Koh Rong, Cambodia: An Island Village with Heart

by Tuesday, December 12, 2017

I sit on the porch of my rustic bungalow, feeling the warm ocean breeze against my sun-kissed skin; I hear seashell chimes singing its familiar tune and children at play in the background.  I’m on a tiny island off the southern coast of Cambodia, where time isn’t of anyone’s concern.thewanderlustyogi.net

Koh Rong, Cambodia is an island village with heart. It is small ocean side village with the kindest people you could ever meet. Although its population is around 200 and a very close net community, they welcome foreigners with opens arms and enormous smiles.

I came here on a last-minute decision to visit my daughter who is currently living here.  She is a team leader for volunteers working for a non-profit organization called Reach Out Volunteers She has been here a month, and will be here for another six weeks.

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my little island girl!

Since she won’t be coming home for the holidays, I wanted to bring her a little holiday cheer, and with me, love and hugs from everyone back at home who will be missing her this year.

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I’m just a little bit excited to see my daughter! 😉

The project her team is working on at the moment, is building an artificial coral reef to place into the ocean, aiding in marine conservation.  The volunteers work on their land project in the hot blistering sun, mixing cement and pouring it into molds. If they haven’t already been scuba diving certified, they study and earn their PADI scuba certification to later scuba dive “with a purpose” by diving with the cement bricks under the sea, to the area where the artificial reef is being built.  Reach Out Volunteers have already placed 500 artificial coral reef blocks into the ocean since the start of this program.

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https://www.facebook.com/namastemumma/videos/10157009157349126/

I feel quite guilty, as I can view them working from this very porch I sit.  My days consist of sunrise gazing, reading, swimming in the ocean, taking leisurely walks along the shore, ocean hut “vegan” dining and afternoon naps. However, the volunteers don’t seem to mind at all, and watching them makes me feel very proud of them for what they are doing. I’m their official cheerleader for the week.thewanderlustyogi.net

They are a small group this time, probably due to the holidays, only five, (usually being triple that number) but the group is happy with the size and has already become a little family. I have been even fortunate enough to get to know each of them myself.

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Reach Out Volunteers- Cambodia! (Sophie, Jess, Kelly, Magnus, Jess, Maddie)

There is Magnus from Norway who is a big teddy bear.  He made it a point for me to join them one night to play a game of trivia. The random facts stored in his head is unreal! I think that’s why he wanted me to play? To show me his skills.  And yes, I was quite impressed! I call him a walking Wikipedia and this gift of his is great for him, since he is in college studying education to become a teacher. He also loves Oreo cookies more than anyone I have ever met.

Then there is sweet Jess from Australia. She is the youngest of the bunch, only 17, but very mature and has a heart of gold. She reminds me a lot of my daughter.  She loves to surf and anything to do with the ocean and is planning on becoming a sports physical therapist. I also learned her love for chocolate. She always gets her chocolate shake before bed, which is as sweet as she is. We shared a sunrise together talking about her future goals and I see her going very far in life.

Next, we have another “Jess” and Kelly. A young couple from Australia as well. Jess is already scuba certified and loved it so much that she wanted to go for the next level of certification and brought Kelly along to so he could get certified also, while they give back to the world together. I haven’t gotten to know them too well, but they are very nice and taught me about a famous Australian sweet called Lamingtons, which sounds totally delicious. I wonder if they sell it on Amazon?

Last, but not least, there is Sophie. Yet another Australian volunteer.  She is always happy and smiling no matter what. Her upbeat attitude is contagious and her smile makes everyone around her feel happy. She loves movies and music and is studying to become a psychologist, which seems to be the perfect fit for her, since she is so approachable and accepting of others. I’m positive she will help many people throughout her career. She also taught me the correct way to eat Vegemite; on toast with butter or crackers, but a very thin layer. I’m still not sure if I will ever like the stuff, but I’ll try it again just to give it another chance.

I’m so glad that I got to come here to Koh Rong, to see my daughter working on this beautiful island with these beautiful people. It is something that I will forever cherish. Before, I could only imagine in my mind what the location was like, what the project was all about and who she would be working with. And now, I know!thewanderlustyogi.net

Although I couldn’t spend a lot of time with her, I loved our morning sunrise ritual together before the volunteers would wake up, talking about the day upon us and getting morning kisses from the hotel family’s puppy Joop Joop. I looked forward to her frequent stop-bys with updates of what they were up to next. I also enjoyed a few nights hanging out playing games or watching movies with these wonderful kids, who gave a few weeks of their lives to give selfless-service, in helping to save the oceans.

