Our accomodation in Cienfuegos was more of a hostel than a private home. Like many people in Cuba, the owners, Norma and Luis, have been growing their business over the last few years (since the government has opened up the economy to some private businesses), and now they have about 8 rooms in 3 different apartments in the same neighborhood, plus a few employees. They are very professional, definitely recommendable and offer good lunches and dinners, FYI!
Cienfuegos is directly on a bay, with a long malecón (boardwalk) that is frequented by locals and tourists alike. This city, in comparison to Trinidad, felt a bit more relaxed because you don’t have too many jineteros (“Mayras”) asking you if you want a taxi, cigars, tours, etc. We did, however, notice a lot of offers of sex (mainly between young Cuban girls and old, white men). In speaking to a local and commenting on what we were seeing, he explained that when Cuba opened up to tourism in the early 90’s, sex tourism was one of the first industries to really take off, mainly involving Canadian men. Since then, it seems the government has turned a blind eye on those tourists, but sends the women to prison.
On New Year’s Eve we were walking from Punta Gorda to the malecón, and stopped in on one of the biggest hotels we had seen (Hotel Jagua), which was built by the brother of Fidel’s predecessor, ex-dictator Batista. Upon entering, there was certainly a vibe of celebration. CNN was on the TV above the bar, live from Times Square, and Cubans and tourists alike were having drinks and enjoying a dance performance around the outdoor pool. We stayed for a bit, watching the show, but then started to notice that dispersed around the bar were a high quantity of single, old men and groups of young Cuban girls. It was quite obvious, so we can only assume that the hotel gets a cut of the profits. We wouldn’t recommend staying there…
We left and continued strolling along the malecón. Cuba is incredibly safe in terms of walking around at night, so we decided to hang out with the mix of 80% locals, 20% tourists on the malecón. We had some delicious Havana Club rum with us and watched as Cubans celebrated typical Latin American traditions, like burning the “año viejo” at midnight, walking around the block with their suitcases, and throwing water out their doors. We struck up a conversation with a young Cuban guy (uni student in his early 20’s). He was minding his own business, waiting for some of his friends, and was very hesitant to speak with us. After a while of chatting he opened up, and we were talking about Ecuador, his uni studies (engineering), and my being an English teacher. He said he was learning English but found it tough to practice. I suggested he speak with tourists on the malecón and he laughed nervously, saying he didn’t want to be accused of being a jinetero. His friends finally arrived and off he went, bidding us a happy 2017.
The next day, through a longer conversation with an older Cuban gentleman (let’s call him Javier), we got an intro into why Cienfuegos might have fewer jineteros on the street. Javier is very educated, speaks multiple foreign languages and has a lot of quirky hobbies. He told us how a few years back, in order to put into practice some of the English phrases he was teaching himself, he’d seek out foreigners to chat with. He met a couple of Canadian lawyers his age, and spent an afternoon with them. A civilian police officer came up to the group, and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was practicing his English, and the police told him to leave the guys alone, or else. Javier and his Canadian colleagues didn’t want to start a problem, so they made a plan to meet the next day. They spent the next day chatting and exchanging stories, until a police officer appeared on the beach where they were hanging out. Javier knew he was going to get in trouble and told the Canadians to film it, which they did. The police proceeded to arrest him. They only held him for 6 hours, because they couldn’t find anything else on his record. The next day, he met up with the distraught Canadians again, and they asked what they could do with the footage. Javier told them to show the video to friends and family, but not to the media, because that would just make matters worse. Hearing that story might explain why the young engineering student had been a bit hesitant to speak with us the night before.
On New Year’s Day 2017, we headed an hour west to Playa Larga. We started negotiating taxi prices to get there, and managed to bring the offer from 60CUC down to 20CUC plus one of Andrés’ plain white T-shirts (no joke). In the end, Andrés decided to keep his shirt, and we took the bus for 7CUC each.
We arrived too late and they’d given our reserved room away, but within 10 minutes they’d found us a brand new room down the road and we knocked out in the 18th bed of this trip…!