Cuba Travel Guide: Santa Clara

        Guys, I originally planned to lump in Santa Clara with my Cayo Santa Maria Post, but here we are. We were only in Santa Clara for a hot second, but there is a lot to see (and I’m long-winded) so I decided to break it up. I promise this is the last Cuba post!  Like everywhere else we visited (whole itinerary here), I wish we had more time, but I’m glad that we got a chance to see even a glimpse of Santa Clara.

Stay

Casa Itaca // There was a little mix up (surprise surprise) and our original host was double booked so she arranged for us to stay with her friend at Casa Itaca, which ended up being fabulous. The owners couldn’t be sweeter and their little boy, Ulysses, is adorable. In our short time with them, they prepared us an amazing breakfast and made all the necessary arrangements to get us transportation to the airport. Such amazing hospitality in this country!

See

A lot of what there is to see in Santa Clara are memorials or tributes to Che Guevara. The revolutionary led his men to fight and win the final battle of the revolution in Santa Clara, which is why the town is still known as “the city of the heroic guerrillas.”

Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado // This site marks the location of the final battle of the revolution. Che and his men used a bulldozer to remove 30 meters of tracks and subsequently captured the 350 men arriving on the 22-car train. The bulldozer they used remains as do the train cars which are littered with bullet holes.

Mausoleo del Che Guevara // The outside of this site contains a monument and other statues dedicated to Che and his life (this is the location of the first picture too). You can also visit the indoor mausoleum where Che’s remains are housed along with those of 29 other soldiers who were killed in an uprising in Bolivia in 1967. His body was returned to Cuba in 1997 and Fidel Castro lit an ‘eternal flame’ in memory of the fighter. There is also a small museum with Che’s personal belongings and diary entries which were interesting to see.

Parque Vidal // We wandered over to this main square after arriving relatively late on our one and only night in town. It was buzzing with young people who had all gathered to hang out (and get online). When we returned to the square the next morning, rather than teenagers we found old men chatting on park benches while small children took turns riding around in carts towed by goats. This little guy was yelling “Caballo!” to spur his goat along (which means horse for those of you who are little rusty on your español). The same phrase was muttered all day by our guide in Viñales, so it was pretty adorable to see a little cowboy in the making.

MelaÍto Murals // If you walk over to the Mausoleo del Che Guevara from Parque Vidal you can’t miss these murals along the way on Marta Abreu between Iglesia Santa Clara de Asis and the bus station. They are regularly updated by staff members from MelaÍto, a local graphic artists’ collective. When we were there, the majority of the artwork was focused on peace.

Mercado Agropecuario // We stumbled on this gorgeous little farmer’s market as we wandered around near the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. It’s down a tiny trail right off of park or you can go around the other way and find it at the end of Buen Viaje off La Cruz.

A couple others we didn’t have time for:

Statue of Che Guevara Holding a Child // If you haven’t gotten your fill of Che lore, you can head up the road from Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado to see this famous statue. There are mini statues within the larger one.

Teatro La Caridad // Wish we had time to take a peek at the beautiful interior of this theatre.

Fabrica de Tabacos // We visited a cigar factor in Trinidad, but this one is supposed to be excellent as well.

Eat and Drink

We arrived in Santa Clara at about 8 pm and had to be at the airport by noon the next day so we didn’t have a chance to actually visit any restaurants in town. We ate dinner at the resort in Cayo Santa Maria before departing and then had breakfast at Casa Itaca the next morning. The below are famous spots that were on our list, but that we didn’t have time for:

Restaurant Florida Center // Famed as the best restaurant in Santa Clara. Bummed with didn’t have the time to try this place out. The lush courtyard looks absolutely dreamy.

El Alba // Cheap prices (in CUP not CUC… you can read about the difference here) and the cartoon covered walls had this place on my list early on. Give it a try for me if you make it to Santa Clara won’t ya?

Cafe-Museo Revolucion // A little bar filled to the brim with artifacts from Cuba’s history and the revolution. Next time my friends!

Club Mejunje // This club is legendary and we were so disappointed we didn’t get to see it for ourselves.

La Marquesina // Another famous bar that we didn’t have a chance to patronize.

That wraps up our trip to Cuba! If you are thinking of going and have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Cuba Travel Guide: Cayo Santa Maria


Cayo Santa Maria is one of many islands in an island chain off the northern coast of Cuba. It was our last big stop in our itinerary and we were so happy that we had organized our trip to end in some good old R&R. We stayed at the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria which is an all adults-only all inclusive resort (like many on the islands). Upon check-in, we were greeted with a welcome drink at the bar and introduced to our ‘butler’ who showed us around the property and assisted us with dinner reservations.

We were at the resort for two nights (after having to cancel our third night due to lack of funds😬) and spent 100% of our time doing our best rancho relaxo. We arrived in time for lunch on our first day and I immediately ordered the burger (forgive me travel gods, but it was excellent 🙏🏼). For the rest of the afternoon, we just lounged by one of their the pools and I continued to devour The Handmaid’s Tale. That night we ate at Eggsellence (yes that is the name 😂), which is the more casual of the two restaurants at the resort. Here we met our favorite waitress, Dianelis, who was thrilled to have a Spanish speaker in Roberto (99.99% of visitors at the resort are Canadian… more on that later). After dinner, we enjoyed a rum and a cigar and watched the entertainment for the night: a Michael Jackson themed dance show. Roberto used this time to make friends with one of the employees and get caught up on the Cuban National Series (I hear it was a nail-biter). That night they were having a ‘white party’ in town that sounded like a blast, but we headed to bed to rest up for another full day of relaxing.

The next morning we headed down to the island’s famous beach and it did not disappoint; the white sands and crystal blue water are hands down the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. We went for a quick little jog along the water to check out the other resorts and agreed that our beach and view were best. After breakfast and freshening up we headed into ‘town’ to pick up some sunscreen for the day.

Now, this town is not a real town. And because I had just watched Westworld and couldn’t stop making references to it I insisted that this town looked like Sweetwater. It’s full of pastel buildings that are identical with big generic signs: “Gym”, “Spa”, and our soon to be favorite: “Bolera.” It was a trip. We visited a couple shops for souvenirs and a few odds and ends but didn’t spend much time here. If you were staying at the resort for longer and got sick of their restaurants you could come here for other cuisines such as Sushi or Italian at the ‘Trattoria’ (the closest real town, Remedios, is about 45 minutes away). This fake town gave me the heebie jeebies a little (if you want to see pics see here). We found a little “Market” and were promptly informed that it would be 25 CUC for sunscreen. That was roughly the cost of a meal and we were still hoping to make our little remaining funds last for the next 24-48 hours so we skipped it. I’ll let you guess how that turned out. Be better than us guys (everything you need to know is here).

We spent the rest of the day relaxing at the beach, alternating between taking our chances with the sun, hiding in the shade, and dunking in the cool blue ocean. Pro-tip: the quesadillas are an excellent afternoon snack you can grab right from the beach bar along with your Cuba Libre. Also pro-tip: the noseeums on the beach are no joke. Do not underestimate these invisible buggers. I think if Roberto had known that we’d itch for weeks following this trip he would have broken his ‘no checked bags’ rule just so we could bring bug spray. So come prepared! I’ve also heard taking Vitamin B for a few weeks beforehand works, but who knows. When we couldn’t take the sand anymore, but still wanted to enjoy the view of the beautiful turquoise water we took advantage of the free catamaran rides the resort offered. It was so much fun and such a great way to see the whole coastline!

