How is it possible to be miserable in a Cuban paradise called Cayo Coco? Well, sometimes back at home when planning a vacation, one option might seem like the optimal idea at that time. But when on vacation that same option might turn out to be a bad choice.
Normally when traveling around I always make sure to have the flexibility to cancel any pre-booked accommodation. But in this specific case that was not possible. So what what so bad about Cayo Coco? Nothing really, it was just wrong timing.
In Sweden when making our Cuba rout me & Louise were rather tired and felt the need for rest, peace and quietness. We thought the perfect ending of our vacation would be to spend a few days in a nice resort by the turquoise sea with nothing else around us. That the location was said to be away from the regular Cuban life did not bother us at that time because we knew we would get a lot of Cuban life our 2 1/2 first weeks. But what happened was that we had 2 1/2 amazing weeks before landing in Cayo Coco. We had been resting out through dancing and interacting with many great acquaintances along the way. Coming from Trinidad where we had danced to salsa on the square every night and fallen in love with the great vibe of the place, ending up in this beautiful resort became rather a prison. There was absolutely nothing around our hotel area and watching the tourist friendly shows at night in the lobby made us even more miserable. We tried to play around with our cigars, watch small creatures and appreciate the surrounding but felt sad. Our only interaction was a sweet retired English couple. And the food was the tastiest we had had in Cuba but after the first evening I got an upset stomach and was ill the day after.
We reviewed our options. We had a flight booked back to Havana from Cayo Coco which could not be canceled. So it was not so easy. Finally we decided to “escape” one day earlier than planned so after four days we where on a seven hours bus journey back to Havana. This gave us an extra day there before going back to Sweden and a chance to gain back that wonderful energy that we had accumulated during our first weeks.
Looking back I have no hard feelings. Just another learning about myself and about life :-)
It is a challenge to find blog time in my busy schedule. But to catch up where I left it is time to share some images from Trinidad in Cuba. A colonial colorful city that despite its very present tourist feel captivates and seduces anyone that passes by. Me and Louise spent a few wonderful days in Trinidad and have very warm feeling when looking back.
Some of the best memories took place in the evenings at the open air “Casa de la Musica” live music venue on the stairs of Plaza Mayor. There we socialized and danced salsa and enjoyed the great atmosphere. Since we prioritized being “handbag free” at night to be able to dance freely I don´t have any evening pictures at all. Everything is kept purely as a memory. Below is a selfie of me & Louise before one of our salsa nights ;-)
Trinidad is mostly about strolling around the picturesque and colorful streets and taking in the atmosphere. The little girls on below pictures got ball pens from Louise. Something, along with many other items, that we were told people lack in Cuba.
A great part about staying in a “Casa Particular” is to have dinner at the casa at night. For a nice price most casas offers a three course meal which is much tastier than what the restaurants offers. In the first image below our hosts are delivering our main dish. Usually the casas have a table or two at their roof top for this purpose. It is also a great way to socialize with the other guest in the casa.
Not too far from Trinidad lays Ancon beach. A beautiful stretch with just a few hotels surrounding. We took a taxi there every day to relax and to watch the cute lizards with the curly tails :-) Upon return to Trinidad it was nice to have an ice-crem and a refreshing drink. Cubans like ice cream and they are pretty OK in taste.
On the afternoon of 31 December 2014 we took a walk up the hill to get a better view over Trinidad. Funnily enough we past the nightclub Ayala were we had been ending our evening two nights before. It is a very unique venue since it is in a cave. But the even more odd thing is that to get there you walk up a long hill which is partially nothing else than a garbage dump. The club itself is really cool. The guard offered us a free daytime tour as we passed by. Despite my claustrophobia this cave was OK for me. Maybe because it was so spacious.
After seeing the beautiful sunset on the way back from our walk, we went back to our casa and had dinner with a bunch of Belgians. Two of them stayed in our casa and another four in other casas. But since they traveled together our casa “Hostal Valmaseda” had offered to arrange the meal for all of them + us. Afterwards our hosts invited us to join their family New Years Eve party which meant dancing like crazy with all generations in their livingroom until the clock struck twelve. It was probably one of my most fun and memorable New Years Eve´s ever! In my last post there are some Youtube clips from the New Years Eve with the family and the Belgians.
