Cuba wrap-up: Was it worth the trip?

8 Feb

Men playing dominoes on a street in Trinidad. They were very serious.

Men playing dominoes on a street in Trinidad. They were very serious.


I have had several friends come back from Cuba raving about the place. So it was about time I checked it out for myself.

In the end, I’m glad I went. It is a fascinating place, unlike anywhere else. Would I go back? Probably only if I visited some different parts and went with a person who had never been there. But I don’t think I’ll plan another solo trip there anytime soon.

And by no means would I recommend this place to a casual traveler. You have to work at Cuba, and plan well. It’s no Club Med.

THE GOOD THINGS

It’s cheap: Airfare from Seattle was $432 RT on Alaska via Los Angeles (but the Cuban visa cost $100 so that should be added). And once you are there, the B&B’s are only $35 a night including breakfast. And if you venture out of the tourist areas, beers are a buck and ice cream cones can be had for 4 cents.

It’s friendly: The casa hosts and their families and neighbors were genuinely sweet and fun, and super helpful. And occasionally you would meet locals who went out of their way to provide directions or give you good advice.

It’s a step back in time: The old cars, the old buildings, the revolutionary propaganda — it’s 1959 all over again, when life moved at a slower pace.

Rum! I’m not much of a hard liquor drinker, but damn, that stuff was great. And dirt cheap. And there are no nanny-state open-container laws, so drink away in public. Oh and I hear the cigars are great too, but I don’t smoke.

It can be beautiful: The January weather was wonderful — around 80 and sunny most of the time. And if you get off the beaten path, there are some pristine beaches.

Their situation is fascinating: The booming tourist trade has brought in more foreign currency, and raised the standard of living for those connected to the trade. Will these changes bring dramatic changes to their revolutionary ideals now that Fidel is gone?

It’s safe: There’s hardly any crime so it felt really safe day or night. That said, women will be catcalled.

THE CHALLENGES

The touts/hustlers: I lost count of how many times people walked up to me on the street and said “Hello friend, where are you from?” I always said no or ignored them, but it was constant. On the last day, when I ignored one of them near the Nacionale Hotel in Havana, the guy cursed me in Spanish.

Poor internet: You need to buy cards good for an hour of time (and finding them is no easy task in itself), and when you do find a place to get on, it either doesn’t work or drops after a few minutes. OTOH, it was nice to take a break from 24-7 connectedness.

Poor air quality: All of those old cars and buses are not exactly up to emissions code. As in not at all. You feel like you’re breathing in a tailpipe when traveling in Havana traffic. Oh and it’s dry in the winter so it’s super dusty.

Poor infrastructure: Jeff and I would have killed to for a commercial flight to exist between Havana and Trinidad to avoid the 8-hour bus trip over sometimes-potholey roads. The buses themselves were decent, however.

The currency issue: The tourist currency is tied to the US dollar. Then there’s the moneda nacionale, which is what people use for grocery purchases and stuff like that – there are 25 of these pesos to each dollar. It was challenging keeping them straight, and having what you needed for each situation. And the exchange offices often had long lines. And you can’t use ATM’s.

Ugh: This might have only been a challenge for me personally. I was having some kind of constant allergic reaction the whole trip. And, um, digestive issues for the second half of the trip. And attempts to get relief at a pharmacy failed. So stock up on all possible drug-store items before you go.

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Days 8-10 in Cuba: Back to Havana

7 Feb
This cost $3,50.  It's a place of chicken from the grill with plantains and rice and beans. It was fantastic.

This cost $3,50. It’s a place of chicken from the grill with plantains and rice and beans. It was fantastic.

The bus back to Havana from Trinidad took about two hours longer than the trip down, so we didn’t make it to our new casa until about 4 p.m.

We are in a different neighborhood than the first visit, this time at Frank’s casa at the edge of the swanky Vedado neighborhood.

We quickly hit the pavement and got a lot of stuff done:

– Jeff was hungry so we got him one of his favorite Cuban sandwiches, called pan con Lechon – basically roasted pork.

– I needed to change the last of my Canadian dollars into Cuban money I could use for the last few days. The exchange line on La Rampa was much shorter here than downtown.

– We ended up browsing at a few different cigar stores. I picked up a few to take home as gifts for others. None for me, thanks.

– We walked along the Malecon, stopping once or twice for beers, before ending up at the Rivera Hotel. This place was amazing – a totally untouched time capsule to 1958.

