Posted in My Travels

CUBA 2019- Fusterlandia and Habana Vieja

Hello WordPressers!

Our fourth day in Cuba started off with bright sunny skies. The day’s plan was to eat breakfast then head to the pool to enjoy some sun before heading out on our second previously reserved classic car tour.  Pick up was for 1PM, which left us a good amount of time to relax a little.


This was our first morning in this casa particular, La Rosa Ortega.  It was even more beautiful in the daylight.  When I opened my eyes our room was lit up in a peachy glow.  The glow went throughout the house, especially in the terrarium.  There were so many orchids draped in the light on the wall, with one magenta flower blooming in the top left-hand corner. It really was a neat visual in the space.

Getting ready in this apartment was fantastic.  We had so much room, which is a huge deal when you have a teenager and a tween..who are total opposites.  We made record timing getting into our swimsuits and covers. Not an argument to break up, and I was able to get myself put together without any interruption. Which doesn’t ever happen. Ever. It was a miracle morning!

Right outside the front door there was a view of the pathway to the rooms, and flanked to the upper right was a driveway that was not active.  It was a grand cascading driveway that formed the letter ‘J’.  In its crook were many parked retired classic cars.   One of which, a black Cadillac, that I drooled over.  Some little girls dream of unicorns and rainbows, well this girl had dreams of owning a vintage Lincoln, like the one there, but with suicide doors.    

Breakfast at this casa was made with so much care and love, that it was hard for me not to at least try what was presented.  The juices here also had a weird texture or taste, so after this first breakfast I just stayed away from juice in general.  We started this breakfast off with coffee and milk, and, hot milk and tea for the kids.  The milk served in Cuba is whole fat, and it is not bright white like in the States (just a heads up).  It tastes great and is perfectly paired with their strong coffee. We were then served the first course of a pastry and homemade marmalade; yes, they served us in courses.  This was a special treat after a weird few days with breakfast.  Now, I like jelly and all, but this marmalade was the BEST I had ever eaten.  It was beautiful in every way; the colors of the fruits they used and the texture, it was so enjoyable.  Needless to say, I had eaten a lot of it.

During our meal we heard a parrot whistling, and playing with one of the maintenance men.  The man would walk up to the pool railing, about 25 ft away, whistling to the parrot then the parrot would whistle back; in that sexy whistle.  The second I walked up to the bird he just stared at me, wanted nothing to do with me.  The maintenance guy, however, in Spanish behind me was telling the bird to whistle. The bird seemed freaked out by me so I walked away.  The bird whistled finally when I walked away!!  SOB!!

Back at the table, the traditional fruits were placed on the table.  Here they made it into a soupy fruit salad, and well, it was not ‘Yummy. Yummy’.  Man, I just don’t get why their fruits had such a crazy off flavor. At this point the woman running the space asked us about eggs.  Since I had only eaten a bite of eggs the day before from my kids’ plates, and was not into them, I was curious and asked for one over hard. My kids asked for scrambled and my husband omelet.  After that, we were served this beautiful basket of toasts and breads with the most amazing butter.  Then a platter of tomatoes with a chorizo type salami was placed on the table. The eggs then followed and we were left to enjoy a beautiful morning under the thatched eating area.

Our kids couldn’t even wait for breakfast to end, they wanted to run up to the pool to play.  Well, we let them go up a touch before finishing their meals.  We then soon followed.  The pool area was beautifully set up above the patio, facing the gorgeous yellow house and overlooking an expansive view of Havana.  It was almost too perfect.  We were there as a family alone the whole time, splashing around playing with the pool toys we had brought. Really enjoying the water and the sunshine.  We then grabbed some drinks, yep, daiquiris and pina coladas!  I miss these daiquiris typing out these days.

It was time to get ready for our big day ahead!  We were all so excited for this tour!! We reserved it to take us to all the hotspots of Havana in a shiny pink convertible.  And, well, we didn’t get what we reserved..  ugh I hate complaining.

So, we had made this reservation ahead of the trip, specifically for their gorgeous pink convertible that they had on their website. When this other convertible showed up that afternoon, my husband gave me the look of disappointment.  I just smiled and carried on getting amped to go out.

Ok, so the car wasn’t exactly what we asked for but I didn’t want to ruin it for the girls and figured the tour will still be fun, regardless.  WELLLLLLLLlllll.

A tour is usually with someone who knows about the area they are taking you around, explaining why the sights are important or at least knowing something about the area.  As much as this man taking us on the tour was nice and knew where to drive, he didn’t really tell us anything about the sights he was pointing out, nor did he speak English very well (or at all).  Which was not part of the reservation.  We asked for a specific car and an English-speaking guide.

Our tour guide started off with taking us down a street pointing out all the embassies around, we were obviously near embassy row.  These things were easy for us to understand without much more explanation.  Then things we didn’t quite understand the reasoning of why he was pointing them out started right after.

Our first stop was to a river.  Why was this river important?  We have no idea.  Well I do now since I googled “rivers of Havana” when I got home. SMH.  All we saw at that moment, however, were a work crew on our left, some old world pavers and steps to our right, and a sight of the water rushing below.  From the guide’s expression I understood it was somewhere important, but he couldn’t say more than the word river to us about it.  I learned that it was the Almendares River, an important river of the area that was used centuries ago to separate the provinces then became a major waterway for industry.   The construction crew there, I learned, are working on a project to bring back the area with greenways of paths, plants, parks and even restaurants to enliven the city.

