My job allows me to visit a lot of Alaska on a yearly basis. I wanted to capture the trips in one location!

Cuba; Some final thoughts!


Overall; Dec. 18-29, 2015

In retrospect this was a very memorable trip for a lot of different reasons. Cuba was fascinating, fun and (really) frustrating at times. Up front I know it would have been a lot less frustrating if we spoke Spanish fluently. Our most said words were; “hablo un poco español”, but by the end of the visit it had improved a lot, but those that speak Spanish will do much better. If our first night had started off better it may have eased some of the continued stress of the trip. Sadly our Cubana air flight was 5.5 hours late getting into Havana, THEN our luggage took another 2 hours to be delivered. Finally, as we cleared customs my husband’s Passport was stamped. We had been told “they never stamp Passports, only the travel visa”, well ‘they’ were wrong.  We worried a lot about this, and in the end just had to stop thinking about it.

Thankfully we had 25 Euro to pay for the cab ride to our casa because the Exchange booths at the airport had run out of money. BUT since we were so late NO ONE was at our rented apartment and at 1:30 in the morning we were not surprised but we were so tired.  Eventually a neighbor across the hall heard us knocking and came out to see what was going on. He called a woman upstairs and about 20 minutes later she came down with the key. Finally to bed by 2 a.m. It was a long day. We knew of the US embargo against Cuba (who doesn’t) but President Barack Obama’s recent efforts to restore relations with the Cuba gave us hope about our visit.   In the end it was NOT a problem to have a stamped passport, OR that we got in late, but all those things added stress when we didn’t need any!   We had a lot of highs and a I had a lot of lows, here are a few of our thoughts on the overall trip:

  • Our first 4 days in Havana it rained each day, mostly on and off and actually it cooled down the city and offered great views of waves breaking over onto the streets of Havana.
  • The food is very, very bland and there is not a lot of variety. We heard that there is a food ‘revolution’ happening, but for the most part it is chicken, pork, beef, lamb, with rice and boiled veggies. If we were lucky we got some tomatoes, cucumbers and greens on a plate before dinner. We brought some Chipotle sauce and carried it with us to use on virtually any meal!
  • There is limited wifi and you can purchase a card with a code to use it. When we saw 100’s of people with cell phones OR computers sitting in a park we realized that must be where the wifi exists. Each town had one main park/square with it available. It was 2 CUC’s for 1 hour of usage.  We were happy to find any at all as we had not expected any opportunity for communications.  It was nice to let Mom know we were safe.
  • There are 2 forms of money, the peso’s the locals use and the CUC’s that most tourists use. However, IF you can get some peso’s it costs less for you to purchase street food, pizza’s, churro’s etc. They are MUCH cheaper with peso’s. For Example: a pizza on the street might say “10 peso’s (local money) or 2 CUC’s (tourist money)”. The rate is actually 1 peso= .27 CUC meaning that it costs that the pizza for 10 peso’s would actually only be about .40 CUC’s  a lot less than 2 CUC’s. We traded some of our money for peso’s and were glad we did for a few of these opportunities. Cabs were another place we wish we had more peso’s.
  • We did eat several street side pizza’s. Usually a great breaded crust and a little bit of cheese with some sauce on the top.  They were good.
  • For the most part you will only use CUC’s but most people also accept Euro’s.
  • We met some local’s at our first rental and they helped us secure lodging for our last night in Havana. They also showed us some of the ‘ropes’ of cab rides etc. We will certainly keep in touch with them as they were very helpful and we will suggest to our friends to go through them to rent places in the future etc.
  • The locals are very nice and are very happy to see engage in conversations or at least attempt to engage in conversation with you. The locals are very helpful allowing you to use phones or call their friends to ensure you get to do what your plans dictate.  They do NOT want to talk anything about politics though our last hosts were the most vocal about it. Lionel was an engineer who spoke English, Russian and Spanish. He’d lived in Russia for a year back in the 80’s. He is a very PROUD Cuban and spoke highly of free education, free medical etc.
  • Cubana Air is known to be late, if you fly them be sure to build in an extra day between connections!
  • There are a lot of means of transportation, typical yellow cabs (we never used one), the old 1950’s taxi’s, bicycle taxi’s, pod taxi’s and horse or cow pulled carts.  Nothing is off limits.
  • Casa Particular’s are the way to go for lodging. You typically meet local people and it helps with the transitions. Everyone was more than willing to let us use their phones to call ahead to the next place to stay.
  • All men stare inappropriately at all women.  it is a tad disconcerting, and it is very cultural.  I didn’t appreciate it.
  • Most hosts will offer to make you breakfast and dinner for an additional cost. Breakfast is a great deal and starts your day off on the right foot. We never had dinner as we didn’t want to be tied to a time frame.
  • Yes there are old cars, EVERYWHERE. Most don’t have their original motors, but the car bodies are original! Some are in better shape than others.
  • We met a lot of tourists from Europe and enjoyed the company of other world travelers.  Germans, Polish, French topped the list, but there were so many languages being spoken around us it was hard to discern them.
  • I/we need to improve on my Spanish… my limited words helped a little, but most Cuban’s speak none to very little English. The younger kids are now being taught in school, but up until 10-15 years ago they learned Russian! It was fun to talk with the youth that are learning it as they really want to practice!

