I was nervous about my 2-week trip through Cuba. I’d read about the challenges of traveling through a country that is on the brink of major changes, in both a political and cultural sense. I wanted to feel the island’s magic, without jeopardizing the opportunity to experience the real Cuba we so often hear about. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so I did more research than usual for this trip. I wanted to make sure I made the most of my time in this unique country that I’d been dying to visit.
When I plan trips, I search for experiences that reveal a country’s culture - cooking classes, language immersion (via classes or homestays), etc. When I was researching the best of Cuba, I stumbled across the CUBA CANDELA's website. I liked their focus on immersive travel because that’s how I always aim to explore a country.
I reached out to CUBA CANDELA to arrange handpicked experiences. I selected a cooking class, classic car tour, a day trip to Vinales, and dinner at one of the most well-known restaurants in Havana (yup - Beyonce ate here!). It’s safe to say, the journey was so much more than that! Here’s what went down:
1. I ate dinner with Beyonce. Okay, Okay...not at the same time, but I ate at the same restaurant as Beyonce. Close enough, right? *WE* ate a La Guarida, a Paladar (private restaurant) where the Oscar-Nominated Fresa y Chocolate was shot in 1993. Set in an unassuming building in Central Havana, La Guarida’s scene was the setting that so many people envision when they think of Cuba.
*note: reservations at La Guarida must be made in advance. With lack of internet & cell service, it was nice to have this taken care of ahead of time.
2. I got the chance to cruise through Havana in a lime green candy-coated vintage American car with the top down. This experience has yet to sink in. From the upscale homes along the Oak Tree lined Miramar neighborhood to Santeria sacrifices at Almendares Natural Park, I was able to see the colonial city through a completely different lens. Did I mention this was all to the sound of reggaeton? Y'all know I love my reggaeton!
3. I was able to disprove the myth of Cuban food being mediocre by taking a cooking class at a Paladar (private restaurant). After learning about sustainable farming techniques, I witnessed how some private restaurants are forced to thrive on creativity to work around Cuba’s strict food regulations. This was a hands-on experience that allowed me to feel, smell, & taste the flavors behind the country’s innovative food scene.
4. I learned how to make a Cuban Mojito the REAL way and it was truly the best d*mn Mojito I’ve ever had. Did you know that the mint leaves aren’t supposed to be muddled? Now I’m going to have to side-eye every Mojito I see!
5. I rode horseback through Vinales, Cuba’ s lush green countryside. I was blown away as I looked out over the rows of tobacco fields & limestone mountains in the background. This is what you call, tranquilo (calm).
6. I smoked a real Cuban Cigar alongside a tobacco farmer and it was legendary.
7. I had the best Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes —a traditional Cuban dish) of my life. I won’t explain further. You just have to go try it for yourself.
8. I visited an artists’ home & community that has been entirely decked out in colorful mosaic tiles. We’re talking benches, fences, and entire homes! Think Gaudi’s Park Guell on steroids.
9. I got the chance to connect with my local guide and gain some real insight into life in Cuba. He pointed out his gym, home, school, etc. along our drive through Havana as if they were his own personal landmarks. If felt special to connect with a local who not only knew the history of his country but has lived it.
There is a side of Cuba that can’t be found on the internet or in guidebooks. It’s even more difficult to arrange experiences once you arrive in the country due to lack of internet and the developing tourism infrastructure. A combination of CUBA CANDELA’s cultural insight and my self-selected activities ultimately led to the Cuban experience I dreamed of.
CUBA CANDELA Overview
I spent two days journeying with CUBA CANDELA, and the experience couldn’t have been better. I arrived in Cuba with a rough 14-day itinerary, but overall I was completely unsure of what to expect. It felt satisfying to have two days completely taken care of, logistically speaking. I didn’t have to waste time trying to figure out how to get somewhere and I didn’t have to worry about being scammed. The tour was completely private & handcrafted, so each activity will be based on your interests and their insider-knowledge of the country. This would be perfect for a family, couple, larger friend group who is looking for peace of mind in a country that can be difficult to travel through, especially for less experienced trip-planners and non-Spanish speakers. Pre-departure communication was exceptional and the execution was top-notch. Finally, this trip falls under legal travel to Cuba, directly benefiting the locals & private establishments they work with.CUBA CANDELA knows their stuff and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a seamless, yet highly cultural experience in Cuba.
Don’t just take my word for it. Always check the reviews.
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Are you headed to Cuba Soon? What type of experiences do you want to cross off your bucket list?
This post was made in collaboration with Cuba Candela, all opinions are my own.