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CUBA-TRIP REPORT- Havana and Veradero August/September 2019

Discussion in 'Greater Caribbean and Bermuda' started by Jayfarmlaw, Sep 9, 2019.

  1. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    This may turn into a longer than usual report because the trip was nothing like anything we had done before. It was not the typical dive vacation I had hoped for, bur more of a Cuban vacation with some diving thrown in. This was our first trip to Cuba so I'm no expert. Also, I don't care about the politics involved but part of the reason I wanted to go was to see the conditions the people live in. IF YOURE JUST INTERESTED IN THE DIVING...SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM.

    GETTING THERE- We had purchased our tickets before the Trump restrictions had gone into effect. We were supposedly grandfathered in under "People to People" but our Visa was converted to Humanitarian Aid and Conservation before we left. We flew Southwest out of fort Lauderdale and typical of southwest, there were no issues what so ever. The hurricane was still making up its mind which direction to go, but it zigged instead of zagged and we had no weather issues other than a raised eyebrow of concern and a little more attention to the weather channel during the trip. 5 of the 7 days had afternoon showers typical of tropical afternoons, but nothing that altered our plans in any way. The weather was beautiful, but there is no hot like Havana Hot.

    I converted US Dollars to Canadian at my local bank, once at the Hotel in Havana, I converted Canadian to Cuban.

    Once on the ground in Havana, you walked down the portable steps from the plane to the tarmac. The heat and humidity punch you in the face, but once you convince yourself you are not going to die, its doable. The walk into the terminal was about 100 yards. The terminal was air conditioned-ish and not uncomfortable. There were little individual rooms that you had to go into alone for customs processing. The agents were friendly and other than not being able to exit the little room until you were buzzed out, the process was completely worry free. We purchased our visa's in advance so they were stamped along with out passports and we were buzzed out to baggage claim.

    Baggage claim was slow and some of our bags were on one belt, and others were on Belt #2. No big deal. Once we cleared baggage, our guide was waiting for us for the short ride to the Havana National Hotel. Old 50's model American cars are everywhere along with a Russian made car that looks like a boxy BMW. The model started with I...maybe ICAA or ISAA...something like that. Our driver spoke limited English but between my Spanish and his English, we made do. He was friendly and did his best to hold a conversation.

    HAVANA- The Havana National hotel was finished in 1930. Until the revolution, it was frequented by Hollywood stars, and mafia kingpins alike. Much of the hotel remains just as it was in those days. The air conditioning feels wonderful and the outlets in the rooms are a mixture of 220 and 110, so bring a converter if you have lots of devices. The $10 walmart "all in one" converter worked fine for us.

    The biggest adjustment for me was that there is no convenience store to get a bottle of water, Tylenol, or any other needs at. You need to carry your own toilet paper when not at the hotel, and any public bathrooms at a business or restaurant will usually have an attendant that it is customary to tip. I usually left 1 Cuban peso. Our guide had to go to several bodegas to come up with 8 1-liter bottles of water for the group for the next day. We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore so to speak.

    We did a walking tour of Old Havana and the history of a 500 year old Caribbean city was more interesting than I had expected. The architecture was amazing. Old Havana reminded me more of a European city (Warsaw comes to mind) than anything. Cut stone building and cobblestone streets were beautiful. If you have never seen the sun set orange glow on old Havana from the patio by the cannons at the National Hotel, put it on your bucket list. It's one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

    We did the convertible tour in Havana in 50's model American cars. Most of the cars had been converted to Russian/Chinese/Japanese diesel engines with mismatched transmissions. Their ability to keep these cars on the road with no American parts is impressive. Our guide was working on a 1950 Chevrolet that the gas engine had been sleeved using cast sewer drain pipe.

    The people in Havana were generally friendly. Supposedly about half the Cuban people would like to become an American Protectorate, while the other half believes the state media that America is the root of all of Cuba's problems. The media also reports that Venezuela is a solid and thriving country. It was easy to tell what people believe by the way we were treated. Many Cubans were surprised to see Americans after the cruise travel elimination.

    Breakfast was included in our rate and was very good. Excellent coffee as well.

    VERADERA- After a day in Havana, we traveled to the Melia Veradera resort. We arrived just as the lunch buffet was opening and our rooms weren't ready yet. We went to lunch and it was more like a mixed martial arts fight in the buffet line. Waiting in line was not a concept many could grasp. People would cut in line and if you stood your ground, they would try an push you out of their way. The servers were less than friendly and we could not decide if this was directed at Americans or all people in general. Luckily, our dive schedule put us returning at the end of the lunch rush so the line issues were not anywhere as bad. We had dinner in the ala-carte restaurants so lines were not an issue. Most of the wait staff was friendly. The resort was nice, but crowded. drinks were watered down and they were likely to be out of limes or mint at any given point for Mojitos. The beer was Chrystal(typical light beer) and Buchanero (darker), not bad but not particularly memorable either. The coffee was the home run, double expresso with milk and a half shot of Havana Club 7 year...it will touch your soul...

