Tag Archives: wanderlust

Cuba: Mystery Solved

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Havana was amazing.  A very vibrant atmosphere to fulfill all of your adventure needs. But there are quite a few things that need to be considered. While doing research for my trip, I found it extremely difficult to find specific information. Once you got passed the fluff of the gazillion blogs out there, I was starting to realize the lack of important “need to know” information available. Basically, I REALLY had to dig to find it. Hopefully, me posting what all I found out will make it easier for you.

First things first. Let’s get those expectations in order, shall we? Cuba is NOT the Dominican Republic. It is NOT Puerto Rico. It is NOT like any other Caribbean island out there. You have to understand that not everything is as plentiful and readily available there like you would find elsewhere. If you’re the type that likes to be catered to or have everything lined out for you, don’t go. No, seriously. And knowing basic phrases in Spanish will make your life that much easier.

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Authorized Categories for Travel into Cuba

Keep in mind that tourism in Cuba is still prohibited. You have to fall into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel set by the US government in order to book a plane ticket. Most airlines have a message that automatically pops up and asks you this when booking travel anywhere in Cuba online. As long as you fall under one of the 12 categories, you don’t need prior approval from the government. It is based on good faith. They include:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research
  5. Educational activities
    • People to people interactions
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian efforts
  10. Private foundations or research institutes
  11. Exportation and importation of information materials
  12. Special export transactions

So which one did I select? Educational activities. The people to people clause allows for you to make individual trips to Cuba by planning your own schedule of activities, without having to go through a private company ( which used to be the only way to go under the educational category and needed prior approval from the government).  Be sure to keep a detailed itinerary listing all the things you did. It has to be enough to cover a full day, so maybe 3-4 activities. Its suggested that you keep itineraries for your records for at least 5 years. Also keep in mind that you want activities that center around interaction with the Cuban people. I find it extremely difficult to go to Cuba and not have an educational, people to people type of experience.

Visa Requirements

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Here comes the fun part! I only say this because there is a wealth of conflicting information out there on this topic and it will literally make your head spin.

The Cuban government requires a visa for entry into the country. As a U.S. Citizen, you will need to apply for what the Cuban government refers to as a tourist card ( I know, weird because tourism is prohibited by our government… but hey, thats what the visa is called). Here’s where it can get confusing. There are multiple ways to obtain a visa. It all just depends on a) your level of patience in playing the waiting game and b) how much you are willing to spend. There are 3 ways in which you can obtain a visa:

  1. From the Cuban Consular office in Washington D.C.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $20 if request made by mail= $70
  • Must be paid with money orders, one for each fee
  • Legible copy of valid passport and stamped self addressed envelope are required.
  • Embassy of Cuba (Ref: Tourist Visa), 2630 16th St NW Washington DC 20009
  • I couldn’t get an exact estimate of processing time, but I would allow for 4 weeks. Government processes aren’t known for being the fastest.  Also, you can get the process going in person, but it will still take a few days for you to actually receive the visa. Its not necessarily same day pick up.

2. From a Third Party

  • There are a number of third party companies that can help obtain a visa for you. The most common one I heard about was Cuba Visa Services , which is who I used. I prefer convenience over everything. And with convenience often comes a premium. It was a seamless process though. You fill out the form online and pay the fee.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $35 processing fee+ $25 shipping via FedEx= $110.
  • I received it 4 days later after I submitted my order

3. Through the Airline

Now this one can vary a lot because prices and processes are not uniform across airlines. For instance, Southwest charges $50 while Spirit charges $100. Also, some airlines send you an email about 30 days out from your trip directing you to a third party they have contracted to provide the visa service. Others let you buy the visa over the phone and let you pick up at the check in counter. Or purchase the visa same day at the check in counter. Bottom line… if you’re going the airline route, CALL the airline and verify directly with them.

If you opt for a non-US carrier, you may be able to purchase the visa on a layover. For example, I flew Aeromexico with a layover in Mexico City. Some of the ladies I went with purchased their visas on our layover at the customer service desk for a whopping $20 (this is by far the cheapest option). I believe it is the same flying Copa Airlines with a layover in Panama City for around the same price. One note of caution in going this route: Make sure you have a long enough layover where you can comfortably do this. We were on a 2 hour layover in Mexico City and had plenty of time to spare. However, it wasn’t a busy time when we arrived so customs and immigration were a breeze. I’ve been on a layover in Mexico City with immigration lines double wrapped around the corner and the entire process took an hour. So just be mindful of connection times.