That night we ate at the fancier of the two restaurants, Senses, which was supposed to have more of a global flair. The service was excellent which was what we had come to expect from everyone at the resort. We mentioned to our waitress that we loved the glass of wine we were served with dinner, and when we returned to our room found that they had sent a bottle for us to enjoy. Such nice attention to detail and a sweet little touch. After dinner, we headed into town for a bowl off. We were the only ones there and it was some good cheap thrills. If you’re following along with me on Instagram you saw Roberto and his whole team went bowling a couple weeks ago because he hasn’t stopped talking about his pin prowess ever since he got a round on me.On our last day, we stayed at the resort for as long as possible soaking up the sun and enjoying a few free/already paid for/all-inclusive meals before heading for Santa Clara. We had originally planned to stay at the resort the third night and drive to the airport in Santa Clara the next morning, but when we ran short on funds the easiest thing to do was to cancel the night and stay in Santa Clara for a tenth of the cost.

Final Words

Cayo Santa Maria was absolutely beautiful and we had a great experience at the Royalton, but it certainly isn’t an “authentic” Cuban experience. Locals don’t actually live on the island and there were no other Cubans staying at the resort (my guess is either because they either can’t afford it or they aren’t allowed…they were checking passports on the way onto the islands). Like I said, almost everyone at our resort was from Canada.

The island is about 4-5 hours away from Havana by car. There are also flights, but we didn’t have enough confidence in our ability to figure that out and because we were coming from Trinidad we weren’t quite as far. If you don’t have that much time in your travel budget check out Playa Ancon near Trinidad. If you aren’t planning to stray from Havana (although I think you should!), Varadero is a very popular resort town as well and half as far. If you are braver than us and willing to take a domestic flight, check out Playa Paraiso on Cayo Largo which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

What’s the most beautiful beach you’ve ever been to??

 

Cuba Travel Guide: Trinidad

When I think back on our trip, Trinidad definitely represents a turning point for me. Despite the fact that Vinales was an absolute highlight and we loved Havana, those first few days of our trip were stressful as we spent unnecessary time trying to figure out our options for obtaining funds (you can read all about that here). We stopped very briefly in Cienfuegos on our way to Trinidad and I wish we had more time! I would have absolutely stayed a night or at least enjoyed a meal, but we had to keep traveling so we wouldn’t arrive in Trinidad too late. I’m including a few of my favorite pictures from this quick stop because it was so incredibly beautiful. We were there right as a huge storm was rolling in along with a fiery sunset. One of my favorite memories from the trip was watching these kiddos learn to box on the beach:

Stay

A large part of what made our stay in Trinidad so incredible was the hospitality we were offered at Dr. Suarez and Senora Addys lovely casa particular. We hadn’t felt that the staff at our hotel in Havana was particularly helpful which only added to our anxiety so when we arrived late from a day of travel and were greeted so warmly by our hosts it felt like a huge weight had been lifted. It also didn’t hurt that Dr. Suarez is… a doctor… so he had antibiotic ointment and band-aids which relieved Roberto’s worries about me losing my legs (again… the misadventures are all here). So if it’s not incredibly obvious I cannot recommend this hostel enough. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

  1. They had internet access which is a true luxury. Sure you still need your ETECSA card to actually access it, but it means your ability to get online isn’t limited to a street corner.
  2. They served a truly amazing breakfast. Our go-to was omelets filled to the brim with whatever cheese was available and ham accompanied by plates of fresh fruit (of course).
  3. Senora Addys and her staff were able to scrub our dirt covered clothes from Vinales back to life. My converse hadn’t been so white since the day I bought ’em.

You can book with them directly or through Airbnb. I think we were actually turned down on our first attempt (by our I mean Roberto’s since he has the full-time job of the family travel agent), but he tried another avenue and we were so happy to be confirmed.

If you don’t want to stay in a casa particular, the Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad is centrally located and absolutely beautiful (although it’s at least 10-20x the price). After waiting in a standstill line for a wifi card at ETECSA for at least 30 minutes we took refuge in their gorgeous lobby bar. They sold us the internet cards at cost with the purchase of a drink which we enjoyed along with their air conditioning and pineapple chandelier (how do I commission one of these?). We returned later that night to enjoy a cigar while we watched the Warriors game in their smoking salon (haaave I mentioned my husband loves sports?).

Eat and Drink

  • Sol y Son: The indoor of this restaurant is really gorgeous and full of antique treasures. It’s housed in a home that was built in the 1830s and still has all of the charms from that era. We were seated in the courtyard to dine which was lovely in the balmy weather. We got some ridiculous fruity cocktails (I think mine was blue… when in Cuba?), but I honestly don’t remember what we ate. We had a nice dinner and the ambiance was lovely, but it certainly wasn’t our best meal of the trip.
  • Restaurante San Jose: The line here is totally warranted. We showed up to put our name on the list and there were already people waiting outside (they don’t accept reservations). You can order drinks while you wait on the street and people watch/chat with other diners. It wasn’t long before we were seated and finally got to try their insane lobster dish. 100% worth it and would definitely go back.

  • Pizza: Roberto and I initially felt guilty about this and totally abstained in Havana since it’s our go-to at home and felt so touristy, but pizza is everywhere in Cuba. Check out this amazing story about a pizzeria in Havana! We stumbled upon this cute little place that I, of course, can’t find now, but it was the perfect snack mid-afternoon. So don’t be afraid to dabble, it’s what the locals do 😉

  • The Best Mojito: I’ve spent more time on Google Maps than I’d care to admit trying to find this place for you guys (street view isn’t quite what it is in the US). I wrote about it in our one-week itinerary, but it bears repeating that this isn’t just a marketing ploy…. this actually was one of the best mojitos we had in Cuba. Grab one and enjoy it while you watch the sun set over Trinidad… pure magic and such a sweet memory 😍 All the little bars in the area are basically to-go shops that will serve you drinks out of the window… you’ll find this one at the base of the stairs next to the Church of the Holy Trinity.

  • Disco Ayala: Like so many other stories in my life, this one also begins with sports. The Iberostar closed before the Warriors game was over, but the staff told us that there was a resort at the very tippy top of the hill in town that also got this special sports channel. (Reality check this was not the playoffs… just one regular old game of eighty plus). On our way to this resort, we passed all these little bar carts where groups of revelers had stopped to chat and sample mojitos. At the time, we didn’t even know where we were headed, but we couldn’t believe it when we stumbled on a huge line of people waiting outside of what appeared to be a cave. I so regret that we didn’t go inside for a night of dancing, but the line was long and we had had a long day. If you do go (and you should!) wear sensible shoes because it’s a long walk uphill along cobblestone streets! Even just the little bars along the way are fun. We stopped for a chat and mojito on our way home and as our bartender told us about his life he mentioned that his brother had moved to El Salvador (where Roberto’s family is from)… such a small world!

See & Do

  • Casa de Musica: This is the famous outdoor music venue right next to the above-mentioned stairs. You can do the Cuban version of bottle service and buy a bottle and mixers for your table or just grab a drink and squeeze into a spot on the stairs to watch… if you have enough liquid courage you may even join in (my hiney stayed firmly planted in my seat)! Roberto wants me to reiterate that this is a MUST DO!

