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When In Cuba!

Updated: Jun 21

In December of 2022, I decided to take a group trip with Intrepid Travel to Cuba. At the time, for an American citizen to visit Cuba, you were required to travel with a special visa such as "Educational" or "Support for the Cuban People." Intrepid made the whole process easy, and they curated a great trip. They helped us navigate exchanging money since you cannot use American dollars or take Cuban pesos out of the country. The exchange rate was crazy! We were given so many pesos for our dollars and things are not expensive there. It was a good opportunity to generously tip our guides, and support the local artists we visited by buying their work. I thought I was going on my own and because of that and the requirements, I chose to take my first full group tour trip. (More on the pros and cons of group travel here.) One of my favorite travel buddies, who was moving and getting married that December, decided to join me at the last minute. I think having a friend on a group tour does make them better. Well, having a friend travel anywhere with you makes it better!

church in Havana Cuba

We started in Havana, or "LA HABANA," as our amazing guide Yanet always said with enthusiasm. Yanet was an excellent tour guide. He was patient, kind, funny, and knowledgeable, and we were not the only ones who loved him. Everywhere we went, all kinds of people and our tour guides were so happy to see him and embraced him with such warmth and joy. It was a pleasure to witness. COVID had separated them and left them without work. Now they were all reunited, and the government had loosened previous restrictions allowing for more visitors to Cuba. It was warm to hot the whole trip, which was not a surprise for this area of the world. A lot of the guest houses had mini split air conditioning units, which is not what Americans are used to at home, but nice to have. Havana is a cool city with a good vibe, but it is different from anywhere else I have been. There were no food shops where you could buy whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. By the end of the trip, I was craving chocolate! The streets and sidewalks are narrow, and it is bustling. There are beautiful old colonial-style buildings, churches, and an old fort. And of course, the iconic 1950s cars.

1950s car cuba

There are areas with the simple architectural style introduced at the entry of the Communist Era. In the Plaza de la Revolucion there are buildings of this style with artist renderings to pay tribute to leaders such as Che Guevara and Camilio Cienfuegos. Having a tour guide is always great for learning more about another country's history, and Yanet did a great job explaining history and culture and answering questions.



From Havana we visited Fusterlandia, a Suessical mosaic wonderland created by Jose Fuster, and stopped for lunch in Las Terrazas where we saw a paper maker's work. Designated by UNESCO in 1984 as a biosphere reserve, Las Terraza is a small community and nature reserve. We had an interesting cheese and coconut dessert there, eating on the balcony and enjoying the natural view and fresh air.


We drove through the beautiful mountains to Viñales, which was my favorite town. Our guest rooms here were with a family who fed us breakfast. We wandered the main street, which had several bars and restaurants, and a small market of souvenirs There were a lot of occasions to enjoy some "Vitamin R"--as Yanet called the Cuban Rum. I am not much of a drinker, but it was a good rum and we got to try a couple of traditional drinks. We took a salsa class and a cooking class here too. As peaceful and picturesque as Viñales is, I highly recommend putting on bug spray before bed.


Vinales, Cuba

The Bay of Pigs/Cienfuegos area was our next over night overnight stop. Our whole group enjoyed dinner outside in the courtyard, cooked by the hosts of the home where my friend and I were staying for the night. The hosts made a delicious meal and the most amazing fried plantains I have ever had--they were hot and fluffy! The families we stayed with were all very kind.


In Trinidad, our accommodations were a bit more hotel-like, but the hosts made us feel just as welcome as the ones in whose homes we stayed. This area was a major colonial settlement, and we were given an excellent tour of the local museum. There was more Vitamin R and a local band played a great set for us!


Trinidad, Cuba
Trinidad, Cuba square










On our last night, back in Havana, we ate dinner at Rosalia de Castro with performances by the iconic Buena Vista Social Club on the small stage that came out amongst the tables. The aging singers had some seriously good moves!


Overall, I loved Cuba. It is a beautiful country with great people. Most of our group was lovely, and I have kept in touch with a few (and even visited one couple outside of Detroit). It was fun to get to know new people and fellow travelers. Two of my favorite experiences were:

  • Hiking up to a tobacco farm and smoking a smooth, clean cigar that had been freshly rolled by the most chill tobacco farmer.

  • The farm-to-table meal and coffee we had cooked outside by a family of organic farmers. The fire-cooked meat was tender and juicy!


Cuban cigar
coffee

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