Many of you are probably following the progress of Hurricane Irma through the Caribbean. At this point it looks like the state of Florida will take a very serious hit. Some areas will likely have catastrophic problems.
There is a lot of of current news about how Irma destroyed most of the homes on St. Martin and several other small islands a few days ago. There are also lots of projections about what will likely happen to south Florida beginning this evening. However, I believe the information reported about Irma in Cuba is very incomplete, and actually misleading. I have been monitoring reports from three major cable news networks. Only CNN actually has a reporter on the scene–Patrick Oppman. He has lived in Cuba off-and-on for many years. For the past 24-36 hours, he has been reporting from the seaside town of Caibarién. It is located almost in the middle of the north coast of Cuba. He has reported that several towns in the area have flooded, but most people were previously evacuated. This area was hit harder than expected, because Irma changed course slightly and continued to the west, instead of turning to the north as predicted. (It is finally turning north now as I write.) The two most notable results are that the eye will now move through Florida west of previous predictions, and the eye has traveled closer to Cuba’s north coast. There are over a thousand small islands (cayos) off the coast. Most are uninhabited, but there are several resorts in the area. I presume they were hit pretty hard. There are no large cities on the coastal mainland in this area. The eye traveled over many of these islands, resulting in Irma breaking up to a certain extent, losing a lot of energy. Irma briefly dropped from a Category-5 to Cat-3. Unfortunately, now there is warm open water between Irma’s eye and Florida, so it is quite likely to gain strength again and will likely hit south Florida as a Cat-5. Because of this new course further west to Florida, the Gulf Coast looks like it will have much more destruction than Miami and Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Tampa–a large city where many Miami residents escaped to in the last few days–may now experience an unprecedented storm surge with widespread destruction. Also–there is a good chance that at least one of the 42 bridges connecting Key West to the mainland will be destroyed, further isolating this well-known island. The latest projection indicates that the eye of Irma may pass very close to Key West as a Cat-5 hurricane. I hope everybody got out while they could.
I have been communicating with friends in Havana this morning. They still have power and internet services. Things are relatively okay there, but waves are crashing over the Malecón seawall, flooding some areas. This happens several times every decade, so it is nothing new–it will be costly, but not catastrophic. However–the CNN reporters in the U.S. are interpreting Oppman’s reports as though Irma has been very destructive for all of Cuba—not just in a limited area. Cuba’s north coast is almost as long as California’s west coast. I believe there is a huge difference between: reports of damage to a fairly limited, mostly uninhabited area in central Cuba, and “Cuba has been devastated by Hurricane Irma with cities under water!”
The bottom line is that Havana and western Cuba (where most first-time visitors spend their time) will do just fine, and will probably be mostly or fully recovered by December. A much bigger concern for me is how well the Cuban-American communities in south Florida weather Hurricane Irma. They send billions of dollars every year to their families and business partners in Cuba. The total amount has increased dramatically in the last few years. This is yet another significant factor affecting island’s future that Cuba can’t control.
I’m getting a lot of requests lately about hurricanes and Cuba, and which months to avoid getting caught there. Those of you scheduled for our December Expedition shouldn’t be overly concerned, because the hurricane season will be finished by then. However, at the moment, the eye of Hurricane Irma is just north of the eastern tip of Cuba. It appears to be following the path projected by both the U.S. and European Hurricane Agencies. It is expected to soon start curving to the north, and head directly for Miami and south Florida. Irma has the potential to be as destructive as Harvey was in Texas a couple weeks ago, but for different reasons. Harvey remained almost stationary over southeast Texas for several days, so that record amounts of rainfall were produced. There was no place for most of it to go, so many areas were severely flooded. In contrast, Irma currently is moving forward at 20-30 miles an hour, but it may very well straddle the Florida peninsula and affect both coasts. With most hurricanes in the past, Floridians could usually anticipate where the most destruction would occur, and then escape to the opposite coast. Irma’s eye and destructive winds are about 200 miles across–wider than the entire peninsula. The Category 5 hurricane’s winds could conceivably blow over almost all of the southern part of the state. The biggest problems will be due to these winds, coupled with record storm surges. South Florida is very flat, so storm surges of 10-12 feet would travel many miles inland. It will be difficult for everybody to evacuate to the north, because there are only a few major highways, and gasoline will be in short supply.
