The Liebster Award

Being somewhat new to the blogosphere, I had never heard of the Liebster Award until I received a nomination last week. It’s not actually an award – more a ‘chain’ where you’re given a list of questions by the person that nominated you, and then it’s your turn to pay it forward and nominate 5 new bloggers to answer 11 new questions. It’s a great way for bloggers to interact with each other whilst promoting new travel blogs you love reading.

Firstly, I want to thank the wonderful Geordie Traveler for nominating me via Twitter. He’s a really inspiring blogger who has made it his mission to be the first traveller with a disability to visit every single country in the world. I just love reading about his adventures.

The questions he gave me were…

1. When did you first realise you wanted to be a traveller and why?
Only very recently. I had always liked holidays, but it was only in 2015 that I realised visiting new places was what made me truly happy. That could have been down to the stressful job, the free time that comes after a wedding, the excuse for not wanting kids, but behind it all was a burning desire to escape ‘normal’ life and invest in myself.
2. Ever had a scary moment on an airplane? If so, tell us about it…
I hate to admit it but I am a bit of a nervous flyer. It doesn’t take much for me to have a scary moment! My worst experience was flying back from Cuba last year when really bad turbulence hit. Food and drink flew everywhere and I squeezed my husband’s hand so tight it nearly fell off! I’ve since made an effort to learn what turbulence is, so hopefully I’ll never be that scared again.
3. What challenges have you faced recently whilst on your travels?
The mosquitos in Cuba were a huge challenge I wasn’t expecting to face! I had dosed myself up with DEET strength repellent AND completely covered up, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the blighters at bay. Over 100 bites later, the mosquitos were victorious and I needed antibiotics and 2 different types of cream from a Cuban doctor to repair the damage.
4. Where is your favourite place in the world and why?
I adore Valencia on the Spanish coast. Last year I spent a week in the city learning Spanish at a Spanish school and had the best time of my life. The city is beautiful, the people are wonderful and the weather is always fantastic. What’s not to love? I’ll be going back in July this year and I absolutely cannot wait.
5. Where is your least favourite place in the world and why?
The first day back at work after a fantastic trip. I don’t think I really need to explain why!
6. Tell us a funny story from your travels?
In 2012, a group of friends and I were driving across Mexico in a rental car when we were pulled over by the Mexican police. They demanded to see our passports but we had completely forgot to pack them in our day bags. Clearly looking for a bribe, they forced us to open our boot, accused us of being American immigrants and threatened to take us to jail! Thankfully, we had a Mexican national in the car who eased the situation by shouting “Why the hell would they want to live here?!” and we were allowed on our way.
7. What are your travel plans for the next year?
2016 is set to be my busiest year yet for travel plans. We have a long weekend in Cambridge in March, Sri Lanka and Tokyo in April, Lisbon for my birthday in June, Valencia in July, Paris in September, Turkey and Brighton in October and who knows where else…?
8. How many countries have you been to?
According to a BuzzFeed quiz, I’ve been to 19! That doesn’t sound like very many, does it? I can’t wait to tick a few more off the list.
9. Tell us about a situation where someone has been extremely generous towards you on your travels?
Last September, Tim and I visited Marrakech to celebrate our anniversary. The hostess at our riad went completely out of her way to make us feel special. We were given flowers in our room, champagne upstairs on her gorgeous roof terrace, the most delicious breakfast every morning and some extra treats throughout our stay.
10. What do you pack in your backpack?
I always carry my camera, mosquito repellent, water, sun cream, snacks, sunglasses, a guide book and, after the nightmare in Mexico, my passport!
11. What’s your favourite mode of transport and why?
This might sound a bit strange, but my favourite mode of transport is a pirate ship! Any opportunity I get to set sail, I take it. Whether it’s a pirate party boat in Cancun or a day trip ship in Croatia, I love feeling the wind in my hair and the gentle rocking of the boat as I sip rum and imagine what it was like to be a pirate. And the view’s normally pretty good too! 

