I recently returned from one of the most exciting adventures I've taken, and I loved every minute of it. After battling one of the worst periods of pain in my life (see previous post), my creative partner Anja and I spent 6 days in Cuba — a country that has been off limits to Americans from the Cold War up until about 2 1/2 years ago. Since the day President Obama announced travel sanctions would be loosened, I knew I'd have to go experience the culture of a vibrant country that was untouched for generations.
Cuba is a land almost frozen in time. The cars, the buildings, technology and music, all almost eerily from an era before my birth — but alive and vibrant as if the year were 1956. Traveling there was easy, no time machine necessary. Just purchase your airline tickets online (for an amazing price) and upon arriving to the airport, simply fill out a visa form and purchase the type of visa you will be traveling under. Post people travel under a "people to people" visa... by doing this you're required to immerse yourself in the culture of Cuba and be an ambassador of good relations between the U.S. and those you meet — c'mon, it's impossible not to do this.
The people of Cuba make the land everything that it is. They are hard working, full of life, proud of their land, and value every person that comes to visit it. With the lack of technology and weight of communism, everyone there is motivated to succeed as much as they can, whether it's at selling coconut water on the corner or taking you for a ride in their 1950 Chevy, they're natural hustlers in the best sense of the word. Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly and helpful, if you're seen struggling with what direction to go in (there's no Google maps!) someone is bound to run over to you within 30 seconds to help you find your way, or even to walk you to your destination. It's best to have some spare change on you at all times, tips are greatly appreciated — tourism is a main source of revenue for most of the country. Not once did we feel in danger, not when we walked up a dark hill to a club in a cave at 11pm, not when we took rides to beaches a few hours from the city, and especially not when we walked the crowded streets of Havana.
The best decision we made when planning our trip was to not just go to Havana, but venture out to the crystal blue waters of Trinidad, which is about 4 to 5 hours away from the city. To break up the trip over there, we spent one night in Ceinfuegos, a lovely Spanish bay town along the way. During our trip we stayed in a total of 4 Airbnb homes, each with their own unique charm and marks of the city they were in.
For our first two nights we stayed in Old Havana, a lively historic section filled with shops and street vendors, food and museums. Easily walkable (if you're feeling good) Old Havana is a great pick of where to stay inside of the city. Our Airbnb was a two bedroom apartment, we occupied one bedroom that had double beds, a small kitchen and nice sized bathroom. This is probably the most basic place we stayed during our trip, but the location was everything and we loved the balcony that wrapped around the building, providing great views of the bustling city below.
In the beautiful bay town of Ceinfuegos we ate in an ornate palace and crashed an outdoor memorial service performance (yes, really.) Our favorite part of our stay there had to be our charming Airbnb — a true bed and breakfast complete with an outdoor courtyard adorned with murals and funky furniture. Our bedroom was a duplex with an adorable upstairs suite, all meticulously clean and filled with fun decor. Upon arriving the hosts prepared us fresh basil lemonade, and before we left in the morning they fed us an extravagant Cuban breakfast of fruit and eggs, fresh honey and homemade bread. All included, all to die for.
Once we reached the beach town of Trinidad, we stayed in yet another beautifully decorated home that looked like an apartment from the outside, but immediately turned into a villa once you entered. Our room was huge — the biggest we stayed in all week, and the outdoor courtyard was so peaceful and serene that Anja flopped onto a couch and wouldn't move. Casa Amistad was clean as could be, and the bed was the most comfortable we had (beds in Cuba are terrible, I'm so lucky this didn't lead to a flare up for me) but there was very little help from the hosts, and we felt pretty much on our own for the time we stayed.
On our return to Havana for our last night, we switched things up and stayed on the other side of town, central to the Malecon and the water but a little bit further from the hustle and bustle of the city. This colonial home was truly charming, an easy walk to Vedado, and the host was very helpful and arranging car services or day trips for you. On the last morning there I went up to the rooftop terrace and indulged in yet another delectable Cuban breakfast. I'm not a coffee drinker, but damn, their coffee is good! This gorgeous home was the perfect way to end our adventure.
Architecture, cars, museums, art, music, and history. Cuba has it all. Here are my must-go places in Havana and then the places we had time for/loved in Ceinfuegos and Trinidad!
- FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano) If you're going to do one cultural/artsy thing in Cuba, make it it this. A warehouse of endless rooms, filled with arts a music, movies and drinks.