As we left the river, he took us on a tour through a beautiful wooded area.  Why was this wooded area important? We don’t know.  I learned it was the Havana Forest. As we were driving the path, the trees were making interesting shapes, like the elephant in the photo below.  So many old trees along the path were twisted around like that.  The sunlight was struggling to make it through the lush canopy. There were a few sights like an old castle like building and a park where families were playing with their children among these huge trees.

Then from the wooded area we ended up in the city. We were driving by some interesting places, but nothing was said by our guide. We arrived at our next destination, Fusterlandia, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood outside Havana.  This place was so super cool.  From the drive into the neighborhood you are immersed in art. Our guide parked, let us out, then motioned to us and literally said, “You go look. I am here.”

Well, OK then.  Thankfully we researched this place beforehand.  It is an artist colony that started as an art project of José Fuster.  He is a folk artist who was so influenced by his overseas trip to Spain, as he was struck by Gaudi’s artworks. When he returned to Havana, he decided to transform his impoverished neighborhood into a work of art.  Little by little he tiled his space, then his neighbors, then the whole neighborhood.  The end result is this folksy, colorful tiled space that brings a smile instantly to your face.

We enjoyed it so much.  The main part of the area, Fuster’s art studio, was transformed into a three-story outdoor wonderland. Each rise of your eye level, along each floor, brought you a totally different view-point of the surroundings. Each tiled space would show you its secret, like the pool below that was tiled in blue abstract tiles turns to reveal a woman bathing below from the top level. So cool!  Every piece of building was tiled.  It was so impressively unfathomable.  The time and talent behind this space.  After looking around this space we decided to take a quick walk to the shops that surrounded the streets.  We hopped to different jewelry stores, where I bought myself a cool wooden bracelet.  Then we got to look at an art gallery where we found this woman artist who specialized in Afro-Cuban art using different mediums like spray paint, newspaper, or naturally made paints from locally sourced plants, she was so talented. I talked to her for some time as she showed me all the upcycled materials she had used in her gallery.

We really enjoyed this time on our tour.

We planned to go to the Hotel Nacional in Habana Vieja from Fusterlandia. Well, this is where my husband started to lose his mind.  My husband is a passive giant, seriously, what a patient person, but on this afternoon tour I could see from the back seat that he was slowly turning into the hulk. haha I just have to laugh, because it is so not in his nature to do what he ended up doing. Ok, so I am not sure how I can explain the oddity of this tour further.  Our guide started pointing out some sights, but not more than one word about it.  Even if we’d ask about it, he would just repeat what he said.  Like this:

Our tour guide pointing to a hotel in Miramar (affluent area):  “Hotel Melia Habana”  (which was written on the building)
My husband, sitting up front: “Ok, what about it?”
Our guide: “Hotel.”
My husband: “Why is it important?”
Our guide: “Hotel.”
My husband: “Yes, hotel, but what about it?”
Then my husband points to another hotel coming up with the name on the front: “Hotel Panorama? Hotel.”
Our guide smiling: “Yes hotel.”   
Then my husband just repeats what he sees along the tour like a chimp:  “school”,  “park”, “man”, “car” as our tour guide smiled along saying yes. 

…I can go on; Though I was starting to become upset with my husband for his behavior, I understood where it was coming from. From the start it wasn’t the right car, then our tour guide was not the right match for us, as he didn’t speak enough English nor did he understand our social queues, nor did he try.

When we made that Fusterlandia stop, my husband pulled me aside while we were looking around to ask me if I wanted to continue the tour with this guy or not. We decided I’d make the call at the next stop, The Hotel Nacional.  When we pulled up to that hotel, I gave my husband the nod to let the guy go.  We paid him in full, I mean it wasn’t his fault, it was his companies fault, and left him to go enjoy of our day on our own.

Hotel Nacional is a national monument and my gosh, is it GORGEOUS!  We walked in to the most welcoming doormen, and the lobby had that stately old-world feel.  It was gleaming with people, and cheerful staff waiting to help.  We wanted to grab a drink and relax along the water.  Oh, and eat, because my family needs to eat at all times.  We made a beeline for outside to where they had a seated area. We grabbed drinks, daiquiris for us adults and a lemonade and pina colada for the girls.  Then they ordered traditional Cuban sandwiches to share.

The hotel was beautiful outside.  There was a peacock walking the grounds, and in the back ground was the gardens overlooking the Havana Harbor shimmering. We decided after our little lunch to walk the gardens towards the water.  We knew that along the pathway there were the original caves and canons on display that made up the old Santa Clara Battery.  This is where, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up defenses against aerial strikes.  It was surreal to see this stately hotel in the background to these canons and trenches.

We walked back into the hotel to roam the lobby.  It was chock full of historic information and had so many impressive famous people who stayed there, we were just in awe.  Our youngest was most impressed with Walt Disney staying there and hearing what dish at the restaurant was named after him.

From the Hotel Nacional we decided to take ourselves over to the market area for local art, jewelry or whatever we could find.  We took a conventional taxi straight to that stop, the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market.  This was in the cruise ship port/waterfront area of Habana Vieja, the high tourist area near where we went the first day.

I LOVED WALKING THIS PLACE!

This building was so beautiful on the outside, it is the oldest warehouse in the city, and they went through a major restoration a few years ago. Where they turned into the central location for local artists. it is a bit chaotic at first, but the chaos comes from the hustle of the artists.  I met some funny people shopping within each stall. One of whom, was really into me, and wouldn’t let up until I took a selfie with him… yup.

