Study & Travel: Cuba
Sam’s Adventures in Cuba:
Honors student Sam documented his recent trip to Cuba with a video blog. Learn more about his experience:
El viaje por encima de los demás–Lindsey’s Adventure in Cuba
Honors student Lindsey dubbed her recent trip to Cuba “the trip above all others.” Keep reading to learn why:
It was an early morning start at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, but I had finished finals and was about to embark on a trip that I had been dreaming of for years. At the airport, our group was able to all meet for the first time. The group included four college students: Sam, Mac, Julia, and me, and a handful of adults that included Auburn University professors, the Dean of Liberal Arts, and Honors College faculty. After a short two hour flight we got our first taste of Cuba by walking off the plane onto the hot tarmac of the José Martí airport. Our tour guides David and Alpi lead us to the bus we would be using all week and took us straight to lunch. We all spent the time on the bus getting very excited about the old cars and the beautiful scenery. Everywhere you looked there was a new art piece, murals, and graffiti. Alpi explained to us that the Cuban government promotes the arts and sees graffiti as artistic expression. Post food and a quick trip meeting, we were taken to our lodging. The college students stayed at an amazing apartment with a rooftop terrace. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the terrace before dinner at Fabrica de Arte Cubano. The four-course meal was delicious and included a traditional Cuban experience. Right as my main course of fish was placed in front of me, the power went out for the whole block! Ending dinner in the dark was an interesting experience. Generators quickly worked to power up the essential lights, but that meant we could not experience the club and art exhibit that Fabrica de Arte Cubano is famous for. When we left to go back to the apartment, the line to get in was around the block and looked to be a half of a mile long. Though we did not to see a lot on the first day, I was already in love with Havana.
Cuba runs on a different time than Auburn. I am not talking about Central versus Eastern time zones, but instead I am referring to the slowed pace that all Cubans subscribe to. We started the morning by heading to a restaurant within walking distance from the apartment for breakfast. After drinking some Cuban coffee and waiting for a while, we found out that the restaurant did not have any breakfast food. It was common to find that places had run out of certain foods or places to be randomly closed. So after a breakfast of granola bars back at the apartment, we visited Callejon de Hamel, a street that is covered in art and is also the home of the Sunday Santeria street celebration. Santeria is the Afro-Cuban religion that emerged from the Africans that were brought as slaves to Cuba. On Sundays at twelve they dance the rumba and the street is filled with people coming to watch the dancing and listen to the music. We went before the dancing started so we could see all the beautiful murals and art pieces on the street. For lunch we had a cooking lesson at Villa Costa Habanera. The house had turned into a bed and breakfast and the cook gave cooking lessons back in the dining room/kitchen. The lesson started with learning to make mojitos. We were then split into pairs to learn how to make the rest of the dishes. Sam and I were put on beans while the others made the pork and tostones. Before we were able to eat we had an exam with the winner winning a prize. The others decided I should be the winner and started laughing when the prize ended up being a shot of rum. I don’t drink and it was hilarious that that was the prize. I ended up sharing it with everyone because I did not like the taste. The food we made was some of my favorite from the entire trip and I am looking forward to making the food again at home. After lunch we went on a walking tour of Old Havana and we saw the four plazas. We ended the night with another delicious dinner, a walk down the Malecon (the sea wall where everyone meets to hangout) and a trip to my first ever bar, King bar. Our first full day was full of surprises and lots of firsts for me and I could not wait to see what other things I would see over the next week.
The sound and smell of someone cooking breakfast is a perfect way to wake up. I don’t normally eat a lot for breakfast, but in Cuba we did not eat lunch until two or three so a large breakfast was necessary. A lady came into our apartment and made us a fresh breakfast of omelets, ham, cheese, fresh fruit, bread, and papaya juice. Our guides picked us up and we headed to the Partagas Cigar Factory for a tour. The original factory was under restoration so we toured their temporary facility. The building was very hot and had very little air flow. We got to see the different stages of the cigar from the sorting of leaves and removal of the leaf veins to the building of the cigars to sorting and packing. They also had tasters and quality control rooms that we did not visit. Post-learning about cigars our group went to a salsa lesson. Each person was paired up with a dancer. I got to dance with Irwin and he really helped me understand the counts and where my feet were supposed to be. I had a lot of fun counting 123 567 as we spun around and did the combination of eight steps we learned. After the lesson we were all starving, so we headed to our longest lunch the whole trip and the one place I had WIFI the whole trip. The meal of pumpkin soup, shrimp in tomato sauce and a dessert of chocolate mousse was delicious but dragged on for over three hours. Once we finally were done with lunch, we headed to the Museum of the Revolution before it closed. The city of Havana is 500 years old in November of this year, so a lot of places were under restoration to prepare for the celebration and the Museum of the Revolution was one of them. All the exhibits had been moved around and were not in a easy to figure out order, but were written in both Spanish and English so we were able to piece together the history. It was interesting to read about the revolution from the side of the revolutionaries and not through an American lens. The museum’s building was previously the Presidential Palace. After we went through all the exhibits inside the building, we headed out to the backyard to look at some of the vehicles used during the revolution and behind glass was the yacht, Granma, that Castro, Che and 80 other fighters rode from Mexico to Cuba. We ended the night at a local community project called Muraleando. We met the founder, an eccentric man whose catchphrase became an inside joke for the rest of the trip, “and I NEVER lie!” The site was originally held a water tank for the steam trains but turned into a trash dump before Muraleando moved in. The entire place had been turned into a giant art project using items found when they were removing the trash. Kids in the community can come and learn art, film and music skills for free. We had the opportunity to listen to two of the bands that were formed at Muraleando. The first band played traditional Cuban music while the second played music that was closer to American classic pop. That night we learned who was good at dancing and who enjoyed dancing. The night ended in lots of laughter and smiles.
We left Havana for Cienfuegos and started to see a different side of Cuba. Leaving Havana behind we saw less cars and more open fields and green space. We traveled southeast to the other side of the island, stopping at Playa Larga for a hike with a naturalist at the Enigma de las Rocas. The hike was fascinating with all the greenery and water everywhere. One thing that I thought I would never see in a forest was crabs. There are no poisonous animals in Cuba so we did not have to worry about the large array of crabs, lizards and iguanas we saw on the trail. Towards the end of the trail we came up to a cenote filled with brackish water; this is where fresh water and seawater mix. The naturalist showed us where we could jump off the six meter cliff into water. All four college students all jumped in multiple times while the adults took pictures. I was terrified to jump the first time, but as Sam put it I hesitated on hesitating and jumped in with no problem. The water was so pretty and the perfect temperature to cool off in after walking in the Cuban heat. When the adrenaline of jumping caught up to us and we were all tired, we hiked back to the bus and headed to lunch at a local house. It was an array of fresh seafood, fruit, salad, rice and beans. Lunch was followed by a bus ride to Playa Girón to visit the Bay of Pigs museum. I used my limited Spanish skills and context clues to read the exhibit signs. Just like with the Museum of the Revolution it was interesting to read about the Bay of Pigs invasion from a non-American view. After learning about the Bay of Pigs we headed out to one of the landing sites of the invasion to have some relaxing time on the beach. The beach was very different from other beaches I have visited. The sand was mostly coral and due to seaweed there were only certain areas where you could walk into the ocean. The beach also had the remnants of old defensive strategies like sniper pods along beach and poles to slow down a land invasion. After a couple hours at the beach we travelled to Cienfuegos where we spent the night. Dinner was a late affair with bets on whether or not dinner would last to 11:30 or midnight (11:30 won). This night also started our napkin folding competitions that happened whenever our food was taking a long time. The night ended with another walk along the Malecon.
Cienfuegos is very different from Havana because it is has a smaller population. The city is turning 200 this year so it has a more modern architecture than Havana. The view from the rooftop terrace at the place we stayed was of the sky trees and one to two story houses. Downtown had one central market road that we got to explore. Julia and I spotted a toy store and we were surprised at the sparseness of the store. There was about ten total different types of toys sold and then baby supplies like diapers and shampoo. It was a drastic difference to the toy aisles in America. At the end of the market street, there was the central square with the Thomas Terry Theatre which we got to tour. Next we toured an eccentric sugar plantation house. The house was built with lots of design styles mixed together. The front room was Moroccan while other rooms had mixes of renaissance and baroque; the styles really work well together. We ate lunch there and then headed down the road to Trinidad. At one point in the drive, the bus stopped at the side of the road at a fruit stand. The owner of the stand let us try all the fruit and honey he was selling. The honey was so good we all ended up with a bottle of it. I was worried about if it would actually get back to America but it did. Once we got to Trinidad and ready for dinner, we were supposed to go on a walking tour of Trinidad but it was lightly raining and some of the members of the group did not want to go on the tour in the rain. Our guides took us instead to a pottery store, where we got to try our hand at the pottery wheel. My bowl ended up looking okay in the end but I messed up a lot. They let us wander around the back of the store to see what else they were making and sitting there was a 1915 Ford Model T! It was so cool to see a Model T in person with its hand crank engine and wooden wheels. The owner told us, they were slowing restoring it when they can find the correct parts. Dinner was on a rooftop and there was a giant tree extended over all the tables. While we were waiting for dessert, a band came over to us and our driver got up and sang with them and then salsa danced. He was really good and it was a departure from the stoic nature we had seen of him previously. After dinner half of the group went back to their rooms while the other half went to an outdoor Cuban bar and then when that place closed at 1am we went to a club that was in a cave. It was so cool going down into the cave and how the sound carried in the different areas.
I wrote a lot more than I thought I would for the previous days, but today was our slow relaxing day. We started with a trip to a sugar plantation where we got to try fresh sugar cane juice that we juiced using a machine from 1884. Then we climbed a tower with very steep ladder-like steps. The view at the top made the climb completely worth it though. You could see all the old sugar cane fields in the distance and mountains. The rest of the day was spent at an all-inclusive resort on the prettiest beach I have ever been on. The water was crystal clear, the sand was soft, rocks formed a natural pool area, and mountains were in the background. It was a great day to stop and recharge before heading into the back half of the trip.
This day started with a hike in one of Cuba’s national parks. Our guides David and Alpi told us it would be an easy trail, but I would not say the same; it had a lot of steep inclines to climb and lots of rocks and roots to watch out for. The nature along the hike was beautiful but once we came upon the waterfall, it made the hike worth it. We got to jump off a cliff into the water. The waterfall was next to a cave, so we swam towards it and went about ten feet in before we saw the bats and left. After jumping in a couple more times and learning most of our group that did not jump in the water had already started back, we got out and hiked back to the bus, joining the others. We had lunch at pirate themed paella place outside of Trinidad. Where we were sitting we could see how they stylized the backyard to look like the deck of a ship. The paella was really good but so much food that Julia and I ended up sharing and we still had leftovers. After lunch everyone was really tired and we had a couple of hours of free time in Trinidad so Julia, Sam, Mac, Wade and I chose to take a nap and then walk around Trinidad’s main square before dinner. May 10th was David’s, our guide’s, birthday so we went out after dinner to celebrate. We went to the club in the cave again and danced for a while and then went to a beach. By the time we got back to our home in Trinidad it was five in the morning.
Today was the day I realized the trip was almost over since we spent the day driving from Trinidad back to Havana. The drive took a lot longer than I thought it would but we stopped along the way to help break up the trip. Our first stop was to a community project that helps families with special needs children. We were able to meet two of their families for a brief minute while delivering food. Our next stop was at the farm of ceramicist Hector Correa. His wife made us a delicious lunch and then we got a quick tour of the farm. On the farm they kept bees and I was able to drink fresh honey right out of the hive. Our next stop was at the overlook Mirador de Bacunayagua, where there is the tallest bridge in Cuba. The view was amazing with greenery all down the valley and a view of the ocean in the distance. We finally got back to Havana with just enough time to change clothes before heading out again to see the 9 pm curfew canon at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. The boom from the canon was so loud that we could hear it the next night in Old Havana across the bay. We ended the night with dinner and a trip to Espacios.
Our last full day was very busy since David and Alpi wanted us to see as much possible. The first stop of the morning was to a cigar shop. Pretty much everyone in the group bought cigars, but I definitely bought the least with only two. Next we visited another art street, Fusterlandia. The artist started by decorating his house with tiles and it slowly moved into the street. The house was multiple levels of what I can only describe as a Cuban tiled version of Dr. Seuss land at Universal Orlando. Everywhere you look there is something new your eye notices. Across the street there was a tiled mural of the Granma yacht with Castro, Che and some other revolutionaries. We then visited an art studio to see some professional art pieces. Lunch was a happy affair because we had been craving pizza for days and we finally got to eat one. After we ate David and Alpi brought out a cake to celebrate our trip and roses for all the women on the trip since it was Mother’s Day. We keep the excitement up from lunch and went on the classic car tour. The four college students all rode together in a pink Buick that the boys picked out. I don’t know what year the car was because I forgot to ask in my excitement. The funny thing about the pink Buick is days earlier I bought a postcard of cars on a Havana street and the first car in the picture is a pink Buick; I did not realize the connection until I got home and I looked at the postcard again. We had our last Cuban dinner in Old Havana with an University of Havana professor. The night ended at the Buena Vista Social Club, where we listened to Grammy award winning artists and got to get up and dance on the stage. It was a great way to end our final night in Cuba.
Our final day was bittersweet because I was ready to go home and see my family, but I was not ready to leave. This group started the trip basically not knowing each other at all, but we became really good friends. We started the morning by saying goodbye to Julia as she left to go meet her Cuban family for the first time. Afterwards we headed to an indoor market where we were able to buy all the souvenirs we had space for. With our bags full and our wallets slightly lighter, we headed to the airport where we had to say goodbye to David and Alpi. They helped us so much on the trip and were so fun to be around; it was hard to say goodbye as we entered the security line. After a short plane ride we stepped back on American soil and the trip officially ended.
Cuba was such an amazing country and exceeded my expectations every day. The people were so nice and always tried to talk to us even with a language barrier. I am looking forward to returning one day to explore more of this extraordinary country.
Julia’s Travels to Cuba
Honors student Julia recently traveled with us to Cuba, where she got the chance to immerse herself in Cuban culture and to spend time with her extended family in Bauta. Read more about her experience here:
Getting off of the plane was an interesting experience. We walked down the stairs and got on a bus that was really two buses attached. Once we left the airport, we found our guides, David and Alpi, and boarded the tour bus. Driving to Havana, we saw people playing baseball, jumping onto buses, and hung out by the seawall. We ate lunch at Ana’s, and I had fried plantains, guava, pineapple, and chocolate ice cream. After lunch, we went to the apartment, an apartment that many professors own and rent out for extra money. While sitting on the balcony, we discussed funny high school teachers. For dinner, we went to Fabrica de Arte, which consisted of an art gallery, restaurants, bars, and a concert venue. The restaurant was was made out of metal transportation boxes, and during dinner there were two blackouts. We weren’t able to see the entirety of the art galleries due to the blackouts, but the little we did see was exquisite. On the way back, we saw hundreds of people dancing in the streets along the seawall.
When we woke up, we went to La Fountain for breakfast. Once we realized that La Fountain was out of bread, we went back to the apartment and ate granola bars. We traveled to the Salvador’s art square. The area was covered in art and poetry, and it was known for being the center of Rumba. After watching the Santa Ria people perform Rumba, I noticed many people in all white. Once I asked Alpi, he told me that the people in white were being introduced into the religion. They had to wear all white for a year in order to be accepted. There’s other rules as well. The people cannot accept money directly, they must pick it up from the ground. We saw the artist, Salvador. Another fact about the Santa Ria religion is that they do not have a temple, instead the temple is the body. Certain pots inside of a door represent certain gods. Blue pots represent the sea god, the red pots represent good luck, and the chains along the door represent protection. Once we left Salvador’s art square, we went to a cooking lesson. The cook worked in a bed and breakfast owned by an Italian lady. The house was gorgeous, and the cook was the sweetest lady. Her daughter ran around while we cooked, and we found out it was her birthday. After eating a delicious meal, we sang Happy Birthday to her. Our translator was a professional dancer, and after leaving, her husband and her went to the theater. Following the cooking lesson, we took a walking tour of Old Havana. Old Havana looked very similar to New Orleans. There were cobblestone roads, squares, and terraces. We played soccer in the square with a few young boys, and then we passed the Hotel Ambos Munelos, where Ernest Hemingway stayed for eleven years. We saw the police, some in black, some in blue, and a few in purple. The police dressed in black were in charge of crowd control and tourist safety. The police dressed in blue were for traffic control. The police dressed in purple were motorcycle police. During dinner, I found out the Dean of Liberal Arts does not know his left from right, something that I also have never known. I conversed with Malcolm about the climate change, a topic we are both very passionate about. Following dinner, we went to King Bar for a little while.
We ate breakfast in the apartment, which consisted of fruit and bread. Following breakfast, we toured a cigar factory. It takes days, sometimes weeks, to press the cigars. Many employees get arthritis from rolling the cigars. The leaves are very soft, and they feel like soft leather. We went to salsa lessons, and, thanks to my previous dance experience, I did not step on any toes. We watched as the instructors performed a series of dances in a circle that is usually performed at parties. It was very impressive, especially since it was not choreographed. At lunch, I had the best chocolate pudding. Then we went to the Revolutionary Museum, where the president used to live. There were bullet holes in the wall from an assassination attempt . The staircase looked similar to the one in Beauty and the Beast. We saw the Granma yacht. We visited the Muraleando community, which was one of my favorite places the entire trip. It was like walking into someone’s imagination. Malcolm danced all night.
We traveled to Cienfuegos, and while passing the countryside, many horses and cows walked freely without fences. We hiked the Sendero Enigma de las Rocas. There were a ton of crabs, and lizards. We also saw an iguana, a Cuban gar, and a crocodile. We swam in a water hole with brackish water, a mix of freshwater and saltwater. The water was gorgeous. We visited the Giron Bay of Pigs Museum. The photos were very gruesome. Following the museum, we went to the Bay of Pigs beach, where there were actual pigs. The beach was very rocky and there were eight puppies. We collected seaglass. That night we walked on the seawall and danced.
We walked through a marketplace. When we walked into the toy store, it was very scarce. We toured the Tomas Terry Theater, which had a sloped stage. It holds 750 people. We also toured a sugar house, where each room had a different style. The house was absolutely gorgeous. Then, we traveled to Trinidad. We stopped at a fruit stand, and I tasted three different types of mangoes. We went to a pottery shop in Trinidad, and I tried to make a cup. It was quite abstract. The family had a 1915 Model T Ford. We had dinner at La Cieba, a restruant built around a huge tree. We went to an outdoor dancing area, and after Sam screamed, “Te amo!” to the girl that rejected his offer to dance, we went to the Cave Bar.
We traveled to the Sugar Cane Valley and climbed a tower that overlooked the countryside. We tried sugar cane juice, which tasted a lot like apple juice with more sugar. We went to another beach at a resort where a circle of rocks created a type of calm pool.
We began the day by hiking at a National Park, where we swam into a cave with bats. We also climbed into the cave and jumped out of the opening. On our way back, we stopped at some plants that looked like aloe vera and broke off a leaf only to find out that the plant was not aloe vera. I saw a snake and screamed. We ate a cool pirate place, and then we walked around Trinidad square. There were kids skating everywhere. We went to the cave again, and then we went to a gas station and got ham and cheese sandwiches. After we ate the sandwiches, we went to the beach at 4am. We listened to John Mayer and Michael Buble.
We let Trinidad and stopped at an art farm. Hector, the owner and artist, had Mayan bees, which don’t sting. He also had peacocks and chickens. We went to the highest bridge in Cuba. That night we went to the cannon shoot in Havana.
We went to Fusterlandia, a house that is completely covered in tiles. Then we went to an art gallery, where Alpi’s girlfriend works. We finally had pizza for lunch, and although it was not the best, it was still pizza. Then we went on an old car tour and stopped at Havana’s National Forest. We continued on to the National Hotel, and we had a conversation about economics and politics. The guys also smoked cigars, which I am not a fan of. I could not figure out how to smoke it correctly. Then we went to the Buena Vista Social Club, and we saw world famous singers. I loved the dancer’s dress. Later that night, we went to a bar where we danced for a while. I met David’s girlfriend, who was a blast! We left at 3am.
