Visiting this Caribbean island brought new thrills, challenges, and adventures for our family. Why we loved Cuba with our kids you why you will too.
Why We Loved Non-Resort Cuba with our Kids and Why You Will Too
Cuba has long fascinated me and been on my “list”. It’s the country that time forgot; the country where revolution is enmeshed in every fibre of its being; the country that has rejected consumerism, refused to bow to the world’s only superpower and insisted (rightly or wrongly) that things can be done differently.
In March, we jumped on a direct flight to Varadero to explore Cuba with our kids.
Totally family friendly
Cubans are inherently welcoming towards families. All five of us were received with gracious, loving, open arms. We were often stopped on the streets by people who were awed and delighted that we had three daughters.
I remember one early morning on the beach playing with the kids and a tractor drove by us to collect garbage. The tractor operator slowed down and started waving at me wildly with three fingers raised in the air. I had to read his lips because of the noise of the motor, but it seems he was excitedly commenting on our three daughters.
“Tres!?!” he cried out. “Tres HERMANAS!? Muy bien!”
In many ways, Cuba is a dichotomy when it comes to being child-friendly. On the one hand, there are no specific child-friendly services. Except for the odd restaurant which may have a homemade high chair (we ran into several), there are no safety features to speak of. Coming from a country like Canada which is totally risk-averse, this can come as a surprise. And yet. Every Cuban we met was very concerned about our children’s well-being and went out of their way to welcome us.
Each casa particular we stayed in was more than happy to have our whole family. Casa owners teased our kids, joked with them, and ruffled their hair in a bid to make a fast friendship. With perseverance, they usually succeeded. In the thick of the preschool years where sleep is slim and chaos reigns high in our house, it was good to hear from person after person that we were welcome, chaos and all, just as we were.
With live music everywhere and such vibrant, colourful surroundings, Cuba endears itself to parents and kids.
Cuba is a kid’s culinary dream come true. Ham and cheese sandwiches every day? Pizza? Rice and beans? Freshly squeezed tropical juices? Ice cream? Cuban food is generally not very spicy and vegetables are normally in absentia. We didn’t have a hard time getting our kids to eat. (Especially the ice cream sandwiches and the homemade chocolate milk at Havana’s chocolate restaurants.)
Crystal clear water and sandy beaches
The beaches of Varadero are hard to beat – nearly 20 km of white, soft sand. The constant movement of the tide causes sandbars to drift in towards the shore, leaving a wonderfully shallow approach to the ocean. Our kids, with simple floating bathing suits, were able to be largely independent and safe playing in the water.
Land of wild imagination
While kid-specific activities are absent in Cuba, the country itself is chock full of exciting, thrilling things that will fill any child’s imagination.
Cuba has some of the best-preserved colonial forts in Central America. Our kids loved exploring Havana’s forts, sitting on the cannons, and searching for hidden passageways.
The area around Viñales in Pinar Del Rio province has enormous cave systems. We made movies in caves, rode in a boat in an underground river system, and ducked for bats and stalactites.
The thrill of discovering new animals and interacting with them never lost its lustre. We ran into everything from the more typical dogs and cats, to roosters and chickens, goats (even a kid with its mama), tropical birds, turtles, guinea pigs, lizards and a “river rat”.
With no kids car seat laws in Cuba, we kept our times in taxis to a minimum. Our kids particularly loved the thrill of cruising down the road several times in 50’s style cars without car seats.
I was impressed and amazed by Cubans’ capacity to use, reuse, fix, use again, repurpose and then reuse once more. This has been out of necessity due to the embargo and lack of freely flowing goods and services. The cars are just one example. Everything else, it seems, was procured in the 50s and has been fixed and refixed ever since.
Whatever the criticisms are of Cuba’s communist policies, there is a simplicity in how the country operates. Without all of the stuff at people’s disposal, creativity has developed in other ways.
During our two weeks in Cuba, we noticed something changing in our kids. There was less whining about wanting the comforts of home and more imaginative play. With all the time in the world and the backdrop of Havana’s 500-year old buildings and cobbled streets, Varadero’s beaches and Viñales’ karst formations, our kids played creative games with their stuffed animals (brought from home) and each other and various ‘treasures’ they collected along the way.
It may be hard but it’s worth it
Travelling internationally with kids isn’t easy, I think we all know that. Time changes, deviation from routine, going outside of our comfort zones, are not easy for adults, let alone kids. And when we travel with our kids, we’re managing our own frustrations and difficulties plus those of our kids.
I still believe it’s worth it.
At the beginning of our Cuba with kids adventure, our eldest daughter was pining for home. She whined about why we were going away for two weeks and not one, how she missed her bed, how she wanted to go home. It nearly caused us to go crazy.
But after two weeks of exploring, time together and very fun adventures, her tone changed. At bedtime the last evening, we went over our day and discussed each person’s favourite part. She asked ‘how do you say that in Spanish, Mommy?” followed by “which countries have I been to again?”
I melted and nearly cried right there in that Varadero bed. That was the point of it all, really. Right?
Holistic education for all of us
Certainly, Cuba was a big item on my bucket list, a country I’d read about, researched and wanted to visit for years. Visiting Cuba was important for me. But when I travel with my kids, I’m a bit more cognizant about their holistic education and how these broader, worldview-expanding experiences will shape them and their future. And when our daughter spoke those two things out loud that night, I knew that all the frustrations, challenges and difficulties of travelling together as a family of five were worth it.
No, travel with kids isn’t easy. But practice makes it easier. And the practice of exploring a different culture and language and being a guest in a different country – being an ‘other’ – is good for all of us once in awhile.
Looking for more resources for travelling to Cuba with kids? Check out our Cuba posts: