I get excited each time I post a sign-up for a new group trip to Cuba. I’m always curious about who will join me on the next adventure. For the most part, I have been very fortunate with this. Once, not so much. This most recent time…Jackpot!
|Entering the Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio|
|Lunchtime in Vinales|
About 6 months ago I posted a sign-up for a November 2016 five-night trip to Havana, Pinar del Rio/Vinales and Varadero. 8 people was my limit. Of course, about thirty people contacted me and said they were “in”. I didn’t panic about not having the space. I know how this thing works. Within a couple of weeks, and come time for making a deposit, that list of thirty was down to a solid, committed five! Five women! Five women who typically pack up and take solo trips, or who join travel groups as a solo traveler. I planned to use some of my free time in Cuba to do some site visits to hotels and B&Bs, so I enlisted one more person to join our group. A native Spanish-speaking, travel planner friend. The two of us have traveled from the coffee region of Colombia, to the resorts of Jamaica together on travel planner jaunts, so I knew he would be a good fit for helping me with this trip.
|Bedroom at B&B Solinos y Yo|
After sending in all payments, getting all of the necessary paperwork from the group, securing visas, a couple of conference calls, and some last minute changes made by our folks in Cuba, our travel day had come. We flew from our home airports of DC, Albany, New Orleans, (and a short drive from Miami), to Fort Lauderdale to meet for the first time in person and take what would be their first flight to Cuba, and my first commercial flight to Cuba from the U.S. (before, I’d taken chartered flights from Miami)
|Our Home For 3 Nights in Havana…B&B Solinos y Yo|
This was one my favorite trips ever to Cuba! I mean these women and one guy are travel pros! They really know how to do it! Sure, they brought a lot of luggage. A lot! But, they also left behind a lot of their clothes and toiletries, and brought back a whole lot of gifts (they have really happy friends in the States right now, I’m sure!). From the moment we arrived at the airport in Varadero, to the moment we boarded our flight home, they were nothing short of curious, open-minded, gracious, well-educated, culture-loving travelers! I could not get enough of how much they wanted to explore the island, meet the people, and take it all in.
Usually, a five day trip gives me plenty of time to have the group take in the tours, educational and people-to-people activities. Not this group! They happily turned our two hour walking tour of Old Havana into over three hours. They didn’t only stop at the shops for gifts, they spent close to thirty minutes in each of the shops getting to know the artisans and craftsmen, and learning about what inspires them. Our meals were long and lingering, full of conversations and live music, and without cell phones. Aaahhh…heaven.
|Living Room at B&B Solinos y Yo|
|Artwork at B&B Solinos y Yo|
In Havana,we spent three nights in a lovely, large private home, B&B Solinos y Yo, with amazing twenty-four hour staff, a fully stocked bar and cigar humidor, high-powered a/c, a bedroom and bathroom for each of us (we had the entire place to ourselves!), water that was sometimes hot, sometimes warm, sometimes cold (without one single complaint!), ate delicious group breakfasts of fruits, hot, baked bread from the bakery downstairs, eggs, ham, cheese, and freshly-made fruit juice, and traveled around to our cocktail and dinner spots in either a nine-passenger minivan or two separate taxis.
|Breakfast at B&B Solinos y Yo|
|Lunch Stop Day 1|
|Lunch Day 1|
We took a very long day trip to Pinar del Rio/Vinales and visited a scenic overlook, the Cueva del Indio in Pinar del Rio, had lunch at a fantastic family farm restaurant, and got a lesson in cigar-making from my absolute favorite farming family at Finca Rancho Alegre, before taking the three-hour drive back to Havana. Our drivers and guides Jorge and “Morro” made every trip a delight. They were fountains of information!
|Entrance to Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio|
|Along the Tobacco Route|
|My Favorite Rest Stop|
|My Favorite View in Pinar del Rio|
|Tobacco Farmers in Vinales at Finca Rancho Alegre|
|Lemonade and Mojito-Maker Extraordinaire|
We spent the last two and half days in Varadero, after a ride through Matanzas. While we stayed at the concierge level of the lovely Melia Marina Varadero, an all-inclusive beach/marina resort that had every amenity you could ever wish for, my amazing group of travelers decided, each day, to leave the resort and take the local bus into town to visit with the locals, shop for local crafts, and eat the local food. Did I mention that this group was awesome?
|Music on the Way to Matanzas|
|The Beach in Varadero|
|Melia Marina Varadero|
Over the dinner our last night in Cuba, we took turns talking about our favorite parts of this trip. It made me happy beyond words to hear their feedback. Dameatrice enjoyed searching through Old Havana, both in personal homes and shops, for a handmade dance skirt for her young niece (she eventually found one!), Lisa loved meeting the tobacco farmers and having a fresh smoke with them. Krissy enjoyed her sunrise run along the malecon, meeting the locals and their dogs out for morning strolls. Luis reflected on his night-time walks along the malecon, having hours-long conversations with the revelers and fishermen. Joyce smiled as she spoke of her lone wanderings through Old Havana after our group lunch. And Taryn spoke over and over again of how she can’t wait to visit each town again. Thank you all. You helped make this trip to Cuba a truly special one for me.
|Luis and Our New Friend!|
|Always Great To See Her!|
|Afternoon in Old Havana|