All Posts By

Eleanor Hallewell

Ambos Mundos, Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana, Hemingway, Travel, Varadero

Adios Coche, Adios Christy…

Rocky’s ride

The following morning, we head to Cafe Ria for our last breakfast and wait for Rocky to pick us up. Just before 9:00, I move from the small patio to stand on the sidewalk and sure enough, I see Rocky’s car coming down the road. I give Christy a thumbs up. Our arrangement was made so hastily and under such odd circumstances, that we were slightly hesitant about it all panning out, but it had.

We throw our bags in the back and begin the 3 hour drive back to Havana, stopping every 30 minutes so Rocky can pour water over the car’s radiator. I don’t mind the stops as it affords us amazing views of the surrounding scenery. To our left are lush, green rolling hills and to our right are miles and miles of sandy coastline. It continues like this until we reach the tunnel that will deposit us back in Old Havana.

The journey that never was…

We’re booked in at Carlos’s B&B for the night, which is centrally located on Aguilar. Carlos is nowhere to be found, but the cleaning lady lets us in and shows us to our room. We drop our stuff and decide to head out to Hemingway’s finca for the afternoon.

We walk down Aguilar to the waterfront, stop in a corner cafe for a mojito and then begin to negotiate a ride to the finca. We find a driver and begin driving back towards Vedado. Funny, I thought it was in the other direction (?) I can’t really communicate this in my broken Spanish and trust the driver knows where he’s going. We pass the many embassies that line Quinta Avenida, and just as we’re admiring the beautiful architecture, our car stalls out.

This is nothing out of the ordinary really. If you think about it, these cars are ancient. Our driver gives us a reassuring nod as he gets out of the car to check out the problem. The look he gives us when he gets back in is not as reassuring. The car is dead!

Adios coche…

He doesn’t hesitate and flags down another driver on a side street to pass us off to, directing him on where to take us, and moments later we arrive at Hemingway’s Marina. No, not Hemingway’s finca… his marina. This jaunt has gone wrong from start to finish, and we explain to the driver where we’d been hoping to go. Not entirely understanding how we got here, but feeling a bit sorry for us, he graciously agrees to take us back to Old Havana. When we arrive back in the city, we exit the cab at Plaza des Armas and head to Ambos Mundos. If we can’t have Hemingway’s finca, we will at least visit his hotel.

Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s Hotel

Floor to ceiling windows and doors let afternoon light stream into the first floor of the hotel, and an older gentleman plays piano near a corner entryway.  Everything seems to circle the large mahogany bar that sits in the middle of the room. People come and go taking a respite from the afternoon heat,  admiring the space and checking out the collection of photographs of Hemingway on one of the tiled walls. We take a seat at the bar and order a couple of rums and toast to the journey that never was. Wasn’t it Hemingway who said something about grace under pressure??

We walk back to our casa via Plaza Vieja, the square that always seems to be bursting with life. An outdoor concert is in full swing, so we grab chairs at a table nearby and listen to the last set. We then head back to Cafe de los Artistas, where Christy and I toast to our last night in Havana.

We head home, check email and hear from Sarah. She is home in snow-covered Boston, and another storm is on the way. She advises Christy to check her flight and then tells me she’s connected me with another traveler she met after we left Havana. His name is Matt and he’s also a photographer. I send Matt a quick message with details on where we’re staying and tell him to stop by in the morning if he wants to share a ride to Trinidad. One part of the adventure is over and another about to begin.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, long term travel, Travel, Varadero

A Break from our Break in Varadero

We wake the next morning with one thing on the mind and one thing only, the beach. We pack up a day bag, grab breakfast at Cafe Ria (because it was so good yesterday), and begin the walk to the beach. We take a different route today, walking on a street parallel to the beach passing stall after stall of souvenirs. Sombreros, sundresses, tee shirts, postcards, jewelry, maracas…you name it, you can find it. Shops are interspersed with street side cafes and cantinas and the occasional casa or apartment complex.

We continue down this road to the to the bus station to inquire about transportation back to Havana, only to find out that all buses the following day are fully booked. I refuse to worry. I’m officially in a Cuban state of mind, and I tell Christy we shouldn’t worry… we will sort something out. It’s hot and we don’t want to sacrifice any more beach time, so we head straight there.

We cut across a couple of side streets and look for access to the beach. Much of the beach front is taken up by all inclusive resorts, where you have to be a paying guest to rent chairs and umbrellas or even be served a drink. We quickly find out they won’t budge on this rule and begin to seek out a public entryway to the beach, our dreams of reclining and being served fruity drinks from coconuts shattered. We find public entry to the beach at the top of the next street, next to a construction site for a new all-inclusive spot that will be opening next year. At the end of that small street is a little cantina that sells cheap Cristal and strong mojitos in plastic cups. This will work perfectly!

We attempt to set up our spot on the beach, but it’s impossible for me to take my eyes off the view. To the left and right of us is powder white soft sand for miles, and in front of us, as far as the eye can see is the most beautiful crystal clear aquamarine ocean. It’s one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. 

