Vagobond exclusive story and photos by Jennifer Merrick
I knew the moment the customs officer commented on how cute our children were that Cuba would be a kid-friendly destination. I wasn’t mistaken. Almost everywhere we went on our Cuba holidays, my son and daughter were doted on. They were given gifts, sang to, kissed and altogether spoiled.
At first they were a little shy about the unexpected attention but they warmed up quickly. My son, especially, thrived on the attention.
“Do you want to see how much snow we have in Canada?” he would ask and show people a picture of our house with a 6-foot mountain of snow in front of it. After they oooed and aaaahed, he’d then ask,
“Can I take your picture?” And in less than two minutes we had made a new friend.
The Cubans genuine affection and appreciation of children endeared us to the island and ensured that this would be a family holiday we’d cherish for a long time to come.
We decided on Guardalavaca in the province of Holguin because we wanted a quieter place away from the party crowd in Veradero. It proved to be a good choice with its stunning white beaches, crystal-clear turquoise water and laid-back atmosphere.
A highlight of our trip was a horseback riding excursion in Roca Azul Bio-Park. I was a bit nervous as neither of my children had been on horseback before apart from a pony ride and my previous experience on a horse ended up with me on the ground and a very sore hip for a month. But our guide, Alejandro, quickly put us at ease and proceeded at a slow pace. My daughter proved to be a natural, moving with the horse like she was born on one. Her brother, too, quickly got the hang of it. And I managed to stay on.
With the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves and the sun shining down, my apprehension dissipated and I took in the remarkable scenery surrounding us. Desert and tropics seemed to overlap here with sand and cacti in some places and lush tropical plants and trees in others.
We stopped at a tranquil lake, known for its good fishing. This secluded spot felt a million miles from the resort and we encountered only two other tourists and their guide. Back on the horse, we trotted along until we came to a gate. On the other side was an odd assortment of animals roaming freely – horses, goats, cows, pigs and two zebras.
“Africa,” our Cuban cowboy replied.
What could I say?
We made our way back and Alejandro worked on turning our kids into cowkids.
“Yip,Yip,Yeeeeeeep!” Cowboys here apparently don’t say ‘hee haw’.
My son repeated the call till he got it to perfection. Then the singing began. Music is everywhere on the island and Cubans often burst into song. The guide sang a melodic Spanish ballad as we rode at a leisurely pace.
Not to be outdone, our kids then sang their Christmas concert song much to our guide’s delight. The warmth of the sunshine, the music, beautiful views and a real connection made it one of the most memorable moments of the trip.
There were many others and almost every one of them involved an encounter with the people.
When we arrived at Toronto Pearson, my son’s face still had lipstick marks from the kisses the dining room staff had bestowed on him.
“Do you want to see a picture of the horse I rode?” he asked the women behind the counter at the airport.
Getting a blank stare in return, I had to remind him, “Honey, we’re not in Cuba anymore.”
But we’ll be back.
After travelling the world teaching ESL, Jennifer is now ‘settled down’ in Toronto, but continues to indulge her passion for travel as a family travel writer. Her blog www.justkidstravel.com helps kids plan and get excited about their travels.