weather and road-related hazards in advance so that riders’ awareness is raised when riding conditions are less than ideal.

Summer temperatures in Cuba are not ideal for cycling.
Besides being rainy season, higher summer temperatures in Cuba can lead to an elevated risk of dehydration for cyclists in Cuba. If you choose to cycle in Cuba in the summer, be sure to always have an adequate supply of potable water. This may not be readily available in retail outlets. A bicycle tour company that suggest clients take care of their own water needs could be risking their dehydration.
WoWCuba’s guided group cycling programs shut down for the summer as we simply feel that the combination of heat and humidity make it a less than ideal time of the year for that type of trip in Cuba. Filtered water is provided for all rides with WoWCuba and immodium is not always available in Cuban pharmacies.

Bicycle repair shops are generally not well-stocked in Cuba.
There are few places where cyclists can purchase spare parts in Cuba, so independent cyclists must be prepared with basic toolkits and spare parts for their equipment. “Poncheras”, or tire repair outlets, do exist and getting a flat repaired is not usually difficult or expensive, providing the tube/tire damage is limited to a puncture (not a blowout).

Riding at night is not recommended.
Well-lit areas are few and far between in Cuba, and night riding is not recommended in Cuba. Even if you have lights and reflective gear, not all drivers will be looking out for cyclists, and with a general absence of designated cycling areas plus Cubans who continue to mix alcohol and driving (elevated risk for this after dark), then you (or the tour operator you choose for your adventure) could be taking your life into your hands by riding at night.

Does your guide team have first aid training?
WoWCuba’s tour leaders are trained to international standards as first aid responders and carry basic first aid supplies in the tour bus at all times, in addition to being in contact with the national public health system’s network for any emergencies that go beyond the scope of their training. Our team is certainly not immune from handling the occasional minor accident, but their accumulated knowledge and training has undeniably come in handy over the years when dealing with a variety of unexpected health complications on tour. If the cycling trip you’re considering :
-is accompanied by Cuban “tour guide” with no official government tour guide accreditation
-has no support vehicle or in-house back-up plan for transporting injured/incapacitated riders
-has no staff with first-aid training certification
then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of signing on for a tour that might be improvisational and carries higher than just the inherent risks of cycling in general.

WoWCuba advocates for a safe, sustainable bicycling experience in Cuba. Choose wisely when comparing tour operators for any active travel endeavours.

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Havana Girls Trip

A couple of my best Canadian girlfriends are planning a trip to Havana to visit me in May and I want to maximize both our time together and any of their independent exploring with fun, inspirational experiences. While all-inclusives are undeniably easy for organizing and budgeting, I personally can’t think of anything more boring or monotonous to do in Cuba. Especially when your friends are foodies and fortunate to hail from PEI, Canada’s food island. One of my girlfriends has never been here before, so when she asked me if they have 2-ply toilet paper in Cuba (me: we’re sometimes lucky if we have any, might as well a selection or luxury grade!), I decided I better get to work putting together some semblance of an itinerary to truly pique their interest (and tantalize their taste buds) if I’m going to actually pull this off. So if you’re planning a trip to Havana with your girlfriends, sisters or moms, then read on for some of my favorite spots to share with them. If you’re traveling as a group of ladies and prefer to pre-arrange transport & services (for groups, this invariably makes things flow much better), WoWCuba would be happy to oblige. Enjoy!

