Experiencing 'Autentica Cuba' 

Experiencing 'autentica Cuba' offers glimpse into history and culture, as well as beaches

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The sun is setting fast and I'm beginning to think my athletic 21-year-old daughter's self-guided tour into the Cuban countryside might have taken us too far to get back to the resort before night fall.

She still has the energy to keep going (me, not so much) as we walk beside a country road and I contemplate whether there's a shortcut back. Earlier that day we passed a few older model cars, dating back to the 1950s, horse and buggies and even an oxen cart on this quiet road. But now it is entirely deserted.

While the countryside is lovely with its gently rolling hills, banana trees and large expanses of sugar cane fields I am tired and more than ready to return to the resort and relax.

We're staying at Memories Jibacoa, one of the first government-run resorts to welcome tourists when the country was opened to foreigners 20 years ago. Located an hour outside of Havana, the picturesque resort is ideally located for day trips to the capital. It's situated between a green hillside and the ocean, making it perfect for those who want to go hiking (I recommend taking the hotel's guided tour), swim, snorkel off the easily accessible, rich coral reef or simply drink mojitos and chill on its long, white sand beach. 

While most of Cuba's 4.7 million annual tourists — half of them Canadians — come strictly for the beaches and remain secluded in their all-inclusive resorts our family wanted to see more of Cuba beyond the resort's confines. 

Hence, our countryside walk, to experience "autentica Cuba" — the country's tourism marketing slogan The only problem was we had gone a considerable distance from the resort lured by the lush landscape.

And then the answer to my dilemma was spotted — a horse and buggy outside its owner's home. After locating the owner we negotiated a price — a happy surprise on two counts. We'll be able to get back before dark and we are paying half of what we offered.

In a country where the average monthly wage is around US$35 a month (US$50 for jobs requiring a higher education like senior managers and doctors) I wanted to ensure the price for the ride was not only fair, but generous. But the owner insisted it was too much. How often has that happened on your travels? For me it was a first.

"The people are so friendly and genuine," says Calgarian Laurie Mitchell, who is also a regular guest at Memories Jibacoa.

She's been coming to Cuba almost every year since 2004 and in all 10 of her visits Mitchell continues to return to the same resort.

"The staff are like family to me now. I feel so confident and safe there."

Mitchell says she's not alone as a repeat resort visitor. Memories Jibacoa is so beloved former guests have even started a private Facebook page sharing stories, pictures and offering tips to first time visitors to the resort and Cuba generally. One of its 450 Facebook members noted she has been taking her teenage grandchildren there since they were toddlers and "staff have seen them grown up."

Later that evening we chat with some of the staff who are happy to offer advice on how to make the most of our upcoming day trip to Havana. Unlike many countries where it's easy to rent a car and drive yourself, that mode of independent travel is more challenging, given the lack of rental vehicles in Cuba.

The better option is to either hire a private taxi (at a cost of approximately US$80 for the day) or join a guided bus tour.

We chose a private guided tour, with the Cuban tour company Gaviota Tours. Our guide, Joel Rosales, begins by asking what we would like from the tour. For myself the answer is getting to know what life is like for Cubans today and the hardships they faced after the Russian pullout in the 1990s. And I'm pleasantly surprised Rosales has no hesitation sharing his own family's story from those challenging years.

Rosales was a university student at a the time, studying English, German and history, and remembers being given a government-issued bike as a mode of transportation since gas was in short supply.

He says the economy was so bad, and food was in such short supply, many of today's Cuban exiles left at that time. His own two brothers had a particularly gruelling go of it trying to make the 145-kilometre distance to Miami but were caught at sea and sent back. They spent six months in the American Guantanamo Bay detention camp before being allowed entry into the United States.

The impact of those years is still felt today by families. For Rosales, he can't get a visa to visit his brothers out of fear he too would leave but, he says, he would never leave a country that has done so much for him and his immediate family. As just one example Rosales notes higher education is free to all Cubans and his 21-year-old son, Hamlet, is now enrolled in university in Havana. After graduation, Hamlet plans to apply for a job working with the historical society of Cuba to be a part of the ongoing restoration of the country's older buildings.

Rosales is proud of his Cuban heritage and how the Cuban people, lead by Fidel Castro, have learned to be self-sufficient.

"Tourism is a big part of that," he says.

See and tour

In Havana, first settled in 1519 and proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage in 1982, beautiful architecture abounds. Be sure to walk through Old Havana to appreciate the mostly Spanish baroque buildings. The best rum and tobacco can easily be found here at any café, but if you feel like a beer take a break at Factories Plaza Vieia — the only brewery in the capital — where you can order a half tube (5 litres) of Cuban beer for $24. On your walking tour be sure to stop at Francisco Plaza to see the bronze statue of the beloved Jose Maria Lopez-Lledin, an eccentric hobo who died in 1985. Legend has it if you hold his beard and step on his foot good luck will come your way. Also, beloved in Cuba are the Beatles. Parque John Lennon is one of more than 100 parks in Havana.

If you go: Sunwing.ca

For more information visit www.gocuba.ca and www.memories.resorts.com.

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