I’d now like to nominate 5 brilliant travel bloggers to answer a new set of questions:

If you’re up for the challenge, your 11 questions are:

  1. What’s your favourite thing about traveling?
  2. How long have you been a travel blogger?
  3. What was your last destination?
  4. Where are you headed next?
  5. How do you decide your next destination?
  6. What’s your favourite thing you’ve eaten on your travels?
  7. If you could travel with anyone in the world, who would it be?
  8. How important is it to speak the language of the country you’re visiting?
  9. How do you pass the time on long journeys?
  10. What do you miss about home when you’re away?
  11. What’s your biggest travel wish?

The rise of the minimoon

With Valentines Day out the way for another year, my Facebook feed is full of loved up couples planning their weddings. If they’re anything like me, it won’t be the wedding they’re looking forward to. It’ll be the honeymoon!

But… Imagine the scene. You’ve already spent a small fortune on the biggest day of your life and decided to put your honeymoon off for a bit. The weather in [insert honeymoon destination here] is a bit crap around the time of your wedding anyway. And your boss really didn’t like the idea of you taking three weeks off in one go. But equally, you don’t want to go straight back to work. So what do you do?

Go on a minimoon!

Minimoons are typically short-haul destinations, long weekend style trips that won’t break the bank. They have been growing in popularity in recent years, with many people choosing to forgo the big honeymoon until they’ve recouped at least some of the cost of their wedding. But where should you go? Here’s my pick of the best minimoon destinations for Europe-based brides and grooms.

Minimoons in the UK

  • Campervanning in a Country Park
    This was our minimoon of choice. We combined our wedding transport with a couple of days off work, and our rented campervan was exactly what we needed to get away from it all in rural Hampshire (although, we’ll admit, it was only a 20 minute drive from our house!) We spent the days wandering around the Country Park, playing mini golf and feeding the ducks, and the nights snuggled in our campervan with a movie, drinking champagne, eating leftover wedding cake and reminiscing about our wedding just days before. It was perfect.
  • Glamping
    If a tent is more your scene, why not stop by Botany Camping for a (kind of) luxury stay in one of their bell tents complete with marshmallows roasted on an open fire outside your tent. One thing I would recommend, though, is avoiding the toilet (they actually called it the leaning tower of poo) if you want to have a romantic evening together..! While in the area, you could take day trips to Bath – a gorgeous little city with awesome spa facilities right in the centre (v. romantic) or Longleat – a wonderful safari park just 10 minutes from the site.
  • Hotel stay in Canterbury
    Of course there are loads of great cities in the UK, but my pick of the bunch is Canterbury. There are some lovely little cafes and restaurants, and some great sights to see (weird animatronic people in the Canterbury tales anyone?) but our highlight was simply wandering around the town arm-in-arm, taking it all in.
  • Port Lympne
    A UK safari with luxury facilities, it’s just like being in the Serengeti. Except it’s cold. And probably raining. Port Lympne is a safari park in Kent where you can stay the night in safari tents overlooking the watering hole. We had one of the deluxe tents with four poster bed, and there’s nothing more romantic than snuggling up under the thick duvets with your new hubby (or wifey) listening out for the gentle roar of lions in the background (I’ll admit, I have a strange sense of romance!) The next day, take a guided tour of the park in a safari truck and saw zebras, ostriches, deer and rhinos all roaming free. Perfect for a couple who can’t afford a safari for their honeymoon!
  • London
    Ah yes, London. I could never forget you! In my opinion, the coolest city in the world and definitely worth considering. You could take in a show at the west end, eat a romantic meal in one of the quirky restaurants, drink cocktails from a rooftop bar with an awesome view, and then sleep it all off in a fancy hotel.

