Cuba the Easy Way
Board: Macro Economics
This is not a story about Cuba itself but rather of our two weeks of “Easy” vacation there during the height of a nasty Canuck winter.
It is also not a story of deft dodges across the International Date Line followed by moves from one famous international hotel to the other with a variety of rose pedals tossed either by nubile young ladies or perhaps by elephants blowing them from their trunks!!! No trains through Indian slums to dodge the traffic while meeting privately hired drivers and pre-positioned luggage in odd locations while shopping for penguin suits and dresses or dazzling jewellery fit for the queen to adorn the Mrs. Little in the way of details on cleverly planned currency exchange moves or packing techniques that allow one to carry 4 meters squared of luggage in a single carryon bag.
There are no paragraph long details of exciting foot massages as my wife would tell you that anyone who touches my feet will end up a bloody cadaver in the corner of the room. I did take a picture of the sign at our resort that indicates that three times a week the medical room is converted to a massage parlour where Col. Svetlana (retired former commander of the Russian Spetsnaz regiment who was left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union) will provide you with a demonstration of her interrogation techniques. OK I made that last bit up. }};-D
We started out very early on day one with a ride to the airport for a 3 AM check in. It was all very efficient and we got our pre-booked seats in row 6, checked our bags (max 20KG and another 5KG carry on each unless you paid extra for “Elite”), went through screening and had a coffee and sent a last post on my Ipad. The Ipad will serve as a book reader and solitary and battleship games machine in Cuba. I had thought I would do my trip notes on it but it is just too unwieldy.
We took off on time for the 4.5 hour flight direct to Veredero and as soon as we reached altitude were served a glass of champagne followed by breakfast. The flight was uneventful, they were showing a movie but I didn’t plug in. The seats on the very new 737-800 were designed to cram dozens of extra passengers in without feeling like it. Amazing what moving the pouch up above the table thingy does for leg/knee room!
The landing was about 10 minutes late but the very efficient immigration and luggage pickup (compared to last year’s) more than made up for that. We bought C$200 worth of CUC at the currency exchange place then found our numbered bus where the driver loaded our luggage and we sat in A/C splendor for 10 minutes while the rest of the passengers loaded up. The bus is Chinese, modern, clean and whisked us to our resort in 30 minutes while the guide (university student) practiced his English by keeping up a running commentary of the sights along the way including the former mansions of American nobility (such as Al Capone who owned the two largest Rum factories in Cuba) that we passed along the way. Many of them are now restaurants or small pension type hotels. He told us that during the Olympics one of the Cuban national television stations showed the hockey games for the first time ever to avoid a riot by the tens of thousands of Canucks on the island. The heavily indoctrinated locals cheered for Canada as they are the majority of their “guests”. }};-D
We arrived at the resort too early to check in but the bellboy took care of our luggage and we walked around the resort a bit, had lunch and met Peppy the bar tender for a couple of beer. I chose a Cuban made Bucanero Cerveza (5.4%) while my wife had what Peppy called a ladies beer (4%). The lady behind the reception counter must have noticed we were looking pretty tired because she called the maid and found a room just a few doors down from the planned one... nap time... after first fixing the flusher, got the lights working and figured out how the A/C and TV worked and even had time to rescue an Italian damsel in distress (door key card wouldn’t work) and I happened to be the first male she could find to cry to. }};-()
I could go on about the resort but 30% of the place is taken up by a huge Italian travel club who made several videos advertising it so here you go.
We had lunch and dinner at the buffet (I came to call it the “Mess Hall”) but in truth the staff and food were both good with lots of selection and drinks served at your table. We tended to sit in the same section as our preferences became known and arrived without asking (the tips probably were a factor). It was two coffee one black one with milk, orange juice from the under the table stash for breakfast, lemonade for lunch and two wine one red one white at dinner. The wine glass would appear to refill itself automatically if you got up to get another course. }};-D
The staff were mostly from the local former fishing villages. They were attracted not by the rather paltry salary but the tips provide a huge supplement and they worked hard to earn them.
Veradero was in high season and according to the locals that meant over 30,000 tourists with 70% of those being Canucks. Last year on the northern islands (Cayo Santa Maria) it was 95% Canuck. Our particular resort was about 30% Italian and about 50% Canuck with a mixture of Germans, South Americans, and eastern Europeans as well as quite a few Russians and even some Chinese.
Our second day started off late with breakfast at the buffet. There was lots of variety including two separate places where they would make omelettes or eggs done any style you liked. Oh the perfidy of these commies, the bacon was not the nice neat rectangles we are used to but rather a confused glob that tastes great. There was a large variety of cold meats, fresh fruit and some baking that was just too tasty to be good for you. The cheese selection was large and mostly unlabeled but generally good. The coffee was strong the way I like it what’s not to like. I mentioned the under the table stash of orange juice but to further explain if you poured your own at the buffet you got an adequate glass of orange juice but if the server brought it you got a really good orange juice with the taste and pulp I love.
