I didn’t like Cuba. I have never found myself in a country willing the days of my trip to go faster, and wishing that my flight was sooner. But that was how I felt after four days in Havana.
Of course there were good moments: squealing as we watched the waves crash over the sea wall on our walk home from a night out, cruising along in a convertible along the beach, horse-riding in Vinales, buying bottles of Havana Rum for $7.00, and I guess getting asked to marry Pedro. But we got off to a bad start, and I feel that unfortunately it set the mood for our trip. Plus the food was shite. =P
Firstly, we were flying to Havana from Cancun, Mexico. We got to the airport extra early to try and ensure that everything went smoothly. We found the queue for our airline, and took our place in line. A couple of men were standing at the front of the line with clipboards, and said that we needed Cuban tourist cards. They only accepted cash. We didn’t have enough. We couldn’t get in the queue without one. I ran to the ATM. It didn’t work. I ran to the other end of the terminal and got cash out. Came back, paid, papers were completed, everything good…
Except the queue hadn’t moved. At all. And it was stressing me out.
One of our friends had told us that some airlines require you to have your Mexican tourist exit card processed at a separate desk before you go to the check-in counter, and some do it at the counter. No-one could tell me which it was for us. I asked the people from the airline herding us like cattle. No answer. I went to the info desk. They couldn’t tell me. I was worried that we’d get to the front of the line and they would tell us that we had to get our exit cards processed first, and we’d be back at square one.
I went to our InterJet airline desk, and waited ten minutes in a line of two people, and didn’t get served. But I did see a sign for Cuban tourist cards, advertising them for a fraction of the price that we had paid the two gentleman. Not happy, Jan.
I stormed back and confronted them, and they admitted that they weren’t in fact from the airline as we’d stupidly assumed, but from a travel agency. What annoyed me the most was that we had enough cash for the correct price of the cards – I had just taken out additional cash, and would have gotten charged additional bank fees because they were extorting us and we were too naive to know better. But we paid for “convenience”. If I had had waited in the InterJet line, I would still be waiting.
And that’s how it felt for most of our trip. That we were just seen as cash cows, and people were trying to get as much out of us as they could.
Unreliable Canadian Cards
When we arrived at Havana airport, we discovered that none of our Canadian cards worked. None. I had to resort to using a cash advance on my Australian credit card which was not ideal. There was no wi-fi so we couldn’t call any of the banks. And when we later tried to log in to our accounts using expensive and painfully slow wi-fi at the casa to shuffle funds we got errors. Banks just don’t like Cuba I suppose.
No Service with a Smile
There is also no such thing as customer service. The queues were endless. For everything. Never any urgency to complete a task. There would be a line of 20 people waiting in the “supermarket” (usually just a few aisles for mayonnaise, baby food, cereal, and alcohol), and a local would just casually walk up, strike up a conversation with the cashier, and get served before everyone else.
We had bought bus tickets from Havana to Vinales online through Viazul. We walked for 1.5 hours the day before our trip to make sure that we were at the right place, that the ticket on Pete’s phone was adequate, that we were good to go. The guy at the service desk looked at the online ticket, nodded at us and waved us on like we’d wasted his time. We took the opportunity to have a few drinks at the bar, then made our way back to the casa feeling positive about our trip the next day.
But alas. We arrived at the bus station extra early. Pete was third in the queue to check-in when our bus got called up. The lady looked a our tickets on his phone, typed something in her computer, screwed up her face, and motioned Pete to move aside out of the way without saying a word. This happened to about 15 tourists, and we all stood to the side, waiting patiently while other people were successfully checked-in and went to the gate. A man working the desk looked at each of our tickets and started running around, and we thought he was sorting it out. Then he disappeared. People started boarding the bus. Locals who hadn’t been to the check-in counter walked straight on. The customer service lady casually walked away from the desk and started talking to a family and playing with their child. We waited. The man returned and flat our ignored me when I asked what was going on, in English and in Spanish. Our bus left without us.
The man turned the large group of gringos, and spoke to a man amongst us who spoke Spanish (and whom later translated to us). Apparently the tickets we had bought online were “fake”. We could go to an office on the other side of town for a refund. And then he walked away, leaving the customer service desk empty.
I was livid. It was absolute BS. It was a fake ticket but we could get a refund? The bus was full when it left, so either they overbooked the bus, or they let fifteen of their friends on in seats that we’d paid for. We ended up partnering up with another couple who were going to Vinales and got a collectivo for the same price per person as the bus.
Buildings and Automobiles
The whole time we were in Havana, Pedro and I mused about how strange it felt. Like humans had disappeared from the city in the 1950’s, and had just returned. The city was full of glorious old buildings in complete disrepair. It was colorful in parts, and the people seemed happy, but it was so hard to comprehend. Particularly in Vedado where huge crumbling mansions lined the streets. It would have been beautiful in its heyday.
There were plenty of lessons that we learnt while we were in Cuba, and I think if we went again we would have a completely different (read: positive) experience ( I would hope!). Here are the main ones:
- Take cash to exchange at the airport. Don’t assume your cards will work.
- When you exchange money, get some CUC as well as pesos. That way you can try all the street food, and pay as much as the locals do.
- Don’t bother booking accommodation for anywhere except perhaps Havana. There are casas everywhere, and you can check them out before committing to stay, and can negotiate the price.
- Don’t book buses online. In fact don’t bother with buses. Jump in a collectivo for the same price. Viazul sucks.
- Buy everything you need before you get there (hats, sunscreen, shampoo, razors etc.) because you might not be able to find it in Cuba, and if you can it will cost you a small fortune.