Cuban people seemed to me rather distant. I could say “as if we were in two parallel worlds” … but the problem is that we are indeed in parallel worlds. We are just tourists, the ones who spend money, enjoy their time and leave. And though the whole life in Cuba takes place on the streets and you get a chance to witness many small daily life scenes, you are still just an outside observer. With no doubt even that glimpse at Cuban life was very enriching and interesting but unfortunately I cannot think of any engaging conversation or meaningful connection with local people. I talked to casa owners, taxi drivers, tour guides and bar tenders – but it was mostly “just business”. (Bear in mind I speak fluently Spanish, so that was not an issue). Maybe a company of six people was just too self-sufficient, I guess this would partly explain the lack of interaction with locals. But the other part, I believe, is that we were mostly seen as a source of income and there was no genuine interest in us. (The truth is why should they even have this interest? There is nothing special in us :)) Anyway, I guess it was just a mismatch of expectations and reality.
The people were generally nice and friendly. Once in Havana I waved to a bus driver passing by, he stopped, explained me with a smile where to find the right bus stop and then continued driving. I can hardly imagine bus drivers in Munich stopping for me and explaining the way. Another time in Cienfuegos some crazy guy was disturbing us and shouting some nonsense. A Cuban man saw this unpleasant scene and came to help us. He shouted at the guy to leave us alone and the guy disappeared. Every time we asked for directions or needed some help we were treated very friendly. We only encountered once people begging something from us, it was in Varadero. Two women asked me to give them my lip balm and my hat, and a man asked Roma to give him his jacket. It felt weird and we did not do it…
The service in Cuba is rather bad. If “the government pretends to pay the workers, then the workers pretend to work”. It is slow, very slow, customer satisfaction? What’s that? On the 31st of December at 23.40 we came to the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra to celebrate New Year. It turned out that on the rooftop they did not serve drinks to the guests without a reserved table. (Does it make any sense? We could enter and stay on the rooftop (there was plenty of space), but we could not get drinks. Facepalm.). At 23.50 Dasha and I are going downstairs to the lobby bar to get some drinks. We order six mojitos and the bar tender slowly starts preparing them. “Oh! We don´t have ice… we need to find some ice.” he exclaims. We tell him: “5 minutes left till midnight, please, we need these drinks now!”. Without any sign of effort he keeps pouring the drinks at his own speed… By some miracle we managed to be back upstairs a minute before 12 and could properly welcome the New Year with mojitos 🙂
Money and prices
You have probably heard that Cuba has two currencies: national one CUP and the one for tourists CUC. Even though we followed the advice and got ourselves some national CUPs, there were very few situations when we could actually use them. Once to buy a peso pizza (just to try and never eat it again) and several times in Havana to pay for the public bus. The rest of the time we were always using CUC.
If you ask “how much?” you set up yourself for a failure, i.e. for overpaying the real price. Whenever we asked “how much for the bottle of water?” we always got the answer 1,5 CUC. In the shops you will almost never find written prices, so you are forced to inquire. But the fact is that 1,5 liter costs around 0,75 CUC (we saw that in one “honest” local shop), but as a tourist you will never get this price. What we started doing (once we knew the trick) was just giving the exact real amount of money and asking for the water. That immediately was causing objections “No, you have to pay 1,5!”. After a short discussion in Spanish that this price was bullshit the shop assistant was eventually selling us water for what it costs. Once in a salsa bar in Trinidad one of us bought water and mojito for 4 CUC and the other one exactly the same set for 3 CUC (because this second person did not ask for the price and just gave 3 CUC). Prices in Cuba can be anything, more often than not they will be fake and elevated. The best thing you can do is to try to figure out early the real price and then object if you see it’s a rip off. It will not always work, but sometimes it will save you some cash.
Another thing you have to be careful with is the change money. I went dozens of times to the shops to buy something and in 90% (or maybe even 100%) of the cases the change money was less than it should have been! Significantly less (like 1 CUC = 1$). Every time the same story! Every time I counted the money and it was not enough… Without any change in the face expression (let alone any apology) shop assistants were always giving me my money back when I told them about the missing amount.
