Monday, August 24, 2015

Cuba: Hasta La Victoria Siempre!

I was itching to go to Cuba since it just opened more to the US earlier this year. We are now allowed to go on "people-to-people" tours, but I'm not a huge tour person and they cost a fortune. Do I sneak in via a third country solo? Luckily on a chance e-mail, Jane jumped at the chance to go too. How to sneak in? Buy separate tickets from Mexico to Cuba via Aeromexico office in London.

Cuba is close. 60 miles south of Miami. Why did it take a whole day to get there?  I took an overnight to Mexico City, met Jane at the airport, got a Cuban visa then waited another 8 hours for the flight to Havana.

Havana: Time Warp

Our first day exploring we didn't make it half way down the main road before snapping tons of pictures of classics on our walk to Habana Vieja (Old Town).

Car museum!
Floridita: where the first Daquiri was made and Hemmingway frequented
Old Skool Pharmacy, still functioning but only for the wealthy and foreigners
Cuban sandwich! 
They actually exist, though this was an upscale one. The typical ones are bought in a small hole-in-the-wall shop or out of a box. Neither looked too appealing. Havana Club is the main rum, and their glasses were everywhere. This one has fresh guayaba juice. Delicious tropical fruit! Unfortunately the food wasn't that stellar. There just isn't access to a variety of good ingredients. But we did have some decent home cooked meals, and lots of seafood (lobster, shrimp, fish, crab).

Typical street in Havana

Malecon: the famous oceanside drive and walk
Guys fishing on the Malecon
Half the buildings were dilapitated, another 1/4 in forever renovation by the government (why was that crane there for 2 years, immobile?), the last 1/4 remodeled.

Jane and Me at La Bodeguita, the place where the first mojito was made. 
Unforunately the mojitos were pretty awful, and believe me, we tried a lot of them. At the end we wondered why we still bothered trying. Also, I had to go low key on the alcohol. No pina coladas, daquiris, etc. Bummer, but at least we know they weren't tasty anyways.

We took one guided tour by a Chinese-Cuban guy who was a teenager during the revolution. We rode around in his classic Opel (he was surprised when he found out that my dad had one back in the days too). We got a lot of insight into Cuban history and its people.

Government store where locals can purchase limited products (rice, beans, soap, toothpaste, etc)
Food rations
People are given a certain amount of food at very discounted prices, but it is not enough to survive on. This is the list of what you can get, how much and for what cost. For instance, you can get 5 pounds of rice for about 5 cents/pound.

Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza) en Habana Vieja (Old Town)
Government poured a ton of money into restoration but you can see the faded "Fereteria" word (hardware store) from the old times.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana: a missile from the Cuban Missile Crisis
Revolution signs everywhere!
There was USA graffiti right next to it along with a skateboard ramp.
Che "Hasta La Victoria Siempre"
"Until Victory, Always"
Revolucion Plaza
Che had a major influence on the revolution in 1959 in overthrowing the Batista Government. He partnered with Fidel Castro.

US Embassy opened in July 2015
This made us feel better about going to Cuba. Yes, the Cuban flag is about 5 times the size of the American flag. Also, right in front of the embassy is the anti-imperialist plaza. Coincidence? I think not.
View from our homestay (casa particulares)
The Cuban network is amazing! We booked our first hostel (actually homestays called casa particulares) in Havana at Hostel Pelegrino. The owners Elsa and Juan were amazing and helpful. Although, their house was full, their "cousin" 3 doors down had a room. Turns out everyone is in a connected network. So, when we wanted to go to Vinales next, Juan hooked us up with transportation, a little tour and the next casa particulares to stay at. 

Havana is a fascinating city and we could've stayed a few more days easily, but limited time meant we were off!

Vinales: the Napa of Cuba, except tobacco fields instead of vineyards

We stopped at Las Terrazas en route which was an old coffee plantation. It was suppose to be a little off-the-beaten path and gorgeous nature. It was great, but we didn't hike around at all.

New and old at an Eco Village
The Eco Village seemed to not be "Eco"-y at all. There was a lot of trash every where and I didn't see the sustainability, except maybe those solar panels above. Not impressed.

After about 4 hours en route, we reached Vinales.

Vinales! Valley of the tobacco plantations

Biking in Vinales
We came here basically to bike. We were promised that it would be "bucolic bliss" - flat and few cars. No and no. Totally not flat! And we were dodging cars, trucks, big RV-type things, horse and carts on windy narrow roads. Luckily the goats and cows were tied up to the side.

