This is umm, like "WESTWORLD".
We met with Yaniel Luis Alvarez, founder of Discover Vinales and local resident with over 10 years of experience as a tour guide. The day's program would start with a hike, followed by lunch in a tobacco farm, a horseback ride through the valley and dinner in an organic farm. It seemed simple enough until we encountered surprises along the way.
We hiked for 4 hours across tobacco and coffee plantations and met some farmers along the way.
We stopped for a rest at this simple farm house where the owner made us coffee. Cuban hospitality is as delicious as the coffee,
We continued our hike and reached the tobacco farm. Nothing like a welcome rum drink to soothe our dusty and achy legs. We were treated to a cigar-rolling demonstration and gamely smoked the cigars dipped in honey.
Cuban lechon is superior to Filipino lechon. There, I said it.
The skin is thin and crispy with hardly any fat. Its short organic life was ended at 5am and left to a slow roast until our arrival. Served with yucca, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and black beans, and a salad of tomatoes/lettuce/cucumber - it was one of our most memorable meals. The authentic ambience of the tobacco drying house only added to the moment.
It took two oxen named "Commandante" and "Colonel" to haul our fattened asses to our next stop. I would be lying if I said it was a comfortable ride. But it certainly was a first for all of us.
Our guides carefully matched us to our horse, no experience necessary. After 2 hours my lower body was numb. We rode for 3 hours in the Valley of the Silence without encountering anyone else for most of the way. We traveled across fields and streams, uphill and downhill. It felt like we were on the set of "Westworld."
That we ended our ride at Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso was no coincidence. This organic farm to table restaurant was the perfect ending to cap our day in Vinales. They will serve you their anti-stress drink (magic potion if you ask me) and a bottle of rum on the side. Arrive in time for sundown, the views, food and ambience are all superb.
A storm swell happened while we were asleep.
I had high hopes for Cayo Jutias, Pinar del Río's most discovered "undiscovered" beach with 3km-long blanket of sand. But last night's storm swell brought a cold front and strong winds to our beach day. The longer than expected ride (2hrs instead of 1hr) due to poor road conditions didn't help. We stayed long enough to walk the stretch and have a drink.
We stopped back in Vinales to change money, have lunch and a quick stroll before high-tailing it to Havana. The town of Vinales is small and overrun with tourists like us.
Hav ana good time!
The Malecon was closed to vehicular traffic. High waves had breached the seawall and water ran down into the streets. Johnny & Steve had to roll up their pants and wade through seawater to get to their casa. Could it get more dramatic than this on our first night? We had to catch 9:30pm dinner reservations at La Guarida and we made it with enough time for cocktails at the rooftop. This restaurant is the oldest paladar and most famous in Havana.
LA GUARIDA is laden with drama, just like the peeling paint on its crumbling walls.
A walk through Old Havana
Bright and early, we met with Elena, our private guide for a 4 hour walking tour of Old Havana. It was followed by lunch at Ivan Chef Justo and a tour of the Museum of the Revolution. Dinner was at Casa Miglis (just around the corner) and after we walked into a music club and danced to La Crema's reggaeton-rap.
Art & Convertibles
We met our art guide, Sussette Martinez, on the steps of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes for a private tour and education of Cuban art. For the next 2.5hrs, Sussette walked us through Cuban history through art, from colonial to the contemporary. Sussette is an art curator and THE GUIDE. This tour was amongst our top experiences in Cuba.
Lunch was followed by a 4 hour Drive/Walk tour through the rest of Havana in classic convertible cars. We had 2 convertibles, a guide and driver in each car. Girls had the pink car, guys in red. It was a lot of fun and a great way to see the city. Dream come true for some of us.
I was told, "Cuba is a country of art and artists".
This was a full art day tour with Sussette, who introduced us to 8 Cuban artists. It was such an honor and privilege to meet the artists and to hear them speak about their work. This too was a top experience for the group. All the artists we met were born in the 70's and began their careers during Cuba's "Special Period." This period began in 1990 and was a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union (USRR) and the embargo that the United States imposed on Cuba. Cuba’s “Special Period” was marked by a declining economy that negatively affected the quality of life of all Cubans.
Douglas Perez Castro is a Cuban artist born in Santo Domingo, in 1976. What stands out most in Castro’s works is his great sense of humor that comments on complex matters in local history, society and culture.