In the end our Cubana Air flight was on time leaving and we made our connections. Nothing I worried about happened, and we are really, really, really happy we went to see Cuba now, before KFC, McDonalds and Subway line the city streets.

FYII: Our agenda was such:

  • 4 nights in Havana
  • 3 nights in Viñales
  • 3 nights in Trinidad
  • 1 last final night in Havana before flying out the next day







Trinidad, Cuba; History AND Beaches

Dec. 25-28, 2015; Trinidad Cuba

Trinidad was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500’s with a focus on gold and farming and later in the 1800’s it became a hub for tobacco and sugar. Though once sugar trade slowed, the town almost collapsed. Because of perseverance efforts it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in the late 1980’s. There are remnants of the early Spanish settlers in today’s Trinidad.  The first thing we noticed as we pulled into town (in our 1950’s something station wagon, packed with 9 passengers and our driver) were that the streets were narrow and most are cobblestone.IMG_2680IMG_3595IMG_2690

It is much smaller than Havana, but larger than Viñales.   Our Casa Particular was just blocks from Plaza Mayor. Surrounding the Plaza were many historic buildings, most hosting small art galleries and or stores with traditional Cuban items for sale.     We read that in 2011 there were 4 restaurants in the area and now there are 90. Most have very similar menus, but we managed to find some unique places to eat.


We tried to buy tickets for the bus back to Havana however they were sold out. We then found a guy selling taxi rides to Havana (common) so we gave him our address and asked him for a pick up on the 28th at 8:30. All set, right? (there will be more to this story). We walked around town quite a bit and saw more of the beer carts in the local neighborhoods.

On our last day here we took the on/off bus to the beach arriving about 11:30 and staying until the 5:00 bus home. There were very few people in the water and not sure why but suspect 2 things, 1) water was dirty 2) jelly fish, we saw many folks running out of the water with big red blotches and needing vinegar to pour on the bites, hence we did not venture into the water, but the breeze felt good.  IMG_7251

The sunset our last night was beautiful and we watched it from the Plaza Mayor which was a perfect location! The Cuban music steaming from 5-7 different locations around the plaza added to the experience. Trinidad is a beautiful community full of life and history. I will remember most the cobble stone streets, the horse ‘taxi’s’ and carts and the beautiful sunsets.IMG_2766IMG_7256IMG_2747IMG_7259IMG_2768

