#Passports, Visas, Packing, etc #Travel Things To Know Before You Go

I experience a fair amount of synchronicity. Recently a friend shared that on a trip to St.Lucia a family friend was denied boarding due to his Passport not being valid any longer. It was “good” till July of 2017, the trip was in May of 2017. The next morning in the elevator two girls from my building were discussing an issue with a Passport not being usable due to hole punches in it. 

I put the following piece together to provide some valuable info so you can avoid being a “bad” travel story vs coming back with stories and pics (the photos in the blog are all mine) to share from your next great vacation.


Passport

If you go to Travel.State.Gov it will say your Passport is good for 10 years. Keep reading a few lines down where you’ll see it’s not. Your Passport is not good for 10 years. It’s valid for 10 years…however pretty much every country wants your Passport valid for over 6 months before you leave their border. Thus, if you plan on going outside the country, once it hits 9 years get yourself a new one. I’ve found ItsEasy to be a great service. You can use the Post Office, but I prefer the level of service, especially if you want expedite options. 

Of note, when you get your new Passport, they will send the old one back. It will have Holes punched in it to invalidate it. Even If the date of the Passport has not expired, it is not good any longer. If you try to use it, you will get denied entry. 



Airline Seats

This drives me nuts and I find this practice disgusting. I’m buying a damn seat on the plane…this new scam of charging you another $50 + each way to book your seat at time of purchase is ridicules. If you choose not to, then it’s case by case by airline but generally its 24 hours before the flight to choose the seat and then hoping to not get stuck in the middle or a nightmare at the airport. For the record, I generally wait the 24 hrs before. Great way to kill loyalty, Marketing geniuses. 


VISAS

Visas vary by county. Some you need in advance, others you can get at the airport. For example for Vietnam I had to get it in advance through an agency (I used ItsEasy), though for Cuba I got mine in advance but actually didn’t need to on JetBlue, since when you check in you can buy it. Check out VISA Info for details on major countries and there are links to find info on others. 



Currency

I use my AMEX as much as I can so I don’t have to carry much cash and they get a good exchange rate. I do get some cash in the countries currency I’m visiting before I go, primarily for cabs, tips, and drinks. Most major banks can get the major currencies within a week, but it’s always best to check with them first, some currencies are harder to come by. I use the XE currency app to get approximate rates. Please note, that’s not the rate you will get it’s what the banks are trading the pairs at. They will charge you a % for their services. 



Disease 

Its not just for going on a safari or remote locations in third world counties. Outbreaks can happen anywhere .ie Zika. While planning your trip check out CDC.Gov for what shots and meds you may need. When I went on Safari and on a trip to Asia I used PassportHealth for shots and meds and have been very happy with them. 


Trouble Zones

We live in crazy times. Stuff happens any and everywhere. Always good to check with the State Dept at Travel.State.Gov to see if where you are going has any issues. This is especially important for backpackers and those doing to a GAP year. You  may need to reroute as you go. 


Packing

Stop over-packing. You don’t need half of what you stuffed in your suitcase. Yes, you can wear it again. Buy some wool or capeline t-shirts, underwear, socks and polos. Airlines are charging extra for luggage which is nothing compared to the time wasted waiting for luggage to arrive or having it lost altogether. 

Along with you Basics…


Backpack-Pack stuff in it as your “personal” carry on. Unload it at the hotel and use as your daypack and/or pack an ultra-lite the REI…or Timbuk2 has some small foldable travel bags for use by day or to carry gifts backs. 

Phone Recharger- I like the Bolt. Some new luggage like Away and Raden have chargers built in. Don’t forget the cords for your device or it will be useless. 

Earbuds/Headset. I pack these for survival while traveling. Why? I’m dumbfounded by how many inconsiderate morons either blast their music or movies without a headset, talk on speaker or think giving a kid an iPad without a headset to play a game with the volume on high there are. I wear mine…to save lives. 

Meds- Do not count on getting allergy medicine, pain relief or Prescription meds (that you need regularly)while away. Bring what you need. I carry mine in what looks like a big Tylenol pill

Sunscreen- I always bring my own and put it in a carry-on sized bottle. Many places what they have is lacking or grossly overpriced. 

Bug Spray- If you’re going somewhere where it’s an issue bring your own, you not be able to find it. For Mosquitos I’ll get Deet, but otherwise there are all natural lemon based ones out there. REI and EMs carry them. They do have small carry on size bottles.

Camera- No your phone isn’t a camera, though it makes a good back-up and for use at night in restaurants. For most people I recommend a good point and shoot. I like the Olympus Tough since it’s waterproof to 30ft so I can use in rain or snorkeling. If you’re good or really into it, then get yourself a DSLR or a Mirrorless with the appropriate lens. Don’t forget the recharger and the cords. 

Flashlight and Batteries…doubles as a light in the dark and if need be a weaponūüėą

Bottle-Opener/Corkscrew(Important Note: The Corkscrew cannot have a blade)- I usually have one, the other or a combo, cause you never know when it might come in handy…

Rain-jacket-I prefer it to an umbrella(can work as a windbreaker as well) but your choice.

Swimsuit – even if you are not hitting the beach, maybe the hotel has a pool, the Chalet has a hot tub or you want to hit a Spa. 

Pen- Yes I know, you’ll just take notes on your phone. Can you use your phone to fill out the Entry documents they give you on the plane…didn’t think so. 

