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.