Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Nicaragua

The flag of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Everybody knows I am in love with anything Latin America. But those who have the privilege of talking to me, quickly find out I have an obsession for Nicaragua. I have been there 3 times, and I hope to visit Nicaragua again soon. Yes, it is my favourite country in Central America, so much so that when people contact me to ask about other countries such as Costa Rica or Panama, I end up suggesting visiting Nicaragua instead.

What makes it so special to me? It simply is an amazing country, that has so much to offer to travellers. Beautiful colonial cities

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua

A turbulent yet fascinating history

Leon, Nicaragua

Museo de la Revolucion, Leon

Incredible nature and wildlife.

Las Isletas, one of the places to visit in Nicaragua

Panchito lives on La Isla de los Monos, at Las Isletas: one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Lakes and volcanoes.

Masaya, one of the tourist attractions in Nicaragua

Volcanoes are among the tourist attractions in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Amazing beaches.

Poneloya, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Poneloya is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Kind and warm people.

Nicaragua

La cara de Nicaragua, the face of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

And, something that backpackers should never underestimate, this beautiful country is still unspoilt by mass tourism (but hurry! This will change, it is such an incredible place), it is very safe to travel even for solo female travellers, and it actually is the cheapest country in the continent: my dollars could get me a long way here.

Not convinced yet? Perhaps these amazing sunsets will do the trick and prove it is time to plan a trip to Nicaragua.

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to travel to Nicaragua

Granada and Las Isletas:

Anybody visiting the country will take a side in the local argument over which city is better, Leon or Granada? Many will say colonial Granada, is the prettiest one among Nicaragua attractions. I must admit my heart beats for Leon, but the most touristic destination in the country (which for some reason reminds me of Trinidad, in Cuba) is indeed picture perfect, and the waterfront of Lake Granada or a boat ride across Las Isletas offer fantastic opportunities to photography lovers. Snapping a good picture is one of the things to do in Nicaragua.

Las Isletas, one of Nicaragua attractions

Nicaragua tours can’t skip a stop at Las Isletas

Mombacho, Nicaragua

Volcano Mombacho – view from Las Isletas

Poneloya and Las Peñitas

A half hour ride on a chicken bus from Sutiava, Leon, these two Nicaragua beaches are more than a surfer’s paradise. Lay in the sun, challenge the waves, go for a walk, enjoy a cold beer and by all means, do not miss the amazing Pacific sunset.

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua beaches

Catching the waves at Las Peñitas, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua

Las Peñitas

Volcan Cerro Negro

About one hour drive from Leon, Cerro Negro is a great, short and windy hike. I could practice volcano boarding here and get covered in sand. And, let’s not forget that the view from the top is simply stunning. I absolutely did not want to miss a volcano on my Nicaragua vacation.

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua vacation

It’s not a Nicaragua vacation if it doesn’t feature a volcano: view from top of Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

Storm in the distance – sunset from Cerro Negro

Isla de Ometepe

Located in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is an 8 shaped island which, despite the presence of two active volcanoes, is peaceful, remote, and offers great hikes, wildlife and spectacular views. Among Nicaragua attractions, it may well be my favourite.

Volcano Madera, Isla de Ometepe

That’s one smokey volcano!

Corn Islands Nicaragua

Whether I feel like relaxing under the Caribbean sun, snorkelling in the clear waters, diving or just want to walk around to explore the island, Isla de Maiz won’t disappoint me. And here, I can be treated to a beautiful, almost stereotypical sunset.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island – courtesy of Nomad Kiwis

Care to know about more things to do in Nicaragua? Stay tuned for more posts!

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.

Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)

I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!

Another church - as many others, destroyed by an earthquake

Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake

I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).

After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).

Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.

That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.

The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.

Dancing the night away in Cartagena (Colombia)

I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.

Cartagena, Colombia

Tiny streets of Getsemani

Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.

As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.

Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.

What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.

Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)

I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.