You did remember to bring/pack your Passport and Visa’s right? Have a great trip. Feel free to add additional websites, info, must haves to pack in the Comments section. 

Old Havana Cuba Through the Eyes of Artists

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Roberto Fabelo

Rumour has it that Havana has a thriving Art scene so I decided instead of roaming around Vieja Havana with a paper map just looking at the usual suspects I would get a Tour Guide for the day. However, I wanted one who knew the Galleries and Artists. My on the ground contact Raiza found for me a multi-lingual fluent in English Teacher who not only knew many Artists but was an accomplished one himself.

Nick met me at my home while in Cuba, Tu Habana and we jumped into a shared cab (only 1CUC!) that dropped us off at Parque Central by the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso with the Capital building in view and famous hotels like the Inglaterra nearby. We sat down on cement benches across from the statue of Jose Marti to discuss the history of Cuba and do some people watching.

After a good hour long plus History lesson we headed over to the Plaza de Armas where stands the Statue of Carlos Manual  Despasdes and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former residence of the governors, now a great museum I highly recommend checking out due to its variety of works. It was here I first came upon the works of the Artist Roberto Fabelo, a surreal abstract of a Nude Woman holding a Fork while sitting astride a Giant Rooster(more on this to come). The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is nearby right on the water. The old fort and its canons are great for photos.

It was time for a late lunch, we went to The Mercado(Coin)restaurant not just for the food but the open airy terrace and its great views. While discussing a number of topics he shared when you meet a beautiful Cuban girl take her to a place like this and whisper in her ear. “Salud que belleza sobra” health and beauty.

Well sated we continued weaving our way through the streets of Old Havana passing by Hemingway’s home where he wrote his classic Islands in the Stream on the way to the Square Cathedral St. Francis. For some great city views we went up the Edificio Gomez Vila to the Camera Obscura.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


We entered the Vieja Square (which oddly enough in 1559 was called Nuevo square) where I came upon Roberto Fabelo’s Rooster again, though this time as a rather large sculpture. Oddly enough it wasn’t till months later at the Context Art Fair NY I learned what it meant. The Rooster is the proud, loud, colorful man who thinks he’s in charge. However it is the woman astride him who is in charge. She either controls him with her “sex” via the legs wrapped around him…or uses her fork to feed him.

While heading to Calle O’Reilly and Calle Empeandro we came upon the Raquel Hotel a beautiful space with lobby and bar full of beautiful artwork. We walked into the gallery of Antonio Estupinan who was working on a painting using Newspaper as canvas and stopped into a number of other galleries including Izmary Gonzalez Cabrera gallery, Sanlly Viera’s Gallery, Alfredo Mendoza and Maikel Sotomayor Open Estudio, Abel Massot, and Juan Lopez’s to name a few.

We popped into O’Reilly 304 for Mojito’s served in big glass jars. Fortified we headed to Calle Empeandro which has a number of Galleries Stopped by the Leblanc art gallery and then onto El ojo de Ciclon a physical manisfistation of Artist Leo D’Lazaro’s¬†mind. Nick was handed a Guitar and started playing and singing Cuban songs in the “man cave”. Surreal.


Next thing I knew it was after 8pm and time to call it a day. I thanked my guide Nick for an awesome job and then went back and forth in my broken high school Spanish to negotiate a cab back to Vedado.

 

For more info on the restaurants and bars mentioned please check out my blog on the restaurants of Vedado and Old Havana. Also if you are interested in getting intro’ed to Raiza or Nick hit me in the Comments section.

Where to Stay in #Havana #Cuba… #Vedado

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vedado

Trying to decide where to stay in Havana, Cuba? After some research I decided to stay in the Vedado neighborhood since its not full of tourists like Old Havana and I would get a better picture of life for the locals. Plus it was great for new Paladars (For Restaurant reviews hit the link:) in easy walking distance to my Casa Particular.


I arrive at Tu Habana( Calle C #158 / Linea y Calzada Vedado) my home for the next 4 nights by a taxi they arranged for me. It’s a brand new B and B that I found via AirBnB that has hot running water, Wi-fi (that worked muy beuno) in the lobby, an awesome breakfast and a 24 hour staff. Upon arrival I’m greeted with a fresh glass of mango juice. The location is great, just a few blocks away from the Malecon with a number of restaurants in walking distance. My hosts Elizabeth and her Husband, Arapey were awesome as well as their entire staff.

After checking in, I rolled out and on over to the Malecon and headed towards the Hotel Nacional for a happy hour Mojito(of note it took close to an hour stopping to take pics). Along the way I stop at the Calixto Garcia statue and the anti imperialist platform. Once I finally arrive I grab a seat by the water and chatted up some girls from Berlin and Hong Kong while drinking a Mojito.

On the way back I noticed a bunch of blue umbrellas and women wearing black vests and white dress shirts ) and went over to investigate finding a beautiful nautically themed restaurant. El Litoral My first meal put to rest the bad rumour about Havana not having good food.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

El Litoral

The next morning over an awesome breakfast my hosts gave me Spanish language, History and Cuban business lessons (we did this every morning, kudos once again Arapey).


My guide Nick (that my local contact Raiza arranged)showed up and we jumped in a local taxi (1 CUC for both of us!) and headed into Vieja Habana (Old Havana) for an awesome fun and informative full day tour(coming up in an upcoming piece)

That night back in Vedado ¬†I headed over to a new spot that recently celebrated it’s first year, New George’s. Up the stairs in a big old home I walked into a great space and took a seat at the bar to eat dinner while flirting with the waitresses.


