As promised, I am finally sharing the video of my trip to Cuba! (two years later....ahem.)
Day 1: Arrival | Horseback tour | Running out of $$$
We woke up super early around 6am and got ready to head to our final destination of the trip -Vinales! The bus left from Parque Central at 8am. It was about a 3-4 hour journey through the western hills of Cuba - beautiful rolling hills with luscious trees and grass, a mild humid breeze, and plenty of animals to spot along the way! :) We made one stop in Barrigonas ("Big Belly") for a food and restroom break and then back to the bus. After arriving in the Vinales town center around 1pm, we walked up a hill to the casa we had booked. The room was spacious and clean, with an AC to boot--no complaints here! We were greeted by our friendly host and some ridiculously delicious pina coladas--seriously the best I've ever had. We took our drinks up to the rooftop that had a stunning view of the sprawling Vinales Valley. It was a surreal moment - I was so proud of us for getting ourselves to this point, the final leg of our journey. Through our host, we were able to book a horseback tobacco farm tour for that afternoon.
We were picked up in a taxi and taken to the farm along with a few other girls who were staying at our casa. The tour started at a tobacco drying hut - the guide showed us how the organic tobacco leaves were harvested, then stripped of the spine where the nicotine collects. He demonstrated how a cigar is rolled, and then we all got to try some! Apparently a local tip is to dip it in honey before you inhale the smoke--it was quite nice! We were helped onto our horses and off we went into the valley. Our horses took us through the farmland and into a coffee plantation. There, we saw how the coffee plant is harvested and how the beans are carefully separated from the shells. Remember I mentioned we stopped in Barrigonas "Big Belly" on the way to Vinales? Well, turns out that's actually a nickname for a certain type of palm tree that has a funny looking bump in the middle of the tree. It's totally hollow. The farmers figured out that they could carve out that part of the tree and use it as a 'pot'. They had a stump that they would use to gently grind the coffee beans in the pot to separate them. It smelled amaaaaazing. There was a shaded area where we sat and were offered some amazing samples of rum-made from a special fruit called guayabita. This is a variation of a guava that's actually super tiny when it's fully grown. They actually make this special rum from this fruit which is what gives it the distinct flavor and color. We poured up a few rounds of shots and enjoyed them in the shade. I am a rum girl myself, so couldn't resist buying a bottle to take back home with me. We had less than 40 CUC left at this point so we were taking kind of a gamble on spending this money on rum...oh well!
After we got back to the town center we attempted to find a cadeca but unfortunately they were all closed by then. We tried our luck on a few ATMs but none worked with our cards. We needed to eat anyway, so we found a surprisingly progressive vegan/vegetarian restaurant called La Berregina. It was so good to eat some real, quality vegetables again! The dinner was punctuated by the usual cortaditos and some cheeky flan. We headed back up the hill to our casa before it got too dark, with probably less than 10 CUC left to our names. I remember reading that often times, hosts will exchange money with their guests since dollars are quite valuable. I asked our host and luckily her mother was going to Miami the next month to visit her sister, so we were able exchange $100 dollars. I immediately set aside 25 CUC for our taxi ride to the airport later. Tired but happy, we ended the night smoking cigars on the moonlit rooftop, laughing and recounting the adventures of the day.
Day 2: Biking through the Parque Nacional | Journey back to Havana
The next morning we woke up bright and early at 6am to watch the sun rise over the valley--truly magical! Our host had prepared a delicious breakfast for us at 7:30, complete with fresh fruit, bread, cheese and coffee. We scarfed down the sustenance and prepared for the day ahead. We planned to rent some bikes and journey through the National Park to the Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave). It was a stunning ride - the park was vast and filled with lush greenery and hills. There was a mild breeze which was much appreciated with the sweat we worked up from all that biking! Soon we arrived at the entrance to the cave, with a high natural staircase flanked by cascading vines and trees. Inside the cave it was cool and musty, with intricate formations and shifting light. Deeper inside the cave there was a small queue to boat down the underground river! It was super cool - and lead out into an open reservoir that was surrounded by a tall enclosure of greenery. After we left the cave, we had just a few hours left before our bus to Havana so we booked it back to the town center. We stopped for a bit at an artisanal market to pick up trinkets and souvenirs for friends. We dropped off the bikes and hiked back up to the casa to pick up our backpacks. On the way back down to the town center, it started to rain mildly, just enough to pick up the earthy smells a bit and make us feel like we were in a rainforest! We bought a huge bunch of bananas (seriously, there were about 30!) to have on the journey back and in case we couldn't find food easily later on in Havana. We went to a restaurant in the town center so we could grab a quick bite for sustenance and to keep an eye on the bus. After scarfing down a simple meal of rice, beans and veggies, we boarded the bus. For some reason they were blasting mariachi music but hey, at least there was AC!
