Previous to arriving in Havana, we’d booked a room in a casa particular, which had come as a recommendation from a friend of a friend who is Cuban and lives in Italy. We thought something like that should be reliable, but this time it didn’t work in our favor. Mayra, our CUC-hungry host, did come pick us up at the airport and did offer a clean flat. Beyond that, she was trying to rip us off left & right, which took us a few days to realize.
Since 1993, Cuba has had two monetary systems, (“Moneda Nacional”, which is roughly equivalent to the Mexican peso and the “CUC”, which is 1:1 with the Euro and somehow stronger than both the dollar and the GBP…). There are some lovely Cuban people who really make your stay in Cuba enjoyable. Then there are the people who see tourists and mercilessly charge them exponentially-higher prices, basically seeing how far they can push. Cubans call them “jineteros”, but we call them “The Mayras”.
After a few days, we picked up on her tricks, but they don’t cease to impress us. She wanted (we didn’t pay) 60CUC to give us a one-day “insider tour” of Havana”, 15CUC for a 1-hour wifi-access card (which costs 1.50CUC), 10CUC for a taxi ride that costs 2CUC, etc., etc. etc. Unfortunately, we did pay her for 2 rooms (of which she was only reporting one to the government) and a breakfast, which got steadily worse by the day, culminating in rock-hard bread, rotten fruit and fermented fruit juice. Getting ripped off is never fun, but knowing that between the 3 of us we were paying Little Miss Mayra 95CUC per night for bed & breakfast when an average Cuban (not in the tourism industry) earns about 25 CUC PER MONTH really pissed us off.
We spent 5 days in Havana with our friend Greg, bargaining taxi prices, paying almost nothing for using the bus, bargaining lunch prices, staring in awe at the old Chevy’s and Fords (and shocked that people pay upwards of 50CUC/hour to ride in one!),
wondering why the museums were never open at the times they said they’d be, enjoying our ropa vieja and rice & beans at some delicious paladares, taking in some great jazz at one of the many “tourist only” locales,
avoiding advances from prostitutes and creepy men, trying to access our German bank account to get a hold of some CUC (that saga led us to an office under the Havana Libre Hotel that tracks ALL ATM transactions of Cuba…),
and trying to make sense of the gross inequalities that exist between “the Mayras” who have figured out how to pump CUCs out of tourists and an honest, hardworking Cuban who can’t afford to buy his/her own car…
On Christmas Day, confused and slightly annoyed at being treated like aliens from Planet CUC, we hopped on the Via Azul bus to Trinidad, wondering if the next casa particular that Mayra had booked for us would improve the dishonest first-impression we had gotten during our first days in Cuba.
(These posts are being published with a delay, see our note on technical difficulties on Planet Cuba.)