The next morning over another great breakfast my hosts went over a map of Vedado highlighting some historical as well as new spots to check out. I walked from my hotel up Linea past the Hotel Presidente and headed up the Avenue of Presidents lined with statues of leaders from a number of Latin counties including Eloy Al Faro, Omar Trujillo, Salvador Allende and Simon Bilivor (For extra points Google them). I then cut over to Calle 23 and came upon a number of restaurants. I choose Nely’s...I think I simply have developed a sixth sense for this for a Vieja de Ropa sandwich and Lemonata.

I continued on coming to very long line of people on the street and realizing I was at Parque Coppelia home of the same named Ice Cream parlor. I came to where the street turns into La Rampa and then back to the Hotel Nacional to check out some of things my guide told me about that included the Canons(pointed at Miami) and Bunkers(awaiting US ordinance). I watched the waves crashing against the Malecon and then took a comfy seat in the bar area by the hotel and sipped an El Coctail Mafia (Mojito w Aged Rum) where I met and hung out with a couple and their family on a trip from Florida to Cuba to Europe. The winds finally mellowed up so I headed down to check out the historical Pool. I found some girls to play photographer …to my model.

Walking back I came upon a former Synagogue converted into a multi-use building. Further along then I upon Topoly an Iranian restaurant I stopped for a beverage ended up staying for a late afternoon bite. I continued on to John Lennon Statue/Park hitting the MLK monument first, a park and then the John Lennon Bronze. I stopped to watch some locals playing Soccer then as the sun started to set walked back marveling at all the amazing homes.

For dinner I went to a spot a friend told me about Atelier, a beautiful restaurant with indoor and al fresco seating for another very good meal. On Sunday after spending more time in Old Havana I headed over to the Melia to check it out and the surrounding restaurants. I stopped across the street from the Malecon to watch an incredible wave crashing show. Then went to La Chucherria a local sports bar/restaurant for an early dinner and some more of the wave show.

On my last day before I headed to the airport I took a walk back to the Melia to get some sun and a final stroll along the Malecon before I was whisked off to the airport in a sweet old Chevy. At the airport I grabbed a few bottles of aged Rum, some chocolates and Cohiba’s. On the plane I flew off thinking of when I will return…

Where to Eat in Cuba’s #Vedado and Old #Havana neighborhoods¬†


Let me start this piece off by putting to rest once and for all any rumours you may have heard about Cuba not having good food. It’s utter nonsense. I ate well the entire time I was there and for very reasonable prices by American standards(of note, and be sensitive to this, by Cuban earnings the prices are astronomical), as in $12 for Grilled Lobster, $2 for a Ropa Vieja sandwiches and $3-5 for Mojitos. The key is to eat at Paladars(privately owned restaurants) vs Government run. I only ate at Paladars, as should you. 

My first meal was enjoyed at El Litoral, I literally stumbled upon this place while walking along the Malecon. I saw a bunch of blue umbrellas and women wearing black vests and white dress shirts with no businesses nearby either way. I had to check it out. So after hitting The Nacional Hotel for a Mojito I stopped in and was floored by what a good looking restaurant it was. 


I started with a Cristal beer, Hogfish Ceviche to start and Breaded Snapper in a almond yucca crust with spinach gnocchi in a four cheese sauce for my entree. My waitress asked if I enjoyed my meal. I told her the chef ruined my trip(with a smile) because now I’m going to compare the rest of my meals in Havana to this one. 

Malecon 161 

The next morning I had my first breakfast at my home for my time in Havana, Tu Habana. It was huge and delicious. Breakfast at Tu Habana starts with fresh fruit and mango or pineapple juice, toast with homemade marmalade(my host Arapey’s mother makes it, I told him he needs to bottle and sell it), fried eggs with bacon or an omelette with ham and cheese and of course Cuban coffee. Since they have a menu with prices on it I think non-guests can enjoy breakfast here.  


Calle C btwn Linea y Calzado 

My first meal in Old Havana was at La Moneda Cubana. My tour guide for the day recommended it since it’s rooftop terrace has great views, a nice breeze and good food. It’s a Prixe Fixe menu with about 8 choices, mostly seafood. I had the Fish with Lobster and Shrimp plate. It came with a very tasty Pumpkin soup to start. Crystal beers to drink. The food was good here as well as the service, though at 20 CUC it’s clearly geared towards tourists vs locals.  


 Empedrado 152

After my extensive guided tour (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on this) running around from 10am till about 8pm all over Old Havana when I finally got back to my room I was shot. For dinner I needed somewhere close by which was no problemo since Tu Habana is located near a number of very good restaurants within 5-10 minutes walking distance. 


New George’s was up the stairs (this is very typical of the Paladars) of an old home that opened up into a very hip looking new restaurant. Their menu is ginormous. I drank a Cuba Libre as I read through their tome and eventually decided on Plantains with Chorizo to start (which did need a hit of hot sauce) and the Aji Shrimp for my main. The local Cuban cola is so-so so I ordered up a Cristal Beer to finish my meal and flirt with my waitresses in broken High School Spanish. 


Calle 3 btwn A y B 

Nely’s is a cute little diner like spot that looks brand new. Their Vieja de Ropa sandwich (it was only 2 CUC’s) was one of the best things I ate in a trip full of good food. I washed it down with a Lemonata. This place was so good that when a group walked by trying to decide if they should try it…I told them you found your lunch spot, get a table. They did and thanked me.  


