Posted in My Travels

CUBA 2019- RAIN DAY

Hey Everyone!
Well, as you can tell from the title, the rain we had the day before barely let up overnight and washed out this day.

Our plan for the day was to head back to the center of Havana to check out some shops and continue on our historic tour around.  Well, we never made it because the universe had other plans for us.


We woke up to gloomy skies. The first morning without sunshine on this trip.  We had a morning plan to swim again till noon, but with the skies so grumpy we thought otherwise.  ‘We’ meaning my husband and I, as our girls did not care to skip swimming.  Their mindset to swim is strong.

Breakfast this day was basically the same, with some minor differences from yesterday.  We were served a traditional Cuban juice to start this time, which of course, I took a smell of but did not taste. Everyone tried a sip and gave the “why did I drink that?” face.  I watched it immediately settle in front of my eyes into a murky brown drink, so no way was that going down my throat.  Following were crispy fruit turnovers served with pineapple marmalade and our coffees and milk.  The marmalade and pastry were beautiful.  My husband requested no fruit on this morning. For my husband, a fruit junky, wanting no part of them… they must’ve tasted horrible.  Next to make a breakfast appearance was the yummy basket of toast, where they asked about cooking our individual eggs.  Then we were given a platter of tomatoes with hotdogs.  Hotdogs.  Yes, I said hotdogs.  They were more like a würstel, a Vienna sausage.  I only know what würstels look and taste like because in Sicily, where I have been many times growing up, it is liked as toppings on pizza.    

The kids flew up to the pool right after eating.  They swam gleefully for a long time. They were having fun diving, calling for us, and screaming for the dog, Brenda, to join them.  That girl was not having it, she was old.  Then the rain started to fall.  The girls did not care, so they continued on swimming.  My husband at this point went to talk to the manager about what things we could explore locally before heading to Havana later.  She gave him a map with a few fun spots on it.  When we looked at it together, we made the decision to check out a local antiques dealer.  Thinking the rain was either going to pass.

The girls swam for two hours! We grabbed them from the pool for a snack and drink, before getting dressed.  The shop was about a fifteen minute walk away from our casa particular. As we exited our room we saw that two large golf umbrellas were left for us.  Score!  We had packed ponchos for this trip, but figured the rain would be compliant.

The place was only down the street right?!

We went on our way.  The street our casa was on was interesting to say the least.  Geez, the neighborhood, at this point is safe to say, was interesting, too.  Our casa and the villa across the street were these exquisite mansions on top of this steep hill.  Beautiful in every detail imaginable.  As you would leave the homes to go to the street it was like you were in a war-torn country.  The roads were ripped up.  Trash collection areas were overflowing with what looked like a month’s worth of trash, with cats hanging out all over them.  Which on the bright side, we NEVER saw a mouse or rat, or cockroach, or anything of the like! There was an explanation for the roads, but still it was pretty crazy to see.  The streets were all ripped up because there was a neighborhood wide water pipe replacement in process. But a week prior to our arrival, a tornado hit the other part of Havana.  The workers were instructed to the tornado torn areas to get them back in shape before returning to work on the water pipes.  Crazy right?!

As we were dodging potholes and the like, the skies remained gloomy but hopeful; there seemed to be a spark of light behind the clouds trying to break through.  Just as we made it down a pretty steep hill, like five minutes from our casa, that hopeful thinking sank. The skies grew dark then opened up to a heavy rain with an extreme gusting wind.  We walked as much as we could. The winds were just whipping too much. We thought to take some refuse under a tree with the umbrella.  While there it was tolerable to stand.  As soon as we thought it wasn’t terribly bad to keep walking, the rain changed from heavy drops to literal sheets! Trying to figure where we were within the distance to the shop on the map under all the wind and rain was hard.  It was so noisy, blustery and wet that I couldn’t hold my wits together.

