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5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba

Friday, April 27, 2018
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

Jagged cliffs commanding the lush emerald horizon. Candy colored homes illuminated against cerulean skies. Palm trees dancing in the warm breeze. Though Viñales doesn't quite fit the traditional definition of "paradise", its unique charms assert it as just that.

While it's tempting to focus an itinerary around the captivating allure of Havana, there's more to western Cuba than its bustling capital. Quiet and underrated, Viñales offers all of the enchantments that get lost in Havana's charismatic cacophony.

Although it still feels somewhat off the beaten path, Viñales is not to be missed when planning a trip to Cuba. In fact, I'd argue that you're better off spending more days in Viñales than Havana. Surprised?  Read on to find out why you simply can't skip the Viñales Valley!

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

1. Soak up sublime nature

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

The lush Viñales Valley is best known for its arresting natural beauty, a striking contrast from Havana's crumbling urban chaos. With its majestic karst mogotes jutting out of the farmlands, the landscape feels decidedly otherworldly. Its vast sea of green evokes reverence and awe for Mother Nature.

In order to legally travel to Cuba as an American, I joined a People-to-People exchange with Discover Corp. The tour I chose, Preserving Nature's Wonders, primarily focused on exploring Cuba's tropical countryside and biosphere reserves. 

According to Discover Corp, "Despite being so close to the USA, Cuba has remained largely isolated from the primary sources of pollution - pesticides, agricultural runoff, and large scale development. Coupled with government conservation efforts, Cuba has been dubbed 'the accidental Eden'."

It's no surprise that Cuba's strict environmental policies and lack of development have left Viñales in such a well-preserved state. With the town's traditional farming practices and communities still in tact, it feels as if time has stood still here.

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE


2. Savor small town charm

The peaceful streets of Viñales made up for everything that overwhelmed me in Havana. With its vibrant pops of color, rustic patios, and welcoming communities, it didn't take much for this small town to enrapture me. While hiking, biking, and horseback riding are popular ways to explore the town's verdant landscapes, I opted to wander the colorful streets, soak up my surroundings (along with a few fruity cocktails), and get lost in the picturesque neighborhoods.

In order to support the Cuban people and immerse yourself in the local culture, I highly recommend staying in casas particulares (homestays in privately owned bed & breakfasts). This will make for a much more authentic and personal experience than staying at an upscale state run hotel, where a room for one night costs more than the average Cuban's yearly salary.

While most casas particulares will cook you a hearty breakfast every morning, many are also able to prepare homemade Cuban comfort food for dinner. The families we stayed with in Viñales served up some of the freshest fare that I had on my trip, with every flavor-packed plate far more satisfying than its restaurant equivalent.

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

But along with Cuba's small town charms come a peculiar set of inconveniences. Forget about wifi, ATMs, well-stocked shops, or conveniently being able to buy whatever you forgot to pack. Since most establishments are state run, they carry the same items and run out relatively quickly. Many Cubans are accustomed to stocking up on what they need whenever it becomes available, because you never really know when or where you'll find it next. Pack accordingly!

Without having reliable access to wifi in Cuba, I took the week to unplug and intentionally live in the present. Despite the initial social media withdrawals, disengaging from my online community helped me feel that much more engaged with the local culture. As challenging as it was for me to go eight days without internet, it certainly won't be the last time I go off the grid.

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

3. Enjoy farm-to-table cuisine

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

Known for its fertile farmland, Viñales is a gold mine of organic crops. Immerse yourself in its agricultural traditions by dining at the charming Finca Agroecológica Paraíso. This organic farm and family restaurant serves delectable, guilt-free dishes featuring their own freshly grown produce. Not to mention, their cozy restaurant boasts dazzling panoramas of the Viñales Valley.

The generous family-style meals include a healthy variety of savory soups, root vegetable dishes, and succulent main courses. Not to mention, their signature anti-stress cocktail made with mint, anise, basil, lemongrass, coconut milk, pineapple juice, cinnamon, honey, and hierba buena will blow your tastebuds away (especially if you add a splash of Cuban rum)!

