Home » What it’s like on a Cuba tour (from someone who’d only been to all-inclusives there)

What it’s like on a Cuba tour (from someone who’d only been to all-inclusives there)

written by Christina Campo March 6, 2018
cuba tour locals

“First time in Cuba?”

It’s practically the first thing out of everyone’s mouths when I meet them. I respond tentatively, “Umm no. I’ve been before. Twice? Maybe three times?”

I truly can’t remember. To be honest, all my all-inclusive resort vacations blend together…

Before I discovered adventure travel, many of my vacations were to all-inclusive resorts in Cuba and other places in the Caribbean. I know, I know – what a rough life I lead… But as much fun as the beach can be, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a resort in Cuba and one in the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. They all follow roughly the same formula: hotel, beach, bar, buffet and a pool or two. And although I’m not one to turn down a game of beach volleyball or a well-made cocktail, there’s something inauthentic about visiting a country and never venturing beyond the resort.

So when I was given the opportunity to visit Cuba on an Intrepid Travel trip, I leapt at the chance to see the real Cuba for the first time.

cuba tour vinales

The cliffs in Viñales

Here are a few ways being on a group trip was different than staying at an all-inclusive resort.

See the country

When you stay at a resort, you can only venture so far on a day trip, but on my Cuba tour, we were able to visit four different cities in nine days. We ventured from north to south, from city to countryside and from beaches to mountains. I didn’t even know Cuba had mountains. That sounds very silly when I type it out, but it’s true! I’d genuinely never explored much past the resort, so I didn’t get the chance to see the rounded limestone cliffs in Viñales or the peaks of the Sierra Maestra.

Plus, if you visit on a group trip, you don’t have to worry about planning how you’ll get around. It’s as effortless as an all-inclusive vacation, but you’ll definitely see beyond the beach and the buffet.

CHECK OUT INTREPID’S RANGE OF SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES IN CUBA

cuba tour tobacco

A local tobacco farmer at work

Interact with locals

It’s easy to become isolated from the locals when you’re restricted to an all-inclusive resort. However, on this Intrepid Travel trip, when we visited a place, we often had a chance to talk with the people that worked there. Our group got the chance to speak with a farmer on his organic farm, an artist at his studio and a cigar-rolling expert in his thatch-roofed tobacco hut.

READ MORE: WHAT A TOBACCO FARMER TAUGHT ME ABOUT THE ART OF CUBAN CIGAR MAKING

We chilled at restaurants and bars where we were the only tourists there. And we were welcomed into people’s homes; we met their children and pet their dogs, ate meals with them and conversed with them in broken Spanish. It was refreshing to get a snapshot of how people live and to hear their stories.

cuba tour cenote

Snorkelling in a cenote near the Bay of Pigs

Enjoy the great outdoors

Man-made flamingo ponds and manicured shrubbery may be some people’s thing, but I’m more about climbing mountains and spotting wildlife in nature. On my trip, we were able to hike to hidden waterfalls, spend some time looking for Cuba’s national bird (the Cuban trogon), and snorkel in a cenote filled with tropical fish! We also explored the UNESCO biosphere reserve of Las Terrazas, which comes complete with 5000 hectares of dazzling reforested trees. There wasn’t a manicured shrub in sight.

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Support the local economy

Another pitfall of the all-inclusive resort is that they are often partially owned by foreign investors. Regulations in Cuba mean that all businesses must give a certain percentage of earnings back to the government. But when you stay in casas particulares (B&B-style accommodation in local homes) – as we did on our Cuba tour – you know that you are supporting local families. Even though a portion of their earnings is going to the Cuban government, it is staying within the country and giving the local economy a boost.

cuba tour ropa vieja

A typical Cuban meal: ropa vieja (stewed beef with vegetables)

Eat better food

Among my fellow Canadians, Cuba’s food has a reputation for being bland. This widespread assumption comes from the unimaginative buffets at resorts. Having experienced both, I can say that the food the locals prepared for us was certainly tastier than the resort buffets. To be fair, there still wasn’t a huge variety of choices, but every meal was flavourful and prepared with care. Nearly all meals started with salad, had a choice of protein (pork, chicken, seafood or beef) and was accompanied by rice and beans, boiled yucca, and tostones (fried plantains).

RELATED READ: HOW CUBA’S CULINARY SCENE MIGHT SURPRISE EVEN THE BIGGEST FOODIE

Cuban food is almost exclusively seasoned with garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper, so by the end of your trip, you may be itching for a little more variety. That said, any country whose cuisine includes lobster four times in nine days gets a big thumbs-up from me.

My advice? Bring a travel-sized bottle of hot sauce to bring some spice to your meals and you’ll be just fine.

cuba tour havana

Intrepid travellers and their local leader in Havana

Get the real story

One major benefit of taking an Intrepid Travel trip is that you’ll be guided around the country by a local leader. Having lived and worked in Cuba for their whole lives means that they’re experts on the country and willing and able to answer your questions.

