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In search of rum and revolution - Mr & Mrs Annhig go to Cuba.

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Jan 28th, 2016, 08:44 AM
  #1
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In search of rum and revolution - Mr & Mrs Annhig go to Cuba.

Hands up anyone who hasn't wondered what Cuba is like to visit and how much it's likely to change in the next few years as a result of increasing glasnost with the US? Well if yours is one of the hands that are raised, it appears that you are in a minority because within 48 hours of arriving here, we had met people from Australia, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, El Salvador, Sweden, and Slovenia, most of them guests at the "Casa Particular" [Cuba's answer to the BnB] where we spent our first 4 nights in Havana.

It was originally DH's idea to visit Cuba. We started thinking about it about a year ago, and in April '15 we booked our tickets on Virgin flying from Gatwick to Havana at the beginning of Jan '16 and returning by the same route 3 weeks later. Almost immediately afterwards President Obama announced the opening of the US Embassy in Havana which we suspected might increase the number of visitors wanting to see Cuba before it changes irrevocably, but our bridges were burnt and anyway, we wanted to do just the same thing.

Planning was a bit rudimentary, to be honest. We started off thinking about flying down to Santiago de Cuba [which is right at the south-east end of the island] but when I started to look at flights nothing came up on the website so I reckoned it was too early; when I looked again a couple of weeks before we were due to leave, nearly all of the flights were booked - I was too late. We could have booked flights back to Havana at the end of the trip, either from Santiago itself or nearby Baracoa, but we were worried that if flights were cancelled we'd be stuck and would miss our flight back to the UK. So 4th Jan saw us arriving at Havana Airport with just 4 nights accommodation booked in Havana itself and nothing else. Were we doing this again, I would be much stricter with the itinerary, and rather than trust to chance, book our accommodation ahead, and so far as possible, our transport too - another source of problems besetting the independent tourist in Cuba. In fact as I write, we are not entirely sure how we are going to get to our next destination tomorrow - we think we have booked a taxi but won't actually be sure til it arrives, and as for what sort of vehicle it will be...who knows?

So, here we are, just arrived at Jose Martin airport at Havana, hot and tired after an 11 hour flight - will our taxi be there? Does our casa [booked on the internet] even exist? Will they even let us into the country? Tune in for the next exciting instalment!
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Jan 28th, 2016, 08:56 AM
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Sorry about the cliff-hanger but I'm going to leave you teetering on the brink a bit longer while I talk about some practicalities. If you aren't interested in the nuts and bolts, and just want to read about all the mistakes we made and fun we had making them, do skip this bit. But. If you are thinking about going to Cuba, I do suggest that you read the next few paragraphs.

Group tour v independent travel:

If you like to be able to know where you are going to be and how you are going to get there, that you are going to have hot water for a shower when you want it, rooms that are cleaned every day with clean towels, soap that you didn't bring yourself, bedside lights that work, a proper road to walk on, and modern air-conditioned vehicles to travel in, independent travel is probably not for you. OTOH if you want the chance to stay in Cuban homes and meet real Cuban families, to eat food cooked by those families [though they probably can't afford to eat what they serve you] to travel in collectivo taxis with Cubans and to understand a little of the problems that beset their daily lives, then traveling independently is definitely an option. In truth, there is no reason why you should not do both - having spent a couple of weeks staying in Casas and traveling in collectivos and buses, we are now spending a couple of nights in a hotel before we get a taxi to our next stop where we will [we hope!] be staying in a casa again, though it will be a wrench to drag ourselves away from the Aussie open on the Telly, fluffy large towels, and a minibar! [oh yes - and wifi in the hotel - almost unheard of here]. [NB - I know that these choices still only apply to non-US citizens, but it surely won’t be long before the restrictions are lifted, making independent travel a real choice for everyone]

Still with me? Here are my thoughts on some other topics which may help you decide if Cuba is for you:
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Jan 28th, 2016, 09:22 AM
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Hi

Great start.
Why didn't/don't you rent a car ? we did some years ago - no problem.

What I remember most is the friendliness of the people - hope it is still the case.

We had a fabulous langoust somewhere close to Cienfuegos.

Enjoy !!

Mvg.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 10:03 AM
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Hi whathello,

thanks for your response.

we did consider car rental but in the end we rejected it and were glad we had. Reasons:

1. State of the roads. At best they are bumpy, at worst they are non-existent.

2. Driving conditions. Locals tend to drive down the middle of the road to avoid the worst pot-holes, which leads to some hairy moments, even for them.

3. Other road "users" including oxen, bullocks, horses, dogs - all are prone to wander around somewhat aimlessly.

4. Cost - despite our intermittent use of taxis to get about, we reckoned that we spent half what we would have done if we'd hired a car.