We dump our bags, strip out of sweaty cover ups and run down to the waters’ edge. The water is luke warm and inviting, and we wade out about 30 feet or so, playing in the small waves. As the water laps my shoulders, I look down and realize I can still see my pink toenail polish. I am well-traveled, but I have never been in water like this. 

We spend the day frolicking in the ocean, walking along the beach, and sunning ourselves with the surrounding half naked German, Canadian and Italian tourists. And occasionally, we pop back to our little cantina for a mojito or two. I can spend hours here and we do. But as the light changes to a softer shade, indicating the arrival of evening, we are reminded that we still have no way of getting back to Havana tomorrow.

We pack up and walk along the beach, back to the direction of the roadside stand where Pedro & “Potpourri” work. Before we stop in to visit with them, we pay a visit to the nearby all inclusive resort, where we manage to steal wifi for a few minutes. On the front steps of the hotel, we quickly check email and texts and I send my dad a “Happy Birthday” message. Then a beat up 90s Nissan pulls up. Without hesitation, I walk over and ask the driver if he wants to take us to Havana tomorrow. We agree on the price of 30 CUC and a pick up time of 9am outside Cafe Ria. Well, that was easy. With that sorted, it’s now time for happy hour and our last night in Varadero.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Travel, Varadero, Viñales

Viñales to Varadero

Christy only has a few more days of holiday, so our plans are to head to Varadero for a couple of beach days before going back to Havana, where she will return to the US and I will travel further east into Cuba.

As we’re wrapping up breakfast at Casa Izzy, we see an old green Land Rover pull up outside. Barbara comes in to let us know our ride has arrived, so we grab our bags and head downstairs. As we get closer to the road, we see that the Land Rover is packed to capacity – not just with people, but with bags too. After a couple of minutes of people getting disgruntled, two passengers bail, our bags are tossed in the back, and we’re both told to squeeze in the front passenger seat.

I sit squashed between Christy and the car door and watch as we leave Viñales, once again climbing through the forest and descending onto a potted road that leads to the autopista. The Land Rover accelerates loudly and leaves a trail of fumes behind us, but it handles the potholes in a way Louis’s neon orange sports car never could. I roll down the window and let fresh air hit my face as we again pass horse and buggies, bicyclists, work trucks, tour buses and classic cars.

Today, I feel like I’ve found what I call my ‘traveler’s groove.’ Six travelers sit crammed on two benches in the back of the Land Rover, with our backpacks strewn at their feet.  All of us are off to various places east of Havana, and we’ve entrusted our lives to this stranger, whose job it is to deliver us safely to Varadero, all for the price of 40 CUC. I am in my element!

I dig the Lonely Planet Cuba book out of Christy’s backpack and spend the morning reading the ‘History” section, venturing as far back as the country’s pre-colonial days and then landing in more familiar territory when I get to the names Batista, Castro & Guevara. One and a half hours later, we pull over at a little rest area for a break, my mind trying to sort the hundreds of years of history I’ve just crammed into it. We decide it’s late enough in the day for a cold beer, grab a Cristal to go, and continue on our journey to Varadero.

We cross Havana and head east, trucking across flat farmland. I can smell rain in the air and roll up the window as fat raindrops start to land on the windscreen. We’ve dropped a couple of passengers at a bus station on the outskirts of Havana, but Christy and I have decided to stay up front with our driver, Esteban, who educates us on Cuban pop music and points out his hometown as we pass it.

We’re soon arriving in Varadero, which immediately feels as touristy as Old Havana but without the charm and appealing architecture. The strip of beach to our left is lined with high rise after high rise and interspersed with small shopping centers. Fortunately, we’re staying at an Airbnb just south of here in an area called Santa Marta, which is like what Vedado is to Havana. Choc full of traffic and locals, I feel like we’ve made a right turn back into authentic Cuba.

After about an hour of driving around looking for where we’ll be staying, we finally connect with Irenia, who runs Santos B&B. We bid farewell to Esteban and follow Irenia as she welcomes us in and gives us a tour of the apartment where we’ll be staying for the next two nights.

We take a late lunch across the road in the little courtyard garden of Cafe Ria and then walk the 30 minutes to the beach area to scope out a place for tomorrow. We find a little snack stand en route to the beach and meet Pedro and his sidekick, who refers to himself as ‘Potpourri.’ They gift us piña coladas and make us promise we will return the following day.

We catch a glimpse of the beach before the sun has set entirely and then grab a taxi back to our neighborhood. We find a little market and grab a bottle of coke and settle into the chairs on our small patio. I dig through my daypack and pull out the cigars and rum we were gifted in Viñales, and we pour a couple of rum and cokes, toasting to a good travel day and our first night in Varadero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana Club, Pinar del Rio, Travel, Viñales

Horsing Around in Viñales

While Barbara is preparing our breakfast, I step out onto the balcony of Casa Izzy. Heavy clouds hang above the mountains in the distance threatening rain, and a chill is in the air. I head back inside to grab a cup of coffee and a spread of fresh fruit, toast, eggs and juice is laid out on a small table in the living room.