– On the walk back there was a busy parrilla full of locals, so we found a table there for dinner. I had a chicken plate that was great – and only cost $3.50. And with two beers at $2 each, it was all a bargain.

– From there we walked in the dark (many streetlights out) to Copellia, the famous ice-cream parlor-slash-park the size of a city block. Because it was late on a cool night, there was no line to get in, which is quite unusual. We were directed to a table and watched as local families gorged on multiple dishes of the stuff. It was pretty good, especially the little cookie-crumble topping they put on it. It’s dirt cheap for Cubans, but because we could only pay in the “big” money, they gouged us at $5 each. Was worth it for the atmosphere though.

As soon we headed out after breakfast on Sunday morning, Jeff’s last day in Havana, it started to sprinkle. And then it started really raining. For the rest of the day.

We were at the Hotel Nacionale when I decided I had to go back to the room to get my pancho. Jeff was smart and had brought his rain jacket. I got soaked getting back to the casa.

We took a taxi from there to the Museum of the Revolution, back in Old Havana. Cool stuff in the building that used to be the presidential palace before Fidel took over. Then a closer look at the Granma yacht and other military vehicles used in the revolution that took place 1956-58.

From there we walked to a swanky hotel to get online for an hour. It was refreshing, actually, not being online much during the trip. The only two news items I got the entire 10 days:
– That Trump had issued his refugee ban.
– That the Patriots and Falcons had made it to Super Bowl.

Next up were another stop at a cigar store and some gift shopping. We cabbed it back to the casa where Jeff caught a cab and was off for the airport.

I didn’t do much the rest of the day because it continued to rain.

On my final morning, Monday, the sun was back. I walked along the Malecon, explored some new neighborhoods and did the last of my shopping and packing. At 2 p.m. It was time for my ride to the airport and the long trip home – not expecting to be home until almost 3:00 a.m. Tuesday Seattle time. But at least the first-class upgrades came again. 🙂

Coming tomorrow: The trip wrap-up. Would I ever want to visit again?

Folks enjoy their ice cream at Copellia.

Folks enjoy their ice cream at Copellia.

A dish of ice cream at Havana's sweet spot, Copellia.

A dish of ice cream at Havana’s sweet spot, Copellia.

This cost $3,50.  It's a place of chicken from the grill with plantains and rice and beans. It was fantastic.

This cost $3,50. It’s a place of chicken from the grill with plantains and rice and beans. It was fantastic.

The locals joint we found on a cool Havana night toward the end of the trip.

The locals joint we found on a cool Havana night toward the end of the trip.

A step back in time - the interior of the Riviera hotel is essentially untouched from when it was built in the 1950s.

A step back in time – the interior of the Riviera hotel is essentially untouched from when it was built in the 1950s.

The view from our casa on Neptuno Street, the last two nights of the trip.

The view from our casa on Neptuno Street, the last two nights of the trip.

Day 7 in Cuba: Off to the beach

6 Feb

I was feeling a little better Friday morning, so the bike trip out to the beach was a go. The casa had arranged to have a couple of bikes ready for us after breakfast.

These bikes were not in the best condition, I’m afraid. Jeff’s had poor brakes and essentially only one usable gear. Mine at least had three speeds and functional brakes. And we had no helmets, all the more scary because of the frequent potholes. On the other hand, they only cost five bucks each to rent all day. The adventure was on!

It was about 3.4 miles downhill to the first town of La Boca, at the mouth of a river. Not much to see there so we marched on via the road that paralleled the sea. All along the way were beaches of various sizes and quality. Most were a little too rocky for swimming. After another 3.4 miles we came across a pretty sweet one. It had shade trees and enough sand to make the wading enjoyable.

The super-clear water was slightly bracing, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. There was not much in the way of waves, so the floating was easy, and quite enjoyable. We think we spent a few hours there although it was hard to tell. We enjoyed talking to a Swedish couple nearby. It was pretty damn relaxing. We even managed to buy a couple of cheap beers. And they were cold.

We got back on the road and 3.0 miles further had made it to a few of the beach resorts. The were ugly and the beaches had none of the character of the place we had stopped at. We had a quick lunch and then found a taxi to take us and our bikes back to the casa – ain’t no way in hell I was biking nine miles back on bad roads, and uphill.

