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, 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.

Summer Heat, Music & Tramites in Cuba: My Canadian Perspective

If I had my way, I’d spend the entire summer in my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. This Cuban heat is insufferable! But due to an unusual set of circumstances entirely beyond my control, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. So I usually limit myself to a month or a little more of life in the developed world every spring/early summer, surrounded by family and my oldest friends. This year’s highlights were booting around Charlottetown on a Toba electric bike (fun, fast, and affordable), hanging with and catching up with my oldest girlfriends (and especially my hula-hooping/kite-flying bff), Canada Day escapades on her daughters’ electric scooters that we “borrowed” including a perch at the Grand Holman penthouse suite to view the fireworks, and being invited into the delivery room to see my sister give birth to her second daughter. Not having procreated myself, my girlfriends all urged me to accept her invitation, conditional on my not planning on actually ever going through that experience myself. It was worth it, very amazing indeed. The lowlights were watching my parents age before my eyes while my siblings and I struggle with issues of how to manage the next stage of their lives while providing them with all the independence and dignity they deserve. That part makes me tear up a little just thinking about it, maybe because I don’t live or deal with their issues on a daily basis which, admittedly, can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Cuba for so long that I’ve resolved that we should not resort to moving either of them into a care facility until the situation is unmanageable. But I almost went over the edge when my sister suggested a nursing home might be the best thing for my mother. My Cuban sister in law was the one that helped me deal with that blow, also agreeing that between all of us we’ll find a way to manage things for as long as we can. Between the four siblings and our families, and thanks in no small part to my sister, we’ve managed so far but two of us, including my brother and his family who live beside my father in PEI, spend the entire winter in Cuba. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire a property facing our house here in Havana which we’ve been plugging away at turning into the “Old Folks Home” where we hope to be able to provide our elderly family members with a supervised place to stay close to their children, independent to a large extent, but with a support network nearby. That construction project and another one in Old Havana destined for a cooperative my husband has proposed, have been occupying a lot of our time and most of our personal resources over the last year. But more on those in a future post.

Being tied up financially and time-wise, we don’t have a lot going on in our social schedule these days. But we have managed to take in a few memorable activities nonetheless. One was a day trip to visit friends who rent a house with a pool every summer for their family mountain vacation in Soroa. When we got there our host took one look at me and told me “No te hagas la extranjera” (Don’t play the foreigner). Yes, it’s been that long that they even want to strip that away from me. We ended up having to go back a couple of days later with the trailer in tow to rescue a friend’s motorcycle that broke down on his return in La Moka. That ended up being a full-day adventure in itself with a broken wheel bearing in my husband’s car. Light on tools for once in his life, we ended up being incredibly fortunate when we pulled over close to some Pinareños who were prepared for just about anything. And who said that Pinareños were fools?! Several couples in 2 cars and an old truck had intended to spend the day at leisure in Las Terrazas but they arrived late and the visitor capacity was already full, so they just camped out roadside, opened up their cooler, turned up the music and fixed a spread of roast pork and tamales right out of the trunk of their ´57 Chev in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it was in the shade. The inner part of the bearing was stuck on the axle and after much tooling around and more than 2 hours, and several trips by myself and the other girl in our car to ask for one tool or another while my husband and his friend tried every experiment they could think of to loosen the inner part of the bearing, the Pinareño men finally wrenched themselves away from their girlfriends and hammered the old bearing to pieces so we could install the new one and get back on the road. Thank heavens for those resourceful Cubans. They had more tools in the back of their truck than most hardware stores stock in Cuba.

Since we live outside of town we don´t often take in evening cultural performances, but we have indulged a few times this summer. My favorite was visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) the night William Vivanco was playing. We arrived on a Saturday just before 8 pm when they open and checked out the various exhibitions of architecture, fashion, and visual art on 2 levels, snacked on octopus, and sipped iced tea while we chatted with friends on the upstairs deck. X Alfonso’s mom was even working helping to set up the upstairs bar when we arrived. She and her husband, from the Cuban group Synthesis, are probably considered among Cuba’s cultural royalty, but as with most Cuban personalities, they take all of that in stride. It’s funny how relatively respectful Cubans are of some of their best-known personalities compared to how celebrities outside of Cuba are often bombarded in public spaces. We stayed long enough to catch just a few songs by one of my favorite Cuban troubadors downstairs before we skipped out to get home at a decent hour. Although it’s open until 4 a.m., we left at around 11:30 and by then the lineup already extended around the corner. This is one fabulous space for adults of various ages.

