Cuba — My Experience
A couple of weeks have gone by since I visited Cuba with my friend Viktoriya for spring break. These weeks have been absolutely crazy because of the coronavirus, but I have finally somewhat settled into my new home routine and am ready to write about one of the best weeks of my life in Cuba. I will be taking you through my initial impressions, and day by day thoughts. Hopefully, you will get a better understanding of what this wonderful country is, and maybe even visit one day!
Day 1 — Havana
To preface my initial impressions, I had done a lot of research about Cuba before arriving. I knew more or less what I wanted to see, eat and experience. I knew that I’d have to brush up on my Spanish and that there were two currencies. However, I don’t think I was fully ready for what was about to be thrown at me. Viktoriya and I landed, went through security, and were thrown into arrivals. We realized pretty quickly that we would have to stand in a lot of lines to get things and the only way to figure out where anything was, involved asking questions in Spanish to strangers. With our $500 in hand, we exchanged our money, and found our taxi driver, Humberto, who was kindly waiting for us.
The only way I could really compare how I felt in the first few hours there, was the same feeling I get when I land in Mumbai. Lots of people everywhere, many trying to sell me things that I know are a scam, and it’s hot. Our drive to the airbnb was smooth, with Humberto calling someone at every point in the call. We were convinced that Humberto was the head of all the Taxis in Havana. Every time we passed a taxi, he waved and made some joke to the other driver. He gave us his business card, and we were greeted by our airbnb host, Clara.
Clara, an older lady, showed us up to our apartment, a beautiful space with a kitchen, living room, and a pretty big bedroom. Although my Spanish skills are better than beginner level, understanding a Spanish accent is something that they never really teach you in school. We fumbled through a lot of the conversation, trying to ask and answer as many questions as we could. We did manage to get the basics down. We knew it would cost $5CUC to taxi into the city, the location of some of the close by restaurants, and a list of important phone numbers. To be honest, we were definitely overwhelmed, tired and hungry, so we set off to find some food. We landed at a pretty fancy restaurant called La Casa Mia. The food was wonderful, and we got to have our first mojitos. We were definitely surprised by the low cost of eating out, even at a pretty fancy establishment. The restaurant was a short walk from the Hotel Presidente, our main source of internet. The wifi cards inside the hotel are generally twice the price ($2CUC/hour). At this point, we didn’t really care or need wifi, but we bought the cards and informed our families that we were safe and ok! At the end of the night, we passed out on our beds, and were excited about the next week.
Day 2 — Havana
Before coming, I had booked us a free walking tour through La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). These tours are great because they take you by foot through most of the famous sites, and are run by locals. Our guide, Teresa, took us on a 4 hour tour through the city, and it was incredible. She talked us through not just the sites, but the history and her personal experiences. I thought she went above and beyond, and was very impressed. It was also after this tour that we figured out that sandwiches were the cheapest, best food option in Cuba. These filling sandwiches, usually around $2CUC are filled with jámon, queso and some vegetables. The tour took us through the main church, La Bodeguita del Medio, a ferry to the Christ statue, and much much more.
On this tour, we met two other college students from the US who told us that they would be going on a later tour as well. Since we had nothing else to do that day, we decided to come back for another tour.
This tour took us through the newer part of the city (Central Havana) and some cool bars and art scenes. By the end of these two tours, we were really tired, but wanted to keep exploring. The end of the tour had put us pretty close to our airbnb, which ended up saving us some money on the taxi. We had heard about a local salsa festival, and decided to check it out. The line for the festival was very long, and we decided not to go. Our new friends wanted to keep going to the Fabrica de Arte, but my feet had given up on me. I knew that I wanted to go home, so Viktoriya and I walked a dozen or so blocks back home.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, but felt like I understood Cuba and the Cuban people a little bit better. I was slowly getting accustomed to not checking my phone for every piece of information. Life was a little bit slower, but more exciting.
