Day 1 – Sunday May 7th
Today is finally the Day! Am I really about to go on a trip to Cuba! I walked into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport where, after many minor setbacks, I met up with the group that after this amazing trip I came to think of as mi familia. The flight went smoothly and we all walked off the plane ready to start our adventure. The Havana airport was much larger than I expected and had an array of floors and escalators that could very easily disorient even the most experienced of travelers. Going through security in Cuba was a breeze compared to the US and so we headed out and met our amazing guides and overall saviors of the trip David and Daniel. The bus ride to lunch was absolutely amazing! The feel of Cuba is like nothing I had ever experienced and just simply taking it all in for the first time was extraordinary! We ate our first meal in Cuba at a beautiful cafe in Havana where we had a wonderful multi course meal, and had an interesting dessert made from sweet milk, rice, and cinnamon which we described by saying “it’s not bad” – a phrase that became a joke when trying the many different foods Cuba had to offer. Travel tip for when in Cuba, eating out takes around two and a half hours per meal and was actually a really fun time to soak up the culture and have some incredible conversations. After lunch we drove through Old Havana, which is absolutely stunning, and had a private salsa lesson at La Casa del Son. I, myself had never really been one for dancing so I wasn’t especially looking forward to this part, but the instructors were amazing and I a great time! After the Salsa lesson and walking through the streets of beautiful Old Havana, we hopped back in the busses and headed to our hostels where we met our amazing house mom and her 2 very special dogs Jolene and El Nano. After an incredible dinner we spent our first night at a salsa club where we got to show off our moves we had learned earlier and really got to be a part of the Cuban culture. Fun fact, if you’re just standing to the side of the dance floor, someone will ALWAYS come get you to dance!
Day 2 – Monday May 8th
Breakfast time! Breakfast in Cuba is very different than in the US. There is always an array of tropical fruits like papaya, guava, pineapple, and my favorite the mango, freshly baked bread with butter, some fresh, tasty eggs, and some of the best coffee you have ever had. Eat as much of the amazing breakfasts as you can because lunch isn’t usually until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and snacks are hard to come by. Next, we all loaded our luggage into the busses to headed toward the city of Cienfuegos. Word for the wise, bring some headphones and a neck pillow for the long cars rides because there will be a lot of them. I wasn’t smart and didn’t bring a neck pillow and I had to watch Justin sleep comfortably with his everyday! About halfway through the bus ride we stopped at an alligator farm where, for 1 peso, you could take a picture holding a baby alligator that was wearing a sombrero and feed a full sized adult alligator. Definitely do pay attention when standing around the grown alligators however because there was only a little wire fence holding the alligators in. After some casual pictures with alligators we piled in a boat and went up river to an island on which there was an old aboriginal Cuban settlement known as Guama Village. This is a great opportunity to take lots of pictures because there are many beautiful statues commemorating the activities of the aboriginals daily lives. Next, we hiked through the “Enigma de las Rocaas” with our mysterious naturalist guide who kinda struck me as the mix of Rambo meets Mr. Miyagi. Here you have the incredible opportunity to jump off a small cliff into a natural spring created by the movement of ancient plate tectonics. This is a great place to use a waterproof camera or camera phone if you have one but word to the wise make sure not to drop it cause you won’t be able to find it again! We had lunch overlooking Playa Giron also known as the Bay of Pigs and it was incredible how much you could truly feel the history of what had occurred at this place! On our way to the town we had another truly Cuban experience – one of the buses broke down and Katherine, Ethan, and I stayed behind with the guides and the bus while the others crammed in the other bus and headed into town. The three of us decided to embrace this and it turned out to be one of the funnest parts of the trip! Our guides and driver pulled out a speaker, some Cuban cigars, and a bottle of Cuban rum and we had our own little party right there on the side of the rode until the bus got fixed! After dinner Tiffany surprised us with a live band and dancers, and we danced and laughed even more till early in the morning. Some of the neighbors heard all the music and came and joined us and it turned into one big neighborhood fiesta!
Day 3 – Tuesday May 9th
Woke up early and drove to Trinidad where we went on a beautiful hike. Partway through the hike we got to walk through a small house/cabin where two men were lived without electricity and running water. At the end of the hike we was a gorgeous waterfall. Here again was a great opportunity to go swimming. You could jump of the rocks into the water and swim underneath the waterfall where there was a small cave. Again, a really great place for some amazing pictures in the water! However, definitely would recommend wearing tennis shoes instead of chacos for the hike because the “ranch” might get you. We had an interesting Cuban dish called Paella for lunch. By this time we had learned not to ask what was in the food we were eating and with this dish we definitely did not want to ask that question, but surprisingly it wasn’t bad. After a great dinner at a guitar themed restaurant we went to a club in a cave! This was definitely a first for me but it was such a cool and unique experience. Also, the clubs in Cuba usually have some kind of halftime-like show, and this cave club was no different. The show consisted of the act picking up a full size table with their mouth, laying on and eating glass, and shredding a soda can with their mouth.
