As Cuba enters a post-Castro era, what’s in store for travelers? Cuba expert Claire Boobbyer goes in search of new experiences, from wild camping and e-biking to campervanning and experiences with Michelin-starred chefs.
When Che Guevara motorbiked around South America in 1952, he waxed lyrical about the open road in his coming-of-age book The Motorcycle Diaries. Fifty years later, his youngest son, Ernesto, channeled his own love of bikes into a savvy business opportunity by launching Harley Davidson tours on the island with La Poderosa Tours.
Since then, more and more adventure activities—on wheels, feet and floats—have become available to travelers. There are even nascent agritourism and foodie scenes.
“The door is now open,” says Irishman Johnny Considine, whose newly launched company Wild Cuba offers remote trekking and horseback riding. “A few years ago, the Cuban government wouldn’t allow wild camping and campervanning, but now there’s a massive commitment to nature travel.”
Cuba finally realizes it has an amazing product and can compete with the likes of the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica,” explains Johnny, “and it’s not really exploited it before. A lot of investment is going on.”
Living the Castaway fantasy, discovering isolated beaches and spending the night under a palm tree might not sound like a revolution to the average traveler, but in Cuba, these developments are a liberation for thrill-seekers.
They’re revamping the national parks, rebuilding refuges in the mountains, and restoring trekking routes,” he adds. And this nation-wide awareness of Cuba’s potential is the catalyst for the new businesses and initiatives springing up all over the island.
Living the Castaway fantasy, discovering isolated beaches and spending the night under a palm tree might not sound like a revolution to the average traveler, but in Cuba—where wild camping has not been tolerated for decades and many adventures are controlled in military-owned mountainscapes and government-run marinas—these developments are a liberation for thrill-seekers.
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Wild Cuba, among other companies, will now offer multi-night trekking and camping for hikers to remote spots. As Sergio García-González of the UK’s Cuba Holidays says, “Camping is now permitted across the island for all travelers as well as at the more established Campismo sites [holiday parks popular with locals]. During Cuba’s recent international tourism fair, we were also told Cuba has acquired excellent camping gear for hire.”
And there’s plenty more. Since early 2018, motorhomes can also be hired, allowing families and friends to motor along Cuba’s 780-mile east-to-west length, with water and electricity rest stops across 20 locations. The company behind Cuba’s new RVs, Daiquirí Tours, said RV drivers can also pull up and overnight anywhere—at the driver’s responsibility—allowing travelers to explore and discover remote beaches and nature spots, something that was a lot more difficult before.
Behind this motorhome roll-out (and a fleet of 40 Piaggio three-wheeled scooters) was the surge in US visitors to Cuba following Barack Obama’s historic detente with the island in December 2014—and Daiquirí Tours was quick to capitalize on Americans’ love for RV touring. But last year, north-coast Cuba was struck by Hurricane Irma while President Trump’s travel advisory tightened US embargo travel rules on US citizens visiting the island.
All of this had a knock-on effect on Cuba’s tourism. Where some 4.7 million tourists visited in 2017, there was a 7 per cent drop in overall visitors for the first three months of 2018, and a 40 per cent drop in US visitors. It remains to be seen how Cuba’s new president Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took office in 2018—and the first president in nearly 60 years who does not bear the Castro name—will steer Cuba through this period, particularly as tourism is a key source of revenue for the island.
“Cuba can be a cryptic destination for first-time travelers, riddled with misinformation and tourist traps.”
Ariel Causa, Cuban entrepreneur
In the meantime, it’s not stopping new initiatives. One sport taking off is cycling. DIY-minded cyclists have been tracing Cuba’s palm-fringed beaches for years, but 2018 year saw the debut of a newfangled electric bike which takes visitors to far-flung corners of Havana, out-of-town beaches, and the eco-tourism community of Las Terrazas, 47 miles (75 kilometers) southwest of the capital. “Our e-bikes are eye-catching and very comfortable!” says Martin Staub, the German owner of e-bike company, Cubyke. “Havana is a bit hilly, so the bikes mean you can explore without getting breathless.”
I happily signed up to one these half-day saunters to one of Havana’s kookier sites, the alluring jungle fantasy park Jardines de La Tropical in Havana’s city forest, followed by a ride into southern Spanish colonial Old Havana. I was pedaling along streets I’d never traveled along in 19 years of visiting Cuba.
Off-shore, the island’s turquoise waters are also luring travelers with the likes of kitesurfing, SUP, yachting and kayaking. First to push the proverbial boat out were companies such as Canada’s Cuba Adventure Company who offer multi-day kayaking trips on Cuba’s Caribbean coast.
There are new adventures to be had underground too. Diving underwater is Avalon, which pioneered liveaboards (dive trips where divers stay overnight on the boat) in the shark paradise of Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen. Last summer, they sent the first liveaboard into the indigo waters around the Bay of Pigs, where Cuban scientists report 60 per cent live coral cover on the Faro Cazones reef crest. By comparison, the Great Barrier Reef had almost half its reefs wiped out by coral bleaching, following a series of heatwaves.
It was explorer Jacques Cousteau who inspired keen diver Fidel Castro to protect Cuba’s seas, during an interview in Cuban waters on Cousteau’s boat Calypso in 1985. After warning Castro about the fragility of coral reefs—coral reefs surround 95 per cent of Cuba’s 5,745-kilometer (3,570 miles) coastline—Castro later signed environmental protection into law: Cuba now protects 70 marine areas, and 30 per cent of its coral reefs.
Cuba’s exploding restaurant scene is also making its mark while foodie tours and agritourism are giving travelers the chance to taste and learn: Cuba is world-renowned for its organic farming movement yet the country cannot feed itself, importing 70–80 per cent of its food.
I wanted to see the movement for myself and last year, I caught the train and headed to the pioneering family-run farm and homestay Finca del Medio in central Cuba, where I feasted on coconut pancakes, orange wine, and yucca-based pizza.
Many chefs and foodies are also taking advantage of Airbnb Experiences in Cuba. Ariel Causa, co-founder of the Alamesa app which lists restaurants across the island, offers eight gastro adventures. He sees his culinary adventures as connecting travelers with genuine Cuban culture. “Cuba can be a cryptic destination for first-time travelers,” he says, “riddled with misinformation and tourist traps.”
On a recent trip, I met another entrepreneur keen to shed more light on Cuba’s culinary heritage; bread evangelist and Michelin-star chef Alberto González Ceballos, whose Airbnb experience takes place in his Havana bakery. Alberto and others like him are using these new opportunities to show travelers what Cuba has to offer—beyond what’s been permitted up to now.
As Cuba charts a post-Castro course, travelers will be watching its further opening to the world closely, but also whether its commitments to nature and adventure are developed in an environmentally sustainable way. Changes are certainly afoot in this island nation.