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9 Unforgettable Experiences in Cuba | Cuba Candela

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!  

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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).

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6. I smoked a real Cuban Cigar alongside a tobacco farmer and it was legendary.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

My Experience Studying Spanish & Living with a Family in Guatemala

Becoming fluent in Spanish has been one of my goals for a long time, so I decided to travel in an area where the language is widely spoken - Central America. Guatemala is known to have some of the most affordable classes in the world, so I contacted a spanish academy before my trip to get the ball rolling. Keep reading to see how things went!


“Wow, I really don’t know anything”.

This was my exact thought as I sat in my first 5 hour one-on-one Spanish Class.

This was a serious blow to my ego because most Texans proudly believe we know enough Spanish to ‘get by’ in a conversation. Seriously! Ask a Texan if they know Spanish. Most of us will assure you that we can definitely understand it. Growing up in a state bordering Mexico, I’ve always been around native Spanish Speakers. I was even required to take Spanish classes for 2 years in both Middle School & High School.  So when I booked a trip throughout Latin America, I naturally believed that I could just ‘get by’. HA! I was sadly mistaken. Like, deeply mistaken.

Let me tell you - nothing can make you feel dumber than having to stare at someone in complete & utter confusion because you haven’t understood a word they just said to you.

Not. A. Single. Word

It sucks.

After way too many awkward language exchanges in markets and taxi cabs, I was counting down the days until I arrived in Guatemala to learn Spanish so that I could stop looking like a deer in headlights and relying on Google Translate to speak to the people around me.

TAKING SPANISH CLASSES & DOING A HOMESTAY IN ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA

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After a night of intense Googling aka trip planning, I learned that Guatemala offered some of the most affordable Spanish classes in the world. Lessons and homestays were offered as a package for complete cultural immersion. I try to go beyond the surface when I visit a new country, so I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do. I figured I’d take this opportunity to build upon my already existing Spanish skills and learn about the Guatemalan way of life. I thought I’d be going from being an intermediate level Spanish speaker to advanced. Once I arrived in Central America, I quickly learned that I was a complete novice in my Spanish proficiency - if that.

I signed up to take classes & do my homestay with Antiguena Spanish Academy in Antigua, Guatemala - a colonial city in the central highlands of Guatemala. At the tail end of a bumpy five-hour bus ride from Lake Atitlan, I awoke to vibrant colored buildings outside of the bus window. I stepped off of the bus to see a volcano far into the distance. I showed up at the door of my new Spanish school and nervously waited for my new Guatemalan familia take me to my new home. I had no idea what to expect.

THE HOMESTAY EXPERIENCE

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I was dropped off at a two-story home on the outskirts of the city. My new madre, Silvia, greeted me with a big hug and introduced me to the rest of my familia. It was a family of 5 - a mother, a father,  and three sons all above 16 years old. I quickly learned that this would be a challenge. They spoke less English than I spoke Spanish and that’s saying a lot.

They gave me a key to come & go as I pleased. I had my own room and they’d call me down for breakfast every morning if I wasn't already awakened by the sounds of Latin beats & the smell of fresh tortillas. A rarity in my own home, everyone sat at the table for all three meals. There were many awkward meals where less than 10 words were spoken between the family & I. Think 'awkward first date' with the added fact that you’re sleeping in their home. Uh, yea...it was pretty uncomfortable. Initially, I couldn’t get beyond the basics to have a deeper conversation with them. It was disappointing because I wanted to learn more about them. In moments of frustration, I had to remind myself that I asked for this challenge. I was trying my best and so were they. 

Despite our initial language barrier, I was able to learn quite a bit about their lifestyle in the short time that I was there. The mother was a teacher and the father was a shuttle driver. Both cooked and cleaned, which was a bit of a surprise to me since Guatemala is known to have a very traditional culture. It was clear that family was very important - 3 extended family members lived on the same street and they were always in & out of the house. The sons were often away at school, playing fútbol, watching fútbol, talking about fútbol or with their girlfriends. They were all extremely close & it was extremely refreshing to see that a family in a different part of the world didn’t seem to be very different from my own.

TAKING SPANISH CLASSES

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I signed up for daily one on one 5-hour Spanish classes. On day 1, I realized just how much I didn’t know. It was clear that the years I spent learning Spanish hardly paid off.

