Experiencing Havana and Trinidad With My Mother
By Kate Hartshorne
Time has a way of slipping by unnoticed. For me, it wasn’t until my mom and I talked about our various travels that I realized that she and I had never spent even one night alone just the two of us, away from home.
I decided that we both could use some time away from our hectic schedules. Cuba came to mind and seemed a natural fit for our first trip together. I had visited the year before and knew my mother would love it there, especially as she had studied Cuban history in college and always wanted to visit the island.
“I’m fun, I speak Spanish, why don’t you take me to Cuba?,” I asked, half joking. Fortunately for me, that was all the prodding she needed to start packing.
Isn’t It Illegal to Travel to Cuba?
Our destination choice surprised many people. “Cuba?” they’d ask, “Are you even allowed to travel there now?”
While it is true that there have been some restrictions to American travel to Cuba in 2018, it is not illegal or off limits for Americans to visit. It is, in fact, quite easy for Americans to travel to and around Cuba. They just need to have a specific goal in mind, be well researched on the regulations, and plan ahead.
Support for the Cuban People
The first obstacle to be overcome in order to travel to Cuba is the travel restrictions put in place by the State Department. When purchasing your airline tickets, you are required to select one of 11 travel categories to justify your reasoning for visiting.
There is no category designated for lying on the beach and drinking a mojito, so you probably will have to find a better reason to go.
Many visitors select the category “Support for the Cuban People”. This suggests that the traveler will be supporting local Cuban businesses and privately owned operations, as opposed to government-run establishments. If you choose this category you should plan to do just that.
How Does Supporting the Cuban People Work?
One great way to support the Cuban people is by staying in a casa particular instead of a government-run hotel. A casa particular is a room rented out in a Cuban family’s home (or sometimes an independent apartment owned by someone who lives nearby).
The owners rent the rooms directly, similar to Airbnb, and can span from the most basic of essentials to top luxury.
Generally, the cost can range anywhere from $15-$125 per night. As an added feature, your hosts will usually offer an abundant and delicious breakfast for around $5 per person, which is always a great deal.
Another way to support the Cuban people is to hire private tour guides to help you visit the island. You can hire a guide for just a day or have one join you for the duration of your trip. We used CUBA CANDELA for the bulk of our stay, which turned out to be an excellent decision.
Guides are able to show you places that would be extremely difficult to find on your own. Even better, they can help make restaurant reservations at privately-owned restaurants (another important way to support the Cuban people) and will plan popular activities that you may not be able to schedule yourself.
A Great Winter Getaway
We arrived in Havana from our home in Massachusetts around noon.
A warm breeze over the malecon (the seawall that runs the length of Havana) brought the ocean sounds and salt air to greet us as we stepped out into the sunshine. We shook off the New England cold and negotiated with a taxi to chauffeur us to our casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
We spent the first full day in Havana, walking the city from one end to the other and found it to be very walkable. A free guided tour of the underground tunnels at the National Hotel got us out of the heat, but after cooling off and seeing some of the other sights in Havana Vieja, we found ourselves tired and hot and hailed the first taxi back to our casa.
We did not have a guide for most of our time in Havana. In retrospect, this would have been very helpful in getting to know the city. We met a couple of other travelers staying in our casa (who just happened to be from our same small valley in Massachusetts!) who hired a guide for a day tour of Havana and felt it was well worth the money.
Art and Fine Dining
While in Havana, CUBA CANDELA was able to secure us a reservation at the very popular Fabrica De Arte Cubano.
This unique establishment teeming with hip Cubans of all ages combines a trendy bar scene with a modern art gallery. They have several impressive art installations along with live music, fashion shows, movies, and other works of modern art.
The restaurant at the FAC, Tierra, had some of the most delicious food we ate during our week in Cuba (try Grandma Carmen’s pork confit dough and their mojito made with dark rum and cava, you won’t be disappointed). If you can get a reservation you can skip the long entrance line and head straight to the gallery after dinner.
After spending a couple of days in Havana we were anxious to move on. We hooked up with our tour guides from CUBA CANDELA and hit the road to the southern coastal town of Trinidad.
CUBA CANDELA is an American based travel company that specializes in personalized, hand-crafted private experiences in Cuba. They work with any size group to create an individual itinerary to fit the travelers’ needs.
A private guide is provided along with a car and driver. They are knowledgeable and will take you to various destinations throughout Cuba, many of which you likely would otherwise miss.