I even had the honor of teaching them a sunrise yoga class on the beach, along with the island dogs, and it was pure magic!thewanderlustyogi.net thewanderlustyogi.net thewanderlustyogi.net thewanderlustyogi.net

I cannot put into words how proud I am of my daughter. She is fearless, determined and passionate and touches every soul she meets. Watching her lead and making connections with people from all over the world is the best Christmas gift I could ever wish for.  My heart is overflowing with pride, joy and gratitude.

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morning sunrise ritual with Maddie

In these times of sadness, devastation and constant turmoil, a week witnessing the younger generation giving back, gives me hope that they are the change that we wish to see in this world. The future looks bright and they are the light!

Namaste!

thewanderlustyogi.net

 

Her Gypsy Soul- Our 1972 Vintage Airstream Renovation Project

by Wednesday, June 28, 2017

With the trending tiny house movement, and the popularity of living a nomadic lifestyle in recent years, renovations of vintage airstreams to live in, has been all the rage. I happen to have jumped on that bandwagon too, sort of.  I do not necessarily want to live in an airstream, but I must admit, the thought has crossed my mind.  Can you imagine the money we’d save? Wow! But can you imagine how crazy we’d go? lol thewanderlustyogi.net

However, what I did want to do was find a vintage airstream and renovate it. I wanted to keep some of its original character and  charm, while also updating it with my own personal touches and adding a few modern upgrades. That way, we would be able to travel throughout the USA in a fun and quirky style, while saving money on hotels and being able to bring along our cherished fur babies.

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Gabby and Bernie. Our two Boston Terrier dogs.

Now, I’m not a person who likes campers or camping even (I’ve gone a total of three times my entire life), but with airstream, it’s totally different. I fell in love with these shiny, moving milk cans forever ago and for some reason I don’t even look at them as a camper. I especially went gaga over them when browsing through the amazing renovations people have posted on Pinterest and YouTube.  (If you do the same, you might catch the vintage airstream fever?  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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I was so inspired by these makeovers, I just had to do one myself. I also thought about how I travel all around the world, but haven’t experienced hardly any of my own amazing country. I’ve never even seen the Grand Canyon! By having a house on wheels, it’d be  like having my very own mobile airbnb. We could go anywhere the road could take us!   And last month, that’s just what my husband and I did!thewanderlustyogi.net

Here’s Our Story:

For the last two years we have been searching off and on for a vintage airstream to renovate. On our quest we quickly learned that they are really expensive, hard to find in our area, and many are in far worse condition than we wanted to take on. We also learned that airstream literally has a cult following, making it even harder to find these much sought after unique relics, that look like a cross between an airplane and a submarine.

The criteria for the airstream we were looking for had to be; under $10,000, not completely gutted and within a few hours from where we live.  This was an almost impossible checklist, until last month.

One evening while watching tv and browsing the web for airstreams, we stumbled upon one that seemed to meet our requirements. It was located only a few towns away, the pictures of the trailer showed it to be in pretty decent condition, but the price they were asking was $11,000.  This was a little over budget, but I decided to go check it out anyway.

The next day I drove to the location and toured this 1972 Sovereign Land Yacht 31 foot beaut! She needed a little TLC and some upgrades, but overall, she was in good shape for being forty-five years old (same age as me, and I hope the same assessment 😉 ).  I immediately broke out my phone and took a little footage to show my hubby.  From what he could see in the video, he thought it was in acceptable condition too, but the price tag was a bit higher than we wanted to spend, especially factoring in renovation expenses.thewanderlustyogi.net

So, I had to work some magic.

I took note of all the things that were wrong with the airstream. Some examples were, the awning was missing, the A/C needed to be replaced and there was evidence of past water damage in the bathroom. I made sure to point out all of these things to the owner, and found out that this has been for sale now for eight months, so I’m sure our interest motivated him a tad more than it would have a few months back. How did we miss this listing all these months? 

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Her Gypsy Soul in the Airstream of Nashua parking lot, just sitting there waiting for us to take her home.

Anyway, my husband never even saw it in person and here we were, putting in a very low-ball offer of $7,000.  We knew that was way too low, but we wanted to throw it out there anyway to see if he would bite at all.

He came back and told us that he could not let it go for that low, stating that he was originally asking $13,500, had just put in all new electrical, plumbing, replaced the bathroom floor and sink, got a new stove-top, new tires and bought a new door lock that ran him $500.  However, he said he could work with us a little.

After a bit of haggling, we came to an agreement of $9,000 AS IS.

And she was ours!

