Cubans & the Permiso de Navegación

Here’s a good question that came in today from an adventurous Cuban + WoWCuba’s insider answer:

Q. Hi, I am a Cuban national interested in the diving courses offered in Cuba. Could you provide me with information on how can the Coast Guard authorization mentioned in the website [required only for Cuban nationals] be obtained? Thanks, Daniel

A. Hey Daniel, great to see you’re interested in diving into diving. It can be a rewarding activity and there’s no doubt Cuba’s a great place to discover the fascinating underwater world.
If you’re intending to perform a course which involves dives from a boat based at an int’l marina, then you have to submit a request for the “Permiso de Navegacion” from Capitania Nacional in Rpto Flores in Havana. Once it’s approved (not sure how long that’s taking these days, but I’d think you’d probably need several days to a week’s advance notice), then you bring a $5 CUC stamp from the bank. They’ll stick that to the signed/stamped paper they’ll give you to present to the marina to board the Gaviota &/ Marlin boats based at the selected international marina(s) for the specified activities/time period. You also have to present your passport or C.I. to coast guard officials for all boat departures.
In your request you should tell them you plan to dive / learn to dive / fish (or whatever your intended purpose is) from _____ dive center or marina in the time period from ____ to ____. We usually put my husband’s full name, Cuban identity card #, any other relevant information and maybe a contact # (on the off chance someone needed to call to check/advise anything). Anytime we do undertake this process, we usually ask for a time estimate on return and then call Capitania first to confirm whether the permiso’s ready to be picked up. Ya’ know the drill.

Worth mentioning you can get Open Water Diver certification with shore dives in locations like Hotel Copacabana or the Zapata Peninsula (except Caleta Buena, where dives are from a small dive skiff) without going through the above rigamarole. Hopefully one of these days they’ll do away with that silly rule, but for the moment it’s still in place and that’s how getting Abel’s authorization for the sailing/diving/fishing we’ve done together over the years in Cuba has always worked for us. It’s the same process for all Cubans, regardless of where they live (in Cuba or abroad) although there have been moments where it was easier to obtain for Cubans holding residence in a foreign country. Not really sure if that’s still the case, to be honest. Hopefully not.

Hope that helps clear things up and get you on the road to certification. Kristen


Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty – Pinar del Rio

After 25 years of living, working in adventure tourism and criss-crossing Cuba more times than we can count, at WoWCuba we should obviously be intimately familiar with alot of service providers, facilities, activities and areas available to visiting explorers by now. But the largest Island in the greater Antilles has 15 provinces and 1 special municipality, so there are always opportunities to dig deeper on our quest to keep up with new initiatives in farming and ecotourism trends. As a Cuban-Canadian couple we really enjoy and are often inspired by visiting farms, diving, hiking, nature, unique entrepreneurs and indulging in good food. We aren’t suckers for nightlife and avoid discos/hotel-type animation. We love to hit the road in September when the weather cools down just a bit and summer vacationers have disappeared. Following is my wish list so far for what I’d love to squeeze in on our next visit(s) to Pinar del Rio province. Not all places are new to us, but some are.

Dive Maria la Gorda, Blue Hole in Cabo San Antonio
Hike Guanhacabibes “Del Bosque al Mar” or “Cueva las Perlas”, Baby turtle release (mid-Sept) at Playa La Barca
Visit Cueva del Palmarito
Visit Viñales zipline
Visit Mirador/Lookout (22.625503, -83.743849)
Visit “Finca Coco Solo” Farm, “Finca L’Armonia” Farm, Patio MogoteArt, Finca C&J and El Rincón del Café
Visit Palacio de Guasch
Eat El Cuajani
Eat La Berenjena eco restaurant
Eat Agroecological Sunset Restaurant
Eat Jardin del Arte Sano
Drink Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso lookout
Drink Casa del Mojito
Stay Cabo San Antonio
Stay rural Viñales *Mogote Art, Brisas de San Vicente, Finca Media Luna or maybe Las Españolas (affiliate links)
Stay Castillo en las Nubes
Stay|Eat Puerto Esperanza Villa Wendy (affiliate link)

On that list, I have to admit that Mogote Art (available to book on AirBnB, but many  places listed on that platform are available for less $ locally) and Castillo en las Nubes are on the higher end of our personal accommodation budget. That said, we do occasionally spring for an overnight somewhere special and rarely regret it; sometimes we still discover something pretty spectacular along the way that’s not on any tourist radar. We’ll see where the wind blows us this fall. One thing’s for sure; the time we invest into Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty is well-spent. And if you’re one of our lucky guests, then you get the full benefits of our fabulous finds, first-hand experiences and adventures with streamlined planning and targeted recommendations.