Getting Around
Bike taxis can be lots of fun and allow you to experience your surroundings a little more interactively, truly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of Cuba’s capital. Hitching a ride in a classic convertible car can be a little exhilarating for those who are new at it. Snapping a selfie with El Morro fortress (or some other iconic Havana landmark in the background) from the back seat of an antique car seems like an obligatory right of passage for visitors to our marvellous and photogenic city these days. Either way, neither of these options are difficult to come by, especially in Old Havana. Just make sure to ask the price before you jump aboard, as some Cuban taxi drivers can be opportunistic. As a rule of thumb, when you do the negotiating up front, there are no unpleasant surprises to deal with later.Shopping
Soaps & Scents
Nothing can remind you of a place or time quite so effectively as a scent or particular flavor and while many features of travel can be now replicated in virtual reality, this is not one of them. So go ahead and indulge yourself, engraining and extending your travel memories through signature scents and flavors.
D’Brujas – hand-crafted scented soaps. Some of the wonderful natural scents include coffee-eucalyptus, coconut, cappuccino, bamboo and more.
Habana 1791 – hand-mixed floral perfumes & scents housed in a historic laboratory-cum-museum
Mariposa perfume – made by Suchel and named after Cuba’s national flower, the butterfly jasmine, this popular Cuban perfume is widely available and costs just $11 CUC.
Locally Handmade Hats, Bags, Clothing, Jewellery, Housewares & more
Alma Cuba Shop – steampunk jewellery, Panama hats, paper products, unusual gifts
Piscolabis – decorative items, glass, ceramics, upcycled pieces, jewellery, café on-site
Galeria Bolo – shoes, bags, wallets and more. Some of their work is exquisite.
Zulu – custom-made leather bags for those who love quality one-of-a-kind items
Clandestina – t-shirts, fabric bags and more by innovative local designers. Quirky humor = free
Mercado Artesanal Antiguos Almacenes De San José – Old Havana Artisans Market
Antiques & Oddities
Bazar Vintage – Vedado storefront specializing in lamps made from upcycled materials
Memorias – vintage gift items in a convenient Old Havana location
Snacking, Cafecitos & Indulgences
Old Havana
Creperie Oasis Nelva – enchanted flower/plant shop & café specializing in crepes
CicloCuba – authentic Cuban sandwiches, fruit smoothies, natural juices, cocktails and radlers (you have to try the pale ale & grapefruit soda combination)! And when it’s in season, their avocado toast is to die for. You just can’t beat Cuban avocadoes.
Jibaro – tapas, delish and varied salads, mains & fabulous mocktails  (it’s super-close to where we work during the week, so great for my girlfriends on their independent forays)
Helad’oro – diverse ice cream flavors, this is their main location. Their ice cream brand can now also be savored in Vedado at the Cafe d’ La Esquina.
Bianchini – homemade sweet treats including vegan options
Café del Angel – café with good breakfasts, tempting (if not a little expensive by Cuban standards) smoothie flavors & designer Jacqueline Fumero’s locally-produced fashions in an artsy neighborhood of Old Havana
Chocolate Museum – savor this Cuban delicacy in solid or liquid forms, dark, white or milk chocolate flavors. They even offer truffels. Product demonstrations also offered on-site at the museum (which is really more of a cafe these days). You’ll often see churro (fried sugar-coated sweet dough) vendors outside. If the chocolate wasn’t tempting enough…
Vedado
Cuba Libro – books & magazines in English, shaded garden, hammocks, coffee, cappucino, tea, scrabble, chess
Café Presidente – great lunch spot with full menu, air conditioning, and consistent service
Café d’ La Esquina – for tapas, mini-pizzas, cocktails, drinks, ice cream, sweets and more
Miramar/Playa
Casa del Gelato – impressive selection of icy gelato treats
Café Fortuna – a funky slow spot where you can select from a broad coffee menu and sip away while seated at a sewing machine, in a bathtub or an old car.

