Motorbike Writer and I got ripped off big time in Cuba, but despite the many scams Cuba is one of the most interesting places we’ve visited and we hope to one day come back and see how much it has changed.
We tried to hire a motorcycle or join a motorcycle tour, but ran into major problems doing business with this country because of the lack of entrepreneurial skills and poor internet.
Shame, as it would be a great place to ride, slipping through the traffic and dodging the potholes.
Instead, we hired a car in Havana and planned to drive the length of the country to Santiago de Cuba and back.
I had read about scammers in Cuba and had some interactions with some in Havana but it wasn’t anything more than buying them a drink, some slightly overpriced tickets to the Buena Vista Social Club, hassling you to take a taxi or hitching a ride.
On our departure from Havana in the hire car we are flagged down by some men who tell us there is a cycle race ahead and we need to go another way. He says tourists wouldn’t find the way and we should pay him to show us.
We say no and turned around, get lost and have anther confusing interaction with a local who also tries to talk us into paying him to show us the way.
In the end, we found our own way to the right highway by consulting two paper maps and an iPhone compass.
With renewed confidence we deviate into Cienfuegos to investigate the “Paris of Cuba” and park on the street with all the other cars. We are immediately approached by a local who says we can’t park there. I show him the map and ask where we can park and where is the cathedral. He points to a location a long way away and insists we follow him.
I know the cathedral is near the square so we decline his scam!
MBW and I are now in the zone, heading to a Caribbean Sea tropical beachside paradise while navigating the roads and their many hazards and scammers which seem to be at every turn!
The Lonely Planet describes driving in Cuba not as a whole new ball game but rather a whole new sport. Man, are they right! But we are confident that Team MBW has this road trip covered. After all, roads trips are our thing and MBW has driven cars and ridden motorbikes in numerous countries in the world.
A tour guide in Havana gave us estimated times for each part of the road. I scoffed under my breath and thought it wouldn’t take us that long. But after our first day of driving maybe she is right.
These roads and the numerous human, animal and vehicular dangers are something else.
But after two glorious days relaxing at a Caribbean Sea beach paradise and armed with a third, more detailed map, we continue our journey down the island and make good time, considering the obstacles.
In Australia, you can do 1000km easily in a day. Here, a 300km trip takes just as long, so with almost 400km to reach Santiago de Cuba, we leave early.
Driving into the sun on a shiny road, MBW passes a truck and is immediately flagged down by the police for passing over a long-faded unbroken line that we couldn’t see in the conditions.
We hand him all our paperwork, he shakes his head at MBW, shouts “listen, listen, listen” then speaks sternly in Spanish! Seeing we had no idea what he as saying, he surprisingly lets us go!. Phew, maybe our luck is changing.
I may have given MBW the rounds of the table so he keeps his speed down and his overtaking becomes a little more judicious. In fact, for the first time, we are even passed by a white late-model Peugeot we assume is yet another hire car. There are quite a few of us out on these broken roads.
A little while later another white Peugeot looms up behind us, flashes its light, then overtakes us, the female passenger pointing at our wheels.
We pull over and find we have, indeed, got a flat front tyre. Bummer. Oh well, we have a spare.
So we go to the boot to fetch the spare and the couple, Oscar and Lara, in the Peugeot get out to help, too. Oscar suggests we find a flat piece of ground to change the tyre and guides us to a spot. He also lets us use his jack as it is better than the one in the hire car and insists taking over the job from MBW.
Meanwhile, Lara notices a huge piece of wire sicking out of the back tire as well. Far out, this will really affect our ETA.
Oscar suggests we leave Lara with MBW and me in the car while he takes both tyres to Las Tunas (10km away). Thank goodness these lovely Cubans, who now live in Spain, have stopped to help us.
Oscar insists we stay in the car with Lara, turn on the air conditioning and lock the doors as it is not safe in this area.
While we wait for Oscar to return, a bike cop rides up and down the road several times and Lara keeps waving at him, indicating that all is well.
Lara doesn’t speak much English but we communicate by photos on our mobile phones, swapping stories about our children and our interest in motorbikes.
We tell Lara we are going to Santiago de Cuba and she warns us about the “mal boys” (bad boys) and how they will rob us in broad daylight if we aren’t careful. “Mucho peligroso,” she says, which means very dangerous.
Within an hour Oscar is back with local mechanic Ramon and our two tyres. One is repaired and the other has been replaced, he explains. We had no idea how long we had driven on the flat tyre.
Ramon, MBW and Oscar change the tyres and Lara and I share some chips, then Lara provides the men with soap and water to wash their hands.
