Tag Archives: Caribbean

HAVANA DIARIES: PART III

As I reflect back on my time spent in Havana, the most lingering feeling is how much Cuba surprised me. I remember in the middle of the trip while cruising in a vintage car, my best friend said, “I feel nostalgia for a time I was never a part of. A simpler time.” Havana was a time-machine for us. A chance for us to visit the 50’s, to ride around in old-fashioned cars, to see people interact organically without technology getting in the way. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of Old Havana, stayed content off-the-grid, and were fully present while absorbing the Cuban culture. To me, that was the best part of the trip.

Along with this, there were a few other highlights. A few places that were planned ahead of time, and some that we simply stumbled upon. For future visitors, be sure to make time for these places! I promise, it will enhance your trip [and you can thank me later].

Book Market in Plaza de Armas (Old Havana)
Don’t let the words “Book Market” defer you. This ain’t no outdoor library. It’s more of a vintage market buried in Plaza de Armas, but locals will refer to it as the “book market”. A handful of vendors will gather to offer antique and vintage goods for unbeatable prices. You can find anything from vintage cameras to cigar labels, stamps, old and new books including Hemingway, vintage postcards, jewelry, etc. I bought a vintage film camera for only $25 CUC!
La Floridita (Old Havana)
Buried in Old Havana is La Floridita – home to Hemingway’s favorite daquiri. He claimed it was the best in the world. Once inside, it is jam-packed with tourists. I actually never enjoyed a drink, but it was a beautiful old-fashioned  restaurant/bar to see. Hemingway’s bar stool is still inside, protected by a velvet rope. No touch-ee.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C) (Nuevo Vedado)
This former cooking oil factory is now a well-curated art exhibition and entertainment club in Nuevo Vedado. F.A.C. is easily the most impressive venue/nightclub I have ever visited, far from the nightclubs we are used to in the US. This multi-level venue is an endless display of creative work, music, local influence, and innovative architecture. AND, there are multiple bars! I enjoyed the largest mojito I’d ever seen; it was literally served in what looked like a flower vase. A truly remarkable place to see a younger, edgier, emerging Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida (Central Havana)
Hands down, the most stunning rooftop bar I’ve ever seen. The unassuming entrance into the building off of a run-down street in Central Havana invites you into a truly magical place. The building, originally known as La Mansión Camagüey, remains historic with its magnificent wooden entrance door and marble staircase up the two flights of stairs to the restaurant itself. At the top, you’ll have the most breathtaking views of Havana and lovely rooftop seating. Their menu also offers tasty nibbles and delicious cocktails.
Coppelia Ice Cream (La Habana)
Coppelia is the ice cream parlor chain of Cuba. Like our Dairy Queen, but cuter. Cheap ice cream, served in old-fashioned 1960’s ice cream cups. Need I say more?
Hotel Parque Central (Old Havana)
Next to Central Park and short walk from the National Capital, the rooftop bar at Hotel Parque Central had equally if not the most stunning views than all of the rooftops we visited in Havana. This beautiful historic hotel maintained its Spanish-colonial charm combined with modern amenities. The staff is extremely welcoming and friendly, and invites non-hotel guests to their rooftop bar. The bar is pool-side and has a wonderful menu of affordable cocktails and food. We devoured two Margherita pizzas. Random, but SO good!
The Malecón (Havana)
There is almost no other place to see more of Havana’s soul than walking along the long stretched Malecón. This boulevard runs nearly 8km along the coast of Havana, from the historical center (Habana Vieja) to residential Vedado. Between the charming buildings and endless sight of vintage cars, the Malecón is a resume of Havana’s history. The Malecón, which translates to “pier”, will give you the real feeling of Havana, and is a prime spot for sunsets.

 

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HAVANA DIARIES: PART I

About a month ago, one of my best friends and another girlfriend invited me to go to Cuba and I said “Yes!” on a complete whim. Without thought, I instantly booked my flight [which was ridiculously cheap] and the countdown to Havana began! In the short weeks before the trip, we learned that there is a lot of preparation required before visiting Cuba. And thank God we did our homework! It could have been a completely different and probably disastrous experience if we did not do our due diligence. So I feel it as my duty to share some helpful tips to my fellow travelers and wanderlusters who would like to visit one day!

