Cuba: Days 6-10

Read about my pre-trip planning here and days 1-5 here!

Day 6: Wednesday

Another beach day! The forecast was supposed to be totally clear, so we were excited for another sunny day. We woke up a little bit late and didn’t make it to the beach until around 1pm. It was very overcast with foreboding clouds. The first beach we went to had lifeguards telling everyone to stay out of the water. There were red flags planted in the ground along the shore. We looked farther down the shore and plenty of people were swimming at the next beach, so we walked down there and paid our umbrella and chair rental fees.

The waves were gigantic! We had way more fun splashing around in the whitecaps than we did on Monday. We exhausted ourselves swimming since the current kept pushing us so far down shore. After awhile, we realized there was chair-side restaurant service! The waiter said there were no menus, but they had fish. I opted for grilled fish. Shan asked if they had sandwiches and the guy seemed to understand and said yes. Soon, we received our meals. Shan’s was a simple ham and cheese sandwich on wonderbread – the kind you’d find in a kids school lunch. Mine was an entire fish with the head and skin still on! It was pretty good, but picking out the bones was a pain. It was also difficult to eat the rice as the wind kept blowing it off of my fork!

We settled up (Shans was 3 CUC and mine was 14!!) and headed back to Havana. We had fancy dinner reservations at La Guarida (the place with the cool rooftop bar) at 7:00pm! They are located on the top of a building in Centro Habana, so it provides great views.

We showed up for dinner and were seated at an amazing balcony seat overlooking the street. Shan ordered his favorite drink, a Gin and Tonic, and I got a Daiquiri. We ordered “Smoked Marlin Tacos” to start. Oh My God. They were the best thing we had on the entire trip.

I was skeptical when Shan said he wanted to order them. I had seen them on the bar menu on Saturday and didn’t think tacos were a fancy dinner staple, but he deserves to get what he wants, so we ordered them. Best decision ever. They were so balanced. The tuna was smoky. The fried shell had a fattiness that the citrus aioli cut perfectly. There was a subtle heat at the very end. I wish we could order those again!

Dinner came and I wanted to order the famous Cuban dish Ropa Vieja. It is essentially “old clothes” or shredded beef and shredded sautéed veggies. Our waitress informed us that they were not able to get beef for the evening, so all of those menu options were not available. I opted for the rabbit, instead. Shan got suckling pig.

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The dinners were pretty good. Definitely high quality Cuban food, but only “good” compared to what we are used to. He let me try his gin and tonic and it was incredible! Easily the best cocktail on the trip. We ordered another round and debated a third.

After dinner, we were tired, but went upstairs to enjoy some sparkling water and the view. It was clear the La Guarida was a tourist destination. Everyone was American or European. We finished our drinks and headed home.

Day 7: Thursday

It was supposed to rain so we decided to postpone our third beach day and explore western Havana and the Vedado neighborhood. We set off to get breakfast at Topoly, an Iranian spot that had fantastic TripAdvisor reviews and photos. We trekked through the University of Havana and down the famous La Rampa street. It was interesting to see more middle class Cubans who were attending school and working at the hospital. It felt more relatable than the people who were living in squalor in our neighborhood. 

We made it to Topoly and immediately got a seat outside by their lush garden. We ordered a large appetizer mezze platter and then two lunch entrees. It was so much food that we had to get a to go box! We tried to order iced coffee again, but this time we received room temperature coffee without ice. But it did come with mini chocolates!

We continued our adventure to the Plaza of the Revolution. There’s a large memorial dedicated to Jose Marti and a building with the silhouette of Che Guevara. 

We snapped some photos and started to walk to the famous cemetery and gardens but got caught in the rain. We found shelter under a bunch of trees in a residential area. Two men came out of their house and motioned to us to come inside, but we didn’t feel comfortable going into a stranger’s home. We also had our rain jackets so we were prepared!

I was surprised how awful the drainage system was in the streets. It was a torrential downpour, but the streets flooded almost immediately with inches of water. Cuba definitely has a rainy season and has to deal with hurricanes, so I’m not sure why they don’t have better infrastructure.