Calle 23 off the Avenue of the Presidents across from the Riviera heading towards La Rampa

Stop me if you heard this one before…a Jew from Brooklyn walks into an Iranian restaurant in Havana, Cuba. How could I not eat at Topoly? It’s space is all al fresco on a large wrap-around terrace. The Persian menu has plenty to choose from and a full beverage selection. The place is decorated with lots of kitsch and an interesting mix of political figures and movie stars on the walls.


I enjoyed the Nan Chawarma (Lamb with pickles, cucumber, masto khiar and tomato)  with a Cafe Con Leche.

Calle 23 off D

Atelier was recommended by a friend who heard it was great but didn’t get to go. It’s a beautiful space with indoor and outdoor seating with Art adorning  the walls. The menu is handwritten since it changes daily based upon what they can get at the market. 


I started with the Piquillo peppers stuffed with Tuna and for my entree Shrimp in a Bleu Cheese sauce with rice and black beans. I was going to go with a Daiquiri but they ran out of Maraschino liqueur….(“It’s Cuba”…they said it not me) so I had to suffer through more Mojito’s. Atelier is one of Havanas top restaurants so make reservations in advance. 

Calle 5 #511 Paseo y 2

 

Chacon is not the easiest street to find, but Chacon 162 is well worth the search. Some of the best food and drinks I enjoyed in Havana. Great space that looks like it belongs in Williamsburg Brooklyn with Motorcycles and Pop Art themes on the walls. Drinks are served in huge jars (check out that Watermelon Mojito!) with fresh fruits and the ceviche and grilled lobster are great.

Calle Chacon 162

Piscolabis, this place looks like it belongs in Brooklyn. It’s a store that sells gifts, home goods and clothing while also serving very good Cuban Coffee. Drink it on their comfy couch or people watch outside.


Calle San Ignacio #75

La Chucherria Sports Bar is right across from the Malecon and a good spot to watch the waves crash against the seawall, take in a sunset or watch a game. I thought I might have found a Cuban sandwich when I saw not one but two Media Noche’s on the menu but it turned out to be a cold Italian sandwich that was pretty good. I ordered up a Kermato (their tomato with clam juice) with a Crystal beer their version of a Bloody Mary. Mixed them in a glass with some lime juice. Might sound odd but taste very good. 


Malecon off Calle D


On Monday morning after getting some sun it was a last breakfast and off to the airport. How anybody could come here and not eat well even on a budget…I just don’t get it. I will say that Havana may not be a Gourmet destination quite yet, but it’s definitely a Foodie one. The food isn’t spicy but most places have hot sauce(or bring your own) if you need some heat. For Vegetarians and Vegans I will admit it will be challenging. 

I highly recommend you download the Havana Restaurant app Ala Mesa. It’s free and you can download the content so you can use it without Wi-Fi, it’s built for Havana’s harsh Wi-Fi free conditions. Please feel free to post any spots you enjoyed in Havana in the Comments section. Now remove “bad food” off your cons list for Cuba, put it on the Pros list and book that flight… 

Travel to Cuba 101: “Yes, you can”…or can you?


Update 6-17-17. President Trump announced on Friday 6-16-17 that he was going to make changes to Travel to Cuba. While it remains to be seen what is actually put in writing and then into law it looks like it will affect your ability to go under the Peope to People provision. If you are already booked to go you should be fine from what I’ve read. If you’re thinking of going either book now and go within the next 30-60 days or wait and see for a bit. While Trump asked for a quick turnaround, it may take months or maybe years before anything is actually changed into law. I’ll update as new info becomes available. 

Has Cuba been on your list of Need To Go spots? Curious what 50 years without US contact is like and the effects of Communism on an isolated State? If so, the time to go to Cuba is now and yes as Americans we can…there are caveats, but nothing you can’t handle. I will say if you’re looking for the next Caribbean island to hit and expect each and every convenience Cuba is not for you just yet. 

However if your looking for a unique experience and the opportunity to see a place living in the 60’s while going through transition before your eyes (primarily in the hospitality space) then this is the place. I thought it was great and I already want to go back. The following is how I went about booking a Solo trip following the current guidelines and some pointers. 

Plane Tickets, Medical Insurance and VISA’s. 

I choose JetBlue since they fly to Havana direct from JFK(Miami and LA as well). You need to choose from the 12 categories that permit Travel to Cuba. Most likely People to People (sometimes referred to as educational) will be what you fall under. Of note, fellow bloggers, you are not a Journalist, Real Estate Agents you are not doing professional research and if you’re looking for a husband or wife…it’s not a religious experience even if it felt like one at the time. You are going People to People and you will need to sign an affidavit (on line with JetBlue) confirming this to get your plane ticket. Print a hard copy of your ticket. In JFK you cannot use the electronic kiosk for Cuba, you need to go downstairs to get your boarding pass(and Visa). In Cuba, they do not have Electronic kiosks, they have lines(when I went checking in and out went smoother than I expected).

You need Medical insurance to get into Cuba. With JetBlue it was included in the price of the ticket. Print out a hard copy of it to have on hand just in case. Vaccines are not required. Check with the CDC to make sure there are no outbreaks or new requirements(you should do this every time you travel). Also, they don’t exactly have DReade’s and CVS stores on every corner so pack whatever prescription and over the counter meds you need and some extra’s. 