5. Legal implications. The guide books we read all warned, perhaps erroneously, that if you have a collision with a Cuban, it is highly likely that you will have to remain in Cuba until the case is sorted out, possibly many months later.

We did meet some people who were driving themselves, all were Italians, for what that's worth. They said that it was fine but we were unconvinced.

Yes, people are very friendly but it was difficult to separate genuine friendliness from the desire for a tip. That is very sad to say but was our experience. The reason for this is not the fault of the cubans - the basic pay is very low and more or less impossible for them to survive on. Tourists provide vital extra funds, and many professionals augment their income by taxi driving or running a casa, or in some cases have given up teaching, medicine or whatever entirely in favour of work in the tourist industry.

We never found that great langoust but we did eat some wonderful prawns.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 10:06 AM
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Here's some more general info before we get back to the trip:

Personal Safety.

This really worried me before we left, particularly as having heard and read [wrongly as it turns out] that ATMs are few and far between, we were going to be bringing about £2000 in cash with us. No need to worry on either score. Firstly there are plenty of ATMs in every town that you are likely to be staying in and so far they have all worked perfectly. We have taken the precaution of only using them when the bank to which they are attached is open, just in case, but there is really no need to worry about finding one. Secondly, Cuba is one of the safest places you will ever go to. We have walked around the grottiest parts of Havana in perfect safety. Credit cards are pretty safe [not that you're going to be using them] as are UK bank notes - you need a passport to use them so they are not worth stealing. Where we have had no safety deposit box in the room, we have just locked anything valuable in our lockable suitcase but really I doubt if there was any need to do so. As one of our casa hosts said, when Cuba changes, as it inevitably will over the next few years, the three things he hopes they keep are free medical care, free education, and personal security.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 11:30 AM
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Hi annhig, I'm following along with interest. We were in Cuba for a week in 2001 with a licensed U.S. group of about 16 people. It was just before G. W. Bush tightened regulations again. Some of our fellow travelers had visited numerous times, so the itinerary was fairly customized to the group.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 12:56 PM
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Hi annhig,

I'm still with you and am reading this with great interest. Hope you are enjoying the trip. Was your casa okay? As you may recall, we had to leave our original place and stay at the place our son rented. It was very nice. The 12 people who were with us on this trip stayed in various casas and all were happy with their place.

Looking forward to more!
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Jan 28th, 2016, 01:19 PM
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Hi Marianna,

we are in fact home now, but I wrote some of this as I went along and posted it more or less as it was writ, hence the sense that we are still there!

our casas were a mixed bag - mostly our fault due to lack of foresight, but also a result of the lack of wifi and proper internet access in Cuba, which makes one very reliant on word of mouth.

cw - I suspect that you would find Cuba very greatly changed. apart from anything else tourism has grown greatly in the last 15 years or so, and the availability of access to a greater income through dealing with tourists has IMO led effectively to a dual economy - those who can earn CUCs and consequently have access to things like cars and other consumer goods, as well as better food etc., and those who are reliant on their state incomes and their rations.

A propos of any views I express about Cuba, its economy and politics, I should have said this before. We were only there for 3 weeks and so any opinions I express should be looked at in that light. Clearly we only met a very few Cubans, most of whom are involved with tourism in one shape or other. However no-one seemed worried about expressing their opinions to us, there was no apparent reticence about asking for tips, not even in the Museum of 28th September which celebrates the work of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, and US flags are freely displayed on cars, clothing etc. It was no secret that many professionals had given up their jobs in order to earn more in the tourist industry and the reason for doing so was freely volunteered by them. They were fully aware of the effect of their actions upon Cuban society, but felt that they had no choice. We did not sadly have any contact with people who had not made that choice which was our loss, and something which I suppose a "people to people" tour might address.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 01:37 PM
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In order to break up what threatens to be a stream of somewhat boring information, here is

Day 1

Actually, we started our trip on Day -1, flying from our local airport in Cornwall to Gatwick on Flybe. the night before we were due to leave the UK. We’ve done this a few times and as I get out of the car I never cease to be surprised by the strength of the wind coming off the Atlantic as it hits land just outside Newquay. Flybe are still using twin props on this route so you get a real sense of what flying was like in the “old days”, but they got us to Gatwick safely and we were soon safely ensconced in the Hampton at Hilton at Gatwick North. Somehow I managed to book us into a Gatwick North hotel when both Flybe and Virgin use Gatwick South, but in fact it was easier and quicker to get there using the hover rail connection than it had been on our previous trip to get to the Hilton proper at Gatwick South which requires a long walk through the concourse, across the access road, through the car park and up a ramp, not to mention the ½ mile tramp within the hotel to find your room. The food wasn’t much cop but we didn’t really care, and the price was right at £65 including breakfast.