The building was split out from one end to another neatly, however. Everyone was grouped by their stalls, like, paint artists flowed into the clothing artists that shared space with the jewelry artists that gave way to print artists. Peppered in some of the walk throughs were hair artists looking to braid or chalk color hair.   There was a lot to look at here, so much talent!  I bought myself two of the coolest resin rings that I have ever seen in this bizarre.

We were a stones throw away from one sight we had wanted to visit, the Havana Club Rum Museum.  We got there just shy of it closing, so we couldn’t take a tour, but were able to look around at the cool lobby ..and use the bathrooms.

We left the museum to look for a classic car, preferably a convertible, to continue on with the rest of our tour.  The girls asked about a pink convertible, which we weren’t sure about. We walked towards the Malecon, where we had seen a row of beautiful cars the day before. Again, there we saw a few guys hanging out with some nice vintage cars, but not exactly what we were hoping for.  Gorgeous, but blue, green or burgundy colored.  A random tour guide walked up to us, hoping we would take his car service.  This guy spoke English so well; we turned him down because the girls didn’t like his car so much, but ended up asking if there was a pink convertible, maybe a cool Cadillac, anywhere nearby.  He smiled at us then immediately waved over to someone else.

And guess what?  The guy he was waving over was the owner of the ONLY pink 1959 Eldorado Cadillac convertible in service in all of Havana (and this fact checked out when I got home!).

OHMYGOD!! The girls were jumping up and down cheering for this car, and so was I.  Needless to say we hired the guy on the spot to take us around to the few locations we had left on our itinerary.  We hopped in the car to find it was customized, too  They extended the seated area of the car to add in a bar!!  Talk about a dream car, right!?

We drove down the rest of the Malecon, talking to the owner’s tour guide.  The owner, himself, did not speak any English, but his guide did.  He was a super friendly guy who was born in Cuba but brought up in Norway.  His English was great, and he LOVED talking to us about the politics of Cuba.   As we were going down the Malecon the sky started to dim, and by the time we were driving over to the John Lennon Park the skies opened up to a deluge.  The guys quickly put up the convertible top, and we got to see the park from the car.  So, I saw the John Lennon statue I wanted to sit on from the car.  Womp.

The rain did not stop.  It actually got worse.

We drove by the Plaza de la Revolución, the ONE sight I talked about standing on in person.   It is the largest plaza in the world, and my hype for it was because the day before we were told that there were millions upon millions of Cubans from Havana on the plaza during Fidel’s memorial services when he died. Not just there to pay their respects, but because they were all MANDATED to go!!  I imagined how crammed everyone would be going around the José Martí Memorial building because they had to be there. Plus, I really wanted to see the Palace of the Revolution, across the street, for the steel memorials, most importantly of Che Guevara.  But we got to see them from the car.

After this, the guys drove us around a while longer to see Chinatown and a few more obscure places. Then we all realized this rain was not letting up.  When the girls mentioned they we were starving by this point, we decided it was a good time to end the tour to go grab dinner.  They recommended we go to the restaurant La Guarijita.  We had them drop us off there, and magically the rain slowed down, so much so, that they offered to take down the top for us to take some photos.  Which was a lot of fun.  Everyone came out of the restaurant and from around the neighborhood to see the car.

It was a beautiful car!

While we were out there, the rain picked up again. We realized we made the best of a rainy situation by going to dinner at that moment.  The restaurant ended up being fun fun.  We got seated quickly, as the restaurant was empty, but that all changed quickly as the place filled to the brim minutes after we sat down as two large groups of travelers came in right after us. WooH!

We immediately ordered daiquiris, a frozen lemonade and a pina colada once we were seated. Then we ordered our meals. My husband ordered what was essentially sweet and sour pork.  I got braised chicken with onions, and family style fried plantains and tostones.  And…  This is where my kids lost their minds in ordering.  They got pizza.  haha  PIZZA!  Surprisingly, the pizza wasn’t as terrible as I had expected it to be.  I only tried the crust, but the girls and my husband swore it tasted like a normal pizza.

We were at this restaurant for about three hours.  When we left the doors it was still raining, but not as badly as before, so we decided it was a good time to make it back to our casa particular and hired a classic car taxi to take us back.  The drive back was entertaining as the driver was a young man who spoke great English. We talked about Cuba, and what it is like to be a taxi driver there with his family.  He was a very nice man.

We arrived to the house to find the rain had turned to drizzle.  Now there was a crispness felt in the air.  I didn’t get a chance to check out the actual home of the casa particular, so this was a great time to do it.  The house was beautiful, with so many antiques and large chandeliers.  Magnificent.

We asked the night shift manager about the weather.  The weather information without good wifi is an issue.  No one knew if the rain was short-lived or not, but we were semi-assured that rain in Cuba doesn’t last very long.

We all went to change, and the girls begged to hang out on the patio for family game night.  Which was a great idea.  The bar and kitchen night staff was all around, so we got to hang out with some daiquiris while playing Codenames with the girls, and, our dog pal Brenda.  Codenames is such a fun game, if you haven’t heard of it. We bought it last year for a trip we took to Maine to visit our friends. We had such a ball with everyone, but mostly the kids enjoyed it.  So, we bought the Disney version for the girls at Christmas.  It was such a trip playing this version here in Cuba, and super hard after a few daiquiris!  I can’t wait to bring this along this Summer with our friends.

My review of the day.

This day was a great example of making the best of what comes your way.  Even though a lot of curveballs were thrown at us, we hit them all out of the park, not letting them affect our vacation.  We saw some once in a lifetime places and things like Fusterlandia, the Hotel Nacional, and the canons and trenches!  We ended up riding in a pink 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible along the Malecon!  We met some interesting people at the art colony, the restaurant and along our rides in the taxis. We even got to spend time together, which is all we want to do anyways.