Prehistoric Mural?
We thought we were going to see a mural painted in prehistoric times. Turns out the "prehistoric" mural was painted in 1961. It's a hideous at 617 m high and 120 m wide with psychedelic looking dinos and snails. Why?! At least the bike ride there was redeeming.

Off to Playa Larga for some beach time

It was a 4 hour ride that we took with a couple from the Netherlands. It started off in a classic car with AC. What a pleasant surprise! Half way through, it changed to a little tin can with no AC. Who knew it was so hard to just sit in a car. Awful.

Our reward after the awful ride: view from our casa balcony

Ah, relaxation
OK, so we spent 1.5 days on the beach! I know, Americans "are not allowed to just relax on the beach" said many websites, but we managed to do just that!

I also managed to pick up a cough and the heat and humidity were doing a number on my head. So I felt pretty crappy for the majority of the trip, but I didn't let that stop me!

We even got a SCUBA dive in. Awesome tropical waters. Crystal clear blue and warm so we only had to wear shorties. I also saw my first tiny shipwreck!

Three friendly Italians were staying in the other room of our Casa. After we kept running into each other in town we decided to just plan our time together. Off we go!

Cruising in our classic until ...

I think we have a problem.
We pulled off the road and into a bush-like area. Hmm, scene for getting jumped by the cartel? Well, it was peak day = peak heat (100+ deg with humidity). Our driver pulled out his mechanic suit and toolbox and got to work for at least an hour. Then he just decided to just give it a go on 3 out of 4 brakes. That's 75%, passing. OK, right?

After hitting a poor man's resort and chilling one more night in Playa Larga (to say it is a town would be stretching it), we headed off to our next destination.

Propaganda lines the roadside
Guiseppe, Marco, Guiseppe, Jane and Me in our replacement car with 4 functioning brakes.
That car took us to our next and sadly last location...

Cienfuegos: neoclassical french bayside town

We really wanted to go to Trinidad, a colonial town, which was where the boys were headed, but that was another 5 hours on the road and we didn't have the time.

Parque Jose Marti, a UNESCO heritage site
Atop palace ruins of Casa Benjamin Duarte 
Palazio Azul (Blue Palace) in Punta Gorda
with ominous rain clouds in the background.
Parisian influence with a Miami feel.
Delicious tropical fruit
at breakfast every morning (always $5 at the casa)
After all our traveling around, we finally got on the much coveted Viazul (tourist) bus that was famed for being over-AC'd. It was a splendid, slightly chilly 4 hour ride back to Havana. So nice to be a bit cold for once.

Havana en route to the airport

We had a few more hours in Havana before heading back to the airport. We had one Spanish restaurant to hit up, los Nardos, Unfortunately it was a bit disappointing.

Touts hanging out in the Havana streets

Kids kicking it in the streets
What's wrong with that scaffolding?
30 years makes for good tree growth.
To the airport in our last classic ride with classic Boyz II Men en Espanol. Gotta love it!
Overall, the Cubans were really friendly and there was no animosity at all towards us Americans, just some a few surprised people wondering where our "tour group" was or how we got in. Our Spanish, although limited, took us a long way with the locals.

Cuba was fantastic! And the US let us back into the states! Whew. Hope they never find out. If anyone asks, I was in Mexico City for 8 days. I bought nothing back but a Cuban cough. I'm glad we went even though it was only for a week and it was crazy hot and humid. While I don't think Cuba is rapidly changing anytime soon, you can start to see some movement so it was nice to go sooner rather than later. A short, awesome, packed trip!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Goodbye Coast, Hello Mountains!

Reunion in Bogota and beyond! (Days 8-11)

Sofia and I met in Tibet. Luckily we got along very well since we were the only two on our tour and were with each other 24/7 for over a week. So, here we are reunioning in Sofia's home country and town, Bogota! She picked us up at the airport and was the most amazing host ever! We can't thank you enough.

Sofia and I drinking salpicon in San Bolivar Park. 
Salpicon was our favorite Colombian drink, and believe me, there was tough competition. It is watermelon or Colombian soda based with pineapple, strawberries, bananas and all sorts of yummy, chunks of goodness.
Library at San Bolivar Park. Great architecture.
This park is the closest Bogota has to Central Park. People go there to picnic and exercise and chill.