Around 9:45 am, my aunt, who lives in the USA but has visited Cuba many times, picked me up from our apartment. She hired a driver to assist us with travel in Cuba. As usual, he automatically took my bags and put them in the trunk. Before we left Havana, my aunt asked the driver to stop at the grocery store to grab a few things for my family in Bauta. She bought water, beer, soda, macaroni style pasta (because my cousins had never had macaroni), hot dogs, nutritional packets for a distant cousin whose baby was sick, and wine. The grocery store was very different from our grocery stores. There was only one brand of each item and the line for meat, as well as the checkout line, was incredibly long. My aunt actually had her husband stand in line to checkout while we shopped, and after about 25 minutes, he was at the cash register. While driving to Bauta, we passed the countryside, which was filled with pastures of cows, sugarcane, and cliffs. Many of the pastures were owned by the government. The driver also stopped at a broken down car, but after he ensured that they would be able to fix it, we continued driving. Once arriving at my mom’s cousin’s house, I met her two daughters, Irene and Alba. Irene is eight years old with long black hair that could compete with Rapunzel, and Alba is twenty one years old. Alba is engaged to Jorge, and their wedding is in February. Alba is a college student studying world economics, as well as a manicurist, and Jorge fixes appliances. They are currently remodeling the family house. Irene goes to a school about five blocks down the road, but the school itself is very run down. If Irene’s teacher cannot make it to school, she often does not have a sub. A teacher will check in on the classroom every now and then, but the children have to learn the lesson themselves or their parents have to teach it to them. Most times, the school ends around 1pm and the children are done for the day. But they do not have planned schedules, so the children do not know whether they will have to return to class after lunch until the day begins. Irene’s outfit for school was white knee high socks, a white button down short sleeve shirt, a maroon overall dress, a blue necktie, and a blue hair scrunchie. The school provides one outfit for each child. For lunch, my mom’s cousin made plantains, black beans, white rice, and salmon. She offered flan, coconut pie, and guava pie for dessert. I tried a small piece of the coconut pie and guava pie. After having lunch, I took a nap in the only air conditioned room in the house, which they kindly insisted I sleep in, and then we walked over to my grandmother’s brother’s house. I met my mom’s other cousins, Natalia and Santiago, as well as each of their sons. Natalia’s son is about the same age as Irene, and Santiago’s son is studying to be a chef. Natalia is married, but her husband is not her son’s father. Her son’s father moved to the USA, and they have not seen him in three years. Natalia offered cake, and despite being full, I obliged. That was the best cake I’ve ever had. My grandmother’s brother, his wife, Natalia, Natalia’s husband, Natalia’s son, Santiago, Santiago’s wife, and Santiago’s son all live in the same house. Downstairs is the kitchen, my great uncle and aunt’s bedroom, and the living room, then the upstairs is split in half, creating separation between Natalia and Santiago’s families’ rooms. On the roof is a cage for Natalia’s dogs. She wants to start breeding them, a lab and a Schnauzer. Natalia is a chemist at a pill factory close by. My great uncle is taxi driver, and owns a 1949 Chevrolet. Every part in the car is original, except for the engine. Natalia’s son has a disease that does not allow his body to process proteins, so he is on a strict diet. But he loves dinosaurs, and was absolutely ecstatic about the virtual reality dinosaurs game my aunt brought him. After turning down offers for more sweets, we walked to two of my mom’s cousins’ house. They showed me pictures of their children, one of whom’s daughter has the sick child. The other’s son’s girlfriend had moved to Nicaragua. In the backyard, they had three fighting chickens and a dog with an under bite. However, the dog was as sweet as could be. My mom’s cousins offered me cake and coffee, and after declining the cake, they brought out the best coffee I had in Cuba. Once we left their house, my aunt’s husband went to a barber. My aunt introduced me to two family friends at the barbershop, both of whom had left Cuba and were studying in the US. They spoke English, and we discussed the idea of Cuban time, US education, and English. They both said that they missed the US and only returned to Cuba to visit their families. Also, they said that school in Cuba, particularly math, is more difficult in Cuba. The math they learned in 9th grade in the USA was the same math they learned in 6th grade in Cuba. If you think about this, it makes sense why. Cuba does not teach world history or governmental structures in their schools, so there is a large focus on math. We drove to Bauta’s town square, which is centered around a yellow church, the same church that my aunt had her First Communion in. When my aunt was a child, the boys had to walk one way around the square and the girls had to walk the opposite way in order to only be able to have short conversations. My aunt remembered when her cousin would take her to the square to meet up with a boy she liked. On the corner of the square is a statue of Antonio Maceo, a Cuban general who was killed in 1896 during the Ten Years War. Later that night, my family had a party for me, inviting all of the cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and more. They made pork, rice, black beans, plantains, yucca, and cake. We played dominos, and the kids played freeze tag, jump rope, musical chairs, ring toss, Monopoly, and hide and seek. I met my grandmother’s sister, who cleans houses. My grandmother and her look exactly alike. Around 9:30pm, we turned on the WiFi and FaceTimed my grandmother. Her sister and brother cried afterwards, but I think they were happy tears. They asked my grandmother to come to Cuba to visit, to which she said maybe. My grandmother’s brother began telling me about when my grandmother left and how sad he was. My aunt’s last memory was my grandmother’s brother crying in the back of the house. People lined the streets to tell them bye.
In the morning, my aunt realized the water was running out, so she called the plumber. However, Alba’s father was able to fix it. A piece of pipe had broken on the water tank, and he found the part rather quickly then fixed it. My grandmother’s brother and his wife picked my aunt and I up to travel to Artemisa, where we found souvenirs and cooking oil. On the way back, we passed the same cliffs from the day before. My aunt pointed out these giant, missile sized holes in the cliffs, and she said that the Russians used to store their missiles in the cliffs. Once we got back to the house, my aunt and I walked to downtown Bauta and ate at a little bar called Sancho, where we ordered ham and cheese plantains. After lunch, we drove to a friend’s farm, where he raised cows and grew vegetables and fruits. He had recently asked the government for more land to farm on, and they accepted his request. However, he has to sell his cows’ milk to the government. He works for the government testing new agricultural processes. He has two experiments currently, which are testing methane levels in human made ponds. His wife and him live on the farm, as well as his parents. He sent us home with two bags full of mangoes and an entire bag of peppers. When we returned home, Irene’s mom had made shrimp, rice, black beans, and plantains. Irene and I tried to see who could make the best napkin fold. She made a cat and I made a triangle. I’d say I won. After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked until 11pm. My aunt told me about how my grandmother used to throw the best parties in Bauta, and she could kill a chicken with one flick of her wrist. She told me about how my grandfather used to stop at every broken down car and fix it. She told me that when they moved to the states, he did the same thing and helped a teenage girl whose car had broken down in a bad part of Atlanta. After fixing her car, her father, a farm, brought a giant basket of vegetables to my family every year. My grandfather also had medicine and food for anyone in Bauta who needed it. The last story I heard was about how my aunt scratched her arm on a fence after running from cows in a pasture. My grandfather’s brother was supposed to be watching them, and she said my grandmother scolded him for days about her arm. I told Irene that I would wake up early and say goodbye to her before school. It stormed that night, and I barely slept. I did not want to leave my family so soon.
The next morning I woke up around 7am and sat on the front porch while drinking my coffee. Around 7:30am, I said goodbye to Irene and told her that next time I came, we would have a pajama party. I made two little bags of clothes, toiletries, money, and little trinkets for my family. Alba gave me a pretty string heart key chain that I hooked onto my backpack while packing. My grandmother’s brother brought over little snacks for my grandmother that she used to love. A family friend gave me Cuban coffee to take back to my grandmother as well. My grandmother’s grandfather picked up my aunt, her husband, Alba, and I to take me to the airport. I had told my grandmother’s sister goodbye yesterday, and I did not get to see Natalia because her son’s father (from the US) was in town. We were about halfway to the airport when a police officer flagged us down. My grandmother’s brother pulled over and she asked, more like told, if her friend could ride with us. So she hopped in next to me. We dropped her off close to her destination, and then continued to the airport. We parked the car, my grandmother’s father backing it into the parking spot, and of course grabbing my bags. After saying my goodbyes to them, I went through the security check. I waved goodbye to them once more as I walked through the security checkpoint. I cannot wait to go back to Cuba. I cannot explain the amount of love I felt from all of them, and they did everything possible to make sure my stay was amazing.
AY Dios Mio!
By: Ethan Smyth
There is a reason most tourists visit Cuba in the winter months, and that reason became clear to me as soon as I got off the plane in Havana. The heat. I know, I should’ve been expecting this. It’s not that I thought Cuba, a tropical island in the Caribbean, would be cold in May, it’s just that I didn’t expect this kind of heat. The kind of heat that makes you feel embarrassed to have allowed your mom to convince you to pack a jacket and wool socks in your suitcase. I had no choice but to immediately become resolved to the fact that I would not stop sweating over the course of the next ten days. Once I had that realization, the heat somehow became a little bit more bearable. We met our tour guides, Daniel and David, at the airport, and they brought us to the vans that we were supposed to use for the entirety of the trip, but only ended up lasting us a few days. Oops spoilers, we will get to that. The vans drove us into Havana, where we stopped for lunch. That’s where we met Ernesto. I don’t really know what Ernesto’s job is, but I think he was Daniel and David’s boss, and he kind of showed up randomly over the course of the trip. Ernesto welcomed us to Cuba, gave us some information about the trip, and passed out the spending money that we had transferred. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this first meal was a good indicator of what most of the other meals were going to be like. A salad, that wasn’t so much a salad as a platter of cucumber and tomato slices, with a mound a lettuce and cabbage in the middle. White rice and black beans, a classic combo, were also passed around at most meals. We also typically got to pick a main course from a short list (this time I picked lobster). Then they brought out some sort of dessert and coffee for anyone that wanted it. This formula was followed at the vast majority of meals we had. After lunch we headed farther into Havana, for our salsa lesson. All I have to say about that is, if you think you are going to be bad at salsa dancing you probably are. In my case, at least. After that hour that felt like an eternity, we headed to the homes we would be staying in to change for dinner. I stayed in a house with the other two boys, Baker and Justin. It was a beautiful home with very kind owners, and two tiny and insane dogs. We headed to dinner, which followed the same formula as lunch (this time I picked chicken). After that, we went to a salsa dancing club right on the Malecón, the seawall that stretches along the coast of Havana. I didn’t partake in the salsa dancing, but I did get to know our tour guides a little better, and I tried my very first Cuba Libre, which is essentially a rum and coke. I ordered mine without rum though (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). After that we went back to our houses for the night.
Second day in Cuba started off on a high note. Our house mom laid out a nice spread for breakfast, including mango (pronounced mon-go) that I still have dreams about. Also Justin gave me his portion of eggs which was pretty cool because I’m a growing boy and I need my food. We ate up and then hopped in the van. First stop was a wildlife preserve type of thing where we got to see a bunch of crocodiles. I fed one from a distance, so I can tell you first hand that there is nothing quite as terrifying as the sound of a crocodile snapping its mouth shut. After that we went on a short boat ride to an area with replicas of indigenous Cuban huts and sculptures, which was neat. Then we jumped back in the van and headed to lunch. Only thing worth noting at lunch is that I ordered fish, and the head was still attached when it was served to me. So I got a nice meal, and I learned a lot about fish anatomy! After lunch we went on a little nature hike up to a natural pool where you can go cliff diving. I wasn’t planning on jumping, but I’m a real sucker for peer pressure, so I ended up jumping a few times. Would recommend. We did see a crocodile in a nearby pool a little earlier so that was sketchy, but none of us lost any limbs so it turns out it was safe after all. Next stop was the Bay of Pigs Museum, which was closed by the time we got there. All the cool stuff, like planes and tanks, were on the outside so we got the gist of it. As we headed to Cienfuegos, our home for the night, our van broke down (for the first of many times. Oops spoilers). Almost everyone was able to cram into the other van, but I was one of the few tragically left behind. It actually turned out for the best, because Daniel and David brought out a speaker and we had a little fiesta (translation: party). Before long our driver Freddy, a tender man with a kind soul, got the van up and running and we were on our way. In Cienfuegos we had dinner and then had a little party afterwards, which included a band, dancers, and a group of random Cuban youths that were loitering nearby. Baker showed off his killer dance moves, Calista found love, and I played the maracas and ended up joining the band, I think. A good time for sure.
Wow my word count is already almost at 1000, so I’m going to speed things up a little. To save time, I’m not going to talk about the breakfasts from now on. Just know that we ate breakfast every day, and it was always the same kind of stuff. Ok let’s get started. The boys and I decided that we deserved to sleep in a little, so as a result the walking tour of Cienfuegos was abbreviated, but still very informative! From there we headed to a hiking trail where we hiked to yet another body of water, this time with a waterfall feeding it, and we once again jumped in. Loved it. From there we drove to Trinidad, where we would be staying for the next two nights. We went out to dinner and then went to a club inside of a cave. It was pretty uneventful, I don’t want to get into it.
This is an easy day to talk about, because we were at the beach all day. It was awesome. We went to a resort with its own private beach, and home to one of the top 20 prettiest views I have ever seen. The water was beautiful with its various shades of blue, and the mountains in the background were stunning. We got some much needed rest and relaxation, and I only got kind of sunburned, so that was nice. We left for dinner, and then headed to a square in the city that had a band and dancing. We headed back early, and some people went to one of our hotel owner’s birthday party, but I didn’t. If you want to hear about it, ask literally anyone but Baker and me. They all love to talk about it. The one thing I didn’t go to ended up being the freaking highlight of their trip. I’m still pissed if you can’t tell.
On the fifth day we started off by going to a sugar plantation. We got to try sugar cane juice, which was very sweet, and climb a tall tower, which borderline gave me an asthma attack. From the top you could see the whole valley, which was beautiful. After that we got in the vans to head towards Santa Clara, but before long both of our vans broke down, leaving us somewhat stranded in the middle of nowhere. Eventually taxis came to pick us up, but not before we met a few locals, some sane and some not. Because of the delay, we had to postpone our visit to Che Guevara’s Mausoleum for the next day. We arrived in the resort in Santa Clara, and relaxed by the pool for the rest of the day. After dinner, we were hanging out when a couple guys came up to hit on the girls in our group. After they were shot a swift L, Baker and I started talking to them, and it turns out they are pretty cool guys. Long story short we ended up becoming friends and later on squading up in the local club, so that was fun.
First stop was the Che Guevara Mausoleum. It was closed. The outside was pretty cool though. Then we visited a group that assists the families of people with disabilities. We learned about the organization and had the opportunity to visit with some of the families. We saw first hand the conditions that some of these people had to live in, but we also saw the optimism that they all had, despite their circumstances. Afterwards we drove to a small farm for lunch. I know I said I was going to stop talking about the meals a lot, but this meal was crazy good. I actually can’t describe the meal too much because I am still not quite sure what all the dishes were, but rest assured they were good. Rice and beans made an appearance as well. For dessert we had mango slices and fresh coffee. Some of us may have gotten confused and thought you were supposed to dip the mango in the coffee, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Everybody makes mistakes. Seriously chill out you guys I’m sorry. Anyway then we got a tour of the farm, including a sculpture garden and a bee hive where I got to drink honey right out of the hive. After we left the farm, the van broke down again. Classic. This time they fixed it right back up and we were on our way back to Havana. We were dropped off at our houses (we had the same one as before, so we got to see our crazy dogs again), and we got ready for the night. We went to dinner at a place with really good bread and then went to a bar called Espacios, which was a blast.
We woke up bright and early to head to a local restaurant called El Ajaco. We toured their garden and learned about different herbs and whatnot, before heading into the kitchen. They then taught us how to cook two dishes, which we made and then ate for lunch. We also learned how to make our own mojitos. I made mine without rum (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). Then we headed to Ernest Hemingway’s old house, where we learned about his life and his works. We also got to see the boat that the boat in “The Old Man and the Sea” was based on, which I thought was cool since that is the only Hemingway book that I’ve read. We got in the van to head back to Havana, but before long the van temporarily broke down again, so that was cool. After dinner we hung out at a club for awhile.
This was an exciting day. We started off with a walking tour of Havana, where we learned the history of different monuments and buildings, and got to explore different plazas and markets. Also I finally had a Cuban sandwich, so that’s off the bucket list. Then we had a vintage car tour of the city, which made me feel kind of like a rich celebrity. It started to rain so we took shelter in the Hotel Nacional, which is a gigantic and very regal hotel overlooking the ocean. Not quite sure why we didn’t get to stay there overnight but whatever. They had Wi-Fi so I got to facetime my mom for Mother’s Day, so that was a bonus. Afterwards we headed to dinner and then went to a concert put on by a famous Cuban band, before heading to another bar.
We started off the day with a nice, long, bumpy van ride to Viñales, a UNESCO world heritage site. We stopped at a viewpoint to marvel at a valley dotted with the towering limestone cliffs that the site is famous for. We enjoyed more of the views from the restaurant/garden where we ate lunch. Then we headed to a farm where they grow tobacco and make cigars. They taught us about the process of making cigars, and then offered some to us, but I didn’t take one (that was in case my mom reads this. I definitely took one lol). Then we went horseback riding through the valley. I almost died two times, once when I was taking a really cool selfie and almost fell off and once when my horse legit went from 0 to 60 mph in like half a second and I almost fell off. Other than that it was a lot of fun.
The last full day of the trip had us feeling a mix of sadness and relief. We started the day with a hike/boat ride through a cave in Viñales. That was fun, but what was even more fun was playing with some kittens we found outside. In hindsight that might not be the best idea, because they didn’t seem to have an owner, but I haven’t been deathly ill yet so I guess it turned out okay. We got in the van and started to head back Havana, with a stop for lunch. We stopped for lunch at a hotel that legit had trees growing inside of it which was neat. We had plans to go zip lining nearby, but the rain canceled those plans. We got back to Havana and had our farewell party. There was live music, dancing, speeches, and a lot of picture taking. We even ended up going back to Espacios. It was a last hoorah of sorts, and I know I had a great time for sure.
Last day We woke up real early so we could go on a little shopping spree. First we went to a cigar store inside of some sort of fortress. I don’t really know what came over me, but I ended up impulse buying 20 cigars. I think I forgot that Cuban money isn’t like Chuckie Cheese tickets, where you need to get rid of all of it before you leave. Cuban money can be transferred back to American money, which I seem to have forgotten in the moment. So come over if you want a cigar I guess. Anyway, then we went to a market. I bought a coconut. Then we were off to the airport. Once we got there it hit me that we were really leaving. I had to say goodbye to our tour guides, friends that I had spent the last ten days growing closer to. It was sad saying goodbye, but they give me one more reason to come back to Cuba!
And hopefully one day I can return. Cuba is a beautiful and diverse country, with a rich history and kind people. This trip introduced me to a country and culture that is truly unique, which I got to see and experience firsthand. In only eleven days I feel that I have only scratched the surface of what Cuba has to offer. I miss it already!
El Viaje De Tu Vida
Day 1 – Sunday May 7th
Today is finally the Day! Am I really about to go on a trip to Cuba! I walked into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport where, after many minor setbacks, I met up with the group that after this amazing trip I came to think of as mi familia. The flight went smoothly and we all walked off the plane ready to start our adventure. The Havana airport was much larger than I expected and had an array of floors and escalators that could very easily disorient even the most experienced of travelers. Going through security in Cuba was a breeze compared to the US and so we headed out and met our amazing guides and overall saviors of the trip David and Daniel. The bus ride to lunch was absolutely amazing! The feel of Cuba is like nothing I had ever experienced and just simply taking it all in for the first time was extraordinary! We ate our first meal in Cuba at a beautiful cafe in Havana where we had a wonderful multi course meal, and had an interesting dessert made from sweet milk, rice, and cinnamon which we described by saying “it’s not bad” – a phrase that became a joke when trying the many different foods Cuba had to offer. Travel tip for when in Cuba, eating out takes around two and a half hours per meal and was actually a really fun time to soak up the culture and have some incredible conversations. After lunch we drove through Old Havana, which is absolutely stunning, and had a private salsa lesson at La Casa del Son. I, myself had never really been one for dancing so I wasn’t especially looking forward to this part, but the instructors were amazing and I a great time! After the Salsa lesson and walking through the streets of beautiful Old Havana, we hopped back in the busses and headed to our hostels where we met our amazing house mom and her 2 very special dogs Jolene and El Nano. After an incredible dinner we spent our first night at a salsa club where we got to show off our moves we had learned earlier and really got to be a part of the Cuban culture. Fun fact, if you’re just standing to the side of the dance floor, someone will ALWAYS come get you to dance!
