First Time in Cuba

By Ciara Johnson

Cuba has been on my bucket-list for years, so I naturally craved an unforgettable experience once I finally arrived. I wanted to see the vintage cars and salsa dance in the streets, but I also wanted to immerse myself in authentic experiences that would reveal cultural aspects which are typically missed on the tourist trail. I wanted to leave Cuba with a deeper understanding of the history, culture, food, and art. Due to U.S. restrictions and limited information available on the web, I wasn’t sure where to turn for valuable information.

One day, I stumbled upon CUBA CANDELA’s website and I loved their mission to create rich & meaningful cultural connections with every experience. I contacted their team and trusted them to lead the way by curating a unique journey based on my interests. This journey included a cooking class at a privately run paladar (restaurant), a vintage car tour around historical Havana, a day-trip to the picturesque Viñales Valley, and a reservation at one the most iconic restaurants in the country. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but each encounter left me with memories of a lifetime.

A CULINARY EXPERIENCE AT A PALADAR

 Enjoying an authentic and fresh Mojito at a local paladar

Enjoying an authentic and fresh Mojito at a local paladar

My Cuban guide showed up at the doorstep of my Casa Particular (private home) in Central Habana on an early Friday morning. A personal taxi transported us from the crowded streets of Central Habana to the calm seaside of Cojímar, a small fishing village on the East side of Habana. As we rode through town, my guide repeatedly pointed out the window and shared his personal connection to the landmarks that surrounded us - his daily gym, his childhood home, his mother’s place of work. His enthusiasm was contagious and made me eager for the adventures to come.

Our taxi came to a halt in front of a privately run restaurant (paladar) that sat directly across the street from his mother’s office. Before entering the restaurant, we made a detour to a nearby farmer’s co-op to learn how the restaurant’s produce is sustainably and organically grown. As we learned about the farm to table process, we walked around the small garden gathering fresh spices & vegetables. This hands-on experience was only a preview of how involved our cooking class would be.

When we returned to the paladar, the staff introduced themselves, handed us aprons and we began cooking. We cut fresh lobster, mixed spices, and handled traditional ingredients as if the kitchen was our own. The staff explained each step as we were given full reign to handle our dishes and prepare them to our liking. After topping off the dish with a bit of Cuban rum (yum!), we made our way to the bar to make authentic Mojitos. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was the best Mojito I’d ever had. We slowly sipped on our Mojitos as we enjoyed the Cuban flavors of our personally prepared meal. I left with a full stomach and a deeper understanding of Cuba’s booming paladar scene.

CLASSIC CAR TOUR

 Journeying through Cuba in a classic convertible

Journeying through Cuba in a classic convertible

After our cooking class, we hopped in the back of a vintage lime green convertible car for a ride around the city. It was incredible to witness the energy of Habana from a completely different perspective. As my hair blew in the wind, I gazed up at the historical architecture and the colorful classic cars that passed us by. I could feel the spirit of Habana as the Caribbean beats played loudly from the car. As we cruised through the city, I witnessed young couples kissing at the quintessential Malecón, upscale homes along the Oak Tree lined Miramar neighborhood, and Santeria sacrifices at Almendares Natural Park. My guide shared historical context about the passing monuments & sites which helped me piece together the past & present of my surroundings.

My favorite stop of all was at Fusterlandia, the residence & studio of Jose Fuster, a famous Cuban artist. The child-like mosaic tiles covering this artist’s playground was unlike any thing I’d ever seen before. Fuster essentially created an art gallery of his surroundings, stretching well beyond his home and into the yards of his neighbors. For me, this stop clearly demonstrated Cuba’s vibrant culture and strong sense of community.

HORSEBACK RIDING IN THE TOBACCO FARMS OF VIÑALES

 Exploring the Viñales Valley on horseback

Exploring the Viñales Valley on horseback

On my second & final day with CUBA CANDELA, we took a day trip to Viñales. We arrived after a 3 hour ride from Habana and I could feel such a major shift in the air after being in the city for a week. As we moved from the noisy streets of Habana into the countryside, I thought, “Why didn’t I come here sooner?”. I stared out the window as we passed lush green tobacco farms, cowboys on horses, limestone mountains, and brightly colored homes. We stopped at a restaurant and enjoyed some delicious Ropa Vieja (traditional Cuban dish of shredded beef) before going on a horseback ride through the valley.

I bounced up & down on as my horse galloped along the rows of green tobacco fields. The weather was perfect and the mountain views were out of this world. After nearly an hour, we arrived at a tobacco farm and learned about life in the countryside. The farmer described the production process, shared his business practices, and showed us how to roll a cigar by hand. I felt renewed as we set atop a mountain, sipped fresh Mojitos, and puffed the last bit of our cigars before heading back into Habana. It’s easy to see why this small town has such a big reputation.The magic of Viñales lies in the simple and relaxed way of life. It was an absolute treat to get a taste of the rural side of Cuba in contrast to the busy streets of Havana.

DINNER RESERVATION AT LA GUARIDA

 Striking a pose at the historic La Guarida

Striking a pose at the historic La Guarida

For my final night in Havana, CUBA CANDELA booked a reservation at one of the most well-known paladares in town - La Guarida. Fresa y Chocolate, the Oscar nominated film based in Cuba, was shot in this restaurant in 1993. Since then, the restaurant has seen its fair share of celebrities and big names (Beyonce and Jay-Z ate here!). La Guarida sits on the third floor of a crumbling building in the noisy streets of Centro Habana. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I’d arrived at the right place. As I made my way up the grand staircase, I began to understand why the building and decor have such a big reputation. I couldn’t help but stare at the mustard yellow walls filled with art as I entered the dining room. The antiquated decor and dim lights created an ambiance of the ‘Old Habana’ so many people imagine when they think of the city. As I enjoyed my Cordero Masala & Plantains, I read about the history of the restaurant and its role in Cuban culture today. The final line on the menu stood out the most to me:

“Welcome to La Guarida”, we tell you, “convinced that in our house, you can discover a city in three times; steeped in history, marked by their daily, and hopeful about the future.”

MY EXPERIENCE WITH CUBA CANDELA

CUBA CANDELA left me feeling as though I’d seen and felt Cuba in a way that most tourists never do.  I wasn’t sure what to expect due to limited access to internet, language barriers, and no prior experience in the country. However, they took care of everything and provided valuable insight where my knowledge was lacking. From my knowledgeable local guide to the artful handpicked experiences, I was able to go beneath the surface during my trip. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the communication and customer service provided by the pre-departure team and my local guide. I’m beyond grateful that I was able to gain insight into Cuba’s distinct history & culture by choosing CUBA CANDELA.

 

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