(G Adventures) When you think about Cuba, you probably first picture resorts where the mojitos are always flowing. Although this is the side of Cuba that’s commonly seen, there is so much more to this Caribbean paradise than its sandy shores and sun-tanning opportunities.
Now more than ever is an exciting time in Cuba’s history, where changes to the tourism industry are happening and travelling off the beaten path is getting easier. Here are a few reasons why you don’t need a resort on your next trip to Cuba.
When you’re shut in at a resort, you don’t get as much of an opportunity to meet the people of Cuba, who are really what make the country so special. Interacting with locals provides a great deal of opportunity to understand the country’s history firsthand. Homestays, or casas particulars, provide an incredible way to connect with the people of Cuba. You’ll likely interact with families, eat home-cooked meals from residents who have come up with creative ways to stretch their rations, and hear a bit more about the country’s divisive political history.
While there’s always a time and a place for planting your butt on a beach chair, if that’s the only thing you end up doing in Cuba, you’ll be majorly missing out. Starting with Havana (or Habana, as it’s known locally), which is trapped in time, complete with its classic cars and the colonial architecture. The city itself is buzzing, since the private enterprise that was restricted in previous years has started to sprout up after Raoul Castro allowed for it in 2008, and entrepreneurial Cubans finding ways to better their lives through business. Plaza Vieja, in the old town, is a bustling square with cafes and bars and a lively evening scene, and there are no shortages of things to do in the capital.
If you head West Viñales — one of my favourite spots on the island — is home to famous limestone pincushion hills, with fertile fields as far as you can see. It’s a good base if you want some relaxation, beautiful views, and opportunities to visit nearby tobacco farmers and cigar factories. It holds UNESCO World Heritage site status, and offers a number of adventurous opportunities, from rock climbing, horseback riding, and, of course, hiking.
Travelling towards the centre of the island, Trinidad has the cobbliest cobble stone streets I’ve ever walked on — but you might find watching your step difficult to do among the city’s colourful buildings. If you love history, Santa Clara is a must-see to visit some of the sites of the revolution; its streets are haunted by stories of Che, Castro and the others. Santa Clara was one of the least “touristy” spots I visited while in Cuba.
Cubans know how to celebrate what they have. You can’t help but tap your feet as you’re walking down the street and a band is playing — the music is infectious. You’ll see many small tots dancing along, moving their hips much better than this 20-something Canadian could ever dream to do. If moving your hips isn’t your thing, perhaps the best tobacco in the world is? Pinar del Rio is the pinnacle of tobacco country, and you can check out how Cuban cigars are hand rolled to perfection (Cohibas are a favourite). A salary average of $12-25 USD per month doesn’t stop Cubans from embracing a few rum drinks, or a cigar smoked long and quietly at the end of a long day’s work.
A Lesson in Patience
It’s important to note that Cuba might be different than most places you’ve visited. The level of maintenance and service in city buildings can vary, and the communist mentality is likely a big change from what you’ve experienced back home, too. But there are few places in the world — if any at all — that are quite like Cuba. As long as you remember to keep your expectations in check, you are sure to have an incredible, life-changing trip to this cultural gem.
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