I wish it were possible to visualise all these memories, feelings & moments straight onto a page like a huge splash of paint on a canvas – that would definitely make this an easier task for me. How else can i go about explaining my crazy, beautiful cuban experience? I’m not quite sure yet, but let’s see how it works out.
Talk about pre-holiday jitters. Recovering from ruptured ligaments in my ankle, no time to read through my copy of Lonely Planet from cover to cover (yes, i do like to plan ahead), summer dresses still hanging damp & prettily from my shutters the morning before take off; for someone who’s painstakingly organised – a true Virgo at heart – i’ve had smoother holiday build-ups, that’s for sure. Looking back at it now, that beautiful cuban spirit i was about to discover would’ve been just the remedy to calm those pre-holiday nerves (that being the vitality of the people or the rum i hear you ask? I’ll let you decide).
They say nothing can prepare you for Cuba. You can paint a preconceived picture in your mind and wear out your copy of Lonely Planet as much as you like, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing, that i promise you. Despite all the mayhem in the weeks leading up to our arrival, i did manage to make it to p.7 of my travel guide (oh yes) where a sentence written by Brendan Sainsbury resounds true: “…a complex country of head-scratching contradictions which, however many times you visit, will never adequately answer all your questions.” I get it now.
I remember so vividly driving through Havana for the first time, silently overwhelmed by its narrow streets adorned with locals sitting on dusty doorsteps. I was nervous, i’ll admit. Was it silly to convert all my money in one go? Is my suitcase too big? My seatbelt’s broken! That uneasy feeling stayed with me as i walked down the narrow Calle Brasil (where our taxi couldn’t reach) with my Ray-Bans on and my guard up, straight on to Casa Vieja 1840 – our home for the next three nights in old Havana.
It’s funny, there’s always that moment before an adventure starts when it’s like you’re at the starting line; you have no indication, absolutely no inkling whatsoever as to how it’s going pan out. So when that gorgeous turquoise door opened to the hugest smile and warmest welcome i can honestly ever remember – i had a feeling it was going to be one hell of a race.
From that moment on, everything turned into one crazy, wonderful delight after another. I remember turning a corner and stumbling across the impossibly beautiful Plaza Vieja for the first time; school kids in their adorable uniforms hand-in-hand racing across the plaza, salsa music stylishly suffusing through the air, magnificent crumbling buildings standing like empty shells, somehow all the more breathtaking in their authenticity… a place of stunning contradictions, that’s for sure.
My first mojito in Cuba was a moment i’d long fantasised about and it was in the funky, bustling El Chanchullero de Tapas where my dreams came true. Okay, so they say the food in Cuba isn’t the best – true – but the food in this place was incredible. They’d ran out of pretty much everything we ordered first time round – something that would have probably set me off back home – but it just didn’t matter here. I had their deliciously delectable chicken and pineapple dish; delicious enough even to entice us back for one last taste on our last night in Cuba.
Am i still only on my first day in Havana?! Let me jump in the fast lane for now before this post turns into something of an epic novel (that wasn’t my intention, i promise). How about a Havana highlight per day? Day one – wondering around the Museo de la Revolución as an afternoon spell of rain sprinkled the colourful city; Day two – drinking a midday mojito whilst being serenaded by one of the locals; Day three – getting my gangsta on (sorry) in the fabulously grandiose Hotel Nacional de Cuba, complete with peacocks and piña coladas and a long walk home along the magnificent Malencón.
Sometimes it’s simply the smallest moments that leave the biggest impression and create the best memories. A case in point was the moment our taxi driver stopped the car in the middle of the highway on our way from Havana to Viñales, heading surreptitiously towards the scrub-land on the side of the road in search of what seemed to be something significant (try saying that over and over – Peter Piper eat your heart out). What is he looking for? Has he found something dangerous? Help, we’re in the middle of the highway! Turns out he’d found some tasty exotic fruit for us to try, that’s all. Nonetheless, a special little moment I wanted to share.
