To Cuba, and why we love it

I don’t know whether it’s the architecture, the burst of vibrant colors, the Caribbean climate or the warmth of its people, singing and dancing every chance they get, but Cuba, the alligator shaped island just 90 miles South of Florida, is the most captivating place I’ve ever been. And I don’t say this because everyone else does. It just is.


My love affair started in 2014, when as an American citizen, I joined a people-to-people tour journeying from Havana all the way to Guantanamo, the easternmost province. Despite initial doubts, the structured tour afforded me the opportunity to meet some incredible artists and communities I wouldn’t have otherwise met as a tourist: music students, ballet dancers, cuentapropistas (Cuba’s self-employed entrepreneurs) and more; the common thread, unrelenting passion. It was an intense 13 days that opened my eyes to the magic of Cuba and the intricacies of its history, starting with the allure of Havana and on to the artists of Camagüey, the Afro-Cuban vibe of Santiago de Cuba, and lush remoteness of Baracoa.


This summer, as Cuba further nurtured diplomatic relations with the United States, I excitedly returned to the island. This time, I traveled west to Pinar del Rio, and then on to Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Bay of Pigs. The biggest difference, aside from the changes occurring on the Caribbean nation, was entering with my Romanian passport. I wanted a different perspective, which proved just as valuable. While I missed some of the first-hand interaction with Cuban communities on my previous visit, this time around I was free to go wherever I wanted, whichever beach or museum. I stayed in casas particulares (privately-owned houses open for tourists) instead of hotels. I went local, still, in a different way. I loved the mogotes (limestone formations) and guajiros (farmers) of Viñales and swimming in the Bay of Pigs. Looking back, this trip was just as rich as my first.


But most importantly, I realized that regardless of my passport or the two eventful years that passed, Cuba remained in essence the same: vibrant, welcoming and wholehearted. Yes, there’s some real change to be seen: better, cheaper Wi-Fi in hotspots around the country, landmarks refurbished, new hotel sites and ever-booming tourism. Frenzied energy is palpable on the streets of Havana, and so are higher prices. But Cuba, at its core, with all its controversies and irresistible pull, won’t be changing any time soon. Go now, go whenever. Cuba is, and will remain, unrelenting passion.

Villa Isabel: Nanchu Garden House

The Dominican Republic is a place that few visitors actually experience authentically. The majority of the visitors sit on the beaches, never leaving their all-inclusive resorts. Many visitors have an unrealistic fear of venturing outside of the compounds and guided tours offered in the beach towns, which is unfortunate. This type of experience lacks the local culture, food and soul of the country. Fortunately, there is Villa Isabel, which can offer you a comfortable authentic experience in the mountains, not too far away from all of the characterless all-inclusive resorts.

glamping porch stairs by trusted travel girl

Villa Isabel rests in the lush Dominican mountains of Jarabacoa. The property is stunning and very much epitomizes “Glamping”. Villa Isabel a beautiful mountain home with rustic char, where no detail has been overlooked, while still achieving a genuine outdoor experience. The area surrounding Jarabacoa seemingly takes you back in time to a more simpler way of life. I always try to travel off the beaten path, and this place is literally off the beaten path up a dirt road just 15 minutes outside of the town of Jarabacoa, in a gated and secure neighborhood. The entire area is surrounded by stunning scenery.

flower in the garden

image by trusted travel girl

rock stream

Villa Isabel boasts an unbelievable tropical Japanese style garden that was the creation of the owner Nanchu Espinola. This walking garden has over 600 meters of walkable paths throughout with rare trees, plants and flowers. The garden is quite the selling point of the property, and must be experienced to truly be understood and appreciated. The details of this garden are incredible, with curved pathways leading from one beautiful area to the next. With each step, the garden changes character, and induces a sense of calm and serenity. Locals from all over the area are familiar with Nanchu’s garden. At night, there is a beautiful lighting system that can be turned on, and the garden looks as though it has come from a scene in a romantic film. I highly recommend having dinner or drinks outside next to the garden and then going through a stroll down the lighten pathways at night, as it is absolutely stunning. It is so beautiful that Nanchu’s own daughter decided to have her wedding in the gardens on the property. Just past the garden, there is a river on the property that is just a 5 minute walk away from the main house. The river has fresh clean water and is perfect for an afternoon swim.

glamping kitchen inside villa isabel

glamping bedroom at villa isabel

The inside of the property is just as beautiful as the outside. The house has three bedrooms, one attached to the great-room with the kitchen and living room and the other two in a different building just steps away, with a wrap around porch. The main part of the house is one the outdoors via breeze ways at the top off the walls, making it feel as though you are outdoors, with the amenities of the indoors.

glamping deck chair by trusted travel girl

One of the most glamorous aspects of a stay here at Villa Isabel is the live-in maid and cook, Francia. Francia lives nearby on property and is available to freshen up the rooms during your stay as well as cook all three meals a day (you just need to visit the supermarket and pick up the food). To say that Francia’s cooking is fantastic would bet a large understatement. Her cooking is phenomenal, and many of her best dishes are local Dominican meals. This is an excellent way to experience some of the culture, by tasting local homemade meals that are typical in the Dominican Republic. It’s also very nice to not have to lift a finger, or go out to eat. It makes for a far more relaxing visit and for some memorable meals! Her three sons also live nearby to tend to the property and the gardens. Upon arrival one of them will be available to hand over the keys, and show visitors where light switches are, as well as the switches to turn on water pressure and the hot water for showers.