As we’re finishing breakfast, Michael, our guide for the day, comes to collect us at the casa and walks with us down a small dirt road to a muddy farm area where a few other travelers are waiting. He begins assigning us to our horses. Mine is named Carmelo, and looks a little worse for wear! As I plant my left foot in the stirrup and swing my right leg over the horse, I say a little prayer that I’ll get off the horse in the same condition I’m getting on it. We set out for our morning tour of Viñales.

Our first stop is Torres Family Farm, where we’re greeted by Alex, who begins our tour by offering us a fresh, organic mojito. Alex takes us into a barn area, that sits surrounded by fields of tobacco. Inside, the leaves are hanging to dry. Alex explains that the fields are planted in December and within two months, they have one meter tall plants. These plants are then hand collected by the ten people who work on the farm. (No machines are used at all.) The leaves then go into a dry house where they hang for two months. And then, the fields are replanted. The tobacco season last six months, and the rest of the year, the land is used to grow corn, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables.

Alex takes us to a small table next to the dry house where he begins to demonstrate how a cigar is rolled. He explains that the tobacco they grow is similar to what you would find in a Montecristo no. 4, full of honey and vanilla flavors. He tells us this is what Che smoked. 

We find out that 90% of their leaves are sold to the government and 10% are for saved for the workers and community. We meet Raul, a farm employee, who is taking a morning smoke break.

I realize that people here smoke a lot, and I wonder if people ever share a cigar, like people sometimes do a cigarette. I ask the question and Alex shoots me a sideways look and says, “You have boyfriend? You share your boyfriend with other girls?” Question answered…

Alex gifts us each a cigar and we bid farewell, heading off to our second stop, which is a small rum plantation about 20 minutes away. To call this a plantation is a bit of a stretch. It’s more a collection of picnic tables covered by a thatch roof. Old plump men wearing sombreros and playing banjos visit the tables pouring generous samples of rum and taking orders for mojitos and piña coladas.

We learn that what we’re drinking isn’t exactly a rum or a whiskey for that matter. It’s a spirit endemic to the Pinar del Rio region, called Guayabita del Pinar. It’s called Guayabita for the little guava fruit that sits in the bottom of each bottle. We each feel the need to take one of these home, so we purchase a bottle each, shove them in our backpacks and hope they survive the afternoon on horseback.

We travel further into Viñales, following Alex on a narrow path that hugs tobacco farms, crosses creeks and occasionally takes us to a collection of casas that you can scarcely call a village.

The sun is blazing as we begin to cross Viñales Valley, an open field which ultimately leads us to Indian Cave. We tie the horses to a tree and head into explore these caverns that were only rediscovered in 1920.

From here, we trot back to town, arriving by mid-afternoon. We freshen up at the casa and head out to sort transport from Viñales to Varadero for the following day. It’s been a short stay in Viñales, but one I’m glad we didn’t miss. It has been our first taste of the authentic Cuba I felt I was missing in Old Havana.

We head to a little bar after dinner and sample some Havana Club aged rums, toasting to another good couple of days…any excuse really. This is Cuba after all!

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Casa Izzy, Cuba, Travel, Viñales

Adios Vedado, Hola Viñales

We have loosely organized transport to Viñales through Carlos, the owner of the Airbnb we will stay at when we return to Havana. I say loosely because we’ve had trouble confirming the transfer and our day of travel is coinciding with a national parade to honor the late Fidel Castro. Apparently, the city will come to a standstill later today.

At around 9am, we head down to the corner outside our apartment in Vedado and wait. We have no idea who we are waiting for and when they may show up…but about 15 minutes later, a guy driving a neon orange sports car careens around the corner of 12th, waving at us. There is no mistaking this is our guy. He pulls over in a nearby driveway, gets out and introduces himself as Louis, as he throws our backpacks into the small trunk.

As we get into the car and reverse out the driveway, Louis begins to renegotiate the cost of the drive that we tried to confirm with Carlos yesterday. “It’s a holiday…It’s very far…” Louis explains. We reconfirm the price and I wonder if travel will be like this throughout the trip. As we reach the city outskirts, I decide I’m not going to worry about this.

Literally less than 10 minutes into the drive, I feel like I’m witnessing the authentic Cuba I had so hoped to see. It’s here and it’s everywhere once you get out the confines of the city. Undeveloped land surrounds us on both sides of the autopista, which is potted with deep potholes Louis aggressively tries to avoid.

We pass classic cars, people on horseback, horse & buggies, work trucks transporting large groups of people, tour buses and bicyclists. Louis chastises everyone who drives faster than him and then puts his foot down so hard the speedometer needle is hovering around 120 km/hr. I try to get comfortable in the back, but we’re either dodging tour buses or ingesting fumes from the classic cars in front of us.