Less culturally fulfilling for me, but perhaps more amusing in a sense was our first-ever visit to the Maxim Rock theater. A Cuban rock group associated with a motorcycle club my husband is in recently auditioned and were approved by the commission, and was making their professional debut. We sat with a photographer friend of ours who’s also in the club. While I love rock & roll, listening to most Cubans singing it with a Spanish accent and often bad pronunciation is just not my cup of tea. We are da champions my frens. You know. Our friends had (for the first time ever) invited another group to open for them. And the lead singer was actually pretty impressive. Not only because he didn’t massacre the lyrics for me, but because he was also a one-armed guitar player. I’ve never seen anything like that before. His left arm was amputated below the elbow and he had a strap-on pick to strum with. The female backup singers had decent voices, but their English pronunciation was driving me up the wall, so I headed out for a bathroom break before my shoulders adhered to my ears as I listened to them killing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. The Cubans don’t know the difference and seemed to love it, so why ruin it for my husband. Grin & bear it. On the way back in I almost got whipped in the face by one of the dreadlock headbangers. His dreads reached his knees and he was swinging them around in a circle (too close to the door) as I awaited my chance to skip by him. I felt like I was on Frogger waiting for the right moment to step between the buses and cars before getting run over. It wasn’t even a heavy song. But Cuban rock & roll lovers are over the top when it comes to their preferred genre. I wanted to take a picture of all the long-haired people in front of the stage as their locks rose into the air along with the beat, but as soon as I stepped cautiously onto my plastic chair with my camera to get an elevated view, I was promptly extended a hand by the gracious security staff, caught breaking the no standing on the chairs rule. Darn! So I just kept ogling the costumes and funny dancers. Skinny jeans with an oversized belt buckle tucked into cowboy boots on a man. Just Don’t Do It. Guys overindulging in whisky dancing all by themselves like no one was watching in the middle of the room. Me thinking that this is a time warp, but even in the ‘80s when this music was popular people in Canada didn’t dress with that much leather, much less in the year 2014. And our dear photographer friend turned out to be a regular rock & roll encyclopedia. While in high school, I was the only girl in a rock band and at the time I thought those guys (all older than me) knew all kinds of rock history, but they pale in comparison to Jorge the Rock Dictionary. The bass player of a group I used to dabble with here once told me that since when he was growing up they didn’t play rock & roll on the radio in Cuba the only time they could listen to it would be on certain radio frequencies when weather would carry the transmissions from southern Florida to Cuba. As Jorge was rattling off facts to us about different musicians and groups, I was thinking to myself that being deprived of rock & roll at some point in their youth probably only served to fuel his passion. You always want what you don’t have. And I’m glad you’re sitting beside my husband, not me, because I’m trying to take in these videos I haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian show Video Hits.

How’s the weather this summer? Freaking hot. 30 degrees before the sun comes up practically. And when it rains, it pours. Some sections of town quickly flood due to clogged drains. I purchased a filter for collecting rainwater at our house for the garden (little Ms. Ecological me) but we still haven’t gotten around to finding the right materials to custom-build the gutters since no store here sells pre-fabricated gutters. But I am committed to completing that project before the next rainy season rolls around. I’m really looking forward to the cooler fall weather. We generally avoid the beach in the peak part of the Cuban summer. Too many people, too much noise, too much rum. But at least there’s some wind today which makes life a bit more bearable. And I am completely aware and ever-thankful for a/c in our bedroom and main vehicle. Last year we purchased an a/c unit for our main living area but only rarely turn it on for a short while in the morning to refresh the temperature in the house if it’s especially stuffy, then turn on the fans, open all windows and let the breeze blow through. We’re hoping to take at least 4 or 5 days off in September to get away and explore a bit. There are some great new boutique properties that have opened in Camaguey which I’m eager to see with my own eyes, and checking out a few hostels and restaurants in Cienfuegos is also on my list of things to do. Diving will definitely be tossed in there – my Cuban husband has his navigation authorization all signed/stamped by the Cuban Coast Guard so we’re ready to take the plunge back into the underwater world.

