Two weeks ago today, at 3 am on a Thursday morning, I hit publish on my big announcement post as we ran out the door of our San Francisco apartment, headed to the airport for a 10 day adventure in Mexico and Cuba.
I’ve cut and compiled the footage into a five minute video documenting the experience into what will be the first of many travel vlogs. It’s so nice to finally be able to share the person by my side and watch our relationship grow and evolve through each story:
For three days we stayed with my sister and her fiancé in a small beach community called Puerto Aventuras, an hour south of Cancun.
It was wonderful to catch up with them and indulge in some R&R after the past hectic month of packing and moving, but we were soon ready for the real adventure—Cuba.
We decided to take the same free spirited approach we both practiced while in Asia last year: no pre-arranged or scheduled itinerary—just arrive and go with the flow.
Don’t get me wrong—of course we did our due diligence prior to arriving by researching laws and logistics, and speaking with many other travelers so we knew what we were getting ourselves into. But my favorite experiences have always come from those left to chance, where I’ve been able to take spur of the moment opportunities that have come my way, and had I not done that, I likely wouldn’t be where I’m at today.
But let’s talk about Cuba.
There’s so much to say about this amazing country. As soon as you step outside, you feel as if you’re in a time capsule. The modern cars we’re used to seeing are replaced by classic 50’s and 60’s American muscle, bicycles and horses.
It’s the world’s largest auto museum, unfolding right in front of you.
Colorful, crumbling buildings full of history line the streets of Havana and locals dressed in equally brightly hued clothing wander about in every direction.
We hailed a cab in front of the airport, asking if he knew of someone we could stay with for the night. In Cuban communities, everyone knows everyone—they’re all familia. Ten minutes later we were dropped off at a doorstep, greeted warmly by a smiling woman who lead us upstairs to our room.
Casa particulars are the preferred and most common means of accommodation in Cuba. Hotels are few and far between outside of Havana and don’t provide the cultural experience you enjoy by staying with a family in their home. For $30/night we had a private room/bathroom, a rooftop balcony overlooking rooftops and the sea, and a friendly hostess who told us everything we wanted to know about her country and its people.
While there was no hot water and most of the public restrooms had no toilet seat or paper, it felt luxurious compared to many of my accommodations in Asia. And it’s not just the old cars and buildings that keep this country frozen in time, but the lack of technology and internet access. It’s slowly becoming accessible to locals, but as tourists we were off the grid during our entire stay… and it was a nice break from constant information overload. We had only each other and a rich, diverse and beautiful nation to focus on.
When we first planned to visit Cuba a few months ago, we committed to learning as much Spanish as possible to get the most out of our experience. The country is not overrun with tourists (yet) and there’s little English spoken, so we wanted to make sure we could communicate with them not just on a level of necessity, but learn from and share with them, as they don’t encounter too many Americans.
Lucas had studied Spanish in school and knew enough to get by, but we both practiced daily and I found myself holding entire conversations with locals by the end of the trip. I honestly didn’t expect it to make such a difference but when that language barrier is eliminated, it opens up a new world and really changes the entire experience. I’d highly recommend learning the local language for anyone planning to travel to a foreign country.
And speaking of the people, they are some of the friendliest out there. They absolutely love Americans, as proven by the countless U.S. flag attire worn by locals walking the streets of Havana, U.S. baseball memorabilia and clothing, flags, air fresheners and stickers on the cars.
As one local said—our governments may be enemies, but the people are friends. We embrace one another and we’re treated like family when we’re together. The way it should be.
And in Cuba, unlike many parts of Asia, you can walk the streets alone at night and feel safe. Perhaps it’s due to their government history and influence or the fact that the tourism industry hasn’t exploded yet, but the locals insisted that you won’t find guns or violence on the streets like we do back home, or the pickpocketing and scams that are prevalent in other tourist destinations. And while still cautious, we definitely had that sense of security.
After two nights in Havana we were anxious to head south to a coastal town we’d been hearing about by the name of Trinidad.
The unique charm of Trinidad is like no other place on earth. I was in love after the first glimpse of cobblestone streets, pastel hued buildings with Spanish tile roofs and families gathered on porches along the sidewalks.
Much more quaint, quiet and slower paced compared to Havana. It felt like home.
Our taxi dropped us off at a casa where our hostess made freshly squeezed juice from the mangos we picked on the side of the road on our way there.
This may be a bold claim, but the mangos in Cuba are the best in the world—even better than Southeast Asia.
But my love for Cuban food ends there, sadly. We’d heard the warnings about Cuban cuisine before traveling but I was still hopeful—my tastes are easily satisfied and I couldn’t wait to try something different. But ‘different’ and ‘Cuban food’ are oxymorons, because here, every meal is more or less identical.
A sampling of the food provided by our casas:
At first glance they’re impressive spreads with a wide variety of colors and tastes. And the meals themselves were tasty—however, seven days of the same food when you’re used to having any cuisine in the world at any given moment can become disheartening.
The fruits and meats are generally fresh and organic which is wonderful, but their imports are limited so they make due with what they have access to. Veggie portions are small, and “seasonal vegetables” consisted of 4 thin slices of cucumber, defrosted green beans and/or a few slices of tomato and cabbage. You have to applaud the creativity though—one breakfast included spaghetti in mayonnaise with chunks of pineapple.
My insatiable sweet tooth suffered the most when I learned it was near impossible to order anything chocolate, and the one dessert I ordered appeared to be mango pureed with ketchup and cheese.
The drinks, however, are another story. Every bar claims to have the best mojitos in town and you can order them freshly made all day for $3. Rum is cheaper than water so we may have over indulged ourselves a bit… which I didn’t mind considering the water had an interesting taste and included bonus ingredients like dry residue, sulfates and chlorides:
Coffee and cigars are Cuba’s most celebrated exports, so naturally we had to test them out to confirm the claims.
We’re not exactly connoisseurs of either, but we sure had fun trying them out with locals under a straw hut in the countryside during a horseback ride trip to a waterfall.
I could make this into a novel, but the vlog captures this trip better than words can so I’ll end with a few favorite and noteworthy memories and photos…
-Making friends with locals in the streets of Havana, practicing our Spanish and exchanging stories while sipping mojitos
-Our taxi driver pulling over on the way to Trinidad, climbing mango trees and devouring them on the side of the road
-Sipping local beer while listening to live Cuban music in the outdoor courtyard in Trinidad
-Jellyfish attacking both of us on the beach
-Waiting out a thunderstorm under a hut while eating a giant fish, practicing our Spanish and sharing rum with the locals
-Local musicians singing Happy Birthday to Lucas at midnight in the middle of the street in Trinidad
-Swimming in a waterfall while drinking mojitos, playing music and making friends from around the world
-Dance club inside of a cave
-Late night standoffs with multiple large crabs in our bedroom
-Snorkeling in coral reefs and a lagoon in Playa Larga
-Smoking a cigar on the porch of our casa on our last night under an intense lightning storm
Traveling as a couple is completely different than traveling alone, as expected. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much but when you find someone you’re so compatible with, who has the same sense of adventure and excitement and desires, who you can share every beautiful moment with that you can’t put into words—those moments, that pure feeling of joy is multiplied. And there’s no greater feeling that I’ve had in my lifetime than this. These are the best days.
Get out there while you can and seek out a new adventure. Days are precious and life is short.
Until next time…