Day three started off a bit rough as either the water got me or perhaps it was a bit too much Cuban beer the evening before. We were going to take the free shuttle downtown but Mrs. T decided she didn’t like our room. She is a bit bug phobic and since it is tropical here there are bugs. She had read on-line that there were a lot less bugs in the second floor places. She went off on her own with a couple of “gifts” in the form of packaged perfumes, bath soap, toothpastes kits and other “bribes” many of them bought at the dollar store and scored probably the top room on the resort. It was a second floor unit right by and overlooking the beach that had just been recently renovated with new modern A/C, furniture, a nice fridge and many other amenities lacking in the old places. The whole resort is being renovated but only three of the 11 buildings had been done yet. It really was a serious improvement and she even arranged for a bell boy with a golf cart like vehicle to help us move. We spent the rest of the day adjusting to our much nicer room.
Currency: There are 2 parallel currencies but as a tourist you will use CUC (CUban Convertibles) worth 1 US$.
It is actually difficult to get the CUP (Cuban Peso) not because it is illegal but simply because it is rarely used in tourist areas. I got the Sunwing agent to get me a 3 CUP bill because it is a cool souvenir with a picture of Che on it.
You cannot buy CUC at home, only once you arrive at a Cuban airport. It is best to bring C$ or Euros to exchange as there appears to be a 10% surcharge on US$ exchange though I’ve heard it can be as high as 20% “downtown” (not at official banks).
Tips: Not required but salaries are $200 – 400 annually and these people work hard to earn them. Bartenders, maids, bellboys, waiters and the like do well, others not directly serving the tourists not so much. The gardeners will ask if you want a coconut and will knock one down from a tree, cut the top off with a machete, put a straw in it and hand it to you. He will not directly ask you for a tip but methinks a CUC is fair? Little gifts of products not easily available in Cuba draw a special reaction but cash works as well and it doesn’t need to be a lot. We gave our maid 2 CUC a day and an occasional gift and received exemplary service for it. I would tip the bartender first time once a day. I also tipped the free shuttle bus driver as he would drop us exactly where we asked including going well past his normal turn around place.
Day 4: After lunch at the pool snack bar we took the shuttle bus all the way downtown to 14th street (Just about to the bridge as Veradero is effectively a long narrow island).
We then walked and shopped all the way back to 63st street after which there is little to see but resorts and a golf course. I bought a cool canvass floppy brim hat with a Cuban flag on if for 5 CUC. Overall while we hit several sort of mini flea market areas without the fleas as all the stuff was new and somewhat repetitive with very similar prices. I took lots of pictures during our walk including many of old cars that should excite those who are into such things. Many of these cars are used as taxis and taxi drivers in tourist areas are relatively wealthy by Cuban standards making far more than doctors. Rather than walk back to the shuttle pick up place we took a cab back to the resort for 10 CUC. The other alternative would have been the “Tourist Bus” at 5 CUC each or exactly the same price. When the tourist bus shuts down at IIRC 9 PM the cab price goes to 15 CUC.
CABs: They come in all shapes and sizes from an old ’52 Pontiac (My brother and I learned to drive on one bought by my mom for the purpose to save her own vehicle from the abuse) to modern cars of indeterminate origin and these cute little orange colour and shaped 3 wheel things that looked like they would “scoop” air in and blast the passengers were they able to get up to any speed. There were also pedal cabs and one horsepower cabs but we won’t go there as I suspect they were very range limited.
Day 5: After breakfast we booked our tour of Havana for Tuesday three days hence with the Sunwing agent. They try to get you to book these tours on-line before the trip but there is no incentive to do so and in fact you can do it the day before for the same price with less risk of a gimpy tummy or bad sunburn messing up the plan. While no mention of the reasons there was a significantly lower price for booking tours on Saturday and Tuesday (suspect they are large turnaround days). We used our Canuck RBC credit card to pay for the tour, there is a 3% surcharge but that is about the same as you pay to exchange C$ for CUC at the resort anyway. Do not plan to do this with US based credit cards or even travellers cheques.
I then made my first effort to see if Internet had improved or was at least better in Veradero than it had been in Cayo Santa Marie last time... it wasn’t. My 5 CUC for 30 minutes got me one email out and one stock ticker check that I had to go to the company website to get.
