A few days back, Facebook has been kind enough to remind me that it’s been exactly a year since I went to Cuba with Lili. Everyday, for a few days in a row, I relived through the colorful photos I had posted the beautiful moments we’ve experienced there and I couldn’t help wondering why I haven’t written about our trip yet.
But then I realized that sometimes it’s actually better to give your experiences the time to get processed by your filters and the chance to adapt to your new self. Most of the time, a trip changes you in ways that you can’t actually depict right after it ended – you could be too enthusiastic and make it look bombastic.
I’m sure I’m seeing our Cuban story with different eyes, with better eyes now. So it seems like a good time to write about it.
Before going there, when I thought Cuba, I thought rum & mojitos, cigars, Che Guevara, old American cars and Hemingway.
And it’s all of the above and much more mixed together with a side of magic realism thanks to the joie de vivre of its people and some sort of sad decrepitude because of the socio-political circumstances. But you’ll find out more about it if you read on. 🙂
After getting just a couple of hours of sleep, we got up before the break of dawn to get to JFK. We were traveling from New York, through Cancun – a year ago there were no direct flights to Havana.
When we got there, a guy in a wheel chair tried to sell us the visas but we thought we were better off waiting for a travel agent or something like that. Next to us, people were checking in car tires, TV sets and air conditioners – there’s nowhere to get all that stuff in Cuba so locals are traveling abroad for it.
I got complimented on my denim jacket by an older American who was himself very well dressed. We got to the Cuban check-in desk at the same time and when he heard me asking quite loudly if I had to pay another $25 each, after we paid for the visas, as a tax or something, he turned smiling and said:
Finally, we arrived in Havana and as we were waiting to pick up our luggage, a fairly tipsy dude who sat next to the American and chatted with him the whole way from Cancun told us that he was a gangster who served as inspiration for a movie, but I forgot both his name and the movie title. I just remember that dude saying: “This guy used to kill people for a living!” and I can’t tell to this day if it was the truth, or it was just the alcohol. And so our journey started, entering a realm of fantasy, in a completely novel place for both of us.
Somehow in our research we stumbled upon a beautiful house, a casa particular, which was too pretty and affordable to be true, but we decided to give it a try and we were extremely satisfied with our decision. Casa Obispo 307 was, in reality, even better than we expected, thanks to our great hosts, Leo and Milagro.
The first days we were just roaming around Havana, going to bars and restaurants that were recommended to us by friends who’ve visited before.
One day we went to Santa Maria Beach, which was a very beautiful place, located one hour away (by bus) from the city centre.
We checked out La Bodeguita del Medio, El Cocinero – a bar & restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood, in a very cool, trendy, industrial location. One night we ended up at El Floridita, the famous bar where Ernest Hemingway used to have his Daiquiris. There was live music and seeing that I was struggling with mine, a bartender offered me one of his cigars. I thought that was very nice of him, because he didn’t do it for anyone else.
The next day we hired to chauffeur to take us to Viñales, in Western Cuba. We were there for two nights and stayed at Rancho San Vincente, a great resort where we got our own bungalow in the woods.
As soon as we arrived, we booked a car to take us to the main attractions of the town: a cave (Cueva del Indio), the valley of Viñales, a tobacco farm. Apart from the cave, which was a bit boring, everything else was amazing, as you’ll see in the photos.
We also learned how cigars are made and I think this is a must-do activity if you’re traveling to Cuba.
We ate dinner at a local restaurant and had a couple of glasses of Havana Club Rum by the pool at the resort before going to bed. In the morning, we arranged for a car to take us to Playa de Cayo Jutías, a hidden gem a couple of hours away from Viñales recommend it to me by my good friends Mihai Botărel and Adrian Nina who went there a few months before. We had a great time just chilling on the white sand and swimming in the perfect, turquoise water. It felt like heaven.
When we got back to Havana, we only had a few days left and we wanted to make the most out of them, especially because we were also celebrating Lili’s birthday that weekend. So one night we went to the famous Tropicana Cabaret, a place where the wealthy and the mobster used to spend their money in the fifties. The show was great and extremely well put together, although a bit pricy.
Next day we went for lunch to La Guarida, one of the best restaurants in Havana.
The octopus carpaccio and the fried plantains were delicious, but more than the food we liked the décor, a lovely old house with a bar on the rooftop.
That very same night, our hosts, Leo and Milagro joined us at a local club, Casa de la Musica, a venue with live music where a few tourists and many locals go to have fun and dance salsa.
On Sunday we went to Café del Oriente in Plaza San Francisco for a quick bite and there was a guy playing the piano just for us basically, because the restaurant was empty and it was great. For our last dinner we made a reservation to Ivan Chef Justo and even though we waited at the bar for about forty minutes to be seated it was well worth it: the food was hands down the best we’ve had in Havana.
That being said, it was a delightful weekend and we ended our adventure on a high note.
Cuba was a memorable experience. I’ll never forget the moments before we were getting ready to go out to dinner, when we were enjoying a homemade Mojito or a cold beer. Also our long walks around Havana Vieja (Old Havana), the interactions with locals at almost every street corner, the vintage stuff at the Flea Market in front of Santa Isabel Hotel. Looking back it seems that time stood still and those moments will be forever alive in our memories and our souls.
Of course we missed plenty of attractions, like Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house. Or visiting the Partagás Cigar Factory. Hell, we never saw the American gangster again. But we did exactly what we could with the time we had while enjoying it and having fun. And that’s that.
Cuba, I hope I’ll see you again some time!
Read Lili’s thoughts on the trip here.
For more destinations, check my other Travels.