Looking for the most authentic Cuba tour? I’m on a quest to find it.
I have been based in Havana for 18 months. I’m not 100% living there as I have to travel often for work. But when I’m not working I’m in Havana.
So why would I want to take a Cuba tour?
The longer I stay in Cuba the more I realize just how difficult it is to see the country independently.
Many travelers arrive in Havana and manage to see Vinales and Trinidad.
But to travel the country, especially if you don’t speak Spanish, is difficult.
Many people think to see the “real Cuba” you have to do it independently and painfully organize each step yourself.
I wanted to see if this Cuba tour could show the authentic side of Cuba without the hassle of struggling through Spanish and negotiating prices at every step.
But let’s answer the two most important question on everyone’s mind:
Is Cuba Safe?
I am surprised at how often I hear this question because I worry about my safety in Havana as much as I would in Toronto.
Cuba is considered the safest country in both the Caribbean and Latin America.
That doesn’t mean it’s a crime-free utopia. There is petty theft and pickpocketing.
I would never leave my purse on the back of my chair in Havana – nor would I do that in Rome.
You likely won't see guns in Cuba unless it's on military or police personnel and violent crime with tourists is very rare.
Although may be some scuffles amongst Cubans at a local drinking hole, but this does not happen with tourists.
As Cuba depends on tourism, violence against tourists is not tolerated.
I have never have an issue of any kind in Havana. As a solo female traveler I do feel safe.
The Best Time to Visit Cuba
The standard answer is December to May. Although I disagree.
Like most tropical climates, Cuba doesn't have four seasons but two: wet season and dry season.
Dry season is December to May, the hurricane season is over and things are relatively dry and sunny.
But it's also the most popular time to visit Cuba so it's the most crowded.
I love summer in Cuba. It is the wet season but it usually only showers once and then the sun comes out.
It is low season so the crowds are gone in Old Havana.
Plus you won't need reservations to get into the trendy restaurants in Havana.
It's also the only time you'll see Cubans at the beach because otherwise it's too cold for them.
You want a real Cuban experience?
Head to the Havana beaches in the summer when its packed with Cubans blasting regaetton and dancing on the beach with a bottle of rum in hand.
I took the Cuba Explorer tour the first week of July. As we reached farther east in Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba the afternoon sun was intense.
In my free time I walked in the shade and spent time in cafes.
Why Did I Choose Intrepid Travel?
It's sad to say, but many bloggers, journalists and websites recommend tours they've never taken.
I didn't feel comfortable doing this because Cuba is complicated. If people travel to Cuba, I want them to love it.
I want them to tell others about the amazing Cuban culture and people.
This meant I needed to take the tour myself - I had too much to gamble.
I felt confident they would be able to show a balanced view of Cuba beyond mojitos and vintage cars.
Here are more reasons I like Intrepid Travel:
- Small group size averaging 10 people, unlike other tours that herd large groups around like cattle.
- They only use local tour guides. Taking a tour that employs Cubans means your travel makes a difference in Cubans’ lives. Also, unless you grew up in Cuba, it's impossible to understand the complexity of life there.
- They are actively trying to gender balance their team of tour guides. They have a goal of doubling the number of female leaders globally by 2020.
- Tours in Cuba are in local casa particulares, eating in local restaurants, travelling in local transport etc.
- They were the global tour operator to ban elephant rides on tours. They also do not offer horse riding in Viñales. It's a popular activity but most of the animals are not treated well so they do not support it.
I did not pay for this tour, only tips and additional expenses. I approached Intrepid Travel with the hope that I would love this tour and happily recommend it.
If I didn't love it, I wasn't going to recommend it.
Spoiler alert! I loved this tour. I'll speak more to it below but I'm so thrilled to recommend this tour.
The Biggest Surprise of My Cuba Tour
Nearly all of my travel over the past ten years has been independent, with the exception of press trips with other travel journalists.
I didn't know what the other people on the group tour would be like. Would they be first time travelers? Or just want to party?
Would they be understanding that everything in Cuba requires patience?
But in our group there were so many adventurous, well-traveled people. Some had already been to Cuba before and everyone was a frequent traveler.
Many of them had taken Intrepid tours previously in other countries.
The tour group included people from all ages but the one commonality was the love of travel.
The Cuba Explorer Tour Route
Day 1 + 2 Havana
As I'm based in Havana I wasn't expecting to learn much here. I was so wrong. We ate in a great restaurant I'd never even heard of and Osi introduced us to his favourite gelato shop.
We also took a walking tour of Old Havana where I learned so much about things I normally just walk by without any idea why it's special.