Minimoons further afield

  • Long weekend in Paris
    Yes, I know this is a really obvious option, but there’s no denying Paris is a beautiful city that’s practically on our doorstep. Now, having only been to Paris with my parents, I can’t vouch for Paris being the most romantic city in the world, but I can certainly imagine it. Eating at cute cafes and restaurants, picnicking in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, heading back to your ‘boudoir’ with bellies full of fancy French cuisine… oh yes. And being just a couple of hours away by Eurostar, what’s not to love? It wasn’t our minimoon of choice, but we look forward to spending an anniversary there sometime soon.
  • Long weekend in Barcelona
    Spain had to feature on here somewhere! So why not take a short visit to Barcelona? With so much to see and do, it’s a great option for those that like to keep busy during the day and then tuck into delicious tapas in the evening. With pretty much guaranteed warmth and sunshine, you’d be forgiven for wanting to laze about on the beach with a book. Oh, and your loved one, of course.
  • Long weekend in Rome
    Where better to re-enact the famous spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp? Rome is the perfect place to enjoy romantic dinners after a long day of sightseeing or too many glasses of wine. It was my first ever holiday with my husband so will always hold a romantic spot in my heart. And with train tickets to the beach only £2? Rome has more to offer than you thought.
  • Marrakech, Morocco
    Granted, it’s not the best place to show public affection, but in the privacy of your riad, Marrakech is another great minimoon option. We visited the city for our first anniversary last year and were lucky enough to have a whole riad to ourselves. We drank champagne (brought from home) in the private roof terrace, ate delicious breakfasts and slept in the most beautiful room. When not in our riad, we had a great time touring the city itself and getting lost in the souk.
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
    Yes it’s expensive when you get there, but you don’t have to spend over the odds with accommodation via Air BnB and so many dinner options cheaper than the infamous Noma. Do remember you’ve just got married, though, so it is okay to treat yourself! Fast becoming one of the most romantic cities in the world, the chilly winds will keep you snuggled up and the romantic Tivoli Gardens will keep you entertained. Read more of my recommendations for spending 48 hours in Copenhagen here.

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Any excuse for a trip away, eh? Would you have a minimoon or go straight to the big one?

My last impressions of Cuba

After spending two weeks in Cuba, I had formed some pretty mixed opinions. First stepping foot in Havana, I absolutely loved the place, but Maria la Gorda saw me having second thoughts. But what impression did I leave with? What had my time in Cuba taught me about the country that I didn’t already know? Quite a lot actually! Here’s how we spent our last few days in Havana…

It could do with a bit more luxury

Probably a controversial opinion, but I’m a self-confessed hotel snob. I love clean, comfortable, well-equipped hotels, so after staying in some average places outside of Havana, I was in my element to be finishing off the holiday at the Iberostar Parque Central.

We had a great night’s sleep in our huge bed and an amazing breakfast from the enormous selection: cheeses, cold cuts, salads, hot food of sausages, croquettes and vegetables, yoghurts, cereals, pancakes, pastries, tarts, breads, smoothies, champagne, frui… wait a minute. What? Champagne?! Yes, you really can drink free champagne for breakfast. So I did. And here’s the proof.

Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

The facilities were also second to none – there was a stunning rooftop pool with great views of the Capitol and the central park where we spent our last morning in Cuba. There was also a rooftop bar in the modern section of the hotel where we were gifted free drinks on our first night – whoop!

Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

There was even a 24 hour medical centre, which was great because…

Mosquito bites are a pain in the ass (literally)

Bites from Maria la Gorda

My bites from Maria la Gorda had become so irritating that we paid a visit to the medical centre to see if they could do anything. It turned out some of my bites had become infected, so a quick consultation, a few swabs, six medicines and one injection in the bum later, I was on the mend!

Cubans love irony 

On our last few days in Cuba, we also visited the Museo de la Revolución, which is set in Batista’s presidential palace. This is beautifully ironic because Batista was the guy the Cuban revolution was fighting against!

Museo de la Revolucion, Havana

The museum houses a load of random artefacts such as hats, guns, rubber stamps (ooh exciting) and life-size statues of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. We also read about the people involved in the revolution, and learnt about how things changed once the revolutionaries were in power. The signs and explanations were mostly in Spanish but we survived!

It’s not the best museum I’ve ever visited, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the revolution.

There’s more to the food than fish, rice and beans

If you followed my previous posts around Cuba, you’ll know that fish, rice and beans is the staple diet of most Cubans (and tourists for that matter). We didn’t mind all that much because it’s one of my favourite meals, but it was still nice to have more choice in Havana.

