A Tale of Two Cuban Cities: Havana and Viñales

Are you afraid to visit Cuba?

39991556861_5e092073d7_c
The Chinatown in Havana is absent of really any Chinese people. It used to be home to thousands, but most of them were told to leave by Fidel Castro during his communist reign.

I was too before my trip there last week. It wasn’t so much the idea of traveling there that scared me, so much as the rather vague travel regulations for Americans planning to visit the country. To date, tourist activities are still prohibited in Cuba. When you visit, you have to declare your purpose for travel under 1 of 12 categories. The recommended category is, “Support for the Cuban People.” This means that you intend to help locals and local businesses during your time there. You are still prohibited from doing tourist activities though, and supporting the government in any way. This means you must stay with locals, eat local food, purchase from local businesses, and contribute to the local economy. Well, when over 75% of the people are employed by the government, this also means you may accidentally mess up and support the government at some point too. 39298243824_7a7cf02dec_cWell, I decided to throw caution to the wind and booked my 8-day trip there anyway.

Disclaimer: This post is a little different from the others. I wanted it to read more like a journal, so I could look back on it in the years to come. That being said, I still tried to fill it with helpful travel tips. Also, feel free to private message me with more questions about my experience. 

I booked my accommodation through Airbnb, but didn’t plan an itinerary, since I had heard Cuba was an unpredictable country, and any plans I made would possibly be hindered at some point. Anyway, apparently, I wasn’t the only American afraid to fly to Cuba, as my Delta flight from Florida had less than 10 passengers on it! Talk about extra leg room! I could literally lay down across all the rows. Extra snacks? Yes, please! 😛
39093701235_ba917070f3_cSpeaking of food, one thing I heard prior to arriving in Cuba was that food was limited.

39959014262_dc68413887_c
sparse grocery shelves in Havana
39092530375_346a85a148_c
cartons of eggs for sale with pictures of Che and Castro hanging in the background

As such, literally ¼ of my suitcase was snacks, such as granola bars, instant noodles and instant oatmeal. My parents joked that I was like a little chipmunk hoarding all these things in my luggage. 🐿 🍜What can I say? Survival 101: always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

26117840368_7d855fc82c_c
one of the freshest produce carts I found in Havana

Anyway, when I first landed in Havana I had no troubles going through immigration and customs. I also exchanged my Euro into Cuban CUC. (1 CUC is about 1 USD)

Pro tip: most ATMs don’t work here, so bring cash, and USD is taxed at 10%, so another currency is preferred.

As well, I heard that taxis were very expensive, so I lingered at the airport for a while until I found some backpackers willing to share a cab. I found two Danish travelers who had arrived here from Honduras after finishing up some volunteer work in Tegucigalpa. Surprisingly, they arrived without reserved accommodation, which was kind of crazy, considering the internet doesn’t really work in Cuba, and there was no way for them to search for something at the airport. Anyway, I told them they could take a taxi with me to my reserved home, and see if there was extra space.

Anyway, the three of us found a nice guy named Osmel at the airport, who offered to drive us to central Havana for 25 CUC. I will use the word taxi lightly here, as although he did have a taxi sign laying in the bottom of his rusty 1950s Dodge Classic, this seemed to be anything but legit. 😂39281785274_7835d68414_c39281741214_eb5596130e_cHe was a nice guy though, and pointed out some sights on the way to my casa, like the spaghetti factory and where he lived. He started shouting out the window to all his friends when we drove by, then took off leaving a huge trail of exhaust behind us.

39281741264_80f5b0f9bf_c
Plaza de la Revolución with a mural of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos displayed

Historical Side Note: Che and Cienfuegos are both Cuban revolutionaries who helped Fidel Castro overthrow the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959.

39958837312_9947d1a455_c
pictures of Che and Fidel Castro taped on the windows in Havana

Once in power, Fidel Castro led the country into communism, with the support of the Soviet Union. These communist ways hindered US-Cuban relations, which led to a block of US imports into Cuba in the 1960s. Due to this blockade, the Cuban people had to resort to a rationing of goods, especially when the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1990s, and the Cuban people lost those imports as well. After the Soviet Union fell, the Cuban people went into extreme rationing, and the country lost nearly 1/3 of their body weight. Since that time, Fidel Castro was replaced by his brother Raul, who has improved the government to adopt less communist ways. These steps towards democracy have also improved US relations, and helped to loosen travel restrictions for Americans. Now, in April of 2018, Castro will step down as president, so it is uncertain what the future of the Cuba will hold.

