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!