Travel

Everything to Know About Thailand

Aenean auctor wisi et urna. Aliquam erat volutpat. Duis ac turpis. Integer rutrum ante eu lacus. Vestibulum libero nisl, porta vel, scelerisque eget, malesuada at, neque.

California North America Road Trips Travel

Winter Yosemite Trip in 36 hours

Yosemite Weekend in the Winter — 36 hour Trip

After a different trip fell through, we found ourselves at home on Friday with an empty weekend ahead of us. After reading that the the Yosemite Firefall takes place in February, we decided to pack our bags and hit the road in hopes of seeing what the fuss was all about. Neither of us had been to Yosemite, it was on our to-do, and the day before it snowed for the first time all season, roughly 8 inches fell. It was going to be a winter wonderland experience with 45* temps during the day — perfect.

Yosemite Score Card: 7.6/10

  • Transportation: 6/10 (You can drive in the winter / during off peak season and avoid the congestion but the roads my be icy and parking is difficult (although much less difficult than in the summer). Cost of entrance for a regular vehicle as of 2018 is $30 and it’s valid for 7 days. There are tours that leave from San Francisco for day, weekend, and longer trips if you do not want to drive.)
  • Price: 8/10 (lodging/food were about the same as a large city in the US. Most dine-in meals ran around $50 for 2 people and the hotel was about $150 per night. Experiences are free as long as you bring your own equipment for biking / hiking / climbing.)
  • Safety: 9/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see anything that would cause worry)
  • Food: 6/10 (Once in the park, dining options are limited and getting to them is difficult as parking is limited. Bringing food for snacks for hiking is highly recommended as local options are scarce and more expensive than a grocery store).
  • Culture: 6/10 (The offer historical walks and snowshoeing but it’s more of a camping experience)
  • History: 6/10 (It is a natural wonder but the actual history is only so deep)
  • Excitement: 8/10 (We found the hiking, bouldering, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities to be exciting)
  • Awe Inspiring: 9/10 (Each location was unexpected and breathtaking. We found it soothing to the soul to be so close to so much raw beauty)
  • Technology Equipped: 6/10 (Service was better the farther into Yosemite we got but was still spotty at best with little to no free wifi options. Our hotel and most others have wifi as part of the package but most will want to unplug regardless.)
  • Female Friendly: 9/10 (It’s a safe and friendly place for women to visit.)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 9/10 (If you are a hiker/backpacker/camper — this is the place for you. You can go on your own or meet people at the restaurants and join in on their hiking trips. Everyone seemed very friendly.)
  • Language Barrier: 10/10 (It’s located in California, if you speak English everyone there does, too.)

BASICS

Official Name: Yosemite National Park
Timezone: UTC/GMT -7 hours (PST)
Currency: USD
Size: 1,169 mi²
Tourists: 4MM+/yr

Where to go in Yosemite:

If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip.

Where to Stay

With the recent snow, we weren’t properly prepared to camp in the cold so we wanted somewhere with heat. We found that the hotels were nicer with better amenities than the Airbnbs in the area. Since it was off-season, most places had decent rates and same-day bookings were available nearly everywhere we looked up. We went on HotelsTonight and snagged a great deal on Rush Creek Lodge. Regular rate is around $299 per night, we got 2 nights for a total of $307. It’s located 1/2 mile from the entrance to the park whereas some of the other hotels like The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (a 4 star hotel with regular rates easily double that of Rush Creek Lodge), glamping sites like Half Dome Village, and some of traditional campsites like Pines Campsite are located in the valley. The only downside some may find is that the rooms only have showers (no bathtubs) and do not have TVs (but do have fun games and lots of books in each room)

But, it’s new with a heated pool, 2 heated hot tubs, lots of adult and children activities, a game room, s’mores ‘hour’ daily, an onsite bar, an onsite restaurant, and a spa. They have rooms with bed AND a pull out couch, great for 2 couples traveling that want to keep costs down / share a room. Each room has a balcony, too. They also have larger rooms that can sleep 6 and multiple rooms that can join together for bigger groups. We loved it, especially for the deal we got!

It takes 45 min to drive between the Yosemite entrance (where Rush Creek Lodge is located) and the valley. During peak season when car traffic is bad or when it’s really icy, this trip time could be worse and should be factored into your decision on where to stay. Depending on what you want to do during your stay, taking 1.5+ hours each day to travel to/from the main points of interest and the hotel may not make sense for you.

Getting to Yosemite by Car

From San Francisco without traffic it takes about 3 hours to get to Yosemite. We left at 1pm on a Friday and hit a massive amount of traffic (between San Francisco all the way through Oakdale) doubling our travel time. We were told we would need to leave well before 10am to miss the rush. But, it’s an easy route well marked.

Tire Chain Requirements

If you are expecting SNOW / ICY conditions, buy chains BEFORE you get there. They usually do not have chains for purchase near Yosemite but they will most likely be required to drive through the valley. The cost of buying chains on the off chance you find a place to buy them will be much higher than if you bought them at home.