We hailed a cab and immediately went home as we were drenched and it was still coming down. It continued to rain all evening so we had a quiet evening at home and went to bed early! We didn’t eat much except our leftovers from breakfast. We debated going down the street to the corner pizza store located in someone’s home, but wanted to eat healthy instead. Vacation is funny like that – I spend weeks beforehand eating healthy so I can splurge, but after a few days of vacation, I end up craving healthy food and feel so gross eating out for every meal!

Day 8: Friday

Third beach day! It was supposed to be clear skies, so we took the same bus out to the beach. I wondered if the workers started to recognize us. I definitely got tired of the same playlist of music videos they played on repeat!

We went to our favorite spot and played in the water. There were ominous clouds looming in the distance, but we didn’t think much of them. We ordered drinks, but suddenly the sky let loose and started pouring! We grabbed our stuff and ran to the little beach restaurant nearby. We got a table and looked at the menu, but they didn’t have many options other than pizza or ham sandwiches. We waited it out for 30 minutes until it cleared up.  

We laid out for awhile and ordered pina coladas. We started swimming again as it began to drizzle. We decided it wasn’t bad enough to leave the water, so we had a lot of fun swimming in the rain. Luckily all of our stuff was still dry! After awhile, a stray dog showed up and sought shade under my chair. He wouldn’t leave us alone! Even when we started walking to the bus stop, he followed us all the way there.

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Around 5pm, we headed back home. We showered and headed back downtown for dinner. We had mainly been taking taxis, but there were also bicycle taxis! They are basically adult tricycles with 3 seats on the back. We realized we had to try it once before we left! We hailed one and had a very bumpy ride. It started to drizzle and the driver said he had some rain gear at his house around the corner. He stopped to get it and affixed it to the bike. He had an interesting speaker system set up that blasted music from his phone. It was certainly a wild ride.

We wanted to try the second best restaurant in Havana called Dona Eutima. It is at the end of a long alley. Many restaurants will hire poachers to grab tourists from the street and convince them to eat there for a commission. This alley was filled with poachers. We walked by and one started talking to Shan. He asked where we were going and we told him Dona Eutima. He said he would show us where it was. I was worried he would take us to the wrong place, so I refused. He continued nagging us until we basically had to hide to avoid him. He kept following us around for 5 minutes until he got distracted by other tourists.

We went to Dona Eutima and were informed they were full for the evening. We made reservations for the following night. Wanting to avoid the poachers, we ran out of there as quickly as possible. We walked around and consulted our restaurant list. Nothing was close. We ended up at La Mina. We sat outside and saw they had a 15 CUC pre fixe menu that included two cocktails, an appetizer, rice, beans, an entree, dessert, and coffee. We opted for that!

The waiter took our order and was not very friendly. Our entrees were delivered and Shan had rice and beans mixed together… but I only had white rice. I figured it was the end of the night and they were out. We were also promised creamed corn on the menu, but were served a domino sized brick of dried, flaky corn paste. Plus some vegetables that I’m pretty sure are Kroger frozen vegetables. So unappetizing.

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Finally, dessert came and it was a delicious flan. We enjoyed that, but there was no coffee or second cocktail after we waited 30 minutes. We were so fed up and wanted to leave. I am definitely writing a poor review!

It was Friday night and we wanted to go out, but had no clue where to go. All of the bars on our list turned out to be lame and we couldn’t seem to find any hip ones. We ended up getting strange ice cream and hailing a taxi home.

That evening, I suffered from the worst stomach cramps and sickness. I’m not sure if it was food poisoning (not surprising) or if my body was simply rejecting all of the non healthy food I was ingesting. Definitely not a fun evening.

Day 9: Saturday

Since banks are closed on Sundays, we had to wake up early to exchange our CUCs back into Euros! We also had signed up for an “Experience” through Airbnb, the company we booked our lodging through.

“Experiences” is their new attempt at excursions guided by locals. They have them in several cities, but Havana was one of the first. We signed up to tour a local paladar (family restaurant) and learn about the difficulties of running one. We also got a meal out of it!

He first difficulty was finding the place. The address our guide, Ariel, sent us was pretty vague. We ended up having to ask the currency exchange office to show us on a map. It was a paladar named La Cathedral in Vedado. We arrived at 11am and met Ariel and the two other Americans who signed up for the tour.

