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).
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.
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…
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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?