Category Archives: Travel

A Walk Through Cementerio Cristobal Colón

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Cementerio Cristobal Colón was built from 1871-1886. Spanish architect Calixto de Loira based the design on a Roman military camp. The cemetery is a final resting place for many notable people in Cuban history and culture such as  Alejo Carpentier who was novelist and one of the first writers of magical realism, and Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I spent an entire afternoon wandering through 140 acres of the mausoleums and family vaults, many of which looked like ornate castles to the dead. Many may find cemeteries a bit spooky and macabre, but it is a relaxing place for those who want to go on a quiet stroll. Here you will find that the graves are designed in a wide range of styles, such as neoclassical, Art Deco and baroque. My favorite details from the cemetery are the facial expressions and gestures of the statues. Maybe you’ll get inspired to design your own home for the afterlife.

Entrance is 5 CUC, and the security guards are friendly and helpful if you get lost. The cemetery is located between Calle Zapata and Calle 12, and is open everyday between 8AM-5PM.

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El Nicho, Jewel of The Sierra Escambray

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El Nicho is a waterfall located in Cienfuegos Province, or “La Perla del Sur” about 250 km south of Havana. Nestled high up in the Sierra Escambray mountains, it is a two hour drive filled with various twists and turns. I shared a taxi with two other people. It came out to 40 CUC for all three of us to and from El Nicho.  The entrance fee into El Nicho is 9CUC.

I wish I remembered our driver’s name because he went above and beyond the call of duty. He made little stops where we picked guavas and coffee beans, and stopped at a little pueblo where we bought sandwiches for lunch. He is also a big fan of CSI and other suspenseful detective shows.

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El Nicho is an easy, short hike with great views of the Río Habanilla and naturaleza cubana, and a great place to swim.

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Cuba for Cheapskates

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Travel restrictions to Cuba are now a bit more relaxed for those of us residing in Gringolandia. Yet, if you are a U.S. citizen, your trip must fall under a list of 12 categories if you want to travel the legal way.   The following are some tips and things I learned from my trip.

Plan Before you Leave

I am no stranger to traveling solo in Latin America, but I started researching and planning my trip to Cuba at least two months before I actually arrived. In previous backpacking trips, I looked at maps, decided which cities I wanted to visit, boarded a plane or a bus and looked for a place to stay. Yes, my lack of foresight may lower your opinion of me, but in my defense, it was a great time. I never made any reservations at a hostel, and cheap yet delicious street food was readily available. Cuba is a different story. If you go without doing your research, you might find yourself in a tough situation when it comes to money, supplies and cultural norms. With that said, if you speak little to no Spanish you are at a great disadvantage. Many Cubans speak English, but you will most likely be overcharged for food.

Remember that because of the embargo anything you can easily buy at Rite Aid may not be readily available in Cuba. Pack everything you think that you might need: antacids, soap, pain killers, toothpaste, lotion etc. Anyone on special diets should pack non-perishable food.

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Flights

At the time, direct flights were not leaving out of Los Angeles, so I flew from Mexico City to  Havana on Cubana de Aviación. Cubana has recieved mixed reviews about trip cancellations and delays, but both of my flights to and from Cuba were without incident and I would fly Cubana again. Cubana is owned by the Cuban government and has been in operation for over 80 years. On both flights, the cabin crew served ham sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, so if you are expecting fancy service with a smile and in-flight entertainment, maybe it is best to book flights elsewhere. The aircraft itself is pretty up to date. The flight from Mexico City was on an Airbus, while the flight from Cuba was on a Russian Tupolev which was exciting because of the white smoke coming out of the plane’s air conditioning system. The smoke happens because of Cuba’s high humidity, and stopped after take-off.

Before boarding your flight to Cuba, you will have to buy a tourist visa for $25 at the airline check-in counter. Your tourist visa is a slip of paper that is stamped before you are able to roam about the country. I took good care not to lose it, so good luck if you lose yours. I do not know what will happen to you.

After arriving in Havana, expect to pay about 20 CUC for a taxi from the airport.