Ariel quickly launched into how he has spent the last 5 years starting a company that has an app to show tourists where the best restaurants and bars are. He was definitely a passionate guy who has a lot of love for Cuba.

We started off by learning how to make mojitos! Shan and another girl went behind the bar to make them for the rest of us. The formula is simple: a tablespoon of sugar, enough lime juice to cover it, a spring of spearmint muddled, fill the glass with ice, 6 count of rum, fill the rest with soda water, and top with more spearmint! The mojito Shan made was definitely the best I had in Cuba!

Afterward, we went outside to meet the buyer of the restaurant. He is employed full time by the restaurant and his entire job is to make 3-4 trips per day to local markets to get meat, beer, vegetables, sauce, and any other ingredients they might be low on. Servers are trained to know what the inventory is and how to stall on certain items or brands of alcohol until the restaurant gets more stock in a few hours.

Then we toured the kitchen. There is one sink and one man washing dishes for the 1500 plates that are used daily! We tasted their famous tomato sauce and saw the process of making one of their most famous lamb dishes. Guy Fieri has even visited and made that exact dish! We tasted it at the end and it was simply delicious: Tender lamb marinated in white wine and cooked in red sauce with peppers and onions!

We went out to the patio and ordered lunch. Shan got a steak and I got pork with pineapple. They were only okay, but our table shared an appetizer of the dish we made in the kitchen. Still so good!

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The best part of lunch was the conversation. Ariel explained how he grew up poor, but since everyone has free education in Cuba, he was able to make a name for himself. He’s a successful app developer and works with several talented Cubans. We asked if he ever wanted to move to America or Europe to work and he said he’s considered it, but quickly realized he would be taking a valuable asset away from the workforce of Cuba and making it harder for his country to develop. He wants to help Cuba and prove that success is possible within the country.

I asked about the vegetable production within Cuba and he asked why I was dissatisfied. I explained that all of the fresh vegetables we have been served are very small and wilted and generally poor quality. I asked if vegetables were not a profitable crop in Cuba. He laughed and said Cuba has the best vegetables of the region and I am simply used to GMO Vegetables that are gigantic. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I know that is not true since I only buy organic. Cuba’s vegetables are simply not good in Havana. I took the rest of his nationalistic bravado with a grain of salt. I do admire his passion for Cuba and making the experience as good as it can be for tourists. His favorite motto is “In Cuba, having fun is mandatory!”

After the tour, we walked around Vedado in the heat and got some ice cream. Still not great. The entire thing tasted like the foamy bit that is left over after you finish actual ice cream. We walked all the way home and rested our sore feet.

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We headed to dinner at Dona Eutima. We sat outside on the patio in the alley. It was an adorable area with lots of umbrellas and lights. Occasionally a band would play some soft music. We were within view of the hostess stand and it was amazing to see how many people tried to get tables without a reservation and were turned away. The poachers would even lead them to the restaurant, knowing full well that the restaurant was full! We couldn’t figure out what the point was.

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There were so many cats prowling around and begging for food! They were cute at first, but soon after we ordered, one caught a bird and ran under our table where it began to torture and eat it. The bird was squeaking and all of the customers were staring and gasping. The employees rushed over and tried to shoo it away from my ankles. I was terrified of the cat biting me or the bird guts getting on my feet. I was almost in tears. Suddenly, the cat got out from under our table and ran into the middle of the alley. A woman was so angry at it that she kicked it in the head and sent it flying! It was such a traumatic experience, but none of the restaurant staff apologized or seemed sympathetic. They simply threw water on every other cat that tied to get close. I couldn’t help but think how if that happened in America, we would definitely have a free meal!

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Our food was bland as usual. I ordered Ropa Vieja – the traditional Cuban dish. We settled up and debating trying to find somewhere to go out. I still wasn’t feeling well and my stomach was still cramping, so I didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase, so we just went home. Cuba definitely doesn’t score points for fun nightlife!

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Our Airbnb had a TV in the room, but on the first night, we discovered it only had Spanish channels. Tonight, I decided to try again and there was MTV Classic! We stayed up watching old music videos and packing so we could sleep in.