Day 3— Havana
Alright, so the main goal of day 3 was to figure out how we were going to get from Havana to Vinales. We had booked our next airbnb there for two nights, and we had three options of getting there, a bus, private taxi, or collective taxi. The bus was the cheapest option, but tickets had to be bought in person. We decided to walk to the bus station, which was a nice 30 minute walk. Surprise, we stood in a line there for another 30 minutes only to figure out that all the tickets for tomorrow had been sold out. We had a feeling that this might be the case, so we decided to buy tickets for the way back. Feeling moderately successful, we thought the next best idea would be to call Humberto about arranging a taxi for us to Vinales. The 200km drive to Vinales is unfortunately around $150CUC for one way (the bus was around $14CUC per person for comparison). We knew that we couldn’t afford the taxi, so we called up Clara. She graciously called her niece, who arranged a taxi collectivo for us. This shared taxi would be $25CUC per person, and get us there in around 3 hours. Since we had no better option, we agreed.
After this eventful morning, we were hungry. This began our love for La Chucheria, the sports bar restaurant near our house. They had the best sandwiches, and I would get a couple more sandwiches after this. With our tasty lunch in our stomachs, we decided to go back to La Habana Vieja to take an old car tour. Getting to the city center was always an experience. The taxi drivers could easily tell that we were tourists, and would often try to charge us $10CUC for a ride. By the end of the trip we were able to haggle from $10 to $8 to $7 and finally to $5. Anyways, we got to the place where we could take an old car tour and took a beautiful sunset drive throughout Havana. It was a beautiful way to see the city, and since we knew a lot of the history from the walking tour, we were able to fully appreciate everything around us.
For dinner, we wanted to check out Habana 61, a restaurant recommended by Teresa on our walking tour. This restaurant is incredible. The maduros (fried plantains) were super crispy and sweet. Everything on the menu here is incredible and very affordable. After the long day, we came home and chilled before our early start for Vinales the next morning.
Day 4— Vinales
We woke up at 7:00am to go to the location where we would be picked up by our shared taxi. The taxi didn’t end up coming until 9:00am, and it was packed with 6 other people. The taxi fit 8 people exactly, and would be filled with 8 people at most parts of the journey. At 9ish we were off, and an hour in we dropped off two of the passengers, picked up another 2 and reached Vinales around 1pm. I would highly recommend taking a shared taxi through your airbnb host. We got to meet a lot of people through it and it was really fun to hear about everyone’s experiences so far in Cuba.
After reaching Vinales, we dropped off our stuff and chatted with our airbnb host about our plans for the day. She had organized a horseback riding tour for us as well as a tour of the tobacco plantations. I would highly recommend chatting with your airbnb hosts before coming to Vinales so they can organize things for you to do while you are there. We quickly scarfed down some food at a local restaurant and were then escorted by a horse taxi to the farms.
The tobacco plantations are beautiful, and protected UNESCO World Heritage sites. This means that the farms are not allowed to use harmful pesticides while farming. Our tour guide explained how the tobacco is planted, picked and dried for use. He even demonstrated how the cigars are rolled and let us smoke one! We ended up purchasing a bunch of cigars to take home since the money would go directly to the farm instead of the Cuban government. So if you are planning to buy cigars, Vinales is definitely the place to do it. They come out to around $3CUC/cigar if you are curious!
After the tour, we hopped on horses and took a huge tour around the farm land. This tour was extensive, and took us through a decent portion of the valley. There were some beautiful viewpoints, and tons of animals everywhere. I would say that exploring the valley on horseback is the way to do it. The horses are extremely smart and easy to ride.
The horseback riding was very tiring, and we came back to the center of town to eat. A lot of the restaurants are similar, but definitely check the prices before going in because some are way more expensive than others. A good tip we figured out was looking for Ropa Vieja (traditional Cuban stew) on the menu. Generally, if the Ropa Vieja was anywhere from $5–7 CUC, it meant that the restaurant was reasonably priced.
