This is Cuba…

by Glen

Thursday – Friday 7-8 April: Cuba days 2-3. Marina Hemingway and initial struggles with logistics.

This blog may seem rather negative to Cuba, but it expresses our initial challenges on arrival. To balance this, we end up having some wonderful experiences and departing Cuba with very fond memories.

Having arrived to Marina Hemingway in Havana after our 3 days passage from Honduras Bay Islands we have our usual post-sailing blissful sleep before starting the our Cuban adventures.

The marina itself was built in the late 1950s just before the revolution and as written in many places, it didn’t have any upgrades since then. Considering this, it must have been one of the top marinas anywhere globally at that time. There are 4 long channels with concrete walls down each side for boats to moor side-on. And in between the channels we guess there were plans for Florida style houses and apartments, each with a waterfront. But only 2 of the channel fingers were developed in that way. One with a hotel and condos and one with housing. All in perfectly preserved 1950s architecture.
As we initially walk around the marina, we comment that it’s made in a very similar style to the Jolly Harbour development in Antigua and also the Puerto Aventuras marina development in Mexico. Likely all from a similar era and in many ways all now in a similar state of dilapidation.
Like a lot of what we end up seeing in in Cuba, the marina is frozen in a 1950s time bubble.

Our first task is to try and get internet. We are told this can only be done by buying a voucher at the 2 hotels in the marina, which will give us hourly internet access. And here is where the frustrations start. The first hotel sends us to the second hotel for a voucher. But the second hotel says the internet is only for hotel guests, and that we can only buy a voucher at the first hotel! After some persuasive Spanish from Oana, we do eventually get a voucher.
This is where we discover that employees of government organizations (like hotels, rental cars etc.) are all in need of a good lesson in customer service, or as I would say “they need a good slapping!”. They make no eye contact and seem happier filing their nails and pretending not to notice you are needing their help. And once you get their attention, the answer is usually “no” or “not possible” which can be interpreted as “I can’t be bothered to help you”. This is totally contrary to the other entrepreneurial Cubans we meet, who are often overly desperate to sell or offer you something. We found both types are rather annoying!

Same attitude at the car rental center. As we walk in, the guy at the desk is eating his lunch and beckons us (with mouth full!) to sit and wait till he has finished eating …. very slowly! Then, despite there being about 20 new rental cars parked outside, apparently there are no cars available to rent. When we protest, he informs us that we can only book via the website, it cannot be done via him. Heaven forbid that the government would allow him to handle booking a car which involves responsibility for a financial payment!
So off we march back to the hotel to buy more internet so we can book a car. But this time “the system is down” and we have to wait for an hour or more to get back on-line. Then, guess what, while we did manage to book a rental car, the payment for it doesn’t work if your IP is inside Cuba! You would need to have booked online before arriving! Catch-22.
Disgruntled we head back to the boat. Beaten.

The following day, without any rental car we decide to take a taxi into Havana which is about 15Kms to the east of the marina. As we tied up the boat yesterday, a guy named Jorge was waiting to tell us he was available for taxi rides in his 1949 Chevvy. So we use him today for our trip into Havana. This was another lesson, because he charged us more than a taxi should cost and although it was an experience to drive in this ancient car, it was hot, smelly and gave us a ride like we were on a roller coaster. For our return ride we took a normal taxi for $20, with air-conditioning! Back to that age-old catch: if someone approaches you offering services, you just have to suspect the deal is not going to be good for you! And this rule is certainly alive and active in Cuba! Another example of such: when we returned from one of our walks around the marina on our second evening here, a guy named Orlando was waiting for us by the boat. Flustered, he starts off by stating he has been waiting for 2 hours after he saw our inquiry on how to get our hands on a hire car which we made on the Cuba Land and Sea Facebook page. Then he rather enthusiastically stated that he knows somebody who knows somebody who works in a rental car office, and he could find a rental car…for a fee. A US$200 fee to be precise. Absolutely not, thank you very much!

More on Havana in the next blog, but staying on the theme of initial frustrations, we have to mention money. Yesterday we managed to get money from the hotel’s ATM using our UK credit card (USA credit cards don’t work here). However, that turned out to be an expensive mistake. The ATM gave an exchange rate of 23 CUP to 1 US$, but once in Havana town we found we could change US$ cash on the street at 110 CUP to 1 US$. This made a significant difference to the apparent cost of things. At the official exchange of 23, everything was more expensive than even Europe. But at an exchange of 110 the same things are suddenly extremely cheap! For instance, a cocktail might be 200 CUPs, which is over $8 officially, yet less than $2 with the better exchange. A main course dish at 300 CUPs is US$13 officially, but only US$2.70 if you manage to do the lucrative exchange.

On Friday we do finally manage to rent a car. We went back to the same Cubacar office, but this time a different person attended to us and he was much more helpful. He managed to find a car and we paid for it with our UK credit card. The only catch was that we could only pay at the official exchange rate and we could only rent for a minimum of 5 days at $560 total. Quite expensive really, but we want to see Cuba by driving ourselves and we will only come here once. Likely, we could have arranged for the official tours (a car with driver) for less than that, but we always prefer to drive ourselves and take things as they come. Ending up with some overly chatty driver who only takes you where he wants to take you, is not our idea of a relaxed and fun journey.

We had another success a day later when we discovered we could easily buy a SIM card for the phone with 9GB internet access. We were initially told this was not possible and the only internet was to be had at certain hot-spots. But apparently being able to get internet on the phone, like in any other country, is a new thing here in Cuba. And the cost, in real CUP terms, was cheap at less than $20. It also made a world of difference to our self-driven adventures. Because without real-time google maps, we would have got totally lost on the roads, which have no road signs and no paper maps for sale anywhere. Yes, I know, I know, you can get applications with off-line maps, like MapsMe and Sygic. But guess what, you cannot download these apps whilst inside Cuba!

So, after our initial frustrations, we suddenly find ourselves all set up with car, phone number, and internet. Let the adventures begin!

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