Side note: Even with the downsides to communism, people still idolize Che Guevara and Castro. 39958666002_a824537d8d_c39958666142_0d632186b1_cYou’ll find their faces and names plastered all around Cuba: in books, in paintings, and even on many souvenirs. Their revolutionary spirit was really a source of inspiration for many oppressed nations, and their actions, especially those of Che, led to the chain reaction of revolutionary coups across Latin America. 39958665742_c073664681_c

Anyway, when I arrived at my casa in Havana, I was greeted by the owner, Abdel. Local home-stays in Cuba are called Casa Particulares, and can now easily be booked on Airbnb.

Pro tip: Airbnb’s website does NOT work in Cuba, so you need to book the reservation from outside the country. Also, without internet, make sure to pre-load Google maps, so you can navigate around the city.

26118215728_a67efef84b_c
street of my casa
39989823411_0bb6b140c0_c
quaint casa living room, with Chinese porcelain figurines on the shelves

39989823281_877fea3f10_c

39989823191_1353c99278_c
casa rooftop terrace
39989823101_1b44d352fe_c
bedroom with one towel and bar of soap per bed

Abdel told me that he didn’t have room available for the Danish travelers, but he was going to have his brother come over and get them, since his brother had extra room at his place. It all seemed very informal, but it worked out in the end. ☺ I was beginning to understand the Cuban way of life. At that point, I ran my bags up to my room, locked away my valuables, snacks included 😛, and hit the streets to see what Havana had to offer.39959014362_0851f81e83_c39989923651_83fe4a9449_c39959014312_03ab5e5cdf_cNow, after over 50 countries, I quickly learned that I had need seen a place quite like Havana before. On first glance, after seeing the rusting American imports and faded building facades, it seemed to be like a city that time had forgot.26117736348_3e44fce0c5_cBut at the same time, there was this indescribable energy, that made Havana feel more alive than ever!26117736318_c01e41ccaf_c
26117956458_703b3b9216_cHistorically speaking, as you’ve just read, the Cuban people have been through some hard times.39092530345_ff4986cfcf_cEven before communism, they suffered decades of slavery, which has left the people here with thick skin. They are unsure of who to trust and how to get by. Life here isn’t easy, and with every glimmer of hope, there seems to be a backwards shuffle, which keeps the people here with a lingering sense of cynicism and spunk, constantly operating in survival mode.39958821982_0c6ffede3c_c39959014182_0d4b398256_cFor example, as I walked through the dingy streets of Havana, dodging traffic and dog poo, rejecting countless offers for a taxi ride, the smell of rotten bananas and gasoline permeated the air. It’s a smell I don’t think I’ll soon forget.39092048235_c200036d24_c39092048115_4592604815_cDon’t get me wrong though. I wanted to see this side of Havana. I wanted to understand how life here really was.28210975509_de4d5db544_c
26117840688_7848367772_cMy casa owner, Abdel, lent me a Cuba travel book, which explained the Cuban mentality well. It said that people here are always conseguir-ing (managing) and resolver-ing (resolving). 26117524438_356e4f336a_cWhat does this mean? This means that almost every person with a car here will also become a taxi driver to make an extra buck.26117524848_3b250c0fe1_cEvery home with a spare room will easily be turned into a casa, with a room to rent. 39989923281_13103fd8bf_cThe average income here is a mere 25 dollars per day, and although some things can be cheap, getting ahead in life is merely impossible without overcoming extreme odds.

28210975539_4b856c6910_c
sewing factory in Havana

The unfortunate side to this as a tourist is that most locals here will just look at you as a walking bag of money. 💰

39989949911_e94d7edb21_c
locals charge tourists 30 CUC per hour to ride around in a classic car

As such, I found it very difficult to have a genuine conversation with people here, without them expecting something, or asking for money.

39958665672_bec0e28554_c
locals outside Floridita trying to sell taxi rides

I completely understand why, but at the same time, I hated feeling constantly swindled. Getting to know anyone here seemed like a difficult shell to crack, but I was ready for the challenge. As well, I came here to “Support the Cuban People,” so I kept on with that “giving” mentality.

39281774294_d60db43af6_c
Cuban flag street art
26117524508_f79ea88b2e_c
local dog in Havana

26117524698_22d16d1eda_c (1)
39989923491_2e10d027d5_c
39989923161_919f8d1b9d_c
39990007281_abc57bcb91_c
26119407638_55e632c0e4_cAfter wandering the streets, I stopped at the local market, where I found a nice necklace made of seeds. I asked the women if she had a mirror, and she replied, “Si, mi amor,” or “Yes, my love,” as she pulled out a used eye-shadow compact from her purse. It was a very sweet gesture, and I was happy to make the purchase.39990006971_1a13bb0679_c

