A Girlfriends’ Trip To Cartagena

What can I say? I pulled it off! A girlfriends’ trip to Cartagena. I got nine girlfriends to get together and take a short, but amazing trip from Washington, DC to Cartagena, Colombia. Nine busy women, who have careers, husbands/mates, children, parents, and pets, all said “Yes!” three months ago, and all followed through. Times like these remind me of how very special my life is, and I am grateful.

Have Birthday, Will Travel

Leading up to my milestone birthday, my best BFFs asked me how I wanted us all to celebrate. Since they know that I live to travel, they knew a trip was in order. They probably weren’t even surprised when I said that I wanted us to celebrate in Cartagena.  I think, though, almost all of us were surprised that we were able to make it happen. But, with a couple of minor tweaks on the dates, and adding a new friend to our party about three weeks before the big day, we set off on our adventure.

We took a 7 am flight out of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport , connected through Fort Lauderdale, and arrived at Rafael Núñez International Airport  by 2:30 pm. Most of us slept through the first leg of the trip, so our 2 hour layover at FLL got the party started. As we gathered at the bar close to our gate, we had quick salads, sandwiches, snacks, and then…Prosecco.

We were so excited to see that the airport bar carried our favorite…splits of La Marca. As we enjoyed a couple of rounds, strangers came up and asked what we were celebrating, where we were going, and offered to take group pictures for us. It was almost like our excitement was contagious.

Even The Best Plans Change

Our early morning flights had us running on fumes, and we were pretty beat when we arrived in Cartagena. As a result, I could see some of the action-packed adventures that I had planned for our first evening fading away. I totally understood.  Laura of Gema Tours, was waiting for us as we cleared customs. Her team quickly loaded our luggage into the mini-bus. We excitedly started on the 15 minute ride to the Intercontinental Hotel.

After a check-in, we made quick wardrobe changes (it was a sunny 93 degrees F), and met in the lobby. We walked to Kokorico,  for a late lunch of roasted chicken, fried chicken, yucca, and arepas.

One at a time, we placed our orders at the register. We sat and enjoyed how cool it was to see that at this fast-food restaurant, they have servers. They delivered our silverware, soft drinks, napkins, and gloves (for eating the fried chicken!). While the wait was a bit longer than we are used to at a fast-food restaurant (about 25 minutes), we agreed the outcome was well worth it. Hot, juicy, delicious chicken made to order!

 

Lazy With The Locals

After our late lunch, we attempted to walk off the ton of food we’d just eaten. I’d planned for us to go back to the hotel, nap, and get get dressed for dinner and dancing. Instead, we walked a few more blocks, reached the beach, and answered the call of the tiki hut servers to come, sit and have cocktails.

With the waves splashing and the sun setting as a backdrop, we soon realized this was probably not a bad decision.  A couple of local “musicians” sang songs for us, a stray beach dog slept at our feet, and growled at anyone that came near us.   We sat happily, lazily, and decided that this was pretty much how our first day in Cartagena was going to wind down.

After a couple hours, we headed back to our hotel. There was a huge party about to take over the bar and rooftop pool deck.  The hotel manager stopped us as we headed to the elevators. She offered us 2 for 1 nightcaps, and our own private section of the rooftop pool area.  Who could turn that down?  Finally, after a couple more hours, we turned in. In addition to being totally wiped out now, we had an 8 am pick-up the next day for out trip to Isla de Rosario, and we wanted to be ready.

Travel Tips – Cartagena, Colombia

Getting There ~ Jetblue had the best flights for us from the Washington, DC area airports.

Stay ~ We enjoyed our stay at InterContinental Cartagena de Indias in Bocagrande.  Located in the midst of everything, and across the street from the beach, it looks just like it’s website pics!

If you’d rather stay in the Walled City (Old City), definitely consider the beautiful, stately, Hotel Casa San Agustin.

Getting Around ~ I suggest making airport/port transfers, and excursion arrangements with Gema Tours and Holidays With Downtown (ask for Rosa or Claudia).  Taxis are great to get around town.  The 9 of us typically used 3 mini-cabs to get to and from dinner and dancing.  Approx. 10 Colombian COP from Bocagrande to The Walled City.

Official Language ~ Spanish.

Currency ~ The official currency is the Colombian Peso (COP).  2859.85 COP equals $1 USD.  The  preferred currency is the COP, so change money.