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE 

4. Buy Cuban cigars straight from the source

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE

Even if you're not a cigar enthusiast, visiting a tobacco plantation in Viñales is a must. The Viñales Valley is home to the world's finest tobacco, where local farmers grow crops for the biggest and best cigar brands (such as Cohiba and Montecristo). However, tobacco farmers are required to sell 90% of their harvest to the government, and only get to keep 10% for themselves (thus enabling them to sell to visitors like myself).

The bucolic tobacco fields, dotted with ox-pulled carts and cigar-puffing farmers, paint a timeless picture of Viñales' idyllic countryside. Though my dad's bad habits have forever turned me off to the stench of cigars, I savored every moment of our tobacco farm tour and cigar rolling lesson. Huddled inside a barn where tobacco leaves are dried and seasoned, I took my first drag of a real Cuban cigar. And truthfully, it wasn't horrendous! (Just don't inhale.)

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
Farm fresh Cohibas

5. Take a day trip to Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa, Cuba | ADELANTE

Have you ever visited an island more scenic than a Windows desktop background? Personally, the pristine white sand beaches of Cayo Levisa were the closest thing to heaven I've ever encountered.

Known as one of Hemingway's haunts, this tropical key off the northwestern coast is only about a 2-hour drive from Viñales, followed by a 45-minute boat ride. (However, be warned that the unpaved roads can wreak havoc on those with weak stomachs.)

With its sparkling sapphire waters, picture perfect palms, and sugar-white sand, Cayo Levisa is a serene slice of paradise. Despite being home to a small resort (and all the touristic activities that come along with that), the island still feels fairly isolated.

I decided to embark on a short snorkel excursion, but unfortunately the reefs were quite bleached. After another bout of motion sickness on the rocky ride back to shore, I crash-landed on the beach and enjoyed a seaside siesta in a quaint bungalow. For those visiting Cayo Levisa for just one day, skip the snorkeling and opt for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and sun worshipping. 

Cayo Levisa, Cuba | ADELANTE
Cayo Levisa, Cuba | ADELANTE

Although there isn't an overwhelming number of things to do in Viñales, its charms embody the true spirit of Cuba. Its idyllic landscapes, vibrant culture, and welcoming people nourish the soul. Even if you only have a few days to spare in your Cuba itinerary, the inviting magic of Viñales should not be missed.

5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE
5 Reasons Not to Skip Viñales, Cuba | ADELANTE


Have you ever been to Cuba? If so, what was your experience like?
Do you prefer visiting big cities or the countryside?


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Vinales Cuba


Havana Good Time in Cuba

Monday, April 9, 2018
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

Havana had been at the top of my bucket list since high school, back when my favorite movie was "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights". Though my taste in movies has (thankfully) evolved since my teenage years, Cuba had remained one of my dream destinations. Yet in today's tumultuous political climate, I feared that my window of opportunity to legally visit Cuba could unexpectedly close any day. It was now or never.

Upon arriving in Cuba, I quickly realized that my romanticized expectations were completely mistaken. Of course I never thought it'd be just like the movies, or Europe, or even Puerto Rico. But I still expected it to be a bit more developed... and spoiler alert, it's not. But was Cuba worth the frustrations, hassles, and stomach bugs? Most definitely.

Although it was unlike anything I anticipated, Havana is still one of the most intense yet incredible places I've ever visited. It's taken me a while to digest all of its charms and idiosyncrasies, and I may never fully grasp its complexities. Despite being rough around the edges, Havana still thoroughly enchanted me.

All in all, Cuba is undoubtedly worth being at the top of the bucket list. Read on for my recommendations on where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana!

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTEWhere to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHAT TO SEE

Habana Vieja

The crown jewel of Cuba's capital, Havana's old town is bursting with life. Crumbling, colorful and charismatic, the beauty of Habana Vieja lies in its picturesque imperfections. With its bustling markets, plazas, cathedrals, and cafes, the old town's energy is positively intoxicating.