Yes! The rain and winds picked up so much at that moment that concentrating was difficult!  I looked up from where we were to see a large house like building with a porch and a plaque on the fence with the word escuela faintly printed on it.  Ahh, a school! So I grabbed the girls by the hand, yelled to everyone to head up onto the top of the stairs of the school where there was better shelter. We made it.  Standing there, we were all hopeful that the rain would scatter soon as it did the night before.

Nope.  It didn’t!

The rain turned to a literal tropical storm two minutes after we got on top of the stairs (when I shot that small snap video). The water that was falling flooded the street in seconds, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  Some cars had to turn around because the flooding was so bad along the corners of the road!  We were huddled in the doorway of the school behind the umbrella getting drenched by the rain being whipped around as we were watching this storm unfold before us. Each gust of wind moved us around to try to find dryer spots.  My husband and I were at a loss because what were we to do with the amount of water on the streets and sidewalks. Not only could we not walk, but the idea to find a taxi fleeted fast.

The storm was crazy!

We were there battling the storm for about twenty minutes when all of a sudden the door behind us gave way, and we heard this sweet voice. A small elderly woman, who we think was a teacher passing by in the lobby, welcomed us inside the lobby in Spanish.  What I could understand was she was asking us to come in from the storm then directed us to take shelter till the storm passed on.  She even said a prayer for us. What a sweet woman. We shook her hand a million times saying thank you. Seriously, we were so thankful.

We were in an Elementary School!  The lobby door was flanked by vintage glass panels, giving us a wobbly view of the storm outside from the inside. Every few minutes a parent would come to the door to pick up their child. These people were soaking wet as they must have walked to the school for pick up.  Each opening of the door was harder and harder for the person, as the wind was blowing at a great strength.  We watched every child walking to the door with their parents being blown from the stairs then rained upon through the window.

We were safe in the lobby.  We sat around there for an hour or so trying to figure out our plans. My husband grew restless.  Surprisingly, not the girls who were happily distracted playing; one on my phone playing Wood Block puzzle and our oldest playing old snap videos on her phone.   I was just happy to be inside!   My husband started roaming the lobby, it was open to a semi covered outdoor courtyard. By this point, sitting around for an hour and a half now, seeing that my husband was not up to waiting this storm out, I told him to take the umbrella to head down to see how far the shop was compared to where we were waiting.  Take a browse and come back.  The wind seemed better to trek through, and it looked as if MAYBE the storm was moving past.  Us girls stayed behind as he went along.

After 20 minutes of being on our own, I grew nervous, naturally.  Where was he?   The storm died down a tremendous amount as we watched child after child being picked up.  We all felt like the school was emptying out fast and we would probably be asked to leave at some point soon. Hesitantly, I took the girls off for a fast walk towards the shop address I memorized. I was fearful of getting caught in this storm without my husband, without an umbrella or without shelter.  The roads were no longer flooded, and lots of people were walking by us.  Just as we were crossing to the other side of the street, we bumped into my husband!  He was safe and so happy to give us the umbrella.  He did find the shop, browsed a bit and was heading back to grab us.

He walked us to the shop, which was someone’s home.  That is how it is in a lot of family run businesses.  They are out of their homes, which are set up like stores, just with a full kitchen at the end.  This place was impressive. I only took these three pictures below, but the place was not only beautiful and colorful, but filled to the brim!!  It was all so fascinating!

Once we went through this house, the antiques dealer’s assistant walked us across the yard, through the rain, to another house they owned that was also filled to the ceilings! Just wow. They had themed rooms throughout, too. There was a room of vintage kitchen jars. A room of glassware. A room of cookie jars. A room of propaganda. A room of metal statues. A room of local artists..  I can definitely go on and on!

We had a great opportunity to buy some antiques, so we did.  Just a few unique items that you just can’t find here in the States.  The dealer was a quiet man but friendly.  He went out of his way to take us to the depths of the house looking at antiques.  He sort of reminded me of my best friend Tony.  The shop’s owner, house owner, however, was a more talkative man. He was real concerned during our purchase that we were walking back to where we were staying.  He kept asking if we wanted a ride, but we kept declining.  It was a super nice gesture.