Glenda León is a Cuban artist born in Havana, in 1976. León graduated from the Academy of Superior Art and New Medias, Cologne, Germany in 2007. She is noted for her body of work spanning from drawing to video art, including installation, objects, and photography. León is "interested in interstices between visible and invisible, between sound and silence, between ephemeral and eternal." She is currently based in Havana and Madrid.
David Beltrán, born in La Habana, in 1978, is a Cuban artist mainly working with photography, painting and installation. Beltrán graduated from the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in Havana in 2003. David's partner is Glenda Leon and both live and work between Havana and Madrid.
Ibrahim Miranda was born in Pinar del Rio, in 1969. Ibrahim arrived in Havana when he was barely fifteen in 1984 to study at the National School of Visual Arts and then the Higher Institute of Art, from which he graduated in 1993. Long before his graduation from ISA, the splendid prints and ink drawings of Ibrahim Miranda were well-known and began to be shown in national and foreign galleries.
Sandra Ramos (born 1969) is a visual artist from Cuba known for her surrealist expression of her relationship to Cuba’s political and social situation. At age twelve, the young artist began to study art in Havana's Escuela Elemental de Artes Plásticas. She continued her studies at the prestigious San Alejandro Art Academy and the Superior Institute of Art in Havana. Ramos uses a variety of mediums for her art, which include, paintings, etchings, collage, installations, and digital animation. However, the medium for which she is most renowned is engraving.
We stopped for lunch at SANTY for sushi, sashimi and the best octopus salad ever. Anthony Bourdain featured this restaurant in his show!
Beatriz Sala Santacana, is a self-taught artist born in 1975, Havana, Cuba. She is a member of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). She is known for her ceramic art works which she learned when she lived in Mexico as a young girl.
The Merger is a collaboration group formed by the Cuban artists Alain Pino, Niels Moleiro, and Mario Miguel Gonzalez (Mayito). They have been involved with the art world since very young, getting to the decision of merging their work in the maturity of their solitary careers.
Eduardo Yanes Hidalgo (1977), who lives in La Lisa, creates paintings that represent relationships of power, family, society, and the struggle between enemies. Although he didn't speak English, he chose to tell us about his works with Sussette translating. He was very kind, soft spoken and intense.
Dinner at Vistamar in Miramar for only 5 of us with a stop in Havana's jazz club El Zorro y El Cuervo.
Cigars, Papa & Dancing
Cigar Factory, Ernest Hemingway, Cafe Laurent, Hotel Nacional, Old Havana, El Cocinero, El Gato Tuerto
When my "man in Havana", Jorge, suggested a visit to the cigar factory, I told him that we were already going to a tobacco farm and thought it would be the same. He smartly replied, "A tobacco farm and a tobacco factory are not the same." At the Tabacuba factory, they assigned a security guard for our group to make sure we weren't taking any photos. NO PHOTOS ALLOWED.
We drove to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's home 10 miles east of Havana. It is a beautiful estate and worth seeing. There, Hemingway wrote two of his most celebrated novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Lunch at Cafe Laurent in Vedado, a penthouse restaurant in a residential building with stunning views of the sea followed by a short visit to Hotel Nacional. Back to Old Havana for some last minute shopping. Dinner at El Cocinero in Vedado, formerly an oil factory now one of the trendiest places in Havana. Have drinks at the chimney then dine in the rooftop terrace. It started to rain, fortunately only after our dinner, so we taxied it to El Gato Tuerto for some trova/fusion music. We all danced, on and off stage and had a great time. What an incredible last night in Havana.
We ended our last night in Havana at El Gato Tuerto for Cuban music, audience participation and salsa dancing. Watch Steve, Johnny, Maia and I show off our "skills".
Adios Havana, Hola Trinidad
Half of the group went back to the US while the four of us traveled to Trinidad by private taxi. We left Havana at 10am, stopped for coffee along the way and arrived in Trinidad by 2pm.
LA GUARIDA - was on the top on my list of places to dine in Havana. Madonna just celebrated her birthday here and that was fine by me. I made reservations six months in advance by email and they were able to accommodate me for one night. The ambiance and building are so dramatic, it was the perfect first night in Havana. The food is good and the service excellent. This was our most expensive meal at 71 CUC per person but included drinks at the rooftop, apps, main, dessert and 3 bottles of wine.
