Cruising to Cuba

dsc_0334Thanks to President Obama US citizens can visit Cuba on cruises offering a people-to-people educational itinerary.  Hopefully as President Trump works down the list, attempting apparently to undo everything Obama accomplished, he will see the wisdom and economic potential, for the Trump brand and everyone else, of expanding our relations with our nearest neighbors and lift the Embargo completely.

Pearl Cruises little 210 passenger ship PEARL MIST was the second US cruise ship to go to Cuba and I was privileged to be the Destination Lecturer on the third and fourth voyages.

Little PEARL MIST is the ideal ship with which to visit Cuba.  All the big boys, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, are busy making plans to overwhelm the limited port facilities of Havana, but are too large to visit some of the really fantastic ports that we visited.  We enjoyed Havana, but also beautiful Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

dsc_0349MSC, a European line with mostly non-North American passengers, was already overwhelming Havana dumping hordes of passengers into the tiny terminal, a grim foretaste of cruise lines turning Havana into just another Nassau, St Thomas, or St Martin.  Fortunately Pearl’s small ship was able to get into Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and experience more of Cuba than just the big, yet fascinating, capital city of Havana.

My advice is GO NOW!  See Cuba before it is overrun with mega ships disgorging thousands of passengersdsc_0291.  Yes, there are some hassles.  Is Cuba ready for prime time?  No.  But if you want to experience Cuba, now is the time to go.  There is one tour operator in Cuba: run by the government.  The guides work for the government, so some are great and some of them must have a relative with “connections.”  The tour buses are all made in China, brand new, spotless, with working rest rooms, probably the best tour buses anywhere in the Caribbean and Central America.

But working with the government is a challenge.  You quickly realize that your are not in Kansas anymore.  There are last minute changes and adjustments. Long lines in Havana, mostly   because of the huge MSC ship dumping its guests, to get to rather grim and sometimes surly immigration folks.  Sometimes in the other ports there weren’t even immigration and custom officials on duty, and those who were seemed to enjoy their jobs.  Maybe it’s just a big-city boredom thing.  But poor Pearl Seas Cruises had to seemingly constantly adjust because you go where, and when, the government permits.


The crew on Pearl Mist is incredible. And this crew, unlike on the big ships, is a team that has worked together for years, seems to really love their jobs and enjoy the guests and taking care of them.  On big ships crew members are constantly coming and going, so it’s harder to create and maintain a team.  The food is very good, open seating, dine with whomever you wish.  The staterooms are good-sized and all with private balconies.  The stateroom rest rooms are the best I’ve encountered.  No nickle and diming here.  Drinks are all included.  Wine, beer, premium spirits, shore excursions.  No paying $3.50 plus gratuity every time you want a bottle of water. No casino, art auctions, Botox, shops, junk sales, teeth-whitening, bumper cars, water slides, climbing walls, ice skating rinks, Broadway wantabe shows, kids or lines!

At cse fares starting at $700 per person per day guests are more affluent, mostly well-educated, well-traveled, mature people who have had fascinating lives and are interesting to get to know.


The Cuban people seem very positive about the new relationships with the US.  A hot clothing item seemed to be stars and stripes outfits.  Cubans have endured great hardships many of which have been as a direct result of the US Embargo, but there is no anti-US attitude.  Yes, some folks saw an old revolutionary sign, flaking paint on a wall with a fist marked “revolution” smashing into the US … frankly the same type of thing you might find on the wall of any run-down, impoverished US inner city where people feel forgotten by their government.  Sure, if you look hard enough and are predisposed to find something, you’ll find it.  There was discussion of a girl with a US flag as a shawl.  Some saw it as a way of “cuddling” and embracing a new US/Cuba relationship, while a few saw it offensive because it violated the official US flag display protocol which I’m sure this gal neglected to read or access on the mostly non-existent Internet since she didn’t have an iPad.


There were those who were offended by trash and decaying buildings. “Can’t they afford paint?” ignoring the fact that folks are struggling to live on meager salaries.  The average Cuban doctor or teacher makes the equivalent of thirty US dollars a month.  Unfortunately those folks ignored all of the renovation projects underway in a country with great fiscal challenges that struggles to get rebar and cement.  I continue to struggle to accept the North American/European fixation with trash.  Take a group to the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids and what do they come back to the ship and talk about?  Trash.


But go to Cuba now.  It’s a work in progress, but now is the time to experience it before it is forever changed, maybe for the better and maybe not.



Cuba Car Show

cuba-car-showWant to see old US cars? Come to Cuba! You won’t be disappointed. Cars from the 50’s and even earlier are still on the streets, still running thanks to Cuban ingenuity. Some are old, just held together with Bondo and prayer, but others are pristine.

My first car was a two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel Aire, and to see those same cars, running around Cuba is a special treat. These old American cars from the 50s are locally called yank tanks and many are used as cabs. And you will see these great old cars, not all of them freshly painted and restored! It’s estimated there are around 60,000 of these still on the road in Cuba, about 35% of the cars in Cuba. Tourists love to ride in these old cars, especially the convertibles.


Cuba has two currencies, National Pesos or CUP which is the local currency and worth about four cents per peso, and the currency for tourists, CUC, or “kooks” that are one to one with the US dollar. As a tourist you are required to use CUCs. When you change your money at the government run change bureaus, and almost everything is “government run” so get used to it, you pay a service/change charge. If you are changing US dollars you ALSO you pay a 10% penalty. There is no penalty for changing Canadian dollars, Euros or British Pounds. And nobody accepts US dollars or US-issued credit cards.