39990007121_6882286c4f_c
other souvenirs at the local market

I also stopped by Harris Brothers, a grocery store, to pick up bottled water, since tap water isn’t potable. I was told by my guide book that I could find everything here I needed. I took that with a grain of salt, as when I entered, I found maybe 10 items available on the shelves. There was mainly water, rice, cookies, rum, condiments, and pickles. I knew that the food shortage was an issue, but now it seemed too real.26117840458_f23b29519c_c39092530505_5acec09f45_cAt the mall, there was music blasting, kids on amusement rides, people drinking beers, eating fried chicken and playing cards, and stray dogs running around. It seemed like, because life here is so taxing and unpredictable, the people have become so much more celebratory of each moment that they have.26119407608_720616c1c2_cOn day two I awoke to the sounds of cars honking and a rooster crowing. Abdel, his wife, his daughter, and his father were in the kitchen preparing a meal. His daughter looked less than 10, and was dressed in her school uniform, hopping around the hallway like a bundle of energy.39989823321_90de30ce89_cAfter a small chat, I left the casa to explore Havana Vieja, or Old Havana. I decided to walk the Malecon to get there, which was recommended by my guide book.39092048575_7bda9e4093_c39299282014_4fb4d3333c_c39092048615_2e581bf81d_c39299282124_cb182033b1_cOn the way there, I heard all the usual cat calls that I hear in most Latin countries. “Hey blondie, sweetie, guapa, cutie, deliciosa, preciosa”, and even, “Hey, look at that white ass.” I don’t know how he knew my ass was white with my capris, but I guess it was a fair assumption. The cat calls don’t seem to bug me anymore, but I do wish male travelers realized how lucky they have it sometimes.

39092048485_1566e8954f_c
gawkers on the Malecon

39092048335_842f41d0d6_cAnyway, after arriving in Havana Vieja, I decided to sit in the park to people-watch. I started reading more of my Cuba guidebook when two Jehovah’s Witnesses approached me. 26119407688_a9f481dde5_cThey wanted to practice their English, which seemed innocent enough. They asked me if the world would ever find an end to suffering, and I told them most likely not. Human suffering can sometimes be seen through the eye of the beholder, and many people will continue to lament the downsides of their life, even though many things are still good. She told me that through God, all suffering would end.

Anyway, after speaking with them a bit, I decided to go on a DIY walking tour of Old Havana recommended by my guide book.26117956558_bbf32e247c_c39958985942_11aca0845a_c26117956628_3de3b438b0_c39990255001_01fbbe0da1_c39989949821_b1e6d9c7c4_c28210975589_bfbd68c015_c (1)
The DIY tour began at Plaza de la Catedral, one of Havana’s newest squares, which is surrounded by baroque buildings and the Catedral de San Cristobal de La Habana, an 18th century church.39989950021_4651da1368_c39958837762_44aed2e365_cFrom there I made stops at Taller Experimental de Grafica, a cutting-edge art workshop, and onto Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest square dating back to the 16th century, surrounded by lovely palm foliage, and near to the fortress, with views of the Christ statue.25119854917_3179d6a1d8_c

25119854987_aa5cc7fb52_c
an interesting portrayal of US-Cuban relations at the art workshop

39092339005_86e12069c9_c26117956668_d07e3b5d55_c39092337835_0a5f433c97_c39092337635_8f0b3f56e7_c

26117956748_bc4c6bce4d_c
the fortress called Castillo of San Salvador de la Punta

From there I made my way along the picturesque Calle Mercadores, a car-free and impeccably restored replica of its 18th century original, which is dotted with cafes, shops, museums, and restaurants.

26117956548_0581dd344a_c
historic mural on Calle Mercadores

39958985382_a80cc62671_c (1)

39958985702_8cd7a5eb11_cLive music is found around every corner here, and it really brings the streets to life.

39990254791_f25c1bb045_c
musicians in Havana Vieja

While there, I made stops at the following free museums: Casa de Asia, Armeria 9 de Abril, Museo de los Bomberos, and Casa de Africa.

39990254961_7def18787d_c
Casa de Asia

39990254931_e07d741715_c

26118005118_81f75f634a_c
Casa de Africa gives free art and history lessons to Cuban youth

I loved all the vintage pieces at the various museums.28211325259_a23a582092_c26118005228_87841e535a_cI also enjoyed this historic pharmacy, which collects 19th century French apothecary jars. 25119854787_3746da7b11_c (1)28210975639_688a0e7b40_cFrom there I walked through Plaza de San Francisco de Asis to Plaza Vieja, which is an eclectic square, home to many museums and art galleries.26118005398_29c32c537c_c (1)26118005178_fde1b6ffdc_c

25119855117_99983249ce_c
to enjoy is to care for its beauty

26118215968_17793fddc1_cWhile there, I made stops at Museo de Naipes and Fototeca de Cuba, which is an art galley with a beautiful birds-eye view of the square.