Credit and Debit Cards ~ U.S. credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Cartagena. Be sure to let your home bank know that you are traveling.

Weather ~ While we were there last week (early February), the average high was 90 degrees F, and the average low was 76 degrees F.  It was very sunny.  I strongly recommend sunblock and a hat.

Panama, You Never Disappoint!

 

Five nights in Panama is simply not enough.  The 9am departure of the close to 5-hour, non-stop flight from Washington Dulles to Tocumen International coincided with the beginning of the ceremony of the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United Sates.  And, with the kick-off of my birthday celebrations.  Perfect timing.

Upon landing, and quickly clearing customs, we requested our Uber and in less than ten minutes, were on our way to Hyatt Place in downtown Panama City.  We’d decided to spend one night downtown, and the rest of our time at the beach.  We learned on a recent trip to Puerto Rico, that for a nice, modern, moderately-priced, one night stay downtown, before or after a longer stay at the beach, you cannot go wrong with Hyatt Place.

Mercado de Mariscos

The traffic was bustling, the sun was out in full force, and the city seemed to be just waiting to show itself off to us.  Our female Uber driver spoke perfect English (we requested Uber English!), and she was more than happy to give us an impromptu driving tour along the way.

After check-in and a change into summer clothes, we headed out.  First stop, Mercado de Mariscos.  This bustling open-air seafood market is a must-visit!  The market consist of a bunch of little outdoor food vendors, with make-shift seating areas, and music piped through outdoor speakers.  The wait staff run up to you, wielding menus, shouting out their specials of the day…complimentary ceviche with an entree, $1 national beer, for example.  We settled on Las Perlas, at the end of the “strip”.  A few local beers, ceviche appetizers, salad, tostanes, and a mixed grill of shrimp, fish and calamari loaded with butter and garlic, left us happy.  And, so stuffed, that we had to get up and get moving.

Mercado de Mariscos

 

Local Beer

 

Seafood Dinner at Las Perlas

 

Casco Viejo

It has been said that the only bigger attraction in Panama other than Casco Viejo is the Panama Canal. We were anxious to check this place out!  This gem of a walled city was once a deteriorating part of town, but in 1997 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.  This recognition got expats, and investors to take notice, making it one of the quickest revitalizations in the Americas.  It now consists of a cultural mix of residents and visitors, along with restaurants, polite street vendors, historically preserved buildings, and buildings in various stages of renovation.  The beautiful Presidential Palace is also here.

The Streets of Casco Viejo

 

Casco Viejo

Dining and Nightlife

With amazing restaurants and bars at every turn, we had a difficult time making a choice.  We made our way up the hill to Capital Bistro Panama (CBP), which is one of the many lovely rooftop restaurants in Casco Viejo. Over cocktails, we took in the views of the city, including the line of ships waiting to move through the Miraflores Locks.  Watching the sun set over this cosmopolitan city was an event itself.

After CBP, we headed to another great rooftop spot. Tantalo.  To enter, you walk through Tantalo Kitchen, which looks like a small modern art gallery. As you walk in the door, the good vibes hit you right away.  Great music and a lively dining crowd, move you through to the elevator. The ride up takes us to the decked out, music-thumping rooftop. The views are breath-taking!  It seems like there is art everywhere.  The walls, the bottle coolers.  Awesome! They serve dinner until about 9pm.  We got there pretty early, and watched the partiers flow in and fill the place.  After many delicious sangrias, and a round of appetizers, we called it a night.

While we could have stayed a few more hours, we had to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning for our trip to our next destination…Playa Bonita!

Tantalo Rooftop Bar
Tantalo Rooftop Bar
Rooftop Bar at Tantalo

Travel Tips – Panama City, Panama

Getting There ~ Copa Airlines has some of the best direct flights from The U.S.

Getting Around ~ I suggest Uber for everything…airport transfers, hotel transfers and getting around the city.  From Tocumen to downtown was about $28 USD. From Hyatt Place Panama City to Mercado de Mariscos, about $4 USD. Taxi prices were much higher.

Official Language ~ Spanish.

Currency ~ The official currency is the Balboa.  1 Balboa equals $1 USD.  The USD is widely used.  We asked around several times and could not find any paper Balboas.

