I first visited the beautiful island country of Cuba six years ago. If you know anything about the relations between Cuba and the USA, a lot has changed since 2017. But I was grateful to have had the opportunity to visit again and experience one thing that hasn’t changed – its magic. (Click here to read Part I “Review: My Cuban Adventure”). As the title of this post suggests, thanks to my good friend Juanita “BZB” Britton’s Off the Beaten Path Tours, I was able to see much more of this magical island than I did the first time. And while the main tourist attractions are still worthwhile experiences, learning more about the rich African culture made this visit to Cuba even more special.
Me and my good friend Juanita who curated this amazing experience.

There’s no place like home

Before I get into the new adventures I experienced, let me first share a little about our home for six days. Since my favorite travel buddy and I cruised the first time, we didn’t have the hotel experience. I had heard that many of them were a bit outdated and not up to American standards so I was glad we cruised the first time. This time we stayed at the less-than-a-year-old Grand Aston La Habana Hotel, which was absolutely beautiful. Not only did it have the most gorgeous artwork displayed around the property, the rooms and common areas had the most lovely decor. Additionally, the infinity pool overlooking Havana Bay was delightful and I saw the most amazing sunrises every morning from myroom. A few things to note about the hotel though…other than breakfast (which is included), you’re better off going somewhere else for food. They advertise room service, but they didn’t have many of the items on the menu, which is already limited. Every one of us who had massages thoroughly enjoyed our services, but it is not a full-service spa with amenities. You’re in and you’re out.

Off the beaten path

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m the ultimate beach bum. But I do love me a little culture as well (smile). This time, I was really excited to see “the other side of Cuba” beyond the traditional tourist sites. We got to experience what Juanita, our tour curator called “indigenous cultural tourism.”
A beautiful view of the valley on the way to Matanzas
Our first step off the beaten path was to visit an artist village and learn more about the rich Yoruba (ethnic group originating in West Africa) traditions steeped in the culture. We visited homes, walked the streets lined with mural-adorned walls, and enjoyed music and dance performances by the beautiful people who welcomed us to learn more about their heritage and experience their way of life. One of my favorite parts of the day was exploring the street art of Havana’s Callejon de Hamel, created by talented muralist and artist Salvador Gonzalez. He helped to transform what was formerly a crime-ridden slum into a charming two-block alleyway filled with stunning Afro-Cuban art that pays homage to the Yoruba Santeria culture and religion. On Sundays, the day we visited, you can enjoy charming, energetic dancers who accompany the sounds of their native rumba music. We wore white in honor of the Santeria culture and religion that is practiced in Cuba. On another day, we took a day trip to Matanzas, an African community 56 miles east of Havana. It is known for its Afro-Cuban folklore and is the birthplace of the music and dance traditions danzón and rumba. We visited a site that held artifacts from the descendants of the Dahomey kingdom in West Africa. So dope!

The food, the music, the art, oh my!

Since I offered a pretty comprehensive overview in Part I I won’t go into extensive detail here. But I must say, as far as food is concerned, it was the paladares for the win again! As a refresher, paladares are small, family-run restaurants, usually in converted homes. We found time to visit our beloved paladar next door, Casa Mia, twice for their delicious tostones (and the fine Cuban staff…ssshh don’t tell anybody lol)! I also thoroughly enjoyed my experience at El Chiquirrin Restaurant in Matanzas, as not only the food was good, we were serenaded by their wonderful house band! The music and art was pretty much abundant wherever we went, but there was one particular place we went that captured it all. That was the Cuban Art Factory (Fabrica de Arte Cubano). Set in a former cooking oil factory, this cultural arts center has a little bit of something for everyone from visual and culinary art to an energetic rumba class and fashion show. We got to experience it all! I definitely recommend a visit.

A few more things to know before you go…

  • As of the time of this blog post, US citizens need a valid passport (must not expire within 6 months of travel), a Cuban Tourist Card or Visa, travel insurance, and a signed affidavit indicating you are traveling under one of the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba. (We went in support of the Cuban people, justified by bringing art supplies, feminine hygiene products, and other goodies that we donated to the communities we visited.)
  • For US travelers, cash is king. Do not expect your credit or debit cards attached to any American bank to work there. The locals love (and prefer) your US dollars so there really isn’t a need to exchange them for Cuban pesos.
  • Be sure to bring toilet tissue with you, as not every restroom (especially in the remote parts) is created equal.
  • The hotels in Cuba are like many other countries in the world that do not believe in washcloths. So if you’re used to bathing with them, bring them!
  • The sun is especially oppressive there so be sure to bring and wear lots of sunblock and something to cover your head if you’re going to be outside for long periods of time.
  • Wifi is sparse so prepare to unplug unless you have an international mobile plan that includes Cuba. We were really only able to access wifi in the hotel.
  • Check out the show at the Nacional Hotel, it was great! But skip dinner there. Try out one of the nearby paladares instead. You’ll thank me later!
  • Don’t skip the classic car rides. It was so nice, we went back and did it twice!

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