Almost three weeks after returning from a road trip around the Caribbean island of Cuba, we’re now ready to hand out our very first thoughts and highlights about it. What a unique trip it was.
If you read our high-level plan for this trip to Cuba, great, otherwise catch up now – We’re off to Cuba!.
During the first few days back in Europe, we got asked a lot: “How was Cuba?”. The curiosity about this “mysterious” destination is huge, and people are eagerly trying to find out first hand how it is like to visit the real Cuba. The verdict? After spending close to two weeks on the island, we can safely and honestly say that Cuba is definitely worth visiting. It’s an experience of a lifetime.
This being said, we wanted to briefly highlight the good and bad parts of our trip, which we’ll develop further in future articles.
The way we chose to travel in Cuba was a very hands-on and demanding experience. Staying at local houses and road tripping around the country through areas where the number of foreigners is so low was quite a challenge, far from our comfort zone and a true learning experience. Not to mention that pretty much everyone else was doing group tours. Not us, the two Portuguese discovering Cuba!
Our best decision was clearly to stay at the local houses called Casas Particulares. Not only are they much cheaper, but they also provide you with an invaluable opportunity to deal directly with a real Cuban family, learn the way they live, try their food or listen to their music. We almost exclusively stayed at these houses, except for a couple of nights, and had some amazing experiences. One thing to know is that speaking Spanish is extremely helpful if you want to get that level of insight.
UPDATE: We’ve put together a guide with all you need to know about Casas Particulares.
While staying in Casas Particulares, doing some activities or on the streets, we met and talked to lots of Cubans. In general, they were all very friendly and helpful, always ready to give you directions or help you out in some way. We just needed to ask.
As we toured the island, we were inevitably approached hundreds of times by locals, some of them to try and convince us to go somewhere, some to find out where we were coming from or for some other random reason. It’s all good when one smiles, says ‘no’ and ‘gracias’, and life goes on, but that’s not always the case.
Hustlers, or Jineteros as they’re known in Cuba, are the biggest threat to independent travellers. We ran into some that were trying to stop our car by telling us all sorts of lies, yelled and cursed at us, and even followed us around. We needed a huge dose of patience for these characters and ultimately lost all of it. The end game: get some money. We are perfectly aware of the economic situation, but we’d much rather contribute through honest means and not scams or weird schemes.
Thankfully, these unpleasant situations didn’t ruin our experience and only represent a small percentage of the Cuban people. Even the majority of the population is deeply ashamed of those who resort to this to make a living.
Nature blew us away. Whether we’re talking about the World Heritage Viñales Valley with its mogotes and caves, hiking the footsteps of Fidel Castro in the lush Sierra Maestra, birdwatching at Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata or snorkelling with dozens of different coloured fishes in the warm waters of the Caribbean, everything was, simply put, great! Probably the least sought-after activities but with so much to experience, it’s a must-do for Cuba.
Culture & Heritage
Culture and heritage play a big role in the Cuban lifestyle and provide visitors with plenty to enjoy in typical Caribbean fashion.
Everywhere we went there was music, lots of it, with local bands playing on the streets, cafes or restaurants. Cuban food was very good, diverse, and on the cheap side. We tried many tasty things, including lots of fish and truly delicious fruit! Ice cream deserves a mention as well. Sweet.
Amazing colonial architecture is present throughout the country. Some towns, including the beautiful Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus or Santiago de Cuba, are around 500 years old, and their historic centres are slowly being remodelled. Plus, Havana has so much to offer it’s really hard to sum it briefly.
The Cuban revolution is very much alive and many things exist to celebrate it, from outdoor propaganda to squares named after the revolutionaries. Everything seems to be somehow related to it.
More adventure? Let’s talk about driving. So, GPS units are forbidden and we didn’t take one. Of course, we could have probably resorted to using an offline map on our phones, but that’s not quite as fun. We bought a good map and off we went without anticipating that the street signs would be pretty much useless. Yes, the few that exist some of the times don’t really map to the road layout or are too far apart. Here is where knowing a bit of Spanish is useful to ask for directions.
Road conditions are not too bad, but the number of obstacles is quite high, with all sorts of animals, tons of people on bicycles and on foot. Drive safe, since trips take longer than the distances suggest.
No reason to worry regarding the vintage cars, as all the tourists will only be allowed to rent modern cars from the state-owned rental companies. The old ones, they look good and are quite nice to see, but not for driving. We rode some as community taxis in Havana, nice experience.
A peculiar thing is that virtually everyone will be hitchhiking!
UPDATE: We’ve put together a guide with all you need to know about driving in Cuba.
A final and short note on safety. We felt very safe during our trip to Cuba, including at night and even considering a few unpleasant encounters. We didn’t feel constrained walking anywhere or carrying, for example, our camera around. Obviously, some common sense precautions are necessary, just like anywhere else. One thing that we were told is that it was safer than it is right now, but the economic situation with very low incomes and growth of tourism lead to it. Fortunately, it still feels of a good safety standard.
We’ve put together a short video with the highlights. Don’t forget to watch!
Cuba was without a doubt a great experience for us! It was our first time visiting a Latin American or Caribbean country, and discovering up-close a lot of what the country has to offer was very rewarding. We’ve opened a new area in our destinations map that we further need to explore.
We’ll leave you with a photo of the stunning beach at Cayo Coco! Stay tuned for more articles about our trip to Cuba.
Have you been to Cuba or want go? Let us know!