Getting to Cuba

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January 30th 2016
Published: February 21st 2016
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Usually I don't write much about the journey but travelling from Squamish to Havana was quite eventful. Our original plan would have taken us about twenty four hours... here's the story of how it took twice that...


We woke late and had to push back our check-out time so we could pack. We left the hotel and caught the bus to the Greyhound terminal. We lunched in Tim Horton's before catching the Greyhound. This time the sun was shining on Squamish and we were blessed with phenomenal views as we drove back to Vancouver; driving along a fjord called the Straits of Georgia. With the low afternoon sun glinting off mountain tops and the water gleaming golden it looked heavenly. We were inspired to see more of the area in the future. Just as we left Squamish, before the fjord came into view, we were treated to the sight of the incredible Shannon Falls as they tumbled over a thousand feet down the mountain. The drive was amazing and, despite feeling travel sick, I felt it ended far too soon.

We arrived in Downtown Vancouver where I had an urgent mission to complete. Whilst we were in Whistler my camera had finally completed a process of dying which had started about a week earlier. I couldn't visit Cuba without a camera! I found a shop in Gastown so we headed there and I quickly chose one. I got talking to the cashier, obviously a long-time employee of the company, who seemed upset. It turned out that the shop's owner had changed all of the prices and then suddenly left town the night before. I was paying significantly less than the shop had paid.

We boarded the busy train to the airport with our huge bags, making ourselves popular with the locals, who were of course far too polite to complain. We arrived, as planned, about seven hours early. We bought dinner and settled for a long wait. After about three hours we went to check-in and were puzzled to find people aimlessly loitering. We made our way past someone blocking the entrance. Before we even got to the desk the clerk shouted that the flight had been cancelled and we should come back later for more information. We joined the puzzled groups and waited about twenty minutes before joining the lengthening queue again. We were in the line for over an hour before it started moving. In this time we met Molly, an American who had driven through the night before to pick up a new passport and then get to the airport. Molly was to become our constant travel companion, which was great for us as she was interesting to speak to and could speak Spanish.

Excruciatingly slowly we shuffled forwards. After another hour the twenty people in front of us still hadn't been cleared. Eventually it was our turn. They told us to catch a shuttle bus to the Marriott Hotel and they would have a booking for us.

The shuttle area was chaotic but we joined the line where people looked least like they knew what was going on - that would keep us with other people from our flight at least. The next shuttle arrived and was too full to accommodate all of us. Twenty minutes later, at least a dozen more people had arrived behind us. We were all waiting for the same thing and there was some pushing when the next shuttle arrived but Lindsey and I managed to make it, as did Molly. The group was completed by an aircrew from a large airline who knew what they were doing and a really annoying American who complained the whole way about how she expected better treatment having paid so much for first class. There was an absolutely classic moment when she said she was going to scream and shout until the airline acquiesced to her demands. At this point the pilot from the aircrew said to her, "Sure, airline employees just love being shouted at, they'll give you exactly what you want." Her whiny monologue was broken for a couple of seconds as it suddenly occurred to her that she might have to change her approach. The silence was wonderful but sadly the tirade resumed until we reached the hotel.

It took a while to check in and then we were told the restaurant was only open for another twenty minutes. We'd been given meal vouchers which we weren't going to see wasted. We dumped our things and went to get food. We discovered our vouchers wouldn't go far. As we'd already eaten we were happy to share a light main (of delicious sliced steak) and then get a dessert each. We went back up to our room and had time to fully appreciate it. It was luxurious compared to most of our accommodation thus far. We had a two-room suite with a bathroom. It was comfortable but felt somewhat sterile, with little of the charm of an independent hotel, even one of a much lower standard. Tragically for Lindsey it didn't even have a kettle. By the time we got to our room it was almost midnight.


We woke in a panic as the alarm had been going off for sometime. We went to breakfast and ordered. I left Lindsey and Molly chatting and went back to pack. By the time I came down my bacon and pancakes, one last Canadian treat, had arrived. We had been told to arrive at the airport by 8am. There was no way we would make the required shuttle. We just arrived for the next one, half an hour after we should have departed. We watched as this arrived, picked up from another hotel and departed without us. Worried, we waited and were told another would be along soon. Almost an hour after we should have left for the airport we were picked up.