So the guy with the slicked up old US car charges 30 to 40 kooks an hour to drive you around – that’s $30 – $40! This is in a country where the average doctor makes the equivalent of $30 a month!!


Visiting Cuba sometimes feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. The lady in the square, dressed up and with a big cigar in her mouth gets 1 CUC, the equivalent of $1 US, for a picture – and a good day can make twice what a doctor or teacher makes in an afternoon! Tourism is where the money is in Cuba.


The poorly prepared, frankly lousy guide on the tour bus, who fills the time with heavily accented worthless chatter but never gives you any of the information you need or expect from a guide, is supposed to be tipped 5 CUC and the driver 3 CUC. The ship can forget changing tour companies since there is only one … you got it, “government run.” Your guide may be inexperienced and without a clue, but have a relative in the government who helped them land a cushy job. Or your guide may be great and have a PhD or MD but can make far more money as a guide. With twenty or so people on the tour bus, a guide can make the equivalent of $100 US in a day in a country where working as a professor or doctor they would only make about $30 a month! And these are all paid in cash.


Ordinary Cubans can’t buy milk. Milk is reserved for children. You must get government permission to slaughter your cow because beef is only for tourists. These folks live on an island, surrounded by the ocean, but cannot eat shrimp or lobster … those are reserved for tourists. So, when your tour stops for lunch at a Paladar … the privately-owned “house” restaurants operated by enterprising entrepreneurs and permitted by the government during “The Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union when the Cuba was in economic free fall … you sit by the open door, being presented with a beautiful lobster dinner, while the locals look in knowing that they, as ordinary Cubans, will never sit down to a dinner of the lobsters harvested on their coast. Awkward, even if you only have an iota of sensitivity.


Cuba is a fantastic country, a wonderful place to visit, especially for US Americans who have been denied the opportunity to visit and interact with their Cuban neighbors mostly because of international tit-for-tat games played by successive US governments and the late Fidel Castro, mostly for reasons that have almost been forgotten. But one does get the feeling that maybe the country, as well as the old cars, are held together by Bondo.

My Two Worlds

Sorry if I’ve been absent for a while.  One of my goals for 2017 was to slow down a bit and a least a little bit “retire from retirement.”  Well, that isn’t going to happen!  January has been busy promoting my properties for sale and those of others on my site PanamaforSalebyOwner.INFO, and we’ve been doing a whole lot of work painting our house inside and out, getting rid of stuff, and preparing for the eventual sale of our property … it is available! … and eventually downsizing a bit … part of the “slow down” and “retire from retirement” thing.

Boqueete estaste

But we are still enjoying Boquete after 12 years … one of my worlds.

Drying Beans for Own UseCoffee harvest was all screwed up for Central America this year.  The yield was far below average … watch the price of Central American coffee soar on the commodities market.  This was largely due to the crazy weather changes.  We’ve discovered over the years that sometimes the worst years produced the most flavorful beans, so we’ve held out a big part of our crop for our own enjoyment.  We produce really good coffee, and were we younger and had the energy and time, we would have a great opportunity to sell our entire group to an upscale US restaurant that wanted a single source, high quality coffee that would only be available in their restaurant.  But we leave that opportunity to the next owners of our farm.

Coffee In BloomHowever, one of the “miracles” of living on a coffee farm … last week I woke up at 4 am, let the dog out, and walked outside to look at the stars.  Stars where we live on a clear, moonless night are one of the most incredible sights!  It’s something you have to experience to appreciate.  But during the night the coffee had bloomed.  And the air was perfumed with this jasmine, orange blossom like fragrance … it was like walking into a perfume factory on the French Riviera.  Absolutely incredible.  And after sitting down to my computer in our library, which has windows facing east, and watching a gorgeous sunrise, I walked out and it looked like it had snowed overnight.  With the coffee trees covered in beautiful, white blossoms … which, unfortunately, last only a day.  Coffee is self-polinating and really is a remarkable plant, and not just to sip in the morning.  Because we have not lived in the “gringo ghetto” or “American compoud” but in the real Panama, one of our great joys living in Panama is to have been a part of the coffee culture that has dominated life for 100 years in our tiny town.


So that’s one of my worlds … and the other is at sea.  I kind of thought that most of the 1st Quarter I would be at home in Boquete, which was fine by me, and I had nothing on the cruise schedule.  Then Pearl Seas Cruises asked me to join them for one of the first cruises to Cuba on PEARL MIST, the ship I did the Great Lakes and Canada/New England  fall foliage cruses on last year.  Of course I delightedly accepted since we’ve both wanted to visit Cuba for years..  So most of February both Nikki and I will be cruising from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, El Cobre, Santiago and a number of beach/national park areas.  Fantastic!  But it does mean preparing a whole new set of lectures … hence starting work at 4 am.

DSC_0255On the heels of that, Princess asked me to to join CORAL PRINCESS  for six cruises to the Southern Caribbean, Panama Canal and Central America.  Fortunately these are all lectures I have done before.  I get off PEARL MIST and the same day board CORAL PRINCESS!  Fortunately both ships will be in Fort Lauderdale so I just have to get from one terminal to another.

So 1st Quarter 2017 has suddenly gotten very busy and it looks like slowing down and retiring from retirement will have to wait.