  • Plaza Mayor: This is really the heart of Trinidad. From here you can watch the sunset and wander the nearby alleys where you’ll find men playing dominos in the street. Be sure to stop here to soak it all in. It’s also where you’ll find the internet…

  • Pedicab Tour: Señora Addys and Dr. Suarez organized this for us (again… angels 😇) and it was a great way to see a lot of Trinidad in a short amount of time. Notable stops included Casa del Alfarero where we had the opportunity to see pottery being made (I think they even offer lessons!) and a cigar factory in town.

  • Calle Desengaño: We rode down this street on our pedicab tour and had to come back to revisit all the brightly colored ‘Punto de Venta’s selling fresh juices, produce, and meat. We spent at least an hour just strolling down this street, watching families shop, and kids get haircuts on their front porches

  • Ancon Beach: When we were planning our trip and trying to figure out where to squeeze in some beach time we considered visiting Ancon Beach which is a quick bike ride from Trinidad. We ended up skipping it and visiting Cayo Santa Maria which I’ll cover next week, but if we had more time I would have loved to check it out. Would be a great choice if you don’t have time for an additional stop in your itinerary.
  • Salto de Caburni: I wanted to stop at these waterfalls on the way from Havana, but we just ran out of daylight. Assuming you’re leaving from Havana with a driver definitely coordinate a visit on your way. You can also organize a day trip from Trinidad if you have the time. It’s only about 30 minutes outside the city, but we only had one full day in Trinidad so we stayed close to town.
  • Romance Museum: OK this is cheeseball, but we totally would have visited if they hadn’t been closed when we were there.

If you have time to explore outside of Havana, promise me you won’t miss Trinidad! 

Cuba Travel Guide: Viñales

Roberto and I only had time to visit Viñales for a day trip so I don’t have the same “stay, eat, do” recommendations as I did for Havana, but we loved it so much I felt like it deserved its own post. As a reminder, you can find everything you need to know before you go to Cuba over here and our full one-week itinerary here.

Viñales is two and a half hours west of Havana by car and is known for its lush green valley and the rust colored soil of its tobacco fields. We arranged a tour of the Valley by horseback with Yubier from Riding Viñales, and couldn’t recommend them enough. They offer round trip transportation from Havana for 135 CUC (total for two people). We chose to go with the driver who took us to our hotel from the airport because he was willing to do it for slightly cheaper. Mistake. As we pulled into town we realized that he wanted to take us to his friends’ place of business instead and was disgruntled when Roberto explained that we already had reservations and didn’t want to be taken somewhere else. So the only thing I’d change about our reservation is to make it easy and use them for your transportation as well. The tour is 5 CUC per hour per person and I think we did about 5 hours including lunch. Perfect amount of time and well worth it.Read More

Cuba Travel Guide: Havana

If you’re curious about our full Cuba itinerary, head over here, but I wanted to put together a more detailed post on each of the places we visited. Today it’s our first stop: Havana!

Stay

We stayed at Palacio Del Marques De San Felipe Y Santiago de Bejucal (quite the mouthful!), and while nothing was wrong with it per se, I wouldn’t stay there again. I would highly recommend staying in a casa particular for a fraction of the price and you can read more about all the reasons here. If you are dead set on staying in a hotel, I’d splurge on Hotel Saratoga or Hotel Nacional de Cuba. We went in January and paid about $300 per night for the Palacio (essentially the same as what we paid on our most recent trip to La Costa) so our overall feeling was just that it wasn’t a good value when a casa particular is $30-40 per night. If I remember correctly when we were booking our lodging Hotel Nacional was around $500/night and Saratoga was over $700/night (I think they only had suites left), but prices are seasonal so if you can get a better deal it may be worth it!

Eat & Drink

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daquiri in El Floridita”

We had breakfast and coffee at our hotel most days so I sadly don’t have any recs for my favorite meal of the day. When we ordered omelets on our first morning the waiter apologized and said the only type of cheese they had was gruyère… um OK! So we suffered through a few days of delicious cheesy omelets and fresh fruit 😉

La Bodeguita del Medio: Totally touristy, but totally worth it. You aren’t going to have your best meal or mojito here, but I’d still recommend popping in for at least a drink to check out this place’s history. It’s famous for being the location of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite mojito with “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” supposedly inscribed by him on the wall. It turns out it may have just been some great marketing, but nevertheless, the place has a fun vibe and live music! The place is covered in signatures and photos of other celebrities from Nat King Cole (they even have his table preserved!) to Pablo Neruda who have visited the funky little spot.

Restaurante Floridita: On the other hand, there is evidence that Hemingway did actually enjoy his daiquiris at El Floridita. It’s equally touristy given its claim to fame, but the daiquiris really are delicious and it’s the perfect way to end a night in Havana with people watching and dancing along with the band. Make sure you get a picture with Hemingway himself!

Esto no es un Cafe: Great spot down a little dead-end alley that doesn’t have people peddling its menu at the corner (the food speaks for itself so they don’t have touts!). We enjoyed lobster and ropa vieja outside and the service was excellent.

El Del Frente: This was hands down the best meal we had in Cuba and we’re so glad we ended up here basically by accident. We weren’t able to get into their sister restaurant across the street (see below), but they made room for us here. Their cocktails are out of this world and all the food was incredible… empanadas, octopus, and of course lobster. They tend to be busy (we were lucky to get squeezed in!), so definitely make a reservation and request the outdoor patio if possible!

Atelier: OK guys… I don’t know if we got them on an off night or what, but I don’t think I’d return to this spot! Roberto called before we left for our trip requesting a reservation on the earlier side and a table outside so we could watch the sunset over the Malecon (romantic right!?😍 ). When we arrived, the restaurant informed us that we could no longer sit outside and just didn’t seem quite ready to serve (the napkins were delivered from the laundromat mid-way through our meal?). It was completely silent in the restaurant and overall just a bizarre experience. As we were leaving we realized that they had displaced us from the patio in favor of a large tour group… I kinda get it, but the whole thing left a bad taste in our mouth. I will say that their dining room is absolutely beautiful and unique and an amazing little collection of treasures. This article is what attracted us to Atelier in the first place, and it’s a really interesting look at the challenges that Cuban restaurant owners face with the scarcity and unpredictability of ingredients. Must read!

Hotel Saratoga: If you aren’t staying here be sure to stop in for a drink at their beautiful bar. Everyone from Madonna to former President Obama has stayed here and their black and white bar is stunning!

Hotel Nacional de Cuba: Another hotel that we didn’t stay in, but snuck into 😬. They have an amazing outdoor bar right on the Malecon overlooking the water. If we had cash we would have grabbed a drink, but we took the freebie route and explored all the history this hotel has to offer instead. Highly recommend reading Havana Nocturne before you check out this old mobster haunt!

