Beyond The Beaches

A guide to exploring off-resort Cuba

By Sabrina Nordlund

Canada has always had a special relationship with Cuba. We’ve maintained trade with the country through the US embargo, and remain to be the main point of entry to Cuba, even with the travel ban lifted. Countless Canadians flock to the country to warm up every winter, and yet travelling around the island in February left me wondering, where have all the Canadians gone? I had flown into Cuba from Toronto on a flight jam packed with Canadians, but once I got out of the airport I rarely saw one. On my flight home, it became clear that every other Canadian heading back to Toronto had just spent a week on a resort. They were sharing stories of how sunburned they got and how silly the ‘locals’ were. How is it that this one of a kind country, that dedicates so much to its tourism industry, sees one of its main partner countries sticking strictly to resorts?

PC: Sabrina Nordlund

The arguments in favour of resort trips always seem to centre around money and safety. While you could easily travel around Cuba for the same amount of money, you would have to be comfortable staying in Casa Particulars (often synonymous with Airbnbs) and taking buses or collective taxis. Usually the argument against this is the question of safety. The only reason I can fathom that people would question their safety is the collective memory of the Cold War era, and the existing fear in Canada of the communist system. It’s true that Cuban history is generally something completely foreign to most Canadians who mostly equate Cuba = dictatorship = bad. I cannot possibly get into all the reasons people believe this, or why it’s not necessarily true, all I can say is that generally, Canadians don’t really understand what life is like in Cuba, and resorts don’t really help that. The reality is that the safety situation in Cuba is no worse than many European countries, in fact it’s oftentimes better. Locals may approach you and try to sell things to you, but others simply want to say hi. There is a strong police presence, but it’s not a threatening one. Police are often around enforcing traffic laws, or walking downtown and chatting with people in the streets. The overall atmosphere in Havana is friendly and safe (unless graffiti art of Che’s face really set you off).

At the same time, the picture painted of resorts by the same travelers who claim it’s too expensive and unsafe to travel outside of resorts, is bleak. They complain about food, comfort, air conditioning, water quality, and more. Resort goers often make it seem like staying on a resort is ‘roughing it’ much more than the comforts provided by Airbnbs. What is the appeal of resorts if there are so many drawbacks? Well, it seems many Canadians just want an easy trip to lay on a beach, and I’m not here to complain about that, in fact, I think it’s important that we keep supporting the Cuban tourism industry. However, I want to highlight the more adventurous side of Cuba that Canadians, particularly young ones, seem to ignore.

Cuba is a gem in the Caribbean. Hop on a mere three-hour flight from Toronto and you’re in one of the most singular countries in the world. Cuba is completely one of a kind, and if you’re travelling to learn about culture and history, there’s nowhere else that has what Cuba can offer. Cuba has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other Caribbean country and it is one of the only places in the Americas where there is almost a complete absence of consumer culture – a result of both the communist nature of the country, and the US embargo.

PC: Sabrina Nordlund,
Pictured: Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

As I’m sure you know, Cuba is also one of the only remaining communist countries in the world – which doesn’t mean that it has armies marching in the streets or that you’ll be arrested for every slightest thing, but does mean that Cuban Airbnb hosts will go out of their way to make your trip positive. The Cuban government allows citizens to have their own ‘Casa’ that they can rent to tourists on sites like Airbnb. Casa owners, taxi drivers, and tour guides are all benefiting from Cuba’s biggest revenue industry: tourism. They will go out of their way to ensure that you’re having the best time possible, and will often help connect you with anything you may want or need. Airbnb hosts advise you on where the best breakfast places are (or cook you breakfast), how to get WiFi, and what the best places to visit are. They help coordinate collective taxis and help arrange tours for you, all while often expecting nothing in return apart from a good review. I firmly believe that Airbnb is the best way to see Cuba, because it connects you with people who will help you organize your trip and see the most authentic Cuba possible.

Collective taxis are the best way to get around the island. They are only slightly more expensive than bus tickets, and they connect you with other travelers headed in the same direction. A collective taxi from Havana to Viñales, a two-hour drive, is only 20 CUC (approx.. $25 CAD). Sometimes if you’re lucky, the car is a classic style, sometimes if you’re less lucky it’s a refurbished bus. Regardless, collective taxis are both a convenient transportation trick, and something to experience. That being said, it’s hard to find a collective taxi if you’re not staying in a Casa, as hosts often work with taxi drivers to set them up.

The food in Cuba also tends to be a sore spot for resort-goers, common complaints are the poor quality and the lack of diversity. Off resort, it’s not hard to find a variety of food options, you can talk to your Airbnb hosts about different restaurants, or you can just wander around downtown tourist areas to see your options. Havana has a wealth of options, a lot of Cuban inspired food, and surprisingly to me, a lot of Italian inspired food. Some websites advised us not to eat things washed with water, as the tap-water quality is poor, but I regularly had lettuce and other vegetables without any issue. Other things to be wary of are meat (as per usual), and unpasteurized milk. Regardless of where you’re travelling, it’s always important to exercise proper precaution. In terms of variety and access, my sister is gluten-free, and I’m a vegetarian, and we both were able to find things to eat on the regular.  While they do see shortages in some things (it seemed to be potatoes while we were there), those are a result of a combination of communism and the US embargo, and you can usually get your hands on them if you go to a hotel restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much of the food in Cuba because of what I had heard, but I loved breakfast at both of the Airbnb’s that served it, and I had pretty decent sandwiches on the regular. Overall, the food wasn’t bad, but if you’re one for snacking I would recommend bringing your own, you won’t be able to find any packaged foods along your way.

Cuba has so much to offer, and it truly pains me to see so many people that are completely unaware of it! One of the results of communism is their funding of many cultural projects like museums, galleries, and arts. I visited the Revolution Museum, which the TripAdvisor reviews had said was ‘extremely biased but entertaining nonetheless.’ As someone who has extensively researched the Cuban Revolution, I can only assume that these reviews were coming from citizens of the USA. Particularly amusing comedic mural depictions of various United States Presidents aside, the information that was provided by the museum was totally accurate. The Revolution Museum is one of the main attractions of Havana, and worth visiting for the architecture alone. If you’re in Havana but not into history, you can entertain yourself day in and day out just by walking the streets, dipping into art galleries, visiting markets, riding around in classical cars, walking along El Malecon (the boardwalk), and chatting with people you meet. There are always tours and trips that you can do, I would recommend having a browse around on the ‘Things to do’ section of Airbnb, even just to get some inspiration of what’s out there. We ended up taking a few days to go to Viñales after finding it through there, and got a taste of both rural and urban Cuba.

The one drawback to seeing Cuba this way is that you’ll never want to stop coming back. Given how close it is, how many different cool and affordable Airbnbs there are, how much diversity there is in things to see and places to visit, I feel like I could keep going back time and time again. I’m already planning a long-haul trip across the whole island, and every time I look at my pictures, my heart breaks a little. I am not an easy traveler, but for Cuba, I would do it time and time again. Start swiping through Cuba on Airbnb, and I promise you won’t look back.