In addition—I haven’t heard much about this issue, but there are usually dozens of large cruise ships returning to dock every day in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. The passengers likely planned to get off their cruise ships and catch flights out of these airports–which will likely be closed beginning tomorrow. Today they are overcrowded with people trying to catch flights to ANYWHERE. Irma could very well be another major disaster, with much greater loss of life. Let’s hope and pray for a miracle.
Ironically, if Irma had traveled west by northwest over Cuba, rather than in the ocean, it’s power would have been greatly diminished. Instead, it is now traveling north of Cuba over unusually warm open water, gaining strength. The main affect on Cuba will be large waves crashing into the north coast. By the way–I haven’t seen any reports yet, but you can expect that rapid responders from Cuba’s EMS teams are right now preparing to head for and assist the hardest-hit Caribbean islands, such as St. Martin and Barbuda.
Regarding hurricanes in general: the peak period for hurricanes in the Caribbean is early September, so we are currently in that “window.” The “Hurricane Season” actually lasts for half a year: the six months from June 1 until November 30, but they can occur any time of the year. A bell-shaped curve of hurricane activity indicates that almost all occur from July through October and the peak months are August and September. If you choose to visit Cuba any particular week during these peak months, the odds are 1 in a 100 that your trip will be significantly affected by a hurricane.
Cuba has a climate similar to Hawaii’s. Both are located about the same latitude, just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Technically this makes their climates “tropical,” but the surrounding oceans and trade winds make their climates effectively more “semi-tropical.” Both island groups range from northwest to the southeast, where it is usually warmer. Both have trade winds that bring rain primarily to the north and east sides, where there are many more rivers and rainforests. The south and west sides of all these islands tend to be dry and desert-like, and the ocean waters are consistently more clear, due to less run-off from streams. The higher you go up into the hills and mountains of both island groups, the cooler it is, especially at night.
Cuba has a wet season and a dry season, but it can rain any day of the year. The dry season is roughly from November to April. During the wet season, from May to October, it may rain several times a week, but it rarely rains continuously day after day. It often comes down hard for a short time, then the clouds break and the sun comes out. Because it’s warm, the rain isn’t as difficult to deal with as in many mainland locations. If you get wet, you’ll stay cool, and you’ll eventually dry off. I usually carry a small compact umbrella with me during the wet season. Unlike Hawaii and California, Cuba’s afternoon storms are often accompanied by dramatic thunder and lightning, adding even more intrigue and excitement to the Twilight Zone that is today’s Cuba.
The Cuban Emergency System has been shown to be very capable of carrying out large-scale evacuations, especially with regards to visitors. Newer beachfront hotels have been built to international safety standards. Unlike south Florida, Cuba is less populated and much more mountainous, so there are plenty of higher-elevation locations to escape storm surges.
We have received many questions regarding President Trump’s revised policies for Americans traveling to Cuba. His speech temporarily scared away some potential travelers, but by now, most have figured out that there will be no new restrictions for group travelers. Americans are once again signing up for trips to Cuba. There are reports of new regulations being published by OFAC (U.S. Treasury Department) in September. Airlines and travel agencies have reached a consensus that group travel will continue to be legal, as it has been throughout the Bush and Obama administrations.
The other issue that generates many questions is Cuban currency. Articles continue to be widely distributed with incorrect/outdated information. In spite of numerous comments that “no American credit cards can be used in Cuba,” Stonegate Bank of south Florida has been issuing MasterCards for about 2 years. I have a Stonegate card and I have used it in Cuba with no problems. It’s probably the best way to “convert” USD’s (dollars) to CUC’s (Cuban currency), which is pegged to the dollar. Be aware that not every merchant in Cuba accepts credit cards from anywhere. You can mainly use it for large purchases, and to get CUC’s out of a Cuban ATM machine. Many of us now use our Stonegate M/C’s everywhere as our major credit card, because of the bank’s support for Cuba.
