Cuba Libre Freed My Soul- Morir Soñando Vists Cuba
He danced a simple two step, floating on a beautiful beat held by words from the heart. His eyes closed with a simple smile on his face. He held my grandmother in his arms and you can tell is how she remembered the day she fell in love with him. They danced Son Cubano. Before Dembow, Bachata, Merengue, and Tipico I heard Son. Son Cubano is a genre of music and dance that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba during the late 19th century. It was my grandfather’s favorite music and I never forgot it. Fast forward two generations later here is his granddaughter, 3 years after his passing, 58 years after the embargo, about to visit Cuba, the land of Son and Salsa. My family is Dominican but through Hispanic and African influence this Cuban music reached our lands and took the hearts of many of our grandparents. Maybe this is why so many of us felt this connection to visit this foreign land as soon as Obama lifted the embargo on October 2016.
Like most of my trips this one was booked on a whim powered by stressful Monday blues. I found an incredible deal using my go to site Justfly.com and booked a Delta flight for $290 round trip! Let the research begin! Cuba is the largest of all islands in the Caribbean so it was a project in itself to plan this itinerary. I wanted to take in as much of the culture as I could in the 5 days I was visiting. I wanted to make sure to hit both center city and country side and enjoy all the amazing scenes so many other travelers posted on IG. With map on hand and a few handy sites I planned the most diverse, and ambitious, itinerary for a 5-day trip to Cuba. I focused on the campo (countryside), the beach, arts, and night life, to make sure we had a great well rounded experience of Cuba.
We landed in Havana. A beautiful city that mimics a vintage painting of a rustic town. While pinks and blues painted the city, ruins and monuments framed its character. Havana was a buzzling city. Some streets busier than others. There were bars, paladares (Cuban Homes that serve as restaurants with home cooked food), wifi spots, and museums all at walking distance from our Airbnb. We booked two Airbnbs for this trip. One in Havana for the entire duration of our trip and a 2nd one in the town of Trinidad for a 2-day stay in between our visit.
First night in Havana we decided to just go with the wind and get acquainted with our neighborhood. We met a few locals to help us out with transportation during our trip (best way to haggle pricing) and we asked around what was going on that week that we should do. One of the locals took us to a few of the best paladares in town but most already closed as it was later in the evening. We stopped at the Paladar El Guajiro where we had seafood Paella! They had a special that day for $5 CUC we got a shot and a cigar! After we hit the local liquor store and bought a few bottles of Havana Club Rum for $6 and Planchaos for $1. Planchaos is a rum that comes in a small juice carton like a kid’s fruit drink but is 200ml of 36% proof liquor!
We met a great cab driver in town that gave us great rates to our planned trips so we were all set for our next day trip to Viñales. Most travelers add Viñales to their itinerary as it is the best combination of campo lifestyle and Cuban culture. A 2-hour drive from Havana, in Vinales we visited the Cigar Farms where farmers explained to us the process and showed us how most Cohibas are rolled (amazing smell), we took a boat through the Cueva (cave) de Santo Tomas, and visited the Viñales Valley whose view is breath taking. It was a great half day trip where we got the rustic country side of Cuba. Most cab drivers knew places to eat along the way so we relied on their expertise for this. We headed back to Havana and got ready for a night out on the town.
Havana’s art scene won us over. Our 2nd night in Cuba we visited La Fabrica de Arte. A warehouse size building with many rooms. You walk in and they give a white card with boxes on it. As you enjoy your night through each exhibit if you stop at a bar or the food area they write down what you get on your card. At the end of the night you give in your card and they tell you your bill. How easy! La Fabrica de Arte had an Adidas exhibit, a theater show displaying the life of Cuban famous boxer King Chocolate, and a room the resembled a BOILER ROOM party scene. And countless bars in each floor. If this place existed in NYC I would never leave! We spent about 3 hours running around La Fabrica de Arte and I could of gone for more. Next on our night out we headed to Bolabana Night Club. Think uptown small lounge scene with a cool factor. Music was diverse from your Cuban reaggaton to Mary J Blige. They had hidden musicians in each corner playing the tambora (bass drum) to the saxophone along with the beat of the song the DJ played. My favorite was the violinist that killed it to "Bad and Bougie" amid a milly rock! Seriously one of the best club nights of my life!