One of the best things that happened to me here all summer so far was the speed of re-registering a vehicle. I normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go get in the lineup of cars at motor vehicles when the registration is set to expire each August. Last year I sat for hours with a friend who was on his fourth visit/attempt, and he finally gave up around noon when the system still hadn’t come up. This year when I stopped in mid-morning to verify the amount of stamps I’d require for the renewal they asked why I didn’t just come back before 1 pm and get it over with the same day. Excited at that prospect, I immediately hot-tailed it to the nearest bank to buy the stamps. When I got there I realized it wasn’t my day. The old age pensioners were collecting that day, so the single lineup to get into the bank was at least 2 hours long by my estimation. I marked my place in the line anyway, but decided to check out another branch. The branch by the Tropical had 2 lineups, one for credit applications and another for the counter. I figured the lineup for the counter there would be just about 1 hour, so I marked my place in the line, found out who was in front of the lady before me, called my husband and told him to bring in the work car that I had to have registered since as long as it was there before 1 pm they’d promised same-day service. And then I hauled my trusty abanico (fan) out of my purse and pulled up some shade. The conversation in the lineup focused a lot on complaints about how they talk about all the problems in Cuba on local tv, but nobody gets around to solving them. When the bank staff member assigned to crowd control at the door stepped out for a few minutes to buy snacks, more than a few people snuck in to try their luck at sweetening up somebody in side to make the line shorter. That incenses sweating and elderly Cubans to no end. When you are finally lucky enough to get your foot in the door, it’s to take one of the 20 seats and wait your turn. But at least there’s air conditioning in there. People inside are even smiling and joking around. Until the lady at the door tells all the pensioners in there that she hoped they’d read the sign on the door indicating that they were only doling out pensions of up to 200 Cuban pesos that day. Anyone with a pension larger than that was assigned a different day to collect their money. Uproar by the elderly. What?!?! All this time waiting and NOW you tell us?!?! One man walked out, but came back a few minutes later when he realized he’s misunderstood what she said. None of them had a pension in excess of 200 Cuban pesos, so they were all good to go. One lady with amputated legs was carried to a waiting car (driven presumably a family member) to return home. My husband used to have an authorization to charge his grandmother’s pension on her behalf, but not all of the elderly have/trust someone to do that for them. I don’t know why they don’t just do it by direct deposit, but that might be too easy. In Cuba they like their bureaucracy. There was a big kerfuffle when one grandmother who was surely over 90 fainted outside in the lineup. Everyone inside started yelling for the woman who guarded the door to unlock it, the bank manager came out to tell everyone to quiet down while they seated the abuela inside in the a/c to wait her turn, but in more comfortable conditions. It was a bit of a circus. After 90 minutes I had my $40 in stamps and made a beeline back to the car registry office where I emerged an hour later, good to go for yet another year. This year it took longer to buy the stamps than to get the car’s specs printed by the authorities, have its serial #s and lights inspected, photos of the motor/plates taken, paperwork signed, stamped & verified in the system, and registration issued. It appears that most vehicle owners have already had the new white license plates issued and for the first time ever this tramite was super easy. There are some things to give thanks for, and this is one of them. That’s how it should work every year. But I’m glad that for once in two decades I had a positive experience registering a vehicle here. I even took a picture of the empty waiting room because I’ve never, ever seen it like that before.

Enough rambling for today though. Over and out probably until after we get to actually take a few days of well-earned vacation for ourselves.

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”.

My Latest Pet

Lucky2“Lucky” walked into my life a few months back, skittish with sad-looking eyes and dermatitis. We don’t know if he was abandoned by his owners or just got lost, but after a month of us and our closest neighbors all tossing this sickly mutt of a dog food scraps every day (which only made him want to stay around longer), I finally caved in and decided to take him in. I started by shampooing him down which didn’t seem to bother him a bit. On the contrary, I think he loved the attention. That went well, so I picked him clean of fleas and set him out in the sun to dry. My neighbor recommended a very reasonable and competent local veterinarian where we took him for an injection and some blue anti-flea liquid she massaged into his neck. She suggested some anti-itch tablets and we took him down into Guanabo for a total of 3 shots over 3 weeks. He got to take rides in the car which he wasn’t so sure about, but he was very cooperative with the shots and barely even flinched. He also basked in the daily brushing in the opposite direction of his hair growth, which lifted out all his dry flaky skin. For a total cost of under $10 and in just a few weeks of treatment his hair had all grown back in and he was a shiny new boy feeling much more confident in himself.

I call him Lucky because he’s darned lucky we took him in when I definitely wasn’t looking for or wanting the duties a dog requires. We had a dog when we first married, a Belgian Shepherd. Who died of “moquillo”. That dog loved my husband but was a little crazy and would repeatedly throw itself against the metal door in the hallway when we’d leave in the morning, so much did he not like being left alone. After a couple of weeks of treating it with shots and “sueros” the neighborhood veterinarian concluded that the dog was past the point of no return, that even if he recovered he would have suffered irreparable neurological damage and it was time to put him down. I still remember the poor thing looking at us as it died, trying to hang on and the vet telling us to move out of his vision so he would just go to sleep. And then having to figure out where to get rid of the corpse. When you live in the city and back then we were traveling mostly by motorcycle. Only more recently have I discovered an improvised pet cemetery on the outskirts of Alamar, but I’m sure disposal of dead pet is an issue for many city dwellers.

We didn’t have a dog for awhile after that but my husband’s elderly grandmother had a small white dog called Canela. She loved that dog, and it was her constant companion. While I was visiting family in Canada my husband once took Canela home with him to stay at our house for a couple of days for one reason or another. Canela also hated to be left home alone during the day; she howled and howled all day long. Until she figured out how to escape and we never saw her again. We felt so bad for his grandmother’s loss that one day when we were at the beach and an evidently lost dog approached us, we decided to take him home. We bathed and perfumed him, tied a red bow on his ears and brought him to his grandmother as a present. But by then she (or perhaps more so her primary care-giver at the time) had decided that she didn’t want the work of a dog. Oh, crap. What did we do? We brought it back to the beach close to where we found it, convinced that he was quite healthy (probably not because of the abundance of beach scraps) and must have a home near there somewhere and if not somebody else would take him in.

