This isn’t another Canadian in Cuba soap opera, this is an all out love affair. I remember sitting in a chair at a travel agency, squirming in my seat uncontrollably as my travel partner was busy flipping through a glossy brochure on Mexico. Ugh. Mexico. Been there. Done that. I don’t know what compelled me, but I looked up at a map on the wall, pointed my finger and declared, “we’re going to Cuba!”
Admittedly, I knew very little about Cuba, other than what was taught to me in a high school social studies class. A fiercely communist regime, with Fidel Castro at the helm. I knew a little bit about Che Guevara, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs and of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis, but none of that told me anything about the essence of Cuban culture. The absence of knowledge and in under 15 minutes, we were all set to travel in Cuba!
Over the last decade, I’ve been a Canadian in Cuba nine times! And after each visit, I leave reluctantly, imprinted with a fresh batch of new adventures, a journal full of newly curated personal histories, and an updated perspective on life for the average Cuban living amidst a Communist regime in the 21st Century. To say the changes have been dramatic, is an understatement but that’s for another post. What concerns me is that there seems to be an abundance in myth and misconception swirling around travel in Cuba. Including the eminent “American invasion”, food myths, and other untruths.
Are Not the Only Way to Sleep in Cuba
Every year, Cuba is inundated with over a million Canadian tourists alone, most of whom book themselves into gargantuan all-inclusive resorts, perched at the edge of crystalline waters and notably segregated from the general Cuba populous. If you’ve experienced an all-inclusive resort elsewhere, you know the drill. A chunk of your time is spent standing shoulder-to-shoulder in lengthy buffet lines, haggling over umbrella’d beach chairs, and drinking poor versions of classical local Cocktails. The typical evening at an all-inclusive offers yet another mediocre meal, perhaps a watered-down performance of some sort that loosely interprets the local culture, and eventually ends in a debauched session of late night/early morning binge drinking with jovial bartenders that would rather be doing anything other than pouring free drinks to drunken and belligerent tourists . This certainly isn’t everyone’s experience, but having done the all-inclusive thing a few times over, it’s quickly become an uncomfortable commonality, and one that, in my humble opinion, shamelessly cheapens the overall Cuban experience.
Do it right and book with the experts. There isn’t an exhaustive list of agencies that specialize in everything Cuba, but there are a few excellent ones like The Cuba Travel Network, an agency that can arrange everything from hotels, car rentals and transfers to tours that visit just about every corner of the island. Insight Cuba is another great tour operator. And for Those looking to experience Cuba from the inside out may want to consider a company like Vamos! Cuba! who offers a number of experiences designed to fully immerse the curious traveler like Salsa School, Language Lessons and Photography Tours. The best form of travel, in my opinion, is immersion and you won’t find that in a North American influenced mega resort.
Yes, the Food is Fabulous!
Cuba seems to have developed a reputation for bad cuisine, and it’s high time that rumour be quelled. If one is basing their opinion on what’s being served in the mega resorts, it’s not authentic Cuban cuisine. Much of it has been dramatically altered to suit the not-so-discerning Westernized palate. And as for culinary experiences off of the resort, the Restaurants visited on organized tours departing from the all-inclusives, expose tourists to state-owned restaurants, where the food is yet again some sort of odd hybrid that lies between somewhere between bad American fastfood and Cuban. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t travel abroad to eat hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza!
The best food I’ve had has been in places like Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and of course, Havana. Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef dish that hails from the Canary Islands but is always served with a Cuban twist, is a classic Cuban dish, as is Boliche, roasted beef stuffed with Cuban style chorizo sausage and served with hard boiled eggs. My best Cuban meals have never been at state-run restaurants, but instead, have been at Paladares. For clarification, state-run, can often translate into limitations on what can be served, and the quality isn’t so great. Paladares are small, family run restaurants that offer sumptuous Cuban cuisine, influenced greatly by African, Spanish and Chinese techniques and flavors, a true reflection of the diversity among the Cuban population. In Cuba, like anywhere in the world, when you want good food, you ask the locals! If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in someone’s backyard, sipping a Bucanero, listening to nostalgic stories from the past, and discussing hopes for the future.
Everywhere is a Highlight!
Those who know I’ve visited Cuba several times often ask: “What’s your favourite part?” Anyone who’s written a guide to Cuba travel knows that’s impossible to answer!. As an aspiring anthropologist, it’s darn near impossible not to have my interest piqued by everything, and it’s fair to say that every corner of Cuba has a story. But in reality, who has buckets of leisure time on their hands? North Americans, on average, are limited to 10 business days of holiday annually, and unfortunately, the highlights are all we have time for! So here are 3 cities that should make your first Cuban itinerary.
As one of the many Unesco World Heritage Sites on the island, Cienfuegos was actually a town I came upon by accident. Atypical of a Canadian in Cuba, I decided to hire a driver to take me to a plantation and we ended up in Cienfuegos. Best mistake ever! The first thing I noticed were the subtle hints of early French colonialism, but I also noticed that it bore the painful scars of the 1957 bombing during the uprising, something that is not easily discussed with Cubans, so tread delicately. The city is renowned for its cluster of Neoclassical buildings, as well as plenty of Neo-Gothic style structures.The spectacle in the midst of the Plaza de Cienfuegos is fascinating, and every time I visit, I wish had the delicate hand of a painter to capture it all.
Trinidad De Cuba
Another World Unesco Heritage Site, Trinidad is undoubtedly a city that captured more than just my heart. It’s arguably one of the most photographable cities in the world. Once I strayed away from the well-preserved cobbled stone thoroughfares, it was at the edge of beauty that I found long-lost band mates of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Russian Ballet dancer and a woman whose biggest aspiration was to one day to see the Eiffel Tower. That’s Cuba. Big dreams. Rich stories.
I could give you 101 reasons to visit Havana, but you’ll only need one. It’s Havana. It’s iconic, gritty, colourful, dizzying, intoxicating, and plenty more adjectives that I’m sure Hemingway himself used to describe his playground. It’s impossible to condense my love for Cuba into one post, but hopefully, I gave you enough info to pique your interest.