Return to Roots - May 23

Holy crap. We just came back from a mini catamaran ride in ocean that looks like pool water. So many beautiful little fish came over to us and surrounded us as we fed them bread. It reminded me of the times I spent with Belo in Puerto Rico, feeding the silver fish on a yellow raft. They pecked on our fingers, it was so cute. We swam like crazy and had a professional photographer come by halfway in and take great underwater photos of us. We had to meet him at 5 pm at the casa. Now we're off to the beach party. What a great start to the day already!

I finally look more Cuban with this tan directly from Varadero! The beach party was almost two hours late, and although the music wasn't exciting, (it wasn't Cuban music) it was entertaining to people watch. 

We got back to our casa a little before 5pm to meet with the photographer of the excursion from this morning. We ate again at Super Machi but they ran out of Pollo al Carbon and Pierna Asada. It was crazy busy today. The pictures came out great, it looks like we were photoshopped in. After we left, we stuck around our casita, enjoying the lush breeze in the patio directly in front of our room. J figured we could call Miami from the phone Estrella lent us so he called his parents and then I spoke to them. They can't wait to see pictures and hear stories. Next, we called Aramisito and he was hilarious as usual. He told us that they would be by to pick us up tomorrow around noon/1pm. We told them we miss them and he said 'te queremos mucho' - so sweet. After that call, I called Abi and Belo and they thought I was calling them from Miami, when they heard I was still in Cuba it's like they couldn't contain themselves with questions and comments. I said we were in Varadero now and they mentioned they had a house here and if we could check it out. Calle 33 y Avenida de la Playa - Casa Balerdi. So after hanging up with them we went straight there. Hopped in an Almendron and got dropped off right before the intersection. We took pictures of all 4 corners in case something looked familiar to them. The sun was starting to set and the sky looked magical with pinks and purples all over. It was breathtaking. We decided to walk back to our casa (calle 17) on the beach. I'm so glad we did. It was beautiful to walk along the shore, chasing the sunset. You couldn't take a bad picture with this backdrop. Also, you could walk way past the shore in the water and the sea level barely reached your knee. That was awesome, it's like walking on water. Plus, it was so warm and the air was breezy. I could have walked for miles. The sun finally went mimise and before we knew it, we were back on our street. As I looked up shore, I was saddened at the amount of garbage left from the party earlier before. It took me back a bit, I had never seen so many bottles and cans and crap sprawled all over paradise like that. I wanted to badly to find garbage bags and start cleaning but I did see people start to clean them up and I hope they start putting more garbage cans around so a beautiful place like this doesn't get ruined by inconsiderate jerks. 

We again ate at Salsa Suarez and called it a night shortly after. I had to take 2 benadryl to calm my itching feet who had been mauled by tiny mosquitos - or gegens (sp?)

Out like a light. 