Dining
Guanabo
Restaurante 421 – specializes in Italian-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, closest restaurant to our house in Guanabo
Le Mare – if this place were set any closer to the ocean they’d have to elevate it on stilts. Enjoy it while it lasts – climate change is coming. I like their shrimp and the flan is divine.
Chicken Little – consistently good service and reasonable prices have kept us loyal clients to this little spot.
Piccolo – really great pizza is served here, it’s a little more expensive than at 421, but very good quality and they make some of their own charcuterie
Old Havana
Donde Lis – if avocado’s in season then you have to try their octopus over a bed of guacamole served with sweet potato chips
Jibaro – also mentioned above under snacks, it’s a terrific not-too-expensive option for an evening meal too
Cafe Bohemia – an oasis from the hustle & bustle of Old Havana, the inner courtyard here is a welcome reprieve.
Ivan Chef Justo – this is on the more expensive end of Cuban restaurants, but still relatively affordable compared to dining out in Canada or the US. Regularly rotating menu, great ambience.
Vedado
Beiruit Shawarma – Chef Alicia’s flavor profiles are spot on, and I must admit this is one of our favorite new spots.
Mediterraneo – food is well-prepared, and their farm-to-table concept is novel in Cuba. Individual travelers can opt to tour their Guanabacoa farm and then dine at the Vedado restaurant afterwards (for a package price). Or for groups, a tour followed by dinner right at the farm can be arranged in advance.
Fuumiyaki – diverse sushi menu, demonstration cooking
Playa
Santy Pescador – sushi served beside the boat that probably caught the fish you’re eating. It may not be set in a Pinterest-worthy, high-end marina with luxury yachts to admire while you savor the salty sea smell over your meal, but the view is definitely authentically Cuban.
La Lisa
Conde Baraca – authentic and affordable Cuban food (much of it grown in-house), good service, unlimited repeats on rice/root vegetable sides, and close to several excellent greenhouses / gardening centers I like to frequent. Show cooking also available here.

Nautical
Time will undoubtedly be spent at Playas del Este as the white sand beach is walkable distance from our house in Mirador de Marbella (Beautiful Sea Lookout). Havana’s eastern beaches are spread over a 20+-kilometer piece of coastline and include (west to east) Bacuranao, Tarara, Megano, Santa Maria del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Veneciana and Brisas del Mar. We like the beach at Villa los Pinos in Santa Maria for avoiding some of the larger crowds and rocky entries in the village of Guanabo, but where you still have the option of ordering refreshing local treats such as icy fresh coconut water (served in the coconut), cold drinks or hot tamales, served by the restaurant staff or beach vendors right to your beach chair/umbrella. If we really just want to get away from people and chill then we usually try the beach between Megano and Tarara where water entry is a bit more steep. There are also some nice lagoons for swimming there. For beach glass hunting and walking while relatively undisturbed, the Rincon de Guanabo just past the Brisas del Mar residential community is the best. We recommend taking a bag to collect and later properly dispose of some of the plastic garbage that collects there while you’re at it. Don’t let the presence of sacrificed animal carcasses deter you; that’s part of Santeria religious practices, although we sometimes wish its followers would realize that using the sea as a dumping ground for dead goats/chickens or floating entire cakes as offerings on cardboard bases in the ocean may not be the best way to gain favor with the water goddess Yemaya. If you see any blue bulky fabric packages, probably best just not to disturb them. Even the beach cleaners don’t like to go near that stuff, mostly out of superstition. There’s an elk coral garden off of the point that’s fantastic for snorkeling. You can take a catamaran out there or swim to it if you’re feeling especially energetic. We usually kayak there ourselves and then snorkel. The water in front of the Rincon de Guanabo is full of seaweed so best to start out from the point or Brisas del Mar. Please remember, coral is for admiring but not touching.

While we’re on that topic (looking/not touching), do be aware that you might encounter the occasional slightly depraved Cuban male with a hyperactive libido lurking in the dunes and to be aware of them. They may be flashers, or “tiradores” (public masturbators), as they’re known here. My sister was once scared by one and indignant that another brazen Cuban man reached out and actually touched her butt while biking, but the next time she was prepared and charged at the startled flasher like a crazed banshee, and he quickly disappeared in the opposite direction. I’m not sure if that’s really the wisest action. While it worked for her, I think the best plan is just to discreetly ignore them. Rremember, a reaction could be what most excites a perv – and zero reaction might just take the wind out of their sails, so to speak. But do take the precaution of travelling with a friend if you’re going to be in any isolated areas. A final warning to my best girlfriends: if I find out you’ve been hanging out at the deserted beaches more frequently than is normal, just know I’m onto you both…just kidding (well, kind of…)!!! What they do in the dunes of Guanabo, Cuba, has nothing to do what goes on in the dunes of Blooming Point, PEI, girls. But then again, maybe I’m just not with the times – aren’t we all supposed to be protecting (not romping around in) the dunes these days?

