A woman said to me: ¨I don’t like group tours.¨ We were standing inside a cave in Cuba. We weren’t just standing. As I would later discover we were standing in a line for 45 minutes for a 5 minute boat ride. As we stood in the damp cave, listening to the water drip around us, she explained that she likes to travel independently and doesn’t do group travel.
Ironically that was exactly what everybody standing in line was doing in that cave just for a day trip. I had joined the tour (in 2015) in order to better understand how was the competency of the various agencies in Cuba. I selected a full day excursion to the town of Viñales, a 2.5 hour drive from Havana. We had traveled there on a 40- seater bus and ended up doing the most touristy, least authentic excursion I could have ever imagined. We were herded around to State-owned facilities: a rum factory, a large forgettable restaurant for lunch and even to a fake ‘indian village’, complete with a girl dressed like an indigenous Cuban, holding a jutía, a small mammal, that you could pet…for a fee of course.
As we continued our wait in the cave, I tried to explain that small group tours were not the same and how enriching they can be as well as save you time and money.
Independent travelers tend to shun organized tour companies and generally think group travel equates to an inauthentic, commodified experience. However, small group tours are actually quite different than larger bus tours, in that they offer the traveler a sense of independence without all the hassle of doing it everything on your own. What do I mean by that, well with small groups, there is flexibility in the planned itinerary, adapting to the needs and interests of the group but with the expertise of your tour leader, whose knowledge is better than a guidebook. This couldn’t be truer about Cuba. Due to its isolation and relatively undeveloped tourism infrastructure, getting around Cuba and gaining access to people, places and activities are not as simple as in other places. Cuba is not a slick destination where everything is nice and easy for travelers to work out.
Why travelling to Cuba is better with a small group tour
1. Gathering all the necessary information in order to enjoy your vacation takes up vast amounts of time. You won’t have your iPhone or iPad available in Cuba to quickly look up what time the tobacco factory is open or where is the best place for mojitos….and no it’s not La Bodeguita, the famous Hemingway haunt in Havana that is listed in every guidebook.
2. The expertise of a tour leader is priceless. Our guides are bursting with information about their home and they are eager to share it. They have personal stories experiences to share about the places that you are visiting. Tour leaders with small groups are much more interactive, mixing the must see sights such as the iconic Plaza de la Revolución with more down to earth cultural experiences, such as the local food market. These personal experiences allow you the opportunity to really understand the daily life of the Cuban people. Google and trip advisor cannot ever compare to the wisdom and knowledge of a lifelong resident of Cuba.
3. Maximize your time off. If you only have seven or eight days in Cuba, do you really want to spend it wondering around aimlessly, looking for that non-existent street sign to get to that great art gallery? What about ending up in a ridiculously expensive taxi to get out to Fusterlandia. Doing it all yourself can be time consuming in Cuba. Having a sound itinerary is vital when time is short and you want to see and experience as much as possible.
4. Save money. Paying up front for the whole trip might seem daunting but in the long run it can save you money. Cuba is not as cheap as one might think. Prices are on par with the US and private transport between cities and towns can be a lot more than what you expect. Or you can book through an agency while in Cuba and go with a group, so why not just book it with a small tour group before?
5. Meeting new friends not only in Cuba but those who are traveling in the group. It’s widely known that the best part of travel is sharing memories with other people.
Independent travel to Cuba does not necessarily mean it is going to be a more “authentic, closer-to-the-people¨ trip, in fact it could be less since one is relying on limited knowledge of the place. Small group tours offer a balance of inclusions and free time, a mix of classic highlights and local secrets you won’t find on Google. And of course, real Cuban life experiences.
So back in the cave, we finally got to do the 5 minute boat ride and then the group boarded the bus and headed back to Havana. I can tell you that after eight hours, we didn’t see Viñales and we certainly didn’t meet or speak to any Cubans or experience anything resembled an interactive cultural experience.
Join Espíritu Travel on one of our small group tours, never more than 6 people and experience Cuba as it is.