On our last day in Trinidad I finally saw to elderly men with cigars that I got to photograph. But it is all for the show. As you can see the man´s cigar is not even lit. In fact I saw very few Cubans smoking cigar. Apart from the tobacco farmers in Vinales.
The day ended with yet another colorful stroll and a sunset drink at the stairs of Casa de la Musica. The live bands started playing around 16:00 every day and went on until after midnight. If there is one place we need to re-visit it will be Trinidad. It is not a question about “if” but only about “when” :-D
Since Cuba is so much about the feelings that occurs in the interactions between people & music I decided to make a special post today where I share some short movie clips from mine & Louise vacation in Cuba :-) Most of the evenings we had no camera with us since we wanted to be hands free for the salsa dancing. Naturally the evenings were when a lot of happiness happened but those images are purely recorded in out memories. I hope you will find the following clips inspiring.
Salsa lessons in Havana
A ride along Malecon
Salsa in Vinales square
Cafe musicians in Trinidad
Salsa lessons in Trinidad
Celebrating New Years Eve in Trinidad
Cafe musicians in Havana
I had to admit my feelings were mixed when we decided to put Varadero on our Cuba route. Varadero is the busy number one charter destination in Cuba. But I had also read that Varadero really has the most beautiful beach in Cuba. It is possible to stay at casa particulares (concept explained in this >> post) but we selected an all inclusive resort. When making this choice bare in mind that in Cuba you can deduct two stars from what is actually marketed. While the casas make their utmost to make you feel like a Queen, always keeps super tidied and serves you very well prepared food and drinks, the hotels in Cuba are pretty run down. Cleaners often does not bother to clean unless you leave them tip everyday, even if it is included as a standard service. Waiters will not give attention to your table, even if it is included, unless you tip them. But we have to admit it was kind of good fun. We had picked an average hotel close to the center. And took it for what it was.
So were we happy with our choice? Oh yes! Just scroll down and you will see why ;-)
The beach was situated about five minutes walk from our hotel Bellevue Palma Real. But it has a snack bar with free drinks as well so it was all very convenient. But what else would you expect from an all inclusive resort? The picture number two below shows how it can also look like if you want to be as close as possible to the drinks & snacks. Luckily the beach is endless and it is possible to find more quiet spots along the beautiful stretch.
We arrived on Christmas Eve and was told it was a special night. And what a welcome! The staff must have been working very hard to present us the most kitschy buffet I have ever seen. Butter creations looking like a mermaid or Santa Claus. Fishy art in gel, mayonnaise rubbed fishes, ham and cheese palm trees and more gelly thins and so fort. It tasted OK as did the buffet the rest of our days. But we were rather happy we had brought some chili from home to spice it up a bit. Let´s put it like this; I managed to get one plate for every meal with things that tempted me. But after eating that I was not tempted to get more ;-)
Every night after dinner it was possible to watch a nice show in the hotel outdoor theater. There were different performances every night and they were really good!
The hotel itself was OK. Food, drinks & daily entertainment. And if you still wanted more there was always a hotel nearby that had a special club night. We found a nice place close by called Calle 62 where people, both locals and tourists, were dancing on the street to live music. Lot´s of salsa! The good things with Varadero is that there is actually locals living there too :-D We tried the local “Casa de la musica”, a concert/social dancing institution which is found in most big cities throughout Cuba. Casa de la musica´s has a matinée from around 17-21 and a night performance from around 22-02. We tried a matinée called Discotemba and it was just us and locals. Most of the performance is salsa and other typical Cuban bands. But Discotemba is one of a kind. From around 17-19 people just sat and watched old music videos from the 80’s and 90’s which were shown on big screens. People drank beer and sang along. After that a DJ started spinning every things from Y.M.C.A. to Macarena and Cubans of all ages went completely wild. It was a fun experience ;) Una tarde loca!
