Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From La Habana to Viñales

If you check on-line or in guidebooks, to move from city to city in Cuba there are several possibilities:
- a train which basically goes from Havana to Santiago de Cuba with intermediate stops and takes forever...
- two bus companies: Astro (for locals) and Viazul (for foreigners and wealthy locals)
This Xmas, Astro was forbidden for foreigners and nobody could provide an explanation why. Simply, foreigners could not use Astro buses any more... Viazul was still available and it offered even internet reservations. If you google about that and check some info, you will see that people are pretty reluctant about that reservation system. Basically, Viazul takes your money but does not provide a seat in the bus until you go to the station. And some people could not ride in the bus they had a reservation for because it was full! Well, there are lots of nightmarish stories on-line.

After briefly staying in Havana, we were moving to Viñales in Pinar del Rio, the extreme countryside. There is no train, so the solution to get there was Viazul. I actually made a reservation on-line, paid for the tickets and we showed up in the station 40 minutes before the bus departure. And everything went smoothly! No problems at all, and our bus was actually full.

The bus departed from Havana in time and used a nice highway towards Pinar del Rio. We briefly stopped after 1 hour or so in Las Terrazas, a nice stopover.

The problems occurred one hour into our trip... suddenly, the bus stopped and we were told some piece near the engine was broken! Our bus could not continue. And this was Viazul, the reliable company!!! Many people jumped out of the bus and tried to stop taxis, trucks or anything going towards Viñales. Of course, those drivers tried to make outrageous business out of desperate foreigners!

I went to talk to the driver and basically, he told me they had no idea how long the repair would take. He told me that they had the replacement piece and they had called for tools to replace it from a nearby town.

This experience was very interesting to see more into the Cuban psyche. As we were waiting for those tools, the driver and his assistants were trying to change the piece by hand. Then, an Astro bus came and some other assistants stayed with us and also tried to fix the engine. Then, some other random people came to offer help. After 30 minutes, there were around 6 people looking at the engine and offering opinions about how to fix it. After around 50 minutes, the tools came with a guy in a tractor who came out of the middle of nowhere! As expectable, he brought a lot of tools, but not the size required for our engine! A couple phone calls and more waiting. After more than 1h20 minutes, the right tool came. When the tool arrived, then, it turned up nobody could really fix the engine and everybody was trying to do something different!!! Finally, one Italian tourist took over and fixed the whole thing in 5 minutes!!! It had taken almost 2 hours to fix it and by a tourist riding on the bus!!! Surreal...

After that, the ride was smooth and we arrived at Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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