Adventures to have and places to see

COVID & Travelling in Dec 2020

We had a lot of questions and concerns about travelling to Cayo Coco in late November. For the most part, we found the answers on Tripadvisor and the Facebook group PullmanCayoCocoLovers. Here’s a somewhat lengthy summary of how the trip went with COVID 19 in mind. We are posting the short version first, and the details after that. This explains our experience of staying at Cayo Coco in December 2020. The rules for travelling seem to be changing weekly, so be sure of what the requirements are well before you go.

Summary/Cheat Sheet

  • Print your all of travel insurance policies (most airlines are offering free COVID Insurance) and have them close by just in case you are asked for them when entering Cuba (or need to use them!). Make a copy of your passport and credit card numbers.
  • Print your Travel Voucher or something that says what hotel you have booked and when. You may need this when departing from Canada.
  • Make sure any Credit Cards you want to use in Cuba are not affiliated with American banks. Preload your Credit Cards with a positive balance so you are not charged a nasty interest rate from the moment you use the card in Cuba. You may want to call your Credit Card company and tell them where you will be using the card.
  • Register your return date to Canada at ArriveCan. If you don’t you will have to make an annoying phone call every day for 14 days and suffer many threatening statements over the phone! Print out the number you get after pre-registering your return. You will need them when returning to Canada.
  • Expect to wear your mask while at the airport, on the plane, taking transportation and while waiting for your test results at the resort.
  • Realize you will have to completely self-isolate for 14 days and report daily when you return to Canada. Read about it here.
  • Tips are best paid in American dollars since coins are not accepted. Bring a bunch of 1’s, 5’s and no bills bigger than 20’s. You cannot exchange money into other currencies at the resort (except for Cuban pesos). Remember that the CUC is definitely going to be gone soon (for real this time!- we only saw one CUC at the resort). If for some reason you still have CUC’s, get rid of them now.
  • Take care not to lose the little baggage tags you get with your luggage. You need these when leaving the Cuban airport after arrival.
  • Keep your Tourist card in your safe at the resort. Don’t carry that around. You need it when leaving Cuba.
  • Make sure you have that ArriveCAN number/print-out when you return to Canada.
  • Quarantine and report daily for 14 days when you return.
  • 1-888-336-7735 is a legitimate phone number that the government will use to track and call you. Your cell phone will probably display it as PC Assistance Professional, which reaks of many phone scams and your first reaction will be to block it.
  • Departing Canada
  • When we went to Cuba, COVID numbers were rising in Ontario during the second wave. We had booked our trip before this happened. Based on that, we decided to spend as little time in Toronto as possible, so we booked indoor parking at Terminal 1 at https://reservations.torontopearson.com/TorontoBooking/. From there you can just walk into the airport- no need for any social contact/shuttles or taxis. It cost $157 for 7 days, which was pretty reasonable with free cancellation. After booking you get an email with a barcode that can be scanned at the attendant-free gates. You can print it out (which we always do just in case) or use your cell phone. Our flight was at 8:30 am, so accounting for 2 hours of check-in and 2.5 hours of driving to the airport time we were on the road at 3 am. We took a picture of our parking spot location! Each level is colour coded and columns are identified by letter and number.

Departing Canada

Getting into Terminal 1 was fairly easy. We donned our masks and found our way using the signs. There was a guard at the entrance and hand sanitizer to use. From there we were surprised to see that the terminal was busy. We had heard some reports that it was like a ghost town in there- no so! There were a lot more people than expected, and some clearly didn’t get the concept of social distancing. That was disappointing to see right off the start.

We found our way to our Air Canada gate, and that seemed to be quite a mass of confusion. The boarding pass process boasts to be automated and touch-free, but it didn’t seem to be that way. The Kiosks you go to to get your boarding pass are confusing. I don’t know why but they are. It seems the way you scan your passport is inaccurately shown on the screen. One clearly frustrated lady came up to us asking how to do it. She said she asked an attendant and they said it was self-service. It took a couple of tries, but we finally figured out how to insert the passport and got our boarding pass and baggage tags. We looked for the lady, but she had gone off in frustration and stood in a line of what looked like at least 100 people. They all looked frustrated and axnious too. Social distancing was not good.

With our boarding passes, we got circumvent that line. We showed them to an attendant there, and she promptly said ‘Where is your proof of destination?’

I showed her the boarding pass.

‘That’s not proof,” she announced.

What-the-F? That seemed like proof enough to us!

Apparently, there is a travel voucher that you needed to print before getting to the airport. Nothing I read from the booking site said we needed that. I had printed all of our insurance and itinerary but nothing actually said what resort we were going to. In the end, I found it in an email on my phone. How the hell could we have got a boarding pass without a valid booking?