A Visa is required to enter and leave Cuba. You can get it at the airport($50) or via Cuba Travel Services($110 includes processing and FedEX shipping. I used their services and they were very professional and efficient. However, as it turned out going from JFK I should have just got it there). At JFK via JetBlue you get your Visa where you get your boarding pass thus getting it in advance was not necessary. I cannot speak for the process at other airports. The VISA is a single piece of card stock with two identical cards on it, one for entering and one for leaving. You cannot get out of Cuba without it. Thus, put in somewhere safe and do not misplace, lose or forget where you put it…unless you want to extend your stay. There used to be a 25 CUC fee to exist, it too was in the price of my plane ticket. 

You will need to fill out two forms to enter Cuba. One is a health document, the other the standard customs card. If you are American do not check Tourist. Check Other. While you can travel under People to People guidelines you still cannot go as a tourist. You currently are required to keep records of what you did for five years. Write a blog. 

Accommodations, Money and Transport


Casa Particulars are the way to go vs Hotels in Cuba. Hotels are overpriced, star rating are not US standards and known to frequently overbook. I used AirBnB for the first time and it worked out great. They had a great selection of places to choose from. Plus since you’re going for a People to People experience staying with a local is the ideal way to go. AirBNB had places that were single rooms in a home, an entire home, and some new B&B like homes. You need to book your accommodations 4-6 weeks in advance if you want to choose from a selection vs what they have left.  

US credit cards and ATM cards don’t work. Bring cash. You cannot get Cuban currency in advance. Expect a 45 min and up wait at the Cambio(money exchange). Of note, Cuba has two currencies. CUC’s(for Tourists, the one case you are a tourist) have monuments. Pesos(for Locals)have historical figures. You can only get CUC’s at the exchange. Make sure they give you CUC’s and make sure when you get change it’s always CUCs. A peso is only worth about 1/30th of a CUC. 

Taxis and your feet will be your best mode of transport. There are community cabs that are generally old beat up American Classic cars where your can try to jump in for 1 CUC, but they are primarily for locals. Govt yellow cabs for Tourists and they will hit you with the tourist rate(from the airport to Old Havana you should expect to pay 25-35CUC depending on your Spanish. From Vedado to Old Havana they state 10 CUC. Negotiate, I usually got them down to 8) and of course refurbished Classic American cars(rates vary). Additional options include their Cocotaxi’s (3 wheeled yellow coconut shaped vehicles) and Taxi-Bikes are all over Old Havana. 


As for getting around the county their Train system is known to be terrible. Renting cars is not advised since not only do you need to pay cash, but if they claim damages upon return, its cash and you have no legal recourse. You’re best bet is hiring a driver or the Viazul bus service(its in Nuevo Vedado).

Keep in mind most people don’t speak English so work on your Spanish and download the off line Google Translate  guide. I found the locals to be friendly and generally helpful. An important thing to note, especially in Havana, you are dealing with a well educated people that are paid next to nothing a month. Be careful when discussing the cost of things. Your 15 CUC lobster might be a steal…it’s half their monthly pay. Also be careful discussing politics, they can’t speak about their leaders the way we do. Respect that and take it seriously. 

Wi-Fi is rare so get used to living like it’s 1999. You will need to rely on paper maps and guide books to get around. Print them out in advance.

If you are not going with a group tour get a tour guide for at least some of your time there. I reached out to a Cuban local a friend referred me to.  I requested a tour of Old Havana with someone who knew the Art Galleries and maybe some artists and spoke English. She arranged a Tour Guide  for me that was a University Professor who was multi-lingual (fluent in English)and not only knew Artists that he introduced me to but was an accomplished professional Artist himself. Also a wealth of Historical knowledge and on what is happening in Cuba today.  


I don’t know where the hell “tourists” are going that they complain about the food. I’m sure there is mediocre food but that’s true of most places. I ate well and some places I literally stumbled upon. Don’t drink tap water, but ice in drinks is fine. I avoided raw veggies with the exception of fresh mint in my mojitos. I ate fresh fruit from fruits with skins i.e. Mango, pineapple, banana, etc every morning. 

Returning Home 

If you decide to pick up some Artwork while you are there…and there is some great stuff. Make sure you get the proper documentation or it could get confiscated. Get your Rum at the airport, Cigars as well unless you are looking for something particular. The Airport has limited choices for food, so either bring a sandwich from your Casa Particular or pack some Kind bars or the like. 

When you get back to the states you will hit an electronic kiosk requiring you to answer a number of questions, most as to the value of goods and their nature. Then you will speak with a Customs official(standard returning from anywhere outside the country) to check your Passport and ask questions Iike…
Where did you come from? Cuba is your answer, it’s where you went and what’s on your ticket, customs form and likely stamped in your Passport.

Why did you go? To experience the culture. Keep it short and sweet. 

What did you bring back? Rum, cigars and chocolate. All perfectly OK to bring back. (I believe the total max you can bring back is $800.00 a month). I was welcomed back and waived though. 

Now that you know what and how to do…what are you waiting for? 

#Havana #Cuba, What to Pack

Planning on a trip to Cuba? The most important thing to remember about packing for Cuba is if you’re American…stores will not take your Credit Cards and there are not a whole lot of stores to buy clothing, power bars, electronic accessories, suntan lotion, pain relievers etc…in the first place. So pack what you will need. Having said that, I would recommend packing light and do your best to bring your gear carry-on. It will save you plenty of time coming and going. 

