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!)