Two hours later, we exit the highway and begin a long journey along an even shittier road to Viñales. Colorful houses line the roads, and laundry hangs in almost every front yard. A few propaganda signs sit at intersections and roundabouts – those paying tribute to Fidel or mocking the US government.

We begin climbing a winding road surrounded on either side by dense forest. On the descent, Louis tells us we’ll be arriving soon.

As we make our way up the main street which seems to mark the entry and exit to the city, I know I will like Viñales. It’s night and day from the bustling crowds of Havana.

Louis winds his window down and stops a few people in the street to ask for directions. We’ve been told by our contact on Airbnb that many people in Cuba don’t know “dresses” and will invite you to stay in their casa, so she has sent us directions to go past the church and turn left after the clinico. We manage to find the correct street and a lady standing on a pink balcony on the second floor of a small apartment complex sees us and comes down to retrieve us.

We are staying in a small room at Casa Izzy, which sits off to the side of a small living room and kitchenette. Just outside the door is an identical space to ours where Barbara, the manager, and her family live. Barbara gives us a tour of the casa and shows us our room, which is bright and white, has two full beds and an en suite bathroom. She shows us where breakfast will be served and gives us a book full of activities we can partake in while here. We sign up for a 15 CUC horeback riding tour for the following day and head out to explore Viñales.

We walk down the main street, Calle Salvador Cisneros, past the church which seems to be where everyone congregates and head down a dirt road that eventually leads to farmland and horse pastures. We wander for a little bit, soaking in the peacefulness of this place before looping back to town.

We head to La Colonial for a couple of cold beers and then explore the local market, which is full of trinkets – shell jewelry, Che Guevara souvenirs, matchbox classic cars and kids toys made from coconut shells. We venture down a side street and stop to watch a group of men who are playing a game of dominoes in the last slivers of daylight.

We find a Mediterranean restaurant where a line is beginning to form, take this as a good sign, and join the line. Cuban food is good, but one meal without rice and meat will be welcomed. We order risotto and cannelloni  and split a bottle of passable wine.

After dinner, the sleepiness of Viñales is getting its hold on us. After our crazy Havana nights, we welcome a chill evening. We head back to Casa Izzy, confirm our morning pick up for horseback riding and before Christy has even finished brushing her teeth, I am well away.

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana, Travel, Travel Wishlist

Feliz año nuevo desde Havana

We venture out the next morning and explore some of Vedado. Wayne has told us we must eat at Starbien, so we walk over to make a reservation, only to find out they’re closed until January 3rd.  Still, we get to see some side streets of the neighborhood we’re staying in, and then we jump in a cab and head back to explore more of Old Havana. 

We grab a coffee at Cafe Wanda before heading down Obispo. We duck into old bookshops, markets, giftshops and the occasional bar. Around 12:30, we stop at Lluvia d’Oro and watch as the old bartenders whip up mojitos.

We order a round of Bucaneros before heading on to Plaza Vieja, where we sit and watch the world go by. Tourists cross the square, local kids play a game of soccer and a stage is being set up for New Years celebrations.

We walk south down a side street to the waterfront and see cruise ships docked in the harbor. Then we loop back to the Malecon with El Morro on our right. At El Cabana, the live music lures us in, so we stop for a mojito and a snack. When the band goes on break, we head up towards Parque Central and watch as a black 50’s Chevy delivers whole cooked pigs to private homes. They’re even wearing little sombreros. I have a feeling I know what we will be eating New Year’s Day!

 

We head back to Vedado and get ready to go out for the evening. It’s New Year’s Eve, and we have no plans but aren’t concerned about having any trouble finding fun. We head back to Old Havana and decide to try El Floridita again. We weasel our way up to the bar and order daiquiris and see a statue of Hemingway in the corner, bellied up to the bar. We watch as tourists make their way to the corner for a photo opp.

From here, we head back to El Escabeche to see our friends from the previous night. David spots us and says he’ll take us to a private paladar for some food, but they are full, so we grab the last table at the restaurant connected to El Escabeche and sample the best roast chicken, rice and beans I’ve ever had. Midnight strikes as we’re finishing up our meal, and we all get up to head into the bar through a little door in the corner of the room. The kitchen staff files out of the kitchen and a short, plump Cuban woman grabs me and kisses me on the cheek, wishing me a Happy New Year.

We stay and drink and dance and watch from the door of bar as people run up and down the streets dodging the buckets of water that people are throwing from the balconies above. Later that night, we make our own escape and manage to make it to a cab without getting doused.

 

New Year’s Day is a slower start. We take a long walk along the Malecon to the Hotel Nacional, where we stop in to look around and have a cold beer in the courtyard. We then head back to Vedado for a late lunch at La Catedral, which is seething with locals…always a good sign in my book. 

We indulge in ropa vieja and a bottle of red wine. The meal is worth the wait and we top it off with cortados for afternoon stamina. We spend the late afternoon strolling the back streets of Vedado, which leads us to the waterfront where a small group of people fish as the sun sets.

