First day in Cuba: getting scammed in Havana

I don’t want to start the story of my Latin American journey with a complaint, but I feel like I need to get a tiny little gripe out of the way: I hate the Cuban currency system. Cuba has two currencies: the national peso and the CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso. An entirely made-up tourist currency that is worth nothing and is just an excuse to charge tourists a ridiculous price for everything. An example is food: fried chicken (I don’t think they serve any other food here) is 3CUC for a tourist, whereas for a Cuban it is 3 Cuban Pesos, which is worth 24 times less than the CUC, costing the Cuban an equivalent 12p as opposed to our £3 (plus we‘re not allowed to buy things in Cuban Pesos – we were turned down today at a pizzeria). This wouldn’t annoy me so much (I understand why they do it, as the Cubans earn so little) if the tourist prices weren’t equivalent to the highest London prices. Today we bought seven mojitos for £35.

Which brings me to the ’scamming’ reference in the title. We were out wandering Havana (which by the way is gorgeous, amazing and so cool) when we stopped to ask an old man where we were on the map. He couldn’t really understand my terrible Spanish, so another guy and his female friend stopped and joined the conversation. The guy then told us he was on his way to a New Year festival and did we want to come with him to experience the real Cuba? (Of course writing this it sounds like an obvious con but at the time it felt genuine.) So we went with them and along the way they pointed out some places that were absolutely fascinating. First we got to look through the window of his friend’s house who is a massive history and Che Guevara buff and has all old memorabilia on the walls, from ancient telephones and typewriters to posters, then we went to a food market that’s just for the locals, as well as a ration store where we had a look at our guide’s ration book and felt like we were in 1940s wartime. Then we got to a completely empty, dark and dingy bar playing ear-drum-burstingly loud salsa music to absolutely nobody – a bar that was apparently the site of the big New Year bash. We followed the couple in, got a round of mojitos and had an impromptu salsa lesson from the chica (Phil’s cardboard cut-out made a good effort at dancing salsa). Then our guide left for ages and when we asked where, the girl just said he’d be back soon. Ages later he turned up with a friend in tow who – would you know it – worked at the cigar factory and had with him a case of 10 cigars, which he offered to us for a very ‘reasonable’ 100CUC (about £80-90). After saying no 547 times he said ‘no problemo, esta bien’ and left. Then our guide walked out again and we quickly told the girl we didn’t want any cigars. She said that was fine. The guy returned of course with more cigars. They then said we had to buy some so the girl could get milk for her babies. (Thinking back to all the times she showed us photos of her children that she just happened to have on her, it became obvious this was something they’ve done before.) She then gave me the dough-eyed look, bottom lip protruding, saying ‘it’s for my babies’. We had to get out of there. Phil was forced to go to the bar to pay for the drinks, which turned out to be about £35 and we made a hasty retreat, not before being given a free cigar as a ‘souvenir’ to get us to change our minds.

Expensive prices and long cons aside, Havana is pretty freakin awesome. The ubiquitous American cars are even cooler in real life than in photos, and the pastel-coloured buildings and little plazas are straight out of a postcard. We went to Old Havana today and also saw a bit of Vedado (Revolution Square and the Che memorial, plus our casa is in Vedado), but tomorrow we plan to get on the tour bus to get an overview of the sprawling city and then find a nice beach to chill out on. Oh, and I can’t wait to get some ice cream from Coppelia, an ice-cream parlour spanning an entire block, where customers wait hours to get an ice cream. Tourists are fast-tracked past the queue because we spend CUC, because for every ice cream we buy they get 24 times the price compared with locals.

In Cuba there aren’t really any hostels and only a smattering of posh hotels, so you end up staying in casas – people’s homes. It’s a great way to get an insight into their lives. The casa we’re staying in is really nice, very big and with a friendly owner who doesn’t speak much English so I get to practise my Spanish at breakfast, although when I got the word for ‘slow’ (despacio) mixed up with ‘too much’ (demasiado) the Spanish conversation abruptly came to an end.

Adios for now!

PS I wrote this two weeks ago but had no access to the internet of course. We since bought 13 genuine cigars straight from a farmer for 10CUC…