We left the shop talking about all the cool stuff we just saw and bought.  It was still raining, much more tolerable drops, but we now had heavy bags.  There was a big tree out front of the shop which was perfect to help shelter the girls with the umbrella, as we flagged a cab.  The streets were not flooded, but we were having the darnedest time hailing a taxi.  The whole city of Havana is chockers with taxis, but the one time we would welcome some harassment from a taxi driver we find none!  Figures!   After about ten minutes, we heard someone whistle over to us.   It was the shop owner! In his driveway outside of his car!  He demanded to give us a ride back to the casa particular.  We didn’t think twice really, because riding with him for six minutes was a much better scenario than us trying to hike up the steep hill in thee rain that we easily came down before in dry weather.  He was a very sweet man, even talked to us in the little English he knew.  Apparently, he was good friends with the owners of our casa!  He kept saying it was is pleasure to drive us, which I believed.  He seemed sincere.

Seriously, the people of Cuba are quite wonderful. 🙂

By the time we got back up to our place, it was getting dark.  We had spent an entire day out and all we did was shop at one location!!!  OHMY!  We went right to the main house to make dinner reservations at a place they had suggested to us earlier.  We made reservations for 7PM, and a taxi was going to pick us up at 6:45PM.  Which meant we had an hour to kill.

Did someone say daiquiris on the patio?!!?  Oh, that was me.

We got freshened up for our dinner in minutes after drinks. It was rainy still, so even though I changed, I didn’t want to lose the cap!  Our taxi came to pick us up on time.  When we gave him the address, he smiled because the ride was short. So short that he offered to pick us up after dinner for a total fee of $6 CUC, because he said it would be more worthwhile for all of us.  I mean, that was super nice, right? Our reservations were for La Fondita Heredia.  The taxi driver brought us to the restaurant’s door, handed us a business card, then literally parked across the street.  Whether he waited the whole time, we aren’t sure, but he was there in seconds after we called for pick up.

The restaurant was so much fun!!!  We walked in to this beautiful modern space to find it decorated with red and white balloons for Valentine’s Day (it was the eve of).  We were seated by the bar where you walk in.  We were greeted by our very nice waiter. He spoke English very well, and greeted us with a complimentary drink of our choice.  We got a round of drinks, which were so fancy and delicious.  A canchancharra for my husband, a sangria for me and the girls’ usual drinks, a pina colada and a frozen lemonade. Right as we started ordering our main dishes the restaurant got busy!  In a matter of ten minutes sitting there every table, both floors filled up.  A lot of people were out to celebrate VALentine’s Day.

We ordered a round of appetizers to share, a chicken tamale casserole, talk about amazing!, and plantains stuffed with tuna.  I didn’t eat the tuna appetizer but they all raved how fantastic it was. Talking to our waiter was a lot of fun.  We ordered another round of drinks.  Then our meals arrived; ropa vieja, chicken chimichurri,  pork tips and shrimp enchilada.  This feast came with a side of tostones and moros & cristianos (rice cooked with black beans) family style.  We ended the meal with a round of flan for my crew.  I just couldn’t fit another bite of food in, so I had to pass.

This meal was so comforting and delicious. You could just see the attention to the dishes, and the flavors.  It was the best meal of the trip thus far.     

Our waiter let us use his cellphone to call the taxi, who arrived in seconds. Was he sitting nearby?  I mean, we were dining at this place for about 2 hours, or even more!  He was so joyful picking us up, and got us back up to our casa particular safely.  Driving these crazy ripped up streets was so nerve-wracking in the daylight, but at night-time it was scary!!

We arrived to our apartment full, happy but utterly tired.  We changed into pjs then hung out on the beautiful leather couch in the living room watching a murder mystery.  It was a great way to end our rainy day


 

My review of the day.

What a soggy and blustery day! While we were watching TV tonight, all I could think about was the kind hearts of the people we encountered today.

