Highlights of Cuba

Highlights of Cuba

My trip to Cuba started in Havana, where I spent two full days browsing around its many museums and places of interest, including the Capitolio, la Cabaña, the Museo de la Revolucion and its famous Malecon. I then flew to Santiago de Cuba, known for its Caribbean attitude. This is a good starting point to hike La Gran Piedra or to just soak in the sun in Playa Sibonay. From there, I took the bus to Baracoa, where I arrived after an eventful trip which included a flat tire. Known as the city of the 29 rivers, Baracoa is purely tropical. Must dos include a hike of El Yunque, a boat trip around Rio Yumuri and the beautiful Playa Maguana. Baracoa is also the gourmet capital of Cuba: I had some of the most interesting food here, including shrimps in salsa de coco.

On the way to Trinidad (the most touristic city in Cuba), I stopped in Camaguey, which I did not really enjoy due to the tremendous heat and the high presence of jineteros and scams. 5 hours away, Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial city, with cobblestone streets, music playing at every corner, dancing and good nightlife, museums, good restaurants and a huge variety of daily trips in its surroundings. I particularly enjoyed Valle de los Ingenios and the hike from Topes de Collantes to the Salto de Caburnì.

About 90 minutes north, Cienfuegos is also splendid, and is a great port of access to El Nicho, with its natural pools, and to explore the amazingly clear waters and coral reef of the Bahia de Cochinos and Caleta Buena.

I concluded my journey in Viñales, in the North-West side of Cuba, which felt like the cherry on the cake: a valley where coffee and tobacco are cultivated, where mogotes appear just about anywhere. And it is not far from Cayo Jutias, where I spent a perfect day at the beach.

To read more about my adventures in this amazing island, click here!

Avoiding tourist traps in Cuba

Avoiding tourist traps in Cuba

Taxi, tours, rum and what not: getting ripped off, a lo cubano!

Before trusting someone you have just met in Cuba, think twice! As already explained in other posts about this beautiful island, scams can indeed happen. We learned the hard way that no matter how nice they seem, no matter how friendly you behave and no matter how many times they will suggest that you can trust them, tourist traps in Cuba are just around the corner.

Five episodes tested our patience, and not in all of them we were able to keep our cool. Just learn from our mistakes!

Tourist traps in Cuba #1 – Santiago: we only wanted to spend one night in Santiago and then go to Baracoa. Our vacation had just started and we were yet to understand the real difficulties of driving around in Cuba. After a lot of reasoning with our landlady in Santiago and her trusted driver, we decided that on the day after we’d be taken to La Gran Piedra, then go to Parque Baconao and from there drive back through Santiago (no direct way from Parque Baconao to Baracoa) and then go to Baracoa. Pity we would not get to see La Farola and the Costa Sur during the day, too bad we’d spend a lot of money, but we’d save a lot of time. We agreed to pay 170 CUC for the whole thing – 30 to go to La Gran Piedra, 20 to Parque Baconao and the rest to be taken to Baracoa. The morning after, the driver was punctual at our door. However, he told us that from La Gran Piedra he’d have to get a couple he had taken there the night before, and he’d have to drive them back to Santiago (I have no idea for what price). He suggested that it would then be better to leave the suitcases at the casa, he’d pick them up when he’d drive the couple there, and meanwhile we could wait for him for half hour in Playa Siboney. We agreed. When we eventually got down to Playa Sibonay, we were told that he’d be back to pick us up in 30 minutes. So we rushed to the beach, ate something quickly and jumped in the water. As this was not a planned stop, we did not have our towels, but nevermind. We were punctual to meet him. He was not. We waited so long in the sun as there was zero shade – had we known, we’d have stayed at the beach or in the water. We ended up calling the casa in Santiago and saying that since the driver was over 90 minutes late, and it would get very late before we were able to leave for Baracoa, we’d rather enjoy our time in Parque Baconao and then go back to Santiago and catch the Viazul bus to Baracoa the day after. After all, this would allow us to save a lot of money (the sum of bus tickets for the 2 would be 60, so we saved 50 CUC and we’d have to pay for the casa whether in Baracoa or Santiago) and we’d be able to enjoy the view of La Farola and Costa Sur during the day. When the driver arrived, we realised he had changed his clothes. We figured he had gone home to have lunch, and get changed, leaving us waiting without worrying too much about it. When we eventually got back home that evening, and we had to pay the driver, he complained to us that he had filled in the tank to take us to Baracoa already, so he wanted to get paid. I held my position and pointed out that after all gasoline is not like milk, it won’t go bad within 3 days. We paid him 60 CUC and that was it.

