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Visiting Cuba: The Finale

Exploring Beyond Havana & Lasting Impressions

This is a long read, I know, but I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer. I’ve already shared my preparation for this trip to Cuba with you, my first impressions, and our time in Havana. Now, I want to take you along outside of Havana in this final Cuban chapter, to places we visited and to learn about the people we met. There is much to be seen in Cuba beyond the fancy hotels where you can easily isolate yourself from reality. There is much to love and much to dislike, but there is something about Cuba. So, grab your coffee or tea and sit back and enjoy the read.

Viñales – Pinar de Rio

I really enjoyed Viñales. Yes, it is a town living mainly on tourism but nature is at your doorstep without even having to venture that much outside of the main town center. There is a concentration of hotels, hostels, & B&Bs, restaurants, bars, and dance halls all ready to welcome tourists. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like during the pandemic here. Almost everyone you meet does something related to tourism whether they are driving a taxi, working in a restaurant frequented by visitors, or offering excursions to foreigners and the fortunate Cubans who head there for a bit of reprieve. I even spotted a vegan restaurant which I would not have expected at all. I’d say the people are better off here than in Havana. They at least have fresh air, the hills, the campo

People come for horseback riding, the view, the rum, and the tobacco. Viñales is a definite must if you want to experience natural Cuba.

Horseback riding & caves

We visited the Finca el Arado which is a ranch that also produces Cuban cigars and rum. While some were offered for sale, given our long route, it was not practical to buy anything. I like rum in mixed drinks but I won’t be sipping or chugging rum so easily. Well, at least that was what I thought until I met the campesino.

You can’t help but feel as if everything is a sales pitch. We thankfully have the excuse of small cases but I always get a pinch in my heart muscles when I see people desperately trying to get you to buy their goods. It was not too overwhelming in Viñales. One no, gracias was more than enough.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have personally been on a horse. The idea that a creature with its own mind may just charge off with me sitting atop it is not something that brings me great comfort but at the same idea, I love the idea of horseback riding. The riding was amazing and I highly recommend it. The horse was easy enough to handle and he and I even “charged” a few times to pass the boys and their steeds. The riding experience is all part of the ranch visit. We passed through some beautiful countryside and I took many photos along the way. Sadly, for Remi, his camera’s battery hatch somehow opened and his battery fell out along the way. Not the first and certainly won’t be the last thing we lose along the way.

We rode for a good 2 hours and it was getting quite hot. We enjoyed a break when we stopped at a cave for a dip (in the pitch darkness), into icy cold waters. This trip certainly had me doing things I never imagined I would. Imagine stepping into water not knowing what was in there or even how deep it was. Not at all in my personality but I did it. I even changed in the dark knowing that no one could actually see us unless they turned their flashlights in my direction 😱.

After two hours on horseback, the only thing I wanted to do was eat but our next stop before lunch was to yet another one of the “places you take the tourists” and was nothing but underwhelming. The cave visit to Cueva del Indios was one of those stops that ended up on our lists of “won’t do that again”. It just was not worth it. Truly a waste of money. You get into a boat with about 15 people to go through a cave where the captain points quickly to stalactites and stalagmites said to be in the form of some animal or another. A short 20 minutes (if that) later, and you are out of the cave money wasted and not so impressed. Even Aramis was surprised to see how fast we came back out. He was sure (and hoping I’m sure from all the driving), that we would be in for at least 45 minutes. 

Food at last! I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant we ate at after the horseback riding. I can only say (thanks to my iPhone), that it is somewhere off Carretera de Puerto Esperanza south of the Cuevo del Indios. I think I’ve spotted it on Google Maps but it has no name and no photo. Maybe it is called Entre dos montañas? Whatever the name this family-run place offered us an amazing meal. I had the Langosto grille. Would end up being the best one of the whole trip.

El Campesino

Aside from the spectacular views from our breakfast table each morning, there was one other thing that I truly will remain etched in my memory from our visit to Viñales. 

Travel is as much about the places you visit as it is about the people you meet. One thing that we hope to enjoy on this trip is communing with people and in so doing learning about their lives and their cultures. Food is a great vehicle for this and is essentially the driving force behind my travel agency, Let’s Eat The World. It’s not always easy to break through the surface as a tourist visiting a new place but sometimes you get lucky to have met the right people or had the nerve to strike up the right conversation. Having always been a foreigner most of my life, I’ve had to work on my skills to communicate and engage with people I meet. If someone takes the time to share a meal with you, you should feel honored because that moment is one that in almost every culture I have encountered to date, is sacred.

