By Cherise Rambhadjan, blogger at CurlyGirly.
My husband, Shyam, and I went to Cuba on our honeymoon in 2011 and it was an amazing experience. Given that Cuba has recently become more accessible than ever, it’s a fine time to document our trip. Cuba is a massive island with a lot to experience. Since the country has been frozen in time from the 1960s, it’s easy to imagine just how beautiful it was back in the day. The old buildings (often dilapidated) and the old cars offer a certain charm that helps to make Cuba magical. Given that it is a communist country, the censorship and the feeling of big brother watching you was very real for us during our stay. One of our taxi drivers looked over his shoulder and spoke in hushed tones when he spoke about his desire to leave Cuba-although it was just the three of us in the car. The movies we watched were edited and there was no available Wi-Fi anywhere. There was a lot of poverty, which in turn, makes people hustlers. By the end of our trip, we were tired of people trying to hustle us into buying something – cigars especially. I’m sure a lot has changed since 2011 but it was eye-opening. All things considered, we had a great time.
Yo Tengo un Amigo
If you have a conversation with the average local in Cuba, you will undoubtedly hear this phrase: “Yo tengo un amigo” (translates to: I have a friend). They have a friend who sells cigars or who has a place to stay or a friend from another country.
It was difficult to organize a lot online at that time, so we decided to stay our first night in Hotel Inglatera and then we would look for a “Casa Particular” (bed and breakfast) to stay in for the rest of our stay. The hotel was nothing to write home about, but it was in a great location in Old Havana. While at the hotel, I tried to find such “Casa Particular”. Using my trusty Cuba Travel Guide, I began to call around checking availability. Considering that the travel guide only had a few options, they had no availability. Of course, I heard that trusty Cuban phrase, “yo tengo un amigo” and after calling a few amigos, I was able to find availability with a friendly man named Jesus.
We arrived at Jesus’ apartment building, which was located right off the Malecon, and were greeted by the lovely older gentleman. He welcomed us into his home and got us settled. We had a great view of the Malecon and the ocean. Jesus didn’t speak any English, which was fine as Shyam and I can stumble our way through a Spanish conversation. During our stay, we found out that Jesus was a retired psychologist, which made for interesting conversations. We really enjoyed our stay with him.
Havana equals allure. There was so much to see and do. We couldn’t possibly see everything in our 8-day stay. Given my fondness for unusual transportation, we took a bicitaxi (bicycle taxi) with Pepe around Havana. Pepe rode past La Bodeguita del Medio but because there was a line around the corner he rode to Café O’Reilly where I had my first Mojito of the trip. Needless to say it was delicious.
I was then serenaded by Jose, a friendly man with a guitar. I would like to say that I have that effect on people, but he was looking for a tip :). We had lunch at the famous Café Paris, which had a live band. Apparently, no matter how many times you have heard the song Guantanamera it is just different here. The band didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed daiquiris at La Floridita, jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo, and cabaret at Tropicana.
Vinales & Cueva del Indio
For our trip to the beautiful Vinales Valley we opted to take a taxi and we were taken around by a great guy by the name of Christian. He entertained us on the two hour drive discussing Cuba, his ‘amigos’ who he met from Canada & Europe, and his family. The Vinales Valley is a picturesque rural site. While we there we visited the Cueva del Indio. Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave) is a tourist attraction in which you can explore and take a little boat trip through the cave. We also did the totally corny thing of taking a ride in a horse drawn carriage. I guess we were allowed, it was our honeymoon after all! Christian took us to a Cigar Factory in Vinales. In the factory, the leaves are hydrated and classified by hand, stacked and pre-fermented and dried in darkness and finally fermented in bundles for up to four years.
We opted to spend a night in Trinidad and so we took the 6 hour bus ride to get there. Luckily, Jesus had “una amiga” that had a place for us to stay there. We were greeted at the bus by this “amiga” and she took us to our abode for the night. Then we meandered through the city and took in the sites. Trinidad is a beautiful city with cobblestones and brightly colored buildings. Time seemed to move slower in Trinidad and we had a relaxing day taking pictures and enjoying food and drinks.
When we asked our hostess what we could do that night, she informed us that there was going to be a live music festival at the Casa de la Musica above Plaza Mayor that night, so we prepared for a night on the town. Cubans love music and dancing (naturally because they are Caribbean-it’s in our blood). The crowd was a mix of locals and tourists. After the performance, it is customary to give the performers a tip. Shyam tried repeatedly to give the band leader a tip and he kept avoiding us. Turns out he thought we were Cuban. Once we told him no, we were from St. Maarten, he naturally had “un amigo” from there 🙂
On our way back, as luck would have it, our bus broke down. Shyam and some other passengers tried to no avail to help the bus driver get the bus repaired. We were able to catch another bus from the same company on the highway to take us back into Havana. Chalk that up to island life 🙂
As I mentioned before, I have a fondness for unusual transportation. My favorite mode of transportation while we were in Cuba was the Coco taxi. Shyam made fun of me, but it was a breezy and comfortable way to get around.
Besides the Coco Taxis, there were so many old cars. Because of the embargo, it is difficult for them to find parts for these old American cars. Cuban mechanics have what is called ‘el arte de inventar’ (the art of inventing) because they have to be creative when it comes to fixing these old cars.
There are many murals with references to Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Revolution. They serve as a reminder of their history and to keep true to the revolution.
Cuba is full of history and charm. The people are friendly and there is a lot to see and do. Now that it is more accessible there will be an influx of investors and tourists alike. If you do make it there, have a mojito or an ice cold Bucanero for me 🙂
Born in Barbados, raised in St. Vincent and settling in St. Maarten, Cherise is a true island girl. She dances to the beat of her own drum. True to her island roots, she loves Soca & Rum. She is a hospitality professional who learned her island hospitality from birth. She loves to travel and meet new people.
Read more about her island adventures on her blog CurlyGirly.