For my 40th birthday present, Sophie surprised me with a 9 day trip to Cuba.
Cuba is the 90th country I have visited, and easily my favorite trip.
Cuban’s are friendly, and I appreciate that socialism has dulled their enthusiasm for commerce, thus most people on the streets did not try to hustle or sell me anything.
Although I am American, Sophie (easily) got my visa from the Cuban embassy in Qatar. (many people assume American’s can’t travel to Cuba, but we can – just not from America)
On Christmas afternoon, we flew Emirates from Dubai to Paris, spent a great night enjoying Paris, and then we flew an easy 11 hours on Air France from Paris to Havana.
We arrived to Havana at 9pm on December 26th.
Our journey through baggage claim and immigrations was remarkably, smooth and easy.
However, as most restaurants, cafes, stores and merchants do not accept credit cards in Cuba, we had to wait in a long line to change our euro into Cuban pesos.
Around midnight ….we were out of the airport.
Sophie wanted me to experience Cuba to the fullest, so she organized the first night for us to stay in a local Cuban family’s home in Vinales, the area of Cuba where the best coffee and tobacco is grown.
2 hour drive later, we arrived to “Rolando’s house.”
Although the family spoke no English, we enjoyed a late meal of fresh wild pig (which they said was caught and killed in the morning), black beans & rice as well as other Cuban dishes.
Dinner was adventurous, and the food was excellent.
Sophie and I slept in Rolando’s guest room, a tiny room with just a queen sized bed – very comfortable, and we both fell asleep instantly (around 2:30am).
I slept great… until we were awoken by a rooster at 5:30am and then another rooster … suddenly – it seemed like 20+ rooster’s were making noise.
The house shared a common large yard with four other houses – there were several cages of cock’s which were being raised to fight.
There was also two cages with hens, which provide Rolando and the other 4 families fresh eggs.
As I was enjoying my walk through the cages of hens and cocks, a man with a large machete walked in front of me … up to a cage with a large pig in it ….
The man made a motion with his thumb across his throat and smiled as he walked up to the large pig.
I went for a long walk around the streets of Vinales – of course, I was the only big white guy strolling around ….
I told everyone who asked that I was from America – everyone was warm and friendly.
It is impressive how clean, nearly spotless are the streets of Cuba … and I noticed throughout the trip several men and women sweeping the gutters and streets.
Sophie and I ate breakfast on Rolando’s patio.
After breakfast, I sat in a rocking chair on the back porch and smoked my first cigar of the trip.
The highlight of the morning was the strong Cuban coffee.
At 9:00, Rolando’s 23 year old son (who spoke French, but no English) took us on a 10 mile hike from his house into the farm land – we walked 10 miles through tobacco fields, coffee fields; we saw several wild pigs and many farmers in the various fields.
We met one farmer who they told us was 80 years old and smokes 20+ cigars a day — the man looked in his late 60’s.
I didn’t see another tourist the entire walk.
We walked through coffee fields.
After an hour of walking, we reached a tobacco farm.
As we walked into the small farm house, a woman was in the process of roasting coffee.
We got to enjoy her very strong coffee.
She also made me a cigar.
My cigar was enjoyable. I bought 12 cigars at this farm – these cigars are called “peasant cigars” because they are rolled by the farmers themselves – I paid 10 US$ for 12 cigars (I regret I did not buy more)
The coffee was great!
She also showed us the process of drying tobacco.
After too much coffee, we walked through several other tobacco farms to the most prestigious farm … again, the owner of the farm rolled a cigar for me.
I bought 24 cigars from him. (the woman’s cigar was better)
Incredible day; incredible experience.
In the late afternoon, our driver who is named “Chocolate” picked us up and drove us to a dock, where we took a boat to a tiny island …
Chocolate spoke fluent French, but no English. He explained he is called “chocolate” because “he is seriously, black.”
We took a small boat to an island of only 30 people. It was gorgeous, but windy and cold.
At night, Sophie and I watched Spanish ESPN and had our first mojito.
I don’t drink alcohol (except for wine) so that mojito was the first one I tried in my life.
I should mention that there was no hot water at either Rolando’s house nor at the beach house we stayed … but it didn’t matter.
I like cold showers.
We enjoyed a couple days walking around the island, smoking cigars and relaxing … but I was looking fwd to getting to Havana.
Cuba, esp. Havana is unlike any of the 90 countries I have visited…
Old cars from the 1950s are every where.
We stayed at a modern hotel, the Parque Central which is right in the center of Havana, and very convenient because we could walk every where.
The buildings in Havana are old and dilapitated, but very charming.
There is a Casa del Habana in the hotel lobby … I bought a box of Romeo and Juliet “wide Churchills and a box of Cohiba “siglo V” to enjoy throughout the trip.
The Partagas Factory is less than 5 minute walk from the hotel.
To ensure the cigars are not fake, tourists are advised to buy cigars ONLY in Casa del Habana shops.
One of the biggest myths in the world has to be that cigars in Cuba are cheap …
From my experience, Cuban cigars at the Beirut Airport duty free are the cheapest in the world.
The cigar’s in Cuba are about the same price as the duty free at the Dubai airport — depending on the exchange rate – maybe even more expensive.
But it didn’t matter. I was in Cuba.
Nic and Jenny flew in from Toronto and joined us in Havana.
Even sweet, gorgeous women from Canada enjoy cigars in Cuba!
The 4 of us spent several days and nights walking around Havana, smoking cigars and drinking mojito’s/daiquiris at several of the bars – the most famous being “La Floridita,” made famous by Ernest Hemingway.
You know you have made it in this lifetime when your favorite bar puts a life size bronze statue of you standing where you stood in the bar – like there is of Hemingway at the La Floridita.
Throughout the trip, we walked all around Havana, even late at night.
We never once felt in danger. The people are poor, but very friendly.
One morning, I rented a car … and the four of us drove around Havana in a 1963 convertible Impala … 3 hours was more than enough.
I smoked a cigar as often as I wanted.
Cuba is probably the only country in the world where you see people smoking cigars in a crowded elevator as if its normal.
We went to “Tropicana” for New Year’s eve and enjoyed the show and brilliant ambiance.
Tropicana is consider the most famous club in Cuba – before the embargo, it was one of the most famous clubs in the world.
Nic and Jenny left the day after new year’s, but Sophie and I spent another 4 days in Havana relaxing, smoking cigars and drinking daiquiris and mojito’s .
We went to every famous bar listed in the guide book to taste and judge who made the best mojito or daiquiris – we both agreed, La Floridita was the best – with the best ambiance.
Over the trip, I enjoyed easily, 5-8 cigars a day.
Cuba and its cigar, mojito/daiquiri culture is beyond words …
I understand why Hemingway lived in Cuba for 20 years…. before he lost his house when America set up the embargo, and he was forced to leave.
In Havana, there is a palpable passion for life.
Cuban’s don’t seem to be concerned with what kind of car they drive, or the size of their TV.
In my opinion, it is ridiculous that the United States government continues an embargo on this country.
And don’t believe the hype ….
American’s CAN legally travel to Cuba – I suggest anyone in America who wishes to visit Cuba, fly from Toronto.
I enjoyed Cuba so much that I have organized a performance incentive in the company, so to be able to go back again this year — ideally, with many people from naseba.