On our departure day we were ready and on the porch of our casa by 8:15 and our ‘arranged’ taxi never showed. By 9:00 we headed over to the bus station and got accosted by folks as we walked with our backpacks asking if we needed a ride to Havana. We ultimately ended up in a comfortable 1980’s van with 9 other riders. (25CUC’s/pp), and arrived at our Havana casa about 3 p.m.IMG_2716IMG_2737IMG_3599IMG_2749




Viñales, Cuba; My favorite part of the country

Dec. 22-25

Viñales, Cuba

For 35 CUC’s /pp we took a personal taxi to Viñales. Our driver Pepe brought his 8 year old son John Anthony with him as they were on vacation from school. It was a delightful ride and John Anthony sang “happy birthday” to me J. His English was about as good as my Spanish so instead of ‘birthday’ he said ‘baby’ which made me laugh even more!

The ride was 70% along a highway but what stood out most were all the people along the highway either 1) waiting for a bus or such or 2) holding out money hoping that a taxi might stop and pick them up. Something you’d never see in the states! There were also a number of horse drawn buggies along the roadway as well… as we learned to say “only in Cuba”.

The last 15 miles were off the highway and took us towards the community of Viñales. The landscape was rolling and green. All of the Cuban we met constantly said that Viñales is “so much natural” and we could not agree more. It was beautiful. Pepe took us right to our Casa where we met Isabel and Mario our hosts and the nicest people!


most of the homes here are ‘casa particulars’ allowing guests to stay in one of their rooms.  The town is lined with brightly painted homes.


horse or cattle drawn carts were everywhere on their streets


farm country


valleys of the area


Pepe and his son got us here safely

Got settled in and ventured out to explore the town. Stopped for a drink and eventually dinner before going back and sitting on the porch chatting and drinking with the other family that were in our Casa, Aleksandra and her parents visiting from Warsaw, Poland. She spoke fluent Spanish and English so it helped us all communicate.

The following morning we awoke and decided to take the taxi tour ($10/pp IF you get 4 people for your car.). That is when we met Claudia and Robert from the Netherlands, a brother and sister that we ended up really enjoying spending time with. The taxi took us to 2 caves, (Indian Cave) one we got a short board ride down a river before leaving, we went to a big famous mural as well as some fancy hotel with a pool. Lastly we went to a traditional tobacco farm where we watched a guy make cigars and he gave one to Harry.   We met the ‘kids’ for dinner at the best restaurant I found in Cuba, El Olive, a Mediterranean place that had pretty darn good food!


Mural de la Prehistoria; The snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans  represent the theory of evolution.  You don’t need to pay the entry fee to see it as you can stop along the road and take a photo like this.  It is a bit of a disappointment as I thought it was prehistoric artwork!  Wrong. 

The final day we headed into the town center and stumbled upon their weekly market.  It was funny that the road was closed off for the farmers to come to town and sell their goods! There were vegetables, pigs and one of our favorite things, a beer truck.

IMG_2597We then secured our taxi to Trinidad then hired a taxi to take us to Cuevas de Santo Tomas (caves). We paid $13pp for taxi ride and $10pp for entry (You MUST have your passport to enter). Helmet and headlamp were given to each of us and we headed up a steep 200 foot climb up rocky, unstable terrain to the entry of the caves.


Once in the caves we needed to use the headlamps because it was dark yet sadly my battery was old and the light was really weak. The route we walked in the cave was really wet and slippery, no handrails or the like to guide us or to hang onto.   It was simply not enjoyable and a bit of a disappointment. Not to mention it was HOT inside the cave, something I was not expecting. With the size of the cave we were disappointed by what we actually ‘saw’ on the tour.

In the end our time in Viñales, Cuba was delightful. We enjoyed the natural surroundings and the people. Isabel and Mario were wonderful hosts and even with the language barriers we managed to communicate. We were sad leaving them when our cab arrived on Christmas morning.



Various Sights in Havana Cuba, Hotel National, Hamel’s Alley etc.