Aramis took us to meet a local farmer affectionally named Pipo. Pipo took us on a carriage ride to a local river – that was meant to be the goal of the ride – the reward for putting up with the bumpy route on this hot afternoon. This also allowed time for Aramis to take a break and for our lunch to be prepared. And what a ride it was. He placed some wooden chairs on the back of the large cart drawn by his two oxen Cimarron & Caramelo. Along the way, he offered us glasses of rum which we thought would be too rude to refuse, and chatted with us about Cuba’s past and present. Thanks to his farm he has plenty to eat. He grows his own coffee even.  

Pipo explains to us that we will be taking a grand voyage on Iberian Airlines (aka his cart) to arrive at the river driven by Cimarron and Caramelo. First class!

He showed us the way of the farmer. What he needs he produces and only sugar (and his rum) are among the small things that he still needs to buy. Even the meat he eats comes from his farm. The entire experience was amazing and enriching. What a meal we had. More like a feast, all expertly prepared by his son a cook who used to work in a few of the restaurants in Viñales before the pandemic. 

At the end of our visit with Pipo, he blessed us as we stood near what he said his grandmother referred to as a sacred tree. He blessed our journey and our family and we thanked him for his hospitality. He gifted us with some of his home-grown, home-roasted coffee beans – Eric will enjoy that!

Viñales Highlights

Remi drives a ’53 Chevy 😱. Aramis let Remi control the steering wheel as we made our way up to Pipo’s farmhouse. I was assured that the road was easy (as easy as a road in Cuba could be), so I sat back and recorded the moment, of course!

Where we stayed: 

Casa Villa Vista – The owners who had fled Cuba not too long before had left the house management to their neighbor. For most of our stay, we were alone on the property which had a pool that was very warm out in the hot sun and wasn’t all that pristine. But it was better than nothing. The chickens shared our terrace and the vista was spectacular. The room was simple and clean. 

Where we ate:

First night restaurant – Toque Criollo which was just on the same street as the Villa Vista al Valle. We ate the famous ropa veja de cordero (or as Remi likes to affectionately call it, “old lamb’s clothes”. The owner, who is not the restaurant’s regular cook, also tried her hand at making cocktails. It was a one-woman-show that night and the food was tasty even if the drinks were questionable. 

Plaza for a drink and langosto cocktail (too much Mayo for me)

Dinner at Cubar – seemed as if it would be pricy as even the water is imported but it was 25€ in total. 

El Bily has live music. Drink prices were higher than the other places we’d been. We did not dine here.

Las Tres Jotas – recommended by Aramis – was ok. The Cuban sandwich panini style was my choice and seemed to have been the best option of our 3 plates.


The highlight was definitely the horseback ride at the Arado Ranch. If you have the opportunity to do it, you should. You’ll also learn about the tobacco-making process if that’s your thing.

We had to make a stop back in Havana to get some gas at Aramis’s house before heading back on the road and this time to Cienfuegos. The distance between Viñales and Havana is 183 km. From Havana to Cienfuegos is 233 km. I forgot to mention the perils of getting gas on the autopista. The line-up at the gas stations is crazy and there were times when they wouldn’t even let Aramis buy gas at all. Somehow he kept his patience though I could see that he was frustrated. This was the real Cuba.

Aramis’s home is shared with his mother-in-law, his wife, and his adult daughter. He is hoping they will be able to buy a small house at some point. It is two buildings divided by one small courtyard. While his mother-in-law lives in the front house, his family shares two rooms and a kitchen. We were warmly greeted and offered a tasty fruit salad and cold drinks.

His daughter studied music and with her boyfriend and 5 others, they perform as a mariachi band for people’s celebrations. On a piano that is slightly out of tune, Remi tries to remember his piano lessons and then Aramis’s daughter gives us a mini performance. 

Back on the road

Matanzanas – Playa Larga aka Bay of Pigs

We stayed at a B&B called Casa Kiki just along the beach. The beach is beautiful and I got into a conversation out in the water with a Cuban grandmother who was minding her 4 grandkids. She tells me one is visiting from the United States for the first time in 4 years. 

