Cuba I: Postponed, but still happening
Cuba, this is La Havana, famous beaches like Cayo Coco and Playa Los Pinos, phenomenal landscapes like the Viñales valley, colorful cities like Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba; and of course agaves, agaves, and more agaves, some melocacti, even a dracaena and a cycad species; tobacco plantations, steam trains, nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and certainly a whole lot more. Our plan was to tour the island in a rental car for three weeks with our friends from Guadalajara, Lupita and Jean-Marc.
The flight was booked. The car was paid. We had even found a last-minute "casa particular" in Old Havana. In early February we started to think about how much stuff would fit into the car. Jean-Marc even went to a Kia branch to have a look at the car model. It turned out that with four people there was not much room in the car left, but then, we only wanted to go see plants and had no plans to party every night in a different outfit. We had not heard back from the company we had rented the car, Cuba Caribbean, since paying in December. Apparently, they would send a voucher 72 hours before picking up the car. Since we were leaving a couple of days before car pick-up to see Havana, we asked for the voucher and more information about the rental company in several emails. There was no answer. The phone number for Mexico which is provided on their website, also never worked. Finally, we started to get a queasy feeling and googled the company. Lo and behold, we made a strike. What we read, though, gave us sleepless nights.
Our company was most likely a fraud. Their modus operandi is the following: They attract clients via various websites, especially ones that sound almost like the "real" ones, but just almost. You pay and never hear anything from them. Shortly before you start your trip, you get an email saying that there was a problem with the car. They will refund your money after having "worked" with it for months. If you get nervous before that and find out about them, you'll most likely cancel, which means you'll pay them the cancellation fee. Or even better, you get your voucher, take off for Cuba, get to the rental place only to find out that at the pick-up place, usually a big hotel in Old Havana, nobody has ever heard about your reservation; and if you mention the name of the company, they smile knowingly and make a weary gesture.
After reading all those negative comments, we had more sleepless nights. We sent more emails, this time a little more aggressive, indicating that we had read about their tricks. Suddenly, things started to move, and Pedro, our guy in charge, sent an email saying that we now also had to pay the car insurance in advance according to new Cuban laws. If this payment wasn't made within 48 hours, our reservation would be cancelled and we would get our money back. Now this sounded really fishy! We denied paying more money, especially because we had checked with other rental agencies and the insurance still had to be paid when picking up the car. Now Pedro started to get very active. He sent the link with the various phone numbers that had never worked before. We called the Mexican number where every other time we had only gotten an automated voice. Pedro, a Cuban living on the Canary Islands according to his own statement, answered the phone. He tried to convince us that the whole thing was no scam at all, and that we should go ahead and fly to Cuba without worrying a bit. We worried a lot, though, because we really didn't want to take the Viazul bus to get from place to place and then hire a private taxi to see our plants and find accommodation. We might have enjoyed that adventure at a younger age, but at our advanced ages we felt we needed some comfort. Still on the phone, Pedro also told us that we now would get the car from another company, and suddenly we did not have to pay insurance in advance. He wanted to send us the vouchers, as well as a Cuban contact phone number to confirm our reservation. Immediately we got the voucher and the phone number. Then we called Cuba via Skype. We talked to people of Cuba Travel Network twice. They 1) had never heard of our reservation; 2) insisted that they had nothing to do with Cuba Caribbean; and 3) didn't had a person named Pedro working for them. Just for your information: there are two Cuba Travel Network websites, firstly the real one www.cubatravelnetwork.com and secondly the scam one www.cubatravelnetwork.net. The latter is linked to our Cuba Caribbean website which belongs to Travelucion. Pedro claimed that we were lying and had not called Cuba, especially because he, supposedly, was on the phone with his contact person right now who insisted that we had never called her. In the end we agreed that we did not want to rent a car from him anymore, and that he did not want to rent one to us either. Instead, we would get a full refund of our money. OK then, let's wait and see a few days.
What should have been a great vacation in Cuba turned into a nightmare. To be fair, we have to say that we will, of course, never find out if Pedro really would have had a car ready for us, though we very much doubt his honest intentions after having read so many complaints about him on the internet - complaints of which he claims they all come from the same IP adress and are all written by his competitors. The whole thing smells too much like fraud: suddenly someone answers a phone number that never before worked; the car rental company changes shortly before our trip; the hotel pick-up place is not mentioned as a pick-up for the rental company; the phone number on the voucher belongs to another company that has never heard of our reservation; suddenly we didn't have to pay insurance in advance, etc., pp.
Adios Cuba in February! The good news is: we got our money back! We are also already planning Cuba II. The flights are changed. The new rental car comes from the most reputable and unfortunately most expensive company. We even have already made reservations in a beautiful casa particular in Old Havana. We are optimistic!
Julia Etter & Martin Kristen