Day 2 – Monday May 8th
Breakfast time! Breakfast in Cuba is very different than in the US. There is always an array of tropical fruits like papaya, guava, pineapple, and my favorite the mango, freshly baked bread with butter, some fresh, tasty eggs, and some of the best coffee you have ever had. Eat as much of the amazing breakfasts as you can because lunch isn’t usually until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and snacks are hard to come by. Next, we all loaded our luggage into the busses to headed toward the city of Cienfuegos. Word for the wise, bring some headphones and a neck pillow for the long cars rides because there will be a lot of them. I wasn’t smart and didn’t bring a neck pillow and I had to watch Justin sleep comfortably with his everyday! About halfway through the bus ride we stopped at an alligator farm where, for 1 peso, you could take a picture holding a baby alligator that was wearing a sombrero and feed a full sized adult alligator. Definitely do pay attention when standing around the grown alligators however because there was only a little wire fence holding the alligators in. After some casual pictures with alligators we piled in a boat and went up river to an island on which there was an old aboriginal Cuban settlement known as Guama Village. This is a great opportunity to take lots of pictures because there are many beautiful statues commemorating the activities of the aboriginals daily lives. Next, we hiked through the “Enigma de las Rocaas” with our mysterious naturalist guide who kinda struck me as the mix of Rambo meets Mr. Miyagi. Here you have the incredible opportunity to jump off a small cliff into a natural spring created by the movement of ancient plate tectonics. This is a great place to use a waterproof camera or camera phone if you have one but word to the wise make sure not to drop it cause you won’t be able to find it again! We had lunch overlooking Playa Giron also known as the Bay of Pigs and it was incredible how much you could truly feel the history of what had occurred at this place! On our way to the town we had another truly Cuban experience – one of the buses broke down and Katherine, Ethan, and I stayed behind with the guides and the bus while the others crammed in the other bus and headed into town. The three of us decided to embrace this and it turned out to be one of the funnest parts of the trip! Our guides and driver pulled out a speaker, some Cuban cigars, and a bottle of Cuban rum and we had our own little party right there on the side of the rode until the bus got fixed! After dinner Tiffany surprised us with a live band and dancers, and we danced and laughed even more till early in the morning. Some of the neighbors heard all the music and came and joined us and it turned into one big neighborhood fiesta!
Day 3 – Tuesday May 9th
Woke up early and drove to Trinidad where we went on a beautiful hike. Partway through the hike we got to walk through a small house/cabin where two men were lived without electricity and running water. At the end of the hike we was a gorgeous waterfall. Here again was a great opportunity to go swimming. You could jump of the rocks into the water and swim underneath the waterfall where there was a small cave. Again, a really great place for some amazing pictures in the water! However, definitely would recommend wearing tennis shoes instead of chacos for the hike because the “ranch” might get you. We had an interesting Cuban dish called Paella for lunch. By this time we had learned not to ask what was in the food we were eating and with this dish we definitely did not want to ask that question, but surprisingly it wasn’t bad. After a great dinner at a guitar themed restaurant we went to a club in a cave! This was definitely a first for me but it was such a cool and unique experience. Also, the clubs in Cuba usually have some kind of halftime-like show, and this cave club was no different. The show consisted of the act picking up a full size table with their mouth, laying on and eating glass, and shredding a soda can with their mouth.
Day 4 – Wednesday May 10th
This day came at just the right time! Just as we were starting to become exhausted from all the hiking and adventuring through cities we had a nice relaxing day. First we started off the day with a tour of the Valley of the sugar mills where we got to see how sugar cane can be turned into a delicious, sweet tasting drink. Next we climbed the tower El Torre for a full 360 degree view of the surrounding mountain terrain, and then went on a short shopping trip through the streets around the area. Then, we headed to Playa Ancon where we swam in crystal clear water in a little natural cove that had been created when a hurricane threw rocks around to form a crescent shape around this part of the beach. The view from the beach was stunning with giant boulders, crystal clear water, and the giant mountains hanging in the background. After dinner we ended the night by walking around Trinidad and going to a live music concert where people gathered to dance and sing.
Day 5 – Thursday May 11th
Woke up to another amazing Cuban breakfast and got going with yet again a great cup of coffee. Today we had yet another bus break down in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, but we got to meet several locals this time including the infamous El Loco himself. We were all really surprised when the busses pulled into the resort where we were staying. There was a swimming pool, an alligator exhibit, unlimited hot water for showers, and, oh ya, we could get wifi for the first time. We ended the night by watching a fashion show after dinner. Also, our very own singing extraordinaire and all around dance pro, Justin, won a bottle of rum in a karaoke competition. Although going without any phone service was a great really nice and was a great learning experience, whenever you get the opportunity to get wifi definitely take the time to call home!
Day 6 – Friday May 12th
We put on our long dress pants, nice shoes, and dress shirts and headed to the Che Guevara mausoleum. However, when we arrived we were told the mausoleum was closed for renovations. It is easy to forget that this stuff is typical in Cuba because, unlike in the US, they can’t just google things to see if their open. We went to a local mission who’s outreach was to aid families with disabled children, and we helped deliver care packages to the local families. Seeing the intensely difficult situations these people call their daily lives was deeply touching! Also, seeing these people smile through all their hardships was inspiring and has allowed me to see how many things we take for granted. Next, we went to Finca Hector Correa and had an amazing meal. This place was much more than a just a lunch spot, it was what can only be described as a center for creativity and beauty. Hector Correa had started this farm and ceramics shop when he was younger and turned it into a family business. It was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen, and we had one of the best meals that I think I have ever eaten there. We had the best fruit I have ever tasted and the food was unbelievably fresh because it had literally just come straight from the farm. Also, they had flightless and stingerless bees and we got to drink their honey straight out of the hive with a straw… so ya that was cool! Dinner was at an amazing french restaurant that had freshly baked baguettes and the best flan I have ever had! For the evening’s entertainment we went to a club called Espacios and danced till 2:30 in the morning. Oh ya, and on the way out we saw Harry Styles!
Day 7 – Saturday May 13th
We had an early morning call time and headed out right after breakfast to Ajiaco. Ajiaco was a restaurant that was named after its specialty dish and received the majority of its ingredients from a 100% natural and organic neighborhood farm. We got to tour the neighborhood farm and the two brothers who owned it showed us all of their natural farming methods – one example was their use of painted plastic water bottles as a natural bug trap. After the farm tour we headed back to the restaurant where we cooked our own lunch of Lobster and Ajiaco. Also we got a lesson on how to make what I am convinced was the world’s best mojito. Another travel tip, when making a mojito natural honey is a secret ingredient! On to Ernest Hemingway’s Havana estate Finca Vigia. Hemingway obviously had great taste because he had the most beautiful house and view I have ever seen! He even had a writing office that was in the top of a tower overlooking the city – it was easy to think that anyone could be inspired to write with that view. Also, after reading “The Old Man and the Sea” it was really cool to sea the seaside village and fishing boat that inspired Hemingway to write the book. We had dinner at a nice modern style Cuban restaurant where we were finally promised a delicious American dessert – the brownie. Sadly, I would never stoop so low as to consider what they brought out to be a brownie. But, we revived the night with another quick trip to Espacios – Harry Styles was not there this time.
Day 8 – Sunday May 14th
This was Mother’s Day and boy does Cuba take this holiday seriously. It was really amazing to see the appreciation mothers are given there. It was taken as seriously as Halloween or Easter. Today was the day we got to explore the beautiful Old Havana. We walked for what seemed like several hours through the streets and got to see a Catholic cathedral with high, intricately crafting ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. We passed the large Cuban University located in Havana and unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside, but it looked very new and was one of the nicest looking buildings we saw. For whatever reason this was the day that we got to eat some American food. Or that’s what I thought when we walked in the Original Sloppy Joe’s restaurant but it turns out that Sloppy Joe’s was actually started in Cuba? After a slightly different tasting sloppy Joe and a Cuban sandwich we took a ride in vintage convertibles through the streets of Havana where our guide pointed out many of the historical landmarks that we passed. As luck would have it rain started pouring down and in another typical Cuban fashion the top wouldn’t stay up on our car so we got soaked. The car ride ended at the Hotel Nacional where Fidel Castro had his headquarters during much of the revolution and is where many famous celebrities and politicians have stayed when traveling to Cuba. Here we were able to get wifi for the second time and I was able to FaceTime my Mom and wish her a happy Mother’s Day. For Dinner we had a private room where a few of us ordered champagne and were surprised when spaghetti popped up on the menu. We were all very happy to have a little change from the usual rice and beans and it was absolutely delicious! After dinner we went to a restaurant and bar venue where we saw the Grammy Award winning band The Social Club perform and we got to join in on a real life conga line!
Day 9 – Monday May 15th
We left Havana early in the morning and headed towards the beautiful city of Vanales. Once there, we ate at an amazing restaurant on the top of a mountain overlooking the fields and city below. It was by far the best lunch view I’ve ever had and there was also an adorable puppy that sat around the table with us while we ate. After lunch we met a tobacco farmer and learned how they process and roll the tobacco into their world famous Cuban cigars. Then, we went horseback riding through the valley of Vinales. Just a fun little tip but when you go horseback riding make sure you choose a female horse or you may end up having a horse like Georgeann’s! After this adventure we drove through the center of the city to our hostel for the night. We were greeted by our incredibly nice house mom who had prepared freshly made mango juice for us. She then led us through what seemed like a maze of twists and turns before we arrived at our amazing little cottage that we called home for the night. We had some time to freshen up and explore before dinner, and we passed some Cubans playing futbol on a dirt field and some cool little souvenir shops. We loaded into the busses for dinner around 8:30 and drove in what seemed like pitch black darkness for eons until we finally arrived at the cozy little restaurant that looked like it was just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere. After the busses breaking down the days before, we were really glad when we made it back from dinner safely!
Day 10 – Tuesday May 16th
We took a short adventure through a cave, no club inside this one, and came to a river where we were greeted by a boat driver. Our driver took us on a ride through the cave and pointed out several interesting looking formations and then dropped us off outside the cave. We headed to Las Terrazas Biosphere for some zip-lining through the trees but Cuba’s weather had different plans for us, and it started pouring harder than we had seen before! None-the-less, we had a wonderful lunch at a hotel and ate suspended in the trees. Not being able to zip-line turned out to be blessing in disguise because we got to have a some french fries made from yuca and take a relaxing, well needed nap while listening to the rain fall on the mountains. We hopped in the busses for the long ride back to Havana and another travel tip for you… sit towards the front of the bus because I can’t tell you how much nicer it is than sitting in the back of a bumpy bus! We arrived at our hostels in Havana and got ready for dinner at a modern restaurant called Fusion. When we arrived at Fusion, Los Boys, the band who performed at the salsa club our first night in Cuba, was setting up to play us a private show. After pictures and speeches from the guides, we headed back to our night time entertainment in Havana – Espacios here we come! Once there we ordered our usuals, even managed to find a pizza somehow, and danced and laughed the night away.
Day 11 – Wednesday May 17th
Our last Day in Cuba was came so fast and I can’t believe the trip of a lifetime is coming to a close… we drove to a fort where we saw the world’s longest hand-rolled cigar and had the opportunity to buy authentic Cuban cigars. We then walked through a giant open-air market where we bought as many souvenirs as we could fit into our carry ons. Word to the wise, do yourself a favor and buy a puzzle box if you see one. They are super cheap and they make great gifts! We arrived at the airport, said our goodbyes to Ernesto, David, and Daniel, whom the trip would not have been possible without, and made it through security and onto the plane.
Cuba was an absolutely amazing experience that taught me many incredible life lessons and although we started the class as strangers and were not the most talkative classmates, I really feel close to everyone in our group after adventuring through this amazing country with them! I had many life changing experiences on this trip and I can’t wait to go back with Tiffany on the reunion trip to come soon. Te vet de nuevo pronto Cuba!
By: Justin Nail
Cuba: a country so close to home–90 miles to be exact–but unlike anything I have ever experienced.Prior to departing for Havana, I had no idea what to expect from Cuba. I had some working knowledge of Cuban history and politics–but not much more than that which could help me answer a $200 question on Jeopardy. My only knowledge of the social climate in Cuba stemmed from Strawberry and Chocolate and Juan of the Dead which, albeit great films, were a little outdated and only tackled a small range of social issues. I intentionally limited my intake of anything and everything related to Cuba the months leading up to my trip. Why? There’s nothing I love more than exploring a place from a non-biased and uninformed point-of-view. Not only is my desire to learn and experience strengthened, but my retention and interest in everything that I take in certainly peaks.I didn’t look at the itinerary a single time before or during the trip, which made my 11 days in Cuba much like a treasure hunt–I never knew what I’d find or where I’d drift next. And if there’s one thing I learned about Cuba, it’s that being your most flexible self is imperative. From bus break downs to sleeping on box springs to substituting air-conditioned porcelain thrones and toilet paper for outdoor stone bowls and tissues–being in Cuba means you’re always at risk for a malfunction, glitch, or slap-in-the-face from your first-world privilege. But those are the experiences that I live for: the smoldering in a bus on a mountainside for three hours while a repair *slowly but surely* makes its way, the acceptance that you’re not going to be able to pick every ant off your loaf of bread at lunch so you just acknowledge that your meal has a little *extra* protein, the chicken that isn’t chicken nuggets and looks suspicious but you force yourself to eat it anyways because all you’ve eaten all day is a piece of bread at breakfast because you have a physical fear of guava and the tap water you accidentally use to brush your teeth when you come home a little borrachito and the impending death you think is awaiting you because of it.So many of my experiences in Cuba were true, authentic, Cuban experiences. And if there’s anything that Cuba is, it is true and authentic. Sure—the elaborate and elegant mansions constructed during the era of Spanish colonialism still stand tall, and revolution-era propaganda still greets anyone who opens their eyes in Cuba, but Cuba has forged its own unique personality as a nation—one that you can’t really understand until you experience it for yourself.From the beats of bongo drums to the sweet aroma of cigars to the greens, blues, purples, and pinks, of decaying, beautiful edifices–I miss everything about the tiny island that became my home for a period of time that definitely didn’t last long enough.On May 7th, I boarded the Delta flight, sat beside my fellow ranch-loving/fearing traveler Katherine and watched Moonlight in its entirety, not realizing that the other students sitting around me would start evolving into my second family before the day expired. As our flight touched down at the Jose Martí international airport, I still had no idea what to expect from Cuba, but I knew that Beyonce had meandered through the same airport not too long ago, so I felt inspired and invigorated. Every time I travel to a new place, I try and give my all to that place so that I can get the most out of my experience. Day 1 was a testament to that—cue sore calves, the first (of many) Cuba Libres, and salsa dancing where there is *no* room left for Jesus. My first night in Havana was all I needed—I was already in love in Cuba. The remaining 10 days—spent city-hopping from Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Santa Clara and a plethora of places in between—did nothing but strengthen my love for Cuba and the people I got to experience it with. I’ll forever remember jumping (or—as I hesitantly recall: flipping/belly-flopping) into the swimming hole with everybody. In 5,000 years—after our world has experienced another ice age—my Apple Watch, which still resides at the bottom of said swimming hole, will be excavated, and I will be a part of archaeological history. Positive thinking—that’s what Cuba’s all about… plus Kanye was right—how could I be mad on vacation?I’ll forever remember the dance battles I was roped into which required me to invent unique hybrid-moves, like my knee-backbend (which I still am nursing wounds from). I’ll remember the extreme and utter obliteration of anything and everything labeled “Havana Club.” I’ll remember the 2 AM beach parties and learning the true meaning of a Cuban sandwich. I’ll forever be haunted by “Bienvenido al Hotel California,” the never-ending, vertical stairs of that tower in Trinidad, and Daniel’s VERY informative explanation of Hemingway’s death for the rest of my life. I’ll remember going to Jovellanos and singing “La Bicicleta” with Tiffany and the beautiful girl we visited—my favorite rendition yet. I’ll miss the random facts about tarragon and mangoes and [insert literally any spice, green, and/or fruit] that I was subjected to every day. I’ll miss the cave club, the puppies, my sweet Gina that I had to leave behind in Trinidad, the architecture, and the constant having-to-swerve to avoid ramming into buses, horses, pedestrians, bicycles, tractors, wagons, or [insert anything that can move], which frequented the highways. I’ll remember the late nights on rooftop terraces—smoking cigars, looking at the stars, and just thinking about life and existence. I’ll forever remember so many things about Cuba, but I’ll forever keep them close to my heart.My experience in Cuba would not have been the same without the people I experienced it with. From El Loco’s hysterics, to horse meat (ha…hahahaha), to ranch attacks, to jilted brides, to “LOOK AT THAT,” to the bread at that French restaurant, to foals—we all became sort of like a family through the experiences we endured together. While I could write a paragraph about every person I went to Cuba with—how beautiful and brilliant each and every one is—I am just going to give a general “gracias” to Georgeann (SASSMASTER), Baker (aka the nicest person alive who, at 19, still uses “Miss” before addressing older ladies), Brittany (the WILDCARD and my beloved, jilted wife), Calista (my confidant and fellow believer in the power of Cuban spaghetti), Katherine (a fellow victim to the ranch and my beloved word mix-up plane game partner and Tide to go supplier), Callie (my country music & Zaxby’s-loving small-town sweetheart whose Tide to Go pen came in clutch also), Menley (my spontaneous and adventurous travel companion x2), and Ethan’s adam apple. I also have to extend all my love to Pam (my salsa queen), Angela (my mother and favorite human on earth), Dave (you are my idol tbh), the tour guides for helping me fall in love with Cuba, and the drivers for being the reason I was able to experience Cuba’s beauty first hand (especially you, Francisco—your flower proudly pokes out of one of the *many* vases I purchased at Hector’s farm). Lastly, Tiffany, I wanted to extend the sincerest of thanks to you for being such a passionate person and overall amazing human being. Your love for Cuba is raw and real, which makes traveling there with you so meaningful and enjoyable. You’re easily one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, and I’m so proud of and amazed by the work you’ve done and continue to do. Thank you for inspiring me and for being the best faculty advisor ever.I would also like to say that I miss you, Papi. Hope you’re somewhere hitting the mariposa in my honor.Thank you, Cuba, for being such an amazing country full of fascinating culture and vibrant people. I’ll love and miss you forever… or at least hasta que se seque el malecón.Now, who’s ready for Salsa Club?
By: Katherine Buchanan
Sunday, May 7th
After much anticipation and preparation throughout the semester, the beginning of our trip to Cuba had finally arrived! Although I was extremely excited, at this point I had no idea how great of an experience the next eleven days would be. We arrived in Havana after a short flight from Atlanta and I stepped off the plane unsure of what to expect but excited nonetheless. After a quick introduction to our guides, we boarded our vans and headed to our first lunch in Cuba. It was at this lunch that we first learned that meals in Cuba last much longer than what we are used to so patience is a necessity. This lunch also exposed us to the common Cuban meal of a Cuban salad (cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oil and vinegar), meat, rice and beans, and a dessert accompanied by coffee. Today’s dessert was a rice and milk pudding and like many other things I would try in Cuba, it was unlike anything I had ever had before but it was not bad! After lunch, we headed to a salsa lesson where we learned the basic steps of a salsa dance. This activity is definitely useful the rest of the trip as almost every night provides an opportunity to practice your new salsa moves. I was thankful for my partner as he was very nice and patient enough to help me learn the steps. After our lesson, we arrived at our first casa where we would stay the night. Our first dinner was also good and we had our first taste of Cuban ice cream, which is some of the best ice cream I have ever had. After dinner we went to a local salsa club and were able to try out what we had learned at our lesson. Even if you aren’t that good at salsa like me, dance with the local people because not everyone gets the chance to salsa dance with true Cubans!