The elderly woman who let us in from the storm.  She didn’t have to do that; she had a school to take care of.  We were strangers to her, but she saw us struggling and opened her heart.  The antiques shop owner going out of his way from the comfort of his home to driving us in the rain, up the largest hill I had ever seen in a city. He opened his heart.  The taxi driver at the end of the night.  He did not have to help us out with a good price for a two-way cab ride or wait for us, either.  He didn’t have to do anything even close, but, he opened his heart.

What better gesture on Valentine’s Day Eve is there than opening your heart to someone?  I can’t think of any.  ❤︎


Next Cuba post will be Day 6–  We head off to the beach of Varadero, and go out for a special Valentine’s Day dinner!! Does the rain stop??

 

Posted in My Travels

CUBA 2019- Viñales

Hello Everyone!

Here we are on our third day in Cuba.  We had made three classic car reservations ahead of our trip.  One was for this day to take us to Viñales.  Viñales is a town, about 2.5 hours from Havana, known for their tobacco farms, and their 51sq mile lush valley that is surrounded by large mountain-like limestone hills, known as mogotes.  These mogotes are huge! They draw a lot of activity from hikers, rock climbers, and cave explorers.


Day 3

We woke up, luckily again, to bright blue skies.  Since it was our last morning in the apartment, we took some time getting ready while enjoying the breezes and sounds from the windows. We had to gear up in long pants as our itinerary for this day had us roughing it!  But first, breakfast.  We planned to head over to Habana Vieja to a restaurant we had read about beforehand and happened to see the morning before.  It was actually right across the street from where we had breakfast. It had a way better display than where we had ended up the morning prior.

We had some time to sit and relax, as our car reservation wasn’t showing up to our apartment until 10AM.  Also, when Mary from our casa particular was going to arrive to collect keys.  We soaked in the last morning on this side of Havana. I’m so glad we decided to go to a different place for breakfast, as I really enjoyed the coffee and the toast. Ha ha

Once we arrived back to our apartment, our car was waiting outside for us, as well as, Mary. The car was a super cool blue 1951 Plymouth hardtop. Which made me giddy! And our driver was waiting along side the car all neatly dressed in his orange button-up shirt and jeans.

We quickly went upstairs to grab our luggage then handed our keys to Mary as she sent us off with hugs and kisses for a great trip.  We filled the trunk with our bags then hopped into the car with our super cute driver in orange, Ernesto. Who spoke very good English and was very polite.  We started off on our trip by heading down the beautiful Malecon!

As Ernesto was zooming down the Malecon, he pointed out the American Embassy along the left.  Just as we were about to talk about it, whammo, we got a flat tire!  This definitely made us worry yet all laugh, because of course at our embassy, right?  But Ernesto was such a great sport about it as he changed out the tire as quickly as he could.  While we were instructed to wait outside the car, we took some time to hang out at the edge of the wall.  We got to gaze upon the beautiful sea lapping and smashing up against the rocks.  I decided to walk down the Malecon towards the embassy for a few shots, too, and just as we were finding the bright spot in the flat tire, the police showed up.  They questioned everyone about the flat tire situation, then went about sitting behind the car to protect Ernesto from the traffic whipping by.  He had to get under the car to change the tire.   VERY DANGEROUS! But he did it! Though he came up from it dirty. 😦

Poor kid.

Once the tire was changed, we stopped nearby to fill it.  After that quick fill up, we were back to the road driving to the Valles de Viñales lookout point.

Driving in Cuba is pretty interesting.  There are a lot of people out, at all times, and they are everywhere.  Driving side roads, main roads, and highways you will find people in groupings waiting for either a personal ride, taxi or bus.  Also, there are horse and buggies carting people or items around. And sometimes, there are animals just grazing along the highway.  It all is fine, but it was a bit shocking to see people on highways in the most remote areas waiting for rides.

 

We spent a lot of time checking out the views of the valley.  What a beautiful sight!   We enjoyed a drink there and shopped the two local pop up shops they had set up along the tree line.  We had spoken to a few other tour drivers that knew Ernesto, learning about the area.  It was a fun stop, and my husband and I asked to come back if we could catch the sunset later on.  Depending on the time.

