Las Vegas: The Amazing Human Hamster Cage

Last week, I officially turned into an adult; I went on my first business trip. This also meant going to Las Vegas for the first time. I wasn’t originally going to write about this trip since I spent a significant amount of time in various conference rooms learning about an HRIS software system, but Vegas absolutely exceeded my expectations and boggled my mind. I didn’t even take my journal with me on the trip, but my mind is still spinning, so I feel like writing about my experience will be therapeutic and help me get my thoughts in order.

First off, I have to admit that my expectations for Vegas weren’t that high. I don’t gamble or drink heavily, and I have never found myself fancying a stripper, so I didn’t know if Las Vegas was going to have anything to offer me besides some new business insight and a bunch of neon lights, but I turned out to be very wrong. My company put me up in The Cosmopolitan, which is actually one of the nicest hotels on the strip. I usually travel cheap, which means hostels and Airbnbs, not swanky hotels, so I was a little freaked out when I read the sign on the door stating “must wear appropriate attire to entire.” I spent a brief moment worrying that I wasn’t dressed right in my joggers and jean jacket, until I looked around and realized that the sign just meant “don’t wear your bathing suit in the hotel lobby.”

My love for Vegas grew instantly, however, when I opened the door to my hotel suite. The nice man that checked me in had an accent, so I thought I heard him say he had upgraded me to a 1200 sq ft. suite, but I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant until I saw it, because, again, I like to travel, so I live in a 200 sq. ft. apartment to be able to afford to do it. I inserted my door key entered into a hall of mirrors that lead to the first of two bathrooms, a kitchen with fully stocked mini bar, a large desk, a sitting area, and then into my favorite part, the bedroom and second bathroom. I was on the 51st floor and had a wrap around balcony that overlooked the strip on one side and the mountains on the other. I was in heaven and my company was paying for it.

FullSizeRender (13)

After skipping around my new digs literally squealing with glee and giving my boyfriend a quick Face Time tour of my suite, I remembered that for once in my life I was being affected by jet lag and decided the best move would be to stay in my little hotel paradise for the rest of the night. So I ordered room service, filled up the marble bathtub to the brim, and ate my turkey sandwich and French fries while I had a good soak, just like a queen.

The next morning I woke up at 7 (thanks jet lag) and after enjoying the early morning view of Vegas from my balcony, decided to seize the day and catch up on work emails. The conference I was attending didn’t start until 4, so I made use of the resort gym and set out to find something delicious for brunch. What I discovered has literally changed my life; its called “Bee Bread” and you can get it at place called The Juice Standard located on the 2nd floor of The Cosmopolitan. Its pretty basic ingredients; a piece of multi-grain toast, their homemade cashew walnut butter topped with a banana, seed granola and drizzled with honey, but it is one of the best things I have ever eaten. I had it for breakfast every day in Las Vegas, and would literally count down the hours until morning when I could have it again. In fact, it was so good that I immediately bought ingredients to make my own version when I got home, sadly it doesn’t compare to the real thing. But that just means there is a good chance I will go back to Vegas just to get my Bee Bread again.

IMG_2155

My View

Anyways, I digress, I could probably write a whole post just on the food, but back to my wonderful time in Vegas. After lunch I thought I would maximize my free time and the sunshine and headed down to the resort pool. This is a key selling point of Vegas for me; the idea that you can lay around the pool in mid-March is ideal. So ideal, in fact, that I decided to skip the first day of the conference and stay until the pool closed down at 6. This was a magnificent idea, and I don’t regret it one bit. I do, however, regret briefly forgetting the magic powers of the sun and what it does to pale skin. Needless to say, I got roasted and immediately regretted not wearing more sunscreen.

FullSizeRender (8)

Me, blissfully niave before the instant regret sank in

That night the front of my body slowly got redder and redder, and I had to scrounge through my limited wardrobe to find clothes that would cover me up to my neck in order to hid my burns and my embarrassment. I had dinner at Beauty and Essex, which turned out to be some of my least favorite food in Vegas. The food was served tapas style, which admittedly is not the best for single diners, but it was busy, which meant one of my orders got lost and the set up seemed more like a banquet hall. I ordered the tomato tartar, barbeque French fries, brussel sprouts and chicken arepas. The only things I might get again were the French fries or the tartar.