Maps

Download / Cache a map of Yosemite. We lost service 1.5 hours outside Yosemite and rarely got it back (aside from in our room at the hotel). Having a cached map helped us find our points of interest and drive from place to place.

Money

Bring cash or credit card, all places we visited accepted both forms of payments as options.

Restaurants

During off-peak season it’s easy to walk in and place an order. During peak season, lines should be expected and reservations should be made in advance when possible.

Packing List for 2 days in Yosemite in the Winter:

  • DJI Mavik, accessories and charger
  • DSLR, charger and lenses
  • Travel Tripod
  • GoPro, batteries, accessories and charger
  • 2 laptops
  • 2 backpacks, 1 duffel bag
  • Toiletries: travel toothpaste, toothbrushes, contact solution, deodorant, comb, brush, hair tie (Jenni), shampoo & conditioner (Jenni), small makeup (Jenni)
  • 1 pack of hot hands
  • Waterproof hiking shoes
  • Workout tights / thermal underwear + outer legging layer
  • Jeans
  • Skiing jacket, gloves, scarf, hat
  • Ski socks
  • Tank top, sweater, skiing long sleeve layer
  • Sunglasses
  • Small backpack
  • External battery, cellphone cords/cables
  • 3 Cliff bars
  • 2 refillable water bottles

Yosemite Fun Facts:

  • Know the company The North Face? Their logo is based on Half Dome!
  • The giant sequoias can be upwards of 3,000 years old
  • Abraham Lincoln signed the initial Yosemite Grant which covered Yosemite valley and and Mariposa grove, President Roosevelt in 1906 made it federal land, then John Muir pushed to make the area more encompassing as it stands today
  • Half Dome is over 5,000 feet above the valley floor

Yosemite Costs: $600 for 2 days / 2 nights

  • Gas: $100
  • Rush Creek Lodge Hotel for 2 nights: $307
  • Yosemite Entrance Fee: $30
  • Food for 2 with 2 dinners, 1, breakfast, 1 lunch: $160

Itinerary

  •  FRIDAY
    • 1pm Left San Francisco (stuck in major traffic most of the way)
    • 5:45pm arrive at Yosemite’s gates, drive a bit in and watch the sunset
    • 7pm Check into the hotel, drop bags, enjoy s’mores
    • 8pm grab dinner at the restaurant at the hote
    • 9pm go in the hot tub
    • 10pm watch movies then sleep
  • SATURDAY
    • 9am wake up and grab breakfast at the restaurant
    • 9:45am pack for the day then head out to the valley
    • 10:30am arrive at Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
      • It’s a 400m change
      • Downhill the whole way out (but get ready for a workout on the way back)
      • Expect 1.5-2 hours for a round trip walk from the parking lot
      • When you get to the gigantic tree that says do not touch, there is a fork with a trail to the right — take that if you want to go to the tree you can walk through
    • 12pm — Tunnel view to get a idea of the valley layout
      • It has a parking area and viewing area right new to the parking lot the overlooks the valley. Easy access — great for kids / adults / less mobile people.
    • 1pm BridalVeil Fall
      • The parking lot was a quick 3 min walk to the bottom of the falls
      • We ventured up the rocks (beyond the fences) and hopped along the fresh show adorning the rocks
      • When large chunks of snow and ice fell from around the falls it was a loud, thunder-like sound (scary at first)
    • 2pm stopped for lunch at Village Grill Deck and grabbed a pizza
    • 3pm went to pick up our FireFall parking permit / passes
    • 3:30pm walked the trail to lower Yosemite Falls
    • 4:15pm went to Horetail falls for FireFall viewing
    • 5:15pm headed back to the hotel (brief stop at Tunnel View, too much cloud coverage to wait for any good night photography pics)
    • 7pm S’mores at Rush Creek Lodge
    • 8pm Dinner at Rush Creek Lodge
    • 10pm Movies
  • SUNDAY
    • 9am woke up, packed up, and headed home
    • 12:30 arrived back in SF

If We Had to Do It Again

  • We would have brought a second pair of gloves and few more hot hands. We wanted to do night photography but it was too cold once the sun set.
  • It was tough being out in the cold and our hotel 1 hour away from all the action. We weren’t able to go back and warm up, then go back out. I would have liked to have done one night at Rush Creek Lodge then one night somewhere in the Valley (with heat).
  • Various lenses to capture the wide angle shots, we rushed out of the house and completely forgot them
  • Sucked it up and braved the cold at 4am to get some clear night photography shots followed by sunrise in the valley
  • More snacks for our hiking trips
Atlantis Bahamas
Bahamas North America Travel

Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas for 4 days / 3 nights

Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas

We wanted to spend time with my sister and her boyfriend, they had a trip planned to the Bahamas so we tagged along. The initial intent was to visit Pig Island / Pig Beach and although the weather didn’t allow for that to happen, we still had a fabulous time at the coveted Cove in Atlantis!

