In 2017, I finally got to go to Cuba. It had been on my bucket list for several years, partly because it was forbidden fruit, and partly because it seemed like a magical world frozen in time. Okay, okay, also there’s the rum, lots of rum. And chimichurri. And gorgeous birds. And great seafood. And I have an obsession with “I Love Lucy”, no ‘splainin’ necessary, lol.
Anyway, when US citizens were finally able to visit, I jumped at the opportunity to go and started planning straight away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but planning turned out to be easier than I thought. There was a ton of information on the internet because everyone else on the planet had been vacationing there except us. Since my friends and I were going independently for a few days before joining a private tour, we decided it would be best to plan almost everything before getting there. Boy am I glad we did. More on that later.
I know things have changed a lot since I went in 2017 in terms of the bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through to get into the country. I went under the People-to-People educational travel category which was eliminated by the Trump administration in 2019. Under People-to-People, I was able to plan my own trip and had a lot of flexibility on how to handle the educational portion of the requirements.
However, US citizens can still visit Cuba via the “Support for the Cuban People” category. Visitors will have to plan their itineraries carefully, making sure to pack them full of meetings and visits with local business owners, artists, musicians, tobacco manufacturers and the like. Your full-time schedule must also include participating in local activities such as exploring independent museums and markets, taking dance and cooking classes, and discussing Cuban society with locals. All stuff I’d be doing anyway, lol.
So let’s get on to the fun stuff. Cuba is AMAZING! We spent our first two days in the beautiful Vinales Valley. Woo hoo! Time to soak in some local flavor and eat and drink. We stayed at Casa Felipe a Paradise. It was a lovely place just a few blocks off the main strip. Easily within stumbling distance from bars, restaurants, and cafes! The owner’s wife had just given birth a week before our arrival. Can you imagine hosting some spoiled Americans a week after birthing your first child? Thank goodness the proud new papa was more than capable and took great care of us. The only thing we missed was a home cooked meal. We didn’t have the heart to make his poor wife cook while tending to her newborn.
After freshening up a bit, I was ready to stretch my legs and try my first mojito in Cuba. It was so good, I almost started crying. I could have downed five or six of them lickety split. Damn their refreshing deliciousness! We ate at a small, but nice restaurant just off the strip. I had some grilled fish, and it was scrumptious. It came with some yucca, black beans and rice, plantain soup and a salad with pickled veggies. After eating all that food, it was time for more mojitos! Luckily our host was a wonderful bartender and kept us pretty happy until we finally passed out from exhaustion and booze.
We woke up early but refreshed the next morning. Breakfast was already prepared and waiting for us when we finally made it out of our rooms at the crack of 7am. Breakfast was light, consisting of a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, fresh fruits, juices, baked goods, butter and jams. The real star, however, was the Cuban coffee. They ain’t playin’ in Cuba when it comes to coffee. I like mine strong enough to eat through a spoon, and the coffee in Cuba does the trick. I had a proper sweat going by the time we were ready to leave for our first adventure.
We decided to take a horseback ride through Vinales Valley to see what all the fuss was about. And, boy, it did not disappoint. We got to meander through the striking karst landscape and the vast tobacco fields on the sweetest horses. They knew exactly where they were going even when we rode through town without a guide. While the trail was not particularly rough, it did get a little dusty and a lot hot. Luckily, we took several breaks during our ride, so our backsides got a reprieve from all the bouncing and jiggling. We even had the opportunity to swim in an underground river inside a cave. The water felt amazing after being out in the heat.
One of my favorite stops was at a tobacco farm that still sows, harvests and prepares the leaves for rolling the traditional way. We even got to smoke some freshly rolled cigars during our visit. Unfortunately, I had to tap out after a few puffs. A little goes a long way for me. Unless it’s alcohol, duh! We also got to go to a coffee plantation and watch a demonstration on how they roast the coffee. The whole area smelled like heaven.
Most importantly, alcohol was included with the tour. We stopped at a farm that served rum drinks in fresh coconuts. They were super yummy and just what we needed after riding on a dusty road for hours. Even better, they let us mix our own drinks. I made sure to pour a skosh extra rum in my coconut. It was filled to the brim, lol! I’m so glad I was still able to get back onto my horse after my bone-melting drink.
We were drained after a day on horseback but famished, so after getting some recommendations we headed to the main strip to try some more local fare. And mojitos, of course. I wound up eating some award-winning, Cuban-style lobster and sautéed shrimp. I’d eat it again in a heartbeat, and only wish I’d brought a second stomach! After a winding and leisurely walk back to the casa to work off our dinners, it was time for bed. After our evening mojitos, obviously. Tomorrow was going to be another big day!