When we got to check-in it turned out that we needn't have worried... the desks were only just opening when we arrived. Aeromexico's staff hadn't covered themselves in glory the previous day but now their performance reached new depths. To be fair, it was obvious they were under pressure and that none of them had had any sleep over night. We joined the back of the queue and moved perhaps twenty feet in the first hour. We edged our way forward, wondering if the queue could be cleared by boarding time. Obviously an Aeromexico manager had the same concern as suddenly many more staff flooded out and the speed picked up noticeably. Soon it was our turn and I adopted a really friendly, light hearted approach... a sick pilot and delays were far beyond the control of the check-in staff and it was obvious they were doing what they could. We passed through and went straight to security which was completed with Canadian efficiency. Minutes later we were boarding the plane.

The flight felt long but we were glad to be making our way to Cuba. After five hours we arrived in a hot and humid Mexico City. Due to the delay we missed our connection and the next would only depart in the morning. The airline had provided us with another hotel room. We collected our bags and went into the chaotic arrivals hall. At this point we realised we hadn't been told which hotel we were staying at and the tickets didn't give us any information. Fortunately Molly had heard a rumour it was the Holiday Inn and we found their office tucked away amidst fast food restaurants. They told us to wait and a few minutes later led us to our waiting shuttle. By the time we got there it was full so our guide told us to wait a few more minutes. We were directed to another shuttle. Lindsey got into the car and I helped the driver to load our luggage. He pointed to the front and told me to get in. As I did so I got shouted at, in Spanish, by an old woman. Apparently I'd taken her seat. I held my ground because I was going where our luggage went. The shouting continued. The driver told me to get out so the old lady could get in first. I obliged. Then the lady told me to get in first because the leg room was too small for her. As she was at least eighteen inches shorter the idea that I could fit was laughable. Eventually she gave up and we departed.

Thus started a terrifying ordeal which would only end when the taxi squealed to a halt at the airport half an hour later. The driver pulled out into a lane of traffic, blind to all of the other drivers, and narrowly missed an on-coming car. He wasn't at all phased. We moved onto a major road, merging into gaps at didn't appear to be there. Cars were coming from the left and the right and I have no idea how we didn't hit them. At one point we were two inches from the mid-section of a bus which merged suddenly without indicating. If there was clear road the driver put his foot down, completely oblivious to what was pulling out in front of him. We had several near misses due to his reluctance to break. His approach to lane discipline was that he would be anywhere on the road that gave even the most minute advantage and if the other cars wouldn't let him he would put his hazard lights on until they did. At a pedestrian crossing near a busy market he narrowly missed a group of people. At the next junction we crossed a three lane highway jammed with traffic by weaving in and out of moving cars, with horns blaring at us as our three lanes dropped suddenly to one. At the next pedestrian crossing a man with a backpack was almost knocked over as he queued. The horn was the driver's favourite tool and he used it frequently, whenever we were halted, even just for a few seconds. We reached a clear stretch and sped up quickly, watching graffiti covered houses recede behind us. We narrowly missed a taxi in front as we slowed to take a left-hand junction onto a viaduct without checking what was happening. The chorus of horns behind us said it all. After another speedy kilometre we suddenly jerked to the right and sped down a parallel road before coming to an abrupt halt outside the hotel.

The drive was soon relegated to a distant memory when, after checking in and getting stuck in the lift for a while, we went down for a meal. The maître'd offered us the buffet and a drink for our vouchers. Despite the meal being self-service, the staff's attention was meticulous; our water never went empty, we always had cutlery and plates were cleared. The food was a wonderful selection of pork or chicken with a range of salads, fruits, nuts and starches. We had a great meal and were completely stuffed by dessert, though of course we managed to squeeze some in.


Our room was simpler than in the Marriott but just as comfortable. We didn't get to spend long there though as we had to catch the airport shuttle at 6am. We made it down to reception at 5.55 and waited, without time to get some breakfast. The car arrived at 6.20 and it was a complete free-for-all. There were twelve seats and at least twice as many passengers. The remainder would wait an extra hour. We were waiting outside in the rain, so managed to load our baggage first. It was with trepidation that we waited for the driver. We needn't have worried; the journey was shorter, the traffic lighter, and the driver more sane than the night before.