Day 4 – Wednesday May 10th
This day came at just the right time! Just as we were starting to become exhausted from all the hiking and adventuring through cities we had a nice relaxing day. First we started off the day with a tour of the Valley of the sugar mills where we got to see how sugar cane can be turned into a delicious, sweet tasting drink. Next we climbed the tower El Torre for a full 360 degree view of the surrounding mountain terrain, and then went on a short shopping trip through the streets around the area. Then, we headed to Playa Ancon where we swam in crystal clear water in a little natural cove that had been created when a hurricane threw rocks around to form a crescent shape around this part of the beach. The view from the beach was stunning with giant boulders, crystal clear water, and the giant mountains hanging in the background. After dinner we ended the night by walking around Trinidad and going to a live music concert where people gathered to dance and sing.
Day 5 – Thursday May 11th
Woke up to another amazing Cuban breakfast and got going with yet again a great cup of coffee. Today we had yet another bus break down in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, but we got to meet several locals this time including the infamous El Loco himself. We were all really surprised when the busses pulled into the resort where we were staying. There was a swimming pool, an alligator exhibit, unlimited hot water for showers, and, oh ya, we could get wifi for the first time. We ended the night by watching a fashion show after dinner. Also, our very own singing extraordinaire and all around dance pro, Justin, won a bottle of rum in a karaoke competition. Although going without any phone service was a great really nice and was a great learning experience, whenever you get the opportunity to get wifi definitely take the time to call home!
Day 6 – Friday May 12th
We put on our long dress pants, nice shoes, and dress shirts and headed to the Che Guevara mausoleum. However, when we arrived we were told the mausoleum was closed for renovations. It is easy to forget that this stuff is typical in Cuba because, unlike in the US, they can’t just google things to see if their open. We went to a local mission who’s outreach was to aid families with disabled children, and we helped deliver care packages to the local families. Seeing the intensely difficult situations these people call their daily lives was deeply touching! Also, seeing these people smile through all their hardships was inspiring and has allowed me to see how many things we take for granted. Next, we went to Finca Hector Correa and had an amazing meal. This place was much more than a just a lunch spot, it was what can only be described as a center for creativity and beauty. Hector Correa had started this farm and ceramics shop when he was younger and turned it into a family business. It was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen, and we had one of the best meals that I think I have ever eaten there. We had the best fruit I have ever tasted and the food was unbelievably fresh because it had literally just come straight from the farm. Also, they had flightless and stingerless bees and we got to drink their honey straight out of the hive with a straw… so ya that was cool! Dinner was at an amazing french restaurant that had freshly baked baguettes and the best flan I have ever had! For the evening’s entertainment we went to a club called Espacios and danced till 2:30 in the morning. Oh ya, and on the way out we saw Harry Styles!
Day 7 – Saturday May 13th
We had an early morning call time and headed out right after breakfast to Ajiaco. Ajiaco was a restaurant that was named after its specialty dish and received the majority of its ingredients from a 100% natural and organic neighborhood farm. We got to tour the neighborhood farm and the two brothers who owned it showed us all of their natural farming methods – one example was their use of painted plastic water bottles as a natural bug trap. After the farm tour we headed back to the restaurant where we cooked our own lunch of Lobster and Ajiaco. Also we got a lesson on how to make what I am convinced was the world’s best mojito. Another travel tip, when making a mojito natural honey is a secret ingredient! On to Ernest Hemingway’s Havana estate Finca Vigia. Hemingway obviously had great taste because he had the most beautiful house and view I have ever seen! He even had a writing office that was in the top of a tower overlooking the city – it was easy to think that anyone could be inspired to write with that view. Also, after reading “The Old Man and the Sea” it was really cool to sea the seaside village and fishing boat that inspired Hemingway to write the book. We had dinner at a nice modern style Cuban restaurant where we were finally promised a delicious American dessert – the brownie. Sadly, I would never stoop so low as to consider what they brought out to be a brownie. But, we revived the night with another quick trip to Espacios – Harry Styles was not there this time.
