Pronounced Kuba, rather than Qba, Cuba breathes the formula of love. Nothing is instant except joy. Disconnected from the world, a visit to Cuba positively persuades you to never give up, to hope, to wander, to trust, to understand, to accept, to live, to love and ultimately, to have joy and to celebrate each day.
Truly a tale in time
It’s quite dizzying as you land in Cuba. This is not due to the full bar service during a forty five minute flight from Cancun but because upon arrival, everything around you has changed. Whilst you are ecstatic to explore, your mind races to rationalize and accept, that this is the world in Cuba and yours for the next few days.
Vintage cars seen in grand uncle’s photo albums are zipping about everywhere and a space where internet is a novelty and not a necessity. Data cards can be purchased which are accessible in public parks and designated areas. Highways are dotted with vendors sessling garlands of potatoes, onions and trays of roasted meat.
Where to stay? Hotels v Home Stay
Neither of us had tried home stays and for this trip, we picked home stays all the way. Amongst the websites that we looked at, we found www.homestay.com most helpful as it showed pictures of each room including the amenities, displayed prices and we received better response rate from the hosts. Despite all the information, it’s a little tricky with homestays as a lot depends on the casa owner and the reviews available on the internet are based on another’s judgment. We had a gem of a host (Mary & Eddy) in Trinidad. Maria made us feel at home, she introduced us to the staff at her casa who could help us with breakfast and laundry, she had maps prepared for us with suggestions for places to visit, and told us to help ourselves with fruits and drinks from the fridge, with the accounts to be settled at the time of departure. I’d highly recommend Maria’s casa at José Martí 407 entre Fidel Claro y Santiago Escobar, Jesús María 407 entre Angarilla y Olvido, Centro, 62600, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus. A small deposit is required at the time of booking and balance to be paid at the casa. If you need service assurance and some basic creature comforts, like wifi access, hotels may be a better option.
Where to visit?
Initiate your visit by seeing other parts of the country before Havana (pronounced Habana). I feel quite strongly about this as Havana is starting to see the winds of tourism, commercialization and the environment is colourfully different than the soul in other parts of the country. We spent the night in Havana upon arrival, had two magically spellbinding days in rugged and rustic Trinidad, with a transit at Cienfuegos, a day trip to luscious Vinales and a few days in Havana.
Why was Trinidad the highlight of our Cuba trip?
We made a wonderful friend in Rey who was our driver from Havana to Trinidad. This was also our first classic car drive in a maroon coloured 1957 Chevrolet. A six hour trip packed with lots of giggles, stories about Cuba, multiple repeats of our new favourite song Ensename by Leoni Torres. Cienfuegos was on route to Trinidad and as it was Rey’s hometown, we casually asked him if we could meet his family and without hesitation, Rey said of course. He welcomed us to his place of peace, i.e. his home and introduced us to his beautiful family. We were truly touched by his open heart, sense of security and pride of his family which he was ready to share with us. It also got us to reflect on how readily we welcome people to our home without doing the mental gymnastics?
We encountered the best musicians (Ramon and gang) at Meson Al Regidor. After checking into Maria’s casa, we went for a little walk in town, followed the music and walked into this restaurant. It was Ramon singing at one of the tables and was soon to have his break. We requested him to sing the Ensename song for us before he goes, he obliged and shortly, one song lead to the next and soon enough we had Ramon and his friends serenade us (and the other two guests at the restaurant) with a full band for over two hours with melodious renditions of Candela, Formula de Amor, Besame Mucho and many more. They considered it rehearsal for their show later that evening and to us, it was the most musical welcome to Cuba.
I had just started salsa prior to this trip – taking lessons and dancing in Cuba was like having deliciously creamy ice-cream on a hot sunny day. Fulfilling to the max! Casa de la Musica is home to musicians. Classes are held in the building during the day and cost approximately, USD 15-20 per hour. In the evening, the staircase leading to La Casa Musica is a dancing stage, with a band playing on one side and restaurants on the other side. A minimal entrance fee is charged for tourists. If you are not inclined to have dinner or dance, you can get a mojito from the neighbouring stalls and enjoy the music from the foot of the staircase.
A ride in a super well maintained classic car to the stunning Playa Ancon. This car had the works – great speakers, dvd player and leather seats. I can’t recollect the model because we were too busy dancing to Bailando on repeat.
The azure blue waters of Playa Ancon are breathtaking. Trinidad is all ecompassing that way – it is rugged, rustic – has the city, beach and nature. Trinidad is a jewel to be treasured. After a swim, it was back to more Bailando and a drive back for more music at Casa de la Musica.
Car and tour bookings in Cuba
We booked our return trip to Trinidad and Havana, as well as the Vinales tour through TaxiVinales Cuba (firstname.lastname@example.org). Carlos our contact person was professional and very responsive to bookings. Highly recommend Rey and Osmani as drivers. Osmani has an orange coloured 1959 Studbaker and was our driver from Havana to Vinales.
The Vinales trip costed us USD 210 and included the rent of the taxi, picking and dropping us to our casa, an English speaking guide service, all the entrance fees (Los Jazmines look out, El Mural of the Prehistory, the Indian cave for a boat in an underground river, a visit to tobacco plantation (includes free cigar tasting – we tried it Che Guevara style, dipped in honey) and the best Cuban meal at Finca agroecológica El Paraíso. We were shameless – the meal was sooooooooo good that we requested to take away the balance for supper.
We booked the Private Havana Tour (USD 125 per pax) and Private Hemingways Tour (USD80 per pax) with Havana Tour Company. The Hemingways Tour was informative – we visited Hemingways home, had many stories narrated to us about him and the objects preserved at his home, visited his favourite bars – La Bodeguita for mojitos and Floridita for Daiquiris (cost of drinks are not included in the tour price). We did not have the best of chemistry with our guide and given a chance, I would love to do the Private Havana Tour again. Kudos to him however for arranging a red 1946 Ford Super Deluxe for our classic car drive experience in Havana.
Some other unforgettable experiences in Cuba?
Having a disagreement with Parveen given the circumstances of our travel and lack of connectivity with the outside world. It was good this happened because it helped us realise what’s important and to never give up on true friendship.
Meeting new friends who welcomed us to Cuba and made us feel at home. Special thanks to Rey Gutierrez, Maria, Osmani and Osmany Larrazabal.
The musical afternoon at Meson Al Regidor which will stay in my heart forever. Dancing at every available moment and being mistaken for a Cubano – to the point I had other tourists requesting to take photos with me 🙂 🙂 🙂
Visiting Che Guevara’s home in Havana.
Being serenaded by a musician during our car ride back from Vinales to Havana in appreciation for his ride home.
And saying I’VE BEEN TO CUBA!!!!!!!!!!!!!