Remi was, of course, delighted by the prospect of being on the beach every day. We experienced our second Cuban blackout. As our room was on the ground floor and the number of geckos, and mosquitos was overwhelming, we passed a rather uncomfortable night in the smallest room we would stay in during our trip. The breakfasts in contrast to the room size were enormous. Kiki was a gracious host and aside from the night of tossing and turning, we had a nice stay. We enjoyed a decent lunch overlooking the bay at Tiki Bahia Cochinos. 

On the way to Cienfuegos, we visited Girón’s museum for a lesson in Cuban socialism. I’m not going to give a history lesson or put forth any political agenda but I have to say that it is always interesting to read a story from the flip side. 


Aramis tells us it is the most well-preserved city in Cuba. Founded by a Frenchman Louis Declouet. There is an influence of French architecture in its arcades and the Spanish colonial era as well. I admit that the city has its share of impressive buildings. It was also where I saw the Cuban line-up in full force.

A single avenue dotted with shops that though look full seems more like what we are used to seeing at a going out of business sale. The items inside are shoes, clothes, basic necessities like toothpaste, and deodorant, and luxury goods like bikes, televisions, etc. You could look and think, you see, they have plenty of things but who can shop here? The price of a TV larger than the one we have is under $1000. Here too the pharmacy shelves are empty and people queue at the bank machines. It is heart-wrenching. Ironically, Cienfuegos is where we stayed in our most palatial accommodations. It was the only one that had a real website (that I am only seeing now so I can share the link with you), Baron y Balbín is a restored mansion in the heart of Cienfuegos. The room was large and the bathroom was almost as large. This, unlike the other places we had stayed in, was a real hotel. While the breakfast was not the best we had had, we discovered the morning we decided to skip it that finding breakfast in the city was a challenge. Mealtime was concentrated on lunch. 

Where we ate: 

After declining the breakfast at the hotel which we thought was a bit pricy for what we had come to expect up until now, so we went on a mission to find a restaurant serving breakfast, and what a mission that was. While we couldn’t find juice, bread, or fruit at 9:30 a.m. we could find rum with no problem. A barman who had given us shelter from the rain the evening before was kind enough to walk us all the way to a restaurant he said served breakfast. We ran into him several times throughout the day as he guided other tourists to various venues. Not sure how his job worked but he did not always seem to be waiting for any sort of tip. Perhaps the establishments took note of his work and offered him something later. I’m not going to mention where we ate because it was not that great so if you are here, don’t be like us, eat the hostel, hotel, or whatever’s breakfast.    

We went on a quest for ice cream – it was so hot! The ice cream parlors were empty and looked as if they had not been open for ages. We discovered that for ice cream you need to step up to random windows of people’s home fronts which they had transformed into little shops. Have freezer will sell ice cream. Simple and cheap treats for passersby. 

I didn’t really make note of the places we ate in Cienfuegos – I actually think in the two nights we were there we ate out twice and skipped other meals. 


Probably my favorite city of those we visited. Colorful & vibrant! We stayed in a B&B owned by a former Cuban police officer. Hostal Casa Jose y Fatima. It was right in the heart of the city making it perfect for walking around to take in the charms. 

I get the feeling that the people in Trinidad are better off. Walking through the streets at night allows us to get glimpses into the homes near the hostel. It seems too different to Cienfuegos and light years away from Havana. This was once a very wealthy Cuban city. You get a glimpse into Cuba’s colonial past and can just imagine the wealth that passed through here. But of course, in the new world, with wealth came slavery. Who else to do all that hard work? The first restaurant we dined in, Taberna La Botija, made sure we were aware of both. The wall is covered with the heavy metal chains and devices of bondage that were employed during that time. I made it a point to take Remi over to them so we could read the inscriptions and I could ask him some questions to get him thinking about something that was so ingrained in the history of this island.  

Rosie our guide took us on Sunday “stroll” through town. After getting a sense of what kind of travelers we are, she took us to neighborhoods we would not likely visit on a typical tourist tour. She tells us about Cuba through the eyes of a 28-year-old. If not for her mother, she says, she would maybe try to leave but her mother is a widow and the most important person in her life. She doesn’t want kids, she says. Not here. I wish I had kept some of the feminine hygiene products I gave away in Havana to give to her. It would have made sense to give them to her. She is strong and defiant. She actually studied chemistry but being a guide will put food on the table while her dream of teaching chemistry would not. I wish her all the best. 