Return to Roots - May 22

Had a serious breakfast courtesy of Roberto y Martha. He made his famous 'trigo' pancakes with Cuban Honey. We also had a torta (egg omelet), cafesito, jugo de mango, papaya, piña, guayaba, mango, and dulce de coco, which I (nor J) had ever had before. Little shavings of coconut, sugar water and leche condensada all blended together... We discussed our family background at the table. Roberto was excited to share his thoughts and ideas with us since we we were Cuban. "it's in your veins", he said, "politics shouldn't dictate how we feel about our roots." He got misty- eyed when he mentioned a song we should hear - ME DICEN CUBA. He explained the arduous process on how to obtain a visa to visit the US, and because of the length of time it takes, amount of money and uncertainty of actually being able to get one after all the work, he doesn't have ay desire to go. He said his son tried, spent months waiting for an appointment for an interview, spent almost 500 CUC, and they denied his request. He's angry with the embargo and the restrictions the US puts on Cubans to travel there. He doesn't want to live there, he would never leave Cuba. Why would he? He has a beach house and constant entertainment from tourists! But I understand his point of view. Anyhow, he fed us well and filled us with knowledge and off we went to the little shops down the street. They had a lot of the same things but still cute souvenirs for the family. I bought a leather baseball for Belo which I engraved 'TIGER' on it. Bought some sandals for myself, along with a photo album. A leather lighter holder for my mom. While I was going through the many many rows of artisanal shops and making conversation with the artists, I managed to lose my sunglasses. I noticed at the end of one of rows and J suggested we head back to the casa to see if I left them there. Nope. I dropped off the stuff I bought and Roberto assured us that if a Cuban found them in his or her shop, they would hold them for me. And if that were to happen, I should compensate them. Well, back we went, talking to every vendor I had already talked to before asking if any of them had seen my glasses. None of them had, but, like Roberto said, they assured me that if I did leave them in their shop, they would have held them for me, or should I find them in a neighboring shop, they would hold them. I loved how much faith they all had in each other. I honestly felt like I lost hope but was inspired by how highly they regarded each other. J also had kept faith alive and reassured me to keep looking, so on the last row we spoke to the last vendor we bought some pot warmers from and she said yes, she found some glasses and knew they weren't hers so she saved them just in case the owner would come back to claim them. Can you believe that? She refused to take the 2 CUC I was offering but I insisted along with a huge hug of gratitude. I just loved that attitude. Very cool. From there, we jumped in a taxi and went in search of Hotel Internacional, which my grandparents talked about in the video before leaving Miami. It was being demolished but still holding on, I took pictures anyway. We were then dropped off at Club Marlin, which used to be called Club Nautico. This is where Abi & Belo met and danced together for the first time. We took video and pictures of everything. I wonder what their reactions will be seeing all these places again. From there, we jumped in a cocotaxi - these things are like a motorcycle/go cart hybrid. Looks like a yellow coconut on wheels. Six CUC's took us back into town to find food. We walked for a bit and didn't find anything appetizing. Most spots looked like they were run by the 'estado', which means they were all unmotivated in there and bored out of their minds. We asked Roberto and Martha and they recommended a negocio privado called Super Machi down the street. We said goodbye to our Costa Rican friends who were headed to La Habana and said hello to our new friends, Hansel and his girlfriend who were from Havana and off we went to Super Machi. This little spot was steps away from the beach and served a mountain of rice, plus half a chicken, potatoes, and fresh lemonade for 70 CUP which translates to less than 3 CUC!! So good and insanely cheap. I felt like I was robbing them. I met a couple there from Czech Republic and Italia who were in love with Cuba and we shared that sentiment in a short conversation. With full belly's and sleepy eyes we hit the beach. We found a hut with some shade, J chose the shade and I scooted my towel slightly off into the sun and we passed out for a couple of hours I think. I don't know. That's another great thing about this trip. I don't have a watch/phone on me, so I'm rarely conscious of time, which is very liberating. We woke up and Aramisito and Estrella called us to make sure everything was going ok. (Ok, we had HER phone that only allowed calls between them and us so they could know we were ok, so that's the only purpose it served). We told them about our day and they were happy to hear about it. From there we jumped in the ocean until the sun was setting. Delicious. This beach town is heavenly.

We're back in our room after an amazing meal at SALSA SUAREZ. I did not expect that. Roberto said to try it tonight and I"m so glad we did. We had a fish croquetta appetizer with a rosa sauce (mayo + ketchup, seriously) so simple yet perfect. Then we shared a penne pasta with crab and garlic sauce. We were still kinda full from our lunch so sharing worked. It was so effing good. This was also the first time we had cortaditos in a champagne flute and it was also SO GOOD. Our dessert was a brownie a la mode. UGH. 5 stars for everything. Including impeccable service. All that for 25 CUC. Tip included. Unreal. We were supposed to go to Havana Cafe for some party Hansel told us about but when he said they were mostly going to play Reggaeton, that scared J off and he was trying to get out of it since before dinner. So once we left the restaurant all I heard was how uncomfortably full he was and so we walked home and called it a night. What a viejo. To be honest, I didn't care to pay 15 CUC for a party I wasn't crazy about either but I did want to experience the nightlife a bit. Just wish it was salsa or son. Apparently, there's a party on the beach tomorrow from 10-4pm so that should be fun. And he can't get outta that one. 

Return to Roots - May 21

May 21 2015

One last night at the Correa's place, what a shame. I really enjoyed being with them till the wee hours at night and waking up to breakfast and conversation to start the day. But another adventure awaits. Tito and Grisel picked us up and we started our road trip to Varadero. We bought a banana branch on the way. Seriously, like two dozen mini bananas on a branch for 3 CUC. We stopped in Matanzas and had the best Piña Colada I've ever tasted. No joke. Like the nectar of the gods. We didn't even want to put rum in it and possibly tarnish the perfection. Then we went to La Cueva de Saturno. Holy Moses. A short hike took us to a cave with water that looked like crystal. You could see the rock formations below and stalagmites like beautiful chandeliers in every corner. We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped in. A little cold at first but since I'm used to the frigid Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, this was nothing. It was perfect. Refreshing really. I felt like I was in Pandora, no one else was there which made it even more special and almost mystical. We swam and explored for a little before hiking back and sitting at the bar for some water. Grisel presented us with a sweet gift from her and Tito. One box for Juana, which had three tea light candle holders handmade by Artisans here in Cuba with a sweet note and for us, some cute figurines: a couple and a dog, with another personalized note. Very kind and sweet gesture, they wanted us to remember them. From there, we were off until we hit Varadero. He pointed out all the hotels and rated them- the paradiso ones are the best. We hit the end of Varadero and turned around until we found our Casa Particular. Martha y Roberto were outside to greet us. He showed us to our room which had a private entrance from the side of the house. There's a fridge in here, two beds (one queen and one twin). Roberto seemed excited to meet us and said he was preparing for our breakfast tomorrow morning that includes his famous pancakes. Can't wait for those! He says he loves renting out the rooms and meeting people from all over the world. And now a quick walk to the beach and explore the town.

