Granma clinched the 60th Cuban National Series in April of 2021. The road to get there was meandering with multiple delays due to Covid outbreaks. Certain series were played out of sequence and the whole playoff took roughly two months longer than originally anticipated. Visiting Cuba during Covid was possible, but getting off the resort and to a baseball stadium was not. I thus delayed any Cuban baseball plans until the start of the 61st Cuban National Series, and delayed and delayed.
The National Series usually begins in August or September. In late spring of 2021 preliminary rosters were compiled and training began. Cases spiked on the island and training camps were abruptly shut down. Limited information was available and without a formal announcement it became evident that Cuban baseball would have to wait, and wait until January 23rd of 2022.
That date is actually closer to starting dates of National Series of decades past. In more modern times the championship series would be wrapping up at this point. At the very least a target to see baseball and for me to potentially return to Cuba was in sight. With that clear, not much else about travelling to the island was at that point.
December 31st rang in a new year, a new variant and new restrictions in Canada. The province of Ontario renewed restrictions on public gatherings. Air Transat and Air Canada eliminated routes including to Cuba. Where these decisions about the virus or about viability? Either way, it at least cast doubt as to whether booking a trip even with another carrier might be cancelled.
Select resorts in Cuba remained open for most of 2021, however guests were effectively quarantined to the beach and their rooms. Cities and conventional hotels were slowly opening, but info on what to expect and how much freedom of movement there was, was sparse online. Language of vaccination and PCR test requirements was also frequently contradictory.
I did find a source that stated double vaccinated individuals only needed to present a negative PCR test received no greater than 72 hours prior to leaving Cuba. The airport experience in Ottawa was simple enough, even if I arrived expecting potential push back on the PCR requirement. There was no such push back and despite a slight delay in leaving I had escaped freezing temperatures and arrived in Veradero to be shuttled the roughly two hours to Havana.
The first sign that tourism hadn’t fully rebounded was in sharing a small van with three other tourists. The only three other people on the flight that wouldn’t be staying at an all inclusive in Veradero. Normally there is enough tourist traffic to the capital to warrant a full size bus. The couple and individual were regular travellers to Cuba. The married couple from just outside Ottawa were returning to Cuba after a short sojourn back home to Canada.
The larger resorts apparently provide PCR testing on site, however this was unlikely the case where I would be staying. Anecdotally they had heard of people having to spend large sums and effectively waste two days to first take a cab and a test in an adjacent town and return to receive the results. Thankfully I was about an 8 minute walk from Camilo Cienfuegos hospital. What could have been a major hurdle became a minor formality. I set some time aside to take my test early on the Friday morning before I would fly out on Sunday. Hopefully this would give me a window to receive the results the next day.
Where the PCR test becomes a bit of a racket is that you can only pay for it via credit card. Why does that matter? The current currency situation is skewed heavily towards foreign fiat. In doing my research I discovered that EURO was most in demand or versatile. The stated 27 to 1 CUP (Cuban Peso) to Euro exchange rate is only on paper or credit card. I exchanged some money with a chap at the airport at what I thought was a good rate of 50 to 1. Points were left on the table, but thankfully I only exchanged enough to start me off with some walking around money.
I found sources that were exchanging at rates of 80 to 1 and even one transaction of 85 to 1. Paying for the PCR test on credit card meant I ended up getting charged closer to 25 Euro instead of the 8 or 9 if I had paid cash. Extrapolate that on any other transaction if you have to pay credit card. The gap between affluent foreigners and Cuban locals continues to grow. At least your dollar can go closer to three times further than the stated exchange rates.
For anyone not familiar with Havana or navigating the landscape I could see the PCR test scaring people from travelling. Cuba itself is the most vaccinated Latin American country. This has been achieved largely through self developed vaccines. If that knowledge assuages fears for anyone reading, Cuba is recovering well from Covid. I personally didn’t feel at risk at any juncture. I am thankful that my PCR test was negative. Also that the potential disaster that could have touched off didn’t come to fruition.
This was my seventh trip to Cuba’s Capital. In many ways it didn’t feel any different than the previous six. All the warts of substandard hotel amenities, suspect food and island time service still apply. The reality is though I keep returning because of the relationships I have established and the baseball. For every reason I return or accept the flaws I can understand how another would rather avoid all of it. Especially during their vacation.
