The smell, the decay, the jineteros: my experience in La Havana

La Havana is a very interesting and curious town. It has a special charme, but it is also suffocating, with collapsing buildings and a population constantly trying to trick you.

The first aspect of La Havana that comes to mind is its smell. Of Gasoline. Pollution. Asphyxiation. You can smell gasoline everywhere: on the streets, in the form of the black smoke puffed out from the vintage American cars – that have become the symbol of Cuba and made its fortune, but that also suffocate you. On the buses, it’s the gas that comes in from the holes in the floor. In your bedroom, when even on the 5th floor you are awaken in the middle of the night by a terrible smell of gasoline and you have to shut the window and turn the air-con on even if you don’t like it.

The decay. It looks like the town might break into pieces at any time. There’s an area around the four squares of Old Havana that has been restored and is really pretty. One block away everything is falling down. From the rooftop terraces of the “case particular” (the accommodation in private families typical of Cuba) and some hotels you can see everything, and the decadence is even more visible. The walls facing the streets sometimes have been fixed and painted, but at the back everything is grey and you can see the holes in the walls, the missing walls, the collapsed walls.

Alba dal tetto della casa - Sunrise from the rooftop terrace of our casa particular
Sunrise from the roof of our Casa Particular

On our first morning we went to the rooftop terrace of our casa particular. We were jet-lagged, so despite the tiredness at 6 am we were awake. It was lovely though, because we witnessed the sun rise on the roofs of La Havana. And slowly the town also woke up. The air is stuff even in winter (we were there in the month of December, 2015), so most doors and windows are always open and life happens mostly on the terraces or in the streets. And you can look at it while it happens. One man looking out of the window while brushing his teeth; a lady taking some water from the tank to do the laundry on her terrace; a girl sitting in front of her entrance door on a rocking chair with her baby, she turns the TV on and starts breastfeeding her baby. On the lower floor a mum combs her daughter’s hair; once she’s done, the girl watches tv with her siblings until mum says it’s time to go to school.

Decadence in La Havana: collapsed buildings find new use

Jineteros are expert in tricking the tourists; they are very good in convincing the naive foreigners to buy rubbish or to stay in a casa particular or eat in a restaurant where they get a good commission (5 or 10 USD over a 20 USD price).

During our first day in La Havana we completely fell for it. Well, they are real experts like I haven’t found anywhere else and they are very good at recognizing the new arrivals. Just a few minutes after we got into the street, we had already bought some cigars. “Today it’s the only day of the month when families are allowed to sell cigars, and they are cheaper than in the factories”. Ok. Done, Thank you. I’m not easily fooled around normally, but this guy was particularly skillful, with his smiles, his jokes, the positive presence. Of course the next day was “the only day” too. I don’t know of what quality these cigars are, because who understands anything about cigars? I don’t even smoke!

Hai una caramella per i miei bambini? - Do you have a candy for my children?
Do you have a candy for my children?

In the afternoon an apparently nice girl approaches us, asks where we come from, smiles, laughs, invites us to Che Guevara’s favorite café (by chance just next to her house) to drink a mojito that will cost us 4 CUC (about 4 euro – 4,50 USD, when at the cafeteria of a 4 star hotel it costs 3 – probably its price for Cubans in a place like this one is less than one CUC), so 12 euro gone (because of course you don’t even need to mention it, but we had to pay for her mojito too; which we didn’t mind, but didn’t like to pay more too). Then to the shop to buy powder milk for the baby (first she asked for 5 packets for about 12 CUC, fortunately at the end she was happy with 2 packets only) because she doesn’t work, the State gives her something every month, but it’s not enough, in two weeks it’s all gone.

And you don’t mind buying the milk because it’s better than giving her money that she might use to buy 10 mojitos more (but actually Cubans’ favorite drink is Cuba Libre, mojito is for tourists). No, the milk for the baby is a good and useful thing. But as soon as we waved good bye I remembered I had read somewhere that they ask for powder milk (because it’s easier to convince people to give that then money), and then they resell it. Mmm…

La bella faccia di La Havana - the pretty side of La Havana
The pretty side of La Havana

The following day we “casually” met another couple along the Malecon (the seaside promenade) in La Havana, very nice as usual; the guy talks to Luca in a mix of Spanish and Italian; the girl tells me how great Cuba is with its free education (everyone is graduated, but no one can speak English properly…??), free health system (but if you go to a pharmacy you might not find anything to cure your fever), free security (but everyone lives like in a cage, with grating at doors and windows even on the fifth floor). They took us to a place where an artist sells his work to raise money for a school for autistic children (thanks but I’m not interested) – where you can drink the “negron”, an amazing cocktail that you can find only here (sorry but I’m not thirsty) – and here everything is so expensive, could you buy some powder milk for my baby? (sorry but you’re late for this).

