Madli Lillemagi’s adventures in Cuba
Most trips to Cuba start and end in Cuba’s capital city Havana, and although this was our base during the whole trip, we ventured further afield. As soon as we landed at José Martí International Airport we started seeing the old classic cars and that’s how our Cuban adventure started – with a vintage car tour and a complete digital detox (there is no internet and no access to credit card payments).
One of the best places in Cuba to visit when looking for authentic Cuban cigars is Viñales. Viñales situated in a gorgeous landscape of tobacco fields. We took a horseback riding tour between the tobacco and coffee fields, learned how Cuban cigars and coffee are made and enjoyed the taste of the best cigars in the world dipped into honey, so as to not hurt your throat.
It’s very common to stay with local families in Cuba; such accommodation is called casa particular. They’re very friendly, help you to learn more about the culture and even cook local food for tourists.
Everyone we talked to prior to our trip said that the food in Cuba wasn’t very good, but this proved to be incorrect! It’s not fancy, and there isn’t a ton of variety – it’s mostly rice, black beans and platains with either chicken, steak, lamb, fish, lobster, or crab -- but it’s delicious! I’ve never had better lamb or lobster in my life.
We also visited the beautiful Varadero Beach, which is a two hour drive from Havana city. Even though Varadero's beaches have long been one of Cuba's premier tourist attractions, it wasn’t crowded.
Everyone visiting Cuba should attend a Cuban outdoor salsa night at 1830 Jardines, at the end of Malecón on the sea front. This large salsa dancing venue has live music, multiple bars, and dancers who instruct movements you can follow from the stage. This is a family-friendly venue, and you’ll struggle to keep your feet still. Cuban people are born to dance, and they’re very talented; many people we met were actually professional dance instructors. Salsa dancing is a social event, and everyone was very welcoming, ensuring we enjoyed ourselves and taking the time to teach us, regardless of ability. I was flown around the dance floor accompanied by Cuban tunes and guided by professional dancers.
Before our flight back to NYC we visited Ernest Hemingway's house, a large home on a hill, 10 miles east of Havana in the small, modest suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Everything inside was left the way it was when Hemingway lived there. Next to the main building you can find a small tower with a breathtaking view over Havana, and it’s easy to image Hemingway on his chair writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, or collecting his thoughts and getting inspiration laying in his chaise lounge enjoying the view.
Living and working in NYC is amazing not only because of all the smart and inspiring people who this city attracts but also because it gives opportunities to travel to beautiful places nearby. Our flight to Cuba was only three hours away! This is one of the big bonuses of the GME program in addition to the invaluable work experience. My fellow trainees and I are enjoying seeing new parts of the world far from Europe – an unintended benefit of the program.