Category Archives: Backpacking
Trinidad, Cuba is a small colonial city on the south coast of the island, about a four hour drive from Havana. Nestled on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean, Trinidad offers pristine examples of colonial architecture. The buildings were painted in all different bright colors and the streets where cobblestone. This was our favorite city for live music as you could literally hear three or four bands from any spot you stood at in the touristic area.
Our second day in Trinidad we rented bikes from our casa particular (15 CUC for two mountain bikes for the day) and set off on another adventure. We were headed to Playa Ancón located about 15km from the city. It was an easy, flat ride so in no time we rolled through the small fishing village of La Boca and along the coast towards the beaches. We passed trees of tamarind and swarms of dragonflies and the weather was perfect. The asphalt road was potholed and sandy the whole way, so bikes were perfect for the journey. Playa Ancón is the most idyllic beach on Cuba’s southern shore, though it’s popularity pales in comparison to the northern Veradero-area beaches. The beach had beautiful white sand and the water was the exact postcard-perfect blue that we all idealize. This was our only beach day of the trip because well, we live at the beach in San Diego, California.
Havana was great and all, but after spending four nights in the the busy big city we were ready for some country time. Our señora in our casa particular arranged for a taxi to grab us in the morning for the ride east. The shared cabs only cost about 10% more than the Viazul buses and get you there way faster with their door-to-door services. We were picked up by an old blue 1950s Buick – a wobbly, feel-the-springs-in-the-seat, smell-the-exhaust-in-the-cabin, but still-watch-music-videos-on-the-dashboard kind of taxi. No seat belts in Cuba, but the AC worked somehow. We rode with a pair of students from New York, who were on a whirlwind tour of the country. Outside the city we felt like we had gone back in time. Horse-drawn carriages and tropical farms of bananas and sugar cane. Everything was green and lush and it was hard to believe that there wasn’t an abundance of all foods on the island. We were headed for Viñales, the land of the worlds finest tobacco.
After about a three hour drive we arrived at our new casa, a cute pink house run by Cary and Anay, a mother and daughter. Like all the houses in Viñales, it had rocking chairs on the front porch, from which you could lounge and people-watch the day away.
Day two we rented bicycles and headed out into the countryside of Parque Nacional Viñales. The grand moros (rocky hills) were all around us. Instead of the mountains raising from the earth, underground rivers had caused the valley floor to fall creating the dramatic landscape.
A few miles outside of town we came to La Cueva del Indio, one of a series of many caves in the area. The cave tour is accessible through a restaurant and costs 5 CUC. The caves had a nice walking path through them that led to a boat ride down an underground river. It was nice except for a super-obnoxious family in front of us. Seriously, who yells in caves and moves precariously-balanced rocks around trying to find a lens cap?
Once back in town we headed down a side street to the edge of the village where we were found an organic tobacco farm. We took a tour (in Spanish) where they explained the growing, drying, fermenting, and rolling processes of Cuba’s famous cigars. They also explained the difference between organic and chemical tobacco production. At the end we tried some of the organic Monte Cristos dipped in local honey.
We only had the bikes for one day so headed out again in the other direction to the strange and epic Mural de la Prehistoria, a strange giant painting on the cliffside. Apparently it took several painters many years to complete.
On day three we decided to go for a hike. We walked past the turn off for the Mural then after about one more kilometer took a right turn and headed towards Los Aquaticos, a village on the hillside. The Lonely Planet had some general directions but we asked some farmers along the way, brushing off several dudes who wanted to guide us up there. The views were fantastic along the way and we felt at peace amongst the country animals and fields.
At the top there was a small blue ranch house with a view of the valley. They sold delicious coffee grown on site that you could sip while enjoying the scenery. A cute pig snuggled up to Carrie.
You could hike up farther but it was growing late in the afternoon and we were satisfied with our adventure. After eating dinner we took a nap then went out late to the government-run dance hall. Every town had at least one of these places with a salsa band and bar and lots of people. We really need to learn some moves! Until we do, it’s still fun to watch everyone boogie down. Viñales was an all-around great time, with lots of nature and fun nightlife!
We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile. We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us. Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring. They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage. Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels. The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them. The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country. Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign. She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana. First we had to change money. Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos. They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such. It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.
Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos. It was awesome. In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes. Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels! In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.
The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards. The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda. There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city. The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods. No Coca Cola! Only a national soda brand.
In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside. Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation. The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city. As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.
Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from. We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.
It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit. The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen. On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.
West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood. Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.
We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band. It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.
Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop. The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution. Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy. They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal! Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time. Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated. Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents. Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece! On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain. It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce. There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers. It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity. Never did it stop being strange.
Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters. The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable. I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment. It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever. But then again, is that how things are supposed to be? Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Hotel Temazcal is a cozy refuge in Creel, easily accessible to all the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) activities. The friendly staff can help you arrange tours and recommend local restaurants. They also offer periodic “temescal” sweat lodge ceremonies, which we sadly couldn’t try out because we weren’t there on the right day.
Our room had a comfy queen bed, ample storage space, an awesome loft area with a large mattress (would be great for kids!), TV, bathroom, and super-nice floor heating to keep it nice and toasty.
