31 May 2017

When a company tell me to “trust” them that their product is the best, I trust them about as much as the guy at a bar who has a face tattoo, telling me that he’s not a serial killer. So…not very much. I rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends or online reviews because it’s either someone who’s taste and judgement I trust or real people who have no skin in the game.

With this in mind, I’ve detailed how I did Cuba, with a heavy focus on eating well – in a place notorious for bad food – and culturally authentic activities that you can only do in that specific destination like getting a massage in a mud volcano in Cartagena or releasing lanterns into the night sky in Thailand. I listed my schedule, accommodations, and favourite spots and things I did.

SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE
Duration
: 10 Days

Days 1-3: Habana Vieja – most recognizable part of Havana
Days 4-5: Viñales – mini trip 2.5 hours from Havana
Days 6-10: Vedado, business district of Havana


Days 1-3: Habana Vieja, Havana

If you weren’t planning on it, I highly recommend spending at least a couple of days in Old Havana to really experience all the charm the city has to offer. Imagine waking up and being able to just step out the door, immersing yourself right in the vibrant bustle of daily life. Infamously friendly (maybe TOO friendly haha) you’re sure to make new Cuban friends while you drink in the colourful, crumbling buildings (and a mojito or two or five).

WHERE I STAYED...
+Casa Marly is a bright turquoise home right in the middle of the action of Habana Vieja with a steep (like, holy calf muscles, steep), several storey walk-up. It’s a couple of blocks from Plaza Vieja, passing fruit carts, local markets, and art shops along the way.

WHERE I ATE…
+ Luckily, we were able to wander in to Dona Eutimia without reservations and get a seat! The drinks were muy fuerte and my albondigas (meatballs) were accompanied by beans, rice, and fried plantains. If you’re looking for a look into the local art scene, check out Taller experimental de Grafica right next door. Also around the corner is the infamous Le Bodeguita del Medio!

+ Wandering aimlessly, we followed the raucous sounds of salsa music to Restaurant Van Van where a live band was playing. Surrounded by vintage chic decor and a lively atmosphere we sampled the local staple, ropa vieja, and washed it down with their wide selection of cocktails, hand-lettered on vinyl records.

FAV THINGS TO DO…

+ Give your feet a break and jump in the back of a bike taxi and take a whirl around Old Havana. It was my absolute favourite thing to do – watching the city pass us by with a nice breeze as our “guide” pointed out historical landmarks and his favourite spots. I could’ve spent my entire day doing this!

+ I spent an embarrassing amount of time at this plant-filled haven, getting non-sober on beautiful rum-based cocktails – pineapple mojitos, watermelon caipirissimas, mojito daiquiris, guava caiprioskas. Oasis de Nelva was the perfect spot to dance to “Despacito” (on repeat) with the friendliest staff.

+Catch a boxing match on Fridays at 7pm OR if you’re feeling bold, set up a training session at Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo. This old school, open-air boxing gym is completely unassuming from the outside but when you walk through the doors, it opens up to a boxing ring, lined by punching bags and audience stands.


Days 4-5: Viñales

As a gorgeously lush UNESCO Heritage site, Viñales Valley was a nice mid-trip change of pace. We escaped to the abundantly green countryside, full of majestic limestone cliffs, farms and tobacco fields, perfect for lazy horseback rides. It was a much different side of Cuba to experience.

WHERE I STAYED...
+ We were welcomed to the cute, pink Casa Hostel Juana by Juana and her husband who were so sweet, advising and assisting with everything from day tours to bike rentals to making the most delicious, fresh pineapple juice when we returned to the casa.

WHERE I ATE…
+ Paladar El Campesino is a restaurant located right at the edge of the little town, fronted by an unassuming white casa that opens up to an expansive outdoor dining area. Enjoy your choice of main (roast chicken, grilled fish, etc..) accompanied by soup, three (count ‘em, THREE) kinds of rice, fruit salad, green salad, and beans with an impressive view of farm fields and lush mountains in the distance.