Round any given corner, and you will stumble upon breathtaking architecture, live music, bright hues, and friendly locals. Meander down Calle Obispo, which connects the city's hub of Parque Central with old town's Plaza de Armas. Pop into the historic Farmacia Taquechel and peek into Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to call home. 

For the best views of Habana Vieja, head to the Cámera Oscura in Plaza Vieja. Inside you can find a camera obscura that boasts sublime panoramas of the city, projected and magnified in real time. Step outside for even more dazzling views from atop their rooftop terrace.


Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Believe it or not, some of Havana's best night life can be found in a former olive oil factory. Part art gallery, part nightclub, this interactive exhibition offers live music, film screenings, dancing, cocktails, and galleries celebrating local artists. Though decidedly hipster, the factory's diverse array of activities and modern art asserts it as one of the city's most vibrant hangouts.


El Malecón

No trip to Havana is complete without sauntering down its iconic malecón, a seawall stretching five miles along the sparkling coast. Popular among Cubans and tourists alike, expect to find resplendent views, fishermen taking siestas, and locals eager to practice their English with you. Swinging to life after dusk, this picturesque promenade is the perfect spot to go on a sunset stroll and watch the capital come to life.


Museo de la Revolución

Havana's battered Revolution Museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, symbolizing one final "F you" to Batista's regime (and perhaps capitalism in general). What was once an opulent Hall of Mirrors designed to resemble that of Versailles, and originally decorated by Tiffany's, is now in shambles. Oh, the irony.

Though the anti-American propaganda was heavy and hard to digest, the museum presents a unique perspective on Cuban history. I don't trust what I learned about Cuba in textbooks, but I didn't completely trust 100% of the information in this museum either. That said, it was fascinating to hear another side of the story, and I think it's imperative to listen to views that challenge your opinions.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK


Café Laurent
Calle M 257, between 19 and 21

Generally speaking, the food in Cuba is nothing to write home about... unless it's Café Laurent. Perched atop a rooftop terrace with stunning views of Vedado, trendy yet unpretentious Café Laurent serves gourmet dishes with a decidedly Cuban twist. Trouncing all previous meals in Cuba, this paladar (a private restaurant that isn't owned by the state) was my most memorable gastronomic experience in Havana.


San Ignacio 214
Calle San Ignacio 214

Serving up classic Cuban cuisine with a gourmet touch, San Ignacio 214 is my favorite hidden gem in Habana Vieja. I don't usually hit up the same restaurant twice, but I made an exception for their ropa vieja with Moros y Cristianos and fried taro root chips! Embodying a juxtaposition of traditional and modern, the atmosphere of this paladar was just as delightful as the food.


La Moneda Cubana
Calle Empedrado 152, between Mercaderes and San Ignacio

As one of the oldest restaurants in Havana, La Moneda Cubana honors its history by serving traditional Cuban food. Although most Cuban food starts to taste the same after a while, this paladar still stood out to me. Perhaps it's because their rooftop terrace flaunts stunning views of Havana's harbor, and who doesn't love rice and beans with a view?


Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
Calle San Rafael, between Monserrate and Zulueta

Though I strived to avoid state-run establishments in an effort to support the local people, I just couldn't turn down a good rooftop bar at sunset. Overlooking Parque Central and the iconic Capitolio building, the views alone made up for the overpriced cocktails. While the hotel's opulent rooftop pool made me wistful for a luxury vacation, apparently American's aren't even allowed to stay in hotels run by the Cuban government. (Let's be real, I could never afford it anyway.)


