Independent Families: 'Are there tours that can show us the real Cuba?'

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Q. I would like to take my 15-year-old son to Cuba during the Easter holidays, to see the highlights of the island. However, we don't want to stay in tourist hotels the whole time. We're restricted by time (leaving on 2 April, for 10 days ideally, though we could extend it to a fortnight), and by the fact that neither of us speaks Spanish. So, I would like to sign up for an organised tour, but is there one available that would introduce us to the island and its people, and appeal to someone of his age?
Marian Williams, London N16

A. Beautiful cities, stunning beaches, dramatic mountains and welcoming people: Cuba is an excellent holiday choice and is sure to make a profound impression on your son. It is the Caribbean's largest island, and has far more cultural depth than the others. Due to its extraordinary 20th-century history (tomorrow marks the 47th anniversary of the Revolution), Fidel Castro's island feels and looks like no other nation.

Several tours of Cuba are available that aim, as you suggest, to escape the tourist resorts and explore the less-trodden interior. Whichever you choose, however, your son is likely to be the only teenage member of the group. Trips tend to be designed for adult individuals or couples rather than families, with some stating a minimum age of 16. Nevertheless, if your son is outgoing and interested in foreign cultures, he should have a terrific trip - as, indeed, should you. April is a good time to go as it is before the summer temperatures start to soar and the rainy season begins.

Book soon, however, as many tours are already full for the busy Easter period. South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.south american experience.co.uk) still has availability on a one-week tour departing on 1 April 2006, and optional extensions are available that could enable you to stay on for an extra three days.

The first three nights are spent in Old Havana, at the historic Sevilla Hotel, which, as Graham Greene fans may recognise, is where Wormold had his rendezvous with the spy-master Hawthorne in Room 501 in Our Man in Havana. This is one of the more comfortable places to stay in the city, and is, obviously, ideal for exploring Old Havana, the colonial core of the capital.

On the first full day, your English-speaking guide will give you a detailed tour of the town. If your son is a fan of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, then this is his chance to visit the Museum of the Revolution on the historic Plaza de Armas. This tour, like most, includes visits to the Partagas cigar factory and Havana Club rum distillery; it is, of course, up to you to decide whether they are appropriate places for your son.

On the second day, you drive along Havana's seafront promenade, the Malecon, before lunching with views overlooking the bay. A word of warning: the 1990 guidebook that recommended, "if you want to lose weight, visit Cuba", still has some truth. Cuban cuisine as prepared in Florida can be marvellous, with imaginative use of pork, rice, beans, plantain and okra, but somehow, Communism hampers the best efforts of the island's chefs. You may fare better in one of the paladares, small privately run restaurants.

The evening offers the option of visiting the most famous cabaret in the world: the Tropicana. As Graham Greene recalled: "Chorus-girls paraded 20 feet among the great palm trees, while pink and mauve searchlights swept the floor..." I'm not sure what your son will make of it: Franz Ferdinand it ain't.

On day three, you escape the city. Going via the home (now a museum) of Ernest Hemingway, your bus will drop you at the start of a boat trip through the mangroves of Guama to visit a replica Taino Indian village. This is not as tacky is it sounds. You will see hummingbirds and parrots, and you will certainly encounter mosquitoes, so pack industrial-strength repellent.

Next stop is the port of Cienfuegos, on a beautiful bay. As one of Cuba's more intriguing cities, it offers the chance to experience life as the locals lead it. Next, you'll drive to Santa Clara, the final resting place of Che Guevara, and then through the Escambray mountains to Trinidad. The entire colonial core is a Unesco world heritage site, and a centre for the preservation of Cuban music.

Continuing your journey, you'll then travel back west, into Cuba's tobacco-growing region, Pinar del Rio. The area offers stunning views of the steep mogote hills (it is a karst landscape, which may be familiar to your son from his geography lessons). You'll spend this night in the Sierra del Rosario Nature Reserve.

The final two days take you to the Vinales Valley, regarded as Cuba's most beautiful spot. This part is very touristic but great fun. You take a boat through a limestone cave system, down the river that flows through the honeycombed caverns, past stalactites and stalagmites. Dinner is served at the house of a local farmer. Good luck with mealtime conversation.

At the end of the tour, you may both deserve a bit of time relaxing on the beach. Varadero, Cuba's principal beach resort, is a couple of hours east of Havana, and has some cheap and cheerful places in which to stay.

The trip costs £685 each, including all excursions, accommodation and certain meals, but flight prices vary by season and they have to be booked separately via the tour operator (reckon on around £500 to £600 each). There are no discounts for someone of your son's age.

You could organise a similar itinerary independently, and plan on staying at casas particulares, which are basically B&Bs. These are cheap (typically £20 per person per night) and, of course, would bring you closer to the Cuban people themselves. But if you go it alone, you will need at least a basic command of Spanish. Between now and Easter, there's plenty of time for a little Spanish practice. Knowing the basics of the language would make the business of getting around, and getting to know the Cubans, much easier.

Send your family travel questions to: Independent Parent, Travel Desk, 'The Independent', 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or e-mail: crusoe@independent.co.uk

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