Before Lucky arrived, I’d acted like a surrogate mother to our neighbors’ dogs for years without having the obligation of having to ensure their daily food. But those stupid sad eyes. I just couldn’t say no. He looooooves me. I assigned him a food and water dish out back in the patio. He knows they’re his, although the next door neighbor dog Dora would like some of the action since she was always the scrap recipient before Lucky. Dora the Explorer I call her, because she spends more time roaming around in our patio than her own, even though she has a guaranteed meal next door every night. She knows how to get through our wrought iron/brick fence but none of the other mangy neighborhood dogs have caught on yet. So being his most frequent visitor, Dora’s Lucky’s best friend. Dora’s the dominant female in the relationship. When they play-fight, Lucky more often than not rolls over and gives in to Dora the Boss at the first sign of trouble.

He has good habits such as doing his duty in the garden so I don’t have to clean turds off the patio. I can’t complain there. Early on during his first month living in our yard, one day at dusk I noticed his belly was swollen up like a balloon and I asked my neighbor if she’d happen to notice what he’d gotten into. She’d given him congris (rice & black beans), nothing out of the ordinary, but as we were talking he and Dora started fighting over the “frasada de piso” (Cuban mop cloth) I’d placed under the beach chair in our covered patio where Lucky used to sleep. They’d ripped it to shreds and quite a few of the pieces were missing, so we figure he ate it. My neighbor said we could take him down for an enema. But the vet was sick, and I wasn’t about to give the dog an enema, seriously. I have my limits. And my husband? Don’t even go there. My dog, my responsibility. By the next morning he was back to his regular size and apparently he’d passed the frasada in the garden. He now sleeps in an area he’s dug out in the dirt under the cover of a trailer in our garden. No more frasada de piso, sorry buddy.

He’s recently developed a bad tendency to nip at the heels or calves of strangers as they’re walking. He sneaks up behind them and catches them unaware, not quite so brave (or stupid?) as to confront them head-on. He’s nipped my stepson and my brother, and a few other people have sent in their reports. The utilities people who come to the house usually circumspectly eye him up before coming in to see if they can trust him or not. Best that they think he can only be trusted when we’re around, according to my neighbor. I wasn’t so sure about that and the other morning when my husband opened the gate to take out the car, unbeknownst to me Lucky escaped to roam around the block and mark his territory. We live on probably one of the quietest blocks in Havana and I can usually count the people who stroll by in the course of the day on one hand. Absorbed in the computer, all of a sudden a woman across the street starting yelling and I ran out to see what was amok. All puffed up with his new confidence, Lucky thought he was doing his job protecting the block, of which thinks he’s now the boss, and he’d nicked her calf with one of his sharp little teeth. The woman turned out to be my neighbor’s doctor cousin who has blood coagulation issues. She is not a dog person and was not terribly understanding about the whole situation, but fortunately my neighbor was able to smooth things over with her and explain some of his history before I sheepishly slipped over there to apologize after I thought she’d had some time to calm down after her initial fright.

I’m not about to take him to obedience classes but I am probably going to be paying a little closer attention to Cesar Milian the Dog Whisperer on Multivision. In the meantime, Lucky’s not going to be one of those dogs who has to be tied up all the time, but he’s definitely going to have to be confined to the perimeter of our property until he learns how to behave around strangers. You can bark all you want, but the biting has got to go if I’m to stay in the good graces of the neighbors.

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.

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.

Hectic Santa-Free Holidays

The hectic holiday season is here, but for us it has absolutely nothing to do with last minute shopping, thankfully. Our office flooded a couple of weeks ago and we had a big disagreement with the building management, which I’m pretty sure has all but been smoothed over now. But it was touch & go for a few days on finding a new location for January, which had my brother all in a tizzy since we’re in the midst of our bicycle tour season and he just doesn’t have the time for a move/new set-up. While most of our reservations are made far in advance, once the extreme high season dates arrive, there are almost always last minute surprises. They began to roll in on Dec. 20. One client who arrived in Santa Clara has reserved a late model Peugeot vehicle with automatic transmission with Rent Car VIA (who has the lowest rates of the 4 rental companies for extreme high season). When she arrived, they presented her with an older Peugeot automatic model which was a lower category than the one she booked. Right away, she called me and I contacted their operations office who readily recognized the problem which was due to a breakdown in the vehicle they’d assigned to her rental. She opted not to take the downgrade they were offering and later that same day (luckily) they delivered the model she’d prepaid. One down, how many more to go? The next day while we were at our end of the year motorcycle club party, I received a call from a client who’d picked up his VIA automatic transmission Peugeot vehicle in Havana but by the time he’d arrived in Viñales it wouldn´t turn to the right. He also followed instructions and contacted us for advice. I told him to contact the rental company´s 24-hr operations line and ask for the car to be towed, and have the rental company´s functionary corroborate the fact that it was no longer operational. The next day he had a replacement car, despite the fact that when he first contacted them they said they had no automatics remaining. Then I had someone else who was supposed to pick up a Geely CK from Rent Car VIA upon his international arrival in Holguin. He called me the next day mid-morning to advise that they’d delivered a vehicle whose check engine and ABS lights were lit, and the vehicle cut out 3 times before he could even leave the parking lot. The rental counter functionary made note of the technical deficiencies on his contract and told him to go to the Hotel Bosque the next day to try and get another car. For some reason the client was told not to contact us from the airport, that there would be no one working that late at night. Wrong information, but at any rate I was still able to investigate the chain of events, establish with the airport rental counter that the car was definitely not in working order upon delivery (despite conflicting information from the rental company’s operations office), and finally in less than an hour a replacement vehicle was on its way.