We loop back to our apartment on 23rd & 12th, and I could easily call it a night, but it’s our last night with Sarah, so we hail a taxi back to Old Havana to a little street we walked by yesterday. It’s lined with a number of restaurants whose tables spill over onto a narrow cobblestone street. Here we find Cafe de los Artistas.

We settle into bar seats and make friends with Allain, the mixologist, who is creating cocktails that are so pretty I feel bad drinking them. Lestian, the manager, finds us a table outside and helps us order some tapas. He comes back and gifts us Romeo y Julieta cigarillos for us as a consolation for having to wait so long for a table.

After dinner, when the staff has wrapped up work for the evening, they sit and join us for a nightcap. We toast a Havana Club aged rum and light up our little cigars… to our last night as the three amigas!

 

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Culture Shock, Havana, Travel

Welcome to Cuba…

I’m going to be honest…I don’t know what to expect from Cuba… Sure, I’m familiar with the stereotypical things – vintage cars, cheap rum, good cigars, and I’ve heard arriving will be like stepping back in time. But, as usual, I am willfully unprepared and have done little planning other than to sort a few night’s accommodation along the way.

On December 3oth, a good friend drops me off at Mangonia Station near West Palm Beach to take the TriRail to Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. After a one-hour train ride and a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, I head to the Southwest desk to check in for my flight. I’m told to head downstairs to a separate check-in area where an employee, who’s appropriately sporting a fedora, tells me to head to the visa desk, get my visa, then come back and get in line to check in. After waiting in many lines and talking to many people, I have the appropriate visa for Cuba and am checked in.

The gates are crammed full of people traveling home from their Christmas holidays and off on their New Years jaunts, and I make my way to B-7 for boarding. I snag an exit seat next to an American guy, Wayne, who sort of resembles Robert De Niro. He’s traveling home to Havana, where his Cuban wife is waiting for him. He looks at me and asks if this is my first visit to Cuba, and at my response, proceeds to spend the entire duration of the one-hour flight making suggestions of where to eat, what to see, what to eat, where to drink, and where to dance. He makes notes on the print out of other recommendations someone had kindly emailed to me and jots down his address and his cell phone number.

Upon landing, I quickly fill out the numerous arrival forms handed to me at the beginning of the flight, grab my bag and walk with Wayne to the arrival hall. He suggests I change a small amount of currency at the airport, but not all of it. I can get a better rate in the city, he says.

Arrival is seamless, despite hearing horror stories of hour long waits to clear security and customs (they x-ray EVERYTHING coming in), and Wayne and I say goodbye. My friend Christy’s flight has just arrived, so I scoop her up and we head off to find our other friend Sarah, who is waiting in the arrivals area outside.

Outside and to the left is a concession stand that sells cold beer, rum, cigarettes and a few snacks. The area is seething with people, but we grab a hightop table we can stand around, order  a cold Bavaria beer each and watch as people drive their vintage cars around the arrival loop road, looking for the people they’re picking up.

The air is humid and smells of car fumes, but there’s a lightness to it. No one is in a hurry. We are already experiencing Cuban time.

We wait for Arianna, who meets us to assist with our airport transfer and help get us settled in at the Airbnb we have booked. I guess all she had to do was look for the three white girls at the airport, so her job wasn’t too difficult. After our hellos, we finish our beers, grab our bags and squeeze into a kelly green 1950s Chevrolet and make our way to Vedado.

We drop our bags at our Airbnb on 23rd & 12th and attempt to change money. After learning that most banks would be closed until after New Years, I audibly thank Wayne for suggesting we change a little bit of money at the airport, and we jump into a taxi with Arianna still in tow and head to Old Havana.

We pass the iconic Hotel Nacional and make a right to drive along the Malecon. By this point in time, it’s nearing end of day, and as we drive, we watch the waves splash up and over the Malecon, splashing the road, the cars and the occasional passerby.

We drive up Parque Central and jump out near Hotel Ingelterra. I can tell we’ve entered the touristic area of Havana but can’t help but be awed by the beauty of the architecture. Once ornate buildings have lost the struggle with the test of time, but they manage to hold on to a sliver of their former glory. It is easy to envision just how jaw-droppingly beautiful Havana was in its heyday.

We stop in to Parque Central Hotel, where every tourist seems to be sitting in the lobby and attempting to access WIFI. Here we’re able to change a bit more cash before heading to the eastern part of Old Havana for drinks and a snack.

We find El Chacon and order a round of mojitos, followed by the national beer, Cristal. Arianna is still with us and we get the chance to learn a little bit more about what her life is like. Besides helping out with her cousin’s Airbnb and working as a makeshift tour guide, she also works as an architect/interior designer and as a teacher. Arianna tells us it’s not uncommon for Cubans to have up to two or three side gigs in addition to their main job. We learn she makes the least amount of money from her full time job teaching, bringing in about $20 a month. She makes better money with her design gig, but the most income is derived from her tourism gig.