Oscar has a huge festering mosquito bite on his arm so I offer him some of our supply of antibiotics, but he turns me down. It was the least I could do to say thank you.
We part ways with Lara and Oscar, embracing to show our deep appreciation and take Ramon back to Las Tunas and pay him $375. That’s about the same cost as in Australia.
He also warns us about the bad boys in Santiago de Cuba and I’m now wonder why we are spending three days there.
The experience has blown our daily budget and our confidence. How many more flat tyres will we get on the 900km trip back to Havana!
Next day we walk past our car in the carpark at our Santiago hotel and find the fixed tyre is deflated … along with our mood!
Fortunately the car hire establishment is right across the road and while we are taking off the tyre, some locals gather and help us remove the tyre, then leave without asking for any money.
After much probing, the hire car mechanic can’t find the hole and says it should be ok; maybe someone let our tyre down over night. We insist he have another look and eventually he finds the hole and plugs it. But it’s a dodgy job and MBW is not convinced it will survive 900km on these roads.
I had been very keen to finish our road trip but at this point we both decide that Cuba wins. We book flights to Havana and prepare to leave the car behind.
We ask the car hire people whether our insurance will cover the blown tyre, but when I present the receipt to the receptionist, she starts to laugh (not something I had seen a lot of so far in Cuba). “It is fake,” she says!
“Shut the front door,” I say … or words to that effect.
“But we had a flat and Oscar and Lara helped us,” I exclaim. The lady then shows us a similar receipt and a photo of Lara, Oscar and Ramon that other tourists have given them when they handed back their cars.
She says we should have rung them and they would have come and fixed the tires, but the location had no phone reception and was the farthest in the country from one of their many agencies.
I am devastated. I have been scammed for the last time in Cuba.
This leaves us paranoid about what to believe. In fact, I have my suspicions that the hire company and maybe the bike cop are also complicit in this elaborate scam.
When we return to Havana, I visit the hire car office to discuss the situation. The receptionist listens with indifference until I mention I have photos of Lara and want to report it to the police.
“I am prepared to not charge you an extra $150 for fitting a non-standard tyre if we don’t talk about this anymore,” she says.
HOW THE STING WORKS
Looking back at the scam, we realise how elaborate it all was.
We’re still not sure how they managed to flatten the front tyre, but we recall that white Peugeot that roared past us and believe they may have thrown out some tacks. It may even have been Oscar and Lara. We hadn’t noticed, but it is no surprise it was the same colour and car type.
The second flat was probably obtained when Oscar guided us to a “flat spot” where he had thrown the piece of sharp wire.
Leaving his wife behind was a clever ruse to gain our confidence.
The warnings about “mal boys” in Santiago was a deflection to divert our attention from any concerns we may have had in trusting them.
The final instalment in the sting is for the hire company to threaten charging us extra for the non-standard tyre if we report the matter to the police.
So, instead, we have reported the scam to more than 200,000 monthly readers of this website!
WOULD WE RETURN TO CUBA?
I am not one to be defeated, so yes I would return to Cuba.
We saw some amazing sights and met some amazing people in this crazy, frustrating country.
Despite the scammers and the paranoia it creates in all dealings with the locals, I have warmed to the Cubans.
They have suffered near starvation after the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s and many Cuban parents our age have not seen their children for years after they fled to other countries in search of a better life. Yet, still they seem resilient.
There were also many occasions when strangers did kind things and then disappeared without asking for anything such as the people who helped with the tyre in the carpark.
We also spent a lovely day with Michael, a taxi driver who showed us around Santiago de Cuba and even helped arrange our flights back to Havana after the tour company had told us all flights were booked out.
The next time we visit Cuba I’d like to travel in an escorted motorbike tour.
If you plan to go, we suggest you do the same and don’t hire a car. Or maybe hire Michael and his associated taxi drivers. Here is his email contact.
I’ve had time to reflect on this tyre scam. Has it affected my life? No, not really. It cost us a little money and cost me a little blind trust in people, but it gave us some great dinner conversation. And we dread to think what would have happened if we had rejected their help!
After spending 10 days in Cuba, we realise life is very difficult for them and their exposure to tourists and other lifestyles via the internet makes them desperate to obtain money any way they can.
Still, this island paradise has one of the best free medical systems in the world, 99% literacy rate (something which I am passionate about) and almost no organised crime or drug problem. I’m actually a little envious and I just hope Oscar, Lara and Ramon had a better Christmas on our money and shared it with their friends and family.