The first time you’re approached you’re happy, you think “how nice these Cuban people are” (and the guy you’re talking to repeats it himself, as to confirm it). Then you realize that the only Cubans that approach you are those that want to trick you. So even if you don’t want to, your attitude changes, you become defensive and your holiday takes a different hue.

Tassisti a La Havana - Taxi drivers in La Havana
Taxi drivers in La Havana

Despite the disappointment, I decided to spend three more nights in La Havana at the end of our stay in Cuba. Because, despite its faults, I have never seen a town as fascinating as La Havana.

More pictures from Cuba on my Flickr album.

The charm of Cuba

The charm of Cuba

In these days of big changes, my thoughts go back to Cuba.

It’s been a peculiar place to visit, full of surprises, bad and good, of disappointments, but surely it is a place like no others and incredibly photogenic.

Havana Cuba
Avenida Simon Bolivar, the most colorful in Havana.

In 2016 the first cruise from Florida disembarked in Havana after many years. Americans can now get individual visa to visit Cuba (before they could only visit on a tour). This of course will increase the tourist flow to Cuba and will bring some changes.

When I visited in December 2015 it felt a bit fake, as if there were 2 levels of life in Cuba: there’s the Cuban life and the touristic life; these two levels are separated and very rarely overlap. Cubans have their restaurants, their cafes, their taxis, their buses, even their hotels, and quite often (like the Casas Particular) tourists can not enjoy them.

While I was traveling in Cuba I was a bit disappointed because of the cheating and the sense of “falseness” I felt looking at the beautiful areas of La Havana with the charming cafes and the amazing buildings, well restored for tourists to admire, when the rest of the town is falling apart (I have talked about it in my post about La Havana).

Malecon La Havana
Fishing on the Malecon in La Havana

But now I can only remember the beauty I have seen. A walk on the Malecon in the evening is alone worth the flight: the view of the sun setting behind the skyline is breathtaking; locals and tourists meet here to chat and to flirt, and between one kiss and the other they try to avoid the big waves flooding the sidewalk; meanwhile the old american cars drive on the avenue that runs along the sea. It’s a postcard that I will bring with me for a long time.

Of course the rest of Cuba also has some spectacular sights. I remember fondly the lush vegetation of Vinales and the ox-pulled plows. The kid dancing in a garden in Trinidad, oblivious of the public she has attracted. The fishermen life and laid-back atmosphere of Baracoa. The welcoming attitude of our Cuban-Italian hosts in Cienfuegos.The charm and the colors of Sancti Spiritu, like Trinidad, but much more authentic. The young Cubans working at the resorts in Guardalavaca, relaxing and dancing on the beach before their shift starts. The Cubans skyping with their family abroad in the few spots where there is wifi.

sancti spiritu cuba
Socializing in Sancti Spiritu

I don’t know how this opening will affect the other world feeling you have traveling on this island. I hope Cuba won’t change much, otherwise it will lose all its allure.

Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

40 days itinerary from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince and back

In 2014 I traveled with my boyfriend to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As usual we left Italy without a defined itinerary in mind, we were ready to let our feelings guide us along the way.

We arrived in Santo Domingo after a long flight with a stop over in New York to save money, but that left us super tired.

Santo Domingo is a nice town with some beautiful colonial architecture. It can also be frightening in some areas, like around Parque Enriquillo, where most of the buses leave and arrive. It was scary at first for Luca, who had never been out of Europe and was not used to the chaos and crazy traffic.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo

From Santo Domingo we decided to go South-West, by the coast. Los Patos was recommended by the Lonely Planet as one of the best beaches of the South. So we went there, because the intention was to see as many different parts of the country as possible. We had a great time there. There were very few foreign tourists, many local tourists, so if this is what you are looking for, I recommend this part of the Republic instead of the North and East.