Health & Wellness
Pura Vida – Havana’s premiere health & wellness facility, with a full-range of fitness classes available on a group or personal basis including yoga, pilates, zumba, meditation, weight training, massage, and much, much more.
Vida Spa – specializing in massage and skin care services
O2 Spa – reflexology, massage, gym, hair salon, social spaces, yoga
Atlantic Guanabo – hair, nails, skin care, massage
Memories Miramar – day use of pool, gym, sauna, tennis courts
CicloCuba – quality Specialized bicycle rentals (not beater bikes or single-speed beach cruisers). Walk-ins accepted during the week with a $200 CUC deposit/bike, or you can reserve 3+ rental days in advance and just have your credit card pre-authorized for the security deposit.

Educational Experiences
Vivero Loteria – ornamental cactus/succulent arrangements (Cuba’s largest collection)
El Divino – out-of-this-world wine cellar, fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, orchids
El Ajiaco – Cuban cooking & bartending classes with meal and visit to herb-grower included. Ample seafood options on Cuban-inspired menu.
Quinta de los Molinos – gardens on the university grounds with a butterfly sanctuary and occasional gardening/bonsai workshops. This is an historic oasis in the middle of the city.
Alamar Agricultural Cooperative – We have gradually been planting both at home and in our neighborhood in eastern Havana, so with the community of Alamar being relatively close to home, we love to browse their fruit & palm tree selection. This is the largest and most successful urban gardening center in the city.
Tailors & Seamstresses – This is a dying profession in the developed world, so it’s refreshing to see clothing being repurposed and transformed in Cuba. Bring along some clothes or fabric you’re looking to transform/alter and then ask around for the local seamstress or tailor. Many will accommodate you same-day and are very resourceful with making tailor-made adjustments for just the right fit for your body type. If you bring along some extra needles & thread for their machines (or any other cute or useful sewing accessories), that’s a bonus. I usually voluntarily pay considerably more than what my local seamstress charges and am happy to do so to help support her family. I also enjoy watching her work her talents at her well-worn manual sewing machine.

Culture / Nightlife
Cuban Art Factory (FAC) – one of Havana’s most popular cultural gathering places with a diverse lineup with everything from visual arts, to multiple music genres, poetry, fashion shows and more gracing their stages. You can slip between galleries and concert halls, eat/drink, take dance (even tango) classes, socialize or just drink in the distinctly Cuban atmosphere.
Gran Teatro de La Habana – some of the most elevated cultural performances in Cuba take place in this spectacular & recently-restored setting which is the home to the National Ballet
SuenaCubano.com – a good online source for cultural programming, but best to check in closer to your travel dates for updates.

Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

How to Ship Your Motorcycle to Cuba

The question many of you are asking: “How can I send my motorcycle to Cuba?” answered here. For visitors to Cuba, there are three ways. Air freight (expensive), on a private yacht (if you own one or can hook up with yacht owner willing to assist), or in a container ship (relatively inexpensive, but best suited for groups).

Air freight: While Air Transat has offered this service from Canada in the past, at last check they were claiming that they are not currently accepting motorcycles as air cargo due to a lack of facilities in Cuban airports that will provide the dangerous goods certificate. We’re not certain this is actually the case as a Canadian friend very recently shipped his Harley to Varadero with Cubana de Aviacion at a cost of ~$2500 CAD all in for the one way journey from Montreal. Should he choose air freight for the return (remember that he could choose an alternate shipping method for the return should that be his preference), Cubana would ship the bike back to Canada. Another German acquaintance has used European airlines to ship a group of motorcycles to Havana at a much heftier price tag of ~€3500. At any rate, if you’re on a tight timeline and have lots of money to spend, this route is certainly an option. Temporary importation and licensing of your bike is possible for the duration of your tourist visa. For most nationalities tourist visas are good for 30 days, extendable locally for another 30 days; for Canadians it’s 90 days + 90 days extension for a total of just about 6 consecutive months of riding pleasure. The process is relatively fast and requires no intermediaries. You are obliged to re-export your bike upon a) departure from Cuba or b) expiration of your tourist visa (whichever comes first) or risk confiscation of the equipment. If you were forced to unexpectedly leave Cuba for a documented medical emergency they may make an exception. The only other possible (long shot) exception to this rule might be if you were married to a Cuban and granted permanent residence in Cuba before the stipulated temporary importation period expired, in which case you might be able to nationalize the bike and have a local plate issued.