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airstream keys and owner’s manual

We took her home, gave her a name (Her Gypsy Soul) and started mapping out our renovation plan. The very first thing that had to go was this ugly red table that looked like it came from a pizza parlor. Nope, that was not the vision I wanted at all.  I wanted the style to be comfy and cozy with a sort of bohemian/ shabby chic feel and everything light in color.

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the ugly red pizza parlor table I had to remove

My husband was the planner of the technical things, such as being sure the water heater was in good working condition, installing flooring, water sealing the entire trailer,  sealing the windows and door, adding a back-splash in the kitchen, changing out all the outlets and painting (although my mother-in-law and I did most of that). He also had to learn all about the black water tank, how to dump it and so forth, discovered that we don’t have a gray water tank because of how old she was,  and learned how we could get a tote and store portable one instead. All I can say is thank goodness for YouTube tutorials. They were a lifesaver. I think we watched every single airstream video that was ever made! It really helped us understand the workings of our old gal and how we could upgrade things.thewanderlustyogi.netthewanderlustyogi.net

 

 

I was the planner of the more fun part,  interior decorating. I planned the design layout and the decor, which was so much more challenging than I anticipated.  I had to remind myself over and over how small the space was, how the weight of items was an important consideration (the lighter, the better),   how the walls are curved  like an airplane, and when in transport, breakable things wont survive.

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Had to use like 10 coats of primer over everything before painting this entire girl white (Valspar semi-gloss in Hush, Hush)

We worked tirelessly for a month on nights and weekends and gave ourselves a due date for when we wanted to have her completed and road ready. We thought a fitting and kind of ironic day would be my 45th birthday, June 17th. We could celebrate her and my 45th year together on our shared maiden voyage.

Since this would be our first camping trip in a vintage RV, we thought it would be best to not go too far,  just in case.   So we chose our local seacoast.  This would be beneficial for a few reasons:

  1. If anything went wrong we would have help nearby.
  2. My adult kids could join us, even if they didn’t want to sleep overnight.
  3. We could host a Father’s Day cookout for our dads at our camp site by the beach.

What a perfect way to kick off summer!

The time crunch was getting close and we almost thought we wouldn’t be ready in time, but luckily we finished!  Although there were little things here and there that we still wanted to do, she was ready enough, to set out on the open road.thewanderlustyogi.net

June 17th came and as I was shopping at the grocery store to pick up cookout foods, snacks and drinks to stock the airstream, my husband was at home packing last-minute items and hitching up Her Gypsy Soul to his truck.  To his horror, while connecting the hitch he noticed severe rust on his 2004 Ford F150, and when he attached the two he heard a loud crunch noise!

He knew he had some rust, and was planning on upgrading to a newer truck soon, but had no idea how much, especially there!

I got home and noticed an odd look on his face and immediately asked him what was wrong.  He explained what he discovered and said it wouldn’t be safe for him to haul the airstream with his truck and he didn’t think we could go!!thewanderlustyogi.net

“What?? OMG!”  This was so unexpected and I was in disbelief.  “Was all that hard work for nothing?  And what were we going to do?”  I mean, my son was already at the beach waiting for us (him and his girlfriend were joining us to celebrate).  My daughter was coming up for just the day too, we had a Father’s Day cookout planned for the next day,  and it was MY BIRTHDAY!  Such a bummer!

So, we had our cool vintage airstream all pimped out and ready to go, and realize it may never leave our driveway, ever!

I walked into the house in kind of a daze.  “Should I call my son and tell him the weekend is cancelled? Should we try to rent a truck? Should we try to borrow a truck?  Was getting this airstream a mistake, since now we have no way of actually going anywhere with it?   All of these thoughts were flooding my head and it triggered an instant migraine. I went to my bed and laid down, hoping this wasn’t really happening.

Then, a new plan was made.

Thankfully my wonderful in-laws offered to let us use my father-in-law’s truck.  He wasn’t using it and was already up at the beach too, but was driving their jeep. We would be meeting them also the next day for Father’s Day.  Crisis diverted! Well, at least for this trip anyway.

We finally made it to our site, later than we originally planned, but we still made it!

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Her Gypsy Soul connected to my father-in-law’s truck

My daughter came for the day, but couldn’t sleep over because she had to work in the morning. My husband, myself, my son and his girlfriend, plus my two Boston Terrier pups, all had our first overnight in our vintage airstream.

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We made it!!

 It was so much fun!

My dogs have never been able to vacation with us and now with Her Gypsy Soul, we can take them along with us sometimes.  Not to mention, they absolutely loved it!