Our Virgin flight was a 12.30 pm departure and we had checked-in on line so we wandered along at about 10 am, enjoyed using the premium economy check-in and security section, and in no time we were sitting in the departure lounge wondering what we were going to do for the next 2 hours. Then DH had a brainwave - let’s go and stock up on medicines, specifically anti-diarrhoea meds, and we were so glad that we did. This was prompted partly by previous experiences abroad [specifically my unforgettable 48 hours in Port Douglas] and by a tip from FlannerUK - thanks, Flanner. We bought a lot, and used almost all of them.

By 12 noon we were boarding, being settled into our seats with glasses of buck’s fizz, and before we knew it we’d taken off. This was our first flight where we had chosen to fly other than coach, following an appalling return flight from Australia, after which I swore that for long-haul, I’d never do that again, even if it meant staying at home, and for an extra £300 each it was well worth it.

The flight was what virtually all flights are, [thank goodness!] and by about 6pm, we were touching down at Havana, which is where the “fun” starts. Passport control first - being independent travellers we had had to obtain our tourist visas through the Cuban Embassy in London, which required my sending them about £70 in postal orders, and caused a bit of head-scratching down at my local post office, which hadn’t sold a Postal order for many a year, let alone £70’s worth. Amazingly they were returned within a week, which well justified the decision not to use a visa service, which would have more or less doubled the cost. There was plenty of time to find the passports and visas as the queue moved at tortoise pace, so I had plenty of time to observe whether passports were being stamped [a recent query here] which so far as I could tell, they were.

The actual passport control was relatively painless - you have to stand straight in front of the official so that your photo can be taken on a little camera, answer a question about whether you have been to Africa [presumably to do with the Ebola virus, so i reckoned that my one and only visit to SA about 10 years ago didn’t count] and that’s it. Then, somewhat unusually, you and your hand luggage have to go through a security check [the usual x-ray machines operated by the usual unsympathetic automatons, common to all airports] and then onto baggage reclaim, where the fun began. Or rather didn’t, because there were few if any bags appearing on the luggage belt, and those that were there were from an earlier Paris flight. Ho hum. At the same time, it seemed that lots of people were filling in forms which had somehow passed us by, and an enquiry of a fellow passenger provided the information that they were required to exit customs, so while DH kept a fruitless eye out for the bags, I went in search of forms, which were being given out haphazardly at a desk near security. From memory they required some straightforward information, like where were were staying that night, and some other more unusual details, such as the passport numbers of the rest of our group. As we were only two that was easy but I’m not sure what you were supposed to do if there were, say, 20 of you. I filled in the forms in the hope that the luggage would have arrived by the time I finished but no such luck - luggage off our flight had started to appear but at snail’s pace, and it was about 2 hours after we’d landed that we finally managed to exit customs, handing in our carefully- completed forms as we left, which predictably were ignored by the person collecting them.

We had arranged with the owner of the casa that we were due to stay at in Havana that we would be met by a car at the airport, and somewhat to my surprise, there was Sn. Humberto holding up a sign with our names on it. We managed to explain that we needed some cash [not least to pay the taxi fare we owed him] and he showed us the Cadeca outside the arrivals hall, which thankfully had a very short queue. I changed £300 into CUCs [about 450] and then we were off to the rather dark car park and Sn Humberto’s car, which was what I came to recognise as one of the ubiquitous Ladas that were imported to Cuba in the 1980s before the collapse of the USSR, when Russia’s support for Cuba was removed. This led to the “special period” of which more later.
The ride into Havana was like all such journeys in a foreign country in the dark - confusing, exciting, and worrying in almost equal measure. Then we had arrived at our first destination - the Hosteria CartaCuba. So as not to duplicate effort, here’s my review on TA:

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUse...ml#UR343399740
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Jan 28th, 2016, 03:30 PM
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I am enjoying your report and this cads sounds wonderful.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 03:41 PM
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Very interesting, annhig. Is the hosteria system subsidized?
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Jan 28th, 2016, 06:11 PM
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This is going to be so interesting -- logging in so I can find it to catch up later.
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Jan 28th, 2016, 11:44 PM
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So many friends here in Australia and Uk have travelled to Cba. Enjoying the report . We now only travel prem economy when a flight is long i.e. Over 8 hours so really understand your decision annhig
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Jan 29th, 2016, 04:04 AM
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Very interesting, annhig. Is the hosteria system subsidized?>>

on the contrary, TD, it's heavily taxed, even when a room is vacant. Still, casa owners seem to be some of the most privileged in Cuban society as they have access to CUCs through their property, plus any extras they provide - laundry, breakfast, evening meals, taxi services. Of course they have the cost of providing these services, and very often use what they earn to support their extended families, but they are a lot better off than those who don't have that opportunity.

One example - the casa that we stayed in at the end of our trip was equipped with almost as many electrical gadgets as we have at home - flat screen TV, CD player, DVD player, and one of the biggest american fridge freezers I've ever seen, which had had to be hoisted up to their 1st floor apartment on a pulley by 6 strong men!