It became evident very early on that I was one of the few and possibly only Canadian at the hotel. I didn’t interact with any other tourists but during my shuttles to and from the airport. The hotel lobby and the pool however were very busy with locals. The rambunctiousness poolside and the fact I had a busy itinerary meant I didn’t spend much time near, little yet any in the pool.
This pool and party traffic can be confusing when contrasted against the current economic struggles of the island overall. How can locals afford a full day by the pool purchasing multiple 450 CUP pitchers of beer and clearly having no shortage of cigarettes? I am still not sure. Remittances from the United States have been choked off by the current currency policy. It is veritably impossible to send funds to Cuba without delivering them in person. My suspicion is that somehow the hotel visitors are able to obtain greenbacks or Euros.
I spoke about this phenomenon with my local friends Freddy and the lads. They attribute it to choice. Cubans don’t have access to much, but can always scrounge up enough for a Cerveza and a Cigarello. I was also very happy to find out that the crew I had befriended during my last trip to Havana were all well. They had resumed their tradition of meeting in a nearby park to sip rum and talk life. I call it La Esquina Calliente de Vedado. The Hot Corner in Parque Centrale gets the publicity, but I think the real conversations happen in our little spot in the park.
Freddy pitched in the first Cuban National Series for Habana. They would become Industriales the next year. Freddy had played baseball at a high level for most of his young life. When the new Cuban baseball league was formed, Freddy agreed to play for them as a favour to the team’s manager. After one season though, he decided that attending University to become a Chemical Engineer and a career in the Navy were a better path.
Freddy César Romero has a lifetime pass to baseball games as an alumnus. He joined me for the Sunday game as Havana faced Granma. His english is actually very good and he often acts as the translator to the rest of the crew. He does push me to work on my Spanish and as the weeks went on I did add more to my broken lexicon. I was happy that I could spread the wealth a bit, as I insisted the crew join me at the local cafeteria for drinks on me on a few different occassions.
One of the highlights of visiting Cuba During Covid was discussing baseball history and downing a few Cristals with my adoptive abuelos. Each trip I try to bring some harder to find items as gifts. New shoes can be very hard to come by, but I remembered Freddy’s request last trip of size 10.5 black slip ons.
Moving forward contacting the crew should be easier. Although I had their phone numbers, each time I had called over the past few years, there was no answer. Our friend Fausto though now has a smart phone and we have added each other on WhatsApp.
The trip was very baseball-centric as I attended four Industriales games at LatinoAmericano Stadium. I also got to spend time off the field with retired players such as Freddy and Frank Camilo Morejón and some active ballers as well. I wont go much deeper into that here, but you can read my articles on those experiences via the links provided. A Frank Look Into the Future. Cuban Pitcher is Putting English on the Ball. Boris with the Details: The Life of a Cuban Journalist.
I took note of the police driving down the street one afternoon and making notifications via bullhorn. July 2021 saw many Cubans take to the streets in active protest. Those protests had been swiftly quelled by the Police. Understandably this didn’t come up in conversation, and it didn’t appear to have survived the suppression from the Cuban government.
This announcement was giving a heads up. Certain streets leading from the University to the Malecon would be shut down for the evening. This would not be for a protest but for the Torchlight March in honor of José Marti. I wont get into my thoughts on the need and importance of peaceful protest and the ability to express dissenting opinions in Cuba. I was impressed by the scale and visual of this march though.
My two weeks in Havana were busy. My familiarity helps as well as my tempered expectations. As an aside, perhaps due to the low residency in the hotel, it was the first time I could take a full hot shower any time I wanted. I was happy to find out that my contacts were as well as could be expected in the face of challenging economic times in Cuba. Strangely it took me travelling to a foreign land to feel like things were normal for the first time in two years.
If you have or are considering travelling to Cuba feel free to reach out. Either with your advice or if you have any questions on navigating the island and culture. Although baseball is the main reason I travel to the island, my growing network of friends and unique parts of the culture are key drivers as well. Have realistic expectations and an open mind to few things going as originally planned, but realize how far your dollar can go and how you can truly help out the locals.