Internet: Forgetaboutit. The cash desk at reception that sells you the card for 5 CUC that entitles to 30 minutes of frustration is very quick to warn you that they only rent the space with two PCs to the company that provides the service and that it is really slow. It took me several minutes to log into LiveMail and when I clicked on create mail it hung and died. I then tried to log into Google finance and got a message saying that I was attempting to log in from a very strange place and would I fill out this form to ensure I was who I was supposed to be... yeah right!!!! I then looked at a company website and tried wife’s LiveMail where I managed to send one very short email to five addresses before the time ran out. I tried again some days later this time trying to get into Yahoo finance where they asked me to go to Yahoo mail where they would send me a code that would allow me to sign in.... yeah right!!!! I didn’t even manage to send an email that time.
I chatted with the Sunwing agent about it and he told me that it is not all the Cuban’s fault as they had a plan from a Florida company with all the approvals to hook up a cable internet from there and had even built the infrastructure but US politics got involved and cancelled the permits. They are now trying to get a cable run to Venezuela but he wasn’t sure how that was working out.
In addition to the “Mess Hall” there are three ala carte restaurants on the resort as well as a snack bar by the pool. We were entitled to book a minimum two ala carte places per week. Our first choice for the evening was “El Galeon” the Seafood place near the beach had bad reviews but don’t try to tell a Nova Scotia girl that. Unfortunately at best the place was hopefully a work in progress and the reviews were well deserved. I almost felt sorry for the servers who clearly were not expecting a tip for serving the majority of diners some sort of prawn concoction that was overcooked to a point of making it impossible to get it out of the shell. I had something different that can only claim to be better than the prawns but still dry and overcooked. Such problems are easily fixed with a new cook and I’m sure the search is on.
Day 6 (Sunday) was a lazy day as downtown closed at 1PM and I spent a lot of time watching CNN and CTV on the Ukraine and Malaysian air disaster story while wife hit the pool for swimming and tanning. Sadly the aircraft had ACARS (very basic AFIRs) but wasn’t paying for the full service (think having a $300 million car with a $100,000 phone and not paying the $1,100 monthly phone bill). ACARS only updates the data by satellite every 30 minutes but better than nothing. Instead hundreds of millions will now be spent trying to find and retrieve that “Black Box” from the bottom of the ocean.
Day 7 we booked the rest of our ala carte with two at the highly rated “Natura” (International) and one at the less well thought of “Pretoria Dolce Vita” (Italian). I’m getting tired of the day by day thing so I will say that both of these places were great. Natura lived up to and more the reviews while the Dolce Vita’s poor review “it is not what you will expect” probably suffered from the Canuck view of what a North American Italian restaurant should be vs. what a European Italian restaurant is. Since I am not much of a foodie I will say I really enjoyed both and leave it at that.
Day 8 we are up early for the 0730 breakfast opening to catch the 0800 tour bus heading to Havana. Of course the doors didn’t open until 0740 but then the bus didn’t leave until 0820! }};-()
It rained most of the way to Havana (the only day it rained on the whole trip) including our stop at the Cuban equivalent of a rest stop but the rain stopped just before we arrived in the city. We drove around seeing parts of the city from the bus until we got to the downtown old city.
Impressions: There are many fine old stone buildings and apartments that unfortunately are scarred by neglect and the usual tropical black mold.
The guide told us a story that after the revolution people would move into palaces, museums and government buildings and even banks while servants would “stay” in fine old mansions of wealthy Cubans and even American royalty from “the mob” who didn’t want to stick around for the music. The new Cuban constitution allowed them to stay there as long as they wanted by paying a tiny rent to the government (they could not be forced out). When UNesco and the Cuban government set out to restore the sites they in desperation build brand new apartment buildings on the outskirts with full services to entice these people to move. The old buildings often didn’t have running water or power though trucks would deliver water daily so they could fill up containers. She said the trucks are down to once or twice a week deliveries as most of the people took up the offers.
Another rather amusing story is that in the past a family could own a home or apartment but could not sell it nor could another family buy it. It could however be transferred within the family. This led to a rather amusing work around where the wife would officially “divorce” her husband then officially “marry” the potential buyer. She would then transfer the house or apartment to her new mate (clearly with a sum of money involved) followed by another “divorce” and “remarriage” to her former husband. The Cuban government gave in to reality and changed the laws to allow buying and selling of homes and apartments that was already happening anyway. }};-D
The tour was great and I took lots of pictures but I couldn’t even begin to describe the details as I could only make out about half of what the guide said and can’t remember much of that. Y’all will just have to find your own way there. We had lunch as a very nice little place that clearly caters to bus tours such as ours with great food (wife discovered she loves black bean soup Cuban style on rice) and a couple of musicians (most Cuban musicians appear to be fairly elderly?). We then continued the tour for another hour or so then got dropped off for about 1.5 hours for shopping before being picked up by the bus for the trip back. It started raining again on the way back and stopped just as we arrived in Veradero.
We had a quiet evening back at the resort with beer for me and Mojitos for her.