Currency
CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso (what most tourists use) or CUP – Cuban Peso
DO NOT bring US dollars to Cuba. Cuba does not accept US credit cards or debit cards either. I advise exchanging your USD to Euro, Canadian dollars, or Pesos before you get there. The CUC and CUP are the two currencies of Cuba [which means you will commonly see two prices listed], but the CUC is mainly used for tourism. And I cannot stress this enough – bring enough cash with you! Anticipate on spending approx. $100 per day to be safe [which I rarely did, but Cuban cigars and excursions can add up quickly]. Food and beverage are fairly cheap [approx. $5-$10 CUC for lunch/dinner or a cocktail], but you’ll need extra spending money for taxi rides and tourist activities.
Passport + Visa Required
Visa’s are required to travel to Cuba as a US citizen. I purchased mine through Cuba Travel Services for approx. $85.00 plus shipping. The Visa process will ask for a reason for travel, and “Tourism” is not one of them. The most common would be “Educational – People to People”, which you can easily justify if you intend on learning the Cuban culture and having people to people interaction. I was never questioned during immigration though.
Lodging
Airbnb, all the way! I’m biased because I only stay at Airbnb’s on international trips, but I feel that it’s part of the adventure! You can stay at a hotel anywhere – but staying at an Airbnb is a fun and affordable way to experience the culture of any country. And in Cuba, hotels are Government owned and very expensive. But, hotels were very useful in purchasing Internet cards or speaking with tourism/travel agencies. Most hotels were willing to help us even though we were not hotel guests.
Internet [or lack thereof]
WiFi is extremely scarce in Cuba. Prepare to be OFF THE GRID. And with this, I also suggest printing copies of any Airbnb itineraries, copies of your VISA/Passport, tourist activities/receipts, etc. Even if you do purchase an Internet card from a hotel, the signal is usually spotty and weak. You may also come across “WiFi zones” around Havana, usually in a public park or alley [you will easily recognize these “zones” by seeing 15-20 people sitting closely together and glued to their cell phones].
maps.me App
Download this app before the trip! It will save your life. The maps.me app is an offline map/GPS that is very easy to use and does not require data or WiFi. You will always have a clear view of where you are, and you can save pins of your hotel, Airbnb, places you plan to go, etc. It was also very helpful in showing taxi drivers where we were staying whenever there was a language barrier.
Taxi’s
There are two types of taxi’s in Cuba; the classic vintage-style cars, or the yellow Government taxi’s. We were discouraged from taking the Government taxi’s. Vintage cars are the way to go. But be sure to negotiate the fare before you get in! Average price from the Jose Marti International Airport into Havana was approx. $35 CUC, and trips between Havana were typically $8 – $10 CUC. Just be sure to confirm the price before you get into the car.

I will stop here and provide more helpful tips in the next post, Havana diaries Part II! Come back soon!

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3rd stop: Falmouth, Jamaica

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This was the final stop – Falmouth, Jamaica. Yaaa man! This day was a relaxing one, we didn’t have any set plans or itinerary for the time we were there. The one thing we actually wanted to do was go jet skiing, but we found out that it’s illegal in Jamaica. Too many accidents I guess… We ended up getting on a bus, drove along the coast, spent way too much money at a souvenir shop [with 13.5% tax, ouch!] and rode into Montego Bay.

The afternoon was spent lounging in beach chairs, ordering beer and local food like pool-side service, swimming with the GoPro and sun soaking in between. I love being that kind of lazy. Pure vacation lazy. I was perfectly content listening to music, people-watching, taking pictures and thinking about where I want to travel next. Knowing that your time is limited in a foreign place is the best motivator to make the most of your time there. I actually started making a rule for myself – always have a future trip planned so that you have something to look forward to. Can we just skip to the part of my life where I travel the world?

Loving and lazing in the Caribbean. And Costa Rica bound in 2 weeks! Ciaooo!

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2nd stop: Georgetown, Grand Cayman

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The Cayman Islands. I think this was my favorite stop during the trip. We arrived in Georgetown and when we docked, I did not know what to expect. I didn’t really know anything about the Cayman Islands until that day. Before this, the Cayman Islands was just the location for an offshore bank account in a crime movie or an episode of American Greed. I didn’t know that people actually went there. But I was pleasantly surprised.

How do I sum up this small little island? The locals are animated and friendly. They drive on the right side of the car and on the left hand side of the road. There are a LOT of roundabouts. They don’t like stupid questions but they have a good sense of humor. Seven Mile Beach is actually only six miles long. They have their own currency. “Tortuga” is the Spanish name for Grand Cayman. They make the most amazing Jerk Chicken. And they like their rum.

We rented a car and drove around the island which was surprisingly easier than we thought [I actually can’t say much, because I wasn’t the one driving. I was too busy taking pictures and reading the map]. We were trying to find Stingray City, got lost, and ended up driving almost around the entire island. It was a good “lost” though. We made it up to Rum Point, the northern tip of the island. The rest of the day was spent exploring, beach hopping, eating incredible food, and I found a supermarket that shares my sister’s unique name. I loved everything about that island.

A day spent in Grand Cayman. Two down, one more to go.

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1st stop: Cozumel, Mexico

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Cozumel, Mexico, our first port. I’ve been to Mexico before, but not Cozumel. The best thing about this place was that there were so many beaches that were conveniently lined up along one main road. Which would make sense considering we were on the coast. We decided the best thing would be to rent a moped and beach-hop as we pleased.

This part of the trip was somewhat nostalgic to me. Being in Cozumel reminded me of my past trips to Mexico when I was younger. Being on a moped brought back memories of when my boyfriend and I rode to school together when we lived in Hawaii. Just him + me, roaming the island and discovering beaches. We must have visited 4-5 different beaches throughout the afternoon and finally settled on a quiet, peaceful part of the coast. We drank pina coladas, ate some great local food, collected some seashells and floated in the ocean. Oh, and I got some henna! Twenty dollars and twenty minutes later, I had some beautiful ink to flash around for the rest of the trip. But then I realized how long the henna lasts, and wondered how I was going to hide this at work… Crap.

The first stop in Cozumel. One down, two more to go.

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