The Best Way to Enjoy a Vacation in Cuba

Cuba’s muggy humidity made our lazy wanderings feel like we were walking through soup. But despite the heat and our rusty Spanish, we made it from Havana to the small rural town of Viñales and into the welcome arms of Thomasina and Juan Rivero.

The couple opened their home to nomads almost 10 years ago. It’s just as well that they did, because Cuba has no hostels, and all hotels are government-run—and expensive. So the best option—if you want to really get to know the place—are these Casas Famliales.

These family-run B&Bs offer home-cooked meals, advice on what to see in the area, maps, taxis, tour guides (usually a cousin or a neighbor) and a familiar, welcoming face at the end of a long day’s adventuring.

At Casa Riveros, we seemed to have stumbled on the Cuban version of our own family, where numerous brothers and sisters and sons and uncles wandered around the house. There was always something cooking, the TV was always on, the bathroom occupied, and the front door was always open.

One evening the eldest son, Pablo, rooted in a drawer and produced an old Irish tin whistle someone had given him as a parting gift. The family was delighted when I produced one of my own, and my sister and I gave an impromptu concert sitting in wicker rocking chairs on the porch, our backs to the mountainous limestone mogotes silhouetted in the rolling pastures behind the house.

Homemade mojitos were produced, someone broke into song, and papa Juan emerged from the house with a set of spoons which he played like castanets. The night, it seemed, had suddenly kicked off.

Viñales after dark has a smattering of quiet bars where locals sip rum and talk about their day. But on the other side of a small plaza lies the Cultural Center. From here, loud Latin rhythms throb like a pulse.

So there we were, pushing through the crowd that had gathered around the stage. A six-piece salsa band was well past the warm-up stage, its hypnotic snare drums and rhythmic brass was quickly ratcheting up the atmosphere. The lights were low and free-flowing mojitos and Cuba libres scented the air with fresh mint and sweet rum.

Snare drums pounded and a sultry female voice belted out the final bars of the band’s set. But just as it reached its peak, there was a loud crack…and everything stopped.

The lights went out. The sound went down. The band stopped playing. There was a moment of incomprehension but as rain began to pour down outside and lightning lit up the wet street, we realized why the night had been cut short. A clap of lightening had shorted out the electricity somehow. There was a collective sigh of discontent as the knotted crowd shuffled around uncertainly, contemplating a move toward the exits.

But just as we were about to make our way outside, something magical happened.

From the darkness, a hand hit the snare drum. Then again. The beat got louder, more complex, more intense. The crowd started to move. The beat got faster, the rain poured harder, and the entire room, in the blackness, came alive.

Suddenly, the lights came back on and the rest of the band joined the pioneering percussionist who saved the night.

Back at our now silent casa familiare, we climbed onto the roof and lay there under a shiny Milky Way. We whispered about the moment when the power went down, and how it felt like something you’re only lucky enough to experience once in a blue moon.

I was so glad I had experienced it, and that entire trip to Cuba. And best of all, I got paid to be there—thanks to the “A-List Priority Pass.”

It’s like a magic wand. One wave and it can take you to rugged, charming Ireland…slick, modern Japan…or hot, pulsating Brazil. Then you come home with a paycheck in your back pocket. The money that comes with the Pass means the world is your oyster.

One other thing… the “A-List Priority Pass” is open to you right now. All you need to do is go here.

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