The moment I stepped off the plane, I knew Cuba was a country that would settle in my bones. I can almost always spot these destinations as soon as the plane hits the tarmac. A combination of absolute mystery and unquestionable knowing washes over me. My gut tells me something special is about to unfold.
Some places you go will be a burst of energy. There’ll be the rumble of cars, boisterous laughter, and music streaming from open windows. There’ll be dancing in the street, catcalls from three doors down, and rum shots that hits the moment you take it. Cuba was all of those things, but it was more than that, too. It was resilience. Humility. Kindness. Somewhere along the tobacco fields, the welcoming arms of the locals and my seventh serving of Ropa Vieja, I found myself falling in love with this complicated and layered country. Today I’m sharing the top five life-changing moments I had when I traveled to Cuba.
1. Dancing to Reggaeton at Disco Ayala – An Actual Club in a Cave!
When I read on the Coast to Costa itinerary that we were going to a club in a cave, I audibly squealed. I just really love to dance, guys. When we first arrived they were playing Demi Lovato (my girl!) while I waited for my mojito. It was basically the closest thing to my own personal heaven. As the night went on, the music transitioned to pure Reggaeton. I’ll never forget the moment that two local Cuban men started dancing together in the center of the floor while everyone in the club circled around them. It was surreal, magical, and impossible not to feel the joy radiating from inch of the cave.
2. Learning the Hearts of Local Cubans
Before we left for the trip, we were sent a list of suggested items to bring with us as donations that we could hand out to locals while walking around the city streets. I was walking with friends from the tour group who were handing out things like toothbrushes and USB cards (this is how many Cubans consume downloaded movies and shows, so that they can later trade them with each other), and one of the locals returned with a painting for one of the Americans in our group as a thank you. I was so in awe of this gesture, but looking back, this kind of open-hearted spirit was present in so many ways.
It was present in the warm and kind smile from my homestay host in Trinidad, who put his heart and soul into serving breakfast every single morning, and made me feel welcome even without being able to speak the same language. It was in the family who worked at the organic farm stay we visited, run by a Cuban family with two young boys. Andrew, the founder of Coast to Costa, and our tour guide introduced me, and they responded that I would always have family there. They wished me happiness in the new year, saying, ”The most important thing is health. The second, is luck.” Plus, they served us fresh sugarcane and rum drinks — a foolproof way to solidify my affection.
3. Horseback Riding through the Viñales Valley
This might have been my favorite experience of the trip. The scenery was breathtaking, and unlike so many other horseback riding excursions where you simply stay single-file on a paved trail, we got to navigate through the actual Cuban countryside. Honestly, I’ve never felt cooler.
4. Sipping Mojitos at the Bay of Pigs
The best mojitos of my life were served in a Bay of Pigs beach house over fresh seafood and Cuban cuisine, which I devoured while drying off after a dip in the Bay. I wasn’t expecting the water to be so crystal clear and blue, but the moment I stepped foot on the sandy beach I felt my blood pressure drop. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you need moments like those until they’re given to you.
5. Experiencing the Streets of Trinidad
Trinidad was a city I knew nothing about. When our van pulled up to the cobblestone streets and colorful lines of buildings, it was the first time I had not only physically seen it, but also the first time I could picture it. Unlike most travel destinations that have been flooded in my mind with images from Pinterest or Instagram, Trinidad was just never really on my radar. But somewhere between rooftop Cuban coffee in the morning and Piña Coladas at night, it stole my heart — the vibrant colors, the music, the art. Its spirit was palpable, and somewhere I will always say is worth the four-hour drive from Havana.