Santiago de Cuba – The music never stops

Full set of Santiago de Cuba photos here

We arrived at the Bayamo bus station after a 90 minute taxi ride from the Sierra Maestra over typically rough Cuban roads with an hour before the Viazul bus arrived.  Viazul is the tourist bus service, priced a little too high for the locals to use much.  For some reason everyone advises you to get to the bus station an hour before the bus arrives to buy a ticket, but whenever we did that (which was every time) they refused to sell us a ticket until the bus actually arrived so they could see how many spare seats there were.  It’s lucky we were travelling in low season or we would have had to be much more organised which is difficult in a country with telecommunications and customer service as bad as Cuba (just for the record, the Viazul lady in Camaguey is a complete bi-atch).

When we got out of the taxi at the bus station there were the usual guys crowding around asking us where we were going.  We ignored them and got into the station to settle into the hard plastic seats they make specially for such locations when it occurred to Sarah to go and check exactly how much it would cost to get a taxi from here to Santiago.  She came back with a quote for CUC$40 which was a fair bit more expensive than the bus so we settled in for the hours wait.  A tout then came to find us offering to take us for $25 which was about $5 more expensive than the bus all up.  Why not, we thought.  The taxi driver was a nice bald old guy without all his teeth and a ready laugh.  He wasn’t entirely sure where the casa was located in Santiago but was sure that it was in the centre of town and that we could just ask when we got there, which is often how it works in Cuba.

The drive was unremarkable apart from the incredibly bad diesel fumes.  I don’t think air-conditioning works in any Cuban taxi, even though this one was relatively modern, so we barrelled down the highway with all the windows open.  This is fun until you get stuck behind a huge old truck belching out a massive cloud of thick black diesel fumes.  As diesel is cheaper over here a lot of the vehicles have been converted to run on it but not in a modern super eco-friendly sense.  By the time we arrived in Santiago, the hottest place we had been in Cuba yet, we just wanted to get out of the car.

While Santiago has the advantage to those trying to navigate its streets of not being purposefully designed as a maze it has a few tricks up its sleeves.  Like many towns in Cuba the streets have new and old names which changed after the revolution.  Many people don’t seem to know both which can lead to issues.  The streets in the old town are incredibly narrow which makes the going slow.  The biggest disadvantage is that most of the streets aren’t signposted so you have no idea what they’re called even if you do find the right street.  Some have old metal plaques attached to the wall with the name faded but often these have fallen off.  The old town of Santiago is all one way streets so if you don’t know where you’re going there is lots of looping around.  Our taxi driver admitted right at the start of the journey that he didn’t know where he was going but fear not, we would just ask people, and to be fair he did that very well.  We must have asked about a dozen people, all of whom were dead certain they knew the way, but either they were wrong, were bad at giving directions, or our taxi driver was incredibly bad at following directions.  He kept saying to Sarah in Spanish, “I really do know Santiago, just not this street”.  We circled our casa about a dozen times until eventually a kind-hearted mechanic jumped in the car with us (maybe he had seen us go around a few times) and guided us in personally. The taxi driver was jumping out of his skin with happiness that we had arrived.  We were relieved to get into our very nice and quiet casa for a lie down.

Lonely Planet warns that Santiago is the worst place in Cuba for touts but the writing in that tome is highly hyperbolic so we took that with a grain of salt.  We weren’t ripped off too badly.  There was the tour of museums we did with a private car where they dutifully drove us around to all the museums, all of which were closed *because* it was raining.  It’s some kind of bizarre Cuban thing that cultural activities taking place indoors close as soon as they see the first raindrops spattering down.  It seems unlikely that the guys driving us around wouldn’t know this, but they were at least informative.