Havana, Cuba

Dec. 18-22 and Dec. 28-29, 2015

We shared the streets of this historic town with 1000’s of visitors and the 2 million permanent residents.  Havana was discovered 400 years ago by the Spanish and because of this has influence from the Spanish culture. The Spaniards built forts and a wall around the city, many of which still stand.


La Cabana, Fort Saint Charles


El Morro Castle




The first few days there were HUGE waves coming over the wall.  Kids LOVED it.!


The first thing we did was visit the nearby Hotel Nacional as it was close to our Casa Particular.   We actually bumped into people we’d met the day before at the airport and flew with to Cuba. Was nice to see familiar faces.   They were from Chicago and mentioned that they had just run into Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago inside the hotel lobby.

The hotel opened its doors in 1930 as it was designed by and for American tourists only and at first no Cubans were allowed to stay there.   The Hotel is a dominant site in Havana and the tours we took passed by it several times. The view from the garden was a 180 degree view of the harbor.

We walked inside and immediately were hit by the history of the area in the lobby. There are still decorations in the Cuban style of 1930s, chandeliers, mahogany furniture and brass fixtures. There are photos of famous visitors around the hallways including Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper and even Walt Disney.

Walking in the grounds of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba we noted more history immediately. Walking into the ground level ‘museum’ we read of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (or as they say in  Havana the October Crisis).  We continued to the underground tunnels that make a circle underneath the hotels lawn and gardens. The tunnels once housed periscopes used by Cuban intelligence in espionage efforts but never nuclear arms.   It was very interesting to walk on these grounds.

As we continued our explorations, we knew that there were 3 parts to Havana, Old Havana, Centro and Vedado.  Our casa was between the University and Habana Libre, and walked to Old Havana each day (about 1.5 miles). We would walk through Centro as we headed towards Old Havana. There is so much history in the buildings and such, however many are crumbling and falling in on themselves, so it is sad to see that the Cubans have not been able to save more of the historic architecture of the area.  IMG_7034IMG_2171IMG_2099IMG_2300

One of our favorite stops was Hamel’s Alley an alley painted by the neighborhood to tell the story of Santera, the Afro-Cuban religion.   Each time we walked through it there we musicians playing music. This was the one spot in town that I felt as if everyone expected money.

We spent our days roaming the Old Havana area full of history and the governmental center of Cuba. We walked through narrow streets and old buildings with balconies full of laundry, plants and people. Many of the home owners offer a room in their home for guests called ‘casa particulars’. They ranged from 20 to 40 CUC’s a night. (when we visited a CUC is 1/1 with the $ but there is a 10% exchange rate).

Some areas of city we enjoyed more than others, I enjoyed the San Fancisco area a lot. The Cubans are trying to renovate many of their plaza’s including Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas as well as the walking only streets: Obispo and Mercaderes both of which we walked on a LOT.


trying to do some renovations!

We also took the ‘on /off’ open topped bus ride around the town. It was well worth the 5 CUC/pp cost. It took us outside of the downtown center and out to the suburbs of Havana. We were on it for a full 2 hours and then asked for a transfer and eventually rode it back towards our casa.


Top of the bus!

The bus takes you through the city centre and out to the Miramar (consulate) district, to the Plaza de la Revolucion and back through other suburbs, along the Malecon and into town. We sat on the opened top level of the bus, yes we had broken seats, occasional rain showers and the exhaust fumes were as strong as you might expect, but we enjoyed the ride. JUST know that this is NOT an ‘informative’ tour. There is someone talking occasionally but the sound does not travel to the top level and it is not ‘full of information.’IMG_2193

And we did the ‘touristy’ thing of renting a 1950’s car for a one hour tour, that basically followed the same route as the on off bus, for double the cost!  It was worth it though if for nothing else, the experience.

All in all Havana will leave us with memories but happy and frustrating.  The quote in the Lonely Planet guidebook truly defined our trip:

” Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating ~ Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.”

We are thrilled we saw it BEFORE it is full of KFC’s/ McDonalds/ and other typical American businesses that are sure to be there in the next few years.