Regarding currency–we keep reading that Americans should first convert USD’s to Euros, British Pounds, or Canadian dollars, then exchange those for CUC’s after arriving in Cuba. I do not recommend doing so. (If you already possess some, then take them to Cuba.) American banks disguise the true cost of converting USD’s to other currencies. If you call a bank and ask the conversion rate, the ones with the best rates quietly tack on higher additional fees. You should determine the yield, which is the amount you receive AFTER you have converted AND paid your fees. You have to pay an additional, typical conversion fee of about 3% in Cuba to convert any currency CUC’s. I suggest taking new $100 USD bills (Cubans are worried about counterfeits). For a $100 bill, you will receive $87 CUC’s at the airport, at your hotel, or at the bank. HOWEVER, you usually can receive $90-$92 CUC’S from your AirBnb host or a friendly local, but exchange quietly without making a big deal out of it. (Cubans can usually get $95+ CUC’s for a $100 USD bill.) Even though the CUC is not considered a “hard” currency and supposedly has no use outside the country, USD’s and CUC’s are increasingly exchanged at about a 1:1 rate in south Florida. This is apparently due to the incredible amount of commerce and traffic between that region and Cuba. As with most issues in Cuba–the best things happen when the residents of both countries deal directly with each other, and eliminate or disregard anything involving the governments of either country.
Cuban chocolate is a very high standard chocolate that is widely used in Canada by professional bakers. The first cocoa plantations in Cuba were started by France in the 1650s in the Guantanamo region. As of today, this region in southeast Cuba is the same area where the majority of cocoa farming still occurs. Most of it is used for export.
Milton Hershey first visited Cuba in January 1916. He reportedly fell in love with the country at first sight. Hershey was excited by the huge sugar plantations in Cuba. In 1916 the world was battling in the Great War, and sugar, essential to milk chocolate production, was in short supply. During his first visit to Cuba, Milton Hershey decided to purchase sugar plantations and mills so that he could mill and refine his own sugar for use in his Hershey Chocolate Factory.
Museum of Chocolate
When you travel to Cuba, be sure to visit one of my favorite mini-museums: the tiny Museum of Chocolate in Old Havana. It offers a tour through the history of cacao, its harvesting, production and commercialization. Panels placed in the museum’s rooms exhibit texts with the history of chocolate from its discovery by the Spaniards in America. It was used by the native population before colonization. The display also has posters showing famous foreign and Cuban industries and enterprises related to chocolate.
Cuban Chocolate Art
The permanent exhibition presents a collection of china cups for chocolate, from the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy. There are many examples of a variety of domestic and religious designs from the 18th and 19th centuries. You can view a French bow cup used by men to drink the delicious liquid without wetting their moustaches. Bakelite molds and containers donated by the Royal Museum of the Real Square in Brussels enrich this collection. There are also ceramic chocolate cups, pots, containers and large English bowls found in archeological excavations in Old Havana.
Cuban Chocolate Munchies
Visitors can view demonstrations of techniques to manufacture candies, every Tuesday and Friday at 11:00am. The museum was once the home of the Count of Lagunilla. It was the starting point of the procession of the Holy Way of the Cross and now offers a journey through the history of cocoa cultivation, production and marketing. The Museum of Chocolate is located on Mercaderes Street, just a three-minute walk south from the Hotel Ambos Mundos.
President Donald Trump today made a stunning speech in Little Havana (Miami) regarding changes in policies involving Americans traveling to Cuba. I believe he fully met his goal of fulfilling his campaign promise to a relatively small minority of Cuban-Americans in south Florida. President Trump can now check another box on his list of completed campaign promises.
If you were not paying close attention, it would be easy to assume that legal travel to Cuba has now been shut down. In reality, the new guidelines will have minimum effect on the logistics of travel. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, has already published an update (link below). People-to-People group travel to Cuba will continue to be allowed, and actually encouraged. Individual travel may now be technically illegal, but keep in mind that just two travelers can still constitute a “Group.”
In my opinion, the most serious fallout from President Trump’s speech will be the PERCEPTION that it will be more difficult to visit Cuba. This is why it is more important than ever for travel specialists to continue to educate and inform Americans about this situation.
We must continue to emphasize that Cuba is a beautiful, friendly, and safe country to visit. Cubans love Americans and American culture. Cuba is a kid-friendly country that is ideal for family educational experiences. Regardless of how some Americans might feel about its government, Cuba continues to sign trade deals with some of the most conservative governors and congressmen in the U.S.
We salute President Trump for following through on his campaign promise, while allowing legal travel to Cuba to continue. Thank you, Mr. President!