Cuba is trapped within a time capsule. Its streets are bustling with vintage cars and adorned with sun-bleached, pastel buildings. It’s where the ocean is clear as crystal and the rum flows like water. Simply driving around aimlessly in the back of a sweltering 1950’s Cadillac and blasting reggaeton is what I cherished the most. Wandering, carefree, young, living in the moment and practicing the art of not giving a fuck.
Our Air bnb was far from most things, so taking a taxi was a must. Make sure to hail down a cab at the nearest main street, or else calling one to pick you up will be pricey. Also, taxi drivers will often increase the price knowing that you are a tourist. (We learned this the hard way).
We went to Fábrica de Arte, which is a hip, Brooklyn-esque art exhibit, restaurant, bar, live music venue and panadería all baked into one, oddly enough. While it was a bit expensive to jump ahead of the line as well as the price for admission, it was well worth it. The music was just as eclectic as the crowd, and we ended up meeting strangers who we now call friends.
Drunken promises rarely amount to anything. You meet a stranger and get an overwhelming confidence that you and that person are best friends and will actually follow through with plans. You don’t, and then you carry on with your life. This is the sad truth of being a flaky, drunk human being. But not this night. We met a couple of down-to-earth locals and made plans to go to the beach the following day with them. Not having a phone, we had to arrange for them to pick us up at 10:00am (10 in the actual morning…who wakes up that early on vacation..?) We woke up to an obnoxious alarm and a pulsating headache. After taking a minute to remember what it was even set for, we figured the strangers probably didn’t bother to come. Contrary to our belief, we peered past the gate and saw them waiting for us by their car. That was just one example of them being overly nice, warm people, giving us a glimpse into the Cuban culture of loyalty and hospitality.
On the third day, we went to Viñales, which I won’t really get into because it sucked. Not the actual town–the town was beautiful, and had lush, green mountains overflowing with palm trees, and vibrant houses that popped against the rust, clay roads. We were stupid tourists who bought a $100 tour (way overpriced, according to locals, who said that we could have gone for $27). The tour was mundane, the guide clearly hated us, we waited in line for 30 minutes to go inside a cave when I had to pee, so that made it feel like double the time. Then we smoked a cigar and walked around in what was called the “botanical garden”, which felt like some random person’s backyard. The silver lining was that we ate delicious, authentic food while gazing at the mountainside, watching the tropical rain quietly sweep over the scenery and erase it with a white mist. We drove there and back in a hot, dirty steam room of a van, and the only way to get comfortable was by having someone’s foot in your face or head in your lap. It was miserable, but while I am upset about losing money, I am mostly pissed about losing out on time. But now we know, and whoever is reading this, don’t use “Discover Viñales”. Also, do not base your judgement off of my complaint–Viñales is a must-see in Cuba. Just make sure to check out the center of town, the San Vicente river, where there are many caves, or try hiking to Los Aquáticos to get a panoramic view of the beach and tobacco farms.
Contrary to what many people say, Cuban food is delectable. It may be difficult to come by since they import everything, (even grocery stores tend to be a bit desolate) but when you find the right restaurant, it’s delicious. We went to a place called Havana Blues that offers an abundant variety of seafood, as well as mouthwatering ribs that you could eat with a spoon. The piña coladas in Cuba are probably the best I’ve ever tasted, as well as their coconut water and rum drinks. Just be cautious when consuming water/ice because you may get sick–be sure to bring Imodium and toilet paper everywhere you go. Again, something we learned the hard way.
Old Havana has a quaint, European vibe, but throws you off with the antique model cars. It feels surreal, walking around a city with Spanish-influenced, cobble stone streets and vintage cars buzzing about–like an alternate universe meshing two separate time periods of history. We walked around, bought a bottle of rum, and sat on el Malecón, a wall by the ocean and hang-out spot for what seems like the whole city. We met some people from the US, talked to some prostitutes, and drank by the ocean, a perfect way to spend a humid night in Havana.
The last day may have been my favorite, despite how short it was. Before going to the airport, our new friend Yazmani drove us to the home of Alvaro, our other friend/man I kind of fell in love with. Alvaro struck me immediately. His skin is caramel, his eyes are an earthy mixture of green and blue. He has dreads down his back and a smile so warm, it instantly makes you feel at home. The language barrier became irrelevant from simply feeding off his radiant energy. Also, his genuine interest in Americans and desire to learn English was flattering and admirable. He now knows an assortment of English slang, and has developed the phrase, “Titties, WOW”.
We drove up to a small, one story building, with walls of cinder blocks and a steel roof. The windows were shutters, and there were bags of dirt, broken bits of concrete and other rubble scattered across the yard. We opened the gate and stepped inside. I remember seeing blocks of foam, wrapped in plastic bags and used as couch cushions. His mother was outside loading clothes in what appeared to be a small, portable washer. She mentioned something about the house being dirty when we came, and her smile was just as contagious as Alvaro’s.
We sat in the back yard under the guava tree and chatted with his father, while Alvaro made us “Cuban” pizza and gave us fresh-squeezed guava juice. At that moment I had an unsettling yet invigorating feeling of both guilt and gratitude. Here I am, a financially sound tourist, in the home of an underprivileged Cuban resident, eating their food, food that is scarce. I felt so thankful to be welcomed into this person’s home, who made me feel like family after knowing me for two days. I’d say he’d give the shirt off his back for us, but that’s an understatement, because he actually offered a room in his house for the next time we visit. I’m an American who paid to go to his country for vacation, to sip mojitos on the beach and drive around in old Chevy’s, when he is not even able to leave Cuba due to strict travel regulations, as well ridiculous expense. The average Cuban earns 687 pesos a month, or about $25, and a Cuban passport is just over $100, never mind the cost of the trip itself. It’s nearly impossible. Yet Alvaro lives with such simplicity and pure happiness, fulfilled by the act of giving, meeting new people and expecting nothing in return. It was such a beautiful, humbling experience, one that I will take with me forever.
This trip was one for the books. If it weren’t for the spontaneous, drunken decision to book a flight, I would have missed out on a memorable adventure. Not to mention the people I traveled with couldn’t have been better, and will for sure be my official travel buddies. In fact, by the second day we were going to the bathroom in front of each other and cuddling in the same bed (shout out #LabioFam). It was a perfect balance of old friends and new–especially the residents that gave us the authentic Cuban experience. Cuba’s captivating culture and kind-hearted people has made a lasting impression on me, like a tattoo on my heart, and I hope to return again.