This set the tone of the trip for me. To set aside all expectation of what I thought I knew and to just be a tourist.
There was lots of free time during these two days so that people could take day tours on their own.
Almost everyone took a classic car tour around the city.
Some visited the museums in Havana, and others went to overrated Hemingway bars that I still have not visited.
I do think it's worth booking a classic car tour in advance if you want a great English-speaking guide.
Some in our group took this street eats tour, which they loved because it gave them more time to talk to a local about how things work in Cuba.
I've taken the Afro Cuban Religion Tour at Callejon Hamel and highly recommend it. It's only a couple of hours.
However, you will learn so much about how slaves hid their religion from the Spanish and why some people all wear white in Cuba.
Most tourists visit this Gaudi-inspired neighbourhood for music on Sundays or to take photos of its colourful mosaics but there is so much more to learn.
Day 3 Santa Clara + Camaguey
They say you cannot walk a block without seeing Che's face.
He's a common image symbolizing freedom in Latin America, but it's especially true in Cuba as he was a key player in the revolution.
In Santa Clara we stopped to see the 3 Ms: the Che Guevara monument, museum and mausoleum.
The mausoleum is small, understated yet has a sense of weight as it also includes the tombs of other revolutions.
Che, who is Argentinean, did not die in Cuba. He later died while fighting in the Bolivian revolution.
His body was dumped in a mass grave along with 37 others. In 1997, the grave was discovered and Fidel Castro moved all of their remains to the Mausoleum for the Fallen of the Revolution.
This site is one of the most popular things to see in Cuba. And while Santa Clara is an interesting city worth visiting on its own, many come to see Che.
There are statues of Che all over Santa Clara. During the revolution Fidel sent Che and his troop here for a battle that was pivotal and lead to their victory. Here there is a bronze life-size statue.
There is also a museum dedicated to Che’s life and death, with memorabilia from throughout his life, including early years.
If you don't go to the museum of the revolution in Old Havana or the one at Convento de San Francisco in Trinidad it's worth a look.
But you need to visit early in the day as there is often a line and the sun can be scorching.
Can Americans Visit?
Technically, as this is a government site, the United States prohibits Americans from visiting.
However, no one at the site asks about nationality and would never report back to the US government anyway.
Lots of Americans go and simply don’t tell customs and immigration when they return to the US as there is no way to prove it.
We spent an hour or so here, which is plenty of time to pay respect and walk around for photos.
Day 4 + 5 Santiago de Cuba
One of the biggest reasons I wanted to take this Cuba tour was to visit Santiago to Cuba.
It was once considered to be the national capital but eventually conceded to Havana.
It is a stunning city known for its architecture and role in the revolution.
Santiago de Cuba is known as The Hero City. Not only did the people here first revolt against the government, but it was also where Fidel Castro declared the revolution was a success.
It is an important city in the history of Cuba, but few of my friends in Havana have visited.
That's because Santiago de Cuba is FAR from Havana. If you drove non-stop it would be 11.5 hours. This is why I've never visited.
Fortunately this tour of Cuba heads there bit by bit so that you don't have to spend all day on a bus.
This was one of my favourite stops because on a group tour we were able to see all of the major sites including:
- El Morro Castle
- Ifigenia cemetery where both Jose Marti and Fidel Castro are buried (MUST SEE)
- Moncada barracks, which were part of an early failed revolution attempt
- Walking tour of the historic centre
- The waterfront's famous CUBA sign
If I had tried to plan this on my own it would have taken so much longer to see. We had plenty of time to walk around on our own to explore.
Osi also booked really great restaurants for us that weren't just for tourists but also filled with locals.
Day 6 Camagüey
This is a city that most tourists skip but I think is one of the best cities in Cuba. It's a small colonial city that is so quaint and charming.
On the downside, Camagüey is known as “La Cuidad Confusa” or "The Maze" Cubans are constantly complaining about this city because it’s so difficult to drive if you're not from here.
Taxis here use bicycles because the streets are so narrow.
It was purposely built this way as it's close to the water and was built to be a city that would be difficult for pirates to attack.
There is only one exit from the city. So pirates may have been able to get in, but getting out was very difficult.
What I loved was that Intrepid had organized an afternoon tour of the city on pedicabs/bicycle taxis.
While Camagüey is very small and easy to walk, it's difficult to navigate the streets walking with Google Maps - we tried!
On this tour Osi asked a local guide to take us to the most popular squares.
In just a few hours we had a great orientation of the city and he shared all the good and bad (nothing to do on Sundays) of the town.
