An Interesting trip to CUBA

My wife and I, two bilingual (Spanish) children and a non-Spanish speaking adult couple took a 10-day trip to Cuba in April 2016. I thought boaters would be interested due to their sense of adventure, travel inclination, island lore and some boating trivia and activities.
We arranged our trip ourselves, but encourage the use of Canadian travel agents. We flew out of Tijuana through Mexico City to Havana. In Mexico City we wrote our own official permission slip. The U.S. still allows visits for one of twelve purposes. We traveled under education / people to people, and will keep our itinerary for five years in case the State Department asks for it.
We visited Havana, Varadero and Vinales. The other couple visited Guardalavaca. They flew Cubana Avacion to Holguin, including a flight on a Russian built jet. This is in the area of Guantanamo Bay. Besides a 7-hour delay, their flight was normal.
We stayed mostly in houses or rooms rented through Air BNB (Casa Particulares). We found the Cuban people to be extremely friendly. There has a slight rise in petty theft recently, but we felt very safe. The Cuban’s were willing to speak openly about all subjects, including politics. Chinese we encountered in a previous trip to China were reluctant to speak so openly, though we speak much more Spanish than Mandarin and the language barrier was certainly a factor.
Interestingly no Cuban that we met had ever been off the island. An average to high-end job pays $25 a month. It’s hard to pay for a trip off the island at that pay rate even if one could navigate through the complexities and time consuming paperwork. The average Cuban works to pay for the food.
The food was mostly poor. Prices were fairly standard, but only in the occasional private restaurants (Paladares) could we find good food and to find them you had to dig deeper than just asking the taxi cab driver or taking the advice of a restaurant hawker on the street. Most buildings are in a state of disrepair. And the cars are a mind-boggling time travel experience.
Cuba has three eras of cars, the American era of the 1950’s, the Russian era of the 1970’s and the current era of the Chinese cars and busses. Every imaginable American car from the 1950’s is operating on the streets of Cuba, some with original engines and many with German and Japanese diesel engines.
The beaches were nice as one would expect on a Caribbean Island. We swam in a fresh water fed cave. We boated in an underground river and we experienced spectacular views overlooking cigar tobacco farming valleys. We watched a farmer roll a cigar and we smoked plenty of them.
We took a Hobie Cat on a snorkeling excursion to a coral reef. On that day diving visibility was moderate, the reef was average but fish were plentiful. The guides were throwing bread into the water and laughing at the tourists’ reactions to the boil of fish around them. I couldn’t help myself and joined in, throwing more fish food about the unsuspecting tourists, contributing to the fish mischief. Our guide tickled a lobster out of a hole to bring home.
I visited a marina in Varadero. The marina was new but empty. A handful of private yachts were scattered in the outer portions of the marina and a dozen 100-foot Fountaine Pajot passenger carrying catamarans were in the front row. The government runs most of the tours. The rum, the cigars, the restaurants, hotels and rental cars are all predominately operated by the government and most prices on these commodities are fixed throughout the country.
The yate “Granma” holds a special place in Cuban history. Eighty two rebels embarked on a miserable 1,200 mile journey from Mexico to Cuba aboard the 43’ boat. The rebels included Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The Batista government knew they were coming and tried to find and stop the “Granma” but it landed in Cuba, discharged its passengers and gained entrance into the Revolutionary Museum in Havana. A lot more impactful than the local smuggling pangas.
The private economy is beginning to develop but in this regard Cuba is far behind China.
There were only a few street hawkers. They generally were selling black market cigars, rum and promoting restaurants. I encountered nobody selling any drugs or prostitution, as is common in many countries. I was told prostitution is active, but it is illegal and not publicly promoted.
There are two currencies in Cuba, one is the national currency (Moneda Nacional or CUP) and the tourist currency (CUC). Tourists trade their money only for CUC and U.S. dollars are hit with a 10% exchange fee in addition to the normal money change fee of 3%. Bring Mexican Pesos or Canadian Dollars, they only get charged the 3% fee. Money changing is a government service and the rate is the same at the airport, banks or hotels. Use of American credit cards is very limited and also subject to a financial penalty.
The official U. S. Government position for bringing products back from Cuba is a $400 limit with only $100 of cigars or liquor. My buddy is enjoying his $100 box of Cohibas.
I decided that if I was Cuban, I would be a diving guide. I would get to boat, dive and interface with people regularly. I would get a little extra money from tips and eat lobster for dinner.