Credit and Debit Cards ~ U.S. credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Panama.

Weather ~ While we were there last week (late January), the average high was 90 degrees F, and the average low was 76 degrees F.  It was very sunny.  I strongly recommend sunblock and a hat.

 

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An Amazing 5 Nights In Cuba

 I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it many, many more times.  It takes a special traveler to visit, appreciate and enjoy Cuba right now.  So many Americans are chomping at the bits to visit the “forbidden” island these days.  Pressed to know what all the fuss is about.  A year ago, after a few solo educational trips, I decided to enlist a small group of travelers to take the journey with me.  I got two brave, serious souls to say “yes”, and really commit.  Thank you Deanna and Jane!  These two ladies helped me navigate my way through the learning curve of taking groups to Cuba for educational and people-to-people encounters, and I’ve never looked back. Again, thank you, ladies!

I get excited each time I post a sign-up for a new group trip to Cuba.  I’m always curious about who will join me on the next adventure.  For the most part, I have been very fortunate with this.  Once, not so much.  This most recent time…Jackpot!

 

Entering the Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio

 

Lunchtime in Vinales

About 6 months ago I posted a sign-up for a November 2016 five-night trip to Havana, Pinar del Rio/Vinales and Varadero.  8 people was my limit.  Of course, about thirty people contacted me and said they were “in”.  I didn’t panic about not having the space.  I know how this thing works.  Within a couple of weeks, and come time for making a deposit, that list of thirty was down to a solid, committed five! Five women!  Five women who typically pack up and take solo trips, or who join travel groups as a solo traveler.  I planned to use some of my free time in Cuba to do some site visits to hotels and B&Bs, so I enlisted one more person to join our group.  A native Spanish-speaking, travel planner friend.  The two of us have traveled from the coffee region of Colombia, to the resorts of Jamaica together on travel planner jaunts, so I knew he would be a good fit for helping me with this trip.

Bedroom at B&B Solinos y Yo

After sending in all payments, getting all of the necessary paperwork from the group, securing visas, a couple of conference calls, and some last minute changes made by our folks in Cuba, our travel day had come.  We flew from our home airports of DC, Albany, New Orleans, (and a short drive from Miami), to Fort Lauderdale to meet for the first time in person and take what would be their first flight to Cuba, and my first commercial flight to Cuba from the U.S. (before, I’d taken chartered flights from Miami)
.

Our Home For 3 Nights in Havana…B&B Solinos y Yo

This was one my favorite trips ever to Cuba!  I mean these women and one guy are travel pros!  They really know how to do it!  Sure, they brought a lot of luggage.  A lot!  But, they also left behind a lot of their clothes and toiletries, and brought back a whole lot of gifts (they have really happy friends in the States right now, I’m sure!).  From the moment we arrived at the airport in Varadero, to the moment we boarded our flight home, they were nothing short of curious, open-minded, gracious, well-educated, culture-loving travelers!  I could not get enough of how much they wanted to explore the island, meet the people, and take it all in.

Usually, a five day trip gives me plenty of time to have the group take in the tours, educational and people-to-people activities.  Not this group!  They happily turned our two hour walking tour of Old Havana into over three hours.  They didn’t only stop at the shops for gifts, they spent close to thirty minutes in each of the shops getting to know the artisans and craftsmen, and learning about what inspires them.  Our meals were long and lingering, full of conversations and live music, and without cell phones.  Aaahhh…heaven.

Living Room at B&B Solinos y Yo

 

Artwork at B&B Solinos y Yo

 

In Havana,we spent three nights in a lovely, large private home, B&B Solinos y Yo, with amazing twenty-four hour staff, a fully stocked bar and cigar humidor, high-powered a/c, a bedroom and bathroom for each of us (we had the entire place to ourselves!),  water that was sometimes hot, sometimes warm, sometimes cold (without one single complaint!), ate delicious group breakfasts of fruits, hot, baked bread from the bakery downstairs, eggs, ham, cheese, and freshly-made fruit juice, and traveled around to our cocktail and dinner spots  in either a nine-passenger minivan or two separate taxis.