As we sit in El Chacon, in what feels like the equivalent of a hip European cafe in a touristy part of town, I hope that I will be able to discover the authentic Cuban experience while I’m here. I’m glad Arianna is still with us and that we have the chance to talk openly and candidly with her. She tells us that she (like many other Cubans) has never left the country and despite being (so say) allowed to, it’s almost impossible for Cubans to get the necessary visas.

From El Chacon, we walk over to Obispo, which is filled with even more tourists, but we find a dive bar on the corner called El Escabeche. The place is dimly lit, and a band is set up in the corner belting out Cuban classics. We order a round of mojitos and meet the crew working there. Carlo, is the manager and Armando and Diego are tending bar with Charlie, who claims to make the best mojito. He even won an award in Chicago.

Carlo calls over a young guy, David, from the other corner, and makes him salsa with me. I think to myself that I’m doing good at following the instructions my good friend Christel gave me before I departed for this trip: 1. drink rum, 2. smoke cigars, and 3. dance. We spend a good part of the night in this little hole in the wall spot.

From here, we make our way up the road to El Floridita – a bar made famous by Hemingway. It’s packed to the brim, so we decide to save it for another day and make our way back to the taxi stand near Hotel Ingleterra, stopping to take a peak at the lobby of the Gran Teatro before hailing a cab.

We head back to Vedado and venture to Cinecita, which is directly next door to our apartment. It’s officially sleepy, but we’re just looking for a nightcap, and a table of Cuban men wave us over and insist we sit down. They offer us a taste of everything they have, and we end up ordering plates of cerdo, mashed yucca and ensalada… quite the midnight snack. We wash it all down with a Cristal, bid goodnight to our new Cuban friends and call it a night.

 

Geysir, Golden Circle, Gulfoss, Iceland, Reykjavik, Travel

The (Frozen) Golden Circle & Our Return to Reykjavik

Gulfoss at sunrise

We wake early in Selfoss, forfeit a shower in order to make sunrise, make a quick cup of coffee and get on the road. We head towards Gulfoss, which is a 72 kilometer drive, and in good conditions should take us about an hour. The winds are still high, but after being very cautious for the first part of the drive, we realize the road conditions have improved dramatically. And for this, we are thankful.

We head to Gulfoss and arrive with plenty of extra time. We’re the only ones about, and when the sun slowly begins to creep up into the sky, showing little slivers of pink, we’re still the only ones about. The winds are just as fierce as yesterday, and they’re cutting through us. Add to this the fact that the winds are blowing a steady mist off the waterfalls and onto us and our camera lenses, and it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle. It’s a white, winter wonderland all around the falls, and the surrounding pathways are closed, seeing as they’ve frozen into sheets of ice.

Geysir

Geysir

We attempt a few shots, but decide that we may have better light and angles at Geysir, so we hop into the car and drive the 10 minutes down the road. I take this opportunity to dig my long johns out of my backpack and slip them on under my jeans. The temperature is hovering around 0°C, but it’s about -4° with the windchill. Despite the cold temps, Geysir is just beautiful, and we’re blessed with a golden sunrise as a backdrop to every eruption. However, today, we’re finding it more difficult to stand outside for long periods of time. My body isn’t that cold, but my hands actually hurt from holding my camera up waiting to capture the geysir’s eruption. I tell Bill to take his time, but I need to head back to the car. He agrees it’s too cold to stay out much longer, so we head over to the visitor’s center across the road and warm up with some soup.

Gulfoss

Conditions on the drive back to Reykjavik

We decide to make one more trip back to Gulfoss to see if we have any luck with better conditions. We arrive to hoards of tour buses, but manage to get a spot to shoot overlooking the falls. The light is better, but there’s still a mist rising. However, now because we have brighter light now, a rainbow is forming and hanging over the middle of the falls. We’re not here long though, because today, it seems as if the cold has got in our bones and we just can’t shake it. We decide to call it a day and head to Reykjavik, where we will spend our last night.

 

Our Suzuki Swift

Reykjavik’s OK Hotel

It’s just over an hours drive to Reykjavik, but we take our time, seeing as the winds seem to be just a fierce as yesterday’s. And at times, the wind is whipping so much snow across the road, it’s like we’re driving through white out conditions. When we finally clear the worst of it, we’re about 30 minutes from downtown Reykjavik.
When we do arrive, we find a parking garage near the OK Hotel and make our way to check in. Instead of a normal hotel, we have rented a studio apartment for the night. It’s small and cozy, but the decor is trendy and unique, and we manage to get a sense of what it would be like to be a Reykjavik resident. I dive right under the duvet with my jacket and hat on and proceed to power nap for about 30 minutes. We have nothing on the agenda for the afternoon. Our only plans are to go out and treat ourselves to a nice dinner seeing as it’s our last night and we’ve had one sit down dinner so far this week.

Scallop App at Old Iceland Restaurant

Delicious Icelandic Lamb at Old Iceland Restaurant

We head out around 7pm and venture two doors down to the Old Iceland Restaurant. This place received awesome reviews on TripAdvisor, but what sealed the deal was how close it is to where we’re staying.