We arrived to find a truly chaotic scene. It wasn't at all clear which part of the building we should be in. We tried an Aeromexico section, waited for thirty minutes and then were told we were in the wrong place. We joined another queue, not at all sure it was right. Aeromexico's performance in their home city was actually far worse than in Vancouver. Gradually we moved forward but progress was slowed by the staff disappearing each time they served a customer. After half an hour it was confirmed to us that we were in the right place. After another half hour a large music group with dozens of flight-cases and wrapped instruments jumped the queue. Six staff members were diverted to help them, slowing progress even further. At least an hour later and we were at the front but it took at least another fifteen minutes to be served. All the time we were nervously checking the clock wondering if we would make the flight.

Check-in was quite quick when we were finally called. We were dreading security but that was actually very rapid. It helps when people are only able to trickle in. We were waved through with little formality. We then had the nightmare of trying to obtain a Cuban Tourist Card which are issued by the carrying airline. We had been directed to one desk but we met Molly coming from that desk who told us she'd been directed to the other end of the departures lounge. We joined her and reached the desk, where they told us that they'd run out. We were told to go to a third desk, where the staff had no idea what we were talking about but pointed us to a fourth desk. When we arrived we knew we were in the right place because there was another long, barely moving queue of people. We had forty minutes before the final boarding call when we joined the line. After twenty minutes we hadn't budged an inch. Suddenly they called for everyone in the line who was going to Nicaragua to go forward - they were deploying more staff as their plane was departing in a couple of minutes. We hoped they would do the same for us. All the time we had a vague confidence that they wouldn't remove twenty or more people's luggage from the plane. Sure enough, twenty minutes later, they called forward everyone going to Havana. It was taking an average of five minutes for each customer and there were at least ten people in front of us. Our names were being called for being late as we were being served. The guy realised he needed to stop filling in people's details. He just took our money, stamped two pieces of paper and said "complete yourself". We dashed off to the boarding gate and took our seat on the plane.

Here we had a wonderful surprise... without being told, we had been upgraded to business class. I suspect it was the check-in guy in Vancouver after we gave him a pleasant interaction on a hard morning. We walked straight past our seats before we realised and had to turn back against the people boarding behind us. We have harboured secret ambitions of a free upgrade so we were delighted. The flight was a great experience from the first, "Would you like a drink Mr Fillingham?" to the last, "Is there anything else I can do for you sir?". We had a constant flow of drinks as well as the best airline food I've tasted, including a fresh salad and jalapeños. It was served with real cutlery and even a table cloth. Even I had sufficient leg-room in my wide leather seat. I could certainly get used to the lifestyle!

We were jolted back to reality a couple of hours later by a hard landing at Havana airport. We were relieved to have finally made it. The disembarkation process was relatively smooth; soon we had our bags and were going through customs. As normal we went together but were told to come one at a time. I let Lindsey go first. I generally take a professional interest in the border, so whilst waiting for my turn I looked around. The process was working really smoothly... too smoothly really. I also noticed a disproportionate percentage of the staff were very young women. As we left Cuba a few days later I would notice the staff were older and the process less smooth. I suspect they put a lot of resources into presenting Cuba at its finest on entry.

The arrivals hall was a unique experience. Everywhere people were shouting to get attention. We didn't have time to think as we circled the room through dense crowds. Our first need was to change money which can only be done in Cuba. Having been warned that American money attracted an unfavourable rate we had stockpiled Canadian Dollars. I handed over a fistful of bills and the surly woman behind the glass panel counted out Convertible Pesos. She did this without comment, without receipt and with no indication of the exchange rate. When I asked for a receipt she just said "no". Never have I heard so much contempt dripping from a single syllable. Feeling cheated, but with no way of knowing if I had been or not, I walked away.

I rejoined Lindsey and we were accosted by a taxi driver who was persistently offering us a ride. We told him we needed the bathroom. When we came out a different driver was there. We negotiated down to the rate we had been told to expect and followed. It felt like we had little choice in the matter and he wouldn't wait for us to even buy a city map. Soon we were piling into an ancient, bright yellow Lada, hoping for a smooth ride as there were no seat belts.


21st February 2016

Hi, great to see your photos regarding getting to Cuba. I have a loooong wish to go there but still couldn't make it happen. Hope will do it someday! However, its interesting to read about it. Wishes...
21st February 2016

Keep dreaming!
Hi Arif. Thanks for your comment. We had such a good time in Cuba and I'd highly recommend it... Keep your dreams of going there alive. I'll be publishing my next blog probably sometime next week with pictures from our time in Havana. All the best, R
21st February 2016

Looking forward to see more photos with stories :)

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