Nothing dampened our spirits… even in the rain!


Next Cuba post will be Day 5-  Rain doesn’t pass that quickly in Cuba.

 

Posted in My Travels

CUBA 2019 -La Habana Vieja

Hello Everyone!

Our plan for our first full day was to spend it in Habana Vieja.

Habana Vieja is the older part of the city.  This area is peppered with so many architecturally stunning buildings on narrow streets.  Some research beforehand revealed that there is 500 years of history in Havana, which yielded over 900 buildings with historical significance in this one span of the city! THAT’S A LOT OF HISTORY!

We woke and opened the shutters to reveal a perfect sunny day.  Wow, what a sight!  We rushed to get ready, we were all starving for breakfast.  There was a small cafe in Habana Vieja that we were heading towards.  Our walk over to this area, the same as last night, was beautiful.  The sights …of the people hanging out on the plaza, the vintage cars lined up in front of the Revolution Museum,  and side streets glimmering with children playing at the local parks.  It was spectacular.  It felt familiar and welcoming.

If we had only gotten to Cuba earlier to experience this first!

The typical Cuban breakfast consists of coffee, juice, toasted bread, fruit, and eggs.  The coffee, everywhere, is super strong!  We loved it. The juices that is offered are normally of the exotic fruits available on the island, like guava or papaya. The only thing is, well, the flavor of some of these fruits was, well, not so good.  Nor were some of them really considered juice. More like a gelatinous consistency-which most mornings made me want to run away. Needless to say, I ate a lot of toast and drank a ton of coffee in the mornings.

It’s just interesting how most of the fruit was strange. Except the bananas, those were great. Over the whole week we had tasted pineapple, watermelon, mango, papaya, guava and other melons, but they just had off tastes or textures.  Not typical for the Caribbean. The breads they offered as toast are traditional; one is a more European style bread and the other is a soft sweeter bun.   When you eat at your casa particular it is quite the experience. The base of the meal is the same but they add in so many elements, it’s like a feast! Which I will talk about when we go to our next house.

 

After breakfast, we took off on our walking tour of Habana Vieja.  We started off checking out the Paseo del Prado to browse the artists set up in the middle of the boulevard.  The vintage cars whipping by along the boulevard is something spectacular.  It felt like we were stuck in time, but with a modern twist.  The art scene is as eclectic as the people. There were realist painters, Afro-Cuban paintings, up-cycled artists, traditional souvenir paintings, just so much!  The boulevard was beautiful, as well, with multi-colored granite bricks flanked with built in benches and urns. The Prado went from the ocean side (where our apartment building was) to Neptuno.

From there it crossed over to Paseo Marti, where we walked through their Central Park.  We realized how close we were to Obispo Street where the Bar Floridita (aka El Floridita, or, Floridita) was located.  The Floridita is known for their daiquiris, so it was a spot I had to check out.   BUT, yes, this is also the bar Hemingway was known to hangout.  Well, he loved this bar during his stay in Havana, and it is basically dedicated to the writer!! There are photographs of Hemingway and a life-sized bronze statue of him standing at the end of the bar.  It’s quite the homage.

We walked over to the Floridita at the same time as what seemed to be a tour group from a cruise liner arriving… HOLY THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE!  We walked in, well, shuffled in. There was a live band, who were incredible!  We made it through the crowds all the way to the dining area that was roped off.  This is when I took this video of all the daiquiris being made… (drool).

We wanted to chill out at the bar, but while looking around at the sea of heads filing in behind us, we realized it was just too packed. Then decided to head back later in the afternoon.

We walked back through Central Park where we checked out some vintage car tours, as we saw the Hotel Inglaterra.  Our desires for daiquiris were strong, and this hotel had a lot of history that we researched beforehand, so we decided to go there for a little lunch and rum!  The place was hopping. We opted to chill inside their swanky lobby until a table opened up.  The interior felt like it hadn’t changed much over time.  We sat on an avocado green velvet settee next to fringed lamps and old world artwork.  I loved it!

The wait for a table was about five minutes.  Score!  We got to sit at the right end of the outdoor seating area.  They also had a great band playing.  The salsa music was so much fun!  You can’t help but dance along wherever you go in Cuba. We stayed at this restaurant for a long bit.  We got to relax looking towards the park as we ate some dishes and had a few daiquiris and mojitos.  It felt so great to be there.  Just like I imagined Cuba to feel.  Once we got the check, we then went to explore the city some more.

We walked down the Boulevard de San Rafael towards the commercial shopping.  The road was under construction so it was hard to walk around.  There managed to be a small strip of concrete in the middle to walk, but with cars coming by and other pedestrians it was difficult. We walked about five blocks then turned up Galiano to Barcelona streets towards Il Capitolio. Their Capital.  Their national capital is the most visited location in all of Havana.  It was under construction at the time, but the building was still mostly visible.  There is a striking resemblance to our State Building in DC!! Though this is a high traffic area and official, the area was pretty run down around it.  It was surreal to see a grouping of apartment buildings with tattered exteriors. Most had laundry hanging out, literally fifty feet from Il Capitolio.  Something we would never find most anywhere else.

After we walked around for these few hours, we decided it was time to make it back to El Floridita!  YES! DAIQUIRIS! (Between vintage cars and daiquiris, I was pretty happy in Cuba.)  We walked back into the bar to find that it had cleared out quite a bit.  So much so, that we got to snag the four stools by the Hemingway statue!  What a score! And what amazing drinks.  Woo.  Seriously.  We stayed for two rounds of daiquiris, and two rounds of frozen lemonades for the chicas.  The drinks came with warm fried plantains.  Man, they were so crispy and salty, and goooOOood!