Day 10 – Tourist Bus Day
We walked out to the highway in the morning and saw a bus heading downtown packed to the seams so we crossed the road and got on an almost empty bus heading north. The buses are double deck and we sat right up front on the top.
They charge 5 CUC per person for all day hop on and off anywhere and another will be along in about 10 minutes. We drove by all of the resorts making a couple of small diversions to stop at the ones on the northwest shore then dip to catch the ones on the southeast shore. The further we got to the north the newer and higher end the resorts became finishing up at an almost completely finished (landscaping still going on but it is open) brand new Blau Marina Veradero.
The bus then turned and picking up people all along the way headed back to town via all the resorts on Veradero. The total loop would be about 1.5 hours plus but stops along the way can add up so we stayed on the bus all the way downtown to the big market.
We shopped for souvenirs buying hats for all of the grandkids and a few for Mrs. T’s friends then stopped for a pop each (Soda? It was a Sprite made in Mexico) at a stand. We then hopped back on the tourist bus heading for “Plaza America” (see they really like all y’all?) }};-D
The place was very high priced for Cuba and clearly designed to appeal to the tourist. I managed to wander off and look around while other half bought stuff. We hopped back on the bus back to the resort in lots of time to get to our reservation at the Italian restaurant.
Day 11 was spent on the resort much of the time with a nice young couple from Vancouver we had met on the Havana tour as they were leaving at 1am Saturday morning and didn’t have a room (the resort did provide a place to freshen up and they were still on the all inclusive for food and drinks). An interesting pair as while both were born in Canada his father is Iranian while his mom was Pilipino/Chinese and both of her parents were Vietnamese. We are hoping to meet with them again next time we are in Vancouver. The next day was quiet with swimming at the pool we are starting to wind down and plan the trip home.
Day 14 We are leaving tomorrow. Took the shuttle bus downtown in the morning, checked out the Rum and Cigar place (I don’t like either) but one of my BILs does and I guess the cigars are a birthday gift. Rum is really cheap as low as 3-4 CUCs a bottle for some of it, cigars are expensive or at least I thought so with my small knowledge on the subject. We also checked out the nearby Beatles night club and took some pictures then got on the shuttle bus back in time for lunch. The Canuck news weather report says a major blizzard is heading for Halifax but we should be home ahead of it. We packed a few cheese and meat buns in the fridge as we will be catching the bus to the airport before breakfast.
Last day – Check out at 0645 bus to airport due at 0715 but was nearly a half hour late (we could have had breakfast). The airport check-in was efficient as was the immigration and we bought our Duty Free (Vodka I hate rum) then coffee to have with our buns. The flight took off a bit late (no reason given). I actually watched that movie gravity... I couldn’t believe how bad that was... people claimed it was great?
Customs in Halifax was quick, checked luggage was really slow, no reason given but a guy with a dog showed up and puppy did walk over all the luggage but didn’t appear to find anything. BILs were at the airport to drive us home and the next day we had this.
Cuba general thoughts:
There is a lot of construction in the tourist areas and lots of renovations going on of the old stone buildings in Havana as well as huge residential development around Havana where the population is growing quickly. There had been decades of neglect but serious efforts to improve over the past several years.
There is a lot to do but the the younger Castro since Fidel retired has recognized that they must change course or sink. There is huge potential especially in tourism but impressive moves in healthcare (medical tourism) and a host of other stuff.
Oddly “rights” is not as big an issue as it was or the perceptions would suggest. The major issues are economic with an economy desperately trying to recover from decades of under development while relying on assistance from the Soviet Union and then from “friends” such as Chavez. The crash of the sugar industry in the early 90s was probably just as damaging as the Soviet Union’s demise. There are some really bright lights including tourism, medical tourism, the impressive drug industry, medical services (Cuba provides medical personal to several south and central American countries), and with some assistance from Canuck companies exporting nickel, and surprisingly heavy oil (that won’t work for their refiners) while importing light oil that will.
They are building a lot of new resorts and trying to diversify away from existing resort areas that are overbuilt to new beach areas available thanks to the causeway build to the northern islands.
One thing that impressed me was that they were burying power, water and communications lines in cement tunnels/trenches under the highway in many areas with access every few hundred meters from raised manholes in the median. Hurricanes are common and I think they got tired of rebuilding this stuff?
The people are well educated, hard working, healthy, seem happy and I didn’t see any signs of food shortages. The “new freedoms” for most professions have really brought out the capitalists in them and food production has soared.
The Sunwing agent (who I chatted with a lot) says there have been a lot of improvements in the economy in just the last 3-4 years. His biggest concern is that a collapse in Venezuela would be very detrimental to the Cuban economy as they have a major trade in medical service to Venezuela for oil to Cuba.
I think I had a lot more in my head to go with my unreadable hand written notes but appear to have lost some of it. }};-@