How I traveled to Cuba from Jamaica – Trip Report Part 1

Jamaica – Day 1: The flight to Kingston, Jamaica from Ft Lauderdale was on time.  Immigration was quick and we sped through Jamaican customs. It was late evening but I had to have some jerk pork. We called family and made arrangements for the things we had brought down for them. We had an early morning flight to Cuba so it was an early night.

Cuba – Day 1 (Photo Gallery at the end) : We got to the airport very early. The check-in process to Cuba was complicated. The boarding passes and documentation were for Cubana airlines even though we would be traveling Air Jamaica. There seems to have been some mix-up with our itinerary so the ticket agent had to reprint all our documents. The ticket agent reminded us to be sure that we had our all-important visa card. This is the document that Cuban immigration would stamp for entry and exit from the country. They would not stamp your passport as long as you have this card. You can buy a visa card in Jamaica through the Airline or travel agencies that provide service to Cuba.

When we boarded the plane we noticed a few people that were on the Ft Lauderdale to Kingston leg of the flight. We would later see most of them on the flight to Cuba. We sat near a Jamaican gentleman who was going to Havana. He traveled to Cuba frequently for business. He was very friendly and gave us tips. He explained that transactions are mainly done in Cuban pesos. He said it was best to travel with Canadian dollars or Euros to convert to pesos. We got Euros as I had read about the tax on the US dollar.

The flight stopped in Montego Bay where we disembarked for our connecting flight to Cuba.

The flight to Cuba was not packed. There was a gentleman sitting close by reading a book called “Capitalism Achilles heel”. I was expecting a short flight being that Cuba is 90 miles from Jamaica. I soon realized that we were practically going back to Florida as Havana is on the Northside of the island. As usual, the Air Jamaica flight attendants were courteous and even went back around the plane with a second round of snacks.  The banana chips seemed to be a hit with everyone. The Jamaican flight captain made announcements in English and Spanish.

The landing was smooth. At first glance the airport seemed modern and there were collages of Cuban culture everywhere. As with most airports you cannot take pictures in the Cuban airport. We were greeted in the immigration area by ladies giving out forms related to swine flu. There was also a nurse in the area. We had to fill out the form before proceeding to the immigration officers in the booth. We quickly filled out the form and proceeded to the immigration booth. All the officers were wearing medical masks. There 2 officers to a booth. My wife and I approached the booth but were quickly beckoned by the officers, one person at a time. There was a camera pointed directly at my face. All the booths had them.  One officer spoke and reviewed my papers while the other observed. It was intimidating especially them being in masks. You could not see on the other side of the booth as there was a wall with doors beside each booth. Once you were approved you were buzzed in through the door. I was first through the door and found myself immediately in customs. I was a little anxious I did not know what was happening to my wife. She came in 5 minutes later. Apparently they had quite a few questions for her.

Once we were outside the airport we started to look for a sign with our name. We had transfers to the hotel. There was none. Eventually we asked a few questions (broken Spanish from living in South Florida) and was pointed to a young lady who was sitting in an office in the airport. She spoke fluent English and got a cab to take us to the hotel.

The cab was an old Toyota station wagon. The scenery for the first part of the drive from the airport was similar to the countryside you see in the Caribbean. Then we started to see the old American cars on the road. There were also many Russian Ladas. As we go closer to the city of Havana we started seeing the amazing Spanish architecture. The columns, statues and architectural carvings were great but needed to be renovated. Cuba is a photographers dream.

We arrived at Hotel Habana Libre in less than 20 minutes. The hotel used to be owned by the Hilton until after the revolution. It is managed by a Spanish company. Even though there were 4 doors to enter the hotel only 2 were open throughout our stay there. There were also 2 men stationed at the door with ear pieces that made them look like FBI agents. They seem to scrutinize each person who went in and out of the hotel.

The hotel lobby was not busy. Check in was quick. We would be on the 15th floor. Now it was on to the feared elevators that I had read about on internet reviews. In many reports I read it was suppose to be a bad ride and very slow.

It was not bad as it sounded. The elevators were fast. The carpet in the halls was dirty and it was not very brightly lit. The room door used the modern key swipe technology. The room was better than I expected. There was no smoky smell in the room. It was large with 2 beds joined together. We had a balcony with an awesome view of city. There was a theatre next door to hotel

It was raining outside so I turned on the TV.  The rain showers were daily.

The TV was very small in a big room. There were a few English channels ESPN international, Showtime, CNN international, Channel China, VH1 and Discovery.
The one thing we noticed in the room was there was a half roll of toilet paper. It was strange to be the new guests in a room and not have full roll. At first we were puzzled by this but soon found there was lack of toilet paper in everywhere we went.  You would find either none in the stall or just a few sheets. The paper was also very “rough. A hybrid between a brown paper bag and a paper napkin.

The rain eased up and we were off to the hit the streets. The hotel was close to the Malecón which is the famous seawall and road the runs along the coast of Havana

First we were going to the Cambio. We were told by the gentleman on the plane that the Casas de Cambio is the best place to change our money as it is the government-run exchange house. It is a small trailer looking shop that was adjacent to the hotel. There were 2 armed Cuban soldiers there. There were 2 lines with approximately 8 persons in each line. It moved quickly.

We headed off down to the wall. On the way there we stopped by an outdoor art & craft market. There were paints and carvings etc. Black samba dolls and trinkets with samba symbols were everywhere. To some they are offensive but they seem to have no problem with it in Cuba.

People automatically recognized the Jamaican flag on my shirt and it started a few conversations. Many of the people we met seemed to speak decent English.
On the way down to the Malecón we tried to read the signs. One of the buildings we passed we later learned was where people used to be executed. The buildings architecture was amazing. The old cars were even more amazing. I wonder how they kept them in such good shape.

As we got closer to the wall we could hear the crashing waves of the sea. We also saw Hotel Havana on the way to the wall with a big Cuban flag on the premises. From a distance it looked really classy. It is the national hotel.

We walked along the wall just observing people. There were a lot of couples on the wall holding hands and being romantic. We walked to a Festival area along the wall and took a few pictures of old cars. We then headed back to the wall to watch the boys run across the street, jump over the wall and dive into the sea.
On the way back we saw a wedding party. The Bride and Groom were standing in the back of a convertible while a procession of other cars followed them. I was disappointed as I did not get a very good shot of them with my camera.

It was getting dark and the clubs along the road were starting to heat up. We could hear the music pumping and many of the “door men” were beckoning us to come in.
We headed back to the hotel for dinner. We contemplated finding a nearby place for dinner. We were really hungry so we had dinner at a restaurant in the hotel. The food was okay but the entertainment was better. There was a 3-man band. The lead singer asked us where we were from. They then proceeded to sing 2 Jamaican songs by Harry Belafonte. They did “Kingston town”  and “Banana Boat (Dayo)“. (Click on the links for the videos)

We saw the Jamaican man we met on the plane and his friend in the hotel lobby. His friend was in the company of a very young won about 19-21 and he could be about 55. We noticed quite a few couples of young women and older men in the hotel.

See Part 2 Here