41. Travel Story

Locals, tourists and… Cuba.
 
Tourists don’t trust locals, locals don’t trust tourists and locals and the government is suspicious about everyone and everything…
But before I get there, I want to start this first story of the new year with some experiences from my most resent tour on the Maya Route. In my last story I already wrote that this tour had an unusual start for me. When I arrived at the airport of Cancun, two days before my group, it turned out that my big backpack wasn’t on the plane. I asked the people from the Mexican airliner if their could find out were is was, but they couldn’t. It should be somewhere between Quito, Panama City and Mexico City, but not in Cancun… I took this strange route, because other flights where all full or at least 350US$ more expensive.
Since there wasn’t much I could do about my backpack, I told them at least that I would stay for two nights and two nights only, in Playa del Carmen and after that I would start on a tour for 3 weeks.
 
To give you an impression from what happened after, but not making the story to long, I will skip some of the less important details:
Two days later, when I had to pickup my new group from the airport, in new clothes, I also passed by the office from Aeromexicana. They told me that they still didn’t know where my backpack was, but they ensured me that it wasn’t lost, it would only be lost if they couldn’t find it within 15 days. So what am I suppose to do during that time? Wearing the same clothes over and over, or buy some more new clothes and end up with having to much? The airliners policy is to give no more than 50US$ for temporary missing luggage, which was hardly enough to by two cheap T-shirts, shorts, socks, swimming short and a boxer short. Well I will see about this when the time comes, for now I made them again clear that that I would NO longer stay in Casa Tucan in Playa del Carmen. I gave them a list with hotel directions and dates about when I would be where during the next 3 weeks. Please don’t send it to Playa.
 
Guess what. When I was in Merida and they finally found my backpack they send it in opposite direction to Playa del Carmen…
Luckily the very helpful owner of Hotel Casa Tucan in Playa, was kind enough to send my backpack with a Mexican package service that works together with the well organized ADO, long distance bus company. It was now Tuesday evening and he made them sure that my backpack had to arrive in Palenque, our next destination, before Friday. This should be no problem, because I know ADO has at least 2 busses which leave each day directly to Palenque.
Well, you may guess again. What seems logic to most of us, often doesn’t work that way in Latin America (there are exceptions of course). Or, like a volunteer in Bolivia often said: “Common sense is not always common”.
The package service didn’t use the direct bus (which often has enough storage space left), but instead send my backpack first to Cancun, then to Villa Hermosa and then to Palenque. With the result that it arrived there in the same Friday afternoon that I arrived 200km further in San Cristobal…
Alright, now I had enough of the Mexican inefficiency. I called the hotel in Palenque if they would pickup my backpack for me. Then I arranged everything necessary for my group and at 18:35h I took a bus back to Palenque, a 5 and half hour ride. I picked up my backpack, gave a tip and left a few hours later back to San Cristobal.
I managed to arrive in the hotel at 8:40u, just 20min. before a part of my group would leave for the excursion in Cañon del Sumidero.
A week after arriving in Mexico and a day before Christmas Eve, I had all my clothes back.
It was to bad that Christmas dinner didn’t work all as planned. But except from that, there wasn’t much reason to complain during this tour. We had good weather, where lucky with the traffic and even New Years Eve in the pretty, but boring jungle of Rio Dulce, wasn’t as bad as I feared for.
Yes, until our second last day the tour went very smooth.
But then it suddenly seemed that we had used out all our luck L It started with the bus, which had to bring us from Belize City to the ADO bus terminal in Chetumal, Mexico. This bus, which had to come from Guatemala, arrived 2 hours to late. We quickly put our bags together and in the bus and we hoped that the bus and driver would be fast.
It seemed to go not to bad, until we almost arrived at the Belize migration point and a big touring car went past us! All these people were now in front of us in line and because some of them were not informed that you have to pay 37,5 Belize dollars when you leave the country, the process went even slower. A slow process and a few hundred meters further, we didn’t only have that other group ahead of us, but also a small traffic jam. All right now it was for sure now that we would miss the connection to Playa. On top of this all we then discovered  that we were missing one of our big backpacks! It should be still outside the terminal from the water-taxi in Belize!
A few phone calls later we luckily found out that they had found the backpack and that it was save in an office in the Belize terminal. Only how to get it…?
 