Protected Areas in Cuba

Over 20% of Cuba’s national territory is protected in 211 diverse land and marine areas.

Pause and reflect on that a moment, and compare that figure to the percentage of protected land/marine areas in other nations. It’s a hugely significant commitment, and not only in terms of implementing protective measures. Commitment to protecting these areas ensures that biodiversity, reforestation, and pure air and water resources are available to future generations. At the same time it’s a daunting task that requires enforcement, human resources, and most importantly implementation of educational programs to ensure visitors and locals alike are fully aware of how to respect the natural elements around them, and the larger significance of those fragile ecosystems to the local and international communities alike. Cuba doesn’t have all the resources it requires to effectively carry out this essential task for such a monumental territory, and it’s why you’ll sometimes see things like illegal extraction of wood from protected woodlots, mindless tourists who divert from designated trails in search of a smart-looking selfie, carelessly discarded trash on nature trails, or parrots and pretty polymita snail shells for sale as you climb La Farola mountain road to Baracoa. Designating the areas for protection is only part of the battle. Educating the public and enforcing their protected status to preserve the priceless natural treasures they contain is the real challenge.

Cuba’s protected areas include:
14 National Parks: Guanahacabibes, Cayos de San Felipe, Viñales, Punta Frances, Zapata Swamp , Los Caimanes, Caguanes, Jardines de la Reina, Pico Cristal, La Mensura-Pilotos, Desembarco del Granma, Turquino, Pico Bayamesa, Alejandro de Humboldt
6 Biosphere Reserves: Geographical zones in which human and economic development is balanced with the conservation and protection of the natural environment in which they are located, in Cuba they include the Sierra del Rosario (PRI/ART), Guanahacabibes Peninsula (PRI), Cuchillas del Toa (HOG/GUA), Baconao (SCU/GUA), Zapata Swamp (MTZ) & Buenavista (VCA/SSP/CDA).
6 Ramsar Sites: Wetlands of international importance, these include the Lanier Swamp & Southern part of the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Buenavista, Wetlands north of Ciego de Avila, Rio Maximo Wetlands, and Delta del Cauto Wetlands.
2 Natural World Heritage Sites: This UNESCO designation is bestowed on select world locations that have been nominated and confirmed for inclusion. In Cuba we are honored to showcase the Desembarco del Granma National Park and the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, both in the eastern end of the island.
28 Areas Important for Bird Conservation: This title is granted by the nonprofit BirdLife International and is designated to areas containing one or more globally threatened species, birds with a restricted distribution range, exclusive of their biome (ecological community), or those that gather in large numbers for reproduction, feeding or migration. The areas include: Mil Cumbres, wetlands south of Pinar del Rio, Sierra del Rosario, Lanier Swamp & South of the the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Las Picúas-Cayo del Cristo, Cays in the Mid-East of Villa Clara, wetlands south of Sancti Spiritus, Topes de Collantes, Alturas de Banao, great wetlands north of Ciego de Ávila, Sabinal-Ballenatos-Nuevitas Bay Cays, Río Máximo-Cayo Guajaba, Romano-Cruz-Mégano Grande-Paredón Grande Cays, Limones-Tuabaquey (Sierra de Cubitas), Sierra del Chorrillo (Najasa), Turquino-Bayamesa, Desembarco del Granma, Delta del Cauto, Balsas-Cobarrubias coastal region (Gibara), La Mensura, Delta del Mayarí, Pico Cristal, Gran Piedra-Pico Mogote, Siboney-Juticí, Alejandro de Humboldt, Hatibonico-Baitiquirí-Imías