One day it rained hard. But no worries, the main street in Varadero is actually pretty green and cozy with lot´s of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops to spend your time and money in. Varadero definitely exceeded my expectation. Don´t hesitate to go! :-)
After four nights in Havana it was time to explore some Cuban country side in beautiful Viñales. For independent travelers the two most common modes of transportation will be by bus or by private taxi. The latter is in some cases necessary since there are not straight bus lines from all cities. Viazul is the name of the most used bus company. But we discovered that it is only possible to buy the bus ticket in the city from where you will depart. And since there are lot´s of tourists and only few connections this means that if you need to travel somewhere where connection is needed you will only be able to buy your ticket for the first distance and most likely your second distance will be sold out by the time you reach your connection point. That is one reason why private taxi sometimes needs to be used as an alternative. If you are many people sharing it is really good value for money. If alone or just two it is a bit pricey but still acceptable compared to distance.
In Viñales we stayed at Casa Ridel y Claribel. Their casa was a short walk away from the main drag and really peaceful. From the rooftop there was a pretty view and the cocktails & the food was delicious :-P Ridel´s profession is a medical doctor and he therefore spoke excellent English. He and his wife Claribel were the warmest people we met during our trip. They were genuinely caring and open for interesting conversations. Their lovely daughter was a smiling young girl who also enjoyed practicing her English with us.
Viñales is a colorful town. Despite the tourism the vibe is laid back. We enjoyed very much to just walk around and look at all pretty houses, dogs and street life. And to try the outdoor gym. ;) In Viñales as in so many other places in Cuba horse carriage is a common way for people to transport them self. Viñales has a small center with a square and some nice Paladares, concept explained in my previous post.
The main reason for people coming to Viñales is the lovely countryside. In Viñales valley one can discover the tobacco plantations and spot lot´s of cool cowboys. All surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs. Most people go by horse but we choose to walk. We rented an English speaking guide for half a day with whom we were able to chat about Cuban life as we strolled around the amazing landscapes. The day started up misty but cleared up in the afternoon. Apart from the trek we had one stop at a tobacco farm where we got to hear about the process and see how cigars are rolled. There we bumped into a nice Italian couple we had met in Havana who helped us translate. We learned that a tobacco farmer must harvest once a year and 90% are to be sold to the Cuban state. 10% is allowed to be kept for private sales and use. Those 10% are sold brandless and without chemical treatment (treated can be kept 10 years, untreated for 3) for a very humble price. On the market they get brands a Cohiba thus good stuff. Even if not a cigar smoker I had to purchase a few ;-)
In Viñales there are two hotels, La Ermita & Los Jazmines. A great way to spend the afternoon after some trekking is to visit one of them. You can either just buy a drink and hang around or also use their pool for a small amount. We tried La Ermita one afternoon and Los Jazmines the other. They are both nice in their own way. The best part is that both of them are located on a hight which provides amazing views.
After three nights with Ridel & Claribel it was time for a four hour private taxi ride to Varadero, the beach destination number one in Cuba. We had a lovely stay in Viñales and were very lucky to get a reservation with Ridel & Claribel since they are the number one Casa in the area, according to Tripadvisor. With all rights!
Hi everyone! I am just back from what could be one of the best vacations me & Louise had since we started traveling together. Cuba has long been on my wish list as so many other destinations. But I have to admit that I had mixed feelings when we finally booked the trip because of all the bad things I had heard about the food. But wow, I am so grateful we did go. We landed on what seems to become a historical day in Cuba´s history, 17 December 2014. >>Read more under “Statement by the President on Cuba policy changes”.
In this first post I would like to introduce traveling in Cuba by sharing our experiences and some pictures and information from our first days in Havana. At the bottom of this post I have also added a small teaser of what will come in next posts ;-)
In Cuba the most common accommodation for independent travelers is the so called “casa particulares”. It means that you rent a room in a private resident. Most “casas” rent one or two rooms but the one we picked in Havana had a lot of rooms for rent. Our pick was called “Casavana” and is situated on floor 5 in a high-rise building on a nice avenue in the area Vedado. Many tourists likes to stay in Habana Vieja (Old Town) but I had read that for salsa dancers Vedado was the best pick to base ourself. And after looking at the Tripadvisor reviews I was convinced. After trying both casas and 4/5 star hotels in Cuba I can tell you that this place was better than a five star hotel. And one of the owners, Ana, who is mostly around is an intelligent, very service minded woman with perfect English. We could not have had a better start.