A member of our tour group had told us about a great place along Brasil Street that served the most amazing shrimp. We were dying to see what all the fuss was about, so we walked all along the road trying to find somewhere that matched her description. Close to giving up, we started looking for somewhere else to eat and headed up Brasil Street in the opposite direction. There it was! A tiny looking bar/restaurant split over three floors, no name on the outside, exactly as had been described to us. The shrimps were fantastic, the drinks were delicious and everything was so so cheap! As we left, there were people queuing out the door and we could understand why. I’m afraid we still don’t know the name so you’ll have to find it for yourselves!

Havana restaurant

Look how happy I am!

Another great little find was Cafe de las Artistas. It’s down a quiet street in Old Havana where a few little restaurants have waiters outside trying to tempt you in. It’s definitely worth searching this restaurant out, though, because the service was impeccable, and the food and drink even better (they even offered to make me something not on the menu). It’s a great place to relax and soak up the atmosphere, whilst guzzling down every last mouthful of your cocktail.

Ernest Hemingway had good taste in bars

La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana

When he lived in Havana, Ernest Hemingway had a saying: “Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita”. We wanted to test his theory, so on our last night in Havana, we headed out to El Floridita just around the corner from our hotel. Despite being one of the busiest nightspots in Havana, we managed to grab two seats at the bar and ordered two traditional daiquiris. Yum yum yum. The atmosphere was great, the barmen were attentive and there’s even a statue of Ernest himself propping up the bar. The drinks might be a little overpriced, but a visit here is still a must-do for all visitors to Havana.

Unfortunately, La Bodeguita isn’t nearly as good as Hemingway made it out to be. We visited on our last day in Havana, and even at 12pm the place was packed. Now, the reason it wasn’t great is they fill the bar with very expensive ready made mojitos that just need topping up with rum and soda. This means it’s very much geared towards getting tourists in and out as quickly as possible. The cocktails were still tasty, but there are much better places in Havana for a mojito…

 

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Our Cuban adventure definitely had its ups and downs, but we finished on a definite high. Havana has fast become one of my favourite cities and I’m sure it won’t be too long before we go back.

Have you ever been to Cuba? What impressions did you leave with? 

Cuba Libre: Viñales – Maria la Gorda – Soroa – Havana

In my last post of our Cuban tour, we had just returned to our homestay in Viñales after a very heavy night out at an outdoor salsa bar. The next instalment of our G Adventures trip sees us depart the lush greenery of the west, throw up on a bus, get eaten alive on the coast, see three fish on a one hour snorkelling trip, pick up a finger injury in a pretty aggressive game of Irish snap, trek down a waterfall and finally return to the relative safety of Havana. Phew! Despite all the drama, did we have fun? Read on to find out…

Day 4 – Viñales – Maria La Gorda

Uh oh! We didn’t notice our alarm going off this morning so we were 15 minutes late to breakfast. Our poor mama had to microwave our food for us and we felt awful! Once we had eaten, we paid our bill and packed up our things ready to leave Viñales.

It was only once we were on the bus that we realised how much of a heavy night last night actually was! Most of us felt pretty unwell, and that feeling was only made worse by the incredibly windy and bumpy roads as we headed further west. The bus stopped to show us Pinar del Rio – a town with a cigar factory where the group watched some workers roll cigars (half of us sat outside) and a rum factory where the group learnt how to make rum (half of us sat on the bus). After that, the bus took us through beautiful countryside but I couldn’t fully appreciate it as… Yes! I was that girl that threw up on the bus! But, my word, did I feel better after that..!

Back on the road, we stopped off at a petrol station to buy a delicious lunch of microwave pizza. Yum. Just as we sat down outside to eat it, the heavens opened and we all rushed back on to the bus. The rain got so heavy and eventually thunder and lightning came in to join the party. We even saw a bolt of lightning hit the sea as we drove along the coast, which was incredible! Sadly no photos of that 🙁

Our destination, Maria la Gorda (literally translates as Fat Mary), takes its name from a lady who was marooned on the peninsula and set up ‘shop’ to stay alive. It’s a funny name for a really tragic story. Nowadays, it’s a haven for snorkellers and divers who want to explore the Caribbean Sea and not much else.