So that sweet little interlude brought us from the hustle and bustle of Havana to the stunningly beautiful Viñales. Had we stepped back in time or into a charming daydream, perhaps? Imagine idyllic horse and carts adorning the roads, rocking chairs on a rustic porch, magnificent mountainous valleys, fire flies (seriously, fire flies!)… simply beautiful.
The picturesque Casa Doña Hilda was our new home for the next three nights and it was such a treat. I mean simple delights like lobster for dinner, accompanied by afternoon mojitos and piña coladas, complete with dreamy sunsets against the most idyllic backdrop; so idyllic in fact, that i spent one entire evening lazily rocking back and forth on the porch just dozing in and out of sleep.
What better way to spend our first afternoon in Viñales than riding valiantly by horse to a tobacco plantation? Okay, so we didn’t exactly gallop gallantly through the valleys (Enrique Inglesias was certainly in no mad rush) but the stormy weather did make it feel all the more adventurous. And the stop off for a mouth-watering piña colada served in a huge coconut with a hint of honey as we soaked up the gorgeous views of the Jardin Botanico de Viñales was pretty awesome too. (Enrique Inglesias was the name of my horse in case you were wondering).
From tobacco plantations to a piece of paradise, also known as Cayo Jutías. A two hour taxi drive from our casa particular brought us here… honestly, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen with crystal clear waters, an exotic mangrove and only a handful of people in sight. After all the travelling and action of the last few days, I forgot how good it felt to just chill on the beach and soak up the sun. We even got an unexpected taster of cuban living when a local jumped in our taxi for a lift on the way back, bottle of Havana Club 3 in hand, and offered us a swig for the ride home. When in Rome.
Viñales really felt like home – the perfect juxtaposition of adventure and tranquility. So whenever I have a stressful day at work, i’ll nostalgically take myself back to that rocking chair on Chi Chi’s porch and imagine the sound of the crickets chirping, fire flies flying and the warm breeze softly sweeping my troubles away…
Crocodile swamps, spearfishing, and the attack of the mosquitos. Those mosquitos must have ever so slightly sensed my European insect repellent and laughed disdainfully in the face of my futile attempt at defence. They came in their swarms each night as the sun set – I’m talking lock yourself up and don’t dare come out. I woke up on the first morning to find that my impressive golden glow (which was coming on quite nicely by now) was totally outshone by the two massive bites on my face and a trail of blood-sucking remnants on my back (i think they were trying to expose some sort of hidden message…maybe don’t bother bringing European mosquito repellent to Cuba).
That’s not to put you off the beautiful Playa Larga of course. Our new home, Hostal Mayito, was situated on a gorgeous beach with a quaint fishing village feel to it. The two-storey terrace complete with hammocks & rocking chairs as well as the wonderfully warm welcome we received from Mayito and his son, Alejandro, made us feel completely at home. We were excited for what the next couple of days had in store and felt ready for anything (except for the mosquitos. Nothing could have prepared us for the mosquitos).
First stop, the crocodile swamp of course. Followed by dinner on the terrace with a cold beer, deliciously fresh fish and a pinch of the most delightful hospitality from Mayito and his family. Bliss.
Snorkelling in Playa Larga was definitely our Bear Grylls moment of the trip – and probably one of the most memorable. We were in the crystal clear turquoise waters for just under two hours, lucidly admiring the colourful aquatic life beneath us. Mayito, with harpoon in hand, hunted our lunch as we watched on in wonder. It was quite literally a bitter sweet experience (how savage of us) but sitting on the rocky shore eating our deliciously fresh feast from a palm leaf was definitely a gorgeous moment that i won’t forget.
Beauty tip ladies – never French plait your hair in bunches and submerge yourself in the ocean. Ever.
