I guess the good news is that I had no concept of what to expect and thus I arrived with an open mind. The first thought when walking into the empty immigration hall was ‘wow’…. No queues (granted, we sat on row 1 in our plane) and strikingly, most female officers where wearing frighteningly short skirts as their customs uniform with clearly a free choice of stockings. It was bizarre and I am sure I sound sexist but this is the stuff James Bond movies are made off! Rocked up to the booth, presented my visa and immediately received my stamp. Yeah!!! This place rocks. Immediate after the passport check, the good looking mini skirted ladies check your hand luggage. Putting our hand carry stuff on the scanner I happily walk to the other side ready to receive it…… And this is where the fairy tale ended…..
One of the ladies spotted my (brand new) drone. Alarm! 'Spy in the making' is trying to enters Cuba with a drone. The head master lady is called over. She is wearing pants. And I mean that both ways…. She is non of this mini skirt stuff with smiles and yup, she is in charge and immediately takes my passport away. After receiving short and strict instructions to pick up my suitcases from the belt, I can go the the ‘declare’ section and wait for my turn…… It is not so bad….. I have to leave the drone at the airport and can collect it on the way out. So we take our place in the queue. We are third in line so how bad can this be? Answer: Really Bad…… An hour an a half later and still being third in the queue, Sharon wonders if our transport will still be waiting outside and thus decides to look for someone to assist making a call to our pre booked driver. A friendly American who is ‘being served’ before us offers assistance and makes the call. The good news: Our driver is waiting. The bad news: The friendly American, living in Cuba, is now in his fourth hour at Customs trying to get clearance for the spare car parts he brought in….. We are settling in for the long haul and suddenly all the upbeat and hooray arriving in Cuba makes way for queues, paperwork, questions, referral to managers, more paper work and an explanation that we need to pay on our way out if we want to see the drone again. A complex calculation is made to us as illustration and Sharon’s actuarial background quickly dissevers what this is about. In short, after 5 days you pay storage fee 3 dollars per day + 1% of the declared value of the drone. Lesson learned: If traveling with a drone, remove propellers, do not hand carry and spread the parts over different suitcases.
Some basic advice: First I recommend any Cuba traveler to buy/read Lonely Planet Cuba so you have an idea how this works as there is no other place like it. Pre book and pre plan is our suggestion as this is not the easiest place to navigate freely the first time around especially if you do not speak Spanish. We also recommend booking and planning with Cuba Travel Network. They helped us plan the road trip and booked the hotels along the way. Their advice and choices were great and lived up to the expectation/explanation. Also someone from CTN came by in Trinidad to check in if everything was according to plan. Truly professional
Getting money is an interesting experience. Bring cash, preferably Euro or Pounds but not USD as changing USD will be levied by 10% tax. Bank passes are an interesting experiment at the ATM. I have 4 (!) bank passes from three different countries and only my Wing Hang Bank HK card worked. Who would have thought! No HSBC, Stan Chart or ABN card worked. Sharon has a UK HSBC Visa which also worked. And….. wait for it……. Sharon’s mainland China Construction Bank ‘Union Pay’ worked as well. Have a plan if the ATM does not work for you….. Be prepared as Internet does not work well, credit cards are not commonly used and English is only spoken in areas where tourist gather.
Food is reasonably priced but frankly speaking, it is not great. Cooking styles are all similar between grilled or steer fry and all ingredients are more or less the same everywhere. There simply is not a lot of variety. Good news however is that almost every restaurant serves large grilled lobster tails. These are not slipper lobsters and other small fry. These are the real deal and normally cost US$ 20,- When restaurants say things are grilled, they mean it. It is a grilled piece of something and that is it..... No sauce or gravy or anything fancy. It simply does not feature. Drinks are cheap and Moquito, Pina Colada and Daquiri seem to be the poison of choice for USD 2,- Combine the cocktails, the life music and the outgoing Cubans and voila, we have Salsa! Overall it seems a happy and happening place.
Also no such thing as 7 Eleven, a convenience store or a supermarket with all the goodies we became globally familiar with. In search of a western toothpaste and my Gillette shaving gel costed me US$ 22 which was clearly an absolute rip off. Also transport is tricky and requires up front negotiation and agreement. Maps and direction can be a challenge but Sharon pre loaded her phone with a map of Cuba from MapMe. Superb stuff as the map works off line and shows were you are and where you are going. It worked in Havana walking on the streets and is also easily navigated our road trip for 4 days. A must have. I have no clue how this offline knows our position, speed and direction. Clearly I am getting old!
Below and above are pics from a buzzing little street with art and performing artists in the evening. It is the hippie place to be in Havana and a must see. A good 20 minute walk from our hotel or a short ride by horse and buggy. The name is Calle Jon de Jamel.
Apart from Havana and diving, we also made a four day road trip....... and drove from Santa Clara to Trinidad to the north, Vinales, where cigar leaves and tobacco are grown.