39958985822_a90029217b_c
Museo de Naipes means, “Card Museum”
28211325219_277b8d2a37_c
Plaza Vieja

28211325149_f6635de829_c

28211324669_1d45ca3715_c
random statue in Plaza Vieja

I asked this Cuban guy to take my photo, and it turned out he was a photographer. Actually, we had the same camera, which was a nice little commonality between us.28211324859_5e9bf85515_cThe next agenda on my list was to buy a bus ticket to Viñales, a town in Western Cuba, where I would be traveling to in three days. I had heard that tickets needed to be bought in advance. I went to the tourist information office to ask about tickets, but the sign said it was closed until 10am, and from 1-2pm for lunch. Still, it was 2:30pm, and the doors were closed. Hah! That’s Cuba for ya! 🤣39093873095_6d6824871a_cAnyway, I did run into an Italian couple while I was waiting there, and learned that they wanted tickets to Viñales too. Then someone else overheard our conversation, and told us to go to the Hotel Plaza to buy our bus tickets through Cubanacan bus company. When we got there, the saleswoman was out for lunch, but after about an hour she came back and I got my ticket. The ticket was 14 CUC one way, and the lady said I couldn’t buy the return ticket until I got to Viñales for some reason.

Pro tip: another bus company called Viazul sells tickets to Viñales for only 12 CUC, but their bus terminal is about 6 km, or a 10 CUC taxi ride from the center, so it becomes more expensive in the end.

From there I decided to check out Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, had lived for many years.39990254891_639416c03e_cThey are supposed to have a nice rooftop terrace with strong mojitos, but it’s also a restricted hotel for Americans, so I didn’t buy their drinks, but just took some pictures of the lobby instead. Hah! 🤣39092339515_fc68bb949e_c39092339375_835a806216_cAfter, I headed back to my casa where I met Abdel’s cousin, and some other relative painting shutters on the house. I sat on the terrace listening to them banter, while a man on the street was blasting reggaetón music and washing his car. It was then that I also met my first roommate, a lovely Argentinian woman named Elie. She told me she had two children with her ex-husband in London, but missed the warm-hearted people in her home country. I told her I understood how hard it was being away from home, since I had been living abroad for some years now, and was very close with my family too.

Anyway, on day three, after letting the morning rain showers subside, I headed towards Vedado, a residential district of Havana, with wide boulevards, and a myriad of hotels, restaurants, and a university.26118151338_628867ebb1_c26118151598_cae95de675_c26118151228_18d66ef8af_c26118151178_5c2192da25_c39989923561_40c57d577e_c39959044622_fa23f628a4_c39959044312_f34f2afe1e_cThe architecture here reminded me a bit of San Jose, Costa Rica.39959044572_f61b0e61a9_cWhile in Vedado, I made a stop at Coppelia, a famous ice cream parlor that was the filming location for the Cuban movie, Fresa and Chocolate.39959044392_8c29ec3ecb_cUnfortunately, when I arrived, I was directed by a security guard to go buy ice cream from the foreigner stand. Super lame considering the whole point is to mingle with locals and watch people. Yes, the ice cream here is really 0.0008 CUC, but I didn’t want to sit in the empty tourist corner, so I moved on. 🍦 39959044452_3b18575134_cInstead, I went to another local “grocery store” for snacks. This store had about 20 or so items, including one brand of cereal, chocolate cookies, lots of condiments, and vegetable oil. I’ve noticed that each store has a “guarda bolsas” stand, where you have to leave your bag before entering, so you can’t steal anything. The woman at the stand also addressed me as, “mi amor” or “my love” when I came to collect my bag.39991563651_76df5718f1_cAfter I stopped at Hotel Nacional, which is a luxury hotel, and the former haunting grounds of Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra.39990404011_2129402aae_c39990404611_8c3cacbf9e_c39990404711_2e8e27a67a_cThis place oozed old Hollywood glitz and glam.39990404281_dc12ea30b3_cMy guidebook said they offered a historic tour there at 3pm, but it had since been changed to 10am, so I missed it. Oh well, I still sat in their lobby for a bit to soak up the vibes, and wandered through their Parisian garden.My last stop was Hotel Havana Libre, which was Fidel Castro’s home base when he first took over Cuba in 1959. 39092530275_5856ae7e00_cOn day four I met a Mexican girl named Ami in my casa. She had spent the last four days in Trinidad, and was leaving the following morning. I told her I wanted to buy an internet card to message my family, so she decided to join me. The internet service here is called Etesca. We walked about 30 minutes to Old Havana to buy the card, and stopped along the way for congrejitos, which are like a fried donut. They cost only 1 CUP, or 4 cents.26118215868_df56bd8b7e_c (1)
Pro tip: there are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC is for foreigners and the CUP is for locals. 1 CUC equals 25 CUP, which makes things much cheaper for locals.39093671765_7e6c73e505_cAmi said there was a place in Vedado where people could exchange CUCs for CUPs, but I wasn’t interested, since things seemed quite cheap already. Ami is an international relations student in Mexico City, and has the same wanderlust that I have. She has a pura vida tattoo on her arm from her visit to Costa Rica, and she’s only 21. She thought I was 23, which made me smile. When we got to ETESCA, we joined “la fila” or the line. Waiting in line for things seems like a huge part of Cuban culture.  When joining a line, it’s important to ask who is “ultimo” or “last in line,” so you know who is in front of you. The person in front of you may leave to get a coffee and run some errands, but when they come back, they still keep their same spot in front of you. Hah! Anyway, we waited in line for 30 minutes for an internet card, which cost 1 CUC per hour. The card has a number and password on the back, which you scratch off like a lottery ticket. You can use it all at once, but also for a few minutes at a time. I ended up using just one card for the whole week. 26118216088_d5f1febff3_cThe next task was finding a place to use it. The internet here only works in public parks, but today it was raining, so we had to walk along the Malecon until we could find an awning to sit under and try to connect. 26119407718_24b00da47a_cI was able to message family and look at the 45 emails I had gotten, mostly junk, but then I was happy to turn the WiFi back off. Social media can be addicting, and sometimes it’s nice to have limited access.

