Forget everything you know about taking a Caribbean vacation—the scenery, culture, and cuisine in these three destinations are nothing like the resort-lined beaches you're used to. Learn about Caribbean travel in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Cuba from local kimkim specialists in this interview.

Colombia's Caribbean Coast

Isla Grande, Rosario Archipelago, Colombia

Specialist: Nathalie Clavel
Based In: Cali, Colombia

What defines Caribbean culture in Colombia?
Generally speaking, the Colombian Caribbean atmosphere is very relaxed, positive, and spontaneous. The tropical climate is almost completely without distinct seasons, making one feel that the time has stopped. This, I think, has a pretty big influence on the culture, in Colombia overall but even more on the Caribbean Coast—without the feeling that time is passing, there is less urgency. It's all about living each day as it comes.

What do you think makes Colombia's Caribbean culture unique?
The Colombian Caribbean culture is not one culture, but various ones. The mixture of different Afro-descendant Colombians, European-descendant Colombians, and different indigenous communities, makes this region uniquely diverse. Wayuus from the Guajira desert, Koghis, and other indigenous communities from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta coexist with Afro-Colombian peoples from Palenque and La Boquilla, as well as people from the cities of Santa Marta or Barranquilla—all with different traditions.

The music on the Colombian Caribbean Coast is a great example of this mixture: Mapale, Bullerengue, Vallenato, and La Champeta, are unique genres that could only have been created in the complexity of the Colombian Caribbean melting pot.

What is your favorite cultural experience to recommend to travelers that they wouldn’t find at a resort?
If you've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you will enjoy wandering in the streets of Mompox (Mompós), the most beautiful colonial city in Colombia, that once was connected to the coast by the Magdalena River. You will enjoy the uniqueness of the city, where time has stopped, and feel like living in Garia Marquez's famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

You can discover how to make coffee or chocolate, see tropical wildlife, and of course, exchange with the great diversity of people groups living their local lives. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is also one of the best places in the country to go birdwatching. The great diversity of birds, their beautiful colors and songs are amazing.

Is there an authentic local dish that travelers must try?
There are lots! Traditional soups, such as mote de queso and sancocho de pescado are dishes you must try when in the area. Of course, there's a lot of seafood, all served with coco rice (unbelievably tasty!). You must also taste the great diversity of fruits and fresh fruit juices—my favorite is níspero (a type of loquat) juice, served with milk, it is a unique taste, and in Colombia, you can only find it on the Caribbean Coast. To get the best juices, it is better to go to the markets or small, popular restaurants.

Learn more about Caribbean travel in Colombia

Caribbean Culture in Cuba

Snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs, Cuba

Specialist: Karin Eckhard
Based In: Madrid, Spain

What defines Caribbean culture in Cuba?
Knowing the history of the Caribbean region goes a long way toward understanding its people and culture. Each island has a unique cultural identity shaped by the European colonialists, the African heritage of slaves, and the enduring legacies of the native Indian tribes—although some islands have it stronger than others. This rich history and its lasting influence is set against a backdrop of crystal clear waters and perpetual sunshine.  Cuba is a perfect example of the mix of Spanish, French, African, and native Taino to make a quite ethnically diverse culture and people.

What do you think makes Cuban Caribbean culture unique?
Without a doubt, Cuba is unique because of its history with the U.S. and the enduring ideals of the Cuban revolution. This is kept alive by the almost mythical personalities of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the rest of the principal architects of the revolution—all perpetuated by Cuba's pervasive propaganda and regulation of discourse.

What is your favorite, or the most unique thing about Cuba?   
I think the most unique thing about the culture of Cuba is the resilience and resourcefulness of its people. Despite the difficulties of daily life, they are fiercely patriotic and love Cuba. There is a real sense of community and working together to help each other out. I suppose that this was born out of the isolation they endured for decades after the Cuban revolution.

What is your favorite cultural experience to recommend to travelers that they wouldn’t find at a resort?
Staying in casas particulares (Cuban guest houses) is the best way to experience and understand Cuban life. It gives travelers the chance to get to know Cubans in their every-day environment, and have truly authentic interactions. 

What will surprise people about the Cuban coastal areas?
When thinking of Cuba, the usual images that come to mind are sitting on a white-sand beach, cruising through Havana in a classic American car, or enjoying a puff of the planet’s finest cigar. All these experiences are accurate, but there is more to this nation. 

Much of the Cuban coastline is virgin and undeveloped, which is quite rare in the Caribbean. You can drive along coast roads with no luxury villas or even hotels. The coral reefs are some of the most pristine in the Carribean specifically because of the undeveloped coast. Protected by its isolation, the wildlife of Cuba has remained naturally preserved and widely unexplored. In addition, national parks along the coast have thriving mangrove forests, swamps, and wetlands.

Is there an authentic local dish that travelers must try? 
One of the most popular entrees in Cuban cuisine is ropa vieja. This stewed, shredded beef dish is slow-cooked in fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and wine. And following its origins, the dish is accompanied by white rice, black beans, and sweet plantains. That said, Cuban cuisine has come along way in recent years thanks in large part to privately owned restaurants which have transformed the dishes on offer throughout the island.

Learn more about Caribbean travel in Cuba

Afro-Caribbean Costa Rica 

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica

Specialist: Adriana Prado
Based In: San Jose, Costa Rica

What defines Caribbean culture in Costa Rica?
Caribbean culture is defined by its great ethnic and cultural diversity. The indigenous Bribris and Cabécares populations that always inhabited the Talamanca region were eventually joined by enslaved Afro-Antillean peoples, who worked in the cacao plantations and then in the construction of the railroad connecting the central valley with the Caribbean coast. Today, features of Afro-English heritage remain in the use of “Patua”, also known as Creole English, and architecture with marked Elizabethan influence—houses with pillars of striking colors and open corridors.

What is your favorite cultural experience to recommend to travelers that they wouldn’t find at a resort?
A visit with the Bri Bri Indigenous Tribe in the Talamanca Mountain range. Food and music are also huge. Caribbean gastronomy is primarily fish and seafood cooked with vegetables, coconut milk, and spices—trying the different dishes is a great way to get to know the culture. And Calypso music is kept alive thanks to local bands that enliven evenings in Caribbean towns. 

Is there an authentic local dish that travelers must try?
The most local and authentic dishes are gallo pinto (rice and beans), Rondón soup (a stew with seafood and coconut milk), and pan bon (a dark, sweet bread with dried fruit). These dishes can be found in any restaurant on the Caribbean side of the country, and more recently, in some restaurants in downtown San José.

Learn more about Caribbean travel in Costa Rica