After a siesta we headed to the steps at the Casa de la Musica to listen to a band and enjoy a couple of cocktails.

Tonight was to be our dinner prepared by Daylannis, our casa host. It was served up on the rooftop terrace, accompanied by delicious rum and cokes.

As usual, there was too much to eat: a plate of salad and another of fruit; chicken; shrimp cooked in traditional tomato-based sauce; rice and french fries. And all topped off with ice cream for dessert. The price for each of us: $12.

We were stuffed, and ready to say goodbye to Trinidad. The next morning our bus would take us to Havana for the last couple of days.

The beach we spent three hours at outside Trinidad. So relaxing.

The beach we spent three hours at outside Trinidad. So relaxing.

I love a beach with plenty of available shade. And sparsely populated. This was the one we spent hours at while biking our way to Playa Ancon.

I love a beach with plenty of available shade. And sparsely populated. This was the one we spent hours at while biking our way to Playa Ancon.

Beautiful water at a beach along the road to Ancon.

Beautiful water at a beach along the road to Ancon.

Pretty idyllic.

Pretty idyllic.

Dinner was served at our casa in Trinidad. This was a wonderful shrimp dish.

Dinner was served at our casa in Trinidad. This was a wonderful shrimp dish.

I took this pic especially for Rich Boudet. Amazing car. All it said on the back was "Special." Couldn't really see what model it was.

I took this pic especially for Rich Boudet. Amazing car. All it said on the back was “Special.” Couldn’t really see what model it was.

Typical Trinidad scene.

Typical Trinidad scene.

Sunrise in Trinidad.

Sunrise in Trinidad.

Days 5 & 6 in Cuba: Trinidad

5 Feb
The view up the street from my casa room in Trinidad.

The view up the street from my casa room in Trinidad.

We said our sad goodbyes to Fanny at the Havana casa and walked to a nearby hotel to catch a tourist bus to Trinidad. The uneventful trip was a little over 5 hours long, including a stop in the middle for lunch.

Trinidad is famous for its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carts and colorful houses. It still manages to be noisy even though it’s just a small town. Jeff pointed out that it is probably the most primitive town he’s ever stayed in. So many horse carts and people selling their wares or bread or pineapples by hefting a bag on their shoulder and shouting out whatever they are selling as they walk they walk down the street. These guys could bellow!

We headed to our casa to get checked in and drop our bags. Our hostest, Daylannis, does not speak English. This was challenging. But in the end, we ended up in these huge apartments across the street from each other that were big enough for eight people and included kitchens. Both had balconies and rooftop terraces with views of the countryside and distant Caribbean Sea.

After relaxing a bit over a beer, we headed out to explore. It was quaint. We ended up having an early dinner of pork belly for Jeff and seafood tapas for me.

We finally arrived at the heart of the city, the steps outside the Casa de la Musica. A band is always playing at a stage on the steps and people sit there to use the internet or just listen. Buck-fifty mojitos are available at a stand in the square below. Once it got dark we headed back to the casa rooftop to sip a little rum.

Finally we went out again for a second dinner at a place around the corner. I got to eat some lobster, and it was only 7 bucks.

Thursday dawned chilly but beautiful. It would warm up plenty by 10 a.m. They served us a huge breakfast on the terrace. About this time, Montezuma finally caught up to me to exact his revenge. I had avoided drinking the water, so it must have been something else.

We had planned to bike to the beach, but instead I told Jeff to go out to explore and leave me behind, close to a bathroom. I had been taking regular Pepto-Bismol tablets too so, dang. At least I got to catch some rays on the terrace.

Paz came back around 12:30 so we went for some lunch. I was still in a bad way. Had half of a bad pizza at the place we’d been the night before. Managed to get some money changed, but all they had were $3 bills. So I had a stack of them. Still legal tender! Also found the town pharmacy, but no dice on immodium or the like. She wanted to give me an antibiotic. No thanks.

Paz spent the afternoon exploring and shopping while I stayed back in the casa. He found some cool stuff.

Around 7 he was back and we went to the No. 2-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, San Juan. It was fantastic. Jeff had two skewers of lobster and it was too much to eat. I had a small bit of pizza again, mostly because it’s my fav food and maybe my stomach will like it and get back to normal. Maybe 10 more hours level will do the trick and I’ll be fine in the morning. … I hope so because we’re planning to rent bikes to ride down to the beach, and our big dinner prepared by the host is tomorrow night. I want to be able to enjoy both.

