Havana Trip, Nov 2015: General Follow-Up…

So, tailing a couple of posts I’ve put on here, I’ve needed to get some updating done.  Especially concerning my most recent trip down to Havana, Cuba, from this past November.

Namely, it was a different kind of trip for me.  Instead of a usual “guys’ trip” down to Havana for a week of cigars and fun, and contrary to what my wife usually wants/picks as an all-inclusive trip to Varadero or somewhere else with a beach, I invited her for one of our cigar weeks, and she gladly accepted.  It was a different experience for us both – she only did a day-trip once into Havana, heavily structured by the guides, and with her heavily pregnant too.  So, she didn’t care all that much for it, aside from seeing the unique architecture.  However, for this trip, I was able (with the assistance of Nino, Rob Fox, Punch Joe, and a couple of others) to show her “our view” of Cuba, meaning the cigar crowd, and our comings and goings and our various favourite spots.  She loved the peacocks at Conde de Villanueva, the various unique restaurants and bars we all go to, and the overall vibrancy and uniqueness of the city.

For me, it was a change, as I was playing host for my spouse, and wasn’t indulging in my usual 10am to 5am debauchery of waaaaaaay too much rum, cigars, cappuccinos, and decadent food.  Not that that was a bad thing, mind you.  I think most nights we were in bed by about midnight or earlier, slept in a bunch, relaxed and saw the city at our leisure, and had a grand time.  Again, a different kind of trip for me…and I loved it nonetheless.

We were also lucky in that we had John Reiner and his girlfriend Laura joining us.  John’s a pretty good guy, and I’ve travelled with him down to Havana before, and is around on FOH and Cigar Federation.  With the ladies getting along quite well, we all had quite a fun time.

Erin got to meet “Uncle” Nino, Rob Fox, Andy Ryan, Punch Joe, got to see Amir and Caroline again, got to meet Jorgito and Reynaldo.  She got to eat at some great spots, relax on the back terrace at the Nacional, got to take in the sights and smells at El Cocinero (along with me, as it was my first time there too), and numerous other things.  She got to see the difference between hotels and casas.  She got to take in “our” Cuba.  And it was a blast for all of us.

It wasn’t without a few issues though, namely Laura and I each coming down with a bit of food sickness at different times.  C’est la vie.

And there’s also the fact that we stayed at the Habana Libre.  Meh.  It was all we were able to grab, due to booking too late in the year and our usual spot at the Hotel Nacional being all sold out.  But, after getting in late, and in the midst of some thunderstorms hitting Havana and the area around it, our rooms was shit – little ants around, dissolved furniture (due to a faulty air-con unit and extremely high moisture leaking into the room), a leaky toilet, etc.  While we were switched into different rooms the next day (and relatively right across the hall from John and Laura, as we were initially on different floors), and the new rooms were decently better, this hotel doesn’t have the charm or character that the Nacional has.  We did get to see some of the newly renovated rooms – if you’re a big businessman from China or Russia and have extra ducats to spend, these new, ultra chic rooms are amazing.  We heard they are following the remodel of what just got done at the Hotel Capri, of which Cigar Aficionado magazine recently said was an amazing remodel as well, so we may have to look at that in the future.

And the check-in and check-out process at the Habana Libre was a shitshow.  Not a proper Air Transat travel rep to be found.  Two hours of headache occupied on either end of the hotel stay, to try to ensure arrangements made.

Unfortunately, it is what it is.  Hotel Nacional is definitely still the favourite.

But what a week overall.

And, as always, I came back with a decent enough load as well…

IMG_5773

Some have been smoked or given away since I got home from the trip, compared to what’s in the above picture, but here’s a basic rundown:

  • four bundles of Monsdales customs, from Jorgito at Club Habana
  • two bundles of Jorgito’s newer Robusto Largos customs too
  • two bundles of Juanita’s piramides, from the Melia Habana
  • two bundles of special lanceros from Reynaldo at Conde de Villanueva
  • four boxes of the RA EL Club Allones
  • four bottles of Legendario Elixir de Cuba
  • some more of the last version of Cuban license plates, as well as a 1980’s series plate
  • and a cool “chaveta” / cigar-length cutter (more to come on that one later).

Aside from that, here’s a few tidbits of general Cuba stuff that I thought I’d pass along.  My buddy Frank had also posted some of this on an FOH thread that he used to relay info while I was down there, but here’s some more elaboration of non-cigar-related stuff that we noted:

