We’re currently sat in the airport in La Habana, Cuba, waiting to fly to Grand Cayman, I thought this might be a good time to write this post, whilst the roller coaster of travelling in Cuba is still fresh in our memories. We’ve both been trying for two weeks to come up with adjectives to describe how we have felt whilst travelling here, it’s been up and down for the whole journey, Cuba, in every sense, is unique.
Today, we’ve been on the road for eleven months, and we just can’t really compare Cuba to anywhere else we’ve been so far. When we leave a country, almost every time we summarise it based on the people, there’s the other important things like the food, the costs, the ease of travelling and meeting new friends, but the people are always the lasting memory.
Unfortunately, we just can’t honestly say that we’ve had good experiences with most of the Cuban people we have met. Cuba has certainly been an experience, we’re both glad to have experienced it for ourselves, but for the most part, it just hasn’t been a particularly enjoyable one.
This is all just our perceptions and interpretation of what we have experienced in five towns through our journey in Cuba, we’ve met people here travelling for a couple of weeks who have loved it, and we’ve met people who have come for a single weekend, stayed in a £300-per-night hotel and said they have had great experiences with the Cuban people.
We’ve also had amazing experiences, but they weren’t the majority.
Firstly some information, Cuba was always going to be different, one of the last standing societies of communism, although they might not call it that. The country is poor and the wages of government workers are unimaginably low, internet access is non-existent in houses, and functionally useless in the majority of public Wi-Fi hot spots. A single hour of internet access in a hotel in Havana costs $4 and the hotel is the only place in Havana with a reliable internet connection, so of course, most locals can’t use this.
The shops are bare, access to anything is difficult, for our last couple of days in Havana, it took us a full day and six or seven shops to find one with bottled water, an obvious need for everybody. The gap between rich and poor has to be one of the biggest we have seen, and here they live next door to each other.
Accommodation, for travellers, is in Casas Particulares, which is, people’s homes. Hotels, for basic quality are over $100 per night, and can be $500 per night. A room in a locals home is $20-30 per night, so that’s where we have stayed, and in the most part the people at these Casas have been some of our best experiences of the Cuban people.
After adjusting over the first couple of days, we started to think that maybe some animosity towards foreigners was perhaps jealousy of their ability to travel here and the amount of money us tourists have. I would say now after two weeks, that it is very much to do with money, but there is a general societal dislike of foreigners from many people here, there are a huge amount of Cuban people here with vast amounts of money in comparison to the rest, money that makes the tourists look poor, but there isn’t the same animosity towards these people.
Our bad experiences here, every single time, have been because of greedy or selfish people whose sole intention is to rip off or con any tourist they can, regardless of how well you treat them or how polite you are. It can’t just be us that have had these experiences, because they have happened over and over again.
It is most definitely part of travelling, the being out of your comfort zone, struggling with a foreign language and experiencing a different way of life, but I’ve never been anywhere else in this world where so many people have shown an abject dislike towards us or where they have tried to rip us off and con us out of money, it’s tiring, it really is.
The journey started in Havana, and for the first night we loved it, the taxi ride from the airport we shared with two Slovenian travellers, so that ride was half the cost for us, we were staying in a nice, but basic, Casa which was ran by two lovely people and we went out for a nice meal and a few cheap cocktails. So far so good.
By the time we woke up and went out the next morning, everything had changed. Well, not everything, but you would think the world had changed, because when the cruise ships arrive early morning in to Havana, you are going to know about it. The entire old town of Havana gets overrun with tourists, and then the locals come out in force with dollar signs in their eyes, of course you can’t blame them, but there is a difference between trying to make a living and being a con artist.
On this first day here, I was reading the Cuba guide-book in the Casa, and there is an entire section dedicated to these con artists, they have a name for them here they’re so common.
Then it began for us, in two weeks, I can’t even count how many people tried scams on with us, by the end of the first week, we had learnt to not trust anybody because we had almost fell for it so many times. The first one was a guy who stopped us in the street with the normal chat, before telling us about a music club that would be good for us to see.
We were used to people talking to us all over the world, were foreigners, and most people are genuinely intrigued to know why were there, so day one in Havana, we’re still naive to how it works here and chat with him. He said he would write down the name of the place, but within two minutes, we were sat with him inside the bar that he’d been stood outside of previously, he still hadn’t written down the name of this one club, but he was ordering drinks for us all. I saw what was happening and put a stop to it, it was a simple scam to get us in and paying for overpriced ‘true Cuban’ drinks.
It might not seem like much, but after going through this multiple times per day, day after day, trusting nobody becomes normal and travel here got harder with little reward. I could list these types of experiences all day, but from now I’ll try to focus more on the good parts.
We went from Havana to Viñales in the west of the country, Viñales is a country village up in the hills, rural and simple, most of the village doesn’t even have glass for windows, just metal shutters. Famous for the scenery, it attracts the traveller crowd who stay in Casas for a night or two, and the hotel crowd on day trips from Havana.
We stayed with a fantastic family, who spoke absolutely no English, and really put my Spanish skills to the test, but they looked after us, and helped us find the bus day tour to take us all around the area. We went on a boat ride on an underground river in a cave, stopped to see a huge mural on the side of a mountain and had a couple of beers at a viewpoint overlooking the stunning scenery.
From here we got a colectivo taxi to Trinidad, about 500 km east, it started OK, in another 50’s American car for the first two hours, before changing in Havana, where they crammed 16 of us in the back of a truck, me and Stac didn’t even have a set, just a bench with no back-rest facing sideways, and we sat there for the next six hours wishing we had never been stupid enough to fall for the taxi drivers that sell these taxis.