The next morning I woke up feeling like I had let Vegas get the best of me, namely that I had knocked off my responsibilities and laid out in the sun too long. This made it a lot easier to spend most of the day indoors at the conference. Wednesday redeemed itself, however, with dinner. I had a reservation I had been looking forward to at Bardot Brasserie, a French style restaurant located in the Aria Resort. It did not disappoint, the food was wonderful. I order the roast chicken with a side of truffle fries and the world’s best butter. I figured if I didn’t gain 5lbs by the time I left Vegas, I was doing myself a disservice. I think my favorite part of the restaurant however, was that right next to my table they had a quote from Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” which is one of my favorite books, painted on the wall.

I was feeling much more chipper after my good meal, so I decided to take my first walk up the strip. I was dazzled by all the lights and commotion that was going on. There were so many people from all over the world that had come to see Las Vegas. Part of me still finds it really funny that people come to this place that is just basically replicas of other famous landmarks around the world. I would still much rather see the real Eiffel Tower, but still, it was awesome. I loved peering into the windows of the designer stores, ogling over Chanel and Gucci and watching all the high rollers at the casinos. I made a little lap around the south of the strip and then decided I had had enough with the crowds and called it a night.

FullSizeRender (9)

Almost as cool as the real thing

Thursday was my last full day in Vegas and I was excited because I had a really awesome dinner reservation and plans to check out The Mile Long Mall during a break in my conference. The Mile Long Mall turned out to be pretty disappointing, the store selection wasn’t great and I am still trying to figure out how its “a mile long.” But, the good news was the restaurant, Carbone, also located in the Aria, was amazing! It offered the best service I have ever received. I mean, they made my Caesar Salad on a cart right in front of me! My pasta was fantastic and they even give you a breadbasket, cold meat, Parmesan cheese and some pickled cauliflower as extras. You definitely pay a decent price for it, but again, it was all on my company so I didn’t mind. After happily rolling myself out of the restaurant, I finished off my night with a “private” concert from Maroon Five. The conference I was attending brought them in to close out the event, and even though I found it comical watching a grown man sing those lyrics with a serious face on, Adam Levine is a phenomenal musician and being able to watch him perform from about 10 rows back for free was pretty awesome!

FullSizeRender (10)

Hi Adam!

I have to admit that after being apprehensive about Las Vegas, I was sad to leave the palace that is The Cosmopolitan Hotel. On Friday morning I ate my last Bee Bread and reflected on the giant wonderful surprise I had encountered. Las Vegas is funny because its a place you can go to indulge all your vices. There is drinking and gluttony and reckless spending and sex, but I guess that’s what makes it fun. It’s a place to go to enjoy man-made beauty and pleasure. For me, that just meant staying in a really nice hotel and eating lots of really expensive food, but Vegas gives visitors the option to pick their poison. I like to compare Las Vegas to a human hamster cage, every building connects somehow and we are all just being funneled along with the crowd, enticed to spend money on a hand of poker, or a designer bag, or a fancy dinner, distracted by all the flashing lights and colors. I didn’t think I would enjoy the hamster race, but I did. It turns out Vegas taught me it only really takes a 1200 sq. ft. penthouse suite and free gourmet dinners to make me happy!

Advertisements

Hemingway’s Tour: A Havana Evening Back in Time

It’s twilight on the rooftop of one of the most famous hotels in Cuba. Travelers from around the globe are seated at tables, talking, enjoying a drink or a plate of food. The atmosphere is cozy, yet refined. Waiters dressed in tuxedos with bow ties, and lights were strung around the large pergola covering the bar as street sounds drift lightly towards the sky. The stucco walls are painted a cheerful coral and the only reminder that you are still in this decade is the single TV that hangs behind the bar.

We sit and enjoy a cocktail. When we started, the sky was a bright pink with hints of purple. As the night goes on it turns to an inky black. Looking out over the wall you can see the skyline of Havana. The steeple of La Catedral, the rooftops of other buildings and when you peer down further, the people down below, laughing, eating, relaxing and enjoying themselves. Further out you can see where the land meets the water. Distant lights nestled in the hills across the Port, the lights from distance objects further out that sway slightly with the water.

