Ever dreamed of island hopping in the Caribbean with time? Swimming in the turquoise clear waters, lazying in the alabaster-white sand beaches, feeling the tropical ocean breeze and sipping mojitos while watching the warm colourful sunset. We did. And our dream came true. In only five weeks we experienced five all different islands in the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Saint Lucia and Cuba.
Why did we select these islands? Well: San Juan in Puerto Rico is a hub for flights plus we thought there would be a ferry to Guadeloupe. But Eastern Caribbean islands or the Antilles we selected because there is ferry service and they were described as beautiful tropical nature islands whereas for example the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) seemed quite dry. And Cuba? Definitely before it completely changes. And hey, we’ve still got plenty of islands to explore later!
Below you can find a short recap of all the 5 islands we visited and links to individual posts on each island.
5 islands in comparison
As we had no prior experience of the Caribbean or Central America, our images and perceptions were based on what we had read and heard. The main image of course is turquoise sea, white sand beaches, plenty of sunshine, salsa rythms, rum and tropical heat. All of this seems mostly true – except that the islands are not just about beaches. Some of the islands being volcanic don’t even have white sand beaches. All the five islands we visited on our Caribbean tour in December 2016 – January 2017, were very diverse. Some were very Western-like and some very unique culturally and from societal perspective. Some things they had in common, but mostly each had its own features, benefits and disadvantages.
Here’s our recap of the five islands:
Spanish-American Puerto Rico
Entering Puerto Rico was slightly confusing. On the other hand it was like going to mainland United States. Puerto Rico as part of the US has a very American foundation and therefore makes it quite easy destination at least to those familiar with the US. You can probably find very similar places in mainland United States.
Then on the other hand, flying into tropics with rainforests and a very strong Spanish influence, makes in all different. Especially in the greater capitol San Juan area many locals don’t even speak English. Culturally they seem more Caribbean and creole than American. What is unique is the colourful colonial buildings in the old town “Old San Juan” – a UNESCO world heritage site. San Juan’s old fortresses make in an impressive town to explore. It’s a dive to history dating 500 years back – and of course much longer to times before colonialists arrived.
Puerto Rico has very high crime rates; however, in the old San Juan it is and feels safe at night time too. We stayed in the suburbs in which it was nice and calm during the day time, but did not go wonder around after sunset. Hoods were a bit rougher, but then again, it was very authentic, no tourist attraction cluing on top. Cute little restaurants and streets with locals. Isla Verde near the airport has an amazing beach – warmly recommend! Furthermore, the rather big island apparently has some stunning sites on all sides of the island – and the two little islands on west of the main island. San Juan is merely a small portion.
Read more about San Juan, Puerto Rico:
Colorful Puerto Rico
French butterfly island of Guadeloupe
Archipelago of Guadeloupe is rather big, consisting of many big and small islands. The main island – or rather two islands – is shaped like a butterfly. East wing Grande-Terre and west wing Basse-Terre. Make sure to visit both, since they really are different! All in all, Guadeloupe was surprisingly green with rainforest jungle, hills and land cultivation. Grande-Terre seemed somewhat flat and dried, but has some very breathtaking beaches on the south coast. Basse-Terre on the east and Caribbean side is mountaneous with stunning views on the valleys, coastline and rainforest hills.
Guadeloupe is a French overseas department. It has a very French clang – language and system-wise. English is hardly understood, yet spoken. It is a very common holiday destination for the French – easily reached and home-like. Guadeloupe is much about resorts, however, visits to the country and mountainsides are a must! There’s only a little you can see from a fenced resort. Beautiful diving, hiking, culinary and nature attractions all over. Easily explored by a rental car, but be careful as accidents happen on a daily basis.
Martinique just south of Dominica is apparently very similar to Guadeloupe also being a French overseas department, but even on a bit more developed and larger scale.
Pure and unique Dominica
Out of the five Caribbean islands we had the littlest knowledge and littlest expectations for Dominica (Dominique as the French would say, since Dominica is situated in the thread of islands just in the middle of Guadeloupe and Martinique). In our opinion it turned out to be the most unique, pure and indiginous of all the islands we visited. Therefore, we liked it the best too.
Dominica is less developed of the Eastern Caribbean islands. It is one of the smallest with a population of only 72 000 inhabitants. It is an intersting mix of indiginous Kalinago or Carib indians, French and British colonial influence and Caribbean creole culture. This volcanic and quite religious little island has a lot to offer: music, culture, indiginous Kalinago, parks, hikes and climbs in rainforests, diving, snorkeling, sulphur springs, film sites and what not. People on this island are happy, they greet you, are kinds and welcome travellers and tourists warmly. Capitol Roseau is a bit rough, but a cute little town with good vibes!
Western Saint Lucia
Saint Lucia in the south end of the Antilles island chain is also a very small island that you can easily explore. Comparing to Dominica and even Guadeloupe, St. Lucia seemed to be the most developed and western-like. The island has of course indiginous inhabitants and creole culture. Still, it seems as the British empire has left the island (or the island left Britain?) very well established with many many services to not only tourists but locals as well. Daily trips to nature and shopping possibilities attract tourists; however, the best attraction of St.Lucia is its beaches. Well-established services unfortunately means a bit higher prices too.