We arrived in Havana at about 6:30pm. We quickly navigated to our hostel a few blocks away. Our host was a friendly college professor who surprised us by saying she was upgrading us to a private apartment in the city center! She took us there in a taxi and got us all settled in. The apartment was nicer than anywhere else we had stayed the whole trip - what a treat for our last night! She told us that this building was actually kind of special - it was one of the four remaining buildings in the city in the pre-revolution architectural style. We arranged for a taxi to pick us up the next day at 11am, then got ready and headed out for our last evening. At this point we had roughly 75 CUC left. I set aside 25 immediately for our taxi the next day, leaving us with 50 CUC for dinner and breakfast the next day. First things first - we had dinner at a lively spot across the street called Me Gusta. The night was still young so we strolled through the neighborhoods one last time and ended up back at the good old Malecon. It was a busy night and we were serenaded more than a few times. We noticed some police pull up and approach two people - a white man and a Cuban woman, sitting by the water. There was some commotion and another woman joined to talk to the police. After a while the man was let go and the girl was taken away by the police. There was a really poignant moment where a trolley full of tourists passed by just as the police let this male tourist go free and drove off with the girl, who by then we understood to be a prostitute. There's definitely a lot of corruption but it was still really sad to see the guy just get let off while the girl was being punished. Ironic.
We walked back into the city and realized we weren't entirely sure how to get back to our hotel and didn't even know the name of the building. I remembered i had taken a business card of the hotel which had the location starred on a map on the back, and Cynthia had an offline maps app. So we used both of these to navigate back! Phew. Lots of teamwork. We packed up our things and laid out everything we needed for the next day.
Last Day & Leaving Cuba
We woke up early at 7 and were dressed and ready by 8:30. Unfortunately nothing really opened til 10, so we hung around the apartment til then. We had a delicious breakfast of crepes and fruit at Me Gusta, and got back to the apartment just in time for our 11am pickup. I handed over our last 25 CUC to the driver, and off we went! At the airport we realized we now had to pay to check in our bags, so we exchanged just enough money with a tourist in line at the money exchange. We had a some 5 CUC left and spotted a bag of the amazing coffee we'd been drinking the whole trip and bought a small bag of it from a gift shop. The flights ended up being a bit delayed, but we made it back to San Francisco just fine.
This trip was the most amazing I've been on so far---I was challenged and inspired by all that we had experienced in these 8 days. I genuinely learned from talking with the locals about the history they had lived through, and their dreams for a future Cuba. I learned about how people live and how richly diverse the people are, with their unique stories of coming to that country. It was humbling to see how happy everyone is and well balanced their lives are. Though there was nothing glamorous about what we saw, I did not see even one homeless person left to sleep on the street. The citizens of Cuba keep their land clean and the people have a great sense of balance between life and civic duty. They reminded me to live, and appreciate every day for what it is. I felt renewed and from this trip, and hope to return again one day to see the rest of it. Adios!
Day 1: Arrival | Salsa dancing | Intruders
We arrived in Havana in the afternoon, but accidentally got off after the Central stop--placing us somewhere in the outskirts of the city with no real understanding of where the hell we were. We feebly attempted to ask for help, but most people gestured us out to the streets to find another local bus or a taxi colectivo. After hesitantly walking away from the station, we tried talking to a few locals and finally an older gentleman guided us towards the central streets. Just standing there, we were already garnering quite a few stares from the young men posted up under the bus stands. Wanting to appear more certain, we turned onto an adjacent street and found a taxi pulled over, with two men and a woman leaning against it. Cautiously, I interrupted their conversation to see if his taxi was in service. He seemed to understand that we were a bit lost and his friends were willing to part ways so that he could help us. We learned that we were about 6km away from where we were supposed to be--not bad, could have been worse! He dropped us off right outside our casa particular and then continued on his way. We were let in by our host's husband--and met her in the entry room. The house had two floors--the main floor had the kitchen, living area, dining room, and the family's bedrooms. We were given our keys and settled into our pretty small room on the top floow. There was a nice open patio outside our room and a rooftop. Our neighbors were two girls from Germany who were here for the first time on vacation. That night we all went out for dinner at a restaurant in the central plaza. One thing to note if you're vegetarian - you are not going to eat very well while you're here. That night we went around to a few bars, checked out the local scene and did a little salsa dancing to kick off our stay. The night was humid with the occasional slight breeze that provided intense relief.