IVAN CHEF JUSTO was on top of my list from all the food articles I'd read and it didn't disappoint. The Spanish food is spectacular and the service excellent. Ivan used to be the chef of Fidel Castro. Lunch for 8 cost us 36 CUC per person.
AL CARBON is located below Ivan Chef Justo and is owned by Ivan. Specializing in Cuban dishes cooked over charcoal. The decor and menu is similar but the lechon at Ivan was superior to Carbon! Fabulous restaurant, great food and service. Lunch for 8 at 31 CUC per person and also accepts Euro and USD!
CAFE LAURENT - located in a residential apartment building where a small antique elevator takes you to the penthouse. The restaurant has a Spanish-Basque based menu and a 1950's Miami vibe. Ask for a table in the outdoor terrace and enjoy the breeze and views. Lunch for 8 - 23 CUC per person.
El Cocinero - New York style loft lounge with rooftop terrace, this was the perfect restaurant to spend our last night in Havana. Very cool and hip vibe and crowd with good food and service. For 28 CUC per person, we had empanadillas, tomato salad, papas bravas, ensalada japones, pescado grille, del mar, lamb kebab, chorizos parrilada, salteado de vegetables, codito de cordero. cocktails and coffee. Reservations a must, they are solidly booked.
ATELIER - a contemporary space in a Havana mansion in Vedado. Atelier is run by Niuris Higueras, who has long nutured her passion for exciting food: the menu changes every day. We were seated in the outdoor terrace and enjoyed the cool evening breeze. Food and service were both very good. I appreciated the lighter fare options as we had our fill of lechon by this time.
CASA MIGLIS - located in Centro Havana in a restored ground floor home, Casa Miglis is a cool, modern and airy dining option. We dined on Ceviche Tropical, Tostada Skagen, Gazpacho, Albondigas Suecas, Cazuela de Mariscos, Ensalada Cesar, Pasta con Camarones, and Chili Mexicano de Carnero. The food was good however the service was not. My dish only appeared after everyone else had finished leaving a sour taste for this restaurant. We spent 35CUC per person including wine.
VISTAMAR - was recommended by my guide Jorge and is located in Miramar in a beautiful two story oceanfront family home. Its easy to imagine how just how glamorous this stretch of real estate was before the Revolution with each home having a swimming pool facing the ocean. The food was decent but not spectacular plus the taxi from Centro Havana to Miramar cost 50CUC round trip. But it was a nice evening, we sat poolside and dined on Crema Calabasa, Grilled Shrimp, Ensalada Pollo, Pollo Asado, and Grilled Pork spending 32CUC per person including wine.
FINCA AL PARAISO - Everything they say about Finca Al Paraiso is true. It lives up to the hype so much so that you will need reservations for lunch or dinner as this place is booked solid. You are welcomed with their house "anti-stress" drink that puts you in the right mood to soak it all in. Before dinner, we took a tour of their vegetable farm which made us appreciate our meal even more so. A lot of loving and care goes into our food.
One of the original organic farm to table restaurants in Cuba, this was one of the best meals we had. For starters, they bring you tostones and yuca chips. The first course is a delicious hearty squash vegetable soup. Next, the table fills up with a parade of dishes from beets, to tamales, rice with beans, fritters, grilled pineapple, lettuce and tomato salad. Then they bring you chicken and roasted pig. At this point, we just had to say STOP. "We can't eat any more food."
Tobacco farm private lunch - How many times can I tell you that this was one of the best and most memorable meals we had in Cuba? The fact is we hiked for four hours to get here so we earned our meal. I had requested for roasted pig for the group many months ago and never expected Yaniel to deliver. He did and so much more. It was a windy day so we ate inside the tobacco curing shed, just adding the requisite ambience to our organic meal. We feasted on lettuce and tomato salad, yuca, rice and beans, fried potatoes, roasted pig, pineapples. It was divine. Naps on the hammock post lunch is optional but highly recommended.
FINCA LAS ERMITAS is located 3 minutes down the road from Horizontes La Ermita Hotel. Yaniel organized this dinner for us. It was our first meal in Cuba and we dined on Grilled Lobster and Ropa Vieja. Great meal and good service.
