“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Meet like-minded travellers
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)