A day trip out of Trinidad takes us on a hike into the mountains. Aramis’s Chevy could never make the climb so we had a different guide who took us with one of the government taxis. What a view! The 4×4 taxi took us up to what is Cuba’s second-highest mountain. I appreciated both the AC and the more comfortable ride overall. The classic cars are lovely to look out but they are a workout. Side note, Cuba’s highest mountain is in Viñales. Amazing experience. My muscles still feel it. We had to earn our treat culminating in a swim in a pristine watering hole with a waterfall and all. It was refreshing and distracted us from the inevitable return back onto the hiking trail. 

When in Trinidad you must try a Canchanchara if you’re brave enough. The Canchanchara is an IBA official cocktail made with Cuban aguardiente, honey, and fresh lime juice. Eric wanted to go to try this drink at a special restaurant (Taberna La Canchánchara) which turned out to only be a bar open during the day. When we went there after dinner hoping to get some live music, it was already closing. Lucky for us, another close venue, Cafe Real had just what we were looking for and the music was fantastic.

Trinidad, like Aramis promised us was full of musical opportunities. This is where I finally got Eric to dance with me. We took a salsa lesson in a non-air-conditioned studio and drip-sweated our way through the steps. Remi was our timid cameraman who only wanted to go through the steps with me once we were back in our B&B room. It was a fantastic activity after which the local market was a perfect stop so Eric and Remi could buy themselves new Cuban-style shirts. The vendor explained to us that she would not be back after that day and at the end of the sale inquired as to whether we had colored pencils or other things for kids that we could give to her for her niece. I happened to have Remi’s pencils in my backpack so I gave that to her along with a coloring book.

Trinidad was also the place where a woman asked me if I could exchange the euro coins she had for bills because the coins did not pass. I didn’t have any Euros and when I offered her Cuban pesos instead, she scowled at me and said, those were useless. Trinidad is also where an elderly man walking with a cane asked me if I had any paracetamol. Paracetamol! Please think back to the last time someone begged you on the street for pain medicine. Oh, Cuba! 

Where we ate & drank:

Guitarra mia – at the end of our meal they gave us Cuban cigars as a parting gift. The food was good. A bit further out from the center of town. 

Resturante La Esquina 373 – not far from the place where we had salsa lessons. Rooftop terrace. Live music.

Sol Ananda – an eclectic menu, everything from Indian curry to Italian cuisine. A welcome change but the pièce de resistance in this place is that you dine among the antiques including a bed! 

Cafe Don Pepe – We stopped here for a cold drink on our walking tour with Rosie. Nice garden setting

Taberna Botija – the old-world tavern. They also do live music though we didn’t experience it. The food portions are quite large.

Restaurante San Jose – by far the most expensive restaurant that we ate in. The portions were large (too large). Just look at this dessert that we shared!! Eric had a bad experience here, he decided to order the langosto and it was so over-salted that he just could not eat it. The cocktails were good though.

As you can see, we dined more in Trinidad than anywhere else. 

We made a pit stop in Sancti Spirtus (the city) just for lunch which was not good at all! Lots of music as it is a holiday leading up to the big 26 July celebration. Not sure what to expect in the propaganda wheel of events, we planned to be at the beach playing ostrich.  

Remedios – just to break up the stay as the town center is spacious but seems so empty. Had to eat at a hotel as no establishment that looked like a restaurant was serving any food. Only alcohol or soda

I’m going to assume that it was the combination of a pending holiday and just a lack of options that made it so. The B&B we stayed in was like an antique shop. The owners have a massive collection of grandfather clocks. This was the second place where the owners themselves actually lived in the house though they kept to themselves mostly. I keep asking myself how they acquired these houses. I imagine for many it predates the revolution. But I dare not ask. 

On our escape the national holiday day we were taken to Cayo Santa Maria. An over 1-hour drive from Remedios in which there was nothing to do at all. The funny thing about Remedios is that a woman in a museum in Cienfuegos swore that they (Remedios), had one of the most elaborate set of events for the holiday but we saw no signs of that at all. In Sancti Spíritus, yes, but here it was as dead as dead could be.

Cayo Santa Maria is only open to foreign tourists. You pay with a foreign card and present at least a photo of your passport. Only one road in and one road out. Cubans are therefore not allowed. This place is a mystery to me. Google it and all you will get are results for resorts. It is a weird and eery place and we almost didn’t go but I said to Eric that we needed to see the other side of this coin to have a fuller picture of Cuba. So we went. 