Then our luck was over again and when we arrived at 16:15h at the bus terminal in Chetumal we heard that we not only missed our bus, but also that the next one with available seats would leave not earlier than 20:00h!
This bad luck brought up some sad and angry emotions in the group. Especially from two people who had already been a bit more difficult before.
When everything was arranged and doubts about taking private transportation were no longer an issue, the group could take some space and emotions soon calmed down.
When we arrived at 0:40h in our hotel in Playa, there were even some group members in the mood to go out.
 
The next day everyone enjoyed the sun and the beach and it seemed we got our luck back. A tour-guide from Baobab, who traveled one day behind us, was so kind to take the missing backpack with him to Playa del Carmen!
All together I think/hope that everyone can look back on a nice tour. Except perhaps for those two who had, in my opinion, booked the wrong tour. They expected private transportation during the whole tour and also more luxury. With these requests they should have booked with an other, more expensive organization. It is to bad for them and the other group members that they were on this tour. If you already have a wrong start and different expectations, you get sooner annoyed by other things that go wrong. This in combination with them already being very direct in their comments, gave a little irritation and made the group less solid. Unfortunately there was not much I could do about this. You can’t force people to like each other, or to spend time with people they don’t really like. I did try to stay as friendly as possible, but I also kept assertive. I’m not going to change my way of working if they are the only ones who don’t like it. I do am happy that they weren’t in my first group and that I got enough experience now to know that most people like the way I work and that I can’t make everyone happy…
 
Even trough this tour was a bit more difficult to guide, I still look back on all the good moments. Like standing next to glowing hot lava, on top of older lava that had just became solid, with above us a clear sky full of stars and next to us a volcano that sometimes gave a little burp!
These moments and the nice people I met on this tour I will cherish. The others I will try to learn from.
 
Two other things I’ve learned, or found out about, are the following:
I met some people from Europe who live in Mexico and Honduras and who are complaining a bit about the attitude of some European tourists and backpackers from all over the world. They say that however we have a lot of money, we try to be cheap. We are not good in giving tips and always try to get the lowest prices on everything. Maybe this is true, but I also want to give you an other point of view, confirmed by others who work in the tourist business;
Yes, we have more money than the average Latin American, but some of us do have to work the whole year very hard to save this money and for going one time a year on vacation. Is it wrong that they try to be careful in their spendings? My experiences with the average Latin American who does have money to travel around, is that they’re far worse than us. They know much better how much something should cost and for sure wouldn’t pay more than that. They’re good in complaining about even the slyest mistake in service and leaving tips they usually find unnecessary. But what is worse is that they often also treed they the people who serve them as second class people. A well know example is the hissing at a waiter. Lets keep both examples in mind if you travel through Latin America.
 
The second thing that came up again is confidence, or better the lack of confidence there is in Latin America. Because promises in Latin America are usually not that important, it also works the other way. If they don’t keep their promises they don’t expect that others will do so, which can make it difficult to arrange meetings, to work together, or to build up something.
No wonder that the economy in a lot of Latin American countries is so bad. Even two of Fidel Castro’s popular slogans say: “Revolucion es Construir”, revolution is to construct and “Juntos construimos nuestros sueños”, together we could realize our dreams.
So if he knows this, is it working in Cuba then?
 
Cuba, a communist country in the tropics of the Caribbean.
It is the first communist country I’ve ever been to and I was very curious how this communist system works. Everyone is equal, shares everything, has a place to stay, free healthcare and free scholarship. That sounds like an interesting concept and I wanted to try to experience this with an open mind, before Castro would die and thing most likely will change.
I also wanted to find out the truth about all the rumors over Cuba. Is it true that it is an unsafe country, expensive to travel in? Does everyone smokes cigars and drinks rum? And are the women (and men) really that hot?
 
My search for these answers started with a flight in one of the oldest planes I’ve ever been (a Yak-42), with some broken seats, a smoking air-conditioning and a cuba libre.
Upon my arrive I would have 10 nights and 9 full days to get to know more about Cuba. But before I will tell you if I found all my answers, I will start this story by following the route I took and the experiences on my way;
 
After arriving at the airport of Havana, the capital of Cuba, I first had to change cash money for Convertible Pesos (CUC) or tourist-pesos. The CUC is basically a replacement for the dollar and are worth 25 Cuban pesos. Since 2004 you’re not allowed to pay in Dollars anymore, out of protest against a new embargo from the U.S.. One dollar is about 0,89 CUC and there go 1.16 CUC in one Euro. Except from a few ATM’s which accept Visa and American cards, there are no ATM’s which accept other foreign cards in Cuba.
 