In casas there is always breakfast service and in the smaller once also dinner service. Since casas are so intimate it is a great way to meet other travelers to share experiences with. And guess what, wifi is hardly possible to find in Cuba which means that travelers in Cuba are actually looking at each other and talking like in the old good days ;-)
Havana is just how you would imagine Cuba. You have the old colorful American cars everywhere, old and very run-down buildings in many architectural styles revealing worn beauty. You even have a Capitol building :-) In Habana Vieja restorations are ongoing everywhere. That is of course fantastic but makes it very hard to discover most of the small alleys. Coming back to the accommodation part, we are so happy we picked Vedado as our base. I personally was not so fond of Habana Vieja but liked Centro and Vedado more. One part was the restorations but I also found Vieja a bit creepy at night, however always felt very safe in Vedado.
On a rooftop terrace in Habana Vieja we spent our two first mornings taking private salsa lessons. I dance Cuban salsa since before but was eager to learn more. When we heard that a guy from our hometown Göteborg was going to arrange lessons during the time we were there we decided to partially join. It was me, Louise and the arranger + one more girl. We were all assigned a professional partner and together we practiced both Cuban salsa but also one of the origins to Cuban salsa called Rumba. We even did some Rueda de Casino which is a style where many couples dance together and makes moves to playful commands. Good fun! For independent travelers we heard good reviews about”La Casa del Son“. Most casas are also able to arrange private lessons in your casa :-)
Staying in Vedado was enriching our Havana experience since we had to utilize the common taxis every day to get around. Before I explain that further I want to shortly mention the money matters for tourists. To keep it simple, Cubans use their own currency called Cuban Peso (CUP). Tourists are only allowed to use the so called Convertible Peso (CUC). 1 CUC is pretty much equal in value as 1 USD. The difference in value between CUP & CUC is so huge that they must be viewed separately. You will understand what I mean if I put it like this: A Cuban employee earn as much in CUP as a tourist pay for a dinner out in Havana in CUC. I think this needs no further explanation. But it might make you draw some interesting conclusions during your vacation. As example; many public toilets will demand 1 CUC from a tourist to use the toilet. It does not take much mathematics to understand that “toilet lady” must be a lucrative business. I write this to clarify that things is a bit complicated when it come to money matters.
Now back to the cars :-D You simply wave to the old veteran cars on the street, jump in and hop of anywhere during their route. It will cost you no more than 1 CUC pp as a tourist and is good fun as you share ride with the locals. If you need to go to a more specific address you need to take your own cab. Apart from riding in the cool cars me & Louise enjoyed very much to stroll around in Vedado and surroundings to just view all the colorful beauties passing by.
Finally in this post I like to mention a bit about food in Cuba. If you stay in a “casa” and they have dinner service, go for it!!! In most places you get a three course home made meal for 10 CUC and compared to what you will be served in the state run restaurants the meal in your casa will be many times better and the experience & service is very personal. If you are in cities like Havana you will also have the choice to find yourself a private restaurants, so called Paladar. The price will be around 20-30 CUC for a two or three course meal with a drink or two. Some of them will be super delicious, some of them OK. Paladares are sometimes a bit tricky to find as they are based in normal buildings in regular residential areas (most of them are out of the tourist areas). Just google “Paladares Havana” if you plan to go. One that we found and returned to no less than three times was the Swedish owned “Casa Miglis“. We had read about the fantastic food there and considering being Swedes we found it rather amusing to discover this place. But the reason for returning two more times was simply because the taste & quality of the food was the best we had had in a long time. For me the pasta dish on below picture was even better than anything I had in Italy earlier this year. So if you are a foodie, go out and discover the Paladares in Havana!
In the final post about Cuba I will re-visit Havana with some pictures from the legendary Malecón and some more street life images. Below the small teaser for coming posts as mentioned initially. Enjoy!
Teaser future posts :-)
After Havana we spent three days in the beautiful Viñales area, famous for limestone cliffs and tobacco fields.
The next destination after Viñales was Varadero, beach destination #1 in Cuba.
After lazy beach days in Varadero we went to the colonial town Trinidad with its colorful & lively streets.
We then spent a few more beach days in the island Cayo Coco before returning to Havana for a few last days of salsa dancing.