Money and Currency

Forget about using American Express or debit cards issued by banks in the United States because in Cuba they will not work. All the money you will need while in Cuba must be brought in cash. Let that sink in for a moment. It would really suck if you show up with just your credit cards to find that you are stranded without a way to pay for basic necessities. Book your reservations at the hotel or casa particular before your trip, and research entrance fees for any national parks and museums that you plan on visiting so that you can create a budget.

Now is your time to get creative with hiding your money. I admit, I had some anxiety over carrying all the cash I needed for my trip for 10 whole days, but I made full use of my money belt by strapping it around my thigh. Before I left the States, I found these useful pair of underwear with hidden pockets that are the perfect size for a passport, credit card and cash. I used them as shorts to go under my skirts.

Cuba has two currencies: the peso cubano (CUP), which is used mainly by the Cubans, and the peso convertible (CUC), which is used by tourists. You will pay for most things using the peso convertible, but it is wise to change some of your CUC for pesos cubanos, that way you will be able to take public transportation and buy street food which is way cheaper than riding in taxis or eating at touristy restaurants. At the time of my trip, 1 US Dollar was equal to 1 CUC, and 1 CUC was about 25 CUP.  Remember that exchanging US currency carries an extra 10% tax, so it is best to change your money into Euros. Here is a useful website with everything you need to know about Cuban currency. Euros have the best exchange rate, with US dollars having the worst. US currency has a 10% penalty when changing money in Cuba. There are exchange houses called CADECAs all over Cuba.

Where to Stay

There is no shortage of hotels in Cuba, but if you want to hang out with the locals, a casa particular is the way to go. They are also cheaper than a night in a hotel. Casa particulares are owned and operated by Cuban families who have a license from the government to rent out rooms in their homes. They usually have a blue anchor symbol hanging outside of their entrance. Since I went in September in the middle of hurricane season, I paid 20 CUC per night. The price often includes breakfast, and your hosts will have the inside scoop on the cheapest places to eat and what to see. The concept of youth hostels where a bunch of people share a dorm style room does not exist in Cuba, but if you meet travel buddies, you can split the cost of a room in a casa particular.

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Food

Cuba is not a foodie destination. If you are a vegetarian, you will have a hard time, but you can survive off of rice and beans.  Restaurants in touristy areas offer expensive but not very good food. Ham and cheese sandwiches are readily available, and if you walk around, you can usually find someone selling fresh mango juice. Family run restaurants called paladares are great options for delicious homemade Cuban fare, and you will usually be eating in the living room of someone’s house. Paladar comes from a Brazilian telenovela about a woman who runs a restuarant. I highly recommend El Helecho in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. It’s a cute little house decorated with delicate porcelain knick knacks, ferns (hence the name), and the ropa vieja is para chuparse los dedos. 

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Menu for a sandwich stand in El Vedado

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Interior of El Helecho

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I don’t remember what street this was one, but this man hooked it up with a slab of ham cooked in garlic and various other delicious tidbits with a side of salsa picante.

Internet 

I know a lot of you like to post selfies on Instagram, but you’ll have to give it a rest in Cuba. It’s great to take a break from the web, but you’ll also want to send a quick email to let the folks back home know you’re safe. Most homes do not have free WiFi, but your casa host can point you to the nearest ETECSA office, which sells internet cards that you scratch off to reveal a WiFi password. In most major plazas around Cuba, you will find groups of people typing away on their laptops or Skyping on their tablets. These cost 2CUC, but make sure to go early, because people buy multiple cards to sell on the black market for higher prices.  Internet is also available at some hotels, but it is more expensive and the connection is slower. Please note that lines do not exist in Cuba. Instead, you will see crowds of people in no particular order waiting their turn. Instead, ask someone “¿Quien fue el último?” or “who was last?”

Returning to the States

I traveled without a license and was stopped by a U.S. immigration officer  when I returned to the States. Noticing that I only had Mexico stamped in my passport, he asked if I had been anywhere else, so I spilled the beans. He let me go after emptying out my backpack and questioning me about my trip.

There you have it. If you have any questions, let me know so I can update this post with that information.