I would have never been able to do this on my own. And I left Camagüey seeing and understanding more of it.
So much so that I'd love to return.
Day 7 + 8 Trinidad
Trinidad isn't my favourite city in Cuba. The main area is so touristy it feels like a larger version of Havana Vieja. But I knew everyone else would like it.
Trinidad ended up being a flexible itinerary. We ALL wanted to go to Playa Ancon, the beach just outside of Trinidad.
Instead of organizing transportation from Trinidad we headed there first so everyone could get some beach time.
I didn't need as much free time as I had seen the main sights so while everyone was out on their own Osi organized a private cooking class for me, which was AMAZING!
I'll share more in an upcoming post but I thought I'd make a couple things but then I learned how to make so much more - including the canchanchara!
But the most special part of the Trinidad leg of this Cuba tour was that Osi had organized a visit to a family's home in the mountains.
We first went to an incredible waterfall area to swim, then ate at their home. They roasted a pig and made all my favourite Cuban side dishes.
This is what sealed the deal for me in recommending a tour in Cuba because it wasn't a touristy town or the usual attractions.
Osi showed the group the countryside, real local food, exotic fruits, and where people live outside the city.
You can't do that on your own independent trip to Cuba.
Day 9 + 10 Havana
Our last two days in Havana as a group were a whirlwind. We had a free evening and had a birthday to celebrate.
The birthday girl wanted to go to a Buena Vista Social Club show.
This isn't something I would choose. It's a music show held in various locations around Havana for tourists.
While three former members play in the Melia Cohiba location, new "members" play around the city.
I wanted to spend the last night with the group so Osi organized dinner and then a show.
I had fun because I was with the group. But I would not recommend it as an slice of Cuba.
There is so much great music in the streets and bars in Cuba you don't need to pay for a tourist show like this.
But I'm glad I went so when people ask if they should go, I can say no.
My Cuba Tour: The High Points and Low Points
Overall I can glowingly recommend this Cuba tour. But some things really stood out.
Our Guide Osi
A tour guide makes or breaks a tour. We had an amazing group but Osi was incredible. Although he joked that I was his #2 because I knew so much about Cuba, I really learned so much more.
Our Care Was Top Priority
On our first travel day one of the participants got sick and we immediately stopped at a clinic to check things out. Osi went with her to the clinic.
Our amazing bus driver took us to a nearby cafe so we could comfortably wait and get a bite to eat and drink.
It can be so scary getting sick abroad and I really appreciated that we didn't delay getting her help. No one cared about the itinerary or that we'd be late.
In the end she was okay. But it also made the group feel very secure that should something happen it would be taken seriously.
Enough Downtime to Explore Independently
Being on a tour can be draining, even with a group as amazing as mine. As someone who travels independently I had enough time to wander on my own.
There were optional established day trips people could choose from. Osi also organized an amazing cooking class for me in Trinidad, as I had already visited the city and knew the main sights. It was one of the highlights.
Paying for Our Own Meals
This may surprise some people as they would like a group tour with all food included. Not me. I want to go to a restaurant and choose what I want to eat, not eating family-style with the most generic food that will hopefully please everyone.
Count on lunch and dinner to cost $10-15 for generous portions, and that includes meals with lobster.
The Non-Traditional Itinerary
We covered main tourist spots that everyone wants to see like Havana and Trinidad. But this was a true tour of Cuba where we saw so many cities most travelers miss.
Not many people visit the eastern cities in Cuba, or are able to stop in spots like Bayamo - which I had heard was incredible.
I probably would never have gone on my own before but now I really want to return.
It's really tough to think of negatives of the Cuba Explorer tour because I loved it so much. Here are minor issues, that no one can really fix! You'll see why...
I Wish it Were Longer
It turned out 10 days wasn't enough for me. I should have taken the Best of Cuba tour. I had hoped we could spend more time in Santa Clara so we could see more than the Che Mausoleum.
And I was so close to Baracoa it hurt to not visit. But to be fair, if I spend less than a month somewhere I feel like I'm rushing.
We spent a lot of time on the bus to get from one city to another. Even I forgot just how big Cuba is and it takes a lot of time to go from one end of a country to another.
A Lot of Time on the Bus
Sometimes we slept but for most of it Osmany kept us entertained by sharing the background of where we were going to visit, answering the many complicated questions people had about living in Cuba and giving Cuban Spanish lessons.
Eating With a Group
Group tour leaders need to find restaurants where every traveler will feel comfortable. For us it meant getting reservations at spots where there are 1) menus 2) menus with some English 3) servers who can speak a bit of English and 4) air conditioning.