Havana.
I started my trip in Havana, a city with more than 2.2 million inhabitants and by far the biggest city of Cuba. But unlike other big cities it still has a lot of charm and it feels really save to walk almost everywhere at any time. It is a strange but beautiful city with lots of old colonial houses and other buildings, some restored, but most outlived. During the day the streets are filled with Cubans, tourists and all kinds of transportation. You see a lot of old cars, some old-timers, some new cars, very old busses/trucks, very new tourist busses, bicycles, hors-cars and more. Although there is usually a lot of movement on the streets you will rarely find a traffic-jam and it is more easy to find a four way road with only 2 cars on it.
During the evening most streets get dark (there are not a lot of streetlights in the city, or even in whole Cuba) and quite from traffic, but the people and more the Cubans stay out very late.
 
On a beautiful bus-ride, with a well organized, semi tourist bus-service that operates through most of Cuba and connects the most touristy places, I went to Viñales. Viñales is a countryside village in an area full tobacco and café plantations. An other attraction there are the so called Mogotes, steep limestone mountains which are spread in the countryside like big rocks. The Mogotes attract rock-climbers and the surrounding attracts hikers. Walking on the small trails between the fields and the Mogotes feels like walking back at least 60 years in time. Off course I also visited a small tobacco farm, where the owner, like al of them, has to sell his harvest at fixed prices to the government. But for the tourists (and to earn a bit more) he still sells a few really hand made cigars. He showed us how he makes them and I was surprised to see that they use a little bit of honey to glue the last leaf.
 
From the calmness and fresh air in Viñales I went to the busy streets of Trinidad. During the day the streets were hot from the sun and during the night hot with temptation.
The center of Trinidad has a pretty core with restored colonial buildings and cobbled streets. This center is already protected since 1950, when precedent Batista decided that it was so beautiful that it should be conserved for ever. Over 40 years this was a curse on the development of the small city, but then it slowly became known by tourists. Now the streets of Trinidad are each day filled with busloads of tourists and Cubans who try to sell them all kind of souvenirs and services. However, when the sun goes down, the Cuban live starts again in the shadows in the streets. During the evening the streets get quite and dark again, but during the night the Cubans take back their whole city. People are walking around, dressed nicely (especially the women), talking and flirting. When they meet up with friends they go to dance where the music is. A popular place for this is Casa de La Musica , or in front off it. Here often plays live music and I’ve seen there the best salsa dancing I’ve ever seen live. When the music stops outside the dancing continues inside. Although there is no roof, it can become hot inside, where they don’t only play salsa but also more pop-music and the new popular raggaton music. Be careful with girls who show to much interest in you and are quickly in emptying the tins of beer you offer them. Most of the time this are ‘jineteras’, women who don’t have to be prostitutes, but do like you more because of your money than for your looks or kindness. Sometimes they only want a good night, but often they would like to get some presents or even a little bit of money in return for their company and/or sex.
The police in Trinidad seems very keen to arrest these jineteras and even goes into the discothèques. But the jineteras usually have a lot of friends and know their ways around.
If you’re in Trinidad, don’t forget to bring a short visit to the pretty, little beach village La Boca. You do this best at the hottest moment during the day, when all the tourists fill the city core and you can take a cool swim.
 
From the famous Trinidad I went to the lesser known city of Camagüey.
To mislead pirates who would like to enter the city, they had made the streets not in straight lines. But to prevent that tourists would get lost too, they now put a lot of signs and maps in the streets.
The city is known for its big ceramic vases, which where used to storage rainwater for the dry periods. Nowadays however there are hardly any vases left. Part of this reason might be the Cuban fight against the dengue mosquito. In most city’s hang signs to tell the people how to deal with standing water. They have to seal it or change it every second day. If they don’t do this they’re not loyal to the government and their own family and friends. Sometimes the government even sprays poison in the streets!
Back to Camagüey, because I had a better time here than in Trinidad. With a lot of colonial buildings, but less tourists to visit, the city feels more real. Even during the day you see still more Cubans in the streets than tourists. During the evening/night there are different shows and disco’s to go to, but you can also sit on a terrace on the side of a road and watch the dressed up, mostly young, Cuban men and women strolling through the streets, flirting with their clothes and moves.
With less tourists than in Trinidad you get less hassled with all kind of stupid offers. 
 
