“We’d like to get bus tickets for tomorrow to Viñales,” I said in my (what I’m supposing is) heavily accented Spanish.
“I can’t understand you,” the woman behind the hotel desk said, rolling her eyes.
I tried again in English.
“I still can’t understand you,” the concierge replied in perfect English. I tapped my foot in frustration. I know my Spanish isn’t great but I can certainly speak English.
I repeated myself, this time in Spanish again.
She finally understood me.
Or bothered to listen.
“It’s $25 each for the ticket.”
I looked sideways at Dave. We’d been told by our host at the Casa Particular that it was only $11 each. And for a two hour bus ride, $11 even seemed a little dear. We’d been bussing all through South America since January and in some places it only cost $10 for a 12 hour bus trip.
“We’ve been told it’s $11 a ticket,” I said calmly, looking the woman directly in the eyes.
She glanced away. “All those tickets have sold out. There’s only the $25 tickets left.”
I sighed. She wasn’t going to budge. “How much would it cost to get a bus to the station? We’ll go there and inquire.”
“Ten dollars each way,” she replied.
I had a hunch she was lying but how could I tell? We’d only arrived in Havana the night before and we’d already paid our taxi driver $37 for the 20 minute ride from the airport. Our host told us later that it should’ve cost $25.
So I was vaguely aware of getting scammed but what if she was telling the truth? It’d cost us the same price to journey out to the bus station to purchase our tickets in advance, when we could just buy them now.
I relented, “But we’ll need a receipt,” I said.
“Oh we don’t have any receipts,” the woman waved at her desk on which sat a phone and a phone book; nothing else.
I turned to Dave, “This is dodgy. I don’t want to pay. What if we don’t get a seat on the bus tomorrow and waste $50?”
I tried to speak in a whisper but at this point I was beyond caring. Surprisingly, she did actually understand my muttered, extremely fast English this time around, and I could feel her eyes boring into me.
“This is the way things operate here I guess,” Dave said, smiling politely at the lady. In a huff I handed over the $50 and we were told to meet there the next day at 9am for our bus.
When we returned to the Casa Particular, our kind host Alberto told us what I had suspected – we’d been ripped off. The woman had clearly pocketed the extra $28 she’d made from us.
Kindly, Alberto said he’d go with us to the hotel in the morning to make sure we got on the bus.
In the morning, we lugged our bags to the five star hotel and sat waiting in the lobby. The woman who’d taken us for a ride wasn’t there and neither was our change.
No matter, we got on our bus and were thankful that at least our $11 had made it that far.
Trying times in Trinidad
After Vinales we’d gone to Trinidad. A beautiful town with cobbled streets and brightly painted terraced homes, where we stayed at another Casa Particlar. The owner told us not to buy any tours off the street but to go with them instead, otherwise we might be ripped off.
Dave and I were keen to go horse riding and the next day we were walking past one of the state run tourism agencies and decided to pop in and check how much it was for a horse riding day trip. The tour we decided to take was $15 each and we booked it in, ready to go riding the day after next.
Returning back to the Casa, we told the family we’d booked our jaunt.
“Oh no!” our host replied in Spanish. “You should’ve done it with us, it’s much cheaper.”
“But it’s only $15 and it was from a state run agency so I guess I thought Otto (her husband) had said it would be $20 with you?”
“No, no, it’s $15 with us,” our host insisted.
Realising this wasn’t cheaper but the same price, I decided I wanted to keep her happy. So I stupidly ran back to the travel agent and cancelled our tour with them.
The next day, a man arrived in a tuk-tuk to pick us up. I asked the owner before we left that Casa to make sure the tuk-tuk was included in our $15 price. He spoke with the man, and it was.
We spent the day on horseback and it was glorious. More on that in another post.
At the end of the day, we got down off our horse. “Cuanto cuesta?” I asked.
“$20 each,” he said.
So after all our running around, the tour organised through the house ended up being more expensive then if we’d organised it through the agency.
