You can’t buy tickets at the bus station. You can only go there an hour before it leaves and hope for cancellations. Otherwise you have to buy them here, my girlfriend and I were told by the travel agent at Hotel Telegraph on our first trip to Cuba.
There are three ways to confuse a tourist: by giving distorted information, providing misleading information and simply telling a seeming untruth, the effects of which are only discovered in retrospect.
After having experienced the former two a couple of times, we then had to deal with the fallout of the latter. Due to having given us this misleading information, the travel agent has us staying another two days in Havana – which of course isn’t a big problem, since there are worse places to spend your vacation than in this highly mythical and very beautiful city.
However, it makes us doubt everything everyone says all the time, which as a fact of the matter, one should, To retrieve correct information in Latin America you have to go to many different sources. In the end, you choose the option that comes up most often and is the most likely factor.
What appears to us to be an unusual regime has made many unlikely options the applicable ones.
Like the fact that tourists can’t use the same regional buses as the locals, that local buses costs about five cents, if you manage to figure out where they go or where they stop, and that you can take a collective taxi between cities and pay five dollars for a two and a half hour ride if you are just persistent enough.
Transportation issues aside, like the vast majority of tourists visiting the country, we start our Cuban adventure in Havana. For a cigar smoker Cuba in general and its capital in particular is a dream destination. The Dominican Republic has the numbers, Nicaragua is the new thing, but Cuba has the history. Wherever you go, the history of tobacco mixes with its complicated political history.
This is the one Fidel Castro smokes and this is the one that Che Guevara smoked, says basically every sales person in the official Havana stores, as well as the less legal parties, pointing at boxes of Cohibas and Montecristo, respectively.
Tobacco is in the blood of the Cubans and once you have experienced the culture of the capital by smoking a cigar at Hotel Nacional, visiting the Old Town, listening to music at Buena Vista Social Club or one of the many jazz clubs around town, your next stop ought to be dinar del Rio in the west part of the country.
When people visit west Cuba they mainly go to two places: Maria la Gorda, on the very tip of the island and the Vinales Valley.
Maria la Gorda has land based adventures like hiking, biking and horseback riding. Considering our interest in tobacco , we skip Maria LA Gorda and go to Pinar del Rio, about half an hour away from Vinales, in order to get closer to the fields.
We are looking for someone to drive us to a tobacco farmer. Do you know anyone? We ask the proprietor of the particular case in which we are staying. Of course he does. Since everybody knows everyone, somebody knows someone who can show you around, or to the right place. That Cuba for you.
We’ll have a car for you tomorrow morning, we have an old, Fifties style American car waiting for us outside the door. We take a ride and visit a farmer 20 minutes outside the city, after which we continue to Vinales to see the sights.
In itself, Pinar del Rio is quite an impersonal town, so after having satisfied our appetite for tobacco and scenic landscapes we decide to head to Varadero, a 22 kilometre long beach about two hours east of Havana.
Having learned from our prior mistakes we pay the local bus station a visit and find out the price of a bus ticket. Then we go and talk to the taxi hustlers. A Cuban lady, 1,55 metres tall, helps us to get the right price – hissing, swearing and almost pulling us away when a hustler almost twice her height, gives us what she considers to be an outrageous tourist price.
We settle for $25 to Havana in a private taxi, since we are not sure if my girlfriend is going to make it any further, due to what we later find out is salmonella poisoning. When we decide to go all the way to Varadero , the price upon arrival suddenly becomes $55, even though it only meant driving half the distance farther. And the next discussion begins.
I live in Havana, and now I have to go back! The driver argues. It costs me money. But you can’t change the fee in the middle of the trip! I responded. You should have told me before! I also saw a lot of people along the way hitching rides, so you are definitely going to get paid. No, I can’t take any passengers! What? Why? I can’t.
I never found out why he can’t pick them up, because the driver won’t explain. But, of course, I realise that it was a rookie mistake on my part not to settle on a price before changing the route, but then again, the taximeter is not existent. I believe I have the upper hand, and I’d love to tell you that I keep my cool and only pay him $40, which I’d intended to do, but I would be lying.
Varadero is nothing other than paradise. The peninsula is very narrow, which means that almost all cash particulars are located within two minutes walk from this fantastic beach and its three shades of tropical green water. Twenty two kilometres long, it’s impossible for the beach to be crowded, which creates a feeling of seclusion, despite it being one of Cuba’s more common hot spots for tourists.
Along the peninsula’s main drag, a block away from the beach, there are a couple of Habano stores, and at the markets you can buy cheap humidors and other cigar related paraphernalia.
We spend our days swimming, drinking Pina coladas and smoking cigars – in the beach chairs during the day; while listening to salsa bands in bars at night. After a week of pure relaxation, we continue down to our last stop of our month-long stay, Trinidad, a historical city with cosy cobblestoned alleys meandering up the hill on which the Old Town is situated.
The scene is as if taken from a Forties movie, with bike taxis, horses and carriages transporting tourists, as well as goods for restaurants and supermarkets, and a salsa band playing on the curb, leaned up against a house painted the typical bright blue colour of Cuba.
We see smiling Western tourists pass by – who are no doubt thinking, This is what I came for. This is the real Cuba. A market offering instruments, clothes and souvenirs takes up a couple of blocks, and around every third or fourth corner, we are offered black market cigars, which we consider buying since the prices in the official stores are more or less European.
They are perfectly legal, the sellers say to convince us. Just a lot cheaper than in the official stores. It’s a postcard, a picture, frozen in time, of what we expect Cubans to be. As we travel back to Havana in a minivan we summarise our experience. We conclude that despite the initial hiccup our transportation worked out fairly smoothly at least once we had figured out the system.
Suddenly we see a tourist bus parked up ahead. People are disembarking from it, cameras and phones in hand crossing the road without paying attention to the traffic around them. Equally as suddenly, our driver abruptly steers away from a vulture feeding on something red-coloured on the road.
Oh wow, he missed the vulture but hit a crab sitting there with its claws in a fighting position!
That’s when we noticed that the road is all red and what the red colour actually is. Its thousand and thousand red crabs, run over and crushed. It’s an absolute blood bath, and we realise what the tourists up ahead are documenting. Why is nobody here trying to catch the crabs to sell them? I ask my girlfriend. It could be a golden opportunity.
This macabre scene of lost entrepreneurship goes on for 15 minutes, and we encounter it again a bit further up the road. It might be a morbid way to end a trip, but at the same time, very hard to beat. Cuba is hard to forget, in many ways.