Monday, May 8th
This was our first full day in Cuba and I woke up excited to see more of the country that I was loving already. Our sweet host prepared us a huge breakfast complete with tropical fruit, eggs, bread, coffee, and juice. This is the same breakfast that would have every day which was perfectly fine with me. I looked forward to the fruit every morning as it was so fresh and flavorful. We loaded into our vans and began the trip from Havana to Cienfuegos, where we would stay the night. On the way, we stopped at a nature preserve where we were able to see crocodiles. There were so many and although they appeared lifeless at first, the chicken we fed them on a pole got them moving which was cool to see. We also took a boat trip to an aboriginal village. After lunch, we took a nature hike that led to a natural pool that we were able to jump into. The water was gorgeous and very refreshing. Although it may seem high, jump into the water because you will regret it if you do not! After a quick swim, we continued on our trip to Cienfuegos. During this ride, we experienced our first bus breakdown, something we would become very familiar with during the rest of the trip. Even though a few of us were stranded on the side of the road for a little bit, we soon realized that these breakdowns could even be fun and something that the trip would not have been the same without. After finally making it to Cienfuegos, we ate a nice dinner in a small restaurant. We were surprised by a private party, complete with music, dancers, and even some locals that joined us. This was such a fun night!
Tuesday, May 9th
Our morning began with a tour of the town of Cienfuegos including some information about its history as well as a look at its beautiful architecture. Following the tour, we began our trip to Trinidad. On the way, we hiked to one of my favorite spots of the whole trip- a beautiful waterfall. We were able to jump in and swim underneath the waterfall and even into the caves behind it. The cool water was so refreshing after a hike in the Cuban heat and we had a great time swimming around the waterfall. We then traveled the rest of the way to Trinidad and checked into our casa for the night where we met our unforgettable host, Papí. After our dinner, we headed to The Cave Rave, a cave converted into a night club. We had such a great time dancing the night away in this unique place. I would definitely recommend coming here if you ever travel to Cuba. Another fun night!
Wednesday, May 10th
This day was one of my favorites of the whole trip because it was the beach day! The weather was perfect for a beach day and I was ready to relax after three fun yet very tiring days. The water was so clear and beautiful. We spent most of the day in the ocean and relaxing on the beach which was perfect. After the beach, we went to a restaurant with a huge tree in the middle of it and a gorgeous view of the mountains as we enjoyed our dinner on the roof. The dinner did not disappoint either as the restaurant’s specialty, honey chicken was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. Following dinner, we enjoyed live Cuban music in the town. We then returned to our house for our host, Papí and guide, David’s birthday party. The party started at the house but later in the night, we moved to the beach and kept the party going. My first Cuban birthday party was definitely an interesting experience that I will remember forever!
Thursday, May 11th
On the way from Trinidad to our next location, Santa Clara, we stopped at a sugar mill where we got to taste fresh sugarcane juice and then climb a tall tower to get an amazing view. Although the steps were very steep and seemed to go on forever, the view was definitely worth it! We got some great pictures and the 360-degree view was something you would not want to miss. Our next bus trip was very interesting as not only one, but both of our buses broke down on the way and we were stranded in the mountains for awhile. Although this doesn’t sound too fun, we made the best of it and it was a part of the trip I will never forget. Our encounter with El Loco that began with a peace offering of fruit snacks kept us laughing the whole time and we were finally rescued by some new vans that took us to lunch. After lunch, we checked into a resort where we would stay the night. It was nice and even had Wi-Fi which I was very happy to have for the first time of the trip! We ate dinner at the resort buffet, watched a fashion show by the pool and ended the night in the hotel’s own club. I really enjoyed this night too!
Friday, May 12th
After checking out of the resort, we began our journey back to Havana to spend a few more days exploring Cuba’s capital city. Before we left Santa Clara, we tried to go to the Che Guevara mausoleum but unfortunately found it to be closed for the day. On the drive to Havana, we stopped in the community of Jovellanos. Here we learned about an organization that provides aid to families with special needs children. After learning about the purpose of the organization we were able to assist them with the delivery of supplies to two families. This was an especially eye-opening and impactful experience. I was amazed at how the families that welcomed us into their home continued to be positive and inspiring despite the many hardships they faced. After saying goodbye to the new people we met, we traveled to a farm where they had prepared a huge lunch for us. The food we ate here was so fresh as it had been grown at the same farm we were eating it at. After lunch, the very kind farmer brought us freshly picked mango and it was the best mango I have ever had. I wish our mango at home tasted this good! He then carried us on a tour of his family’s farm which included many sculptures and even the chance to drink honey straight out of the beehive…what a unique experience! After leaving the farm, we experienced another bus breakdown however this was easily fixed and we were once again on our way to Havana. We checked into our house in Havana, which was very nice and had such a kind man as a host. We ate dinner at a delicious French restaurant and then headed to Espacios, a club in Havana that was fun every time we went there.
Saturday, May 13th
The first stop of the day was El Ajiaco, a restaurant in Havana. I really enjoyed the time we spent here. First, we toured a garden that provided fresh ingredients daily to the restaurant. Then, we met the chef and staff of the restaurant and they began to teach us how to prepare their signature dishes. In the kitchen, I helped prepare a lobster meal. The chef even convinced me to be in charge of flambéing the lobster so guess you could say I am an almost pro lobster chef! After we finished making the lobster, we were given a lesson on making a mojito by the bartender and the mojito we prepared was the best I had in Cuba! We then enjoyed the meal that we had prepared. After lunch, we visited Hemingway’s house in Cuba which was pretty and interesting to see. We had dinner which included a brownie that we were all very excited about but was not as good as a brownie at home, unfortunately. After a quick stop at Espacios, we headed home early for the night and got some much needed rest.
Sunday, May 14th
Our sweet bus driver, Francisco, surprised us this morning with a cake and flowers for Mother’s Day! We began our day with a walking tour of Old Havana and saw some of the sights such as a beautiful cathedral and some of Hemingway’s favorite places like his hotel and the Floridita. We ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s and although I did not get a sloppy joe, the Cuban sandwich I had was pretty good! After lunch, we got the chance to ride in old American convertibles and I will definitely say that riding around Havana in a vintage, red convertible is a surreal experience. It really does seem like you are in a different decade! This was also one of my favorite activities of the trip. Unfortunately, the first rain of the whole trip cut our convertible ride a little short but our drivers quickly put up the roof and we continued to the Hotel Nacional, our next stop. This is a beautiful, old hotel that has hosted many famous people during their time in Cuba. The restaurant we ate dinner at had spaghetti on the menu and this was a great choice because it was so good! After dinner, we went to a band performance and then to another club which was really fun!
Monday, May 15th
We traveled to our next destination this morning and I can definitely say that I would not recommend the back of the bus for this drive as it was very bumpy! We stopped at a rest stop on the way that had amazing views of the valley. We had lunch on the side of a mountain which provided more gorgeous views. After lunch, we went to a tobacco farm where we learned all about the process of making the famous Cuban cigars. After this, we prepared to take a horseback ride through the valley. This was the first time I had ever ridden a horse so I was a little unsure at first but the surreal views of the valley made the ride worth it! I definitely do not regret doing this but I now know that horseback riding is not my favorite activity! After dinner, we spent some time in the central plaza of the town and then headed to bed to rest up for our last full day in Cuba.
Tuesday, May 16th
We started the day with a tour of a cave that involved walking and a boat ride. We then boarded the van to begin our drive back. We stopped to have lunch at a hotel that was very interesting because it was built around trees. Our lunch included French fries which was an unexpected treat for all of us! We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining here but the weather did not cooperate as it poured nonstop. We tried to wait out the storm but it continued to rain so we decided it was best just to begin to head back to Havana. We ate our last dinner which was a bittersweet time that included speeches from our guides that we had grown so close to. We had a private performance by a great band. Of course, we had to make one last trip to our favorite place, Espacios, and we danced the night away to our favorite Cuban songs while drinking the last (of many) Cuba Libres. Like all of our other nights in Cuba, it was a great time and the perfect way to end our trip!
Wednesday, May 17th
Our last day in Cuba! A trip that had seemed never ending at one point was coming to an end and it was definitely going to be a hard goodbye! We spent our morning going to a famous cigar shop at a fortress and then to a huge craft market to buy last minute souvenirs. We arrived at the airport and spent some time saying goodbye to the guides that had made our trip the best ever! I am so thankful for Daniel, David, Ernesto and all of our drivers for everything they did for us! We boarded our plane and got our last views of Cuba as we headed back to the states. It was hard saying goodbye to a country that I had fallen in love with over the last eleven days! Our arrival in Atlanta brought some more goodbyes as our group prepared to be split up for the first time since we left home. We had grown so close and I can definitely say that I wouldn’t have wanted to experience Cuba with anyone else! I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take this trip with these people as it was one of the best times of my life and could not have been any better! Cuba was an incredible country and I hope I have the chance to return one day!
I want to start by saying that this was the most incredible, the most fun trip I have ever been on with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I don’t think there will ever be an experience quite like this one. I’ll never forget all the memories we made together and the experiences we had. I miss this group more every day, and it’s hard to put into words how much I love these guys and how much I love Cuba, but I’m going to try my best!
May 7, 2017 – Day 1: ATL to Havana
Off to Cuba!! It was hard to believe that the day was here! It snuck up on all of us I think, so even if I already felt like I was being thrown into something I wasn’t completely prepared for, it was multiplied by ten when I realized I had to drive to airport that day. Excitement levels were at an all-time high for everyone as we boarded the plane.
We finally landed around noon and met our tour guides, David and Daniel, as well as our drivers, Freddy and Sergio. The airport was a little overwhelming just because of the number of families waiting for their travelers to come home, but I was so happy to be there. The heat hits you as soon as you step outside. Or inside. It’s hot no matter what, so that was something to get used to.
After the longest lunch break I have ever experienced (I quickly learned that every meal takes 3 hours at least), we took a salsa class at La Casa del Son. While I was a little nervous because dancing is not a talent I have, it ended up being super fun! The teachers were all so nice and patient and just wanted us to have a good time and know enough to be able to dance with some locals later. They took everything step by step and made it very easy to learn salsa. I think everyone succeeded in the end!
We then had a few minutes to change at our casas before a night out. Our host family was so sweet. As soon as we walked in the door it was like we were part of their family already. They immediately handed us bowls of fruit and showed us to our rooms and told us to make ourselves at home. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but these homes and families weren’t the image in my mind; everything was beyond my wildest expectations.
We went to dinner at El Aljibe and were able to speak with an ex-diplomat, which was quite interesting. The food was really good as well. They were known for their chicken, which of course everyone got, but I don’t think we had much of a choice! Almost every restaurant we went to was family style, which I liked because it fostered that feeling of our group really being more of a family than just a tour group (I think everyone would agree that after everything we’ve experienced together, we’re one big Cuban family now!).
Our night ended with an outdoor concert at 1830. The band is pretty well-known, and we got to meet most of them because David and Daniel knew them. The music was great! I think everyone danced with at least one local, and although we probably failed miserably (well, everyone but Justin because there’s nothing he can’t do), we all had a great time!
May 8, 2017 – Day 2: Havana to Cienfuegos
I learned fast that a night with only 5 hours of sleep is a good night of sleep in Cuba. That first morning was a little rough, though, not gonna lie. Breakfast was amazing. So many tropical fruits, bread, ham, eggs, tomatoes, coffee, fresh mango and pineapple juice . . . you name it, it was there! This menu was typical for breakfast everywhere we went.
There was a little bit of a drive before we got to our first activity of the day – a crocodile farm. Small side note – I thought it was interesting that there are rest stop sort of things on the side of the highways, but they’re basically bars? Or this one was. Anyway. The crocodiles were cool! A little terrifying, to be honest, but there was a little one that people could hold, and that one was pretty cute. We witnessed Ethan feed one of the big ones, which made them even more terrifying, but it was entertaining!
Before lunch we took a short boat ride to a nearby model tribal village, where we were chanted at and brushed with branches and got our faces painted with some clay before walking around the small island and heading back for lunch.
In Cuba one rests for nothing, so even though we were dead tired, we went on a hike along the Enigma de las Rocaas with a naturalist guide who told us about native species and anything else we encountered along the way. At the end, we were all hot and sweaty enough that we couldn’t resist the thrill of cliff jumping into a pool of water below. The lagoon was filled with some of the most clear, beautiful water I have ever seen. I don’t think I will ever see anything quite like that scene ever again.
A short drive later, we ended up at a Bay of Pigs museum, where David and Daniel explained all the history since it got to be too late for us to go inside.
On our way to the hostel, we experienced our first van break down of the trip, where some people got left stranded with a broken-down car. This became a common theme throughout our time in Cuba. We learned to make the most of it, and in my opinion, it added more to the trip than it took away. We may have missed out on a couple activities, but we made more memories together than we would have had we not faced some obstacles along the way.
David and Daniel planned a fun little fiesta for us after dinner, which was so much fun! One of my favorite nights in Cuba, I think. We had some live music and professional dancers who pulled us out of our chairs to dance with them. A few local friends walked up when they heard the music, and we eventually convinced them to join our party and dance with us. I think this was our first taste of the “Cuban sandwich” (probably not the kind you’re thinking of…). Interesting and fun night to say the least!
May 9, 2017 – Day 3: Cienfuegos to Trinidad
After an early breakfast, we headed to the middle of Cienfuegos to check out the beautiful architecture and learn about some of the history of the city as told by Daniel. We got back in the vans and took a long drive to a national park, which was a great time for a nap after a long night of dancing! Although the car rides are a good time for naps, it’s also incredible to look at the beautiful scenery along the route.
The hike we went on in the Escambray mountains was so nice! I’m really into outdoorsy things, so it was right up my alley. The waterfall was beautiful. There was another opportunity to jump off rocks that were pretty high up; it was good to cool off a little before heading back down. There was an interesting cave behind the waterfall that we all swam to; the bats were moderately terrifying, and I think it’s safe to say we were all a little paranoid about the cave monster coming to get us…
Speaking of caves, we went to an awesome cave rave that night. It was an interesting experience just trying to get in the place. They opened late (typical) and lined us up two-by-two before letting us inside. Once we got inside, though, the place was amazing. Colorful lights hung up everywhere, great music, cool people, and an interesting performance group that lifted things with just their teeth!
A little note – Cubans do not hesitate or hold back when it comes to dancing! If they see you just sitting around, you are pulled out of the background and onto the dance floor! There’s no way you can be left not having a great time!
May 10, 2017 – Day 4: Trinidad
Finally, a day for a little break. We spent some time at a beautiful beach – Playa Ancon – with a view of the Escambray Mountains. The water was so so clear and blue with some rocks further back that blocked the big waves from crashing. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been and a great place to relax and nap and reflect on the fun times we had during those first couple days in Cuba (although it felt like we had been there for weeks already because of the amount of activity going on every day – we thought it might already be 2020 when we got back).
After a full day of good rest, we went to dinner at Restaurant La Ceiba, an awesome place with a huge beautiful tree growing up through the building. It felt like we were one with the tree because its branches extended across the roof of the restaurant – super cool. We were seated outside a couple stories up, too, so the view was incredible.
We walked on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad to an outdoor music venue, which was entertaining. No matter where you go in Cuba, there’s always something fun going on, and it always involves music and dancing. There’s never a calm moment, and I love that.
We returned to our host home to celebrate a very special person’s birthday – Papi! It was David’s birthday, too, so we spent a long time partying and dancing with them, eventually ending up back at the beach, which was an interesting experience to say the least. . . However, the beach was incredible at night, with the moon shining so bright you didn’t need a flashlight to see anything. Needless to say, it was a long night, but definitely one of the most memorable! I’ll never forget Papi’s butterfly move, especially since it now lives in Justin’s dance repertoire (hopefully he’ll bring that back at our first Salsa Club meeting – date and time TBD, but I’ll be there!).
May 11, 2017 Day 5: Trinidad to Santa Clara
On our drive to El Torre, we got to take in some cool views of the Valley of the Sugar Mills. It was always neat to be sort of on top of a mountain looking down at fields and towns and houses. Upon arrival we were bombarded with yells from merchants along a little market that lined the path up to El Torre. Some people were handed little grasshoppers made from sugar cane plants. Before climbed El Torre we were given a demonstration on how sugar cane juice is made using this huge juicer that originally operated with one person pushing it (we needed four people, if that tells you anything). We all tried the drink, but I’ll admit it was way too sweet for me to take more than a couple sips.
We climbed El Torre shortly after, which was incredible. That may have been one of my favorite things we did because of the height and the beautiful views all around. Once you get to the top you can see absolutely everything. It was incredible. And a great place for pics!
We continued on our way after that. Unfortunately, Sergio’s van broke down en route, so we stuffed 17 people into a 10-person van . . . maybe not the brightest idea because then Freddy’s van broke down as well. We were in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Cuba. And I really mean that. No phone service. Cows roaming the side of the street (although this is not uncommon). Only a couple cars driving by. But we definitely made the most of it! Passed fans around so we could all cool down a little bit. Watched Justin dance with his new maracas on the side of the road. Made friends with El Loco, one of my favorite people. Or least favorite people. Depending on how you look at it. We had a great time laughing with him, though!
We eventually got picked up by new taxis and were shuttled to the hotel we stayed at that night, Hotel Los Caneyes. We hung out at the pool and watched a fashion show after dinner. We also went to a club on site and witnessed Justin winning a karaoke competition – the prize, a bottle of rum! Brittany and I had a grand time getting to know some of the models from the show and danced with them for a while before getting tired and heading back to our room for a little shut-eye.
May 12, 2017 – Day 6: Santa Clara to Havana
Thank you, David and Daniel, for letting us sleep in a little this morning; that extra bit of bed time was definitely needed.
We visited a sort of ministry in a small town this day. They provide food and support and other resources for families with children with special needs. I enjoyed getting to know the families a little bit and hearing their stories about overcoming and finding faith and hope. It was cool to have the opportunity to see this side of daily life in Cuba. Usually when travelling you see the grand and beautiful things, the perfect things that sort of “define” the place for tourists, but seeing the raw and not-so-perfect side of Cuba made it more memorable of a trip, and for that I’m thankful.
We made another great connection that day when we visited a farmer/potter/all-around amazingly talented man – Hector Correa. We ate lunch with him and some others there before taking a tour of his farm and what I would call an outdoor gallery with sculptures and artwork all over the property that he explained to us. One of the more unique things we did here was drink honey straight out of a honeycomb! It was by far the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. Besides the mangoes (pronounced MON-goes, fyi. Thank you, Angela, for the pro tip). I have yet to find a mango in the US that lives up to a Cuban mango. Guess I’ll have to go back one day!
We visited a bar called Espacios this night, the first night of three nights there over the next few days. It took me a while to warm-up to it, but it’s definitely a cool place! Would highly recommend!
May 13. 2017 – Day 7: Havana
Cooking class in Cuba? Definite yes. Do it. Especially if you get to tour a beautiful garden where the restaurant grows a lot of its herbs and spices and other ingredients! We learned how to make mojitos and lobster and ropa vieja, and had a great time watching Brittany do some flambé-ing in the kitchen. For lunch we ate what we cooked (actually, unclear whether it was what we cooked or what they cooked in the back because they knew we’d mess it up!). We drank some of the strongest coffee I have ever had that a sweet lady named Maria prepared for us. It was an interesting kind of pour-over coffee that is (I think) the traditional way to make Cuban coffee.
We took some time to tour the Hemingway house after this and got some good pics. After another van breakdown, we were graced with Francisco. Probably the most caring, thoughtful man I have ever met. He was always smiling and always positive. Gave us flowers. Then more flowers. Then a cake. So kind!
May 14, 2017 – Day 8: Havana
Happy Mother’s Day! This is a crazy big holiday in Cuba. Or seemingly so. Women of all ages are handed flowers and gifts wherever we went.