Northie - the extra space seemed to make all the difference for us, and the quick check in etc didn't hurt either. For long haul, I'm definitely a convert.

jubi - JJ - nice to have you here.
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Jan 29th, 2016, 06:00 AM
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This is quite timely for us because we were wondering if we could combine our June-July Chicago trip with Cuba. thank you for foreseeing that and getting there ahead of us to scout the place.

Of'course, we cannot plan much ahead for this visit, due to the hurricane season which we picked for the adrenaline and also due to possibility of a US-Cuba flight. Otherwise best option may be to fly via Cancun, hopefully without disturbing the sleeping sharks of Cousteau.

Please tell what kind of mattress and pillows were available, as well as toilet paper, wet-wipes.

And of'course, where to find WI-FI??

I hope you will continue and finish this. You, like I, start travel reports with great intentions and then start procrastinating afterwards.

A major question: How many days should a trip be to smell and taste Cuba? Was three weeks too long? Did any boredom set in and was it converted to marital issues? Sorry that is three questions. It is the first that is important. The next two was for Eser's curiosity.
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Jan 29th, 2016, 06:38 AM
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OC - as ever you make me laugh. Thank you.

A flight from the US is not really practical, but many people fly from Mexico, Panama or Canada; you could then return via Madrid, Rome or Paris if that suited better.

If the quality of mattresses and pillows is important to you, I advise staying in small hotels rather than Casas, where the facilities we encountered were somewhat basic. if you decide where you want to go, I can try to advise you, though of course I can't answer for places that we didn't stay in.

apart from in Havana where we never sorted out the Wifi system, elsewhere we gained access via a card bought from the phone company called "ETECSA" - you can then log on within 100 yards or so of the wifi point. If you are lucky, there will be a bar or hotel within range where you can sit and have a drink, otherwise you have to sit or perch where you can. The cards cost 5CUC for 30 mins or 10CUC for 5 hours, so we obviously got the 5 hours version. They are theoretically valid for several months but will expire 30 days after you first activate them. I think that you can buy top ups, but that didn't apply to us as once we got to Havana, we couldn't get ours to work, though lots of people were hanging around what looked like wifi points using their devices with apparent success.

Honestly, 2 weeks should be enough unless you want to see the whole island - we were sorry that we didn't manage to see Santiago de Cuba and you might try to work that into your itinerary by flying into, say, Holguin, and out of Havana. otherwise your interests should dictate what you do - Havana obviously, but there are also Vinales for walking, Trinidad for music and dancing, Santa Clara for history and Che - there are many options.

As for toilet paper, I suggest taking your own. I will be addressing "bathroom issues" soon - something in which Eser may also be very interested!

Towards the end of the trip there was a touch of ennui to be honest, but so far as i know there is no divorce petition in the offing!
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Jan 29th, 2016, 07:56 AM
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Thanks for the info, annhig. Is there an underground for obtaining all those mod cons?

Re TP, you reminded me that I wrote a note to my parents on the TP from my 1969 hotel in London. With a flair pen and it didn't run...

More TR, please!
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Jan 29th, 2016, 11:22 AM
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Thanks for the info, annhig. Is there an underground for obtaining all those mod cons? >>

no, they have shops, just like us! The range of goods doesn't seem to be particularly large and the prices are about the same as ours, which of course makes them proportionately much more expensive for Cubans, even the better off ones.

one interesting fact we picked up was that these expensive consumer goods have very short guarantees on them - 2-3 months was a good example - compared with the minimum of a year that we would have.
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Jan 29th, 2016, 02:34 PM
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Annhig, you are so right about bringing some of your own toilet paper with you. I bought small rolls and took the gray (sort of like card board) inner part out. Then I pressed down each roll with my hands and put them each in a small, plastic sandwich bag with elastics around them. This kept them flat so that you could squeeze a few rolls in your suitcase or carry-on. I think I had about 6 or 7 rolls in my suitcase and so did my DH, DDIL, and DS.

Warm/hot water and often soap, too, is hard to find in restrooms so take some handi/wet wipes with you. They don't have any wet wipes there as far as we could tell. Our guide was so intrigued by ours that we gave a lot of them to her. Tissues - I bought packages in CVS. They were in a plastic bag. They, too, could be pressed down and kept that way with elastics also.
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Jan 29th, 2016, 02:59 PM
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great tips, Marianne. We had all of those [though not quite so much loo paper!] plus some anti-bacterial hand wash for when we felt the need. Wet wipes were good for wiping suspect surfaces too.

but the best thing we brought was plenty of anti-diarrhoea tablets - we were going to take some anyway but doubled the amount after reading Flanner's advice.

Thanks, Flanner!
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