    DIVING- I told you all of that so I could tell you this.... Diving in Havana was not great, it wasn't bad either. The reefs were pretty sparse with few solid lines coral and lots of sand. They do not control the lionfish and were not allowed to take them so LF are everywhere. Seas were rough and we were diving off of a yacht type boat with a swim platform with a small ladder in Havana. Getting back on in gear sucked and the crew wasn't really game to help. Due to the small boat size, we assembled our gear on land. My first fill was 2200psi, they acted like that was plenty. In Veradero, we were on traditional dive boats with 10-to 20 divers per day. The seas were rough, some day 5 foot swells picking the ladder up out of the water. We had multiple o-ring issues, we had O-rings but for what ever reason they were hesitant to change them out. bring lots of yoke type O-rings and a pick to change them. We were also told before we left that we needed to have inserts to convert din to yoke. it was not an issue for 22 tanks a day. All were yoke. Other than short fills and O-rings, we didn't have any trouble, although I had the "dive shop in a box" handy if needed. If you think you may need it...bring it. I didn't use rental equipment but what I saw seemed acceptable for rental stuff. Several others did have short fill issues. One guy's second tank was 1900 psi but it was a 25 foot dive so not that big of a deal. Dives were 45 minutes unless everyone had air and they would stretch to an hour.

    I was not expecting the amount of wreck diving in Cuba, there are multiple wreck options, including a 300 foot Russian Patrol Boat with the guns still on it at 100 FSW. These dives may not be available based on the fuel allotted by the govt.

    GETTING BACK- We had been told that we needed to be prepared to be questioned by customs about our trip upon returning to Fort Lauderdale. It was actually easier than many of our Mexico trips. We went to the customs computer screen, checked "No" on the 5 boxes, took our printed receipt to the man collecting them and walked to baggage claim. I brought back $80 of assorted cigars for a friend so I had nothing to declare. I wish I would have brought back a couple of bottles of Havana Club 7 year, but maybe on the next trip.

    All in all, I'm glad we went. It was an educational and eye opening experience and damn sure makes you appreciate many things we take for granted every day in America.

    Safe travels,
    Jay
     

    Attached Files:

    Snoweman, souladdikt, RTC'83 and 7 others like this.
  2. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    Various pics.
     

    Attached Files:

  3. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    Typical reef. Extraordinary diver? Lol. Water was 85-90 degrees. My first dive was in an old 3 mil full suit. After surfacing, I could not get out of the thing fast enough. Shorts and a rash guard was pretty nice. No jellyfish so all was good. IMG_2295.JPG
     
  4. Lorenzoid

    Lorenzoid idling in neutral buoyancy

    # of Dives: I just don't log dives
    Location: Atlanta, USA
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    Great write-up. I didn't dive when I was in Havana because I had heard that the diving was far better elsewhere, and I didn't want to waste my time. The wreck opportunities sound intriguing, though.

    For really great Cuban coffee and food ... visit Tampa.
     
    chillyinCanada likes this.
  5. drrich2

    drrich2 Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Southwestern Kentucky
    7,850
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    113
    Good report, and glad you had a good time even if the diving offering wasn't all that compelling.

    I see the official language is Spanish; how widely spoken was English? Would English-only speakers have any problems spending a week there, do you think?

    Richard.

    P.S.: BYO toilet paper and then have to tip, too? Ugh...
     
  6. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    Whoa....Cuban Spanish...it's fast, like really really fast. I can usually get by in Mexico, but between the accent and the speed, I felt like It was a different language completely. It took a few days, but it got easier. I'm sure they were waiting for me to finish speaking though. Gringo speaks sooooo slooooooowwwwwww....(picture Spanish with a slow Texas drawl) We had a guide with us for the tour type stuff so that overcame any significant hurdles. I'd say a solid 30% speak enough to get by, maybe more so in the tourism/service industry. Restaurants, dive ops, most drivers, and many people all spoke enough to get by.

    Absolutely hire a guide for Havana, there is so much to learn and the history is fascinating. They are restricted as to what they can say about the govt. at dinner one night, the waiter came over to listen to every word our guide and I were saying. The conversation was not political, but more just how the system worked. One more moment driving home the point that we're not in American anymore. The walls definately had ears. I had so much I wanted to ask but didn't out of respect for our guide. I did not want to put him in a bad position.