Management of the 211 protected areas is categorized as follows:
4 Natural Reserves: These are protected areas created to preserve the natural habitat from human actions and maintain it as close as possible to its original state. Services to visitors are not offered at these sites.
14 National Parks: These are zones for the care, conservation, recovery or preservation of nature. They are land, marine, or a combination of both in natural or semi natural state, with sparse or no human population, designated to protect ecological integrity.
24 Natural Protected Landscapes: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, managed with goals of protection and maintenance of natural conditions, environmental services and development of sustainable tourism. They do not possess notable value in terms of natural resources, but serve as biological corridors, maintain air quality, water, protect against erosion, and maintain esthetic values, etc. They are generally located in areas of ecological, environmental and touristic interest.
32 Ecological Reserves: These are ecosystems or important regions or natural scenes, in which animal and plant species, the habitat and geomorphological elements, are of special scientific, educational, recreational and touristic importance.
45 Fauna Refuges: These are areas where the protection and management of habitats or species are essential for the subsistence of wild fauna populations.
41 Managed Flora Reserves: These are natural or semi natural areas that require management interventions to ensure the protection and maintenance of natural complexes or ecosystems.
18 Managed Resource Protected Areas: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, whose management is to guarantee the protection and maintenance of biological diversity. They combine conservation with the sustainable use of natural resources to generate certain services that satisfy local needs.
33 Outstanding Natural Elements: These are areas with natural elements of great local significance. They are sometimes located within a larger protected area.

The 211 sites are listed by province and referenced with further details on the SNAP (National System for Protected Areas) website en español.
Other links for references and information en español on Cuba’s protected sites include CITMA and EcuRed.

Protected Areas in Cuba (listed by province)

Pinar del Rio
Managed Resource Protected Areas Mil Cumbres, Guanahacabibes Peninsula
Outstanding Natural Elements Banco San Antonio, La Mina Mogote, Sierra del Pesquero – Mina – Sumidero
National Parks Viñales, Guanahacabibes, Cayo San Felipe
Ecological Reserves Los Pretiles, Sierra de la Guira, Gramales – Cabeza – La Peña, Sierra de San Carlos, Sierra de Guane, Paso Real de Guane
Fauna Refuges Lugones Swamp, Humedal Sur de los Palacios Wetland, Cayo Levisa – Corona de San Carlos, Punta Caribe
Managed Flora Reserves Cerro de Cabras, San Ubaldo – Sabanalamar, Sierra de Contadores – Cayo Ratones, Sierra Preluda – Cuabales de Cajálbana

Managed Resource Protected Areas Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve
Outstanding Natural Elements Santa Cruz River Canyon, Pan de Guajaibón, Soroa Mogote
Natural Protected Landscapes Guajaibón, Ariguanabo River
Fauna Refuges Cayos Las Cayamas – Los Guzmanes
Ecological Reserves El Salón
Managed Flora Reserves San Marcos
Natural Reserves Las Peladas, El Mulo

Natural Protected Landscapes Ensenada de Portier – Lamas, Isla Josefina, Tarara River Valley, Tiscornia Cove, Rincón de Guanabo, Laguna de Cobre – Itabo
Ecological Reserves La Coca
Managed Flora Reserves Cojímar River mouth, Cuabal de Minas

Natural Protected Landscapes Escaleras de Jaruco
Fauna Refuges Batabanó Gulf, Southwest of El Inglés
Managed Flora Reserves Galindo, Boca de Canasí, Loma del Grillo

Managed Resource Protected Areas Zapata Peninsula, Yumuri Valley
Outstanding Natural Elements Bellamar Caves, Santa Catalina Cave, Zapata flooded cave system, La Pluma Cave
National Parks Zapata Swamp
Natural Protected Landscapes Varahicacos, Canimar River Valley
Fauna Refuges Cayos de las Cinco Leguas, Sierra Bibanasí, Hanabana Channels, Bermejas, Maya Lake
Ecological Reserves Cayo Mono – Galindo, Bacunayagua
Managed Flora Reserves Tres Ceibas de Clavellinas (home to the Molocactus Matanzanus in the Yumuri Valley)
Outstanding Natural Elements Martín Infierno Cave (houses one of the largest stalagmites in the world, in El Colorado, Cumanayagua), Rancho Luna Cove
Natural Protected Landscapes El Plurial, Guajimico, Aguacata – Boca de Carreras, Yaguanabo Valley
Fauna Refuges Guanaroca – Punta Gavilan
Ecological Reserves Pico San Juan

Villa Clara
Outstanding Natural Elements Ojo del Mégano (the deepest underwater cave in Cuba, east-northeast of the Bay of Cadiz)
Natural Protected Landscapes Hanabanilla
National Parks Los Caimanes
Fauna Refuges Cayo Francés, Lanzanillo – Pajonal – Fragoso, Las Picúas – Cayo Cristo, Cayo Santa María, Las Loras
Ecological Reserves Mogotes de Jumagua
Managed Flora Reserves Sabanas de Santa Clara, Monte Ramonal