When traveling I like to seek out the truly local spots, not necessarily the ones that are the highest rated on TripAdvisor. But I also understand that this Cuba tour isn't all about me.
I think everyone really liked where we went for the most part, we even had an Irish traveler proclaim he likes taro root more than potatoes - I'm surprised they let him back in Ireland after that blasphemous comment!
That said, Osi knew my preferences and often walking around he'd point out places he thought I'd like during our down time.
And in Santiago de Cuba he brought us to a great rooftop restaurant where locals go.
FAQ About Traveling to Cuba
Over the last 18 months I've found there are lots of questions people have about travel in Cuba. Here are a few bullet points and links to posts I've written
Do I Need to Speak Spanish?
English is spoken in all of the major tourist centres. Outside few Cubans speak Spanish but they are very familiar in the art of understanding tourists Spanglish combined with waving hands.
If you're a keener I've written a post on Cuban Spanish, as it will explain how it's different than other countries.
What's the Deal with internet? Can I Use My Phone?
Internet in Cuba has dramatically improved in Cuba. After all I could not work in Cuba as a professional content creator if I couldn't access wifi every day.
I wrote this post about internet in Cuba and how to use your phone, if you want to pay for roaming. Your guide will also show you where to buy internet cards and explain how to use them.
You'll have time in Havana to go here and buy enough cards to last the trip.
I'm Vegetarian. Will I Survive in Cuba?
Yes! In Havana it is very easy as many new paladares (independent restaurants in Havana) understand that many tourists are vegetarian or vegan and identify it on menus.
Outside Havana it can be challenging but your Intrepid guide will help you navigate traditional food in Cuba and also confirm in restaurants.
However, you should also bring lots of snacks and nuts to ensure you're eating enough.
Why is Cuban Cuisine so Meat Heavy?
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s it stopped sending money to Cuba which was the start of the "Special Period."
During this hardship there was a struggle for food and no meat. There are stories of them grilling grapefruit skins and calling it steak.
The average Cuban lost 12 lbs. As this painful time was only 20 years ago, many Cubans cannot fathom not eating meat if there was a choice.
Will There Be Air Conditioning
All casa particulares in Cuba must have air conditioning in order to be licensed.
Keep in mind the cost of a new air conditioner is $600 in Cuba so the one in your casa may not be the newest but it will work.
Cuba Has Two Currencies, Which One Should I Use?
It's not as confusing as you think. Read this post about money in Cuba, which answers everything from using ATMs in Cuba to how much you should tip in restaurants.
Cuba Packing List - Don't Forget These 5 Items
Over the Counter Medications
OTC medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, loperamide and dramamine are virtually impossible to find in Cuba. It's best to bring a small bottle of your own.
I also travel with polysporin and Pepto-Bismol. I always end up handing out more to travelers than I actually use myself.
On the flip side I bring Metamucil as there aren't a lot of salads in Cuba and I need more fiber.
At the end of the trip these medications are great to give to locals as they are expensive and hard to find.
Reusable Water Bottle
Water is easy to find in Cuba but as it's so hot you can add a lot of unnecessary single-use plastic to the landfills. On the bus Intrepid has a large of water and will dispense it to cut back on use. Here is what I've used in Cuba:
- Nalgene water bottle: It can carry a lot of water and is BPA-free and is cheap! Downside it doesn't keep it cold.
- S’well Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Water Bottle: Keeps it cold and is fashionable.
- Lifestraw filtered water bottle: I used this on the trip as it filters the water so it's drinkable in Cuba. I've also used it in Costa Rica. It's perfect for when I wake up early in the morning and have no filtered water in my fridge. But, you have to drink from a straw. I find it okay for a week or two but I used it for six weeks and craved water in a glass.
- I also have a Steripen in Havana, it's really compact which I like. I've used it in Cuba and throughout Mexico and Central America.
- Grayl Water Bottle: I haven't used this yet but Mike from HoneyTrek travel recommended it so I'm going to try it out. It means I don't have to drink out of a straw, which I like.
Although many adults don't normally use straws, their consumption goes up significantly in Cuba with all the frozen Cuban cocktails.
In addition to the water bottles, Intrepid Travel tours avoid plastic straws.
If you really want a straw you can have one but our group was on board with avoiding single use plastic. However, it's much more enjoyable to have a frozen drink with one.
This metal straw isn't expensive or a hassle to throw in your day bag.