See & Do

Old Havana: Much of what we did for sightseeing in Havana was just exploring on foot. Notable stops are below and you can probably hit these all in day depending on how many times you stop to cool off with a mojito 😉

  • Plaza Vieja – This was just a lovely sun-filled plaza close to our hotel and all the alleys leading off of it are quintessential pastel paradise.
  • Plaza de la Catedral – This Cathedral is absolutely beautiful, and right around the corner from both La Bodeguita del Medio and Esto no es un Cafe
  • Plaza de Armas – A great plaza very close to the Malecon with lots of vendors selling antique books and posters.
  • Castillo de la Real Fuerza – This is right next to Plaza de Armas. You can pay a small fee to enter this fort and see the museum inside. At this point, we still weren’t sure we’d have enough money for our meals so were forced to skip it, but I’d definitely check it out if we went again.
  • Parque Central – Surrounded by classic cars and a great spot for people watching. This is where Roberto got wrapped up watching a large group of men argue about the Cuban National Series
  • Gran Teatro de La Habana – Ditto on not paying to go inside, but I so wish we had done our research and planned to attend a show. At the very least the outside is absolutely stunning so don’t miss it!
  • El Capitolio – This isn’t actually the capital as it now houses a planetarium and museum, but it looks an awful lot like another Capital building you may be familiar with.
  • El Malecon – The Malecon is their walkway along the water (kind of sort of similar to the Embarcadero for you San Franciscans). It has amazing views and is the perfect place to perch with a cold Cristal to watch the sun set. They set off a canon each night at 9 pm from the Fortress (see below)

Classic Cars: Taking a ride in a classic car is an absolute must. So much of Old Havana is walkable that we didn’t really find a need for a cab (#fitbitlife), but on our last day we ended up hiring one to take us across (under?) the canal. We went through the tunnel under the water and our guide took us to El Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña where you can see the remains of a U2 spy plane that was shot down in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the warheads themselves. You’ll also find the former site of Che Guevera’s home and El Cristo de La Habana. So much history and a must visit. Taking a classic car over there is killing two birds with one stone! I still have the contact information for our driver, so let me know if you’d like it and I’d be happy to share! His English and knowledge of the history were excellent.

Museum of the Revolution: This was one of the places where we made an exception for paying an entrance fee and it was so worth it. The building that houses the museum is actually the former Presidential Palace and you can still see bullet holes in the staircase from the storming of the building. Our visit to Cuba highlighted to me how much I don’t know about the history between our two countries and it was especially interesting to see the Cuban side of the story. We had to practically be kicked out of the museum because I was so interested in every single artifact, and I so regret that we didn’t even have time to check out the outdoor area full of planes and other items such as the van that was used to attack the Palace during the Revolution.

For Next Time

304 O’Reilly: Every we know that had been to Havana recommended this spot to us and while we were able to get reservations, TIC happened. I’m so sad we missed a chance to eat here, but El Del Frente was a very happy consolation prize. Be sure to make reservations!

La Guarida: This was one of two restaurants we actually called to make reservations for before we left for Cuba and they didn’t have availability for us on the dates that we were in town. Adding this to the “next time” list as well…

Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC): So many friends had recommended this art exhibit/bar to us that we spent money we weren’t sure we had to cab over there. You can imagine our disappointment when we arrived only to find that they were closed. If you are in Havana please go so I can live vicariously through you!

Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia: I so wanted to go here! It’s a little off the beaten path and we just didn’t have time to make the excursion in our limited time in Havana.

Please let me know if you have any questions about Havana! I’d be more than happy to share!

 

Weekend Getaway: Carlsbad

Happy Friday! This week was my first regular old five day work week in what feels like forever with our big trip in early May followed by business trips, conferences, and Memorial Day last week. We spent the long weekend at our very favorite resort, Omni La Costa, and it was wonderful and relaxing which was just what we needed.

To fully explain my love for Omni La Costa Resort we’ve got to take it back four years to 2013… the year of the wedding (not ours!). That year we were lucky enough to attend no less than ten nuptials, many of which were out of town. It was a blast to see our loved ones tie the knot and travel to cities we might not have gotten the chance to visit otherwise, but despite the fact that we were doing the whole planes, trains and automobiles thing together, it didn’t actually feel like we had taken a true vacation together… does that make sense? By the end of the year, I was craving a trip with nothing on the itinerary other than sitting by a pool in a bathing suit and eating chips and guac.

Because of his work travel and penchant for loyalty programs we had a free night at an Omni Hotel anywhere in the country. We agreed that we wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t too far so we could spend more time by the pool than in airports, and quickly honed in on La Costa. What followed was a pretty perfect weekend. We flew into John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and drove the PCH down the coast stopping at Rose’s for breakfast burritos along the way. After getting checked in, we went for a run around the property then settled in by one of their many pools for the rest of the afternoon. That night we enjoyed dinner at Blue Ocean Robata & Sushi Bar just minutes from the resort and when we returned home to the room I was surprised with champagne and a proposal. Needless to say, La Costa holds a very special place in my heart.rose bakery newport breakfast burritoWhen we were deciding what to do for our first anniversary last year, returning to La Costa seemed like the obvious choice. If you read our Cuba itinerary you know that our travels are typically jam-packed and often times we come home feeling less rested than when we left. Our time at La Costa definitely represents a time and place where we can relax and rejuvenate and just enjoy each other’s company without feeling the pressure of squeezing in another landmark or rushing to a reservation.

I’m a creature of habit and absolutely love a good tradition, so it’s no surprise that we headed back to the resort and recreated much of our original engagement weekend (again!). Our Omni experience began before we even left home when one of their “Vacation Ambassadors” reached out to us to offer assistance with any on-property reservations for their many restaurants, the spa, golf course, tennis courts, etc. As with all Omni properties we’ve visited, their service is consistently amazing and we’ve always found their attention to detail and staff to be top notch.

We flew into John Wayne Airport again even though it’s further because I had my heart set on some breakfast burritos from Rose’s (we considered ordering donuts from them for our wedding since they have such a special meaning to me!). It’s a quick hour drive to the resort from Newport, but the San Diego airport is even more convenient and only about 30 minutes away from the property. We had mentioned to our “Vacation Ambassador” that we were celebrating our anniversary and were thrilled to be upgraded to a suite overlooking their golf course upon check-in. When we arrived in our room we were greeted by a sweet assortment of chocolates from their pastry kitchen to celebrate our anniversary… like I said… attention to detail👌🏼. Upon seeing the pile of chocolates we knew we had to continue our annual tradition of a five mile run around the property. It’s basically our version of fitting into our wedding dress and tux year after year… we do it for time and are always dead set on making sure we can match the pace we set on our very first trip. If it’s too hot for an outdoor workout they have a spectacular fitness center overlooking the pool and golf course and that’s where we got our sweat on on our second day at the property.omni la costa adults only edge pool cabana

Once the whole exercise bit is out of the way it’s time to get down to the serious business of pool lounging. La Costa has an astonishing eight pools… yes eight… so the options are endless. Their Splash Landing Pool area for families has not only a mini water park but two water slides and I totally would have taken the plunge if I didn’t think this big kid would bum the little kids out. They also have a Sandy Beach area for little babes to make sand castles and wade in the shallow waters. I know we’ll be coming back to La Costa for years to come so I love how many options they have for kids of all ages (and someday I’ll have a kid to conquer that water slide with!). Since we don’t have any little ones yet we stick to their adults-only Edge Pool which consists of the main pool, cabanas, a pool bar, fire pits and jacuzzis overlooking their award winning golf course.

omni la costa tennis courts

omni la costa shopping lilly pulitzer

If you’re anything like my husband, there’s only so much time you can spend sitting by the pool no matter how beautiful the view. When Roberto can’t sit still much longer we’ll head to the driving range to work on our golf game.They have two golf courses and have been ranked a Gold Medal Resort by Golf Magazine every year since 2012. I’m a definite beginner, but the driving range is a fun way to practice my swing and I think next year we’ll finally spring for lessons. Either that or Roberto will spring for lessons and you’ll be able to find me at the spa💆🏽. They also have lots of cute little boutiques (hello Lilly Pulitzer) in their main square if you’re in the mood for some shopping.