I’d walk 4 blocks every morning to get to class, which was outside in a shaded courtyard.  We were given a lesson plan & a notebook. We covered grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation through a series of interactive lessons. The curriculum helped me build a solid foundation that I never learned in my middle school & high school courses. 

I had a really good relationship with my teacher, Mayra. She was extremely patient and I loved that we were able to share laughs. One on one classes made me feel comfortable to ask the same questions over & over if I needed to. Because of this, I picked up on the teachings rather quickly. Mayra never got annoyed - or at least she didn't show it. We got along so well that our conversations went far beyond what was on the lesson plan - we often discussed family, hobbies, politics, and traditions in Guatemala.

I haven’t taken an official class since leaving Antigua and I still remember everything that was taught to me, which is a testament to the program. I grew to truly love learning & speaking Spanish. Now, I speak it any chance that I get. I’m extremely proud of what I know. I’ve even had Spanish speakers tell me they thought I was fluent. *flips hair*. My decision to take this class was pivotal to the special cultural exchanges I had throughout the rest of my trip.

DID I LEARN SPANISH?

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After only one week of complete immersion, my Spanish improved greatly. Overcoming the language barrier became a challenge that I looked forward to daily. Everyday tasks such as asking for directions in taxi cabs, asking for food prices at market stalls, and asking about menu selections at restaurants became easier. I didn’t have to miss out on conversations because I could now engage with locals in a meaningful way - leading to more beautiful friendships and spontaneous adventures. I also felt like less of a ‘dumb American’ around all of the travelers who could speak 2-4 languages on top of their own.        

I was able to use my new language skills throughout the rest of Central America & Latin America. I’ve even been able to use them in Morocco because my taxi driver only spoke Spanish & Arabic. Even though I wanted to enjoy the 2-hour taxi ride in silence, you can bet he spoke to me in Spanish for the entire duration of the ride. Thankfully, I could understand & respond. I’ve got a long way to go before being completely fluent, but when I say I can ‘get by’ now….I really mean it.

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ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

SCHOOL - Antiguena Spanish Academy. Compare schools at Guatemala365

SCHEDULE - Monday - Friday 8am-1pm with a 30min break, other options are available

COST - $200/week including classes, 3 meals/day Mon.-Sat., and a homestay(private room & I got lucky with a private bath since I was the only student in the house that week). Discounts are typically offered during the offseason, so it doesn't hurt to ask.

HOW THE HOMESTAY WORKS - My school paired me with a family as part of the homestay. They have a roster of families that regularly host students & they will place you with one.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Location of your school - classes are popular in various cities throughout Guatemala. I ended up having some really special experiences in Antigua, so I was happy with my decision to study there. I actually found myself bored around Lake Atitlan, so be sure to look up surrounding activities and consider what environment works best for you.

  • Housing - Will you do a homestay, stay in a hotel/rental, or stay at a hostel? If you’re around other travelers, you’re less likely to practice your Spanish simply because it will be more convenient to speak English. I was forced to practice my Spanish because nobody at my homestay spoke English. If you want to make the most of your learning experience, doing a homestay is probably best. Keep in mind that you will be staying with a family of complete strangers. It's certainly uncomfortable at first, but it's going to be a great way to see how another culture lives. 

    • Be sure to notify whatever school you choose if you end up feeling uncomfortable about your homestay situation. I got lucky because I didn’t have any other students staying at my family's house with me. However, I met some students who ONLY had students(with no family members) staying in their house which made it more like a hostel situation as opposed to a homestay as they expected. I would have been disappointed by this. Don’t be afraid to bring this to your school’s attention and request a change if you’re unhappy.

 

  • DURATION

    • How long should you sign up for? Whatever you think is best. I don’t think any specific time period is too long or short because you’ll see an improvement either way. only signed up for a week and my Spanish improved immensely. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I wanted to explore other countries. Of course, you're more likely to become fluent with more class time.

    • Its advised to only sign up for a week at first so that you can see if you like the school, teacher, and your homestay. If you don’t like it, you can make changes. It’s YOUR experience so you want to make sure it works for you.

Like anything else, the experience is what you make it. If you put in the work, you’ll get a lot out. Remember that everyone learns at difference paces due to a variety of factors so there is no use in comparing your progress to someone else’s.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Don't forget travel insurance! I used World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason that I don't have more photos from my time in Antigua is that I lost my phone a week later. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off.

Homestays not your thing & thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time? Click HERE for $40 off your booking!


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Do you want to learn Spanish or another language? Let me known down below!