Tourist`s survival guide.
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
Tourist`s survival guide. Santiago de Cuba Reviews
A few survival rules, or how not to get sucked dry/get your money`s worth. Dec 19, 2011
The easiest way to rip you off is through the use of transport because upon arriving into a new city you have no idea where you are and how far is that from the place where you need to be. In Santiago, there are a few ways to get around like taxi, motor and bici taxi. Of course there are also Cuban trucks, horse-drawn carriages and buses but the routes and time schedule of those is nearly impossible to figure out, mostly because they were never specifically defined. The problem is that the prices for "yumas" (foreigners) are higher by default but the best way to save money is to exchange convertibles in Cuban pesos and then insist on paying with them. For example, going from point A to point B with motor, anywhere inside the city costs 10 Cuban pesos (roughly 30-40 cents in €), except at night when its 20. Moto-taxi are specific for Santiago, no other city has them and its really the most fun and fast way to get around, dont forget to always mount from the left side because the long, silver i-don`t-know-how-its-called thingy on the right gets REALLY hot and will burn your skin. For bici-taxi the price is pretty much the same but I don`t advise you to use this means of transport for anything longer than 300-500m because they are really slow and you might loose half a day driving around with those. By car its a bit more expensive but inside the city yoshouldn't`t pay more than 2CUC for one reasonably long ride. Keep in mind that gasoline is really cheap there and being a taxi driver is one of most profitable professions. During the day you can still walk.
Viazul: The bus that connects all the major cities in Cuba costs 52CUC from Havana to Santiago, drives more than 900km. I advise you to get your ticket earlier via internet because my bus was almost full when I got there, I was luckly to get in because somebody cancelled. Apparently there are two types of buses driving this route, one is older and the other is super modern imported from China, very comfortable indeed. Both have air conditioning on throughout the whole drive and the temperature gets below 20 degrees which after an hour or two feels like below 10 especially if you are trying to sleep. So dress up and get some food for the journey, there arent that many stops on the way there.
Contrary to the popular belief, there exists a bus from the airport in Havana to the Viazul bus station, it costs 15CUC but I am pretty sure that was just because I was alone on it. It drives without schedule about 4 times a day, it cant hurt asking around a bit before you spend shitloads on taxis. The majority of course takes a cab, which costs 20 or 25CUC but there is another option. In the lobby of the airport where you go exchange money there will be people asking you if you need a cab for far less money, the difference is that those people are not registered as taxi drivers in the government run companies but that doesnt mean they dont know how to drive. And as a tourist you wont get in trouble anyways so if that opportunity reveals itself, take it and save some money.
There are numerous stands on the streets offering sandwiches or pizzas, the prices in Cuban pesos are often written on the boards. The crucial thing for buying food on the street is to have Cuban pesos because 1CUC is 24 in the bank and 25 Cuban pesos on the street. But if you try to pay for this food in CUC this exchange rate roughly translates to 1CUC = 20 Cuban pesos. I know that those 4 or 5 pesos are really little money but after a week or so you just might notice that you used to have a lot more money and now you dont know where it went.
As far as eating out goes its really cheap to eat in restaurants where you can only pay in Cuban pesos but just so you know, they mostly have just pork with rice and 2 types of Cuban beer. If you eat in restaurants with CUC its a lot more expensive but still cheaper than most places in Europe.
For example on the Siboney beach (about 20-30km away from Santiago) there is a chinese man walking around, asking people if they want to eat something. He can prepare a huge fish (at least for 3 people) with rice, salad and fried bananas for 4CUC, sometimes he also has a really good lobster for 6. My general advice is to eat "la cominda creolla" which is basically home-cooked food made by locals trying to earn some extra cash. Its good, fresh, really cheap and almost always available.
The food on the street and in restaurants is relatively safe to eat, its not that easy to get food poisoning in Cuba, I ate everything you could possibly get in those stands including ice-cream and had zero stomach problemas. I even drank water from the pipe a few times but that was purely accidental, luckily i was fine but I still stuck to bottled one. One thing you should NEVER drink, and i do mean NEVER is "cerveza dispensada", its like beer from a pipe. That will give you diarea for at least a week, I know its incredibly cheap but its not a good idea for an european stomach.
One other thing are the grocery shops, its best to take a big plastic bag because its forbidden to go inside the store with a big handbag. They are taking every precaution against shop lifters possible but that means you have to leave it outside with an employee who is going to "take care" of it. Needles to say thats not a good idea and dont forget to keep the check, there are security guards at the entrance comparing the number of products in your bag and on your check.