26117736388_33a0d768ff_c
public park with WiFi

After our successful internet search, Ami wanted to find some souvenirs for her parents. She wasn’t able to withdraw money out of any of the ATMs, and the souvenir shops wouldn’t accept credit cards, so it was a failed attempt. I told her maybe she’d have better luck buying gifts at the airport. At this point, the rain really started coming down, so I went back to my casa where I met a traveler from Switzerland and Uruguay. We spent the evening on the terrace talking about travel, art, and politics. Abdel’s cousin Kiko invited us all to a nightclub around midnight, but I had to get up early for my bus to Viñales. I heard the nightclub, La Fabrica del Arte, was a very cool spot though. It’s like a mix of art galleries and a rave. Too bad it was past my bedtime. 😛
On day five I woke up at 6 am to catch my bus to Viñales. The party-goers had just come home from La Fabrica, and Kiko kindly helped me carry my luggage down to the front room. It was a 30-minute walk to Hotel Plaza, where I would catch my bus. Walking in the dark here seemed just fine, as there are always people meandering about. While waiting for my bus, which came 1.5 hours late, I met some nice Finnish travelers and a guy named David from Canada. The girls were students, but the guy was working in the mining industry, and had just accepted a job in Montreal. He had one free week before his new job started, so he booked this flight to Cuba on a whim, 20 hours before arriving. As such, he made all the usual errors, like no booked accommodation, and no cash. I think he was managing just fine though.

39093873075_b977eacf3f_c
bus ticket, the Finnish travelers, and the Hotel Plaza

Anyway, our bus ride to Viñales was absolutely breathtaking. We drove by plantations, forests of palm trees, and fields of wild horses. We made one stop at a tourist café where David bought a cheese sandwich for 8 CUC. He called it highway robbery. Again, I was glad I brought my own snacks.

39990459071_614bf04a54_c
bus rest stop

39990459571_645231fa5d_c39990459171_0e2f605d66_c

39990459371_f0fbe2db5a_c
rest stop souvenir shop with Che banners

During the break, I decided to speak with the tourist office, where I got a helpful map and some recommendations for my time in Viñales.39990459441_f1c7b227ab_c
We arrived in Viñales at 12:30pm, where we were literally bombarded with people offering up their casa. It seemed that anyone with a house in Viñales wanted to rent out their room, and there were obviously more houses than tourists.

39959154252_02c471175e_c
3 rooms available

Anyway, I had already booked my accommodation, but David still had not. He was quite overwhelmed by all the people approaching him, so he said he would walk around later to find something. Viñales has one main strip that can easily be walked in 10 minutes, but it has a lot of small-town charm.39959154092_1f82d7ab4d_cAnyway, our first order of business was buying a bus ticket back to Havana, since we couldn’t buy it before. When we got to the ticket office, it was closed, and someone told us the woman there was eating lunch, so we should come back in an hour. We decided to get beers at the restaurant next door and wait.39281774394_2f4d46e076_cDavid knew a girl named Eva, from Holland, who joined us while we waited. She plays in the Dutch Symphony Orchestra, and we talked for a while about her job. She says that she has been playing since she was little, and wears ear plugs a lot when she goes out to loud bars, since she has to protect her hearing. She performs from Thursday to Sunday, and Tuesday and Wednesday she rehearses. Monday is her “day off”, but she gives lessons on that day instead. She sounded really quite busy. After an hour of sitting, the saleswoman still hadn’t returned, so we decided to look for some food. At that point I ran into three British girls I had met in Havana. They suggested we eat at Berenjeras, a vegetarian restaurant, which means “eggplant” in Spanish. We all agreed their simple rice and vegetables for 3 CUC was the best thing we had eaten in Cuba so far.39281774434_35f722b5fd_cAnyway, after about another hour we headed back to the bus office, where the saleswoman had returned, but “la fila” or “the line” was out the door. I stood there for about 45 minutes before I bought my ticket. At that point, David and I parted ways and I made my way to my casa. I had booked my stay at Casa Las Tias “El Papa”.39959153912_8373c431e0_c“El Papa” was Enrique, this sweet old man that rented out a room adjacent to his home. For 14 CUC, it had two double beds and a private bathroom. It was also right next to the chicken house, and I could hear chickens clucking away from my bed. 🐔🤣39990472901_13c501d3cd_c39990472971_84985e04cf_cAnyway, Enrique was a delightful host. He had an earnest smile and a kind voice. He wanted to prepare me some breakfast the next morning, and invited me for the dinner that next night. I told him his offer was too generous. I know how much people make here, and really didn’t want more than the accommodation. He insisted, so I graciously accepted his offer.  Overall, I felt like getting the simplest things accomplished today took far too long, but it still wasn’t stressful. I decided to retire to my room early, and read a Spanish book Enrique left on my nightstand about birds.