TIPS: if you have a driver, make sure in advance that you are the only ones on the tour, or that if there are other people, they are doing your same route. This will avoid long waiting times. If you can, whenever you are just going from one city to another, take the bus. Sure, it may take longer and it is not as comfortable, but you get to meet other travellers on the bus and make new friends, something which is not easy to do in Cuba as casas particulares do not really allow much socialising.

Tourist traps in Cuba #2 – Camaguey is a nightmare – the city itself is a real maze. You will get lost, no matter how carefully you look at your map. But, what is worst, it is very difficult to leave the city, as it is in the middle of nowhere, taxis to reach other (more interesting) cities are very expensive, and buses leave at impossible times. We wanted to go to Trinidad, and the only bus that would take us there would leave at 2:15 am, meaning we would definitely lose one night of sleep and yet we’d have to pay for the room. It was so hot that surely we’d want to shower before leaving. We decided to go to the Viazul station and see if we could get to share a taxi. After much negotiation, we found a driver who agreed to take us for 40 CUC (20 each), provided he’d find 2 more persons to fill up the car. In any case, he showed us the car and it was big enough to fit all. We gave him our address and he agreed to pick us up at around 1 pm. By 2 pm he had not arrived. At 2:30 pm he called, saying he had not found other tourists who wanted to go to Trinidad, but that if we agreed he could take us there for 60 CUC. We did and so we started waiting. All the while, the landlady (Caridad) kept saying that her son would take us there for 80, that he was a reliable driver, and what not. By 2:45 pm a car (a tiny Fiat Punto) stopped by and three dodgy men got off. One of them told us that his friend’s car broke down and so his father could take us to Trinidad on his car, but for 80 CUC. We did not like the look of the guys and we refused. We ended up having to wait 3 more hours for the son of Caridad to get back and drive us to Trinidad for 80 – but at least we knew we’d be safe. We were so exhausted by then, tired of waiting, that anything would be ok as long as it was safe.

TIP: go to the bus station in search of a cab to take you to your destination only shortly before the bus is supposed to leave – like 2 hours at most. This way, you will have more chances to meet other tourists and with a bit of luck they won’t have tickets yet and you will be able to share a taxi for a reasonable price. We made the mistake of going there in the morning and obviously we would not find any other traveller. It is better that you take the time to look for other passengers rather than leave it to the driver – you can bet he won’t find one.

