Even if my blogging is infrequent, I'd at least like to be better about chronicling trips, as these are the topics friends ask about months or even years later and I always regret not having detailed these experiences somewhere. With that said, we went to Cuba!
The impetus for this trip is nothing you haven't heard before—we wanted to visit before restrictions are fully lifted and you can find Starbucks on every street corner in Havana. Matt and I thought we were going illegally (i.e. through Mexico), but truthfully the 12 stipulations under which Americans can legally visit Cuba are so vague, and no paper work is required, so it's unclear as to whether we even broke any rules.
At any rate, Cuba is a fascinating country and aside from a nasty stomach bug, I thoroughly enjoyed being there and found it unlike any place I've previously traveled. If you'd like to read on, here is a recap of where we visited within the country as well as some general tips for traveling to Cuba (sorry, this is a long one!).
I think Viñales was the highlight of the trip for both me and Matt. Viñales is about a two hour drive from Havana and is a quiet town situated in a lush valley. Something that surprised me about Cuba is that communism has the ability to look a lot like the sharing economy. A ride share was arranged for us to get from Viñales back to Havana, and Airbnb would be considered child's play compared to the extensive home sharing in Viñales.
When we got off our bus, there were a handful of women aggressively holding up photos of their homes and asking everyone disembarking if they needed a place to stay. We had already arranged to stay at Casa Tery, about 500m from the town center. It appeared that about 90% of the houses donned the "Casa ______" sign, meaning they had a room or two available for travelers. While there is no need to book in advance, I would definitely recommend staying with Tery, her husband Guillermo, and their daughter Jolie. Guillermo was incredibly animated and friendly, Jolie served as our translator as she is younger and by far the most proficient in English, and she cooked my favorite dinners we had while in Cuba (lobster with black beans, rice, and fresh fruit).
Viñales is a slow-paced town where farmers use their hands and horses over machines and there were two bars to choose from on the main street (we loved JP's). It's a very social place in that each evening, neighbors would congregate on someone's front porch for beer and music and stay just like that—chatting, lounging, drinking—late into the evening. The highlight of our time there was a horseback riding tour we arrnaged through Jolie, in which our guide (who spoke only Spanish) led us through farms growing coconut, mangos, and corn, a national park, a cave tour, and provided opportunity for swimming in the lake, drinking fresh coconut rum drinks in what seemed like someone's backyard, and brought us to Tery's father's tobacco and coffee farm (you can bet we smoked a cigar and drank a cup of coffee while there). We also purchased both items (12 cigars and a plastic coke bottle filled with coffee beans) for 15 CUC total.
Viñales is not a luxurious destination but it was the place in which we were able to have meaningful conversations with Cuban people. If you are traveling to Cuba, it's a must.
I'll keep my description of Varadero brief as I would not recommend it. The two accommodations options we were able to find in Varadero were all-inclusive hotels and casa particulares (like Casa Tery in Viñales). I think the most important and exciting part about travel is the ability to see and better understand how different cultures live and the systems and traditions under which they operate, so I tend not to gravitate to things like all-inclusive resorts where you are discouraged from leaving the property. It seems to defeat the purpose of travel.
That being said, options were slim and Matt and I were looking forward to our two days here as a time of pure relaxation and lying on the beach. It turns out, I should trust my instincts. Being in Varadero almost felt like being in a bizarre alternate universe where two groups of people who don't understand each other at all try to pretend that they do with humorous results. The restaurants were over the top with white table clothes, big bows tied around the chairs, etc. They have an entire bar dedicated to The Beatles (we actually went and I was excited for live music but I wasn't feeling well so we left before it could begin) and the hotel had non-stop entertainment in the form of synchronized swimmers, Bingo games, a jump house, etc. It felt like the hotel was trying to cater to an almost caricature of western culture, all while we certainly did not learn anything about Cuba, its culture, or its people. The beach was gorgeous but I can't say it's worth going out of your way if you're only exploring Cuba for a short time.
Havana, obviously, is a must-see. From the vibrantly colored doors and cars to the live music, this city is so filled with movement and intrigue. We stayed in Old Havana, which I would recommend as it's home to many of the attractions and activity. If you're going for luxury, we stopped by Hotel Nacional for a drink and it was really beautiful as well as historic (this is where Castro loved to smoke cigars on the patio).
I'm not going to lie, I was disappointed by the food in Havana. Matt did a ton of research and spoke with several friends who had visited previously and did an amazing job at getting us reservations (I was surprised we needed them but happy he learned this in advance of our arrival!) at some highly recommended restaurants, none of which blew me away. La Guarida was recommended across the board but I thought the food was just ok. It is, however, in an old apartment complex which was super cool as people still live there, and the rooftop bar was amazing!
As a big fan of Hemingway (the writer, not so much the man), I was excited to visit two of the bars he famously frequented in Havana as well as visit his estate about 20 minutes outside the city. I thought his house was really interesting although I'd recommend getting a tour as they don't provide you with any literature about what you're seeing (so. many. books. though...in every room!). If you aren't a fan of Hemingway, I think you can skip this as it cost us 50 CUC to get to and from his house. The bars, however, are must-dos.
Hemingway is quoted as saying, "my mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita," so that's exactly what we did. La Floridita is a little overzealous about the Hemingway connection, with a bronze statue of him sitting in the corner (ha). I loved La Bodeguita—we went there a few times and each time there was live music and a diverse crowd.
On the topic of bars, I'm super bummed we didn't get to go here but it was closed on the days we were in Havana. We did, however, have lunch at the rooftop restaurant next door, which was my favorite meal in Havana (I also really enjoyed dinner here).
Ok, before this turns into a novel, I'll just mention one more place that might not be as prominent in the Havana guidebooks! Usually when I travel, I end up finding a coffee shop or cafe where I spend an inordinate amount of time just observing people, reading, and drinking whatever the place is known for. In Havana, it was Cuba Libro, which is owned by an American but all the "regulars" seemed to be locals. They sell books and coffee and have an area with hammocks to lounge while you eat and read.
We spent our last night in Havana at the Tropicana show, and I'll admit I was pretty wary. I was prepared for a tourist trap but was pleasantly surprised and totally entertained. The show used to be a hot ticket for American gangsters and movie stars, and remains a popular destination for tourists today. Even though the songs were sung entirely in Spanish, the theatricality, incredible dancing, and colorful costumes didn't leave much time to consider the fact that I rarely knew what was being said. We took a hot pink convertible there and back, and it was a perfect way to end our trip.
- This will probably sound ignorant, but I honestly thought Cuba would be pretty cheap—it's not. The CUC is pretty much equal to the euro (or was when we went in June 2016) with dinners averaging about 15 CUC per person, bus tickets 10-20 CUC, and taxi rides within the city about 10 CUC.
- Bring euros. The exchange rate on the dollar is terrible and they don't accept Mexican pesos.
- In traveling to and from Viñales and Varadero, we had the option to take a private car (the ride sharing, like I mentioned above) or the bus. In the U.S., I'd always opt for private car over a bus if the price was going to be the same, but don't let price fool you. Our car ride from Viñales to Havana was incredibly uncomfortable, with 6 people crammed in an old car with no seatbelts and very little cushion between you and the metal seat. For Viazul, however, make sure to buy tickets ahead of time and BRING LAYERS. The bus is f&^*ing freezing.