We had no reservation so had to go into a little office located at the police “border patrol” to pay the 20€/person cost. You don’t pay for your driver but your driver is also not expected to do anything but wait for you. With that pass and at least an image with the passport of the person who paid (though I paid since luckily I took my card – Eric had forgotten his PIN code one too many times). They note the name, country of the person paying, and license plate of the car in which you arrived. The road is long 50km. The Cayo has a dolphin park and various luxury hotels. We were headed to a government-run area that looked like a work in progress with many unfinished shops and workers building some sort of bridge to, I don’t know where. The food was actually decent and we ensured that we did not ask for anything more than what our entrance fee covered. 

You can’t deny that the ocean here is magical. Blue, clean, and amazing. We were relieved to see that they fed Aramis because it would have been a long day for him without eating and it was not as if he could drive back and forth from dropping us there. An unusual day.

On our last night in Remedios we tried again to eat at a restaurant as dinner was not offered by our hosts. We later learned that she used to do dinner but as it was getting more difficult for her to even find enough for her own family, she stopped. Our final meal in Remedios ended up being the one package of dehydrated food a client had gifted to Eric during the Week in Uzes. I made a mental note that when I went to see my family in NY, I was going to order some more of these because – you never know. 

The meal that saved us

Adíos Cuba

The return to Havana was memorable. The autopista is not a place you want to have car trouble. Honestly, when would you ever want to have car trouble? We hit one of the many potholes in the road that Aramis had until now expertly outsmarted. But this one was waiting for us. Only 50km outside Havana and the 1953 Chevy was out for the count. The front axle to our right wheel broke or bent in such a way that it was impossible to continue. Ouch! No one was hurt. Not only did this happen just 50 km from Havana but it also was close to a police stop. I forgot to mention that many times along the road you have these police checkpoints. Aramis was always looking over his shoulder when we went through one of those. 

He called his son who came to the rescue in a more recent but not as dolled-up version of the classic car but it was going to get us back to Havana and that was the most important thing. Here, you better have friends, family, and people looking out for you. It’s tough and while your neighbors want to help, they can’t help you any more than they can help themselves. 

Not a photo of our breakdown

Sadly, this meant an early goodbye to Aramis. We didn’t even get a chance to pay him. Tomorrow he will spend his whole day working on his car. Thankfully, he is a mechanic. 

Back in Havana. Hotel Nacional was a disappointment. Remi lost his bag being distracted by the phone, as usual. Lesson learned – we hope. His new bag but not expensive, his cahier de Vacances, my pastel pencils (sigh), Eric’s water bottle, and his new headphones are all now a gift to someone working at the hotel (I hope).

We decided to end our Cuban holiday on a high note so we returned to a sure thing. Back at La Vitrola for live music, cocktails, and tasty food. I played with a 4-year-old Cuban girl whose family was seated next to us. She was adorable. Odd couple. The mom and her daughter with the dad and his girlfriend. The dad showed up after the two ladies had already been seated and ordered. One big happy?

Cuba left me with quite an impression. I don’t know that I will return here anytime soon. I have met lots of people who were nostalgic about their time in Cuba and I have a hard time understanding what they saw that I missed. Maybe it was “better” then. Maybe things have changed? I met some lovely people, smiling, dancing, and singing their hearts out but there was an underlying pain and an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. That feeling of always looking over your shoulder that has become part of their instinct is something that you may miss if you don’t look closely. That fear was something Rosie didn’t have. Youth makes you brave or stupid maybe the two are synonymous. And by stupid I most certainly don’t mean a lack of intelligence. 

I honestly don’t know where Cuba’s future lies but with the opening to the world through the internet and foreign travelers coming in, the people of Cuba are seeing something else that is possible. They may be reaching a boiling point and while they can’t bear arms, it may be just as bloody with sticks and stones if that’s what it takes. 

Do I think you should visit Cuba? Absolutely! Travel is about learning from others and sharing your own experiences. I won’t forget this journey or the people I met with whom I hope to keep in touch. One day it might actually be a Cuba libre!    

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tales of Cuba. Please feel free to leave me a comment below. If you’ve been to Cuba, please let me know if any of what I said resembles your experience.

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