Now we were being scammed for smaller amounts.  We went to the casa de tradicionnes, a music house famous for eclectic musical offerings.  On the way a cheerful youth accosted us with “Hey, where you from?”.  We had a brief chat and he tagged along as we went into the music house so Sarah paid his $2 entry and bought him a $1 beer.  There was then a disjointed Spanish conversation until our new friend excused himself, in retrospect to grab his friend who spoke better English than him.  His friend was super skinny with crooked teeth and a scar on his cheek.  He leaned against the table as he chatted with Sarah.  All creatures seem to be able to tell that Sarah is a soft touch.  Her kind heart shines out through her face so as a consequence she gets the majority of tout attention.  It helps that she speaks a smattering of Spanish as well.  So the skinny scarred guy is chatting to Sarah and then asks her “Are you open?”.  This got my ears pricked up but Sarah didn’t hear what he said over the music and asked him to repeat himself.  The skinny guy looked nervously at me and asked Sarah if we were married.  I could see Sarah about to launch into the whole “we’re not married but…” story so I said “Just tell him we’re married”.  This obviously confused the skinny guy because he started on his chat up lines:

“Your eyes are as blue as pimming swools.” – sorry, this is an obscure Degrassi Junior High reference.  I’ll buy a special present for anyone who can tell me the context without resorting to an internet search, and I work on the internet so I’ll know if you cheat.

“Your eyes are as blue as….”

We couldn’t hear what he said so Sarah yelled at him to repeat it.

“Your eyes are as blue as…”, this time he also made a hand gesture upward.

“My eyes are as blue as the sky?” Sarah yelled back.

“Your eyes are as blue as the sky”, nervous smile from skinny guy.


Never mind that Sarah doesn’t have blue eyes.  Obviously all western girls have them, as anyone who has done the English for Touts course would know.  By this stage the band had broken into playing Guantanamera, that common refrain popularised by the Buena Vista Social Club which you hear everywhere in Cuba.

“You have a beautiful smile.”


“You have a beautiful smile.”

By this stage I just wanted Sarah to give the guy some small change so we could leave, but he had to launch into his story about a sick wife in the hospital.  We heard him out and Sarah gave him a $3 note. He looked decidedly unimpressed.  I patted his friend on the shoulder as we left.  When you consider the average worker makes $10 a month they did ok for ten minutes of small talk.

This situation worked out a lot better than the story a fellow traveller Carsten told us.  He went out drinking with two German girls and they were joined by a Cuban guy for whom they bought a drink.  They ordered another round for themselves and magically a drink turned up for the Cuban guy as well.  Carsten went to the bar to pay for the drinks he and the German girls had ordered.  When the barman came to get the money for the drink from the Cuban guy he asked Carsten to pay which he reluctantly did but got pissed off and refused to buy him any more drinks.  By this stage another Cuban guy had joined them and was hitting on one of the German girls.  She wasn’t interested but he kept pestering her.  One of the Cuban guys said to Carsten that all foreign women come to Cuba to have sex with Cuban guys and that they should consider themselves lucky that Cuban guys look at them because Cuban men are the best in the world.  Eventually Carsten left but heard the next day that these guys had followed the girls back to their casa.  The girls were banging on the door to their casa but the owner had gone to bed.  The guys started pawing them and trying to kiss them, calling themselves lesbians when they didn’t respond.  Eventually the girls just yelled at them “yes, we are lesbians, now leave us alone.”  I have not been sexually harassed yet but surely it’s only a matter of time.

We had a salsa lesson in Santiago.  We found our teacher during a music performance in the afternoon where he asked Sarah to dance and guided her around a few simple steps.  The next morning it was my turn as well.  We took up a small corner of the bar, cleared a few chairs out of the way, and launched into the first step.  This involves stepping to the side, back to the middle, then stepping to the other side, in time with the other person and preferably in time to the music.  We had this mastered pretty fast so we moved on to step two, which is similar but consists of stepping back while the other person steps forward, returning to the middle neutral position, then doing the opposite with the other leg. Step three is where it started getting complicated.  It is step two but moving Sarah around in a circle.  I could generally manage this until Sarah started talking which made me lose count and completely forget which leg was supposed to be doing what.  We seemed to be providing entertainment for the bar at least and any passing pedestrians watching what must be for them like teaching an adult to crawl.  By this stage I was pouring sweat again as I took a break and watched our teacher, a cool older Afro-Cuban man in white shoes, show Sarah how to do a turn.  We did a couple of successful turns ourselves and that was pretty much an hour done.  I’m not sure at what point it becomes fun but we’ll try it out live before we leave Cuba.