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After hanging out at El Floridita for a while, we started on our second half of the day.  We trekked back to the Prado, then down O’Reilly Street towards the lower part of Obispo and the waterfront.  This half of our day was spectacularly fun! Every stop was historic.  Every turn was beaming with people and color.  Like this.

Walking the streets of Cuba is fun.  You walk by such eclectic buildings and alleys, only to find a gem in the rough.  We were walking on this obscure street then happened upon this modern meditation space and bird sanctuary where you could sit on benches, sit at a table or use the bathrooms (for free).  Most bathrooms in Havana charge one CUC to use the facilities. It was a little slice of zen in a hectic place.

We left the modern space for the Plaza Vieja, Old Town Square. Plaza Vieja is so colorful in person.  This square was built in 1559 for the military, later it turned into a marketplace.  Now it is a trendy spot with a microbrewery, artisans, a school and a hangout for tourists. It has a big fountain in the middle of the building. A beautiful place to take a stroll. Below is a 380 degree view of the Plaza Vieja.

At this point we had been walking for some time, and took a quick stop at the al Pirata heladeria on San Ignacio Street. It was a great stop not only because the ice cream shop was pirate themed, but there was a great art store across the way that I ran to while everyone was ordering.  I bought my first souvenir of the trip in there! A handmade thread wrapped necklace in a brilliant electric blue..so cool! I like to buy unusual jewelry or unique local items as souvenirs.

From this stop we walked towards the Catedral de San Cristóbal as we were finishing our ice creams; which was in a big plaza.  So many architectural sights and colors.  In this plaza I finally saw the Santeria women I had read about.  Santeria is a uniquely Afro-Cuban religion that developed in Cuba. It is drenched in African folk roots with some aspects of Catholic beliefs.  It’s like they believe in Saints and voodoo/witchcraft.   The women of Santeria stand out around the city.  They walk around in full on white lace ruffled dresses, head wraps and beads; even as young women.  They offer services like readings, sacrifices (animal) and things like that.

From this plaza we walked towards the Plaza des Armas.  This area was so vibrant with people.  We walked into the park to find a large Mariachi band playing to a dancing group of people.  They were great, that we all started dancing.  From the band we walked towards a group of women who are know for dressing up in Carmen Miranda-like outfits waiting to take photos with the tourists.  Well, we loved these girls!! They were all into us being from America, talking about what they do and kissing my husband’s face…a lot!  haha  We posed together, and took a cute photo.  For 3 CUC, per woman, of course.

We were able to hang out in this plaza for some time.  Across the street was the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and we wanted to check it out.  It was a cool fortress lined with canons, one canon was so big we couldn’t get it to fit in a photo with all of us. After a walk through, we decided to take a rest on the Malecon!    This is a 5-mile stone embankment along the ocean, very popular with locals and tourists alike.  Where we sat was a perfect view of the Cristo de La Habana, a replica of the Jesus Christ statue of Rio.  It was a great place to take a rest. The view. The sounds of the ocean lapping as the breezes were blowing made was perfect!

The sun was starting to set as we sat along the Malecon. Since we walked around for most of the day, we decided to walk back to our apartment for a little wind down to refresh before heading out for the night. It was just what we needed.  We got to soak up our view on the balcony a little while and talk to our families and friends (with the free wifi in the apartment!).

We were all looking forward to our dinner reservations this night.  We made reservations at the restaurant 304 O’Reilly.  This restaurant was on O’Reilly street, at number 304…I’m pointing this out because this is the way they title businesses, after their street address, in communism countries.

As far as our research on this place guided us, all we knew was it was a trendy gin bar owned by two brothers and the food was supposed to be great..and it was!  It was so much more fun than we could’ve ever expected.  Inside this restaurant we could escape the hustle and craziness of the Old Havana city streets to enjoy a quality meal with great service.  We walked in to find the house packed to the brim. The sounds of happy people laughing and enjoying their environment is the first thing we notice.

We got seated upstairs, which was a lot of fun.  The kitchen was set up upstairs with us, which we could see through the pickup windows. It was a HoPpInG! Our server was so great, spoke English beautifully and waited on us like no where else we had on this trip yet.  We started off with a round of drinks..a sangria for me, a mojito for my husband, a frozen lemonade for our youngest and a virgin pina colada for our oldest.  These were their drinks of choice this whole trip, FYI.   The drinks were spectacular..in sight and taste.  I still can’t get over the ornate decorations of the drinks. Not just ours, but at everyone’s tables.  Then we ordered the three empanadas appetizer, which came with one of each: chicken, ham and olive, and crab. This was served with a sweet sauce that knocked my socks off.  This was a great start to the night and our meal.

Service is slow everywhere in Cuba, that is a fact.  So meals usually last anywhere from a short hour to two hours.  This night we were at the restaurant for a few hours.  We had so much fun; and apparently the other patrons thought so too as they were all there as long as we were, if not longer.

We proceeded to order. Funny enough, after trying to figure out what we would like, my husband, our oldest daughter and myself all ordered tacos, and our youngest got the chicken pasta. WHICH her dish was humungous and not the best choice ..being in Cuba and all. Pasta is not their strong suit.  Where our daughter figured an Italian inspired dish, it was creole spiced.  It was good, believe me, but it is like seeing a glass of Sprite but when you drink it the drink is actually water.  Just not what you expect.