Anyway, after 10 minutes of frustration, we got our hands sprayed with some sanitizer and got to go to the automated baggage weighing station and scanned them in.

For carry-on’s, we brought two standard luggage bags and each had a personal bag. Keep that in mind- a personal item is not limited to a purse. Our camera equipment bag was my personal item.

After that, we headed to our gate. At that point, things became more organized. Before we got to the gate we had to get through security. They have pretty advanced equipment to scan your bags for stuff that shouldn’t be in there. You don’t have to open everything up, but you do have to remove personal metal and electronic devices.

After that, there was a temperature scan where you stood 12 feet away from some camera-like device. Maybe it measured your entire body temperature instead of just your forehead?

We were pleased to see that there were food services open near the gate. We paid a whopping $26 for two sandwiches in plastic sleeves. That high price seems to be the norm at the airport- they got ya, so you are gonna pay.

The waiting area had alternating seats closed off for social distancing which was good, but the pattern they chose seemed a bit odd though. Boarding the plane was done by Zones (sections of the plane) and seemed to make some sense.

Flying to Cuba

The flight was pretty good. Passengers and attendants wore their masks and took that seriously. Each passenger received a little sealed plastic bag containing a bottle of water, biscuits, earphones and sanitizer. I was surprised that they offered beverage service on the flight, where you could get a pop, coffee etc… Obviously, you can’t wear your mask when doing that. Other than eating or drinking mask use is expected.

It was strange that by the end of the flight more people were coughing and sniffing. At first, we were wondering how did these people ever get on the plane? Then we realized everyone had just worn their masks steadily for at least 5 hours (2 in the airport and 3.5 during the flight). No wonder everyone was getting stuffy and coughing more. So if you experience that, just relax and think about it.

During the flight, you fill out your tourist cards and the customs form. Both forms are easy to fill out. Just remember that unless you are bringing in controlled substances, firearms or more than $5000, the majority of the customs form can be left blank. There was also a COVID form which collected your information and questioned if you had symptoms.

Cuban Airport

There were two flights to the airport that day. One from Canada and one from Russia. The Russian flight landed before us and were already going through customs. We were asked to wait on the plane for a few minutes while the last of the travellers made it out of the airport. At that moment it became really apparent to me that Cuba was taking COVID very seriously. I had read lots of things online, but making sure that different flights didn’t intermingle was a sure sign they wanted control over visitor exposure. It might have been a 10-minute wait.

You wear masks at all times at Jardines del Rey Airport. At the base of the stairs leading to the tarmac was a Cuban cleaning crew. They were in full Anti-Contamination gear and armed with a plethora of disinfecting supplies. It was impressive.

Before you can enter the airport they have an aisle setup with social distancing markers that people actually used! First, you are given a temperature scan, then motioned toward a wall of hand sanitizers. From there another temperature scan took place and you hand your COVID form to an attendant who verifies the information. You then take the form and sit in a cubicle to have your nose and throat swabs done. Neither was painful or uncomfortable. The person taking the sample was courteous and respectful. They take the samples and store them for processing. Within 24 hours you get a notification at the resort about your results. It took longer than that in our case, mostly because two planes arrived near the same time.

From there it is customs as usual. You have your photo taken and they check your passport/tourist card. After that, you go through the door and enter the security area. This is pretty much like Canada. I believe they may have upgraded some x-ray equipment so you don’t have to open up your carry-ons.

The baggage area is the same as usual with a conveyor belt and a dog that runs around sniffing luggage for contraband. It’s funny- we recognized the same happy dog from previous visits to Cuba. I believe your luggage gets a disinfectant spray before it hits the conveyor, but of course, we couldn’t see that happen.

Once you get your bags, you have your luggage tag checked and hand the attendant your declaration form and get a final temperature check. There is also a disinfectant pad on the floor for your shoes. After that, you go out the door and you are in Cuba!

Getting to the Resort
Everything is pretty much like normal at this point, except that need to wear your mask. Be respectful, wear your mask. You will see all the Cuban people wearing theirs. On the bus, you are also expected to wear your mask. I was really disappointed to see a couple of Canadians feeling that they didn’t need to wear it and spitty talking all over the bus. Sad really that some people just don’t get it.

At the Resort

Cuba is doing some big upgrades to its Internet infrastructure. It is taking Credit Cards for real now and prefer that for large transactions. Remember to bring American funds for tips before you travel. If your transaction doesn’t go through the first time, wait a bit and try again. The Internet is much better, but nothing like you are used to at home.

At the resort, you will step on a foot sanitizer and have your hands disinfected. There will also be a final temperature reading taken. You will be expected to wear your mask and observe standard social distancing rules (similar to Canada) until you get your COVID test results within 24 hours. You may not get them in writing, but your Travel Rep will receive the results. Usually, you will get these at your orientation meeting the next day.