Day 10: Sunday

Our check out time was noon, so we naturally woke up at 11:30am.

We checked out and wanted to get food somewhere before the flight. La Guarida was close, so we decided to go there for lunch. Shan wasn’t impressed by his dish and I got duck salad with onion soup. Both were only okay. Seems like even the best restaurants are hit or miss! It was also frustrating how I ordered coffee, but it wasn’t delivered until AFTER I was done eating. I guess Cubans consider coffee a dessert whereas Americans think it’s an appetizer!

After lunch, we got a taxi to the airport. Our flight was at 6pm, but everyone said to get there 3 hours early. We arrived super early at 2pm. Of course we were “randomly selected” for additional screening. So much for having global entry which is supposed to prevent that! Luckily the “extra” screening was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the entire Cuban airport was a joke. There was no line for the security check. The employees were sitting on the conveyer belt and chatting when we walked up. We had to ask them to move so we could put our bags on it. The woman who was wanding me with a metal detector was so caught up in a conversation with her friend that she forgot she had asked me to spin around so she could scan my backside. I simply walked away after waiting and she didn’t notice.

Finally we boarded the plane. Unfortunately we weren’t upgraded to first class for Havana to LAX, but we were upgraded to premium seats with unlimited alcohol! And we did get first class for LAX to PDX! Score. We were both still dealing with stomach issues, so we hadn’t eaten much. Shan was starving so he ordered two entrees – hamburgers being the only option. His little tray table was filled to the brim!

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Overall, the trip was unlike any other. It definitely took me farther out of my comfort zone (language, weather, conditions), but I simultaneously felt like I didn’t get a good grasp of the culture. We didn’t have the chance to interact with many Cubans (except for Ariel) due to the language barrier – and because they were constantly trying to scam us. On the surface, they seemed very kind and accommodating. No one catcalled. No one threatened us. No one said anything racist or anti-American. Everyone we encountered was friendly and wished us “Happy holidays!” which I assume means vacation. They are a lovely nation of people who deserve far better than the stereotype they are given and the poor condition of their nation. I hope that increased American tourism opens up jobs and boosts the economy so that if I ever visit again, the dilapidated buildings will be replaced by more paladars and local businesses. Cuba has a rich culture that I would encourage any adventurous traveler to visit, but definitely don’t look forward to the food!

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Cuba: Days 1-5

Read about my pre-trip planning and worries in this blog I posted yesterday!

Day 1: Friday

We checked into our Airbnb which actually turned out to be a hostel. We had our own room with air conditioning and a bathroom. We rarely saw anyone else in the building, but there was always an attendant there to buzz us in and sell us water (don’t drink the tap water!) The only difficulty was that they didn’t always speak English, so asking questions was tough. Our room was bright orange and fabulously gaudy. We specifically picked this Airbnb because the decor was incredible!

We unpacked our bags, showered, and embarked on the town in search of dinner. We wanted to go downtown and see the city.

The 20 minute walk downtown was… interesting. The streets were dimly lit and there were cats and dogs prowling everywhere! There were kids playing in the street and a few adults chilling in their doorways. Air conditioning is rare, so everyone leaves their doors and windows wide open. As we walked, I peeked into homes and everyone was doing the same thing: watching TV. Entire families were crammed in tiny living rooms, surrounding the TV. I don’t know the exact layout of a typical Cuban home in Centro Habana, but it seems like there is one 10’x6′ living room, a smaller kitchen in the back, and then maybe a bedroom upstairs – or maybe a tiny cot in the tiny living room that also functions as a couch. Our 300sq ft hostel room suddenly felt like a mansion.

As soon as we reached downtown (Habana Vieja), we saw many many more tourists. We walked along the Prado – a lush median down the center of one of Havana’s busiest streets. There were lots of other couples walking, too. The large hotels and historical buildings were lit up beautifully!

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We consulted our map and picked Restaurant Van Van. It was in the heart of downtown, among the winding cobblestone streets. We were immediately seated and ate a mediocre dinner. We were warned that the food in Cuba isn’t exactly delicious. I got chicken curry (I know, not really Cuban food, but it sounded tasty!) and Shan got a beef/lamb dish with interesting potato scoops around the plate.