Watching the sunset on the steps outside the Casa de la Musica in Trinidad.

Watching the sunset on the steps outside the Casa de la Musica in Trinidad.

The Plaza Mayor in Trinidad.

The Plaza Mayor in Trinidad.

The view of the room I stayed in in Trinidad. It had 2 terraces and a balcony.

The view of the room I stayed in in Trinidad. It had 2 terraces and a balcony.

One of the terraces of my casa in Trinidad.

One of the terraces of my casa in Trinidad.

It's hard to see, but that propaganda billboard was amazing. It shows a "Cuba" fist knocking out Uncle Sam.

It’s hard to see, but that propaganda billboard was amazing. It shows a “Cuba” fist knocking out Uncle Sam.

Men playing dominoes on a street in Trinidad. They were very serious.

Men playing dominoes on a street in Trinidad. They were very serious.

Days 3 & 4 in Cuba: Havana, and a day trip To Vinales

4 Feb
The water began to flood past the Malecon.

The water began to flood past the Malecon.

Monday was to be our day for exploring Old Havana in more depth.

First stops: the Capitolio and a cigar store. I didn’t buy any cigars because I’m going to do it at the end of the trip. Jeff bought a couple to enjoy later that evening.

From there we started a self-guided walking tour. We stopped at a pharmacy museum and eventually made it to the Cathedral square. At this point, I started to feel sick. Congestion and queasiness. I left Jeff to explore on his own and I went back to the room to sleep.

I felt a little better by the time Jeff got back at 4 p.m. We headed out for another walk in Centro Havana, stopping to buy 8-cent buns for a very late lunch. And then we saw the Malecon. Well, we saw what was happening to the Malecon. Waves of 18 feet were pounding the seawall and flooding the street. Check out the pictures below.

From there we walked a long way to Cathedral square again to try out a microbrewery we had seen. The beers were not good. And the pork was overcooked. Missed on that one.

We took a bici-taxi back to the room – the poor dude worked up a sweat pedaling with the likes of me in the back. But we had to stop short of our destination because our street, 5 blocks from the Malecon, was flooding. People said it had been years since that happened. At least the sidewalk was still above water.

That’s when Jeff had the brilliant idea for us to take a bottle of rum he had bought and go sit in a boulevard park so he could smoke a cigar. My hope was the rum would kill whatever bug I had. It did not, but yes, we drank a lot of it. As in all of it. Havana Club 7-year rum.

Then it was Tuesday — time for our daytrip to the tobacco valley of Vinales. I’m running short of time, so here’s the summary: Long bumpy ride with the same so-so tour guide we had Sunday; beautiful scenery; cool Juan Luis family tobacco farm where we learned about the drying process and how tobacco is transformed into cigars; eating too much at lunch; long, bumpy ride back to Havana. A 10-hour trip. Vinales has potential, but the tourism stuff is a little over the top. I feel like a good guide might have led us to more real experiences.

I will always remember the town of Vinales because it’s the place I spotted ice-cream cones for 1 peso. That’s moneda nacionale. So 1 peso is worth about 4 cents. Cheap way to cool off.

Back in old Havana we had a couple of drinks at a rooftop bar, ate ropa vieja again at the same place we had it Sunday night, and called it an early night. Wednesday morning we have a 6-hour bus ride to Trinidad, a much mellower place than Havana.

A bread shop where we bought 8-cent buns to tide us over until dinner.

A bread shop where we bought 8-cent buns to tide us over until dinner.

Cars were still driving on the flooded Malecon.

Cars were still driving on the flooded Malecon.

The water began to flood past the Malecon.

The water began to flood past the Malecon.

A banana daquiri at a place called Art Bar in Havana.

A banana daquiri at a place called Art Bar in Havana.

You can't visit Havana without trying a mojito. It was pretty tasty.

You can’t visit Havana without trying a mojito. It was pretty tasty.

The rooftop terrace bar at Havana's Ambos Mundos hotel in Old Havana.

The rooftop terrace bar at Havana’s Ambos Mundos hotel in Old Havana.

It's hard to see, but the flooding water from the high surf of the Malecon came all the way to the street of our casa, four blocks in.

It’s hard to see, but the flooding water from the high surf of the Malecon came all the way to the street of our casa, four blocks in.

