The Jiminy Jeep Safari

by - 3:00 PM


When you're 100% set on visiting a country and you won't take 'no' for an answer, you're probably going to have to make some compromises. That's how I ended up in an all-inclusive hotel instead of a hostel in Cuba. It was the cheapest deal I could get, but it meant I had to book excursions if I wanted to see more of than just the pool, the beach and the buffet. If you know me, you know that staying at my hotel the entire time was not an option. My parents and I planned day trips to the Cuban countryside as soon as possible. The first one we chose was a jeep safari to the Yumuri Valley.
On the second day of my stay, I was ready for some offroad racing. Little did I know that jeep safaris in Cuba aren't just jeep safaris, oh no. I ended up snorkeling, boating, horse-riding and swimming in a cave to top it all off!

The skies were a shade of grey I was hoping not to see in the Caribbean when we were picked up from our hotel. We did a tour of the strip of hotels along Varadero's beach to pick up other tourists who'd also booked this jeep tour. Soon there was a bus full of people from Canada, Russia, the US, India and the Netherlands on its way to the parking lot where we'd get the keys to our jeeps. We were guided by a big black guy whose Russian was better than his English and also had a photographer tagging along to document the entire trip for us.
After a short bus ride, we arrived at the parking lot, which was, from one side to the other, filled with what looked like hundreds of Suzuki Jimnys. At that moment I was glad I'd left my driver's license at home, because I saw no way I'd be able to maneuver a car out of that sea of vehicles. As it turned out, leaving the parking lot was the least difficult part of doing a safari in a Suzuki Jiminy, as my dad and I soon nicknamed the tiny jeeps. The tour guide and photographer led the way in their own Jiminy, with the rest of us following that first car. About ten identical little jeeps set out for the Yumuri Valley, but after driving a few hundred meters I wasn't so sure all of them would make it. The gear shift was shaking so violently that I was afraid our Jiminy would somehow switch its own gears and when my dad took his hands off the wheel (don't ask me why he thought that was a good idea) the thing went from left to right and back again, without it having any influence on where the car was going. Once again I was happy to have left my driver's license home.

Despite our Jiminy being a little dodgy, I enjoyed the Cuban road trip. The highway was almost empty. Most of the cars we saw and passed were classic cars, so I was happy as could be. I did not enjoy the driving style of some of the Russian members of our safari group though, but there was nothing I could do about that. We all made it in one piece to our first stop of the day. We went snorkeling at Playa El Coral, where a wave threw me onto the coral. I spent the rest of the day nursing a blue lump on my shin while feeling guilty for stunting the coral's growth by touching it when I was thrown onto it.


After the snorkeling stop, the entire group jumped into their Jiminys again. I thought we'd get some off-road action now, but again we made a stop for another activity I didn't associate with jeep safaris at all: boating.
At the Canímar River, my parents and I boarded a small motorboat. There was no captain: we had to do everything ourselves. As with the jeeps, we were supposed to follow the first boat in a single file. That did not happen with first my dad, then me in charge of our boat. The scenery and views were absolutely amazing, but my dad and I were too busy racing, zigzagging, falling behind just to catch up at full speed and much more fun stuff like that. We royally pissed the owner of the boating tour company off. More than worth it though. Driving a boat at full speed up a tropical river in Cuba has to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.


Had it been up to me, we would have spent the rest of the day on those boats. But it wasn't up to me, so we continued our way to the Yumuri Valley. We drove straight through the city of Matanzas (where I left my street art sticker in the oldest still operational baseball stadium on this planet two days later). The city's nickname is the Sleeping Beauty, because communism took away its chances of truly thriving and Varadero lured the tourists away. I loved Matanzas' colorful and colonial-era architecture. Even with a power plant to one side, the view over Matanzas Bay is stunning.
While driving through Matanzas we almost lost half of the jeeps at a stoplight, but by the time we entered the Yumuri Valley the group was together again. In this Valley of a Thousand Palm Trees I finally saw a tiny bit of the Cuban countryside I'd been longing for since my arrival. The roads were bad here, with more potholes than I could count. I suddenly understood why our Jiminy's gearbox and suspension were in such a bad state.