We took this day to tour Old Havana. The most interesting thing to me was the wooden street that has to be replaced every 6 months just from the amount of foot traffic it gets. We went to several famous places – Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the Floridita, and many more. It’s a really nice place just to walk around, for sure!
One of my favorite things we did was take a tour around in old American cars, ours being a red 1946 Ford with a brand new sound system. Although the rain sort of shortened our ride, we still had a really good time getting see the architecture and more of the city from the viewpoint of a convertible. We ended up at the Hotel National de Cuba where we got to see the names and faces of some celebrities who had stayed there over the years. It was neat to think that we were standing in the same place that Frank Sinatra or Walt Disney or Muhammad Ali stood at some point in time!
After some rest and dinner, we went to a social club to watch a band perform and join a conga line – so fun! We went to an interesting place called Kingbar after that to dance and hang out and have a good time. Entering and leaving that place they were very strict, but it was a fun time once you got inside! That was one of the better nights in Cuba, I’d say.
May 15, 2017 – Day 9: Havana to Vinales
An important note about Cuba – the roads really have no chill. By this I mean prepare yourself to be tossed around in the back of vans while driving to far-away places. No need to pay for a ticket to Six Flags when you get back home because the drives are thrill enough! Although it’s hard to complain when there’s such nice scenery to look at along the way. And being able to just sit for a little while is nice when you’ve been going and going and going for what seems like months on end.
We took a pit stop at a hotel with an outdoor bar and viewing area of the valley below, which was gorgeous. There were some street performers there as well. We got some good pics!
A little while later we made it to the restaurant – Finca Agroecological El Paraiso. The food was delicious, as well as this anti-stress drink they make there. It tasted like a multiflavored milkshake with mint and coconut and cinnamon. Weird combination, but it worked!
Next was horseback riding. A pleasantly unpleasant experience. After learning everything about everything about cigars, we jumped on the backs of some less than excited horses and took a “stroll” through the valley. What we thought would be a slow trail ride turned into the pros whipping our horses and making them gallop while we flailed around and laughed at how ridiculous each other looked. We thankfully took a little break before turning around and learned a little about coffee production. Our friend Angela needed a little pick-me-up and decided to eat some raw coffee grounds out of her hands– not your typical way of getting that much-needed energy boost, but, hey, I guess that works!
Our hostel was in a great location – right in the center of town. That made it easy to walk places in the evening. The view from the roof was amazing. We got to bed a little early that night – thank goodness.
May 16, 2017 – Day 10: Vinales to Havana
Our last full day in Cuba. A little bittersweet. I think we were all getting ready to go home, but once the end actually came, we were sad to be leaving. Or I know I was. I still wish I was back in Cuba. I could relive these 11 days over and over again and be satisfied with my life, I think. It was that incredible.
Anyway, we had an interesting cave experience first thing. . . There were some actors near the entrance wearing next-to-no clothing and holding birds. A couple of us were picked out of the crowd to be part of the performance – including yours truly. Let’s just say that for all us that was a one-time experience we hope was only a one-time experience. The walk through the cave was so cool, though! At the end we all piled onto a little boat and floated along the water while the guide pointed out shapes and carvings in the rock around us. We made our way back into the light while on the boat and then got off to look around at the souvenirs some locals were selling.
After a couple hours in the car we found ourselves at a cool hotel. They try to be one with nature and built the building around all of the trees that were already there, which I thought was super neat. They were located sort of at the top of a mountain, or on the side of a mountain, so of course the view was beautiful. We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining after eating lunch, but we got a little rained out. So rained out that we sat around for a couple hours waiting for it to stop before finally deciding it might be time to head back to Havana.
Our last night in Cuba. We went to a restaurant called Fusion Havana and hung out there for one last hoorah before heading to Espacios again. We had some speeches and photoshoots and last conversations and reflections from the trip before heading back to our host homes for the night and getting ready to fly out the next day. It was a little emotional, but still so much fun! You can’t go a day in Cuba without having the time of your life.
May 17, 2017 – Day 11: Havana to ATL
This was a pretty chill day since we had to leave to go back to the States around noon. We went to a little tourist market – I say little; the place was huge. Everyone bought some last minute things to bring home. We also went to the fortress, where a cigar shop is located, one that’s quite famous. The owner showed up and everyone in there got super excited. There’s a very realistic wax statue of him in there, though. It’s almost scary just how realistic it looked. . . Anyway, we headed to the airport pretty soon after that. There were tears all around, I think. It was definitely hard to say to goodbye. I know I’ll be back as soon as I can, though!
It has been two weeks since we got back, and I’m still having reverse culture shock. How that’s possible, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have to go back to Cuba! I fell in love with everything and everyone there, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I had the opportunity to experience this amazing country with some of the most amazing people on this planet. Even though I was uncomfortable at times and completely out of my comfort zone, there’s nothing that could have made this trip better. As Calista would say, someone let me know why we ever had to leave Cuba!!
Day 1: Atlanta/Havana
Today’s the day for us to finally head to Cuba after a semester of anticipation. We get to Atlanta on our own, but we meet up at the gate and from now on we are a group making our way through a brand new country together. After some brief paperwork, we board the plane. After a short flight, we are in Cuba. The airport is not what I expected it to be with its multiple floors and confusing walkways. However, it may have been confusing to me due to my nerves and excitement. We met up with the guides, David and Daniel, and the head of the travel agency, Ernesto, amongst the masses of people, and we quickly made our way out to the van. We first drove to lunch on the outskirts of Havana. It was a relaxing lunch, but it was also our first experience of what I like to call “Cuba Time”, which is always late and slow. Being from the states, I’m used to my lunches taking about thirty minutes to an hour. Lunch in Cuba takes about two and a half hours, which is not bad, just different. The food was tasty, especially the dessert of rice and milk. Our first excursion in Cuba was Salsa lessons. Luckily for me, I had a great dance partner. He kept joking the whole time to get me to relax, and the fact that I was having fun made learning to dance easier. After our lesson, we went to our houses, and our house mom was so sweet. When we came in she was quick to learn our names and she brought us fruit to eat while we got ready for the night. The house was beautiful, and we all got our own bed. After freshening up and sitting on the terrace for a little while, we drove to dinner. We ate at a restaurant that is known for serving their secret recipe chicken dish to dignitaries and diplomats. The food was great and we got to speak about the local history, politics, and economy with a local professor who used to be a diplomat to the United States. After dinner, we went to a local club where we got to meet the band and listen to some amazing music. The people in Cuba are so friendly, and we spent the night dancing and talking. After a night of fun, we went back to our houses to rest for the next day.
Day 2: Havana/Cienfuegos
When we woke up in Havana, our house mom had set out a feast for us to eat. We had tons of fruit, bread, slices of meat, eggs, juices, and coffee. Other than the meat, we would learn that this is a pretty typical breakfast in Cuba hostels. After breakfast, we started our drive to Cienfuegos. A short while into the drive, we stopped at a Biological Preserve where they have crocodiles. We got to hold a baby crocodile and see the larger crocodiles be fed. Then from the preserve we took a boat ride to a reenactment of a traditional village. It was interesting to learn about the process of coal production and to experience a war painting ceremony. Afterwards, we got lunch, which included some of the best chocolate ice cream I have ever had. We then drove to our first hike, which was along a fault line. The trees and cliffs were beautiful, and we saw a lot of birds along the way. The best part was at the end of the hike, when we reached a beautiful chasm that dropped down into water. You could jump of the cliff into the water or climb down into it to swim. We got to enjoy the water for a while before making our way back to the vans. On our way to Cienfuegos, we experienced some difficulties with the van, but the guides and Ernesto were quick to solve the issue and got us to Cienfuegos in about thirty minutes. The hostel we stayed at in Cienfuegos was huge, and there was a large roof space where we could hang out and relax. After a quick rest, we went to dinner at a restaurant with great food, the traditional rice and beans included of course, drank mojitos, and finished the meal with some of the best ice caramel cream in the world. After dinner, we were surprised with a private concert on the beach. The band and dancers were amazing, but the best part was when we asked some of the locals to join in. We spent hours dancing and having fun before we headed back to our rooms. Being able to dance with and talk to the locals of Cienfuegos was an amazing experience.
Day 3: Cienfuegos/Trinidad
In the morning, we ate breakfast in the outside courtyard, and then made our way into Cienfuegos. We toured the center square of Cienfuegos and was able to see the first Cathedral, the only arches of a specific architecture in Cuba, and a beautiful old theatre, the Teatro Tomas Terry. The French-like architecture in Cienfuegos was beautiful. We then drove to a Cuban national park, where we began our longest hike of the trip. As someone who is not very active, though the hike was long, it was completely doable, and the reward at the end is worth it. After climbing along cliffs and rocks you arrive at a beautiful waterfall that runs into a small lagoon. We were again able to jump off a cliff into the water and swim underneath the waterfall. There was a cave underneath where we got to see some amazing rock structures. After hiking back downhill, we went to lunch at a place that makes authentic Paella. We then drove to our house in Trinidad. Many houses in Cuba, but especially in Trinidad, look small from the front. However, as soon as you walk in, the house just keeps going and going. Our houses were like that, and by the time you made it to your room you were in a huge courtyard with a bar and multiple seating areas. After a quick nap, we went to dinner at a music themed restaurant. Though the food was great, it was the entertainment that truly stood out. There was a duo with a man playing the guitar singing with a woman, and they both had amazing voices. The woman especially had an angelic voice. After dinner, it was time for the cave rave. We drove out to the middle of nowhere, and were led down into a huge cave which had been converted into a night club. It was an insane experience. Once the dancing and music started, we had so much fun dancing not only with each other, but with the guides and our host families. There was also an Afro-Cuban show where dancers performed strange tricks such as eating glass and carrying tables with their mouths. The music was the Reggaeton we had already come to love, and we danced until early in the morning. It was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.
Day 4: Trinidad
Today is beach day in Trinidad! After breakfast, we headed to a resort, which gave us an opportunity to see a more tourist like setting in Cuba. The beach was stunning. The water was various shades of blue and was back dropped by mountains. The area we swam at was a cove surrounded by rocks, which meant that there were hardly any waves and wildlife. It was almost like swimming in a pool. We got to spend the entire day swimming and relaxing on the beach. It was a lot of fun. After the beach, we went back to our rooms to clean up before heading out to dinner. For dinner, we arrived at a beautiful restaurant that was built around a huge tree, which reminded us of the tree of life at Disney. We ate on the roof of the restaurant under the canopy of the tree. The house specialty, the honey chicken, was delicious. After Dinner, we went to a concert in the town square. The band was playing traditional Cuban dance music, and we got to watch some amazing dancers on the floor by the stage. We then returned to our house where we celebrated David’s and the owner of our hostel’s birthdays. We danced in the courtyard area until we got some noise complaints. So instead of ending the party, we decided to move the party to the beach. It was a once in a lifetime experience to have a party on the beach late into the morning. It was truly an experience.
Day 5: Trinidad/Santa Clara
After another amazing Cuban breakfast out in the courtyard, we made our way to the Valley of the Sugar Mills. We got the opportunity to make and taste sugarcane juice in the traditional way the slaves did on the plantation. When we were done drinking our sugarcane juice, we climbed one of the highest towers in Cuba, which came about due to a duel between brothers over a woman. Even as someone who does not like heights or climbing, the climb is definitely worth it. The view from the top of the tower is beautiful. We then walked through the market at the base of the tower. If you haggle with the people selling, you may have the opportunity to get a deal on some interesting linens and shirts. However, be wary of people running up to you and forcing their goods on you. We were kind of forced to buy some bracelets and grass-made “grasshoppers” from a guy who originally said they were free, but then asked for money and refused to take the goods back. After the market, we got into the van to head to Santa Clara. About halfway there, one of our vans broke down. Since we were in the mountains, there was no phone service, so we all had to climb into the other van to try to make it to Santa Clara. But of course, that van broke down to. It seemed that we were in the middle of nowhere, and we were stuck in the heat for about two hours. However, being broke down on the side of the road was probably one of my favorite memories from the trip. Between meeting El Loco and our dance party, nothing bonds people like being stuck on the road. After we finally were saved by some new taxis, we made our way to the resort in Santa Clara. It was a nice break to be treated to the luxuries of tourism for the night. We had a buffet, a pool, and Wi-Fi, all the luxuries you could ask for. At night we got to watch a fashion show and spend time by the pool. Later on, we finally got to go to the club on the grounds of the resort. The party began with a karaoke competition featuring Justin, who won a bottle of rum with his Spanish rendition of “Hotel California”. We spent the rest of the night dancing in the club, whether it was with one another, or some of the locals (including the models). It was a lot of fun!
Day 6: Santa Clara/Havana
After a quick breakfast at the resort’s buffet, we got into the taxis prepared to go Che’s Mausoleum. When we got there, though, the mausoleum was closed. It was still interesting to see the outside of the mausoleum. We then drove to the headquarters of a local missionary, whose mission is to help families with disabled children, both young and adult. The experience of meeting families that the missionary helps was probably the most powerful experience of the trip for me. To see these families, who have been burdened with such incredible hardships, continue to smile and focus on the joys of life was inspirational. Our next adventure was to a farm, which also included a pottery garden and studio. The food we ate was almost all grown on the farm, and it was by far some of the best food I have ever had. After days of beans and rice and mango, the kind they gave us was a new level of tastiness. We then had the opportunity to drink honey right out of the hive. Luckily, the bees had no stingers and could not fly. The farm hosts a festival where sculptors, including some from the United States, visit and show their works. Some of the sculptors leave their work behind in the sculpture garden. The man who ran the farm was inspirational. His ideas on life and creativity speaks to people all over the world. As we left the farm, we of course had to have vehicular issues again. However, this break down was for less than thirty minutes. The guy who owned the beautiful hostel we stayed at in Havana was so sweet. After a brief rest, we made our way to dinner at an incredibly nice restaurant. The food was amazing! From the bread to the flan, there was so much to enjoy. After the meal, we spent our first night at what would become one of our usual haunts in Havana, Espacios.
Day 7: Havana
When we woke up in the morning, we made our way to a local restaurant, El Ajaco. From the restaurant, we got to walk down the street to a home where the backyard had been converted into an impressive garden. The restaurant uses the herbs and produce from the garden in their recipes. The man who owns the home and garden demonstrated the methods they use to grow their produce. An interesting example is their use of water bottles to line the garden. The bottles help the dirt stay in place and the reflection of sun on the bottles keeps bugs away. After the garden, we went back to the restaurant for our mojito and cooking lessons. The mojito we made is the best I’ve ever had, and the cooking was so much fun. We even got to flambé the lobster. After a great lunch, we went to Ernest Hemingway’s home. We were able to see not only the beautiful home, but also the boat from the man whom “The Old Man and the Sea” is based on. After learning about the life and death of Hemingway, we went back to our houses after a few more broken down vans. The break downs though allowed us to meet Francisco, a sweet bus driver who made sure that all the females enjoyed Mother’s Day by buying us flowers and cake. After dinner on a rooftop terrace, we made a brief stop at Espacios before turning in for the night.
Day 8: Havana
Today was our day to explore the streets of Havana. We got to see the four different plazas, including the Cathedral Plaza where we were able to see the end of a beautiful church service. We continued our tour, which included the hotel Hemingway stayed at while working on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the first fortress. We also finally got to go to a market to buy a few souveniers. We ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, which had American food and one of the largest varieties of alcohols I’ve ever seen. After lunch, we got to ride in beautiful classic cars. Ours was a 1946 red ford convertible. The drive was amazing, and our driver was quick to point out interesting buildings along the way. However, in accordance with our luck, it decided to rain during our drive. Luckily, the drivers were quick in putting up the tops of the convertibles. They then dropped us of at the National Hotel, where many famous people have stayed over the years. Dinner was a great meal of spaghetti and ice cream, which was a nice deviation from our usual dinners of rice, beans, and meat. During dinner, we were able to talk to a professor from the University of Havana about the education system in Cuba. We then went to one of the most well-known clubs in Havana and saw the end of a concert from a Grammy-winning Cuban band. The drummer was amazing. After the concert, we went to a seemingly secretive club in Havana. They demand that you are quiet as you enter and exit the club. But once you do enter, you’re in for a good time. We danced until the early hours of the morning.
Day 9: Havana/Viñales
After breakfast, we embarked on one of the bumpiest car rides of my life into the mountains on our way to the city of Viñales. We stopped at a rest stop, and the view of the mountain formations was breathtaking. We then ate lunch on the side of one of these mountains, and it was by far the best lunch view. Also, the food was delicious. After lunch, we drove to a farm where we got to learn about the process of growing tobacco and making cigars. Then we got to ride the horses. The landscape, especially the surreal tree with blowing leaves, was stunning. But the horseback riding, while fun, was also slightly terrifying. Make sure to go horse riding if you get the option, but also make sure to hold on. After horseback riding, we went to our houses in Viñales where our sweet house mom greeted us with mango juice. We then spent a calm night at a bar literally a block from our houses. It was relaxing and fun.
Day 10: Viñales/Havana
We began our day by heading to some nearby caves, where we were greeted by an interesting show of a guy dancing and picture opportunities with birds. After some mild spelunking and a boat ride through the cave, we made our way to some gift shops outside of the cave. We then boarded the taxis and made our way to a beautiful hotel that was literally built around nature. Instead of chopping down the trees on the land, they built the hotel with the trees running through the building and out of the roof. After lunch (which actually included French fries!), we were supposed to go zip lining; however, the weather did not agree. So instead we got to just relax and watch the beautiful view of the mountains and the rain around us. We later made our way to our homes in Havana that we were at on our first day in Cuba. I can’t believe this is our last night in Cuba, though it originally seemed like a long time, I’m kind of sad our time is almost at an end. We ate dinner at a more modern restaurant and had a private performance from the band we met our first night in Cuba, Los Boys. After dancing, speeches, and pictures at the restaurant, we decided to go back to Espacios for our last night in Havana. We danced the night away and had a good time.
Day 11: Havana/Atlanta
Today is our final day in Cuba. We started with a visit to a fort associated with Che, where they also have a famous cigar shop. After that, we went to a large indoor market where there was the opportunity to walk around, drink coconut water from a fresh coconut, and souvenir shop. After those brief excursions, it was finally time to head to the airport. It was so hard to say goodbye to the guides and to the country of Cuba itself. After our flight, it was even harder for me to say goodbye to all the friends I had made on this trip. Through all the craziness of Cuba, we were always together. Though the trip was not at all what I expected, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. My trip to Cuba gave me amazing memories and a life changing experience. I hope to get to go back someday, maybe with the friends I made on this trip.
Hasta la Proxima Vez, Cuba
Author: Calista Rogers
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
¡Dios mío! It’s far too easy to forget just how different other countries can be compared to the United States. The weeks of preparation and anticipation finally came to an end as we stepped off the plane in Havana, Cuba. The feelings of sonder were absolutely unreal, and I rediscovered my love for travel in the blink of an eye.
Our first stop was lunch, and ironically our first lesson in Cuban patience as well. 3 hours and 3 courses later we headed to our dance lessons, which I was a little hesitant about at first but ended up having the best time. Be sure to pay close attention, you’ll have plenty of time to show off your awesome salsa moves later in the trip, and also at our monthly Auburn Salsa Club meetings, courtesy of our president and probably one of the best Salsa dancers out there, Justin.
We spent our first night in Cuba at a Salsa club, toasting the trip with the first of many Cuba Libres, sin hielo por supuesto. If you have any inclination to dance, get out there and do it! How many people can say they’ve danced the Salsa with native Cubans? No need to be nervous, and even if there was, Tiffany, David, and Daniel will come to your rescue.
Monday, May 8th, 2017
Breakfast in Cuba is like no other. Mango, papaya, guava, pineapple… all the tropical fruits you can imagine and they’re fresher than you ever thought possible. Word of advice, try all the fruits and eat as much as you can while you’re there. You might be sick of them by the end of the trip, but the freshness of fruits in the United States shies in comparison to Cuban fruit.
First road trip, be sure to bring your Dramamine if you get car sick easily because boy are these roads bumpy, and they got progressively worse throughout the week (or maybe the lack of sleep finally started getting to our carefree Cuban attitudes). Also, bring a neck pillow if your carry on allows it, bus rides are the perfect opportunity to sneak in a power nap.