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De México a la Habana

When Obama announced that he was easing travel restrictions to Cuba, I figured I better hop on a plane fast before all the gringos rush over with their Hawaiian print shirts and snotty children. I went to Cuba by way of Mexico City, but I got a taste of Cuba before even landing in Cuba. I arrived early for my 6AM flight to Havana with legañas and sleep still heavy on my eyelids. I had gone three nights straight of dancing salsa and kizomba in Mexico City, and didn’t get any sleep the night before my flight. It was too early for fluorescent lighting, so most of the check-in area was dark. There was a group of Cubans waiting near the Cubana de Aviación ticket counter with luggage, and giant bundles and boxes wrapped in plastic. There were tires stacked on luggage dollies, and people resting on air conditioners and trash bags bulging with clothes. They were bringing items that are hard to find in Cuba because of the embargo. I only brought two backpacks; one with wheels that I used as a nerd in high school, and a smaller one used as a carry on. I was obviously out of place. At that time, I was also the only foreigner waiting in line for a tourist visa to Cuba, which are purchased right next to the check-in counter.

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“Excuse me, amiga, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” said this man, who obviously picked up on my extranjera-ness. He was short and wearing a button down shirt. He didn’t look threatening. “You see it’s hard for us to find a lot of stuff por temas del bloqueo, and I was wondering if you could check in some of my stuff with your luggage. I’ll even show you what’s inside my case.”

 “I understand, but I don’t feel comfortable,” I said.

 “Okay,” he said. “Piensalo. I’ll come back later to make sure.”

 The man left, and came back again a few minutes later. The counter still hadn’t opened for check-in, and there still wasn’t anybody selling tourist visas.

 “¿Te vas a Cuba sola?” he asked.

“No, I’m meeting a friend there,” I lied. At first I hoped that maybe he had forgotten about his luggage scheme and was just trying to make small talk.

“Cuba doesn’t have food that you Mexicans are used to,” he said. “I hope you brought your tortillas and salsa picante.”

“Of course,” I replied.

Amiga, listen, I can introduce you to my friends, they’re on the same flight. Your maleta isn’t even that big. You won’t get in trouble, I promise.” He pointed to two women chatting who didn’t even take any notice of him.

“No. Lo siento,” I said. I gave a smile as if to say, “Don’t take it personal, bro.”

He left. A this point I sat down on one backpack on the airport floor, and positioned my high school nerd backpack under my head. Of course, I didn’t fall asleep because I didn’t want some weirdo to slip my money and passport out of my purse. I tried to find WiFi with my cell phone and took inventory of the foreign otherness I was giving off. My biggest mistake was wearing black MC Hammer pants. The other women were dressed and ready to fly from Mexico City’s crisp high altitude and into Havana’s heat and humidity with beaded leather sandals and bright colored dresses or dark skinny jeans. They also wore neatly applied eyeliner while I had lazily brushed teeth and a messy ponytail. For early morning flights, I am unfortunately a shoe-in for the show What Not to Wear. The man came back.

Amiga, do you already have a plan of what you want to see in Cuba?”

“Yes,” I said. I was thinking, “Great, now this viejo wants to sell me a tour package.”

You can’t miss Viñales, and Varadero is a beautiful beach,” he said.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” I said.

“I’m friends with security, so it wouldn’t be a problem for you to carry my stuff.”

I rolled my eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. I didn’t want to come off as another insensitive foreigner, but it was time for me to sacar pecho and be assertive.

Señor, I already said no. I’m not taking anything that belongs to you.”

He smiled, thanked me, and walked away. The visa line finally opened, and I was the first foreigner there, so I paid my 25USD and checked in my nerdy backpack. Behind me was a priest, who tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I was in line for a tourist visa as well, and a married couple who spoke neither Spanish or English.

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When it was time to board my flight, I didn’t see the man who wanted me to hold his stuff. After takeoff, I managed about an hour of sleep. Another hour later the plane began its descent into what looked like an emerald surrounded by water.

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Moving On Out

And not exactly sure if I’ve been movin’ on up, you know, like The Jeffersons, but so far the new living situation is working out fine. I live in the center of Córdoba with Hernan and Chris, who I met while on my National Lampoon-esque South American adventure. I’ve been job searching and in the meantime teaching English as a private instructor. Also, since I’m only 24, I’ve got a few folks shaking their head at me leaving Los Angeles without having a job. Hey, I’ve tried, and can honestly say I busted my balls back in the States job hunting, but didn’t have any luck. I’ll look forward to you reading my posts.

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