We returned to our casa around 3am and got ready for bed. Before sleeping, we sat on our beds and were chatting and planning our day ahead. Suddenly, Cynthia looked up over her shoulder at a little window that peered onto the roof. "Dude, is there a guy looking in?!" I wasn't wearing my glasses and could barely see a thing, but started to get nervous. I went over to the bathroom and removed the towel rod from the wall and walked under the window. Without warning or noise, I saw a flash of a guy's face and arm as he darted away from my nearing gaze. I screamed and started banging the towel rod on the iron bars of the window to scare him away. My heart was racing and I had backed away from the window. We had no phone service to reach our host downstairs, no internet, and no other way to leave our room other than the hallway that was right next to the roof. We couldn't sleep for hours, taking turns napping and keeping watch. We decided that we should just transfer to a hotel or something that felt safer, and packed up all our things. Around 7:30am, the sun had risen and we left the confine of our room. Downstairs, I explained to our host what happened in as much detail as I could in Spanish. She seemed shocked and had tears in her eyes, saying that this had never happened before. She said her neighborhood was very safe and everyone knew each other, they were all decent people. She asked some details about what he looked like, what time he came, etc. We told her we felt too scared to continue staying in that room and were going to look elsewhere. She immediately offered us a much larger room right next to her family's room on the main floor. It seemed like a good option, so we agreed.
Day 2: Learning about Santeria | Cruising on the Malecon | Partying at Colonial 1830
It was about a 10 minute walk from our casa to the site of our Airbnb Experience. This experience was to be split over three days, each day focusing on a different aspect of the Afro-Cuban religion and culture. The neighborhoods were bustling by the time we left to our host's house on the Malecon (a long strip along the Atlantic ocean) around 8am - sand covered streets with fruit sellers starting their routes, old men sipping on cortados and women gossiping on doorsteps. Our host, Reysa was a lawyer-turned Airbnb ambassador who spends her days teaching people about Afro-Cuban culture. Her niece Odiba acted as a co-host, translating Reysa'a words for our group. She shared how Yorubans were brought to Cuba from Nigeria by Spaniards. The Spanish forced the Nigerians to abandon their native religion and practice Catholicism instead. So, they would pretend to pray to the Catholic saints while actually incorporating elements of their African spiritualism. This integrated practice is what is referred to as Santeria. After our history lesson, we went to a beautiful courtyard in the middle of the house, where we were lucky enough to watch sacred Yoruba dance - knows as Orisha. All the performers were Reysa'a nieces and nephews - the boys played special drums, and the girls each did a separate dance for each of the main goddesses. It was absolutely beautiful--they wore stunning, colorful dresses and swayed with such a perfect rhythm and intensity to the beat of the drums. They were totally engrossed in the dance and I felt lucky to get to witness it! There was a special energy there. We headed into the dining room for a special lunch - I had beans, rice, and some sliced veggies. After lunch, we each got to have our palms read by a woman who specialized in it. When my turn came, I was super nervous. She told me some interesting predictions that didn't make sense at the moment, but looking back on it 10 months later - they actually did happen later that year. Our activities were done here, so we headed out to the central park to figure out what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We ran into our German house-mates and decided to all take a ride in a classic car. We chose a sleek red and white car and our chauffeur took us on an incredible 30 minute ride along the Malecon, and through Old Havana. I sat in the passenger seat and had to keep pinching myself that this was actually happening! Later that evening we headed back to the casa and freshened up. All of us went to a different hole-in-the-wall casa for dinner where I had an omelette and some fanta. We finished our meal with a delicious cortadito. That night, we took a taxi to Colonial 1830 - a super popular outdoor nightclub right on the oceanfront. We downed a few mojitos and danced the night away!
