I want to start by saying that this was the most incredible, the most fun trip I have ever been on with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I don’t think there will ever be an experience quite like this one. I’ll never forget all the memories we made together and the experiences we had. I miss this group more every day, and it’s hard to put into words how much I love these guys and how much I love Cuba, but I’m going to try my best!
May 7, 2017 – Day 1: ATL to Havana
Off to Cuba!! It was hard to believe that the day was here! It snuck up on all of us I think, so even if I already felt like I was being thrown into something I wasn’t completely prepared for, it was multiplied by ten when I realized I had to drive to airport that day. Excitement levels were at an all-time high for everyone as we boarded the plane.
We finally landed around noon and met our tour guides, David and Daniel, as well as our drivers, Freddy and Sergio. The airport was a little overwhelming just because of the number of families waiting for their travelers to come home, but I was so happy to be there. The heat hits you as soon as you step outside. Or inside. It’s hot no matter what, so that was something to get used to.
After the longest lunch break I have ever experienced (I quickly learned that every meal takes 3 hours at least), we took a salsa class at La Casa del Son. While I was a little nervous because dancing is not a talent I have, it ended up being super fun! The teachers were all so nice and patient and just wanted us to have a good time and know enough to be able to dance with some locals later. They took everything step by step and made it very easy to learn salsa. I think everyone succeeded in the end!
We then had a few minutes to change at our casas before a night out. Our host family was so sweet. As soon as we walked in the door it was like we were part of their family already. They immediately handed us bowls of fruit and showed us to our rooms and told us to make ourselves at home. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but these homes and families weren’t the image in my mind; everything was beyond my wildest expectations.
We went to dinner at El Aljibe and were able to speak with an ex-diplomat, which was quite interesting. The food was really good as well. They were known for their chicken, which of course everyone got, but I don’t think we had much of a choice! Almost every restaurant we went to was family style, which I liked because it fostered that feeling of our group really being more of a family than just a tour group (I think everyone would agree that after everything we’ve experienced together, we’re one big Cuban family now!).
Our night ended with an outdoor concert at 1830. The band is pretty well-known, and we got to meet most of them because David and Daniel knew them. The music was great! I think everyone danced with at least one local, and although we probably failed miserably (well, everyone but Justin because there’s nothing he can’t do), we all had a great time!
May 8, 2017 – Day 2: Havana to Cienfuegos
I learned fast that a night with only 5 hours of sleep is a good night of sleep in Cuba. That first morning was a little rough, though, not gonna lie. Breakfast was amazing. So many tropical fruits, bread, ham, eggs, tomatoes, coffee, fresh mango and pineapple juice . . . you name it, it was there! This menu was typical for breakfast everywhere we went.
There was a little bit of a drive before we got to our first activity of the day – a crocodile farm. Small side note – I thought it was interesting that there are rest stop sort of things on the side of the highways, but they’re basically bars? Or this one was. Anyway. The crocodiles were cool! A little terrifying, to be honest, but there was a little one that people could hold, and that one was pretty cute. We witnessed Ethan feed one of the big ones, which made them even more terrifying, but it was entertaining!
Before lunch we took a short boat ride to a nearby model tribal village, where we were chanted at and brushed with branches and got our faces painted with some clay before walking around the small island and heading back for lunch.
In Cuba one rests for nothing, so even though we were dead tired, we went on a hike along the Enigma de las Rocaas with a naturalist guide who told us about native species and anything else we encountered along the way. At the end, we were all hot and sweaty enough that we couldn’t resist the thrill of cliff jumping into a pool of water below. The lagoon was filled with some of the most clear, beautiful water I have ever seen. I don’t think I will ever see anything quite like that scene ever again.
A short drive later, we ended up at a Bay of Pigs museum, where David and Daniel explained all the history since it got to be too late for us to go inside.
On our way to the hostel, we experienced our first van break down of the trip, where some people got left stranded with a broken-down car. This became a common theme throughout our time in Cuba. We learned to make the most of it, and in my opinion, it added more to the trip than it took away. We may have missed out on a couple activities, but we made more memories together than we would have had we not faced some obstacles along the way.
