Hitchhiking in Cuba offers a good opportunity to learn how Cubans really are and how they deal with their daily problems. You will likely meet more hitchhikers than cars, but the tranquil way in which people face this kind of obstacles is what really strikes you.
Cubans can hardly afford to buy and keep cars. Their low income and the complicated trading cars legislation makes a minority population be car owners. Therefore, hitchhiking in rural Cuba is not an easy ride.
As a foreigner, it is much easier to travel around with the more comfortable touristic buses. But why spend almost a Cuban’s monthly salary (around 22 dollars) for a distance of 200 km, when you can spend less than 1 dollar for a full day traveling with locals?
There is nothing unusual with hitchhiking in Cuba. In fact, the government encourages this as part of the national transportation system. Travelers are gathering at puntos amarilos a (yellow points) – the waiting areas where people can engage in the nationalized hitchhiking system. Here, a government official (el Amarillo) oversees the process and collects the transportation fee: 25 centavos of a Cuban peso (roughly 1 dollar cent) for travelers inside the province, or three pesos (11 cents) if the trip is trans-provincial. After talking to the government vehicle drivers (the law requires them to stop if people are waiting) about their route, the passengers going in the same direction are invited in the trucks, tractors or whatever they are. It seems to be a good transportation alternative, but the reality is that you can wait for more than 1 hour, without having a car picking you up. It was my case as well.
After a few days in the peaceful valley of Vinales, I decided to go southwest of the island and search for Maria la Gorda (Fat Mary). In my previous days in Havana, I had a few drinks with a traveler who was delighted about its calmness, charm and beauty.
“Man, you are going to fall in love, trust me on this”.
He seemed to me like a person who knew what he was talking about, even if his overwhelming words came after he finished a few glasses of rum. Now, I was keen to go and see it for myself – the beach of Maria la Gorda.
My illegal host from Vinales, senor Alfredo, was proud of me when he heard I want to travel in his country the same way that locals do.
“Are you taking the Viazul tourist bus or a taxi to get there, amigo?” he said from his black mustache while having a long look at me.
“No senor, I prefer to hitchhike! I want to see how life in Cuba really is”
“Oooh, “haciendo la botella? (meaning “doing the bottle”). Que rico, amigo!”
“No, I am not going for any bottle of rum, the one from last night was enough”.
But he made his point while mimicking the hand motion of raising the thumb for having a drink. That was almost identical with sticking out your thumb to hail a car when hitchhiking.
“You are going to travel like Cubans, not like a gringo! I respect that. You will love it, I can assure you”, he continued with his heavy Spanish accent.
“I am positive about this, senor Alfredo!”
So like I said before, I was going towards Maria la Gorda, southwest of Cuba, around 170 km away from the village of Vinales. I was assuming that if I leave in the morning, I could reach my destination in the afternoon.
And there I was outside the village of Vinales at punto Amarillo, along many other locals, in the sweaty, humid weather of a Cuban August. Everyone was waiting for a free seat in the government vehicles that was going his way.
I waited for about 30 minutes before I was told that I could get a ride. It was an old communist truck with free air (un)conditioning.
There I stood in the open air, at the back of the truck, with maybe another 15-20 people. The heavy road made every passenger jump around at every bump.
After roughly 45 minutes the truck arrived at its destination, but not mine. It was the town of Pinar del Rio. There I had to make my way to another punto amarillo and to repeat the previous scenario, this time with a larger waiting interval. However, another kind of truck, another kind of passengers.
But what a disco ambiance this truck had inside! The interior design was not far from any Cuban’s idea of a Christmas decoration style should look like. The music was extremely loud and it was playing rumba. An energetic muchacho visibly affected by the national drink, started to dance like it was his birthday. He even invited a few female passengers to join his loco dance. I was surprised to watch his charming proposals being refused. After all, we were about to have a long ride in a mobile discotheque…
to be continued…