Atlantis Score Card: 6.9/10

  • Transportation: 5/10 (There are roads but parking is tough, public transit is limited, so you’re somewhat forced to take taxis, boats, or walk around)
  • Price: 6/10 (It’s a tourist town that services the southern US — prices weren’t cheap.)
  • Safety: 8/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see anything that would cause worry but we did hear of the locals that hustle selling experiential excursions on the beach being a little too friendly with the women)
  • Food: 7/10 (The restaurants in Atlantis were nice and had a vast array of food but the prices were high).
  • Culture: 6/10 (It’s a tourist town and little of the remaining culture still exists in Atlantis)
  • History: 6/10 (We didn’t get a chance to learn about the history as Atlantis is mostly a tourist town)
  • Excitement: 8/10 (There were a lot of excursion options available to feed your needs including snorkeling, diving, jet skis, boating, island hopping, and more)
  • Awe Inspiring: 6/10 (We didn’t feel it was the most breathtaking experience as it’s a resort town)
  • Technology Equipped: 7/10 (We had service most of the time if we paid for it.)
  • Female Friendly: 6/10 (We didn’t see or hear anything but we were told by the hotel and taxi drive to avoid the men selling excursions at the beach, which was worrisome.)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 8/10 (If you stay in the resort you’ll be good to go. If you’re a guy you should be fine. I wouldn’t recommend women walking at night and/or drinking by themselves off the resort property)
  • Language Barrier: 10/10 (Everyone spoke English)

BASICS

Official Name: Paradise Island, Bahamas
Timezone: UTC/GMT -4 hours (EST)
Currency: USD / Bahamian Dollars
Size: 1.1 mi²
Flag:

Where to go in Atlantis:

If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip. But, this is a resort trip. Most of what you’ll do is at the resort 🙂

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Cove in Atlantis, wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. Luckily Brittni and Jason hooked it up with their member status and points (woo-hoo) so the cost was lower than it should have been.

There is a lazy river, epic water slide, adult and family friendly pools, beach, and it lives on an aquatic animal sanctuary (sharks, turtles, etc. that they are rehabilitating) all on the resort property along with a casino, a few restaurants, and spas. It’s important to note that you must have a resort bracelet to enter the outdoor areas but it’s easy to get a day pass if you’re not a resort guest for a small fee. A lot of cruise guests will do this for the day when they’re in port so although you’re staying there, not everyone else is, and you should watch your belongings.

The water isn’t safe to drink, stick to bottled water (they give you coupons to redeem everyday).

Overall the hotel cost didn’t seem worth the value. When we went the rooms at The Cove were going for $600 per night, other hotels on the other end of Atlantis were all-inclusive for $300 a night, and off of Atlantis (just in Nassau) they had hotels for $150-$200 a night. Seeing as the Cove isn’t all-inclusive, I would rather go Island hopping in the area on a nice boat than stay at the hotel because at the end of the day we each spent an extra $100 on food/drinks/activities.

atlantis cove bahamas

Transportation

We flew then had to take a taxi over to the island. Since everything for the tourists is in one area and the island is small to begin with, a car would not have done us much good.

Restaurants

The locations in the resort and those along the tourist areas were both nice. I would say they were a little over priced for the quality but that’s what you get for dining on a popular small island!

Packing List for 3 nights in the Bahamas:

  • DJI Mavik, accessories and charger
  • DSLR, charger and lenses
  • Travel Tripod
  • GoPro, batteries, accessories and charger
  • 2 laptops
  • 2 backpacks, 1 duffel bag
  • Toiletries: travel toothpaste, toothbrushes, contact solution, deodorant, comb, brush, hair tie (Jenni), shampoo & conditioner (Jenni), small makeup (Jenni)
  • Sunglasses
  • External battery, cellphone cords/cables
  • Waterbottle
  • Swimsuits
  • Snorkel gear
  • Wet suit (for Jen)
  • casual dress (Jen), shorts, tanks, button down shirt (Rodney), flip flops, casual shoes, hat (Rodney), light coat

Atlantis Costs: $1770 for 4 days / 3 nights

  • Flight: $300 each ($600 total)
  • 1 Night in a hotel on Nassau $150
  • Uber to/from SFO: $20 each way ($40 total)
  • Taxi to/from Atlantis: $40 each way ($80 total)
  • Dinner on Atlantis (in exchange for sharing the hotel with Brit/Jason): $300
  • Other meals: $400
  • Jet Skiing: $100 each ($200 total)

