I spent my whole life dreaming of that one adventure. You know how you watch movies and TV shows where the protagonist takes a trip, often to a foreign country, has the time of her life, and “finds her bridesmaids”? I thought that wasn’t real life…until Cuba. In Cuba I learned to not be afraid of anything. Whether it was a giant cave, a tall tower, or Cuban food, I did not hesitate to enjoy every moment I had in Cuba because I knew this entire trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And Cuba did not disappoint. Every day in Cuba was unforgettable. At the end of it all, I was sad to leave Cuba, but I knew that the friends I made on the trip would stay with me for a long, long time. So in a way, Cuba lives on in my life. I cannot fit the experience I had into a blog post, but I will try to highlight some of the key moments from the trip, and hopefully you’ll understand why I believe Cuba was the adventure of a lifetime. Here are my top 20 favorite things from my trip to Cuba.
20. Sylvia (and her eggs): We spent our first and last few nights with our wonderful host
Sylvia. We were in the top apartment, with views of the ocean. We slept at night with the window slats open and the patio doors unlocked, and I never felt safer. Her breakfast in the morning was the best breakfast of my life, and none of us could figure out how she made her eggs so wonderfully fluffy. We had coffee, watermelon, bread, and these amazing eggs every morning. If I had to pick one place in Cuba that was home, it was Sylvia’s.
19. Cats of Cuba: Touring Old Havana (a UNESCO Heritage site) was the first time we saw all the cats and dogs roaming the streets. We had seen a cat before at lunch at Porto Habana, but Old Havana was where we really saw the extent of street animals in Cuba. Not many people keep pets in their houses, and instead the streets are filled with (friendly) cats and dogs. We saw so many cats in Cuba that we started a collection of photos!
18. The Food: The food in Cuba is very simple, which is how I often cook for myself. It wasn’t spicy or crazy like I thought, but since meals were included we often were daring in what we tried. Since our group was close we would order a few different items and share, giving us the opportunity to try new things. The first night we had carpaccio (raw beef), one night we had seafood paella with octopus, and for lunch one day we had a whole fish served on a table. However, I have to admit, my favorite meal was at a restaurant run by an Italian woman who married a Cuban man!
17. The Old Cars: You know when you see pictures of Cuba and it looks like time was frozen in the 1950s? Well, it really does look like that. I love cars and seeing all the unique 1950s vehicles around the country never got old. My favorite old car moment was riding in a 1950s Jeep to the Escambray mountains, though the close second was taking an old car tour to the Hotel Nacional!
16. Taking a boat ride in Cienaga de Zapata: I loved taking a boat ride through a reserve, seeing the birds along the marsh and visiting an original, preserved settlement. I was able to use my GoPro to take video of the channel opening up and the vast expanse of water. The nature in Cuba never failed to amaze me.
15. Hiking the nature reserve: We had a guide take us through Sendero Enigma de Las Rocas, and he was incredible! I couldn’t believe how he was able to hear a sound barely audible and then track down the bird. We saw so many birds and lizards I lost track, especially because I was so in awe of the limestone pools that we came across in our hike. I was so glad we did so much hiking in Cuba!
14. Learning why Che was important to Cubans: We visited many museums and learned a lot of unique history on this trip (I say unique because their history has a very different slant than ours), but learning about Che was certainly the most interesting. There are many monuments to Che, as well as a mausoleum and museum that we visited. Talking to our guides about Che revealed a side of Cuban history not taught in the United States.
13. Our Hostel by the Sea: In Cienfuegos we stayed in the cutest white hostel, with comfortable beds and a wall unit for A/C (it’s the little things). It was so simple, with plain white walls and curtains, but the breeze, the views, and the simplicity of the life there could not be beat. If I ever go back to Cuba (which I hope to do), I would stay here and at Sylvia’s again, for sure.
12. Seeing the differences between Cuba and the United States: Life in Cuba is different from our country. The internet is incredibly hard to get and the houses are simple with many generations living inside. The craziest thing was that there were
no toilet seats in Cuba, and we couldn’t figure out why you’d have a toilet but no seat! Also, you are supposed to tip often, including to use the restroom which had an attendant. The billboards aren’t advertisements, they are political slogans, and almost everything in Cuba is owned by the government. There is only one type of bottled water, cleverly marketed as “No 1 in Cuba,” which is funny because there is only one type of bottled water since the government controls it.
11. Having authentic conversations: So many times on trips you see only what people want you to see, or what they think you want to see. While I won’t say that I feel I lived exactly the way Cubans do, I had an experience that really got me close to the true Cuba. By staying in casas I was able to talk to the hosts about the real Cuban life. By having David, a Cuban close to our age, as a guide, I was able to find out little things like how Cubans get music and what they do for fun. By shopping in the streets I was able to talk to young artists, one being a girl my age who so sincerely wanted to learn English. This helped me learn more about Cuba than any book or hotel could.
