The alarm sounded at 5am and my taxi was already waiting downstairs. Not a vintage American auto, unfortunately, but a comfortable Toyota Corolla to take me to the airport. We had negotiated a cost of $12 for the ride.
The driver dropped me off at the domestic terminal and I proceeded in, ready for an adventure.
Some background. Cubana is the flag carrier of Cuba and still maintains a fleet of predominantly Russian aircraft. Though Cubana has acquired a handful of Airbus single-aisle planes and has retired most of its “ancient” fleet, it was still running AntonovAn-24s (think of a Soviet regional jet from the 1960s) between Havana and Nueva Gerona, a tiny island off Cuba’s southern coast.
I had tried for several days to book tickets online at Cubana’s website, but the flight had been sold out. I had even asked my travel agent contact in Cuba to book it, but he also was unable to.
So I went to the airport, essentially to play the standby game and hope that many holding confirmed tickets would not show up. Arriving at 5:30a to the airport was far too early…I was not the first one waiting for the ticket office to open, but I ended up waiting around more than 90 minutes before someone arrived.
The domestic terminal had no amenities and was in a state of disrepair. I had all my things with me – just a large duffel bag – so at least I had my laptop and a book to pass the time.
Final a portly woman with small rectangular spectacles arrived and opened the office door. Immediately a queue formed outside the door – I was not the only one trying to get a seat on this flight.
It was too early to release seats and everyone was shooed out and told to wait. With a 9am departure, check-in cutoff was not for another 90 minutes. There was one goober who would proceed into the office every five minutes to check if it was time, but eventually even he cooled off and took a seat.
Check-in cutoff finally arrived and there were seats available for everyone! I waited my turn to enter the office, where the woman sat behind her desk with an 1990s-era computer that was switched off. As each person paid in cash, she handwrote their ticket in a classic carbon paper ticket book. When it came time for me to pay, however, she took my American passport, muttered something, then turned on her computer and issued me an electronic ticket. I was bummed that I did not get the paper ticket, which would have been a great souvenir.
I tried to buy a return ticket, for the plane would turn around and fly back to Havana, but that flight was sold out as well and the ticketing agent advised me that I would have to check in Nueva Gerona for available space (though I think she did not understand that I did not want to leave the airport and my Spanish was not good enough to make it clear). Considering that I was flying out that evening from Havana and there was only flight per day, I knew I was taking quite a risk, but was willing to in order to fly the An-24.
The flight was $86 and my confirmation did specify the An-24 as the operating aircraft. I walked to the check-in counter where a handwritten paper boarding pass was prepared for me. I was assigned seat 11B.
Airport security was a joke, though still present. Everything stayed in my bag and no seemed to care as my belt set off the metal detector. Past security was a small departures area featuring a seating area, snack bar, smoking room, and restrooms. A pay phone outside the smoking room was always in use by one passenger or another in a land in which cell phone use remain heavily restricted.
The windows were frosted so I could not look out and see my aircraft. Boarding was called 15 minutes late and a door opened and with stairs leading to the tarmac. Boarding passes were checked on the way down. Then came the disappointment.
Instead of a Cubana An-24 greeting me on the tarmac was a AeroCarribean ATR-42. I asked a man nearby wearing a necktie and safety vest where the An-24 was and he said, “Today she broken.”
So I told him I did not want to take the flight and would like to proceed back. He had no idea what I was talking about, laughed a bit, than turned me around while pointing toward the plane. I told him again I did not want to travel, but he said it was too late and I had to board the plane.
Great, there was almost $200 down the drain for a stupid ATR-42 and I had given up the opportunity to visit the Museum of the Revolution too.
A Cubana-uniformed FA greeted me warmly as I stepped onto the plane and I found my seat just on the left (the ATR-42 boards from the back of the aircraft, just as the An-24 would have).
Copies of La Granma, the communist party daily newspaper, were distributed prior to takeoff. Announcements were made in Spanish only.
Once airborne, a beverage service commenced with a choice of water, coffee, or Coca-Cola. A piece of hard candy was also given to each paper on a hand-stamped Cubana napkin.
We landed in Nueva Gerona and upon disembarkation, everyone was herded into a baggage claim room with chains around the locked exit door. A tray of thermometers was brought out by an official and everyone was instructed to take one.
My Spanish was not good enough to comprehend the directions: check your temperature by placing the thermometer in your armpit. I placed the thermometer in my mouth only to have a shocked airport staff member pull it out of my mouth and place it under my arm. I did not have a temperature above normal nor did I get one after placing the thermometer in my mouth!
The door was unlocked and I bolted out the exit and into the check-in lobby on the other side. The agent spoke very little English, so we used my pathetic Spanish. She was confused that I wanted to fly directly back, especially with boarding 20 minutes away.
Finally she understood and hand wrote a paper ticket for me, asking for $86 USD. I only had about $20 and the rest in Euros, which confused her greatly. She had no idea what the exchange rate was, did not trust my 1.4 conversation rate, so I ended up paying her $20 and 66EUR, to make the $86. Wish I had brought Colombian Pesos instead! She was exceedingly kind and I cannot begrudge her for me not having sufficient dollars.
She did not give me the carbon ticket book – she kept it for herself and just gave me the boarding pass, directing me to security. And here the problem arose.
Apparently on the flight out to Nueva Gerona was a government security official who had noticed that I was flying immediately back to Havana. As I tried to go through security to the single boarding gate, I was instead directed to him where he pulled me aside and asked to see my passport.
He saw I was traveling with a U.S. passport full of stamps from exotic lands and the real fun began.
“Do you work for the American government?” he asked in decent English.
I said no, but he was clearly not convinced.
To Be Continued.
Read more of my Cuba trip report:
Planning a Trip to Cuba
Los Angeles to Havana in TACA Economy Class
Visa Requirements for Visiting Cuba
Day One in Cuba: A Tour of Havana
Day One in Cuba: An Evening Surprise
Day Two in Cuba: Accused of Being An American Spy!
Day Two in Cuba: Escorted Flying
Day Two in Cuba: The Juxtaposition of Two Cubans
Havana to Los Angeles in TACA Economy Class
10 Tips for Visiting Cuba
Why You Should Visit Cuba Now