We arrived in Trinidad, which has a beautiful old town to walk around, and we had to walk around it immediately, because the 8-hour horrific journey (that cost us £70) had dropped us one kilometer short of where we needed to be. I just walked away before I exploded with rage at these con men.
We spent a full day just walking around the UNESCO old town, admiring the beautiful architecture and taking pictures, before dinner and returning to the Casa for some rum. We had booked to stay in this Casa for three nights, we didn’t arrive until late on the first, so we’d only had one full day here, but when we returned back to the house that night, the guy who ran it, came to tell me, in Spanish, that he’d had somebody call him who wanted to come tomorrow and stay for four nights. He saw four nights money over our one and basically told us we had to get out the next morning.
He did tell me that he had a friend with a house that I had to go and see straight away, I went with him whilst Stac took a shower, I walked in to the garden of this house to be greeted by the Casa owners who were stood outside looking at their pet Crocodile and Flamingos, now it can’t only be me that finds this strange, if not terrifying, in the back streets of a small rural village in Cuba.
We declined their offer to stay there, and decided from now on we would sort our own Casas and Taxis out rather than other people doing it and scamming us.
We got up the next morning and found a taxi in the main square to take us to the next town, Cienfuegos, which is thirty minutes away, and cost £35, in case I’ve not mentioned it yet, the taxi drivers here are filthy rich.
Cienfuegos was the absolute pits of Cuba, we got refused service in two separate bars just because we were foreign, apparently we weren’t welcome. We did find some very nice food though, but even there they weren’t particularly nice to us.
We carried on our theory of sorting our own logistics out and went searching the streets for taxi drivers to take us anywhere away from there the following morning, but no tourists, means no taxi drivers. The only one we found wasn’t even a driver, he didn’t own a car, but, because this is Cuba, he had a friend who could take us, for an obscene amount of money, of course.
We sorted one through the Casa instead and the next morning were heading to the top beach destination in Cuba, Varadero, without a plan of where to stay or how long we were staying for. The casa in Cienfuegos told us they could recommend us a very good one, in the center, and the driver would take us straight to it.
I’m sure you’ve guessed this already, but it wasn’t in the center, it was miles away, it was a dingy, run-down house with an old man sat on the porch, his face already said “you’re not welcome here”. I told the driver we weren’t staying there and to take us to the center, and if he’d have said “it’s not my problem” one more time, I think me and Stac might have killed him.
He took us to the centre, and we walked around looking for a Casa, the first one we saw happened to be the best, but of course we went to check the other options first. We stayed here for three days and enjoyed our time, through nothing else other than we spent most of it just us two and some other travellers, chatting, drinking and playing card games, but most of all, avoiding the locals, who once again, didn’t like us.
Varadero main town, where people can stay in Casas Particulares is a couple of miles down the beach from the huge all-inclusive hotels that are populated by European and American tourists, you know the type. The people who have ‘been to Cuba’ and loved it. That’s because they never left the hotel or had to deal with people who dislike you because you’re not giving your money to them. In a hotel, you are giving your money to them, and a lot of it, so of course they’re much nicer.
We sat on the beach one day, and a lady started talking to us, she didn’t speak much English but the three of us chatted in broken Spanish and English for a while, she was different, and so it was so amazing you wouldn’t believe. She was happy travellers wanted to come to her country, she didn’t want other people’s money. She told us she lived in Havana and worked for the government communications department, the ones that charge $4 an hour to use the internet, but she had been sent to work in Varadero for a few months.
Her salary was $70 dollars per month, she was 74, but looked closer to 50, she gets no pension and would effectively be working until she died, she was the most humble and incredible person we met in all of Cuba. Within a few minutes she had told us she had a house in Havana and could stay with her anytime for free.
We had taken a couple of beers with us to the beach, we offered her one, at first she refused, not wanting to take something but she did have one with us after some persuasion. The next day she came back down to the beach again to find us and get us one back, of course we didn’t accept it, but the fact that she was so different to the rest of the Cubans we had met brought Stac to the brink of tears.
The emotions are up and down constantly when travelling, more so in Cuba than pretty much anywhere, but this was a reminder of why we were here, to meet people like this, incredible people, that make the world what it is, and incredible place.
Experiences like this make all the bad stuff we had gone though in Cuba fade in to insignificance. Of course they were insignificant, it was just a little bit of money we had lost and some bad experiences with people, but it seemed like so much more, we were getting towards the last stage of this trip and it felt to us like wasted time, when we loved so many places so much more.
We returned to Havana for the last few days, another couple of bad experiences not really worth the effort going through followed, including one where we rushed out of a tourist restaurant being insulted by the staff because we refused to pay for the food they ruined, but we did stay in the same Casa we had the first time, which was nice, familiar and comfortable.
We went to a fantastic yet surreal art gallery / museum / bar / club / live music venue, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, it was probably the best night out we had in Cuba and we had a couple of amazing frozen Mojitos, that will definitely get you drunk quickly.
Cuba then finished just as we expected it to, being conned again, by another taxi driver. The first driver dropped us at the wrong terminal, said nothing and drove off, then we found that the taxi mafia had decided it was $10 to go the two miles to the next terminal, which had no path to walk to, and every driver refused to take us unless we paid the full $10, they were even laughing at us when we got frustrated with it.
It had cost us $30 to get twenty minutes from Havana to the airport but we were happy to be leaving and to love where we were again, the next stop was Grand Cayman, to stay with some family there, and we couldn’t wait to get there.