An Amazing 5 Nights In Cuba

 I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it many, many more times.  It takes a special traveler to visit, appreciate and enjoy Cuba right now.  So many Americans are chomping at the bits to visit the “forbidden” island these days.  Pressed to know what all the fuss is about.  A year ago, after a few solo educational trips, I decided to enlist a small group of travelers to take the journey with me.  I got two brave, serious souls to say “yes”, and really commit.  Thank you Deanna and Jane!  These two ladies helped me navigate my way through the learning curve of taking groups to Cuba for educational and people-to-people encounters, and I’ve never looked back. Again, thank you, ladies!

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)
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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!
Cool Pups!

 

Afternoon in Old Havana

 

Vinales, Cuba – Valle de Vinales and Cuevas del Indio

The Vinales Valley (so far, my favorite part of Cuba!) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of a series of interconnected, narrow valleys with scenery that is simply magnificent!  It is here, in the red, fertile soil and deep green fields (vegas) that some of the world’s finest tobacco is grown.  Peasant farmers tend the fields, dressed in army fatigues or white linens and straw hats.  There’s no serious machinery to help with their work, just traditional, oxen  drawn wooden plows.  Many of these farmers own their land.  They do, however, have to sell their crop to the government at a fixed rate.

Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

The farmers welcome visitors to freely enter into their vegas and curing sheds to talk to them about the basics of tobacco farming.  They’ll even share the fruit from their fruit trees with you! Palm trees, banana trees and orange trees dot the scenes, and chickens, cattle, pigs and horses roam about the fields.  The valley is perfect for hiking, but do take a guide if you opt to scale a mogote (tall, conical mountains that add to the region’s beauty).  The views of the valley are best at dusk and dawn when the natural light is enhanced by the dimly lit lanterns of the thatched huts.

While there are several national monuments to visit in Vinales, we spent time at the breath-taking Cuevo del Indio (Indian Caves).  These underground caves are filled with interesting stalactites and stalagmites, and in places, reaches a height of 300 feet.  The cave is well-developed for tourists, complete with lights and a boat tour.  The entry fee is 5 CUC (about 5 USD).

Steps to Cueva del Indio

 

 

Inside Cueva del Indio

Just before entering the cave, I tried the Guayabita del Pinar rum, mixed with fresh sugar cane and lemon. Delish!

If you’d like to stay over a couple of nights instead of taking a day trip to the region, there are hotels and lovely guest houses to accommodate you.  The people, the food and scenery are some that I will not soon forget.

One of several lodging options in Pinar del Rio/Vinales region

Vinales, Cuba – Tobacco Route

Our day 2 in Cuba was my favorite.  It was a very, very long day.  The car ride from Havana to the province of Pinar del Rio was about 4 hours.  Our driver/guide, Jorge, was awesome!  He was an English Professor before joining the tourism industry.  With such a large amount of professors (and doctors, nurses and lawyers!) in Cuba, the salary for the profession is so low these days that it’s forcing those who are able to look elsewhere for career options.  After working for an international cruise line for a few years and traveling to more countries than I’ve ever dreamed of, Jorge was able to purchase a car with some of his savings and start his own business as a tour driver.  We were told by a few budding entrepreneurs that about 5 years ago President Castro realized that on some jobs there were close 20 people doing the job of one person,  he made sweeping lay-offs, and the government began to allow more and more Cubans to start their own businesses.  Of course, a pretty large portion of their earnings go to the government (taxes?), but it’s a start.



Farm Owner/Host

 

 

Jorge Tour Guide/Driver

Having Jorge as a guide was such a pleasure.  While he is from Havana, he knows Vinales Valley very well.  He also loves visiting with his family whenever he can.  It was he and his wife’s 13th wedding anniversary the weekend after our day trip there, and he told us that he’d planned to go back with his family for a couple of days.  Jorge’s English was excellent (former English professor), so he was able to explain a lot about the region to us, and to answer the million questions that I had.  With such an action-packed day, this post will focus on the tobacco farm (la finca).



En route to Vinales

 

 
 

Upon our arrival to the farm, we wandered around and took in the beautiful green scenery until the tourist couple ahead of us finished getting their cigar making education.  While waiting, we picked and ate guava fruit, met the 87 year-old farm owner (my favorite!) who picked peeled and served us green oranges (I’d never had one before.  It looked like an unripened grapefruit and tasted like a sweet lime!) .  He strolled around the farm with such swagger and ease.   He was slim and tanned and had such a gracious way about him.  A Cuban cowboy.

 When it was our turn, we entered the cigar-rolling room for our tutorial with Anuvys Gonzalez.  Like his grandfather, Anuvys was so proud of his work.  He took his time and taught us all about the production of the cigars, from seed to stick.  I’d brought along 2 gift bags filled with toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the like, to give to the gracious people of Vinales that I’d grown so found of on my previous trips to the country.  These small tokens could never show our hosts how grateful I was for their time, education and friendliness.

 
Tobacco Leaves




Honey for Dipping the Cigar Tips
 

  
Packaged to Sell Directly From the Farm