The service is slow and the cocktails were not very good, but I would not want to be anywhere else at the moment in time. Compared to the Hotel Nacional, the Hotel Ambos Mundos was the second best in Cuba, yet Ernest Hemingway refused to stay anywhere else while in Cuba, and sitting on that rooftop at twilight, I can understand why. The experience is enchanting from the moment the sliding metal gate closes on the vintage elevator and its operator whisks you to the 5th floor. Even in Cuba, it is like being given a portal back in time.

FullSizeRender (5)

Pretty in Pink

My recommendation is to go to the rooftop of the Ambos Mundos for an aperitif. Get there around 5:30-6:00 PM so you can watch the sunset, and stay for an hour or two while you enjoy the atmosphere and some drinks. Afterward, head to either O’Reilly 303 or 304 (O’Reilly #304 | Habana & Aguiar -they are across the street from one another) or Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon) for dinner. Both are in walking distance from the hotel and have excellent food, especially Ivan Chef Justo. You may have to wait for a table, but that’s ok, just ask to be seated at the bar and enjoy more cocktails, because you will never find them as cheap or as good as they are in Cuba. My personal favorite are the caipirinhas.

When you are finished with dinner, you can walk a little further down the street and enjoy another Hemingway favorite, a daiquiri at The Floridita. It’s perhaps one of the most famous spots in Havana, but any Hemingway fan must get a picture with the bronze statue of the man himself, cast in his favorite bar stool. Again, the atmosphere can whisk you back in time, as you are served your favorite drink by a bartender in a red jacket and bow tie. The place gets packed quick though, so its best to stay for one drink and then head out.

FullSizeRender (6)

An Ode to Hemingway

FullSizeRender (7)

A Havana Classic

If you still have a little life in you after a long day in the sun, there is one more stop on this little Hemingway tour, La Bodeguita la Habana. Take a stroll back towards The Ambos Mundos, and you can find this gem at C. Empedrado entre Cuba y San Ignacio. It’s a tiny little place, and you will find both its patrons and its lively atmosphere spilling out into the street. You may have to squeeze your way inside to order a round of mojitos, but you can enjoy the place all the same whether you are standing inside or on the street. You may even see people who came just to watch the party from afar! As usual, expect great live music and an even better time!

IMG_2003

Hemingway really got it right when he chose Cuba as a place to call home. This is just one evening tour of some of the most well-known of his favorite spots, but you can’t help but feel fulfilled by the end. I liked to end my nights in Havana with a little stroll around Havana Vieja, just soaking in the beauty and life around me, and reflecting on all I was able to experience that day.

Cuba Travel Tips: Two Truths and a Lie

Like most things in life, when it comes to traveling, I am a huge planner. In fact, I think planning is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I love searching the internet for the cheapest flights, reading articles and blogs for advice, and studying maps of the city before I go. The thing about Cuba, though, is that it is really hard to plan for in advance, even though it probably requires more planning than most places you can visit. The lack of ease in planning is probably caused by two major things. 1) It’s still a new place to visit for Americans, so there is a lack of information for what it will be like for American travelers on the web. 2) It’s a country that is just now being introduced to internet, so contact is a bit difficult, accessing reviews of restaurants, casas, transportation etc. is hard, and oh yeah, they don’t accept American credit or debit cards, so you have to go all cash, which means figuring out how much you are going to spend at the beginning of your trip.

Throughout our trip, we realized there was a lot of ambiguity in the information we had read before the trip. Sometimes what we had heard was true and sometimes it just wasn’t. SO I thought what better way to give you my travel tips than to play Two Truths and a Lie with my tips! I’ll start with three travel tips about Cuba that I had read before going; two that we found to be true, and one that was a complete lie. In debunking myth vs. reality, I’ll also give you my own tips for traveling in Cuba.

Round 1: No one cares you are going to Cuba, The airport is a mess, and Taxis are hard to find. 

Truth: No one cares you are going to Cuba.

The biggest question surrounding traveling to Cuba for Americans is whether or not it is now legal. The technical answer to that question is that in December 2014, President Obama made it legal to travel to Cuba for one of 12 reasons without having to apply and go through a rigorous visa process before traveling. There is a lot of ambiguity around what constitutes as “people to people,” “educational” and “support of the Cuban people” travel activities. I am not here to give you the legal explanation of what the government meant by these vague statements, because no one knows that, possibly not even the government. I am here to confirm that whatever the legal definition actually means, no one seems to care that you are an American tourist traveling to Cuba.

