Here is a long-overdue short video from our travels through Cuba in January 2017. Cuba was one of the countries most devastated by recent hurricanes. They have been largely skipped in the international aid effort and the United States makes it nearly impossible to help them in any way. We are researching ways to help and will report back if we find something legitimate. Please comment if you have any ideas!!!
Trinidad, Cubais a small colonial city on the south coast of the island, about a four hour drive from Havana. Nestled on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean, Trinidad offers pristine examples of colonial architecture. The buildings were painted in all different bright colors and the streets where cobblestone. This was our favorite city for live music as you could literally hear three or four bands from any spot you stood at in the touristic area.
Our second day in Trinidad, Cuba we rented bikes from our casa particular (15 CUC for two mountain bikes for the day) and set off on another adventure. We were headed to Playa Ancón located about 15km from the city. It was an easy, flat ride so in no time we rolled through the small fishing village of La Boca and along the coast towards the beaches. We passed trees of tamarind and swarms of dragonflies and the weather was perfect. The asphalt road was potholed and sandy the whole way, so bikes were perfect for the journey. Playa Ancón is the most idyllic beach on Cuba’s southern shore, though it’s popularity pales in comparison to the northern Veradero-area beaches. The beach had beautiful white sand and the water was the exact postcard-perfect blue that we all idealize. This was our only beach day of the trip because well, we live at the beach in San Diego, California.
Our last day in Trinidad, Cuba we hiked up behind our Casa Particular for the sunset. We went us a street with lots of begging children then passed the Disco Ayala (Club in a Cave) which was famous for shady people and jineteras (hookers). From here the path was nicer and took us up the hill behind town. There were super cool tunnels here, think Iwo Jima. I went into the caves a few times, building up more and more courage to go deeper. They led to ladders up to what I assume were gun torrents. At one time I almost got lost and I’m not sure my heart has ever pumped so hard. I had amazing adrenaline rushing through me as I got out, and not I’m excited to do more cave exploration in the future! At the top of the hill there was a guy charging to get to the lookout point over the back of the mountain. We said we didn’t have any money and walked away. The guy then yelled for us to just go in anyhow. There was a ladder to a rooftop and some more Gingos up there (ha they probably paid, suckers). We hung out for a bit enjoying the view of the valley then headed back down for our sunset pictures. I had to resist the urge to go in the caves again as I’m super addicted to adrenaline.
Havana, Cuba was great and all, but after spending four nights in the the busy big city we were ready for some country time. We were headed for Viñales, Cuba famous for it’s tobacco fields and beautiful countryside. Our señora in our casa particular arranged for a taxi to grab us in the morning for the ride east. The shared cabs only cost about 10% more than the Viazul buses and get you there way faster with their door-to-door services. We were picked up by an old blue 1950s Buick – a wobbly, feel-the-springs-in-the-seat, smell-the-exhaust-in-the-cabin, but still-watch-music-videos-on-the-dashboard kind of taxi. No seat belts in Cuba, but the AC worked somehow. We rode with a pair of students from New York, who were on a whirlwind tour of the country. Outside the city we felt like we had gone back in time. Horse-drawn carriages and tropical farms of bananas and sugar cane. Everything was green and lush and it was hard to believe that there wasn’t an abundance of all foods on the island.
After about a three hour drive we arrived at our new casa, a cute pink house run by Cary and Anay, a mother and daughter. Like all the houses in Viñales, Cuba it had rocking chairs on the front porch, from which you could lounge and people-watch the day away.
Day two in Viñales, Cuba we rented bicycles and headed out into the countryside of Parque Nacional Viñales. The grand moros (rocky hills)were all around us. Instead of the mountains raising from the earth, underground rivers had caused the valley floor to fall creating the dramatic landscape.
A few miles outside of town we came to La Cueva del Indio, one of a series of many caves in the area. The cave tour is accessible through a restaurant and costs 5 CUC. The caves had a nice walking path through them that led to a boat ride down an underground river. It was nice except for a super-obnoxious family in front of us. Seriously, who yells in caves and moves precariously-balanced rocks around trying to find a lens cap?
Once back in town we headed down a side street to the edge of the village where we were found an organic tobacco farm. We took a tour (in Spanish) where they explained the growing, drying, fermenting, and rolling processes of Cuba’s famous cigars. They also explained the difference between organic and chemical tobacco production. At the end we tried some of the organic Monte Cristos dipped in local honey.
We only had the bikes for one day so headed out again in the other direction to the strange and epic Mural de la Prehistoria, a strange giant painting on the cliffside. Apparently it took several painters many years to complete.
On day three in Viñales, Cuba we decided to go for a hike. We walked past the turn off for the Mural then after about one more kilometer took a right turn and headed towards Los Aquaticos, a village on the hillside. The Lonely Planet had some general directions but we asked some farmers along the way, brushing off several dudes who wanted to guide us up there. The views were fantastic along the way and we felt at peace among the country animals and fields.
At the top there was a small blue ranch house with a view of the valley. They sold delicious coffee grown on site that you could sip while enjoying the scenery. A cute pig snuggled up to Carrie.
You could hike up farther but it was growing late in the afternoon and we were satisfied with our adventure. After eating dinner we took a nap then went out late to the government-run dance hall. Every town had at least one of these places with a salsa band and bar and lots of people. We really need to learn some moves! Until we do, it’s still fun to watch everyone boogie down. Viñales, Cuba was an all-around great time, with lots of nature and fun nightlife!
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Havana is a paradise for music and art, and on our Sunday there we decided to check out an amazing little spot for both! Callejon de Hamel is a short block in central Havana that’s also the center of Afro-Cuban culture in the city. Eclectic and artsy, it almost seems like the Burning Man of Cuba. Funky art galleries, rapping buskers, recycled street art, Santeria icons, performers, and wall-to-wall people enjoying the lively atmosphere. In Havana Santaria is still very popular. Mixing Catholicism and ancient African religions, it’s definitely the most popular religious belief in Cuba.
At the end of the alley was a whole Havana rumba group. The crowd was thick but we gradually made it close enough to see most of the action. The rhythms were free-flowing and improvisational, each drummer vibing off the others. The singers chanted, and other percussionists danced maniacally with maracas. Check out the video below! We loved it!
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We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile. We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us. Our flight from Mexico City to Havana, Cuba set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring. They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage. Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels. The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them. The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country.
Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign. She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana. First we had to change money. Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos. They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such. It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.
Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos. It was awesome. In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes. Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels! In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.
The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards. The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda. There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city. The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods. No Coca Cola! Only a national soda brand.
In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside. Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation. The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city. As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.
Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from. We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.
It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit. The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen. On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.
West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood. Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.
We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band. It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.
Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop. The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution. Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy. They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal! Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time. Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated. Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents. Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece! On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain. It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce. There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers. It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity. Never did it stop being strange.
Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters. The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable. I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment. It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever. But then again, is that how things are supposed to be? Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
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