It was late on a November night, and I was getting ready for bed. Casually scrolling through my emails, I saw one that caught my eye. “Round trip flights to Havana for $116,” the subject line read, “from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Sale ends today.”
My heart stopped. $116?! For less than half of the price of a flight across the country, I could visit Cuba. Was this real?
Looking at my phone, I checked the time – 9:45 PM. If I wanted to buy the flight, I didn’t have much time left. I thought about it for approximately five minutes before pulling out my credit card and making the purchase. After all, if the trip didn’t pan out, I’d be out the cost of a nice dinner and drinks for two. Figuring it was worth the risk, I pulled the trigger, booked a flight for President’s Day weekend, and that was the end of it.
Finding Travel Companions
On a whim, I posted on my personal Facebook that I had found these ridiculously cheap flights, to let friends know about the deal. Much to my surprise, three of my friends ended up purchasing flights for the same weekend. Since I am usually a solo traveler, I was a little apprehensive about traveling with others, much less an entire group of people. However, we all decided we would travel together, and we resolved to start making plans at the start of the new year.
Then, for a few months, we kind of forgot about it. I went on a few other international trips, continued working at my full-time job, and didn’t think much about my upcoming trip to Cuba. When January rolled around, however, I realized that I needed to do some research and decide whether I wanted to go. Since the United States had just lifted travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit in the event that the borders would one day close again. So, my friends and I booked a few nights in simple Airbnbs, bought our flights to and from Orlando, and made plans to go to Cuba for four days.
Our Whirlwind Weekend in Cuba
Upon arriving in Cuba, we were somewhat of a strange crew. We were four Americans, three of whom were non-white, with one female and three males, none of which were her actual boyfriend. Despite confused and judgmental looks from others, it was an incredible experience.
Our trip began with the most nausea-inducing colectivo ride from Havana to Viñales. We arrived at the bus station from the airport and inquired about the bus, which didn’t leave for another 4 hours. Instead of waiting around and wasting part of the day, we decided to ask around about other options. A man, Josué, offered to take us in his colectivo, an electric-blue Jeep, for just CUC $15 per person. We hopped in and the adventure began.
After twists and turns and reggaetón blasting from the stereo at the highest volume possible, we ended up in Viñales. Viñales is famous for its hand-rolled cigars and towering rock formations, called mogotes. While there, we explored giant caves, visited a tobacco farm, and drove around the beautiful mogotes in an antique car. We also met a hilarious duo of Spaniards who ended up taking us to Palenque, a nightclub rave in a cave, that same night.
Viñales was a peek into the Cuban countryside that I’m glad we explored. This ended up being my favorite part of Cuba and one of my favorite memories from traveling with friends.
When most people hear “Havana,” they think of dancing in the streets, colorful old cars, and a long stretch of waterfront where people hang out. All of this is true, but Havana had so much more to offer than the romanticized stereotypes. First off was the food – there were so many delicious seafood options and Cuban dishes, complete with plantains, rice, beans, and meat.
Another amazing aspect of Havana was the art. There were so many colorful homes, art shops, and even a giant warehouse-turned-nightclub called Fábrica de Arte Cubano. We spent most of our time in the city wandering around, exploring corners of the old city, and soaking in the ocean breeze on the Malecón. At night, we visited a bar in an old house, listened to terrible karaoke, and enjoyed some classic mojitos. Talk about a quintessential way to enjoy a short trip to Havana!
Playa del Este
We couldn’t go to the Caribbean without hitting the beach, at least for a little while. During our stay in Havana, we took an afternoon ride to the nearby Playa del Este. There, teal blue water, lightly-colored sand, and a beautiful cloudless day greeted us. While laying out on the beach, we relaxed, ate grilled fish, drank some beer, and enjoyed our final afternoon in Cuba.
The Bottom Line
Given the United States’ rocky relationship with Cuba in the past, and potentially moving forward, I feel lucky that I got to visit during a window of time when things were relatively calm. I wish I had gotten to stay a bit longer and see more of this friendly and unique country. During the trip, I was pleasantly surprised at how fun it was to travel in a group. Additionally, I was thankful for how much cheaper the trip was because we split many of the costs. The whole experience proved that impulse buys can prove to be some of the most unforgettable experiences, as long as they’re only $116. 🙂
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