Although we enjoyed dinner in downtown Carlsbad on our first visit, on our last two trips we haven’t left the resort at all. Why? There’s really no reason to leave and not having to worry about getting to a reservation makes the trip that much more stress-free. There are five restaurants on site and from room service to poolside nachos to their formal restaurants, all their food is outstanding. The last couple years we’ve taken advantage of their amazing Memorial Day Weekend lineup. They have everything from reptile exhibits and scavenger hunts to s’mores and dive-in movies. It’s seriously a kid’s paradise and I’m still a little bitter Roberto wouldn’t let me participate in what he viewed as “kids only” activities. One thing that’s great for big and little kids alike? The Food Truck party they throw in the Main Plaza. They set up an outdoor bar and bring in a handful of trucks for the night. If you’re following along with me on Instagram you know that we sampled literally everything… a Connecticut style lobster roll from Cousins Maine Lobster, multiple tacos and churros from Taco Picasso, and lobster mac n cheese from Organic Food Truck. It’s a seriously magical vibe… families enjoying good food, drinks, and fun under string lights and stars. The last couple years the Warriors have been deep in the playoffs so we’ve ended our nights watching the games at their sports bar, Departures, where they project the game on a big screen. This year we clinched early (no bigs 😏) so we stuffed our bellies and climbed in bed for one of the best nights of sleep we’ve gotten in a while.

We always feel like there’s more than enough to do on property, but if you’re itching to get out and about there are tons of things to do nearby. Number one on my list? The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. We missed their season by just a couple weeks, but I’m determined to buck tradition and celebrate our anniversary early one year so we get a chance to visit ourselves. The resort also has shuttles that will take you the quick five minutes to the beach if you want to dip those toes in the ocean. Got kiddos? The options are endless…Legoland is less than fifteen minutes from the property, the San Diego Zoo is thirty minutes, and Disneyland is just over an hour away. For a night on the town, you’re just a quick Uber from Encinitas, Del Mar, or Oceanside and each time we’ve visited we’ve met friendly locals more than happy to share their recommendations for good bars and restaurants.

If you can’t tell I can’t wait to return to the gorgeous property. We’re already recruiting friends for future family vacations and I honestly just can’t wait for my chance to attend the reptile exhibit and take on those insane waterslides!

Many thanks to Omni La Costa Resort for another incredible weekend at the property!

One Week in Cuba: Our Itinerary

Roberto and I definitely fall into the category of people who try to cram as much into a trip as possible. I know that there are travelers who might argue you could spend a week or two just in Havana and not scratch the surface, and I can totally appreciate that viewpoint. On the other hand, our vacation days are limited and our location bucket list is long. When we visit a country we do it knowing that we may never make it back. With that in mind, our goal is always to see as much of a country as possible. All this to say that this is a jam-packed itinerary, but we felt it allowed us to see various towns and topography in our limited time on the island. Once we had narrowed down where we wanted to go we had to figure out the order in which we’d do it and how we’d get from town to town. We used Furkot to map out our road trip around Ireland last spring, and I found it helpful in planning this itinerary as well since so much of our travel was done by car. Flying into and out of different airports saved us the unnecessary travel time of looping back to Havana. We arrived in Cuba on a Saturday and returned home the following Sunday, spending a total of 8 nights and 9 days (with two of those days being travel days) on the island. Here’s what we did: 

Day 1 //After a short flight from Miami to Havana we found a cab driver to take us to our hotel in the Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Once we got checked in we were ready for lunch so we headed straight to La Bodeguita del Medio. After cooling off with our first mojito we set out to explore the rest of Old Havana on foot. We visited Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de Armas. That night we enjoyed dinner at Esto no es cafe after freshening up (and a quick siesta). We had heard great things about Fabrica de Arte Cubano so we cabbed over after dinner, but were devastated to discover it was temporarily closed (and that we had spent our limited cash on a cab ride!).

Day 2 // Our second day in Havana was our only full day in the city so we were determined to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible. After breakfast at our hotel, we decided to jump on the Hop On Hop Off bus tour thinking it would a be a good (cheap) way to see more of Havana. We got off at Parque Central where we (Roberto) were immediately sidetracked by a large group of men having a good natured argument about baseball (we were there during their World Series!). After checking out the Gran Teatro and Capital we popped into Hotel Saratoga to enjoy a Cubata in their gorgeous black and white bar. We spent the rest of the afternoon engrossed in the Museum of the Revolution. After dinner at Atelier, we headed to the home of the daiquiri, Floridita, to end the night.

Day 3 // Our day trip Vinales was one of the absolute highlights of the trip. It’s about a two-hour drive from Havana so we had an early start at 7 am so we could begin our horseback tour by 9 am. We spent the whole day with our guide visiting his family’s tobacco farm and touring the unimaginably gorgeous valley. We had reservations at 304 O’Reilly that night but lost our table after being late due to our little gas debacle (see TIC in my Cuba overview). Luckily we were able to get into their sister restaurant El Del Frente across the street which ended up being one of our best meals in Havana (remember what I said about it all working out?!).

Day 4 // On our last day in Havana we knew we had to take a ride in a classic car. We found a driver where lots of cabs hang out across from Castillo de la Real Fuerza and he took us over to El Morro and El Cristo Blanco. After our ride, it was time to say bye to Havana and make our way to Trinidad. The drive is about four hours so we had our driver stop in Cienfuegos so we could stretch our legs and have a look around. If we had more time I would have loved to have lunch or drink, but we were behind schedule so we continued on our way. In Trinidad, we checked in with Dr. Suarez and Senora Addys and felt immediately at ease after our many debacles early on (cash, blisters, gas, etc.). After getting settled we had dinner at Sol y Son and called it a night.

Day 5 // Senora Addys and her staff prepared us an amazing breakfast on the patio of fresh fruit and omelets before sending us on our way for a pedicab tour that she had arranged. Since we only had one full day in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designated town it was a great way to see a lot of the colonial city. We visited a cigar factory and this awesome pottery shop and even though there were tons of things we wanted to bring home we were afraid the items wouldn’t make it in one piece. We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the brightly colored streets. That evening we watched the sunset from the stairs off of Plaza Mayor with mojitos in hand from a little stall boldly advertising themselves as “The Best Mojito in the World”. Roberto and the bartender had a laugh about a money back guarantee, but guys… these really were the best mojitos in the world. After the sun went down we waited in line for a coveted spot at Restaurante San Jose where we devoured lobster, beans, and rice which were quickly becoming our Cuba staples. After dinner, we headed up to Casa de la Musica where we listened to live music and watched dancers (much more coordinated than myself) salsa the night away.

Day 6 // And just like that our time in Trinidad was already over and we had to hit the road for Cayo Santa Maria, an island off the island. Senora Addys had arranged a shared a ride for the three hour trip to the island chain and we arrived at the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria just in time for lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool at the resort.

