Joan Shnier and Jake Chazan wrote to us before leaving for Cuba,
wanting to know if they could visit a synagogue in Havana although
they were staying in Varadero. The report below tells of their
experiences. There is much valuable advice here, including how
an overly-cautious tour representative can prevent first-time
visitors from having a full experience.)
My husband, Jake Chazan, forwarded
your exchange of email to me so that I could add a few comments
about our recent trip to Cuba. Now that we are back and have our
creature comforts (and heating), my perspective is much more positive.
I think we may have been overly cautious, but between what
we read in the tourist guide books and on internet and the briefing
by our tour rep, we were a bit frightened to strike out on our
own. For example, our tour rep advised us NOT to rent a car because
1)the cost of renting and of insurance is expensive and the rules
are very different than in Canada and the US and not always to
our advantage 2) service centers are few and far between and there
are relatively few motorists on the highways and should we run
into car trouble, it could take a long time to get help and if
it did arrive, they could just as easily try to harm us 3) we
were advised most definitely NOT to drive at night because at
night #2 is even more problematic.
We were very disappointed that
we could not make it to the synagogue in Havana. The official,
government licensed taxis charged $90 each way and then we would
have had to pay for their time while they took us around Havana.
We were advised NOT to make a private deal with an unofficial
taxi or private person as this is illegal and could get the Cuban
driver into a great deal of trouble if caught. Not to mention
what might happen to us, although our rep did say that the government
is not usually interested in harassing tourists.
Nonetheless, the Montreal family
Jake mentioned to you did just that and paid about $100 for
a return trip to Havana where they managed to visit the Orthodox
shul and spend a short time with the chazan and his wife. There
is a local bus service to Havana that uses new and comfortable
buses and is more reasonable, but it only runs 3 x a day; the
one way trip is 3 hours, the last return from Havana is around
4 p.m., and it drops you off on the outskirts of Havana. So then
you have to make your own way into the city and back to the bus
stop. Our rep advised us NOT to take that bus and NOT to wander
around Havana alone. Although another person in our tour group
said he had been to Havana many times and wandered around everywhere,
our rep said that he has heard and had first hand experience with
many unpleasant situations and that contrary to the popular belief
that Cuba is a very safe place, many bad things happen and we
should be very cautious. He has lived in Cuba for 3 years and
seemed to know what's going on there.
So, as you can imagine, we were
very reluctant to be adventurous. We took an organized tour to
Havana and only afterward learned that it is possible to make
a deal with the tour operator to take the bus in and be dropped
off and picked up at a designated spot on the tour. If we had
known that in advance, we may have left the tour for a while,
gone to the shul and then joined up with it again for the return
trip. I don't know if the cost would be less than for the complete
tour. The tour cost $63 per person including lunch, and they may
have charged less just for the transportation. That's another
option to look into.
We stayed at the Arenas Blancas
hotel on Varadero. It had a good location within easy walking
distance from the town of Varadero. The hotel was very clean,
but the food was another matter. It was plentiful and I'm sure
it was all very sanitary although since we didn't eat the pork,
and many of the side dishes also contained pork, not to
mention the fact that the rest was not very appetizing, it was
not a gourmet experience.
And I guess you know that in
Cuba, you take what you can get, so in the morning you may
get a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread and in the afternoon
you might get it on a hamburger bun, or a hunk of French loaf,
or a hotdog bun. To be fair, there was always chicken, usually
a fish dish, many times they had seafood, lobster, shrimp, but
as we had been cautioned against eating the shellfish etc., we
didn't eat it. We were told that the water in Cuba, at least at
the resort was safe to drink. The hotel has some kind of filtered
water and we drank it with no ill effects. However our rep advised
us to drink only bottled water and NOT to drink the tap water,
especially the children, although he himself drinks it. They also
advised us that to be really safe, we should only drink carbonated
water since the carbonation process kills all bacteria. Even the
bottled non carbonated water is sometimes suspect, although we
drank it and didn't get sick. He also told us not to eat the fresh
salads so we didn't, but we noticed that most people did and did
not get sick.
Our rep told us that the food in
the restaurants outside the hotel was not much better, but the
couple of times we did eat out of the hotel, the food was considerably
better, or maybe we were just starving and it seemed that way.
Believe it or not, Cuba is very
expensive. Or at least it seemed so to us who use a very devalued
Canadian dollar. The local taxis in Varadero charged $1.00 per
kilometer so if you lived in one of the hotels at the far end
of the strip away from the town and you wanted to go into town
every day, it could cost you $20.00 for a return cab ride every
day. In Havana they are renovating the old city and some of the
restaurants there are charging premium prices. For example, a
main course could cost between $16.00 and $25.00. That may seem
normal for a big US city, but in Cuba, I think people expect some
value for their money.
I keep remembering little details
from our trip that might be useful. When you need to use a washroom
in a public place outside your hotel, there are restroom attendants
who will demand payment for about 4 squares of toilet paper.
They can be quite insistent. One female attendant in one of the
museums actually hissed to get my attention when I walked into
the bathroom without first putting money in her dish. My advice
is: ALWAYS carry your own toilet paper when you leave your hotel.
Try to have small change to put in the dish, otherwise you will
be paying a dollar each time you use the bathroom. If you donīt
have change, donīt be embarrassed to take change from the dish.
Donīt worry about the currency of the change because you can just
recycle it on your next stop.
I don't know if all the precautionary
advice is in fact warranted, but you can imagine that we felt
very nervous about doing any exploring. Which is a great pity
because I realized when we were in Havana that it must have been
a spectacular city in its heyday. They are beginning to renovate
Old Havana and the old colonial buildings are magnificent.
I can't really understand why
our rep was so cautious. Bad things happen everywhere, as you
say, even in Toronto!!! But then again, maybe he knows something
we don't. It is his job after all. The next time I go though,
I will not be so timid.
I just thought of one other piece
of information which might be useful. Before we left we read that
American Express travellers cheques were not accepted, so we ran
all over town to get Master Card cheques. But when we arrived,
we were told that they are accepted at banks and hotels because
they can change them through Canadian banks. I don't know if the
Amex cheques we get here are different than the ones issued in
the States, but if they are not, then Americans can take them.
The other thought that ocurred to me was that Americans who
plan to travel frequently to Cuba should apply for a Canadian
credit card, if they haven't already done so. We didn't actually
cash our travellers cheques because they take such a high commission,
around 4% we were told, and between our cash and credit cards
we were well covered.
Another bit of info that I left
out was that the Montreal family we met brought down a whole
suitcase full of kosher food, including milk, which they froze
and defrosted when they arrived. I don't know how they managed
to get it into the country, because I thought you are never allowed
to bring in food, but maybe that only applies to fresh fruits
and vegetables. They brought in cold cuts, cheese, peanut butter,
bread, hot dogs, cereal, you name it. I don't think I would recommend
it, but after our gastronimic experience, it doesn't seem to be
such a bad option.
I also just remembered this detail.
We had US family on our flight from Toronto. Two grown sons and
their elderly parents. The children wanted to be able to keep
tabs on the parents so they brought along a walkie talkie. Also
a laptop. These were both confiscated on arrival and they
held up our bus to the hotel for nearly an hour doing the paperwork.
They were told they would get the items back when they left, but
I don't know if they did. So be careful what you bring in, because
they take their restrictions seriously it seems.
Joan Shnier, Toronto