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On the bright side, there was live music! Unfortunately it also included the band going table to table to sell their CD. Afterward we were exhausted, so we went back to the room to have a long night’s sleep.

Day 2: Saturday

The main point of this vacation was to relax, so we decided not to set alarms or wake up early. As a result, we slept in until 11am! We awoke well rested and left our room in search of coffee. There was a cafe on our list, so we walked downtown. The streets seemed much less intimidating in the day time. They were still as busy and everyone seemed to be working – repairing a bicycle or selling tamales. Havana is a very loud city. People roam the streets advertising their services (cleaning, repair) by scream-singing in Spanish. There are no stop signs, so cars always honk when approaching an intersection. The bicycle taxis are always trying to get new passengers, so they yell, “TAXI! TAXI!” at everyone they pass.

We made it to the cafe and it was totally empty, except for a group of guys chatting and jeering loudly outside. We decided to pass. We kept walking and stumbled upon the San Francisco square. It had a cool statue and fountain and lots of pigeons.

We walked along the water and decided to eat at a waterfront restaurant. Again, the food was mediocre. We ordered iced coffee and were given two espressos with cups of ice. We made it work, but definitely not what we expected. I ordered “pork with BBQ sauce” and it turned out to be ribs! Shan got a Cubano sandwich. During all of our meals, the waitstaff was extremely friendly. They all spoke limited English but were determined to make sure they understood (mostly) what we wanted.

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We continued walking around the city. To the north of Havana, there is the Malecon. It is a long seawall that runs along a busy street. During the evenings, locals get alcohol and sit along the water and hang out. We walked this route and laughed at the number of cars that passed and screamed “TAXI????” It was never ending! We spent the day walking the city. I think we walked 11 miles total that day!

The stereotypical photos you see of Cuba always feature two things: colorful buildings and old cars. There are definitely plenty of old cars in Havana, but we couldn’t find the colorful buildings. There were some painted unique colors, but all were dull and falling apart – not the vibrant, new buildings featured on magazines. I think some heavy Photoshop was used… or we spent our entire vacation in the wrong areas!

We discovered that the best restaurant in Havana was located in our modest neighborhood. It is called La Guarida and the famous Cuban movie “Strawberry and Chocolate” was filmed there. We wandered in and asked if they had an opening for dinner. We knew it was a long shot. Indeed, they said they were full. We made reservations for Wednesday evening and instead went to their rooftop bar.

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It was INCREDIBLE! A total 360 degree view of the city and extremely modern touches. The menu of drinks was extensive. We managed to get a table and drank mojitos as the sun set.

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We had heard about Factoria de Artes. It is a giant factory building that has been converted into a party warehouse. Some floors have contemporary art. Some have club dancing. Some have tables for drinks. The novelty is that you get a punch card when you enter and bartenders give punches as you order drinks. Then, they tally up your card when you leave and you pay then. I had heard nothing but rave reviews from friends. It’s the best nightlife spot in Havana, however it is a 15 CUC taxi ride away. We tried to negotiate lower, but ended up walking half of it to save some money. We finally arrived and it was closed for renovations until June. I had checked their website before leaving America and there was no mention!

We tried a few more bars on our list and they were all sketchy or filled only with men. We couldn’t seem to find a good place to go. We chalked the night up to a loss and went home.

Day 3: Sunday

We tried again to find a cafe for coffee. We found a nice little plaza square and went to a cafe. It was highly rated, but filled with old men watching sports inside. I ordered an iced coffee and Shan got a banana liqueur coffee. We sat outside on the square and it was nice until it started to rain! We scrambled across the square to a restaurant where we wanted to get lunch. Every table seemed to have a platter of meat skewers. We thought it might be their specialty and almost ordered them, but decided to look at the menu first. Good thing we did, because they were almost 25 CUC for 4 skewers of meat! By far the most expensive thing we had seen. Most meals were 5 to 8 CUC and “fancy” places were 15 to 20. We opted for two burgers and beers instead. The burgers we got were the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. A bun, a patty, one piece of lettuce the size of a golf ball, and one slice of cucumber. At least it came with 5 French fries!