Day 7 // This day was a total veg day and it couldn’t have been more perfect. We walked along the beach, sunbathed by the crystal blue water, and took advantage of the free catamaran rides offered by the Royalton. After enjoying dinner at one of the resort’s restaurants we walked into the little island “town” for a couple rounds of bowling.

Day 8 – We spent the morning shopping for souvenirs in the resort “town” then soaked up the sun by the pool for the rest of the day. We stayed at the all-inclusive resort through dinner since the food was delicious (and we didn’t have money 😂). Afterward, we hopped in a cab for a two-hour ride to Santa Clara where we were flying out the next day. Once we had sorted out our little lodging debacle we took a quick stroll to Parque Leoncio Vidal to get a feel for the town before hitting the hay.

Day 9 – Our flight home was in the early afternoon so we set out to see as much of Santa Clara as possible that morning. We visited both the Mausoleo del Che Guevara and the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado before stumbling on an awesome farmer’s market. After grabbing a bite it was time to say bye to Cuba and head home!

I’m planning to put together more details on each town but wanted to put our itinerary all in one place! Let me know if you’re planning on visiting Cuba and have any questions!

Know Before You Go: Cuba

Alternate title for this post: ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’. We had an absolutely incredible time in Cuba but before I tell you about our adventures, we’ve got to cover all the misadventures so you can avoid the (many) mistakes we made! Some of them were avoidable while others just come with the territory so buckle in… here’s everything you need to know before you go to Cuba.

Visiting & Visas

There are currently 12 permissible reasons for US citizens to travel to Cuba. Pre-approval is no longer required, but you should still plan to keep records and receipts for up to five years after your trip. Travel purely for tourism is technically prohibited, but there are varying opinions on how stringent these restrictions truly are. GQ had this to say regarding the permissible reasons for travel:

“If you plan, on your visit to Cuba, to hear live music, you can confidently check off “public performances” as your reason for travel. If you plan to stay in a “casa particular,” accommodations provided by a private family, you can check off “support for the Cuban people.” If you plan to visit a museum, you can check off “educational activities.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if you fall into one of the allowable categories. We had to sign an OFAC certification at our departure airport and that was the extent of any paperwork or proof required from us regarding the reason for our visit.  If you do believe that you qualify you’ll need a visa. Check with your airline on how to obtain yours as some will direct you to an outside agency while others will sell them to you directly.

We flew Delta and knew we could buy ours at the airport for $50 a pop. Where or when at the airport we weren’t exactly sure, but we figured it would be obvious when we arrived. Since we were able to get our boarding passes online and weren’t checking bags we breezed through security and headed straight to the Delta Sky Club. When we mosied down to the gate to board the agents were frantic. “We’ve been paging you!!! Do you have your visas???” They had run out of visas at the gate and had been searching for us hoping that we had already gotten them. It. was. a. whole. thing. They had to get someone to bring them an emergency supply and then we filled out our little cards while seven flight attendants watched, begging us not to mess up (no pressure!). So my advice is to do your research, give yourself plenty of time at the airport, and get your visas before your mimosas. Once you’ve got your visa find a safe place for it as you’ll need to keep it with you at all times.

Currency Concerns

I’ll cut right to the chase on this one: we didn’t bring enough cash to Cuba. Like had to change our itinerary didn’t bring enough cash… no bueno. This was our biggest blunder, caused us completely unnecessary stress, and was 100% avoidable so here’s what you need to know:

Credit and debit cards issued in the United States do not work in Cuba (yet!). Even if you do have a non-US based card I saw very few credit card machines or transactions. That means that every cent you’re going to spend on the island needs to come with you in cash on the plane. Cuban currency isn’t available internationally so you’ll need to purchase it once you arrive. Although there are two types of Cuban currency, we used the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) our entire trip. You should be aware that there is also the Cuban Peso (CUP) and you’re allowed to use it, but you likely won’t. Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) are pegged to the US Dollar so 1 CUC = 1 USD. However, if you exchange USD in Cuba you’re charged a 10% penalty in addition to the ~3% exchange fee so you really get roughly 87 CUC for 100 USD. Knowing we’d be penalized for exchanging dollars we decided to bring Canadian dollars based on exchange rates at the time.

After figuring out what currency we wanted to bring we had to decide how much to bring. We guesstimated our costs and came up with a low-end and high-end budget. We decided to convert the low-end amount into Canadian dollars and bring the cushion amount in USD. We figured that if we didn’t end up needing the extra funds we wouldn’t lose money on exchange fees by unnecessarily exchanging the cash into CAD and then back to USD.

So what happened? We forgot to bring our cushion amount. I am terrible about carrying cash and I was already super uncomfortable carrying all of our CAD cross-country. Not wanting to take out more money until absolutely necessary, we decided we’d wait and use the ATM at the airport in Miami before our flight to Havana. Then we forgot… probably something to do with that whole mimosa at the lounge debacle.

In truth, we weren’t too far off, and we probably could have made do, but we didn’t want to spend our entire trip worrying if we could afford another round of mojitos or not. One of our biggest cash expenses was going to be a resort that required us to pay in cash on arrival. We decided to stay two nights instead of three, and instead stayed at a much more affordable “casa particular.” That small tweak was enough to get us through our trip with plenty of money for mojitos, cigars, and rum (but not sunscreen 😉).

A miscellaneous aside: I was scolded (by another tourist nonetheless) for entering a bank in shorts and a tank-top. I didn’t realize until after the fact that there are signs outside the banks that prohibit shorts, exposed shoulders, and open toe shoes. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear anyone follows those guidelines (locals included). Just something to be aware of since it certainly caught me off guard!

Dwelling Decisions

We stayed in a hotel, two casa particulars, and a resort in our time in Cuba. If I had it to do again I’d skip the hotel in favor of a casa particular. Why? The hotel was much more than we’d normally spend on lodging in the states (even NYC!), but the accommodations and service weren’t on par with what you’d expect for the price. Casa particulars are basically the OG form of Airbnb where you’re hosted in a family’s home similar to a Bed & Breakfast. Although there were a few exceptions (and I’m kicking myself for not remembering their names!), we found the staff to be generally unhelpful at our hotel when it came to assisting us with tours and activities while the local knowledge our homestay hosts had couldn’t have been more valuable. One of them was such a savior that we honestly took to calling her our Cuban fairy godmother. The one benefit to staying in a larger hotel is that they tend to have internet access, although in our experience that only applied to the common areas and not the rooms.

Something to note: due to restrictions on spending USD in Cuba if you book a hotel you’ll either be paying through a non-Cuban travel agency or in cash upon arrival like we did at the resort we stayed at. Roberto used both Cuba Travel Network and Airbnb to book our stays. Just letting you know it isn’t quite as straightforward as booking directly with a hotel as you might in the US or Europe. Also when we had to book a last minute casa particular in place of one of our nights at the resort we weren’t able to do it through Airbnb from a Cuban internet connection. We were able to find a workaround by proxying into our desktop computers at home, but it’s just another complication to be aware of.

