Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

I had nightmares of getting mugged at the airport. The bestie had relayed a cautionary tale about a friend of a friend who’d set her bag down one minute, and found it gone the next. So there I was, in Varadero’s Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport, looking around furtively every so often like I was deep in the heart of Colon Street with a target on my back. I sometimes forget that if you’ve ever emerged intact from the bowels of old Cebu City, you can survive anything.

Still, it never hurts to be cautious.

Then again, I don’t remember the airport he had specified. Had it been Havana International? If it was, I was being overly cautious for nothing. Nothing happened. Everything ran like clockwork. The Cubans have the tourist machinery down to a fine art. Unlike Manila, there is no chaotic mess, no street hawkers, no shady characters lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you the moment you exit baggage claims. If there were, I didn’t see them. The whole process, from de-planing, to customs, to baggage claim to arrivals, is smooth, easy and fancy-free.

If you’re flying out of Canada, more often than not the price of the plane ticket includes the cost of the required tourist visa. The airline provides you with a tourist card (which is the visa itself) to fill out on the plane before landing. Be sure to read the instructions before writing anything down because erasures are not allowed. The lady beside me wrote the departure date instead of her birthdate and had to pony up $50 CAD for a fresh slip, something that upset her very much, because she spent a good twenty minutes berating herself while her husband tried to calm her down. Not a good way to start a vacation, that’s for sure.

At customs, the immigration officer checks your documentation – as always, it’s best to be sure your passport is valid for at least six months. Cuba does require proof of insurance. While proof of your provincial insurance (like your OHIP card) is acceptable, I took the extra step of purchasing extra insurance from the airline (Air Transat, $22 CAD) just in case. He didn’t ask to see the extra insurance, just took my picture and wished me on my way.  You can speak Spanish if you like, but English is not a problem at admissions. Just in case, I’d recommend downloading Google’s Translate app. It’s only polite to try and speak the language, rather than expect everyone to know English wherever you go. 

Anyway, after customers comes baggage claim and arrivals. Unlike Cebu or Manila, there are no aggressive hawkers waiting outside to get you to take a taxi or a dubiously priced rent-a-car. I had booked my vacation as a package – airline and hotel in one – which came with roundtrip airport transfers. (Highly recommended, if you don’t want to stress about how to get to your accommodations.) Upon exiting arrivals, you’ll find airline representatives – Air Transat, Sunwing, RedTag, etc. – waiting outside. They’ll direct you to the shuttle you’re assigned to, which turned out to be a big, air-conditioned bus that stops at pre-arranged resorts along the Autopista Sur, the main highway that stretches into Varadero. 

I had wanted to get my currency exchanged at the airport, but there was no booth in the arrivals hall so I ended up doing it at the resort instead. Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is for tourists with a roughly 1:1 exchange rate, and the Cuban Peso, which is what the locals use. While it means visitors don’t get to pay the same rate the locals will for a specific item, I like how savvy it is when it comes to making sure they don’t get taken advantage of.

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