Melt your heart in Cuba

There is so much more to Cuba than beachy resorts. Here’s what to explore if you take the time to branch out to Havana and beyond

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From the December 2015 issue of the magazine.

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The rush is on to visit Cuba before the Americans return en masse. But for many Canadians, the cigar-rolling Caribbean hot spot is already their favourite vacation destination. And while some love the convenience of its top-notch all-inclusive resorts, others prefer tapping the real Cuba—and saving a packet in the process.

“Casas particulares—private homes—typically cost $35 to $40 per night” to stay, says Brendan Sainsbury, the B.C.-based author of the new Lonely Planet Cuba guidebook. “They’re a great way to meet Cuban people in their own homes and get a candid glimpse of what makes this unique country tick.” Havana alone has hundreds of options—Sainsbury recommends Casa 1932  or Hostal Peregrino—and standards are high. “You’re pretty-much guaranteed air-con, hot showers and private bathrooms. And the food is better than government-run restaurants.”

But since there’s more to Cuba than Havana—Sainsbury’s favourite destinations beyond the capital include “bucolic” Viñales and “faintly surreal” Baraco—you’ll also need an effective way to get around. “Car hire can cost up to $85 per day here but there’s also a decent bus service run by Viazul that covers most places. Long-distance taxis are also viable and cost around 65 cents per kilometre,” he says, adding that popular tour companies like Exodus can also ease you off the beaten track—cycling tours included.

Barbara Gay took the taxi route on her visit. But it wasn’t just any old cab. The B.C. resident joined three other travellers in “a great old 1950s silver boat of a car” that trundled them from Santa Clara to Trinidad. “It was the perfect way to see the countryside in a non-touristy way. And while Trinidad was great, I also really loved the sleepy seaside town of La Boca nearby.”

Accommodation-wise, all-inclusives were never on her radar. “The best ways to have an authentic Cuban experience are to avoid resorts, take taxis between towns and stay at casas so you can interact with the hosts. Maximize your one-on-one time with Cubans—they’re the nicest people I’ve met on my travels.”

Gay has developed some handy tips for newbies. “Learn basic Spanish and take snacks like nuts and crackers—the food wasn’t great. And while you should book accommodation online beforehand, be prepared for the casa you booked not to be the one you end up staying at. Occasionally, casas overbook and the owner will arrange for you to be housed in a similar-quality alternative nearby.”

Casas aren’t Cuba’s only good-value sleepover, though—especially if you take a different approach to resorts. Deluxe all-inclusives can melt your wallet faster than an ice-cream in the midday sun but Toronto-based travel blogger Corinne McDermott has discovered that smaller, no-frills resorts are a great budget-stretching option.“We started staying in 2.5 or 3-star places because we weren’t utilizing all the amenities of higher star resorts. It means we can now afford to go away twice a year instead of just once,” she says, adding they treat the resorts as bases and plan their own excursions beyond the gates.

“We always ask the front desk to recommend some English-speaking taxi drivers. That way we can explore at our own pace.”

Another bonus of smaller resorts, adds McDermott, is the dining. “Their food is typically more Cuban, although some of our best meals have actually been at beach-side ranchons or smaller paladares that offer simple food like grilled shrimp or roast chicken with beans and rice.”

But typical tourist rip-offs can still occur. “If your driver recommends a restaurant, he’s usually on a kickback and you’ll be dining from a differently-priced menu. Sometimes we suck it up and eat an overpriced meal but sometimes we just ask to be taken to a local sandwich shop instead,” says McDermott.

Street smarts are required in many destinations around the world, but McDermott says her family always feels safe when exploring Cuban towns alone. “We first visited with our 11-month-old daughter and we keep returning because it’s great value. On all our trips, we haven’t been to the same place twice,” she says, noting their next destination will likely be Holguin.

For Sainsbury, the secret to a successful Cuba visit is to dive into the local art and music scene—his current favourite Havana venue is Fábrica de Arte Cubano—and be sure to adopt an open mind. “You have to scratch beneath the surface to really ‘get’ Cuba but you also need time to be spontaneous: Wander off the beaten path, probe around the smaller towns and always talk to the locals.”

3 comments on “Melt your heart in Cuba

  1. Best article I’ve read on travel in Cuba, honest and down to earth, got to love it when I find someone who wants to get to know the people and local food. Have been to Cuba 11 years, and this will be the 12th, leaving in a couple of days for Holguin area. Love the people and the food. Well done.

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  2. I have visited Cuba 89 times on research and one of my favorite areas is Granma Province. in Eastern Cuba.

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  3. “You have to scratch beneath the surface to really ‘get’ Cuba but you also need time to be spontaneous: Wander off the beaten path, probe around the smaller towns and always talk to the locals.”

    This is so funny. How many times did you eat what the ration card provides, how many hospitals and prisons did you visit? Scratch beneath the surface indeed.

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