David and Daniel planned a fun little fiesta for us after dinner, which was so much fun! One of my favorite nights in Cuba, I think. We had some live music and professional dancers who pulled us out of our chairs to dance with them. A few local friends walked up when they heard the music, and we eventually convinced them to join our party and dance with us. I think this was our first taste of the “Cuban sandwich” (probably not the kind you’re thinking of…). Interesting and fun night to say the least!
May 9, 2017 – Day 3: Cienfuegos to Trinidad
After an early breakfast, we headed to the middle of Cienfuegos to check out the beautiful architecture and learn about some of the history of the city as told by Daniel. We got back in the vans and took a long drive to a national park, which was a great time for a nap after a long night of dancing! Although the car rides are a good time for naps, it’s also incredible to look at the beautiful scenery along the route.
The hike we went on in the Escambray mountains was so nice! I’m really into outdoorsy things, so it was right up my alley. The waterfall was beautiful. There was another opportunity to jump off rocks that were pretty high up; it was good to cool off a little before heading back down. There was an interesting cave behind the waterfall that we all swam to; the bats were moderately terrifying, and I think it’s safe to say we were all a little paranoid about the cave monster coming to get us…
Speaking of caves, we went to an awesome cave rave that night. It was an interesting experience just trying to get in the place. They opened late (typical) and lined us up two-by-two before letting us inside. Once we got inside, though, the place was amazing. Colorful lights hung up everywhere, great music, cool people, and an interesting performance group that lifted things with just their teeth!
A little note – Cubans do not hesitate or hold back when it comes to dancing! If they see you just sitting around, you are pulled out of the background and onto the dance floor! There’s no way you can be left not having a great time!
May 10, 2017 – Day 4: Trinidad
Finally, a day for a little break. We spent some time at a beautiful beach – Playa Ancon – with a view of the Escambray Mountains. The water was so so clear and blue with some rocks further back that blocked the big waves from crashing. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been and a great place to relax and nap and reflect on the fun times we had during those first couple days in Cuba (although it felt like we had been there for weeks already because of the amount of activity going on every day – we thought it might already be 2020 when we got back).
After a full day of good rest, we went to dinner at Restaurant La Ceiba, an awesome place with a huge beautiful tree growing up through the building. It felt like we were one with the tree because its branches extended across the roof of the restaurant – super cool. We were seated outside a couple stories up, too, so the view was incredible.
We walked on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad to an outdoor music venue, which was entertaining. No matter where you go in Cuba, there’s always something fun going on, and it always involves music and dancing. There’s never a calm moment, and I love that.
We returned to our host home to celebrate a very special person’s birthday – Papi! It was David’s birthday, too, so we spent a long time partying and dancing with them, eventually ending up back at the beach, which was an interesting experience to say the least. . . However, the beach was incredible at night, with the moon shining so bright you didn’t need a flashlight to see anything. Needless to say, it was a long night, but definitely one of the most memorable! I’ll never forget Papi’s butterfly move, especially since it now lives in Justin’s dance repertoire (hopefully he’ll bring that back at our first Salsa Club meeting – date and time TBD, but I’ll be there!).
May 11, 2017 Day 5: Trinidad to Santa Clara
On our drive to El Torre, we got to take in some cool views of the Valley of the Sugar Mills. It was always neat to be sort of on top of a mountain looking down at fields and towns and houses. Upon arrival we were bombarded with yells from merchants along a little market that lined the path up to El Torre. Some people were handed little grasshoppers made from sugar cane plants. Before climbed El Torre we were given a demonstration on how sugar cane juice is made using this huge juicer that originally operated with one person pushing it (we needed four people, if that tells you anything). We all tried the drink, but I’ll admit it was way too sweet for me to take more than a couple sips.
We climbed El Torre shortly after, which was incredible. That may have been one of my favorite things we did because of the height and the beautiful views all around. Once you get to the top you can see absolutely everything. It was incredible. And a great place for pics!