By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.

The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?

A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway

The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!

What’s your worst hostel experience to date?

Click here for more of my misadventures.

I love shopping in Cuba

I love shopping in Cuba

Mine is an adaptation from the title of Sophie Kinsella’s famous series “I love shopping”. In fact, it is meant ironically. There is no such thing as crazy shopping in Cuba, unless by “crazy” one means literally going crazy in order to find needed things. It is not even a matter of not having enough money to buy what you need and want: it is a matter of having the money but not finding it!

Before leaving, whilst packing my bag, I thought of carrying two pairs of flip flops. After all, one never knows when those rubber things may break and another pair may be needed. My sister, who travelled with me, said it would just be unnecessary weight. If my flip flops broke, I could surely buy another pair in Cuba and that was it. Or not. I swear I hardly saw shops selling flip flops in the entire island.

We realised on our first day in Havana that shops were different, to say the least. All merchandise is kept behind counters, and whatever you may want to see, you’d have to ask the person at the counter to show you. Not to mention that there normally is a line outside, with a guard letting people in and out and not allowing more than a certain amount inside. Shops are not very inviting. You won’t feel like going in, have a look around, try on stuff, and buy. Merchandise is hardly exposed in a nice way (it is all wrapped). The same applies to grocery shops – most of all for things such as soaps, shampoos etc. Whatever you need, you have to ask for.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 02

Shopping in Cuba is a hard business

The other problem we had was that there are no real supermarkets, those where you may get lost and where you may be able to find anything you need – from fresh fruit and milk, to meat, cheese, bread, soap, detergents and what not. Cuba knows only shops, some smaller, some bigger, but in none of them you will be able to do all your shopping. A shop that sells bottles may only have soda, beer and rum. If you want water, you will have to go to the one next door. Fruits and vegetables are only sold by small carts in the streets or in the mercado agropecuario. Same with meet – there are small carnicerias, you can see them every now and then, but it seems like there is no meat there. I have not seen a fishmonger in the entire island, which is interesting since we mostly ate seafood. And even if you can find what you need – pasta, rice, or even toilet paper, there is only one kind of it. We noticed that it was a bit ironic to call “Cierro Montegro” la primera agua de Cuba, since it also is the only one. And the same goes for beer, sodas, etc.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 03

Tienda

I guess that for anybody who is not used to the Cuban system it will take a while to shop for daily needs. When we wanted yogurt, the landlady at our casa particular was so kind to spend an entire day looking for it in Trinidad. When we needed toothpaste, we had to ask her, as we were unable to find a shop that would sell it.

Another thing we noticed is that there are some shops which seem to sell second hand clothes. We eventually realised this was the case. These are called tiendas particulares (private shops) and I suppose owners get their stuff one way or another (I am pretty certain that the clothes I gave away here and there ended up in some of these shops!) and then sell it. But you know, in an island that does not really know free commerce, people have to make do with whatever they have. Cubans hardly make a distinction between female and male clothing. If it fits, they will wear it. So you will see super-cool guys wearing a blue-girl t-shirt tight as a second skin. And you bet they will fix and keep fixing clothes. Nothing goes wasted.

The good thing about having so little choice when shopping is that you will not be wasting time wondering which cereals to buy, which t-shirt you want, and what not. You will have more time to spend with friends, relatives, talking and living life, you will be less consumed by the want for things, since you will hardly be able to get them anyways. At least that is how we – westerners coming from countries with a free market – felt. I suppose it was refreshing to us, but it may be tiring for Cubans who have to live a constant battle to get what they need.