On day six I awoke bright and early to the sound of chickens clucking away behind my headboard. I could hear rustling in the kitchen as well, with pans clattering and eggs frying in the skillet. It was nice feeling like a guest in someone’s home. By 7:30am I heard a soft tapping at my door as Enrique led me out onto the patio, where a grand breakfast awaited me. Not only had he gone above and beyond in the quantity of food, but also in the artful preparation as well. He decorated the eggs and cabbage with ketchup, cut up delicate strips of guava, carefully sliced fruit, and displayed an array of pastries with jam and margarine, mango juice, and a thermos of coffee and milk. It was undoubtedly made with love.39281801444_c36fe9e746_cReally though, the gesture brought tears to my eyes, to see how kind some people can be in this world, giving more than they even have to give. Feeling uplifted and energized from that experience, I began an early morning hike to Viñales National Park.25120539447_18f986f654_c

25120601237_0334c90d67_c
road to the national park
39959173792_e5fc8b5799_c
countryside homes

26118277568_eaa9cb4be7_c

39281785294_32ff757db1_c
countryside selfie

I made scenic stops at small coffee and tobacco plantations, and talked with lots of locals along the way.39092975565_d9d2c4b86d_c25120601057_469b2cd9de_c39092610755_a0c9fb51ca_c (1)39959174102_cb1e48aeec_c39959174322_527f7c3134_c39092610775_9503093e2f_cWe just exchanged some basic and cordial conversation, but it was refreshing nonetheless.

Viñales was so fresh and clean, it felt like it was worlds apart from the gritty city of Havana. ❤39092610715_af5e15ecbf_c39092610685_cc7eff1269_c39991544331_6ab5e3ec2c_cAfter about two hours, I turned back towards town, where I met some Danish travelers in the town square.39991556731_e64e898624_cThe one girl had silvery, purple hair and a tattoo sleeve of La Catrina skulls running down her arm. We talked for a while about how they went couch surfing in Havana, and spent last night in Viñales at a nightclub in a cave. At that point a loud microphone began blasting music in the town square to a near deafening pitch. Luckily, at the same time, I ran into my Dutch friend Eva from yesterday. The two of us beelined it to grab a coffee at a nearby café, then decided to hike up to Hotel Las Jazmines, which had a nice view overlooking the valley.39281785354_ec74dae582_c25120600987_ede461f1f5_c25120539077_ddec5b40a8_cOn our hike we talked more about her job as a violinist in Amsterdam, and about how her brother was a singer/songwriter coming out with his first jazz CD. I couldn’t relate to these things, since I can barely play the tambourine🤣, but I definitely appreciate music, so I redirected the convo to talk about this amazing Latin music scene in Cuba. It seems to be everywhere around us. On the way to the Los Jazmines, we stopped at a beautiful lookout spot on the side of the road.25120600967_147ba4da9b_cI joked that it was probably going to be prettier than the view at the hotel, and I was right. It was less obstructed and far more beautiful, so I recommend that if anyone else is going to Viñales.

25120539557_c7e3b65c21_c
view of the mountains from Los Jazmines

I mean, everyone here tries to sell you a bus ride, taxi ride, horse ride, and whatnot to these sights, but I think walking is really the best way to go. We would have missed out on this view if we had not!26118293998_5b0966011d_c

Comical side note: I mentioned that everything becomes a taxi in Cuba, and I really wasn’t kidding. 🤣🤣39991544551_f2f118634f_c39991544511_5da4beefdc_cI mean EVERYTHING!