Private yacht: If you’re traveling to Cuba via private yacht or know someone who is willing to ferry your bike to Cuba, after checking in at the international marina the marina’s customs office will assist in the temporary importation of your bike, and again local regulations allow for licensing for the duration of your tourist visa. No intermediaries are required for this option either. Bike owners (or those in power of the bike’s official paperwork) can present their documents directly to the appropriate Cuban officials for temporary importation and licensing/registration.
Unloading bikes in the Havana port
Container ship: WoWCuba has experience assisting in the temporary importation of containers of motorcycles in Cuba. This option requires the support of a Cuban institution and is not suitable for individual travelers. In conjunction with a guaranteed land package (transport/guide/hotel services) which needn’t necessarily be for the entire duration of your intended stay in Cuba, our ground handler Havanatur S.A. issues a document authorizing the local import agency to undertake the corresponding actions to extract equipment from the Mariel port upon arrival with our assistance and supervision, and we also take care of local licensing with the local Motor Vehicles office upon arrival of the bike owners in Havana. We’ve managed to compete this process in the past in a record 24 hours, but (to be on the safe side) a minimum of several days to a week are recommended from the time of arrival of the container ship to when you expect to begin riding. From Canada we usually use Protos Shipping, based in Halifax. They have a direct non-stop route to Havana featuring bi-monthly departures of Melfi Marine ships which take 5-7 days to arrive in port. Container ships also regularly travel to Cuba from Mexico, Panama, and even Europe, but routes from Europe can be very circuitous so at least a month is recommended from departure to arrival/extraction in Havana. When maritime shipping/port/customs fees are divided between a group of 8-10 bikes per container, the overall costs are usually very attractive compared to air freight. While some Danish groups that bring their bikes here simply use tie-downs to secure their equipment in the containers to maximize the use of space, others prioritize the safety of their equipment by using pallets with steel wheel divots to ensure immobility of equipment during the journey. Some groups even use dims to build a second level in their container and fit even more bikes in for relatively the same costs, but this usually requires a little more work in terms of removing windshields, lowering handlebars of the bikes on the first level to accommodate the bikes on the top during transit.

If the above options for riding your own bike in Cuba turn out to be too complicated and you’re looking for a simpler solution to experience Cuba on 2 motorized wheels, this year Ernesto Guevara (yes, he’s Che’s youngest son), Camilo Sanchez and Sergio Morales have teamed up and will be offering two different circuits in Cuba with modern Harley Davidson bike rentals included. WoWCuba will soon have full details and rates available for individuals or groups interested in rolling Cuba’s roads with this adventurous and accomplished team of local organizers/riders/mechanics.

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”.

Cuban Harlistas 2014 Rally & Family Tales

We left off last time with me anxiously awaiting the arrival of a container ship from Panama carrying 13 motorcycles bound for our Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event in Varadero from February 6-10. The ship was late leaving Panama on Jan. 23 and the first ETA we were given was for January 31st. As that date approached, it was then adjusted to Feb. 3. But the stars and the moon and all the spirits were with us this time. The ship arrived in the Havana port at 21:00 on Feb. 3rd, they began unloading it at 23:00 and by 16:00 on Feb. 4th all the bikes were sitting in the parking lot of the Panama biker group’s hotel with everything lined up for their temporary license plates & registration with the motor vehicles office just down the street the next morning. Record time, according to the port officials. So we didn’t have to resort to my worst case scenario of me having to stay back and continue to get the paperwork completed while Abel, the main organizer of the international encounter, went to Varadero without me on the back of his bike once again (last year’s riding to the gathering on the back of the Blue Streak was disappointingly out for me due to a back injury). This year´s encounter included participants from Cuba, Panama, Norway, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Canada. The number of foreign bikes registered for the encounter almost matched the number of bikes from Cuba, a first.