Our guide Abel answered all our questions frankly. We asked him about everything from how Cubans choose their jobs, to politics (both Cuban and foreign), to what kind of car he drives, to where he has travelled. He was open with us and generally tried to give us local insight wherever we went. And it made a real difference to our understanding of the country and our enjoyment of the tour.

READ MORE: MEET THE INTREPID LEADER CHANGING PERCEPTIONS OF CUBA AROUND THE WORLD

Meet like-minded travellers

Cuba tour Cienfuegos

My Intrepid group exploring Cienfuegos

I figured that people who want to really dig into the culture of a place, especially one with as complicated a history as Cuba, tend to be the open-minded, adventurous kind of folks that I like surrounding myself with. I was proved right a hundred times over. My group ranged from our mid-twenties to our mid-sixties and were from all walks of life, but we all loved to travel and experience new things.

It was wonderful to learn from each other’s experiences, tell travel stories and help each other navigate the country for (what felt like) the very first time.

Ready to venture beyond the resort in Cuba? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures there.

(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x3, Christina Campo, Intrepid Travel x2, Christina Campo)

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8 comments

Susan March 23, 2018 - 2:29 pm

Just returned tonight from a 16 day tour around western Cuba. Traveled to Matanzas Havana Cienfuegos Trinidad and Veradero staying at casa particular from 2 to 5 nights. By our 5th day we were in love with Cuba and knew we had to return. We traveled by every means possible from horse drawn carts and bicycle rickshaws with all our luggage tied on, taxi, 1950s collectivo, Coco taxi, and motorcycle taxi. Living with the Cubans, eating with them, avoiding the tourist traps as much as possible, we had a real Cuban adventure and have already arranged a month stay for 2019, and more to come

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Richard s. March 13, 2018 - 10:40 am

I agree…i started at resort on Cato Santa Maria.. 4 visits…developed friendships with employees which are now lifelong friends…invited by them to Santa Clara and stayed in their home and eventually introduced to an owner of a casa particular in Santa Clara…villa cristal…….a great lady owns the bnb…i have been there 3 times since and have had the pleasure of seeing the areas around…..cienfuegos…….remedios and others…..amazing people…culture and food…eating at restorantes particulars are amazing…great food and drink at great prices…..parque Vidal is a must……..as are other historic sites………this is the way yo do it………

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Shirley March 12, 2018 - 8:53 am

Living in Cuba for a month and being based in Santa Clara was an amazing experience, we travelled around to Cienfegos, Trinidad, Havana, Varadero up in to the mountains Jibacoa,fantastic meeting school kids listening to their music, the work they do.You will meet amazing people who welcome you to join in on their festivities, dance Salsa in the streets, eat proper Cuban cuisine, your taxi in small towns may be a horse and cart. Visit The Che Guevera Museleom, so many places and so much culture. Havana is fabulous the Old town buildings are beautiful, Jose Fusters house all in ceramic, simply breath taking, restaurants tan abundance.Mojitos you
have to try on the roof top of the hotel Hemingway stayed at. Staying at a resort you sea and sand,

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Barb March 12, 2018 - 1:44 am

We haven’t been on a tour with company but have also experienced Cuba as it should be experienced. The Cuban people are the most welcoming warm people I have ever have the pleasure of meeting. Being welcomed in their homes and having home cooked meals was something we will never forget! We have been there 6 times and yes have spent time in all inclusive resorts but our best memories are the times we ventured into the other areas and mixed with the locals. LOVE CUBA

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Mark Allen March 11, 2018 - 2:56 am

Agree totally. One must venture off the resort which is a manufactured artificial existence for both the traveler and the resort worker alike. Its a faux holiday and the sameness from one resort to another is soul-sucking. You have to travel around and meet the locals and live like they live; evn for just a day or two. I love to stay with friends that i have come to know in Havana who operate a casa particular ( B&B) and venture out on day trips with them to outlying areas. It is so much more authentic this way and so enriching. You really feel like you have gotten away. You learn so much this way. Laying on a beach and eating at a mass buffet is such a sad way to waste a Cuban holiday opportunity. Explore!

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Jim Howard March 7, 2018 - 12:37 pm

Took the Intrepid trip at Christmas. Great guide! Met many interesting locals. Trip has really stuck with me. Glad I went.

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Cec Chin March 6, 2018 - 10:42 am

I’ve been to Cuba at least half a dozen times staying at all inclusive. I did have the opportunity to visit UNESCO SITES and was charmed by the locals and even made some lasting friendships. Excellent article!

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rick be March 6, 2018 - 6:18 am

Going to an All-inclusive will give no travel experience. I want to be with the people & support the local folks.Help & learn is what life is all about.

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