Highlights of my three-week trip to the communist country in the Caribbean
Havana tends to get all the attention when it comes to Cuba, but my friend and I discovered our personal travel highlights far from the Island’s main city.
Viñales was where my holiday vibe really kicked into gear. The village lies in the Valley of Viñales, which is famous for its tobacco farms, and the best way to explore is on the back of a horse.
Luckily for me, I like horse riding so I booked a tour with our host who happened to have horses of his own. Riding behind my guide, we stopped from time to time for him to explain the plants and scenery of the valley. Eventually, we arrived at a local tobacco farm where the owner showed me around while my guide refreshed himself with a glass of rum.
Unfortunately, my Spanish was not good enough to understand exactly how cigars are made but at least I now know where tobacco grows.
The way back to the casa was an adventure of its own as my guide challenged me to a horse race. I don’t know if the rum was to blame or his macho nature (probably both) but I didn’t fall off so I guess I won the race?
Back at the casa, our host’s mother prepared dinner for us: a lovely Cuban stew with a large bowl of rice. After the meal, we got talking to a Cuban guy who grew up in Viñales but now was visiting from North America. He gave us some really interesting insights into life and politics in Cuba.
We asked him how much food the government provides for its citizens.
“Remember the rice you told me you had for dinner?,” he said. “Cuban families get that amount of rice for a whole month.”
He told us that Cubans who work in the tourism industry are better off as they get paid in CUC (the currency for tourists) instead of Cuban Pesos. For comparison, we paid around 15 CUC for one night at the casa in Viñales while policemen only earn 20 CUC a month. He made us realise how much the citizens of Cuba really struggle to get by but he kept his voice down during the entire conversation because his pro-government grandmother might walk by and wouldn’t be happy about his negative opinion.
Cubans don’t usually like to talk critically about the situation in Cuba because they risk prison if they’re caught so we really appreciated this open conversation.
The next day my friend and I were feeling adventurous so we decided to hitchhike to the ‘Mural de Prehistoria’, a huge mural painted on the side of a mountain. The hitching did not go well and we were about to give up when one of Cuba’s classic American cars pulled over to pick us up. The driver, a curious young Cuban taxi driver, not only took us to the mural but also to an amazing viewpoint we would have missed out on if it wasn’t for him — Oh how I love unplanned experiences like that!
I found the countryside in the Viñales area deeply relaxing and I wish we’d had longer than two nights to spend there. If it hadn’t been for our schedule, I might still be sitting in the rocking chair on the porch of our ‘Casa Particular’  watching both locals and tourists pass by on horses.
It’s a 500km trip from Viñales to Trinidad. The damaged Cuban roads are not made for speeding so this trip was going to take at least six hours by car and more than ten by bus.  We didn’t like the idea of wasting so much time on the road so we took a Collectivo (a shared taxi) to Playa Girón. Just 160km from Trinidad, Playa Girón is a popular destination for divers and snorkellers. We spent two nights there enjoying the beach and snorkelling and then caught a bus to Trinidad.
Trinidad is a well-preserved colonial town complete with cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings. There were more tourists than Cubans in this little town but somehow that didn’t take away its charm. The many bars and restaurants in the town centre were always busy until late at night and offered both Cuban and international entertainment.
We chose to eat at Vista Gourmet, a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet, on our first day in Trinidad. This proved to be a great decision as we got to watch the sunset from the restaurant’s rooftop terrace while sipping on a Canchanchara (a cocktail with rum, lime and honey that was invented in Trinidad). The view got even better when all lights went off in town due to a blackout and our restaurant was one of the only places that still had electricity. The buffet-style food was amazing as well so I’m sure I won’t forget that restaurant any time soon.
Another highlight was my 28th birthday. We had read about Disco Ayala, a nightclub built into a cave outside of town. Even though dancing in a cave sounded very interesting to us, we were hesitant to give it a try as we thought there would only be tourists and teenagers. But we went and were proven wrong once again! The cave was filled with Cubans and tourists alike. The music was Salsa, and later disco. Screens attached to the walls played videos to accompany the songs — and it was funny to observe how much cheesier Latin music videos are. Running into a group of Italians we had previously met in Havana, we ended up dancing until the club closed.
For obvious reasons, we woke up wrecked the following day but we had booked a tour to the old sugar mills that we didn’t want to miss. And I’m glad we didn’t because were the only people on the tour that included our own English-speaking guide, a driver, a car with air conditioning and lunch at a Cuban restaurant outside of Trinidad (for 30 CUC each). Trinidad used to be famous for its sugar mills and we were taken to several. With sugar cane processed on site, it was only logical for us to try freshly squeezed sugar cane juice at one of the mills. It was very tasty and seeing how it was made was a nice bonus. We also learned that the mills were once owned by the wealthiest people in Cuba who forced slaves to work on the farms.
Our guide later told us that we were his first customers in a week which was unusual for the time of the year. We had heard several times that Cuba is usually busier. The Cubans we talked to guessed this might be due to tourists thinking that hurricane Irma destroyed the island but nobody really understood why as any damage had long been repaired.
 A ‘Casa particular’ is the Cuban version of Airbnb. We booked them through Airbnb before arriving in Cuba as the online booking does not work when connected to the Cuban internet.
 The Cuban bus company Viazul operates buses to and from most popular destinations in Cuba. The tickets need to be booked online or at the local offices at least one day in advance.
By Anja Schwolow
I am a curious German girl who loves the random moments of life and travelling. You can find me on Instagram.