The following day we celebrated Father’s Day with my dad and my in-laws.  That night,  just my husband, pups and myself slept over and we left the following morning.

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Me and my dog Bernie hanging out with my dad on Father’s Day at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, Massachusetts

It was a very nice weekend getaway celebrating with our family. 

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watching the sunset at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, Massachusetts

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Overall, our trial run went great.  All except the truck fiasco, that is! We took note of all the things that we forgot and things that we might change.  For instance, the papasan lounger chair I chose, now that we used it, isn’t quite as practical as we thought.  It looks pretty, but it is bulky and we discovered it’s hard for people to sit in, especially my dad!  I ended up taking it out and making a little reading nook in my bedroom with it.  It actually looks better there.  We are thinking that we could put a small futon or a twin trundle-bed in that spot instead eventually.thewanderlustyogi.net

I think the more we use Her Gypsy Soul, the more we will get a feel of what our style of camping will be? With experience, we will learn what things we absolutely need and what things we really could do without. Working out the kinks and having all the necessities you don’t think about, takes time. But, we will get there.

And as far as how and when we will ever get to use her again?……

I am happy to report that my husband just upgraded his truck to a 2015 Ford F150-platinum, and it will haul Her Gypsy Soul with ease.  He is super psyched because he wasn’t going to do this until winter and now, this summer, he is driving a beautiful new truck with massaging, air-conditioned seats! Are you kidding me? 

I can’t help but to wonder if this was all in his master plan. 😉

But seriously,  this was a lot of work, a little stressful, but so much fun too! We have big plans for awesome adventures in Her Gypsy Soul and look forward to making many happy memories traveling our beautiful country with our dogs.

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tuckered out pups

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Bernie up and ready for a new day!

If this is something you are considering or have any questions about our 1972 vintage airstream renovation project, feel free to reach out to me.  I’d love to help in any way I can.  Just remember, when you become an airstream owner, you become a member of a very exclusive club, and we feel very lucky to be in it.

 

It’s not camping, its glamping!

 

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My hubby’s new whip!! And I’ll share his favorite airstream saying, “It’s not a camper, it’s a land yacht!” ha ha ha

 

 

BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS

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kitchen BEFORE

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kitchen DURING

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kitchen AFTER

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living area BEFORE

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living area AFTER

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bedroom BEFORE

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bedroom AFTER

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bathroom BEFORE

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bathroom AFTER

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bathroom AFTER

 

 

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Things to Know Before Going to Cuba for Americans

by Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Big changes between America and Cuba have come since President Obama and President Raul lifted the embargo December 14, 2014, with plans to normalize relations after more than 55 years as adversaries. The news intrigued curious Americans who wanted to be the first to visit, before this frozen in time, island country in the Caribbean, is morphed into a modernized version of its former self.  Although it is now legal, with restrictions,  there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.thewanderlustyogi.net

I just returned from my first visit to Cuba and I wanted to share what I learned while it was still fresh in my mind. Cuba is so much larger than I had imagined so I wasn’t able to see even one-fourth of it, but I did spend time in Old Havana and Varadero, which are probably the two most popular areas to visit.

Here is a list of some things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.

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ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Just because it is now legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, doesn’t mean any American can just jump on the next flight from Miami with a suitcase and passport in hand. There are still firm restrictions for travel to Cuba for Americans and tourist activities remains prohibited. Americans who wish to travel to Cuba must fall into one of the 12 category reasons authorized by the Cuban government.

  1. family visits
  2. official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain governmental organizations
  3. journalistic activity
  4. professional research or professional meetings
  5. educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
  6. religious activities
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. support for the Cuban people
  9. humanitarian projects
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines

I used journalistic activity because of my travel blog, but most use educational activities or people-to-people. When getting the visa documents at the airport, the reservationist handed me the paper to fill out and told me to just choose #5. I thought it was strange because she clearly had no idea if I fell into that category.  The airline workers seemed as if it was just routine to choose that category for literally everyone and it was all very informal.  I, on the other hand, was kind of freaking out that I should have not used journalistic activities now, but instead used educational activities. I was going to change it, but I already used journalistic activities when purchasing my plane ticket online and was told to “stick with your story”.  And most importantly, whatever you do, to never, ever say your visit was for tourism, if asked. My husband kept joking that if they asked him he was going to say for smuggling.  I was going to kill him! This is not a joking matter, especially in this still sensitive time of transition. I also wasn’t aware that the visa for entry into Cuba was $100.00. I did know that they require everyone to get Cuban health insurance, which is $25.00, but most airlines cover the cost in your ticket price.