From Camagüey it took some effort to get to Santa Clara, know as the city where Che Guevara won the most important battle of the 1958/59 fight for the revolution. Because of the inconvenient bus-schedule I had no time to visit the monument of the revolution outside the city. But by evening I’ve seen the monument of Tren Blindado. This is the location were one of the most important fights took place. I’ve also seen some of the city center and surrounding and again it seems a pretty and nice city. I slept that night in a very old fashion romantic room, with old furniture, high ceilings and a small balcony with great view over Plaza Fidel.
 
From Santa Clara it was easy to get to Varadero, after Havana, the second most popular destination for tourists. Although Havana still has its own colonial charm and Cuban street live, Varadero looks in nothing like a Cuban city. It is spread out over an small, but 18km long peninsula that goes from west to east and has a beautiful beach on the north side. Most of this peninsula is filled with a highway, hotels and big resorts.  From the west to the east everything on the peninsula gets more and more expensive, with the biggest and most expensive, all inclusive beach resorts at the very east. I do have to admit that I have seen there one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Very serene and not crowded at all. Probably because of the prices. Also because of these prices and apparently because there exist some apartheid rules against Cubans and Cuban contact with foreigners, the only Cubans on the beach, were the ones who tried to sell souvenirs. Luckily I did see some Cuban families on the west end of the Peninsula.
Except from the very nice beach, which is for some people enough, I didn’t see any reason why I would like to stay here. There are no nice Plaza’s, there is no boulevard to stroll and watch people and there seem not to be enough Cubans to spice up the night live. I can easily believe that the night live that you will have here will depend a lot on resort where you stay and the people who stay there with you. No, this fake place for wealthy tourists is nothing for a casual backpacker. I couldn’t be bothered with spending a night there.
 
Instead I went to Matanzas. Although this wasn’t the only reason to visit Matanzas, not even together with the fact that in 1628 the Dutch admiral Piet Hein sunk here in the bay a part of the Spanish silver fleet. No, my biggest reason was the so called ‘Hersey Tren’ or chocolate train. Before the Cuban revolution Milton Hersy, from the Hersy family that owns the famous chocolate fabric with the same name in Pennsylvania, established here the first electric railway service of Cuba. He used this to transport sugar(cane) and later also people from Matanzas to Havana. The train service doesn’t belong to Hersy anymore, but it still runs and as a semi addictive to chocolate I felt that I had to take this train.
The very old train took us in a little more than 3 hour through a beautiful rustic countryside landscape. During the journey we made more than 20 short stops, under which one at the old station from Hersy and at these stops it were mostly farmers who went on and of the train. On one of the stops there also came a few young men in the train with birds in small cages. This brings me to a contradiction which I noticed in Cuba; Although there is a lot of beautiful nature, I haven’t seen much birds in the streets, or even in the air? Is this because they catch them, or because the government is spraying poison in some of the Cuban streets, against mosquito’s and is the catching of birds again a result of this? It is the first Latin American country where I’ve seen so many houses with birds in small cages next to their door, but so less birds outside.
 
Then I was back in Havana. One more afternoon and night and my Cuban adventure would be over. I spend this time to stroll through the city and observe the street-live. I was already far over my budget for this trip and needed to save my last tourist-pesos to pay the airport tax.
 
So at the end of these 9 full days in Cuba, did I find what I was looking for? Did I get al my answers? No, nine days was to short to fully understand Cuba. But I also guess that probably a few weeks will be to short as well to understand the complex mysteries of Cuba and its inhabitants.
I will try to explain some of them based on my experiences and from my own point of view, which can be totally different then that of someone else.
 
First about safety; During my time in Cuba I never felt unsafe, not even in evenings, walking through the badly lighted streets. This is something from which a lot of other Latin American city’s can take a great example! Especially the colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala, which is far more touristy, rich, but also unsafe. I dare to say that it is saver to travel through Cuba than it is to travel through Guatemala or even Peru.
 
During my stay I mostly slept in ‘Casas Particulares’. These are rooms in family houses which are out rented to tourists. You often pay 20 to 30 CUC for these rooms, no matter if you sleep there alone or with a max. of two people. The price is excl. food which you can often buy for 7 CUC for good dinner and 3 CUC for breakfast. This makes that when you travel on your own, you easily spend 30 CUC a day without even going out. By the way, from this money you pay, the family has to pay each month a fixed amount of money to the government, no matter if they had guest or not.
The only alternatives you have for getting food are the restaurants or so called family owned paladeras. The quality of food in less expensive restaurants is often not good and both are often still to expensive for what you get. A recommendation for backpackers who don’t want to eat in the family houses is to eat snacks and fruits, which are sold on the streets or markets for Cuban pesos. The quality of this food is sometimes the same as in the restaurants, but far cheaper. Drinks start with 1 Cuban peso a cup (often made from the bottom of a empty rum bottle), sandwiches go from 1 to 5 pesos, depending on the sandwich and place where you buy it and for 5 peso’s you also have something with a lot of cheese and which they call a pizza…
If you are with two people, eat and drink this way and don’t travel to fast, there is still a way to have a beautiful and cheap vacation in Cuba.
 