The next day we were ready for BEACH! We wanted sun, drinks, and sandy butts! We decided to go to a local beach, Santa Maria, since later that night we had a long trip to Trinidad. Santa Maria was a beautiful beach about 20 minutes away from Havana. With our Havana Club in hand we spent the early part of the day in its beautiful warm waters. We were close enough to the city to after enjoy some sightseeing like Che Guevara's house and the Christ of Havana Statute. Look for Fidel Castro! Not the actual Fidel but a great guy that knows the best angles to take the best pictures with the statutes. Our next stop was Trinidad!
Trinidad is 4 hours away from Havana so I don’t suggest a day trip. We had a 2nd Airbnb so we headed out on our third night went out for dinner and enjoyed a nice night sleep. Next day we got up early to meet a great man we met the night before during dinner. He told us he had some horses and could take us into the campo to the caves and waterfalls. This became one of the coolest excursions. A four our trip on horse into the campo where we stopped for fresh grind Cuban coffee on the way to the most beautiful natural pool. The waterfall was running during our trip but we got to swim into the caves behind it. AMAZING! We took the horses back into town and stopped for food along the way. ALL this for $20! After our trip we spent some time in town enjoying the cobble stones and the beautiful architecture of Trinidad.
We headed back to Havana that night as the next day we had a trip to the famous Varadero. Also because we wanted to go back to Bolabana. Let’s just say this time we didn’t make it back home until 5:30am! Best club scene I’ve been to in any trip.
Next day, partially dehydrated from all the shots we headed to Varadero. Varadero is Cuba's most well-known resort town, and with over 3,000 miles of coastline. The beach was beautiful but I don’t think it was worth the longer trip. I could have easily gone back to Santa Maria and had more time in Havana. I can see why some people like it more as it was mire livelier than the local beaches with more tourists but I prefer locals.
This was our last day in Cuba so we wanted to go out and finally enjoy Havana and the Old Plaza. We had learned about a great pizza place called “A Mi Manera.” Pizza was supposed to be good and it is brought down from the roof in the face of a fan cover by a string! Best thing… it was walking distance from our apt. We walked over and had the Hawaiian and the Chorizo pie, each about $3. Really great pizza and way to end our evening.
Now here is the only challenge. Last night in Cuba most of us felt sick. Our stomachs were all a mess. Cuba doesn’t have the best options as freshness and availability is an issue. Beware of what you order and stay safe and order cow meat as it is the freshest option. Sandwiches are great too but can get tiring with all the bread. Fruits are also a great option as you can probably have one of the juiciest mangos. Also, try and get the house owners to provide meals for you. They do a better job than most restaurants.
Some last tips...
- Take donations. People need stuff like paper toilets, feminine products, and clothing. They also use these items to barter for things they might need.
- Let the Airbnb host know in advance if you are not using their help for transportation. Airbnb owners plan ahead in accommodating car services as they will get a cut from the rate but this wasn’t the best for us as we haggled and had one driver through our whole trip who we loved and looked out for.
- Another part of the prep work was the money! Best way to get a great exchange rate is to change your dollars into EUROS before your trip! Then in Cuba change the EUROS to CUC. They tax US Dollars more than Euros so this way you get more for your buck.
- Call the airline! We was able to buy our visas over the phone for a faster check in process.
- One of the things we didn’t do is visit the restaurant San Cristobal. Everyone who I know that went enjoyed it very well as is a famous spot for those like Jay Z and the Kardashian.
Cuba was truly an experience. With recent news that President Trump might place back the embargo and restrict travel it saddens me that this world probably be closed off to us again. I do hope this doesn’t happen as I plan to visit again in the near future. I fell in love with Cuba so immensely. Its' beautiful cities, warm waters, lively people, and the amazing feeling it gave me. Is like I went back to a place I never knew I missed. It made me miss my grandfather and it made me find a place in my heart that needed to be free. Like one of my grandfather’s favorite Son song, Amnistia, says “Ay que haber estado preso,un solo día, para saber lo que vale la libertad.” (To be prisoned only one day to know the worth of freedom)