Sancti Spiritus
Managed Resource Protected Areas Buenavista, Jobo Rosado
Outstanding Natural Elements La Chucha, Loma de Tasajera
Natural Protected Landscapes Topes de Collantes
National Parks Caguanes
Fauna Refuges Delta de Agabama, Delta de Higuanojo, Tunas de Zaza
Ecological Reserves Lomas de Banao
Managed Flora Reserves Lomas de Fomento, Arena Sílice de Casilda, Lebrije

Ciego de Avila
Managed Resource Protected Areas Wetlands North of Ciego de Avila
Outstanding Natural Elements Boquerón de Ciego de Avila, Pilar Dunes, Buchillones – Punta Alegre
National Parks Jardines de la Reina
Fauna Refuges Cayos de Ana María, El Venero, Loma de Santa María, Loma de Cunagua, La Lecha – La Laguna Lake System
Ecological Reserves Center and West of Cayo Coco

Managed Resource Protected Areas Cayo Romano Wetlands, Sierra del Chorrillo, Sierra de Cubitas, Cayo Guajaba, Cayo Sabinal
Outstanding Natural Elements Najasa Fossil Forest (forest turned to stone, of paleontological value), Cangilones del Rio Máximo
Natural Protected Landscapes Cerro Cachimbo, Sierra de Najasa
Fauna Refuges Correa, Máximo River, Cayos Los Ballenatos, Mangroves of Nuevitas Bay, Cayo Cruz, Macurije – Santa María
Ecological Reserves Limones – Tuabaguey, Maternillos – Tortuguilla
Managed Flora Reserves Silla de Cayo Romano, Los Orientales, San Felipe Wetlands, Laguna Larga, Sierra de Guaicanamar

Las Tunas
Fauna Refuges Malagueta Bay, Ojo de Agua, Cayo Rabihorcado
Ecological Reserves Nuevas Grandes Bay – La Isleta
Managed Flora Reserves San Miguel de Junco, Las Nuevas, Monte Naranjito

Outstanding Natural Elements Bitirí Natural Bridge, Carstic Hills of Maniabón,
Natural Protected Landscapes Naranjo Bay
National Parks Pico Cristal, La Mensura – Pilotos
Fauna Refuges Tanamo Bay & Cays, Balsas de Gibara, Boca de Cananova, Delta de Mayari
Ecological Reserves Caletones
Managed Flora Reserves Loma de Miraflores, Cabo Lucrecia – Punta de Mulas, Matamoros – Dos Ríos, Ceja de Melones, Ramon Peninsula
Natural Reserves Cerro Galano

Outstanding Natural Elements Banco de Buena Esperanza – Manáguano
National Parks Desembarco de Granma, Turquíno, Pico Bayamesa
Fauna Refuges Delta de Cauto, Gua Cove, Manzanillo Cays, Monte Palmarito
Ecological Reserves Pico Caracas, El Gigante, El Macío
Managed Flora Reserves Monte Natural Cupaynicú

Santiago de Cuba
Managed Resource Protected Areas Baconao Biosphere Reserve, Carso de Baire
Outstanding Natural Elements Alcarraza Waterfall
Natural Protected Landscapes Gran Piedra, Estrella – Aguadores
Fauna Refuges San Miguel de Parada
Ecological Reserves Siboney – Justisí, Loma del Gato – Monte Líbano, Pico Mogote
Managed Flora Reserves La Caoba, Monte de Barrancas, Monte Bisse, Charrascales de Micara, Pozo Prieto, Caraquitas
Natural Reserves El Retiro

Managed Resource Protected Areas Cuchillas del Toa
Outstanding Natural Elements Maisi – Caleta, Yunque de Baracoa, Yumurí Canyon, Pan de Azúcar, Pinares de Montecristo, Yara – Majayara, Paso de los Alemanes, Resolladero del Río Cuzco
Natural Protected Landscapes Maisi – Yumurí
National Parks Alejandro de Humboldt
Ecological Reserves Parnaso – Los Montes, Hatibonico, Alto de las Canas, Baitiquirí, Boquerón, Tacre
Managed Flora Reserves Esparto, Monte Verde, Macambo, Pico Galán

