Cuba: Seeing Less-Visited Places, Like Gibara

A quiet moment in Gibarra

On and off the beaten track in Cuba

When you visit established attractions, you more or less know what to expect. Less visited places, on the other hand, offer less certainty and throw up more surprises. One honeymooner experienced both in Cuba. 

The author's husband posing with our ride to and from Playa Caletones.
The author’s husband posing with our ride to and from Playa Caletones.

By Anne Marie Dimech

The less trodden path fascinates me. So much so that I actively chose to spend the first few days of my honeymoon at a home stay in Gibara, a tiny seaside village on the Northeast coast of Cuba. The sea’s restless and the sand is coarse, it’s nothing like the crowd-pleasing, quintessentially Caribbean beaches found further West. In addition, it was very nearly annihilated by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and is still struggling to recover.

Yet when my research threw up the phrases ‘Cuba’s best kept secret’ and ‘hidden gem’, I was taken and before too long, I found myself working it into the itinerary.

Gibara: the bad news

On balance, off the beaten track turned out to be a mixed bag. In the case of Gibara, once there, we found that there was really very little to see or do. Dusty roads led to a plain square housing an equally dusty natural history museum.

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Evening entertainment options consisted of one colonial style hotel for drinks and a handful of paladars (restaurants), which you had to walk to guided solely by the dim lights seeping out of some of the houses.

While there, we were often bewildered and the few other tourists we saw walking around seemed equally confused. There were no signs to anywhere. A ferry that was meant to pick passengers up from a jetty at regular intervals never showed up and no one seemed to know when the next one was due.

Another time we got so lost in the pitch dark streets that we got into the car with a stranger who offered to take us to a restaurant for a small fee. This, we soon realized, was the only feasible way of getting around, apart from renting a car or walking.

Gibara: the good news

On the upside, I had never before and have never since enjoyed a full-on sunrise from my street level, seafront bedroom window. In addition, I will always remember the untamed beauty of nearby Playa Caletones, as well as the bumpy ride there in a battered, green cinquecento, expertly steered by the colossal Fernando, casually picked up outside Gibara’s only ‘supermarket’ through the brother of the friend of the cousin of someone we asked for directions. Equally memorable was the delicious fish lunch consumed on a terrace overlooking the beach at what seemed to be the only restaurant there.

One of the many tiny beaches in Gibara, with the rock formation known as 'silla' or 'saddle' of Gibara showing in the distance.
One of the many tiny beaches in Gibara, with the rock formation known as ‘silla’ or ‘saddle’ of Gibara showing in the distance.

Out of the three weeks spent in Cuba and the many fond memories made, Gibara retains a special place in my heart and is probably the place my husband and I reminisce most about. This is perhaps because it felt so isolated and we saw so few other outsiders that we came to view the whole experience as our very own shared secret.

It also felt like a rare privilege to be able to quietly absorb a drop of the essence of the place without being distracted by the rosy gloss of tourist brochures and famous attractions.

The Cuban highlights

Does this mean that I’d recommend heading to Gibara and ignoring the much more visited Havana, Vinales and Trinidad? No way. If you’re short on time and have to choose, Gibara needs to be the first place to get crossed off your list.

You cannot miss out on experiencing the majesty of Havana; it manifests itself round every corner, from the beautiful squares of Old Havana to the imposing Castillo del Morro and of course, the fabled malecon (seafront). The same goes for the valley of Vinales. With its laid-back feel, dome-like hills and lush greenery. It’s perfect for walking, horseback riding or simply gawking and taking photos. You must also make time to discover the cobbled streets and colorful houses of Trinidad, dine in the bedroom of a beautiful colonial house turned paladar and dance the night away to live salsa music in the main square.

These places are popular with good reason: Vinales Valley and Trinidad are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, as are parts of Havana.

Horseback riding in Vinales, Cuba.
Horseback riding in Vinales, Cuba.

Striking a balance

However, in between the highlights, I recommend trying to find the time and means to drop off the radar somewhere along the way. There might not be much to see or do and you may have to rough it out a tad, but given the right mindset, it will definitely be worth the time and effort.

Whatever it is that you will find will be doused in a feeling of exclusivity and accompanied by a sense of achievement for having made it to a place where (relatively) few others have been. You’re also likely to get a clearer feel of the ways of life of the people away from the rum, cigar and salsa stereotypes.

In addition, the lack of tourist infrastructure is sure to guarantee an adventure or two worthy of repeated retelling long after you’ve forgotten your salsa steps and smoked the last of your Cuban cigars.

The somewhat deserted streets of Gibara, Cuba.
The somewhat deserted streets of Gibara, Cuba.

Gibara Fact Box

If you’re itching to experience Gibara first hand, here’s a little information to help you find your way.

The closest airport is the Frank Pais International Airport in nearby Holguin, about an hour away by taxi. The taxi ride from Holguin to Gibara had cost us 35 CUC (equivalent to 35 US dollars).

Holguin airport receives a number of international flights. In fact, we had flown in to Holguin directly from Manchester in the U.K.

In addition, there are regular flights between Holguin and other cities in Cuba, including a 1 hour 20 minute flight to Havana.

If you’re feeling brave, you can drive or take a taxi from Gibara to Havana. The trip takes all of nine hours and is best undertaken during the day, since the roads in Cuba are generally not well lit and can be dangerous at night.

Anne Marie Dimech on Havana's Malecon.
Anne Marie Dimech on Havana’s Malecon.

Anne Marie Dimech is a pharmacist from Malta who has discovered that her wanderlust is incurable, so she alleviates the symptoms by traveling as often as possible.

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