stone patch and nature walk by trusted travel girl

The property does not have A/C, but it does not need it. The mountain air of Jarabacoa is much cooler than the famed beaches of the Dominican Republic, and a great place to take a break from the heat and disconnect from the rest of the world.

water rafting valerie joy wilson

If you can pull yourself away from the peace and quiet at Villa Isabel, there are many activities to experience nearby. Rancho Jarabacoa is only 15 minutes away and offers white water rafting, horseback riding, city tours, tours to waterfalls, and… Nearby, the Akasha Spa rests in the quiet mountains just a few minutes away from Villa Isabel. There is also a popular waterfall nearby that is worth a visit via a quick hike.

glamping porch by trusted travel girl

The attention to detail in the garden, decor and fixtures on the property are impressive. Everything is very zen, and antique decor is interesting and tasteful. The entire experience provided at Villa Isabel doesn’t just promote relaxation and rejuvenation, it also helps you to meet locals and immerse yourself in the culture and food of the Dominican Republic. After all, isn’t that what traveling is all about?

Escape to Samaná: Dominican Tree House Village

We woke up to a gentle breeze, tropical birds, and Caribbean sunshine. We rubbed our eyes, from sleep and a bit of disbelief. This wasn’t like any hotel room or even glamping lodge we’d ever stayed in. Our view was of a lush forest, the leaves had intense detail…we were in the boughs of a tree. This is the Dominican Tree House Village, an eco-retreat so dreamy, we had to pinch ourselves.


Nestled in the jungles of Samaná, a lush peninsula on the northeast coast of the DR with mountains, jungles, beaches and islands, The Dominican Tree House Village (DTHV) is one of a handful of lodges in this little known paradise. The 15,000 people that live here are proud of the region’s beauty and are making efforts to develop it slowly and sustainably, with environmentally conscious hoteliers like DTHV leading the charge.

03 DTHV Arrival

When we saw the DTHV sign pointing up a winding path that vanished into the greenery, we knew the adventure had already begun. Just as we started to size up our luggage and our level of physical fitness, three staff members appeared: one with a tray of tropical drinks and two others to whisk our bags away. We strolled the stone paths, passing the waterfall-fed pool, vibrant bromeliads, birdlife, and then shortly arrived at the canopy of cabins.


The main building set the tone for the village—made from locally sourced materials, open-air, bohemian decor, and fabulous views to the jungle. Hammocks hung from the columns and seating areas offered nature books, board games, and plush cushions for relaxation. The manager Melissa came to greet us, “Please make yourselves at home!” She explained the casual and social nature of DTHV and said meals (included in the price of the stay) are served family style and often turn into an evening of lively conversation, games of Uno, and the occasional merengue session. “If you need anything at all, just ask!”

05 DTHV Treehouse

Melissa led us through maze of suspension bridges and elevated pathways to our private tree house, one of 22 on the property. We climbed the stairs, which wended their way around two tree trunks, and reached our chic quarters. A queen bed draped with a mosquito net, whimsical swing chair, locking rattan trunk, ceiling fan, and power outlets…this was hardly roughing it. “One last thing,” said Melissa, “the shared bathrooms are downstairs.” We knew there was a catch! We descended, expecting summer-camp latrines, but these single occupancy bathrooms were gorgeous! Walls made with recycled glass bottles, seashell chandeliers, a flushing toilet, spacious shower, and plenty of privacy. Phew! (Though if you still want an ensuite bathroom, you can book the VIP Tree House.)


After a breakfast of German pancakes, fresh fruit, and Dominican coffee, we geared up for ziplining—DTHV’s signature activity. Before they even built the lodge, they worked with German engineers to create the tallest and highest-rated zipline experience in the Caribbean: Samaná Zipline. With helmets and harnesses secured, we began the 12-line course, flying 450-feet above the canopy, rivers, and through the dense jungle. We had never done tandem ziplining or tried flips, twirls, and upside-down kisses, but that made it our best zipline to date. To top off an exciting morning, there was a fantastic waterfall and swimming hole near the end of the course.

07-El Valle

Already wet from our dip in Cascada Lulu, we decided to continue to the nearby Playa el Valle. This beach was our favorite in all of the Dominican Republic, complete with lush mountains, rugged cliffs, palm trees, golden sand, and an endearing local’s scene. Fishermen were mending their nets, boys were tossing around the baseball, and Emma the palapa owner was serving cold Presidente beers and the catch of the day. We walked the shore to the dramatic cliffs and found the shade of a palm tree for the little beach reading and a cat nap.

For guests who want to explore more of the incredible Samaná region, DTHV offers tons of day trips: humpback whale watching, horseback riding to El Limón waterfall, ATV tour to Playa Rincon, river rafting on Yaque del Norte River and more!

08 Los Haitises Bacardi Island

We opted for the boat trip to Los Haitises National Park and Bacardi Island. Leaving from a private dock in Samaná Bay, we took the speed boat to the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Los Haitises’ Bird Cay. The dramatic karst landscape and soaring birds of prey was straight out of a Bond movie. The park’s interior is a system of brackish rivers, dense mangrove, and caves filled with ancient pictographs from the Taíno natives. With 618-square miles of terrain and 58 islands, there was enough here to explore for weeks…though Bacardi Island was calling! An islet with golden sand, swaying palm trees, and beach bars blending tropical drinks…sounds like a rum advertisement, right? Well, Bacardi shot a campaign in the 80s and Cayo Levantado has been dubbed Bacardi Island ever since.


We returned to the Dominican Tree House Village and did an evening stretch in the yoga dome… trying not to think about our departure the following morning. Meditating on the beauty of this place, we set an intention and promised to come back some day.