In September this year I visited Istanbul for the third time, read more about that HERE >>
One of the reasons me & my friend Louise makes such a great travel company is that we share the same view of how a great vacation should look like. We are looking for the same ingredients and the same balance :-) Party is not the primary need for us but we do like to experience the local nightlife in most places we visit. We share the joy of dancing to really good electro music now and then but we also share the curiosity of discovering the local flavors.
When we were in Istanbul we decided to try to capture different scenes into one night. We dressed up to start of with the famous Golden Mile in Istanbul. The Golden mile is a strip along The Bosphorus that hosts some fancy clubs with great international line ups of DJ´s. We wanted to see how it looked like, even if we suspected the ambiance would not really be ours. Before hopping in to the taxi that would take us there we bought ourself some delicious Turkish kebab around the corner from our hotel. The taxi ride was so much fun with a driver that decided to get us going with some great old hits like “Mr Vain” with Culture Beat. The ride took a while and it was one big party in the backseat ;-)
Our pick was the glamorous Anjelique. Luckily the entrance was for free because the drink we had was damn expensive. But it was not that that made us flee, but the uncomfortably bratty atmosphere. The night view over the Bosphorus bridge with the Ortaköy mosque in front was amazing and the DJ played great house. But the people were so cold that we left after just one hour. Before heading to our next target, which we hoped would be a more chilled place, we quickly went by our hotel since I wanted to change clothes.
Our next goal was a place I had read about called 5.Kat. It was supposed to be one of those splendid rooftop bars in Istanbul that are hard to find but with rewarding views. After some help from the locals we hit our target but the rooftop restaurant/bar had just closed. Instead we ended up in the basement of the same building in a small, trendy club with great music and a hipster vibe. The place had a few smaller rooms with an intimate living room feel and each with a separate DJ.
On our way back to the hotel we strolled the Istiklal Caddesi and when we were almost past it I heard great Turkish club music from a window above and asked the doorman about the entrance which turned out to be free. So we ended our evening in a place called Club Lupe which turned out to be my favorite. The atmosphere was just fun and the DJ played the kind of club music I really had hoped to find, upbeat house with Turkish sounds. I loved it and it was a perfect finish of our evening out in Istanbul, the city that never sleeps!
Istanbul – the city where where East meets West! And where traditional meets modern and melts together in one colorful, vibrant and magnificent waterfront metropolis! :-D
Since my list of “want to visit” places is long, going back to a city for the third time really means I am hooked. Here you can read about my first and second visit to Istanbul. This third visit was done in September this year with my friend Louise. Our three days were pretty much about relaxing and just loading ourself with impressions. I do warn you, Istanbul is among the most photogenic places I have experienced and I had a very hard time choosing my images. And I do know they are too many. But what drives me when it comes to this blog, apart from securing a nice memory library for myself, is to give the reader a nuanced picture of the places I visit. And in this case that requires many images. I hope you enjoy :-)
In Istanbul very much takes place along the waterfronts. I really like to enjoy a moment on one of the cafés under the Galata Bridge each time I visit Istanbul. The one below where Louise is enjoying a beer is my favorite :-)
On our first day we took a short boat ride to vibrant Kadiköy on the Anatolian side. It is a very local area with lots of shops and eateries. Great getaway from the tourist scenes. And the sunset views over Sultanahmet and the two most famous mosques in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, are allways breathtaking.
Before day 1 was finished we strolled the narrow bar and restaurant streets around Istiklal Caddesi before heading back to our hotel. Istanbul is one of those cities which never sleeps as I am sure you can imagine from below pictures.
Day 2 was dedicated to the beautiful area Sultanahmet, better described in my first post about Istanbul. Even if I had been to Istanbul twice before I had never visited the famous mosques. I simply find them so extraordinary from the outside and that, combined with big queues and crowds, always put me of. But this time we did visit Aya Sofya. And my conclusion is, it is nice to have done once but nothing beats the view from the outside. Apart from the mosques Sultanahmet has a very special architecture and many places to rewind. And close by is the famous Grand Bazar and Spice Market. They are nice to stroll through but the crowds and the impressions are a bit too much to get me in to a shopping mood ;-) But it did get me in to ice cream mood. Turkish ice cream is delicious. It is made out of goat milk and for some reason the ice cream is really chewy in the texture.