    Also, there is a tour of the Havana National Hotel, well worth the time.

    I forgot to mention that there were no toilet seats in public restrooms...but that's not uncommon in Mexico either. The hotel had little personal sized Kleenex type tissue packs that worked well for the toilet paper issue. Paper doesn't go in the toilet so type doesn't matter.

    We knew about most of the issues in advance and planned accordingly. Had we expected a carribean pampered vacation it might have been different. If you go plan accordingly and enjoy Cuba for what it is. It was enjoyable, educational, and beautiful...but I'm looking forward to Day of the Dead in Cozumel October 29 for a real dive vacation!

    Safe Travels Amigo,
    Jay
     
    lthomas132 and drrich2 like this.
  7. lthomas132

    lthomas132 Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Texas
    505
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    Great report! The wife & I are going to Havana in 3 weeks, no diving. The wife is an artist and wants to see all the museums, art galleries, etc. We are getting our visa through United Airlines as "support of the Cuban people" which was part of the flight reservation process. Direct flight from Houston. Also, our health insurance is paid through the airline. We have booked our 1st 2 nights at a casa particular through Airbnb, which is allowed. One question that I have for you is: was the hotel that you stayed at not on the list of "no-no" places to stay? Did you keep a log of places visited and receipts as supposedly required? The customs "little room" thing is new to me. Each person had to do this? Hope there are many rooms. Thanks a bunch.
     
    chillyinCanada likes this.
  8. chillyinCanada

    chillyinCanada Solo Diver Staff Member

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    It was 20 years ago but my friend and I also experienced a lot of pushing and shoving, queue jumping. This was especially frustrating at the front desk. We finally figured out that it was the Italians and the Spanish.

    I haven't been to Italy but hadn't particularly noticed this kind of behaviour in Spain. That said, I hadn't been anywhere like the hotel in Cuba anywhere in Europe, so just don't know . . .well, the train boarding was a bit like that, iirc.
     
    Lorenzoid likes this.
  9. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    We cleared customs in Havana in less than 45 minutes. It was a full plane so a bit of a line. There were probably a dozen little booths/rooms and maybe 4 or 5 working. We were told we should keep receipts of the things we brought for humanitarian aid. A few in our group brought crayons, or tooth brushes, and some other small gifts. They had their receipts just in case. We had a printed itinerary of what we did, restaurants, tours, etc but no one ever asked for it in Fort Lauderdale. We walked to the customs computer screen, checked the boxes "no", took our receipt and handed it to the man checking them. That was it, super easy. We had a bit of a line because we don't have Global Entry, but once through the line it took maybe 2 minutes to clear customs in FLL.

    There is a major road that runs along the sea through Havana. The seawall is called the "community couch" and citizens come out to meet along that wall. Don't miss the sunset lighting up Havana. The colors were indescribable. We were on the patio bar at the Havana National Hotel by the cannons, but anywhere along that area should be beautiful.

    As far as forbidden places, our visa was origianlly people to people and was grandfathered in since we had bought our tickets before the new restrictions took place. It was supposedly changed to humanitarian aid, but literally, no one even asked where we had been coming back through customs. The trip was put together by the dive travel agency we use.

    About the only travel drama was the Southwest attendant in Havana tried to tell us that only one checked bag was free. (Southwest allows 2 for free) It took a long discussion and a supervisor to convince them otherwise. Our guides native Spanish came in handy there. The counter employee's English suddenly became much worse once she was caught.

    There are several YouTube videos on Havana that are worth watching before you go.

    The street artists in Old Havana are interesting.

    Safe travels,
    Jay
     
    lthomas132 and chillyinCanada like this.
  10. Jayfarmlaw

    Jayfarmlaw Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Tuttle, Ok
    1,284
    1,007
    113
    The buffet line was bad, but we worked around that by not going at the opening rush. It happened again as we were leaving at the Southwest terminal. Southwest requires you to check in 24 hours before your flight and your boarding position is based on your check in time...unless you purchase priority boarding. You get a group and a number, A27, B4, etc. and you take any seat available once you are on the plane.

    As the plane began to board, suddenly there was no line. Cubans rushed the employee and tried to get on the plane out of order. Luckily she enforced the boarding order and sent them back.

    Check in at the hotel was fine. The only times it became an issue was at the buffet and the airport. Cuban, Italian, Spanish, drunk entitled American, who knows??? Just shows assholes are everywhere, it's an international language!!

    Safe travels,
    Jay
     
    chillyinCanada likes this.

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