El Floridita
Calle Obispo 557

Famed for being an old haunt of Hemingway, walking into this lavish bar is like taking a step back in time. Opened over 200 years ago, El Floridita is also known as "the cradle of the daiquiri", where the drink was supposedly invented after World War I. Though its line of tourists stretching out the door deterred me from ordering a drink here, it's still worth trying to peek inside.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
View from the Cámera Oscura in Habana Vieja
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
I took home a backpack full of cigars, but this is the only souvenir I wanted to bring back from Cuba.
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHERE TO STAY

Casas Particulares

Since most big hotels are state run, staying in casas particulares (privately owned bed & breakfasts in Cuban homes) is the easiest way to support the Cuban people and immerse yourself in local culture.

Most casas particulares will cook you breakfast every morning, providing everything from strong Cuban coffee to exotic tropical fruits. Some are also able to make you a home-cooked dinner, serving fresh fare that's likely to be better than what you'd get in a restaurant.

El Vedado

For a quaint escape from Habana Vieja, I highly recommend staying in a casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood. Marked by its mansions in ruins, Vedado enraptured me in all of its dilapidated glory. Despite being in complete disrepair, the architecture is absolutely breathtaking. Much like the rest of Havana, its derelict gems exude character and personality. The chipped paint, colorful graffiti, and boarded up windows contribute an unlikely charm to the surrounding urban jungle. It may not be pristine, but it is certainly full of life. 

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Strolling along Havana's malecón
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTEWhere to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

Havana is one of those places that gets under your skin. Every sense was heightened, every emotion exacerbated, every thought magnified. It was thrilling, confusing, awe-inspiring, and challenging. Despite having traveled extensively, Cuba was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I was more than ready to leave after two days, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards. I'm still trying to make sense of it all.

While the city itself is bewitching, the best part about Havana is its people. Cubans are some of the friendliest, most joyous, and most interesting people I've met throughout my travels. Their vivacious spirit is infectious, to say the least.

I expected the locals to hate Americans, but I found the complete opposite to be true. People were so curious to ask me about being from the USA, what my life was like, and why I chose to visit Cuba. Their desire to connect struck me. I was captivated by their perspectives and moved by their stories, even if it meant that everything I thought I knew about Cuba was wrong.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Rooftop bar views from Gran Hotel Manzana
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE


Have you ever been to Havana?
Was it what you expected?


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Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay

Monday, March 26, 2018
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

Jagged silhouettes command the horizon, and only the sound of rippling waves pierces the tranquil silence. As we glide through Lan Ha Bay towards the enchanted emerald waters of Ha Long Bay, I feel as if I have ventured onto a different planet.

Fueled by strong Vietnamese coffee and breakfast pho, we bid adieu to lush Cat Ba Island at the crack of dawn. On this misty morning, my tired eyes soak up the sublime scenery with wonder. Despite the overcast skies, this natural paradise is anything but gloomy.

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

Having heard horror stories of overnight boat trips gone awry (rats? Seasickness? Food poisoning? Count me out...), we opted for the cheapest day trip we could find while still on Cat Ba Island. While I never wrote down the name of the company we chose, we saw that most day trips were essentially the same. 

Despite being a type-A planner with a tendency to book everything in advance, choosing a cruise at the last minute worked out in our favor. After scouring the different tours advertised along Cat Ba's main road and choosing the best price, we opted for a route that started from Cat Ba, took us through the less crowded Lan Ha Bay, cruised through Ha Long Bay, docked in Ha Long and brought us back to Hanoi by bus.

Though our trip was interrupted by a surprise boat change once we crossed into Ha Long Bay (and naturally, as soon as I had snagged the best viewing spot on the first boat), the journey still blew me away. While it was no luxury cruise, in Vietnam it's still possible to get a high-quality experience on a tight budget. 

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

With its colorful floating villages and otherworldly karst giants jutting out of the water, Ha Long Bay's ethereal seascapes look like they're straight out of a dream (or a Dalí painting). As we sailed past the surreal limestone sculptures, I couldn't stop smiling. For the rest of the day, I was positively buzzing with euphoria.

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE


Have you ever been to Ha Long Bay?
What was your experience like?


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