In the middle of all the rental car troubleshooting, I received a last minute request from a U.S. group who’d been getting the runaround from the intermediary arranger who’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to book their services for early January. I agreed to take them on, although somewhat against my better judgment this close to departure and during our busiest time of the year. I’ve secured most services but am still waiting for a quotation on their transport/extrahotel package. I was able to do a little investigative work on their booking at the Havanatur 35-year anniversary gala dinner we were invited to on Dec. 19. The intermediary who poses as a “guide” was booking their services through another agency and collecting a big chunk of cash for payment on arrival. Not much security in that modis operandi, and from all accounts the end result was a very inflated package price. Unbeknownst to me at the gala dinner they seated me beside one of the vice presidents of Havanatur where we’ve been represented in the Cuban Chamber of Commerce for over a decade now. After I asked her what department she worked in, and she told me her position I probed a little further and discovered that Havanatur has made cuts and only represents 5 foreign travel agencies now, and only three of us had been invited to their gala dinner. Presumably the other two aren’t producing sufficient sales to justify representation through their organization for much longer. We took home a plaque, a reproduction of a Cecilia Valdes painting, other miscellaneous gifts, and were enriched with a performance by a young opera group called Habana Clasicos. Their regular gig is on Friday nights @ 9 :30 at the Hotel Sevilla for anyone looking to take in some high-level cultural entertainment.

On Dec. 20 we were given Havanatur invitations to the 70th anniversary of the debut of Alicia Alonso as Giselle. The performance was at the National Theatre (the Gran Teatro is still under renovations) and didn’t disappoint. At intermission I couldn’t take my eyes off a fellow outside who may qualify for one of the biggest fashion faux pas I’ve seen to date. Zebra-striped shirt with, get this, matching zebra-striped tight pants. What was he thinking, I wondered to myself as I unsuccessfully tried to force myself to look the other way. I did think of snapping a picture but I just couldn’t do it. Tropicola and fried sweet potato chips and we were back for the second act.

On Dec. 21 my nieces were invited to our house for a sleepover. My brother’s youngest daughter is just 3 and wasn’t in our initial sleepover plans, but she made such a convincing plea that we relented and told her that we’d give it a try. As her mother was pulling her things out of the closet, Amanda instinctively knew her Mom was not altogether comfortable with letting go and she looked at her and said, “Mami, it’s ok. Don’t be scared.” Priceless, especially considering that she was really totally okay with the experience and didn’t cry one bit the whole time. After a hair, makeup & nails session with the girls in the morning we were off to take in the last day of FIART along with my husband’s ex-wife (to whom who he pointedly refers to as the mother of his children and NOT as his ex-wife) and her young son, plus their adult daughter and oldest granddaughter. We all crowded into his Peugeot Partner with the 3 oldest kids in the rear section fighting over who was going to get the stool we brought along and who was relegated to sit on the wheel wells. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in the shopping at FIART but rather dragged my husband and me down to the waterless moats where there were three big inflatable carnival attractions. He bought 5 rounds of 10-minute sessions which meant there were no kids crying to go back & do more (they were pooped and red-faced by the time they got out of there). After some cotton candy treats we called it a day. In the midst of the jumping games we received a call from a motorcycle friend whose Indian had quit in the middle of the highway. So when finally got back home after dropping off the troops, we switched cars, hooked up the trailer and headed out for a 400-km favor to bring our friend, his wife and the Indian back home to Caimito. I don’t know what he was thinking when he left home for a road trip with a Friday the 13th shirt on but both his Canadian riding companion and myself set him straight on the Fri 13/Tue 13 thing and he’s now fully convinced he must turn the shirt into a rag. They tried to force dinner on us when we got there but we still had an hour to go to get back home and had to decline. No rest for the wicked last Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday were cram days, making sure all loose ends were wrapped/tied up before the holidays. Still fielding calls from the US group who thinks I am a miracle worker. I hope I don’t disappoint, but honestly there’s only so much a girl can do with less than 2 weeks to prepare in ultra high season. Am hoping some ball games will come together for them, but still not entirely sure about that yet. One of our neighbors comes in twice a week to make lunch for us and take some of the load off. We saved the gala dinner menu to present to her on Tuesday as if that were our lunch request. She didn’t quite know what to think when my husband handed it over, and after puzzling over it for a minute finally asked us if we were out of our minds. Her speciality is home-cooked Cuban food and she didn’t even know what some of the things described on the gala menu were. Comic relief.