There are two stipulations put in place by the Cuban government for entering Cuba, a Cuban tourist visa and proof of healthcare that will cover you during your stay. The US requires you to sign a self-declaring affidavit stating you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 legal reasons. You will also find you have to confirm this when you purchase your plane tickets and Airbnb. Here’s how the process of obtaining these three necessary requirements worked for us:

Self-Declaring Affidavit – We did self check-in at the Philadelphia Airport. We figured our self-declaring form was when we had to select our reason for travel during the check-in process. We chose to go under “educational/people to people,” and did not have to show any proof that this was actually what we were doing; I had brought a copy of the itinerary I had made for us documenting our planned activities just in case. I assume if you checked-in at the counter you would actually have to sign a hard copy of the document, but my advice is that if you want to skip the possibility of having to actually explain to a person what you are planning on doing in Cuba, just choose to do self check-in!

Healthcare – We booked our flights through American Airlines. A few weeks before our trip, they emailed us to let us know that the required healthcare coverage was included in the price of our ticket. Do not assume that just because you have healthcare in the US, the policy will cover you while in Cuba, you need a policy that will cover you abroad, specifically in Cuba. However, we were never asked about whether or not we had valid healthcare, both during check-in in the US or customs in Cuba. This may have been because airport workers were aware that anyone holding an American Airlines boarding pass was covered, or they may just never check whether any tourist has coverage. My advice, make sure you are covered.

Cuban Tourist Visa – Even though American Airlines had someone from Cuba Travel Services explain the process of obtaining a Cuban Tourist Visa to me on the phone, it was still a bit confusing. Here is how it works: You have two options, to purchase your visa at the gate, or to purchase it ahead of time. If you choose the first option, you purchase your visa at the last gate before you enter Cuba. So, if you are like us and have a layover, it’s the gate at the airport you have a layover in. We had a very short layover in Miami, and weren’t very sure of the process, which meant Nate and I were literally running with our luggage down a terminal in the Miami Airport that had to be at least a half mile long looking for our gate and where to buy a visa. Just to clarify, we learned that “at your gate” literally means at your gate. There will be a little booth set up outside the gates with flights to Cuba where you can purchase your travel visa for $100 (I had read it only costs $40 from multiple sources… not sure where that came from because everyone we talked to also paid $100). It’s a little blank slip of paper that you can fill out while on your flight. I have heard tale that the line to purchase a visa can take hours to get through, and my co-worker told me they actually held his plane because so many people on the flight hadn’t had a chance to purchase their visas. For us, there was no line and it only took about 5 minutes for both of us to purchase our visas.

Customs – Once we landed in Havana, we went through customs. The official didn’t ask me a single question, just took my passport, visa, and boarding pass. The only thing a little different from other customs experiences is that they have a little camera hanging from the ceiling that they take your picture with. I read about people being interrogated when trying to enter the country, but for me and from what I can tell, everyone else around me, it was easy. Within a minute and zero questions, I was in. They stamped both my passport and my visa. The visa is actually two identical forms stuck together; they will take half when you enter and stamp the other half for you to hold on to. DON’T LOSE IT! When you go back through customs when you exit the country, they will stamp your passport again and take the other half of the visa. Again, for me and everyone else around me, this process was harmless with zero questions asked, just another forced photo. Customs in the US was similar; they asked where I was coming from, what the purpose of my travel was, and what I was bringing back with me, just like any other trip I have taken.

fullsizerender-2

My Cuba passport stamps

Truth: The airport is a mess.

Alright, so you are going to hear plenty of horror stories about the airports in Cuba, and we found out on our flight home that there is some truth to them. I have two main travel tips when in comes to dealing with Jose Marti International Airport, and most likely all the other airports in Cuba as well: Skip the checked baggage and GIVE YOURSELF PLENTY OF TIME!

