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.


Monday, January 18, 2016

13 Things to Love About Havana

Havana. The throbbing heartbeat and complex capital of Cuba. A city frozen in time, but not forgotten. Different than any other destination I've ever experienced. And place I urge you to visit, before the recent embargo lift changes the face of it forever. Here are just a few things to love about La Habana.

The Music

Salsa, rumba, reggae, son, jazz, cha-cha, you name it. You can't turn a corner in Cuba without getting hit by an infectious Afro-Caribbean beat. And forget stereos - In Havana it's go live, or go home. No matter how small the venue, the talent is huge.

The Dancing

With great music, of course, comes some serious dancing. In Havana it doesn't matter if you're young or old, male or female, have rhythm or don't. Everybody here dances - with reckless, unselfconscious abandon. Don't be afraid to let loose and leave your inhibitions at the door. A few mojitos always help. Which leads me to...

The Mojitos

What do rum, mint, and sugar cane have in common? They taste delicious together! Don't even try to keep track of how many you consume in Havana. It's been proven to be scientifically impossible.

The Malecón

Before (or after!) the music, dancing and mojitos - take a walk down the Malecón. This 8k seafront boulevard is the center of the action on weekend evenings, when seemingly all of Havana comes out to socialize and stroll.

The Casa Particulares

Forget the run-down, soviet-era government hotels and opt to stay in casa particulares (rooms for rent in people's homes). Not only is it very affordable (about $25-35/night), but it also gives you an opportunity to interact with locals. For an extra few bucks, you can even enjoy a home cooked breakfast or dinner.

The Paladores

Speaking of home cooked meals, paladores are also the way to go (private restaurants run out of local's houses). Whether it's a few chairs in someone's living room, or a full restaurant set-up in a converted garage, home-cooking beats the government run restaurants any day.

The Cars

You can't picture Cuba without the image of a classic car in your mind. Due to the decades-long embargo and communist regime, it's been a LONG time since they've imported any new vehicles. So they keep what they've got running, by whatever means necessary. Visiting the country is like being transported in time, especially when you experience the joy of riding around town in one of these beauties.

The Baseball

Perhaps the only thing as iconic as the cars in Cuba, is baseball. More than the national pastime, this sport is the passion of Habaneros young and old. They love it so much, they don't even serve food and booze at the stadium (lord knows, I only attend sporting events for the hot dogs and beer)! If you find yourself there during baseball season, don't miss your chance to share in the excitement.

The Plazas

Every city in Cuba has no less than one great plaza, and Havana is no exception. Scan your map for the many squares, and make sure to check a few off your to-do list. From open air cafes to green shady parks to gathering spots for old men playing chess - each plaza has it's own unique vibe to keep you entertained.

The Coffee

If there is one thing Cubans know how to do well (besides dance, perform and play baseball), it's make coffee. Rich, fragrant, with a hint of sweetness. There is no better way to begin your day in Havana than sitting in your favorite plaza, enjoying a strong cup of Cuba's finest.

The Peso Pizza

If you're in the mood for a gut-busting bomb of carbs and cheese, peek your head into any street side stall for one of these greasy treats. Less than a buck gets you your choice of toppings on a chewy, doughy personal pie. Warning: Once you've had a few, you will never want to see one again.

The Rum

It's cheap. It's tasty. And it'll put you in a real good mood. No joke, a shot of the local stuff will cost as little as 25 cents in a bar. A whole bottle from the store? Two bucks. Of course an increase in quality also means an increase in price. But no matter what your tastes are, Havana Club has an intoxicating bargain with your name on it.

The Streets

Habaneros live life in the open. At all hours, the streets are bustling - folks walking and talking with one another, gathering on their stoops or gossiping through their open windows. The energy is palpable. For the best taste of life in Havana, just hit the streets on foot and join the fun.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bootleg Beef

There I was. Sweating in a claustrophobic bathroom stall of Mexico’s Cancun airport. Fluorescent lights buzzing harshly overhead. My and Reece’s bags spread open on the dirty floor in front of me as I hastily searched for good hiding places. Having watched enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad, I reasoned that if we got caught, I might get into less trouble if I had fewer packages on me. So with sweaty palms, I rushed open each plastic baggie and condensed my contraband into fewer packages. Glancing up occasionally to make sure there weren’t any cameras on me. As a seasoned traveler, this is a position I never thought I’d find myself in. And I surely couldn’t have expected that the contents I’d be smuggling, would be beef jerky.