The Panama group is the first we’ve hosted on their own bikes from South America. They told us that there was a lot of talk in their part of the world that if you sent your bike to Cuba you’d never see it again. Which made us laugh, because of course it’s not true. They’re certain their numbers will grow significantly for next year now that the temporary importation/re-exportation process has been thoroughly proven. Actually, we’re not quite yet out of the woods, and that’s the funny part. After the event was over, on Feb. 10 everyone drove to the port and packed up all the bikes in the shipping container once again, and we even optimistically hoped that we could move forward their original shipping return date from Feb. 28 to Feb. 14. Mid-week we spent a frantic morning on the phone because there was a question about the Dangerous Goods Certificate, which was originally issued in Panama, but a copy of which hadn’t been received here. After much calling back & forth, the go-ahead was given from Panama and payment of the certificate on the other end was guaranteed. The container was going to be loaded on the ship. Pshew, wipe your brow and take a breath. But in the end it turns out that the container wasn’t loaded after all because the customs agency on this end hadn’t delivered the Declaration of Merchandise to the container port in time, so everything’s now in place to depart as originally planned the end of the month. I’ll take that.

Yesterday the organizer of the Panama group called us to check on the status of the paperwork and return shipment of the bikes and Abel reassured him that everything was set for departure sometime at the end of February/beginning of March. Tranquilo, no hay problema ninguno. He’s on top of this. After he got off the phone I got a mischievous gleam in my eye and I told him he should have told the organizer, “Yeah, right. And you REALLY thought it was going to be that easy? Of COURSE the importation part’s a breeze, but you SERIOUSLY thought we were going to just send all those modern bikes back to Panama just like that?!?!?!?”. Abel cracked up and started expanding on that idea, saying he should tell him that “Your bikes have already been distributed all around Cuba. That 2014 Harley Fat Boy that was making so much noise all the time? That’s already rolling the streets of Santiago de Cuba!!!”. Hahahahahahahahahaha It would be great to catch his reaction to THAT on a hidden camera. Which got us thinking that hidden camera pranks might be another great thing to do over the next year with some of our motorcycle friends here in Cuba. You’ll have to stay tuned for that and see what happens.

My parents who haven’t lived together in more than 20 years (but neither of whom has remarried) arrived in Havana last night after missing their Sunday flight through Toronto due to yet more snow in eastern Canada. The new route took them through Montreal and Toronto with an overnight before arriving in Havana. They’d shared a hotel room the night before. So 1.5 hours after touching down in Havana they were finally through immigration, luggage claim and customs. Hello, hello, kiss, kiss. And then they’re both at it. Dad complaining about Mom not being able to be left alone or she’d get lost. Mom complaining that Dad’s deaf and Dad saying, “What?” with a snicker. Probably pretending to be deaf so she’d stop rambling. Mom trying to scam $300 out of Dad. He says she already spent it all. Them bickering about the hefty $10 tip she gave to the guy inside the airport for getting Dad a wheelchair so he didn’t have to walk anymore, bringing her a pop and assisting with her luggage. Dad saying she’s upsetting the economic balance. Mom telling him to blow it out his ear. With 3 flights in 2 long days, Dad’s knees/feet were a bit swollen but hopefully in a couple of days he’ll be back to normal. He’s off to the city tagging along with Abel who’s running errands this afternoon, a wonderful climate adjustment and change in scenery. Mom’s staying with my brother’s family basking in being Grammy. And not sleeping in the same room with Dad.

