Sunday, January 24, 2016

Viñales, Cuba

I believe the national pastime in Viñales is sitting on your stoop, in a rocking chair, watching rural life go by. Thus, every residence in town is equipped with a wide porch and at least two such chairs, painted to match the house of course. It’s a seductively peaceful place, the silence only interrupted by the occasional rooster squawk or horse hooves clamoring down the dirt road. While many tourists bus in from Havana on a daytrip, it’s well worth taking a few days to take in the scenery, tour a tobacco farm or two and (in between rains) catch a golden sunset over the lush plantations.

For photos of our four days in Viñales, click HERE.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rain Rain, Here to Stay?

Traveling is often sunshine and kittens and rainbows. Other times, it’s torrential downpours and dangerously close lightening strikes and thunder so loud you have to plug your ears to protect them from the deafening outbursts. Sometimes a particularly aggressive El Niño brings in unseasonably heavy and constant rains, and your days are spent playing cards and wondering if you should brave the storm or wait it out.

The Travel Gods have looked out for us, and kept the skies clear when it mattered most. Our horseback ride was perfect. Our walking tour of Havana, just grand. Our beach bar hopping day in Tulum, magnificent. But today, we hunker down in our bamboo hut on a tobacco farm in Viñales, and try to count how many dry days we’ve had since we left California nearly two weeks ago.

We keep reminding one another how much more upsetting it would be if this was our annual vacation. Waiting for the clouds to pass, so we can enjoy ourselves before heading back to work for the next 50 weeks. Which makes us so deeply grateful for the opportunity to freelance. For the ability to travel at a leisurely pace in between jobs. For the luxury of listening the storm’s symphony outside, with nowhere to be until, well, whenever.

However right now, we’d be even more grateful for some sunshine!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

When in Cuba...

The Pinar del Río province is considered to be the finest tobacco-growing region in all of Cuba. And since the country is known to produce the best tobacco in the world… well… the cigars here are pretty darn special.

We're not big cigar smokers. But hey, when in Rome. So we opted to partake in this quintessential Cuban experience the way any self-respecting tourist would - at the source, and on horseback of course.

A horseback riding tour is pretty much the highlight of any visit to this region. Lush plantations backed by stunning mogotes - it's a landscape best appreciated slowly. Our guide spoke little English, but I practiced my Spanish while riding alongside him, learning all I could about the area and its produce. We explored local caves. We trudged through mud up to our horses' chests from recent rains. We visited a farm and got in on the cigar producing action.

Turns out, you won’t find any modern machinery on these tobacco plantations. Farmers have been harvesting the crop by hand using natural fertilizers for centuries.

Also, local farmers only get to keep 10% of the harvest they grow. The other 90% goes to the government, whose factories churn out the name brand cigars that are exported around the world.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. Those small remaining batches are processed using what the farmers have on hand - namely fruit, sugar cane and rum - rather than the chemicals used in the factories. They remove the stem from every leaf, where most of the nicotine is found, resulting in a more smooth and pleasant flavor. They gather, fold and roll each bunch of leaves by hand. And, just before smoking, coat the tip in sweet local honey.

Incidentally, they mix the same honey with strong rum and citrus fruits for you to enjoy during your tour. We enjoyed the welcome beverage, and we're sure it doesn't hurt their cigar sales either. But, at $3 each, how could we not bring a few home? Salud!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Havana is a history-buff's treasure, a music-junkie's heaven, and a photography-lover's dream. For photos of our four days spent exploring Cuba's capital, click HERE.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


It’s the name of the game in Cuba. Waiting for bus tickets. To exchange money. For peso pizza. To purchase an internet card. It takes a minimum of an hour to get anything done in this country. Usually two. I read about this phenomenon before we came, but seeing it in action is really something. I don’t know what it is about their process that makes it move so slowly, but a quick trip to the bank on your lunch break is simply not a thing here.

This game is particularly confusing for visitors, cause the rules look nothing like they do at home. Rather than queue up in a fashion that resembles anything orderly, folks just stand around haphazardly. Ignorantly, we stood around too, asking meekly of anybody who’s eye we could catch, “Um… are you in line?” Followed by blank stares or shrugs.

Shame on us for not learning the name for “line” in Spanish, though as it turns out, they probably still wouldn’t have understood. Cause there is no “line” as we know it. Rather, the process is this:

- Approach the group and yell “Ultimo!” 

- The last person “in line” must then raise his or her hand, informing you that they arrived just before you. This is particularly challenging when the group is comprised of several dozen people, all caught up in conversation with their companions. “Um, hola? Ultimo? Senora? Ultimo? No? Usted? Pardon? ULTIMO?!!” 

- Once you locate the right person, you just gotta watch them like a hawk, taking your turn whenever they finish. 

- Now, if this person leaves, say, after an exasperating hour with no forward progression (a common occurrence, we’ve learned), they must catch your eye, let you know they are throwing in the towel, and point out the person who is ahead of them – your new target.

The best part about this little dance is how smug you get to act when the next tourist arrives and scratches his head in confusion. Especially when you’re at a bank and no less than 60 people are sitting in the waiting area, and a gringo walks in and goes straight to the next available teller. You should see the reaction! Boy that’s a hoot. Not that we’ve ever done that, of course.