Despite having a solid rainy season, it's really hard to buy an umbrella in Cuba. This colourful rainbow travel umbrella is small and makes for pretty photos.
On the flip side, if you're visiting during the dry season you must bring lots of sunscreen. Cubans don't really use sunscreen and sometimes you can find a small bottle for 30CUC at hotel gift shops but not always. Go the extra mile and help the environment by buying reef safe sunscreen.
When I go to Cuba I bring A LOT of snacks. Cuba doesn't really have a snacking culture so unless you want a ham and cheese sandwich or peso pizza you'll be hungry.
Some people bring candies and chocolate for children. I do not do this and I don't recommend it. It encourages kids to approach tourists and ask for candy or sometimes even money.
Cubans are proud people and work hard. Begging for candy or money isn't what the next generation should learn.
Other Intrepid Travel Cuba Tours
Intrepid offers 20 different Cuba tours, you can see all of the Cuba tours here.
It wasn't easy deciding what tour to take. To be honest I was conflicted over what I personally wanted to take and then what I felt would be most helpful to others.
I loved the Cuba Explorer tour now that I've experienced Intrepid's approach to Cuba. But here are a few others that I think would also be great.
Best of Cuba Tour
I was also hesitant as to how long I could want to be on a tour and so the Cuba Explorer Tour was a manageable 10 days.
But now I wish I had taken the Best of Cuba tour. It includes Cienfuegos, also known as the Paris of Cuba. I've been there several times and it is a beautiful city without many tourists.
It also includes Baracoa, a city that few people visit but everyone raves about. I can surely go there on my own but if I had to choose again I should have tacked on a few extra days.
- Santiago de Cuba
Cuba on a Shoestring
Most people think Cuba is a cheap place to visit. In general, I equate it to being twice the price of Mexico.
This is shocking for people. But here's why Cuba isn't a cheap country:
- Cubans don't travel. So there's no efficient national local transport that tourists could take.
- For decades tourism in Cuba travel has primarily been all-inclusive resorts. So the "tourist" options aren't plentiful and tend to be much more than people expect.
- Hostels don't exist here. They are starting to appear in Havana because Cubans realize tourists are asking for them. But spending $5 a night in central Havana isn't possible and couchsurfing is illegal.
Although the general rule of thumb for travel in Cuba is $100 USD per person per day, it is possible to spend less. But it's also possible to spend more.
If you don't speak Spanish or have a good sense of how things work it's difficult to find a deal.
This is why I think Cuba on a Shoestring is a great tour in Cuba for backpackers. It teaches the basics and you hit some of my favourite cities in Cuba:
- Bay of Pigs/Playa Larga
More info on Cuba on a Shoestring
Cuba Family Holiday
I'm including this for all my friends who have children. Cuba is a very family friendly country. Cubans ADORE children and the culture is very family-focused.
I think having kids also opens up opportunities to interact in a different way that is very special.
Cuba is considered the safest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. The only downside is if you travel independently getting a driver that can accommodate car seats can be challenging as the older cars don't have seat belts.
I think this is a great way to know 100% that you don't need to worry about any of this. Intrepid ensures everything is to international standards, and knows the best places to take children.
Cities Visited on the 11 Day Tour:
- Playa Giron
This Cuba tour is specifically for Americans who are concerned about fulfilling the US restrictions about travel in Cuba.
It is still possible for Americans to travel in Cuba under the OFAC category of "support for the Cuban people." This means you cannot stay at government-owned hotels or resorts, eat at government-owned restaurants or take tours operated by the government.
On this tour you stay at Cuban-owned casa particulares and eat at independent restaurants.
The itinerary is a bit more hectic on this tour and you don't have as much downtime. Personally I'd recommend the Cuba Explorer tour as the only thing you could/should not visit is the Che Mausoleum in Santa Clara. And if you did no one would know because Cuba doesn't care about regulations from the United States.
But I am not a lawyer, nor am I American so don't consider this legal advice...just a thought if you would prefer another tour.
If you like to play by the books, this is the tour for you!
Final Thoughts on My Tour in Cuba
As an independent traveler I've always shied away from tours, feeling that they are less authentic. But if anything, travelers in Cuba will see more and understand more about this complicated country by taking this Cuba tour.
My only recommendation for travelers is to try to tack on two extra days for Vinales, which is an easy trip from but that's an easy add-on when returning to Cuba for 1 or 2 days.
Your guide can organize a tour to Vinales at the end of your trip. The landscape is so different and beautiful I really think it's worth visiting.
Pin it For Later: Intrepid Cuba Tours
Pin images (c) Stéphan Valentin,