39959173882_7a19263654_c
this semi truck is apparently a “taxi” as well

Anyway, that night I wasn’t feeling so well, so instead of having dinner with Enrique, he made me a nice tea for my stomach, and I relaxed in my room. On day seven I woke up bright and early to walk towards this historical mural that was on the list of attractions in Viñales.39093701435_5a3f5ba5cf_cThere was a fog hanging in the air, which made the mountains appear more mystical and beautiful during my walk.39093701255_b8e8a9e8ac_cAs I walked along a dirt path on the side of the road, I heard rustling in the bushes, only to find out it was chickens scurrying about.28231697119_a793ecf02e_cPersonally, the mural was a bit of an eye-soar for me, but it was still a nice morning walk to get myself energized for the day.39093701285_9f6b518e20_c25120601397_3701448b53_cAfter, I decided to head back to the town church, to see what was going on, since Sunday is a day for prayer in most Catholic countries. When I arrived, I saw that they had shut down the main street near the church, and kids were playing soccer and volleyball along the main road. There was music blasting, and a choir of children singing in the main square. It was fun and innocent, and I expected nothing less.

I decided to sit in the square for a bit where I met this backpacker from Cyprus who was sitting with his luggage. We started chatting for awhile, and I found out he lived in Barcelona, and he had just come from Havana. He was waiting for his friends to arrive from Trinidad. His friends came two hours late, but we had a nice conversation about our travel experiences during that time. He told me half of his luggage was actually toiletries he planned to donate to the people here, and he had the intention of leaving the majority of his clothes here as well. Anyway, when his Spanish friends arrived here, everyone was exhausted and hungry, so we decided to go to this place called El Bily for a late lunch.39991544501_e10c3b7256_cThe restaurant served veggie lasagna, cheese sandwiches, and cheap beers. The girls talked all about their past week in Cuba, and all the good and bad parts of their trip. They said they got scammed many times by the people here, and they also weren’t big fans of Havana, but they absolutely loved Varadero and Trinidad. Varadero is a beach town where they got an all-inclusive hotel, and drank mojitos and partied the night away. Trinidad is similar to Viñales, with small town vibes, beautiful scenery, and friendly people. They told me they took a collective taxi to get to Viñales, which took about 7 hours and cost 40 CUC each. Cuba seems like it’s a small island, but it’s really quite long, and difficult to get from one side to the other. After lunch they went to find a casa, and I headed back to my casa, as the rain again began to pour down. As I lay in my room, Enrique came knocking. He was concerned about my stomach, and wanted to make sure I was feeling better. He offered mineral water and tea, but I politely declined and told him that I would just rest.

The next morning was my last day in Viñales. I took a coffee with Enrique in the morning and talked with him about his life. I hadn’t realized that his house was destroyed in the hurricane, and he has been rebuilding it since September.39990472821_0659f128aa_cWe talked about my plan to return Havana today, and he acted like a concerned father as he rattled off all the things I should be careful of. He also let me leave my luggage at the casa while I went wandering around the town for one last time.39991556811_f8ca203751_c39960237962_694d93337d_cTo walk through this town is to see the simple life at its finest.39960237802_b33d48ee42_c25120601097_4fea7f3ca2_cFamilies sitting on their porch, watching the day go by.39960237752_ceb346afd5_c

39960237932_d230ee0245_c
rummage sale

Small business owners relaxed at their store front, and a few kids playing tag in the main square.39960238032_5443e88155_cAfter my stroll, I sat in the plaza in the heat of the day, as an old Cuban man with a fat cigar went around to chat with all the foreigners and wish them good-day. As I sat on a bench, stray dogs began to crawl under me, since my presence was a nice shadow from the sun.26118277758_afdb9e6866_cWith this moment of solitude, I began to think about my time here in Cuba. 39991556371_043db74da0_cI was so glad that I had decided to visit both Viñales and Havana. Although they are both cities in the same country, they felt like worlds apart. To say I didn’t like Cuba after visiting Havana, was to say that I didn’t like the United States after visiting Los Angeles. In contrast, Viñales is more like small-town America, a Hayward, Wisconsin, for example.😉 L.A. and Hayward may both be in the same country, but the people and the culture couldn’t be more different. Anyway, from there I ran to get my luggage at the casa.  Enrique was sitting on the patio shirtless, as his son was painting the ceiling of the entry way. Before I left, Enrique gave me his business card, because he wanted me to message him once I arrived back safely in Spain. From there I left for the bus stop.

Surprisingly, at the bus stop, I met the same Finnish girls I came here to Viñales with. The one girl told me she ended up in the hospital yesterday, because of dehydration from a stomach bug, and needed two bags of fluids. She also got stung by a jelly fish at Cayo Jutias beach, but still seemed in good spirits about her trip. After four hours on the bus we arrived back in Havana. The girls invited me to eat with them, but my stomach was still not in the mood. I had some bread and crackers, which seemed like the most that I could handle. As I walked back to Abdel’s house, I had all the same propositions as before. “Taxi lady? Hey senorita, guapa, etc…” I was back in Havana, for sure. As I walked into Abdel’s house, his daughter was hanging out on the couch watching cartoons and eating ice cream. They felt like family, although I had only known them for a week. Abdel carried my things up to a different room this time, where I had my own bathroom and television. I spent the evening watching a children’s movie, and prepared for my flight the next day.