  • In a first for me (and John, I believe), we were attempt-scammed by a cabbie.  At 10am one day, we hired a Cubataxi “official” taxi for the day until 6pm for $50 CUC – a VERY reasonable rate, almost shockingly so (was expecting $80 to $120 CUCs) and we reconfirmed it 3 different times, through very well-spoken English and our hotel’s valet assisting, and confirmed even that it was $25 CUC (for the CAB, not PER PERSON) for a 4 hr chunk.  However, upon drop off at the Libre at about 5:30pm, the driver FREAKED out when we gave him the $50 CUC plus a $10 CUC tip (and John was about to give him even more too), saying that we agreed to $25 CUC PER HOUR.  So, accordingly, I LOST MY EVERLOVING SHIT.  It turned into a real shit show too, with about 8 or 9 different cabbies walking over and trying to surround John and I (the ladies were upstairs, having been dropped up separately earlier).  Well, the same valet came over, tried to figure out what was going on, and then said that maybe WE didn’t hear so well, or maybe he didn’t translate so well.  Suddenly, another Cubataxi rep came over, and suddenly, “due to all the misunderstanding”, and since the driver “had to pay the business and the government too”, the price went down from $200 CUC to $160 CUC.  Then, with John getting a bit cornered, and pulling out his wallet to negotiate (no, no, NO!), someone said “we can call it a day at $120 CUC”.  So finally, I had enough, told them my room number upstairs, gave my name, getting the valet involved as well, and showed my ID’s…including my police ID, telling them my hearing and memory was just fucking fine, it needed to be AS A COP!!!!…and told them to call the cops themselves then.  Suddenly, they all shit themselves, the crowd started scattering, I grabbed an extra $5 CUC out of my pocket (in hindsight, shouldn’t have done that, but did it while telling them “this is for a pack of Kleenex if you wanna cry crocodile tears that I’M scamming YOU!”), threw $65 CUC flat into the guy’s cab on the front seat, finished with a “fuck you very much!”, and dragged John back into the hotel (he was getting into a bit of a mild scare with the crowd, and was digging into his wallet to pay them what they wanted, which is why I resorted to using my ID).  After that – nothing further.  I checked with the front desk and the hotel valet and even the Cubataxi rep after that – all is fine, sir, nothing further.  The driver’s involved sheepishly avoided us an hour later when we left for the Nacional and I gladly glared them down.  However, following days – no issues at all, and I gladly tipped the others who weren’t involved in it.  Unfortunate, but a first for me – and as shitty as it was, it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the week aside from that one small 1/2-hour window or so.
  • We noted that the “money scam” is prevalent more (money exchange ladies at Cadeca’s, with their slight of hand and “disappearing” bills, or bill counters always being short, etc.).  Generally, the way it goes is like this – when getting money exchanged, you hand them 10 x $100 CAD bills, but if you turn away for a split second, they say, “Senor, there are only 9 here”, or when getting $1000 CUC, but they only give you $900 or $950 CUC, “blame” it on the machine, etc. – if you don’t double check and count in front of them, you’re screwed.  So anyways, John and I were both attempt scammed at the Cadeca at the Varadero airport’s departure area (always less of a line to hit that one on arrival), in that “the machine” shorted us a bill or two on our CUC amounts given, but I triple counted and caught her at it.  I was attempt scammed at the Cadeca at the Hotel Nacional even – that’s generally one of the safest ones.  Wasn’t a thing at the Melia Cohiba at all thought – appears to be only potential safe place left for “yumas”.
  • That said, any of the smaller typical scams of bad math / excess charges on restaurant / bar bills were nonexistent.  Shockingly so.  I mean, even the steadfast Hotel Nacional bar on the back terrace racks up the additional drink charges once they think you’ve had enough and can’t remember if you had 7 rounds or 17.  But – not ONCE while we were down there the whole week, aside from a single drink at one small spot.  And it’s usually 3 out of 4 bills that have something messed up.
  • With that – drink prices were way WAY down, but food prices were fairly up, almost double compared to a year before.
  • A MUCH larger police presence felt on the street – literally, on major thoroughfares, it appeared to be a motorcycle or patrol car every 5 or 6 blocks.  We also noted many more “covert” surveillance cameras placed around, on streetlight posts and building corners.  I really didn’t think this was in response to European things going on (the Paris terrorist attacks had literally just happened).  But, the way these cops’ attention seemed to focus, it was like it was just a giant blanket of surveillance to see the interactions with so many Americans now coming to the island.  Kind of a “keep an eye on them and report back” sort of thing, on both the American tourists, and the Cubans interacting with them.
  • With the higher police presence, we noticed that “non-official” / private taxis were having to be very careful at night.  Remember – if it’s nighttime in Cuba, it’s illegal for a citizen to have a foreigner in their vehicle, without having a VERY good explanation.  So, at night, any private taxis that we took had to take back streets and roundabout ways to get to the hotels and avoid any police check-points.
  • TONS of the different kinds of coffees found around.  Only a few places though with small bags of Cubita beans, only Café Serrano large bags of ground at one spot, and no Turquino found anywhere.  No large Cubita cups found anywhere either – just the smaller espresso cups found here and there.
  • Rums – mmmmmm, rum!  Loads of nearly every type, everywhere.  Loads of Legendario to be found (both the Elixir, and the Anejo rum).  Lots of the different aged Santiago, Havana Club, Mulata, etc.  Found TONS of that Isla del Tesoro Ron Anejo – more to come on that later.
  • MASSIVE changes as it relates to cell phones and technology.  Easily 3 in 5 Cubans seen around the streets of Havana were all cell phone in hand, texting, many video messaging / Skyping / FaceTiming, etc.  HUGE increase in that.  Along the Malecon, on 7 Avenida between the Habana Libre and Hotel Nacional especially, it was a near constant with the numourous people on the streets waiting.
  • Varadero airport had LOTS of whole bean and ground coffee of Café Serrano, Café Turquino, and Cubata.  Also, they had LOADS of all rum, including 4 different Legendario rums (white, gold, Anejo, and Elixir).
  • Cuban customs were seizing and throwing out ALL lighters on departure flight check-ins, regardless of lighter type or make, if soft flame in pocket or in carry-on, etc.

More to come soon.

Cheers all.

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