On Tuesday night we were invited to spend

Noche Buena with some friends. Her kids set and decorated the festive holiday table. The cake I decided to bake at the very last minute for the occasion flopped (top layer was too hot and as I was sticking berries into the top to decorate it fell apart) so off we went to our favorite sweet shop, Fontanella. There must’ve been 40 people in line to buy cake, which were dribbling out of the bakery one or two at a time. By some strange stroke of luck no one was looking for their Dulce Tres Leches which were just sitting there on the shelf , so once again the gods were with us and we arrived more or less on time. We feasted on succulent roast pork, yucca con mojo, black beans, rice, tamales, salad, fries, cider, and turron.

And yesterday for Christmas Day we spent most of the day watching the “Kidnapped” series on a bootleg dvd set. My husband made a hearty vegetable soup. Finally, a well-deserved chance to catch up on the rest we didn’t get on Sunday. I think the only person that called to interrupt my lazy day was my brother, and it was only an afterthought to wish him a Merry Christmas. I didn’t even bother hauling my 9” bonsai Xmas tree out of the closet this year.

Kristen’s Cubania Quiz

My sister in law once did the Cuban test on me to check my knowledge of all things Cuban. Easy stuff such as:
Where did the Engañadora walk?
What time did Lola die?
Tom is a boy…..
Little things like that that everybody knows. After all these years, it’s hard to get anything by me. I had a rough day today and was thinking that one of my potential clients might not really be ready for some of the realities of Cuba. I was considering passing on some key questions to her and that got me to inventing a test of my own, to see how some of you visitors to Cuba might react in different situations. Do share your answers, I’d love to hear!!!

1. You’re going to a baseball game at the local stadium. What’s the very last thing you do before you leave your hotel room?
A) Put on perfume
B) Stash a flask of rum in your purse/back pocket
C) Lock your valuables in the safe
D) Pee
E) Call the front desk to let them know where you’ll be and when you expect to return

2. You’re at the Islazul Mar del Sur hotel in Varadero and the Cuban family at the table next to you has taken 3 heaping plates of bread from the breakfast buffet and you’re afraid there might not be any left for the other guests. Oh, and you think the wife is also pocketing the silverware. You:
A) Kindly ask them to return some of the excess food to the buffet table, appealing to their sense of decency
B) Throw them a dirty look
C) Tell the restaurant manager what’s going on
D) Ignore them and mind your own business
E) Contact the local police department to report their deviant behavior
F) Think there must be a bread shortage in Cuba and ask them if you can help them to stock up by similarly raiding the buffet

3. While visiting Havana’s Eastern Beaches, you’re appalled by the 75-year old Italian man cavorting around with the 18?-year old Cuban thong-attired girl at the Tropicoco Beach. You:
A) Try to avoid looking at them
B) Leave and go somewhere else
C) Point your finger, call him a pervert, and take pictures, promising to post them on the internet
D) Ask the police to check her identification
E) Go for a swim and later take a catamaran ride
F) Think “Way to be man” and hope you can be like him when you’re old

4. You’re strolling around Old Havana and really trying to soak up the atmosphere and architecture but buddy keeps popping up and saying “Lady, you wanna buy cigar?” or when you get to the main thoroughfares 10 different people have approached you saying “Taxi, man?”. You:
A) Tell them to bug off
B) Run the other way
C) Start pulling your hair out or doing something freaky which makes them keep their distance
D) Firmly say “No gracias” without smiling or frowning and continue on your way, with purpose
E) Don’t say anything and just ignore them and stand around hoping they’ll go away eventually

5. You’re in a public bathroom at the baseball stadium (sorry, if you already filled out your answer to # 1 you’re not allowed to cheat and go back to change your mind at this point). When you walk in none of the toilets are working and there’s a Cuban girl just standing there peeing on the floor which is already covered in a suspiciously yellow-colored fluid. You:
A) Walk out and tell your full bladder to shut up and wait
B) Open one of the stalls, stand over the throne, close your eyes and hope for the best
C) Leave the stadium and knock on a stranger’s door to see if some kind soul will let you in to use their bathroom
D) Join the party, pee on the floor and then make a run for it
E) Stand there for a second with your mouth agape and consider your options, then decide that you will totally remember to empty your bladder in the future before leaving your hotel room and risking a public washroom