Cuba is located in the Caribbean right off of Miami so wear light clothing. I generally travel with wool Polo and T-shirts from Icebreaker. They look great, breathe better than cotton, don’t absorb sweat, and you can throw them in the shower, hang dry then good to wear again. For the most part keep it causal, but not sloppy. Long pants are generally best at night. Even though you’re not supposed to spend the day at the beach or pool, Locals do go to them , thus engaging in People to People exchange. Pack a swimsuit. It does rain every now and then so pack a rain jacket and/or umbrella. 

Leave your loafers and high heels at home. Hiking shoes by day are highly recommended. The sidewalks here vary between well paved and completely broken up…often on the same street. The Malecon is fairly best up, but easy to walk on. Just pay attention. 

Leave the bling at home. Cubans don’t have bling, this is not the place to flash it. It’s a very safe country, let’s keep it that way. No need to promote temptation…

If you are on prescription medicine or require over the counter allergy, pain relievers, etc bring it and some extra. Illicit drugs are totally banned in Cuba. I don’t care if your state Legalized it, a joint could get you life if not executed. Drink their Rum…it’s very good. 

Pack suntan lotion, the sun is strong in Cuba. Since you will likely stay in a Cuban’s home bring your own toiletries, since it’s a coin toss to what they will have. I brought my own Toilet paper and packs of tissues just in case. My Casa Particular’s tp was fine so I left them mine. I packed Imodium which I did not need to use, but better safe than sorry. 

Bring your own snacks, again not something easy to come by there. I packed some chocolate and Kind bars just in case. I ended up leaving half of the bars with my host, though the others came in handy at the Airport. I washed them down with a Buccaneer Cerveza.  

Bring a book and or magazines. I don’t remember seeing any magazines there, but there are book stores with many, many great books on Fidel and Che.   

Bring your chargers, maybe a spare power cord. Your room will have outlets, but don’t expect to see them all over the place like we have here. So bring a battery recharger, I like the Fluxmob Bolt. 

Cuba is hyper-photogenic so bring a good camera, just keep it close. Of note, if you take a picture of some of the Locals in Old Havana they will expect to be paid a CUC or two. Some will even approach you asking if you would like to take their picture. This isn’t the average Local, but there are some who dress up for this specific purpose. I would suggest waiting until you get home to post your pics. First off Wi-Fi is less then common. Second, it’s likely Hermano Grande is monitoring what is being transmitted. 

Bring a gift. If your staying in someone’s home it’s the right thing to do…and again they don’t have much access to a lot of basics. I brought my hostess a bag of Jacques Torres dark chocolate. It’s my favorite chocolate and I consider it a basic life necessity…don’t you?

#Tokyo Imperial Palace, Tower, Shrines, Daimyo Gardens, up the Sumida River topped with Waygu Beef Bolognese 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I’m not big on taking tours sometimes they are a great way to see a lot if your time is limited. After spending a week walking around with paper maps trying to get around Japan it was high time for a guided tour. My hotel’s concierge recommended Grey Line who does a great full day tour that included…

Tokyo Tower– panoramic views from the bigger better Japanese version of a certain Parisian attraction…

Menji Shrine -Classic Shinto Shrine located in a huge beautiful man made forest. Frequently used for Wedding ceremonies.

Imperial Palace¬† Plaza, Bridge and Imperial Moat. Took pictures of the cute Mexican girl I flirted with from Mexico City…and her Mom…so they could post pics of their Asian adventure on Instagram.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A traditional Japanese Lunch at a spot that didn’t have it’s name in English(not exactly uncommon). I found it odd that the very well traveled couple from Oz¬† I shared a table with were so unfamiliar with Japanese food. In NYC I eat this stuff and more weekly. The Tour Guide noted we were missing two as we gathered to leave. l remembered the¬† Italian couple followed me into the Coffee Bar…ran in to get them and of course there they were drinking their Espresso’s at the counter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hama-Rikyu Park – a classic Daimyo (Japanese Feudal Lord) garden with a Tidal pool and Tea House.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Teahouse

The trip finished with cruise up the Sumida River from the Port of Tokyo to the Asakusa Kannon Temple. We were greeted by Ninja that put on a cool little show. Walked to the Temple, took pics and then decided to eat some Tako Yaki(Octopus Balls). As in chopped up Octo deep fried which is the equivalent to Tacos or Pizza for the Japanese as a snack. Though I like Octopus, these didn’t do it for me. The Chocolate covered bananas on the other hand…yummy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a long day it was great that the tour bus dropped us all off at our respective hotels(not all do this).Fairly beat I decided to have dinner at the Hotel Cafe where I enjoyed a Pizza with Parma ham to start and Waygu beef meat sauce with fettuccine for my entree. To drink, what else…a 12yr Harusku Whiskey High Ball.


If you enjoyed this and the previous posts, stay tuned, eventually I will get to my last pieces on Roppongi, riding around the Yamato Line and the world famous Tsukiji fish market

#Tokyo – The Menji Shrine, Harujuku and Octoberfest Ebisu Style


After receiving simple left then a left directions which turned out to be a bit more complex including down escalators on the street(yes, you read that correctly)and through a tunnel I made it to the subway and got off at the Harujuku Station and headed over to the Menji Shrine. The Shrine is located in a beautiful park full of huge trees. The gates to the Shrine are so big you would think giants guarded it. It is frequently used for weddings and I was lucky enough that both times I went I saw new blushing Brides. 