Isle of Youth
Managed Resource Protected Areas South of the Isle of Youth, La Cañada
Outstanding Natural Elements Pinar Calizo
Natural Protected Landscapes Sierra de las Casas
National Parks Punta Francés
Fauna Refuges Cayo Campos – Cayo Rosario, Cienaga de Lanier, Cayos los Indios
Ecological Reserves Cayo Largo, Los Indios, Punta del Este

Access to some of the more popular facilities doesn’t (yet) always require advance reservations. For some you can just purchase an excursion locally with transport/guide/entry, or pay directly at the Flora/Fauna gate where prices are established/scaled for visitors and for Cuban residents. But there other guided hikes/visits that are only available if you plan in advance. Some areas have “limited access” (like the Saturn Cave for example, near the Varadero airport, which tops out at 80 visitors/hour). Others (such as the Hoyo de Morlotte in the Desembarco del Granma park) are much further off the beaten path and you’ll only be able to visit and gain access by arranging in advance for an official park guide to meet you there. In our experience, exploring trails in the company of a knowledgeable local guide totally enhances the experience and proffers not only diverse information on local flora & fauna, but sometimes even a little history and local anecdotes as well. WoWCuba can arrange for entrance and official guided visits to many protected areas in Cuba as part of a bespoke WoWCuba travel package.

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.

National Heroes

Reflecting on something we’d just seen on Cuban tv the other night about Jose Marti, my husband turned to me and asked who Canada’s national hero was. He caught me off guard, and I asked him if it was obligatory (like national flowers, or birds) that every nation even have a single designated national hero. He paused and said he guessed not, but that he just figured that, like Cuba, we had one. Since we don’t have the luxury of instant Google answers to all of life’s most perplexing questions from home in Havana, I logged into the Kiwix (offline Wikipedia) app on my cell phone. It’s in Spanish, so when I looked up “heroe”, part of the definition suggested that a hero’s qualities or features might include having lived in exile or been a martyr, among other things. Hmm, that didn’t really sound too Canadian to me. Not finding anything whatsoever about Canadian national heroes in my phone app (and suspecting maybe it was because I don’t have the á symbol on my cell phone to even properly spell Canadá en español), I told him I really didn’t know. Canada’s a relatively young country, unlike Cuba (unless, of course, you divide Cuba’s existence into colonial pre-Revolution and independent post-1959 Revolutionary terms, I suppose). I explained that we have the Order of Canada, which distinguishes citizens for their positive contributions to society in different spheres. “Established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of Canada is the cornerstone of the Canadian Honours System, and recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” But I highly doubted that any Order of Canada recipients had been singled out with “National Hero” status, such as Jose Marti has been in Cuba. As it turns out, The Order of Canada, established on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s creation, does indeed represent the highest level of distinction in our National Honors system. It can (God forbid) even be revoked, as has been the case just 7 times since its institution. When I told him our first Prime Minister was a bit of a drunk, that got the biggest laugh of the night.

I thought of people like Terry Fox, then flashed back to elementary school history classes with Mr. McAleer and historic figures like Louis Riel or Nellie McClung. Could they be the people Abel was asking me about? Pierre Trudeau was one of our most popular Primer Ministers for a long time. We have environmentalists like David Suzuki, the astronaut Chris Hatfield, Rick Hansen who championed causes for the disabled, there was Lester B. Pearson, cultural icons like Stompin’ Tom Conners, Margaret Atwood, Buffy Saint Marie, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion or Gordon Lightfoot. Canadian comedians John Candy and Jim Carrey certainly achieved great international status in their careers. And who can forget Bob & Doug MacKenzie (just kidding). We have Wayne Gretzky, and he would have come high on the list for many of my contemporaries, exemplary in his sportsmanship. Nowadays there’s even Mike Holmes, a champion of consumer advocacy and proponent of quality workmanship in construction, a hero of the common Canadian laborer and consumer. There are many Canadians that my fellow compatriots can feel proud to count among our country’s distinguished citizens, even if not all even have obtained the Order of Canada to recognize them as such.

I suppose my Cuban husband was asking me about Canada’s national hero because presumably that should be someone who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities; and is someone who has made significant positive contributions to society’s development and growth, and represents the nation. He was looking to see what we as Canadians hold as our greatest values, compared to Cuba. To know our heroes is to know our collective values, history, and what makes our country great. Acknowledging our nation’s heroes is equivalent to the national identity – its history, heritage, and culture. So viva national heroes, be they just one or a multitude of diverse people who rise up, make us proud of our countries and inspire us to be better world citizens.