LA COCINITA DEL MEDIO - Yaniel recommended this private home/restaurant in Vinales for lunch. From their balcony overlooking the main street, we dined on Ropa Vieja, Filete de Pescado. All main courses come with vegetables, rice and yucca and we spent 16CUC pp including cocktails and coffee.
EL CUBITA was recommended by our host and it did not disappoint. Clean, good service and tasty food.
CAFE DON PEPE is an open courtyard cafe with an extensive coffee menu. I had the Bombon Frio which was excellent.
TABERNA LA BOTIJA is adorned with stone walls, wooden benches and slave chains. With a no reservation policy, the line stretches out to the street. The atmosphere is fun, at night they had a jazz band performing but the food is just OK, nothing special.
CAFE GIROUD is a casual place for lunch and specializes in pizza and pasta.
SOL ANANDA is a colonial home built in 1750 turned into a restaurant. Dine in period furniture with beautiful linens and silverware. The food is as exquisite as the decor.
CASA SAN JOSE was also recommended by our hosts. The queue outside is indicative of its popularity. The food and service were excellent.
HABANA 1791 Perfumeria - Located in an 18th-century mansion at the corner of Mercaderes and Obrapía, this beautiful shop and laboratory sells 12 varieties of scents or colognes. The bottles are made by Cuban ceramists while others are imported. I bought the SON CUBANO scent in a yellow ceramic bottle. They sealed it with wax and wrapped it plastic and tape. However when I got home and unpacked it, some of the liquid had escaped so it obviously hadn't been sealed well enough. Still a nice memory for 18CUC but if you buy it, make sure its sealed properly.
JOYERIA CONTEMPORANEA EN TITANIO is on the same street as Habana Perfumeria and worth a visit. All jewelry designed by Jorge Gil and made in Titanium.
Where we stayed
HORIZONTES LA ERMITA is a 3-star hotel built in the 60's and has 62 spacious basic rooms with air-conditioning, TV, shower and balcony. It's a short walk to town and much more private than Hotel Los Jazmines. Breakfast buffet was varied with a gorgeous view of the valley.
AirBNB Links to booking rooms at Casa Densil are provided below. Cozy and Charming Bedrooms have the bathrooms on the upper level. Lovely has the bathroom on the same level.
CASA AMISTAD EN TRINIDAD is an oasis. Newly renovated, it is comfortable, spacious and tastefully decorated. Currently there are 3 rooms with 2 additional rooms under construction. The whole property can be rented through AirBnB. Oscar and Uriel manage the property with their dogs.
Oscar rents exclusively through AirBnB, links to book are below.
DISCOVER VINALES - Founder Yaniel Alvarez is a consummate professional, speaks and writes English fluently. I communicated with him via email and he provided us with airport transfer in a private van from Havana to Vinales, first night's dinner in Vinales, full day hiking tour including taxi transfers, private lunch in a tobacco farm, horseback riding, dinner at Finca Paraiso and full day's use of a private van to travel to Cayo Jutias and Havana. Everything Yaniel arranged was reliable, punctual and seamless. It was a pleasure to work with him and I highly recommend his services if you decide to visit Vinales.
I came across Sussette Martinez, art curator and guide, from online articles and contacted her by email. Sussette personally guided us through the Fine Arts Museum (Cuban art) and spent a whole day introducing us to Cuban artist in their studios. We all loved the time spent with her and highly recommend her. She works directly with private people and with select tour agencies. She can also organize Historic, Architecture, Art Deco, Shopping tours.
I found Jorge Cuba Holidays online and spent months honing our Havana itinerary with him. Jorge organized our guide (Elena) for the walking tour, classic convertibles for our drive around Havana, cars and guide for the Cuba factory tour and Ernest Hemingway trip, R/T private transfer to Trinidad, and reconfirmed all my restaurant reservations. All the arrangements Jorge made was flawless, punctual and perfect.
Cuba has two currencies, CUP (Cuban Peso) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), 25CUP = 1CUC, US$1 = .87CUC. 1Euro = 1CUC. Tourists only use CUC, and it can get confusing so DO NOT change money at the black market. Only change money at the bank or hotels. Read your banknotes and make sure they say Cuban Convertible Peso.
Changing money is a hassle. The lines are long, the process is tedious and sleep inducing.