In early March 2018, I went to Cuba with my good friend Ian.
It was an incredible adventure, that left me with 1000+ photos and countless memories.
There's so much to share, so I'm going to keep this part short and just dive right into it.
If you're reading this, find somewhere comfy to sit and make yourself a rum drink. It's gonna be a long one.
After two flight cancellations and a night spent sleeping on an airport floor, I escaped a New York blizzard and made it to Cuba one day later than I was originally supposed to. Ian (middle) arrived a few days earlier from Minnesota and was staying in a hostel in Havana until I arrived. While at that hostel, he met a bunch of people, including Dimitri (right) who has been traveling the world alone for the past six months. Ian invited Dimitri to tag along with us to and the two of them met me at the airport with a taxi driver who willing to make the 4 hour trip to Trinidad.
To be honest, I was a little worried about whether or not we would even make it to Trinidad in this taxi. There were no seatbelts (but that was fairly standard and didn't bother me too much) and I swear we nearly died twice because of some reckless passing attempts. Of course, Ian and Dimitri were sound asleep, leaving me sweaty-palmed with no one to talk to haha. On top of that, we started running out of gas with no gas station in sight, so our driver pulled off the highway into multiple people's properties to ask them if they had any gas for sale. Thank god somebody did on our second or third stop. The picture above was taken at a roadside stop where we got a little food and water along the way.
By the time we got to our hostel in Trinidad, the sun had set. We were greeted by our host, Dievy, with a Canchanchara—the traditional drink of Trinidad made with rum, honey, and lime juice. We settled into our room and then soon after went out for dinner and came back to the house with our own bottle of rum to prepare to experience some Cuban nightlife.
Dimitri had heard about this underground (literally underground, in a cave) nightclub in Trinidad so we decided we would go check it out. We asked Dievy to give us some general directions and after wandering around for a bit, we finally found it hidden somewhat on the outskirts of town. By this I mean, there's no way I would have ever guessed there was any kind of functioning bar in the area this was located, because it seemed more residential, but once we went down the stairs we were happily surprised to find a club full of people, music, and 3 CUC ($1 = 1 CUC) drinks. We got back to our hostel in the early morning.
The next morning we woke up to a breakfast already prepared and set out for us to eat. Unfortunately, Dimitri got some sort of food poisoning from the chicken he'd eaten the night before and didn't have much of an appetite. Ian and I ate some of everything–eggs, coffee, guava, pineapple, oranges, milk yogurt, pastries, and fresh guava juice. After breakfast, with help from Dievy, we arranged to meet up with a horse-owner who would guide us out to a popular swimming hole in the mountains just outside Trinidad. I should note that there's very little access to internet in Cuba, so travelers are left to rely on information they get from the locals. Thankfully, Dievy was an amazing host and was able to give us insight on basically anything we wanted to do.
These are just a few street photos that I took along the walk from the hostel to stable.
I've ridden horses on vacation before (when I was a little kid) but it was nothing like this. We were basically just told the names of our horses and handed the reigns. We generally stuck to a trail, but we were free to walk, trot, or gallop at our own pace and even crossed through a couple rivers on the way. I found out that shooting (camera) from horseback is not as easy as the cowboys & indians make it look in the movies.
Along the way to the swimming hole, we stopped at this trailside farm that grew tobacco and coffee beans. As you can see in the top photo, this must have been a fairly popular stop along the trail because there were a few other travelers there when we arrived. The man who owned the farm welcomed us to the table, asked us where we were from and assigned us nicknames based on celebrities of the same skin color—I was harry potter. He then explained his process for growing the beans, roasted them over a fire, crushed them by hand while singing a song, and brewed it through a linen cloth. I'm not exaggerating when I say this was one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had. When you bought a cup of coffee, you also were given a cigar. He told us a funny story about the different ways people hold a cigar (and what that means about them) and then asked if we wanted honey in our cigar. Apparently this is the way that Che Guevara preferred them. We said yes, and so he dipped a stick in honey and stuck that about halfway into the cigar. Then he dipped the end in honey and handed it to us. We started smoking it there and took it with us on horseback for the remainder of the ride.
At this point I was like, "Okay yep. I'm in Cuba."
By the time we made it to the swimming hole, I'll be honest, we felt awful. It was before noon, we were hungover, it was hot, and we had just over-stimulated ourselves with caffeine and cigars. Oh and we'd spent on hour bouncing on the back of horse. We were in desperate need of serious refreshment. The cool, blueish-green water offered exactly what we needed. After that first dive in, we came out feeling like entirely new people.
