Two Months Backpacking in Cuba
It wasn't my first trip to Cuba, but I had finally decided to go back and really explore, far away from the all-inclusive hotels that Cuba is famous for. My last visit had given me a sense of intrigue; I had barely touched the surface but Cuba had fascinated me. With a sparkle in their eyes and the melodic sound of their voice, I somehow felt that Cubans and Cuba had a lot more to offer.
My first taste of Havana was the Malecon. I dumped my backpack at the Casa Particular, I stepped out into the afternoon sun and walked along the Malecon from the Vedado neighbourhood to the Paseo del Prado. The Malecon, an 8km avenue by the sea, is the soul of Havana where many locals come to meet friends, go fishing, or enjoy a drink as the sun sets. I decided to sit on the sea wall by the Castillo del Morro, an attractive fortress guarding the entrance of Havana's bay and enjoy the panoramic view.
A few minutes later, a musician by the name of Carlos introduced himself to me. He was polite, interesting, and had studied music in France. He couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak very much Spanish, so we managed to communicate in a combination of languages, amazingly making ourselves understood. He offered to be my guide of Old Havana; we had only known each other for a short while, but I felt comfortable with Carlos and I was more than happy to share a little of his Havana.
An unexpected tour guide
We walked down the beautifully shaded Paseo del Prado admiring the beautiful mixture of architecture on either side of the road while zig-zagging our way through the crowded walkway. It led us to the Parque Central, which divides Habana Centro and Habana Vieja and is home to a marble statue of José Martí (Cuban revolutionary and poet), the Gran Teatro de la Habana (where you can watch Cuba's amazing national ballet perform), the Capitolio, Museo de Bellas Artes and the historic Hotel Inglaterra, a great place to enjoy a mojito and watch the world go by.
I was captivated by my surroundings, but what got my attention were the amazingly well maintained Chevrolet and Ford cars dating back to the 1950s and '60s parked all around the area as well as the crowd of Cuban guys talking animatedly at one of the corners of the park. It looked intense, like they were trying to put the world to rights, but I was told that it´s a popular place for the guys to come and chat about baseball!
We walked into Habana Vieja along Obispo and visited the three main plazas; Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Vieja; all three squares are charming and unique.
Habana Vieja was captivating and the crumbling walls did not take away its beauty, but you couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like back in the day. Spending the afternoon with Carlos was an unexpected surprise which allowed me to see Havana through his eyes and was a good introduction into the warm hospitality of the Cubans.
From Havana, I travelled to Trinidad for around six hours on the Viazul bus. Nobody seemed to know if I could make a reservation in advance so I arrived at the Viazul bus terminal an hour before departure and hoped for the best. I had to take a taxi from the Casa Particular to the bus terminal as I was told it was my only option; there weren't any public buses.
When I arrived I wasn't sure where to wait or what to do so I asked someone and they told me to wait here. After a while a lady in a booth started to sell tickets - she didn't have a computer system, instead she was writing names on a piece of paper - I couldn't believe how antiquated the system was but I managed to get on the bus and to my surprise it wasn't even full.
I was expecting someone to meet me at Trinidad. I had no idea what they looked like or whether they would even be there, so I collected my bags from the bus, paid my one CUC tip to the baggage handler and went out to meet the masses of people shouting for my attention, showing pictures of their casa and hoping to drum up business. In the distance I saw someone holding up a sign with my name on it so I went over to him and introduced myself. Gustavo couldn't speak English but that didn't stop him from talking to me like I was an old family friend. He showed me to his bright red motorbike and side car. Was I supposed to jump into that with my backpack? I offered to walk, but he gestured for me to jump in, he threw my backpack onto his back and we drove across the bumpy cobbled streets of Trinidad to his casa.
I had decided to come to Trinidad to learn Spanish. I thought it would be the best place to really immerse myself in the community and its culture. I wasn't disappointed. My Spanish had advanced immensely and I had become very good friends with the family.
I fell in love with Trinidad, wandering around its beautiful colourful colonial streets, free from too much traffic; maybe some horses or bicycles lazily passing you by. I visited Plaza Mayor many times, it was my favourite place to sit and think with its quaint museums all around; Museo Romántico, Museo Nacional de Lucha Contra Bandidos, Museo de Architectura. I often spent my afternoons listening to talented musicians playing at the Ruinas de Segarte bar with its fresh patio covered in vine, an excellent place to get out of the sun. Alternatively, you could spend your afternoons or weekends on Playa Ancon beach, only 10km from town, a perfect Caribbean beach with clear aquamarine warm waters and soft white sand stretching for miles.
The nightlife in Trinidad was vibrant. Casa de la Música and Casa de la Trova were open every night where you could dance under the stars and listen to live bands play; it didn't take long to make friends.
My two months in Cuba didn't seem enough, I wanted more, but I had to move on. However, I am grateful for the experience. I appreciate how easily Cubans allowed me into their lives and shared everything they had to offer with me. For me Cuba was all about the experiences that I had rather than the places I visited.
If Rena's inspired you to go to Cuba then make sure you check out our Cuba country section for some more advice and information.
Also, check out our article on 10 of the coolest things to do with Cuba - we're not going to lie, it's pretty cool.
And finally, jump on the message boards to chat about all things Cuban!
About the Author: Rena Papatheofilou
Rena had always wanted to experience living and working in Central America, so she left London behind and began her adventure by learning Spanish in Cuba. She later travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where she continued to learn Spanish as well as undertake voluntary work. Rena's love for travel and of Central America led her to working as a tour leader in Central America, where she got to share her experiences with other travellers from all over the world. Rena now has a website Experience The Real Cuba. You can follow Rena on Twitter @exptherealcuba.