Guest Post: 9 Things you should be aware of when hitchhiking and backpacking in Cuba – Part 2
In this week’s guest post… we join Phoebe to discover the advantages and disadvantages of hitchhiking and backpacking in Cuba on a budget and we take a closer look at transport and scams that travellers need to be aware of …
6) Bad news… hitchhiking in Cuba is illegal!
Transport is very difficult in Cuba and the state seems to have an iron grip over the modes of long-distance travel that are a.) available and b.) legal.
It is illegal for a Cuban to allow a foreigner to ride in their car unless they have a license. On the quieter roads we managed to get a few lifts, but do not expect anything similar where there is a chance of getting caught. It will not be the tourist who will get fined, but the Cuban and it may well be half their monthly salary.
7) Rely on buses, 4x4s, trucks & trains instead
The bus company, Viazul, which is designated solely for tourists and any rental options are very expensive and thus tourists who look for the cheap (and more adventurous) options have the following: 4x4s, the old Soviet trucks known as camiones and trains.
The 4x4s and camiones work in very much the same way – there is a point (la salida) within the town where they all leave from. They wait to be entirely full to bursting before departure and are incredibly slow yet the experience is wonderful – a chance to get to really talk to the Cubans, understand a little more about their culture and country, get inside information and see the island at its most intimate. They too are very cheap – the camiones charge about 60 pence for a four-hour journey, while the 4x4s are a little more expensive but still perfect for the shoestring traveller.
The trains are similar – slow and uncomfortable but if you have the time, really rather romantic once you’ve become accustomed to the prong sticking into your back from the decrepit seat or the terrible toilet conditions. Train ticket pricing is a little subject to change and very much dependent on whether the ticket office employee would like to take home a little more money that day or not…
8) Various transport options in cities
Within cities and towns, travel is easy – there are horse-drawn carriages, rickshaws (bicitaxis), and local buses (guaguas) that will make short trips between towns. Of course, there is also the option of riding the old American cars, but more often than not, these are specifically aimed at tourists and will charge an extortionate rate.
9) Look out for the friendly and outgoing jineteros
In the larger cities, there is an embedded and widespread culture of jineterismo, a category of illegal activities in the tourism sector that typically bring economic gains to the Cuban.
The female jinetera almost always sells sex while the male jinetero sells counterfeit goods and cigars to naive tourists who think they are getting a good deal. The typical jinetero is friendly, out-going and speaks English. He will know your city or have a little anecdote to remark to ease you into conversation and let down your guard ever so slightly – “Ahh Manchester! Manchester United, Oasis, fish and chips!” etc etc. After a few moments of conversation he will inevitably have a lightbulb moment: he will have a show that night to which you must go, or his friend is selling cigars for a much better price than the Partagas Factory. It is very easy to be fooled – a first-class example of jineterismo will be seamlessly rehearsed and utterly infallible. Even as an experienced and cautious traveller, I have been fooled.
On the cigar occasion, we were happily strolling down one of Havana’s dilapidated streets when a rickshaw bicitaxi fell onto its side after hitting a pothole. We helped the driver to lift it and sent him on his way. A passerby began to joke with us: “Big muscles! So strong! You like Cuba? Where you from?” He was young, friendly and conversed with us for a short while, making recommendations. He then asked if we were interested in buying cigars and provided the “unmissable” opportunity – for one day only, a cigar cooperative was selling off its cigars. There is an unconfirmed rumour that as a gift, each cigar worker in the factory on a set day of the year is given a box of cigars to do with as they please and as luck would have it, there were just a few hours left to take advantage of the deal. Out of curiosity we followed the Cuban six flights of stairs up a dark apartment block and into a tiny studio flat where a table sat with dozens of boxes of cigars of all brands and all sizes. Undoubtedly, they were either cast-offs or had been illegally smuggled out of the factory. When the price was finally lowered to a “bargain”, I bought a box of Romeo y Julietas, not for the cigars (that on later inspection were dry and green in some areas) but for the beautiful box that was exactly the same as those being sold for huge prices in the factory shop. It is a prime example of the Cuban black market at work and also of the commission system that is nationally practised (and not always illegal). Essentially, if someone goes out of their way to let you in on a “secret” opportunity that has some sense of urgency and appears far too good to be true, then it most likely both exactly that and also illegal.
Be wary of feeling obliged to part with money and never be afraid to remove yourself from a situation regardless of whatever often emotional story you are being told (pregnant wife, anniversary, child’s birthday etc).
written by: Phoebe Whitehouse
“As an undergraduate in Spanish, my greatest love is putting my language into practice. I have backpacked extensively in Spain and Latin America and have also lived in Northern Chile for a year. For me, backpacking is about living, eating and breathing the local way.”
visit Phoebe’s blog: phoebeswanderlust.wordpress.com