Nowww I understand. That water is like crack. You never want to get out! The sand is powdery soft and the water's a perfect temperature. We got there around 7pm so the sun wasn't as strong but still no sunset until 8:30! We walked back (5 min walk!) to our new home to shower and get dinner. While washing our feet in the outside shower, we were introduced to a woman who was staying in the room next to ours: Yolanda/Yoly. We started talking and found she's Costa Rican (tica), a chef, here with her husband Alejandro, and she's been to Cuba now 6 times. She recommended Don Alex to eat and started describing some of the dishes which sent our stomachs to heaven. Her husband gave us directions on how to get there, we thanked them and went off to shower. We took a horse carriage/taxi ride there and as we were getting off the cab, a car pulls up right behind us and it's the Costa Rican couple saying they screwed up and gave us the wrong street and didn't feel right not chasing us down to help us. So we jumped in their car and all went to Don Alex together. This is another reason why I love to travel so much. Meeting people from all over the world and sharing meals and conversation. We had a wonderful meal with our new Tico (I learned that Costa Rican people call themselves Tico's and Tica's because they say CafeTICO, un poquiTICO, etc) friends. Don Alex was a gentleman and very serviceable. The food was stupendous; we had a cazuela de Mariscos with rice and tostones. I had a sweet and hungry kitty next to me almost my entire meal. He would even place his paw on my lap every so often to remind me to give him food. The couple had such great personalities. I found out that they have two daughters, one 16 and one 20 along with 3 cats and one dog. They live in San Jose and he's a banker or in the banking business and she's taking a sabbatical from work. They adopted their two daughters when each were 14. I thought that was pretty amazing. Their dog was run over, well it wasn't their dog yet, they found him like that and took him to the vet. After they cleaned him up and stabilized him, they took him in their home. They seem like pretty badass people. They wanted to adopt those girls to give back to God for all the blessings they have -- "you may not change the world but for someone you can change theirs" (that's what she said about that). They were Christians but not the kind I grew up with, she cursed like a sailor and was really funny and natural about it. I liked that. On our way home we noticed a show going on in front of our casa - salsa and dance show. We hung out for a couple of minutes and then walked back to say our goodnights. So appreciative of great company and another wonderful day. I love how every day, if you're open to it, can bring you surprises. So fun! 

Return to Roots - May 20

May 20 2015

Spent the day with Aramis, Jr, and Estrella. We started the afternoon... yes after a late breakfast and much conversation... we started our day, back at Los Artesanos del Muelle. That's the thing here, lots of conversation throughout the day which is nice, makes you slow down for a bit. So we came back to make some purchases, particularly a big blue number Bubb had his eye on since the first time we went. I also wanted to get these tablets, the 'plates' where artists place their paint, well one artist turned them into works of art themselves, which I thought was very unique. I bought three of those. We talked her down from $45 for the set to $35. The large piece was originally $150 and we were able to get it for $110. I also bought a cool canvas type bag for Stefano and Jay bought a weird small piece of art for Tato. We all walked around like we were on a mission because Estrella was helping us secure better deals. It was an interesting situation. So much life in there and lots of cool pieces. A & E bought us two bottles of Havana Club for us to take home. They're awesome. I crack up with them a lot. Estrella has such a funny spirit, always laughing, and Aramisito is like a little Cuban old man. Aramis papa expresses himself in such a way that you pee your pants. From there, we went in search of Jay's record shop he saw in a  documentary QuestLove found a couple of months before. We couldn't find that one exactly but he was able to score 3 Cuban vinyl records. That made him happy. Hunger hit and we went to Starbien Restaurant, but on the way there we apparently ran over a pile of shit and it got stuck on the car or under the car or something. We were cracking up so bad with that ordeal. We pulled up to the restaurant still smelling like shit and Estrella and I were in stitches as Aramis was asking the parking attendant for a hose to find this mystery shit and wash it off. I am literally laughing with Jay right now just thinking and talking about it. So as the poor parking guy started on his task, we sat down and ate an amazing meal for only 10 CUC each. It included a drink, an appetizer, a main dish, a side dish and a dessert/coffee. I had the grilled fish (pargo) and Jay had the ropa vieja. Both were great. I had fried malanga for an appetizer and I really loved those. As we were about to pay, Aramis goes to the bathroom and to check on the car, and when he comes back he says, "Tengo malas noticias, el carro todavia huele a mierda"-- we died. The poor guy was working on the car the whole meal and he still had his work cut out for him. It made for some really great laughs though. From there, they wanted to take us to this ritzy neighborhood where the diplomats and millionaires live. Aramis Jr. wanted to get dropped off before then to shower and rest before going out tonight. He also confessed que se estaba cagando, which made us laugh again. "Ni tengo que abrir la puerta que ahi esta". LOL. I love me some toilet humor. So we dropped him off and went sight seeing. Insane houses. Guards in front of most of them, especially ones with flags on them, diplomats and such. They also took us by Fidel Castro's compound. Security was pretty tight around those parts. duh. We finished with a bit of a wild goose chase in search of the Buena Vista Social Club. No luck, so we went home to rest and shower. When we did, Aramis went online and found the exact address so he and Jay went out again while I stayed behind with Estrella and Aramisito. We talked for a while, they are definitely chatterboxes but I love it. So many funny 'disparates' and stories and mannerisms. I laugh really hard with them. In the meantime, Jay found the spot and the man who lives inside. He was able to take pictures and videos and briefly go inside. Needless to say, he was thrilled with that. We showered when he got back and got ready to go to a bar called Espacio. Maria Carla, Aramisito's girlfriend, joined us too. The place was a house - casa particular / negocio privado - with a cool outside and fun ambiance. Low key, nothing crazy. We had good sangrias and enoyable conversation. I just wish we didn't get tired so easily! We got home around 2am. Tomorrow is VARADERO!