6. You’re a heterosexual man and you’re driving alone along Via Blanca at night and see a hot Cuban girl standing under a lamppost just before the traffic lights by the grocery store in Barrio Obrero. She looks like she wants a ride. You:
A) Stop the car and ask her where she’s headed
B) Pass her, stop at the traffic lights and then hear a strange hissing sound. You wonder if you’ve punctured your tire, but then realize it’s the girl Pssst-ing you.
C) Put the car in reverse, roll down the window and notice that her Adam’s apple is suspiciously large. And that she has great legs but very square hips.
D) High-tail it out of there
E) Give her a ride to the Guanabacoa Cupet, just 15 minutes away if you take the long way

7. You’re staying at the Parque Central and are planning on taking a romantic stroll down the Malecon in Havana with your spouse, from Old Havana all the way to Vedado at night. You:
A) Take your camera, put on your favorite gold chain, tuck an extra $100 into your back pocket for dinner and drinks and go on your carefree way, your wife swinging her pretty Gucci purse as you stroll down the Prado hand in hand as happy as clams
B) Step outside the air conditioned hotel lobby into 30+ degree heat, see a 1955 Buick Special Convertible outside whose owner is smiling at you saying taxi, taxi, and decide to do the walk the next morning instead
C) Step outside and as you round the corner, there’s buddy again wanting to sell you cigars, a taxi, or take you to a good private restaurant. He stays on your tail, speaking broken English, and calling you fren, amigo, consorte. You try to ditch him, but my he’s persistent and he joins you on your romantic walk on the Malecon until you stop and buy him a beer.
D) Lock your valuables in the safe, take only what you need, and carry your purse snugly under your arm.
E) None of the above; strolling and mingling with the locals isn’t your thing.

8. You’re in a parking lot in broad daylight and some Cuban guy flashes you. You:
A) Are startled and embarrassed and walk/run as fast as you can the other way
B) Stand there and check him out
C) Scream and call Help!!!!!! to which noone responds and then you desperately find yourself wishing you’d studied Spanish more and knew how to say Auxilio!!!!!
D) Scream and run towards him which freaks him out and he catches a key piece of skin in his zipper in his rush to get out of there.
E) Contact the local police department to report his deviant behavior

9. You are driving along the highway and see someone with a stand selling all of your favorite Cuban fruits and you are very hungry. You:
A) Hope the grocery store has an even better selection when you get there later that afternoon
B) Slam on the brakes, hand over $5 CUC for 8 mangoes, 4 tangerines, and 2 pineapples and squeal out of there Ikea-style, certain you’ve just gotten the deal of the century
C) Stop the car, ask how much, wonder where you’re going to put all that stuff, and what you’re going to do since you don’t have any national money, and decide to wait and see what they have at the hotel buffet rather than get involved in changing currency with strangers
D) Pull over, inquire about prices, select your favorite fruits, pull a plastic bag out of your purse and accept change from your $3 CUC bill in national money
E) Have diarreah from overdoing the fresh fruit and vegetables already and decide to see if the next gas station doesn’t have some soda crackers and immodium.

10. You’re a mature woman at the Hotel Ancon beach and the lifeguard keeps staring at you and adjusting his crotch. You:
A) Think he has the hots for you and sidle on over
B) Think he’s gross and should be minding the swimmers more
C) Think he needs a lesson in decent public behavior and indignantly proceed to explain why to the hotel’s public relations girl at the first opportunity
D) Think he must have crabs
E) Think he’s just likes to keep his jewels in place and don’t pay him any mind

11. You’re at the Las Terrazas restaurant in Cojimar for lunch. You open the menu and see “Rice to the vapor” and “Lobster is used plunger”. You:
A) Knit your eyebrows together and wonder what will arrive at the table if you point to those items when the waitress comes around
B) Get grossed out, walk out the door and try the paladar restaurant in front
C) Order a drink at the bar and ask the bartender where the best place to grab a bite in Cojimar is.
D) Crack up laughing, take a picture of the menu and post it on Facebook
E) Figure out that they’re offering steamed rice and fresh lobster, and then order their paella

12. You’re heading down the national highway enroute to Cienfuegos and when you pull over at the gas station there’s a lady sitting outside the public washroom handing out squares of toilet paper and you realize she wants to charge you money to use the bathroom. You:
A) Grab the toilet paper she’s handing you, go in and relieve yourself in the bathroom which smells like disinfectant, wash your hands with running water, and then walk right on past her without putting any coins into her basket when you leave. After all, who pays for a public washroom, right?
B) Accept the toilet paper, are surprised at how clean the bathroom is compared to that baseball stadium the other night, do your job, and then leave her a $1 CUC tip on your way out
C) Smile and say gracias to the t.p., pee but realize the flusher isn’t working, wash your hands, leave 5 cents in the basket and turn around to see her heading into the bathroom after you with a bucket of water to manually flush the toilet. You wonder if you shouldn’t have left 25 cents instead.
D) Remember that baseball stadium from the night before and think, holy crap am I glad I went to the bathroom before I left the hotel this morning because NEVER AGAIN am I stepping foot into a public Cuban bathroom, no way, no how.
E) Look for the nearest bush and haul the toilet paper roll you took from your hotel room out of your purse

Correct answers to Kristen’s Cubania Quiz follow soon!!!

