Even if you’ve never traveled with a guide before, it’s worth considering it when you come to Cuba. Read on to find out why.
There is no place in the world like Cuba. That’s what makes it such an incredible place to visit but it’s also the reason why some visitors have a bit of a culture shock when they arrive! Even the most seasoned travelers can struggle when they get here which is why so many people choose a personalised tour with a local guide. Here are our top three reasons for hiring a local guide like Danny and making sure you have a brilliant time on your trip to Cuba.
Travel in Cuba
The transport infrastructure of Cuba is very limited. What are your options for intercity travel? Firstly, Viazaul. This bus service is designed for foreigners, although plenty of Cubans use it too. Buses can be booked online a week in advance, or you can show up at the ticket office to buy a ticket before the journey – be prepared for the first response to your ticket request to be ‘no’: perseverance is key. Viazul has a lot going for it – most major cities are connected, the buses are air-conditioned, usually have seatbelts and run more-or-less on time. Unlike your next option…
…which is to arrange a shared taxi, either through your casa, or at the Viazul station, where many taxi drivers hawk outside to gather spare tourists to make up a trip. This is not as a safe or reliable as a Viazul bus, although it can be cheaper and feels more ‘Cuban’ as you often get to ride in a 1950s American clunker to your destination. However, whilst those old American cars look romantic in pictures, and the restored convertibles make amazing tour vehicles around Havana, they are not motorway vehicles and quickly become cramped and uncomfortable.
Car hire in Cuba
You could hire a car, but at a starting price of $70 per day for the lowest quality vehicle, plus fuel, it’s not the most economical option. What’s more, driving in Cuba is a challenge: pot holes, police checks, cows on the road (kill one by accident and you can go to prison), drunk drivers, hardly any signage, poor lighting and no breakdown services.
For those looking for a ‘meet the locals’ type trip, you might think that taking the bus or a shared taxi is a more ‘authentic’ experience, but the reality is that you are more likely to end up travelling with your fellow tourists – all hot, frazzled and a bit bewildered by this complicated, fascinating place.
So why is a guided tour with private transport better?
A guide will arrange private transfers in a reliable, air-conditioned vehicle. You can depart, stop and arrive when you choose, door to door. The latter is important, as what is missing from Havana (and other cities) is a decipherable bus or metro timetable and an easy way to get to the bus terminals. Over a multi-day trip with the same driver, there is also the chance to strike up a friendship with the guy driving your car; much better than being just one more tourist face on the bus.
What’s more, it’s your guide’s job to spend the time sorting out your transport, leaving you more time to enjoy your trip. Do you really want to take three hours out of a day in Havana lining up for a bus ticket, then queuing to have it validated, then waiting in a hot lounge for the bus? Or waiting in the heat for the rest of the people to arrive for your shared taxi, to then spend the next four hours on the backseat broken springs of a clunky old car? Of course not!
Tours by Locals
How do you get anything done here? Your Lonely Planet book is not going to tell you. You need to know the right person. Your local guide is likely to know the right people in every location you travel to. Want to hire a bike? They’ll know someone. Want to dive at Playa Larga? They’ll know a spot where there are fewer crowds and the water is clearer. Want to eat lunch with a local family? They’ll probably take you round to their mum’s house. Want to mix cocktails behind the bar of a Cuban nightclub? They can make that happen in no time at all, and will make sure it’s in a great place with great people. Your private, local guide is going be able to bring you the personalised holiday everyone dreams of.
Of course, there are plenty of folks on the street who will offer you similar services – people are very keen to engage with tourists and that all-important tourist dollar, but there is no way to be sure that these guides are licensed, experienced or trustworthy. By booking a guided trip before you arrive, you can be sure that your guide knows their stuff and will be able to get your trip running smoothly.
Sadly, too many visitors have eaten too many horrible meals at all-inclusive hotels or dodgy establishments and it has given Cuba a bad reputation for food. And it’s not entirely undeserved. Whilst there are fabulous restaurants in every city, you might not know they’re great from the outside. Furthermore, that place with the gleaming glasses and multi-forked table placements might actually be serving up leathery, tasteless pork cutlets and a limp salad. In all the main destinations (Havana, Trinidad) so many restaurants have sprung up that waiters are starting to compete on the streets for custom – always a bit unpleasant. Knowing where you’re heading for lunch (and having someone to help you find it) takes the pressure off. At the other end of the spectrum, in more rural areas there are not abundant places to eat and you can go for miles on the highway without an obvious pit stop.
How can your local Cuban guide help you?
You can do your research before you go and book your five-star places of course – but your guide can take care of that for you, again saving you time and effort. What’s more, they’ll know those places personally, so can ensure that you get a good table – on the roof terrace perhaps, or that table with the great view? They’ll also be able to put together a great night out for you, matching up the best night spots with the closest places to eat.
Finally, some of the most rewarding food experiences come from the local people. Your guide will get you into that slightly terrifying-looking road stop that actually serves incredible congris and platanos, or they will arrange a lunch of delicious fresh crab at a local family home. You have to work hard to find the same quality of experiences for eating here, without a local helping hand.
Responsible tourism in Cuba
It is possible to spend two days, two weeks, even two months in a place without ever really getting ‘under the skin’ of how it all works. It is possible to return home to your normal life and simply be left with a set of lovely pictures and some nice memories (and maybe some not so nice – see above!). However, we believe that the most enduring and significant holiday memories are made when you connect to the place you’ve visited, and truly understand how it works and what life is like for people there.
‘Come as a guest, return as a friend’
There is no better proof of the fact that a local guide in Cuba will make this connection possible, than the fact that so many connections have lasted between visitors and local guides. The wall in our favorite family casa particular – 508 San Jose in Camagüey – reads ‘Come as a guest; return as a friend’ and that’s the truth. We know guides who have traveled to visit their former guests in their own home countries, guides who welcome back visitors every year, visitors who have set up businesses with former guides, visitors who have bought houses in Cuba, guides who have hosted weddings and so much more…!! Such connections prove the enduring impact of responsible tourism which benefits local people – it all started with a tour. Furthermore, guides often act as a contact point for those who, when visiting Cuba, want to spend some time distributing donations and gifts to the families who need it most: a local guide will ensure that your much-needed donations go to the people who need it the most.