By: Katherine Buchanan
Sunday, May 7th
After much anticipation and preparation throughout the semester, the beginning of our trip to Cuba had finally arrived! Although I was extremely excited, at this point I had no idea how great of an experience the next eleven days would be. We arrived in Havana after a short flight from Atlanta and I stepped off the plane unsure of what to expect but excited nonetheless. After a quick introduction to our guides, we boarded our vans and headed to our first lunch in Cuba. It was at this lunch that we first learned that meals in Cuba last much longer than what we are used to so patience is a necessity. This lunch also exposed us to the common Cuban meal of a Cuban salad (cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oil and vinegar), meat, rice and beans, and a dessert accompanied by coffee. Today’s dessert was a rice and milk pudding and like many other things I would try in Cuba, it was unlike anything I had ever had before but it was not bad! After lunch, we headed to a salsa lesson where we learned the basic steps of a salsa dance. This activity is definitely useful the rest of the trip as almost every night provides an opportunity to practice your new salsa moves. I was thankful for my partner as he was very nice and patient enough to help me learn the steps. After our lesson, we arrived at our first casa where we would stay the night. Our first dinner was also good and we had our first taste of Cuban ice cream, which is some of the best ice cream I have ever had. After dinner we went to a local salsa club and were able to try out what we had learned at our lesson. Even if you aren’t that good at salsa like me, dance with the local people because not everyone gets the chance to salsa dance with true Cubans!
Monday, May 8th
This was our first full day in Cuba and I woke up excited to see more of the country that I was loving already. Our sweet host prepared us a huge breakfast complete with tropical fruit, eggs, bread, coffee, and juice. This is the same breakfast that would have every day which was perfectly fine with me. I looked forward to the fruit every morning as it was so fresh and flavorful. We loaded into our vans and began the trip from Havana to Cienfuegos, where we would stay the night. On the way, we stopped at a nature preserve where we were able to see crocodiles. There were so many and although they appeared lifeless at first, the chicken we fed them on a pole got them moving which was cool to see. We also took a boat trip to an aboriginal village. After lunch, we took a nature hike that led to a natural pool that we were able to jump into. The water was gorgeous and very refreshing. Although it may seem high, jump into the water because you will regret it if you do not! After a quick swim, we continued on our trip to Cienfuegos. During this ride, we experienced our first bus breakdown, something we would become very familiar with during the rest of the trip. Even though a few of us were stranded on the side of the road for a little bit, we soon realized that these breakdowns could even be fun and something that the trip would not have been the same without. After finally making it to Cienfuegos, we ate a nice dinner in a small restaurant. We were surprised by a private party, complete with music, dancers, and even some locals that joined us. This was such a fun night!
Tuesday, May 9th
Our morning began with a tour of the town of Cienfuegos including some information about its history as well as a look at its beautiful architecture. Following the tour, we began our trip to Trinidad. On the way, we hiked to one of my favorite spots of the whole trip- a beautiful waterfall. We were able to jump in and swim underneath the waterfall and even into the caves behind it. The cool water was so refreshing after a hike in the Cuban heat and we had a great time swimming around the waterfall. We then traveled the rest of the way to Trinidad and checked into our casa for the night where we met our unforgettable host, Papí. After our dinner, we headed to The Cave Rave, a cave converted into a night club. We had such a great time dancing the night away in this unique place. I would definitely recommend coming here if you ever travel to Cuba. Another fun night!
Wednesday, May 10th
This day was one of my favorites of the whole trip because it was the beach day! The weather was perfect for a beach day and I was ready to relax after three fun yet very tiring days. The water was so clear and beautiful. We spent most of the day in the ocean and relaxing on the beach which was perfect. After the beach, we went to a restaurant with a huge tree in the middle of it and a gorgeous view of the mountains as we enjoyed our dinner on the roof. The dinner did not disappoint either as the restaurant’s specialty, honey chicken was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. Following dinner, we enjoyed live Cuban music in the town. We then returned to our house for our host, Papí and guide, David’s birthday party. The party started at the house but later in the night, we moved to the beach and kept the party going. My first Cuban birthday party was definitely an interesting experience that I will remember forever!
Thursday, May 11th
On the way from Trinidad to our next location, Santa Clara, we stopped at a sugar mill where we got to taste fresh sugarcane juice and then climb a tall tower to get an amazing view. Although the steps were very steep and seemed to go on forever, the view was definitely worth it! We got some great pictures and the 360-degree view was something you would not want to miss. Our next bus trip was very interesting as not only one, but both of our buses broke down on the way and we were stranded in the mountains for awhile. Although this doesn’t sound too fun, we made the best of it and it was a part of the trip I will never forget. Our encounter with El Loco that began with a peace offering of fruit snacks kept us laughing the whole time and we were finally rescued by some new vans that took us to lunch. After lunch, we checked into a resort where we would stay the night. It was nice and even had Wi-Fi which I was very happy to have for the first time of the trip! We ate dinner at the resort buffet, watched a fashion show by the pool and ended the night in the hotel’s own club. I really enjoyed this night too!