We left 304 O’Reilly full and happy. Also, walking towards the heladaria from last night.  YES, ICE CREAM TWICE IN A DAY!  Well, not for me, but my husband and girls.  I swear to you when I say they love ice cream.  I mean, I do too, but they really do!   This time they tried different flavors, and we walked eating the ice creams rather than hanging out inside the shop.  It was so packed this night, which was great to see.

We walked around a bit, but were spent from an entire day walking so we decided to head back to the apartment to relax ..or crash!  I think this day I clocked 20K plus steps.

 

My review of the day.

It was a great day, overall.  What I have seen of Havana thus far is complex.  I am so glad we got to spend this whole day in Habana Vieja to learn some history and there is so much beauty around. At every turn I would find myself enamored by what I was seeing, but also immensely saddened.  Many times walking around I would be standing alone in a place that has been lost in time, and space, wondering if there was something great coming for this beautiful city.  Was I standing in the pathway of a rebirth? Or was this the destiny for Havana, to be in ruins?  I am not sure, and I am hoping that I was lucky enough to see this moment in 2019 as a starting point for this city to make a great turn into the city I see it to be.  A great beacon of light.

 


Next Cuba post will be Day 3– We move onto another area of Havana, but first make a full day trip to Viñales.

 

Posted in My Travels

CUBA 2019- Arrival

Here we go!

Quick note Before leaving for this trip, we had downloaded an interactive offline mobile map of Cuba to our phones from www.maps.me.  Also, we downloaded the offline Spanish dictionary from our Google Translate apps. These came in handy many times throughout this trip.

If you want more information on how to travel to Cuba as an US Citizen, click here


CUBA

We departed from Boston on Saturday afternoon, flying straight to Havana.

 

Once we disembarked the plane in Havana, we were directed straight to Immigration. This was a painless process really, which we had figured to be a disaster. After Immigration we were shuffled to an X-ray checkpoint, then directed to our luggage carousel.  After grabbing luggage there were lanes to Declare or Not Declare your belongings, and exit.

Just another quick note: When you go through the checkpoint for Immigration to check passports, you must go up to the officer one at a time.  If you are traveling with children, they require one child with one adult/parent. They then proceed to check passports and snap a quick photo of each person entering the country.

Our plan was to meet up with Mary of Vistalmorro, one of the owners of the casa particular from whom we were renting.  The owners offer an airport pick up for a fee, which is a no brainer decision for us, and, it was a great experience.  Mary is a very sweet woman, and she greeted us at the airport like we were long-lost cousins.

Before we left the airport, my husband went to exchange our money (they only allowed one person inside per exchange request), so the girls and I talked with Mary.  Mary’s English is limited, but she spoke enough for the girls to feel welcome, and for our oldest daughter to exercise her Spanish; she studies it in school.  Thankfully, I understand a lot of Spanish and can speak enough to reply (mixed with my Italian hahah).  Once we had our money, we went on our way with Mary in her pristine SUV.  Her apartment was about a fifteen minute drive through Havana, and it was a great drive!

As we left the airport area, we immediately drove in the local neighborhoods of Havana.  Lots of small, colorful, run down homes. People everywhere. Buzzing mopeds, but not many cars on the road. The ones on the roads, however, were cautiously driving.   (We asked about that, and she said not many Cubans have their licenses as cars are very expensive).   We drove further, entering a busier old world center of the city.  It was exciting.

This was the first vintage car I saw after landing..  I WENT NUTS! (I did every time we saw one on our trip!) 

 

Along the drive, Mary pointed out many sights, transportation ideas and street names to help us acclimate.  We drove down the Paseo del Prado, a large boulevard with a brick promenade in the middle facing the ocean.  The city was hosting an art market in the walkway as we were driving past; so beautiful.  We took a right at the end of the boulevard. Parked for the casa particular. This is where Mary’s husband and daughter pulled up.  What a wonderful family.  Her husband and daughter greeted us with hugs, and they so vibrantly spoke English. We went up to the apartment, talking about all the details of the area.

WHAT AN AMAZING APARTMENT!!

The apartment location is in Old Havana facing the Parque de los Enamorados.  between the Spanish Embassy and an Iberostar Hotel.  Though the apartment building was a bit run down, the apartment itself was modern, clean-smelled so good, and was spacious. There are two bedrooms, a full kitchen with washer/dryer, bathroom, living area, and balcony. The fridge in the kitchen was stocked with waters, some local sodas and beers. Which was nice!

What made this apartment amazing wasn’t just the amount of space or the convenient location, but the view!  The view was of the Havana Bay and the Morro Castle, a fortress built between 1589 and 1630 to protect Havana.

It was dreamy!

Once we had the walk thru of the space with the family, we paid for their car service and they registered our passports in their book.  All casa particular owners need everyone’s passport information on the first day for their books.  You review what is manually logged in the book then everyone signs their line of information to verify. The book is then taken to the Tourism Ministry for registration.

We hugged and kissed our goodbyes with the family, really we were treated like relatives, and went to get ready. We noticed as we got freshened up to go out that it was dark out.  We got on our mobile maps and took off towards Habana Vieja (Old Havana).  We had plans to go to a restaurant that we couldn’t get reservations for before departing from home.  Initially, walking there was beautiful.  We walked through a big square, the Plaza 13 de Marzo, which had statues and flags with the Revolution Museum in the background. It was all lit up, lots of people hanging out together.  Families with children riding bikes and elderly sitting on benches. Further down was a street in front of the museum, which was lined with vintage cars; so cool!!