It is important that you fill the visa out correctly or you will have to purchase a new one!

Travel Medical Insurance

Cuba requires all U.S. citizens entering the country to have travel medical insurance. Most U.S. medical insurance policies through your employer will not cover Cuba. Also, some travel insurance policies won’t either. I purchased basic travel insurance through the airline, then purchased medical insurance through another 3rd party for like $12. InsureMyTrip is an excellent resource for comparing policies (select the “medical coverage only” option when doing comparisons). Also, you can purchase insurance at the Havana airport but its more expensive than getting it before you go. Some people will say that they weren’t asked about insurance when they arrived at the airport. When I arrived at the Havana airport, I was definitely asked to show proof of  it. So its always better to be safe than sorry.

Accommodations

Lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. We chose an Air BnB in the neighborhood of Vedado. We paid $366 for 4 nights in an apartment that slept 6. I would highly recommend you use the “Instant Book” option with Air BnB. There were quite a few instances of hosts canceling requests extremely close to travel dates. While Instant Book isn’t a guarantee your reservation won’t be cancelled, the likelihood of that happening is slim. Air BnB is still fairly new to Cuba, so there are still a few kinks to work out.  You also have the option of staying in a Casa Particular. A simple google search will yield plenty of mediums for booking. You can sometimes book one when you land in some cases. They are literally everywhere throughout the city. They are distinguished by a particular sign, which sort of resembles an anchor. Of course, there is always the option of a hotel. But given the influx of American tourism, the costs have increased. Like I said, lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. I will say that most of the people I know who traveled to Havana went the Air BnB/ Casa route.

You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.
You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.

Money Matters

PLEASE keep in mind that you can not use your credit/debit cards in Cuba. They will not work. Which means you need to pay for everything in cash. Which also means you need to budget your trip accordingly. I would say you would do fine on $100 per day. Whatever that total comes to, add another $200-300 to that just to be safe. I brought $1,000 total. I only spent half in 4 days. About $250 on food, $80-100 on transportation, $40 on our group activity with the remainder on miscellaneous items ( Cigars aren’t cheap! Budget accordingly).

I would advise you to exchange your USD to Euros first, then exchange the Euros to CUC when you arrive in Havana. Why? Because there is an extra 10% fee tacked on to the 3% conversion fee for USD due to the embargo. So basically:

  • For every $100 you exchange you get back 87 CUC. The conversion rate is 1 USD= 1 CUC
  • 460 Euros got me 466 CUC

I didn’t exchange the other $500 I had. I never exchange the full amount of cash I bring because of the fees associated with selling and buying currency. Don’t want to lose money on the cash you don’t use.

Other Miscellaneous “Need to Know” Tips

  • Wifi is limited. Be prepared to be disconnected. You can buy a wifi card from some of the hotels. I bought mine from  the Melia-Cohiba hotel. $10 for 1 hour. But the hotel was like 4 blocks from our apartment. Whenever you see a gathering of people on their phones, its a wifi spot.
  • Taxi rides from the airport should run you about $30. Negotiate prices and agree on them before you get in.
  • Bring LOTS of sanitizer and wet wipes. Sometimes there was no soap, running water or toilet paper in the restrooms at the places we were at.
  • Bottled water ONLY.
  • Trips to the beach in an official taxi (the yellow ones) will run you $50 round trip. You can try your negotiation skills with a local taxi though. Most definitely will come out cheaper.
  • If you have a sensitive stomach, start taking those probiotics!
  • Pack your allergy meds. The exhaust from the cars had mine going haywire at first.
  • When giving addresses for your casa/Air BnB to taxi drivers, make sure to include the street, intersection and house number. For example:
    • 6 calzada y 5, 115 means between 6th and 5th streets, number 115. Air BnB doesn’t always have the addresses accurately posted.
  • Google Translate is an awesome tool for the not so fluent Spanish speaker. But it translates English to proper Spanish. Some of the phrases you put in might not translate as smoothly to the everyday Spanish that Cubans use. So try to ask basic, yes or no questions.
  • I would strongly advise you to do carry-on only. Wait times from baggage claim can be at least 2 hours in most cases. They simply don’t have the personnel to handle the influx of tourism. Save yourself the trouble. If you’re buying cigars and alcohol, check it on the way back.