3. Night life
There is an official "hora legalis", tourists have to return to their accommodation before 2 o`clock in the morning. You may understand this as a violation of your civil rights but trust me, there is nothing for you out there after 2 o`clock in the morning besides muggers and really drunk, angry people with exceptionally long knives. Truth be told, especially at night Cuba is very dangerous for locals and tourists alike so after a party NEVER WALK HOME. Even if you are used to walking that sort of distance home everytime you go out in your country I am not saying this to spare your feet. You will pay more for the transportation during the night but you might avoid some serious trouble. You will be surprised how many times the party ends before that magic hour because most Cubans start to party very early in the afternoon and don`t usually stay out so late. Also at several occasions the electricity runs out and the whole city is covered in complete darkness. In case that happens I advise you to find one or two police officers and remain close untill the lights switch on again because mugging becomes a piece of cake in utter darkness.
Also you will notice some sort of "discrimination" of tourists when it comes to entrance fees. For example, in the club Tropicana locals pay 50 Cuban pesos (about 2CUC) and get 3 free drinks while tourists have to pay 10CUC and get absolutely nothing for it. Of course we all know that Cubans have substantially less income than we do but don`t stuff like that just piss you off? It is pretty much the same in every night bar, whether is in CUC or Cuban pesos. Of course if your spanish is perfect and you were born with darker hair, skin and eyes you just might get away with it.
There is some sort of "night of Santiago" every weekend that continues late into the night with a lot of young Cubans drinking and partying on the street. I know its sounds tempting but someone, somehow, somewhere in the middle of all that fuss every weekend gets killed or seriously injured so the general rule is if you see a big, massive crowd of people on the street and there is alcohol and loud music involved I advise you to keep your distance. Its ok to be near but whenever you might hear some voices getting raised walk away.
4. Getting in trouble with the law
There were some myths about Cuban police, laws and regulations and after one month I can say that tourists in Cuba are protected like some ancient diamond in a museum. Cameras are everywhere, the "big Cuban brother" is looking out for you alongside with the police officers that are scattered across the city, sometimes in uniforms and sometimes as regular people. If somebody tries to robb you during the day there is a pretty good chance they will find the perpetrator, get your stuff back and put him in jail for 5 years. Sounds harsh? Of course but many laws are designed to protect the visitors more than its own people. Also if by any chance you would be so stupid to look for marijuana in a foreign police-run country, the punishment for getting caught really isnt specifically defined but one thing is for sure, tourists won`t go to jail for it. But the Cuban who sold it to you is risking 15 years of prison so its really no surprise the price of that sort of "entertainment" is sky-high.
Also if you are gonna go out and try to buy a "special" service from a "special" professional let me just say that you won`t get in trouble but he/she is. And because you 2 will have to rent a room for an hour or two you can get more than one Cuban in trouble because it is prohibited to rent out rooms for tourists for that specific purpose if your house isnt registered as casa particular. If the police sees you, this Cuban can loose his house and go to jail so don`t be surprised if the prices for renting a love nest are really high - so is the risk.
One last thing from this rule is to keep the photocopy of youre passport with you at all times! Especially when you go out in the evening or if you leave the city. Sometimes you have to show it at the entrance of a bar/club and if something happens you should be able to identify yourself because without it you are risking deportation.
Jineteros are people who take it as their profession to meet and exploit tourists and trust me, they are good at what they do. It is nearly impossible to avoid having a jinetero experience unless you dont plan to communicate with locals at all. This exploiting doesnt refer only to them wanting to be your tourist guides, taxi drivers or translators it is much more than that. They are masters of manipulation and mooching, it might happen to you and you wont even know it. The profession arose from the economical crisis that`s been lasting for about..well..since the revolution. This is how it usually goes: you meet a guy/girl in some bar, you are drinking and having a good time, he is all nice, charming and interested and all of a sudden you are paying for his drinks, dancing, laughing etc. If this is what you want and you dont mind paying a few bucks here and there for a night of harmless fun there is nothing bad in it but you have to know that he will only stay for as long as drinks are coming and he might even squeeze himself in your car on the way back without any intention to pay for his part. Very quickly, usually after a day or two he will pronounce himself your boyfriend and offer to show you all these magical places of the city. Of course its very wrong to assume that all Cubans are like that but here are some points on how to recognize if your girl/boy-toy is a jinetero/a:
- he ALWAYS has time for you, no questions asked - this probably means you are his job.