We spent a good long while at this swimming hole. We met a french traveler who was about our age and had some fun climbing, jumping, and flipping off of the surrounding rock faces. Right next to the pools, there was a makeshift bar serving all kinds of cuban drinks, but we stuck to water. Eventually, everyone had cleared out except for us, the bartender, and a musician who'd been crooning some romantic cuban songs over his beat-up acoustic guitar. We took some time just to sit in the sun and ended up having a nice little conversation with the musician. (More Ian than myself, because his accent was thick and I could barely make out the few spanish words I knew.) After this conversation, I began to notice a trend. The Cuban people have no problem with the US or Americans in general. In fact, they want our tourism and are always excited when they meet someone from the US. Throughout this whole trip, we found ourselves in multiple conversations which basically came down to this idea— People are just people in all parts of the world. The barriers that are created by governments and ideologies are very quickly dismantled when are just talking to somebody one-on-one.
After we got back to the hostel, we found Dimitri still sick, so Ian and I went out for some food nearby. The top photo was taken at a restaurant where we met a couple from Prague named Adriana and Bronk. Originally, Adriana is from Slovakia and Bronk from the Netherlands, (which was a fun surprise for Dimitri later on) and together they'd been traveling around Cuba for over a week by the time we met them. Being that we were roughly the same age and all spoke english, we hit it off and decided that we would meet up later at La Casa de Musica–a traditional salsa music spot in the city center. When nighttime rolled around, Dimitri was feeling better, so all three of us went to meet up with Adriana and Bronk. While there, I enjoyed a few too many mojitos (I get that from my mom) and we all made plans to ride bikes to the beach together the next day. When we returned to the hostel, Ian and I polished off the bottled of rum from the night before on the roof of our hostel, philosophizing about life, and solving the world's problems one sip at a time.
The next morning, we woke up, had our standard breakfast, and walked with Dievy to the home of the bike rental guy. There we were outfitted with bicycles of varying shapes and sizes (and quality.) Once we had our bikes, we met up with Adriana and Bronk and began biking toward the beach. On the way out of Trinidad we passed through some of the poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, and eventually some incredible farmland with rolling hills and mountainous backdrops. When we made our way to the coast, the first city we passed through was Playa Boca–a small, colorful beach village with a few restaurants and bars lining the road between the city and the beach. We deiced to keep going to the more popular, Playa Ancon. Along the way we passed a number of smaller beaches that seemed to be used more by locals than tourists. When we arrived in Playa Ancon, there was a huge number of people laying out on the beach which stretched the full length of town. Wanting to avoid the large crowds, we decided that we would head back to the nearest "locals" beach and hang out there. At this point we'd biked about 9 miles in the hot sun and we were definitely ready to cool off and start relaxing.
We had to pay some guy to park our bikes at the beach, but in return we were able to post up underneath one of the few umbrellas that were available. We'd stocked up on drinks (again, just water for me) before leaving Playa Ancon, because at this beach there was no bar, no restaurant, no anything really. Just sand, sun, and ocean. But we were content because this was all we needed. Thankfully Ian had remembered to bring a bluetooth speaker so after cooling off in the water, we laid in the shade, listened to music, and talked about whatever came to mind.
By the time we returned from the beach, having biked nearly 18 miles, we were completely and utterly exhausted. We laid around the hostel for a bit, went out for some food, and after discovering that the nightlife closed at midnight, made our way back to the hostel for a full 8 hours of sleep. The next morning (when I took this ridiculous mirror selfie) we split up with Dimitri who was planning to go diving in Playa Giron. Ian and I took a cab from Trinidad into the nearby mountain village of Topes De Collantes (which is also the name of the national park where this village is located.) We didn't have reservations, or really any information on places to stay, but we were told we should be fine to just go and ask around. Thankfully, our cab driver knew about a two-bed room for rent at a restaurant in the village. Besides a large hotel* nearby, this was the only place to stay in the village so we took it.
*Note: American travelers are not allowed to stay in hotels or resorts that are owned by the Cuban government. There are some work-arounds, but they involve paperwork and documentation. Honestly it's just easier and a much better experience staying with the local hostels / business owners.
Please excuse this poorly-timed attempt at a group pic. It's so awkward I had to include it. Anyway, almost immediately after getting checked in, we started hiking toward Salto Del Caburni–a waterfall / swimming hole we'd read about before coming to Cuba. It took us about 30 minutes to hike from the village to the waterfall, and it was almost entirely downhill. Along the way we passed some abandoned buildings that seemed to us to be of soviet-era construction. (Maybe that's just our uninformed imagination?) Some seemed like unfinished hotels. Another was a giant outdoor amphitheater that could have seated all the people in Trinidad. We were pretty baffled as to why these structures existed all the way up in the mountains, with very few people to use them. Maybe at one point this area was an extremely popular tourist destination? Who knows. When we arrived at the waterfall, one couple was just leaving, and for a while we had the whole place to ourselves. This water was deeper and cooler than the previous swimming hole we'd visited—likely due to the larger river that fed the falls. Of course we did some more cliff jumping (notice Ian climbing on the sides of the rock in the photos above) and eventually when we'd had enough, we decided to hike a bit further up the falls before heading back to the village.
We explored the upper waterfall area and then turned back toward the village. The hike back, uphill the entire way, took twice as long, and although were were thoroughly exhausted, nothing could shake the sensational feeling of hiking around this beautiful forest.