We continued on our way after that. Unfortunately, Sergio’s van broke down en route, so we stuffed 17 people into a 10-person van . . . maybe not the brightest idea because then Freddy’s van broke down as well. We were in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Cuba. And I really mean that. No phone service. Cows roaming the side of the street (although this is not uncommon). Only a couple cars driving by. But we definitely made the most of it! Passed fans around so we could all cool down a little bit. Watched Justin dance with his new maracas on the side of the road. Made friends with El Loco, one of my favorite people. Or least favorite people. Depending on how you look at it. We had a great time laughing with him, though!
We eventually got picked up by new taxis and were shuttled to the hotel we stayed at that night, Hotel Los Caneyes. We hung out at the pool and watched a fashion show after dinner. We also went to a club on site and witnessed Justin winning a karaoke competition – the prize, a bottle of rum! Brittany and I had a grand time getting to know some of the models from the show and danced with them for a while before getting tired and heading back to our room for a little shut-eye.
May 12, 2017 – Day 6: Santa Clara to Havana
Thank you, David and Daniel, for letting us sleep in a little this morning; that extra bit of bed time was definitely needed.
We visited a sort of ministry in a small town this day. They provide food and support and other resources for families with children with special needs. I enjoyed getting to know the families a little bit and hearing their stories about overcoming and finding faith and hope. It was cool to have the opportunity to see this side of daily life in Cuba. Usually when travelling you see the grand and beautiful things, the perfect things that sort of “define” the place for tourists, but seeing the raw and not-so-perfect side of Cuba made it more memorable of a trip, and for that I’m thankful.
We made another great connection that day when we visited a farmer/potter/all-around amazingly talented man – Hector Correa. We ate lunch with him and some others there before taking a tour of his farm and what I would call an outdoor gallery with sculptures and artwork all over the property that he explained to us. One of the more unique things we did here was drink honey straight out of a honeycomb! It was by far the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. Besides the mangoes (pronounced MON-goes, fyi. Thank you, Angela, for the pro tip). I have yet to find a mango in the US that lives up to a Cuban mango. Guess I’ll have to go back one day!
We visited a bar called Espacios this night, the first night of three nights there over the next few days. It took me a while to warm-up to it, but it’s definitely a cool place! Would highly recommend!
May 13. 2017 – Day 7: Havana
Cooking class in Cuba? Definite yes. Do it. Especially if you get to tour a beautiful garden where the restaurant grows a lot of its herbs and spices and other ingredients! We learned how to make mojitos and lobster and ropa vieja, and had a great time watching Brittany do some flambé-ing in the kitchen. For lunch we ate what we cooked (actually, unclear whether it was what we cooked or what they cooked in the back because they knew we’d mess it up!). We drank some of the strongest coffee I have ever had that a sweet lady named Maria prepared for us. It was an interesting kind of pour-over coffee that is (I think) the traditional way to make Cuban coffee.
We took some time to tour the Hemingway house after this and got some good pics. After another van breakdown, we were graced with Francisco. Probably the most caring, thoughtful man I have ever met. He was always smiling and always positive. Gave us flowers. Then more flowers. Then a cake. So kind!
May 14, 2017 – Day 8: Havana
Happy Mother’s Day! This is a crazy big holiday in Cuba. Or seemingly so. Women of all ages are handed flowers and gifts wherever we went.
We took this day to tour Old Havana. The most interesting thing to me was the wooden street that has to be replaced every 6 months just from the amount of foot traffic it gets. We went to several famous places – Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the Floridita, and many more. It’s a really nice place just to walk around, for sure!
One of my favorite things we did was take a tour around in old American cars, ours being a red 1946 Ford with a brand new sound system. Although the rain sort of shortened our ride, we still had a really good time getting see the architecture and more of the city from the viewpoint of a convertible. We ended up at the Hotel National de Cuba where we got to see the names and faces of some celebrities who had stayed there over the years. It was neat to think that we were standing in the same place that Frank Sinatra or Walt Disney or Muhammad Ali stood at some point in time!
After some rest and dinner, we went to a social club to watch a band perform and join a conga line – so fun! We went to an interesting place called Kingbar after that to dance and hang out and have a good time. Entering and leaving that place they were very strict, but it was a fun time once you got inside! That was one of the better nights in Cuba, I’d say.