Wrapping up my musings for today, here’s a little Bob ‘n Doug-style Canadian humor for you based on current events, and shared from @MeanwhileinCanada1:
“Dear Neighbours,
We have kidnapped your bird. He’ll be safely returned to you on impeachment day. We believe this is in everyone’s best interest.
With love, Canada”


B&B Evolution in Cuba

There’s a saying about Cubans “o no llegan o se pasan” reflecting their tendency to either fall completely short or go way overboard, challenged with finding the exact Goldilocks measure of “just right” in many aspects of their daily lives and behaviour. The decor of the very lovely b&b we recently used, situated in a privileged location in Cienfuegos, is a perfect illustration. We made a last minute decision to travel and, as it was low season, we decided to try our luck and see what we could find on arrival. If you ask me, it would have been absolutely perfect if the owner just took away a few of the things that for me seem to clutter and detract from the natural beauty of her home. She charged us $40 CUC/night (excluding breakfast) and in our experience the room was just average by Cuban standards. Typically rooms in that area go for $25 CUC/night. It did have a split air conditioner, hot water and blow dryer, but other than that it was nothing extraordinary. Many b&b’s in Cuba offer those conveniences these days for similar or lower rates in low season. She claims that she recently discovered that one of the new powerhouse hotel booking engines operating in Cuba is selling the very same room for $103 USD per night. She expressed indignation at those rates, incredulous that the re-seller would earn more than she does as an operator, but I told her that’s the cost of dealing with the new US hotel marketing machines and the multiple layers they use to sell services in Cuba.

#1 mistake alot of Cuban B&B owners make when decorating their guestrooms: satin.
This went out in the 70’s, but noone has told Cuban casa particular owners that yet, and they continue to buy yards and yards of the tacky material and have local seamstresses whip up custom-made combinations of bedspreads & matching pillowcases to adorn their rooms. I wish designers in Cuba would start a campaign to get rid of them. I’d honestly rather simple white cotton sheets if that’s all to be found. It’s not, of course, but they don’t have HGTV in Cuba, so maybe it’s just that these operators need some exposure to good & modern design trends. En masse.
#2 mistake: too much clutter. Stick to the basics and invest in quality, not quantity. Drown those creepy gnomes and trash the ceramic dwarfs and toadstools unless your name is Snow White and you’re catering to preschoolers. I really don’t want to see a one-eyed pot-bellied thing leering up at me from a fake waterfall with a knowing grin when I pull back the curtains to gaze at the ocean outside my room.


#3 mistake: investing in fancy before the basics. Fix the roof tiles and paint that last flower pot out front even if they belong to a part of the building that’s not under your ownership. The facade is the face of your business. If you have an air conditioner that may spit out the occasional drop of water (or worse), then don’t install it right over the bed. We ended up getting blasted by Tropical Depression Alberto and would have greatly appreciated a simple $5-$10 doorsweep rather than all the fancy plaster ceiling ornaments in our room. We awoke in the middle of the night to a room that had flooded from water coming in under the door, a/c dripping on our heads, and leaky roof that had soaked my leather purse from its resting spot on a ledge leaning against the wall. The casa owner was very friendly, and volunteered all kinds of information we didn’t ask for, including the fact that she has Spanish residence, and the coveted 5-year US visa. But after a sleepless night when I suggested that she consider picking up some simple weather stripping or a rubber door sweep on her next trip to Miami , rather than assimilate the constructive criticism, she dismissed it.

Don’t get me wrong. The place is lovely and the owner goes out of her way to make you feel welcome. There are just times I wish I could just come out and be blunt with some of the operators we come across and tell them that less is more, to identify and look after the basics first and then know where to stop to find that perfect balance. Without offending their sensibilities.