Stopped at a crocodile farm, and as much as they don’t look it, these creatures are very alive. Paying the 1 peso to feed them and see some action is definitely worth it. I can’t help but think the only barricade standing between us, a thin wire fence, would be no match for a hungry crocodile…
You’ll soon learn that you don’t always have to know what you’re eating if you’re hungry enough. Maybe have a little patience before digging in because we often started eating a dip/etc. before they served the other part of the dish we were supposed to pair it with.
While hiking the “Sendero Enigma de las Rocas”, you’ll find an opportunity to jump off a small cliff into probably the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen. Even though you’ll see a baby crocodile early on this hike, don’t you dare pass this up! It’s safe and I have no doubt you’ll regret it if you do. You might even find Justin’s long lost Apple watch if you do. While the cause of my first L in Cuba is unclear, I recommend you don’t swallow too much water like I did.
For the first time, our van stalled. Little did we know this would be a recurring theme throughout our adventure in Cuba. You’ll find yourself laughing at the situation instead of being upset, maybe it’s something in the water that makes everyone so carefree in this country?
Second night in Cuba- more dancing! David and Daniel surprised us with a live band with dancers, SO much fun. Even some random neighbors came by to see what all the commotion was and it turned into one big fiesta. Also, I’m still waiting on my email from the Cuban drummer I gave my email to in case you were wondering.
Tuesday, May 9th, 2017
Started out the day with a hike to a beautiful waterfall in Trinidad, then followed it with a well-deserved lunch of paella.
We arrived at our hostel, owned by our favorite, Papí. Who knew he would turn out to be such a character? Also update, we somehow found chicken nuggets (yum!!) and also hot dog dip (not so yummy). Ended the night at the Cave Rave where we witnessed such a strange yet cool performance of men lifting things with only their teeth… sometimes the language barrier really prevents you from knowing what is actually going on, but just go with the flow. This was the first night we discovered Papí’s true personality and signature dance move, both of which are indescribable. Also this night brought the birth of the “Cuban sandwich”… a dance I hope to leave in Cuba. I’ve never danced this much in my entire life.
Wednesday, May 10th, 2017
Leave it to Daniel and David to pick the perfect time for a beach day. Just when the sleep deprivation starts to get you, you’re saved with a day relaxing in the Sun with a breathtaking view of Playa Ancon with the Escambray Mountains in the background. Another surprise- French fries by the pool, just when you were starting to miss American food just a little too much.
The view of the Escambray Mountains at dinner was surreal, and so was the house special of Honey Chicken. Everyone at our table ordered this and it was the right decision. We began the night listening to live Cuban music, another opportunity to salsa if you’re interested. We then returned to the hostel for Papí and David’s birthday party. So many “Cuban sandwiches”, and even a “grilled cheese”, an American take on the “Cuban sandwich” courtesy of Georgeann.
After two noise complaints, we decided to move our fiesta to the beach, a very unique decision which led to one of the most interesting nights of my life. It was at this point in the trip that I became well aware that la fiesta nunca termina en Cuba (the party never ends in Cuba).
Thursday, May 11th, 2017
Climbed El Torre while touring the Valley of the Sugar Mills. Maybe do some cardio prior to the trip to prepare yourself for the steepness of this seemingly never-ending climb, because the view is totally worth it.
Try el Guarapo!! You’ll probably never have the opportunity to do this again (unclear if you would want to), and you need to take advantage!
Buy one of the beautiful handmade cloths, and remember to haggle!
Surprise, surprise – one of the vans broke down again so we all piled into the one working van, which ironically broke down a few miles later in what seemed like the middle of nowhere Cuba. I’m thankful for this breakdown as it provided us with the opportunity to meet El Loco, a surreal memory I will never ever forget.
On the road again, and to a super nice resort in Santa Clara. Surprise – there’s wifi! I facetimed with my dad for over an hour.
Started the night by watching a fashion show on the pool deck and finished it in the resort’s very own club, where Justin won a bottle of rum in a karaoke competition. So fun!!
Friday, May 12th, 2017
We were all prepared for our trip to Che’s Mausoleum with our long pants and sarongs but unfortunately found it to be closed. From here, we traveled to Jovellanos where we met some of the community’s leaders and were given the opportunity to help deliver gifts/donations to families with special needs children. This was probably the most eye-opening experience of the trip and also my whole life. Seeing how happy and thankful these people are even when it seems they have so little will make you realize just how entitled and materialistic we are here in the United States.
After the visit to Jovellanos, we traveled to a farm and met one of the most inspirational men I’ve ever encountered. After feasting on the best rice and beans I’ve ever tasted (and I now believe myself to be a rice and bean expert) and the mango that had been picked that very morning, we toured this beautiful farm and got to suck fresh honey through a straw directly from a bee hive- don’t worry they don’t sting!
It wouldn’t be a road trip for us if the van didn’t break down, this makes… number four? Don’t worry, we were still laughing at this point. This night I stayed in a hostel owned by maybe one of the kindest men in Cuba. Dinner was at an incredibly nice French restaurant where I definitely didn’t leave one crumb behind. I don’t think I could choose a single favorite part of this meal, although it would probably be between the pumpkin soup, fish croquets, and fresh flan and ice cream… Finished the night dancing at one of our favorite Cuban bars, Espacios – so fun!
Saturday, May 13th, 2017
It was on this day that we tried the best mojito I’ve ever had (so what if this trip was the first time I had ever tried a mojito – just like with the rice and beans, I quickly became an expert on the topic of mojitos). We cooked our own meal of lobster and beef and prepared our own special mojitos with the help of the amazing teachers and chefs at El Ajaco.
Our next destination was Ernest Hemingway’s beautiful home and then to dinner at a restaurant. For years scientists have wondered if you could make a group of college students weep at the mentioning of a classic American dessert, the brownie. The answer is yes, but only if it is preceded by 7 days of withdrawal from real chocolate. While the brownie didn’t live up to our standards, it was a nice change.
Due to the unfortunate break downs, we had a new driver for the night, Francisco, who is probably the sweetest man I’ve ever met. Not only did he buy all us women flowers that night, he even baked us a cake and gave us even more flowers on Mother’s Day.
Sunday, May 14th, 2017
I was shocked how big Mother’s Day was in Cuba. This was the first day we got to explore the streets of Havana, and I was overwhelmed with the gifts for sale especially for Mother’s Day.
Who knew the Sloppy Joe originated in Cuba? I sure didn’t. If you get the chance, order a Sloppy Joe, you won’t be disappointed.
After Sloppy Joe’s we got to ride in the old American cars that can be seen all over Havana. First rain shower of the trip happened to fall when we decided to go for a ride in these convertibles. Don’t worry, nothing the convertible top can’t handle, even if you did get a little moist at first. The ride took us to the National Hotel, where we enjoyed drinks and wifi, a luxury I didn’t realize was a luxury until traveling to Cuba.
We ate dinner at a really nice restaurant where they offered spaghetti. Yes- spaghetti! I inhaled my serving in less than 5 minutes I think. Dessert was ice cream and also the cake Fernando baked us for Mother’s Day- yum! After dinner we caught the end of some live music at a social club where we danced in a conga line – it was like something out of a movie. We finished our night at what seemed like a super exclusive bar – be sure to keep your voices quiet as you enter!
Monday, May 15th, 2017
On this day we arrived in Vinales – I lost count of how many times I thought to myself “are we there yet?” as I was getting a little queasy while trying not to hit my head on the roof of the van during this super bumpy car ride. Word of advice – sit as close to the front of the van as possible, ask Ethan and Baker, it really does make a difference. Today we learned how they grow tobacco and roll cigars. After, we took a scenic ride through the Vinales Valley horseback. This was one of the most surreal activities during the whole trip as the view was breathtaking.
We ate dinner at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, thank goodness our van didn’t breakdown. I have a feeling our encounter with El Loco would be a little less entertaining if it had occurred in the pitch black in the middle of no where… When asked what there is to eat in Cuba, the answer is simple: rice, beans… or rice and beans, and boy do they taste different. I promise, you too will be an expert in rice and beans by this point in your trip as well.
Tuesday, May 16th, 2017
We bid farewell to Vinales and headed to Terrazass where we were supposed to go hiking and zip lining, but the weather decided otherwise for us. No worries, as we all desperately needed that little power nap after gorging on French fries that while maybe a little Al Dente, hit the spot nonetheless.
We returned to Havana that afternoon for our final night in Cuba. I could not believe a trip that had at one point seemed never-ending, was coming to an end. We ate dinner at a super nice restaurant and had a private performance by Los Boys. The guides loved their t-shirts, and even put them on immediately. We decided to move the party to our favorite party place, Espacios, where we danced the night away. Baker, Katherine and I decided to go out on a limb and order a pizza but I definitely ordered it wrong, as we were presented with what seemed like cheese bread, but hey it was only 4 CUC and it still hit the spot.
Wednesday, May 17th, 2017
El día final… Started with a visit to a fort where we were presented an opportunity to buy authentic Cuban cigars. We also saw the world’s longest cigar (still wondering why on Earth someone rolled such a thing) and the man who rolled it. We then visited a market to buy the souvenirs we had been itching to buy the whole trip. Who knew a simple trip to a market would be one of the most overwhelming experiences one could have while in Cuba?
We finally bid our farewells to quite possibly the best tour guides on the planet, David, Daniel, and Ernesto and found ourselves waiting to board our plane and return to the US. It was at this time I got entirely too excited about American food and accidentally purchased 5 packets of M&Ms and the most flavorful can of Pringles I have ever tasted in my entire life. Side note, after 11 days in Cuba, the #1 bottled water in Cuba, Ciego Montero, finally started to taste normal to me.
Cuba, you have given me amazing memories, friends and stories that will last a lifetime. I am so thankful I had this opportunity and if I ever get the chance to return, I will not give it a second thought.
Cuba: My Eat, Pray, Love
Day 1: We’re Not in USA Anymore
When our plane landed at the José Martí airport I felt as though I was in a movie. The movie was a mixture between The Wiz, Hallmark Channel, and Telemundo and I was the main character. Nevertheless, the film didn’t start smoothly. I was terrified of flying; a fear that was only intensified by the rough entry onto the landing strip. But rough landings are to be expected. What was not expected came next. Upon exiting the plane I realized there was no gate; only steps. The entire airport was one large room about the size of two high school gyms. However, the real culture shock came when I went to the restroom and discovered, THERE ARE NO TOILET SEATS IN CUBA. We met our wonderfully amazing guides at the airport and the rest of the day was spent getting a crash course on Cuban culture. You know that scene in every movie where the protagonist gets to a foreign city that starts with a montage of her walking down random alleys, taking pictures with and of the most obscure art, and wandering around until she winds up in the middle of the city and ends with the camera doing a 360 pan of her standing in the middle of a street to symbolize her taking in the rhythm of her new home. Replace the 80’s Pop with Cuban Son and that was how the rest of the first day in Cuba felt.
Packing List: Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, tennis shoes, camera charger, money for bathrooms, snacks that won’t melt, string backpack or purse that you don’t mind carrying
Tips: When converting money, get as many small bills as possible. You will thank me when you realize you tip at EVERY SINGLE MEAL. It is best to plan for tips when creating your budget. We tipped 2-3 Cuc every meal.
Days 2-3: When In Cuba, Do What the Cubans Do
What do the Cubans do? Judging by he amount of activities we packed into these three days, I’d say they do everything. We hiked through forests, swam in natural springs, danced in the street, took boats to the hidden Taino village, visited the Bay of Pigs Museum, and ate on the coast of the actual Bay of Pigs; and that was just the second day. The third day was all about Ché. It took less than five minutes at his mausoleum to understand just how important his legacy is to Cuba. Che’s mausoleum was like a holy ground where even the slightest hint of noise was forbidden. He is enshrined among many other fallen heroes, with little distinction between his tomb and the rest. Yet the single wall where his lone plaque lies is still enough to demand respect and show the amount of reverence people have for him to this day. Sadly, like all respected leaders there were no pictures allowed so to fully understand you have to visit yourself (which I highly suggest you do for all the locations described in the blog). The mausoleum was followed by a lighter trip to see the local professional baseball team. The Cienfuegos Elephants were a nice group although very few understood English. The few that understood my choppy Spanish were eager to explain about their economic situations and their dreams of playing in America. One of the players, Ortiz, was even nice enough to sign my souvenir jersey for free.
Packing list: BUG SPRAY, SUNSCREEN, shorts, sandals, phone and camera chargers, money for souvenirs and tips, change of clothes if you plan on swimming
Tips: You can never have too much bug spray and sunscreen. If you think you have enough, bring extra to share with a friend. They will greatly appreciate it.
Days 4-6: It’s Time to Eat
And eat, and eat, and eat. I ate so much within these three days I think I gained ten pounds. It didn’t help that most of the activity was touring historic districts of cities where people are willing to sell you food for 50 cents. Lunch and dinner was always lobster, rice, salad, bread, desserts, etc. I would’ve kept eating too, if it wasn’t for the food poisoning. However, my sickness came just in time for me to miss out on the long hike up the mountain on day 6. Thank God! There was also plenty of dancing as Trinidad is a city that never sleeps and music fills your ears from sunrise to sunset. A night on the town steps was worth a month of Salsa lessons in the US. Everywhere you looked there were people of all ages dancing the Cuban Son better than most professionals I’ve ever seen.
Packing List: A nice sundress, money, sunscreen, camera, shorts, phone charger, and a light backpack or purse
Tips: This was when we learned you had to pay for wifi. I didn’t use more than three hours total the entire trip so don’t go crazy with the wifi cards. You really won’t stay in one place long enough to use a ton of wifi. Trust me, there is a lot more interesting things happening around you than there is on Facebook. You’ll live without it.
Days 7-8: Let Us Pray
Day 7 started with a much needed visit to a local Cuban church. Surprisingly, there was another group from South Carolina visiting as well. Their pastor was the guest of the church and was the leader of he sermon that day. Later we had the opportunity to sit in on Sunday School classes. I sat with the older students and talked with the teacher about the way the school and meals work in the small town. We learned that the church had an outreach group that visited families with disabled children. We were able to visit some of the families that the church helped and learn about their challenges and ways they receive help. They were very thankful that we came and grateful for the few gifts some of the other students brought. Lastly we visited an organic farm that was sponsored by the church and learned about the growing methods. The purpose of the farm is to provide food and economic opportunities for local families while teaching farmers about organic, sustainable growing methods. Day 8 was a return to La Habana with more touring and personal history lessons. The day ended with a musical performance from the infamous Buena Vista Social Club at one of the local restaurants. It doesn’t get more authentic than that!
Packing List: gifts for the children (baseball cards, baseballs, coloring items, dolls for any girls), bug spray, sunscreen, sandals, a mini bible, money, camera charger
Tips: My biggest regret of the trip is not having anything to give the families I visited. Don’t make the same mistake as me. You’ve been warned.
Day 9: And Then We Rested
Seriously it was a day of rest for me. I went with a small group to Chinatown to meet some of the descendants of Chinese immigrants and walked around downtown Habana. It was a calm day for the most part.
Packing List: sunscreen, camera, money for souvenirs
Tips: This was the best day to find souvenirs. Take advantage of the free time. You can sleep when you get back.
Days 10, Part 1: Love at First Sight
Day 10 was when I found it. I found where I wanted to have my wedding. It was the perfect mixture between rain forest, mountain, and garden. After yet another long van ride listening to the musical selections of the best chauffeurs Cuba has to offer, we arrived at the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, Orquideario Soroa. It is a beautiful orchid garden tucked away into the mountains. There is a lovely bridge in the middle of the garden with a view of the valley below. It is the most magical place for a wedding and 10 years from now when I find a husband that is where I will get married. Sadly my pictures don’t do it justice.
Packing List: bug spray, sunscreen, camera, bathing suit
Tips: There was a pretty waterfall in the valley that we were able to swim in. The steps are no joke so be ready to burn some calories.
Day 10, Part 2: Going Out With a Bang
Surprise!!! Rooftop party at Sylvia’s!! Ernesto, the hero of my trip, the protector of the squad, the musical tour guide, the man of 100 jobs, and the man that does everything with the smile and aura of what can only be described as authentically Cuban, surprised us all with a rooftop performance of my favorite band in Cuba, Los Boys. How he made it happen is still a mystery but it was the best surprise of the trip. There was so much loud dancing and singing that people in the streets below us joined in. We met the families of Domingo and David, our tour guides, and gave away shirts to the men that made the trip possible.
To everyone that made this magical trip possible,
Thank you for allowing me to live the life I’ve always wanted. Thank you for opening your hearts and homes. You will forever be remembered and I will forever be grateful.
Victoria Roberson- Your long lost Cuban.
Chronicles of Cuba: Kelsey Edition
Hola! Welcome to the Cuba blog! I just want to start out by thanking Auburn for such a wonderful trip as well as Tiffany Sippial and our many tour guides! It would not have been the same trip without the wonderful group that we had!
Day 1: lunch at Porto Havana
We ordered ceviche, fried stuffed plantains, garlic shrimp, and ropa vieja. Before our meal, Camilo (professor at university) and Cuban diplomat talked to us about Cuban relations with United States and how Cuba sustains their economy through places like china. Then we walked around old Havana and talked about the cathedral and various architectural structures. At night we had a great time at the sangri-LA club. We met members of the band and got to experience dance and night life as the Cubans know it.
Day 2: woke up and had breakfast and then left the casa around 8:30 am. We took a long drive and ended up at the national park that is known for the bay of pigs. Once we got there, we took speed boats out the the old Asian villiages and got to learn about why they created the project and the reasons for the sculptures lining the edge of the land. We also go to learn about how to tree relates to the mix in religion between African traditional and Roman Catholicism. Then we went to a restaurant where I got super sick, so I don’t remember the name of it :(. I then went to Ernesto’s aunts house (Teressa) and she let me sleep in one of her guest rooms. We then went to our cases to check in and out to dinner at casa prado restaurante and had such a wonderful time.
Day 3: we woke up and had breakfast downstairs at the little porch. After that , we loaded into the buses and headed to the Santa Clara City. We saw the memorial of Che and walked around the city. After that we went to lunch at a buffet and enjoyed good food and then headed to the baseball stadium to see the Cienfuegos elephants! We got signatures from the team and got to learn a little bit about their team and the baseball culture. After that we walked around the city and got to shop around more and then we went back to the casa to relax. After that we went to dinner at Florida blanco downtown!
Day 4: we woke up and chilled until around 12 trying to get wifi and then we went to the hotel Jagua and had lunch (cubano sandwhiches) and we went to swim at the pool and got to jump off the dock. We also got to go to the rooftop of the bar Terraza. After that we drove to Trinidad and walked around the city for around an hour and went back to our casa to drop off our things. We then went to dinner at El Galleon and had various palleas and mixed fruit cups for desert. The bar tab came in a treasure chest. We went back to the casa and got ready for bed. Some people went back downtown, but some of us stayed in.
Day 5: we woke up and had breakfast on the casa patio. After that we went to iznaga tower and climbed up a lot of stairs. 40 meters. After that we got a few crafts and I got postcards to send and mail out. Then we went back to the casa to pick up Maddie and check on Kate. We then proceeded to the beach at the hotel where we got lunch at a buffet, checked wifi, swam, and relaxed on the beach with an open bar. After that we went back to the casa and got ready to go out for the evening. We went back to the pottery workshop and had the experience of trying chenchachara, a local drink. After that we went to dinner and sat up stairs on the patio and listened to live music while we ate great seafood. Last but not least, we got to club at the disco ayala which was an underground “cave” club. Which was absolutely amazing.