- after proclaiming himself as your boyfriend he gets very protective of you, almost possessive, its a territorial thing.
- he never pays for anything because he says he doesnt have money but he is talking about expensive stuff he has at home like cameras, instruments, books.
- He makes you feel bad about expecting him to pay at least for the smallest expenses.
- whenever you run into him outside unexpectedly, he is always hanging around tourists.
- he has corny sleezy nicknames for you like Princess, Flower, Star or sth like that, he puts flowers in your hair, has a photo of you two as a background on his cellphone etc. Cuban guys are convinced that women tourists want romance in Cuba but sometimes they exaggerate and this is your clue.
There are numerous older Italians or Spaniards in Cuba hooking up with younger girls and not minding to pay for them. If this is your kind of thing at least make sure you get your moneys worth.
6. On the street
First thing about street life is that the traffic is chaotic, pedestrians are literally on the bottom of the traffic chain. The only rule that exists is "MOVE OR GET HIT". Especially watch out for the motors but keep an eye on everyone else as well since traffic lights are merely a decoration.
Another thing is street harrassment. If they can judge by your appareance that you are obviously not Cuban, for example I have ginger coloured hair and very bright green-blue eyes you will be subjected to a lot of hissing, whistling and shouting rude/flattering spanish comments behind your back. The thing that bothered me most was the shameless staring, afer a week I just wanted to walk around with a bag over my head. As it was explained to me several times by surprised Cubans after one of my many nervous breakdowns involving insulted tarzan-spanish yelling at passers by, they don`t mean anything bad by it. It is almost a civil right to express one`s opinion over someone elses physical appearance out loud, whether its good or bad but the fact is that most of these men are actually married and wont try to go further from flattering comments. It still bothered me though.
Everyone going to Cuba should accept the fact that for them you are like a vault of money on two feet. They will try to sell you all sorts of stuff that you do or do not need, this persistence really gets on your last nerve towards the end of your vacation because you can`t have 2 minutes of peace without someone trying to sell you something. Don`t buy the cds of the street unless you can check them out right away, its possible they are empty.
You can take 50 cigars and 2 bottles (750ml) of rum with you when you go. as far as cigars go, Cohiba or Monte Cristos, the production of fakes is a lot bigger than production of originals. If you have good connections it is still possible to get a box of originals for 25CUC but it is very hard because the fakes are really good and considering the value of these cigars in Europe you can be sure that not all tourists with great connections have access to originals at that price. To those of you who are not experts in this area i say, who cares if they are fake. They are still Cuban cigars and if they were made, they were meant to be smoked. Period.
Don`t forget that right before you leave, you have to pay 25CUC tax at the airport or they wont let you through boarding control. Some say you have to pay when you enter as well but I didn't have to. I am saying this for the airport in Havana.
8. Other things that spring to mind
If you want internet its way better to look for someone who has it at home and its renting it for an hour or even less for 1CUC/20 minutes because ETECSA costs 6CUC/hour and the line outside the door is usually incredible. The fastest way to find this person is to talk to locals, someone will know someone who has it, or that other person will :))
Its amazing how the prices of beer and sodas are always the same, no matter where you go except at the airport. The price of rum is different in every night club but its still incredibly cheap. Ordering one bottle of rum and one bottle of coke is the cheapest way for 2-4 people to get drunk in a night bar.
Always have change, because if you give them a bigger bill they might charge you more, just for being a tourist even though you have settled on the price beforehand. And always bargain, do not settle right away, there is much to accomplish with some patience and good will.
Its surprising how they dont have waste bins but there really isnt that many trash on the street floors. They have people employed to pick up trash, also to collect plastics and paper for recycling. So if you have a bottle or can in your hand feel free to put it on the side of the road or give it directly to someone who collects it. He will say thank you!
A very interesting thing I have learned are 3 different but commonly accepted signals that say "I want to have sex with you". a) Puffing cigarette smoke in someone`s face, b)shaking the bracelet on your wrist, c)moving fingers inside someones palm while holding hands. I think Cubans do it to sort of make fun of tourists because in Europe those 3 gestures have no meaning whatsoever, but now that you know you can surprise them and respond with a very loud and clear "SIN VERGUENZA!".
Thats it for now, hope it helps!
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