10. Climbing towers and facing fears: It felt like Cuba brought out the best in all of us. We were all nervous to climb the Iznaga Tower, a 200 year old, 147-foot tower with narrow, steep steps, but we all made our way up and down, taking pictures and admiring the (well worth it) view. This wasn’t the only time we had to be brave, but it certainly involved the most steps!
9. Dancing: We went dancing many nights in Cuba, and we had an array of experiences. The most memorable was the cave. Let me start by saying that my biggest fear is claustrophobia, so caves are a no-go for me. Especially a cave with no support beams, no emergency exits (this is Cuba, after all), and huge speakers playing deep bass. However, as was a trend in Cuba, I shook that aside and climbed down into the most amazing discoteca I’ve ever seen. Another memorable dancing moment was the salsa lesson we took in Havana. This was no formal, cruise-ship worthy dance lesson. This was true Cuban dancers dancing how true Cubans dance. It was fun, it was fast, and it was Cuba!
8. Urban Gardens and Sustainable farms: We visited two locations on two different days that stick in my memory for two reasons: they both had to do with sustainability and they both had my favorite dessert. Dessert first (always), they had this dish that was just hand-shaved coconut boiled in sugar water. It was simplistic, delicious, and I loved that the coconuts were grown right where we were eating. I used my Spanish skills to find the chef and ask how to make it! In terms of sustainability, I learned a lot by visiting the sustainable farm. For example, water ran under the pig pen to collect the waste into a vat to convert into biofuel, which in turn fueled the farm. That was a small farm that needed to save on energy, and came up with this idea. Then, on our last day we had lunch and learned about urban gardens in Cuba. They aren’t as prominent as I was expecting from the research I did before we left, but that’s because Cubans don’t eat a lot of vegetables. With limited resources, urban gardens are very useful in Cuba, and I saw many community gardens around.
7. Evaluating Sustainability as a Whole: I’ve got a passion for sustainability, so I kept this topic in mind when looking at Cuba. In some ways, Cuba is the sustainability experiment I’d read about. A lack of resources has made them, well, resourceful. Parts are reused because they need to. Energy is conserved because it’s valuable. But some of the features are also their downfalls. Pollution from old cars and factories reduce air quality. Total government control leads to conflicts of interest. Cuba isn’t overdeveloped, but there isn’t enough housing for its citizens. Cuba is in some ways an example of sustainable development, but I worry a jump in tourism could ruin the beautiful undeveloped coastline and simple way of living.
6. Visiting the Baseball Stadium: This is by far one of my favorite experiences. In the United States it’s almost impossible to meet a baseball team, and if you have the opportunity to, you’ll probably pay a large sum for it. When we visited the Cienfuegos team’s stadium, we drove up in our white vans and they said of course we could go in. We found the team was practicing, and after entering inside they asked if we’d like to go on the field. We took pictures with the team, but more importantly were able to talk to them. They don’t get paid very much, and we were able to support them by buying signed baseballs!
5. Finding a chameleon on my own, conquering the steepest climb of my life, and swimming under a waterfall: It’s crazy how in Cuba so much happened in not just each day, but each location. Our day in the Escambray mountains was one of these days. We hiked down deep into a valley and when we reached the bottom we were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall to swim in. Although the hike back up was incredibly steep, Kelsey, Sarah, and I sang songs to motivate ourselves up the mountain, and we were proud when we reached the top. Along the way up, I was excited to find a chameleon, as our guide admitted that they are incredibly rare to find as they avoid humans.
4. Pinar Del Rio and the orchid gardens: I have a green thumb, especially for orchids, and I have 4 beautiful orchid plants in my apartment to date, so visiting Soroa, a botanical garden with over 700 varieties of orchids, was heaven to me. It was built by a Spanish man honoring his daughter, who died during childbirth. He built the $1.5 million garden because orchids were her favorite. It was incredibly beautiful, and I love that the Cuban government has preserved even after his death.
3. La Moka: I had studied La Moka in the Ecotourism class I took in the Spring, and you wouldn’t believe how excited I was to finally visit it in person. The hotel was built without cutting any trees, and in fact, a giant tree comes up through the middle of the lobby! I was able to talk to a zipline guide who told me that people are happier in La Moka. He said that the community isn’t any wealthier than places like Varadero (the beach), but that everyone has a better quality of life because everyone is employed and works together as a community.
2. The pottery place: My favorite thing we did was visiting a pottery shop that had been making pottery for 500 years. Here one of the grandfathers actually asked if we’d like to make pottery. I was able to sit in the chair and make pottery, with the hands of a legacy helping me. That type of once-in-a-lifetime experience is something you could only get in Cuba, and it is something I will remember forever.
1. The people: Despite all the amazing adventures we had, my favorite thing about Cuba was the people. From my classmates to our guides to our hosts to our drivers, every person was a joy to talk to, and every Cuban was willing to answer our questions. Our drivers didn’t speak English, but they made every day fun. Ernesto, our leader, took great care of us, and David and Domingo were amazing guides. I made so many friends on this trip and I’m so lucky to have had this experience. I loved every moment in Cuba, and I thank all the people that made it possible.