More about the cigars, society, rum and hot temperament of the Cubans.
In Cuba you do see more people smoking cigars than in an average country, but far not everyone smokes cigars. Also cigarettes are popular for whoever can pay for them and I think that there’s the difference; In most countries you need to be wealthy to smoke cigars, in Cuba you can see a poor guy in the street without a job, but with a fat cigar in his mouth. An interesting note to ad, is that Castro stopped smoking cigars in 1985, because of health conditions…
 
If you think that the communist system makes live easy for the Cubans, think twice Cubans don’t have an easy live at all! Yes, they do get a place to stay, free healthcare (only inside a hospital and even for plastic surgery!) and free schooling, but what benefits do you get from this if there aren’t enough houses to live in, almost no medication and in school you still have to pay for your own pen and notebook? Ad to this that the average salary for all Cubans is around 15 CUC a month and you know what I mean.
Because of the communist system, it hardly makes a difference what kind of job you have or how hard you have to work. A woman behind the reception earns around 14 CUC and a guy from a bicycle-taxi earns maybe 16 CUC, because his work involves more physical labor. The minimum salary is around 10 CUC and a max. you might be earning in a very high function, would still not be more than 35 CUC. The system that everyone is equal may sound nice, but because of this you don’t create motivation to work harder, give better service or to work more efficient. Restaurants for example don’t need costumers and for that don’t have to care to much about their service. Probably the reason why the food in the Casas Particulares is often very good, they do need their costumers…
 
Inefficiency makes that there is a short on almost everything in Cuba, except for cigars and rum. But the Cubans are very inventive and will find a use for everything they do have. I’ve seen kids playing baseball, a very popular sport in Cuba, with a piece of wood and the top of a plastic bottle.
 
However the Cubans don’t have an easy live, they do know how to party, make fun and dance the best salsa I’ve seen on the street! They dance with everyone they like to dance with, are not shy at all and prefer a direct approach. It is said that dance and sex are so popular, because these are the view pleasures Cubans can get for free and are not controlled by Castro. Although as a foreigner you have to keep in mind that the government doesn’t really likes it when Cubans hang around with you. Officially this is to prevent prostitution and to do this there are different rules and even laws for Cuban interaction with foreigners! What these mean can be used different in every city and to any individual. Although officially denied, the darker the skin of the Cuban, the more tight the rules will be used. But if all of this all works…?
During the party’s the favorite drinks are Cuban rum, made from sugarcane and beer, both more or less equally popular. Often it is easier to get rum or beer than to get a softdrink. This even accounts for small grocery shops or small shops at the bus terminals.
The Cuban parties can last the whole night and sometimes I was wondering when they sleep?
 
Yes, Cubans seem very active people and are apparently good workers. Which is in contradiction with the fact that it makes no difference for them. This more energetic live-stile makes them different from the average lazy Caribbean culture.
It is sad that these people full of live have to live under such poor conditions and it is a miracle that this country still functions. To me it seems that this country isn’t build on sharing everything and working together on a better future. No, Cuba seems to be build on fear. Fear to have critics on a system that doesn’t work. Fear that a government spy will hear about your critics and that you will go to jail for betraying the revolution and your country.
 
Does all this mean that Cuban isn’t a good country to go traveling? No, for sure not. Lose from all the politics it is a beautiful, interesting, and lively country. Also the money from tourism is now the countries biggest income. Close followed by the money that relatives from the US send into Cuba and putting Cuba’s own sugar industry on the third place. It is now the foreign money that prevent Cubans from really starving. Even Castro admits that the Americans are good for something. Because of the importance of tourism for the countries economy, tourists are well protected and get different privileges in special tourist areas.
 
My final advise however will be to travel also off the tourist track and go as a couple on a romantic journey trough the country. The colonial city’s and houses make great ambiance for old fashion romance. As a couple you save money on accommodation and you always have someone to dance with during the lively nights. Even the cheaper second class bus service is aloud to sell only 2 seats to foreigners, seats 21 and 22.
One day I will go back…

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