Step by Step

I began this blog with a post called “The Times They Are A-Changing” which I published shortly after the government released the new list of private business licenses they were offering. Since then the real estate markets in Cuba have experienced a boom and in addition to the countless small entrepreneurial operations that have sprung up (an astonishing number of which are in the gastronomical industry), the latest wave of de-centralization is with small privately-owned cooperatives.

Yesterday we were speaking with an engineer friend of ours who built our home several years ago now. He’s in the final stages of organizing his own 5-person construction cooperative which can provide services to both the private and government sectors. He’s currently working on 5 building projects in the Playa area of Havana alone, most of which are for private businesses. One project he recently completed is a private ice factory which is now supplying many of the paladar restaurants around town. Apparently business is booming and the owners make at least 2 daily trips in their truck delivering industrially-produced ice to their customers at $1 CUC per bag. He says that while he was in the process of presenting the project to the municipal authorities, he found them to be very receptive and open to the evolution of Cuba’s private business model. There are many doubting Toms out there, to be sure, but I believe many of them may be left behind in the dust if they don’t hop on the bandwagon and get a jumpstart on the market.

There are a host of new dining establishments, a handful of which are of excellent quality, combining very well-prepared and sometimes even innovative cuisine with charming surroundings. I’ve been waiting for a couple of months now to visit the newly-renovated El Divino here in Havana, which finally reopened this week. The finca boasts an astounding variety of fruit trees, recreational areas, and Cuba’s best wine cellar. The property is owned by a Cuban-Italian couple, and I’m very excited to finally visit there in the company of friends. I was also delighted to recently learn that our ground handlers and several others have begun contracting the services of select private accommodation and dining establishments among others. In the past, foreign agencies were directed to use as many state restaurants and facilities as possible, and while we often disregarded that rule when it came to dinnertime, now we can be very open with our Cuban partners about exactly where we intend to host our guests for meals. For the street food lovers, churros rellenos (fried sweet dough with filling) are another popular treat around here nowadays. I treated my neighbor to some the other day, and she declared them delicious. She’d never seen them before, as they’ve only been introduced in Cuba with the new businesses.

Rumor has it that many of the private boutiques that are working under seamstress licenses but actually reselling imported clothing brought to Cuba via mules have a limited future. Audits, controls and inspections will surely begin to come into place so that licenses are not completely distorted for purposes for which they were not intended. One of the tricks the vendors use to is to remove the original label and replace it with their own generic seamstress label. I might be a little sorry to see some of them go as their prices and offers are most often much more attractive than what the state boutiques have to sell. And for any of you bootleg audiovisual fans out there, you’ll have to look outside of the main avenues for your cd/dvd purchases as they have also been outlawed from porches except for less-transited thoroughfares. I know someone who made a considerable investment in displays in various key locations, only to find out a few months later about the evolution of that rule. Such is life here. To me it seemed obvious that parking yourself and your sales table in the very doorway of a state store and selling sparkly clothing of every color of the rainbow from practically every second front porch wasn’t going to last very long, but nevertheless there were vendors who did just that until the authorities began to lay down the law.

While the opportunities to purchase wholesale goods in Cuba are still extremely limited, there is an agricultural vendor area which offers fruits and vegetables direct from farmers to the public and resellers at reduced prices. Some products can only be purchased in bulk quantities (such as tomatoes by the crate), while others are available for smaller household purchases at prices lower than in any other venue. And for the first time since I’ve been living here, there’s actually an economic benefit to buying products such as oil or flour in bulk in the state CUC stores. Little by little, things like this that seem obvious to anyone who lives in a market economy are coming about. It’s not to say there’s not a need for diversification and growth in the wholesale sector, but it’s slowly happening.
As with everything Cuba-related, there are always people out there who are eager to pipe up and express their negative sentiments, but from what I see the overwhelming public opinion here seems to be positive about the changes and the slow but constant methodical process of modification and implementation of the new laws. Cuba is most definitely changing, but the fact that the change is coming from the inside and was prompted by the demands of the population of Cuba, not by outside forces, is precisely what makes this work. It’s still evolving and some establishments succeed while others are forced to close their doors. But in Cuba they’re slowly learning about the benefits and downfalls of competition, location and even customer service. From where I’m standing these are positive changes and I’m excited to see what this new season brings. But for the near future, I’m going to concentrate on being hyped as heck for our upcoming visit to El Divino. I’ll be sure to share some pictures after our visit so that you can also dream with me.