Atlantis Bahamas

Itinerary

  • THURSDAY (June 15)
    • Catch a Red Eye flight to Austin
  • FRIDAY
    • Early morning flight from Austin to Houston
    • Flights from Houston to Nassau
    • Land in Nassau around 1pm
    • Catch a cab to our hotel
    • 2p Grab lunch
    • 3p Check into hotel then take a nap
    • 6p Freshen up
    • 7p Meet Brit & Jason nearby for dinner
    • 10p Go back and grab some sleep
  •  SATURDAY
    • 11am Meet Brit & Jason at Atlantis
    • Noon Walk the sea animal sanctuary
    • 1p Move their belongings from the Tower to The Cove
    • 3p go hang by the pool and order lunch
    • 5pm go Jet skiing
      atlantis cove bahamas jetski
    • 7pm Grab dinner on site
    • 9pm walk around the marina and grab ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s
  • SUNDAY
    • 8am cry because the boats going to Pig Beach can’t go out because it’s too windy, try to figure out flights but those are all booked :'(
    • 10am hang by the pool, go on the lazy river, boys go on the water slides
    • 1pm grab lunch
    • 5pm walk around
    • 7pm dinner
    • 9pm gambling
  • MONDAY (June 19)
    • 8am get some last minute snorkeling in on the beach, see a few turtles!
    • Afternoon flight from Nassau to Houston then Houston to SFO
    • Land in SFO that evening

If We Had to Do It Again

  • Pre-booked a flight to Pig Beach (boats are so unpredictable due to the weather)
  • Used our players card for gambling more (try to score a free room next time)
  • Stay a night in Nassau then go island hopping (forego Atlantis all together as it’s hard to get to/from the airport and boating ports and not worth the extra cost)

Atlantis Hack

  • If you visit Atlantis and you gamble be sure to use your players card, you’ll get discounted / free rooms for your next stay
  • If you want to visit for free, if you have a large chuck of cash you can have them hold prior to your arrival for ‘the intent of gambling’, they’ll significantly reduce / comp your room.
    • We didn’t do this but met a few people there that do
venice, italy
Big Cities Europe Italy Travel

Venice’s Biennale & Milan, Italy in 4 nights / 5 days

Milan to Venice to Munich in 5 days

Between work and personal obligations, free time has been scarce.  But, we managed to put 4 nights / 5 days aside to squeeze in a quick trip to Italy. There is SO MUCH to see and do, we feel shortchanged but it was a refreshing and rejuvenating experience to unplug.  The dates we picked luckily coincided with the Biennale art expo in Venice which we highly recommend experiencing.

Venice Score Card: 7.33/10

  • Transportation: 6/10 (They have three transportation options: Ferries, walking, chartered boats.  You can walk the entire city if you map it out well but it will take you a long time to get through the winding streets (which isn’t a bad thing). If you’re in a hurry, your best bet is to catch a ferry to another close station and walk from there. If you do not enjoy walking or have a hard time walking, chartered boats can get you through the city and drop you off pretty close to most locations as the canals snake throughout Venice but this is a much more expensive option)
  • Price: 6/10 (lodging/food/experiences were about the same as a large city in the US. Most dine-in meals ran around $60 for 2 people and the hotel was about $200 per night)
  • Safety: 9/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see any signs of crime/drugs/prostitution)
  • Food: 7/10 (They have some great restaurants but the bulk are traditional Italian (pizza and pasta). If you are looking to change it up, you’ll be low on options)
  • Culture: 8/10 (they have a lot of traditional experiences, festivals, and Italian culture to take part in such as cooking classes, wine tastings, concerts, art exhibitions, etc.)
  • History: 8/10 (it’s an old city with a lot of history)
  • Excitement: 5/10 (It wasn’t extremely exciting or thrilling as it has a laid back vibe and things are taken in stride)
  • Awe Inspiring: 7/10 (there were a lot of beautiful authentic views/experiences/places, which, because of the unique setting for the city — was very soul enriching)
  • Technology Equipped: 8/10 (many shops offered free wifi as did hotels. We had service and coverage through T-Mobile during the trip. Venice has it’s own free wifi but you need to register to use it and the coverage seemed slow)
  • Female Friendly: 9/10 (It’s a safe and friendly city for women, at no point did I feel unsafe walking the streets and we were out in daylight, night and late night hours)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 7/10 (is an exploratory city but everyone seems to be in their own group, you will meet people but many have their own schedules planned in advance and tagging along isn’t always possible)
  • Language Barrier: 8/10 (the city is built around tourism now with very few locals living there, most if not everyone we encountered spoke English)

venice, italy, trip, travel, things to do, things to know, traveling to venice, what to expect

BASICS

Official Name: Venezia
Timezone: UTC+01:00
Currency: Euro
Size: 160.1 mi²
Islands: 118 submerged islands
Residents: 80,000+
Tourists: 25MM+/yr

Where to go in Venice (and Milan and Munich):

If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip. Although we have it zoomed in on Venice, we did put things on the map for Milan, Munich, Florence and Rome.

