Cuba is confusing!
Your mind is perplexed as soon as you arrive in the Jose Marti Airport – it’s like the 1930’s with 1960’s style updates. The humidity hits you in the face and as you wait for your bags for over an hour you wonder what the hell you’ve just signed up for. But believe me the frustrations balance out the beauty of this place reveals itself. There’s a lot I still don’t understand, but what I did experience was a country that is balance of beauty, history, ruins, happiness, and humility but there is definitely something that is mesmerizing and nostalgic about the country as a whole. As my lonely planet put it – a prince in a poor man’s coat.
Let me start with the journey from the airport to our casa, which landed us in the middle of a Caribbean style police chase where even our taxi driver decided he wanted to stop and help out! At this point, a young boy raced by on a bicycle seemingly escaping from two very unfit policia – amidst the chaos, I decided to expected the unexpected.
We started out with a few days in Havana, staying in a gorgeous casa in Habana Vieja called Casa Vitrales. For some reason as soon as we stepped into Cuba my mind forgot the 3 years of Spanish I took in high school – very embarrassing when most Cubans don’t speak a word of English. Luckily I was travelling with companions who could remember a bit more than me!
Our casa was in a beautifully restored estate with an amazing rooftop overlooking Havana. We arrived in the late afternoon just in time for a sunset with a local beer – Cristal.
Our first night in Havana we spent wandering the streets seeking some local cuisine, and generally seeing where the night might take us. We of course had to pay a visit to La Bodeguita del Medio – the birthplace of the mojito. The best advice we got from the locals was to follow the music. And that we did. We finished the night off authentically with an old car taxi drive along the Malecon blasting salsa music – perfection.
Day 2 was spent wandering more streets of Havana, stopping in an old barber shop, having a Daiquiri at 11am at the La Flordita, made famous by Hemingway, which eventually led to a tour around town in a teal green 1950’s Chevy. Finishing the day off with sunset cocktails at Hotel Nacional de Cuba was sublime – a classic hotel which retains its 1930’s Cuban style and design – we headed out to the lawn which was enchantingly dotted with free-roaming peacocks.
Day 3 and we made our trek for three hours to the Pinar del Rio region bound for Vinales with our driver Hector in yet another bright blue chevy! Surprisingly it was very comfortable journey as old cars were made for Sunday drives! We arrived in our little Vinales hut, and settled in easily with some cigars, our welcome pomelo drink and attempted to figure out the best way to see the UNESCO listed valley in our rocking chairs. These colonial-era porches are found all over Vinales.
We booked a last minute horse trek into the valley to reach the local tobacco and coffee plantations. My horse was aptly named Tormentaas she bolted into the sugar-cane field for fun. Again expecting the unexpected! This region is where most of Cuba’s tobacco is grown due to its unique climate. Although farmers still have to give 90% of their crops to the government and they can only sell 10% direct to the public and tourists.
The next day we made a very long trek to a gorgeous beach called Cayo Jutias where drivers line up their vintage cars along the beach waiting for their guests to explore this little paradise. The drive to this location should only be about 45 minutes but due to the roads never being paved since they were created it was like a video game dodging potholes for 2 hours straight!
After a day at the beach, a biking trek into the Valle del Silencio was next. A unique landscape, and silent, as no cars or machinery are allowed. They still even plough their crops with oxen! Everything is done slowly and simply by hand. A craft rarely seen anywhere anymore. They day finished in a rooftop bar-hut, with cocktails that are served with a side bottle of rum. They trust you to add in your own amount. Gracias! The view from this place was unbelievable – where the mogotes are very visible. Mogotes are the large limestone rocks covered in local flora distinctly surrounded by flat land – definitely a unique and very “Jurassic Park” feel. A night of intense salsa sealed the trip to Vinales – a place I will never forget.
We headed back to Havana for one more day of exploring, salsa dancing and way too many $2 mojitos before flying out the next morning at 6am.
An interestingly inspiring place, Cuba is for the traveler seeking the unique trip full of culture, eclectic architecture and an escape from the norm.
– Stay in casa particulars for an authentic experience and to support the locals – Take a car tour through Havana (in your choice of vehicle – well worth it!) – Smoke a cigar, a true Cuban experience! – Brush up on your Spanish – most less travelled areas are strictly Spanish tongue -Count your change as there are two currencies and the local currency (MN) is worth a lot less than the CUC.
– Waste your time in line for the ATM – bring Mexican pesos, euros or pounds to exchange at the airport or go early morning to the national bank to beat the ATM lines if needed. – Talk politics – Worry about WIFI or updating your Instagram feed – the main hotels have it but it’s expensive and doesn’t have great connection. Turn off your phone and use it strictly for taking photos! – Expect too much, just enjoy the moments as they come!