Cuba North America

Cuba’s Southern Coast

As we left Viñales, we had one stop scheduled: The Bay of Pigs. Yep, the site of the failed invasion in 1961. Do you know what I did there?

Sunbathed. Dipped my feet in the ocean. In fact, I actually got a bit sunburned.

There’s something so crazy about going to the places you read about in history textbooks and making new memories, ones that aren’t about death and the Cold War. We also spent part of our day at the Korimakao Cultural Project, which serves rural communities by offering arts education! We got to see several performances, including singing, dancing, and playing instruments, and ended in the gallery where students had drawings and paintings on display.

We spent the night in Cienfuegos. Our first stop was this stunning hotel for drinks!

Cienfuegos was lovely. We didn’t have a ton of time there, but we spent the night and then had a few hours in the morning to shop for souvenirs. There was a nice pedestrianized section in the center of town that had lots of little stalls with artists selling their wares. One of my favorite finds from the trip was a beautiful little wooden dancer statue. As a bonus, it was wrapped in local newspaper. I would like to note that the newspaper front page that I received had not only the date it was printed, but the number of years since the revolution.

Side note, I would like to put in a word for the hospitality of the people running the casa particulares. They made us breakfast every morning, and there were some great ones! Lots of tropical fruit, alongside bread and cheese and meat. My personal favorite was this tropical fruit plate. To quote Mulan, “and it’s happy to see you!”

The last place we went while we were in Cuba was Trinidad. Not so fun fact, Trinidad was having issues with their water when we were there. The New York Times did an interesting article on the struggles that they as a nation have had with water distribution, and they mention the time I was there, January 2020, as a point where Trinidad went without water for 20 days.

Unfortunately, we weren’t told about that when we arrived, and so we didn’t know to do our part to help ration things. The water at our accommodations was off starting that first morning when we woke up, and it was a few days of baby wipes and dry shampoo. Despite this, Trinidad was a great experience!

We had lots of wandering around, going to museums, and eating ice cream while trying to stay out of the heat and humidity. During our last night in Trinidad, we had a picnic on the beach! They pulled out all the stops to give us a feast, and we stayed there until it got dark. The sunset was absolutely stunning!

We weren’t quite done with Cuba, though. En route back to Havana, we stopped in Santa Clara and went to the Che Guevara Mausoleum. The museum had the Cuban take on the revolution, and I found it interesting to compare that to the books I’ve read on Cuba’s history. The one I would recommend here is Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, which chronicles both the history of Cuba and the history of the Bacardi rum brand. The Bacardi family actually had a dispute with the Cuban government over who had the rights to produce Bacardi rum, which is…. possibly the most interesting trademark dispute ever? Unknown, but I do know it’s one of the books that first sparked my interest in visiting!

A fascinating way to end the trip, for sure. Getting back to the US was a little bit of a nightmare. It took ages to exchange my money back and I had to run through the airport to catch my flight, and then I got delayed nine hours in Orlando and so my last flight didn’t even take off until about 3:50 a.m. Still, I might not have complained if I had realized it would be over a year until I would be back on a plane. It’s been over 13 months now. Not exactly what I expected when we started 2020. Still, it seems like there’s hope now. My family and friends are starting to get vaccinated, and I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t merely an oncoming train.

Cuba North America

Viñales: A Valley Lost In Time

So it turns out that roosters don’t just crow in the morning, as I have been led to believe in cartoons. They crow constantly, all night long, at intervals of about 3 minutes. Isn’t that fun? I learned that at our homestay in Viñales, at about 2 a.m. Needless to say I have a new least favorite animal.

Real talk, though, Viñales might be the most stunning place I’ve ever seen. It’s cracked the top ten for sure. Apparently Steven Spielberg wanted to film Jurassic Park here and the State Department was not on board. This was our next stop after Havana, and it is a tourist hotspot for one reason: cigars. Yep, Viñales is the region of Cuba that produces that world-renowned tobacco.

Before we got there, though, we had a few other detours! The first was an absolutely amazing place called Fusterlandia. An artist, José Fuster, wanted to reclaim his neighborhood and created these mosaics. The whole place feels like a trippy dream world, and it was so cool to wander through and see all the different murals and characters he created out of tile.

From there, we went to Las Terrazas, which is an effort to re-forest one area of Cuba and to stimulate the local rural economy. One of the aspects of my trip that I absolutely loved was the fact that we met so many organizations who were working all over Cuba to improve life for the citizens. I was impressed, time and time again, with the creative solutions to problems that people had. While in Viñales, we saw Soviet-era laundry machines that were somehow still running, cobbled together with parts that the family had been able to scavenge.

Side note, the whole time we were in Las Terrazas, our guide kept pointing out cool birds, which was around the time I realized I am terrible at birdwatching! How am I supposed to spot them in the trees?

Anyhow. We got to try some local coffee and meet some artisans. I bought my mom a wooden hummingbird sculpture. At first, I was hesitant because it looked very delicate, with the beak and the wings, and I didn’t think I could bring it back to the US safely. I asked the guy selling them what he wrapped it in, and I kid you not, he held up a piece of paper. At my expression, which surely read ?????, he took the hummingbird and broke it down to its components, showing me how I could fit the pieces back together once I got it home. Way cool.