 

Where to Stay

We found that the hotels were nicer and less expensive than the Airbnb’s in the area. They were also better located. There are a few happening areas in the city and we found that our area was one of them. As a rule of thumb, anything near a water taxi stop and a short walk to Saint Mark’s Square would be a safe bet as the majority of the popular destinations were scatted around there. Our friends love staying at Hotel Danieli which is a little bit down the wa

Getting to Venice by Car, Bus, Train

There are NO cars, bikes, scooters, or buses in Venice. There is a bus station right on the entrance to the city as well as a train station and 1 small parking lot. We recommend taking the train or bus in as they are less expensive and easier as the public transportation in Europe is so easy.

DRIVING: If you are doing a day trip, you can park your car in one of the many lots near Punta San Giuliano. They all close at night and do not permit overnight parking. If you are driving and staying overnight, we suggest using the lot across from the Hilton Garden Inn Venice Mestre San Giuliano (Via Orlanda, 1, 30173 Mestre, Venezia VE, Italy — see it labeled on our map). It’s 5 euro per day and it is locked at night.

It’s the grey building right after the overpass (after the yellow gas station — on the opposite side of the street as the Hilton).

In either case, you’ll need to grab a bus ticket for 1.50 euro (3 euro round trip). Tickets can usually be purchased at the bus station or at a vendor nearby (the bus driver will direct you where those vendors are if you can’t find one). Tickets are good for 75 minutes of transfers each way when redeemed.  You won’t need to transfer, but just in case you hop on the wrong bus, rest assured your ticket will still be good until you figure out where to go. The bus runs nearly every 5 minutes so if you miss one, there’s another shortly after, and it goes straight to the entrance to Venice (our trip was less than 30 minutes). You’ll know you’re there as everyone will pile off and it’s the main stop after the very long bridge.

If you are driving and want to park near the entrance to the city, you will want to go over the bridge into Venice and look for the Venezia Tronchetto Parking lot. It’s much more expensive.

TRAIN: The train has a station right at the entrance to the city as well. The Water Taxi / Ferry lets you off right there and you can start your adventure. It’s a major stop and accessible from most cities. The train station is 1 canal away from the bus station.

Water Ferry / Taxis

They sell tickets for water taxis on their app (but it’s harder for foreigners to register, we weren’t able to registered for the app) as well as at the main stations. There are three types of tickets: a 75 minute ticket, a 1 day unlimited use ticket and multi-day tickets. The 75 min ticket is 7.50 euro and the 1 day unlimited use ticket is 20 euro (last we checked). If you want to check out the city from the water, the Water Ferry is a great way to do this. They hold a lot of people and stop frequently so it doesn’t always eliminate time.

If you want a quicker mode of transportation, you can hire a water taxi at most of the major areas of the city and they can take you to/from a specific spot in styles as well as quickly. These are generally motorized and will run you upwards of 50 euro depending on where you go (including transport to San Marco airport).

Gondolas

These guys are expensive but are the true Venice experience. Often times you can get someone to sing or play an instrument on your gondola as you are transported around. Generally, these cost either 80 euro for daytime ‘tours’ or 100 for evening ‘tours. Each tour lasts 30 minutes and will end where you started. It’s a flat fee for up to 6 people.

There are other gondolas used to transport people to/from one side of a canal to another. These are usually in operation on weekdays and cater to the working class. These are much less expensive, running around 2 euro each way.

Maps

Download / Cache a map of Venice. There are a ton of ‘streets’ and it’s easy to get lost as the wind throughout the city. What may appear to be a dead-end may be a through way and what may appear to be a canal to another street is actually leading you right to someones front porch. This will help you navigate to find the water taxi routes, sidewalks, canals, etc.

Money

As the evening descends on Venice, fewer vendors accept credit card payment and more require euro’s. If you are looking for an ATM, you can find one in Saint Mark’s Square. If you have larger purchases, they will usually still accept credit card, though. We made due with 200 euro for 3 days in Venice and had plenty leftover.

Restaurants

Many of the nice restaurants require reservations, feel free to make them in advance. But, there are a lot of smaller restaurants and shop options regardless so feel free to wing it!

Smell

If you travel during the summer you’ll notice a smell. It’s from the heat and the sewage that floats through the canals (it was built several hundred years ago and not all buildings have updated plumbing) in conjunction with the high and low tides (low tides being smellier). We missed this and went in May so if you want to avoid it but still want warmer weather, late spring or early fall are great options.

Why Go To La Biennale Di Venezia?

If you like art or culture, you’ll love this experience. It was started in 1895 and has turned into a multi-medium art exhibition that lasts roughly 6 months (mid May until end of November) and takes place every 2 years. It encompasses traditional art (painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.) as well as theater, dance, architecture, music and film.  Each country can participate and currently over 90 countries exhibit. Each represented country is given their own space to place a series of pieces in. The experience has grown so much that it takes up the Arsenal (an old ship building facility) which has primarily indoor but some outdoor warehouse type spaces each dedicated to a region or country for their pieces and the Garden which is more segmented into pavilion type structures for each country.  Aside from that, some countries has their own showrooms scatter throughout Venice and other artists have pieces they place throughout the city (mainly very large pieces, from what we gathered).  It was exhausting walking through everything, the spaces are massive and there is so much to see.