Day 5— Vinales
Our next day in Vinales was our biggest adventure. This day, we rented bikes for $10CUC/day. The town itself isn’t huge, and it is definitely possible to bike everywhere. However, we were not ready to bike all day in the hot weather. First up were the caves. Located around 8km north of the town, we set off with our backpacks. The roads are not in the best condition, but since there aren’t many cars, it isn’t too difficult to bike. Definitely wear sunscreen, and be ready to bike up and down many hills. After reaching the caves, we were tired but excited to see what lay inside. We tied our bikes sketchily around a tree and entered the caves (I think it was a $2CUC entrance fee). The caves are maintained beautifully, and there is a surprise inside (which I won’t tell you about because it really made the tour exciting for us).
Ok, the caves were finished and now we had to bike 8km back to the center of town. For some reason, the bike ride back wasn’t that bad. We ate another good meal and had a lot of energy. Initially, we were going to call it a day, and take a short nap at home before going to see the canopy. With this newfound energy, we decided to bike straight to the canopy (which turned out to be a really great idea). This bike ride, was also very hilly. I’d guess it was around 6km. We reached the canopy around 2pm and were surprised that it was actually a zip lining tour! I think we paid around $8CUC to zipline for a good hour or so. I’ve never ziplined before so I was definitely scared. The tour guides were very friendly and helpful, and we ziplined across four big parts of the forest. It was a really great way to end the tour.
We came back to our airbnb, showered and sat on the roof of our house to watch the sunset. Vinales is a very quiet and beautiful place, a nice change of pace from Havana.
Day 6— Back to Havana
Most of our day was spent waiting for our bus to Havana which was around 2pm. We waited in a restaurant for a couple hours and ate more maduros. The bus ride was smooth, and we were back in Havana and ready to go to the Fabrica de Arte. To best describe the Fabrica is a contemporary art museum where you can drink alcohol and listen to live music. A mere 16 blocks from our apartment, we decided to walk there. I would describe it as an eclectic vibe, with mostly tourists. There is a $2CUC entrance fee, but it is definitely worth it. I think while I was there, it was a little weird. I wish some of the art was explained a little bit more, but I really enjoyed the concept of being able to enjoy a beer while looking at art.
Day 6 — Havana
Our last day at Havana was spent chilling, looking for souvenirs and going to the beach! Since it was our Spring Break, we really wanted to go to the beach for at least a few hours. We woke up late, got some breakfast and then headed to the center of town to catch the tourist bus to go to the beach. I think it cost around $5CUC to go to the beach. We chose a bit of a gloomy day to go to the beach, but the sand was clean and the water was very blue (and surprisingly warm). The bus ride to the beach took around 40 minutes, and the buses came on time for the most part. After spending a couple of hours at the beach, we came back to the city center to do some souvenir shopping. There are lots of cute shops, and if you remember to haggle, you can get some pretty good deals! There are also a couple of great churro carts throughout the old city, and I would recommend them as a snack if you like churros.
Day 7— Havana
Our flight was in the afternoon, so we woke up early to get some pastries at a very cute shop. I would recommend walking around the area you live in to see what local people go to. There are so many small shops that are hidden. We had doughnuts, fancy breads and tarts for breakfast. Lots of sugar but very good. One thing I forgot to mention, Cuba is known for its espresso. Lavazza is an Italian company that actually uses Cuban coffee beans for their production. The espresso is always very good and a great pick me up in the middle of the day. I drank a lot of espressos throughout the trip. After getting the pastries, and drinking some espresso, we came back home to pack up and head to the airport. At the end of it, I was really sad to be leaving. Not just because I had to go back to my life of studying and work in Boston, but because I had really enjoyed my time in this country.
The pace of life is different, and the language is sometimes a barrier, but I felt comfortable there. From what I observed, all the people seemed happy and that made me happy. Cuba is definitely not a trip for everyone, but if you are ever considering it at all, I would push you to go. I think it is a unique trip that forces you to be a true traveler in the sense that you have to be alert, curious and excited. There were very few moments during the trip when I felt bored, even though I didn’t have internet for most of it.