The other side of the coin is that there is a huge black market, where people sell and buy just about anything and they hardly declare whatever money they make to the competent authorities. Casas particulares have to register whoever sleeps at the house, and the number of nights. So they have to pay taxes on that. But they do not register whatever meals you may be having there, and hardly any of the owners give customers a receipt when they leave. Some of them don’t say anything when they “forget” to give you receipts. Some others openly admit that this way they can round up a bit extra CUCs. And the rush to get CUCs from tourists can be seen in many other ways. Drivers will “accidentally” stop for breaks right outside their friends homes, who will rush out to offer drinks, food, sweets, bananas and what not. Surely they will get a percentage of the profits. Same with tourist guides. All drivers and all landlords know tourist guides. None of them will show you any accreditation, and you will have to negotiate the price, and you can bet you will again accidentally run into them on the way to a site and will end up hiring them.

The need for CUC is so desperate that even in state owned shops sales assistant will refuse to give you receipts. This is an account of what happened to us at the airport in Havana. A lady in front of us at the counter had the brilliant idea of paying her rum in Euro. But instead of making a conversion, and paying the exact amount she owed (say it was 20 CUC, so it would have to be 15 Euro), the cashier made the conversion 1 CUC = 1 Euro. She did not give any change, and she kept the rest. My sister asked for a receipt, as she claimed that she might be needing it when cathing our connecting flight in Paris airport. She then went back to the same shop to buy more, and again demanded a receipt. However, she had to argue with the sales assistant who did not want to provide it, claiming “she had already given one before.”

For as much as I appreciate the revolution, I wonder how it is possible, in 2013, to live in a country where there hardly is any free commerce. The poverty we saw, the rush to get the precious CUC in any possible “legal” way leads me to think that socialism, for as good an ideal it was, is hardly applicable to real life.

What is yet more interesting is that the myth of Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the revolution, one of the strongest critics of capitalism, is possibly the main source of money in Cuba. Any goods you may buy speak of him: t-shirts show his pictures, the same goes with paintings, postcards, hats. Bookshops mostly sell photography books of Che Guevara, or his biographies, his diaries, etc. Factories exploit his name by publicizing the fact that they were opened up by him.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 04

Che Comandante Amigo…

Having read a lot of Che Guevara life, thoughts and ideologies, I can’t help but wonder if he would like the island today, if this is what he fought so hard for, if he would be proud to see that his face is on any painting, t-shirt and good tourists can buy, and he – the very critic of capitalism – is indeed the only capitalistic good in Cuba.

Want to find out more about this amazing country? Read here.

Casa particular vs. hotel? Budget accommodation in Cuba

Casa particular vs. hotel? Budget accommodation in Cuba

Casa particular vs. hotel?

This is a no brainer. Really! Are you planning your Cuba travels? Then staying in a hotel should not even be in your plans, as it hardly makes any sense when you have such a huge choice of casas particulares.

The most expensive casa particular will cost you 30 CUC for a double bedroom with private bathroom. Cheapest ones are around 15 CUC. Casas which rent room to foreigners are generally in the city centre, or immediately outside. They are very clean, and rooms are generally spacious. If you are lucky you will be staying in a colonial house, with rooms facing the patio and antique forniture. Rooms are usually cool, and you will hardly have to put the air conditioning on (which is usually available). When staying in a casa, you will be given keys to the main entrance. You will be able to go in and out as many times as you want during the day. Rooms are not normally cleaned while you are staying at the casa, unless you specifically ask for it. I guess, this is because most of the times owners do not have a spare set of keys. Casas are safe – I have heard only one account of a girl who had her stuff stolen, but when she faced the landlady, all her stuff was returned.

Breakfast is usually not included in the price, but for as little as 3 CUC you will have a full (and I mean FULL!!) breakfast, with fruit, eggs, toasts and bread, coffee, jam, butter, juice and what not. You can also have dinner at the casa particular, and I would highly recommend it. It is homemade food freshly made to order (as opposed to state owned restaurants where food is previously made and then warmed up) very tasty and one portion can easily feed 2. And if you go for the most expensive main course (lobster) you will pay no more than 8 CUC. Owners of casas are usually very informed people, they know drivers who can take you around, they can provide information on tours, timetables of museums, etc. And, what is actually nicer, you can sit down and talk to them, learn a bit about life and culture in Cuba, practice your Spanish, share your stories and experience.

