Planet Cuba - Avoiding the Hustle

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Cuban local/tourist relationship is a little unbalanced to say the least. In many areas of Havana and all over Cuba tourism is booming and the presence of tourism comes with its struggles. I wrote about the struggles we faced in on the magnetic island of Cuba in An introduction to Cuba. Where I shared some harsh truths about the things we were told and came to understand during our time spent in Cuba.



Now, I know that Cuba isn't the secluded little island that many once thought it was and the Cuban people are so tactful in their way of authentic Cuban life, but if there's one thing we can all agree on about Cuba it's that the hustle is very real. And being a tourist, no matter how wealthy you are makes you a prime target to be hustled.

Cuba at a glance

 ✓ Language: Spanish

✓ Currency: The CUC or the Cuban Peso 

✓ Street food: $1-$5  

  Restaurant food: $10 - Always the same on offer

 ✓ Getting around: The Viazul is the main tourist bus service

 ✓ Places of interest: Havana, Trinidad, Playa Larga and Playa Giron

All prices in US Dollar


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The daily storm rolling in - Welcome to wet season in the tropics

Here's the ultimate guide to avoiding the hustle in Cuba. The island that I'm still left asking a million questions about.


The streets of Trinidad


Casas Particulares

After arriving in Cuba we very quickly came to understand that the only real way to experience Cuba is by staying in Casa Particulars. Casas in Cuba are the homes of the Cuban people that are open to tourists - prices and nightly rates vary and I'm sure if you visit Havana more than once you'll manage to get a different nightly rate at the same Casa the second time round.

We booked our first Casa Particular on HostelWorld from London before arriving, for that added sense of security when arriving in a new country. After our first night we'd find our own that was our plan from the offset. I recommend going down this route and having an address for your taxi driver at the airport. Havana is large and confusing especially at night.

Trinidad

Upon arrival in Havana we were willing to settle for $25-$30  per night for a casa, you should know $20 is the going rate per room per night across Cuba. Competition is high and prices are more competitive than you may think.

By choosing a Casa you are directly impacting the Cuban locals rather than the government and  the authorities that run the luxury tourist hotels.

Most backpackers and budget travellers also choose this option for the taste of Cuban Culture you get to experience. The insight into Cuban life you experience from staying in a Casa is unrivaled. No hotel experience in Cuba can give you this level of insight.

Hotels in Cuba are also overpriced and very unauthentic - don't get caught in a tourist trap.

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Playa Larga - The ultimate tropical peninsular 


Playa Giron, Caribbean beach paradise 


The deal with taxis

There are taxis galore in Cuba. In every town and city you will find an abundance of multi-coloured taxis. Many are vintage cars - keep this in mind when paying more for a vintage car tour.

Prices don't really fluctuate with Cuban taxis and small journey can often cost you the same as a much longer journey. At the risk of sounding controversial $10 for a 10 minute taxi in Havana and in Cuba generally is an exploitation. We joked at the time saying London prices but it really is London prices.

Most taxis in Cuba are extortionate and don't be shocked if you are taken to a car that isn't owned or driven by the person you've just negotiated with. There's a rank-like waiting system in Cuba and often in Havana the fare is passed to the person at the front of the queue. If there's one thing that could sum up that community feel of the greater good in Cuba it's the taxi system.

Look out for coco taxis they are usually better value


The contrast been preserved and neglected is ever present in Cuba


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Havana's architecture 

Guides and new 'friends'

Everyone in Cuba wants to be your friend. Some genuine, some genuinely not. As a tourist in Cuba you always feel that divide between the locals and yourself. No matter how close you feel you have gotten to a person you're always held at arms length.

Avoid being hustled by guides on the street hoping to show you a restaurant or a bar or an area of the city. Although the people of Cuba are friendly they are looking for a tip - tipping and donations do not promote sustainable tourism and no economy can survive purely on tourists tipping and good will.

Trinidad

This goes for photographs too, many people will happily pose for a photo for tourists but not without a tip. A rule I always live by is - if the locals don't tip, you shouldn't be either. It is unsustainable for the local economy and does not promote healthy tourism relationships.

During your time in Cuba you will be told it is a national holiday. Everyone is told it is a national holiday no matter what time of year you choose to visit the island. Because it is a Cuban 'national holiday' you can purchase cigars for cheap - tax free even. This is not true and one of the biggest hustles in Havana.