When the bus arrived at the resort, we were greeted with the wonderful news that the water system was broken and had been for five days. They were able to give us an hour of water three times a day, but other that that, there was no water to wash, use the toilet or brush our teeth. Disaster! We spent the rest of the afternoon in our room waiting for the water to come on long enough for us to wash our hands but no more…

Our room is actually amazing. We have a view of the sea, perfectly functioning air conditioning and two enormous and comfortable beds. The rooms are laid out in little buildings or cabins each with four en-suite rooms, so it feels a bit like university!

Maria la Gorda

We met our tour group in reception for dinner and found most of them had managed to shower – lucky buggers! We perused the buffet but none of us fancied fried fish heads so we decided to take a punt on the Italian style restaurant on the beach front. This was a BIG MISTAKE for two reasons:

  1. The mosquitos and sand fleas. There were loads of them and despite wearing tropical strength DEET and long clothes, I managed to get absolutely covered in bites. I looked like a pin cushion!
  2. The wait. It took almost two hours for us to get our food. We felt sorry for the staff who had probably never had such a big group, all ordering at the same time. In their defence, the food was great, but I had pretty much finished my seafood pizza by the time Tim’s arrived.

After all our food arrived and everything had been eaten (including ourselves), we paid our bill and headed back to our room to scratch the living daylights out of our legs. Top tip: Don’t scratch.

Day 5 – Maria la Gorda

Crab, Guanhacabibes

This morning my prayers were answered – a shower! Albeit a cold one, but a shower all the same! With a clean body and a renewed vigour that wouldn’t let the mosquitos get the better of me, we went for breakfast in the buffet restaurants. It was – interesting – with fruit, plasticky eggs, omelettes, toast and other foods left over from last night’s dinner (thankfully no sign of the fish heads though, they must have been really popular).

Our bellies full of toast, we met the group ready for our excursion into the Guanhacabibes National Park. We picked up our wonderful guide, who gave us a running commentary of the different animals and features we would see on our trip. He stopped the bus every so often so we could pile off and see some amazing things like an underwater cave with perfectly clear water, a giant crab, some iguanas, a turtle sanctuary, a forest destroyed by Hurricane Katrina (it still hasn’t recovered) and even a cave full of bats, tarantulas and two baby boa constrictors.

Our favourite part of the trip was when we saw the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird. It’s native to Cuba but actually quite rare to see, so we were very lucky to see two of them. This photo doesn’t do it justice, because a fully grown bee hummingbird is actually smaller than my thumb!

Bee Hummingbird, Cuba

We reached Roncali lighthouse which marked the end of the peninsula and the westernmost point of Cuba, where we were treated to a beautiful view of the crystal blue sea and Mexico in the distance. On the journey back to the hotel, the guide put on a DVD showing us more about the wildlife in Cuba, including some of the species we had seen today as well as some sharks and other deadly fish that got me really nervous about our snorkelling trip later…!

Back at the hotel, we bought some pringles to eat for lunch before changing in to our swimming gear. We met the group’s boat down on the jetty and were taken out to an area called The Aquarium in the Caribbean Sea. The journey out there was wonderful, with beautiful views of the beach and coastline. For somewhere called The Aquarium it was a little bit disappointing – there were hardly any fish down there, but the coral was very pretty. After a while, I got back on the boat to carry on enjoying the amazing scenery.

My evening was spent medicating my bites (I’ve lost count how many I have) before we headed back to the Italian restaurant where we made sure to get a table inside. We still spent the majority of the night trying to kill mosquitos that dared drop by our table, but enjoyed the food none the less.

Once we had eaten, the insect bites became a bit too much for me (Tim estimates I have over 100 now) so I went back to the room to medicate some more and blast the air conditioning on full power to try and stem the itching.

Day 6 – Maria la Gorda – Soroa

This morning we spent 5 hours on the bus to Soroa, but it was worth it to get away from the mosquitos! We had a couple of stops along the way where we bought some pringles (unofficial sponsors of the trip) to keep us going for the journey. The bus took us back through Pinar del Rio and then headed up high into the mountains to reach Soroa. There, we visited an orchid farm and were shown around by a local guide who introduced us to the different flowers, trees and plants of the botanical gardens. It was lovely!

