Cuba has been on the top top top of my list for travels for as long as I can remember. There's so many drawing factors - the time travel-y feel as the country is basically frozen in the 1960s, the stunning landscapes, the kind hearted, wonderful locals... and the mojitos, obvs. ;)
There's an amazing company called Surf Yoga Beer based out of New York, created by Mantas Zvintas, that specializes in fitness retreats around the world - but they're not your usual kind of detox/yoga/massage/juice cleanse kind of retreat (which are great in their own way). SYB focuses on adventuring and truly living to the absolute fullest on these retreats, combining daily fitness with massive amounts of daytime exploring and incredible nights out drinking and dancing. I mean, damn, our days were jam packed and we all slept probably only 4 hours a night but it was the best long weekend in Cuba I could imagine! I've been on the email list for a long time, but my schedule hadn't allowed me to take any retreats with SYB... until I got the email about Cuba for end of March. I booked it the moment I saw it. #noragrets
Traveling to Cuba for us Americans only became possible on direct flights very recently, and I had been considering just going on my own because I had been dying to go for so long. It was such a relief at the time to get the email about the SYB trip to Cuba, because I wasn't completely sold on doing it alone. I love solo travel but sometimes I prefer being with a group/guide - not on a slow, guided tour that drives me a little crazy, but a group adventure and/or a learning experience.
Going forward though, now that I've been, I would totally go back to Cuba on my own. Seriously the people are some of the loveliest locals ever, and even though there's hardly any wifi capability, it is totally do-able on your own! But going for the first time with such an awesome group of people - and now all new NYC friends - was an unforgettable experience :) So! Lets get to it...
I flew with some of the crew on Jetblue out of New York, and we met up with the other half of the group who had flown United once we got to Havana. Some of the people knew each other already, and all of them are regulars in Mantas' soulcycle classes (CAN'T WAIT to take my first class!), but even not knowing anyone and having only met Mantas once before in a yoga class, I felt warm and welcome right away. We all hopped on our bus for the weekend, (so much to say about this bus later) and headed to where we were staying - La Pradera, a 'health center' resort. I called it the wellness compound though, haha. It was just across the road from Castro's compound, so that just made sense. We all quickly got into workout gear to do a quick workout post flight and pre adventuring, jumped in the pool, and then got ready to head into Old Havana.
We had the best guide ever with us on this trip, Carl. He and I are both originally from the Tampa/St. Pete area of Florida, which has tons of Cuban influence. He ushered us around all the beautiful, winding streets of Old Havana, where we stopped into La Bodeguita del Medio for OG mojitos (birthplace of the mojito) before heading to dinner. NOW! For food - I mentioned on instagram that I'd heard a lot about there not being good food in Cuba, but I genuinely enjoyed every single meal. This restaurant was absolutely adorable and quaint and lovely and one of the best in Havana, very hard to get into (thank goodness for our reservation for 18 people).
After finishing up dinner and another few rounds of mojitos, we headed to Fabrica de Arte, another very hard place to get into. The line was winding around the block and I heard people saying they were waiting for over two hours. Again, we had reservations (that we were late for but ya know, Cuban time is different) but if you're heading here as part of your Cuba trip, I absolutely recommend a res or getting there super early to not have to wait quite so long. And Fabrica del Arte is a total must-do in Havana. Its this huge warehouse turned art museum/dance party/live music/everything you could want in a fabulous night out.
Of course, we were all pretty lit when it was time to go home - ie I don't remember this part at all. But you know that bus we had to take us around all weekend? There's a microphone on it for guides to use, and some of the group got ahold of it to sing karaoke of songs from Moulin Rouge. I died when I heard this story the next day, so freaking funny - and the fact that most of us didn't actually remember that, ha, INCLUDING Carl, our guide. The best part - Carl got a phone call from the CUBAN GOVERNMENT (scary phone call to get) to say that there was a "grave problem" (double scary). They told him about the singing on the bus and he literally had no idea what they were talking about, and only pieced it together later the next day when someone brought up the singing and we were all dying over the fact that almost no one remembered. Apparently our bus driver was very straight edge and reported us for singing the whole twenty minute ride home to our compound, hahaha.
