GUEST ARTICLE: We had previously read all about the potential scams that could happen to you in Havana, unfortunately we got pulled in and by the time we realized what was happening it was too late.
It was our last day in Havana and up until then we’d actually had a pretty good time. The previous day we had walked about 15kms all over the city exploring during both the day and night and never had any problems. Well maybe one, getting the ol’ ‘tourist menu’ instead of the local one (which probably doubled or tripled the prices).
We ended up paying $30CUC (US$ is equivalent) for two plates of rice and beans, pork chops and two waters. Obviously that set off alarm bells especially when an average local only makes US$1/day (and we were surrounded by them dining at the restaurant). So yeah, come in spinners! But when you no speaky the lingo it’s hard to know. We still can’t believe we actually fell for that old scam. Always ask for the menu beforehand when you’re in Havana!
So anyways, besides that little hiccup we had a great first day doing the ol’ ankle express around the city. We walked for hours and there was nothing new and different around every corner. Havana really is quite an amazing place. For starters the plethora of old vintage cars cruising around are awesome!! And the city is really colorful with old but cool buildings. It’s like everything came to a complete standstill after 1959. The best way I can think to describe it is it’s a place with a lot of ‘flavor.’
That evening we hired a guy with his beautiful white vintage convertible to show us around the old parts of Havana. That was an excellent way to see the city and it sure beat walking in the heat. As night fell upon the city it got really dark. There were no street lights and the only light source came from dim fluorescent lights from homes giving the whole place a rather eerie appearance.
For dinner we ended up going to a nice restaurant along the oceanfront and this time it was scam-free! We dined on some good Cuban cuisine that consisted of their staple foods of pork, rice and beans accompanied by a good Spanish red wine. Afterwards we went in search on foot for a little Salsa Nightclub our waiter told us about but unfortunately it wasn’t open until much later in the night. After having such a big day we decided to give it a miss and check it out the following day.
The next morning we were still on a pretty good high from our first taste of the city and decided that for our last day we would go on another explore. We had just left our hotel and had only gone a few blocks when it started to bucket down with rain. So we, along with everyone else got under the sheltered sidewalks.
While we were standing there a nice local girl (Yvonne) started making small chitchat with us about the rain and then asked where we were from. She said her dad worked in Sydney years before and loved it (ding). Her husband (Enrique) was there with her as well and they said they were out to celebrate the Salsa Festival that was going to be happening later that day.
Next thing they asked if we knew where the festival was to be held (of course no) so they said they would be happy to show us because that’s where they were headed to anyway (ding). So, we all happily ran together, laughing like kids as we crossed drenched streets while getting soaked. First we made a quick stop at an old salsa studio where Yvonne said she taught little kids to dance. Then we wound through a series of blocks before arriving at Café Five Via. We ‘conveniently’ took cover in there and found ourselves a table and chairs in the quiet cafe.
We didn’t think anything of it. To us we were just four people having a happy conversation. Yvonne filled us in about the everyday life of a Cuban and talked happily about her and Enrique’s 3yr old daughter (who was with Nanna for the day so they could go to the festival). Then they asked if we wanted some water so we said yes. Out came these colorful green and red drinks that they insisted were alcohol free and just regular Cuban cordials. I didn’t taste any alcohol so we took their word for it. We didn’t really care by this point because we were pretty parched after our sudden flurry of activity.
While we were there the convo kept flowing and Enrique got me up to dance a bit of salsa with him. The ambience ‘seemed’ good. Not long after that as I was sitting there listening to Rob and Yvonne talk, Enrique had slipped out and came back giving Rob and I each a Chez Guevera coin and his wife and I each a flower accompanied with a kiss on the cheek – sweet right? (ding!)
The next thing I know Enrique had slipped out yet again and Yvonne had pulled out a big packet of sanitary pads from her purse showing me the ration she gets from the government each month (yeah weird but true). By this time my fingers are starting to tingle and my body and head are feeling funny. It felt like I was seeing my surroundings in slow motion, like something out of a movie.
The salsa music in the background dulled, my vision seemed muted. As I looked to my right at the only other table in the café I notice another couple of locals talking to a lone foreign lady showing her what looked like an old dollar bill. (DING DING DING!!)
Okay, now I am coming to the sad and dreaded realization of what has just happened to us. As I focus my attention back to Rob and Yvonne she is giving a spiel about buying cigars and how if we buy them she’ll be entitled to some sort of extra food ration.
I give Rob a kick under the table and tell him that our ‘wink wink’ lunch date with a friend is drawing near and that we should really be going. At this point I’m not sure if he’s feeling the same as I am but I am pretty sure that we really need to get the hell out of there ASAP.
I get up to ask for our bill for our ‘cordial waters’ from the bar, at the same time Enrique comes back with a small backpack which I can only guess is full of Cuban cigars. Their faces immediately lose their friendly smiles and are full of dismay as we firmly tell them that we do not smoke and aren’t interested in buying any cigars (selling cigars is illegal by the way) and that we really must be going. The big bartender hands over the bill and I hear Rob go off. He’s trying to charge us $26CUC!!
Unfortunately for this fool he has picked on the wrong people because now we’re both up in arms and causing a huge scene. We see a police officer on the other side of the road and make a beeline for him. Once there we plead our case telling him in our best Spanish how we’ve just been ripped off and drugged.