Day 6: we woke up and had breakfast at our casa in Trinidad and then loaded in the taxis to go to the mountains. We had the experience of sitting in the open air jeep which was super awesome because we got to feel the breeze as we went up and down the mountain. We first stopped at a coffee house which was awesome because we got to learn about the different ways they roast and grind coffee, we even got to try a cup! When we got to the visitors center, Luis gathered us all around the map of the area and explained the trail we would take on our hike. We then ventured out on our hike and it was definitely difficult and strenuous. We had so much fun, but my legs were definitely jelly at the end of it. I think going up was much harder for me just because I forgot my inhaler, but going down the hill was tougher on the knees. Once we got down we had the opportunity to jump into the fresh water spring under the water fall and all I can say was it was freezing! But definitely a good way to cool off. After we dried off, we started our way back up the mountain. After we made it to the top, the cars picked us up and we went to the restaurant. After lunch, we headed back to Cienfuegos and had the chance to take a nice nap before we left for dinner. At 7:45 we went to dinner at an international style restaurant and got to try both Italian and Caribbean style food. After dinner, we went home and chilled the rest of the night.
Day 7: we woke up this morning and had breakfast in Cienfuegos at the same place we did the last week. It was great! Then we loaded the buses and had a two hour drive back to Jovellanes. We had the opportunity to visit a local community church and sit in on their service for a little while. After we sat in on their service, we went to the farm where the farmers taught us about organic farming and the difference it makes when it comes to local produce. We also ate lunch there which was prepared by the women in the home. After that, we went to go see those who were underprivileged and disabled. This was the hardest part of the day because of how sad it was and how struggling the families were. After visiting, we went to the beach in Valadera and had a beautiful and wonderful time! Although security tried kicking us out, I did connect to their wifi for a little bit! After the beach we went back to the church center we were staying at and had a home cooked meal. When we were done, Allison, Sarah, Kaitlin, and I went to Fresca y chocolate, a local ice cream shop which was so awesome! We ended up ordering 21 scoops of ice cream because we couldn’t understand the menu, so needless to say, we were stuffed. On the way back, we took a horse carriage! Once we returned we got dressed and headed out for a musical evening on the town.
Day 8: we woke up this morning and had a breakfast in the community dining room. After that, we loaded the buses and headed to Havana. On the way, we stopped to take pictures at the tallest bridge in Cuba! They are also a great spot for tropical drinks, which came in big pineapples. Our next stop was the revolutionary museum in Havana, it was really interesting to see the spot where college students stormed the president’s mansion. You could still see the bullet holes in the wall. After that, we took a car ride in the old fashioned cars to the national grand hotel of Cuba which was built in 1930. My favorite part of visiting the hotel was seeing all of the famous people who visited on the wall. Their pictures were displayed in chronological order which was super cool because you could go by decade to see if any of your favorite movie stars, singers, of political figures visited too. We then went to lunch at Ajiaco, which was delicious! Very traditional, family style Cuban food. After lunch we went to go visit the artwork of a local artist, who transformed a neighborhood into an amazing art project! He used different glass pieces and painted pieces to create a story among the different houses and elements of the street. Then we went to check into the casas with Sylvia. This was the first casa we stayed in on our trip, so it was really nice to be back in Havana! Then we went to dinner at El Classico and spent a good time talking and chatting among each other about our days. Then off to the social club in downtown Havana for a nice of traditional Cuban dance and song! I felt like I was on an episode of “I love Lucy” watching Ricky Ricardo at the Tropicana club.
Day 9: Today was full of exciting things! We started off the morning with salsa dancing lessons at Casa Del Son which was such an incredible experience. We definitely got our work out in for the day! After we finished our lessons, we went to an art museum near by to get drinks and walk around for around an hour. It was a very interesting experience because we had the chance to see all different, cultural pieces of art. Next, we had lunch at the Starbien restaurant which was by far my favorite meal of the whole trip!! They had lettuce for salads, which was a big deal let me tell you! After lunch Tristan, Allison, and I went to Havana Libre and had a nice time swimming and eating snacks before we went to Opera for dinner. This was an Italian restaurant that had wonderful food and even better deserts! They were a reservation only place and used only organic and locally grown products.
Day 10: we woke up this morning and had breakfast on the porch at Silvia’s and then loaded up the busses to head to Orquideario Soroa. This is a botanical garden that is run by the environmental agency of Cuba, but is headed under the local university (Pina del rio). It was first built in honor of Spanish man’s daughter who died giving birth to her child. There are beautiful orchids and many different plants and flowers along the route that we walked. We took a tour from the guide at the park. The most interesting thing I learned from the park was that there are around 35,000 species of orchids around the world. We also learned that this is area is one of the most humid in the world having anywhere from 85-90 percent humidity during the summer. After we left the park, we went on a little bike down to the waterfall. After spending around 30 minutes dipping in the water and taking pictures, we made our way back to the top to head to lunch. When we were done eating, we headed to La Terrasas, an ecotourism hotspot and environmental restoration project. Included in La Terrasas is La Moka, the small reforestation community. This was my favorite part of the day because I had the opportunity to zip line across over 1600 meters of canopy and see some amazing sights. Then we headed back to Havana to get ready for the party tonight with Los Boys.
Cuba: An Adventure of a Lifetime
I spent my whole life dreaming of that one adventure. You know how you watch movies and TV shows where the protagonist takes a trip, often to a foreign country, has the time of her life, and “finds her bridesmaids”? I thought that wasn’t real life…until Cuba. In Cuba I learned to not be afraid of anything. Whether it was a giant cave, a tall tower, or Cuban food, I did not hesitate to enjoy every moment I had in Cuba because I knew this entire trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And Cuba did not disappoint. Every day in Cuba was unforgettable. At the end of it all, I was sad to leave Cuba, but I knew that the friends I made on the trip would stay with me for a long, long time. So in a way, Cuba lives on in my life. I cannot fit the experience I had into a blog post, but I will try to highlight some of the key moments from the trip, and hopefully you’ll understand why I believe Cuba was the adventure of a lifetime. Here are my top 20 favorite things from my trip to Cuba.
20. Sylvia (and her eggs): We spent our first and last few nights with our wonderful host
Sylvia. We were in the top apartment, with views of the ocean. We slept at night with the window slats open and the patio doors unlocked, and I never felt safer. Her breakfast in the morning was the best breakfast of my life, and none of us could figure out how she made her eggs so wonderfully fluffy. We had coffee, watermelon, bread, and these amazing eggs every morning. If I had to pick one place in Cuba that was home, it was Sylvia’s.
19. Cats of Cuba: Touring Old Havana (a UNESCO Heritage site) was the first time we saw all the cats and dogs roaming the streets. We had seen a cat before at lunch at Porto Habana, but Old Havana was where we really saw the extent of street animals in Cuba. Not many people keep pets in their houses, and instead the streets are filled with (friendly) cats and dogs. We saw so many cats in Cuba that we started a collection of photos!
18. The Food: The food in Cuba is very simple, which is how I often cook for myself. It wasn’t spicy or crazy like I thought, but since meals were included we often were daring in what we tried. Since our group was close we would order a few different items and share, giving us the opportunity to try new things. The first night we had carpaccio (raw beef), one night we had seafood paella with octopus, and for lunch one day we had a whole fish served on a table. However, I have to admit, my favorite meal was at a restaurant run by an Italian woman who married a Cuban man!
17. The Old Cars: You know when you see pictures of Cuba and it looks like time was frozen in the 1950s? Well, it really does look like that. I love cars and seeing all the unique 1950s vehicles around the country never got old. My favorite old car moment was riding in a 1950s Jeep to the Escambray mountains, though the close second was taking an old car tour to the Hotel Nacional!
16. Taking a boat ride in Cienaga de Zapata: I loved taking a boat ride through a reserve, seeing the birds along the marsh and visiting an original, preserved settlement. I was able to use my GoPro to take video of the channel opening up and the vast expanse of water. The nature in Cuba never failed to amaze me.
15. Hiking the nature reserve: We had a guide take us through Sendero Enigma de Las Rocas, and he was incredible! I couldn’t believe how he was able to hear a sound barely audible and then track down the bird. We saw so many birds and lizards I lost track, especially because I was so in awe of the limestone pools that we came across in our hike. I was so glad we did so much hiking in Cuba!
14. Learning why Che was important to Cubans: We visited many museums and learned a lot of unique history on this trip (I say unique because their history has a very different slant than ours), but learning about Che was certainly the most interesting. There are many monuments to Che, as well as a mausoleum and museum that we visited. Talking to our guides about Che revealed a side of Cuban history not taught in the United States.
13. Our Hostel by the Sea: In Cienfuegos we stayed in the cutest white hostel, with comfortable beds and a wall unit for A/C (it’s the little things). It was so simple, with plain white walls and curtains, but the breeze, the views, and the simplicity of the life there could not be beat. If I ever go back to Cuba (which I hope to do), I would stay here and at Sylvia’s again, for sure.
12. Seeing the differences between Cuba and the United States: Life in Cuba is different from our country. The internet is incredibly hard to get and the houses are simple with many generations living inside. The craziest thing was that there were
no toilet seats in Cuba, and we couldn’t figure out why you’d have a toilet but no seat! Also, you are supposed to tip often, including to use the restroom which had an attendant. The billboards aren’t advertisements, they are political slogans, and almost everything in Cuba is owned by the government. There is only one type of bottled water, cleverly marketed as “No 1 in Cuba,” which is funny because there is only one type of bottled water since the government controls it.
11. Having authentic conversations: So many times on trips you see only what people want you to see, or what they think you want to see. While I won’t say that I feel I lived exactly the way Cubans do, I had an experience that really got me close to the true Cuba. By staying in casas I was able to talk to the hosts about the real Cuban life. By having David, a Cuban close to our age, as a guide, I was able to find out little things like how Cubans get music and what they do for fun. By shopping in the streets I was able to talk to young artists, one being a girl my age who so sincerely wanted to learn English. This helped me learn more about Cuba than any book or hotel could.
10. Climbing towers and facing fears: It felt like Cuba brought out the best in all of us. We were all nervous to climb the Iznaga Tower, a 200 year old, 147-foot tower with narrow, steep steps, but we all made our way up and down, taking pictures and admiring the (well worth it) view. This wasn’t the only time we had to be brave, but it certainly involved the most steps!
9. Dancing: We went dancing many nights in Cuba, and we had an array of experiences. The most memorable was the cave. Let me start by saying that my biggest fear is claustrophobia, so caves are a no-go for me. Especially a cave with no support beams, no emergency exits (this is Cuba, after all), and huge speakers playing deep bass. However, as was a trend in Cuba, I shook that aside and climbed down into the most amazing discoteca I’ve ever seen. Another memorable dancing moment was the salsa lesson we took in Havana. This was no formal, cruise-ship worthy dance lesson. This was true Cuban dancers dancing how true Cubans dance. It was fun, it was fast, and it was Cuba!
8. Urban Gardens and Sustainable farms: We visited two locations on two different days that stick in my memory for two reasons: they both had to do with sustainability and they both had my favorite dessert. Dessert first (always), they had this dish that was just hand-shaved coconut boiled in sugar water. It was simplistic, delicious, and I loved that the coconuts were grown right where we were eating. I used my Spanish skills to find the chef and ask how to make it! In terms of sustainability, I learned a lot by visiting the sustainable farm. For example, water ran under the pig pen to collect the waste into a vat to convert into biofuel, which in turn fueled the farm. That was a small farm that needed to save on energy, and came up with this idea. Then, on our last day we had lunch and learned about urban gardens in Cuba. They aren’t as prominent as I was expecting from the research I did before we left, but that’s because Cubans don’t eat a lot of vegetables. With limited resources, urban gardens are very useful in Cuba, and I saw many community gardens around.
7. Evaluating Sustainability as a Whole: I’ve got a passion for sustainability, so I kept this topic in mind when looking at Cuba. In some ways, Cuba is the sustainability experiment I’d read about. A lack of resources has made them, well, resourceful. Parts are reused because they need to. Energy is conserved because it’s valuable. But some of the features are also their downfalls. Pollution from old cars and factories reduce air quality. Total government control leads to conflicts of interest. Cuba isn’t overdeveloped, but there isn’t enough housing for its citizens. Cuba is in some ways an example of sustainable development, but I worry a jump in tourism could ruin the beautiful undeveloped coastline and simple way of living.
6. Visiting the Baseball Stadium: This is by far one of my favorite experiences. In the United States it’s almost impossible to meet a baseball team, and if you have the opportunity to, you’ll probably pay a large sum for it. When we visited the Cienfuegos team’s stadium, we drove up in our white vans and they said of course we could go in. We found the team was practicing, and after entering inside they asked if we’d like to go on the field. We took pictures with the team, but more importantly were able to talk to them. They don’t get paid very much, and we were able to support them by buying signed baseballs!
5. Finding a chameleon on my own, conquering the steepest climb of my life, and swimming under a waterfall: It’s crazy how in Cuba so much happened in not just each day, but each location. Our day in the Escambray mountains was one of these days. We hiked down deep into a valley and when we reached the bottom we were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall to swim in. Although the hike back up was incredibly steep, Kelsey, Sarah, and I sang songs to motivate ourselves up the mountain, and we were proud when we reached the top. Along the way up, I was excited to find a chameleon, as our guide admitted that they are incredibly rare to find as they avoid humans.
4. Pinar Del Rio and the orchid gardens: I have a green thumb, especially for orchids, and I have 4 beautiful orchid plants in my apartment to date, so visiting Soroa, a botanical garden with over 700 varieties of orchids, was heaven to me. It was built by a Spanish man honoring his daughter, who died during childbirth. He built the $1.5 million garden because orchids were her favorite. It was incredibly beautiful, and I love that the Cuban government has preserved even after his death.
3. La Moka: I had studied La Moka in the Ecotourism class I took in the Spring, and you wouldn’t believe how excited I was to finally visit it in person. The hotel was built without cutting any trees, and in fact, a giant tree comes up through the middle of the lobby! I was able to talk to a zipline guide who told me that people are happier in La Moka. He said that the community isn’t any wealthier than places like Varadero (the beach), but that everyone has a better quality of life because everyone is employed and works together as a community.
2. The pottery place: My favorite thing we did was visiting a pottery shop that had been making pottery for 500 years. Here one of the grandfathers actually asked if we’d like to make pottery. I was able to sit in the chair and make pottery, with the hands of a legacy helping me. That type of once-in-a-lifetime experience is something you could only get in Cuba, and it is something I will remember forever.
1. The people: Despite all the amazing adventures we had, my favorite thing about Cuba was the people. From my classmates to our guides to our hosts to our drivers, every person was a joy to talk to, and every Cuban was willing to answer our questions. Our drivers didn’t speak English, but they made every day fun. Ernesto, our leader, took great care of us, and David and Domingo were amazing guides. I made so many friends on this trip and I’m so lucky to have had this experience. I loved every moment in Cuba, and I thank all the people that made it possible.
Una Rosa Blanca y un Corazón para Cuba
Cuba was my bucket list. I’m obsessed with Dirty Dancing (which is odd considering I cannot dance), and I have dreamed of going to Cuba ever since I saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights on ABC Family (now Freeform) while I was in high school. I pictured myself in 1950s garb, strolling the streets of Havana with my Cuban beau/dance partner by day and being king and queen of La Rosa Negra discoteca by night. A few disclosures:
1. I cannot dance.
2. La Rosa Negra does not exist.
3. Cubans do not wear poodle skirts.
4. Also, I cannot dance.
If you can’t tell from my fantasy-version of Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. That’s kind of my thing: go into life-changing situations with no expectations other than to have my perspective on life altered and maybe learn something new. That was my mentality approaching my internship last semester, and it was my mentality going in to the Cuba trip. It’s a great approach to somewhat terrifying experiences; if you have a general expectation of having your life changed, you will leave with a new appreciation for your life and great plans for your future.
A few days before our departure, I was suddenly hit with reality. In a mid-finals week delirium, I realized that I was about to go to a foreign country that had tense relations with the U.S. (at best), with a group of 12 strangers, and my Spanish skills were rusty (at best). My nerves only got worse when I arrived in Miami at midnight to a dark hotel room with 3 of the 12 strangers already fast asleep. I was ready to lose my Starbucks on the plane over the Gulf. Once on the ground and through customs, I threw away all memory of childhood safety warnings and got into a white van with two strange men – one of which did not speak English. And I got into that van quite happily I might add. I fell in love with Cuba before the plane even hit the landing strip. The green farmland we saw on our descent to Jose Martí reminded me of summers spent at home and at the lake. I was achieving the number one goal on my bucket list. It was going to be an epic adventure.
Now I could go into detail of our itinerary like others in my travel group, but there’s no way I could say anything about our shenanigans around Cuba that my friends have not already told. Instead, I will give you a general, birds-eye view of the life-changing experience. Now, back to getting in the white van with strangers…
In all seriousness, the men in the vans were our drivers and guides. By the end of our trip, they would be lifelong friends for all of us, so allow me to give some introductions. Our drivers were Magdiel and Yoandi. Neither spoke English, but both had excellent taste in music. Yoandi could bust a move at the díscotecas and had an appreciation for Celine Dion. Magdiel sang for us on our long drives through the Cuban countryside, even when most of us were catching up on sleep. I was in Magdiel’s van most of the trip, so I got to know him better than Yoandi. Magdiel really seemed to get a kick out of the random questions from the Americans, and he used us to learn more English while letting us practice our Spanish. Both drivers were amazing, and both were committed to taking care of us. Our guides – David and Domingo – were equally committed to our troupe. They both had so much to share about Cuba, and not just history. They were willing to address the touchy subjects of politics and Cuban-American relations. Domingo was a fatherly figure for all of us on the trip. He had so much wisdom to share with us, and he gave us encouragement as we tried new foods. David was like a cool older brother, and he gave us the 4-1-1 of our Cuban peers. Both David and Domingo shared their dreams for the future, their experiences in life, and where they hoped to see Cuba in the near future. Anywhere we explored, our guides and drivers had our backs, and it was clear that they loved seeing our reactions to their beautiful, wonderful country.
Let’s move on to the landscape. Habana was almost what I expected: colorful, colonial-style buildings, classic American cars, and relaxing tropical plant life. As we moved across western Cuba, we saw towns and cities with architecture styles that varied based on the town’s history and the needs of the people. Now before I decided on accounting, I wanted to work in architecture or building design, and I have always loved photographing the architecture and landscapes of new places. Buildings reveal so much about a place. Architecture is a living autobiography of a culture, and it exposes the needs and priorities of a people over time. The architecture in Habana revealed the Spanish and various European influences at the foundations, but the open balconies and bright, chipped paint on the walls exposed the harsh reality the Cuban people have faced. The people are doing the best with what they have, and just like the bright colors that vary from one building to another, they are optimistic for a brighter future. Life is hard, but these wonderful people are resilient. More than resilient, the people are hopeful and inviting and kind. Yes, these people are kind even to silly American girls (and token guy). They want to share with us as much as we wanted to learn from them. Just like the architecture and the natural landscape, the Cuban people are bright, welcoming, and full of life. From Habana to Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Jovellanos and back to Habana, I fell more and more in love with this place I had only dreamed about. Cuba was my bucket list, and it broke my heart to fall so in love with a place – and its people – only to leave it behind so soon.
In short, Cuba changed my life and made my heart grow three sizes in the course of ten days. The people were warm and welcoming, and by the end of the trip, our hodge-podge group of thirteen American travellers had expanded to a somewhat dysfunctional family of Cubans and Americans who desperately wished they could change their genetics just enough to be a little more cubana. I cannot wait to go back and visit my “familia cubana” again, and until then I will revel in nostalgia by looking through the 1,000+ pictures I took.
P.S.: I even learned how to dance! I’m still not great, but I can follow a good lead
Cuba 2016: Voy a Extrañar Este Pais Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón
I don’t even know how to formulate words that could adequately capture the amazing experiences of this study abroad. This trip has left me with a tremendous love for the people of Cuba and a trove of memories to remember forever! Writing is not my forte (#engineer), so I am just going to narrow this down to some of my key learnings and favorite things.
THE CUBAN PEOPLE ARE INCREDIBLY WARM AND WELCOMING //
Domingo // The greatest guide ever! He basically knows everything you could possibly ask about Cuban history or architecture. And he has the patience of a saint. Thank you for putting up with ten college girls (plus Tristan) for ten days and having such a good sense of humor!
