By: Ethan Smyth
There is a reason most tourists visit Cuba in the winter months, and that reason became clear to me as soon as I got off the plane in Havana. The heat. I know, I should’ve been expecting this. It’s not that I thought Cuba, a tropical island in the Caribbean, would be cold in May, it’s just that I didn’t expect this kind of heat. The kind of heat that makes you feel embarrassed to have allowed your mom to convince you to pack a jacket and wool socks in your suitcase. I had no choice but to immediately become resolved to the fact that I would not stop sweating over the course of the next ten days. Once I had that realization, the heat somehow became a little bit more bearable. We met our tour guides, Daniel and David, at the airport, and they brought us to the vans that we were supposed to use for the entirety of the trip, but only ended up lasting us a few days. Oops spoilers, we will get to that. The vans drove us into Havana, where we stopped for lunch. That’s where we met Ernesto. I don’t really know what Ernesto’s job is, but I think he was Daniel and David’s boss, and he kind of showed up randomly over the course of the trip. Ernesto welcomed us to Cuba, gave us some information about the trip, and passed out the spending money that we had transferred. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this first meal was a good indicator of what most of the other meals were going to be like. A salad, that wasn’t so much a salad as a platter of cucumber and tomato slices, with a mound a lettuce and cabbage in the middle. White rice and black beans, a classic combo, were also passed around at most meals. We also typically got to pick a main course from a short list (this time I picked lobster). Then they brought out some sort of dessert and coffee for anyone that wanted it. This formula was followed at the vast majority of meals we had. After lunch we headed farther into Havana, for our salsa lesson. All I have to say about that is, if you think you are going to be bad at salsa dancing you probably are. In my case, at least. After that hour that felt like an eternity, we headed to the homes we would be staying in to change for dinner. I stayed in a house with the other two boys, Baker and Justin. It was a beautiful home with very kind owners, and two tiny and insane dogs. We headed to dinner, which followed the same formula as lunch (this time I picked chicken). After that, we went to a salsa dancing club right on the Malecón, the seawall that stretches along the coast of Havana. I didn’t partake in the salsa dancing, but I did get to know our tour guides a little better, and I tried my very first Cuba Libre, which is essentially a rum and coke. I ordered mine without rum though (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). After that we went back to our houses for the night.
Second day in Cuba started off on a high note. Our house mom laid out a nice spread for breakfast, including mango (pronounced mon-go) that I still have dreams about. Also Justin gave me his portion of eggs which was pretty cool because I’m a growing boy and I need my food. We ate up and then hopped in the van. First stop was a wildlife preserve type of thing where we got to see a bunch of crocodiles. I fed one from a distance, so I can tell you first hand that there is nothing quite as terrifying as the sound of a crocodile snapping its mouth shut. After that we went on a short boat ride to an area with replicas of indigenous Cuban huts and sculptures, which was neat. Then we jumped back in the van and headed to lunch. Only thing worth noting at lunch is that I ordered fish, and the head was still attached when it was served to me. So I got a nice meal, and I learned a lot about fish anatomy! After lunch we went on a little nature hike up to a natural pool where you can go cliff diving. I wasn’t planning on jumping, but I’m a real sucker for peer pressure, so I ended up jumping a few times. Would recommend. We did see a crocodile in a nearby pool a little earlier so that was sketchy, but none of us lost any limbs so it turns out it was safe after all. Next stop was the Bay of Pigs Museum, which was closed by the time we got there. All the cool stuff, like planes and tanks, were on the outside so we got the gist of it. As we headed to Cienfuegos, our home for the night, our van broke down (for the first of many times. Oops spoilers). Almost everyone was able to cram into the other van, but I was one of the few tragically left behind. It actually turned out for the best, because Daniel and David brought out a speaker and we had a little fiesta (translation: party). Before long our driver Freddy, a tender man with a kind soul, got the van up and running and we were on our way. In Cienfuegos we had dinner and then had a little party afterwards, which included a band, dancers, and a group of random Cuban youths that were loitering nearby. Baker showed off his killer dance moves, Calista found love, and I played the maracas and ended up joining the band, I think. A good time for sure.
Wow my word count is already almost at 1000, so I’m going to speed things up a little. To save time, I’m not going to talk about the breakfasts from now on. Just know that we ate breakfast every day, and it was always the same kind of stuff. Ok let’s get started. The boys and I decided that we deserved to sleep in a little, so as a result the walking tour of Cienfuegos was abbreviated, but still very informative! From there we headed to a hiking trail where we hiked to yet another body of water, this time with a waterfall feeding it, and we once again jumped in. Loved it. From there we drove to Trinidad, where we would be staying for the next two nights. We went out to dinner and then went to a club inside of a cave. It was pretty uneventful, I don’t want to get into it.
This is an easy day to talk about, because we were at the beach all day. It was awesome. We went to a resort with its own private beach, and home to one of the top 20 prettiest views I have ever seen. The water was beautiful with its various shades of blue, and the mountains in the background were stunning. We got some much needed rest and relaxation, and I only got kind of sunburned, so that was nice. We left for dinner, and then headed to a square in the city that had a band and dancing. We headed back early, and some people went to one of our hotel owner’s birthday party, but I didn’t. If you want to hear about it, ask literally anyone but Baker and me. They all love to talk about it. The one thing I didn’t go to ended up being the freaking highlight of their trip. I’m still pissed if you can’t tell.