Once our tour of the garden was over, we walked over to the other major sight of Soroa – a beautiful waterfall down 200 very steep steps. We enjoyed the way down much more than the way back up, but the waterfall made up for the hike.

Soroa Waterfall

It was a very hot and sweaty trek so we were pleased to find out the next stop was our hotel! We checked into Villa Soroa where I couldn’t wait to settle in to my room. I was completely fed up from my bites so stayed there watching movies on my phone for the afternoon while Tim made it up to the highest peak in Soroa with a couple of others from the group.

While he was up there, I could hear a storm brewing outside with huge claps of thunder and bright lightning. Luckily, it wasn’t long until Tim came back, completely drenched, and I was glad to have stayed inside with The Hunger Games on my phone!

We visited the buffet restaurant for dinner before heading over to the hotel bar for drinks. We played some card games (one of which sprained my finger – I just can’t catch a break!) and then watched the lightning light up the sky over the mountains before heading back to bed ready for the final leg of our tour back to Havana tomorrow.

Day 7 – Soroa – Havana

This morning we visited Las Terrazas – a community set up in the 1960s which has now become a UNESCO biosphere reserve. There are houses, schools, a coffee shop and hotel all set around beautiful trees, lakes and hills. When we got off the bus, we heard from one of the residents tell us about her home and what the locals do to protect the environment.

Las Terrazas, Cuba

After a walk through the community, along a bridge and down a hill, past a monkey on an island (random) and back to the bus, we were on the home straight to Havana!

Our first stop in the city was Revolution Square where we walked around the Jose Marti monument to look out over Havana and had the obligatory group shot in front of Che. Julio then took us on a walking tour of the city before we stopped for lunch in an Italian restaurant, which was actually amazing! There was a live band playing traditional Cuban hits and they served really good food. It definitely took my mind off my bites! We did a little souvenir shopping before finishing off our tour in the city’s old squares.

Revolution Square, Havana

The rest of the group were staying in homestays for the night, but Tim and I had booked into a hotel as we would be staying in Havana for a few more days. Our hotel is exactly what I needed – the Iberostar Parque Central is a luxury hotel right in the centre with large, clean rooms, huge bathrooms and air conditioning that works like a dream. The bed is massive and really comfortable, and we even have a little balcony looking into the central courtyard. There, we made the most of the comfort and took long, hot showers and a good nap before we headed out again for the night. I couldn’t be happier.

We met the group for our last dinner all together at El Guajarito – a restaurant which was probably set up for tourists but still served delicious food at great prices. For just 15 CUC, I had bread, vegetable soup, shrimp and lobster, rice, salad, ice cream and a cocktail! It was amazing!

After the meal, we all said goodbye to Julio and thanked him for being our guide. Then, we went next door to see a tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club which featured some original singers from the group. We had a huge table right in front of the stage where we could enjoy the fantastic show that had us all singing and dancing along. I honestly can’t rave about it enough and would recommend it to anyone visiting Havana.

Buena Vista Social Club, Havana

After the show, we met Ivan our driver outside with the bus who dropped us off at our hotel. Before we got off the bus, we had to say an emotional goodbye to the group as this would be the last time we saw them before we went our separate ways. We really were very lucky with our group – everyone was so friendly and easy to get on with and I will genuinely miss all of them! We have a lot of new friends now and a lot of new places to visit.

Back at the hotel, we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to get a decent night’s sleep in our wonderful bed. Zzzzzzzzzz…..

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Despite the mosquitos of Maria la Gorda doing their best to put a downer on the trip, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face when I arrived back in Havana. Have you ever been to Maria la Gorda? Were you as unlucky as me?