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If there is anything you would like to know that I may have left out, or you have a specific question, please feel free to contact me! Happy planning!

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I Left My Heart in Cartagena: Day 1

When In Doubt…Face Your Fear

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While everyone else would be eating turkey and sweet potato pie, I would be basking in the relentless humidity and endless aromas of arrepas and fresh mango. I chose to travel solo for my 30th for a specific reason. The last time that I remember my birthday falling on Thanksgiving day was when I was eight. It was also the last Thanksgiving I would spend with my mother. Thats a memory I have cherished throughout the last 22 years of my life. So I wanted 30 to be just as memorable.

Obligatory airport/boarding pass/passport photo.
Obligatory airport/boarding pass/passport photo.

If you’re like the thousands of others who binged watched Narcos (myself included), then you probably had this pre-conceived notion about Colombia. As someone who travels solo quite often, I found myself being nervous for the first time heading into Colombia. Which is odd because I booked the ticket without a second thought. Add to the fact that I was turning 30 and that came with its own insecurities. But it was the weeks leading up to the trip where my nerves started to set in. What was I all of a sudden nervous about?

Perhaps I too let all the bad press Colombia  had received shape my view of what Cartagena might be like. I sort of had buyer’s remorse for a second. Yes, me. The solo traveler down to explore where ever. Then I realized “well, you’ve bought the ticket already… no turning back now!” So I braced myself for impact. I thought of every possible scenario that could happen. I was prepared. What I didn’t prepare for was how much I would end up falling in love with this beautiful place.

A Bold Yet Simple Beauty

From the moment I stepped off the plane, the humidity swaddled me like a blanket. Being from SE Texas, I’m somewhat used to humidity, but Cartagena was definitely beyond my range of expertise. Arriving to my taxi straight off the plane (team carry-on!), we head straight for my hostel in the neighborhood of San Diego. I’m instantly captivated by the hustle and bustle of this quaint Caribbean city. The ocean to my right , with a vengeful line of taxis to my left. My high school Spanish hasn’t failed me miserably in the past, so I attempt to make small talk with the driver. He is not here for it. He is only there to do his job. Or maybe he’s just annoyed with traffic. Can’t knock that. A sea of horns are blowing around me as I assume we are caught in a lunch time rush. I also observe that there are no speed limits or yield signs in what looks to be a free for all type of traffic system.

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One of the many colorful streets of Cartagena

Fifteen minutes in and we reach the Walled City. Its stunning. The colorful buildings and walls are the first thing that jump out at me. The streets are busy and filled with people; mothers and daughters, street vendors, tourists. They all seem so relaxed with no immediate rush. I also see neighbors hanging out on the end of streets socializing . Every person I lock eyes with engages me with a smile. It was at that moment that I knew I was on to something good.

I receive the warmest welcome upon check-in at my hostel. I opted for a boutique hostel this go round because it was my birthday and not just any birthday. This was 30. I would need the peace of a private room after all the exploring I had planned to do.  The hostel was situated on a busy corner, so of course I could hear all the horns and cat calls throughout the day. But strangely, I didn’t mind that at all. Mainly because I was hardly ever in the room. I stayed long enough to wash the airport germs off of me and then I was off.

My quaint little room
My quaint little room
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View from my balcony

One Vibrant Soul

I couldn’t help but to realize how relaxed I had become upon arrival into the Walled City. All of those anxieties and fears I felt before instantly seemed to vanish. I wanted to take this place in and explore every crack and crevice that I could within my allotted time. San Diego, in all its vibrant colors and picturesque doors, was truly a sight to see. I walked down each narrow roadway in awe of the level of detail put into the color and architecture of each structure. And I wasn’t the only one. A few tourists like myself lined the sidewalks to capture the perfect photo of a myriad of doors with plentiful flowers hanging over them. This place was a photographer’s paradise! And me and my amateur self was happy to partake.

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People watching was also a joy. Watching how others interact with each other in another country is truly interesting to see. This city was definitely made for lovers. Love was all around. Young love holding hands, old love sharing an ice cream, a mother’s love making sure her kids stayed on the sidewalk and out of the street. Every corner I turned, I felt it. And it made me so happy that I was here, in this city, to experience it. And of course there were the street vendors. I can’t even knock their hustle. How they maintained to smile after tons of rejections in 85 degree weather with 100 percent humidity is beyond me.

