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Fri Apr 26 2013: Nickels and Dimes in Baracoa

The Jinetero problem came to a head in Baracoa. We were really looking forward to spending a couple of days in the tropical sea-side town, doing some hiking in the area and walking through the city streets. The casa owner in Santiago called ahead and booked us a room with someone she knew in Baracoa, presumably for a commission, we just had to meet them at the main gas station in town.

However, swarms of Jineteros on bicycles crowded around us when we arrived, and when we asked about the casa and showed them the business card, one of them led us to a house in a neighbourhood near the Malecon. We kept asking if this was the right place, as the address didn't match, and the young hustler reassured us it was. The guilty look on the casa owner's face confirmed that we were misled (literally), but rather than search the town again for the right place, we decided to stay because we were just too tired to argue.

Hotel El Castillo is set high atop a hill and offers great views of Baracoa

You can see the casa where we're staying (Casa El Kidnapo) from here.
See the orange building in the centre? It's the small white building next to it.

The neighbourhood we're staying in seems quite poor, but the people living there were very friendly and again, very curious about the motorcycles. It was a nice location, one street away from the Malecon, and strolling up and down it offered a nice change from the very touristy centro. Also, very little Jineteros on the boardwalk. We watched as a group of kids played a game of pelota (baseball) with a wooden stick for a bat and a plastic bottle cap for a ball.

Kids hanging out on the Malecon

Watching the waves of the Atlantic Ocean splash on the rocks from the Malecon

Changui originated a hundred years ago in the sugar cane fields, combining Spanish guitar and African rhythms

In the evenings, Changui music, native to Baracoa could be heard streaming from the bars. Entrance was free, but the mojitos were expensive and every three songs a hat was passed around to collect money for the musicians. The locals, not content to just listen, took to the floor and impressed all the turistos with their complex salsa footwork.

These kids were taking part in an art competition at the local arts centre

Mohawks are a popular hairstyle for young Cubans

We watched the local Baracoa baseball team practicing

Rumour has it that Fidel was a pretty good baseball player and national sports were encouraged by the government at all levels that Cuba quickly rose to world prominence at each Olympics after La Revolucion. I don't know anything about baseball, but even I've heard of Jose Canseco.

They let Neda try out for the team. This is her specialty pitch, the CocoNuckleBall

Young komrade at the beach

We decided to do some hiking on the hills south of the city, we were told that there were fabulous views of the city and shoreline at the summit. Normally, you would cross a narrow, rickety bridge across the Rio Miel to gain access, but it had been washed out, so we had to be ferried across for $1 each.

Our ferryman had the bluest eyes ever! Wish I got a picture of it.

From here, we were starting to get hit with unexpected fees, as we were charged $5 each for entrance to the park. The government official told us that it would grant entry to everything. $10 is a bit steep for a hike (not including the $4 for the round-trip ferry), but since we had already come all this way, we decided to pay. We opted not to hire a guide since the trails were well-marked, but one followed us anyway, hoping to guilt us into paying him at the end of the hike. This was getting very annoying as all we wanted to do was spend some time alone and unmolested.

Hike up the trail to get a better view

Upon reaching the summit, we discovered that the mirador (viewpoint) was on private property and that we were required to dish out an additional $5 each to enter. This was unacceptable, since the official at the entrance told us everything was included. Our little day-hike was going to cost us $24! We refused to pay, and started angrily down the hill. The woman that was on the property chased after us and told us that we didn't have to pay, so we relented. The viewpoint was beautiful, but I couldn't shrug off the growing feeling that everywhere we went on the island, we were going to be nickeled and dimed, and that most of the locals just viewed us and all the other tourists as walking wallets.

View from the mirador, Baracoa in the distance and the broken bridge down below. You can see the boat we took.

As we left, the owner, who we had not met before demanded payment for access to the viewpoint. An argument ensued as we told him that the woman (his wife, we found out) had said that we didn't have to pay. Thankfully, the guide that followed us vouched for that, and we left without further incident. There were other things we wanted to see in the park, a beach and an archeological museum inside some caves, but after questioning the guide, we found out that these cost money as well - $3 each for beach access and $3 each for the museum, for a total cost of $36 for the day.

I understand that there are tourists that come to Cuba that don't think twice about dropping $36 for an unguided hike. It's not a lot of money when you have jobs to go back to for the remaining 11.5 months out of the year when you're not on vacation. This is not the case for us, as we are traveling on a budget and to be misled like we had been, added terrible insult to injury. I understand the huge disparity between how much tourists have and make compared to the locals, but I get a sense that most Cubans don't see any gradations between budget travelers and rich vacationers.

We left the park without seeing anything else, feeling more assailed by everyone who approached us demanding money from us.

Close-up of the ferry

This was not the end of it. We had originally been told that the person "guarding" our bikes at our casa wanted $2 per night. When we checked out to leave Baracoa, he demanded an additional $2, because we had left the motorcycles there during the day as well. Another argument ensued over what "$2 a night" meant. To most people, it is assumed that this covers a 24-hour period. But apparently here, you have to draw up a legal document for every transaction stating down to the littlest detail what exactly is covered and what all the hidden costs will be.

For a country that has repressed capitalism and free enterprise for the last 50 years, the rules opening up services to tourists seem to represent a tightly-wound spring finally exploding. Baracoa taught us some frustrating lessons as to how we would be treated in Cuba. It's obvious we have to approach our travels on the island very differently than what we're used to.

Curious kids in the neighbourhood, everyone wanted in on the picture!

I don't like ending things on a negative note, so I wanted to mention how nicely we were treated as we stayed in the barrio as people got to know us as we strolled through the neighbourhood streets every night. Familiar faces would smile and wave to us and say hi - we would talk about where we came from and about our trip, as well as get to know a little bit about their lives. One evening, we hung out on the neighbour's porch listening to his kid practice the violin. His dad seemed very proud of him and glad that the mini-audience spurred his son to give a concerto-level performance. Our standing ovation led to a shy grin on his face. :)

This feels like the real Cuba, one that we wanted to experience. I think all we have to do is step off the well-trodden tourist path.

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