Contrasting Havana

Looking to buy some cheap Cohibas? You're in luck because for tourists its a national holiday, not. 


The cigar hustle is a big one in Cuba and almost everyone I've spoken to who has been to Cuba has told me about the national Cuban holiday and cooperativas. A cooperativa is basically a collection of people who work within the cigar industry that can legally sell cigars without tax and for a cheaper price, whether this is true or not I do not know.

This is a cigar tourist scam - and you will be taken to a house or room where you are prompted to buy cigars. Often fakes, this is the biggest and most successful hustle in Cuba. Avoid the word cooperitiva like the plague.


There is no national holiday and the 'cooperativa' cigar scam catches most out


Havana

The Viazul

The Viazul is the only bus company that operates in Cuba and it's set up primarily and unsurprisingly for tourists only. Cuban national's can't travel on this service so the Viazul bus is usually filled with other tourists and backpackers heading to various areas of the Island.

The Viazul bus system across Cuba works on a first come first served basis and don't be surprised if you find yourself stood in a two hour queue to get hold of a ticket, especially at the Havana Bus Station.

Trinidad and a Mogote

From the burning beaches of Trinidad we travelled on The Viazul to Playa Larga upon our return to Havana. The journeys are pleasant and comfortable but we were often taken to a restaurant on route and it was strongly suggested we eat. Guess what? Its just another tourist hustle and happens regularly across Central and South America too.

The Viazul is okay value for money, most of the journeys we took were between 4 and 6 hours. There are better value bus services in the world but there are worse value to. Plus it is very rare tourists are able to travel on Cuban local buses, we managed twice and believe me the price is worlds apart.

Occasionally it works out cheaper for you to join with another group or due heading back to Havana and pay for a collectivo taxi to take you to your casa.


Collectivo transport and taxis are very common in Cuba and by jumping in with other backpackers and locals you may pay a couple of CUC more but you also may save on the hefty Viazul prices.


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Viñales - The capital of hustle

Is usually always on any Cuban tourist bucket list, the geological Mogotes, tobacco farming and rainy ecosystem attract a large number of tourists into the mountainous region. Once you arrive the only way of leaving is to catch the next Viazul the following day. From my experience and others we met getting Cuban public transport from Viñales  is almost impossible. Buses will simply drive past tourists.

Hiking in Viñales is a great free activity to do to save some cash


In Viñales there is a desperation for tourism. You sense it the second you step off the Viazul bus. The economic benefits of tourism and all the exploitation that comes with it are evident and all around you. There is a tourist premium for everything and you are expected to pay it. The town of Viñales from what I experienced is very overdependent on tourism. Bare this in mind when questioning the inflated costs and don't be afraid to question whether your presence is helping or harming the people of Viñales.

Don't avoid visiting Viñales just bare the need for tourism in mind once you arrive.


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Viñales sunset featuring too many power lines but burning skies

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Hiking Viñales, Cuba - a great way to see Viñales without spending a fortune



From the baking heat in the streets of Havana Vieja to way up high trekking in Viñales, Cuba provokes so many thoughts. The daily hustle is part of the Cuban heart beat and you almost get used to the constant battle against the hustle. 

A key point to make about Cuba and Havana is undoubtedly busy and bustling but it is far from dangerous. When I arrived in Cuba I initially worried for my safety when I saw the level of poverty in some areas  of Havana. It quickly became apparent to me that although Havana may feel poor in areas it is rich in culture and community and far from dangerous for tourists.


In fact, although Downtown Havana is a hustler's paradise I never once felt in danger or saw any tourist directed crime. From arriving in the middle of the night and experiencing the longest immigration and baggage collection in the history of travel, then to realising how safe Cuba truly is.

Viñales was the one part of Cuba where I really felt exhausted from the hustle the people I met seemed to have tapped into such an exploitative version of tourism, in many ways the economy in Viñales thrived on tourism and I wouldn't necessarily say that was a good thing.  We saw something similar in Havana, although tourism in Havana felt a little more natural.

Playa Larga

The hustle in Cuba is part of its rhythm and although frustrating at times - especially for backpackers and budget travellers it has become part of the Cuban culture that so many outsiders are attracted to. So yes, the hustle is real and I'm not too sure its avoidable but keep these thoughts in mind to avoid the major hustles and scams in Cuba.


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