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In search of the real Cuba: A tailormade trip around La Isla Bella

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Read our guest blog post by Val who went on a tailormade holiday around Cuba organised by Caledonia. From Spanish lessons and salsa clubs to hiking in the eastern province and tasting pure chocolate on a cocoa plantation, Val shares her experience in search of the real Cuba…

There’s a time for holidays – a fly and flop treat for tired minds and bodies, and then there’s a time for travelling, with the spirit of exploration and curiosity, to delve deeper into the psyche of a place and its people. To absorb more than just the mojitos.

It was with this traveller’s ambition that I booked my complex Cuban itinerary with Caledonia Worldwide. I wanted to access the real Cuba. Looking beyond the all inclusive resorts to the more homely bed and breakfast (casa particulares) on offer. I wanted to travel with Cubans, live with them and potentially even dance with them. But more than anything I wanted to talk to them in their language.

Having researched extensively, I gave Caledonia an exacting wish list; I needed Spanish lessons, hiking in the wild Cuba, Beach R & R time, music, dancing, a history of the revolution and wildlife spotting.  As a solo female traveller (55+) I liked the idea of having a fully organised itinerary with all accommodations transfers, guides and internal flights pre-arranged. Knowing that Cuba didn’t have easily accessible wifi meant that I wouldn’t be able to wing it like I did in Costa Rica when I travelled there last year. And I know from experience that if you look anything less than completely confident about that you were doing/where you were going,  a helpful local would pop up at your elbow with advice and directions – at a price obviously.

Three brightly painted vintage cars driving on the streets of Havana

Vintage cars cruising the Havana streets. Photo credit: Valerie Steele-Colton.

Beginning the trip in a Havana language school for 5 days was a perfect start, and the teachers helped me get a real sense of the place, the history and daily life, along with the future hopes and the challenges ahead. Cuba is so unlike any other Spanish speaking destination I had been to.

Flying east to Santiago de Cuba was next.  Cuba’s second city has a unique energy all of its own, where the streets are alive with music and dance. Spontaneous displays of singing and dancing in the squares and parks. Why are (or how can) these people be so happy? Walking in the tracks of revolutionaries meant a stop at the Moncada Barracks where the revolution had its first taste of guerrilla fighting. Later, walking up to Fidel’s mountain HQ at the Comandancia de la Plata, I was educated on how the Che and Fidel helped the local farmers in what must be one of the first instances of winning ‘hearts and minds’ to enable victory in the long run.

A close up of a cocoa plant cut open, a taste of the real Cuba

Visit to the Cocoa plantation. Photo credit: Valerie Steele Colton

A half day bus journey took me over the mountain road La Farola to Baracoa, the chocolate centre of Cuba, where the locals can be seen with chocolate bars and smiling faces. Are the two linked, I wonder? I asked a taxista if the dentists were always busy, but he flashed his bright white teeth and said no, they are not needed here – this is pure chocolate. A 25 km drive over potholes, temporary bridges (this area was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and they are still recovering ) and dirt roads resulted in a magical hike through the nature reserve of Alexander Humboldt and an even more magical swim in a peaceful tranquil river. Just me, a couple of other intrepid travellers and the dragonflies…Bliss!

A two night stop in Trinidad showed me a more touristy side of Cuba, but the town comes alive at night when the tour buses have gone home and the music takes over. And then off to Santa Clara to pay respects to El Che and the other ‘foreign revolutionaries’ whose remains are kept in sacred silence in the Che Mausoleum.  The incredible story of how 18 revolutionaries overcame 300 Batista regime soldiers with just Molotov cocktails and a few hand pistols is the stuff of film fantasy.  The tale was told with passion and pride by the Cuban guides who clearly had an unshakeable faith in the path their country has chosen.

Back in north London when I was planning my adventure, I decided that at the end I would treat myself with a few days R&R in a five star all-inclusive beach resort, but on checking in I felt so sad that I had left the real Cuba behind and was now surrounded by holidaymakers…I had sold out. Somehow in the course of my 3 week meandering through the less frequented areas, my internal values and moral compass had shifted, and I now definitely preferred ‘travelling’ to ‘holidaying’.

So where was the authentic Cuba to be found? In Fidel’s mountain hideaway, so quiet and peaceful? In the salsa clubs of Santiago? Perhaps in the soupy hot chocolate from Baracoa, or even the steamy waiting rooms of the bus stations at 2 am.  The puppy dog eyes of the masseur on a beach in the Oriente.  I could go on. Tour groups following bilingual guides through the streets of the main tourist spots, I don’t think so. But you must learn about Cuba and it’s a very effective way of finding out a lot of information you would not get from a guide book.

I urge you to look beyond beach resort gates and experience the real Cuba in all its chaotic glory, but a few tips…

Learn a bit of Spanish. One bike taxi driver said the tourists never want to talk, but we had a 15 mins chat about the area we were chasing through, and he earned his tip. Also learn some salsa – leave the stiff European hips behind, loosen up and get with the beat, you will want to dance when you hear the music and see others enjoyment, and you’ll just look less like you’re at a wedding and more like you’re in the cradle of the afro cubana beat. And finally, don’t forget to pack a laid back attitude, useful when you are dropped off at a brand new (but locked shut) airport and told “Just wait – the plane is coming for you”. (It arrived perfectly on time – of course).

Would you like an Cuban adventure? If would more information on a tailormade trip to Cuba, please contact our Cuba experts on our enquiry form or call +44 131 621 7721 to speak with one of our experienced Cuba experts.  www.caledoniaworldwide.com

About the Author:

After a successful 20 years in the travel business as co-founder/director of Dial a Flight/Lotus Supertravel, subsequent careers in marketing and business consultancy, Valerie is globetrotting once again. As part of a growing band of solo 55+ female travellers, her recent trips have included six weeks volunteering and travelling through Costa Rica and a month in the less frequented parts of Cuba.

A professional photographer, she enjoys seeking out the unusual angles and the most stunning viewpoints. Soon to return to Cuba to perfect her salsa style, you can follow her adventures on her website: http://veebeka-travelstories.com/ and see her photography at http://www.veebeka-images.com and on twitter @veebeka

Have you recently been on a trip with us and would like to feature on our blogs? We love hearing all about how your trips went and seeing your wonderful photos – that’s the best bit of our jobs! If you would like to contribute a blog please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you!