The Martín Infierno Cave

5 de septiembrePhoto credit: 5 de Septiembre

At WoWCuba we relish travelling backroads and would take a meandering scenic route over a boring highway any day. Having spent over a ¼ century criss-crossing Cuba on bicycles, motorcycles, in cars, buses, trains, antique motorcycles and airplanes we sometimes find there are fewer and fewer places in this marvelous land that we’ve not yet had the opportunity to explore. That often leads us to seek out some of the more obscure reference points and research their viability as destinations to share with privileged WoWCuba travelers. This past weekend led us to the Ecotur offices in Cienfuegos where we had the distinct pleasure of meeting a seasoned veteran in nature tourism and sharing an interesting exchange with him about a variety of activities under development in south central Cuba, one of which is the Martin Infierno Cave. The cave, first discovered in Cumanayagua in 1967 and declared National Monument in 1990, features one of the largest stalagmites in the world (over 67 meters, or almost as high as a 20-story building). It is situated 650 meters above sea level, 793 meters long, and reaches 197 meters in depth. Until recently visits were mainly underground and uncontrolled, resulting in some neglect and human-inflicted damage to the natural treasure.
Stalagmite Martin Infierno Cave
Photo Credit: CubaDebate

To our great pleasure, we discovered that Cuban authorities have assigned a ranger/guard to discourage illegal visitation, and assign fines to trespassers. Ecotur reports they now have authorization (for bats, etc) from Cuban Public Health authorities and are working on infrastructure for official excursions to the natural wonder. They expect to finally be able to launch that product, including in the first stage, visits to 2 of its 4 caverns by next spring. In a second phase they hope to be able to introduce safe walkways to minimize damage to the cave’s interior, and eventually allow access to the chamber housing the main attraction, the huge stalagmite.

Note there are several less-than-responsible websites and mass tourism marketing machines out there currently indiscriminately promoting this cave as if it were a legitimate tourist destination, when in fact the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) clearly indicates that unauthorized and unofficial visits are still prohibited. To preserve the integrity of natural treasures such as this one, WoWCuba strongly urges all responsible travelers to respect local regulations while traveling in Cuba, and be informed of which areas are authorized for visits.

Tread lightly and leave only footprints behind. And a word to some of the newbie tour operators in Cuba: Don’t be tempted to capitalize on Cuba’s natural resources until Cuban authorities have duly researched and authorized activities for visitors to these unique and fragile sites. They will have trained guides to escort visitors and ensure that they are preserved for future generations to contemplate and study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring Compliance

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

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

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

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

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

Natural Protected Landscape

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

Affidavits & Paperwork

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

Travel Service Providers

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

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

3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

Last updated: 19/08/19

As responsible travel agents, at WoWCuba try to ensure our clients are aware of what to reasonably expect from Cuban accommodation & transportation providers before diving in headfirst and committing to services. The unfortunate reality is that car rentals in Cuba often fall short of client expectations. 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 channel reservation requests through our Cuban state ground handlers, and only process payments for car rental reservations when a confirmation’s been received in writing by the service provider in accordance with the exact parameters of a client request.
There are less scrupulous operators out there who may not even have direct contracts with Cuban tourism operators. They will promise the moon, only to disappoint. Do please beware of undertaking arrangements through questionably ethical, banned or phishing websites against which the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has published warnings.
Are you still considering renting a vehicle? Then be a smart shopper and keep reading to get WoWCuba’s low-down on rental companies’ obligations + what kind of bumps to reasonably anticipate on your self-drive holiday road. Good planning & research helps to reduce stress and maximize enjoyment of any travel destination.

At a meeting held by the Cuban Minister of Tourism to conclude the record year of 2016, with just 13,592 vehicles existing in the fleets of the 4 Cuban state-owned car rental companies, only 5,116 were imported in that year. That made your chances of being assigned a late model rental vehicle roughly 1 in 3, not particularly great. I don’t have the 2019 statistics, but my feeling is that the total # of cars hasn’t greatly increased, but the ratio of newer cars may have improved. Issues with tires and spare tires continue to be reported frequently.

In 2016 delays delays in their delivery were admittedly frequent. We were regularly fielding calls from clients who’d 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 were no cars. They weren’t denying the existence of the prepaid reservation, and we’ve not had a single case in over probably five 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) were not out of the question. It was frustrating for clients and for agents, but an unfortunate reality with car rental services in Cuba in 2016. Not so much in 2019.

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 will 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’ll give you instructions on how to proceed (if it’s actually necessary for you to change locations rather than have them deliver the vehicle to where it should have been waiting) Ensure you retain an official receipt and that we immediately file a record of the incident 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’d 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. When I originally published this article, I’d just 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. 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 and we absolutely love road trips ourselves, 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