Getting ripped off in Cuba
All our beach going and horseback riding through Cuba was meaning we were collecting dirty laundry faster than a thirsty dog chugging water.
We asked at our Casa if they wouldn’t mind washing our laundry for us. “Of course, of course!” they said with a smile.
I handed over our 2kg bag of dirty clothes.
At the end of the stay, we received our bill. $15 had been tagged on for washing. The most we’d ever paid in our eight months of travelling through South America had been $8.
We paid up through gritted teeth but didn’t say anything – we’d had such a pleasant stay and it was a shame the laundry cost dampened it at the end.
We’d brought care packages with us to give to all the families we stayed with, as a little token of our appreciation. They were nothing much – just toothbrushes, tooth paste, soap, pens and pencils. It was simply some thing that are hard to get in Cuba and we thought they’d be thankful for.
Needless to say we didn’t give that family one.
Is the scamming culture justified?
I’d like to say it’s just us who experienced these scams, and that it’s one off, but we’re not alone. Lonely Planet even has forums dedicated to the topic – it seems like ripping off tourists is commonplace in Cuba.
It’s easy to be bitter about these experiences in Cuba but when you look at the bigger picture, I need to remind myself that these people are only acting this way because it’s all they know.
The communist government has been in power for so long that they see tourists as an easy answer to make a little bit of money on the side. And with government salaries starting at just $200 a month, who can really blame them?
You walk into a store in Cuba and the shelves are nearly bare.
One store we went into had two sacks of flour on the wooden benches behind the counter, along with a few crates of eggs. A giant till from the 1930s dominated the shopkeeper’s counter and the whole scene looked as though it belonged in a museum rather in the present day. But that’s what it’s like being in Cuba.
After being so used to Western abundance where you’re overwhelmed by the choice of what we would consider to be basics – such as 20 varieties of tinned tuna taking up half a supermarket aisle – it’s hard not to be dismayed about how little Cubans have at their disposal.
And although the media is tightly controlled in Cuba, the locals have their ways of finding out more about the outside world. How could they not want to get more than a few dollars out of us when we turn up with our shiny iPads and mobile phones, demanding soda water or soy milk with our cappuccinos?
And these comparisons – the Cubans with their kitchens from the 1950s and unreliable power that cuts out twice in one evening, contrasting sharply with our branded backpacks with five different compartments holding an array of consumer goods – are what make me forgive the Cubans for their opportunistic way of gleaning more money from travellers such as ourselves.
That’s not to condone what they do – it’s highly annoying and can make you feel more than a little disgruntled – but at the end of the day, that money can help keep them going for another week or so, when you’d probably have just spent it down at the poolside bar on a few more cocktails.
Tips to avoid getting ripped off in Cuba
- Avoid vendors on the street. They often get a commission for leading you to a nearby restaurant, Casa Particular or store, meaning the price of whatever you spend will go up to cater for this commission.
- When you go into a restaurant, ask for a menu. If they say they don’t have one available, ask what each item costs before you order it.
- Add up in your head how much your meal will cost through the menu before you place your order. This will ensure that when you get the bill you can double check the prices against what they’ve written down – sometimes they add a couple more dollars on.
- Always ask beforehand how much a tour is going to cost, and whether it includes everything. Ask about transport and lunch to see whether they are included. If they are not, ask how much it will be on top of it.
- Book all tours through a state-run agency as these are often the cheapest. Always ask whether a receipt is available before you pay, to avoid paying more than you should.
- Many taxis will offer you a service to a neighbouring town, which often will be around the price of the bus and therefore more appealing. However, these taxis are often shared minivans and you can expect to be sharing the ride with eight people or more. To clarify, ask in advance how many other people will be travelling with you and when you expect to arrive.
- Try and book your Casa Particular in advance and have someone from there waiting for you at the bus station when you arrive. This will help you to avoid the dozens of touts that hang out around the front of each bus station.
- Always ask how much any meals or laundry costs before you order it through your Casa Particular. This will help you avoid getting a higher-than-expected bill at the end of your stay.