Experiencing a Communist Country

The evening we arrived in Santiago de Cuba we first had to anchor outside the marina until we were cleared in. Two people (male and female) from the Health department first came aboard to fill in forms and took our temperature to check if we were not sick. The female officer checked what we had in the refrigerator to see if we had eggs or raw chicken which were not allowed. When she was alone with Erwin in the bathroom she whispered and asked Erwin if he had a gift for her. She also said that he should not mention this to her colleague. When Erwin asked her what kind of gift, she said money. Erwin was so flabbergasted he didn’t know how to respond and just didn’t reply. After the health inspection Erwin had to go ashore alone to clear in through immigration.

We were allowed to go with our dinghy only to the marina and nowhere else in the bay. That’s because they want to keep a close eye on you and make sure there are no locals who are trying to escape on your boat.

Cuba has two currencies. The Cubans use the local Pesos and the tourists use the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which is 25 times more so the tourists pay much more than the locals for the same service and most of the products. You can convert hard currency like the Euro to CUC and they won’t charge you extra but if you have US$ they will charge you 10% extra.

Santiago is a lively city and known for its music. There were several cafes that played live Cuban music. We went to the Casa de la Trova which is a very small bar where the musicians of the famous Buena Vista Social Club performed and were discovered. Replenishing our food was a real challenge because the supermarkets were half empty and what they sold was limited to only about thirty items. What they did have plenty in stock was hard liquor like rum.

Casa de la Trova

We wanted to go to Havana by bus so we went to the bus station but they told us that all buses were full and the first opening was 1 week later. We could come back one hour before departure time and standby to see if there were any cancellations but we thought this was too risky especially for the return trip to Santiago. We tried the train but that wasn’t possible either. We already gave up and decided not to go but when we were back at the marina we told Norbert the harbour master what happened and he said that he would try to help us. Norbert is very service oriented and always tries to assist the cruisers in the marina. He called his connections and the next day he told us that he arranged the bus tickets, taxi pickup and even the casa particular (bed&breakfast in a private home) in Havana. He really went out of his way to help us and didn’t even want anything in return. Thank you again Norbert!

Santiago to Havana is about 1,000 kilometers so the bus ride took 17 hours. Havana was a city of contrasts which we could best describe as “a grand lady that has seen better days”. The old center where most tourists go is well restored and has beautiful colonial buildings and squares but the rest of the city which is about 80% is worn down and the buildings are crumbling. The old American cars were a unique sight but most of these cars were smoke belchers so the smog in the city was bad. Although the owner of the house where we stayed in only spoke Spanish she made us feel at home. We visited the Havana Club rum and the Partagas cigar factory. When we were at the cigar factory we were not allowed to take our bags in the factory so everyone had to leave it in a locker room. After the tour, our guide went with the group back to the locker room and when everyone was inside she locked the door and brought out a plastic bag with cigars. She told us what the retail price was and that she was offering the cigars for half the price. When I asked where the toilet was the security guard escorted me to the toilet and he was still outside waiting for me when I finished. I first thought that they were strict and didn’t want people to roam around alone but he actually wanted to sell cigars to me. It felt like they were selling drugs but it seems that everyone is just trying in their own way to earn a little money.

The people were very friendly and we always felt safe. Strangers would talk to us in the ferry and they were interested to know more about us and were proud to talk about Fidel and their country. Cuba was a very interesting and delightful experience.