Every once in a while, you come across a person who is so full of life and enthusiastic about sharing what they love. They care deeply about people and helping each other out and they want the best for you, despite any differences. They are honest, open and genuine. You feel embraced, seen, understood and cared for in their presence. Now imagine an entire culture like this. Bienvenidos a Cuban Culture.
Welcome to one of the most misunderstood places on earth. I spent 12 glorious days and 11 nights on the Caribbean island just south of Miami. Most people don’t have Cuba on their wellness bucket list, but spend just a little time here and you’ll peel back the layers to soon discover that this entire country is smack dab in the middle of huge transformation. Like any caterpillar blossoming into a butterfly, it can be uncomfortable, awkward and unsure. Give it time. This magnificent tropical island will be on everyone’s radar.
As a writer for a wellness magazine, I often scout out the most mindful trends, body treatments, diet tips and healing therapies, but there is another part of being healthy that is just as important as tending to our body, and that is getting outside of our comfort zone and pushing ourselves to grow. There is a part of all of us that gets comfortable in routine. We fall into expectations and stay static. If left unchecked we become bored, complacent and anxious.
But true wellness is growth, and living a life committed to learning, growing and experiencing new things is the type of well-rounded wellness we are diving into today.
Never before have I seen such healing potential when stepping outside of your comfort zone. For me, that was traveling to Cuba as a solo woman traveler. You hear things, like it’s unsafe and it’s hard to get around, but you don’t know until you go.
My journey took me to the heart of Cuban culture, for an unforgettable experience as I toured with Locally Sourced Cuba Tours, a humble company dedicated to providing authentic experiences of this unique pocket of the world.
Cuba is everything you’ve wondered but nothing like what you expect. It is a land of contrasts. Vibrant yet soft, time warped yet eagerly trendy, adventurous yet tame, simple though frustrating, Cuba is anything but plain vanilla. Instead get ready for an exhilarating roller coaster ride full of shattered expectations, assumptions gone awry and open-minded smiles.
When you come to Cuba, it’s best to hold all assumptions and instead dive into the great big unknown. Let the journey seduce you. Cuba invites its visitors to stop rushing and instead find the magic of each moment, for in this very second there is infinite value and wonder.
My adventure starts in Havana, the capital, a buzzing city full of excitement and awe. If Paris and Vegas had a love child, it would pop out Havana, Cuba. But don’t tell her this, for she is in her own right an authentic piece of work. Demanding nothing from her guests, yet displaying everything she has wide open for all to grasp, to see and to take in.
So neglected yet so uncharacteristically breathtaking. She sits glistening in the sun, bouncing to a gentle rhyme of Caribbean drums ricocheting off the old Havana walls and dusty cobblestone streets. Beautiful, majestic and coy, Havana is captured in time yet sophisticated. Drenched in modern flair, Fasionatista, hipsters, and trendsetters all collide with classic American cars, making this city a unique mecca of flash and flourish.
My experience takes me deep into the culture revealing secrets kept only for those willing to go beyond the norm. I participated in the 8 Day Lively Cuba Group Tour. There were 15 of us, 3 solo women travelers and couples from all over the world: the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and America. This tour is the best way to see Cuban culture as it condenses some of the very best sites, sounds and sensations of the culture into a fun-filled, deep dive adventure.
Day One: Tour arrival day in Havana
Day one puts you smack dab in the middle of it all. From cool cafés and Bohemian bars to photographic wonders, Havana is old-school cool.
On its way to being the Paris or New York, but not quite yet, the art culture in Havana is one of the city’s biggest surprises. In Havana the history is piled up like wrecked treasure on a recently discovered beach. Havana is going through a growth spurt emotionally, spiritually and visually. Private enterprise is showing the first flowerings of a creative outburst, while the big-name brands from that well-known “frenemy,” ahem America, in the north have yet to gain a foothold. As a result, the city is rife with experimentation, creativity and exploration. Maybe it’s something they put in the mojitos, but the face of Cuban café culture has never looked so inviting.
Day Two: Cienfuegos via Bay of Pigs
Cuba’s so-called Pearl of the South has long seduced travelers from around the island with its elegance, enlightened French airs and feisty Caribbean spirit. This is the Paris of Cuba. Arranged around the country’s most spectacular natural bay, Cienfuegos is a nautical city founded in 1819 by French émigrés, whose homogeneous grid of elegant classical architecture earned it a Unesco World Heritage Site listing in 2005.
Day Three: Trinidad via Santa Clara
Smack bang in the geographic center of Cuba, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity, where an edgy youth culture has been testing the boundaries of Cuba’s censorship police for years.
Day Four: Trinidad
Trinidad is one of a kind, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement where the clocks stopped in 1850 and — apart from a zombie invasion of tourists — have yet to restart. Huge sugar fortunes amassed in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios during the early 19th century created the illustrious colonial-style mansions bedecked with Italian frescoes, Wedgwood china and French chandeliers.
Days Five and Six: Viñales
If you’re looking for the real Cuba, go no further than Viñales. Named Less than three hours’ drive west of the bustling capital is Viñales, a lush valley of deep-red earth and tobacco fields and mogotes, stunning limestone outcrops that are often shrouded by morning mist. Explore the valley — a Unesco World Heritage Site — from the village of Viñales, where every other pastel house is a bed-and-breakfast.
Days Seven and Eight: Bring you back to Havana, for a well-rounded tour
One of the best parts about this experience was the opportunity to meet locals. You get to support the Cuban people, patronizing privately owned small businesses all across Cuba.
This experience is designed to introduce you to the local Cuban people and steer funds toward Cuban citizens. You’ll stay in casa particulares (privately run Cuban b and b’s) and eat at paladares (privately run restaurants). You will also have the chance to interact with Cubans from all walks of life, listening to their stories and sharing your own.
Traveling to Cuba is an excellent way to connect to a healthier pace and way of life.
Here are my wellness takeaways.
Locally Sourced Food and Accommodations
Part of the experience of traveling through Cuba is experiencing Cuban resourcefulness. Spare parts are often difficult and expensive to come by, so don’t be surprised if you notice that “Cuban innovation” has been used to keep various things working. From the classic American cars to the upkeep of homes, you get to see firsthand how the grass truly is greener where you stand.
Disconnect to Reconnect
Access to the internet in Cuba is getting better but can still be variable, slow and unreliable. It is also relatively expensive to get online at a hotel or one of the various Wi-Fi zones that have been set up across the country. Traveling through Cuba offers a great opportunity to take a break from your electronic devices and have a truly relaxing experience. I spent less than 3 hours online in the total 11 days and felt more free than ever. It was liberating to take time to disconnect, which in turn helped me reconnect to others and myself.
Immerse Yourself in Nature
Cuba is a unique travel destination and that is what makes it so popular. From hikes to city strolls, you’ll have an opportunity to be active and stay fit. It is part of the “laid-back Caribbean” approach to life.
Just like everyday life, in Cuba, things don’t always go to plan or schedule. It’s best to relax and go with the flow. A great sense of humor and patience are qualities that will go a long way toward making your stay in Cuba an enjoyable one.
Want to go…
Shannon Kaiser is a travel writer and four-time bestselling book author. She is traveling the globe for 365 days uncovering wellness trends and cultural revelations. You can join her journey on Instagram: @ShannonKaiserWrites
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