From what I had read beforehand, we decided to do all our packing in our carry-ons. Do what I did, go out and buy the cheapest maximum sized carry-on you can find at TJ Maxx and just play Tetris with your clothing until you get it all in. I promise you it is possible: I am a girl who likes to look good, and I was able to get more than I needed for 8 days of travel in my carry-on. I took 3 pairs of shoes (sneakers, sandals, and flip-flops) plus enough clothing to have two outfits a day, plus all my bathing suits (gotta have options!) and a towel. I know this section is supposed to be about airports, but if you are a girl reading this, I recommend packing lots of dresses and rompers with a lightweight jacket, like a jean jacket, to throw overtop. They are super comfy to walk around in and the outfits can go from day-to-night by removing the jacket. BUT anyways, back to air travel. I recommend skipping the checked bag because there is no formal baggage claim in the Cuban airport, they just throw all of the suitcases in a pile and leave you to search for your stuff, so it can literally take hours to claim your luggage. Since we just had our backpacks and carry-on suitcases, we were through customs and out the door in a matter of minutes.

As you become more familiar with Cuba, you will learn that lots of things take lots of time, and for the most part, it is just part of the charm of the Island. Remember, a lot of these employees are making less than a dollar a day, so there isn’t much incentive to operate efficiently. We arrived at the airport over 3 hours before our flight out of Cuba, as we were told to give ourselves plenty of time to check in. Of course, American was the only airline with a long line of people waiting to check-in, but we had time, so I waited in line while Nathan went to exchange our left over money. When I got a little closer to the front, I saw the hold up was caused mainly because there were 5 available desks, but only 1 person checking everyone in.

Two hours later and we were almost at the front when an announcement was made in Spanish and absolute pandemonium broke out. From what we could gather with our limited language skills, they had been holding a flight to Miami that was supposed to leave before our flight because they hadn’t been able to check everyone in on time. However, the flight wasn’t waiting any longer, so everyone still waiting to be checked in were being bumped to a later flight: queue uproar in Spanish. At the same time, they were also telling everyone on our flight to Charlotte that we were to go to the priority line to be checked in for our flight: queue confused English-speaking tourists throwing elbows and making a mad dash to the priority line. I mean people were literally pushing me up against the check in counter it was so intense. BUT we got checked in and boarded our plane and ended up having to wait another 2 hours in the plane because they were experiencing computer problems and couldn’t check the rest of the passengers in. But finally everyone boarded and we were on our way home.

I am not telling you this story to scare you, because I’ve been back in the US for 3 weeks now (sadly) and have no lasting scars; I am relaying this to communicate 2 tips. 1. Give yourself plenty of time, because you will need it. 2. When in Cuba, do as the Cubans do. Push and shove when everyone else is, because you got to stand up for yourself or get mowed down! But also, breathe, because even those poor Miami-bound people just got bumped to another flight and are probably living it up in South Beach right now. It might not look pretty, but you will make it home, I promise.

Lie: Taxis are hard to find.

So, time for the lie! One of the things I had read about Cuba that worried me was that it was really hard to find taxis. This myth was debunked about 0.002 seconds after walking out of the exit in the airport and being inundated by a crowd of people asking “taxi? taxi?” Our Airbnb had arranged a taxi to take us into Havana for 40 CUC, which we learned was a bit pricey, but we were willing to pay the extra charge to secure having transport when we arrived. My advice is that if this is something your Airbnb owner offers to do for you, take them up on it! But, know it’s not necessary because there will be lots of eager Cubans waiting for you upon arrival, just itching to take you wherever you need to go. Also, side note, expect to pay about 30 CUC for a trip from Jose Marti International Airport into Havana, this was the price I heard thrown around a lot while waiting outside the airport.

The taxi supply abounded in Havana as well. We found the best way to get a taxi was to head to a main road, either near the Capitol building or around the Malecon. A lot of Old Havana’s streets are narrow and cobblestone, so it’s not really practical to hang around them if you are a taxi. Once you get to Vedado, or the newer area of Cuba, its easiest to catch a taxi near a hotel, although you will pay a higher price. We learned to negotiate the price before you get in the taxi. If you don’t know what a certain trip should cost, ask a local when you have a chance. The best bet for this is to utilize your casa owner and tour guides. Most likely you won’t get the price as low as the locals, but just remember, these people need an extra CUC or two way more than you do, so over paying isn’t the end of the world.