Once you are clear, you no longer need to wear the mask. Generally, people still maintain social distancing even after they got their results.

Leaving Cuba

You may have received a paper with your COVID results while at the resort. Have this handy at the Cuban airport. If you didn’t get one, check with your Travel Rep at the resort. Sometimes you don’t get the paper, and they will notify the airport that you have been cleared. When you arrive at the airport, you will wear your mask and go through a temperature scan and disinfect your hands and shoe soles. Going through customs is pretty much the same as arriving. Remember this is when they take back that Tourist Card. I believe there was one final hand sanitizing and temperature scan before getting on the plane.

Returning to Canada

The flight protocol is the same when flew to Cuba. There is a customs form to fill out and a COVID form for each passenger. Oddly, that Customs Form outlines what you are allowed to bring into Canada without declaring. So if you are within the guidelines, there should no need to make a declaration. That said if you don’t fill in the amount of money each traveller spent in Cuba the form will be rejected by the form reader. It makes no sense to me.

The flight attendant might make an announcement on the plane that you should submit an ArriveCan report before you enter the airport. That’s pretty hard to do when in Airplane mode on your phone. I guess you could do it after landing before you get to the arrivals area? Ideally, you did this before you left Canada. I believe all this was implemented while we were in Cuba, so quite a few people were confused about what the brief announcement was on the plane. Nothing was posted on the Rep Board board at the resort. Hopefully, now the Rep tells people the importance of registering before they get to Canada and posts it at the resort. When you land expect to get a rather unfriendly notice on your phone from the Canadian Government about the need to quarantine and all the legal ramifications if you don’t. Don’t expect anything to say ‘Welcome to Canada’ but instead, expect to be treated like you have committed some sort of crime by travelling.

If you didn’t preregister with ArriveCan, you will have to fill out a paper form. Expect to be notified with a ‘NOTICE OF NON-COMPLIANCE You are therefore non-compliant with the Mandatory Isolation order‘ notice form that talks about fines and ramifications etc! There were two portable tables there, with stacks of papers you had to find yourself. There were some pens to be shared by travellers and NO hand sanitizer anywhere to be seen. Social distancing at the tables wasn’t possible either. You have to remember that this is a general arrival area- it isn’t just your flight that is using those pens!

In my opinion, customs is an absolute mess at the airport. All flights funnel into the same room where seemed to be hundreds of people. There is poor social distancing and everyone touches and uses the same passport/declaration automated scanners. I didn’t see disinfectant readily available. There should have been disinfectant at every machine, or an attendant wiping it down before you used it. It was shocking.

The baggage pick up area was better, but once again all flights get their baggage from the same huge room. There were flights from the United States there and various other countries. All of us go out the same exit door in random order.

If you parked at the airport and prepaid, just go to your car and scan the barcode on your print-out/cell phone as you go through the exit gate.

So now we are home and have to call into an automated system every day for 14 days. We each to listen to the same lengthy, somewhat threatening wordage before proceeding to the daily status report of whether we have a cough, fever or shortness of breath. It takes 3 to 6 minutes to get through it. Oddly you press 1 if you have a positive result or 2 if not. You can’t change it if you hit the wrong button. You think you would make it a 1 and 9 so you couldn’t possibly hit the wrong button by accident. I had a finger slip and pressed the wrong button one day. I hung-up and re-entered the report. I wonder what repercussions that might have…

Quarantine

Here’s an interesting scenario we encountered 3 days after starting quarantine:

My phone rings at at around 8:00am, caller ID says Quebec. I answer it, and it immediately hangs up. ‘Crap’ I say to myself, another round of telemarketing/scams is bound to hit my phone this week.
Later that day a call comes in, ID PC Assistance Professional. I remember the Quebec call earlier that day and block the number. Obviously the scams have begun.
Later that day my wife’s phone gets a call asking for me by name. She notices it says PC Assistance Professional
The conversation goes like this:
Me: “Hello?”

Phone: “This is the Government of Canada calling about your recent trip.”

Me: “What proof do you have that this is the Government?”

Phone: “This is the Government of Canada.”

Me: “This doesn’t sound like the Government of Canada to me. They wouldn’t contact me this way. You have alternative contact information you could use.”

Me: “I am ending the call.”

Phone: “OK”

Later in the day, I get some voice mails from the Government of Canada, saying they are trying to contact me. This follows the typical protocols I would expect a government agency to follow. The odd thing is that they say I must answer the next phone call from them, but there is no phone number that I can use to contact them? Calling back 1-888-336-7735 does report it is a quarantine number.
Finally, I received another call from PC Assistance Professional, and the person addresses who they are properly. They verify I am at my residence and not in contact with other people. I made a point of explaining that the ID displayed on the phone appears as a phone scam. The caller indicated almost no one was answering their calls. Go figure…