A few of us ended the night in the pool, drinking Chardonnay from the snack bar and talking about everything. Immediate connections, immediate friendships made that night. <3 I lost my room key card, of course, and my new friend Casey tried using his key to open my room for me - it freaking worked. Oh, Cuba. So secure.
This is my favorite day of the trip. Oh man, what a day and what a night!
We headed out into the countryside for a full day of adventures, my favorite kind - involving lots of swimming! I'm such a water baby, I loooove being in/near/around water. First stop of the day was this gorgeous lake where we got to play for a while, absolutely loved it. Next stop was Las Terrazas, an eco-village and UNESCO site. We visited an artists home, had another splendid meal at the first ever vegetarian restaurant (yay!) in Cuba called El Romero, and had coffee at a lovely little outdoor cafe.
Up next was tons of playtime at Baños del San Juan, a series of little natural pools and waterfalls. So beautiful. The water was pretty cold but it didn't stop me from spending all my time in it.
After our full day of water adventures we headed to a mountaintop for sunset yoga and meditation. God, what a view. What a practice. I don't have many words for this besides being so overwhelmed with gratitude for it that I cried my only little tear of the trip on the ride home, but with a smile. To be surrounded by such natural beauty and such incredible souls, to take those moments to just breathe it in and feel it fully, oh man... I hope everyone in the world can experience such serenity.
Once we got home and showered and changed into our fanciest outfits of the trip, it was time for the evening events - dinner and drinks and dancing. We had a beautiful dinner at El Litoral, keeping the mojitos flowing. Afterwards Carl took us out to an awesome outdoor club called 1830 on the waterfront with live music, dancing, and a view of an illuminated castle/fort-ish thing across the water. SO FUN, favorite dancing spot of the trip for sure! We even got our curfew extended because we were all having too good of a time to leave, haha.
I was successfully dragged out of bed by the boys for morning bootcamp workout (on only a few hours of sleep), which was a great foundation for the rest of the day. After grabbing breakfast with the crew in our compound, we headed out for another full day of beautiful moments and places to discover. First up was exploring the studio and home of muralist Jose Fuster. He's been called the Picasso of Cuba and his work is absolutely beautiful, highly worth a visit if you're going to Cuba.
Afterwards we got in our (non party but still party) bus and headed out to Ernest Hemingway's home. For me this was an absolutely do not miss spot, and it did not disappoint. His Cuban home is all my home dreams come true; airy, spacious, elegant, simple, with books EVERYwhere. His grounds include his home, a writing tower (fave), his pool area where he and his wife hosted skinny dipping parties, and his big boat is chilling by the pool. Oh, and a little bar area off to the side where we started drinking some cocktails again. The bartender let me bartend with him which was so fun, and there was a great local band playing and singing. We started the dance party, per usual, and the energy and joy was so off the charts even our straight laced bus driver was having a blast.
Last daytime stop was the beach - can't miss the beach on an island! The wind and waves were a little crazy but the water was beautiful. After romping around for a while we all ordered a beach lunch and more drinks - the pina coladas on this beach were actually the very best I've ever tried - and ended up meeting a magician, who performed for us.
We headed home to shower and get ready for our last beautiful Cuban night out. We had taken vintage cars home from 1830 the other night, but now it was time for a sunset cruise in vintage droptops. My car had a bottle of rum that we were sipping on during the drive, and I said "Are you even in Cuba if you're not taking a ride in a vintage car at sunset with a glass of Havana Club in your hand?" We took a quick stop at Hotel Nacional just to see, but I wish we could have had more time there - definitely next time! Next stop was El Floridita for daquiris, a total necessity, before heading to our last dinner. More mojitos and another delicious salad for me, and then to one last (more modern) club for dancing. I was pretty tired at this point so I didn't even drink anymore, but still had fun getting down one last time in Cuba! We ended the night with most of us hanging out at the snack bar as we weren't allowed to get into the pool following the previous night's pool rambunctiousness, ha.
The next day we were all heading back to New York, 18 new incredible friends and innumerable insane memories made. I couldn't be more pleased that I chose to go on this trip with Surf Yoga Beer and that I have all my new friends to workout AND party with at home now! If you're thinking about embarking on an adventure with SYB, don't hesitate. And if you're thinking of taking a trip to Cuba, I hope my anecdotes help with the planning and executing of a trip to such a special country!
Photos: Ken Francis + my iphone and canon