We’ve made a couple of videos this season too. Getting with the social media scene. The first one we produced is of our bicycle tours of Cuba, and most recently one of the Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event which should be finished tomorrow. Once we have the finished product, getting the videos uploaded is a monumental task from Cuba since our dial-up internet connection won’t support a 100 MB upload. So our heartfelt thanks to the clients who so graciously provide the assist in forwarding those DVD’s back to our PEI office. It takes a lot longer, and is a lot more circuitous, but eventually it gets done. It was recently announced that they’re going to make internet connections available via cell phones here. But I’ve heard through the grapevine that the rates are apparently going to be in the $0.05/KB range when the service is finally activated. Ouch! Something like the unattainable car prices here. Somebody also told me there was talk about giving existing internet users triple the time for the same monthly fee. For me, that’d be welcome compensation because on windy (like today) or rainy days my connection runs between slow and stopped most of the time. But I imagine this is just wishful thinking as I dutifully paid my extra hours last month. To connect from my home office, I pay for 80 hours/month which is the maximum package you can buy and even though I have credit in my account, when the monthly allotment runs out I have to make a personal trip to the local telephone office to request the extra time. Stop work, go to office, wait in line, sign letter, go back home. Call office to make sure account is reactivated asap. For those of you who live in the wifi/hyperconnected world, welcome to 1990. There’s been no official notification of free extra hours even though I regularly let them know that my home phone line and internet connection truly suck. They know that though, I suspect.

Signing off and getting back to work. I wonder how long it’s going to take to upload this post.

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.

Get Your Motor Runnin’

 

They say “Don’t mix business with pleasure”, but our personal hobbies and leisure activities are often the inspiration for our Cuba travel product lineup. Our latest project was inspired by my husband Abel’s initiation into the world of antique Harley Davidsons in Cuba a few years ago. My Dad, an incessant entreprenueur, had a Kawasaki dealership for awhile when we were young and I’d been initiated into the Harley world with the parents of a childhood friend. While in university I’d also spent some late nights at the local Charlottetown Harley Club, where a roommate of mine was a member, and had always found the Harley crowd to be down to earth and adventurous. After we sold our sailboat, Abel was looking for a new hobby. In 2007 he bought a 1947 Flathead and spent almost a year restoring it with the invaluable expertise of a local mechanic (a.k.a. genius) in Cuba. Since there is no dealership in Cuba, maintaining these bikes is somewhat of an art form. The film Cuban Harlistas http://www.cubanharlistas.com/main/?PHPSESSID=nh6m4kv2gqns7726iedp3g31q0h0on5p features a great collection of material from riders around Cuba who have mastered the art of keeping these machines on the road.

Abel was desperate to be riding the bike and almost gave up on his mechanic Eladio coming on the end of the 1-year restoration. Eladio, a machinist by trade, tends to priorize a lot of the smaller jobs that present themselves at his workshop on a daily basis since they’re what keep him solvent. But Eladio assured Abel that the bike would be ready within the month, they hugged & made up and sure enough, a month later Abel got his first taste of the wind blowing through his military-short hair. We got to participate in our first group activity, escorting the members of the antique car club on a ride from the Piragua (just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional) all through the city to the Macumba, where there were eats/drinks and activities by the pool for the afternoon. It was a rush to say the least. Abel wasn’t that confident on the bike with me along perched on the back of the springy seat, so we didn’t make any stops (as the more experienced riders did) along the way to block the traffic from interrupting our parade. But we made it there in one piece without stalling the machine and everything was rosy.

But his happiness was short-lived. Not long afterwards he was driving along on the highway to take the bike to the mechanic for some tweaking. I was driving behind in the car with our niece and her boyfriend since we were all going to return to the city together after dropping off the bike. Abel was cruising along at 80 or 90 kms/hour and all of a sudden there was a loud noise and the bike came to a sudden stop. He’d blown a piston, the only part which wasn’t replaced as part of the restoration. So off I went to the mechanic’s house (after a year of going there at least once a week with Abel, I just had to follow my nose) to see what we were going to do. When I got there his 80-something mother said they were all at a venue nearby celebrating his birthday party. We thought the party was the day before and that we’d missed it since we had to work. On my merry way again, I found the party and once I there, recruited some help to tow the bike. We made it back in one piece and spent the rest of the afternoon socializing with the diverse group of new friends we were just getting to know. We were already familiar with one of them since he worked in another travel agency here in Cuba. The crowd included everyone from hairdressers to accountants, machinists, artesans and chemists plus their children, parents and even grandparents. You name it, but the one thing they all had in common was a passion for adventures on their motorcycles. The mechanic’s wife got thrown in the pool, clothes and all.