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Before I left, I spoke with a lot other travel bloggers and friends and family who have already gone to Cuba and they all said its super easy to get in, the only issue may be coming back into the United States, that you could be questioned by customs and immigration, but most likely you won’t. Lucky us, on our return, we were asked!

 

This is how it went;

immigration officer: “What were you doing in Cuba?’

me:  “journalistic activities”

immigration officer: “What were your reporting on?”

me (gulp): “my husband and I run a travel blog.”

immigration officer: “Okay, did you bring any tobacco or alcohol back with you?”

my husband: “Yes, a box of cigars (starting to open his suitcase to show him)

immigration officer (to my husband): “No worries, you don’t have to show me. Welcome home.”

 

Phew.  I nearly shit my pants! Within those few seconds thoughts spun in my head, “I should have just changed it to educational activities, damn it!”, ” I’m going to be fined!! Ahh!”. “OMG! I’m going to Cuban prison!!” But thankfully, I was just freaking out for no reason. He was just going through the customary questions and wasn’t making a big deal about it.  I was! So, my tip to you, just choose category 5, everyone else does. Since it’s the most common category chosen (seems like the only one), you probably won’t get asked a thing.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

 

MONEY

When it comes to money, cash is king. You won’t find any places in this country that will accept American credit or debit cards, so keep your VISA and MASTERCARD at home. With that said, keep in mind that when you try to exchange USD to their currency (CUC), they will charge you a 10% fee. The best way to avoid this is to exchange your USD to CAD or EURO before you leave the States. The conversion rate is better and you won’t be slammed with that fee on top of it.

Another thing to consider when it comes to money is because plastic or USD isn’t taken in Cuba, you have to carry the amount of cash you will need for your entire trip with you. I admit, this was very difficult to figure out how much to bring since we didn’t really know the prices of things and the amount can vary so much depending if you stay in hotels or casa particulars, if you like to go on tours, if you want to buy souvenirs like cigars and rum, if you want to travel to a lot of different areas, if you dine in hotel chains or paladars, if you want to sip on mojitos everyday? All of these things need to be considered so you don’t end up penniless and stranded for a ride back to the airport on your last day. Lots of planning and budgeting must be done beforehand.  One valuable tip to help alleviate bringing large sums of money is to book accommodations in advance. Although you could save money by just showing up and renting a casa particular for around $30 CUC/night, which are virtually everywhere,  for added peace of mind, this can be done through AirBnB and a few online companies. You won’t find hotels on your normal go to travel websites such as http://travelocity.com, http://priceline.com or http://expedia.com (not yet anyway), but in my research I did find a few that will work with US credit cards.  We booked through http://elvoline.com and http://skoosh.com through a website all about Cuba called Cuba- Junky(http://cubajunky.com).  Make a point to browse over their website before you go. There is so much great information in it.  Please note, hotel rates in Cuba are extremely high and if they have a 5 star rating in Cuba, they most likely will more like a 3 star in the US, Canada or Europe. In Old Havana, they run between $400-$500 USD/ night for a standard room, bare minimum with no view. Ouch!

SAFETYthewanderlustyogi.net

After reading the last section you may be thinking that it could be unsafe walking around Cuba with a bunch of cash on your person. I instantly thought of that too. I thought that by being an American, the locals would know this and we would be a walking target for getting pick-pocketed. Thankfully, from word of mouth of other Americans, talking with the locals and my personal experience, that was not an issue at all. In fact, Cuba is extremely safe and has hardly any crime. The first few days while strolling along  alleys of slum neighborhoods, I had a hard time not thinking the worst, especially at night.thewanderlustyogi.net However, once the culture shock wore off and nobody harassed us, I understood this to be true. Oddly enough when speaking to the many locals, they would ask us why we have so much violent crime in our country and boasted how they are such a safe country with no gangs and a very low crime rate. The irony.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

ACCOMMODATIONS

I traveled to Cuba with my husband who is not as an adventurous traveler as I am. In other words, he is a bit on the high maintenance side. This means he prefers hotel living over AirBnB rentals or homestays. In Cuba, the best and the cheapest way to stay is renting a casa particular, which is a phrase meaning private accommodation or private homestays in Cuba, much like a bed and breakfast. You don’t even need to book them in advance, actually you can’t with most, but some use AirBnb to advertise their place.

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If you are new to AirBnB and want to save $40.00, use this link to book http://www.airbnb.com/c/jedith

There are signs virtually everywhere you look for rooms for rent and they will only run you about $30 CUC/night in Old Havana, and even cheaper outside of the city. On the other hand, if you want to stay in hotel, you are looking to spend easily $400+/ night. These extremely high western prices for hotel rooms don’t exactly give you western standard accommodations. Most hotels are very run down and out-dated and only have the bare essentials.

