Cuba x Friends
It's been a minute since I made a blog post, but I'm back and ready to talk about Cuba in full force. First of all, I would like to thank my good friend Alex for taking 99% of the itinerary planning under her belt. If it wasn't for her organizing the trip I probably would never have made it over there.
You basically need a Visa which is sold by the airline providing the flight for the fee of fifty dollars (in our case we took Jetblue and Visas were purchased at check-in the day of our flight). In order for you to go to Cuba, the United States government has you fill out an OFAC form stating one of a list of legitimate reasons you are traveling to Cuba (education or religious, etc). For our purposes we were traveling for education or people-to-people, which entails learning about the culture in some form or another. We had rented a villa through AirBNB and the eight of us had Salsa lessons scheduled during our stay, in addition to an itinerary filled with cultural exploration.
I would like to say getting to Cuba was easy for me and my significant other, Chase, but that wasn't the case. It was Memorial Day weekend and the airport parking lot was so packed that after forty-five minutes of scouting for spots, we illegally parked out of desperation and booked it to check-in. At the check-in we were told plainly that the gates to our aircraft were closed and the tears began to roll. The only flight available was the next day at 7:30 AM and that meant ruin for an already short vacation. My determination kicked in as I there had to be at least one flight or connection available in the entire airport. After going to every single airline help desk and painstakingly getting denied, we had to re-strategize. We started by approaching employees at the help desk, but unfortunately learned that the clerks were less likely to be helpful because they: A) Didn't care, B) Did not have the resources to help, or C) Had no clue how to use their resources. We got on our phones and started calling every airline that flies to Cuba. We finally got a flight! After two grueling hours of running, crying, and sweating, it happened! American Airlines came to the rescue and the sweetest telephone representative set us up with a flight out of Tampa with a connection through Miami to Cuba.
We got in our car and hit traffic all the way to the Tampa Airport but we got there in time for check-in so all was well (at least for the moment). The long-term parking rates at the Tampa Airport are some of the lowest at eighteen dollars a day, which is pretty reasonable when taken into consideration that we had to commute from Tampa to Orlando on our way back. A taxi or Uber was not an option.
We made it to Miami and what happens next is almost too unbearable to recall. We boarded our plane and starting making our way to the tarmac and then...nothing. The stewardess announced something over the PA system along the lines of there being a malfunction with the plane chairs and they needed to return us to the gate. We de-boarded the plane entirely and like some circle of hell, we were right back were we started. Flight credits were being given away like hot cakes. I didn't have the emotional energy to hate what was happening. A thirty minute flight was between us and Cuba.
We finally touched down in Cuba at about 8 PM, pretty unreasonable while keeping in mind that we arrived at the Orlando International Airport at around 7 AM. It was well worth it as the sense of relief that we had made it and the smiling faces that awaited at the AirBNB villa made it all the more worthwhile. We settled into our room the first night and gathered a much needed rest.
We woke up the next morning and headed to El Cafe in Havana for breakfast. The food and the decor was very fresh and minimal, like a coffee shop straight out of Williamsburg. We finished up eating and started Havana on foot and a couple minutes in we were taken into conversation with the locals. Before we knew it they had led us to the Buena Vista Social Club and urged us to buy tickets for the show. We kindly declined and the friendly convo came to an abrupt end. It was quite the grift as we had been passed in conversation through three different people (all for some reason wearing knock-off Micheal Kors bags) and gently led to their desired destination. We continued on foot to the Museo de la Revolucion only to be denied entry due to a water leak, from what I could gather from a local woman. We noticed that in front of the museum were a myriad of colorful antique cars and convertibles, and we made our way towards them.
You can take a tour of your desired length in an antique convertible in the color of your choice. And yes, as you can surmise, I went for the bubblegum pink convertible of my Barbie dreams. We toured old Havana and made our way to Plaza de la Revolucion. We also made a short stop at the Callejon de Hamel, where you can feel the beat of Afro-Cuban culture with live music and dancing. It was a very sweaty affair but nevertheless a authentic taste of real Cuban talent which was worth wadding through the crowds. We then ventured to a market where you can purchase Cuban art and various wares. I can not recall the name at this time but if you need to know I can do more investigating. After this small detour we parted with our friends and continued to explore Havana. We took a taxi and urged our driver to take us to an authentic Cuban eatery. We ended up somewhere in the outskirts of Havana on a beautiful lush green terrace with live music and fresh food. In Cuba, you have to expect that the food is not as well developed as Cuban cuisine in the States. There simply isn't enough of everything, so you will find yourself eating the same very simple staple food because its simply what's available. We ended our solo tour of Havana with a visit to the iconic El Floridita, the cradle of the daiquiri and the favorite hangout of the late Ernest Hemingway. The daiquiri was indeed the best I had ever tasted: the only thing that caused controversy was whether the mango or strawberry daiquiri was better (undoubtably the mango daiquiri was better).
We returned to the villa and rested for a bit until we got ready to leave again for dinner reservations. We had dinner at the Paladar Vistamar, which was a stunning experience which can only be described visually. Thereafter, we made our way to 1830, a Cuban Club where you can ogle the beauty and art of Cuban dancing and enjoy a Cuba Libre under the stars. It's non-stop dancing and music until the sun comes up, unless you experience a power outage (which happened to us and actually happens quite often in Cuba). There is a literal rhythm to the night in Cuba that is seen through the beautiful swaying of people to and fro. There's a natural order to the ritual of dance, only the most beautiful plumage gets attention. When a group of men that don't know each other syncronize in dance, you can't rip your gaze away. It's not looks that define the man, it's the rhythm.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of pressure to keep buying drinks and we were getting hassled by security to get stow our belonging with the bag-check. It was clear that we weren't welcome: we took up a lot of room and weren't drinking or dancing enough. We were outsiders trying to get a glimpse of Cuban life.
The next day we had our dreaded Salsa lesson, and after seeing the effortless dancing of Cuban people the night before, I was sorely intimidated. I was about to be drowned in my sweat, tears, and intimidation once I got a glimpse of our instructors. Three perfect humans, with inhuman dancing skills, that had no qualms with making fun of us the entire lesson. We can skip over this portion fairly quickly as it is a bit cringey to recall. The end.
On a brighter note, we got to celebrate birthdays while in Cuba, not my own, but the days of birth of my momma and great friend Alex (the genius that planned the entire Cuba itinerary). I had brought some decorations with me and with the help of the villa staff, a sweet man by the name of Lazarus and two lovely ladies, we put together a modest surprise party for these two amazing and deserving people. The birthday miracle truly came together with the help of the two lovely ladies of the household, who helped get a hold of a birthday cake for me. I tried to express to them in my mangled Spanglish that I needed a birthday cake and they disappeared with my boyfriend and returned with a cake in hand. It was brilliant! A great way to inspire hope after a very degrading salsa lesson. The birthday girls were pleasantly surprised.
We were supposed to turn in early that night for some much needed rest before our final Cuban adventure to Vinales, but conversation and good company got the best of us. Through the exhaustion we woke up the next morning and took a long drive to discover Vinales. When I engulfed the Valle de Vinales with my eyes, I was awash with the beauty and grandeur of this lush green jurassic landscape. It is place unadulterated by time, where the heart of Cuban tobacco culture beats with many farms scattered throughout the valley. You will remain in awe at the softness of the limestone hills, rolled in greenery, and bounding with life.
It is here in Vinales that we had the most amazing private tour with a local. She was a no nonsense down-to-earth guide that was fearless in every way. You wanted to know something and she gave you the real deal. She was like one of those friends that you haven't seen in years and yet, when you reunite, you pick up right where you left off. She took us directly to our scheduled boat ride through the caves. Cuba has an enormous cave system called the Cuevas de Santo Tomas, and as a part of the tour we were able to take a short ride through one of the canals. After the boat ride we went to visit a tobacco factory were women were sorting through piles of tobacco leaves at various stages. I was astonished to find out that many of these women were being paid about twenty-two dollars a month for this hard work, taking pay cuts for not meeting quotas. When inquired whether they received more money if they exceeded their labor quotas, the answer was "No". In essence, they could work harder and not make more money, but if they didn't meet their required work load, they would make less money to bring home to their families. A fair system (if you can sense my sarcasm).
Our educational tour of the tobacco factory had come to a end and we headed towards a gorgeous botanical garden centered around the home of two Cuban women. The ladies lived together and never married, thus, they adopted children and started to nourish an expansive garden. It was breathtaking and filled with ancient exotic plants thought to be lost in time. The only thing that was a bit unsettling was the baby doll heads hidden throughout the brush. I got no explanation for the dolls and I didn't think I wanted one. At the end of the tour we got a tasting of some delicious home grown pineapples, and a warm salute from the current caretakers and heirs to the garden.
With our appetites started we headed towards a smorgasbord of authentic Cuban foods in a local restaurant as a part of our tour. Here we ate an assortment of fantastic Cuban fare with our tour guide and driver. You can not complete a Cuban meal without a thimble of the strongest coffee known to man. Après-delicious meal we ventured to a special meeting with the Tobacco farmer known as Sugar Daddy. This was absolutely the highlight of the Vinales tour. We sat in a very small hut gazing in fascination at the adept manner in which Sugar Daddy hand-rolled a cigar before our eyes (he had been smoking cigars since he was fourteen and was currently in his seventies). He glued the fabric of the cigar together with local honey as a natural adhesive and proceeded to cut and dip each cigar tip in honey before he handed each fresh cigar to us for sampling. It doesn't end there as we were served locally grown coffee to accompany our vices.
Ninety percent of the Tobacco crops are seized from the government, leaving the farmers with ten percent to sell. Again, (insert a heavy tone of sarcasm) an extremely fair business venture. As with all great fun our day was drawing to an end and we had one last major landmark to visit before our inevitable return to Havana. The Mural de la Prehistoria is an enormous painting that symbolizes the evolution of man. We were able to capture its color better than its scale. The mural measures an impressive 120 meters in length. As our final stop on this journey, it was representative of the color, grandeur, and beautiful culture of the Cuban people.
P.S: I wanted to add that a lot of people (cab drivers, street vendors, and locals) in Havana tried to deter us from buying cigars from Vinales. They labored to convince us that the prices of cigars in Vinales were ridiculously high and that you should buy cigars where you can in Havana. When we arrived in Vinales, a completely different story was being told. Apparently, people selling cigars in Havana for extremely cheap prices were taking the labels off their government-rationed cigars and selling counterfeits sometimes filled with banana leaves. I can not ascertain what is true, however, the authentic farm-to-lip Cuban cigars sold in Vinales were only $3.00 a piece, and in my book that is cheap. You also purchase the peace-of-mind that you are directly supporting the livelihood of Tobacco Farmers, such as Sugar Daddy.