May 15, 2017 – Day 9: Havana to Vinales
An important note about Cuba – the roads really have no chill. By this I mean prepare yourself to be tossed around in the back of vans while driving to far-away places. No need to pay for a ticket to Six Flags when you get back home because the drives are thrill enough! Although it’s hard to complain when there’s such nice scenery to look at along the way. And being able to just sit for a little while is nice when you’ve been going and going and going for what seems like months on end.
We took a pit stop at a hotel with an outdoor bar and viewing area of the valley below, which was gorgeous. There were some street performers there as well. We got some good pics!
A little while later we made it to the restaurant – Finca Agroecological El Paraiso. The food was delicious, as well as this anti-stress drink they make there. It tasted like a multiflavored milkshake with mint and coconut and cinnamon. Weird combination, but it worked!
Next was horseback riding. A pleasantly unpleasant experience. After learning everything about everything about cigars, we jumped on the backs of some less than excited horses and took a “stroll” through the valley. What we thought would be a slow trail ride turned into the pros whipping our horses and making them gallop while we flailed around and laughed at how ridiculous each other looked. We thankfully took a little break before turning around and learned a little about coffee production. Our friend Angela needed a little pick-me-up and decided to eat some raw coffee grounds out of her hands– not your typical way of getting that much-needed energy boost, but, hey, I guess that works!
Our hostel was in a great location – right in the center of town. That made it easy to walk places in the evening. The view from the roof was amazing. We got to bed a little early that night – thank goodness.
May 16, 2017 – Day 10: Vinales to Havana
Our last full day in Cuba. A little bittersweet. I think we were all getting ready to go home, but once the end actually came, we were sad to be leaving. Or I know I was. I still wish I was back in Cuba. I could relive these 11 days over and over again and be satisfied with my life, I think. It was that incredible.
Anyway, we had an interesting cave experience first thing. . . There were some actors near the entrance wearing next-to-no clothing and holding birds. A couple of us were picked out of the crowd to be part of the performance – including yours truly. Let’s just say that for all us that was a one-time experience we hope was only a one-time experience. The walk through the cave was so cool, though! At the end we all piled onto a little boat and floated along the water while the guide pointed out shapes and carvings in the rock around us. We made our way back into the light while on the boat and then got off to look around at the souvenirs some locals were selling.
After a couple hours in the car we found ourselves at a cool hotel. They try to be one with nature and built the building around all of the trees that were already there, which I thought was super neat. They were located sort of at the top of a mountain, or on the side of a mountain, so of course the view was beautiful. We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining after eating lunch, but we got a little rained out. So rained out that we sat around for a couple hours waiting for it to stop before finally deciding it might be time to head back to Havana.
Our last night in Cuba. We went to a restaurant called Fusion Havana and hung out there for one last hoorah before heading to Espacios again. We had some speeches and photoshoots and last conversations and reflections from the trip before heading back to our host homes for the night and getting ready to fly out the next day. It was a little emotional, but still so much fun! You can’t go a day in Cuba without having the time of your life.
May 17, 2017 – Day 11: Havana to ATL
This was a pretty chill day since we had to leave to go back to the States around noon. We went to a little tourist market – I say little; the place was huge. Everyone bought some last minute things to bring home. We also went to the fortress, where a cigar shop is located, one that’s quite famous. The owner showed up and everyone in there got super excited. There’s a very realistic wax statue of him in there, though. It’s almost scary just how realistic it looked. . . Anyway, we headed to the airport pretty soon after that. There were tears all around, I think. It was definitely hard to say to goodbye. I know I’ll be back as soon as I can, though!
It has been two weeks since we got back, and I’m still having reverse culture shock. How that’s possible, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have to go back to Cuba! I fell in love with everything and everyone there, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I had the opportunity to experience this amazing country with some of the most amazing people on this planet. Even though I was uncomfortable at times and completely out of my comfort zone, there’s nothing that could have made this trip better. As Calista would say, someone let me know why we ever had to leave Cuba!!