We waited out the rain and then walked around a bit more. It was so humid from the rain. All we wanted was a cold drink and more food! We discovered an adorable and modern cafe with air conditioning. I ordered a mojito (not my favorite drink but no one in Cuba knew what a vodka soda was!) and looked at the menu. It was entirely in Spanish. Shan ordered a fried appetizer of some sort. I saw the word “Sopa” and it reminded me of “Sopapilla” which I thought was a breaded dessert. I assumed sopa was a type of flatbread appetizer.

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I was wrong. I had ordered piping hot vegetable soup on a 100 degree day. Oh well. It was delicious and at least we were in air conditioning! We hung out at that cafe for awhile and had a long conversation about school. We went through each grade year from kindergarten to college and shared our teachers name and most memorable moment from that year. It was definitely a relaxing afternoon!

That evening, we showered and then got ready to go to dinner at Atelier. It is a fusion restaurant that has been featured in several foodie magazines. We walked a few blocks to the Malecon and hailed a cab. We were lucky enough to get a convertible! We enjoyed the sunny ride to the restaurant.

We didn’t have reservations, but they squeezed us into the patio area. It seemed to be where they put all the foreigners. There were four tables and we were all seated around the same time… and then promptly forgotten about. We had ordered water when we were seated, but it never arrived. The waiter hadn’t even come back to the patio. It was probably 30 minutes before we got water and ordered… and another 20 before we got our food.

The food was pretty bland. We both got meat dishes that didn’t taste like much. But they came with a bowl of white rice and a bowl of black beans and sauce. WHOA. Those beans were the second best dish I had in Havana. They were seasoned so well! I ordered beans at every other meal, hoping to find some as good and never did.

After dinner we walked around, trying to find a bar to get a drink, but failed again. All of the “bars” were more like restaurants with bright lights, quiet music, and everyone sitting at tables. There are salsa clubs, but we weren’t looking to dance. We hitched a ride back to our room and fell asleep.

Day 4: Monday

Beach day! The weather forecast predicted rain, but we decided to risk it and go. We went downtown to catch a bus that would take us to the Santa Maria beach and back for 5 CUC. Such a deal. The only bad part was waiting for the bus that came every 40 minutes on an unpredictable schedule.

Once we made it to the beach and forked over 6 CUC to use the umbrella and beach chairs, it was heaven! The sun was shining and the water was perfect. After awhile of playing in the water, we went to the beach bar. Coconuts were free, but it cost 3 CUC to fill them with rum. Yes please! There were at least 3-4 shots of rum in each coconut. We drank them all afternoon and then caught the bus home.

We caught dinner at El Chanchullero. It was a little spot in Habana Vieja with a very punk beach vibe. We ordered the two most expensive dishes on the menu and they were still only 8 CUC each! Shan got lobster and I got shrimp. One interesting thing about Cuban food is that each dinner came with a “salad,” but it wasn’t your typical veggie dish. It was usually a mix of raw and wilted cabbage, scraggly carrots, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. There was no seasoning or dressing, except for some olive oil on the table. As someone who loves vegetables, I was always disappointed and quickly learned that even the entree salads are this pathetic! Vegetables must not be something prevalent in the Cuban diet. We finished our meals and went home.

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As soon as I showered, I knew I was burnt. Badly. I always burn once at the start of the summer but it’s never too bad. This time was different. I had applied sunscreen +30 SPF repeatedly, but not often enough. My entire body was lobster red, except for my face, luckily. I put aloe on and wore my loosest fitting pajamas since everything else was painful against my skin. It felt like I had the flu. I was wearing a hoodie and had 3 layers of blankets and was still shivering while trying to sleep. Halfway through the night, I started sweating and had to lower the AC. My body definitely was angry I was sunburnt!

Day 5: Tuesday

It was supposed to rain all day, so we planned to visit the Museum of the Revolution. We walked downtown and went to a small cafe nearby. It was definitely a local place. Everything was in Spanish and they didn’t have a clear menu. Shan ordered a croissant with ham and cheese but I was content with coffee. As we were eating, we saw other people eating much larger sandwiches. Shan was starving, so he tried to talk to the cashier and order an actual sandwich. The hoagie he received for a few bucks was definitely worth the language barrier!

