It was a 2 hour drive from Havana to our next destination: Las Terrazas. We opted for the classic American car again as it was about $100 cheaper than a modern one. Whilst it certainly did the job we were all relieved to get out of the car and stretch our legs! What we pulled up to was Hotel Moka: the only hotel built in the national park area of Las Terrazas. Billed as a reforestation project and the hotel described as an eco-hotel we were looking forward to our stay there.
Unfortunately it was our first experience of the Cuban hotel star system. We recently read on a Tripadvisor review of the hotel when compared to Casas, Casa owners are entrepreneurial whereas the staff in the hotel were state employed – with enthusiasm to match. We were greeted with silence and stares by the parking attendants, and nothing resembling a smile upon check in (we miss you Mexico!). As we waited to check in we went to see the pool, and the bar staff there were equally friendly…
Not to be easily deterred however, we headed into town to explore the place. It was really a pretty place to be, with a gorgeous lake, only lacking in a path around it which was a shame. We also took delight in seeing what appeared to be a wild monkey! Only to gradually realise it was on an island and we aren’t so sure if it could leave, should it choose to… For dinner we decided to leave the hotel after a questionable experience at lunch, and went to the local vegetarian restaurant down the road. It was probably the highlight of the visit, the food was wonderful and imaginative, wine was £5 a bottle and the views were stunning! After sampling 5 different items of the menu, we promptly booked again for the following evening safe in the knowledge we’d have a good dinner waiting for us.
The next day we woke up to what was the funniest sight of a hotel breakfast. Unfortunately we forgot to snap a picture the first morning, but the hot food trays were all completely empty at 9am (an hour before they stop serving breakfast). We warned the waitstaff who looked as surprised as we were that the food had gone (!?!) so Mikey gave in and had some of the cold Carbonara at breakfast. Then we all wandered down to the lake and decided to rent a rowing boat. Whilst scared of inflated tourist prices, we were all pleasantly surprised at the fair charge of $2 for an hour! Mikey slipped back into the rowing seat after 3 years off and the rest of the family enjoyed beers, views and a cool lake breeze.
That afternoon we took the local transportation to see an old coffee plantation. Whilst the plantation was slightly underwhelming in itself the views were incredible and the taxi journey wasn’t the usual experience Mikeys parents are used to! The following morning we woke early for breakfast (which slightly helped our cause) and headed towards a natural swimming hole. Probably a bit of poor planning, as we only ended up getting 40 minutes to enjoy the pools but they were incredibly refreshing. You can see how they might become busy in peak season, but we were fortunate enough to enjoy them all to ourselves! Then it was another 2 hour journey to Vinales.
Vinales is another tourist town, however easily more popular than Las Terraces and we could see why. With a line of cute coffee shops and restaurants, surrounded by horseback tours of the mountains this was a clear tourist draw. Because of that there were an endless amount of Casas to choose from – and we somehow ended up with a French host! After a small debate about the cost of the taxi he had booked for us, and him using a strange mix of French and Spanish not helping, we checked in to our Casa and headed out for lunch. A cute sandwich shop on the corner – La Esquinita – did gorgeous sandwiches for $3, even a veggie one for Anna! We continued on our food high and ate at Los Olivos, the best Italian restaurant in town. The food was fantastic, not even by Cuban standards! And a lovely atmosphere right on the main road of the town.
The next day Karen & Mike (Mikeys parents) surprised us all by agreeing to go on a 4 hour horseback riding tour! It was an absolutely fantastic day, not only did we spend ample time on the horses, we visited a coffee plantation, went exploring through a cave and got to try some incredible local rum! Another welcome change from Havana, a chance to settle down. Whilst Karen was nervous at the back at first she soon found her stride – and towards the end was the only one brave enough to swim in the questionably clean lake! When in Cuba….
That evening we ate at another vegetarian restaurant which sadly was nothing on the one in Las Terrazas (despite having largely the same menu?). Despite that, we found the rum we’d tried earlier for sale in the restaurant cheaper than buying a whole bottle on the tour! With that in mind the two Mikes set themselves upon the deal and drank to their heart’s content. We ended the evening with $1 mojitos in a local restaurant which got a little out of hand – but you can’t say no to value! All in all we loved Vinales and it was nice to get back to a tourist town in a way, and not be constantly stared at like an alien by locals.
Our next destination was Varadero, at an all-inclusive resort where we were sure to stand out even less…