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I settle on this Cuban restaurant with a 40’s theme. Get this, there’s a pool in the middle of the joint…Even better! Me and my mojito were happy to oblige. The vibe is relaxed, and its just what I needed after nearly a day of traveling (more on that in another post). Then I hear Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” followed by what appears to be rapping in Spanish. Its a young native shooting his shot with tourists nearby. They’re recording him with their cell phones. I think to myself “By any means necessary, huh?”. I chuckle at his direct and abrupt demeanor, yet I respect it at the same time. Who knows, he might be one YouTube view away from stardom.

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Cuba 1940’s

Did I mention the people here are so kind and generous? As I stated, my Spanish is not the best. But I found that if you were willing to try, the people were more than willing to help by correcting you in a forgiving way. I can’t tell you how many times I ran into American and British tourists who never even attempted. That annoys me just a smidgen, but thats also another post for another day.

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I leave the restaurant to do some more exploring. More picture taking. Then it hit me that I was officially in the 30 club. Man, oh man! I’ve already mentally prepared myself for the plunge in my metabolism. But all is still well. And all I could think about was how much I NEEDED to sleep. I had only been up a solid 24 hours. I got another quick bite and headed back to my hostel. Upon finding out that its my birthday, one of the hosts offered me a glass of wine and asked me to join him in an evening chat. I know I needed sleep but HOW could I say no to such a friendly gesture? We sat talking about random stuff. Laughs and lots of “no ways!”. Truly a treat. Another warm welcome and friendly face that made me not want to leave this place.  Not the scheming and crooked experience I had somehow talked myself into expecting. The patio area we were sitting in was open air so I could see the stars in the sky. It was the perfect ending to a long but awesome birthday. Cartagena’s plans to steal my heart were in full force. The more I relaxed, the easier it was for her to do so.

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My Summer of wanderLUST: Oregon

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Continuing on with my summer filled with trips throughout the states, I decided to high tail it to Oregon. I have family that recently relocated there, so the timing couldn’t have been anymore perfect. Never in my life have I seen a place so green! And coming from an area where the air is extremely polluted with smog and the likes of refineries, Oregon was literally a breath of fresh air.

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Driving through Willamette Valley

The coolest thing I found about Oregon were all of the green/eco-friendly initiatives. It was weird asking for a to-go box and not be given styrofoam. And everywhere seemed extremely walkable. I didn’t really get a chance to explore Portland.  Most of my stay was in the quaint little town of Independence. I swear, I could’ve just roamed the main street the entire time and been content with life.  I walked around and found a cute Thai restaurant for lunch. And one of my favorite past times that I’ve grown fond of is finding a local ice cream parlor. The simple things that make us happy, right?

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Downtown Independence, OR

Oregon is such a scenic state. Like I literally was in awe taking in everything I was seeing. I didn’t want to do anything else other than to sit and stare at God’s wonderful creations. Something about being out in nature is very humbling and soothing at the same time. I went on this trip with a heavy heart and a completely stressed out mind. Somehow, I managed to find peace. Being amongst family helped tremendously too, but I was actually able to just relax. You know how there are some trips you take to be adventurous, while others you take solely to do absolutely nothing but just.. be? Totally one of the latter type of trips.

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And of course, I had to splurge on dinner at least once. I give you Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Crab Stuffed Salmon with a Hazelnut Bleu Cheese Salad. Yum-MEEE!!!

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What I wouldn’t give to be back there staring at a view like this every day.

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Until next time Oregon… I’ll definitely be back!

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My Summer of wanderLUST: New Orleans

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I was determined to have a jam packed summer, full of road trips and lots of sun. I made it happen, and it was glorious. First up on the list was New Orleans. Because you can’t ever go wrong with NOLA. I spent a great deal away from Bourbon Street. I know thats usually the go to spot for out of towners, but seriously, there are SO many unique and cool things about New Orleans outside of Bourbon Street. However, making at least one appearance for a hand grenade is ok.

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Somewhere on Bourbon.

This trip, I visited Frenchman Street as well as the Garden District. I was blown away. In all my years of visiting this wonderful city, I never witnessed the beauty of these places.  The Frenchman Street Art Market was definitely on my list. So many cool things to see and buy from the local artists.

Out and about. Frenchman St Art Market
Out and about. Frenchman St Art Market

 

The Presbytere, New Orleans
The Presbytere Museum, Mardi Gras Exhibit

 

The Presbytere
At the entrance of The Presbytere

 

Audubon Park
Audubon Park

 

Just wandering through the park.
Just wandering through the park.

