We?ve been flying around the Caribbean since 2005, when Rosie first talked us into flying to the Cayman Islands. And every time, we?ve used the Caribbean Flying Adventures website for information on various island airports, fuel prices and documentation, and for our Cuban overflight permits. So, when we saw an email from Jim Parker about a Cuba fly-in to Varadero and Cienfuegos, we said, ?Sign us up!? Jim knows a lot about flying to and visiting Cuba (he also offers paperwork assistance for individual flights to Cuba, but we did not want to deal with government regulations ? ours and theirs ? or have to use our rudimentary Spanish).
The evening before, Jim checked to be sure that all of us had all our flight plans, enough copies of Gen Decs (General Declarations), and had filed our eApis manifests. On Sunday morning we headed to Varadero (MUVR) with 10 planes departing Miami Executive at five-minute departure intervals (others departed Homestead and Marathon). Normally, overflying Cuba does not require any speed control; however, this time we were flying into Cuba and they wanted spacing, so Miami Center vectored some planes to the west and back and they slowed us down to 110 kts before handing us off to Havana Center. It is also a Havana Center requirement that altimeters must be set at 29.92 at handoff (for all aircraft at FL04 and above). We did have a struggle with the millibar conversion when they gave us the local altimeter setting, but everything worked out fine.
Parking for the general aviation planes is at the east end, beyond the terminal. They even had fixed tie downs in the parking area. I doubt this is true, but one of the line guys said we were the first experimental type to arrive in Varadero and they were very curious about homebuilts. Since we were the only RV in our group, I do know we were the first one for that day. Fuel was a bit breath taking at $9.04 U.S. a gallon, but we topped off and headed for an arrival reception in the VIP lounge. We were greeted by an open bar (rum and everything else too), plus snacks and a live trio ? the first of many music groups that serenaded us throughout our stay.
Varadero occupies a long peninsula on the central north side of the island with miles of white sandy beaches and more than 55 resort hotels filled with tourists from all over the world. We stayed at the 5-star rated Iberostar Varadero, a Spanish-Cuban joint venture. Prior to checking in we toured the little town of Santa Marta and enjoyed an excellent lunch at the beautiful Xanadu Mansion (formerly owned by the DuPont family). During our three day stay we traveled to Cardenas in classic cars (ours was a pink 56 Chevy with a Hyundai diesel four-cylinder conversion). There we visited a Sugar Mill and Steam Train Museum and had lunch at an organic farm (with another music trio). We also got to see the local flora and fauna and took a catamaran ride to Isla Paraiso, a wildlife refuge, where we went snorkeling in the clear, turquoise water.
Did I mention the rum? There are several many varieties to choose from, and Cuba Libres were plentiful. As a reformed smoker, I remember my last cigar was in 1987. That date remains unaltered. Although many others partook in the savory aromas of the plentiful cigars, Indira and I worked at staying upwind as much as possible. But we did drink a lot of the excellent Cuban coffee.
On Wednesday morning we left Varadero with no hassles with formalities or paperwork. The fastest aircraft in our group were sequenced first as we headed to Cienfuegos on the south coast and in a little more rural setting than the more cosmopolitan Varadero. The airport is small, and they hadn?t seen as much activity as we provided in a long time. It seemed like all hands were on deck as they greeted us, showed us where to tie down, and carted our baggage to the main terminal. Even the local press showed up and our group made the evening news. From the airport, we drove out to Punta Perdiz on the west side of the Bay of Pigs for another excellent buffet lunch and then snorkeling in the clear water and beach time.
After the beach we visited the Bay of Pigs Museum. In my preparation for this trip I did read the book, ?The Bay of Pigs? written by Haynes Johnson with background content provided by the leaders of the ill-fated Brigade 2506. Our tour guides explanation covered everything that I had read with little variation from the book. It is not very often that I have encountered two sides of history that match in content.
We checked into the Hotel Jagua which was originally a Hilton Hotel completed 1959. Timing is everything. That year, Batista was overthrown, the planned adjoining casino never got built, and Conrad Hilton moved on. That evening we had a wonderful suckling pig roast dinner in the garden of Hotel Las Laureles (with more live music). Note: if you are vegan you may want to pack some essentials along. Roast pig will generally top the menu along with beef, followed by chicken along with salad, vegetables, rice and beans, and a large dessert selection that usually includes flan and fresh fruit. Seafood, particularly local lobster, was also plentiful everywhere we went.
On Thursday we toured the city center of Cienfuegos and a cigar factory. It was interesting to see how the cigars are made, but I still lack the interest to fire up one of those Lincoln logs. We then departed out to the oldest city of Cuba, Trinidad. The drive out was through farm country, and we saw banana plantations, mango groves, and sugar cane and corn fields, as well as a surprising number of rice paddies and a shrimp farm along the coast. We also saw one of the island?s eight large solar arrays - with the price of fuel it is not surprising. Trinidad is preserved in time with cobblestone streets and beautiful old mansions. While enjoying yet another bountiful buffet lunch at a private restaurant, we had a great view of the large Catholic cathedral, a former convent, and the Caribbean Sea beyond.
Our 1-1/2 hour flight back was the way we like it, uneventful. Jim had already called Customs for all of us. Clearing customs in KTMB is the way to go. Not a big ramp, but in and out in record time. Just make sure that you have all your paperwork!
All in all, some great flights and a very enjoyable and interesting trip.