Considering alcohol is taxed at 26% in Iceland, we haven’t had a drink all week, so we decide since it’s our last night, we’ll split a bottle of wine with our meal. We indulge in scallop appetizers and Icelandic Lamb for dinner. It’s a treat from start to finish, and worth every bit of the $200 it costs us!

As I do at the end of any journey, I look back and wonder how these five days passed so quickly. This has been an epic journey, and Bill and I toast to our incredible adventures.  Despite being my second time here, I am still as awed by the natural beauty found here. It truly is unlike any other country I’ve visited. And even though we had fewer hours of daylight, some incredibly cold conditions, two near car crashes and a very very bad waterfall hiking experience, in my mind I’m already plotting as to when I can get back here for a third visit. There’s just something so special about this island country! Tak, Iceland!

 

Dyrhólaey, Iceland, Reynisdrangar, Selfoss, Sjellandfoss, Uncategorized, Vik, WOW Airlines

Vik to Selfoss – Wind Storms & The Search for a Non-Existent Waterfall

The view from Dyrhólaey

Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar

Today dawns relatively clear, but the forecast calls for high winds. We’re in no hurry to get moving from the cozy Carina Guesthouse, but as we’re eating breakfast, a beautiful sunrise begins to unveil through the dining room windows. We chug down the rest of our coffee and scarf down a few bites of delicious homemade bread and hit the road.

We decide to head straight to Dyrhólaey to photograph the unique rock formations that sit off the coast here, and then we’ll head back to town for the views from Vik’s hilltop church looking east. Fortunately, the winds have not picked up too much just yet, and with the right gear, we’re able to photograph for a good two hours without freezing.

Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar

All of what we have seen so far in Iceland has been jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there’s something special about Vik and Dyrhólaey. Large basalt rock cliffs drop down to a long black sand beach, and off in the distance, three jagged rock structures jut out of the ocean. Closer in shore is a larger lone rock structure, and the high tide swirls around it. Soft light stays with us for most of the morning, and by noon, we feel we’re content with what we’ve captured.

Reynisdrangar rocks as seen from Vik

Reynisdrangar rocks as seen from Vik

We drive the 15 minutes back to downtown Vik, pull into a gas station for a hot chocolate break, and see a pathway leading out to a separate beach. Here we have an eastward view of the craggy coastline, but we’re less protected from the elements, and as we’re trying to capture this new angle, we’re literally being sandblasted. I can feel the black sand hitting the back of my neck, and as this is happening, I look up to see Bill’s tripod being blown over by a gale force wind gust. We decide to hightail it to the car with our heads down to avoid more sandblasts.

We do make one last stop before leaving Vik, and that’s at the hilltop church where we’re afforded views of the entire, yet small town of Vik and the coastline below. We park the car off to the side and get out to snap a few pictures of the view. The parking lot is like a skating rink and the wind gusts are so strong, I have a hard time not sliding away. Luckily I grab on to the trunk of the car to stop myself. Right here is an indication of how our afternoon drive will play out.

Vik’s hilltop church

The winds are reaching 60-65mph + when we leave Vik, and road conditions are less than ideal. We plug in Selfoss to the GPS and begin the 1 1/2-hour drive. We’ve had little sunlight or warmth so far today, so patches of ice can still be found in places and the wind is vicious. Not only are the winds whipping snow across the roadways, they are also so fierce that it’s difficult to keep the car from veering. I’m driving now and it’s my turn to have a death grip on the wheel.

We’re no more than 20 minutes from Vik, when I hit a patch of ice, panic, hit the breaks and begin sliding from one side of the road to the other. At one point, I’m sure we’re going to hit one of the yellow posts on the right side of the road, and the next moment, I’m certain we’re going to collide with the white SUV heading towards us from the other direction. By the grace of God, I right the car, and Bill and I look at each other with white faces. How the hell did we not just die??? or at least seriously damage the vehicle??

A winter wonderland at Seljalandsfoss

I’m a bit weak and wobbly now, so we decide to pull over at Skogafoss. Unfortunately, it’s just too cold and windy to even consider leaving the car for pictures. We pull into a parking lot to turn around and watch as other travelers skate their way to and from their cars. Back on the road, we begin to drive parallel to a fjord, and this offers us some sort of protection from the wind at times.

Seljalandsfoss

Despite wanting to be in Selfoss for sunset, we know we can’t hurry, so when we pass Seljalandsfoss, we decide to stop for some daylight pictures. Pathways are slick and the grass in front of the waterfall is covered in ice crystals. The wind is whipping the falls, creating a mist that is (again) soaking the pathway that leads behind. We now know better than to attempt to hike up. (We’ll save that for a summer trip!) It’s a beautiful scene though, and at 3:30 the entire landscape surrounding us is glowing gold.

Our room at Garun Heidmork, Selfoss

Conscious of the time, we get back in the car to finish the drive to Selfoss. We have a hostel booked here for the night and decide to photograph Selfoss waterfall tonight and Gulfoss at sunrise. However, as we approach Selfoss, we realize that Selfoss waterfall isn’t in the city of Selfoss at all. It’s not even close. It’s about seven hours away in the northeastern part of the country. Ok, epic travel planning fail, but I’m certain we’re not the first people to make this mistake!