After the salsa class we met a fellow traveller, a German guy called Carsten who spoke fluent English and Spanish.  He had done an exchange in Canada when younger and taught in Adelaide briefly.  It turns out that he was caught in the exact same scam as us in Havana, although they told him there was a free salsa festival, not a free concert by the Buena Vista Social Group.  He had spoken to seven other couples who had also been caught out, so it’s doing quite well for the Cubanos in Havana.  I’m not sure the Santiago guys have heard of that one yet.  Funnily enough in Santiago that night a free concert was being planned by an apparently famous group called Los Van Van (who have won a Latin grammys).  So despite this sounding like exactly the kind of thing a scammer would say we heard about the concert from lots of different sources and saw that one of the big plazas had been setup for a concert.  We still weren’t sure by 9pm as it had been raining most of the day but we thought we would give it a try.  The taxi driver got us halfway to the venue before he told is that the concert had been moved and asked for an extra dollar to take us there.  This made us immediately suspicious but we agreed.  It turns out the concert had been moved from the square to the concert hall next door, so I’m not sure what the extra dollar was for.  Carsten snagged a few tickets for about $1 each and we headed in, or at least tried to.

Event management in Cuba is not as smoothly done as other parts of the world I’ve seen.  The crowd became jammed trying to get into the one open door and everyone started yelling at each other.  We just stood back and waited for the passage to become unblocked which took a strangely long time given that once we got in there where plenty of spare seats on the mezzanine level where we found ourselves.  The venue was not dissimilar in layout to the Opera House but was a very different vibe to most gigs I’ve been to there.  There was booty shaking everywhere.  The crowd went nuts during the songs.  The atmosphere was electric and the band were off the hook.  They had three trombones, two electric organs, four singers, two guys on percussion and two electric violins.  They incessantly pumped out salsa tunes that sounded similar to my ears but kept me moving for close to three hours.  One of the singers was doing hip shakes like Elvis.  The best part of the gig was all the random people invited up on stage to dance, little girls, older women humping the floor, fat ladies shaking their booty.  Towards the end of the gig security guards came on stage to try and clear people off.  They kept dancing as they were escorted to the edge of the stage.  The most manic dancer, a woman in white, kept running away from the security guard and he eventually just gave up.  We had only one tourist moment when an incredibly drunk man came up to us and offered us a swig of rum.  We all declined.  He stood in front of me then told Sarah it was his birthday.  She wished him a happy birthday.  He then asked for a dollar as a present.  Sarah laughed and said no.  When Sarah moved aside he told Carsten that Sarah has asked Carsten to give him a dollar.  Having no luck he stumbled off.  We saw him later attempting to stumble on stage for a dance but he was an easy stop for the security guard.

While in Santiago we broke a golden rule of travelling by going to a restaurant recommended by a tout.  He was a very helpful tout who gave us directions and accompanied us down to the water to look at the mountains over the harbour.  The next night, all things being equal among food in Cuba, we decided that this paladar was probably as good as any other restaurant in the city, and it was in a decent location.  So we arrived at the empty restaurant to his delight and I bought a bottle of black market 15 year old rum.  We ate chicken.  I woke up in the middle of the night feeling unwell.

To be fair, my illness could have been caused by the street ice-cream we had, another bad idea, or the local cake with thick egg white icing, or the street pizza.  It’s not really important once it happens why it happened.  All you know is that you feel crook.  So I spent the next two and half days lying in bed with no appetite and frequent trips to the toilet.  Sarah was a very patient nurse.  It was nowhere near as bad as my worst food poisoning incident.  Those of you who followed my travels through Europe might recall the dodgy sausage I ate from the street vendor in Milan that caused me to get off the train to Venice early in order to lie as weak as a kitten in a Verona hostel where I threw up every little sip of water I drank.

This was just boring old travellers’ diarrhoea which we made the mistake of treating with gastro-stop, not realising that this is really emergency medication for if you need to sit on a bus for eight hours and is not the best treatment for curing the illness.  We’re bombarding it with antibiotics now with some improvement which you would hope for by day six.

Full set of Santiago de Cuba photos here

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>