I knew very little about Cuba before my visit. Yes I ‘knew’ about Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Embargo and the classic cars. But I knew next to nothing about the varied nature of the country. Or about the Cuban people. About the history of the country. And how that turbulent history shaped the society…
Highlights of East Cuba
Not knowing what to expect is perhaps the reason I fell pretty hard for Cuba. Even though I only spent 9 days in Cuba and explored only a small part on the east side of the country, Cuba offered so much more than I had anticipated!
1. Diving in Guardalavaca
Since getting my PADI in El Nido, the Philippines last year I have been crazy about diving! Since there is not so much diving to be done in the Netherlands (not much to see except in the Oosterschelde) it had been more than 9 months since my last dive on Koh Tao, Thailand. It was awesome to be back in the wonderful underwater world, floating weightless among colorful fish, hearing nothing but the sound of my own breathing.
2. Catching a ride in a classic car. Or an ancient Lada…
We wanted to ride in a beautiful classic car that are so plentiful in Cuba. But somehow we ended up in an ancient Lada and it was one of the most fun rides of my life!
The moment we got into the car the antenna fell off. We drove for 500 meters before the driver got out and said he needed to fill up the tank first. Looking around I didn’t see a petrol station in the vicinity. But within a minute the driver was back with a large tank containing petrol, which he apparently got from his own garage. He opened the trunk of the Lada (I didn’t know there were cars with the tank in the trunk!) and started filling up the car. Once we had plenty of fuel to get to our destination, the driver hopped back in the car, drove another 200 meters before pulling over and loudly called the name of a friend hanging out in a bar we were parked in front of.
Vayas conmigo? Vamos a Guardalavaca!
And thus his friend hopped in and off we went. Within 2 seconds there was Cuban reggaeton booming from the ancient speakers and within 3 seconds our driver and his friend were engaged in a lively conversation, talking loudly (some may even call it yelling;-) with their hand and feet about their recent adventures. Something about the brakes of the car that broke down… I didn’t catch enough of the rapid-fire Spanish to understand it all, probably for the best;-).
It seemed like the car was going really fast, but I think that was mostly because it was very loud. As the speedometer was broken I have no clue what our actual speed was!
Bouncing on the beats and over the bumpy road to Guardalavaca my mother and I looked at each other and were both smiling. In any other country, getting into a cab with two men late in the evening might not seem the greatest idea. But in Cuba I didn’t feel unsafe for a single moment.
Both men were very friendly, asking us repeatedly if the music bothered us or if they were speaking to loud and the driver slowed down whenever oncoming traffic was in sight. We were safely delivered to our hotel and I can truly say this is one of my most memorable rides.
That being said, I am not saying there is no crime at all in Cuba and you should always decide for yourself how you feel about a situation.
3. Ride in a horse drawn carriage
When I landed in Cuba and first saw the horse drawn carriages I thought it was like other countries, where this way of transportation is only used by tourists. However, after walking around in Cuba for a couple of hours I was proved wrong. The horse drawn carriages in Cuba are similar to a public bus, being used by locals as well!
4. Sharing is caring
Keeping with the transportation theme: in a country with a mere 80 cars per 1000 inhabitants you have to be creative in getting around and you can’t be too picky. That means pretty much everything that moves is used for transport. And not just used. Shared. Everybody hitchhikes in Cuba! From men going to their job, women with children and old ladies going who knows where. Also, every vehicle is used for hitchhiking, be it a scooter, tractor, bus or truck. A lack of resources certainly makes for creative solutions.
5. Go on a jeep safari
We went on a jeep safari to Biran and Salto del Guayabo and drove over dusty and roads, through tiny villages and along beautiful scenery. While listening to Cuban music and talking with Julio, our driver, and knowledgeable guide Oscar. What an excellent day!
6. Learn about Cuban history
As I admitted at the start of this post, I didn’t know nearly enough of Cuban history. When we were driving in the aforementioned jeep, our guide Oscar told us a lot about Cuban history and the development of the country throughout time.
