We made it to Havana! Early this morning we took our hotel shuttle to Miami International Airport, Concourse D. (Traveling on a charter flight is similar to flying on a standard one, except it is far more expensive and it is more difficult to re-schedule. Our 45-minutes flight cost each of us $450 round-trip.) I presented everybody’s passport to our agent, and we received our tickets, Cuban visas, and medical insurance information. Then we went through security and eventually boarded our flight. Our American Airlines 737 flew away from Miami, over the Florida Keys, then south above the Florida Straits. These waters can be especially tough on rafters trying to reach Florida from Cuba. Estimates are that up to half those who attempt never make it. You can only imagine what it must be like for Cuban families when young Cubans plan their escapes. Many parents, who want freedom and opportunities for their children, are terrified about these attempts. They realize that there is a good chance they may never see them again.
We arrived in Havana less than an hour after departing Miami. We went through customs with only a couple of glitches. Nobody had any bags opened, but as group facilitator, I was pulled aside and asked additional questions. It seemed slightly amusing that the security official asking me questions was writing my answers in pencil on a plain sheet of paper. (You would think that perhaps he would enter information into a laptop, or at least have a form with blanks to fill in. After about 10 minutes he let me proceed, but by then I was at the very back of the line to get through customs. A pleasant customs agent asked only basic questions such as why I was visiting Cuba, took my photograph, and let me pass. I asked her to stamp my passport, which she did reluctantly. (Cuban agents know to not stamp passports of Americans, so they often ask you 2-3 times just to be sure. I guess they think they are protecting us from our own government. Later I discovered that several in our group also requested passport stamps.) I felt a little guilty for being the last person through customs, and while waiting in another line after picking up my bags, another agent suddenly appeared and asked all of us in our group to follow him. We got the V.I.P. treatment and bypassed long lines of travelers waiting for final clearance. Perhaps our Cuban travel agency had a little influence. As on my two previous trips this year, my bags were not opened, nor were the bags of anybody else inspected.
We climbed into our new Chinese-built built bus for the trip to town. We enjoyed a brief tour of Havana, and then rode to the Miramar district for lunch. The Vistamar restaurant was right on the ocean, with a seawall blocking waves from entering the home. It was a classic paladar—an in-home restaurant. The owners lived in other parts of this large home, which had been extensively remodeled. A separate entrance was created for restaurant guests. There was upper-level dining with nice views out to sea, and a lower level had tables next to the swimming pool. As usual in most paladares, the food and service was quite good. Following lunch, we rode to our hotel and checked in. All our travelers seemed happy with their rooms. The Park Central Hotel is fairly new—only about 10 years old. It has an excellent location near the Capitol Building on the edge of Old Havana. There is always lots of activity, inside and out, and there are always numerous vintage American cars nearby. Some are used for taxis.
In the evening, we went on a stroll down nearby Obispo Street. Within a short distance we heard over a dozen various groups playing music. This is one of my favorite things to do in Cuba—to walk around at night listening to great music, and not have to worry about crime. Our first day in Cuba was relaxing, interesting, and fun—exactly what I had hoped for.