Just grab a couple of glasses from the casa and let's take this bottle of 7-year rum out to the promenade and enjoy the Havana night.

Just grab a couple of glasses from the casa and let’s take this bottle of 7-year rum out to the promenade and enjoy the Havana night.

Tobacco fields in the Vinales valley.

Tobacco fields in the Vinales valley.

A fancy hotel overlooking the Vinales valley.

A fancy hotel overlooking the Vinales valley.

Cool rock formations in the Vinales valley.

Cool rock formations in the Vinales valley.

The Vinales valley.

The Vinales valley.

Day 2 in Cuba: Exploring Havana

23 Jan

Centro Havana,

Centro Havana,


Fanny cooked up a nice breakfast for us, with eggs, fruit and bread. We had booked a personalized tour of Havana in a classic car, and they were waiting for us out front at 9 a.m.

Jose was our driver, and our vehicle was a 1951 Chevy. Our tour guide was Jayliss (?), a senior at the University of Havana. Not among the better looking of the old cars we’d seen, and my door wouldn’t open and my window wouldn’t roll down.

We burned about 45 minutes of our tour time, though, waiting in line to do our currency exchange. Cubans love to wait in line – you them queuing up all over the place.

After that, the real tour began with a walk around Old Havana, hitting four of the more famous plazas. Jayliss gave us the lowdown on the history. The place was a bit overrun by cruise ship passengers.

Meantime, the weather was perfect – mostly sunny with a nice breeze and not too hot at all.

Next up was a drive over to the fort that guards Havana Bay. Nice view across the bay entrance to the city.

From there it was a scenic drive along the seawall past the hotels of Vedado and into the Miramar area, home to most of the city’s embassies. We passed through a large park before ending up at revolution square. That’s the site of May Day parades and other political events.

Next up, a walk past the university, and on to Calle 23, Verdado’s main shopping and hanging-out street. It’s also called La Rampa. It was at this point that Jayliss told us about going to see the Rolling Stones when they played a free show a while back. I asked her if U2 had been here, and she had never heard of them.

I said it would be great to grab a snack so she led us to a cafeteria. It turns out they had pretty tasty roasted pork sandwiches. Yum.

As we walked from there back to the seawall, I bugged Jayliss about the people’s perception of both Obama and Trump. With Trump they just don’t know what to think. And of couse they love Obama for easing some of the rules and visiting here.

Things got weird though when I moved the discussion to questions about the embargo and the state of human rights here. “Skip it,” she said. I could take a hint.

Then they drove us back to the casa and the tour was done. We bought some internet time off a guy on the street and then it was nap time.

At about 4:15 we headed out to walk the streets of crumbling Centro Habana. It was a mix of fruit sellers, vacant and overgrown old buildings and old men playing dominoes in the street. The photos are at the end of this post — click on them to see a larger version. By sunset we were back on the Malecon, the seawall sidewalk, otherwise known as Havana’s living room. You could pop into a bodega for a carryout beer, walk until it was finished and then pop into the next bodega for another one. Good times.

We had a surreal moment when we came across a large boat in a glass case, surrounded by guards, a couple of tanks and some jeeps. The boat was the Granma, the vessel that brought Guevara, Castro and 80 other revolutionaries across the gulf from Mexico to launch their historic uprising.

Dinner was at a place called Van Van in Old Havana. The Cuba Libres were flowing freely and band was great. We both ordered the Ropa Vieja (old clothes), the national dish. It’s shredded beef with onions and peppers in a tomato-based sauce. I wasn’t expecting much, but this was great – certainly better than the seafood the night before.

After a nightcap daiquiri at Floridita, we were back to the casa by 11 again. Quite the full day.

The view from the balcony of my room in Havana.

The view from the balcony of my room in Havana.

Lots of convertibles around too.

Lots of convertibles around too.

Hanging out with Che in Revolution Plaza.

Hanging out with Che in Revolution Plaza.

View of Old Havana and Vedado from across the bay.

View of Old Havana and Vedado from across the bay.

The driver's view.

The driver’s view.

The classic cars were everywhere in Havana.

The classic cars were everywhere in Havana.

The Cuban flag atop of building on one of Havana's city plazas.

The Cuban flag atop of building on one of Havana’s city plazas.

Inside the 1951 Chevy with our driver and guide for city tour of Havana.

Inside the 1951 Chevy with our driver and guide for city tour of Havana.