Taxis are the most practical way to get around the city when walking is too far. The rides are pretty cheap as well, ours usually cost between 3 and 15 CUC. There are different types of taxis, the most popular are the Cuba Taxi, which can range from an old Chevrolet to a newer foreign import. There are also the classic car taxis, which you can expect to be charged a lot more for. If you want something uniquely Cuban and aren’t carrying 500 tons of luggage with you, you can take a Coco Taxi. It’s basically a cute little shell built over a motor scooter that will zip you and another companion around to wherever you want to go. Nate and I took one while in Varadero and I would definitely recommend doing it at least once just for the laugh!

fullsizerender-3

The super cute Coco Taxi

My final advice for this round is about giving directions to your taxi driver. In Cuba, a street address is more like an explanation of where a place is located, so it usually gives a number and then the street and then what streets it is located in between. Its gets super confusing super fast. My advice is to give your driver a printed version of the address of your destination, as they most likely don’t speak English and you probably aren’t fluent in Spanish. If you don’t have this on hand, I would give them a landmark around the area you want to go and have them take you there, it will save you the headache of deciphering a confusing navigation system in a different language. Also, if you don’t have it already, download maps.me for your trip and mark as many restaurants, landmarks, casas, etc. you are planning on visiting ahead of time so you have a way of navigating once you get there.

This is the first of 3 rounds of “Cuba Travel Tips- Two Truths and a Lie” I will be posting, so check back in a few days for more tips and recaps. If you have a specific topic you have a question on or would like to know more about, just drop a comment and ask, I am happy to answer!

Havana: A Perfectly Imperfect Place

Vivacious: The word I keep coming back to when people ask me how my trip to Cuba was. I have traveled my fair share in the past 2 years, but never have I missed a place so deeply once I’ve left. Maybe it was because Cuba has been locked away like a secret to Americans for so many years that I didn’t really have any expectations for what Havana would be like, except for bad (?), since the only time you learn about Cuba in the US public school system is via the Bay of Pigs Invasion or the Cuban Missile Crisis. My original desire to travel to this country, like many other trips I aspire to take, came from one of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway made a home in Cuba for over 30 years, something I didn’t quite understand before visiting, since he had spent previous years gallivanting around the likes of Italy, France and Switzerland; glamorous and culturally rich places that I could only dream of calling home.  But after only a few days in the city, I understood why Havana had lasted much longer for Hemingway than the luxuries of Europe. The city blew me away, and has found a permanent place in my heart.

havana

Our first full day in Havana was a cloudy, cold and rainy Sunday, so we spent most of it indoors in museums helping to fulfill the “educational” requirements of the trip (more on that in later posts!). Looking back, I am glad that our first day was spent like this, because it allowed the city to show its true colors (literally!) the next day when the sun was shining and all businesses were bustling. When I opened the doors to the balcony attached to our casa particular on Monday morning, the city came alive. It was 7:30 AM and already I could hear a distant radio bumping out the synonymous reggaetone beats of Latin America.  The sounds of life spilled up from the street; the clanking of pans as people prepared breakfast, the scraping of a garbage pail as someone took out the trash and the clucking of some stray roosters below. Sunlight beamed down and illuminated the bright colors of the city’s architecture and even though I hadn’t yet stepped a foot outside, the energy of the city had already captivated me. I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face while getting ready for the day. My spirits were so bright I even chose a colorful outfit to wear, something that rarely happens in my all-neutral wardrobe.

balcony

Our casa’s balcony view

view

Looking down from inside our apartment building

I am convinced that Havana’s beauty stems from how perfectly imperfect it is. A large part of what shapes Cuba is the communist government that runs it. Part of this is that it operates on a two currency system using the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC was created in response to the number of remittances pouring into Cuba and is tied 1 to 1 with the American dollar. It is the currency tourists visiting the island are given to use. The Cuban Peso is the Cuban citizens’ currency, and what the Cuban government deals in. One CUC is equal to roughly 25 CUPs. This currency system has inadvertently built two separate countries in one. The first is built around the CUC and is accessible mostly to tourists. This includes hotels, most restaurants, and shops. The second is built on the CUP and includes smaller eating stalls, state-owned “supermarkets” and other stores and services provided by the government. The discrepancy in currency makes it almost impossible for the two consumerism worlds to cross, as tourist are priced out of experiencing true authentic Cuban life because they have a currency too valuable for locals to make change, and Cuban citizens are priced out of any of the businesses/luxuries geared towards tourists because the exchange rate makes it much too expensive to access. The only crossover is in the locally owned tourist industry that is rapidly springing up in the country. Here, tour guides get tipped in CUC and casa and paladar owners charge and get paid by tourists in CUC. Throughout our trip we only stayed in casa particulars and tried our best to only dine at family own paladares in order to make sure our pesos were going directly to the people of Cuba.