When we returned to our home for the night, we showered and ate a large meal. While eating, we were told by our host that a bus full of Americans was coming to eat at the restaurant. We were stoked about the idea of getting to meet and hang out with a bunch of fellow US travelers. When they arrived we were hilariously shocked to find out that all of the americans on this bus were 60+ years old and on a guided tour of Cuba. We went and talked with them for a while, and found out that they were staying at that hotel nearby. (They filled out the paperwork.) The guide was a 40-something year old guy from Tacoma who'd been in the travel industry for 15 years. He seemed pretty interesting, so later on that night, we walked over to the hotel bar (not sure if we were technically allowed to spend our money there?) and spoke with him about the value of international travel for a while before retiring to our beds.
The next morning, we woke up early to have breakfast and took a taxi to another restaurant located on the highway. This was the spot where, before leaving Trinidad, we had made arrangements to be picked up by a taxi that would take us to Havana. We'd paid a driver 10 CUC each as a good-faith payment to be picked up at 8:00am. We were literally just sitting with our bags on the side of the road, waiting. By the time 8:30 came around, we started to worry that we'd been scammed–a possibility we were fully aware of going into this deal. Then, a man in a car pulled up to us and told us that our original driver was not coming because some other people that were supposed to go to Havana backed out. (Taxi drivers don't make the 4 hour trip between Havana and Trinidad unless they have a car full of people.) For this reason, we were supposed to ride with this stranger back to Trinidad while they looked for another group trying to get to Havana. We were skeptical, but this man knew about the $20 we'd already paid, so we took him at his word and road with him back to Trinidad.
We waited in Trinidad for maybe an hour while different taxi drivers talked to each other, trying to find people that were heading to Havana. Finally, we got in a van with a guy from Spain, two girls from Switzerland, and a family of three from Canada. We were packed tight, but thankfully the Canadians got off in Cienfuegos, giving us a little more legroom. The trip took closer to 5 hours because we stopped at a roadside restaurant about halfway through the drive, and when we finally arrived in Havana, it was almost 4 hours later than we'd originally planned on getting there.
When we left for Havana, we didn't have a place to stay, but Ian knew an area with a bunch of hostels from his days in the city before I arrived in Cuba. However, the group we were in the taxi with already had reservations in a cheap hostel and suggested that we should ask to stay there as well. Unfortunately, that place was fully booked, but we were able to get the same price in another woman's house literally right next door. After checking in, we set out to explore the city and find some food, but it started to rain so we quickly ducked out into a restaurant / bar with some live salsa music. There we calmed our nerves from a stressful day of travel with some cuba libres and pork sandwiches. After the rain let up, we walked around outside until it started getting dark.
That night, being my only night in Havana, we went out to multiple bars, trying to find a good spot with lots of people. It was a Monday night, so nothing was too remarkable. The only thing worth mentioning is that we met a Cuban guy our age, who at first tried to sell us drugs, but after we declined we asked if he knew of any good bars. He claimed he did, and he decided to walk with us to a specific one he knew about. It was just an okay bar, but while there, we sat and talked about the cultural differences (and similarities) between the US and Cuba and their respective citizens. It was really interesting to hear the perspective of someone literally the same age as us, living an entirely different lifestyle simply because of where he was born. After we finished our drink with him, the bars had pretty much all closed down. Not ready to call it a night, Ian and I went back to our hostel where we had a half bottle of rum and some cigars. We took these with us to the Malecon–a seaside walkway where people go to watch the waves crash against the wall. We walked to the end where there was a 16th century harbor fortress, which you can tour during the day. We hung out there for a while feeling the ocean breeze and listening to the sounds of the waves breaking against the seawall.
For our final hours in Havana, I wanted to shoot the remaining shots on my roll of film. Ian had already seen plenty of the city so he was down to walk wherever I wanted to go. Equipped with my AE-1 and iPhone, We started early and walked through a farmer's market, old havana, and eventually made our way to the opposite end of the Malecon where, using the last shot on my roll, I captured this beautiful red car driving down the highway. Afterwards we ate some food and went back to the hostel to pack our bags.
After packing our bags, we walked to the city center where we could find a taxi. Being that we hadn't yet ridden in a classic car, it was only fitting that our last dollars should be spent on a ride worth remembering. I saw this bright pink 1955 Chevy Bel Air and knew this was the one.
I'm honestly impressed that you made it to the end. (Unless you just scrolled to the bottom to see how long this is lol.)
This trip was truly unforgettable, and reinvigorated my already undying love for travel. It never ceases to amaze me how much I learn and grow as a person after leaving the comfort of my daily routine. I hope that you were able to find something you enjoyed in these images and stories, and maybe even feel inspired to go somewhere yourself. If you have any questions about this trip, my photos, or anything really, feel free to reach out – I'm an open book!
Lastly, as always, thanks to everybody that supports my creative pursuits.