Saturday, 14 May 2016
This morning we got up at 5:15 am, gathered our luggage, and were checked out at the front desk by 5:50. When we tried to leave the hotel by the front door (to wait on the outdoor veranda), we found it was locked. The guard agreed to unlock the door when our bus arrived. Eventually, other tour group members discovered that the door to the veranda on the side of the building was open, and so we went out that way. The bus was parked in its usual place, and we were seated at 6:01 am for the scheduled 6:15 departure. Our guide went to the hotel to collected the other six group members. Here she found that the front desk had not given us the sandwiches and juice boxes that they were to provide for us due to checking out before breakfast was available. Lazaro collected our two ham and cheese sandwiches, but no juice was offered. Finally, everyone was seated and the bus left for the airport at 6:30. (Our guide had originally said we should leave for the airport by 6 am but relented to 6:15 when she heard groans.)
We ate our sandwiches on the way, drinking our bottled water to force down the dry bread. The cheese spread on the last half of Caridad’s sandwich had a spoiled taste, so it was thrown away at the airport.
As we entered José Martí Airport for check-in at 6:45, we were greeted by a huge line snaking back through the large room. There was a shorter line which we did not seem to be entitled to enter.
Once we were in the long line, our guide explained the procedure for check-in, saying that we would be in that line for 1.5 hours. She left us then, because the rest of our group would be leaving in two separate groups later this morning and she needed to make sure that they also got to the check-in line. Her estimated wait time was low, because we were in that line for 2 hours and 5 minutes. (Tip: If your guide says you need to leave for the airport at 6 am, don’t try to talk her out of it – just do it.) This was more than a little nerve wracking, because our scheduled flight time was 9:40 am.
Ahead of us in the line was an interesting man with dual Cuban-US citizenship. He was born in Cuba, taken to the US when young, and has now bought property in Cuba that he is developing into rental property that he will list on airbnb for tourists. The name of the rental will be Paraiso17. He will have several units for rent. It is in the country and he plans to provide the old 1950s cars as transportation for his guests. While we can’t vouch for his enterprise, he certainly sounded sincere and highly ethical. His scheduled flight time was 9 am, and he was even more nervous than we were.
When we reached the front of the line at 8:50, the check-in clerk did not weigh our bags, possibly because there were many, many more people to check in, only two clerks assigned to do it, and several flights due to depart. We knew our bags were under 20 pounds, so we did not worry about carrying them on board with us. There were no baggage fees for the outbound flight, anyway.
We reached the immigration line at 8:51, and both of us had our passports stamped to show that we had been in Cuba. Passport control was followed by security, which we completed by 9:05.
After security, we found ourselves in a large room with two gates, lots of seating, and shops on the two long sides of the room. If anyone has forgotten to pick up the obligatory Cuban cigars and rum (or handicrafts or straw hats or t-shirts sporting Che Guevara’s face or …) , then they are available here at the same prices as elsewhere in Cuba. Also, US dollars can be used on this side of the terminal (after security). However, for tourists who still have CUC in their possession, this is the place to spend them. (Important note: By Cuban law, the CUC may not be exported in any denomination and quantity.) Keep in mind that, for US passengers, the limits on what can be brought back through US customs are:
$100 USD total for tobacco and alcohol
$400 USD grand total (including tobacco and alcohol)
Prices that we observed for individual cigars in the shops ranged from 6.95 CUC to 40 CUC. The price of a complete box of Cuban cigars could easily exceed the $100 USD limit. We did not observe the prices of Cuban rum, but, like the Cuban cigars, Cuban rum is only available to buy in Cuba.
The photo above was taken in Ron’s Tabaco Cafe, the cigar store in the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana (not in the airport).
One of the group members had asked our guide whether smoking was permitted in this room, but our guide didn’t know because she had never been in this room. The answer is no, smoking is not permitted anywhere in the terminal. Smoking is also not permitted on the tarmac between the terminal and the aircraft. (We do not smoke, but this information might be of interest to someone.)
Two separate flights were boarding when we got into this room. After looking around at the shops, we sat down to wait for our flight to be boarded. We guessed which gate would be ours, and waited nearer that gate. Finally, at some time after 10 am, boarding began. The flight departed at around 10:50, and we arrived back in Tampa sometime after noon. (These times are approximate. Once we were on the airplane, we stopped worrying about times.)
We went through passport control and customs easily.
We then picked up our rental car and headed out of the airport in search of an American breakfast (or at least American food). We headed west on Route 60 toward Clearwater and stopped at the first appealing restaurant, which was Joe’s Crab Shack. Here we had crabcake sandwiches, string onion rings, and iced tea. Not breakfast, and not our usual fare, but very American! Continuing down the road, we saw a Mellow Mushroom restaurant and wished we had waited a few more minutes before selecting a restaurant. Joe’s Crab Shack is good, but Mellow Mushroom is better.
We followed Route 60 as far west as we could without going over the bridge to Clearwater Beach. We had thought we might visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the other side of the bridge, but traffic was backed up, probably by beach-goers, and we were afraid we would not get back to the airport in time for our next flight. Instead, we visited the town library, where we could use the internet for free, and binged in surfing the internet, catching up on the news, and reading a week of emails.
Heading back to the Tampa airport, we worked our way around a traffic backup due to a four-car accident and were back at the airport, with car turned in, by around 4:30.
At check-in, we both received boarding passes denoting that we were TSA pre-checked. However, after our carry-on luggage was scanned, TSA decided that our mosquito repellent in a 3-1-1 bag violated their rules and confiscated it. We had taken it to Cuba because of the travel warnings about the mosquito-borne Zika virus. We had used it faithfully, and the instructions are to avoid mosquito bites for three weeks after travel. Luckily, it had not been confiscated on the way into Cuba, since there have been cases of Zika in Havana.. It isn’t a good idea to argue with TSA while traveling, so Lazaro has written a letter to our Congressman instead.
We were seated at our gate an hour before flight time. We will not cover the rest of today, except to say that we did get home safely.
Stay tuned for more of our Cuban diary. This post describes Day 8, our last day in Cuba. Remaining posts will highlight Hemingway’s bars, vintage cars, public art, and general impressions. If you want to catch up on the first days, read: