We arrived in Havana on a Friday afternoon and after we stood in line to change money at the airport and then got ripped off by a taxi driver we were standing face to face with a small Cuban lady rapidly talking to us in Spanish. She owned the casa particular that we would be staying in for 3 days. Although I could barely understand what she was saying I liked her immediately for the small reason that her house was spotless. We left our bags in her room as our room was still occupied by some other people – I noted that she didn’t seem really thrilled with those particular people – and went to explore Havana. We made our way to the main square and climbed 2 flights of stairs to get to a bar with balcony views over the square, and it was here that we sat, ate lobster, drank mojitos and watched the musicians and dancing that we were expecting to find all over Cuba. We moved onto another bar and after more music, more lobster, more mojitos and some Cuban cigars we decided it was time for bed, after all, we knew we had over a month of this so why cram it all into one night?
The next day we were up and noticed the casa owner didn’t have that same spark she had the day before so thinking we may have gotten in her way some how we quickly left for the day. We spent the whole day walking around and checking out what Havana had to offer. At one point a local was trying to sell us a newspaper and we kept trying to explain to him that there was no reason for us to buy one as we didn’t speak or read Spanish, he looked at us with a bewildered expression and eventually left. We ate dinner at a nice restaurant (for Cuban standards) and thought we would take our time eating because there didn’t seem to be a lot going on in the city at the moment and figured we just had to wait until it was later in the night. While talking to our waiter he just casually through in “well because Fidel died yesterday we are hoping it is the start of change” and then because we were too slow to actually say anything in reply, he continued talking, told us to enjoy our meal and walked away. It was now our turn to look slightly bewildered as we realised the guy selling the newspapers today was selling the edition announcing Fidel’s death. We then heard from other people talking that there would be 9 days of mourning which meant no alcohol and no music. That explained what we thought was a rather slow Saturday night, we also realised that explained why our casa owner was down this morning – she had learnt of his death. Sunday in Havana was a weird experience. The privately owned bars and restaurants were still selling alcohol while the government ones most definitely weren’t, however the private ones didn’t know if they were going to be allowed to do so for the entire 9 days of mourning or if it would change again, there was quite a bit of confusion. A lot of the locals, especially the older ones could be seen crying on the side of the street while most of the younger locals looked like the whole process was going to be an inconvenience to them. We walked around for the day, eating churos and eventually bought the newspaper announcing one of the biggest events in modern day Cuba – Fidel’s death.
We left Havana for Vinales, the land of tobacco, and when we arrived we were swamped by local casa owners wanting us to stay with them. We weren’t in the mood to really fend them off so very quickly we had one lady follow us and tell us we could stay with her. We just went with her because, well we don’t really know why, I guess we just couldn’t be bothered. She was lovely though and her house was on a side street where we had a view of the mountains. The next day we were up before sunrise for our horse ride through the countryside. Our first stop was what can only be described as a jungle lookout where we climbed to the top to watch the sunrise over the mountainside of Vinales. It was so peaceful up there that we stayed for a while just to relax. Our second stop was a tobacco field where we were given a mojito for breakfast and a quick 2 minute show and tell on how cigars were made and then because we were the only ones there we bought 3 cigars fully aware that we were probably being ripped off, just as we read that everyone seemingly is at these types of places. We had a few more stops after the tobacco field but we were in and out very quickly as they didn’t really interest us. With the horse ride over after 4 hours we were both hurting and tired so we went back to the casa for a sneaky nap that turned into a 3 hour sleep. We had thought we would need 3 days in Vinales but after our horse ride there wasn’t really anything else we wanted to do so we spent the next 2 days chilling out on our balcony and walking through town. We had caught a bus to Vinales and thought we would try a Taxi Collectivo to leave Vinales. Everything seemed great when we got picked up and were only sharing the car with another couple who sat on the bench seat next to the driver. After half an hour we pulled into a stop off the side of the main road that was filled with all other collectivos and had a restaurant and a few stalls. We thought we were there just to grab a coffee but after a little bit our driver was taking all of our bags out of the car and palming us off to another driver. This happened 3 more times before we were finally in a car driving towards Playa Giron. Our days in Playa Giron were just what we needed. We went to the beach everyday, read and ate great food. We were a bit hesitant to leave because we had been having a great time but we felt we needed to keep moving otherwise we wouldn’t get to visit all of Cuba.
We left Playa Giron and spent the last days of the country wide mourning period in Cienfuegos and Guajimico and then ended in Trinidad. We had a couple of days in Trinidad but it was here that Mark mentioned that he wasn’t enjoying Cuba the way he thought he was and my quick reply was “me neither, I’m happy to leave if you are”. He was quite surprised by my response as he thought I had been enjoying our time there. We spent a couple of hours the next day working out what we were going to do and how soon we were going to leave. We agreed we would spend another week in Cuba and then would fly to Mexico and spend our remaining free time there before flying to New York. After working all of this out we had a really good final week in Cuba. We saved ourselves a decent amount of money by getting a local train for 3 hours between 2 cities and although we had to stand for majority of the train trip it was better than some of the buses and taxis we had been in. We stayed at a casa of a lovely family and from there we met a Spanish couple travelling on their honeymoon with their baby daughter. They offered to drive us an hour and a half the next day so we could get to our next stop and go to the beach. The beach at Cayo Guillermo was simply breathtaking and it was nice to spend a day with some other people, chatting to them and getting some advice for our travels to South America. After two days by the beach we packed up our stuff and travelled to another city just for the night before we made our way to Varadero, which would arguably be the most tourist-populated area in Cuba with a long stretch of beachfront all-inclusive resorts. We didn’t stay in an all-inclusive because it’s just not in our budget but it worked out much better for us. We stayed in a quiet street, a 5-minute walk to the beach that brought us to a part of the beach that was relatively quiet – our type of beach! Another great thing about Varadero was the amount of international cuisine restaurants that thankfully gave us a break from the standard Cuban dish of meat, chicken or seafood with rice and beans, which we had been eating everyday since the day we arrived in Cuba.
We left Varadero and spent our last day and night in Havana. Havana is a really cool city and it ended our time in Cuba perfectly. Next stop: Mexico.