On to Viñales! Look at that valley. This is a more agricultural section of the country, and we had a lot of wonderful farm-to-table food, including a live cooking demonstration. I was low key worried about food on this trip, because some places are really weird about me being vegetarian (looking at you, Eastern Europe and Central Asia), but in Cuba, there is always a vegetarian option. Even if there are only 3-4 dishes in the restaurant, one will be vegetarian. A few highlights: plantain chips, taro root, and so much pesto! Plus all the rice dishes were stellar. I had never had taro before and it was delicious.

One other brief anecdote from Viñales: getting out money! So, money in Cuba as an American is a challenge, because American bank cards cannot work there. I mean, your first barrier is that a lot of places will not have credit card machines, but even in places that do, an American card is no better than a used napkin on the side of the road. You have to bring in cash and exchange it. I brought euros, because I figured I’d have a better time with those than with USD.

The other quirky thing is that there are actually two different currencies in Cuba. One is Cuban pesos, CUPs, which are the local currency. The other is Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs, which are for foreigners and are tied to the US dollar. Fun fact, Cuba is actually in the process of phasing out CUCs. No idea how that will work, but I can only report on how it was when I was there. Basically, you want to take care that you don’t end up with CUPs as a foreigner because they are useless to you, you can’t convert them back and they’re only really accepted at local grocery stores/markets, which you won’t be going to anyway.

All that to say…. when I was at the airport, I wasn’t able to convert as much as I wanted, and so I was dangerously low by the time we got to Viñales. And I mean, I wanted to buy cigars so I needed cash. So I went to the bank super early, way before it opened, so I could stand in line with the locals. I got a pretty good spot too. And there was a Cuban grandma there who was enforcing who had what spot – you didn’t need to really stand in a line, because people were keeping track of who was where. Locals are willing to cut in line in front of foreigners if my time at the airport exchanging money back to USD was any indication, but this time it went smoothly and the whole banking experience went well. I do definitely prefer the ability to just go to an ATM and pull out what I need.

The tobacco farm was a fascinating experience! They walked us through the entire process, from growing the tobacco and drying it out to the art of rolling a cigar. I was able to bring some back to the US, since there’s a certain amount allowed through customs, and so my dad has them carefully packed away for special occasions.

Here I am, loving the option to pay an extra dollar and have my drink in a coconut. Afterwards, the waiter took the coconut and hacked it up with a machete so that our table could eat it.

Viñales was a highlight of the trip for me. I’ll never forget eating dinner in that restaurant at the lookout point, watching the sun set over the valley while I drank daiquiris. The people we met were friendly and excited to show us their traditions, and the landscape was unparalleled. If it’s good enough for Steven Spielberg to want to put velociraptors there, it’s good enough for me.

Cuba North America

Havana: Wifi is Scare, Rum is Plentiful

So my last trip pre-COVID was to Cuba. I had a whole plan for all my vacation days, and I had a week left over, and I had a few people recommend Cuba to me as a destination and I figured why not?

As an American, it’s hard to travel to. It’s probably even harder now. Frankly, that’s something that has always baffled me. I found the Cuban people to be warm and friendly. Of all the strange Cold War holdovers, it’s one of the strangest – we’ve decided that a small island in the Caribbean is our enemy, apparently. Fun fact, I was legally not allowed to work while I was in Cuba, because our company can’t be associated with them in any way. I had to delete all my work-related apps, like email, Slack, Gchat, Zoom, etc., and I couldn’t even check my notifications while I was there.

Anyway, to legally go as an American, you have to meet one of the official categories and follow certain guidelines. I went with Intrepid, which is a tour company that has a special itinerary for Americans under the “support for the Cuban people” category. We stayed local, we did cultural immersion programs, we met with nonprofits. Honestly, it was the ideal way to do it. It was a little more structured than the trips I usually choose, but it did feel like we got to connect to locals way more than most of the places I’ve been.

One of the things I loved about Cuba was staying in the casa particulares. Basically, the United States doesn’t want to support the government, so they insist that you stay with locals in Airbnb-style accommodations. There was a wide variety of places we stayed, which was interesting. We ate at only local restaurants, too. Nothing owned by the state.

Havana is beautiful. It’s one of those places that I would have loved to experience in its prime, because you can tell the buildings need more work on restoration. The government and locals are doing their best, and a lot of areas have been renovated, but there are a number of gorgeous buildings in disrepair. Obviously, it’s famous for the old cars, and we saw a lot of those. I got to ride in a few too (which I think my dad was jealous of!).

Most of my first day there was spent wandering. I forgot that I didn’t actually know where my accommodations were, promptly got lost, and then figured I’d be able to find it again, so I enjoyed my day of exploration. I saw a parade go through, walked along the water, and found some sort of fort to check out. The next couple days were with my tour group. We visited local artists, took a tour in historic cars, walked around some of the neighborhoods, and soaked in the atmosphere. I am a little sad I didn’t get to see a ballet. I don’t think they were performing while I was there, but I’ve heard wonderful things about Cuban ballet! We did get to see a dance performance by students and we took a salsa class, but it’s not quite the same.

The other note I have is this: as cool as Havana is, I appreciated the rest of Cuba even more. It is naturally and culturally beautiful, and I feel like I got a really cool look at a country that seems almost frozen in time. Beyond the rum, cigars, and classic cars, it’s a special place, and I’m glad I got to go before the world shut down.