Cuba Libre: Havana – Viñales

Our G Adventure: Cuba Libre

After a few days adjusting to Cuban life in Havana, it was time to start our G Adventures tour – Cuba Libre. We had chosen to do an organised tour because we knew there was a lot to see in Cuba, but we genuinely had no idea where to start. Cuba Libre offered us trips to tobacco farms, beach towns and lush scenery from the safety of an air conditioned bus and accompanied by a local guide. Was it everything I wanted it to be and more? No. Was I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not. Why do I say that? Read my three part Cuba Libre posts – part review, part diary – to find out.

This first post follows the first three days of our tour from Havana to Viñales – a small, scenic town in the west of the island.

Day 1 – Havana

We took a taxi to our starting point, the Quinta Avenida Hotel in Miramar. It’s quite far from the centre in the hotel zone where all the businessmen hang out. Having been promised ‘simple’ hotels throughout the tour, we were quite surprised to find it was a big, grand thing with huge rooms where we took amazing showers to wash away the heat of the day. (In case you didn’t know, Cuba in August is almost unbearably hot).

Quinta Avenida Hotel Havana

When we were ready, we met our tour group and guide downstairs in the lobby. There were a few groups meeting at the same time so it got a bit confusing trying to work out who was actually going to be traveling with us. Once we had worked it out, our guide Julio took us to some seats outside (no! the heat!) for introductions and more tour info.

Julio suggested we have dinner as a group at a nearby paladar where we ate our favourite Cuban meal of fish, rice and beans with mojitos. Eating together was a great way to get to know the group before the tour started properly in the morning. Having been promised a long bus journey in the morning, we headed to our room straight after dinner to sleep.

I think we have been really lucky with our group – we have a mixture of English, Scottish, Swiss and Australian people with a wide age range. Everyone seemed really friendly and adventurous, so we couldn’t wait to go travelling with them.

Day 2 – Havana – Viñales 

This morning we woke up feeling really excited about the day ahead. There was a really good choice of fruit, pastries, breads and hot food for breakfast, so it definitely takes the breakfast top spot so far in the country!

After packing up our things from our room, we met our group and all piled on to our bus for the week. I’m so happy to tell you it has air conditioning! Yay! Our driver is wonderful too – he doesn’t speak much English but that gives me a great opportunity to practise my Spanish.

Our first destination was Viñales and we drove along the highway while our guide told us more about our trip and Cuban life in general. We stopped off a few times along the way for snacks and toilet breaks (Top Tip: Don’t flush the toilet paper! You’ll notice little bins next to the toilets for it instead. I keep forgetting!)

Our first scheduled stop was a viewpoint looking out over Pinar del Rio. We had an incredible view of the valley – so lush and green! I don’t really know what I was expecting Cuban countryside to look like, but it’s so much more beautiful than I had ever imagined. The viewpoint also had a small bar and some tourist stalls where I bought postcards to remember the view by.

Making cigars in Pinar del Rio

Back on the road, Julio then gave us the option to visit a farm where Benito the farmer harvested tobacco leaves to make cigars. This was our first taste of real Cuban life – there was a classic American car in the backyard, chickens running around the front and a really simple house with hardly any material items. It really made us think about all the things we had at home and how happy Benito seemed to be with his lot.

We were shown into the huge barn by the side of his house where he showed us how to make cigars. The smell was so headache inducing, I just couldn’t bring myself to smoke it! After that, we were invited into his house to drink coffee (with a drop of rum in it), have a look around and buy cigars.

Our coach then took us to see a huge mural painted on the side of a mogote (limestone cliff), which depicted the prehistoric era with the first animals and people to walk the earth. We were told this place had a great piña colada bar so I bought a drink before we got back on the bus to Viñales. It was, without a doubt, the best piña colada I have ever had, but the heat and lack of food meant it went straight to my head! Luckily it was almost time for lunch…

Pina Colada!

As we arrived into the town of Viñales, we stopped for lunch on the main street. Tim ordered a huge bowl of pasta and I had a cheese sandwich expecting a similar size, but it was tiny! It was tasty all the same, but it meant I had to stop off at a mini mart for ice cream to keep me going.

After lunch, the bus took us to see the Indian Caves, which were amazing. It was as if the caves had air conditioning, so we were very reluctant to leave! We saw stalagmites, stalactites and huge families of bats. Our guide pointed out some formations in the stone that you needed a good imagination to see – the three ships of Christopher Columbus, a lion and a skull for example!