+Take advantage of being situated in the middle of so much farm land and eat fresh! On our way back from horseback riding we stopped at Finca Raul Reyes and had the BEST chicken of life! Marinated all the way through in onion, lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper, the chicken was juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside, served with papaya, mango and guava that were bursting with flavour, salad, and rice and beans (natch). The drink special of the day were gigantic coconuts with the water mixed with pineapple juice and rum.

FAV THINGS TO DO…
+ We rented bikes and explored the town and beyond, past farms and over rolling hills, making stops at fruit stands for fresh coconut drinks and at a bizarre bar in a cave. Palenque de los Cimarrones is a historic site that was re-created to depict the nomadic homes of runaway slaves who lived in caves for safety.

+ To avoid the midday heat and brutal sun, we kicked off our horseback riding tour through the picturesque Silent Valley at 8am. Despite my guide occasionally prodding my horse to gallop for Kelly’s entertainment, the ride was blessedly calm, allowing me to soak up the sunshine and peacefulness of the valley. We stopped at a tobacco farm where we learned about the cigar-making process, watched one being rolled, and sampled the results.

+ Partway through the tour, we stopped at Cueva del Palmarito, a cave that was treacherous to navigate and pretty boring until we got to the end where there was a body of water. As adventurous as I am, the ominous, murky waters did not look inviting but our guide insisted we go swimming and we actually had so much fun!


Days 6-10: Vedado, Havana

The residential neighbourhood of Vedado is full of historic, colonial homes and is the ideal area to enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife.

WHERE I STAYED...
+ Casa “La Gloria” is a gorgeous home that’s been restored while maintaining the authentic charms of the original structure. Our host, Peter, was the sweetest German man, ridiculously helpful and wonderful to chat with. He not only arranged taxis with reliable drivers and made reservations at some of the best paladars in the city for us but he always took the time to be my sounding board for figuring out my daily itinerary.

WHERE I ATE…
+ One of the first paladars to open in Havana, Cocina de Lilliam is like enjoying a fantastic meal in The Secret Garden. I recommend you start with the Tamal en Cazuela – which was like a heavenly corn soup – and the shrimp pasta or the lamb stew for your main. And mojitos. Lots of mojitos. Always mojitos. The staff was so sweet, giving us complementary chocolate mousse and a fifteen-year old rum for dessert!

+ Technically in Centro Habana, La Guarida did NOT disappoint. The crumbling mansion is in the midst of being restored and it’s full of nooks and crannies, waiting to be explored. Finish off a meal of octopus carpaccio and tuna tiradito with a lemon gelato in coconut soup then work off it off by climbing up to the very top of the building for a 360 degree view of the city. Good idea to make a reservation a day or two in advance.

FAV THINGS TO DO…
+ I fell in love with salsa dancing earlier this year and was dying to try my hand (or feet) at it in a locale where people grow up with rhythm running hot in their blood. The MOST FUN I had was dancing the night away at Jardines 1830, an open-air club right by the water with broad-shouldered locals demonstrating dance moves with a live band playing in the background. We also spent a scandal-filled night at the popular Casa de la Musica in Miramar that boasts an impressive stage show.

+ Also in Centro Habana, salsa instructor, Milagros of MilyDance took a group of us to El Patio Areito for authentic rumba music. I couldn’t express to you the heady feeling in that tiny back room where the band played for a room filled with 95% locals. It was another world to see how genuinely everyone felt the music and moved with bone-deep passion.

+ Our spot in Vedado was right by the Malécon that is a broad esplanade that stretches for five miles along the coast of Havana. It’s a popular Friday night hangout where you can visit with a bottle of rum and meet locals. Another option is to hire a classic car for an hour city tour and end it cruising the stretch at sunset.

ETC is the overflow of thoughts in the mind of Teri Yeung. It’s a place full of stories of travel adventures, imparted lessons learned from life’s achievements and failures, behind-the-scenes of projects and experiments, and anything else that inspires excitement and joy.

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