For so many years, Cuba remained a hidden gem for curious American travelers who were unable to go for pure tourism. Once the borders finally opened, there was a literal rush as everyone flocked to Cuba to soak up it’s preserved authenticity. It’s a great destination for a cultural experience, but also an educational one where you can truly learn about Cuba’s history and relationship with the U.S. In January 2017, hubby and I embarked on a weekend trip to Havana. I honestly don’t know if it has changed in the last 3 years, but when we went, wifi was scarce and only available in public squares where you could pay to access it. We ended up forfeiting internet during our time there and felt that it was a refreshing disconnect. Another thing that is important to note is that it’s best to carry more cash than you think you would need and exchange it for Cuban currency when you get there. Most U.S. credit cards do not work in Cuba and we had a difficult time finding an ATM that accepted our cards. So, once we ran out of cash, that was it. I think we made it back to the airport with the equivalent of $50, just to illustrate how close we were cutting it. Thankfully, it was just a weekend trip. The thought of carrying around enough cash for a weeklong trip is a little worrisome, but you can book your accommodations and tours in advance since that will eat into the majority of your budget. So where did we stay and what did we do? Keep reading to find out.
When I was researching a trip to Cuba, all the rage was about staying in a Casa Particular or private homestay. These could be booked on AirBnb, which we utilized, and would offer a more authentic experience staying with a family in a non-touristy neighborhood. I’m all for those types of experiences; my husband not so much. However, this was back when he didn’t have much say on where we stayed or what we did on our trips lol, so casa particular it was. We stayed in a home in old Havana, right across from the Malecon (seawall). We were also able to walk to an area with clubs/bars/restaurants, but it ended up being quite a long walk. Our host was extremely kind, made the best Cuban coffee (the type where you literally only need a shot!), and knew a little bit of English, which was helpful since my husband knows a little bit of Spanish. We ended up discovering that she was the daughter of the priests of the cemetery, which sounds scary, I must admit. Our tour guide who dropped us off saw certain symbols hanging in her home. We also heard drumming around 3 am during our first night, but besides that, it was honestly smooth sailing. She reminded me of my grandma and I didn’t have any reason to fear staying there. My husband, on the other hand, was ready to go lol. We still laugh about that experience and it makes a great story, but he has sworn off staying in anyone’s home when we travel.
As soon as we touched down, our tour guide from Eyewitness Cuba gave us a tour of Havana in a classic car. I think everyone who visits is excited about the opportunity to ride around in a beautiful classic car. It’s different and makes for great photos. Our guide was Amel, who is also the owner of the tour company. He is extremely friendly, knowledgeable about history, and loves to connect with travelers. One of my favorite stops was Fusterlandia, which is an eccentric neighborhood filled with art splashed on the walls and houses. We were also able to visit a rum and cigar shop to taste the well known Havana club rum and purchase souvenirs if desired. For lunch, we ate at a paladar or family owned restaurant. The food was amazing! It was a great introduction to Havana as we rode around hitting the highlights of the city.
The city of Havana is rich, but I also loved and may have even preferred our day trip to Vinales on the second day. Vinales is the countryside where many tobacco farms reside. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive outside of the city, which we also took in a green classic car. It was a majestic day filled with horseback riding, lush greenery, and learning the history of raising tobacco and making cigars. We don’t indulge in cigars often, but when in Cuba, it’s something to try that is unique to the area. I think it’s cool seeing the tobacco leaves growing in the fields, dried on the stalks, and then rolled into a cigar by a professional. It’s just a different experience we never encountered elsewhere. On the way back to Havana, we stopped at the Indian Cave, where we took a boat ride along an underground river. It felt like we were in another world due to the vast rock formations. If you have the time, I definitely recommend taking this day trip from Havana.
I’m not sure when travel will return to normal, but when it does, a trip to Cuba will provide a unique and culturally rich experience. Have you been? How was your experience? If not, is it on your list? What are you looking forward to the most?
xoxo, Global Midwife