We walked through the caves and down to the river where we all piled on to a tiny boat that I had visions of us sinking. The boat took us deeper into the cave before dropping us outside, treacherously close to the edge of a waterfall, but luckily we didn’t go over.

Indian Caves

The bus then took us back to the main street in Viñales where we were greeted by our homestay mama. Homestays (or casas) are a really popular form of accommodation in Cuba. Cheaper than hotels, you get a private room in a family house with en-suite toilet, and you are free to come and go as you please.

Our casa is only a few minutes’ walk from the main street and we were happy to see a nice clean room when we arrived. We had a rest in our room after meeting the family and looking around the house. Unfortunately the shower is cold but everything else is comfortable and just what we needed.

Once we had relaxed for a bit, we left the house and walked to meet the group for dinner. There, the bus took us up to an ecological restaurant that exclusively served food grown, made and cooked on the premises. The only thing that isn’t homemade is the water!

Vinales

Our group had a table outside on the terrace with an incredible view overlooking the valley. The sun was setting so we quickly made the most of the view by taking photos before settling down to eat some delicious food. We had vegetable soup, plantain and fish canapés, vegetables, pork, lamb, chicken, fish and bread all washed down with cocktails (yes, even the rum is made on site).

After our food, the bus took us back to our casas to get some sleep, ready for our hike across Pinar del Rio tomorrow.

Day 3 – Viñales

We both slept quite well in the casa and were offered a full breakfast of bread, eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, fresh fruit and little pastries. Sorry, Quinta Avenida hotel, I’m stripping you of your best breakfast crown. This was amazing, and exactly what we needed for a day full of activities!

When we were ready, we met our group for a walking tour of the valleys and countryside in Pinar del Rio. We had a local guide show us the valley along a trail through plants, fields and forests. We even had to climb some rocks up and over the hill at one point, which was a little scary but we made it! We also saw horses, dogs and tree rats native to Cuba. We managed to pick up a dog who kept us company along the way but I panicked halfway round when he disappeared. I hope he was okay!

Vinales

The views were the best bit, of course, and they were well worth the insect bites and heat to see. (Remember I said that – I definitely didn’t feel the same way by the end of the trip!!!)

When we reached the town again, we left our guide and headed for a restaurant to eat lunch. We ordered spaghetti with lobster – a weird Cuban Italian hybrid, but the seafood is always good here so you can’t go wrong.

Desperate to cool off after our hike, we changed in to our swimming gear and attempted to find the swimming pool our guide had told us about. We walked for nearly an hour but couldn’t find it, despite asking directions (I blame my Spanish!) In the end we gave up and went for a drink instead – much healthier – before we headed back to the casa for a refreshing shower and to get ready for dinner.

Our casa mama cooked us a huge meal of fish, rice and beans (have you noticed a pattern yet?) with chips, fried plantain, salad and fruit. It was all delicious but we felt awful for not being able to finish everything!

When we had finished our meal, we walked into town to have a few drinks at a stylish bar that we could imagine being very popular in London. It even had Enrique Iglesias and Backstreet Boys playing on the radio so I was very happy! We drank daiquiris, mojitos and shots of rum served to us by friendly barmen – it was all so cheap and tasty we hardly noticed ourselves getting more and more lightheaded… uh-oh!

At 9pm, we met the group on the main street ready for a night of (more) drinking and dancing in an outdoor salsa bar. There was a stage where a live band played salsa music while the locals danced and we copied (badly). The group’s bar bill totalled $140 in the end – we had ordered 30 mojitos between us! I think our waiter was shocked we actually paid the bill, so brought us over some free drinks to say thank you!

Vinales salsa bar

We headed back to our casa at 1am and had to ring the doorbell not realising how loud it was. We felt awful, but the grandad let us in saying he had been watching TV. Phew! It was straight to bed after that.

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We had a wonderful time in Viñales – one of the most picturesque places I think I have ever seen in real life. Have you ever been? Do you think you ever will?