Cuba From The Inside With Alternative Tour Guides
14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 21 June 2017 — Economic hardships
turn many Cuban engineers to work as bartenders, doctors become taxi
drivers and innumerable professionals become alternative guides for
tourists. Among the latter, there are the experienced or the
just-getting-started, but all of them earn more money than they would
working in the state sector.
"When they change a picture I know instantly," says Natacha, a Havana
city guide who says she has visited "the Museum of Fine Arts more than
300 times" with her clients. She graduated from the Teaching Institute
but she left the classrooms after five years of teaching in junior high.
"I had to think about what to do with my life and I realized that I
spoke Spanish very clearly, I knew the history of Cuba and I was good at
dealing with people." A friend advised her to start offering tours to
foreigners who came to the country.
At first, Natacha stood in a corner of Old Havana and whispered her
services to travelers. Now, after the relaxations regarding
self-employment, she has been able to legalize part of her activities
and form a team. "We have a network that includes rental houses, dance
teachers, masseuses and chauffeurs," she says.
With the increase in tourism, which last year exceeded 4 million
visitors, the guide has "a surplus of work," but now fears that after
the announcements of US President Donald Trump that "the business will
Natacha accompanies her clients "to places where a state guide will
never take them…The program is flexible according to their tastes: from
exclusive areas to poor neighborhoods, trips in collective taxis, a
train ride and a santería party."
She speaks English and French fluently and recently began studying
Italian and Japanese. "Japanese tourism is still small but they pay very
well and are very respectful people," says Natacha. Most of her clients
end up recommending her services to a friend who wants to travel to
Cuba. "This is a chain of trust that has allowed me to have up to 200
customers a year."
The prices of a walk with the former teacher vary. "They can go from 20
to 100 CUC (roughly $20 to $100 US) depending on the place, the time and
the complexity of the subject." For years she included visits outside of
Havana but now she has left these to her younger colleagues because her
mother is very old and she doesn't want to leave the city.
"This work is hard because it takes a lot of personal involvement,
learning something new every day and answering many questions," she
explains. "I spend hours walking, most of the time under the sun, but I
would not give up my independence by going back to teaching." She says
that being a tourist guide has allowed her to "put a plate of food on
the table every day… a good plate of food."
A growing alternative is digital sites that advertise independent guides
and offer a wide variety of services or entertainment packages. Recently
a team of 30-something Cuban residents in Miami launched Tour Republic,
a website to sell recreational activities on the Island.
The site connects the traveler with urban guides with a marketplace –
similar to Airbnb – but instead of offering lodging it markets tours of
varied intensity and duration, from a ride in a classic car through
Havana, to an escape through the unique natural landscape of the valley
Máximo, a 30-year-old Italian newcomer to Havana, was hesitant Tuesday
about whether to buy a three-day package worth $58 including visits to
the Ernest Hemingway Museum, the University of Havana, the old colonial
fortresses of the capital, and even an encounter with the sculpture of
John Lennon located in a Vedado park.
With Tour Republic the customer pays the online service and must be at
the site where the itinerary begins at the agreed-upon time. In the case
of the tour that interests Maximo, the guide is at the bottom of the
steps of the Capitol and departs every morning at ten.
The tourist says he prefers an independent guide because "the program is
more flexible and can be adjusted more" to what he wants. In a small
notebook he has noted some interesting places that escape the typical
tourist route: the town of San Antonio, the Superior Art Institute and
the Alamar neighborhood.
"In this arena there are people very prepared and with excellent
training," says Carlos, an alternative guide who leaves the statue of
José Martí in Central Park every morning for a tour he has
baptized Habana Real. "I take them through the streets where tourists do
not normally pass, I have them try a drink of rum in a bar where the
Cubans really go," he says.
The young man, with a degree in geography, has been "wearing out shoe
leather in the city for seven years." At first "I did not know much
about history, architecture or famous people, but little by little I
have become an itinerant encyclopedia of Cuba," he says.
The GuruWalk platform has also risen to the crest of the wave of tourist
interest in Cuba. The Spanish company runs an international website
for free walking tours and has chosen Havana as their preferred site to
Communications director, Pablo Perez-Manglano, told 14ymedio that "the
platform is completely democratic, anyone can join and create a
tour." Site administrators check the offers one by one, but the reviews
are left to users after each visit.
"We are an open and free platform, we do not charge the guide or the
visitor anything, and therefore, we hope that each person understands
and takes responsibility to comply, or not, with the legality in their
respective cities of the world," he clarifies.
The site already has seven free tours in Havana, one in Santiago and
another in Santa Clara. "In addition, we had about 200 registered users
in the last month, which is a lot for such a new platform," says
Unlike Tour Republic there is nothing to pay online and the money is
delivered directly to the guide.
The perspectives that the web offers for entrepreneurs like Natacha
sound promising. GuruWalk does not deny "entry to someone for not having
an official guide qualification." Rather, it seeks "people who are
passionate about culture and history, who also enjoy teaching and
transmitting that knowledge."
One of the strategies of the company is to make itself known among "the
owners of private houses" because it is to them that more often the
foreigners ask: "What should we see in the city?"
Pérez-Manglano underlines that the cornerstone of GuruWalk is the
"collaborative economy." Instead of "certificates, rules, rules, or
permits," they are interested in trust, which "is built little by little."
Source: Cuba From The Inside With Alternative Tour Guides – Translating