Before we left, I had to use the bathroom. I noticed there was a woman guarding them and accepting money each time someone used them. I had read about some places charging customers to use the bathroom and figured this was the case. I gave her a few coins and she gave me toilet paper. I went into the bathroom and the light didn’t work. I did my business and then realized the toilet didn’t flush! Probably a good thing I couldn’t see what was in there. After I left, she went in with a bucket of water to manually flush the toilet. Definitely worth the price not to have to do that myself.

We walked to the Museum of the Revolution and paid the entrance fee. The museum is in the old Governmental building that housed Fidel’s regime. We saw his office and several artifacts.

The true gem was the grand ballroom. I was excited to photograph it as it looked amazing on other travel blogs, but it was under construction when we went! I managed to get a few photos between the scaffolding.

After the museum, we tried to find lunch in Chinatown. I had only had coffee and my sunburn was draining my energy. I desperately wanted my skin to heal, so I had worn a long sleeve flannel as a shield from the sun. We wandered around in the heat for 45 minutes. Chinatown was filled with crowds, but no restaurants that looked decent. I felt like I was going to pass out from lack of food and heat. We walked back to the main square and went into an air conditioned hotel. I typically avoid hotels and tour companies at all costs, but I desperately needed quality food and cold air.

I ordered the “salad with tuna” and hoped for 12 CUC that it would be filled with fresh veggies and protein. I received a small cup of olives and a small cup of tuna salad with mayonnaise. Not what I hoped for, but I did feel much better afterwards. We hung out at the restaurant for awhile and drank so much sparkling water.

We went back to our room and got ready for dinner. We wanted to go to Miramar, the farthest west region of Havana. There was a paladar (family own restaurant, as opposed to state owned) called Paladar Miramar that looked incredible. It was in a modern home on the water and overlooked an infinity pool. We had called ahead and made reservations for 7:30 so we wouldn’t be disappointed.

After a cab miscommunication where the driver tried taking us to Street 22 in Vedado instead of Miramar, we made it to the restaurant! We told them we had a reservation and…. they couldn’t find it. We insisted we called earlier that day and they seemed confused. Nonetheless, the sat us at a table on the upper patio, overlooking the water.

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This was our splurge dinner, so I ordered an expensive dish that had octopus, lobster, and fish of the day. We also ordered a couple appetizers like fried yuca! It was so delicious. The octopus was spicy and incredibly tasty. I’ve had better lobster in the states, but it was still good. We snapped a couple photos by the sunset and then went downstairs to sit by the pool and drink Tequila Sunrises. It was definitely the most picturesque vacation moment and a perfect halfway point to our trip.

Read about days 6-10 here!

First Day in Seoul!

I did it!

I managed to sleep for most of the flight from San Francisco to Seoul! My father did upgrade me to Economy Comfort+ as a travel gift, so that definitely helped. Look at all of this leg room!!!

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I fell asleep immediately after popping a couple ZzQuil and eating the carb-heavy flight dinner. We had a choice between chicken and pasta. I chose the chicken, thinking it would be healthier, but it was a sesame-soy glazed chicken with a heaping side of white rice and a dinner roll. It did come with a yummy mustard quinoa salad, though! The most interesting part was the dessert – green tea ice cream. Certainly not the worst meal I’ve had on a plane, but it still left me feeling pretty gross.

I would slept for 3 hours, woke up for 10 minutes, slept for another 3 hours, woke up for another 10 minutes, and so on. I refused to look at the clock when I woke up as I knew it would only increase the pressure to sleep. Before I knew it, 10 hours flew by and they were turning on the lights for breakfast!

This time we had a choice of eggs or noodles. I chose the eggs and it was a pathetic lump of scrambled egg, foamy potatoes, and sausage puree. I’m flying United but it’s operated by Asiana so all of the crew and most of the passengers are Asian. Unfortunately the plane is still the old, crummy United aircraft!

I’m writing this on the plane as we start our descent. I’ll be sure to take photos during the ride from the airport to Seoul and of the apartment we are staying at. Hopefully we can navigate the public transportation smoothly!


