Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Advice from People Who Have Never Been to Cuba in a Boat

April 3, 2010
Vita, Cuba
Our experience in Cuba has overwhelmed my meager skills at the keyboard. .It began and continues as a journey of constant discovery.
It is recognized that as much as we are enthused, Cuba would not be for everyone. You need patience and flexibility preferably enhanced with some understanding of the other guy's needs. The irrestable appeal of Cuba is very much tied to its uniqueness.
Come to Cuba as a traveller not as a tourist and you will have a fantastic time.
Travel Restrictions - Sailing
Sailing Cuba is more about visiting Cuba than sailing. Travel restrictions on coastal waters require a planned approach to your sailing. We wish to leave Vita tomorrow. We must inform the harbour master today and arrange for a departure inspection. We are not sure how many people will attend for the inspection.
None of this is difficult and in Marina Vita our concierge, Tina, takes care of the details for us.
It does require a bit more planning than "maybe we should go to Conception today. What do you think?"
The rules are applied with flexibility and common sense. Our dockmate, Peter, who single hands the Dutch vessel, Jan Van Gent, out of Groningen keeps his boat at Marina Vita but makes frequent overnight trips to nearby locations. He does not require permission for these as they are short duration, he is not going to another port and he will return in a day or two.
Travel Restrictions - Land Travel
There are none.
Rent a car or hire a taxi and go whereever you want. Everyone is free to go where they want in Cuba. Anywhere.
Except for military installations.
Fuel is plentiful and reasonably priced. It is jerry canned here at Vita but all you need do is ask. Price for diesel is about $1.05 CUC per litre, ie $1.20 CDN per litre.
Food is plentiful in Cuba and very inexpensive. You will have difficulty finding packaged food or imported food. You must learn to cook using rice, dry beans and flour.
At Marina Vita the restaurant manager maintains a warehouse of basic foodstuffs which you may buy at reasonable prices. Eggs are available in good quantity at decent prices as are vegetables and basic foodstuffs such as flour, rice and beans.
The highways are peppered with roadside vendors that sell all manner of fresh produce: tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), cucumbers, pineapples, papaya and some interesting other things never before seen by us. Quality exceeds anything you have eaten in Canada. Trust me on this.
Tonight's dinner was one steak from our freezer divided between us. We began with a gazpacho I whipped up this morning and set in the fridge to cool properly and a Romaine lettuce salad with onion and tomato with a really good blue cheese dressing the Budget Committee concocted out of bits of stuff from the fridge and cupboard. Total cost of the meal, not including the steak, was under $1.
We topped it off with a bottle of red wine, a bit sweet for our taste, for another 60 Pesos Nationale or $2.
We have not found potatoes anywhere so we figure Cuba does not grow potatoes.
Meat is somewhat more restricted in availability but can be obtained with a bit of looking. For meat you go to the "free market" found in any larger city. Our first freemarket, in Holguin, offered lamb and pork sausage. Today in Bayamo we found pork and chicken.
Cheese of a sort is available as is good yoghourt. Milk does not seem to be available anywhere.
When you see something you want you buy it.
Cubans buy in quantity. When we asked the butcher at the Holguin freemarket for some pork sausage he started with about 20 lbs in his weigh scale. We provided the comedy for all the market women as we tried repeatedly to persuade the butcher, who was hamming it up to be sure, to remove sausage from his scale to an amount we were comfortable buying (like 2 pounds).
Bags are not generally made available even at the government stores so you must be prepared with sturdy carrying bags to hold your purchases. Once you are exposed to the munificence of Cuban produce you will find yourself buying large quantities of every kind of food you want.
Most of the food is picked the day it is sold or at most a day or two before. Even at the govenment markets or mercados it is common to see one or two farmers in line with the customers bringing sacks of produce to sell to the market. Produce is weighed on the spot and the producer paid then and there.
Outside tourist areas there are no restaurants in the sense of anything North American. There is food available so do not panic but you need a variable carburettor.
The restaurant at the marina is very good. Well above competent in our opinion. Two nights ago the Budget Committee and I along with Wade and Diane from Joana, hosted dinner for 9 at the marina restaurant. Total cost for a three course meal including predinner drinks and wine for 9 people was $150 CUC, make it $175 CDN, tip included. We will tell you about the dinner in another post.
At Club Atlantico, where we went on day 1 to convert some currency, we had lunch on the beach for 4 people with drinks for $12 CUC or $15 CDN.
Outside tourist areas you will not find restaurants. You will find little cantinas where local food is sold for currency denominated in Pesos Nationale. Yesterday for lunch we tried a busy roadside stand in Banes. For $20 Pesos Nationale we got two pieces of the hardest substance I have ever tried to sink a tooth into, two pieces of breaded something the fear of eating which was only overcome by intense hunger, 5 croquetas that weren't bad, and two glasses of grape freshie. $20 Pesos Nationale is about 80 cents.
We have been in two provincial capitals: Holguin and Bayamo. Both had restaurants although I do not recommend the restaurants on the square in Holguin. In Bayamo our experience was very different and we readily found restaurants of decent quality.
Today the four of us: BC, Wade, Diane and myself, took an eating tour of the North East end of Cuba. We started in Causto when we stopped at an outdoor market. We entered a Cremaria which, surprise surprise, sold ice cream.
Good ice cream. Four ice creams with strawberry shortcake cost $4 Pesos Nationale: 20 cents Canadian total.