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This is the symbol for casa particulars where you can rent a room. They are everywhere.

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The pool at night at Parque Central, Havana, Cuba. We would have loved to stay here, but there was no availability. We waited until last minute to book because we weren’t sure what kind of accommodations we were going to choose.  I think it’s the nicest hotel in Old Havana. It is an Iberostar property.

  • The positive of staying in a casa particular is saving so much money and experiencing the true culture of Cuba. Most casa particulars offer dirt cheap meals too and you get to immerse with the locals.
  • The negative of staying in a casa particular is you will not have wifi, won’t have a television, and probably wont have air-conditioning either.
  • The positive of staying in a hotel is you will usually get breakfast included, television, wifi (with a charge of $2.00-$4.50 per hour), air-conditioning, restaurants, and maybe even a pool. Also, if you prefer booking ahead of time, this is the best way to do it. Furthermore, if you book ahead you will now only have to bring spending money with you.
  • The negative for staying in a hotel is the high cost for subpar standard rooms and not getting to know the locals.

In hindsight, I wish we would have stayed in a casa particular. Maybe if I go again without my husband, I will?

FOOD AND HEALTHthewanderlustyogi.net

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If you visit Cuba, you may have a hard time finding foods you like if you are kosher or a vegetarian. Their main source of protein is pork, with more pork on top of pork. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the menus have numerous pork dishes and you will find whole roasted pigs at every restaurant and paladar you visit.  A paladar is a restaurant run by self-employers, unlike a hotel chain or a government-run restaurant.

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Eating at my first paladar called Europa. The location was great (right on a main tourist street called Obispo), and had extremely low prices, but the food was just okay.

If you have a sensitive stomach you may want to avoid them, or only go to ones that are recommended, because you will not be positive of food handling safety. However, if you aren’t too concerned and want an authentic, cheap, Cuban meal, it may be your best option.  If you don’t like pork, you may like one of the national dishes of Cuba made from beef (more commonly lamb at paladars) called ropa vieja.  It is made with shredded meat, a tomato based sauce and vegetables. It’s usually served with rice and beans.  I tried this at two places. The first was at a paladar and it was very chewy and tasteless, but then I had it again at Parque Central Hotel (http://hotelparquecentral-cuba.com) and it was delicious. (Make sure you visit this hotel and go to the rooftop pool and restaurant. It’s a great way to take a break from the heat and chaos down below and it has an amazing view of the El Capitolio and the city. This is true for the Saratoga Hotel(http://hotel-saratoga.com) as well, which is where we stayed on our first night.) 

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my husband at the rooftop pool of Hotel Saratoga (where we stayed our first night)

Vegetarians may be disappointed with salad offerings. Most of their vegetables are canned and salads are mainly made of chopped cabbage, some shredded beets, green olives and ham. So if you do order a salad, make sure you mention,  no meat. The same goes for the fruit. They generally have canned fruit and the fresh fruit doesn’t look too appealing.  We saw this at all of the hotels and restaurants we went to and were very surprised. I would have thought in a tropical location there would be an abundance, but this wasn’t the case. They did have some street vendors selling fruits and vegetables but there were very slim pickings.

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vegetable stand in Cuba

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If you like protein bars, snacks or nuts, you will not find them anywhere. Same goes for hair conditioner and sunblock.  If you can find them, they will be super expensive. If you know you will want these items, make sure you pack them with you.  Also remember like any 3rd world country, it is not safe to drink the water. Always use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Keep in mind, if you are drinking coffee with milk in a paladar, they use unpasteurized milk, but hotels will have pasteurized milk. Same rule applies to ice as with water in paladars, so stick to no ice or canned drinks, but in hotels you will be fine.

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ropa vieja

TRANSPORTATION

Just like any big city, Old Havana has taxis everywhere you go. What’s so special about Cuba is you may end up in a classic 50’s car. These cool cars make you feel like you are in a time warp. The reason they are still around is because of the embargo with the United States. Since 1961, during the Cold War, the United States blocked any US companies from trading with Cuba, leaving Cuban people holding on to their vintage American cars, patching them up and using any parts they can get from other countries to keep them running.  Walking around Old Havana you feel like you are in a classic car museum. It was one of my favorite things about Cuba. You will see newer Japanese and German cars, but Fords and Pontiacs will be from the 1940’s and 1950’s.thewanderlustyogi.net

If you are spending the day strolling around Old Havana, you find out quickly how large the city is. For a fun and inexpensive way to get around you can take the hop-on-hop-off bus for $10 CUC/ per person/per day. They also have them in Varadero for $5  CUC per day/ per person. It’s especially fun getting on top of the open air double-decker bus. Keep your eyes peeled for low branches.

