We went to Cuba for 3 weeks in February, with the main motivation being “let’s go there before it is swamped by tourists and changed beyond recognition”. Let me state at once this is not a valid argument to select a holiday destination.
First of all, too many people are following this exact same line of thought, which means the number of tourists is increasing even more rapidly. And if you want to see it before it changes, you should really ask yourself: what does it change from? Is there really something interesting to see or do? Is it a worthwhile destination in its own right? And above all: what am I looking for?
I went with my wife, we are both in our 50’s and so-called independent travellers. I worked out an itinerary by myself, using information from guide books as Lonely Planet and Guide du Routard, and (for accommodation) from TripAdvisor, as well as recommendations from colleagues who have been there last year. I repeat: independent travellers. We can go wherever we want. And guess what? We ended up doing the same circuit as 95% of tourists in Cuba are doing, be they independent or group travellers.
Maybe it is not entirely correct. The standard circuit does Havana – Viñales – Bahia de Cochines – Cienfuegos – Trinidad – some beach on a Cayo – Santa Clara – Havana. This is because most people only have 10 or 14 days in Cuba. We had 3 weeks, so after Trinidad we pushed on to Camagüey, Santiago and Baracoa, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the trip.
We stayed in “Casas Particulares” throughout the trip and used public or semi-public transport (Viazul buses and shared or private taxis), as well as locally organized excursions to visit places of interest.
The good bits
There is certainly a lot to be said for a trip to Cuba:
- The people are among the nicest I ever came across. No one ever gets aggressive. You never feel unsafe.
- All is relatively easy to organize, accommodation as well as transport.
- There are some interesting places, mostly the ones that are not on the standard itinerary, such as Camagüey and Baracoa
- The beaches are fabulous. We were at Cayo Jutia, Playa Ancon and Varadero. The latter one was certainly our favourite, but the ones on the Cayos should be even better.
The boring bits
Most things in Cuba are not really exciting. We had a feeling of “Is that it?” most of the time.
- The big tourist attractions like Old Havana or the centre of Trinidad are so heavily restored and are so overrun by tourists that they feel more like a theme park than places in the real world.
- With very few exceptions (once again Baracoa springs to mind) the food is uninspiring. Not bad, the chicken is gorgeous compared to what you get back home, but rather bland and repetitive. There is a lot of hype about lobster, but much of the time it is overcooked and thus tough and dry.
- It is a long trek from one place to another, especially by bus, you waste a lot of time and the scenery is nothing to write home about. All main roads are in the central plain (again, with the exception of the road to Baracoa, the Farola, that cuts across the mountains from the south coast to the north) where all there is to see is farmland.
- For Europeans like us, you have to endure the 10+ hour flight across the Atlantic, so you’d expect something in return.
So is it worth it?
I do not think so. I feel a bit awkward about this, because everyone who has been to Cuba seems to be so enthusiastic. Maybe they went with other expectations than we did (but did we have any expectations?). Maybe they have never been to a (mildly) exotic country before? Maybe they would be very excited about a trip to Disneyworld too?
You will never hear me say that Cuba is a bad place to go to. It’s just that it does not have that much to offer. Most people do the standard routine and seem happy with that. Why not? We felt it cost too much time, effort and money compared to what you get in return. Most of the time it was relatively boring. There are more interesting places to go to.
I readily admit that one part of the problem is us: as we got up rather early we also were in bed by 10pm most of the time, so the nightlife completely passed us by.
I can imagine you get a completely different feeling if you get off the beaten track, even if only a little bit, or if you have special interests:
- there should be a lot of interesting places to go diving and snorkelling (but that is not our cup of tea)
- hiking could be nice, but you probably need to book an organized trip through a specialist company, as you won’t even come near the mountains if you are on your own. We met some cyclists and even they admitted not being able to do much more than the main roads as the other ones were in too bad a state to cycle on.
- superb beaches, but then that is not a specifically Cuban experience.
- go east from Trinidad and spend some time in places that hardly get mentioned in the travel guides: Sancti Spiritus, Camagüey, Holguin, Baracoa,…
For people who are still interested to go, I will try to distill our experience into some practical information in a list of posts to come.