I know you’re wondering about it. And yes, the food was delicious! But I mean, its New Orleans, what did you expect?

Gumbo from Stanley in the French Quarter
Gumbo from Stanley in the French Quarter

 

A triple treat! Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffe, Red Beans and Rice
A triple treat! Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffe, Red Beans and Rice

One of the best things about driving through Louisiana on the way to New Orleans are the pit stops in between. Cracklins are a must!

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My mom’s side of the family resides in the Greater New Orleans area, so naturally, I spent a lot of time there growing up. But somehow, this trip was different. This trip stirred up a fire in me that I thought had died out. Life gets hard sometimes and trying to maintain your sense of imagination and creative spirit can be taxing on the mind in the midst of it all. This trip, I did a lot of self reflection. The long walk through beautiful Audubon Park leading up to the riverfront was freeing in its own right. As some of you may know, my mom died when I was eight. I couldn’t help but take in all the beauty around me while thinking “Man, my mom grew up here? In such a cool place?”. I feel like I was supposed to experience this New Orleans. I don’t really know much about her, but I feel like my sense of adventure comes from her. And in a way, I feel like I connected and shared this moment with her spiritually. This was the start of something good.

A Curly Conundrum: Natural Hair Maintenance while Traveling

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A self-proclaimed curly girl, I’ve been wearing my hair in its natural state for about 7 years. I cut it all off to start over after years of chemical processing. Best decision I ever made. Since I began seriously traveling about 5 years ago, I’ve learned what works for my hair (and what doesn’t) when I’m in a new place braving new elements.

Sometimes Humidity is Your Friend

I know you read that and thought “since when?”. I’m here to tell you, my best curls were on a trip to Miami. That Florida humidity whipped my curls right into shape. I only had to do water rinses and a light moisturizer and let nature do the rest. I usually co-wash every other day but that can cause build up.  Obviously, straightened hair in Florida is a resounding NO for me when visiting. Because then, me and the weather wouldn’t get along too much.

Hard Water Setbacks 

When I was preparing for my trip to Mexico, I knew the water wasn’t going to be all that great. So I planned for it by putting twists in my hair to prep for a twist out and packed my favorite moisture rich conditioner (Garnier Fructise). My twist out lasted me the first 2 days. I had also made a mixture of my favorite moisturizer diluted with a little water  and a light oil (I prefer grape seed or almond) and put in a spray bottle to create somewhat of a leave in conditioner. It worked wonders!

Windswept Days

For extremely windy days, I usually wore my hair pulled back. I would love to be able to whip my hair through the wind. However, the detangling process would be a nightmare. French braids and twists have helped me get through many windy days so that I could focus on my adventures ahead.

Dry and Dull

Drier climates I may opt to straighten my hair, depending on where I’m going. Both times I’ve visited Napa Valley, I’ve always worn my hair straight. No wind + No humidity= A great hair day. While visiting the Texas Hill country, it was a very dry heat. I wore my curls but kept a spray bottle with water handy to spritz when needed.

Some people skip the maintenance and opt for protective styles like weaves or braids. I’ve personally only wore weave in my hair once and it only lasted 3 days. The constant feeling of having a helmet on my head wasn’t appealing at all. This also makes swimming difficult, so it wouldn’t work for me since I like to swim under water.  A trick I learned for dealing with swimming pools and ocean water is to throw some conditioner on my hair before going swimming or simply wetting my hair before diving in. It helps alleviate the dryness that comes from salt water and chlorine.

I’m all for keeping it simple. The last thing I want to be worried about is being miles away from home suffering from bad hair days.

Wanderlust-ing: My 2015-16 Travel Wish List

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So I have finally put the finishing touches on my travel wish list! Because my job’s fiscal year is September through August, I have to plan my trips around our year beginning and end. This also aids in knowing which locations I can visit during what times of year for the best price, based on busy/slow months at the office. The list stretches into 2016 (I’m pretty handy with budgets and spreadsheets). I also incorporated a “wild card”, just in case I find some extra money floating around. What places does your travel wish list consist of?

1. Tulum

2. New Orleans

3. Oregon

4. Niagara Falls

5. Breckenridge, CO

6. Big Bend National Park, TX

7. Belize

8. Great River Road Drive (Louisiana road trip)

9. Ireland

10. Charleston, SC (wildcard)