 

Breakfast at B&B Solinos y Yo
Lunch Stop Day 1

 

Lunch Day 1

We took a very long day trip to Pinar del Rio/Vinales and visited a scenic overlook, the Cueva del Indio in Pinar del Rio, had lunch at a fantastic family farm restaurant, and got a lesson in cigar-making from my absolute favorite farming family at Finca Rancho Alegre, before taking the three-hour drive back to Havana.  Our drivers and guides Jorge and “Morro” made every trip a delight.  They were fountains of information!

 

Entrance to Cuevo del Indio in Pinar del Rio

 

Along the Tobacco Route

 

My Favorite Rest Stop

 

My Favorite View in Pinar del Rio
Tobacco Farmers in Vinales at Finca Rancho Alegre
Lemonade and Mojito-Maker Extraordinaire

We spent the last two and half days in Varadero, after a ride through Matanzas.  While we stayed at the concierge level of the lovely Melia Marina Varadero, an all-inclusive beach/marina resort that had every amenity you could ever wish for, my amazing group of travelers decided, each day, to leave the resort and take the local bus into town to visit with the locals, shop for local crafts, and eat the local food.  Did I mention that this group was awesome?

Music on the Way to Matanzas
The Beach in Varadero

 

Melia Marina Varadero

Over the dinner our last night in Cuba, we took turns talking about our favorite parts of this trip.  It made me happy beyond words to hear their feedback.  Dameatrice enjoyed searching through Old Havana, both in personal homes and shops, for a handmade dance skirt for her young niece (she eventually found one!), Lisa loved meeting the tobacco farmers and having a fresh smoke with them.  Krissy enjoyed her sunrise run along the malecon, meeting the locals and their dogs out for morning strolls. Luis reflected on his night-time walks along the malecon, having hours-long conversations with the revelers and fishermen.  Joyce smiled as she spoke of her lone wanderings through Old Havana after our group lunch. And Taryn spoke over and over again of how she can’t wait to visit each town again.  Thank you all.  You helped make this trip to Cuba a truly special one for me.

 

Luis and Our New Friend!

 

Always Great To See Her!
Cool Pups!

 

Afternoon in Old Havana

 

What To Do With That Halloween Pumpkin After Halloween

A week ago I purchased a large pumpkin from my local Harris Teeter store to use as decoration on my front porch for Halloween. I asked my guy (and more sensible half!) to go with me to the store to carry said large pumpkin to the car, and into the house.  It was a really large pumpkin.  When he realized why I was purchasing this pumpkin, his reply to me was “I cannot believe you are buying food to place on the front porch as decoration. Only in America!”  He was born in El Salvador, and while he has been in the States for 30 years, that doesn’t stop him from taking note of, and making comments on little things like this from time to time. So, I decided right then that I would use this pumpkin as food after it served it’s decoration purposes.

Pumpkin As Decoration On Our Front Porch

 

I’m not a baker.  At all.  ‘Can’t even make box cakes taste good.  So, I went with pumpkin soup.  I had never eaten pumpkin soup until now, but I figured my soup would turn out better than cakes, pies or breads.  Based, again, on my past experiences with baking.

It was a long, arduous process, and after 3.5 hours in the kitchen….Pumpkin Soup!  And, my guy said it tastes “delicious”!

Here’s how I did it:

 

  • Washed the large pumpkin
  • Cut it in half (you can roast the pumpkin whole, but this one would not fit in my oven)
  • Set aside half of the pumpkin (for trash, or whatever you want), and cleaned the seeds and guts out of the half I’d be using
Pumpkin Cut In Half
  • Preheated the oven to 425 degrees
  • Cut the half of pumpkin into 8-10 chunky pieces
  • Placed the pieces on wax paper on baking sheets/pans
Roasting Pumpkin Chunks
  • Roasted pumpkin pieces for 45-55 minutes (until it is soft when you stick a fork in it)
  • While waiting on the pumpkin to cook, I cleaned the seeds…its a bit messy
Pumpkin Seeds Ready For Cleaning
  • Placed the seeds on a baking sheet, let them air dry, then sprinkled the seeds with coarse sea salt.  I later roasted these on 325 degrees for 25 minutes.
  • Removed the pumpkin from the oven, let it cool for about 20 minutes
  • Peeled the skin from the pumpkin, and discarded the skin
Pumkin Roasted, Pelled and Cooling Down
  • In a large pot, I boiled vegetable stock
  • Added the pumpkin pieces to the stock and gently mashed with a root vegetable masher (you could use a large spoon for this)
  • I added a generous amount of molasses, a little more stock, and kept mashing/stirring.  This will not make it a soup form yet, but hang on
  • Add the mixture to the blender or food processor and puree to no avail!
  • When it looked like it couldn’t be pureed any more, I added a dash of salt, a dash of chili powder, a hefty dash of nutmeg, and a hearty pour of  heavy whipping cream
  • Pour into your soup bowls, and garnish with Salvadoran crema (see what I did there?)