It cost € 25 euro for each of us to gain entrance to the paid (Arsenal and Garden) exhibits for the day. They have 2 day and unlimited passes as well. If you’re on a budget you can choose to view the free exhibits scattered throughout the city as well. If you have time, we suggest the 2 day pass as it’s tiring fitting it all into 1 day. It is also a bit less expensive if you book online before you come (as little at € 17,50/person).

You can learn more about La Biennale here: http://www.labiennale.org
View ticket prices / hours for the exhibits here:  http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/tickets/

Here are a few of the 2017 Biennale exhibits we enjoyed:

la biennale, venice, italy, arte, art, 2017

The one above is our favorite and best seen from the water. It’s called “Support” and was made with the intent of highlighting the rising water level in Venice from global warming. It’s located on the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel.

la biennale, venice, italy, arte, art, 2017 la biennale, venice, italy, arte, art, 2017 la biennale, venice, italy, arte, art, 2017 la biennale, venice, italy, arte, art, 2017

 

Packing List for 5 days in Italy/Germany:

  • DJI Mavik, accessories and charger
  • DSLR, charger and lenses
  • Travel Tripod
  • GoPro, batteries, accessories and charger
  •  headphones, headphone splitter, car charger, euro plug converter
  • 2 laptops
  • 2 backpacks, 1 duffel bag
  • 1 pair jeans each, 2 button downs (Rodney), 2 dresses (Jenni), 1 pair of shorts each, walking shoes each, dressier shoes each (flats and a pair of heels for Jenni), sunglasses each, 5 pairs socks (Rodney), 2 pairs socks (Jenni), 5 underwear each, 1 swimsuit each, 1 comfy pair of pants for travel (each), 3 casual tops each, 1 jacket (Jenni), 1 suit coat (Rodney)
  • Toiletries: travel toothpaste, toothbrushes, contact solution, deodorant, comb, brush, hair tie (Jenni), hairspray (Jenni), shampoo & conditioner (Jenni), small makeup (Jenni), sunscreen, straightener (Jenni)
  • Airplane pillow (each)

Venice Fun Facts:

  • Venice is built on former sand islands that had wooden stakes driven into them which petrified overtime. In total, the city is built on 118 of these little islands and all connected by bridges with canals going through them
  • The layout of the city allowed it to be easily defended during the wars
  • The sewage systems are antiquated and
  • The bricks and mortar lining the canals needs to be fixed regularly due to the incoming and outgoing tides that push and pull the mortar and bricks in and out. To do this, they isolate a section, drain that portion of the canal, then fix or replace whatever is needed.
  • They hold a lent celebration called the Carnival of Venice on Mardi Gras or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday which is where all the masks and masquerade events originated.

Venice Costs: $2297 for 5 days / 4 nights in Italy

  • Flight $400 each
  • Hotel in Milan (Airbnb) 1 night: $121
  • Hotel in Venice 2 nights: $423
  • Hotel in Munich 1 night: $110
  • Car rental 3 days (Milan drop off in Venice): $125
  • Car parking in Milan 1 night: $22.39
  • Car parking in Venice 3 nights/4 days: $22.39
  • Car gas: $23.52
  • Tolls Milan to Venice: 21.32
  • 6 hour Train Ride from Venice to Munich: $124 ($62 each)
  • Food/drinks in Milan (1 day/1 night): 158
  • Food/drinks in Venice (3 days/2 nights): $210
  • Food/drinks on Train: $16.80
  • Food/drinks in Munich (1 night/1 day): $53.65
  • Souvenirs: $10
  • La Biennale Tickets: $56