We still have tomorrow morning to photograph Gulfoss and Geysir and we look at tonight as a night to just chill out. We check into the lovely Guesthouse Garun Heidmork, which is a three-story home with a total of about seven rooms and a beautifully furnished kitchen. We make our way up to the attic apartment, dump our backpacks and head out to find food for dinner. When we return later that evening, the road outside is a sheet of ice, and the wind is so fierce that the attic room we’re sleeping in is creaking. We fall asleep to this unsettling noise, wondering what our last day of exploring holds for us!

glaciers, Iceland, Jokulsarlon, Ring Road, Skaftafell, Svartifoss, Vik, WOW Airlines

Eastern Iceland: Jokulsarlon, Skaftafell & Svartifoss

15036564_10154668866483168_8365615513773418038_n

Breakfast at Kálfafellsstadur

Despite a late night, we are up super early and get ready and packed up for the day. We head upstairs and Thora has prepared a full homemade breakfast, complete with waffles and homemade jams! We enjoy what is becoming our only sit down meal of the day, thank Thora for her hospitality and head out for Jokulsarlon.

15135733_10154668866648168_3140263134140409924_n

Jokulsarlon

At 8:30, there is already light on the horizon, and it looks like the day will dawn clear. Unfortunately, my camera is not working, but Bill has lent me his spare camera body which is compatible with my lenses. (I can’t imagine how depressing the rest of the trip would be without a camera, and I’m so thankful to be able to continue to shoot!)

15135918_10154668866628168_8666962146146882724_n

Jokulsarlon

As we drive west along the ring road back to the lagoon, the sun is rising to our left and the moon is setting to our right. It is the last few days of the “super moon” and we watch as a huge giant white ball drops behind the fjords. We park up at the lagoon but immediately walk over to the black sand beach, where chunks of icebergs are being lashed by water in the wave break. Sunrise is continuing behind, making the ice glow various shades of gold, violet, pink and blue.

 

15107284_10154668866603168_6788246105470667855_n

Sunrise at Jokulsarlon

We spend well over two hours shooting stills and video here – we just can’t get enough of this natural, unique beauty!

We head back over to the lagoon and grab a hot chocolate at the little cafe and then inquire about a boat ride for later in the afternoon. Our plan is to head to Skaftafell National park to photograph Svartifoss and then head back to Jokulsarlon for a boat tour and sunset. Unfortunately, we find out that boats aren’t operating today due to too much ice debris in the lagoon.

15170797_10154668866873168_4253589183830401489_n

Svartifoss

We make our way to Skaftafell National Park. which is about a 45-minute drive. Skaftafell, or rather Vatnajökull National Park is home to the Vatnajökull Glacier, but we have come to photograph Svartifoss, a waterfall that sits 1.8km into the park. We begin the hike up and arrive around 2:00. The waterfall is surrounded by basalt rock columns that give me the feeling we’re peering into the center of the earth. Surrounding rocks and shrubbery are covered in a layer of white, frozen mist.

We spend about 1 1/2 hours shooting here, playing with long exposure and neutral density, and we don’t realize how much time has passed. We need to hurry if we want to make it back to Jokulsarlon for sunset. On the hike back down, the light is perfect though, and I want to stop and savor it and take more pictures. Behind us Vatnajökull glacier is brilliant white against an intense blue afternoon sky. To our right are fjords in the distance and bare birch trees, and below us the land is flat and white, and little rivulets lead out to the ocean ahead.

fullsizerender-85

Jokulsarlon – just after sunset

By 3:45, we are back in the car and heading to Jokulsarlon, but we know we’ve missed the best of the light. We kick ourselves for not leaving earlier, and from the car, we watch as the sun sets to our right. At the lagoon, it’s still a pretty picture, and we decide to head on to Vik with the goal of getting there in time to have a relaxing evening, and maybe even dinner!

15036199_10154666672983168_2732888883275049195_n

Foss á Siðu

We begin the two-hour drive, making one stop at Foss á Siðu to photograph the falls at night. Tonight is the clearest we’ve seen the skies since arriving, and we’re able to catch a few shooting stars.  Temps are dropping, so we head back to the car and continue on to Vik, arriving at Carina Guesthouse around 8pm.

15073553_10154668867033168_1219772187702610656_n

Dinner at Suður-Vík

We get checked in and decide as we haven’t had a proper dinner since arriving in Iceland, we should treat ourselves. We head over to Suður-Vík Restaurant for a traditional dinner of Arctic Char and Rib Eye, accompanied with a cauliflower soup and homemade bread. After standing out in the cold all day, the food is warming us through, but making us sleepy!  We pay up and head back to the guesthouse, and as we leave the restaurant, we get a view of another almost supermoon rising above Vik’s church on the hilltop in the distance.