The worst that can happen to you when staying at a casa particular is that you won’t find the room you booked. Casas can rent two, maximum 3 rooms at the same time. People who travel around in Cuba take it really easy, and may suddenly decide to stay in a place longer than planned. Whoever gets to a casa particular first, gets in first, or so it seems. It has sometimes happened to us that despite having booked in advance, when we got to the casa particular we found that it was fully booked and the owner wanted to move us to the casa of a neighbour, friend or relative. It is up to you if you want to accept to stay there or not. Owners will usually insist a lot and this will put you at a test if you are not super-patient – I don’t enjoy this kind of pressure, for example. But at the end of the day, the choice is yours, you are the one paying, and you should be free to decide where to stay and, if you do not like the other option offered, go to a different casa. Beware that Trinidad and Vinales are more touristy than other places and it may take you longer to find a casa by knocking from door to door. But if you have time, this is not a problem.

Hotels in Cuba are hardly worth the price. They are generally state owned, which means that nobody cares about making profits and keeping the reputation high. Just because you are staying at a hotel, and paying 4 times what you’d pay for a similar room in a casa, it does not mean you are getting a better service. They may have a pool, but this is usually nothing special, and the services offered are usually no more no less than what you can get at a good casa particular.

My policy is usually that of going for the cheapest option, and I hardly ever regret it. After all, if I am travelling around I hardly need any of the commodities of a hotel – I am ok as long as I have a clean, decent and safe room, and this is usually the case with casas particulares.

Get a taste of the real Cuba: for more information, click here.

Scams in Cuba

Scams in Cuba

The sheer weirdness of Cuban hospitality

Cubans are supposed to be world famous for being very friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have met several people who have been invited over for a meal, coffee or what not by a Cuban family. Strangely, usually men, some of them hardly able to communicate in Spanish, but who somehow managed to become friends with the locals and were asked to stay for lunch. The same never happened to us – two girls traveling alone. Whether it was a drink we were having, a meal or anything else, we always had to pay full price and even when we were “invited,” it was in exchange of money.

Communication never was much of an issue when traveling. We had no problems with the language, and indeed we could easily chat with people. But overall, we did not find Cubans as hospitable as their reputation would let us imagine. And we faced several scams in Cuba, some more unnerving than others.

We had our first lesson of scams in Cuba in Havana, where we stayed at a casa particular recommended to us by some fellow Italians. We arrived there with a number of presents for the owners – earrings and a hair dye for the landlady, a book for the landlord, as well as stuff we were asked to carry over there. Imagine our shock when we found out we had been charged for the cup of tea we asked one morning, the very same cup of tea made with a teabag some friend from Italy had dropped/forgotten at the house. Sure, Cubans have to take whatever opportunity to make that extra buck (as my friend explained to me when I told her what happened to us in the very same house she recommended), but do they not get the value of reputation?

On a different occasion, in Santiago, we spotted the lady at the ticket counter of a museum varnishing her nails. As we smiled at her and showed appreciation for the colour, she offered to share the varnish. This was actually funny, but to be honest we were not ready to get our nails done there and then.

In Baracoa we found ourselves in troubles: a power shortage meant that we had no chance to withdraw money or exchange our euro before getting on the bus to Santiago and then Camaguey. We had to save as much as we could, so we decided to walk to the Viazul station and carry our suitcases, as we could not spare much for a bicitaxi. Trouble is that the conditions of the streets in Baracoa are not exactly great for walking around with a suitcase. A young fellow saw me having difficulties, and as he walked next to me offered to carry my suitcase. My first reaction was to thank him for the offer, but politely refuse as I had no money to spare because of the electricity shortage. To my surprise, he told me he was going to the station anyways, so I should not worry, he was glad to help! Oh bless. When we then walked into the station to get our tickets, the lady at the desk was drinking a deliciously smelling coffee. We could infuse ourself in the smell, and as she realised that, she offered a cup.