- Havana Club Experience the creation and history of Cuba's signature rum at the factory where it all comes together. Great for all ages (except the drinking part).
- Plaza de la Catedral One of the most beautiful spots in Old Havana, check out this historic cathedral and the surrounding square lined with beautiful buildings.
- San Carlos de la Cabanas Fortress every night at 8 a historical reenactment takes place along with a real canon shot!
- Fusterlandia An artist's paradise, this neighborhood created by a Cuban artist is certainly worth heading out to.
- Rent a classic car and get a tour, including the Malecon seaside roadway. We just spoke to the concierge at Parque Central Hotel (also the best place to get wifi) and he hooked us up with an English speaking guide! Must-see spots on your tour: The Capitol, Revolution Square, San Cristobal Cathedral, Museo de la Revolución, The Opera House, St. Francis of Assisi Square, Christopher Columbus Cemetery, John Lennon Park, and the center for Santeria.
- Palacio de Valle go here for the beautiful views, rooftop drinks, delicious food, eccentric multicultural architecture and beautiful decor. Just go here.
- Jagua Hotel Classico after dinner at the palace, walk next-door to this hotel for good drinks and live music in their courtyard... and wifi!
Upon arriving in Trinidad we rented bikes from a family in town and rode past the center of town, through beautiful farmland and mountains and into the rustic beach town of Sancti Spiritus. The waters were calm, but not crystal clear, so after spending some time in the sun, speaking to the locals and drinking a mojito, we rode 2 more miles to the beautiful Playa La Boca. This private beach was just the place we were looking for, clear blue waters perfect for snorkeling, homemade food cooked in the beach house and delivered to you under your umbrella, and refreshing mojitos and Pina coladas of course! The sunshine, saltwater and drinks must have been some kind of magic potion, because my pains really weren't so bad, even after a 3 mile bike ride.
After our full day at the beach, we hitched a ride back into town. When you have chronic pain, It's so important to know when you've done enough, even when you're on vacation. We rested up, ate dinner at the delicious family owned Sol y Son restaurant and ventured out to a club in a cave and a bunch of German kids recommended to us. We didn't know what to expect, so when the taxi dropped us off at a dark parking lot at the bottom of a hill, we trekked on up with our cellphone flashlights out (the only thing they're good for in Cuba) and after 10 minutes of walking uphill on a cement sewage drain we finally found the entrance to Disco Ayala — a breathtaking club under the earth complete with five dance floors and three bars.
THE FOOD (& DRINKS!)
Before we left for our trip, everyone who had been to Cuba warned us that the food would not be that good, and there definitely wouldn't be good options for me, the vegetarian. I'm happy to say that we really proved them wrong. The key to eating well in Cuba is planning ahead. After researching, reading other travel blogs, and of course, checking where Beyonce went to eat when there, we comprised a list of the best places to eat in each town we were heading to.
- O'Rielly 304 GO HERE, go here, go here. The first and best place we ate on our trip. The food was fresh and flavorful and the drinks were to die for. Fresh fruit mojitos are a must have.
- Paladar Los Mercaderes this beautiful paladar served us my favorite thing I ate in Cuba, the surprisingly delicious eggplant lasagna that was, dare I say it, as good as my Nonna's.
- LaGuardia this gorgeous rundown mansion's top floors are occupied by the most well-known restaurant in all of Cuba, the place where Queen B and Kim & Kanye dined, and famously took pictures descending the iconic staircase. Eat fresh seafood while sitting out on the roof with a 360 view of the city. Make sure to make a reservation before you go.
- El Cocinero this trendy restaurant on the top floor of a factory has a large menu of expertly prepared Cuban cuisine. They're conveniently located next-door to FAC, so eat dinner here before heading over for a night of art and music.
But don't just fine dine, be sure to grab treats from the streets. Be sure to have some "pizza", which is basically a sourdough grilled cheese sandwich with tomato sauce - surprisingly delicious. If you see churros, get churros. Do not disobey this order. They are unbelievable. And it may be cliche, but grab yourself one of those big fresh coconuts to sip on while walking the aisles of the craft markets.
Cuba was hands down one of the best adventures I've been on. And it's just that — an adventure. This trip isn't for you if you're looking for rest, relaxation and time to treat yourself. But if you're ready for it, this could be the trip of a lifetime.