After the Park I headed up to the streets of Harujuku starving since I had not eaten yet. Too hungry to look around I saw a Doutor Coffee Shop which reminded me somewhat of a Pret a Manger, popped in and got a triple decker sandwich or Tuna, Egg Salad and Ham and Cheese along with a much needed cup of coffee.  


Re-energized I headed over to Omotesandoo Street a high end shopping street for some people watching and from there to Takeshita-dori which is known for its Kawaii(Cute) Culture where Tokyo’s Trendy youth gets all dressed up in Cosplay like costumes.


 The day I went it was just packed with lots of teenagers and tourists and very few in the costumes(see above) it is known for. I grabbed a Cold Stone grapefruit pop and headed to the train to hit Ebisu a neighborhood I heard good things about. 

After crossing the skyway full of restaurants I stumbled upon the Yebisu Beer Festival, a German style Octoberfest serving Japanese Beers. I saw a group of Kawaii girls at one of the beer hall tables with some room, asked if the space was available and found myself partying with Japanese Kindergarten Teachers(you just can’t make this stuff up). 


Along with being cute they were all very friendly, though they didn’t speak much English. This at times made things interesting since telling girls they are “good catches” because they teach young children and are very pretty while using hand gestures to communicate that would have made entertaining video…
I drank a Hop Sorachi, The Special Edition Wa No Houjun, and a Half and Half(what we would call a Black and Tan). As much as I wanted to stay it was time to move on. I went back towards the Train Station wandered around the streets of Ebisu and came upon Bagel and Bagel where I had a Veggie Bagel with Smoked Salmon, Avocado and Shrimp (when in Tokyo…) to soak up the beer with an Iced coffee. 



I actually managed to make it back to my hotel in Roppongi the Hotel S a nice little Boutique Hotel in a nicer and lower key section of this hood. More on Roppongi in my next piece. Of note, yes the blogs on my trip to Japan are not following a linear pattern…but since I was lost and jet lagged often I feel apropos for this trip…

Kyoto-Nara: of Bullet Trains and Buddha’s¬†

 

After a few days in Tokyo it was time for a break and I jumped on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train, about 2hr and 20 mins) to Kyoto for a few days (I highly recommend getting a JR Rail Pass for travel around Japan and the Yamonote line in Tokyo. Also get the Green Pass) and hit nearby Nara as well. I stayed at the Century Hotel  which is located just a 5 minute walk from Kyoto Station. There are plenty of restaurants nearby, the buses and subways are all right there to get to the major sites(some sites are within easy walking distance. It’s very fairly priced with nice rooms and a beautiful lobby and bar. The Staff is very professional and friendly but they could use more English language speakers.


On my first day I walked to the Higashi Honganji Temple escorted by a student of the local university I met on the street and then a short walk to the Kosho-ji Temple


Working up an appetite it was time for (a very late) lunch. I believe it was at Daiichi Asahi I dined. I say this because nothing was in English. Please note, this is common vs the exception. It is around the corner from the Century Hotel...thing is there are two Ramen joints right next to each other. I went to the one not in the corner but next to it. I started with some Goyza, followed by a bowl of Ramen large(extra noodles, the regular sized wouls have been enough) and a large well earned bottle of Ashai beer.


 For dinner I went nearby to Ganko. Most Japanese restaurants serve only one type of food i.e. sushi, ramen tempura, etc  Ganko was one of the few I went to that served a variety of cooked and the raw and also happens to be a large corporation with many locations throughout Japan . I stated with raw Waygu Beef sushi and and the Sushi deluxe for my entree. To drink a Lime Sochu cocktail. Is this a destination restaurant, not really, but for a very good, fairly priced meal right by Kyoto Station it is recommended.


 The next day in the morning I jumped on the bus to Nijo Castle. This is the former home of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The castle is known for it’s Nightingale floors that chirp and squeak acting as a security system against Ninja’s and the like.While it was very cool (pics of the inside are forbidden, and the Japanese take this very seriously, so don’t be a jerk with your camera-phone) it was the outer walls and especially the stunningly beautiful rock garden and pond that blew me away. While taking pics(and having a mystical Ninja moment) I got soaked in Typhoon level rains.


 

After finding my way through the maze of the pace in the pouring in sheets rain, I Jumped on the bus back to the hotel,  changed and went on a half day trip to Nara. What should have been a great day…well lets say it rained on my parade. I saw some of the famous Deer of Nara, the Todai-ja that houses the world’s largest(as in like in an Indy Jones, Lata Croft movie sized) Daibutsu, a giant Bronze Buddha…which is amazing and some Shrine while caught in Typhoon level rains. The pics speak for themselves, insofar as both some cool pics and the rain. 


Back at the hotel bar the Essex, a Whiskey Highball with Hakushu 12 year to chill and dry out.

 That night it was time for a change of pace cuisine wise so I went to Italian Bar Kyoto Kimuraya  a Japanese-Italian fusion spot. I started with their Tuna and Salmon tartar with avocado, for my main the Sea Urchin risotto with Salmon Roe Potato which was the definition of Umami. To drink, a Potato Sochu with Club Soda.