Delsih!

Notes:
I did not use measurements while cooking this one.
You can use small pumpkins and roast them whole, then clean the insides after they are cooked.
You can be all kinds of cool and serve the soup in a remaining, cleaned out pumpkin with the top cut off.

Are You Really Ready For Cuba?

With the recent ease in travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba, there has been so much chatter and buzz about how folks just “have to get there to see it in it’s buff”, or just “have to see it before the Americans take it over”. Literally, every other time I mention that I’m going to, or coming back from, Cuba, I get a response similar to the above mentioned remarks.  But, is that REALLY what we Americans want?  To see Cuba “in it’s buff”? Do we really want to experience Cuba before it is “Americanized”?  Can we really handle that?  You’d be surprised by the true answer, I think.

The idea of traveling to a place that for the past 50 years, or so, was “forbidden” to U.S. citizens seems exciting. Adventurous. Brave. Cool.  It proves that you are a world traveler.  That you don’t need to be surrounded by all of the creature comforts of home.  That you’re not sheltered. Right? Well, based on my experiences over the past year with taking groups to Cuba to participate in People-to-People exchanges (1 of the 12 categories that allow U.S. citizens to legally travel there), not everyone is REALLY ready to see Cuba “in it’s buff”, or before it is “Americanized”.  Not everyone is the experienced traveler who is ready to be exposed to ALL parts of the globe. And, guess what? That’s okay.What is not so okay to me is that folks leave the comforts of the U.S. talking on and on about how they are ready to go full-force into the experience of this once “forbidden” country, and nearly spasm out the moment they realize that, say, the air conditioning in the room is not has forceful as it is in their State-side home. Or, that the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet is not the likes of their IHOP breakfast. Or that Cuba’s national dish doesn’t taste the way they want it to taste. I’m serious.  I can’t make this stuff up!

I admit, to some, to many, the first visit to Cuba can be daunting. The country may appear to be still in the 50’s, but it’s slowly making progress.  So, sure, it takes some a minute to adjust, and move on with their visit.  But, some visitors do not seem to make the adjustment, and unfortunately, they spend their entire visit to the place they couldn’t wait to experience in “its true form” complaining, retreating, and missing out on the moments.What a pity.

Cuba is not for everyone.  It simply is not!  Not everyone finds it easy to maneuver through the underdeveloped roads to the underdeveloped towns, differentiating between the two types of Cuban currencies, eating the staple beans, rice and meat, while occasionally swatting flies or accidentally getting whiffs of vehicle fumes. Cuba is for you if you go knowing what to expect, and with an open mind, an open heart, and a little knowledge of the history of the country.  Having a little common sense will also help.

A few take-aways, in no particular order (this is not a full list):

  • The hotel room star rating system in Cuba is not the same as it is in the States. Their 4 star is closer to our 2 star.
  • Just because you are “promised” a certain type, size, make or model vehicle, does not mean you are “guaranteed” it.
  • Sometimes the AC works, sometimes it doesn’t. 
  • The food in Cuba tastes different from the food in the U.S. because it is different from the food in the U.S.
  • You will lose money on the currency exchange.
  • The official language in Cuba is Spanish (Surprisingly, I have to remind people of this!)
  • Most of the Cuban people do not understand American slang. (Again, surprise!)
  • Cuba is underdeveloped by U.S. standards. (Yep! Surprise!)
  • Travelers from the U.S. have to meet at least one of twelve qualifications to LEGALLY travel to Cuba from the U.S.
So, think about it.  Are you REALLY ready to visit Cuba?  Know that spending most of your visit griping and complaining about how the country doesn’t have the comforts of “home” won’t change anything. Are you ready?  If your answer is yes, great for you!  It is truly a remarkable place filled with a rich culture and friendly people just waiting to greet you!