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Cuba coco taxis

They also have horse-drawn carriages and little yellow taxis called Cuba coco taxis, prices range depending on how far you go.thewanderlustyogi.net

There are many places to visit in Cuba, each with its own unique charm. People don’t realize until visiting Cuba, just how large it really is. I surely didn’t. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and it is a little smaller than Pennsylvania. It is 760 miles long and 55 miles wide.  It will take you 12 hours to drive from one side to the other. Because of this, I wasn’t able to go to two places I had originally planned on.  Trinidad (a colonial town that was highly recommended and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988), which was 4 hours away by car, and I could have gone to Vinales (the valley where they grow tobacco and was told how gorgeous it is) since it wasn’t too far from Old Havana (could be visited for a day tour), but we ran out of time.  We were also shorted by one day due to snow and delays from de-icing our plane.

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Old Havana, Cuba

Besides Old Havana, we split the week in half, spending three days in Varadero at their pristine white sand beaches and perfectly turquoise ocean water, which was a two-hour drive from Havana. Going there you will not find any culture, as it is void of locals, but full of Canadian and European tourists and all-inclusive resorts. I knew this before visiting the area, but we wanted to spend a few days relaxing on the beach and getting some much-needed sunshine, especially coming from two major blizzards in our home state.

 

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swimming at the beach of Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Walking on the beach at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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My husband taking it all in, sitting on a beach bed at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Waiting hours for check-in at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba. This is the running theme everywhere in Cuba. The service is very slow, or otherwise known as “island style”. We waited for 4.5 hours to check into our last hotel in the Miramar area of Havana (this is the fancy area where all the embassies are and where Obama stayed on his visit), at a place called Memories Miramar, La Habana. I won’t even go into the details about that place. Let’s just say an Australian couple we met at check-in told us they call it “bad Memories”

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If you weren’t prepared with some knowledge on the distance of places, not to mention the high expense for the transportation to and from them, you could be very disappointed. Mapping out your itinerary ahead of time may help you organize your trip better.

Here are a few examples of typical cab fare from Old Havana to popular cities:

Old Havana to Varadero is $120 CUC one way

Old Havana to Trinidad is $160 CUC one way

Old Havana to Havana airport is $30 CUC

Old Havana to Vinales is $100 CUC one way

Old Havana to Santa Clara is $140  CUC one way

To save money on transportation, you may choose to use their bus system. Taking the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero is only $10.00  CUC, from Havana to Trinidad its only $25.00 CUC. (To see their schedule you can check out their website at http://viazul.com, they leave  four times per day to many cities nation wide.) This is a huge difference, but don’t forget that you need cab fare to and from both bus terminals and they are not always right where you want to be when you get to your destination. Also, it takes longer and you will not get to make any stops if you see anything of interest on your way.  We were going to take the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero, but once we got to the bus station, we were approached by a cab driver who was willing to make a deal with us and another couple. We ended up sharing a cab for $20 CUC each ($80 CUC total), and was delivered straight to the front door of our hotel.  The cab driver was also kind enough to help find a casa particular for the other couple who didn’t have a reservation anywhere. It was high season and at first he had no luck finding a room at the first few places we checked, but low and behold, he found something for them. So remember this if you have no hotel booked ahead of time and need a place to stay. The cab drivers always can find a room for you and are happy to help. I think they get a finder’s fee for it too? (another way to help the Cuban people).  It may have been a little more money but when we figured the $25 CUC we would probably spent to and from each bus terminal and the $10 CUC each for the bus equaling a total of $70 CUC, what was another $10 CUC for the convenience? Plus we made friends with a really nice Serbian couple and talked the entire ride. They may even come for a visit to stay with us in New Hampshire. They love skiing and are planning a trip to New York City soon.thewanderlustyogi.net

One place that is a must-see on your visit to Cuba is the hottest new spot in Havana. It is Fabrica De Arte Cubano (www.fac.cu), which is an art museum/club/ restaurant.  There is no dress code and you will find people of all ages there with a mix of locals and tourists. It’s super trendy and seems like something you would find in New York City. The place opens at 8:00 pm, but be sure to arrive early because the lines get extremely long.  Also, we didn’t get to do this, but there is a restaurant right next door that is supposed to be good, and if you dine there beforehand, you get VIP entrance. It is an old peanut factory that offers Caribbean, Latin and Cuban food and it is called El Cocinero (elconcinero.cuba). Reservation is needed. thewanderlustyogi.net