Itinerary

  • THURSDAY
    • Fly SFO (San Francisco) to EWR (Newark) to MXP (Milan), arrive in Milan Friday morning
  •  FRIDAY
    • 7am get off the plane in Milan
    • 9am Get the car rental (their computer system was down, it took forever). Tiny little thing but it was great on gas mileage! Beware, not all cars have AC (and some run on diesel). 
    • 10am arrive at Santa Maria delle Grazie and check out the church that holds the Last Supper painting. Tickets are needed in advance (it is advised to secure tickets at least 1 week in advance. Very rarely are there tickets available same day)
    • 11am head to the Milan Cathedral, grab snacks at shops along the way
    • 11:30am walk through the  La Rinascente Milano and through to all the expensive shops
    • 1:30 go grab more snacks and stop by a grocery
    • 2:30pm head to meet our Airbnb host
    • 3pm Arrive at our Airbnb in the Chinatown district and Jetlag hits, take a 4 hour nap
    • 7pm wake up and get ready, do a little droning as the sun was setting
    • 8pm Head to Ceresio 7 for dinner and a great city view with a swanky pool top lounge and DJ playing good beats. Highly recommend it.ceresio 7
    • 11pm walk through the city and take photos at night by the Monumento ai Caduti Milanesi della Rivoluzione Fascista
    • Midnight go back to bed
  • SATURDAY
    • 11am Wake up, eat breakfast, pack-up and head out
    • 2:30pm arrive near Venice but took a while to find somewhere with overnight parking
    • 4pm park the car, then grab a bus ticket, then hopped on the bus
    • 4:30pm arrived in Venice
    • 5:30pm arrived at hotel (Palazzo del Giglio) and dropped bags then went wandering around
    • 7:30pm found a cute spot for a pizza dinner on the Grand Canal
    • 9:30pm grabbed camera gear and wandered through the city more doing some night photography
    • Midnight went back to the hotel to sleep
  • SUNDAY
    • 4:30am woke up and went to drone and take photos while wandering around the otherwise vacant city
    • 9am grabbed breakfast at the hotel
    • 11am slept
    • 2pm woke up for snacks and headed to La Biennale Arsenal and Garden spots
    • 6pm came back and grabbed a pasta dinner across from our hotel then and took a 2 hour food coma nap
    • 9pm went looking for dinner and a souvenir mask
    • 10pm grabbed gelato and appetizers in Saint Mark’s Square
    • midnight headed home
  • MONDAY
    • 6am Rodney woke up and droned a bit more (Jenni slept)
    • 9am We ate breakfast then walked to where the ‘Support’ sculptures were and took photos
    • 9:30am grabbed a short gondola ride (because you have to at some point when in Venice) then headed back to the hotel
    • 10:30 packed up, checked out then took a water taxi ride to where the bus picks up
    • 11am arrive at the bus station
    • 11:30am arrive at our car
    • 12am return our car to the Venice airport
    • 12:15 grabbed a taxi to the bus station
    • 12:45 made it to the train station and grabbed lunch at McDonald’s (break from the pizza and pasta)
    • 2pm boarded our train to Munich
    • 6pm grabbed dinner on the train
    • 8pm arrived in Munich
    • 8:30pm checked into our hotel in Munich and changed
    • 9:30pm went to a rooftop spa called Blue where they had food and drinks
    • 10:30pm grabbed food at a local place nearby
    • 11:30pm went to bed
  • TUESDAY
    • 8am woke up and packed up
    • 9am grabbed breakfast, a train ticket and boarded the train
    • 11am arrived at the Munich Airport
    • 4pm Arrived home at SFO

If We Had to Do It Again — Changes to the Schedule

  • FOREGO THE CAR We hoped the sights from Milan to Venice were going to be peak our interest to stop, but they didn’t. Since we didn’t stop in Verona and didn’t see any good spots along the way that warranted any drone footage, we would have foregone the car rental and just done a train ticket from Milan to Venice. When taking into the cost of tolls, gas, parking and the car rental itself, it was more expensive and a bigger headache to do it the way we did.
  • TAKE THE WATER TAXI / FERRY IN VENICE when in Venice we walked a bit then caught the ferry. We would have gotten the taxi off the bat to get closer to our hotel with our luggage. The water taxi’s in Venice have tickets that are good for 75 minutes (enough time to find your way if you get on the wrong ferry/taxi OR put your luggage down then go on a little boat cruise through the Grand Canal with the time you have left — our suggestion).
  • RIDE BIKES IN MILAN we noticed yellow bikes you could rent for the day scattered throughout Milan. We suggest using that as a primary mode of transportation as parking is difficult, the streets have a bit of traffic and it’s a great way to see everything and stop along the way for a low price
  • MORE TIME We could have used one more night in Milan and at least one more night in Venice especially since the art festival took up a lot of our time. If we had an extra day we would have stopped in Austria which was on the train route then picked up the train to Munich the next day.
  • The trains in Europe are very comfortable (you can recline the seats down to make them into a bed) with air conditioning and power outlets. Since there is a direct from Munich to SFO if we were to head back, we would consider flying both into and out of Munich and taking the train to nearby cities (as a connecting flight often eats up just as much time but is a lot more of a headache and pricier).
havana cuba, trip, tourism, visa, old havana, colors, city, march, 2017, us, united states
Big Cities Central America Cuba Travel

5 days in Cuba — Havana and Varadero

5 Days in Cuba visiting Havana and Varadero

Looking for a relatively warm modern city to visit but still be forced to go off the grid? Visit Cuba.  We spent 5 days / 4 nights visiting Havana and Varadero and had an amazing time. Read on to have all your burning Cuba questions answered including transportation, visas, water, and money; a map of where to go, and learn about what we did on our trip… plus more including Havana history, our costs, what we would do differently, and some tips!

WHY GO TO CUBA?

