While Havana is beautiful and interesting and colorful and full of life, my short 7 day visit didn't lead to any type of immense transformation. This wasn't an Eat, Pray, Love type of vacation. In all honesty, there wasn't much time for reflection - the city wasn't really a place that I could reflect. It was full of the same cat-calling and grittiness and pollution and loudness that you find in any city. It didn't move me as much as I imagined, likely because I couldn't communicate well and therefore missed the magic of making connections with local folks. But the vacation served as a nice reminder not to over-romanticize a place or people or things, but just take them for what they are.
Traveling within Havana isn't a vacation, so much as it is an adventure. An exhausting adventure. You're immediately rendered out of touch - wifi isn't easily accessible, U.S. debit and credit cards become useless, and international phone calls are more expensive than they're worth. And while I had read about all of this before the trip, I didn't realize just how difficult it would be to navigate the different parts of the country. Since visiting, I truly think that if you don't speak Spanish and/or don't speak it well, you should be prepared for a much more difficult and frustrating trip. Thankfully, Maris, who spontaneously joined me on this adventure to Cuba, is nearly-fluent in Spanish and kept us afloat. I quickly learned that being able to communicate and remain flexible is key.
When the plane touched down in Cuba, I remember staring out of the window, amazed to witness the first movements of a new country. Landing in a new place, in the thick of the day, amongst the noise and heat and rhythm of its afternoon made me feel small. I realized that this country has a pulse entirely separate from my own. This community is full of culture and life and beauty that, until then, I hadn't had the blessing to experience. While the trip had its road bumps, I'm glad I made it. Hopefully next time I return, my Spanish is smoother and I'm better at reading maps.
LA HABANA VIEJA
We stayed in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), in an Airbnb next door to the Hotel Saratoga and two blocks away from the capital. Because it was so centrally-located, it allowed us to walk everywhere. Where we couldn't walk (for example: the beach), we could catch a bus at Parque Central, which was only a 5 minute walk from our apartment.
Our first few days, we explored Old Havana, took care of logistical matters (like exchanging money), and got lost. Despite doing a lot of research and having our friends recommend a number of bars, restaurants, and places to see, we still learned and saw the most when exploring Old Havana without a set plan. One afternoon, we walked into an incredible artist's home and spoke to her about her work and how Frida Kahlo influences her art. She was an older woman, and witnessing how she had dedicated her life to her work and art was incredible. (A separate blog post on that experience to come.) Another day, we walked along the Malecón, watched the fishermen and sun bathers, and then moved back toward the city's center in time to catch a few bands playing live, traditional music; we ended the day by exploring Plaza de Armas and drinking hot chocolate at the Museo del Chocolat. It was nice to wake up each morning, buy fruit from one of the street vendors, and then decide which museums, restaurants, and places we would visit, solely based on how we were feeling that day.
Despite all of the beauty that Old Havana held, in only a few days, Maris and I were ready to leave for Viñales, a small town in the countryside only three hours away. Planning the trip verged on being a logistical nightmare. Folks told us to take the Viazul bus, but failed to mention that one-way tickets (12 CUC, with a meal included) needed to be booked at least two days in-advance. While we could go check and see if tickets were available for the next day, if they weren't, we'd have wasted 20 CUC on a round-trip taxi ride. The other option was to book a colectivo, or shared taxi. Seemingly simple. Except that we didn't know where to find one. Eventually, we went to a tourist booth on Calle Obispo, and the woman there booked a colectivo to Viñales for us (20 CUC per person, each way, ) and a bed & breakfast for our stay (25 CUC per night total). Though our collectivo was over an hour late, and in some ways it felt like we were waiting on the side of the street for a (hopefully safe) bootleg Uber Pool, we eventually made it - and the trip was so incredibly worth it.
As soon as we got to Viñales, I immediately felt as though I could breathe again. For me, a good trip always involves experiencing the beauty of nature in some way, shape, or form. Last year, when I visited Portugal, my favorite place to see was Sintra, a hilly and lush town. For Cuba, Viñales took the cake, which explains why I have 10x more photos from our 1 day here than from our entire time in Old Havana.
Though we initially planned to say for two days and two nights, due to poor budgeting, we ended up only doing an overnight. Despite having less than 24 hours to explore, we still managed to go on a 4-hour horseback ride/tour through the tobacco fields (our host scheduled it for us), smoke our first cigars, and wake up at dawn to photograph a still-sleeping Viñales before we headed back to the city. Not bad.
I loved waking up at dawn to catch the sunrise. Viñales is stunning no matter the time of day, but something about walking through the town before the sun rose, with only the roosters and farmers to keep us company, was truly magical. It was a foggy morning, which made it all the more breathtaking.
When we returned from Viñales, we were still on a nature high, and immediately took the bus to the beach. It was 5 CUC round-trip and it was one of my favorite days in Cuba. We spent the afternoon talking to the locals, swimming, and meeting other travelers. The water was also so stunning that I nearly cried when I saw it for the first time. I immediately ripped off my clothes and went running into the water, letting my locs get soaked through-and-through with its refreshing salt.
And then, just like that, our trip was over! And by the end of the trip, both Maris and I felt 100% ready - eager even - to go home. Cuba was fun and also tiring. There weren't many moments of pause and we both fell asleep at 8 or 9 PM every night because we were so exhausted after adventuring (and for Maris, this includes translating, asking questions, and taking charge of directions) all day. Honestly, I keep flip-flopping about whether I'd go back to Cuba. For now I'll say that I think I would, but only if I could stay long-term and had a reason to go. For example, I think Old Havana and Vedado would be great places to study abroad and/or take Spanish classes.
And that's it! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have you visited Cuba? How was your time there?
P.S. Let's talk about money — For 6.5 days and 7 nights, the trip cost approximately $675.00 total. Here's the breakdown:
- $170.00 - Round-trip plane ticket (Jet Blue)
- $50.00 - Cuban visa
- $154.00 - AirBnb (split between Maris & I)
- $300.00 - Spent in Cuba (domestic travel, food + drinks, souvenirs, etc.)
Both Maris and I have a lot of friends who have lived long-term in Cuba, and told us how much we should pay/how much things should cost and/or how to know when we were being cheated. We hustled and were able to find delicious full-course meals for 6 CUC ($6), less-than 1 CUC breakfasts (shout out to the street vendors selling delicious fruit!) and cheap means of traveling within the country. I came back to NYC with souvenirs (cigars, rum, etc.) and a want for nothing - I felt as though I had experienced all that I wanted and needed to. Even then, a number of our friends told us that the trip could have been even cheaper! If you're interested in the cost breakdown and/or knowing how we managed to budget for this trip, please feel free to comment below. If there's enough interest, I'll make a 2nd blog post!