WiFi Worries

Man oh man do we take our access to the internet for granted… what’s that old saying about how you don’t miss something till it’s gone? Internet access in Cuba is a true luxury. You have to purchase internet cards in 1-hour increments to even access the internet in the few places it is available. We were lucky enough to have it in almost all the places we stayed, but once you’re out and about there’s no such thing as a Starbucks to pop into to get online for free. What you’ll find are these internet access points that aren’t marked as far as I could tell but are not hard to find. You’ll be able to identify them because like moths to a flame young people and tourists alike flock to these corners to get on the world wide web. People were often selling internet access cards in the vicinity of these access points, but we weren’t confident they were real/hadn’t already been used so we stuck to official sellers. You can buy the cards at ETECSA stores for about 2 CUC, but like everything else in Cuba, the lines are incredibly long. Hotel lobbies will also sell them to you (typically with a markup). If you aren’t a guest at the hotel they may require you to buy food or a drink in order to purchase the card but a cold Cristal definitely beats waiting in line for an hour at ETECSA. Last word of advice: since internet access is such a commodity be sure to log off when you’re done surfing so you don’t unintentionally waste all your minutes. You can do so by going to http://1.1.1.1/.

Medical Matters

There was a point in our trip where Roberto was convinced I was going to have to have my feet amputated on the island (he has a flair for the dramatic). To be fair, our cab driver had just offered to take us to his house so his wife could bandage me up, so he wasn’t the only one who was worried. I had gotten blisters on our last night in Miami and they were refusing to heal with all the walking we were doing. Traveling with basic medical supplies is the adult thing to do and we had arrived in Cuba without so much as a band-aid. While we passed by this beautiful pharmacy museum multiple times, I never saw an actual pharmacy or drugstore so be sure to bring any and all medical supplies you may need.

You’ll also need to have proof of health insurance to enter Cuba and chances are your American policy won’t cut it. Delta automatically included a policy for a $25 surcharge in each of our tickets and our boarding pass served as proof of that. If your airline doesn’t provide insurance you can buy a temporary policy relatively inexpensively. We were never actually asked to provide proof, but you’re better safe than sorry… especially since it was looking like we were going to need our coverage for a minute there.

Safety Sensibilities

We felt totally safe in Cuba despite the fact that we walked all over town at night. Any sort of negative experience you’ll face is much more likely to be a tourist scam rather than any crime or violence. I mentioned the two currencies Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP) briefly. In our experience, you won’t need to use CUPs to pay but you do need to be able to recognize them. One of the biggest tourist scams in Cuba is charging in CUC, but giving change in the less valuable CUP. How can you tell? The Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) have monuments on them, while the Cuban Pesos (CUP) have historical figures.

Lastly, just be aware of tourist scams in general. We hired a driver who ended up leaving a bad taste in our mouth after he tried to take us to his contact in Viñales despite the fact that we had already booked with a different provider. Be really clear with drivers on where you’re going, the cost (is gas included?), etc. so you don’t end up in an uncomfortable situation like we did.

Transportation Thoughts

I’ll be sharing our full itinerary next, but we visited four towns in our week in Cuba. Although there are domestic flights between a few places on the island we relied entirely on taxis while we were there. We debated renting a car, but ultimately decided against it after reading some horror stories about cars frequently not being available and less than ideal driving conditions (this article actually made me LOL… it is just so quintessentially Cuba). We had done zero planning ahead on how exactly we’d get around so once on the island we got rides a few different ways. The driver that had taken us from the airport to our hotel in Havana offered to take us to Viñales. Even though our tour company had offered to arrange a cab we went with our driver to save a few CUC (don’t forget we were short on cash!). We ultimately wished we had just arranged a ride with our tour company (see above). For our ride out of Havana, we used this website. It’s also a good resource for getting an idea of what a ride might cost, but I’d argue their listed prices are the max you should pay. You can likely get cheaper rates once you’re there or with drivers you find on the street. Our casa particular hostess arranged a rideshare another time (we split the cost with another couple going the same way), and then we finally took our first “legal” cab arranged by our resort. If you’re a planner I’d use the website to pre-book your trips (don’t be afraid to try and negotiate), but we found it relatively easy to arrange once we were there in part because…

Language Lessons

I happen to be married to a native Spanish speaker so I was lucky enough to have a built-in translator for the entirety of our trip. I know it’s a cliche, but learning or even attempting to learn the local language goes a long way. More than once I sent last minute requests for tours or cabs in English only to be turned down. When Roberto would subsequently call and speak to them in Spanish they always managed to work it out and squeeze us in. My hunch is the language connection helped us out, but the kid is charming and has great lashes so it’s really anyone’s guess. The few times I had to fend for myself I felt totally self-conscious, but whenever Roberto explained to our guides/hosts/waiters that I was learning they were all kind and patient.

“This is Cuba, Honey” a.k.a. TIC

After waiting in an impossibly long line (oh the lines!) to exchange our CAD into CUC we arrived at our hotel in Havana where we were promptly met by a woman at the front desk complaining that not only had they not had hot water for the last few days, but now they had no water at all. On our way back from our day trip to Viñales our driver ran out of gas. We waited in a long line (like I said) at the gas station only to find out that they were out of gas. So we drove house to house until we found someone who would sell us some “gray market” gasolina. When we woke up at our casa particular in Trinidad and didn’t have power Roberto immediately alerted our hostess. Señora Addys just laughed and said, “This is Cuba, Honey… what do you expect?” And so TIC was born. Anytime anything went wrong Roberto and I would just look at each other and laugh and tell ourselves TIC… which made it a little easier to laugh when Roberto actually got a tick. Or why we weren’t the least bit surprised when we arrived at our Airbnb in Santa Clara only to find out that it had been double booked and they didn’t have room for us. All this to say that if you’re traveling to Cuba you need to be prepared to roll with the punches. You’ll find that in many cases the infrastructure in Cuba is frozen in time and you need to be ready to put a smile on your face and adjust your plans accordingly. On the other hand, the Cuban people are wonderful and they’ll do their best to make it right (although it’s often out of their control). We had no problems with water. We found gas (eventually!). We ate breakfast on the patio in the sunlight when the power went out. Our hostess in Santa Clara made arrangements with her friend’s BnB who took great care of us. It will all work out, but expect a few bumps in the road!

48 Hours in Miami

For the last couple of years, Roberto and I have gone to Hawaii for the January long weekend as our Christmas gift to each other as opposed to actual presents (Roberto may have a different opinion on how this whole arrangement works 😉). Cuba has always been on our bucket list, so with the loosening of travel restrictions* and the launch of commercial flights after a 50-year hiatus we decided to take the plunge and change up our island game.

As of right now, the only direct flights to Cuba are from a few select cities and San Francisco is not one of them. Knowing we’d have to stop somewhere, we decided on an extended “layover” in Miami since we had never been and weren’t sure when we’d have a chance to be back.

Here’s how we spent our 48 hours:

We took a red-eye into Fort Lauderdale which always sounds like a good idea: miss the least amount of work while spending the maximum amount of time at your destination. Not to mention that waking up at your destination without having to pay for an extra night in a hotel is a wallet win. In truth, we arrived at 7:30 am (4:30 am our time) totally wrecked. If you read this post you know that we avoid checking our bags at all costs, but if you know us you also know that we’re always late. Like the last people to board the plane late. So inevitably we’re always forced to check our bags at the gate anyway. By the time we got our bags and grabbed our (first) cup of coffee it was peak rush hour, so our Uber ride to Miami Beach took a whopping hour and a half. And as is usually the case with these early morning arrivals… our room at the Nautilus wasn’t ready. We vowed we’d never do a red-eye again, but only time will tell.
Once we got settled, the only logical next step was to set out in search of… what else… more caffeine. We made our way over to Panther Coffee‘s Sunset Harbor location on foot (my favorite way to see a city). We used Lincoln Road to cover the short 1.5 miles across the manmade island. The pedestrian promenade is full of outdoor dining options, shops, and art galleries. We kept it moving and stuck to the people watching the outdoor mall is known for.

