My friend Kandace and I decided to book a spontaneous trip. After a random flight search, we landed on Cuba. Tickets were reasonably priced and it gave her an opportunity to use the Spanish she’d be studying. So, we booked a trip and a few months later, we were off!
Cuba is beautiful and majestic with its rich history, pristine beaches, vibrant culture, and unapologetic bustle. In Havana, you’ll find live music and performances, art, and stunning architecture. In Viñales a gorgeous countryside filled with lush greenery and breathtaking views, and just outside of Havana you can enjoy the crystal-clear waters of Santa María del Mar Beach, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the extreme poverty and harsh conditions that plague the Cuban people. As a result, the tourism industry reigns supreme and supports many of Cuba’s people—unfortunately, this can also mean scams, more on that later. My five-day trip to Cuba was unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Keep reading to find out why!
Day 1: We landed at the José Martí International (HAV) Airport and made our way outside where we were greeted by several taxi drivers. No Uber or Lyft here…or readily available Wi-Fi, making this the perfect destination for anyone looking to go off the grid. After bargaining with the taxi drivers, we were headed to our Airbnb in Vedado, a modern residential neighborhood that highlights Cuban architecture and showcases some of Havana’s most stunning mansions.
I had a love-hate relationship with Vedado’s hidden treasure essence. Many of the areas restaurants and shops are hidden in plain sight, tucked between homes with unassuming storefronts. This made our quest for things like authentic Cuban churros difficult, but definitely worth it!
When we arrived at our Airbnb we were greeted by our host, Regina whose warm welcome and smiling face was just what we needed after our long journey. We chose to stay at an Airbnb that doubled as a bed and breakfast, rather than reserving an entire home—a strategic decision that gave us the opportunity to mix and mingle with travelers from all over the world. Plus, our hosts were full of suggestions that made for an adventurous stay. Regina and her husband, Leonardo, were happy to arrange travel for our explorations, which meant taxis with pre-negotiated prices—a major bonus! My favorite part: Regina served a lovely breakfast on the patio each morning. It was the perfect start to our day.
After we got settled we headed to El Balcón del Habano for dinner, a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb hosts. We were so impressed we ate there twice during our stay! With delicious piña coladas, unique dishes, and healthy portions, we couldn’t get enough. Cuban piña coladas are a bit creamier than I was expecting. The taste was different but consistent across the board, trust me, we tried several.
FYI: If you like your piña coladas with a little more rum than piña, Cuba is the place for you. You can request additional rum at no charge, but beware, extra rum means extra rum.
Day 2: After breakfast, we headed to Old Havana for sightseeing where we were greeted with vibrant energy. Old Havana is also where we met our friend, Joanna The Scammer. She showed us around the city and told stories about life in Cuba…then she ripped us off for crappy $40 cigars. Neither of us was interested in cigars, though we did try them, it was more of a Will Smith moment, you know, “it’s for the look, I don’t light it” kind of a thing. Anyway, Joanna claimed it was a special Cuban holiday and because of this, cigars were deeply discounted. We later learned this was a common tale used to scam tourists. We purchased the cigars with no intention of smoking them or even bringing them back to the states. Instead, we purchased them as a thank you for her perceived generosity. Either way, she could have pocketed the $40 rather than splitting it with her cigar scamming counterpart had she skipped the scam and let us pay her for her time. Jokes on you, Joanna!
Later that night we went to dinner, then Buena Vista Social Club to experience the traditional Cuban music scene where we danced with locals well into the night. The evening featured Afro-Cuban artists and dancers, a unique experience that gave us a chance to experience the Cuban musical scene up close.
Day 3: We headed to Centro Cultural El Gran Palenque in Vevado for an Afro-Cuban performance full of dancing, drumming, and rumba. The location wasn’t far from our Airbnb (or so we thought), but with Cuba being the maze that it is, we were in for quite a journey. With a little a lot of help from the locals, we made it just in time to enjoy the interactive show.
Day 4: Packed with history, #views, and one of a kind experiences, our day trip to Viñales was by far my favorite part of the trip. Viñales is about two and a half hours from Havana and feels like a whole new world. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, with its picturesque lush green mountains, this rural town feels as though you’ve been transported to a different era. We started with views of Viñales Valley at lookout point. The air was still and the silence was disrupted only by the sound of nature’s animals. From there we moved to the Indian Cave where we explored ancient rock formations, first by foot and then by boat.
Afterward, we explored the Cuban countryside by horseback and headed to the tobacco farm. There, we learned about and sampled authentic Cuban cigars, Cuban honey (which was delicious!), and of course, Cuban rum. We headed back down the mountainside and made our way to lunch at a small restaurant in the valley where we enjoyed a 12-course meal with a variety of vegetables, two kinds of rice, and more meats than I can remember. What I can’t forget, however, is the number of sweet and savory flavor combinations we created that day.
Satisfied and full, we had one last stop to make before heading back to the city, the Mural de la Prehistoria or Mural of Prehistory which depicts the evolutionary stages of Cuban life. The mural is situated on a rock formation in Viñales Valley and stands nearly 400 feet tall. We finished off the day with a piña colada (or two) and headed back to Vedado.
Day 5: On our last day in Cuba we traveled about 30 minutes outside of Havana to visit Santa María del Mar Beach to relax and take in the crystal clear blue waters before heading home the next morning. There were several cafés and restaurants along the beach, but we decided to pass—we had enjoyed more than enough piña coladas throughout our stay. We rented a few beach chairs, took in the scenery, and watched as locals danced along the beach.
All in all, Cuba was an amazing experience. If you have the chance, go…and stay awhile.
Cuba is gorgeous. Wi-Fi is spotty (and pricey), cell service is no Bueno. Download Google Translate offline version. Bargain for everything, especially taxis. Find churros, they’re worth it. Piña coladas + extra rum = fun. Avoid scams (and Joanna), don’t buy cigars off the street. Don’t leave Cuba without visiting Viñales—cave tours, horseback rides, cigars, #views. Go to the beach.
Interested in Cuba travel tips? Ask me your questions in the comments below!
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