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Cuba Day 5: Arrival in Vinales

Taxi experience and a tale of two casas

· Cuba,Travel journal,Joey

Havana to Vinales

Iris and I grabbed breakfast at the café downstairs, for convenience, and packed up our gear. I popped out to the hotel shop to get water for our journey ahead. Here I learned an interesting lesson. There was a guy in front of me buying a six pack of water. I had a hunch and watched closely as he handed over 5 CUC to get back change! This was the same place that I'd paid 1.7 CUC on our first night. When it came to my turn to pay, I boldly handed over a 1 CUC coin and the guy handed me 30 cents change. Another win, following yesterday's triumphs!

(Travel tip: I later learned that most official shops (i.e. excluding restaurants, cafés etc.) have to sell water at a set price of 70 cents for still and 80 cents for sparkling water. However, they often charge unwitting tourists more and pocket the difference. You'll know what these shops are because they won't have price labels on the water (non-official shops will have 2 CUC / 3 CUC marked on them on the display shelf). If you encounter this problem, just hand over 70 cents and say that you paid 70 cents here yesterday. If they persist nevertheless, demand the receipt - they'll usually back off.)

The taxi arrived 15 minutes later, by which point we were starting to worry. We hadn't paid anything up front, but it would have been a hassle to get a new car to take us to Vinales. I was afraid that they may have sold the seats to a higher bidder. We were surprised when the car finally arrived that it was a normal-sized car - they explained that the jeep we were supposed to get had broken down today, which I knew was not unusual in Cuba. We would get two cars instead for the same price, so we got in and headed to our friends' casa. We explained the situation and, despite our initial hesitation as we ideally wanted to stay together, Andia popped in the car with us and we set off for Vinales.

The journey was 2.5 hours and was quite pleasant. There was air-conditioning, which was welcome in the smothering heat and humidity. We were driving very fast, although we couldn't really tell how fast as the speedometer was broken! Not having to squeeze in the back seat was also welcome.

Vinales: a tale of two casas

The taxi dropped us all off at our casa, which Gustavo had found for us. We'd called him from a restaurant in Havana and he'd quickly organised a place for us with a woman called Tatiana, a lovely mother two. Although Tatiana wasn't overly friendly, we could tell she was a kind person from the first moment.

Casa Tatiana was tucked away behind the main square of Vinales. It's very well located, quiet and kept exceptionally clean (during our visit, a cleaning lady came round every morning to clean the entire house). Our room was an ensuite block around the back of the house, with air con and a fan. We agreed a price of 25 CUC per night with breakfast each morning for 5 CUC per person. (Tatiana had initially asked for 35 CUC as it's "high season", but she accepted our offer without much hesitation.)

(Travel tip: When in Cuba, we would recommend only booking the first couple of nights via a broker or the internet. This keeps your schedule flexible, as you never know how transport will work out or you may really enjoy yourself in one place. It also increases your bargaining position as there are usually lots of options for casas - in recent years the number of casas in tourist locations has multiplied greatly as it's a great way for locals to make money. Iris and I ended up saving at least a third compared to our friends, who had booked the entire 2 weeks through a broker who inevitably takes a good commission.)

Tatiana offered to organise tours for us if we wanted, as well as dinner at her casa. We politely declined, as she wasn't able to accommodate our friends for dinner, although in retrospect we wished we'd had dinner here one night as she seemed like a real Cuban mum - I think we missed out big time! She also had the cutest dog called Guerro who she babied, which was endearing to see.

Guerro, the baby of Tatiana's house

After dropping off our bags, we then headed to our friends' casa to see where they were staying. Their casa was called Casa Estrella & Celestino and was situated at the western edge of the town. The owner Sadie welcomed us in very good English, which seemed to put our friends instantly at ease following the lack of English speakers so far on the trip and the stresses of the taxi trip. Sadie was young, probably similar or younger in age to us, and was full of dry jokes (when we arrived, she said with a deadpan face that she'd just given away their rooms this morning). She was a stark contrast to Tatiana, and we could tell she was very savvy (the place has listings on TripAdvisor and other sites).

The casa itself had more of a guesthouse feel rather than a genuine Cuban casa, with numerous rooms and construction underway for further expansion. Sadie was very organised, showing us on her laptop a map of Vinales with some key places we might want to consider visiting. She offered to introduce us to a horse riding tour company that organises trips to the valley which we decided to take up. We also agreed to have dinner here, as she was able to accommodate me and Iris too.

 

Sadie also offered to book us a taxi with an agency to take us to our next stop, Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) for 40 CUC each. It was considerably more expensive than the Viazul, but the bus was already all booked up. Iris and I would be put in a car with two other people. Sadie also recommended a casa near our friends' there too.

Casa dining experience

We had dinner at Sadie's casa that night. The meals were priced according to the type of meat chosen. I chose chicken (10 CUC) and the others went for vegetarian (6 CUC). The chicken was pretty tasty and there was a lot of vegetables provided, which was a nice change. The vegetarian meal went down with the others too. In the end, the meal is on the pricy side and I'd recommend eating most meals in private restaurants in Vinales, which have very affordable options (less than 4 CUC in some places). We shared a drink and headed back to our casa, agreeing to meet early in the morning to start our horse riding tour.

Dining with friends at Casa Estrella y Celestino. Iris, Andia, Arian, Magda, Alex and Joey (clockwise from left)

A few thoughts on costs / money

Casa cost: Sadie's casa was 35 CUC per room per night, which is on the high end for casas in Cuba (hotels are much more expensive and quality varies). As mentioned above, you'll find it cheaper to negotiate prices if you book directly with the casa owner. Bargaining position will vary will the season though, and you may find it harder to haggle at casas with a big online presence due to demand.

Transactional vs 'real': Sadie wouldn't give us any indication of prices for the horse riding tour, despite my asking twice for rough estimates, saying that the tour company will give a range of options. I really didn't like this feeling at all. In Cuba, you will likely encounter this type of attitude at some point, especially in more touristy locations such as Vinales or Trinidad. They will stick together as Cuban tourist workers and work together to get the most money out of the tourists (Yumas), despite themselves criticising jineteros (the street hustlers, who admitted are more blatant and severely scamming tourists).

This wasn't the case everywhere though and we met on our trip some great people (Alexander in Havana, with whom we stayed on our final night in Cuba, being a great example) who will look out for you and ensure you pay a fair price for things and give you more local tips. For us, we'll be looking to experience this type of experience, where we are able to connect on a more human level rather than a distant customer - vendor transactionary experience.

Transport: Finally, we thought the price offered for the taxi to Playa Giron was really expensive. In the end, Iris and I decided to get our own taxi collective to Playa Giron, saving 20 CUC, which was a fun experience - more to follow on that later!

Guerro freaks out (in a good way) when you rub his belly...

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