We proceeded to the waterfront park in Bayamo where we observed the weekly ration distribution and then strolled through the free market. At the market we had cane juice squeezed from a 6 foot stalk of cane before our eyes for $1 Pesos Nationale per glass (4 cents CDN).
Then it was on to the Pizzaria for single serving pizza for $5 Pesos Nationales (20 cents each) and spaghetti for another $20 PN each.
At the obligatory "Plaza de Revolucion" found in Bayamo and every other town in this country we stopped for an orange soda pop for $5 Pesos Nationale each (20 cents CDN).
Average salaries in Cuba are in the 10 to 15 CUC per month range. This will guide you in tipping. Our $15 CUC tip for the marina dinner was a month's wage for the server.
Currency & Banking
This is where it gets interesting.
Cuba has two currencies in play in its economy: CUCs and Pesos Nationale.
Cuba has two types of bank in its economy: Banks and Cadecas.
You convert your foreign currency, be it Canadian or US dollars, Pounds, Euros etc, to CUCs at either a bank or Cadeca.
You can only get Pesos Nationale at a Cadeca.
CUCs called Cukes are "convertible pesos". These are the pesos you get when you go to the bank or Cadeca and exchange Canadian or US dollars, British pounds or Euros into Cuban money.
The exchange rate is about $1.145 Canadian Dollar for 1 CUC.
All tourist transactions are conducted in CUCs: the marina is payed for in CUCs, hotel bills, restaurant meals in tourist areas, car rental and all fuel purchases are priced and paid in CUCs.
Pesos Nationales
The local people in Cuba use a different currency called a Peso Nationale. I am not sure if there is an "e" on the end of it but somehow this seems suitably spanish so I put one there.
CUCs can be exchanged for Pesos Nationale at the rate of $1 CUC = $24 Pesos Nationale.
All transactions with the local people are conducted in Pesos Nationales: buying food at the roadside stands, paying for local purchases, paying for local busses, buying from local people.
There are no currency restrictions in Cuba and any person, national or foreign, can own any currency in any amount.
There is no black market in currency.
How to Exchange Currency:
To get CUCs or Pesos Nationale it is easiest to use a Cadeca. It is convenient.
Cadecas are like little bank branch offices. Each Cadeca is run by a bank. Every hotel and resort has a Cadeca in the lobby were you can buy CUCs for your national currency. We have found that Cadecas are commonly located close to banks in any city.
You must use a Cadeca to buy Pesos Nationale. Banks will not issue Pesos Nationale.
The Cadecas in resort hotels do not seem to carry Pesos Nationale. We have tried twice to buy Pesos Nationale in the Cadecas in hotels and have been told they do not have any available. We have no idea why except we guess Cuba does not want foreign tourists to hold Pesos Nationale. It is not illegal to own either currency in Cuba.
What you do is this: go to the centre of any city and find the Cadeca. There will be one close by. Join the line. Wait your turn. When you enter you are free to use CUCs to buy Pesos Nationale.
Then you can spend your brains out in the local market.
You will probably only convert $20 CUC per person into Pesos Nationale. For that you get $980 Pesos Nationale. Remember a Romaine lettuce head cost $1 Peso Nationale and the ice cream cost $1 Peso Nationale. The exchange rate posted at the bank is the same as the exchange rate posted at the Cadeca. There is no financial benefit to using one or the other for foreign currency transactions.
Here you are in for a bit of culture shock. There are no stores. Not like you know them. Not like you could imagine them. The government runs a chain of TRD stores which sell imported goods to both tourists and locals. Here you can buy a washing machine or an air conditioner if you can afford it. Everything is priced in CUCs and is very expensive (a simple refrigerator cost $663 CUC). If you want such a device you can only get it at TRD.A healthy trade is maintained by local entrepreneurs. Most city centres have shopping for local citizens. Most common we have found are small open stores where 20 or 30 vendors each maintain a stall. Clothing, shoes, jewellery and such are offered here. Prices are mainly in Pesos Nationale.
You will not find boat parts in eastern Cuba.
Other than the resorts hotels are few and far between. If you want to travel in Cuba you arrange it at with a private home owner who is authorized to rent rooms to foreigners. Transactions are conducted in CUCs and the homeowner must pay taxes in CUCs.
Houses that offer rooms are identified by a small blue inverted anchor on the front of the house. Each city has a tourist bureau that will help you find accommodation. Rooms are very reasonably priced. The Quebecois family of four two boats down from us were paying $25 CUC per night for accommodation for their family (total not each). We want to score an all inclusive hotel for a few days but will wait till Veradero.
Cuba is full of cars. Yes there are a lot of 1950s US cars. But the roads mainly carry Puegots, Mitsubishis, Kias, a few Audis and today a brand new BMW.Cuba does not buy new American cars. No one else does either, right? This does not mean they do not buy cars.l We are driving a Puegot 206. Nice little car.
Cuban Nationals do not own cars. The government does not import cars for sale to local citizens. Cars are used for taxis and car rental only. Local citizens use bus and truck for transit. Busses run up and down the highway on a regular basis stopping at numerous bus stops to pick whomever is waiting. Prices are in the area of $5 to $10 Pesos National for a trip taking an hour or so, say from our marina to Holguin. Foreigners are not allowed to use this bus system. Some drivers will pick you up even if you are obviously foreign. Many will not.
The 3 young guys on the boat next to us took a 4 day hitchhiking and bus tour of the east end of Cuba. It worked but I would want to be 40 years younger to attempt what they did.
That is enough for now.

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