On an evening out in Cienfuegos, we decided to get a bicitaxi to enjoy the Malecon. We talked to our driver, and ended up inviting him a beer. I suppose this set the ground for one of the most unnerving tourist scams in Cuba. We became so good friends that, in the end, he suggested that on the day after he’d take us to the historical cemetery “en amistad” (friendship – ie for free). So much amistad indeed that, despite having agreed on a price to begin with and despite having given him a number of goodies for his girlfriend and having paid him more than we had agreed, he demanded even more money and was about to yell at us when we refused to pay him more than established. Needless to say, we did not go see the cemetery on the day after. Not bad for a good scam in Cuba, right?

The best scam in Cuba, however, is yet to come. On our first night in Vinales, we had a salsa lesson. As the dancing school was undergoing renovation works, we had to take the class at our teacher’s neighbour’s apartment. The lady was nice, polite, the house small but spotless. As we finished the lesson, we asked the teacher if he could suggest a paladar for the night. The lady jumped at the occasion and said we could eat there. In disbelief for the invitation, we asked for a clarification. Of course we were not going to be invited: we’d have to pay for our food, we’d be served at the table and sit by ourselves. Just as in a restaurant, only with the embarassment of being in someone’s home. We told her we’d eat there the day after and we suggested that the family, as well as our teacher, should eat with us. Now, they were shocked! Tourists asking to eat with Cubans? Woaaaaa! Well… We come from a land of hospitality: anybody entering our home, here, is offered at least coffee, of not more. Imagine how it would be like if we presented him a bill on his way out!! So much for hospitality, we decided the day after that it would be too weird for us to have to pay for our dinner (whether a modest one or a luxury one) when invited at someone’s home, and we arranged to tell the lady we’d not eat there after all.

My guide in Vinales – the same guide who wanted to sleep with me – invited me for a mojito once. After the bad experience of dealing with him during the day, I was not ready to drink with him, and in any case I expected his invitation to be more in the Cuban style: “I invite you, we both drink, you pay” (something that happens to all female travelers in Cuba). When we eventually met in the square, I was already having my mojito. He did not have any, I did not suggest he should. I guess he got the message: no, I was not going to fall into his trap. After all, a friend of mine on the very same day had run an experiment with a Cuban party: he kept drinking the rum he was kindly offered, until he eventually thought he had reached his limit and stood up to leave. The people at the party complained, invited him to stay longer, told him they were going to get more rum. He pointed at the almost empty bottle. He was not going to pay for another one, which is what he suspected they wanted from him. He was told all sorts of rude things as he left. After all, he managed to play their game: I drink, you pay!! 😉

Before boarding our flight back to Europe, we decided to have one last mojito at the airport. As we observed the bartender very closely – we told her we wanted to learn how to make good mojitos too – we noticed she dropped some extra Havana Club 7 anos in our drinks, something she did not do to other customers. We had a nice long chat with her.

All in all, we left puzzled: for as much as they are friendly and hospitable with their fellows, Cubans are the opposite with travelers and whatever occasion is good for them to make that little extra money, whether for a reason or not. It is a bit of a nonsense to us: on this side of the world, we are usually hospitable to friends and travelers almost in the same way, and if anything, we treat travelers even more politely as we want to ensure they have a great experience and come back to visit. We’d never dream to invite travelers for a drink and then demand that they pay. We’d never ask money in order to give directions. I guess we are not as poor, yet, I have travelled to other poor countries and never experienced anything similar.

What is yet more interesting is that the most hospitable people we met are the ones who had no apparent reason to be so friendly and kind. The guy in Baracoa, the lady who offered us coffee at the station, the bartender who added a little extra good rum in our drink. I suppose good things sometimes come when you least expect it…

For more of my adventures in Cuba, read here.