The hotel has a DVD and book library you can browse, as well as a common kitchen for cooking and always-available coffee and tea. Added bonus: two super-cute chihuahuas, Nacho and her baby Hueso, who will follow you around trying to convince you to play!
Free coffee and tea
Book and DVD exchange
TVs in rooms
Sweat lodge once a week or for groups of 5+ people
Address: Bakusuki S/N
Barrio Campo de Beisbol (Detrás del Centro Avanzado de Salud)
Creel – Municipio de Bocoyna
Phone: +52 635 4560990
Prices: Single or Double- 500 pesos
Family Suite- 700-1200 pesos
We woke up at the crack of dawn without getting much sleep because we were so excited to finally put our backpacks back on and do some adventuring!
I feel like I’m finally doing what I am meant to do again! It’s been a long year and half of helping other people travel (my job is Assistant Manager at a hostel), feeling a little bit more bored by the routine of it every day. I’m happiest when I have a light pack on my back and a plane ticket in my hand!
There is now a pedestrian bridge (Cross Border Express) from the San Diego side of the border into the Tijuana International Airport. The cost is $15 per person, but it’s super convenient as opposed to crossing on foot and having to take a Mexican taxi to the airport. I slip in and out of sleep on the flight from Tijuana to Chihuahua, catching glimpses of the turquoise-blue passage over the Sea of Cortez, then dry, craggy, cardboard-brown mountains jutting violently out of the flat, barren desert.
Chihuahua at first glance seems like the Wild West of Mexico. Lots of men wearing owboy hats and giant belt buckles, very few gringos. We had to use an ATM to withdraw pesos because there was not even a “casa de cambio” in the airport.
Chihuahua is close to Juarez and the landscape reminded me of the scary, violent scenes from “Sicario” as we rode into town on a taxi. I think it’s much safer, although not very touristy. Our friend from here warned us to stay in the main tourist town of the Copper Canyon (Cañon del Cobre), Creel, and not spend any nights in the small villages, as that’s where we could get kidnapped. Creepy.
Our taxi quickly dropped us off at the office of Autotransportes Turisticos de Noroeste. The ticket saleslady said something about our trip being slow but our Spanish was not up to par enough to understand why at that moment. On the bus, the city ended quickly and we rolled through open desert with mountains in the near distance. About an hour outside the city at the first toll plaza we saw the protest. People and trucks were blocking the highway in both directions. Apparently the price of fuel had been raised 20% overnight and everyone was mad. We had to wait about an hour before they let our bus through. The bus was slow and we had to wait at another roadblock; the mountains got bigger and trees started replacing the cacti as we got higher. It looked a lot like northern Arizona.
After roughly seven hours (should have only taken 4.5) we rolled into Creel, a cold and sleepy town after dark. Hotel Temescal was welcoming and warm, with super-cute Chihuahua pups to play with! Some authentic food at Restaurante Veronica was exactly what we needed. Zach got “El Norteño”, a cast-iron skilled of beef, cheese, and veggies, a traditional local dish.
We dropped into bed early, happy to have made it through our first big travel day and ready for more adventures!
I’ve never been super into Italian food. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really found the good stuff! We CHOWED down in Italy! Italian food is based on simple, fresh ingredients and exquisite craftsmanship. Every restaurant worth its salt makes their own pasta and menus change seasonally. Thank God we walked so much to stave off too much weight gain.
Breakfast every day was cappuccino and “cornettos”, which are Italian croissants filled with Nutella!!! Yummers!
The antipasto was also amazing! Here’s some bruschetta and prosciutto with melon before lunch!
“Suppli” are basically breaded deep-fried risotto balls. I want to eat these every day for the rest of my life!
Cured meats, bread with gorgonzola truffle spread, tapenades, and veggies at the Mercate Centrale in Firenze. Definitely go there for the amazing local food choices!
The most epic meat and cheese board in the world from La Prosciutteria in Roma.
Pasta made from scratch is SO MUCH BETTER than dried boxed pasta. The pasta was really thick and rich! I tried spinach-ricotta ravioli with garlic sage cream, spaghetti a la pesto, and many more!
Last but not least, dessert! Authentic tiramisu is not very sweet with a very strong coffee flavor. This one was pistachio flavored, hence the green color.
Gelato was also a daily occurrence. This one was from Perche No! in Firenze, which I had dreamed of visiting since hearing so much about how good it was from a high school history teacher. He’s now retired and I half expected to run into him there! I can’t wait to go back to Italia with Zach someday and try all the goodies again! Until then, I’m on the hunt for suppli in California!
Climbing Il Duomo di Firenze on top of Santa Maria del Fiore is a must-do in Italy! We stuck it out through a three-hour-long line to get our chance. The good thing about waiting in line with a group is that you can do shifts. A couple of us would hold the place in line while a couple of us would wander off to explore the Piazza del Duomo, drink cappuccino, go to the bathroom, etc. It was still a looooooong and slow-moving line!
The humongous and intricate Gothic cathedral was begun in 1296, and the dome was engineered by Brunelleschi. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can climb the dome, climb the belltower, or visit the baptistry. The views from the top of the dome over Florence are amazing!
Fresco of “The Last Judgement”
Florence is beautiful! I can’t wait to go back someday and see more of Tuscany!