One of the things that really stuck in my mind were paid toilets. Even in restaurants very often you were supposed to leave some tips to the “toilet guardian” in order to get toilet paper or soap to wash your hands. Once I had the following monologue in my face in Spanish at a restaurant while waiting for the toilet to be free (I was pretending the whole time I did not understand):
“I see you are not taking my toilet paper. You don´t want to pay, right? Why don´t you want to pay for the service? I am not earning any money here, you should pay me! Do you understand me? You probably don´t … And even if you understood, you would pretend like you don´t” At the last sentence I could barely keep my poker face. Personally I find it quite disturbing to be asked for money for using a toilet in a restaurant where I came to eat (unless it´s McDonalds :).
When we were staying in casas every time we had to provide our passports. In the beginning I thought this data was just written down in some books and never checked. But once one of us who has two passports gave another passport to register. And suddenly it was brought to our attention that this passport number was not to be found in the records… A-ha! Apparently all the data is not stored in some old books, but is being reported every day (probably by phone) to some central office that keeps track of all our movements around the country and thus can say exactly where and how many days we have spent. Welcome to the communist country 🙂
Before going to Cuba we have read a lot of stories about different tourist scams. Either we were too cautious or too lucky, but I can´t remember anything like that happen to us (or maybe they were just too clever that we did not even notice we got scammed). The only time when we felt like being fooled was when we ordered a horse riding tour at our casa and it was twice as expensive as on the street =) We learned our lesson fast and never did it again.
When I read my notes I feel like there are too many negative points. Then why did I like Cuba so much? Hm… let me think!
1) Atlantic coast is magnificent. This turquoise color is just insane! And the beaches were almost empty. We were on the beach in Varadero and Cayo Santa Maria – both were very peaceful places to stay by yourself and enjoy the ocean. Amazing!
2) The sunsets in Varadero on the beach all together with a bottle of rum were priceless. The cocktails in Iberostar in Trinidad with live music band were fantastic.
3) Watching the locals was a constant attraction. Such a unique original place where you keep your eyes wide open to savor those moments of their everyday life that you happen to catch. Everything is an adventure here. Going to a shop, negotiating a taxi, walking down the streets, taking a public bus .. you are always in the middle of something.
4) Landscapes are magnificent. We have been to Trinidad and Viñales – that was just wow. In Trinidad our horse riding tour was a highlight and in Viñales our 4 hour walk with a guide was just wonderful. It was peaceful, beautiful, rural and genuine.
5) Dinners in San Jose, Mas Havana and Los Nardos … the last day in Los Nardos we were lucky to experience opera singers performing right in front of us (!)… this was truly awesome, so-so-so beautiful! I literally got tears in my eyes after their amazing performance.
6) Breakfasts served at casas every morning were like happy family Sunday meetups. It was so nice to be together, to discuss the roosters and dogs of the night, to plan the next day and to enjoy guava juice all sitting at one table.
7) Beautiful colonial architecture in Remedios, Trinidad and Havana! Getting lost in those streets and enjoying this throwback to some old times – priceless.
8) Salsa school in Trinidad was one of the biggest surprises and highlights of the trip! I went two times for a private lesson and it was aweeeeesome! Great guys who can teach you some real stuff and make you enjoy yourself from the very first moment.
9) That amazing feeling of security that you have while walking the streets during day and night can’t be overestimated. After visiting Mexico and Brazil Cuba is a paradise. We always felt secure and relaxed, even when me and Dasha (two girls) went to some night club all alone in Havana.
10) La Habana. Crazy, loud, dirty but still beautiful and charming. Old town and those colorful taxis will stay forever in my memories. I loved loved loved taxi rides! And the New Year celebration on the roof of hotel Inglaterra could not have been better (even though we had some troubles with cocktails and even though I got food poisoning that day and was feeling extremely weak).
If I think long enough I will definitely come up with more points why Cuba was such a great adventure, but I think you got the idea. I don’t like this trend “to visit Cuba before it changes”. I heard many people saying that and I find it in a way disrespectful. Yes, Cuba is changing every day, but I don´t think you should go there to catch that “old Cuba” and to gaze at this communist dinosaur… I think it is worth a visit regardless of its political situation, because Cuba with its people, music, drive, with its stunning nature and great history will always be an attraction of its own… even if those old-timers disappear from the streets. As I said in the beginning, it is not for everyone, but if you like some madness you should give it a try =)