All in all, St.Lucia is an easy-going and relaxed beach destination. You can find pretty much everything there; however with all the western-like attributes, St. Lucia seemed a bit boring destination comparing to the other very other colourful and authentic Caribbean islands. Among nice beaches, we saw no unique features that would definitely make us return. Still, it makes a perfect and quite easily accessed escape. Not luxurious though, but for very low-budget travellers may be overly priced.
Read more here:
Beach life in Saint Lucia
Revolutionized & developing Cuba We probably had the highest expectations for Cuba. Some of them were met, others not. Cuba was an interesting mixture of relaxed and colourful athmosphere plus a very regulated and somewhat old-fashioned society. To us as Western Europeans it seemed like going back in time several decades. Strict regulations, government control, very skinny variety of products and strong sosialist presence but still parties, cigars, mojitos, live music everywhere, classic American cars, beautiful colonial buildings and quite high level of prices.
Havanna was impressive with its monumental buildings and the presense of revolution and sosialism. Its a legendary city and country with many internationally important events in quite recent history. Still it was surprisingly rough, and difficult on your own if you are not on an organized tour or accommodation and transportation. Everything can be arranged, but prepare yourself to some hazzle.
Trinidad on the other hand was very tranquil and beautiful, a guaranteed pittoresque UNESCO world heritage site with a beautiful beach Playa Ancon only 10 km from the city centre. Take a bus, a collectivo or drive a rental car across to the south coast – you’ll see a lot of the country side along the way: sugar cane fields, banana fields, petrolium factories, country villages, mountain sides and many many farm workers. And signs to patronize the revolution.
Perfect paradise…or not?
Picture yourself on a white beach by a turquoise sea, palm trees waving and bright sun hot on your skin… that’s the perfect image of an escape of everyday routines… right? Surely it is, but there is a downside to perfection too. Most of these dream places are in tropics. An tropics come with a variety of not so cool or charming features.
Sun burn is evident. To us coming from Finland and completely white-skinned, sun can be very dangerous. So sun block is an everyday necessity for us all. Don’t want t get burn too many times. And even after we’ve been on the islands a few weeks, we still need it whenever spending time in the sun. And we don’t really sun bathe.
Mosquitos, ants and other bugs conquer every single place if not protected against and you’re not staying in a 5-star resort. Repellent is a basic necessity among sun block, as is cream to cool stings and bites. Sealed plastic bags (eg. minigrips) are handy if you have any food items with you. They keep the ants and other bugs away. Furthermore, we always store good and decent plastic bags whenever receive new ones since you need them for wet clothers on day trips, little snacks etc. Valuables and electronics we keep in air and water proof sealed bags due to several boat trips and very humid areas. Just in case.
Travel sheets with insect shied have been a blessing to us: we’ve slept almost all nights in our own sheets, even if sheets in accommodation have seemed clean. You can live without of course. In a normal vacation you most likely stay in a decent hotel or resort with good air conditioning, which always indicate lesser bugs. Mosquito nets you don’t need in accommodation with proper AC. If no air condition, the place most likely has one hanging from the ceiling.We carry two nets with us and the only use has so far been when the three of us were sleeping in one small room and despite the AC we had to have a window open during the night. A net came in handy there.
And what did this all cost?
A three person trip for five weeks, travelling and moving a lot is not cheap. Not at least in the Caribbean region. All countries are quite expensive – at least everything that must be imported. The most surprising to us was how expensive Cuba was – considering the state of development in the ountry… Otherwise, Dominica was clearly the least expensive as it was the most unique as well (this is solely our opinion!).
Below you can find a daily comparison of average expenses in each country. As travelling with a child, everything is of course for three people. There are always extra costs if you book for three rather than two. As you can see accommodation has eaten a big share. We have not stayed in any fancy hotels, in stead, some have been quite low profile guest houses. Still, average prices for three per night are close to a hundred euros. Eating out for us means average one meal a day. Otherwise snacks or light meals mostly fixed ourselves. An average lunch or dinner for us in a resto is two adult portions + 3 drinks. We did not do much shopping at all, nor did we participate in many day trips or arranged activities.
Transportation costs to reach Caribbean vary enormously (depending of course on where you fly from). Direct flights from Europe and North America are nowadays offered to several small islands. Overseas departments of countries that once ruled them most likely offer the cheapest flights (eg, France to Guadeloupe and Martinique, Holland to St.Maarten & Antigua eg., England to St.Lucia & British Virgin Islands, US to Puerto Rico etc.).
Eastern Caribbean islands are for the most part connected by ferry services, so island hopping actually is possible within this region. Ferry tickets are not free though, and what quickly adds to your budget are the departure taxes that some of these small countries levy.
|Leg 1: Caribbean||total for 3||Puerto Rico||Guade-loupe||Dominica||St Lucia||Cuba|
|total spenditure for 3 in euros||3803||870||761||579||663||930|
|average spenditure per day||106||145||95||83||110||103|
|Number of nights stayed||36||6||8||7||6||9|
|Average accommodaton per night||92||116||103||69||129||59|
Table above illustrates all our expenses for thefirst 5 weeks of our journey in the Caribbean. Total spenditure includes all local transportation, all meals snacks and drinks, all miscellaneous costs such as little souvenirs, authority fees and entrance tickets as well as hygiene products eg.
It does not include flights or ferry tickets: Flight to and within altogether 2454 euros &
Ferry tickets altogether 971 euros.