Vividly vibrant Trinidad. A few people we met along the way said if there was one place in Cuba they could visit again, it would be here – and I can see why. An enchantingly authentic Spanish colonial settlement with its cobbled streets, colourful architecture and surrounding natural beauty made it the perfect destination for one final rush of adventure, as the end of the explorative phase of our trip drew closer (next stop would be an all-inclusive beach resort). By day, you feel as if you’ve travelled back in time (such is the beauty of Cuba’s precious geographical offerings) while at night you find yourself catapulted right back into the 21st century (but not quite as you know it) as tourists adorn the steps of the Plaza Mayor, sipping on mojitos and swaying to the rhythm of the sensuous sounds that soar from the adjoining Casa de la Música.
Just a short drive away we ventured into tropical paradise, formally known as Parque El Cubano. We spent the morning admiring the glorious nature around us as we hiked through the national park, tip-toeing over pebbled streams with butterflies flitter-fluttering at our feet (seriously, I felt like Aurora from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty it was that magical). By lunchtime we were bathing in the fresh, placid waters of the Salto de Javira waterfall. We even got a glimpse of the infamous tocororo, the national bird of Cuba.
I’m hoping by now i would have at least sparked some temptation within you to visit Cuba, and if that temptation ever comes to fruition, i couldn’t recommend a better casa particular than that of Yolandys Fonseca Casals. Having only opened to tourists a couple of months before – so as yet almost undiscovered – we found ourselves to be the lucky lodgers enjoying this lovely hidden gem with a massive two-storey terrace all to ourselves. More to the point, the owners’ genuine kindness and humble hospitality was something really quite special. Oh, and the food they prepared for us was fantastic.
It was a strange feeling. Walking up to the reception desk of the luxurious Meliá Cayo Coco – tourists lounging around the lobby with their caribbean-kissed skin, tales of all you can eat buffets, a glimpse of a huge glistening swimming pool and endless supplies of toilet paper – everything you should expect from an all-inclusive beach resort holiday, right? It’s just, well, after everything we’d seen so far in Cuba, the ceaseless sense of adventure that each new day had brought and all we’d learnt from the locals about Cuban life… it didn’t feel quite the same this time.
That’s not to say I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of diving into that irresistible swimming pool and drinking the endless supply of mojitos, of course. Even as we were driving across the 17km stone causeway over the sea that connected the island to the mainland, I felt like a kid going to Disney World for the first time. But it definitely took some time to adjust to all this – all the little luxuries we usually take for granted on holiday. Admittedly, it wasn’t long before we were stuffing ourselves at the beach barbecue, competing in pool volleyball tournaments and sunbathing idly on the beach – albeit with surreptitious twinkles of nostalgia as i reminisced about those beautiful sunsets on the porch in Viñales.
I was blown away by our accommodation in the resort – a bungalow on stilts, which floated beautifully over a natural seawater lagoon, with the beautiful Caribbean Sea right on our doorstep. Cayo Coco was undoubtedly the perfect place to wind down after all the wonderful ventures that led us here…
…But we’d be crazy to say goodbye to Cuba without one last night in Havana, right?
Hello again, Havana
Arriving back in Havana at dusk after the eight hour taxi drive from Cayo Coco was such an amazing feeling – it felt like we were home. No nerves, not a glimmer of apprehension this time. Just a feeling of pure delight to be back, knowing that we could ride the wave one last time. Now gratefully enriched with a better understanding of this complex country of head-scratching contradictions, although far from cracking its code entirely, all that was left to do was sit back and take it all in for one last time – all to the irresistible sounds of that beautiful, ubiquitous cuban music.
So that’s it in a nutshell i suppose. The picture i’ve painted of Cuba is an optimistic and colourful one, but one that is honest and a genuine reflection of the mark it left on me. I’ll leave it to historiography (in which sentiment quite rightly has little place) to tell a deeper story of Cuba – one that isn’t seen through a subjective, sun-cream smudged, Ray-ban lens. My version sees Cuba for all its beauty, that’s all – and it’s been so much fun reliving it.