After sleeping in after a party evening, day 3 started with a visit to Ortaköy. I will not describe that further here since I did that in my first Istanbul post. But it is a nice neighborhood for a Sunday stroll. After that we took an expensive beer in one of the most extraordinary rooftop bars in Istanbul, the 360. 360 is both a restaurant and a nightclub. When we were there it was quiet and the rooftop terrace empty due to rain. But it was still a nice stop before making our final stroll over the Galata bridge and all the way back to Sultanahmet where we were going to end our last day with a Turkish bath at a classic Hamam. On the way we stopped by at our favorite “Pide place”. A kind of pizza alike foodie that quickly made us addicted :-P
This was all from Istanbul for now. In my next and last post for this year I will share some images from a fun night out in Istanbul! See you then :-)
Appendix – Taksim Nacre Hotel
On this trip we decided to base ourself near Taksim square and found charming Taksim Nacre Hotel which lies in a regular neighborhood but with close walking distance to Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi. As most houses in Istanbul there was a rooftop terrace where breakfast was served every morning. Apart from hotel guests two hungry Seagulls were present every day, jealously looking in through the window ;-) Nacre was a very friendly small hotel but ask for a room on higher floor since the lobby on ground floor could be a bit noisy.
In September this year I visited Istanbul for the third time, together with my travel mate Louise (often mentioned in this blog). Before making a post about that trip I felt the need to organize my previous posts about the city. Istanbul was the first post I ever made and I merged the trip 2011 with my first visit 2009 and did not do the city justice at all. With so much material I decided to re-do my my first post to cover only 2009. This post covers the re-visit 2011 and the following one, which I will blog about next week, will cover the third trip :-)
So, before reading any further I suggest you take a look at my first post, “A fist encounter with lovely Istanbul” :-) That will also give you some background to how I met my friend Canem and the network Couchsurfing.
My 2011 visit to Istanbul was done in connection to a round trip I did in Turkey that summer. I had picked the hottest month July which unfortunately is when I am expected to take my main holiday due to the Swedish laws. I started with a few days at Canem´s place which gave me a new insight to Istanbul. Canem lives on the Anatolian side which I had no time to visit 2009. She let me see a totally non touristic side of Istanbul and I had a few wonderful days with her. I also managed to meet up with a guy from Istanbul that I actually got to know in Tokyo on a night out with a bunch of Couchsurfers. It was great to see Armagan in his home environment and we had a lovely dinner together one night.
After a few days in Istanbul at Canem´s place it was time to board the night bus to Göreme (I did totally three night bus journeys in Turkey on my 2011 trip and they were all excellent!). I can only say that Turkey went up to my Top 5 favorite countries rather fast. Learn more about my Turkey trip from following posts:
Cappadocia – one of the most extraordinary landscapes you will ever come across
Kas – lovely Mediterranean town that made me postpone my departure and reschedule my trip
Fetiye – the hub for sailing tours on turquoises waters and much more…
Pamukkale – top tourist attraction in Turkey famous for the hanging white chalk pools & ancient Hierapolis
Selcuk – cozy town close to the famous archaeological site Ephesus (ancient very well preserved Roman city)
Before flying back to Sweden I had another two nights in Istanbul that I spent in a hostel in Sultanahmet. I dedicated my full day to a boat trip on the Bosphorus. The boat departed from central Istanbul, at Eminönü, and stopped at different small harbors on the way towards the Black Sea. You can hop of any time and board a new boat whenever you area ready discovering. On the way you can view the magnificent residences along the waterfront. It was a perfect day! And a nice ending of my first re-visit to Istanbul.
One of my first posts in this blog was about Cappadocia in Turkey, one of the most remarkable and fascinating places I ever visited. Welcome to check out the moon landscapes of this area here >>. A very spiritual moment was when I went up early one morning to watch all the hot air balloons take of. Due to my phobia I could not take a balloon ride myself since with the claustrophobia also comes fear of being stuck in a small space without control. But honestly I was so grateful right then to just be able to have the moment I had. I still get goose bumps when watching the pictures from that very special morning. Originally there was a few pictures of this in my Cappadocia blog but I decided they deserved their own post and more space :-)