We drove through the countryside for a while. We got shaken up by potholes every other minute. The Yumuri Valley made up for its awful infrastructure with vegetation what made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. I more or less expected a Pterodactyl to fly up from hill or a Brontosaurus feeding on palm trees. I didn't see anything like that, but I did see a lot of horse carts and local kids. As soon as the first jeep passed a few houses, kids would come running out to wave at the cars. They didn't care if you waved back or not, they just waved for the sake of waving and enjoyed it. I sometimes still wish my life was that simple.


We arrived at a farm around lunch time, where we could taste the farm's produce. There was sugar reed, mango, coconut and more, all fresh and delicious. We then had lunch in a pavilion a couple hundred meters down the road. Lunch was all local: Cuban soup, bean dishes with rice and Cuban sodas with typically Cuban images of baseball players and dancers on the cans. Even though some of the chairs in the pavilion had huge holes in the seat, I enjoyed that relaxed lunch to no end.

After lunch we had an hour to spend at the pavilion, where we had the chance to ride horses. I hadn't been on a horse in ten years, but knew I'd regret it if I didn't take this chance now. The horses were well-trained, knew the way and a guide would come along. Despite being a little scared, I climbed in the saddle - rather smoothly for someone who hadn't been on a horse in ages, I dare say.
The horse started walking slowly and I relaxed a little. I even started to enjoy the ride. Until my horse decided to run off. I panicked so bad, shitting bricks and cursing loudly in my mind. Lucky for me, the guide called out to the horse and the animal listened. It stopped running, but I didn't enjoy the ride as much anymore. Everything below my waist was hurting and I didn't trust my horse anymore.
Afterwards I also got to ride an ox. Turns out oxes are much more comfortable to sit on, and also much calmer when they walk around with you on their back.

When we drove out of the Yumuri Valley in our trusted Jiminy after a few hours, I thought the day was over. We drove through Matanzas again, past Playa El Coral. Then our guide suddenly pulled over at Cueva de Satorno, a cenote cave. Cenote caves are caves filled with a pool of water, sometimes with cave formations hanging from the ceiling and in the water like in Cueva de Satorno. I went for a swim in the natural pool, which is about 20 meters deep at its deepest point. The water was ice cold, but I didn't want to pass up on such a unique thing like swimming in a cenote. After five minutes, just when I was right above the deepest point, I got cramps in my legs. I quickly scrambled out of the pool - drowning in a cave is not on my travel wish list.


At the end of the day I was half asleep in our Suzuki Jiminy. Dad drove us back to the parking lot, where we hopped on the bus that brought us back to our hotel in Varadero. I was exhausted, but happy as could be. Never in a million years had I expected to drive a boat on a tropical river or swim in a cenote, especially not on a day trip that was marketed as nothing more than a jeep safari. Cuba has its own way of doing things, which means that an excursion always offers way more than you expected. I personally love that. Our Jiminy jeep safari was packed with activities that had nothing to do with driving, but looking back I wouldn't want it any other way. From start to finish, from snorkeling to waving to kids and horse riding, it was a day I will never forget.

x Envy

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5 Fellow Ramblers

  1. I really enjoyed this post, as the story-telling element is particularly strong; your sense of wanderlust also shines through in the post. Keep it up!

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  2. Oh my goodness, honestly this sounds like so much fun. Despite the bruises and pain obviously.
    Sounds like you had a fantastic time in Cuba!
    Cora | http://www.teapartyprincess.co.uk/

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  3. Wow o.o this sounds absolutely fantastic. I'm really looking forward to seeing more pictures from this trip on your instagram! that is, if instagram doesn't wreck my feed as usual <_< Jiminy Jeep sounds really cute though, just like the cricket in Pinocchio! and arguably Mulan...
    Kanra Khan

    twitter || instagram || facebook

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  4. This is so great! I love seeing these kind of posts. I can't wait to travel as soon as I can :D

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  5. Your travel posts make me want to save all the money I have for a trip to Cuba. The photos look amazing, I don't know what I would give to be in such a warm climate right now (she said, wearing fuzzy socks, two pairs of sweatpants, and hugging a radiator).
    That cave pool is making me anxious, what if something came from underneath and pulled you down??

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