Friday, May 12th
After checking out of the resort, we began our journey back to Havana to spend a few more days exploring Cuba’s capital city. Before we left Santa Clara, we tried to go to the Che Guevara mausoleum but unfortunately found it to be closed for the day. On the drive to Havana, we stopped in the community of Jovellanos. Here we learned about an organization that provides aid to families with special needs children. After learning about the purpose of the organization we were able to assist them with the delivery of supplies to two families. This was an especially eye-opening and impactful experience. I was amazed at how the families that welcomed us into their home continued to be positive and inspiring despite the many hardships they faced. After saying goodbye to the new people we met, we traveled to a farm where they had prepared a huge lunch for us. The food we ate here was so fresh as it had been grown at the same farm we were eating it at. After lunch, the very kind farmer brought us freshly picked mango and it was the best mango I have ever had. I wish our mango at home tasted this good! He then carried us on a tour of his family’s farm which included many sculptures and even the chance to drink honey straight out of the beehive…what a unique experience! After leaving the farm, we experienced another bus breakdown however this was easily fixed and we were once again on our way to Havana. We checked into our house in Havana, which was very nice and had such a kind man as a host. We ate dinner at a delicious French restaurant and then headed to Espacios, a club in Havana that was fun every time we went there.
Saturday, May 13th
The first stop of the day was El Ajiaco, a restaurant in Havana. I really enjoyed the time we spent here. First, we toured a garden that provided fresh ingredients daily to the restaurant. Then, we met the chef and staff of the restaurant and they began to teach us how to prepare their signature dishes. In the kitchen, I helped prepare a lobster meal. The chef even convinced me to be in charge of flambéing the lobster so guess you could say I am an almost pro lobster chef! After we finished making the lobster, we were given a lesson on making a mojito by the bartender and the mojito we prepared was the best I had in Cuba! We then enjoyed the meal that we had prepared. After lunch, we visited Hemingway’s house in Cuba which was pretty and interesting to see. We had dinner which included a brownie that we were all very excited about but was not as good as a brownie at home, unfortunately. After a quick stop at Espacios, we headed home early for the night and got some much needed rest.
Sunday, May 14th
Our sweet bus driver, Francisco, surprised us this morning with a cake and flowers for Mother’s Day! We began our day with a walking tour of Old Havana and saw some of the sights such as a beautiful cathedral and some of Hemingway’s favorite places like his hotel and the Floridita. We ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s and although I did not get a sloppy joe, the Cuban sandwich I had was pretty good! After lunch, we got the chance to ride in old American convertibles and I will definitely say that riding around Havana in a vintage, red convertible is a surreal experience. It really does seem like you are in a different decade! This was also one of my favorite activities of the trip. Unfortunately, the first rain of the whole trip cut our convertible ride a little short but our drivers quickly put up the roof and we continued to the Hotel Nacional, our next stop. This is a beautiful, old hotel that has hosted many famous people during their time in Cuba. The restaurant we ate dinner at had spaghetti on the menu and this was a great choice because it was so good! After dinner, we went to a band performance and then to another club which was really fun!
Monday, May 15th
We traveled to our next destination this morning and I can definitely say that I would not recommend the back of the bus for this drive as it was very bumpy! We stopped at a rest stop on the way that had amazing views of the valley. We had lunch on the side of a mountain which provided more gorgeous views. After lunch, we went to a tobacco farm where we learned all about the process of making the famous Cuban cigars. After this, we prepared to take a horseback ride through the valley. This was the first time I had ever ridden a horse so I was a little unsure at first but the surreal views of the valley made the ride worth it! I definitely do not regret doing this but I now know that horseback riding is not my favorite activity! After dinner, we spent some time in the central plaza of the town and then headed to bed to rest up for our last full day in Cuba.
Tuesday, May 16th
We started the day with a tour of a cave that involved walking and a boat ride. We then boarded the van to begin our drive back. We stopped to have lunch at a hotel that was very interesting because it was built around trees. Our lunch included French fries which was an unexpected treat for all of us! We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining here but the weather did not cooperate as it poured nonstop. We tried to wait out the storm but it continued to rain so we decided it was best just to begin to head back to Havana. We ate our last dinner which was a bittersweet time that included speeches from our guides that we had grown so close to. We had a private performance by a great band. Of course, we had to make one last trip to our favorite place, Espacios, and we danced the night away to our favorite Cuban songs while drinking the last (of many) Cuba Libres. Like all of our other nights in Cuba, it was a great time and the perfect way to end our trip!
Wednesday, May 17th
Our last day in Cuba! A trip that had seemed never ending at one point was coming to an end and it was definitely going to be a hard goodbye! We spent our morning going to a famous cigar shop at a fortress and then to a huge craft market to buy last minute souvenirs. We arrived at the airport and spent some time saying goodbye to the guides that had made our trip the best ever! I am so thankful for Daniel, David, Ernesto and all of our drivers for everything they did for us! We boarded our plane and got our last views of Cuba as we headed back to the states. It was hard saying goodbye to a country that I had fallen in love with over the last eleven days! Our arrival in Atlanta brought some more goodbyes as our group prepared to be split up for the first time since we left home. We had grown so close and I can definitely say that I wouldn’t have wanted to experience Cuba with anyone else! I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take this trip with these people as it was one of the best times of my life and could not have been any better! Cuba was an incredible country and I hope I have the chance to return one day!