It was clear from traveling with CUBA CANDELA that this company is proud of the experiences they provide their customers. Every detail was organized, well-planned, and perfectly timed.
Our guides, Sara and Jorge, were with us the entire time, but they never seemed intrusive. We had plenty of free time as we desired and our guides quickly became like old friends.
By the end of our few days, I felt as though I had known them for years. They were both extremely friendly, warm, knowledgeable, and professional. I found them to be a joy to travel with and they made our trip easy, relaxing, and all the more interesting.
Relaxing in Trinidad
Trinidad is easily one of the most pleasant places I have ever visited. From the warm, friendly local residents to the rhythmic beat of the live salsa bands playing on every corner, Trinidad is not a town to be missed while in Cuba.
The town square sits upon a hillside with cobblestone streets leading up to the top. Perched at the top is a collection of museums, bars, and restaurants. They were lively and full of energetic Cubans and foreigners looking to watch the spectacular sunset and to dance the night away.
My mom and I ate dinner each night with a different view of the square. Afterward, the beat of the bongos heard from the street pulled us into different bars. One open-air salsa club, Casa de la Musica, is built into a set of old stone steps.
The club has live salsa shows each night where we watched talented dancers spin and twirl to music. I was also able to try out my salsa skills with the myriad of available dance partners. Anyone who loves salsa dancing should be sure to visit on their next trip to Cuba.
Nature in Cuba
While visiting Trinidad we spent one day exploring Topes de Collantes National Park, part of the Escambray mountain range.
This nature preserve has several hiking trails that lead to various waterfalls and countless scenic views of the surrounding mountains.
The road from Trinidad to the mountains was a bit of a nail-biter, winding through several switchbacks as we climbed higher into the fresh mountain air.
On our way up the mountain, we stopped at a small family coffee farm. As we arrived, an adorable couple, Rosa and Masiel, greeted us warmly.
They ground some of their beans and brewed us a strong cup of delicious Cuban coffee (there really is nothing like it on Earth).
Finally, after a few more windy turns, we arrived at Parque Guanayara, our hiking destination for the morning. The well-worn trail steadily descended into a cool, lush valley of ferns and palm leaves.
Occasionally, there would be a clearing which offered picturesque views of the mountains. Except for the birds and the other hikers passing by, the entire area is surprisingly undeveloped and silent.
After hiking for about a half hour we came to el Salto de Rocio, a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole, where mom and I dove into the crystal clear river to cool off. It was about as close to heaven as you can get.
There were several other hiking options on the road leading to el Salto de Rocio with many featuring various waterfalls and swimming holes. Both of us, however, found our hike to be the perfect choice with just the right length and intensity.
After hiking, we did manage to sneak in a little time at the beach on our last day in Trinidad. Our guides first took us to El Grill, a tiny stretch of rocky coastline with an adorable restaurant and bar. We stayed for a bit before checking out
the more popular Playa Ancon, which was more crowded but had easier access to the water.
Swimming is always on my agenda when I visit the Caribbean. The water was warm and so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. I found it to be perfect for swimming unlike the cold waters off of New England. Best yet, the beaches are only a 15-minute taxi ride from the center of Trinidad.
A Cuban History Lesson
On our way back to Havana we detoured through Playa Giron to visit the Bay of Pigs museum (Museo Giron) at the site of the United States’ failed invasion of Cuba in 1961.
We found the museum full of visitors taking in the history. As it turned out, we happened to be visiting on the anniversary of the invasion itself.
My mother had researched the museum and was sure she wanted to visit. I was skeptical, however, but I must say that it was both informative and interesting.
The plaques are all in Spanish, but the museum is very well done and clearly well maintained. I would recommend this stop to anyone interested in Cuban history. I was happy to oblige my mother and her pursuit of further knowledge with this small detour.
That’s a Wrap
Mom and I wrapped up our trip with two more nights in Havana, a day at the beach at Santa Maria, and lots of good conversation and laughs.
We finished off our travels to Cuba with mild sunburns and an overwhelming love for the Cuban people. Everyone we met in Cuba was warm, sincere, kind, courteous, and open to talking about their lives.
We also ended our trip with an even stronger bond that we had when we arrived. I was a little nervous about spending an entire week with just my mother, but Cuba was the perfect destination to bring us closer together. We would absolutely go back and visit again, as I know we’ve just barely skimmed the surface. I can’t wait to see what the island has in store for next time.