Fruit lesson at the store. Curuba is a tropical fruit unlike any in the US.
By now, we drank lots of tropical fruit drinks (curuba, lulo, zapote, nispero, moracuya, mango) but most of them we had no clue what they looked like or couldn't even pinpoint the flavor. So Sofia gave us a lesson on Colombian fruits. So delicious!

One of the many awesome breakfasts Sofia made for us. Fresh fruit (no that is not cucumber or squash), hot chocolate and other delicious treats. I recall Sofia talking about these meals in Tibet and now I finally get to enjoy them myself.
 Exploring La Candeleria: Old town (Day 9)
Plaza de Bolivar. Christmas decorations still everywhere!
Side street in Old Town with mountains in looming in the background. Bogota is at 2,600 m (yes, I'm totally in the metric system)

Traditional homey ajiaco soup (the one we are staring excitedly at), one of our most favorite meals in Colombia.

We had been waiting a whole week for this ajiaco soup made of chicken, corn, potatoes and cream. It's only in Bogota where the temp is a lot cooler than the Carribean Coast. Also beans/rice and a chicken soup. All with the largest avocados ever. So delicious!

Also note I am wearing some new travel clothes never seen before. That's because Shar actually overpacked warm clothes and I underpacked for cold weather. Thanks for the many loans, Sharlene!

Hitting up the museums
National Museum: 
new interactive exhibit with LCD screens and audio that more accurately portrays Colombia's recent past.

Museo Boteo, where everything is playfully plump, even the books and fruits.
Monkey! Our favorite at the top-rated museum in Bogota, Museo de Oro.
The Gold Museum was all right and worth checking out. It was a bit too crowded but the entrance fee was really low as Colombia is trying to encourage tourism.

Panoramic view from atop Monserrate
A must-see in Bogota is taking a cable car or furnicular up to this vista point. Mountains on one side and city on the other. We are looking south at the class 1-2 neighborhood in the distance. Sofia explained to us how the socio-economic levels break down. 1-2 is low income. 3-4 is middle income and 5-6 top income. Like all cities, there are wealthier and poorer areas. Overall, there has been a lot of theft in the city which makes Bogotanos always keenly aware for their belongings at all times.

Honoraries of Colombia! Thanks Ibraim for tracking down the restaurant workers to sash us.
We went to a branch of the famous Andres Carnes de Res restaurant for the "experience" as Ibraim said. And it was quite the experience. We saw Ghostbusters and zombies reenactments, lots of crowning of kings and queens and given our sashes above. Definitely unique. It was a first for all of us so we were celebrating just because!

Bussing to Zipaquira for the Salt Catedral (Day 10)
Thus far we had been sitting luxuriously in mini SUVs of Sofia's or her friends or in taxis which are relatively inexpensive. This day, we finally hopped on the amazing public transport called the Transmilenio. Bogota opened up these express bus lines which have their own lanes and platforms in the middle of major roads and freeways. Pretty ingenious. 

Salt Catedral of Zipaquira: A crazy labrynith of alters underground in a huge salt mine.           Perfect setting for a church rock concert as Sharlene noted! It was quite the production underground with Colombia's first 3D movie (so it was a bit off...) and a light show.
All time favorite pastry in Colombia called Milhojas. Neopolitan flakiness with custard goodness and arequipe (dulce de leche) sweetness. Yum!
New amigas: Sofia, me, Sharlene and Diana hanging out in suburbia Chia. Still enjoying the holiday decorations.

Exploring beyond Bogota (Day 11)

For our last day, Sofia arranged for us and her friends to check out Laguna and lake Guatavita and some small towns.
Posing at Laguna Guatavita, aka El Dorado. Do you see the gold?

One, two ... wait, is Diego jumping already?! Sandra and her baby are just chilling while we engage in our shenanigans. Fun with more new amigos.
We also hit up the town of Sueca where many people were rock climbing near the Virgin Mary.

Postres at the small town of Guatavita. Some were quite delicious!

Last stop, Lake Gautavita. What a fun day!

Good night Bogota! It was a splendid time

Another fantastic trip to South America. Another memorable adventure with Sharlene somewhere in the world. Good times with new friends in Colombia. And thanks again for Sofia hosting us and allowing us to crash with her. We got such a special glimpse of this beautiful country and met so many wonderful people. We are already plotting her and Ibraim's visit to California! Hopefully in the summer I can take them around my neck of the world. Until next time ...