Tourist traps in Cuba #3 – Trinidad: by the time we made it there I was so sick and tired of negotiating prices with drivers and what not, that I begged my sister to take part in an organised tour to Cayo Blanco, with a set price, transportation, meal and drinks included. Of course, the agent at Cubatour was eager to sell us the tour, and would say anything so that we fell in the trap. We paid 59 CUC (yes, 59!!) and were meant to have: transportation to and from Marina de Ancon, catamaran to and from Cayo Blanco, a stop over the coral reef with 1 hour snorkelling and equipment included; lunch and any drink we’d like (according to the agent, cocktails such as mojitos and pina colada were also included). As we arrived at Marina de Ancon, we were asked whether we wanted paella or chicken for lunch. As we both suffer from a number of allergies, we ordered chicken. On the tour with us, there was a big group of very polite British and French people; an even larger group of very loud Germans who almost immediately, even on the catamaran, started drinking rum and beer. For some unknown reason the catamaran did not stop at the coral reef. As we landed in Cayo Blanco, the crew pointed us to a place, gave us snorkelling equipment, and told us to be back by 2:30. We then realised we were not going to see any coral reef. The Cayo itself is very small, the beach tiny and with not even enough beds for all the people on the tour. Overall nothing special. Nevermind this. Lunch was a buffet, but our chicken was nowhere to be found. The people at the Marina had failed to communicate this to the crew and to the people working at the Cayo. So we had to demand to have it, and explain all over again we were allergic to ingredients in the paella, but the workers did not like that. We then asked for a cocktail, only to find out that there were no cocktails and all we could have was rum, coke, and beer. We decided that we’d go complain and ask for a refund (even if just partial) at Cubatour, as we did not enjoy our day at all. 59 CUC for it was a total rip off. We then went to the agency, only to be sent to the central office, where we explained what happened (in English) to the person at the desk, who then called another person to whom we had to explain things all over again, and who eventually called the chief (or so we thought). This was a truly horrible man, who did not speak a word of English, was rude to us from minute one, and looked threatening to say the least. I had to make my very best effort to explain what had happened all over again with the coral reef we had not seen, the problems at lunch time, the drinks and what not, this time in Spanish. The chief argued that nobody on that tour had gone back to complain (which, to us, was not an excuse), that we did not see the coral reef but we saw the aquarium (which we did not see, of course) and that in any case Cubatour was not responsible for anything, as it merely acted as a vector selling the tours – the responsibility laid in the Marina de Ancon. Incidentally, two more guys who were on the tour arrived a few minutes later, and they confirmed our version. But the chief was not moved. He kept saying we had seen the aquarium, I kept saying we had not. Things got so nasty that he told me he had called the police (on what grounds I had no idea), I supposed in an effort to scare us off. Of course, we were not scared: we said we’d stay there and wait for the police. Needless to say, this never arrived. We kept discussing for a bit – all of this in front of other customers, who were properly warned by us not to take the tour to Cayo Blanco. Eventually, we agreed to write a letter which would be sent to the Marina de Ancon, in which we asked for a refund, and where we detailed what had happened and explained we demanded a monetary refund as we had already paid for other tours and we would be leaving Trinidad 2 days later. We did not get a refund. All the Marina offered was an hour of snorkelling at the coral reef, although we had many times insisted that we would be on a tour the day after and then leave. They simply took it for granted that we’d stay in Trinidad forever. Overall, complaining was a big waste of time and effort, and it stressed us out and drained us off our energies.

TIPS: well, first thing first. Do NOT go to Cayo Blanco!!! There is nothing to see there, really. It is much better to spend 5 CUC to go to Playa Ancon than 59 to go to Cayo Blanco (54 CUC savings!!). Do not waste any time complaining: Cubans are very good at declining responsibility. Did you have a bad day? Live with it: there is no such thing as explaining customer service and satisfaction to a travel agent in Cuba. The best thing you can do is to go have a decent drink and forget about it. Or to drink yourself stupid while on the tour (of course, only valid if you are ok with beer or straight rum), as soon as you realise that you won’t get to see anything on the tour itself.

