Cuba : 2017

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My first trip (outside of going home to Hawaii for the holidays) of 2017 was a week in Cuba, based in Old Havana. It was an amazing way to start off the year and I learned so much about Cuban culture and history. I’m not usually a fan of pre-planned itineraries, but TryCuba did an amazing job organizing a tour for my sister and I. We were just there a few days and can’t wait to return– it was definitely one of the most mesmerizing trips I’ve taken recently!

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With TryCuba, it’s an all-inclusive trip, so airfare was included in the overall price. They recently began doing really inexpensive JetBlue flights from Fort Lauderdale, so I would sign up for updates with them and plan in advance to take full advantage of their low fares from destinations across the United States. 

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We arrive to Havana Airport and are greeted by our guides Belkis and Javier. The flight is less than an hour for Fort Lauderdale International Airport, and you are definitely transported to another time and place. The airport is close to the Historical Center and we drop off our bags at our boutique B&B, Las Maletas. Our first stop is the Plaza de la Revolución, just a few minutes walk from the hotel and we learn about the historical significance and development of the area. It’s almost noon, so time for our first mojito at the legendary Hotel Inglaterra, a classic Havana hotel. After discussing more of the political history of Cuba, we hop into these cute “coco-cabs” and head to our first paladar meal at La Makina. Paladares are family-run businesses that serve homemade Cuban food, and an alternative to state-run restaurants. The ropa vieja was amazing, as was our second round of mojitos! My sister even topped her lunch off with her first Cohiba. After lunch, we head to the Museum of the Revolution, a must-stop for everyone, especially history buffs. They chose to preserve the bullet holes at the entrance, you will get to see the actual table from the Council of Ministers, and the regional Presidential office with a secret door that Batista once used to escape from Castro. Really great place to go on your first day to get a sense of Havana’s historical importance. We stop at a fruit stand for some fresh mangoes on our way back to the hotel for a quick nap. We wanted to go to the world famous Tropicana nightclub, but it was closed so we head for a nitecap at the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos.

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I love staying in B&Bs because of the included breakfast. Perfect lattes, toast, and fresh fruit plates! We start the morning with a tour down Calle Empedrado, where we get a taste of authentic Cuban life. We walk past the Libreta stores, where Cubans turn in their Libreta de Abastecimiento (ration books), which averages less than $20 per month. Though recently opened to United States on a wider scale, there are still many routines that seem so foreign to American tourism. These are extremely complicated issues, but it’s important to see these things when you travel to connect and understand how other people live. A famous spot on this street is La Bodeguita del Medio, you can sign your name on the wall and apparently the mojito was invented here! The end of the street terminates with the Plaza de Catedral and we go into the Catedral and stop into the other historical buildings along the plaza. One of my favorites was the Casa de Lombillo, where our guide teaches us about the courtyard house architecture. A typical casa had a store on ground floor which also served as parking for carriages, and offices on the mezzanine to oversee their business transactions. The courtyard served a cool breeze and blocked the sun, and typically rooms were created with height to maximize shade. Today, it serves as an exhibit space for artists. Next, we head down Calle Mercaderes, and view the Mural of La Casa Del Marques de Arcos, the first Havana University, and the famous Cespedes statue in the Plaza de Armas. We also get a history lesson on the Fortress on the hill, and stop for a rest at the Hotel Santa Isabel, a stay for some of the most famous politicians and celebrities in Havana. This street leads to the San Francisco de Asis square— don’t forget to touch the beard and foot of the statue for good luck in front of the church! We continue with an architecture tour of the historic developments, particularly the 1920s Art Deco facades. We stop in some of the perfume and chocolate shops before getting a tour of Hemingway’s room (Room 511) at Hotel Ambos Mundos. Lunch was off of Calle San Ignacio, at a Paladar named O’Reilly 304 Gin Bar for tacos and pina coladas. We head back to the hotel to change into our dancing shoes. There is a salsa studio next door to our hotel so we stop in for a lesson, it’s a lot harder than it looks! Then we head to dinner at Chacon 162 for some risotto and copa tintos.