This police officer is young, all big-eyed and clueless as to what to do so we drag him back over to the café where we have it out with the bartender. Of course by this time our ‘friends’ have tucked tail and made a run for it.
In the end we threw the bartender $5CUC for the ‘waters.’ Before leaving I eagerly try to warn that poor foreign lady sitting by herself who is now all wide-eyed watching this whole scene unfold before her. I don’t know if our warnings save her because by this time we really have to get out of dodge.
Now I’m feeling really funny and sluggish and it had started to effect Rob too. We’re not really sure where we are and are frantic to find a taxi and make it back to the safety of our hotel before whatever was in our drinks really takes its effect. I’m finding it hard to move fast and all I want is to sit down. Rob urgently pushes me on in case there’s people following us. Finally we flag down a taxi and try to tell him what just happened to us, only to fall on deaf non-English understanding ears.
As soon as we enter our hotel we frantically tell the concierge what just happened to us. They direct us to some seats in the lobby and there we sat waiting to see if we could make a report to the police. I am pretty scared by this point because all I want to do is sleep, my body has fallen comatose and it has become hard for me to keep my eyes focused. Then I feel a rush of nausea and manage to make it just in time to pray to the porcelain god, tasting a bitter taste after the purge – great, confirmation.
Once back in my seat the hotel’s rep comes out and tells us we must make our complaint at the police station (fantastic). There’s no way I’m going anywhere in the condition I’m in. Unfortunately the drug has affected me more than Rob so he heads off and I stay waiting for him in the lobby.
Over an hour has passed and I groggily open my eyes after passing out cold, head back, mouth open for all to see – lovely. Rob still hasn’t made it back so I decide to go to our room to wait it out. 3 hours later I’m awoken by the shrill ring of the phone, Rob finally made it back and wants to grab a bite downstairs. I’m still not feeling great by this point but know I should get something in my stomach.
Turns out he got a taxi to take him back to that dodgy café (great memory on his part!) to get the name and a pic of the place for the cops. No sooner had they pulled up in the taxi when that big goof of a bartender along with an even bigger monkey of a man came running out towards them acting threatening towards them. Rob said they didn’t even have time to take a pic and had to get out of there rápido!
Once at the cop shop Rob said it was tedious trying to explain to them what had just happened to us. None of them knew a lick of English. Luckily, the taxi driver who could speak a little English got the whole story off Rob and was able to relay the story numerous times to the police officers.
Only about 15 minutes had passed when the cops dragged the bartender in. Rob said the guy tried to give him the evil eye the whole time but he just laughed in his face and loudly told him off just to add to the drama (darn wish I could have been there!). The funny thing Rob said was that they sat like that for hours waiting for the goof’s lawyer to show up, how uncomfortable!
When everything was done and dusted the guy was taken away and from what Rob was told the the bartender was to be banned from working in any bar for a year! The bartender also turned out to be a crim currently on probation so I can imagine things aren’t looking too good for him.
At first we didn’t know how to feel about such a harsh sentence but what they do there is soo wrong and I cringe to think about all the other tourists they’ve conned and drugged. He got what he deserved in my books (or at least we hope he did).
Later that afternoon I still didn’t feel too good and slept for another 3 hours before I awoke and finally felt like myself again. That whole sitch was so totally invasive and scary. I really try my best to see the best in people and ‘hope’ that someone couldn’t possibly be that cruel and crooked. Well just goes to show you really have to be on your toes no matter what!!
To make matters worse the next day our plane that was bound for Cancun (Air Cubana) was delayed (by a lot), then once in the air we had to turn back to Cuba due to bad weather. We had to wait until 11:30pm that night to fly out again (but thank goodness we were able to). The fun didn’t end there because we ended up waiting over an hour to get through the Cancun immigration. And the cherry on top – how about US$20 for a 5 minute cab ride (and that was the haggled down price from US$40!!).
I am sad that we got done like that in Cuba but we certainly don’t hold it against the whole city / population. We did have a great time and liked the ‘real’ interaction with the Cuban’s we did meet. Really you should always just make it a rule to watch your drinks no matter where you are. I should know – I’ve been an unfortunate victim twice in my home country of Canada.
There are scammers wherever you go, just trust your gut and if it seems to good to be true it probably is! My goal about sharing our experience is not to scare people off from Cuba. In fact, we would recommend a visit.
Havana is one of the coolest cities we’ve been to and it is definitely worth a look. Also we don’t want the stupid actions of a few to wreck it for the rest (that goes for any place). Just make sure to head the warnings and do your research before you travel any place so you’re prepared!
We had been told to hurry up and visit Cuba before things change and Cuba enters the 21st century like everywhere else in the world. Unfortunately for the people of Cuba things don’t look like they’re going to change any time soon. I tried to explain the Arab Spring to our taxi driver but he was less optimistic about Cuba’s hopes for change.
For the sake of the people of Cuba I hope there is a breakthrough and that the people obtain their freedom soon. For now, my strong recommendation is to visit Cuba (not just the isolated resorts). You’ll have a great holiday and the people of Cuba certainly appreciate you visiting their country too.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!