Another thing worth mentioning, (even though I didn’t try it myself) is La Guarida restaurant (laguarida.com). By word of mouth, it is supposed to be the best restaurant in Havana. I heard about this and knew it was going to be very popular so I would need a reservation. I booked it for the last night of our trip.  During our visit we weren’t having the best of luck with food, so I was even more excited to end my week with a delicious meal.  When we arrived the hostess said she could not find my reservation. I told her I booked it online last week and she went back to check her computer. Still nothing.  At the same time there was another couple from Ireland who ran into the same issue. We were all so disappointed. We talked to them and they told us about a cool new art place and restaurant they were told about (you know the one).  Then, we bumped into a young American girl from Minnesota who asked if we were eating there. We told her our story ad she said the same happened to her, but she ended up getting a table on another day.  She was visiting Cuba for 18 days and will be spending quite some time in Havana with her husband and baby, Juddah. She said the meal was so good and they only one she really enjoyed since she has been there, that she booked lunches for the rest of the week there, since they are much easier to get.  She loved the place so much, she changed the location of her casa particular purposely to be next door to it! If that’s not a good recommendation then I don’t know what is? So, obviously booking online for a reservation is a joke, but if you go there in person right when you arrive, they will probably have availability to dine there at least once on your visit.

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on the stairs of La Guarida before we found out we didn’t have a reservation

I didn’t cover a whole lot on Varadero, Cuba and the reason is because its your typical all-inclusive beach resort area.  You really wouldn’t know if you were in Cuba, Bahamas, Dominican Republic or Mexico. If you love white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water, this is a perfect stop for you. If you want a ton of culture and history, you won’t find it here.  We spent three days at the Royalton Hicacos Resort( http://hotelroyaltonhicacos.com). It was said to be the best resort in Varadero. It was nice, but if this was the best one, I can’t even imagine the worst one. It used to be a Sandals property, but they sold it to Blue Diamond resorts company. Our time there fell on Valentine’s Day, so it was really romantic at sunset on the beach.

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Sunset on Valentine’s Day at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

They even offered a special Valentine’s dinner on the beach for an added fee.  We didn’t do that because the food at the resort wasn’t good.  I actually was supposed to teach yoga there through a company called NRG2GO (http://nrg2go.net) two years ago, but at the last-minute the company cancelled because they had a problem getting me a work visa.  I was so disappointed because this was right at the beginning of Americans being able to travel to Cuba and I thought this was my in, but due to this, it was too complicated for them to want to deal with. They ended up hiring a Canadian yoga instructor instead.

After a few days of eating the lackluster buffet-style meals at the resort, we wanted to get off the compound and find a restaurant in town, and explore Varadero a little. We took the hop-on-hop-off bus to the center. There were shops and horse-drawn carriages, a few restaurants and bars and of course, the beach.  We stood in front of a restaurant reading it’s menu and we were stopped by a nice Canadian man who is always there for business.  He noticed that we were looking for a place to eat and suggested the best place called Varadero 60 (http://varadero60.com). He said it may not be as good as food in the States, but it’s the closest you will find in Varadero. I’m so glad he suggested it because he was right and if he didn’t tell us we would have never found it since it’s location was on a back street a few blocked away from the main road. Also, we would have never gotten a reservation because it is so popular, but because we went so early, at 5:00pm, the dinner crowd hadn’t come yet. Their reservations start at 6:00pm. We had a lovely meal and at the end, they gave me a red rose. It was a nice touch.

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Varadero 60 restaurant in Varadero, Cuba

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After we ate a nice meal at Varadero 60, we went to the Beatles Bar to hear some live music.  It was a really cool place and if you are a Beatles fan, you will love it!

 

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The Beatles Bar, Varadero, Cuba

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hanging out at the Beatles bar in Varadero, Cuba

Then, we obviously had to go check out the beach. It was just as pretty as the beach at our resort.

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town beach in Varadero, Cuba

Cuba is an amazing place to visit. It’s like nothing I have ever seen.  It is a mix of old-world charm, rumba music, dance, art, history, culture, classic cars, cigars, beaches, valleys, colonial towns and friendly people, but, there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans. I hope I covered the most important ones in this post.  If you are planning on visiting Cuba and have any other questions I’d be happy to help if I can. My biggest piece of advice I can give you,  is to go now,  before there are McDonald’s and Starbuck’s on every corner.

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Varadero, Cuba

 

 

 

 

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