A Long Weekend in St. Augustine, Florida

While early July is a very, very, very hot time to visit St. Augustine, Florida, we continue to do so year after year.  And, we’re not the only ones!  From the early morning hours until the late night (late night here is about 11pm!), the streets are packed with tourists, artists, residents and passers-throughs. Some ignoring the blistering heat, some trying to ignore it, but all truly in it.

We arrived at the lovely, albeit dated, Casa Monica hotel and checked in.  An earlier guest was fortunate enough to get our preferred room, 212, so we were booked, for the first time, in a room on the 4th floor.  It’s been a couple of years since we’ve stayed at the Casa Monica.  While the common areas are as grand, and as beautiful as ever, the guestrooms could use some serious updating.  The old carpet smell greets you upon entry into the rooms.  Not dirty, but definitely old. The walls and doors are thin.  You can hear every sound through them.  And the bathrooms!  Oh my!  They look as if they haven’t ever been updated.  Ever! The comfortable bed and pillows made up for what the dated room lacked.  So, all was well.

We decided to brave the late afternoon heat and head out for a walk and a snack.  A1A Ale Works caught our eyes.  In a perfect location on King street, facing the lovely Matanzas Bay, this place is a must visit!  The menu features Floridian, Caribbean and Cuban-influenced selections, there’s a working brewery, and 2 bars.  Try the lump crab cakes with Cajun remoulade and the fried calamari with wasabi aioli.  Amazing! We topped off our snack with refreshing A1A/Florida Mules…ginger beer poured over St. Augustine vodka, fresh lime and mint.

Refreshed and full, we headed out to stroll the historic Lincolnville section of St. Augustine.  After just a few steps, the heat hit us like a ton of bricks.  Well, at least that was the excuse we used for having to step into a place with a big sign that read “Come In and Cool Down with Frozen Wine Smoothies”.  Little did we know that Vino Del Grotto would become a daily stopping point for us, making the hot St. Augustine summer days much easier to bear.

Holiday-time Cruising: We Love It!

Its that time of year again!  Here, in the U.S., most people are hustling and bustling in the name of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa.  On Thanksgiving Day, the mayhem begins. People shop, shop and shop like there’s no tomorrow, for the latest gadgets, fashion finds, baubles, cars, pets, you name it!  Not us!  We start looking for our ticket out of here!  Our preferred way is to take a week-long cruise to someplace warm, sunny and away from shopping malls and traffic.  This year, we chose the Norwegian Sky’s cruise from Miami to Grand Bahama Island, Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian’s Private Island).  As commercial and as crowded as this may sound, it was far from it, and proved to be the perfect “escape” for us.  Perfect!

 

Cruising….

The Lovely Miami Skyline

With our backpacks, sunglasses, suntan/block cream in hand, and our Samsung Galaxy 6 and Galaxy 6 Note on airplane mode and for photo-taking only, we were off!

I Don’t Sun Travel Without This!

My Sun Staples

Whether you’re a frequent cruiser or a novice, this quick, 4-night sailing has something to offer everyone.  Suites, balconies, windowed and inside cabins, Unlimited Top-Shelf Beverage packages,  and award-winning casino, a full spa and fitness center (complete with fitness classes and great instructors), specialty dining at its best, and days and nights filled with shows to please all.  And while the adults play, there are kids and teen clubs for the younger sailors to hang out and have fun with their mates.

Cabin Life

There’s still time to book your holiday season trip!  Contact Ingrid’s Travel Boutique at travelingwrite@gmail.com, and get ready to set sail! 

The Wonderful People of Cuba

Cuba is a “melting pot”. The races have so intermingled that it is impossible to categorize the population’s mixture with 100% accuracy.  As of 2012, the population of close to 12 million was made up mostly of  Spanish and Africans.  About 64% of Cubans consider themselves white, or of Spanish descent.  27% of the population is mulatto and mestizo, and 9%  is black. 

With Our Personal Tour Guide in Habana Vieja

Crafter in Trinidad

With the Bartender, chef and waitress at El Zaguan in Havana

With Chambermaid at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

 A very small number of the country’s Chinese population lives in Havana’s Chinatown, where at one point, this area, known as Barrio Chino, was said to have been the largest in Latin America.  However, today, the Chinese population has almost diminished, and/or blended into the Cuban culture, and the neighborhood (Barrio Chino) has lost most of it’s splendor. 