Day 3: La Regla & Habana Vieja
We left early at 7:30am and bought a few platanos pequenos for a light breakfast. Today, our group was taking a ferry to La Regla, a borough in the Havana bay. It's known to be a simpler, more untouched part of Havana where people preserved the older traditions and lifestyle. The ferry ride over was lovely. We went to the main church (Iglesia de Nuestra Senora) where a virgin Madonna was the main saint people worship. We spent the next few hours walking through the quiet streets, observing the preserved architecture and parks. Reysa told us that they had just gotten Wi-Fi on the island four months prior! Our tour concluded and we ferried back to the port in Old Havana. We had the rest of the afternoon to explore the city. The architecture in Old Havana is what we're using to seeing - classic, beautiful structures in rich colors. Stone pathways shaded by tropical plants and trees, fruit sellers selling fresh coconut water, artisans displaying their work, and a gentle sea breeze carrying soft guitar and melodies through the streets. We stumbled upon a truly lovely restaurant in a random alley and decided to eat there! I had a delicious meal of noodles mixed with sauteed vegetables and spices. The restaurant was open and airy, with hanging plants, a bar, and a live band taking requests from the crowd. This is when I first heard the song "Chan Chan" by Buena Vista Social Club and I have been obsessed ever since. A post-lunch stroll to avoid getting sleepy was in order, so we walked over to a nice park and got fresh coconut water. A sweet little grandma made conversation with us, asking where we were from and how we liked cuba. She surprised both of us when, after we were done drinking the coconut water, she skillfully cracked the nut open with her wrinkled hands and started carving up the inside for us! That night our host prepared a big dinner for us - courses of vegetable soup, fresh bread rolls, fried plantains, omelette, and fresh fruit juice as always. Full, tired, and content we sat on rocking chairs on the balcony to watch the moonrise, then went to sleep around midnight.
Day 4: Miramar | Museum Hopping | Dinner on the Malecon
After allowing ourselves to sleep in a bit, we went to the central park around 8:30 and bought our bus tickets to Vinales for the next day. We had until 4pm to do whatever we wanted, so hopped on a double-decker sightseeing bus to get a nice relaxing overview of all Havana. The bus took us all the way out to Miramar, a more resort-y area where tourists go for the amazing beach. We went through Vedado, a modern borough where the main university is, and also rode by a famous cemetery in the area. We sat on the top deck of the bus and soaked in the views & the sunshine - loved the amazing ocean breeze everywhere you go! After hopping off at Parque Central, we walked to Old Havana to the museum district. First stop: Museum of the Revolution. We spent a few hours learning about the history and even got to observe a salsa lesson in the main courtyard. We were a bit hungry by noon and stopped for quick lunch at 'Cha-Cha' across the street. Following this we went to the National Museum of Fine Arts - saw some really intriguing modern and classic art! With our last few free hours, we explored some of the artisan markets, looking for trinkets and souvenirs to take back. At 5pm we met back at our host's house - we were going to a popular afro-cuban club called Almanacer. The interiors were black, lit only with colorful strobe lights. On the main dance floor, we got to watch for Orisha dances, along with live music! We ended the night by grabbing dinner with some friends from our group at a restaurant right on the Malecon. Next up, Vinales!
We arrived around 9am local time at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba. After exchanging some money, we exited the airport to find a taxi. We were approached pretty quickly and haggled with a driver for a journey to Varadero (about two hours east by car). Hopped in the car and off we went! Our driver Vladmir invited us for coffee at his house. We figured this could be a really bad idea, but decided to go with it. His family was super friendly and we got to play with his daughter's perrito (newborn puppy). We learned that his father was a revolution era communist, and that their apartment was one of the last buildings with elements of that era. We had our very first cortadito right there and I still think it was one of the best coffees I had that whole trip. The ride out was absolutely stunning, we drove right along the coast and had spectacular views of playa del Este. The taxi cab had a video screen at the front and that was the first time I heard Despacito (and certainly not the last!).
We arrived in the resort town of Varadero, and got dropped off at our Airbnb. After unloading our things and the driver left, I realized my phone was not there. I took off after the cab but he was already gone. I frantically ran back and forth on the main street trying to spot my driver in a sea of literally hundreds of identical cabs. About 45 minutes later, my host suddenly pulled up next to me on a scooter and said he knew of a spot where taxi drives went for coffee in the afternoons. We stopped there and sure enough I saw a taxi parked on the side. I remembered a few key details that checked out: it was a Kia, there were water bottles in the back, and the taxi light was on the floor of the passenger seat. I peered in through the tinted windows, craning my neck to spot my phone. I saw it tucked in the back seat! It must have fallen out of my pocket when I got out. Doh! Soon, the driver walked over and I explained what happened. He said I was super lucky to have found him, as almost 200 cabs go through Varadero each day! I have never felt SO relieved. Now, I could relax!