On the fifth day we started off by going to a sugar plantation. We got to try sugar cane juice, which was very sweet, and climb a tall tower, which borderline gave me an asthma attack. From the top you could see the whole valley, which was beautiful. After that we got in the vans to head towards Santa Clara, but before long both of our vans broke down, leaving us somewhat stranded in the middle of nowhere. Eventually taxis came to pick us up, but not before we met a few locals, some sane and some not. Because of the delay, we had to postpone our visit to Che Guevara’s Mausoleum for the next day. We arrived in the resort in Santa Clara, and relaxed by the pool for the rest of the day. After dinner, we were hanging out when a couple guys came up to hit on the girls in our group. After they were shot a swift L, Baker and I started talking to them, and it turns out they are pretty cool guys. Long story short we ended up becoming friends and later on squading up in the local club, so that was fun.
First stop was the Che Guevara Mausoleum. It was closed. The outside was pretty cool though. Then we visited a group that assists the families of people with disabilities. We learned about the organization and had the opportunity to visit with some of the families. We saw first hand the conditions that some of these people had to live in, but we also saw the optimism that they all had, despite their circumstances. Afterwards we drove to a small farm for lunch. I know I said I was going to stop talking about the meals a lot, but this meal was crazy good. I actually can’t describe the meal too much because I am still not quite sure what all the dishes were, but rest assured they were good. Rice and beans made an appearance as well. For dessert we had mango slices and fresh coffee. Some of us may have gotten confused and thought you were supposed to dip the mango in the coffee, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Everybody makes mistakes. Seriously chill out you guys I’m sorry. Anyway then we got a tour of the farm, including a sculpture garden and a bee hive where I got to drink honey right out of the hive. After we left the farm, the van broke down again. Classic. This time they fixed it right back up and we were on our way back to Havana. We were dropped off at our houses (we had the same one as before, so we got to see our crazy dogs again), and we got ready for the night. We went to dinner at a place with really good bread and then went to a bar called Espacios, which was a blast.
We woke up bright and early to head to a local restaurant called El Ajaco. We toured their garden and learned about different herbs and whatnot, before heading into the kitchen. They then taught us how to cook two dishes, which we made and then ate for lunch. We also learned how to make our own mojitos. I made mine without rum (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). Then we headed to Ernest Hemingway’s old house, where we learned about his life and his works. We also got to see the boat that the boat in “The Old Man and the Sea” was based on, which I thought was cool since that is the only Hemingway book that I’ve read. We got in the van to head back to Havana, but before long the van temporarily broke down again, so that was cool. After dinner we hung out at a club for awhile.
This was an exciting day. We started off with a walking tour of Havana, where we learned the history of different monuments and buildings, and got to explore different plazas and markets. Also I finally had a Cuban sandwich, so that’s off the bucket list. Then we had a vintage car tour of the city, which made me feel kind of like a rich celebrity. It started to rain so we took shelter in the Hotel Nacional, which is a gigantic and very regal hotel overlooking the ocean. Not quite sure why we didn’t get to stay there overnight but whatever. They had Wi-Fi so I got to facetime my mom for Mother’s Day, so that was a bonus. Afterwards we headed to dinner and then went to a concert put on by a famous Cuban band, before heading to another bar.
We started off the day with a nice, long, bumpy van ride to Viñales, a UNESCO world heritage site. We stopped at a viewpoint to marvel at a valley dotted with the towering limestone cliffs that the site is famous for. We enjoyed more of the views from the restaurant/garden where we ate lunch. Then we headed to a farm where they grow tobacco and make cigars. They taught us about the process of making cigars, and then offered some to us, but I didn’t take one (that was in case my mom reads this. I definitely took one lol). Then we went horseback riding through the valley. I almost died two times, once when I was taking a really cool selfie and almost fell off and once when my horse legit went from 0 to 60 mph in like half a second and I almost fell off. Other than that it was a lot of fun.
The last full day of the trip had us feeling a mix of sadness and relief. We started the day with a hike/boat ride through a cave in Viñales. That was fun, but what was even more fun was playing with some kittens we found outside. In hindsight that might not be the best idea, because they didn’t seem to have an owner, but I haven’t been deathly ill yet so I guess it turned out okay. We got in the van and started to head back Havana, with a stop for lunch. We stopped for lunch at a hotel that legit had trees growing inside of it which was neat. We had plans to go zip lining nearby, but the rain canceled those plans. We got back to Havana and had our farewell party. There was live music, dancing, speeches, and a lot of picture taking. We even ended up going back to Espacios. It was a last hoorah of sorts, and I know I had a great time for sure.
Last day 😦 We woke up real early so we could go on a little shopping spree. First we went to a cigar store inside of some sort of fortress. I don’t really know what came over me, but I ended up impulse buying 20 cigars. I think I forgot that Cuban money isn’t like Chuckie Cheese tickets, where you need to get rid of all of it before you leave. Cuban money can be transferred back to American money, which I seem to have forgotten in the moment. So come over if you want a cigar I guess. Anyway, then we went to a market. I bought a coconut. Then we were off to the airport. Once we got there it hit me that we were really leaving. I had to say goodbye to our tour guides, friends that I had spent the last ten days growing closer to. It was sad saying goodbye, but they give me one more reason to come back to Cuba!
And hopefully one day I can return. Cuba is a beautiful and diverse country, with a rich history and kind people. This trip introduced me to a country and culture that is truly unique, which I got to see and experience firsthand. In only eleven days I feel that I have only scratched the surface of what Cuba has to offer. I miss it already!