I had to check out of the hotel in Panama at 1400, taxi 45min and $25 to the Panama airport, through Immigration and Security, they don’t stamp your passport when you leave, at Security you have to take your shoes and belt off but they let a bottle of water through, 3 gate changes (disorganized) kept me fit while waiting for my flight and a Haagen Daz undid all the good work hahahaha.
Finally boarded at 2045 and was sold the Cuban Tourist Permit at the gate for $20, it is simply a small form where you enter your details twice, handing in one half when you enter Cuba and the other half when you leave, they do not stamp your passport so nobody knows that you have been to Cuba, I have heard Israel does the same thing because if you have an Israel stamp in your passport some Middle East countries will deny you entry.
The flight was a comedy, they (Copa Airlines) let people on with huge hand luggage which filled up the overhead lockers and people boarding later could not get their stuff in so they started fighting and yelling and other passengers had to stand up to have a look hahahaha, finally the cabin staff got a baggage handler and he put some stuff in the hold, we eventually left about 30min late. On landing everyone stood up and started taking their stuff out of the lockers so the captain stopped the plane on the runway and would not move until all the luggage had been put back and everyone was seated with their seat belts on.
After that Immigration was painless but they put all your luggage through the x-ray machines before you leave the airport, looking for Satellite phones I believe.
People were smoking while waiting at the luggage belt, luggage came off at the rate of about one a minute, took ages and some had several massive canvas bags full of clothes which I later saw being checked at Customs probably have to pay duty.
Taxi to the hotel at 0145 on Christmas morning CUC$25, there is an ATM at the airport, if you pay with US dollars you pay $5 more.
If you are wondering what a CUC is, its a Cuban Convertible Peso and is tied to the US dollar at a ratio of 1:1 and is meant for Tourists, the local people use a Cuban Peso 25 of which equal 1 CUC. Tourists cannot use the local currency. Basically this is a way for a 3rd world country to charge 1st world prices.
The next day I went to a supermarket to get some water and supplies, at the checkout I paid with a CUC$50 note and I was asked for id, details of which were entered on a form and was given a 20 and a 10 and some coins in change, I knew this was wrong so I asked for the receipt, she took the money back and examined it in the light pretending to check if they were counterfeit then handed me 2 x 20’s and the receipt then at the gate a security guard checked the receipt so he must have been in on the scam as well because if I had walked out without checking there would have been no receipt. My research before I entered the country told me what to look out for, the other common scam is restaurants adding items to your bill, so when in Cuba check everything twice, Tourists are considered fair game.
The next surprise was Internet costs CUC$8 per hour, ouch and though I could get a Wifi signal in my room I could never connect had to go to the lobby, one hour lasted my whole stay. Locals do not have access to the Internet or Email. Skype is blocked and the only one of my SIM cards that got a signal was from India but when I tried to send a txt out of the country it was blocked.
Cuba is stuck in the 50-60’s with some beautiful old buildings and cars slowly disintegrating, they do have a very organised Tourist Department and tours everywhere so it must play an important part in their economy. Tourists were mainly (90%) from Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America with a few German, French, Italian, Dutch, English, Chinese, Australian and Americans
Now for some unverified Tour Guide gossip
1. Castro once gave a speech that lasted 7 hours (Guinness Book of World Records)
2. When the Pope visited 2 million people came to see him
3. Medical care is free but drugs are in short supply
4. Education is free up to the 9th grade then you can do 5 years of University or Technical College, then a 2 year bond with the Government.
5. Most families live in one house, one family to a room, they can’t afford to build new houses.
6. The minimum monthly income is 200 local pesos or $8 (does not sound right)
7. 99% of business is State owned
8. Before the revolution Cuba was equally divided between Whites, Blacks and Chinese after the revolution all the Chinese left because they lost their businesses.
9. The old American Car Taxis are one of the few privately owned businesses; each driver pays a fixed tax to the Government and keeps the rest as income.
10. Churches are only open during Mass
11. Mangoes, Bananas, Tobacco and Sugarcane are the main crops.
12. Smoking is permitted everywhere, the only places I saw No Smoking signs was in the Tour Busses and in the Departure Lounge at the Airport and everyone smokes.
13. According to an English guy I met who has spent some time in this area Cuba is a paradise compared to the other drug and crime ridden Caribbean countries.
14. There is no advertising, no billboards, no neon signs and no shopping centres or malls.
15. Christmas and New Year are not celebrated
Freedom was declared on 1-Jan-1959, and this date is celebrated as Revolution Day every year and 53 years later they are still going on about the Revolution instead of moving on like every other country has done.
When they do move on they should be successful because corruption and crime have been almost eliminated
There are very few pictures of Castro and I did not see a single Statue of him so there is no Personality cult.
For all you travelers out there this is a useful website, I met the founder Elizabeth on one of the tours.
Out of Cuba on 1-Jan-2012 from the Hotel to Airport in an old Lada taxi a bit like the old Fiat’s in Bombay held together with bits of string and wire hahahaha which had a leaky exhaust, that driver is going to die of carbon monoxide poisoning one of these days, its a toss up between that and lung cancer. You will need to set aside CUC$25 for the Taxi and another CUC$25 for the Departure Tax.
Arrived in Bogota, Columbia to wait for my bike and I am back online.