Cuba & Costa Rica Blog
About this blog
Written by Cuba and Costa Rica expert Christopher P. Baker, this blog will update readers on life in these two diverse and exciting countries.
- Last blog post on Costa Rica and Cuba
- First-ever group motorcycle tours of Cuba successful
- Cuba’s Mariel port readying for Panama Canal expansion
- Musings on wildlife encounters on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
- Cuba’s Steam Trains puffing their last gasp
- My top five thrilling activities in Costa Rica
- Cuba’s fun February festivals include Harleys, Books, Cigars
- Five top volcano viewing experiences in Costa Rica
- New road along Costa Rica / Nicaraguan border mired
- Cuba’s Hotel Campoamor at Cojímar to be restored?
- Cuban revolutionary Celia Sánchez honored in new book
- Christmas challenge for Costa Rica’s sexually abused girls
- Costa Rica opens Chinatown in downtown San José
- David Soul films Hemingway’s car restoration in Cuba
- National Geographic Expeditions receives license for Cuba tours
Scams to beware in Havana, Cuba
I returned last Friday from eight days in Havana. As expected, I had a fantastic time escorting a tour for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. But, as always, I experienced a dizzying number of scams at every turn.
Life for Cubans is hard, and almost everyone needs access to pesos convertibles (CUC, the equivalent of hard currency), used for buying anything of value in Cuba. Since Cubans get paid a pittance (the average monthly wage is about $15 equivalent) in virtually worthless pesos (which buys virtually nothing), as opposed to pesos convertibles, Cubans hustle to get access to pesos convertibles through interactions with tourists in Cuba (others are lucky enough to receive remittances sent from family abroad).
So far so good. The problem, however, is that far too many Cubans who interact with tourists haven’t learned to leave well enough alone. Put less diplomatically: they’re intent on ripping you off.
Here are three classics examples from my recent week-long trip:
These crudely constructed, two-passenger pedal-cabs roam the streets of Habana Vieja (old Havana) and Centro Habana. They’re typically pedaled by the type of lesser-educated Cubans who would otherwise be hustling tourists as jiniteros (hustlers). A few are honest. But my experience on recent visits suggests that the majority are short on scuples.
For example: one night our group had an evening engagement at Fototeca, the Cuban state photo agency, on Plaza Vieja. We decided to take bicitaxis from our hotel, the Hotel Parque Central. Two person to each bicitaxi.
We agree a fare of CUC3 per person – a pretty nice reward (equivalent to almost a week’s salary at the state peso wage rate) for the five-minute ride.
Inevitably, the various bicitaxis got separated en route and I arrived with another bicitaxi. The two bicitaxis pulled up a block short of Plaza Vieja, where they are not allowed. Inevitably, the bicitaxi owners demanded CUC20 per cab. A row ensued as I refused to pay more than the agreed upon CUC3.
It’s an experience that has repeated itself several times during recent visits.
Tourist taxi drivers can be equally dishonest, as I discovered when I took two workshop participants on a trip to Cojímar, the coastal village made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who berthed his sportfishing boat, the Pilar, here.
We planned on a triangular tour to Cojímar, then inland to the Museo Ernest Hemingway, and returning via the district of Luyano to visit Sergio Morales, a Harley-Davidson mechanic.
We agreed a fare of CUC50 for the route, plus CUC10 per hour for periods when the taxi was waiting.
All went to plan. We returned. The taxi driver did his calculation. And hit us up for CUC190! His calculation was a total mind-twister that included seven hours waiting, plus miscellaneous charges that left me scratching my head. In fact, the taxi waiting period added up to a total of about four hours.
Again, an argument ensued. I did my own calculations, stuck the correct CUC90 in his hands, and walked away.
Who needs this headache?
3) Currency exchange
Time to check out of the Hotel Parque Central. My bill reads CUC156.30. I’m low on efectivo (cash) in CUC, and therefore ask if I can pay in dollar bills.
As I explained in my April 3 blog post, Cuba’s convertible peso at par with U.S. dollar, a ten percent tax is charged for changing U.S. dollars into pesos convertibles, so I expected to take a hit.
The reception did a calculation, then told me the bill in U.S. dollars would be $190. I’m pretty bad at math, but I did know that the receptionist had made an “error.” I asked her to give me a written conversion. Lo and behold... the bill was now $171.93.
Caveat emptor in Cuba!
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker.
For further information about travel in Cuba, buy Moon Cuba
For further information on Havana, buy Moon Spotlight Havana.
Buy an autographed hardback copy of Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba direct from the author.
Looking for the perfect coffee-table book gift item? Buy an autographed hardback copy of Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles direct from the author.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker