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.

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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.

Get Your Motor Runnin’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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