The entrance to the University of Havana. Our second casa in Havana was just a block from here.

The entrance to the University of Havana. Our second casa in Havana was just a block from here.

This is something called Pan con Lechon. Essentially a sandwich of roasted pork. For a dollar.

This is something called Pan con Lechon. Essentially a sandwich of roasted pork. For a dollar.

There's no roof up there. Centro Havana.

There’s no roof up there. Centro Havana.

A hard way to make a living.

A hard way to make a living.

The sight of crumbling buildings in Centro Havana was quite common.

The sight of crumbling buildings in Centro Havana was quite common.

Men playing dominoes on a street in Centro Havana. They were super fast.

Men playing dominoes on a street in Centro Havana. They were super fast.

Just walking her dog and shopping at the fruit cart on a street in Old Havana.

Just walking her dog and shopping at the fruit cart on a street in Old Havana.

Common street scene.

Common street scene.

You know a building has been maintained when trees are growing out of it. This is just across from our casa in Havana.

You know a building has been maintained when trees are growing out of it. This is just across from our casa in Havana.

Street art in Havana.

Street art in Havana.

One of the older classic cars we saw,

One of the older classic cars we saw,

More from Centro Havana.

More from Centro Havana.

Centro Havana,

Centro Havana,

Food seller walking along the Malecon in Havana.

Food seller walking along the Malecon in Havana.

Looking into the clear waters over the seawall in Havana.

Looking into the clear waters over the seawall in Havana.

Opposite the Malecon, Elvis is watching.

Opposite the Malecon, Elvis is watching.

A fisherman casts from the seawall in Havana.

A fisherman casts from the seawall in Havana.

Grabbing a quick beer at a patio bar along the Malecon.

Grabbing a quick beer at a patio bar along the Malecon.

Using a little lime, the national cola (no Coke here) and yummy Cuban rum, the Cuba Libras were spectacular in Havana.

Using a little lime, the national cola (no Coke here) and yummy Cuban rum, the Cuba Libras were spectacular in Havana.

This is the national dish, called Ropa Vieja. It's shredded beef and peppers in a tomato-based sauce. We liked it so much we had it twice at the same restaurant -- Van Van -- in old Havana.

This is the national dish, called Ropa Vieja. It’s shredded beef and peppers in a tomato-based sauce. We liked it so much we had it twice at the same restaurant — Van Van — in old Havana.

I was not expecting to see this late on a night out in Old Havana. Behind the glass is the Granma, the yacht Fidel Castro used to land in Cuba to launch the revolution in 1956.

I was not expecting to see this late on a night out in Old Havana. Behind the glass is the Granma, the yacht Fidel Castro used to land in Cuba to launch the revolution in 1956.

Day 1 in Cuba: Traveling to and spending first night in Havana

22 Jan

Just walking her dog and shopping at the fruit cart on a street in Old Havana.

Just walking her dog and shopping at the fruit cart on a street in Old Havana.



Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the post for more photos with captions.

Alaska Airlines’ new route from Seattle to Havana goes by way of LAX and leaves at 5 a.m. Gulp! I got up at 2:30 a.m. Reminded me of my days working at a PM newspaper 20 years ago.

I used a new way to get to the airport because the trains and buses don’t run at that hour. I grabbed a Car2Go that was a block away from my place, drove to the airpart and parked at a new C2G parking area in a WallyPark garage. A shuttle then takes you to the terminal. C2G cost: about $16. Beats the hell out of a $45 cab ride.

Flight down to Los Angeles was uneventful. My friend Jeff had flown to LA the night before, and was coming to join me at the gate for the Havana leg. The great news? We were nos. 3 & 4 on the upgrade list out of 13, and there were six unsold first-class seats. Front row, baby! Cocktails, beer and wine at our beck and call. It was a fun flight. The crew was awesome. Total time in the air: 4 hours, 8 minutes.

We landed at Jose Marti airport’s terminal 2, using steps to get out of the plane. At this point something unusual happened: We had to wait for 20 people from the back of the plane to get off first to keep the plane from tipping over. Apparently at US airports they have equipment to keep this from being an issue.

Inside, we waited in a couple of relatively short lines to have our passports checked and our bags scanned. Once outside of customs, it was chaos, with taxi touts and general confusion on our part because we couldn’t find the currency exchange. Some guy finally led us there, where we waited in yet another line.