From the lookout point we headed to a local tobacco farm to learn some cigar rolling and possibly ride horses through the countryside.

The farm we end up visiting is a small family run farm.  We were introduced to our farm guide, Josue; it was just our family on this tour.  After introductions, and his happiness hearing we were Americans, we were led to the tobacco drying space. It’s a one story thatched structure with tobacco leaves drying all around with a table set up at the front showcasing their processes. Right away we were shown how the plant looks (there was a vast field right outside the doors) and how it grew.  The walk through was short and sweet; basically, we learned what parts of the plant are the best to use in cigars.  We were then led to another building where they showed us how the cigars are rolled.

We were walked through the ways they pick the leaves, which were best to go in the middle versus the exterior.  Josue then explained how 90% of the local farm crops are sold to the government leaving the remaining 10% for the farm to sell, to visitors like us.  I found that devastating.  He then proceeded to show us how they bundle the cigars and how to best care for them.  Passing every item around for us to touch and smell.  My gosh. The tobacco smelled of chocolate, leather, and heaven..  like that perfect warm smell we want our men to smell like, know what I mean?  Once we finished that lesson, he pulled out a handsome bundle of cigars, a bottle of locally harvested honey and a bottle of homemade rum, then asks if we would like a smoke!  UHM, YES PLEASE!

Before we were handed a cigar, our guide asked us if we wanted to smoke one like Che Guevara.  Apparently, Che had asthma and filtered his cigars by dipping them in honey!  IS this a true story?  I am not sure, but holy wow was a honey dipped cigar amazing!!

Our guide then proceeds to grab two glasses for me and my husband to try their special rum.  The rum made in this part of Cuba is from guava fruit. It was interesting to try while smoking a honey dipped cigar. Actually, tasted like whiskey to me!  haha

We hung out with our guide for a nice hour. We talked about so many things pertaining to the history of the area, Cuba, and even music! But I think my favorite part was at the end when he asked us about the show Breaking Bad!!  Well, it was best when we told him about Better Call Saul!!  OHMYGOD! His face dropped. How awesome!?

Our day was not over yet!

From being taught cigar rolling we walked over a hill to go on our first family horseback ride!  It was the first time for us riding on a horse; I had gotten on a horse once as a child, I think at a zoo or farm, but that was it.  We were set up with a horse wrangler and went on our way.  From the farm, on horse, we got to cross a highway, oh yes, to trek around the countryside and farmlands.  It was so beautiful and peaceful.  I felt so lucky to be there during this experience.

Our horses were funny creatures, however. I think my horse was in the middle of an argument with my husband’s horse, cause she did NOT want to let him pass or anything from the second we got to the riding path.  She would smash her head on his body or cause a scene with him only; if he ignored her she’d start a fight with another horse! So dramatic!!  I spent a lot of time looking around at the scenery while keeping my horse from the others. My husband’s horse and our youngest daughter’s horse were also sort of jerks. haha  They would fight to stay ahead!  Then our oldest daughter’s horse was so calm, hung back of the group trotting along.

It was so much fun to ride my horse! I do have to ask why there is no padding on the saddle? Yeeoowwwzaaahhhh! (It hurts your tush, just be aware).

Our day on the farm was coming to an end.  😦

We said our good byes to everyone then headed to a paladar, a family run restaurant,  that Ernesto suggested.  Along the drive to the paladar, Ernesto got pulled over by the military police!  Haha This poor guy couldn’t win this day with driving.  He ended up being ok, but my gosh, this poor guy! My husband and I decided that minute right in the first photo below, that we would treat him to dinner.  (Which he humbly refused, till I wouldn’t take no for an answer. heehe)

The paladar, El Campesino, was fun and the food was fantastic!  We got seated outdoors, which abutted a family farm; it was a perfect setting after the day we had experienced.  This place offered great cocktails, like, you guessed it, my favorite, Havana style daiquiris!  We each ordered a delicious dish, too. My husband got ropa vieja (shredded beef in sauce).  I got the roasted pork loin, and the girls each got grilled chicken dishes.  Ernesto got the braised chicken, just FYI. It looked pretty great. They offered two types of rice and beans, and they were served family style.  We enjoyed a wonderful meal together while talking about politics and history, it was perfect.  I love having discourse where we can share and learn from one another.  Ernesto is such a great guy!!