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We wake up early for a nice breakfast before our morning drive to Viñales. Our driver, Michael, picks us up at the hotel. The drive is around two hours and we stop to visit a tobacco farmer’s house to see how they harvest and dry the leaves. We learned that there are five types of leaves used to make cigars, composed of ones that grow in the sun, are inside of the cigar, and the quality of the leaves determines which type of house they are dried in. Only women are able to work in the dryer houses because of their delicate hands. It take around five months to dry. They then take the dried leaves to the market for the government to purchase. The one we visited was 23 hand planted acres and they sold almost 8 tons last year. We buy some coffee beans and cigars to take home as gifts while enjoying a sugarcane juice with passion fruit rum, unique to this area. We then drive up to the Viñales Valleys, a UNESCO site. Many caves are in the valley to explore and we go to the most popular one, Cueva del Indio. It’s pretty touristy, so try to get there as early as possible, but the boat ride through the caves is definitely worth it. We have an amazing meal at a countryside paladar, the Vera restaurant, for ropa vieja,  frijoles con ris, and of course pina coladas! We head back to the city and after a long day head back to the hotel. 

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We wake up early to take some photos around Old Havana before the city wakes up too much. It’s fun to get lost in the city and the residents are very friendly. Many of the kids came up to us, wanting to  get in the photos with you and have their photos taken. If you are in a touristy area you should give them a few CUCs for their time. We have some breakfast at the hotel and then walk over to the Museo Nacionale des Bella Artes. It is separated in two sections: Cuban and International art. There is a gallery of the Avant-Garde movement that was popular in the 1940s and 50s. Most of the artwork from this time are now in the United States because they were held in private collections. Some standouts were the Tómas Sánchez, reflection painting and the Wifredo Lam room. We hop into one of the classic cars and ride through city and to Revolution Square. You can take photos with the same obelisk that was background to many Castro speeches and also the metal murals of Che on the opposing edifices. We hop back into the classic cars for a stop at an artist studio called Galeria Lavanderia. It was previously a laundry for almost forty years and a fruit market before that, and they have some really amazing art for your collection. We stop into Sloppy Joe’s for margaritas and fried chickpeas. Next door is an amazing antique shop, Memorias, with books, postcards, and we settled on some antique cigar cases.  We took a pedicab to the hotel Ambros Mundos and got pina coladas on the rootftop for a great sunset views. We were even able to catch the full moon over Havana. We go back to the hotel to freshen up before the 9pm cannon shot, a must do as a tourist! It signifies the closing of the harbor in historic times. We have an amazing meal at the Cafe de los Artistas, another paladar with homemade Cuban specialties.

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We wake up for breakfast of pineapple, papayas, guava juice, and cafe con leche. We then head to the beach, which is about a thirty minute drive from the Historic Center for a day of relaxation. The beach is a great place to mix with the locals and they literally pour you rum in a coconut right on the sand. The water and sunshine were just what we needed after all of that traveling and wandering the city. We head back for our final dinner at a secret paladar, you will have to ask Javier for the name! 

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The last day we wake up a bit earlier for a last minute walk around the city to capture some photos. It’s best to head to the airport early, so after breakfast we head there. It was an amazing trip and hard to say goodbye to our guides who took such good care of us the entire trip. We will be back!

 

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After indulging in Hemingway’s favorite drinks, follow his footsteps to where he slept, at the salmon-colored, 52-room Hotel Ambos Mundos. This was the writer’s first Cuban home, where he stayed for seven years during the 1930s. Room 511, where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, is now a museum.

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Fifty-two panels covering 3229 square feet make up the outdoor mural on Mercaderas Street by artist Andrés Carrillo. Carillo used only four colors for the mosaic, soaking natural rocks to achieve the 13 shades that make up images of 67 characters throughout Cuban history.

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Every night at 9 p.m., the traditional cannon blast, or cañonazo, takes place at the fortress, La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The daily ritual is as much an attraction for locals as it is tourists, with a crowd of about 1000 showing up for the big event every day.

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One of the most popular sites in Old Town: The Catedral de San Cristóbal. Its baroque exterior and classical interior were designed by Italian Francesco Borromini and originally built by the Jesuits in the 18th century.

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