I have waited a full week since coming home before broaching this topic. I was going to write an Insider page, but for the life of me cannot figure out how (and I feel pretty computer literate). Anyway, before slagging me over this topic, please read my WHOLE post. I am not trying to scare potential tourists, nor am I saying you should not have a good time, but I do want people to be aware of a few things I saw that concerned me.
It is obvious that when in Cuba we are faced with a totally different set of safety guidelines than in other countries. The operational safety of automobiles (are they inspected, do they meet a certain requirement such as brake inspections? etc...). When I was there as an ex-mechanic I had to wonder at the age of some of the vehicles that were on the roads, and part of that wonder was, is it safe for tourists, (and Cubans for that matter) that a vehicle starts, and can be put into gear? Does anyone ensure they can brake, that lights work etc. This was one of my first safety concerns. The coaches and taxis for the most part, and rental cars for sure, seem newer and well kept up, but the age of some of the other vehicles (including the Cuban worker's buses), makes me wonder if a steering gear problem or brake failure won't result in a collision one of these days.
Worse than the vehicle safety, is the safety guidelines for maritime vessels. I was on the Paradise Island tour. That meant an 80 foot Catamaran trip into fairly open waters (well off shore by a km or more). There were not enough life jackets for all the crew and passengers, not by half. Further more there was not a single 'self'-inflating lifeboat. For a craft that size in most of our home countries much more stringent laws prevail.
The Paradise Island tour is on such a tight schedule in the AM, that they cannot afford to "sail" the catamaran, but must use the diesel engines to get to the island on time. On the day we went, there had been a goodly size storm go through the night before, and honestly I expected to be told that the trip was off. While the ride was not terribly uncomfortable (My wife had taken her gravol) there were 2 - 3 foot swells (see my pictures especially the ones of the small two man fishing boats bobbing like corks off the sides of the cat).
As we approached the island I saw nothing but white water crashing ashore. They postponed the snorkeling because it was too rough, hoping to make it up in the afternoon. Then came a very remarkable act of seamanship. The captain of the ship, put her aground between a rock outcrop on the port (left side) and a coral reef to starboard (right). There was only maybe a few yards leeway on either side.
He ran the ship up onto the sand, threw a line to the shore "life guard" and dropped the ladder. Frankly I was stunned we were expected to exit the ship this way. The ladder went down between the two hulls, and barely touched the sand. However with the huge swells, it was nothing short of dangerous to leave the vessel. In hindsight perhaps I should have spoken my mind as an ex-sailor. One minute the bottom of the ladder was above clear sand, the next water was chest deep surging backwards. People having had more than a few drinks already, were now having to try and time an exit (all the time the captain and crew pushing for us to hurry because the ship was likely to be pushed onto the obstructions on one side or another). More than one person lost their footing going ashore, thankfully no one was hurt or dragged back to the end of the ship where the propellers were still churning trying to keep her ashore.
Later I was told by one of the tour guides who came ashore with us, that only 1 in 10 of the captains who make that run would have attempted and made that beaching. She meant it as a good, brave thing, but in my own mind, it showed a lack of concern. Had there been children (the youngest were a couple of youngish teens) or people in worse shape than me, they likely would not have been able to go ashore.
People were given time to 'explore' before lunch was served (us being nearly an hour early because of the no snorkel stop). No one warned about staying out of the surf. As a matter of fact people were soon up and down the beach, most sunbathing but some wading in the water, one (a very strong swimmer) actually dove in and swam for a while. I was stupid and made a personal mistake, I take 100% credit for it, by wading thigh deep, and then having one of the larger waves crash over my head, suck me under and roll me around in the sand and shells like a rag doll. I got out, but not 20 minutes later a woman underwent the same experience (even after a warning from Rose).
The decided it was too dangerous to try to beach the cat a second time to load us, so the ship was going to go round the island to a real port (protected dock), and we would be ferried by jeep there. However, because each jeep could only take 6 people, and we had 38 people needing to go, they asked for people to try to run out to the ship and board with the help of the crew before leaving to go round the island. Timing an outgoing surf, running and throwing themselves into the hands of crew on the aft ladders (where you would swim from) more than a two dozen of the youngest people went on board, leaving 3 jeep loads to be ferried overland.
The ship left, and the jeeps were loaded, but a miscalculation had one too many passengers, so the tour guide rode the entire way standing holding onto the "roll bar". Had the jeeps rolled people would have been badly hurt, some seat-belts were inoperative, and people were sitting facing each other on the rear 'cargo' area of the jeep. The trip was 4 wheel drive in many areas, meaning little or no road, and very steep muddy areas.
We had a great time. Even with my stupid mishap, it was a very good time (as my pictures would generally indicate). The fact remains, there was no warning about people in poor health, or children etc... not to go on this excursion. And having one person (albeit a tour guide, Cuban) stand for an hour in a bouncing jeep...well safety standards be damned.
I am not trying to scare anyone, I reiterate, this was to be a INSIDE PAGE sort of thing, but I decided to post after a lot of thought. If people (as we often do) assume safety standards are the same as at home, where we have warning labels on cups of coffee telling us they are hot... well you are wrong to assume any such thing in Cuba. The lack of life jackets and life boat on the ship, and the concern about vehicle safety had me thinking about just how safe are things off the resort generally?
I now await people to slag me for promoting fear and such. It was not meant to be like that. I hope at the very least to provoke people to ask questions of the Tour Reps before parting with money for the excursions. And I urge them to use calm and reasonable judgement in evaluating risk / reward in the type of trip they take.