Hey...what are you doing in July? Want to go to Cuba?
This is one of the two ways I typically ask people if they have the time and desire to travel with me on a whim. The other being "THERE IS A FLIGHT SALE. BOOK NOW WORRY LATER. DON'T RUIN OUR FRIENDSHIP BY NOT BOOKING BUY BUY BUY!!!!" Yes, I am that type of friend that often does the most and likes to guilt trip others into vacations.
Although I have a deep passion for traveling, I made a decision earlier this year that I was going to put myself on a travel ban to continue to build my savings. I officially decided to stay in Dallas and I want to find a house that fits my needs as far as closet space, a big kitchen and fun-size person friendly ie has cabinets and shelves that I can actually reach. With my schedule full of adulting and taking off no time during busy season at work, my internal travel ban went before my mental supreme court and died. Here I was booking a flight to Cuba and got people to agree to go with me.
I had planned a few trips for people before so the average person would assume that this would be a breeze. For some reason, planning a trip that I am not on is a simple task for me. The past few trips that I have been on have been more than 20 people so a group of ten that I had never traveled with before was very much a step out of my comfort zone. I tried to remember that as a new group, people may not be used to my usual way of booking and letting the Venmos/Quickpays fly or my overly detailed plans which require a lot of questions to gauge what type of trip someone wants. Fortunately, it worked out!
We decided if we were taking the time off work, we were going to do as much as possible in our six-day trip. We did an overnight layover in Miami as an initial meet up for a few of the people that didn't live in the Dallas area. Sitting around the hotel bar playing cards and having the bartender, who happened to be Cuban, make us strong drinks was a great way to break the ice of a trip.
The next day we found ourselves in Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba. I have to admit my initial thought as soon as I landed was "oh sh*it. You really just brought your ass to Cuba sis." I can honestly say there were a few moments I asked myself wtf did I just do but as soon as I got through customs my reservations slipped away with the time.
Our driver met us at the airport to shuttle us from the airport to our two Airbnb's in Nuevo Vedado. The original house that we had booked for all of us to stay in cancelled right before the trip. This required me to go into overdrive to find a new location for us to stay. Not having luck with getting one house that fit the seven girls and three boys with enough rooms and bathrooms, I had to make the executive decision at 1:30 AM three days before our trip to split up and have two houses that were within walking distance of one another. (walking distance ended up being 0.7 miles and my calves were on ten going back and forth) I suggest if you plan to go to Cuba, double check all of the reviews of your Airbnb and if you see something weird or the host becomes unresponsive, report it ASAP. Airbnb also gave us a credit because of the cancellation and issues.
Our house was in our own little paradise with an outdoor bar, waterfall, and different tropical shrubberies. The host greeted us with freshly squeezed mango juice and the best gift ever... RUM! Her step-son is a bartender at a local restaurant and served up ice cold mojitos that left us a step past tipsy.
They were nice enough to walk us to a restaurant up the hill to grab food at a local paladar (privately owned restaurant). There we found great seafood and even more mojitos, sangrias, and daiquiris. The weather started to get to us after walking around the neighborhood. We parted ways to cool down and sneak in some post-flight naps. We later met up at the renowned restaurant La Guardia. Known for its rooftop dining experience, we sat in the same dining place that had been visited by Beyonce, Jay-Z, and President Obama. The atmosphere was amazing but the food was overhyped. As a tourist, I can say we got the experience, but it was far from the best thing that I ate while in Cuba.
The next day, we traveled 20 blocks at 5 am to get to the hotel where our bus for our beach excursion to Varadero. We absolutely did not see one cab the entire time we were speed walking. There were plenty of people out but no one seemed to think twice of a group of Americans almost running down the street in the dark. We made it to the location just as the bus pulled up to collect us. Sleeping the entire ride, we woke up ready to hit the boat and the beach. For me, this is one of the best parts of our trip. We were treated to unlimited Cuban cocktails, a seafood buffet, snorkeling and even playing with a dolphin. I was indeed Boncho the Dolphin's favorite person as he gave me not one but two kisses. The love that we got from start to finish was also amazing. Other tourists stopped us for pictures and to talk to us. The boat driver mistakenly granted us the opportunity take over djing for a while and had people from Turkey, Spain, France, and more turning up to the finest of American Trap Music. Wiped out from the day, only half of us made it out to Don Conegro that night. Upon arrival, the line was wrapped around the corner but showed a good time with a mix of music, people, and cheap drinks.
After a well rested night sponsored by Havana Rum drinks, we embarked out into the city to explore on an old car tour around Havana. Our drivers gave us historic stories of Cuba's years under Communism, Castro, and their present day state. Our driver also let us know that she loved President Obama and wishes he could come back. I gave her that "girl me too" look and we quietly understood each other. We had the drivers drop off us off in Old Havana to hit a couple of hot spots like El Floridita and explore on our own. Dancing up and down the streets with the locals as live music played, we were getting the full Havana experience.
Later that night we had reservations at El Cocinero. We ate dinner under the stars in what was once an oil cooking factory. The pasta was so good that we ended up going back the next day and sitting in the exact same space on the terrace. What we didn't know was that night we were going to go on an adventure around Cuba shortly after dinner. Starting next door at Fabrica De Arte, the line was around the corner. Unlike the reviews that said the club didn't have pushy bouncers at the door, there were pushy bouncers at the door. We then took cabs to a few different clubs and finally ended up in one after spending 20 minutes waiting in a line. Rihanna and Beyonce played so I was satisfied.
As our feet grew weary and our legs tired from our travels, we pushed the pain to the side to spend the last day going back to Old Havana. We continued to walk around and explore the different cathedrals, museums, and art galleries. We made it a point to get back in time to get dressed and hit Fabrica de Arte before we took off the next day.
Arriving at 8:30 pm was a stark difference to the night before when the line was around the corner. The same pushy bouncers were there but this time let us walk right in. We paid the 2 CUC for cover to walk into three levels of art, live music, and film. Around midnight, the art factory turns into a literal turn up
Tired, sore, and about 7 shades darker we made it back to the airport to finish the last night of our trip in Miami. Each one of us slept the entire flight back to the US and were thankful to make in one piece. Spending the day together on South Beach bouncing between Wet Willies, Fat Tuesdays and the salt water was in some way the perfect way to relax. We chatted about our favorite moment on the trip, the times we thought it was going to go up in flames, and our future travel plans.
Our sun drenched skin, defined muscles, and renewed minds brought back a trip that had us not only make memories but connect with one another. Being off the grid and not much access to internet, our friends, or our troubles at home was a relief for a few days. We were forced to not only talk to one another but listen and take it in. Listen to other people that were not our own. I can look back and know that Cuba owes me nothing.
If interested in getting the full rundown on our trip with locations, things to do, tips and recommendations fill out the form below