We took a drive after dinner back to the Valles de Viñales to see if we could catch a sunset.  Welp, we were not that lucky to catch a sunset, but the views of the valley and mogotes at dusk was beautiful.  It quickly turned dark, so we left Viñales for our new home in Havana, La Rosa Ortega, in a different neighborhood called La Vibora.  This was a two and a half hour drive back, in the dark.

This drive to Havana in the pitch dark was so crazy scary.  Not for Ernesto, he was a cautious driver but everything else.  Remember how I said there were people out everywhere on the drive there? Well, in the dark people are still all out there, too!  You can be driving along a pitch black highway as your lights catch something in the darkness, it’s a group of people waiting under a bridge. Then a hundred feet from them is a racing horse with buggy.  Not lit except by the car’s lights as it approaches.  Then on some small town roads it was like everyone was out socializing in large numbers on the streets, in the dark.

Thank the Lord for car high-beams!!

We got to Rosa Ortega’s late, around 9PM-ish. We were all anxiously waiting to get there to hit the sack. When Ernesto dropped us off we all hugged like long lost family, and I gave him a gift for his wife and daughter. (I had brought items to gift on this trip)  He was such a wonderful guy. When we walked into the gate of our new place, my mouth dropped.  I knew what the house was going to look like, but oh my gosh it was so beautiful! In the dark!  It looked like an Italian Villa in Tuscany with winding bright colored bougainvillea climbing out of its pottery clinging along this huge fence that hid a magical looking mansion.

We were greeted by Jose Carlos, the night shift manager.  He brought us into the reception area, and checked us in with our passports. After check in, Jose Carlos, directed us to the the patio below where there was an outdoor kitchen. We got to meet the grounds German Shepherd, Brenda. She was the sweetest dog, who loved following us around. Jose Carlos walked us through all the aspects of the casa particular as he introduced us to the night staff.   Jose Carlos then asked us sit down for a special welcoming drink (fresh pineapple juice).  It sounds corny, but it was a beautiful way to start this leg of our trip. I started to feel like I was actually on vacation for the first time since landing in Cuba.

We then followed this welcoming reception with putting all of our things in the room and to freshen up.  MY GOSH.  Our room was amazing!  From the second we walked in it was impressive. It was modern and spacious. The artwork was soulful yet playful. The materials all around felt new and clean; it felt like home. The apartment had a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms with huge closets, and big bathroom. One of the coolest features, and my favorite, was the large terrarium set up to separate the kitchen from living room. It was about a fifteen foot high glass case that was open at the top to the outside.  It housed orchids along the wall.  So pretty.

After setting up our space, we headed back to the patio for a nightcap.  You guessed it,  daiquiris. 🙂

 

 

My review of the day.

Our third day here, I am reaching towards a feel, as if Havana is trying to open up my eyes to something more than its physical beauty.

Being a tourist, staying on the beaten track, can hold you back from the true potential of a place.  I think today showed what makes this place wonderful.  The people.   From saying goodbye to Mary in Habana Vieja, who warmly sent us on our way. Then meeting Ernesto, being able to watch him have these minor failures on this ride, yet continue with grace and humility.  At the farm, learning about the tobacco and cigars, and rum, was awesome. It really was, but then talking to that same man about music and movies, it was kind of surreal in that setting.  Then after a long day, arriving to the casa particular which was beaming with the welcoming Senor Jose Carlos; who didn’t miss a beat.

I see you, Havana.

 


Next Cuba post will be Day 4–  Touring Havana in a Vintage Convertible
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!