Return to Roots - Prep for the Journey

Since Cuba is not a trip you can plan as easily as say, Hawaii, there are steps that you need to take to obtain a ticket and visa, you also need to know certain rules to enter/exit this mysterious island. 

Ticket and Visa: I used the Travel Agency DMC/ Destination Management Consultants and dealt with Sheyla Diaz, a very helpful agent based in Miami, FL. Contact Info: 1850 SW 8th Street, Suite 204-A, Miami, FL 33135 // 305.443.0417 // We flew through Marazul Charter which are either American Airlines, Delta, or JetBlue planes. I paid $400 round trip and Marazul includes the exit tax ($25) in that price.

Should your charter not include the exit tax, please keep 25 CUC handy at the end of your stay so you can leave the island! Also, cash is the only method of payment in Cuba, no credit cards, travelers checks, or anything else is accepted there. 

Our Tourist Visa was $95 a person. We used the addresses of family members and were not asked anything else. If you don't have family there, just ask Sheyla which would be your best option. Like I said, she was very helpful. 

Tips: Your phone will not work over there. There is only wifi in the hotels, should you stay in one (I highly recommend staying at a Casa Particular, more on those below). You're able to rent one through DMC but I loved being off the grid for a week.

Bring medications (prescriptions and over the counter), sunscreen, hair products and anything else you may need as these items are difficult to find there and you don't want to waste time trying to find them.

I recommend rummaging through your closet and packing clothes that you may not have worn in a while and don't mind leaving to the beautiful people there. I brought outfits and shoes that I knew I could easily part with at the end of my stay. Even if you don't have family in Cuba, there is always someone who will know what to do with that thoughtful care package. Clothes and shoes are not easy to find or cheap for them, so this is something special you can leave behind as a token of gratitude.

Casa Particular: My intention for this trip was to see Cuba from the realest POV possible, and that would definitely omit staying in a hotel. Casas Particulares are plentiful in Cuba. We stayed with family in Havana but in Varadero we secured a wonderful little Casa for three days. Roberto & Martha's home was a 1 minute walk from the legendary beach, a short stroll to local Artisanal shops, and a quick taxi/Almendron/horse carriage ride to plenty of delicious restaurants. Roberto charge 30 CUC a night because we were in an off peak time. it's 35 CUC if you're there during the peak months. Contact information: Street 17 #102A, 1st and 2nd Ave, Varadero, Cuba. // +53.45.612958 mobile +53.52.775806

Bonus: If you also have Cuban roots, I highly recommend trying to locate the homes of your family. My grandfather made a map for me before I left and he circled the home where he grew up and lived until he was 17. He also showed me the home where my mother and aunt lived until they fled Cuba in 1961. He asked me to take pictures of them if I could. My aunt on my dad's side gave me the address where we have a cousin I never met. He still lives in the home where my dad was born and most of his family lived. These were very special landmarks for me and created a powerful adventure which I detailed in my travel diary.