Once we passed the museum, heading left, the neighborhood changed.  We started walking on narrow streets with disintegrating buildings.  The amount of people was still the same, but they were no longer families, but groups together. There were large overflowing trash bin collection areas every major corner.  The TVs shining from the homes were so bright and loud.  The locals live street level with their doors open; so you could see everyone lounging inside. Each of their doors and windows had cages/wrought iron coverings on them; leaving you to think this was once a dangerous area…or still may be since they were all being used.  Not being able to see the area in the daylight made seeing it for the first time at nighttime a little bit disorienting and nerve-racking.  The area seemed run down.

BUT it was safe!  Cuba has gone through a lot of highs and lows over the last century.  The boom of the first part of the century was similar to the glitz and glam boom of Hollywood or Las Vegas.  Lots of people were traveling to Cuba then for vacation. BUT, the lows were unbearable for the people after the restrictions, and there was a lot of starvation and desperation in the later part of this century that produced these ruin-like buildings

Though I felt safe, there were aspects of what was surrounding us in the dark that I could definitely understand could make someone feel nervous, but as we kept walking through the streets we could also see that it was just the point of view in the dark.  Once we started to talk with some local people, that feeling melted away.  (Especially, after we explored the area.)

The restaurant we wanted to dine didn’t have any reservations available for that evening, so we reserved a table for the next night.  Once we walked a few steps away from the place, we got approached by a local who wanted to ‘assist us’ with a place to go.  This is very typical in Havana.  There are so many people working hard to make a living, and one of the ways they do it best in Havana is what I called ‘the hustle’.  Everywhere you go there will be someone trying to solicit you to their businesses or taxi, or of their peers, most likely taking part in a cut of who they bring to these places.  They definitely had an art of talking a fast game to make the sale.  I had fun with these folks as they mean well, spoke exceptional English, and had a good sense of humor.  Everyone was good at taking my ‘No, thank you’, then moving onto someone else.

This night we went along as it was late and we were starving!  We were taken to this bizarre rooftop restaurant, La Familia.  It was small, dimly lit, and decorated in shellac fish. A lot of things we tried to order was not available, which apparently is common in Cuba (but this was the only time we experienced it).  The drinks, however, were good. So. We made the best of a weird situation, and enjoyed whatever we could eat, some drinks and music.  Which is also a ‘hustle’ type thing in Cuba.  No matter where you went, if they offered music, the band would come around with a collection hat after a few songs.  It’s not a big deal, but it is something to know.

As we were eating, we decided not to go off our researched places to eat again, even if their waits were an hour-long!  haha

After dinner, we hopped onto our map to find an ice cream shop we researched beforehand, Helad’oro. This shop offers an all natural artisanal ice cream that uses daily acquired fresh, authentic Cuban fruits and other items.  It was such a great stop!  Helad’oro was a super cute place, fairly new, and their ice cream was perfection.  They offered a lot of flavors.  They had the usual suspects like chocolate, vanilla, dulce de leche and Oreo!  But they definitely had unusual gelato flavors:  moscatel, pineapple, tumeric, mamey (tropical fruit), guanabana, and guayaba!

As we started to enjoy the ice cream, it began to pour outside.  Like deluge rain.  As quickly as it started it magically ended, and we made our way back to the apartment.

Old Havana/Habana Vieja:

 

 

 


Next Cuba post will be Day 2, exploring Habana Vieja all day!

 

Posted in My Travels

Planning for CUBA

Hello WordPressland!

Out of all the places we have visited, this trip to Cuba is the one generating the most excitement from everyone.  The number one question we have received, after being asked to bring back cigars and rum, is “Is it easy for us (US citizens) to travel there?”.

Not terribly difficult, but, US citizens do have travel restrictions.

Even though President Obama lifted trade restrictions and gave US citizens ease to travel to Cuba in 2014, President Trump enforced some additional rules in 2017.  These laws are enforced by the US not Cuba, and they aren’t difficult rules to follow. BUT they are laws that you have to adhere to if you want to travel with ease and not have your trip come up in five years to haunt you.  (It’s a communist country, after all.)

Here are some of the US laws you will need to adhere to for a successful Cuba trip.

✓ You must acquire a travel visa/tourist card for yourself and anyone traveling with you to enter the country. It is a paper card that must be kept with your passport till you return home.  This can be obtained through your airline as you physically check in for your flight or online.  Prices vary airline to airline.

Our experience through JetBlue: We purchased the visas in person as we checked in for the flight.  It took literally five minutes. As of February 2019, the cost of the visa through JetBlue is $50 per passenger.

✓ This coincides with the twelve acceptable categories to enter Cuba. You just have to declare your reason for your travel when you book your trip and any time someone asks you, which should fall under one of these categories

  • Official business for the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalism
  • Professional research
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances
  • Support for the Cuban people (most people will fall under this)
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
  • Certain export transactions
  • Educational activities and people to people travel

(obtained this list from Viahero.com)

✓ Cuban health insurance.

Our experience through JetBlue. When we booked our tickets we had paid additionally for taxes, fees and other charges that assisted us with this option.  The additional costs were as follows per passenger:

  • Cuban Health Insurance $25.00
  • Passenger Services Airport Tax $25.00
  • US Transportation tax (international) $37.20
  • US Customs User Fee $5.77
  • US Immigration User Fee $7.00
  • US APHIS User Fee $3.96  (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service)
  • US September 11 Security Fee $5.60
  • US Passenger Facility Charge $4.50

✓ You have to have an actual itinerary to travel to Cuba (roughly 6-8 hours daily of interaction with the Cuban people). We are allowed to go, but no matter what the reason, we have to travel to sort of stimulate their economy by visiting/spending money in privately owned business of culture or agriculture (like a casa particular-family run B&B, paladar- family run restaurant, or farm). We are not able to stay or dine in government/state-run businesses.  You don’t want to anyway, trust me. 

