When planning a trip to Cuba, Havana is where most people will and perhaps should start. There is a distinct energy in that city. It is as if there is something happening in every window and every door. There is constant bustle in the streets and it is loud. People call from building to building and greet each other affectionately as they cross paths. Children play soccer and baseball in parks and in the middle of streets. Sellers unabashedly shout about their wares. This often extends well into the evening. In Havana, there is a fascinating sense of community.
As unlikely as it may seem, several white sand beaches and their azure waters on the northern part of the island aren’t too far a drive from Havana and well worth the effort. The roads aren’t well kept so instead of braving the potholes and renting a car, it is best to hire a taxi or take a bus. Beaches on the southern part of the island are rocky but offer options for scuba diving and snorkeling.
After my city and beach adventures, I longed to see the Cuban countryside, specifically western Cuba’s Vinales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the 2.5 hour drive from Havana, the landscape changed dramatically. Flat farmland morphed into rolling hills littered with palm trees and then finally the distinct limestone hills covered in vegetation, mogotes, came into view. It is breathtaking.
The best tobacco in the world thrives in the red soil and humid climate of western Cuba and many farms dot the countryside. Tourists roll by in buses to take in the views, but I wanted to get off the beaten path and so hired a guide to take me on a long hike through the valley stopping at several private farms along the way where we enjoyed the robust locally grown coffee and mango juice and were hypnotized by the lush landscape. My tour ended as it does for many with a visit to a tobacco farm where the farmer demonstrated cigar rolling. I enjoyed smoking a cigar with him in the dark still barn with the tobacco harvest drying from the rafters.
A big part of the authentic experience for me was staying in private homes with families, in Cuba called Casa Particulars. Every morning the day started with an intimidatingly large plate of fruit – papaya, guava, pineapple, banana and then continued with eggs, cheeses and ham. The experiences and conversations I had with the members of these Cuban families struck me the most. They were warm, inviting and completely genuine and are a big part of the reason I hope to return someday and continue to explore Cuba.