 On Wednesday, my last day in Kyoto I took the bus to Gion to wander around. I found the Yashuka shrine easy enough, thought could’nt find a spot for coffee(Kyoto is known for it). so I ended up eating Crab on O -stick for breakfast. 


After taking some pics of the shrine which is beautiful, I headed over to the Sukiyaki restaurant the hotel recommended and somehow found myself completely off where I thought I was(still can’t figure out how)said screw it, walked back  to where I knew the bus back was, grabbed some Waygu Beef Sushi on the way and jumped on the bus. 


I popped into Espessamente illy in Kyoto Station for a Green Macha Latte and a Shrimp Avocado Sandwich, finished that up, grabbed a dozen Gyoza(smallest size) at 551 Horai JR Kyototen for the ride back to Tokyo.



 Stay tuned for upcoming pieces on my experiences in Tokyo…until then Sayonara…

#Japan #Travel Do’s and Don’ts

Have you ever dreamed of going to the land of the rising sun? I¬†recently returned from a trip to Japan, my first time there, though my third time in Asia. I spent most of my time in Tokyo, breaking the trip up with a ride on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto with a side trip to Nara. It’s a great county with an amazing people. Though not the easiest to get around. The following are my recommended Do’s and Don’ts while planning your trip and during your stay.

Do go, it’s an amazing county both historically and culturally

Don’t go in September, rains the whole damn time. Go in the Fall or better yet Spring for the Cherry Blossoms

Do use their Subway system and get a JR Rail Pass. You may want a Suica card as well

Don’t bother trying to figure out their Subway system, just ask people who work at the station. Show them the station on a map and ask which track. Of note, train lines are color coded

Don’t expect most people to speak English in Tokyo, most Japanese do not. Outside, even less

Do accept the fact you will either get lost or just feel lost…a good part of the time(unless you do it on an escorted tour)

Do get a plan for Japan set up with your carrier before you leave or get a pocket Wi-Fi there. Surprisingly, Wi-Fi is not quite as available as you would think accept in the Hotels. If not, walk around with a paper map and constantly ask random people for help as I did. Great way to meet the locals. Of note, the Japanese overall I found to be an amazing and gracious people

Do go on at least some tours if you don’t go packaged. I only did 1 full day and one half day and likely should have done more. It’s not easy getting around. Of note the Full Day Tokyo Gray Line tour was a great deal at approx $100. It goes to five major sites, includes a Sumida cruise and a very good traditional Japanese lunch! The guides were great and bus comfy. The Sunrise Tour of Nara was a rip-off at $75 with only two stops. Look for other options, but do go to see the Bronze Buddha


Don’t be intimidated to ask people for directions, I was amazed at how many people helped me. Some even left their place of business to help me, people on the street pulled out their phones and walked or pointed out where I wanted to go. Of note, I help Traveller’s and tourists all the…karma

Do eat non Japanese food while there. It’s very good…but eat mostly Japanese food. Of note, I didn’t eat a thing that wasn’t fresh and tasty


Don’t tip. They consider it rude, but don’t worry, some places have service charges and others cover fees. All the others just factor it in their pricing.

Do ride the Shinkansen(Bullet Train) to at least one major city. I went to Kyoto and hit Nara. Ride 1st class, not a huge price difference and the chairs are so big and comfy. Get the Green JR Rail Pass


Do buy sandwiches, Bento boxes, Sushi etc at the train stations for the rides, they are very, very good. I found their bread to be remarkably fresh.

Don’t get into a cab without the address of where you want to go written in Japanese. Most taxi drivers do not speak English. Hotel staff can help here…but at least once I was dropped off not sure where I was with the driver having a tough time communicating

Do go to Nara while in Kyoto. You can do it in a half day trip. The giant Bronze Buddha is right out of your Lara Croft/Indiana Jones fantasies.
Do respect the shrines. Wash your hands when entering, take off shoes when requested, don’t take pics where told not to


Do go to the parks. There are many, they are large, extremely well kept, and generally have ponds with rock gardens

Do drink Japanese Whiskey straight up and in Highballs. Hakushu was my fave. Add a sprig of Mint…it’s distilled by a forest.

Don’t get upset over how expensive it is, it’s very hard to find here and bottles here are overpriced

Do drink Sake and go to Buri in Ebisu and get the frozen Sake slushes.
Do try Waygu Beef Sushi. It’s very good.

Do eat Sea Urchin and Eel when you eat Sushi. These were the two things that stood out to me the most as being far superior to what we get here.


Don’t expect to see rolls, especially crazy combo rolls in Sushi restaurants. They are not big on them, though due to American tastes they are starting to show up on menus.

Do expect to find excellent restaurants in business buildings, both upper floors and lower as well as in Department stores. I even ate excellent Sushi in the upper floor of a Toy Store in Ginza.

Do expect hotel rooms to be small, though generally very well designed. Try to book in advance. I noticed a big difference just between booking three weeks vs two weeks out.

Don’t overpack, hotel rooms are small as is the closet space. Plus do you want to lug all your luggage on the Trains and Buses as you travel around?

Don’t freak if you hit the wrong button on the “Toilet” controller…just hit off to stop the warm bidet feature…it doesn’t stop on its own.

Do try to stay in Hotels within a 5-10 walk of subway stations, it will help with getting around.

Don’t believe anything is just a 7 minute walk. Every place states in its directions it’s just a 7 minute walk. They must have done a survey on what people will tolerate.

Don’t forget to watch Lost in Translation before or after the trip…