After it was fixed (again) Abel rode the Flattop for awhile, but soon after also acquired a 1948 Panhead which is his favorite ride. The previous owner had spent a lot of time restoring it and most of its motor was new. Abel joined a local motorcycle club called Habana Harley, a collection of about a dozen riders here in the capital. We get together every once in awhile, usually for shorter rides or activities around the city on weekends. The members’ families also participate in the events organized by the club. The men usually sit around and talk about their bikes and the women sit around and talk about the men. He joined another international club called LAMA (Latin American Motorcycle Association), founded by Puerto Rican Mario Nieves, which has chapters in many provinces in Cuba. In Havana alone the club has around 80 members right now. The club has no borders, no preferences for race, color, religion, or political beliefs. It’s just a collection of people who like to ride their motorcycles together. We participated in the first-ever national LAMA rally in Cuba last August. Riders from all over Cuba converged for four days in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba. It was an exhilarating adventure. I acquired a new nickname on that trip. It’s “La Sirena”. In Spanish La Sirena can mean The Mermaid or The Siren. I’m the latter of the two. Quite a few people in the group have sirens on their bikes but I do a perfect imitation of the sound, intermittently bursting out with the piercing scream whenever the moment strikes me. If you’ve been to Cuba before you may have noticed that quite a few cars have funny horn sounds (songs, whistles) which their owners often barp when they see an especially attractive female in the vicinity. David from our office in Canada once bought  one of the horns that makes a catcall sound here to have secretly installed on one of his PEI-friends’ vehicles when he returned home, unbeknownst to the owner. Great fun!Lama Riders outside Trinidad

The LAMA club’s president in Cuba, Adolfo Prieto, approached us since he had been working for several years already delivering motorcycle tours of Cuba with a Danish company. Since there was no independent motorcycle rental in Cuba, they had been sending a container of personally-owned bikes for temporary importation for their tour members, and re-exporting them upon the conclusion of their tour. Adolfo said that with Canada being the # 1 emissor of tourism to Cuba, and the Canadian shipping route being so much shorter (and direct), he couldn’t understand why noone was doing this from Canada yet. He figured that with our connections in the travel industry in Cuba, plus our geographical proximity to the Halifax port from our home base in PEI, Canada, we would be the ideal candidates to promote this kind of activity. We didn’t have to think too hard about it – we agreed that the project was exciting. We’d already had plenty of experience using container ships from Halifax to send merchandise to Cuba for our longstanding bicycle tour operation so knew this would be possible. The shipping time is usually only around 5 days and the boats depart for Havana every 2 weeks.

So with Adolfo’s assistance, we began to research all of the requirements for temporary importation in Cuba, contacted the shipping and insurance companies, plus a friend of ours who managed the local Harley dealership in Charlottetown PEI for exact dimensions of the shipping crates and other miscellaneous information, and began to put together our packages for a 2-week and a 3-week winter program. I spent some time last summer promoting the tours at the Red Island Run and the Wharf Rat Rallies in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia and while interest was high and we had several riders committed to participate, we haven’t yet rounded up the required minimum of 8-10 riders to confirm a tour date. It seems that everyone wants to try this out, but only after the first tour has gone out! The stumbling block appears to be perhaps some reluctance or hesitation on using the container ship. Which we know perfectly well is the most economical way to run this kind of program. So hopefully we can soon figure out a way to get past that barrier.

A couple of months ago another Danish company did a temporary importation of 12 new Harley Davidsons intended for use as part of their escorted tour programs. We’re currently putting together a program together with them designed for the Canadian marketplace using the 2010-11 Harley Davidsons they already have in place in Cuba. While it is sure to be slightly more expensive than the group maritime shipping option, we’re plan on making both options available as we continue to explore this new marketplace.

With a personal passion for this activity, all the personal and professional connections we could hope for to be able to pull this off, all we need now are some committed riders of a similar pioneering nature to turn this dream into a reality. If you know of any, be sure to put them in contact with us. This is Abel’s pet project and his email is comercial@wowcuba.com.