Not just any beef jerky, you see. My mom’s special, home made, better than any you’ve ever tasted beef jerky. The kind she lovingly prepares for me before every trip, for as long as I’ve been taking them. We’ve shared it with strangers at Burning Man. A mouse chewed through my backpack to get a taste of it in Paris. It’s held us over in between meals on the Inca Trail. No journey is complete without it.

While prepping for our most recent adventure, we were told that snacks are hard to come by in Cuba. To bring as many dry goods as you can squeeze into your bag, for nourishment in a land lacking convenience stores. For this uncharted territory, we’d need EXTRA beef jerky. And granola bars, dark chocolate and peanut butter. Our tiny carry on luggage was stuffed to the brim with rations for the next six weeks. For this trip, we would be prepared.

Imagine my horror as our flight from LA began its final descent, and the attendant announced, “Make sure to dispose of ALL FOOD before you de-plane. Eat everything you have now, as you CANNOT take food into Mexico. If you try, you WILL get in trouble. I repeat, DO NOT TAKE ANY FOOD OFF THE PLANE.”

Um. Excuse me? WHAT?! I shot a panicked look at Reece. What do we do??

“Well, I guess we’ll show it to the customs official and ask if we can keep it,” he suggested.


This stash was far too valuable. Visions of my mom’s hard work in the garbage flashed in my head. $20 worth of Cliff bars, trashed. It was too much to bear. Customs officials be damned. I wasn’t going to say a word.

Reece had already ticked the “no” box on the declaration form asking if we had any “animal products”. See, it’s easy to accidentally overlook some innocent snacks! I’m sorry officer! I thought it was referring to fresh meat, not dried! I was thinking of perishable food products! My bad! How many borders have I crossed in the world with food on me, I rationalized. Most of the time they just wave you through without even looking at your bag. I read that in Cancun you simply push a button as you pass – green light go ahead, red light stop for a search – what are they chances we’d even get stopped?? Reece was clearly less comfortable with this plan than I was, so I moved everything into my bag and was prepared to take the fall. Anyway, I’m better at playing dumb than he is.

So I’m confidently strolling up to the customs line. I got this. Until I notice… They are putting every single bag through an X-ray machine. This, I was not expecting. SHIT. I glance around for an exit strategy but we’ve come too far. Too many eyes are on us. We're surrounded. There is no way to go but ahead. I place my precious pack carefully on the conveyor belt, heart pounding as I watch it disappear into the dreaded machine. And then. It stops. Along with my heart. The customs agent leans into the screen to take a closer look. This is it. I’m sorry Reece. Tell my family I loved them!

We continue a few steps forward and I do my best impression of “calm” as time creeps by in slow motion. Then suddenly – whrrrr – the machine kicks back into gear. My bag reappears triumphantly out the other side. I avoid eye contact as I snatch it from the belt and keep walking, head down, towards freedom. And that’s when we met THE BUTTON. We’ve come this far. Good Lord don’t stop us now!

Each person in line gives it a whack. Green. Green. Green. Green. Green. I watch in agony as our changes of hitting a red grow stronger. Green. Green. Green. We approach, Reece hold his arm out and I hold my breath… GREEN! I couldn’t have gotten through those sliding glass doors quick enough. WE MADE IT.

Outside and securely in our hotel shuttle, the hunger kicked in, and Reece asked for a piece of the goods. “But wait,” he cautioned, “until we pull away.”

“Haha. What, do you think customs is gonna rush out and surround the car, guns drawn, and take our beef??” I laughed at his paranoia. Don’t worry my dear. You’re with a professional.