You can find further details on our travel restrictions here on the US Treasury’s website, or, another website we found useful, ViaHero.com. Such comprehensive information on that website.

Other points to know about Cuba…

Cubans love Americans. We found that everyone we talked with were interested to find out we were from America.  Most were even ecstatic to find out we were from Boston, home of the Red Sox!  Cubans LOVE baseball, and try to follow their Cuban players when they make it to the big leagues of America.

Cuban Money:  You cannot use American credit cards or debit cards in Cuba, cash only.  Cuba has a two currency system, Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).  The CUP, is less valuable than the CUC. It is what the locals are paid by their government monthly; it has their government officials faces on them.  The CUC is for tourist use and is printed with their national monuments on them.  The best places to exchange your money are the airport when you land, or major hotels.  All money has a tax to exchange it, but American money (USD) has an additional 10% tax added to the exchange. Which is high.

It’s a smart idea to exchange your money ahead of time from US Dollars to either Canadian Dollars or Euro before hopping on the airplane.

Not every Cuban hates their government.   We had a few conversations that opened my eyes about how agreeable some Cuban people view their government. Even the younger generation.

WiFi:  There is WiFi in Cuba, it was introduced years ago, but there are not many places to get it for free like there are in the States.  There are three ways to get internet access: buy an ETECSA telecommunication card and stand in a park where they have access portals, in a casa particular or hotel.  You will see a lot of people sitting or standing around the parks in Havana.  It’s the only places you see the locals with their phones in their faces like home.

The internet is spotty and restricted, as it is controlled by the government, so try not to do anything that requires you to rely on its use. And remember they are a communist country and it’s their WiFi.

If you are lucky to have free WiFi at a casa particular or hotel, soak it up! We had it for the first three days of our trip, bought an ETESCA card for the rest of our time but it worked so horribly that we gave up and went off grid.

Which actually worked out great.  I like disconnecting from the interwebs!

Cuban FoodCuban food is typically simple and rustic.  Its food roots are influenced by its Aboriginal, Spanish, African, and Caribbean inhabitants.  At most restaurants you will find Cuban style sandwiches, entrees, drinks and cocktails. Most meals are still affected by the severe poverty that hit Cuba hard, and will consist of a protein like pork (cerdo), chicken (pollo), shrimp (camarones), fish (pescado), or beef (res); served with rice and beans or fried plantains or root vegetables. The rice and beans can be cooked separate or together (aka Moros y Cristianos- which are my personal favorite way to eat them!).

Here is an example of a menu we looked at in Varadero.  You will notice a few things; this particular menu is written in Spanish and English, not always typical. The menu lists two prices (CUC/CUP). And there is a detail telling you what the dishes come with as a side (choice or rice with beans, or traditional rice and beans, and fried vegetable). And next to the menu is a photo of a typical dish (from a dfft restaurant).

IMG_E7959.JPGIMG_9111

We did eat at some pretty modern restaurants that offered nothing typical.  I will share that in the coming posts.

Cuba is safe! A previous misconception that I had of Cuba was that I would have to be in fear for my family’s safety 24/7.  I was wrong.  Walking the streets, day or night, in the city, on the farm or at the beach , we never felt threatened. EVER.  There is a lot of poverty throughout Cuba, especially in Havana, but even with the poverty, the people were wonderfully friendly, had pride and were immensely accommodating. Petty crimes, like pocket theft, do happen. But that happens everywhere across the globe.

FYI-  be aware that the people in the city are trying hard to make money.  This can come across as threatening to some tourists.  They are in a constant state of what I called ‘the hustle’; meaning they will run up to tourists (friendly mannered) to convince them to dine, taxi or buy souvenirs at their or their friends’ places.  If you turn them down politely they walk away.

 

Our Itinerary at a Glance

WHEN:  February 2019; Cuba’s dry season and Winter.
The weather in Cuba’s Winter hovers around 75F-85F! Compared to Boston’s 30F-40F.

HOW LONG:  7 nights; Saturday to Saturday.
JetBlue has direct flights on Saturdays to Cuba from Boston; also, JetBlue has direct flights from most major US airports.

WHERE:  We pulled together a list of what we wanted to do from all of the research (books, the internet, and travel shows). 

  • Take a ride in classic American cars, especially a pink convertible Cadillac!
  • Visit Old Havana, the historic part of the city
  • Check out the local cuisine in a paladar
  • Stay in casa particulars
  • Visit Revolution Square
  • Fusterlandia
  • Bay of Pigs
  • Visit the grand old hotels
  • Shop the markets
  • Drive to Hemingway’s house and/or bar hang out
  • Go to a tobacco farm to learn how to roll cigars..and smoke’em 🙂
  • Visit the Havana Club rum museum, and ..well, drink rum
  • Take a horseback ride in the country
  • Walk/drive the Malecon
  • See the beach

Once we finalized this list, we looked at a map to figure out where to stay on the island.  We chose to stay on the Western side, with hopes to go back to visit the Eastern side.

Day 1– Arrive in Havana

Day 2 – Habana Vieja (city)

Days 3 – Viñales (country)

Day 4 -Havana (city) 

Day 5 -Havana (city) 

Day 6 -Havana to Varadero (beach)

Day 7 – Varadero (beach)

Day 8- Varadero to Havana for departure


Next Cuba post will be an overview of our Day 1 – arrival and going out our first night.