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We made it to the Airbnb without much trouble. The only incident was when we purchased a one-way metro ticket to get into the city. The metro has the normal turnstyles where you swipe your card to get inside and out. It worked fine on the way there, but when we tried to leave the metro, it wouldn’t let us! Alarms sounded and everyone stared. We figured it meant we needed to add more money, but there were no machines or staff to help. We ended up flagging down a worker who shrugged and let us leave without payment. Sometimes its good to be foreign!

Our neighborhood was so cute! It was in the university district but nothing about it seemed like a college area. We were 3 blocks from a major subway stop and there were countless cafes and restaurants lining the streets. We dropped off our bags and were greeted by the Airbnb host, Jenny, who gave us a run down of the rules. We made a pit stop at the local GS25 (equivalent of 7/11) to get a few necessities like shaving cream and beer. I even got banana flavored milk!

We left shortly thereafter to explore Seoul. We wanted to see the iconic North Seoul Tower, so we took the subway and walked there. What we didn’t realize was that the tower is on top of a giant mountain that you can either hike or take cable cars to the top of. We opted for the cable cars and waited around an hour in line. They had a special 2-for-1 deal where you got a discount if you bought your cable car tickets with a meal. We didn’t have any plans for dinner so we decided to do that.

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We made it to the base of the tower and realized we had to buy ANOTHER ticket if we wanted to go to the top of the actual tower. The view was already amazing and it was getting to be 9pm, so we decided to skip that. After taking several touristy photos and admiring the “love locks” couples attach to the fence line, we set off to find the restaurant that served our dinner.

The complex was fairly confusing and resembled a tree house with wooden stair cases leading all directions. We spotted the restaurant but couldn’t figure out which staircase led to the door. All we could find was a giant square pane of glass without a handle, knob, or doorbell. We figured this HAD to be the entrance, but there was no way to get inside. After circling the building a few more times, we saw a Korean couple approach the door and hold a hand against a designated square. This triggered a sliding door and we were finally allowed to enter!

Our meal was pork tempura, miso soup, rice, kimchi, and slaw. It was delicious but a little bland. Near the end of our meal, the waitress approached and demonstrated that we were supposed to add sauces to the meat and slaw. That made it taste MUCH better!

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After dinner, we took the stairs down the mountain to avoid the hour long line for the cable cars. We laughed the entire way about how horribly designed the stairs were. Every other step was so different in height and width and there was even a “mistake” section where they had built stairs in the wrong direction! We finally reached the bottom and caught a bus to Itaewon – the foreigner district. Most of the online guides said to stay away from this area unless you want to be surrounded by Americans, but we wanted to check out a couple good bars there. The first we went to – Dillingers – was the epitome of an American bar. They were playing Avicii music and showing baseball games on a big screen. They served pitchers of beer and the waitresses all spoke perfect English. They even had dollar bills in the tip jar! While this was comfortable, it definitely wasn’t ideal for a trip abroad. We took the subway back to our neighborhood – Hongdae – where we planned to go to a club.

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I was initially pretty worried about clubs in Seoul. From my online research, they are expensive. It costs around $18-25 just to get in the door! But that does include a free drink ticket. Most of the reviews claim “body to body” capacity and the total inability to move. Bouncers also perform “water checks” on people waiting in line. This basically means they can turn away anyone too underdressed or anyone who looks too foreign. With my blond hair and Joe’s darker skin… we definitely fit the bill.

Luckily, Club Vera let us in without hassle. We even met two Russian girls in line behind us! The “free drink” left much to be desired. You could either choose a shot, a beer, or soda. I opted for a shot of vodka, half of which was immediately spilled as someone at the bar was shoved into me. The music was amazing and the dance floor was packed. I was mostly amazed by the hype crew. Clubs will employ people to get guests hyped up – usually by dancing or giving away free stuff. This club had people shooting t-shirts out of cannons, throwing candy to the crowd, and even pouring alcohol straight into people’s mouths! I definitely partook in the last one.

We stayed until around 3am, which is fairly early considering clubs stay open til 7am. We were exhausted. We made it back to the Airbnb and made plans to wake up the next morning at 11am. Needless to say, it was a pretty successful first night in Seoul!