One of the things I didn’t know is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba did too. As 85% of Cuban export used to go to Russia you can imagine the impact this had on the lives of the people living in Cuba. A very difficult period in the turbulent history of the country…
7. Visit the village of Biran
It was very interesting to visit the village of Biran, where on the 13th of August 1926 Fidel Castro was born. Fascinating to see how the Castro family lived and how different Fidel’s ideas and philosophies were compared to those of his father Angel, a poor immigrant from Spain who built an empire from scratch and who hoped Fidel would become the family’s lawyer…
8. Cool off at Salto del Guayabo
The Salto de Guayabo is about 100 meter high and the tallest waterfall (or cascada in Spanish) in Cuba. The beautiful waterfall can be found in Parque Nacional la Mensura. Because the park is located on a 550 meter high table mountain, it’s a little cooler than the rest of Cuba. The park has its own microclimate and you can find rainforest and a lot of different ferns.
Fun fact: did you know there are more than 700 types of ferns in Cuba!? That’s even more than in New Zealand, the country whose national emblem is a fern!
9. Listen to Cuban reggaeton
Cubans are very musical people and it’s therefore not strange there is music everywhere. Walking along the streets, sitting in a bus, a bar or a boat, you hear Cuban reggaeton everywhere. One of the most popular bands of the moment is Gente de Zona. Look them up on YouTube!
10. Talk to local people and learn about their lives
I speak a little Spanish which enabled us to talk to a lot of people. For example Hugo, the wonderful cook in our hotel who invited us into his home and introduced us to his family. And guide Oscar, who taught us about Cuban history and society. Or friendly Maurice, who lead us to our beautiful Casa Particular in Santiago de Cuba. Little Manuel and his lovely mother, who walked with us around the tiny village of Guarda la Piedra.
And all the other kind people who happily welcomed us to Cuba, their city, home, bar, restaurant or taxi and shared their stories with us.
11. Explore Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second city with a population 400.000+ people. It’s also the hottest city in Cuba and said to be the most musical one. Home to trova music, the traditional son dance, colorful buildings and noisy traffic it was an interesting place to spend 2 days.
12. Stay at a casa particular
I’ll write more about Santiago de Cuba soon, but during our 2 days in this bustling city we stayed at a Casa Particular. We were welcomed into the house of our friendly hostess and got an awesome room with a roof terrace. Our lovely hostess cooked us a delicious Cuban dinner and extensive breakfast and made sure we felt at home.
It was a very special experience to stay in somebody’s house and be a part of their regular day and life, albeit for a very short time.
13. Take a boat tour in Santiago de Cuba and get stranded
You can read more about this incident here but long story short: we were cruising around the harbor of Santiago de Cuba on an old boat with a group of Cubans and us being the only tourists. The rum was flowing, Cuban reggaeton was beating from the speakers and all the friendly Cubans were basically lining up to talk to us. We were having a blast! And then our boat broke down and we ended up floating around for an hour and a half…
One of the most important lessons of my 5 month trip is to let go, enjoy the moment and just wait what happens because everything will usually work out fine. Which it did. It just meant our boat trip was a little longer, which gave us more time to talk with the people on the boat. Very. Much. Fun.
14. Relax at the beautiful beach
Need I say more…
15. Watch a beautiful sunset
Travel… Explore… Enjoy… Experience…
16. Go offline
There is very little internet in Cuba, which meant I spent the entire week offline. It was nice to be away from it all, particularly since I have found myself been online more and more since I started Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog.
I love writing on my blog, don’t get me wrong! But it was nice to disconnect, talk with my mother, read a book, stroll over the boulevard or just gaze over the ocean without any desire to check my email, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter account.
Nevertheless, I am happy to have Internet again so I can share my experiences in Cuba with you!
Planning on visiting Cuba soon?
My mother and I went on 2 tours with guide Oscar and if you are looking to do some tours, excursions, road trips or looking for a casa I highly recommend getting in touch with him. He knows so much about Cuba and enthusiastically shares his knowledge and stories with you in perfect English.
His email address is oscar.cala at nauta.cu and his phone number is +53 52 38 92 96.
Clothes and shoes
Also, if you are going to Cuba consider taking some clothes with you that you no longer wear to give away. Did you know that a pair of jeans costs about $25 dollar in Cuba? This is the equivalent of a monthly wage for most Cubans. You can imagine this makes it very difficult for many people to buy clothes.
If you happen to have clothes or shoes you don’t need, take them with you and give them away. This frees up plenty of space in your luggage for the way back so you can buy some great souvenirs ;-).
Are you an American planning a visit to Cuba?
Check out this this complete guide by Laura detailing how to go about planning your trip to Cuba as an American.
Planning a solo trip to Cuba?
Emily shares her experiences, tips and tricks from a 3 week solo trip around Cuba (info about transport, accommodation, do’s and dont’s).