Most Cubans are Roman Catholic.  There are also Protestants and a small Jewish population. Before the revolution, there were close to 20 thousand Jewish people in Cuba, mostly seeking sanctuary during WWII.  Now, there are a few thousand.  Many of Cuba’s blacks are followers of Santeria

The Cuban people are friendly, outgoing, stylish, and a s helpful as can be.  If my group even looked a little confused, there was a passerby at the ready with directions, information, or legitimate suggestions.

Artist in Trinidad

With Artists at the Rumba Festival in Habana Vieja
Stylish Teens in Habana Vieja

Stylish Toddler in “Jellies” in Pinar del Rio

Newly passed regulations now allow for some forms of capitalism.  The Cubans are very hard-working and are known for their entrepreneurial skills.  To be able to branch off (somewhat) on their own is a huge stepping stone for them, and an opportunity that they do not take lightly.  During our visit we met an English professor-turned-independent tour guide, grammar school teachers, paladar (both small and large) owners, artists, fishermen, musicians, farmers, concierges, chambermaids, doormen, a dentist, bartenders, a cigar-maker, tour bus drivers, IT specialists and chefs, to name a few.  Each and every one of these people, worked their craft with noticeable passion. 

Cigar Maker in Vinales

Cocktail Crafter at Cueva del Indio in Vinales

With Constelacion group members at Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Doorman at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

Farmer in Pinar del Rio

Fishermen in Havana

Teacher and Students in Trinidad



Musicians at La Moneda Cubana in Havana



Note From Chambermaid in Trinidad

With Artist in Havana

 One thing I can personally say about the Cuban people is that they truly made me not want to leave them.

Concierge at Palicio O’Farrill Boutique Hotel in Havana

With Tour Guide in Havana

My Favorite Farmer in Vinales

Cuban Dining…Good Without Excitement

The food in Cuba was good, but void of the heat and spices I enjoy so much.  Actually, I would venture to say that had I stayed there for a few more days, I might have grown a bit bored with the cuisine.  While the Cubans tend to be conservative when it comes to experimenting with ingredients and flavors, the local produce is fresh and usually organic. And the chicken, rice and beans, a national staple, were perfectly prepared each time I had it.

Also, there were days in a row where I had delicious lobster for lunch and dinner, so I am not really complaining.

With the new ripple of paladars and privately-owned restaurants popping up, I look forward to a little more excitement in their culinary growth. 

Dining in Havana

Lamb in Vinales

Lobster in Vinales

Lobster in Havana

Pumpkin Soup in Havana

Chicken Sandwich at a Rest Stop in Pinar del Rio

Ceviche in Varadero

Chicken in Special Sauce at El Aljibe

Flan in Vinales

Dining in Vinales

Trinidad, Cuba – Life at a Nice Pace

Trinidad, Cuba became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.  The city, with a population of about 30,000, is on the Caribbean coast close to the Escambray Mountains, with beautiful views of both hillsides and sea.  With its quaint, old-world charm, picturesque beauty and really, really friendly residents, surprisingly, the city is unsullied by, but not void of tourists. There are little taxi cars and a small bus “station” to shuttle about the day-trippers.  It’s so pleasant to wander through the mostly traffic-free, cobble-stoned streets, hearing to clopping hooves of horses, while dodging slow-walking dogs and cats.

Plaza Mayor, the town’s main square, boasts a plain cathedral and five ornate, colorful, colonial mansions. There is a park with bronze greyhounds and a statue of Terpsichore, the muse of dancing and song. There are several casas de musica (music houses), with one next to the cathedral.  The tiny school houses, casa particulars (private homes with rooms for rent), pastry shops and the open air markets keep the day wanderer entertained for hours.  We did not stay at a room at a local home this time, opting, instead to spend our 2 nights at Brisas Trinidad del Mar.  While the resort staff was lovely, and the resort grounds made it easy for me to create stunning photos, and it was great to start and end our days with the sand and surf as our back yard, the resort left a lot to be desired.  It’s barely a 3-star resort by U.S. ratings.  I didn’t necessarily mind sharing my room with sand crabs and lizards, but I did mind the somewhat dirty and very smelly rooms, and the bad, bad food. My group and I agreed that the next time (and there will be a next time!), we’ll stay closer to history in one of the homes.