David // What a guy! David was shy at first, but as the trip went on he was so funny and also open to sharing his experiences and feelings about his homeland. I feel like I learned the most about real Cuban life from David (thank you!!). I really appreciated being able to hear the perspectives of someone at a similar place in life; it was powerful and eye opening. He has so many amazing hopes and dreams, and our discussions helped illuminate some of the differences in freedoms and mobility between our two homelands.
Ernesto // The magical phantom! Ernesto has the ability to appear and disappear at the drop of a hat, and he always returns with whatever you needed! He is probably the best trip coordinator on the planet, and I am certain that he knows 75% of the Cuban population. He also melts your heart every time he calls you, “My queen”!
Magdiel and Yoandi // Our fearless, speedy van drivers! But, let’s be honest, they were also our body guards, mealtime entertainment, dance partners, and DJs. At one meal, Magdiel was humming a song from La Sirenita, and I joined in singing “Kiss the Girl”! He also trapped and ate a fly during this meal… Yoandi had some kick butt dance moves that he brought out when we went to Espacio in Havana.
Alicia and Ramón // These were Ashley and my hosts in Havana. We stayed with them the first night and then three nights at the end of the trip. We immediately felt at home with Alicia, an absolute gem of a woman. She is so welcoming and loving! The first afternoon we arrived, she sat us down and talked us through our itinerary to give us advice and stories. She was a chemistry professor and now tutors English, so conversations came easily since there was a minimal language barrier. (I thought I was decent at Spanish before we arrived, but man, I overestimated my skills.) Ramón, Alicia’s son, is an anesthesiologist at the hospital in Havana. It was interesting to hear about his work and his schooling, especially since Ashley’s dad is also a doctor. Both Alicia and Ramón, and her other son Alberto, were so kind. They also shared so much of their life experiences with us. Thank you for opening your home and your hearts!
All of the people we met demonstrated such warm hospitality! Our many hosts, waiters, shop clerks, the Cienfuegos baseball team, and so many more were all willing to share their passion for Cuba. Thank you to everyone! I miss you and hope to see you again in the future!
THE BEAUTY OF CUBA IS UNDENIABLE //
Sendero Enigma de Las Rocas // This was one of my favorite places! We pulled off the highway to an inconspicuous gated path where we were met by a man with his horse and buggy. We followed him to a hiking trail and then proceeded into the forest. The ground was mostly limestone formations from when the region was once covered by the sea. There were crabs, lizards, and all types of birds that our guide would call to and entice them to come closer. So many hummingbirds (sum-sums)! Eventually we arrived at a freshwater pool surrounded by limestone ledges. The water was deep enough that we could leap into the pool from the edge! It was nerve wracking but totally worth it!
Topes de Collantes // This was the best day, even as a recovering food poisoning victim! Our guide for the day, Luis, picked us up from breakfast in our Trinidad casas with a fleet of taxis (apparently the vans couldn’t take the mountain climb). My taxi driver whipped us up into the Escambray mountains where we stopped at a retired coffee plantation before continuing on to the hike. Most of the “hiking” we did on the trip was like walking with some minor hills, but this was pretty legit. We had to descend down a steep path to reach this gorgeous waterfall and icy pool that had both been etched into the mountains by centuries of rainfall. It was amazing, and so refreshing since it’s a little hot in Cuba Please consult Ashley Kinsey’s posts to see videos of synchronized swimming.
Trinidad // This city was full of color and beautiful architecture! We had time to walk around the city, and Domingo gave us some of the history. The city has been around for over 500 years, so it was neat to see the blend of French and Spanish elements. I also had the best red snapper of my life at a pirate themed restaurant, El Galeon, one of the nights we were here!
All the views out the van windows // We spent a lot of time zooming around the island in our pair of vans. When I wasn’t catching some shut eye, the views were breathtaking. Most of the highways we took were right along the coast. The country is just stunning!
The beauty of the country was awe inspiring. The beaches, the mountains, and the colorful cities all come together to create a place unique to what I have seen before. It also reminds me of the importance of sustainable development, which I think will be a challenge with the sudden surge of tourism and the singular ownership of the tourism industry. It will be something to keep an eye on in the future. What a beautiful place!
Overall, this trip was so much more than just a study abroad program. It was a genuinely life touching experience. There is so much more I could write, but instead you will just have to call me up to hear more I have made lifelong friends and learned mountains about this dear country! The feelings of hope and excitement that pulsed through the country make me excited to see what the future holds! Thank you to everyone who made this experience magnificent. Espero regresar pronto!
Kate Duke //
My Experience in Cuba
I was looking forward to going to Germany with the Honors College next year, right up until I found out about this trip. I study German and Political Science, focusing in international relations. With the US now trying to renew relations with Cuba, this was a difficult opportunity to pass up and I’m glad I didn’t. After I signed up for the trip, in October, I couldn’t wait for the end of the spring semester.
When I finally flew into Miami the night before going to Cuba, I was brimming with excitement. Before going to Cuba, the only places I’d been out of the country were in Europe. The time in the airport the next day were nerve racking though, I’m the kind of person who hates waiting to leave even if that means getting where I’m going super early. As we left Miami, the excitement only built as we got closer and closer to Cuba. It wasn’t until we landed that I realized something very important, I would be experiencing a language barrier for the first time in a very long time.
The first day was one of the few relaxed days we had. We got there and met with the people with whom we would be spending the next 11 days traveling around Cuba. After that, we went for a really late lunch, at 4pm. We didn’t even get food until around 5! The place we ate at had a gorgeous view of Havana, though. We also had a talk with a professor and former diplomat, something I found particularly interesting. After that, we had a walking tour of Old Havana, courtesy of our guide Domingo. We saw a lot of interesting things, including the hotel that Earnest Hemmingway would stay at and the location of the first religious service in Havana. After seeing Old Havana, we had dinner at 10. After dinner, we went to hear a popular Cuban band called Los Boys.
The second day was a travel day. It was also a really long day. We got up early to get started, but we left a bit later than intended, something that would become the norm. The travel was from Havana to the town of Cienfuegos, with a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was for a river tour of a Cuban aboriginal settlement called Guamá. After the tour, we got back in the vans we would travel Cuba in and stopped after a short time to eat lunch at a buffet style restaurant. After this, we visited a location known as Enigma de las Rocas. This is a location that where subterranean rivers have formed pools of brackish water where the fresh water mixes with sea water. After a short hike, most of us swam in the water, after confirmation that the water was clean. After leaving this location, we went to the Cuban museum about the Bay of Pigs. They charged for taking pictures, so I don’t have any from there, but talking with people who could translate the signs in the museum I found that they were labeling the invaders as “mercenaries.” This was our last stop before reaching Cienfuegos. After checking into where we would be staying for the next couple of nights, we left for dinner at a rather high end place. It was a kind of place that didn’t even have menus. After all of the traveling through the day, we remained at the place we were staying for the rest of the evening.
The third day we went to Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara monument and mausoleum. This was a very new experience, since in US history we really aren’t taught about Che or Castro. I suppose that that’s due to the fact that we haven’t had anything to do with Cuba since the 60’s and both Che and Fidel were revolutionaries and communists, or at least socialists. After the monument we went to have lunch at another buffet style restaurant, and then back to Cienfuegos. In Cienfuegos we visited the baseball stadium to meet the team just before the began practice. Before we left, I bought a hat for 20 CUC, which we were later informed goes into the team salaries. After leaving the baseball field, had some time to explore the main square of Cienfuegos After we left we had a few hours to rest at our hotel place before heading for dinner.
The fourth day was another travel day. It was also the latest start we had since we cut out something from the itinerary. It was also the first experience we had with Cuban Wi-Fi. After spending some time there, we went to a building right next to the hotel that was the home of a very wealthy family in Cuba’s earlier history. After that, we further delayed our departure and had lunch at the hotel where I tried a Sandwich Cubano, something we were told was eaten by many Cubans but after talking with our guide David, I was informed that it wasn’t so commonly eaten and that it was just a sandwich for Cubans. When we did finally leave to get to Trinidad, we had another walking tour once again thanks to Domingo. After our walking tour, we went to the workshop of a very awarded potter where a few of us got to try making pottery. After that, we checked into the place we stayed at. Then we went to a ship themed restaurant called el Galeón.
The fifth day was our first relaxing day. We got up early, though I did get myself locked in my room…, to go to a tower built by a man attempting to build the tallest tower in Cuba. We were told it was 40 meters tall, and it had very steep stairways. After that, we went to a beach and relaxed. I did get myself sun burned snorkeling, but it was fun. After that, we went back to where we were staying and relaxed until dinner. After dinner, we had an impromptu salsa lesson from one of the people who works at the restaurant.
The sixth day was probably the most demanding. We got up early and went to the mountains. After breakfast, we were getting ready to leave but had to wait for a couple of taxis. The only one of our taxis that were already there was a jeep, so a few of the others and I got in it and it left immediately. It wasn’t until we were half way up the mountain that we finally saw the others. That, combined with the lack of anything to keep us in the jeep was a little worrying. Not long after that, we stopped at the restaurant where we would be eating lunch I guess to confirm our reservations. After that, we went to the visitors’ center for the national park we were in, then went to a place where they grow and make coffee called “Casa de la Café” where we had a cup of coffee before beginning our journey in the mountains. After walking for quite a distance, we got to the point where we would begin descending to the waterfall we were going to be visiting. After a very long hike down, we finally got to the waterfall and were given a little while to swim in the resulting lake. Not too long later, we had to leave and the steep hike down became a very grueling hike up the mountain. I started in the lead and was very aggressive in my climb. As a result I was very winded about a third the way up the mountain and had to stop for a few minutes. After finally getting back up the mountain, we took a different path to our starting point and then headed to lunch. After that we went back to Cienfuegos to eat dinner and sleep
The seventh day we went to a place called Jovellanos where we briefly sat in for a church service. After that, we went to an organic farm where we had lunch made from only what they grew on the farm. After that, we spent time meeting disabled children. Then we went to a resort area called Varadero. the This gave us the opportunity for Wi-Fi once again and I spent that time doing so.
The eighth day was our break day. We got up and went to Havana, and stopped at an interesting place called Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is a courtyard decorated with mosaic tiling. It had a very surrealist feel to it and it was a little difficult to look at. After Fusterlandia, we checked in where we would be spending the rest of our time in Cuba. We then had the rest of the day to ourselves. A couple of the others and I went to a hotel to hang out and swim, another group went back to Old Havana and walked the Malecón, and a third group went to the Havana Chinatown. After we had our free time, we went to dinner, then to listen to the Buena Vista Social Club.
Day nine was another fun day. We started the day with a sala lesson, then we went to an art museum. After that, we went to the museum of the Cuban revolution. We had about an hour to walk around there, then we had a car tour of Havana. Two of our cars were bright pink and the other was a light blue. After that, we went to a hotel were we had just a couple minutes to be told a little bit about its history. After that, we had some time to rest before going to dinner.
The tenth day was our last full day in Cuba. We went off to the Pinar del Rio province to visit an orchid garden then went to another waterfall. After that we ate lunch, then we went back to Havana. After getting back, we had some time before leaving to go to dinner just down the street. After dinner, we had a little party with our guides and the family that owned the building we were staying in.
We did so much in our brief time in Cuba. We did so much in fact, that after a couple days it felt like we’d been there for weeks. The last day was a little hard as well. It felt like we’d been there so long the day we left would never arrive. It did. I never did get around the language barrier, and even had another encounter with that in Miami. After only a couple of days, I felt right at home even if there was a mental disconnect from the fact that I was in Cuba. The itinerary was packed and demanding, but it was a lot of fun. We made many new friends, and a once in a lifetime experience, and helped bring in the new era of US-Cuba relations.
Cuba Trip Flickr
Hey all! In the following link you can see all of the photos taken during the trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/142813206@N03/
Hola! En el enlace siguiente se puede ver las fotos que tomamos durante el viaje: https://www.flickr.com/photos/142813206@N03/
Me Encanta Cuba
Visiting Cuba this May was an off-the-cuff decision I made right after beginning my final year at Auburn as an undergraduate. I had just returned to the South after a summer in New York City, where my life and horizons had been completely altered through the city, culture, ideas, and people that I encountered; the likes of which I had rarely experienced growing up in Alabama. I felt totally ready to see the rest of the world, to become aware of these new perspectives, values, ideals that existed outside of my apparently small life experience. Although I had travelled to Europe and throughout the United States before, actually living in Manhattan made me realize that visiting a beautiful place, even partaking in beautiful experiences in a new place, does not necessarily cultivate an understanding of said place that extends beyond a few impressive photographs. Our trip to Cuba further instilled this theme for me, and I feel eternally grateful and lucky to have had the chance to be a part of it.
While flying the short 90 miles into Havana from Miami, I realized that I was probably completely unprepared for whatever would be greeting us in this new country. Yes, I studied history in school and there must have been a chapter on Cuba at some point in my education, and yes, I attended the Honors class with Dr. Sippial in the months before leaving. But my knowledge of Spanish didn’t extend past the number 15 and I still wasn’t totally sure who Che Guavara was…
This ignorance is no one’s fault but my own, so I decided to embrace it and instead allow what I saw and experienced to be pure – free of any preconceptions or opinions I could have formed had I been a model Honors student and actually done research on the country in which I would be spending my final time as an Auburn student. To my relief, Dr. Sippial’s friend and fellow professor Martina, who accompanied us on the trip, found validity in this approach one night at dinner and thought it could be a beneficial way to experience a country in Latin America for the first time.
When we did land in Cuba, and throughout the following days exploring the island, I knew I was right about my lack of awareness, but nothing in the States could have prepared me for what was to come anyway.
The people, culture, art, and natural beauty of Cuba were all absolutely incredible. Our guides not only provided us historical knowledge but also were also able to share personal experiences and anecdotes about the things we saw, and we were able to form genuine friendships with them through extensive conversation. On several occasions a question I had about something we did or saw sparked a deeper discussion about issues that the Cuban people deal with regularly that were foreign to many of us. The opportunity to speak with Cubans in this way – free from any governmental influences – was unique and enlightening.
My favorite part about travelling is learning about the differing perspectives of people from other countries, and the way this trip was set up was perfect for the exchange of this type of knowledge. I do feel that I gained more of an understanding of the country than I would have on another type of trip, but because of the history and environment of Cuba, this understanding really only made me more aware of how much more there is to learn. Cuba is a nation of such a tumultuous and distinct past and present that an 11 day trip could only ever skim the surface. However, I think that all of us that participated in the journey realized this, and want to return, to not simply travel and enjoy ourselves but discover and comprehend more about the people of Cuba and potentially make a difference in their lives.
Thank you to everyone that made the trip possible and to the friends I made! You’re all beautiful and I’m extremely grateful for you and for the memories we now share.
Muchos gracias a todo
We arrived in Cuba at Jose Marti International Airport and we were introduced to our amazing tour guides, Domingo, Ernesto and David. After we got settled in, we went to lunch and had an “Intro to Cuba” discussion with a University of Havana Professor. That afternoon we walked through old Havana. Old Havana was beautiful and we learned about Cuban history. Our guide, Domingo explained the significance of certain places and the stories behind historic sites and buildings.
That night we saw Los Boys, a local band and we were introduced to a few Cuban songs.
Fun Fact: you have to buy wifi cards to connect to one of a few hotspots in Cuba.
While in Cuba, one of my favorite things were the long drives we took.The drives allowed us to see snippets of Cuba as we drove by. I saw agricultural activities and breath-taking sceneries.
On day two, we drove for a long time and we stopped to take a short nature hike. I realized that Cuba has huge lizards and really pretty forest.
At the Bay of Pigs Museum, I followed our tour guide ,David so he could explain the pictures and exhibits (they were all in Spanish … also, I do not speak Spanish but, over the course of this trip my understanding and pronunciation of basic words and sentences definitely improved!).
That night we were in Cienfuegos, Cuba and I ate paella (a common dish in Cuba) for the first time and I really liked it.
The Che Guevara Memorial and the Museum were very pretty (we were not allowed to take pictures of the inside) and it was very informative. The Memorial was a recognition of Che and many others individuals who were involved in the revolution. The museum had pictures and artifacts from Che’s early life through his adult life.
We also walked around Cienfuegos and explored the city and shops.
Fun Fact: you have to tip to go to the bathroom and occasionally you have to pay (a few cents) for toilet paper or bring your own (we usually used the small kleenex packets).
Warning: finding a toilet with a toilet seat was rare!
WE GOT WIFI!
It was great we were all really excited and basically completely quite while we got reconnected. The wifi cards cost between two and five convertible pesos and they last an hour; they have a username and password so you can log into the wifi. For the most part, as long as you still have time left on your card you can use your wifi card at any hotspot.
After our wifi adventure, we drove to the city of Trinidad and we had a tour of the city (it is still very colonel looking, definitely my favorite city; after Havana).
We visited the work shop of a famous pottery maker (His name escapes me, but he was very nice, patient and great at pottery making!) and he helped me make a vase (my pottery skills are definitely questionable, but It was a really great experience!).
Fun Fact: most wifi hotspots are in hotels (at least the ones I used were).
We also visited the 40 meter high Iznaga Tower. We walked up the stairs ( there were A LOT of stairs) and saw the beautiful Cuban landscape (pictured above).
We also went to the first private restaurant in Trinidad and we had a Son lesson (Son is another name for salsa)
Day Six: (My favorite day)
We hiked a mountain and we went to a beautiful water fall! The hike was very strenuous, but it was definitely worth it and hopefully helped me work off all the bread and great deserts I ate in Cuba. (We mostly ate really healthy meals: fish, lobster, chicken, rice and beans… really fresh food).
We also went to a great coffee shop before the hike. Cuban coffee is very strong but it is great and gives you lots of energy!
We went to a church and played with some of the kids attending the church, we also visited the homes of a few families that have special needs children. We talked to the families and the children about their everyday lives and we also learned about the support system the church has set up for the families.
We visited an eco friendly farm and learned about how they grow crops with limited space and limited pesticides (baby pineapples are pictured above).
We went to a revolution museum and Domingo gave a very interesting and in-depth history lesson on the Cuban Revolution.
We also visited Fusterlandia which is a really cool courtyard almost completely decorated with mosaic tiles. It was beautiful and one of my favorite places to see!
That night we went to Buena Vista Social Club and I danced with one of the dancers there! I was dipped and tossed into the air (it was very unexpected, but also a great experience!).
We had a son lesson at “The House of Son”. It was a lot of fun dancing with professional son dancers and learning the steps and movements to Son! (this was also one of my favorite experiences!).
We went to an art museum and I took a picture because I didn’t read the “no cameras sign”… My bad! The art and the sculptures in the museum where extremely pretty and I enjoyed seeing multiple parts of Cuba. (We saw the everyday cities and towns, we explored the outdoors, we went to various museums and great restaurants!).
We toured Havana in a cool restored old car!
At the end of the day, we had free-time and me and couple others went to China town and walked around Havana.
Fun Fact: there were not as many old cars in Cuba as I expected, there were arguably a good number of new cars… especially at the airport.
We went to Orquideario Soroa , an orchard, and saw many pretty flowers and learned about native Cuban plants and trees along with plants that were not native to Cuba.
We also went on another (significantly less strenuous) hike and saw another beautiful waterfall.
We had a private concert the last night! The private concert was given by Los Boys; the band we listened to on our first night!
Fun Fact: it’s illegal to kill cows (I’m assuming without permission from the government) in Cuba.
We went to an eco-friendly place were we learned about organic foods in Cuba.
Then we headed to the airport and back to the United States! It was really sad to leave Cuba even though I was excited about being able to throw toilet paper into the toilet again.
Pictured above our tour guides: Domingo, Ernesto and David!
Fun Fact/Warning: you have to throw toilet paper into the trash in Cuba!
- bug spray
- bathing suite
- tennis shoes
- kleenex (remember toilet paper is not always provided)
- make sure you break your bills early ( it is hard to tip when everyone has twenties)
- you must try the Chocolate Mousse cookies (I think they are made in Brazil… but I had them in Cuba so they are forever Cuban for me!)
- learn some Spanish… at least know how to say thank you
- have all the cash you want to use (when we went there were no ATMs)
Forever Missing Cuba,
Last modified: October 9, 2019