Day 8 – Sunday May 14th
This was Mother’s Day and boy does Cuba take this holiday seriously. It was really amazing to see the appreciation mothers are given there. It was taken as seriously as Halloween or Easter. Today was the day we got to explore the beautiful Old Havana. We walked for what seemed like several hours through the streets and got to see a Catholic cathedral with high, intricately crafting ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. We passed the large Cuban University located in Havana and unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside, but it looked very new and was one of the nicest looking buildings we saw. For whatever reason this was the day that we got to eat some American food. Or that’s what I thought when we walked in the Original Sloppy Joe’s restaurant but it turns out that Sloppy Joe’s was actually started in Cuba? After a slightly different tasting sloppy Joe and a Cuban sandwich we took a ride in vintage convertibles through the streets of Havana where our guide pointed out many of the historical landmarks that we passed. As luck would have it rain started pouring down and in another typical Cuban fashion the top wouldn’t stay up on our car so we got soaked. The car ride ended at the Hotel Nacional where Fidel Castro had his headquarters during much of the revolution and is where many famous celebrities and politicians have stayed when traveling to Cuba. Here we were able to get wifi for the second time and I was able to FaceTime my Mom and wish her a happy Mother’s Day. For Dinner we had a private room where a few of us ordered champagne and were surprised when spaghetti popped up on the menu. We were all very happy to have a little change from the usual rice and beans and it was absolutely delicious! After dinner we went to a restaurant and bar venue where we saw the Grammy Award winning band The Social Club perform and we got to join in on a real life conga line!
Day 9 – Monday May 15th
We left Havana early in the morning and headed towards the beautiful city of Vanales. Once there, we ate at an amazing restaurant on the top of a mountain overlooking the fields and city below. It was by far the best lunch view I’ve ever had and there was also an adorable puppy that sat around the table with us while we ate. After lunch we met a tobacco farmer and learned how they process and roll the tobacco into their world famous Cuban cigars. Then, we went horseback riding through the valley of Vinales. Just a fun little tip but when you go horseback riding make sure you choose a female horse or you may end up having a horse like Georgeann’s! After this adventure we drove through the center of the city to our hostel for the night. We were greeted by our incredibly nice house mom who had prepared freshly made mango juice for us. She then led us through what seemed like a maze of twists and turns before we arrived at our amazing little cottage that we called home for the night. We had some time to freshen up and explore before dinner, and we passed some Cubans playing futbol on a dirt field and some cool little souvenir shops. We loaded into the busses for dinner around 8:30 and drove in what seemed like pitch black darkness for eons until we finally arrived at the cozy little restaurant that looked like it was just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere. After the busses breaking down the days before, we were really glad when we made it back from dinner safely!
Day 10 – Tuesday May 16th
We took a short adventure through a cave, no club inside this one, and came to a river where we were greeted by a boat driver. Our driver took us on a ride through the cave and pointed out several interesting looking formations and then dropped us off outside the cave. We headed to Las Terrazas Biosphere for some zip-lining through the trees but Cuba’s weather had different plans for us, and it started pouring harder than we had seen before! None-the-less, we had a wonderful lunch at a hotel and ate suspended in the trees. Not being able to zip-line turned out to be blessing in disguise because we got to have a some french fries made from yuca and take a relaxing, well needed nap while listening to the rain fall on the mountains. We hopped in the busses for the long ride back to Havana and another travel tip for you… sit towards the front of the bus because I can’t tell you how much nicer it is than sitting in the back of a bumpy bus! We arrived at our hostels in Havana and got ready for dinner at a modern restaurant called Fusion. When we arrived at Fusion, Los Boys, the band who performed at the salsa club our first night in Cuba, was setting up to play us a private show. After pictures and speeches from the guides, we headed back to our night time entertainment in Havana – Espacios here we come! Once there we ordered our usuals, even managed to find a pizza somehow, and danced and laughed the night away.
Day 11 – Wednesday May 17th
Our last Day in Cuba was came so fast and I can’t believe the trip of a lifetime is coming to a close… we drove to a fort where we saw the world’s longest hand-rolled cigar and had the opportunity to buy authentic Cuban cigars. We then walked through a giant open-air market where we bought as many souvenirs as we could fit into our carry ons. Word to the wise, do yourself a favor and buy a puzzle box if you see one. They are super cheap and they make great gifts! We arrived at the airport, said our goodbyes to Ernesto, David, and Daniel, whom the trip would not have been possible without, and made it through security and onto the plane.
Cuba was an absolutely amazing experience that taught me many incredible life lessons and although we started the class as strangers and were not the most talkative classmates, I really feel close to everyone in our group after adventuring through this amazing country with them! I had many life changing experiences on this trip and I can’t wait to go back with Tiffany on the reunion trip to come soon. Te vet de nuevo pronto Cuba!