After that nerve-wracking start, my friend and I settled into our private casita. We were totally famished and went for lunch. First impression was that the food was not going to be a highlight for me on the trip...but the fruits were just amazing! After lunch, we walked over another block and were right on the beach. While the sky was a bit overcast, the water was a mesmerizing shade of aqua blue I'd only seen in Thailand years before. There weren't many people around this side of the beach, which was away from the big hotels and resorts where most tourists stayed. We were on the side where more locals lived. It wasn't long before we jumped into the water--it was the perfect temperature and an amazing relief from the overwhelming humidity. All I remember was looking out at the sea thinking how far away everything I knew was. We stayed on the beach for a few hours, exploring and walking. We strayed out to where the hotels were to get a look and then headed back to the house in the evening. I obsessively sprayed myself with mosquito repellent - I'd heard enough Zika warning to scare me straight! Dinner was incredibly hard to find--most places are closed by 6pm and it's just bars after that. After ambling around, we found a very subpar 24-hour eatery and had the grossest sandwiches ever. It was literally white bread with lettuce and tomato. Not even ketchup to go with it! The papas fritas were aight. We were exhausted from all the travel and tucked in early.
The following morning we headed out by 8am-we only had until 3pm to get our fill of Varadero. We had a quick breakfast at a cafe then headed straight to the beach. The sky was super clear today and sunny to boot! Not to be outdone, the sea was even more crystal clear and a beautiful saturation of blue. It felt luxurious and totally rejuvenating. This was exactly the right start to our vacation! After baking in the sun for a couple hours, we headed back to the Airbnb and packed up our things. We decided to travel north on the strip to check out more of Varadero-there were some parks and shops that we stopped to check out. We had a little extra time so stopped for some late lunch and coffee. Oddly, even in this crazy humid weather the hot cortadito felt so, so right. Our bus station was just around the corner so we checked in for our next journey. Adios Varadero, here we come Havana!
On a chilly February afternoon earlier this year, my friend Cynthia and I were chatting about how neither one of us had taken a break from work or been on a real vacation in years. I really thought about the difference between a trip and a vacation. I was starting to feel mentally drained, stuck and powerless in my life--I needed a reset. We both wanted to go somewhere that would challenge and inspire us, but also allow us to disconnect. Personally, I was also on a mission to rediscover my happy, carefree self and shed this suffocating 'adult' skin I had grown. Rather than start by choosing locations, we listed out things we wanted to do and experience. Hiking. Dancing. Swimming. Learning. Sunshine. I'm a strong believer in vision boards so we started there. I added this quote that really resonated with me.
"Travel brings power and love back to your life." - Rumi
First we thought, how about Peru? Great outdoor activities, lots to learn about culture and it would definitely push us out of our comfort zone. However it was too late to register for the Macchu Picchu hike, and the lack of beaches nearby ruled it out. Next was Costa Rica - beautiful beaches, volcanoes and trails for hiking...but it seemed too tourist ridden for the kind of escape we desired. Somehow, we jumped to Cuba after that. I wrote it off almost immediately. Just thinking about the hurdles we'd have to jump through for a visa and all the documentation it would require immediately turned me off. Yet I couldn't get it out of my mind - the very fact that I had never even considered Cuba made it all the more appealing to me. I hear so little about Cuban culture and happenings, which to me meant that it was somewhat 'untouched' and pure. All I knew of the country was the overly romanticized representation of it in Dirty Dancing Havana nights, and that there had been a lot of political strife in the last 50 or so years. The more I read about their rich history, resilient citizens, and diverse landscape, the more it seemed like exactly what I needed to experience.
After pouring over a few blogs and articles about traveling in Cuba, we noticed almost everyone said it's quite an inconvenient place to travel. There's no centralized transportation, very limited internet access, English is not widely spoken, and absolutely no credit card use. Both Cynthia and I are fairly well-traveled and felt ready to take on this challenge. We booked our tickets by the end of the week. The visa process at this time wasn't bad at all (thanks, Obama--seriously!). All we had to do was list it as an educational visit and we were set. When we transferred in Fort Lauderdale, we would need to purchase the actual visa.
We planned to stay in Cuba for just over a week--enough time to see a few cities, and just long enough to totally disconnect from our lives back home. After narrowing it down to three cities, we looked into the very few options for transportation and booked what we could in advance -- the rest we'd just have to play by ear (so not my style...helloooooo anxiety!!). Instead of booking a cheesy group tour, we decided to try out Airbnb Experiences. There were lots of amazing options in Havana - salsa lessons, bike tours around the city and more. We found an experience that was all about the Afro-Cuban history and Santeria religion. It had a great mixture of activities, food, and learning. We plotted out how long to stay in each city, and the rest--well, we would figure that out as we go!
(Don't worry, the upcoming posts will have WAY more pictures and a video at the end!)