After Los Patos we went to Pedernales, right at the border with Haiti. From there we went to Bahia de Las Aguilas, a natural park with one of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever seen. We were near Haiti, but still couldn’t decide if we wanted to go or not. Everyone we talked to recommended not to go, because it was dangerous and expensive. Probably because we were advised not to, we went. And the true adventure started.

baia delle aquile
Bahia de las Aguilas

Adventurous backpacking in Haiti

Just after the border we had to take a boat in the night to take us to the nearest town, because going by land would have taken days.

Fist stop in Haiti was Jacmel, a lovely artists town in the Southern Coast, that still showed the many damages of the earthquake in 2010. We had the first glimpse of how Haiti would have been: dirty, chaotic, almost impossible to get money, but with sweet people (mostly).

This is how we were going to travel in Haiti

From Jacmel we took a tap-tap to Port au Prince and from there to Port Salut. It was the first of the many long journeys we had in Haiti. Traveling by local transportation is not easy at all in Haiti. Every time it took us many long hours to do just a few hundreds of kilometers. That was probably the worst part of backpacking in Haiti, because it was a huge waste of time and very tiring.

Port Salut is a pretty holiday resort, very quiet and relaxed. From there we went to Les Cayes one day, trying to go to the Ile de Vache, but the hours lost waiting for the tap-tap to fill up and finding a working ATM prevented us to go to the little island.

After Port Salut we went to Port au Prince, the capital. The first introduction wasn’t of the best, as we were approached by a guy who tried to steal from us. The town centre of Port au Prince is not bad, if you don’t mind the heat and dust, but out of the main roads and square it’s messy and not reassuring. We managed to see some voodoo art, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Haiti.

After Port au Prince another loooong and scary journey to go to Cap Haitien. Cap Haitien is actually pretty and clean, very different from the capital, even though it’s also a large city. But this in the town centre. Just out of the centre there’s a canal full of rubbish, a very bad sight.

cap haitien
Coming out of school in Cap Haitien

From Cap Haitien we crossed the border to the Dominican Republic (so basically we entered Haiti in the South and exited in the North; there’s another border crossing in the centre, between the two capitals).

A much easier backpacking in the Dominican Republic

It was very nice to be back in the Dominican Republic. We realized how difficult it was to travel in Haiti. The Dominican Republic was much cheaper, so much easier to travel, food and coffee available everywhere, easy to get money from the bank, hotels cleaner. Now, many years later, I’m glad I had that experience in Haiti, but I don’t know if I would be able to do it again, it was really tiring. It’s probably different if you have money and can rent your own car or driver. Cap Haitien was the best place, of all.

Once in the Dominican Republic we spent a few days in Monte Cristi, to recover and to eat some good food. From there we went to Santiago and then Constanza, in the mountains.

After that it was all beaches. And every place was pleasant and welcoming.

First one was Cabarete, a surfists spot. This was the first place where we met may foreign tourists, and all the Northern coast has many foreigners, mainly from the US (and many Italians and French living their their retirement years). In Cabarete I had the best breakfast ever.

rio san juan
Beach in Rio San Juan

We went East to Rio San Juan, where there’s not much to do nor to see, but that I loved, probably because of its relaxed atmosphere. After that it was the Semanà Peninsula, with Las Terrenas and Las Galeras. Pretty, touristy.

From there we crossed the country to go to the Southern coast; we also thought of going to the Eastern coast, maybe pay 80 dollars for an all-included resort and spend a day or two just sunbathing and eating (there’s a lot of chicken involved when you travel in the Dominican Republic, and at one point you crave for something different), but we hadn’t a lot of time left so we decided to go directly South.

Boca de Yuma was pretty but Luca wasn’t feeling well so we didn’t really enjoy it. From there to Juan Dolio, the last stop. We stayed in this little town by the sea until our flight back to Italy, and went on a day trip to Santo Domingo where people were celebrating Easter. When we had landed in the Dominican Republic we didn’t spend much time in Santo Domingo because we thought we would be there again before departing. But once in Juan Dolio we were suggested not to go to Santo Domingo before flying back, because it was easier to get to the airport from Juan Dolio and it was nicer to stay in Juan Dolio. It was a good idea.