On my last day in Cuba I took on the challenge of getting to the airport using public transport. 😀

Taxis to the airport cost 30 CUC, while the public bus costs less than 0.05 CUC.

Instructions to/from the airport: To take the public bus to the Airport from Havana, head near Capitolio. To take the bus to Havana from the airport, walk to Estacion General Peraza.39976040182_c86b52ae1a_c

26118215768_e2c4611262_c
Capitolio in Havana

The P-12 metro bus will take you in either direction, and it is clearly labeled. The bus stop is also only a 25-minute walk from the airport. If you have light luggage, and want to save a lot of dough, it’s a great option.

26119566818_5f4e908f2e_c
bus stop sign and surroundings; two Canadians I met taking the bus to the airport as well 😀

My Final Words of Advice:
Cuba is a big country. It’s cheap to stay in casas and the food can be very cheap.
26117840588_ccbdf2990c_c26117840508_90b176a389_cThere is not too much variety, so bring snacks if you’re a picky eater. I had to laugh one day as I saw a French couple in the Viñales plaza eating rolls of bread stuffed with bananas and carrots for lunch. The options here are really quite limited.

That being said, the coffee here is very good and the rum is very cheap. ❤

39991813941_bbf745ab7c_cThe most expensive thing here is transportation. It’s difficult to get from one side of the country in one week. For example, Trinidad to Vinales is about 8 hours of driving. The weather is unpredictable. It may be sunny one minute and raining the next, so bring sun screen, bug spray, and an umbrella. Many places don’t have soap, so bring sanitizer. Also, make sure when you buy something, to check if the price is in CUP or CUC. For example, if a pizza costs 8, they probably mean CUP, which is like 40 cents. Don’t give 8 CUC and get ripped off. 39990006751_ae9248bec2_cSouvenir prices are not set, so be prepared to haggle.

26119465528_b09048d124_c
1-2 CUC for bracelets

Overall, don’t have a plan, and your plans will never be ruined. Don’t be afraid to come here. Just come. That is all. ❤

Getting there:
I flew to Havana with Delta Airlines. Delta airlines will issue the tourist visa at the departure gate for 50 USD.
39991813891_db946436af_c

Where to Stay: 

I booked my accommodation on Airbnb. My casa in Havana was 10 CUC for a dorm bed, and my casa in Viñales was 14 CUC for a whole room, which would have made it a lot cheaper if I shared.

Anyway, now I’m back in Barcelona, Spain, to take on another semester of school. Stay tuned for more updates and ESLVentures. Until then!

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cuban Cities: Havana and Viñales

  1. I JUST FINISHED YOUR BLOG FROM CUBA IT WAS EXCELLENT AS USUAL .YOUR WRITING IS SO INTERESTING I FELT LIKE I WAS THERE WITH YOU.I LOVED THE VIDEOS IT WAS GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN,GLAD YOUR BACK SAFE,LOVE DAD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks pop! Glad you enjoyed my post. It was another eye-opening trip. That’s for sure. Also, so happy I got to spend the week before with you and Mom! Lots of love, Megan XOXO

      Like

  2. Megan ,
    I continue to follow each of your narratives, and thoroughly enjoy your detailed and lively descriptions. Your depiction of Cuba was very interesting and informative, and I was glad to hear you had a fun week chillin’ sith the folks on your cruise. Thank you for taking the time to share your adventures in such a warm and personal way so others can “travel the world” along with you! I am definitely along for the ride!
    Suzanne Glad (Julie’s mom, and I know your mom)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Suzanne, Thank you so much for the kind words. This travel journey has been quite the experience. It means so much to have your support along the way. Say “hello” to Julie for me! 😀 Take care! Xx

      Like

  3. Wow, this is a very good post – you captured a lot here (and some great dog pictures lol). You’re right about been seen as a walking bag of money, but who knows how we might behave if we grew up in their shoes. It did wear a little after a while but I had to remind myself that being able fly to Cuba just for a holiday makes us relatively rich in their eyes – and on a global level they’re right. I constantly find that the poorest people show the greatest generosity – wanting to give us more when they have so little (in Cuba and in general) – very humbling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a humbling trip indeed. It really made me appreciate so many of the basic necessities I take for granted in my life. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Take care and safe travels!

      Like

  4. I have been to Cuba twice and Varadero beach is good. I did not get hassled a lot. Blondes look like red flashing lights I’m sure. I was more camouflaged with dark brown hair. A big floppy hat and huge sunglasses may have helped. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.