Tourist traps in Cuba #4 – Cienfuegos: ok, this one we really asked for, I admit it is our fault… after coming back from a day at El Nicho, we decided to take a stroll on the Malecon and go see the Palacio Azul and other interesting buildings at Punta Gorda. As it was a bit of a walk and we wanted to enjoy the sunset at the Palacio and have a drink there, we got on a bici taxi, previously agreeing on a 3 CUC tariff to be taken there AND back. The taxi driver was a young fellow, who spoke decent Italian and claimed his sister lived in Rome and he was going to go there in 2 months – he had already purchased the ticket. He seemed nice enough. As we got to the Palacio, he parked the taxi, and my sister and I got up. We then decided to have a drink and we thought it would be nice to offer him one too, to celebrate his next trip to Italy. Baaaaad decision! Cubans can hold their alcohol, we can’t! We were so tipsy on the way back that we had a huge laugh as I suggested I would drive the bici taxi (which I did for a while, and I can promise you it is hard work!). We then made the second biiiiiig mistake: we asked the driver (Yordan) if he could suggest where to buy rum at a good price. Surely he saw an opportunity to make a little extra cash. He then stopped by what looked like a fastfood kind of place, told us we could get rum there, and suggested he could go get it for us. Sure. We gave him precise instructions on the bottle we wanted and we had the brilliant idea of not going with him, so we could guard the taxi and he could explain in Spanish, and faster, what we needed. He came back with different bottles than what we had asked, claiming that was also a very good rum. I demanded to have that changed. He ran to the shop before I could also reach it, and he and the lady at the counter kept saying the bottles could not be changed as she had already passed it through the counter. Of course, no bill was shown to prove this. We gave up, I felt no urge to have a huge argument with Cubans all over again, after my experience in Trinidad. And I was too tipsy to think fast and call the police. My mistake. We got back on the taxi, he drove us home and kept saying the day after he’d take us to the cimitery for “amistad” (friendship, he meant he would take us there for free). We then paid him 4 CUC (1 more CUC than what we had agreed), gave him a Euro coin for good luck when he was going to Italy, and he had the guts to tell us that he could not use the Euro coins in Cuba and that he wanted 2 more CUC, suggesting that the price for the taxi would be 3 CUC to go and 3 to take us back. I suppose he gave up as he did not want to play with his luck, because by then we had found out from our landlord how much the bottles of rum really normally costed and if he tried to argue with us we’d have a row.

TIP: never ever let your guard down. Never drink when you then have to deal with taxi drivers. Never trust any cab driver to get anything for you or do you a favour. You can trust people in the casas particulares (you can ask them for favours: we asked our landlady to get us toothpaste in Trinidad, as we could not find it, and she bought it and did not even charge us for that), and that is it.

Tourist traps in Cuba # 5 – Vinales: by the time we were in Vinales, we had learned how to get by. On our last day, we were meant to go from Vinales to Las Terrazas. We had booked the Viazul bus, which was meant to leave at 2:15 pm. We thought the bus would cost 12 CUC each. We then started looking for a taxi. The first jinetero asked us to pay 50. The second one 40, and the third one 30. We agreed to be picked up at 1pm, but when we got home, the landlady told us that the bus was actually 8 CUC each and called the station to get confirmation of this. As the taxi arrived, we demanded to be taken to Las Terrazas for 20 CUC. The jinetero did not like this. We told him it was ok, as if the driver would not take us, we could actually take the bus in one hour, for cheaper. The driver then stepped in and agreed, which left the jinetero emtpy handed and yelling at us saying we could not keep our word.

We used the price we paid in Vinales to negotiate a good price for a cab from Las Terrazas to Jose Marti Airport. We were told that a public taxi would cost us 60 CUC, a taxi particular 50, but when we told the driver (which we actually looked for – no jineteros were involved) we had paid only 20 to come from Vinales, he agreed to take us there for 30 CUC.

TIPS: make sure you know the exact price of the bus before you negotiate the price of a taxi: this will save you some time and will give you enough leverage to negotiate. Do make sure that you always have a plan B (ie taking the bus), as again this will give you more leverage. Make sure you directly negotiate with the driver. The more people involved in the negotiations, the higher the price, as more people will want to make money out of it. Do not really trust people at hotels receptions (yes, even they will want to make an extra buck by interfering in the negotiations and they will raise the price so that they can share the money with the actual driver).

And as always, do keep your cool. People seem to enjoy it when you lose it!!

For other interesting posts on Cuba, check 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.