I traveled to Cuba over break with my cousin Blair and a friend, Alisa. When we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, we had no idea what to expect. The three of us had made absolutely no plans. We’d travelled extensively together and always embraced an “it will figure itself out” attitude. We hoped that would see us through Cuba.
The first thing we learned is that American debit cards don’t work there. Thank goodness only one of us is exclusively American or else we would have found ourselves in a spot of bother [ed. I think this means ‘trouble’]. After we got our money changed we got in the taxi line and were absolutely thrilled when we got matched with a “yank tank,” a baby blue 1956 Ford.
Over the roar of the ancient car we managed to ask our driver for a hotel recommendation. He said that we would be best served staying in a casa particulares, a family home that rents out rooms to borders. Staying in someone’s home seemed to be the most authentic way to experience Cuba and after one night with a lovely family in Havana’s Historic District we decided we only wanted to stay with Cuban families throughout the trip.
In Havana we did all the touristy things you are supposed to do: we had a daiquiri at Hemmingway’s favourite daiquiri joint, and a mojito at his favourite mojito place. The streets were well lit, safe, and full of music. We enjoyed roof top drinks overlooking the square and stayed up until closing wandering between salsa clubs.
After two days in Havana, it was tricky to figure out where to go next without access to the Internet. Guidebooks and locals suggested Vinales, a small town in the Pinar del Rio Province famous for its Tobacco fields. The views driving into town were absolutely staggering. Once we saw the village with all of its colorful wooden bungalows, large porches, and rocking chairs, we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our trip there.
Our driver helped us find a home to stay in and we immediately settled down drinking beers in rocking chairs on the porch. It didn’t take long for news to spread that three “unbelievably tall” foreign women were staying in the town for four days. For the rest of our trip every person we ran into knew where we were staying, what we had gotten up to that day, and wanted to have a chat with us.
Our first day there we took an all day tour on horseback through a heritage site. We walked through caves, had lunch at a coffee farm, and did a full tour of a tobacco plantation. We ended the day sharing a cigar with a tobacco farmer we had befriended and danced till closing with our horseback riding guide at the one open-air salsa club in the town.
We spent the next two days on an untouched beach 45 minutes from town. Incredibly, there were no hotels or houses to speak of. All that was there was one small bar and a restaurant. With our last day in Vinales, we explored the town and revisited the places we loved, in particular, a small family run restaurant that hangs over the tobacco fields providing for a truly spectacular view. That night, we danced in the local salsa club till the sun came up. By that point, we’d danced with more than half the people in the club and were truly regulars.
We were completely passed out for the car ride back to Havana. We spent one more night out walking through the streets trying to take everything in before leaving our time warp to return back home.
Though going to Cuba does somewhat feel like a journey through time, the country is not nearly as isolated as I thought it would be. It’s obvious that there is a lot of growth in Cuba’s future and I am glad I got a glimpse of the country before change takes hold.
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