Would I go back to the Dominican Republic and Haiti? Yes, and I would probably do a similar itinerary. I know that Haiti was a nightmare, but I would like to see if things have improved now.

Last days in the Dominican Republic

Last days in the Dominican Republic

Farewell to the Dom Rep from Juan Dolio

April 20, 2014


Last day in the Dominican Republic and the sky is super dark. We are at the beach, were thinking of going for a walk but I guess it’s better if we don’t walk too far, we should be ready to run back to the hotel if needed.

La bellissima micia con strabismo di Venere del Fior di Loto
The beautiful cat with strabismus of Venus at the Fior di Loto

We found a way to save on the transportation to the aiport, that is not mentioned on the Lonely Planet! We took a gua-gua towards Santo Domingo, until the crossroad; there you can get a moto-concho to the airport. A bit before that there are taxi, but we can save even those two euro as a motorbike is good enough for us. This way we can save almost 1.000 RDS, 20 euro. Or maybe more.

Mara Sandri of the Fior di Loto founded an NGO that manages a school in Pushkar, Rajasthan, where there’s the holy lake and the camels fair; it’s a school for poor or abused girls.

It started to rain and there’s no sign of the sun.

Baretto sulla spiaggia in Juan Dolio
Cute pub at Juan Dolio beach

7.03pm Last beer. In the afternoon it cleared out and people rushed to the beach to celebrate Easter. In half an hour restaurant Oreste should open. It was recommended by S. But we can’t spend more than 1.000 RDS because we don’t want to get more cash and/or exchange money before tomorrow.

Women and girls made braids for Easter. The President prohibited the use of motorbikes these 3 days of celebrations, because every year hundreds die because they drive when drunk.

The last Dominican beer is a bit hot unfortunately. They are cleaning up after today’s celebrations. The beer in this pub is 25RDS more than the Liquer Store nearby, but here you can listen to merengue music :).

There’s a group of Italians here. In the morning they meet for coffe at S’s, in the evening here, apparently. Two girls that were drinking with two Dominicans are now with two white man, white skin and hair. I was thinking that it must be hard here for men, if you want to talk to a woman you have to offer her something to drink; and you never know if she talks to you because she likes you or your money. S. told us that men with 500 euro of retirement here can live well: 100 euro for rent, 100 for food, 300 for women.

beach in juan dolio

April 21, 2014 10.57 am SDQ-LAS AMERICAS

Check-in done. So the transfer to the airport cost us 300 RDS, instead of the 900 we paid when we arrived or the 1500 a taxi would have cost from Juan Dolio.

Last night the spaghetti with fish and lobster at Oreste’s were delicious. And this morning last breakfast at S’s. What a guy! You could write a book with all the stories he has to tell.

I <3 Fior di Loto
I <3 Fior di Loto

Last night we talked a bit with Mara. She told us that her mom went back to Italy yesterday, from La Romana airport. in 1984 Mara wanted to go to India to volunteer in a leper colony. Her mom was living here and was married to a Dominican, and asked her to move here to help her on a project. So Mara got onto a life she didn’t really want. Her mom after a while got tired and went back to Italy, she stayed here. 30 years ago Juan Dolio was a fishermen village, without hotels, and it was very pretty. She wanted to open a school and a yoga center, but things didn’t turn out as she hoped. So here she is today at her super-welcoming hotel, where you meet the most interesting people, but during the Summer months (after Easter) she goes back to India to her girls. A lovely person this Mara. Why do I always meet the best Italians abroad?

Day tour to Santo Domingo

Day tour to Santo Domingo

April 18 2014, 5.44pm

In Juan Dolio they brought the sand for the beach, it would be all rocks otherwise. And here they come to swim from San Pedro and Santo Domingo, La Capital. I like it today because there’s a nice breeze, but at the same time it is annoying because it throws sand onto your face.


We are eating pizza. Italian owners here too. Juan Dolio is full of Italians. One pizza for two because we are running out of money, despite the money we saved by staying at the Fior di Loto.

