We arrived in Trinidad around 5:30 pm (the -20°C ride taking about 5 hours with a 45-min pause for lunch), hoping that the booking from Mayra would be a good one. It turned out to be a dirty, dark converted garage and Mayra II was asking for 30CUC per night.  We left and within 15 min of asking around had found a much better option with Omar & Silvia.

The town itself is overrun with tourists from around the world.  We don’t have official stats, but it felt like every other door was a casa particular and that there were at least 3 tourists for every Cuban.  The “official” tourism activities for daytrips from Trinidad were quite pricey, especially considering the value you receive.  Having just visited Mexico and heading to Ecuador, we weren’t attracted to paying 45CUC (about US$50) per person for someone to take us on a 4×4 through the mountains or to a lagoon.  That meant we spent most of our time roaming around Trinidad 

and chatting to various people (Cubans and fellow tourists from Colombia, Romania, USA, Mexico, Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Canada, Brazil and China) in the plazas, on the stoop, in the bars and at the nearby beach. 

Previous to coming to Cuba, we’d spoken to a few friends/colleagues, and had heard almost only positive reviews about Cuba, the food, the people, the sights and sounds, etc.  We were having a slightly different experience and were relieved to hear some shared sentiments from our fellow travellers.  

Almost all of them had stories of being ripped off (or almost ripped off) especially in their first few days, for example, being charged 100CUC/person for a shared taxi (a.k.a. decrepit bus that breaks down halfway) from Havana-Trinidad or offered a ride in a shared taxi from Santiago to Trinidad for 300 CUC/person.  It’s very difficult to get to know the “real” price, because you ask a seemingly simple question to a local like “How much does the bus cost from point A to point B?”, and they’d answer “I don’t know what it costs for you.”  Or, for example, we were getting on a local, Cuban-only bus, asked how much the ride was, the guy looked us up and down and said “3CUC per person”. We offered him 0.35CUC and he let us on, surely still making a profit from us, the ignorant tourists….. 

We discussed how much time is lost waiting on lines and how stressful it can get trying to bargain everything from meals to trinkets to groceries to clothing and other basic items. There was a shared disappointment at the high prices/low value, not only when speaking with people who have lived in/visited other Latin American countries, but also from the Romanians who grew up in the USSR and the young Chinese uni students who felt like they had travelled back in time to their parents’ experience of a dual economy in China.

Most frustrating, however, is this huge divide between the tourism sphere and the average local, the double currency playing a major role in building this invisible wall.  One of many examples came one day when we decided to take a touristic train up to some of the old sugar mills & plantations that made the Trinidad region (Valle de los Ingenios) quite wealthy in the 19th & 20th centuries. Even though it is the “cheapest” day excursion option, 2 tickets for the tourist train = 30CUC, which is the monthly income for an average Cuban.

We hopped onto the old, decrepit, diesel engine Soviet train with about 150 other tourists, and some tired musician who has probably played the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack thousands of times came around asking for a tip in CUCs.  The toilet is literally a hole in the train, and the 2 stops the train makes come with no explanation about the history or current situation of Cuba’s sugar industry. I’d love to know where the roughly 2,250CUC daily (probably 30,000-60,000CUC per month) they collect for the ride goes…..

Luckily, our host’s family has worked in the mills for generations, and they gave us a lot of insight into the local sugar industry, which got started after a slave rebellion in Haiti brought a bunch of wealthy French sugar-plantation owners over to Cuba.  They and other wealthy Spanish families owned the plantations for generations and would watch their slaves work from towers high above.  He also explained how the same train line that we tourists were taking had been used for a few generations to bring the sugar to the coast for export.  The USSR refurbished the mill around 1979, and it was still producing high-quality sugar until about 10 years ago, when it was closed due to a process of national consolidation.

After a few nights in Trinidad, hanging out on the stoop with our host family & neighbors, enjoying salsa concerts in the open-air plazas and getting over-charged for sub-par food, we continued on to Cienfuegos, hoping that the prices would go down and the food and air quality would go up.