plaza

The actual physical aspects of Havana also make it seem like multiple eras were colliding into one. The city is made of three distinct periods of architecture. Most of the buildings, especially in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), are Colonial in style.They reminded me a lot of Charleston, SC, only with a Caribbean flare. This part of the city is made up of narrow cobblestone roads, and the houses are tall and imposing and built right up against the street. Many have high ceilings and large windows, most of which are kept open during the day.This meant that if you peered inside, you could catch a glimpse of authentic Cuban family life as you walk down the street. The state of these buildings range from dilapidated and falling down to newly repaired and painted in charming pastel colors. As you move to the more residential areas of the city, such as Vedado, the architecture jumps to a new decade, the 1960’s. This area had a lot of one story buildings, slanting roofs and restaurant signs that look like they were straight from an early episode of Mad Men. Add to that the occasional unsightly Soviet era apartment housing block and a sprinkling of beautiful Art Deco buildings like the Bacardi Rum tower, and I felt like you could tell the history of the city through the architecture alone!

house-onehouse-3house-two

The city’s transportation follows in close suit,with many decades represented. My favorite was seeing the famous classic 1950’s cars regularly lumbering along down the streets. One of our tour guides described them perfectly as “old ladies with make- up” because years of Cuban ingenuity has kept them running and a fresh coat of brightly colored paint has kept them intriguing to the eye. And as beautiful as these cars are to look at, it was funny to see the ungainly Russian Lada just as frequently! There were also a smattering of newer foreign imports, government- issued Cuban taxis, diesel buses and comically small Fiats that made up the majority of cars on the roadways of Cuba. Something I noticed most immediately upon arrival was the smell of diesel in the air. It made me curious if this was what it smelled like living in the 60’s!

bugcars

The final, major amalgamation I noticed in the city was its people, and this was perhaps my most favorite part. When I travel, I usually try my best to look like a local (getting asked for directions in a foreign city is the biggest compliment you can give me). The first thing I learned in Havana was that it would be absolutely impossible to try and blend in  There were the obvious reasons, like the separate currency systems and the fact that I am tall and blond and extremely pale and only know how to count to 10 in Spanish (a talent that was surprisingly useless on this trip). But I also learned that the fashion trends and beauty ideals in Cuba are much different (and probably much better!) than the rigid ideals we have set up in western society. What made me feel much better about not being able to blend in was the realization that no one else could either, even the fashion-forward French!

Perhaps it was because it was impossible to hide the fact that you were a tourist (no internet access means that almost every non-native was carrying around a guidebook ) and the separate currency systems mean tourists often move in the same circles, but I don’t think I have ever been to a place where I was surrounded with so many different people from so many different places speaking so many different languages on a regular basis. There were people from Canada, Russia, Italy, France, people speaking Spanish from other South American Countries and Spain. We even met and made friends with a group of girls traveling from Denver, CO! The thing that we often forget about Cuba is that it has been open to other countries for many years, and so, though it still may be a rare coincidence to run into a fellow American traveler, the sight of tourists on the island is not rare at all. I am always most content when surrounded by interesting people different from myself. I spent a lot of time people-watching in Cuba and learned so much about how people from different cultures travel.

cathedral

Plaza de la Catedral

Looking back and trying to describe this trip, there are just so many facets and colors and cultures and flavors all coexisting to create one the of the most charmingly imperfect cities in the entire world. Havana blew me away, the people were incredibly kind and warm, the history was fascinating, the sights were jaw dropping and the cocktails were delicious. My final verdict is that Hemingway got it right, I have never been anywhere else in the world where time passes so easily, where I’ve been inspired so creatively, and where I have felt so alive. This first post was meant to be a brief overview of the city, but I have found I have so much to say about my trip, the island and especially Havana. So make sure to check back for future posts on specific details of my trip, reading recommendations before you go and travel tips if you are planning your own trip to Cuba!