We had brought Canadian dollars and Euros to avoid the 10% tax on US dollars. US cards do not work in Cuban ATMs. But they would only change a single 100-dollar bill, saying we needed to change the rest “in the city.” That gave us 71.50 in Cuban convertible pesos each, and the pesos are on par with US dollar. We could pay for the cab into town and dinner and drinks, but we would not be able to pay the host at the casa we were staying at.

The cab ride in was 30 pesos and took about a half hour. The cab driver had a baseball game on the radio – the country’s championship series is happening.

We arrived about 30 minutes early to the building where were staying, so I talked Jeff into walking to the main street to see if we could change money. But places were closed. Back at the casa, we lugged our bags up four flights of stairs, which was unexpected. Oh well.

Our host, Fanny, and her husband, Freddy, were there, along with their daughter Isabel. Fanny was a hoot, spending a half hour showing us around the place and to our rooms, making sure we had everything we needed. This would be our home for four nights, at $35 a night. The rooms were spartan, but had small balconys and AC. And a big breakfast would be prepared for us each morning.

Now, not only did Fanny not need to be paid until the end of our stay, she offered to loan us money!

I had emailed ahead to have her make a reservation for us at one of the more highly rated restaurants in town, Habana 61, in old Havana, maybe seven minutes’ walk from our casa. We wandered around exploring a bit before arriving there, enjoying a nice breeze coming off the water. It was slightly muggy, but it certainly wasn’t hot or muggy enough to make it uncomfortable.

The architecture was amazing. In its glory days, Havana must have been amazing. Now, after years of neglect, each street has its share of gutted, crumbling monuments to a better time. But if you look deeper, there’s lots of beauty to find in wrinkly, weathered faces. Stories to tell.

Dinner was fine: Jeff had lobster and I had shrimp in a traditional Cuban sauce. With rice and beans, of course. I had been warned not to expect tasty food. The lobster was overcooked a bit and otherwise things were slightly on the bland side. But overall it was pretty good. The bill including two drinks each totaled $42. Pretty high for here.

After dinner we wandered a bit, ultimately going to the Floridita, famous for inventing the daquiri. After we’d been there a few minutes, I noticed a familiar face sitting down at a table behind us: It was the crew from our flight on Alaska and they recognized us. It was hilarious. They have a 24-hour layover before flying back to LA.

And we were back to the casa by 11.

Click on the photos below to see the larger versions.

Me, with the crew of our Alaska flight to Havana behind me.

Me, with the crew of our Alaska flight to Havana behind me.

Hemingway's favorite bar in Havana, the Floridita, the creator of the daquiri.

Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana, the Floridita, the creator of the daquiri.

The beautiful Gran Teatro in Havana.

The beautiful Gran Teatro in Havana.

Southwest U.S. road trip/Las Vegas

16 Mar

There are three places on my bucket list of U.S. places to visit:
– New Orleans
– The Grand Canyon
– Austin, Texas

So I decided to take a road trip to knock two of those off the list (Nahlins will have to wait.)  The trip started and ended in Las Vegas, because that’s where I had planned to spend four days hanging with some buddies there — a thing we do every spring and fall.

Here’s how the trip went down:

Monday, Feb. 29:

I took an afternoon flight to Vegas and picked up my rental car: a red Camaro convertible. They had a special on them, so what the hell. Fighting rush-hour Vegas traffic, I drove northeast to southern Utah, checking into a Rodeway Inn in Hurricane.

Tuesday, March 1:

Got up early and made the 30-minute drive to the entrance of Zion National Park. Spent a couple of hours driving through the park, enjoying the scenery and the power of the Camaro. 🙂

It took a couple of hours to get from Zion to Bryce Canyon national park. The pics are from a great — but taxing — hike in the canyon. As you can see, it’s still winter up there.

I made it all the way to Page, Ariz., that evening, stopping along the way at Glen Canyon Dam. It was another Rodeway Inn for me. But you can’t beat $43 including tax.

carzion

My wheels, from inside Zion.

Brycehike

From the rim of Bryce Canyon.

brycehike2

From down inside Bryce Canyon.

brycehikesnow

North-facing slopes in Bryce still had plenty of snow.

Wednesday, March 2:

Got up early enough to catch the sunrise at Horseshoe Bend, a few miles south of Page. From there it was on the Grand Canyon via the east entrance. It was a perfect day. I hiked about 3 miles of the rim trail.

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