Spiaggia a Juan Dolio
Beach in Juan Dolio

In Juan Dolio there’s the beach as attraction and nothing more. But it’s convenient from the capital. In Boca de Yuma there wasn’t much to do neither, and there wasn’t a beach neither. There was one sandy beach, but you could only get there on a boat, and there was a cove between rocks where on Sundays Dominicans would go to swim and party, with music and beer, like at the Bahia Blanca. Everywhere else rocks and rubbish. Boca de Yuma luckily is at only 30 minutes from Higuey, quite a big town, where you can find anything you need. Juan Dolio is at one and a half hour from Santo Domingo. From what I’ve heard the capital must be lively and interesting, with theatres, cinema, museums etc. From all over the country you can get to the capital in a few hours, so it’s easy to reach it from anywhere.

Good Friday (today) is a big holiday for them, more important than Easter day. And today they are all at the beach. Big parties and big drinks. In the water with their glasses or bottles. They like to be in the water, and drink while the waves hit them, kids and adults alike.

April 19, 3.15pm Santo Domingo

The plan was to stay in Juan Dolio only a couple of nights and spend the last night before the flight in Santo Domingo, but Mara suggested we stay here and we go back to Santo Domingo on a day trip, if we want to go. And it is actually a good idea, as the airport is between SD and Juan Dolio, so there’s not much difference if we leave from here or La Capital.

We are at a Chinese restaurant in La Capital, near Parque Enriquillo, the square from where depart most of the gua-gua that go around the Republic.

We came here this morning, got off in Parque Enriqullo (that as I suspected didn’t scare us so much after we visited Haiti as it did the first day), we walked around the Zona Colonial, then towards the new part of Santo Domingo, to see the presidential palace and down to the Malecon, the seafront. Without knowing it we ended up in the middle of a big party. They closed to traffic part of the road, brought in sand, plastic swimming pools, music and gym (with the risk to have a stroke in this heat).

We spent some time at the party, enjoying the atmosphere, then we went back to Parque Enriquillo, and here we are, drinking a fanta at the Chinese restaurant. We probably have walked about 20 kilometers today, and Luca has some blisters in his feet, we had to exchange sandals.

Some Italianity in Juan Dolio

Some Italianity in Juan Dolio

April 17, 2014

11.51am Juan Dolio

They left us at Villas del Mar, 3 km before our destination, the most elegan part of Juan Dolio, reserved to tourists. We had to spend 100 RDS more for a motoconcho to take us here.

The Fior di Loto hotel is owned by an Italian lady, Mara, dressed Indian and with a bindi on her forehead. Indian is also the entrance and most of the furniture. The room is small and nothing special, but it costs us 630 RDS (12 euro), half of what we normally pay. And there’s wifi. She offered a more beautiful and more expensive room, but we are happy with this one. We have more money to buy food. Only downside: too many mosquitos.

Gogol Maps positions the Fior di Loto at a beach far from here, and clients sometimes arrive out of breath and upset. Mara tried to complain to Gogol, but they won’t hear.

In this moment we are in a “panaderia“, a bakery-eatery-cafeteria, owned by an Italian, waiting for a sandwich with homemade bread and a piadina. We are so hungry!

Sebastiano ed la sottoscritta alla Panaderia  Italiana Juan Dolio
Myself at the Panaderia Italiana Juan Dolio

The Panaderia Italiana Juan Dolio is owned by S, from Bari, that has been living in Central America for… 15 years? He doesn’t even remember. He lived in Brasil, Panama, Costa Rica, a few months in Miami, Bahamas. He’s one of a kind. He travels a lot, but he’s picky about food. He only eats Italian or Mc Donald’s. Why McD? Because food standard is the same everywhere, the meat is from the US (you don’t have to eat meat of cows from the Dom Rep that feed on plastic and rubbish – I didn’t know this). Even in the middle of the Portorican forest you can find Italian food, as long as you are ready to pay. He would go back to Panama, because life is good, nobody starves, and in the evening you can go to a casino and with 20 dollars you go in and can drink all that you want and be with others. And women go out with you only if they like you, not because you have money like in Brasil. Here, it’s even worse. Sometimes teenagers take you to a hotel and if you don’t pay they press charges. You can still meet a good and honest woman in the Dominican Republic (like the one he’s married), but they are few.

Pasqua in spiaggia a Juan Dolio
Easter at the beach in Juan Dolio

He’s really cool, told us a lot of stories. His food is true Italian, among the best I’ve found around the world. One of a kind indeed.