Oh Cuba, you mysterious neighbor to the United States (just 90 miles from Florida as a matter of fact).
I knew I was not alone in my lack of knowledge of much of the history of this Caribbean nation and what the Cuban people have endured, but also what it is really like to travel to Cuba. With newly enforced travel restrictions as of November 2017 and lots of conflicting information on the interwebs on actually trying to travel to this beautiful country, I’m here to tell you that Cuba should definitely be on your list of places to visit. And, it’s not as hard to travel there as you may think (or better phrased, as the US government makes it seem).
I can’t predict how the rules will change by the time you expect to visit, but know that it is possible and not difficult to visit Cuba as a US citizen. And you should go. NOW! Check out this article published on Conde Nast Traveler right before I left for my trip, ‘Yes, You Can Still Visit Cuba Legally – and It’s Safe.’
My trip to Cuba was more than just a vacation and another stamp in my passport; it was a culturally enriching, eye-opening and soul awakening trip that has changed me forever. Definitely for the better! I was so lucky to attend and participate in a one week yoga retreat at Mhai Yoga, about 20 minutes outside of Havana along the beautiful beaches of Playas del Este.
The yoga and mediation portion of the retreat, led by Eduardo Pimental (nicknamed the founder of yoga in Cuba) was introspective, calming and just what this city girl needed to escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It was the perfect way to disconnect and reconnect with myself in a beautiful setting with minimal distractions. Mhai Yoga is co-founded by Christine (aka Coco) who is an integral part of the week-long experience with her insight on yoga and the Cuban way of life. What I really appreciated about Mhai Yoga is that you have structured time of yoga, meals and included excursions, but then enough free time for your own leisure activities like taking a stroll along the beach or going kite surfing (which I didn’t get a chance to do on this trip…next time!). Lastly, what I absolutely LOVED about Mhai Yoga is that it is all vegetarian (fish is offered at a few meals for those who choose to have it)! Talk about a dream come true, where I did not have to worry about finding vegetarian options while at the retreat. The food was absolutely delicious and Chef Ernesto and his team are rock stars. Since I’ve been back home in Chicago, I’ve been seriously craving their amazing cuisine.
Outside of the yoga retreat itself, the rest of the week was spent exploring Havana and an area about 3 hours outside of Havana called Vinales. Here are some highlights from each destination (trust me, it was tough to narrow this section down because we did SO much!):
Havana– My immediate reaction to Havana was one of being completely in love. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint what exactly it was, but I know for sure one part was seeing all of those beautiful vintage cars against the stunning backdrop of colonial buildings lined with cobblestone roads. The architecture and the city’s presence along the ocean give way to a gorgeous backdrop at each corner. Havana is truly a photographer’s paradise! Even within Havana itself are neighborhoods with unique character and finds, like Fusterlandia, the neighborhood covered in mosaic tile art of Jose Fuster, that is just so fun and wacky. Another example is that of the beautiful parks in Havana like the Bosque de Almendares, where we went for a sunset drive in pink convertibles. In all honestly, I could have spent another week just roaming around Havana, enjoying all the sights, sounds (there is music on practically every corner) and just taking another million pictures! Oh, and definitely drinking a few more of the best mojitos I’ve ever had in my life from El Dandy.
Vinales– Set against beautiful limestone hills, Vinales is known for it’s laid back vibe and lush tobacco and coffee plantations. While visiting here, not only we did we go horseback riding through these plantations, we got demonstrations on how coffee beans are picked and roasted as well as how the infamous Cuban cigar is made. We enjoyed some very large family-style meals on two separate organic farms with a true sampling of Cuban delicacies like plantain chips, tostones, fresh organic vegetable salad, black beans and rice (congris), taro root with garlic sauce, eggplant casserole and so much more (these were just the vegetarian options). One morning we rose early and started our hike in the dark at 5:30am to reach the top of a mountain in time for the sunrise and a morning meditation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. And, like a true tourist, I found the local market in the cute little downtown area to scope out some souvenirs for family and friends back home. Vinales being the rustic, chill town that it is, brought about a nice contrast to the big city life of Havana, and I’m so glad we had a chance to visit this lush valley area.
In all honesty, it’s tough to sum up what my week-long adventure was truly like in Cuba and at Mhai Yoga. I’ve listed through words and pictures some highlights, but there is so much that is not captured and indescribable. In the end, I really think it boils down to the Cuban people and the wonderful community at Mhai Yoga. It is their collective compassion, openness and genuine affection that truly touched me. For as much as I have traveled all over the world, I have never felt such a connection to the people as I did in Cuba. The most telling moment for me was when I was leaving the Mhai Yoga retreat with tears in my eyes. I just simply could not believe that in such a short amount of time, I felt so taken care of and so special, by a group of people who I had never met before. Whenever I think of Cuba, it is that feeling of connection that will always come back to me first, and will always bring a smile to my face. Cuba, I heart you and can’t wait to come back again soon!
Please Note: This post is in collaboration with Mhai Yoga. All opinions are my own.