Right around the corner from Panther Coffee is True Loaf. The bakery is known for their sourdough and croissants, but I was drawn to founder Tomas Strulovic’s story as well. He took a leap of faith to go from a career in finance to one in flour (he even attended the San Francisco Baking Institute), and his persistence has clearly paid off. We wanted to try both a savory and sweet croissant so we opted for a spicy beef and almond. Both were delicious, but I gotta say the almond was my favorite. If you can’t make it over to True Loaf’s Sunset Harbour location, Panther Coffee sells True Loaf croissants in all their cafes… two birds, one stone.

We took a different route on the way back to our hotel and stopped along Española Way. South Beach is known for its Art Deco buildings, but the couple blocks that make up Española Way feature Spanish colonial architecture. Similar to Lincoln Road, it’s a pedestrian friendly street filled with outdoor dining options and boutiques.

After napping and freshening up at the hotel we headed to dinner at Ola. Unable to decide between all the options we got a bunch of different ceviches and starters to share and split a main. Everything was delicious, but the smoked marlin tacos were a standout. After dinner, we popped into The Regent Cocktail Club for a nightcap. Cleaveland Jones was playing some groovy live music and the manhattans were delicious… what more can you ask for?

We woke up late on our second day and couldn’t believe time was already ticking on our last 24 hours. Eager to get our blood pumping and see more of South Beach in our limited amount of time we set out on a run. We headed south from our hotel along the beach past Lummus Park and Ocean Drive to the very bottom tip of the island, passing all the colorful umbrellas and beach chairs dotted along the sand. I’m always looking for a reason to hit “pause” on our runs (re-tie my shoes, stop at a water fountain, take a picture, etc.), and Roberto just isn’t falling for it anymore. I had already used up my allotted break on a water stop, so my request to slow down and snap pictures was denied. I had to order this book the minute we got home so I could relive it (from above!). Pictures or not, the run was the perfect way to take in the beach scene and Art Deco architecture (and squeeze in a little exercise).

Starving after our workout, we couldn’t wait to get over to Coyo Taco in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. After consulting Google Maps we realized that biking would only take a few more minutes than riding over in an Uber… at about half the cost #cheapthrills. With our minds made up, we rented our bikes, said our prayers, and headed out on our taco mission. After I got over the initial nerves, it was so much fun. We took 17th over the Venetian Islands and once we got out of South Beach there were hardly any cars so the ride felt safe and leisurely. It only took us about 30 minutes to cover the 5 miles and it definitely beat sitting in traffic.

Coyo Taco lived up to our expectations and a cold margarita was the perfect way to cool off from our bike ride. After scarfing down our tacos (and a mountain of guacamole for yours truly), we wandered around the neighborhood looking at the intricate murals that are everywhere you turn. What we didn’t realize is that we hadn’t even made it to the “official” Wynwood Walls themselves yet (don’t worry we stumbled upon them!). When our feet got weary we popped into Concrete Beach Brewery to share a couple flights. They have a great patio and tons of games… you could definitely spend an afternoon here. After some very scientific taste testing, Roberto and I both agreed their Helles Lager was our favorite.

For our final meal in Miami that night we went to Byblos. Their menu is Eastern Mediterranean inspired and the cocktails were delicious as well (I had to try their spin on an old fashioned which contained Turkish coffee). We loved everything about the meal from the decor to the service, but we were still talking about their black truffle flatbread a week later. Y.U.M. Much like the night before we ordered a handful of things to share and the shakshouka and steak tartare were other favorites. Eager to stretch out our last night we headed over to Ocean Drive which we had only seen in daylight on our run. It happened to be Art Deco weekend so there were lots of people and live music. I’m so glad we got to see the famous hotels at night all lit up with their neon signs. We ended the night (and our trip!) with a scotch at Commonwealth, a bar just a few blocks from our hotel that we had heard was known for their whisk(e)y selection.

Just like that our time in Miami was over.

Quick Recap:

Stay: Nautilus South Beach

Eat & Drink:

Do:

  • Lincoln Ave.
  • Española Way
  • Ocean Drive
  • Rent bikes and explore
  • Wynwood Walls

Next Time: The Nautilus was incredibly beautiful, but we didn’t have enough time to enjoy it. Next time I’ll be sure to enjoy a meal at the gorgeous Cabana Club (formerly the Driftwood Room) and spend a little more time soaking up the sun at the pool.  Since we left early on Saturday morning we didn’t get to enjoy the brunch culture that Miami is known for. Juvia and 27 Restaurant are on my list for next time! I know we only scraped the surface, but we’ll definitely be back!

*Stay tuned: I’ll be talking all things Cuba next week.

Telluride: Bear Creek Falls

telluride_bear_creeak_falls-1295 Our second day in Telluride was our only full day to explore, and we tried to squeeze in as many activities as possible. We had a great dinner at Siam on our first night, but I was practically falling asleep in my pad thai after our early flight and grueling hike. I was really hoping to hike Bridal Veil Falls and Blue Lake the next day, but we ended up scrapping the half-day hike in favor of a few more hours of shut-eye.

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We still wanted to get out and enjoy the gorgeous mountains, so our friends recommended Bear Creak Falls. Just like Jud Wiebe, the trailhead is right in town and was a quick walk from our hotel. The hike is about 5 miles roundtrip compared to Jud Wiebe’s 3 miles, but the elevation gain is much more gradual so we weren’t huffing and puffing quite as much as the day before. Also keeping us going was the knowledge that we’d reach a waterfall at the top. We met tons of friendly people (and dogs!) along the way, and a nice local explained all the rock structures below. They are called cairns, and they are used on more rural hikes as trail markers. The woman told us that the kids in a local summer camp had gotten a little carried away hence the cairn garden.

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After hustling back down the mountain we grabbed a couple lattes at The Coffee Cowboy, whipped up some eggs at the condo, then headed over to the Brews and Blues festival. We had been nervous it would be cold, but the weather ended up being sunny and beautiful. We enjoyed a couple brews and the music, before heading over to the free gondola to get another amazing view of the valley before the sun went down. There is a great bike park at the top that our (much more adventurous) friends took on in the morning while we hiked. We finished the night off with a great dinner at La Marmotte.

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On Monday morning we got up early enough to hike Bear Creek Falls again since we enjoyed it so much the day before. We were committed to working remotely so we grabbed a quick coffee and breakfast sandwich at Baked in Telluride before setting up shop at the River Club. For lunch we walked over to The Butcher and The Baker to pick up few sandwiches and salads. This spot is impossibly cute, and I wish we had time to enjoy the great outdoor space. We saved the best for last and had dinner at Cosmopolitan on our final night in town. It was easily our best meal the entire trip.

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We seriously loved Telluride, and I can only hope we have another opportunity to go back!