I have now been to Cuba five times.
In the grand scheme of things, that isn't THAT many times since I've met people who have been there on more than 20 occasions. However, those people only did resorts - I did not.
This post is about my love of Cuba. I am absolutely enamored with the country. It puts me in complete disbelief when I meet those who have gone and weren't as enamored as I am. I just assume you did Cuba wrong, because Cuba can't possibly do wrong to you.
The people who tell me they did not enjoy Cuba all revert to the same complaint - the food. This is where I will tell you, I ASSURE YOU THAT IS ONLY BECAUSE OF THE RESORT. The issue is that resorts are making Americanized food. That is NOT Cuban food. Actual Cuban food is freaking delicious. Ropa Vieja especially and that one coconut thing that's ground up with corn and frozen. (No, I don't know the name of this dessert but it is delicious)
I first went to Cuba back in 2011 (I think?) with an ex boyfriend of mine. We wanted to relax, hang out on a beach and be away from civilization. We went to a resort in Cayo Santa Maria which felt like it was in the middle of no where. It was quiet, the seafood was delicious and the beaches were majestic. Vacation well spent sleeping and swimming.
The trip was enjoyable because the beaches were beautiful, but at that time, was Cuba particularly memorable to me? Not really. It was just somewhere I was lucky enough to go to relax for a week.
In 2012 I was a second year student at the University of Toronto and one of my majors was Caribbean studies. During this time I had taken a class about the history of Cuba. The professor from this class was from Cuba and every year he had a competition for the two best papers in the class receiving a stipend from the University to go to Santiago de Cuba and present their papers at their annual Caribbean conference.
Guess who had one of the two top papers? YES. I was blessed to get a chance to go to Cuba again, but this time to spend two weeks in a Cuban household, have my flight paid by the University and present an academic paper at a conference. Probably the proudest moment of my life up to this point.
In July 2012 myself and another student were off to Santiago de Cuba - this is where my love affair began.
Santiago de Cuba is NOTHING like those resort areas. There is a beach, but it's kind of far away. This city is where all the culture lays. Although Havana is obviously the most major city, Santiago is where it felt like all the heart and soul was/is.
I stayed in a casa particular which is just a guest house run by locals. I made friends in the neighbourhood I stayed in that I am friends with to this day and regularly communicate with. While I was doing all the academia things preparing to present my winning paper, I was also going out EVERY SINGLE NIGHT to party with the locals we befriended. I'm not even talking about regular nightclubs, I mean those amazing street parties that if you didn't know someone from there you would NEVER have attended nor even heard about.
This was probably the most authentic Cuban experience one could have as a tourist. Not staying within the confines of a resort where the food is bland and you're surrounded by people you just left your country to get away from. I got to indulge in the street food and the food cooked in Cuban households and maybe talked to one other Canadian during the entirety of the trip. Full submersion.
The experience from this trip was so monumental to me, that in 2014 I went TWICE right back to Santiago de Cuba within a six month span. Still the same friends there. Stayed again in the same casa particular. Still went partying every day. I couldn't get enough of the place.
My fifth time in Cuba was recently in September of 2016 for my mothers 60th birthday. She opted for all of the family to go to a resort she had fallen in love with in Cayo Guillermo. This place was drop dead gorgeous. Unlike Santiago, this place was all beach and all chill. A nice week of relaxing and spending time with family while trying to not bake from within because the sun was so hot.
I advise you all to go to Cuba. I also advise to try maybe doing it from a local perspective just once, not the resort life. Place a very sure bet you will get much better food and a better understanding of the country by doing so.
I will probably write a follow up post JUST about Santiago de Cuba because my heart flutters specifically thinking about there. Although I did love the beaches in Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Guillermo, there is unequivocally something so special about Santiago de Cuba. Hopefully in the next year you will also see a post about Havana too :)