The city is full of charm, character, history and an authentic vibrancy. The people are warm, welcoming and typically helpful despite the language barrier. Food/lodging/excursions are relatively inexpensive so you can do a lot on a little budget especially if you get a good deal on flights.  Are you a last minute person? The city is too, they’ll help you plan things if you like to figure it out as you go. It is a tropical climate so you’ll fill up on Vitamin D while you are there, too!  From outdoorsy activities to beach lounging to club hopping to dancing to music and more — it has a little bit for everyone all tucked away 90 miles from the southern most point of the US.

havana cuba, trip, tourism, visa, old havana, colors, city, march, 2017, us, united states

 Cuba Score Card: 6.25/10

  • Transportation: 6/10 (Streets aren’t well labeled and aren’t always well kept, public transit is minimal but there are buses you can book in advance between cities, cabs are available and negotiable, car rentals are expensive and hard to come by)
  • Price: 8/10 (lodging/food/experiences were inexpensive compared to the US)
  • Safety: 9/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see any signs of crime/drugs/prostitution)
  • Food: 5/10 (They had amazing food but also a lot of places that may be serving things that can make you sick due to food safety or contaminated water. We kept to fried foods to ensure everything was well cooked)
  • Culture: 7/10 (a lot of cultural festivals and experiences especially with dancing and music throughout the city)
  • History: 7/10 (a lot of historical references and options throughout the city)
  • Excitement: 5/10 (It wasn’t extremely exciting or thrilling)
  • Awe Inspiring: 7/10 (there were a lot of beautiful authentic views/experiences/places)
  • Technology Equipped: 1/10 (limited wifi service, limited technology integration (most didn’t accept US or foreign credit cards as well as ability to use ATMs)
  • Female Friendly: 7/10 (It’s a safe and friendly city for women with the occasional catcall)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 9/10 (everyone is friendly and there are a lot of solo outdoor activities to take part in or just general exploring. As long as you can cover the cost of a casa yourself, you’ll have a great time traveling here solo)
  • Language Barrier: 4/10 (even in the touristy areas the English speakers were limited and hard to communicate with (but they always tried as did we))

OVERVIEW

To be honest, Havana is a bit smelly and dirty (but not buggy or cockroach infested dirty — at least that we could tell). Garbage dumpsters line the tiny neighborhood streets and are pressed up against buildings wearing decades old tattered murals. The city as a whole is crumbling as not much has been done in terms of infrastructure maintenance since their heydays in the late 1950’s or in some cases even before that.  It gives it charm. The colors, though, are still there. The faded blues, greens, yellows, reds line the streets in mostly modest yet tall two to four story buildings. Vendors are trying to sell you any and everything in broken English as you walk the streets, they are true hustlers. At night people gather and talk to one another in their homes filled with old fashion furniture, electronics and only the most basic amenities.  Although not lavish, their simple casas are flowing with so much life and love. The streets fill with people sitting out on their stoops watching passersby and children making up ball games. Music oozes into the air as you saunter by bars and restaurants, you can almost see the notes floating away as everyone is spilling over to the alleys dancing to the Cuban beats. Everyone is wearing a smile and will help you get to or do what you want, they are sincere. The cars are old and slow, it suits the size of the streets and the way of life.  No one needs to be anywhere yet the locals are so helpful and resourceful, always trying to get ahead, so time wanders through the day in the most magical way possible.

It was strange to come from a place so connected where you can’t even walk down the street without seeing cellphones glued to fingers tapping away. We utilize a device to answer our every burning question and capture time permanently like it’s our job. The Cuban locals, however, and because of a lack of connectivity the tourists as well, are talking to one another without a cellphone in sight. We were forced to meet people, engage with spoken word (or Spanglish gestures), stop and become resourceful ourselves by asking locals for recommendations, directions or even to figure out what street we were on.

Havana reminded me of everything I loved about my Dad — the old school way of life that has been somewhat long forgotten: cool cars, dancing, music, laughter and real connections centered around authentic experiences with those you care about.  A place where doors can be kept open, a knock and a hola yields someone greeting you, and you can trust your neighbor. As technology has crept in spoken words were replaced with text message emojis and self-worth with a handful of apps telling us our value in likes and comments.  It was nice to escape back in time and gives a new appreciation for the technological capabilities we do have.

havana cuba, classic cars, yellow, red, cars, cuba, havana

BASICS

Official Name: Republic of Cuba
Capital: Havana
Timezone: UTC+4 or +5
Currency: CUC (Convertable Cuban Peso — about 1 USD / .95 CUC due to exchange rate) or CUP Cuban Peso
Flag:

VISAS, HEALTH INSURANCE & PAPERWORK

Previously, no one was allowed to travel to Cuba from the United States (at least US airports weren’t allowed to have flights to Cuba). This all boils down the to the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and US Embargo (read more about it in the history section below). However, in former president Obama’s last term, he opened up travel with Cuba under the condition it was for a list of various (non tourist) reasons. Currently, as of March 2017, US Citizens are still not allowed to visit Cuba as a tourist. They are, however, allowed to visit for one of these reasons: family visit, official US government business, journalistic activity, professional research/meetings, educational activities, religious activities, public performances/clinics/workshops/competitions/exhibitions, private foundation research or educational institutes, export/import/transmission of information, and certain authorized export transactions. Seeing as as we document our trip, we felt our travel fell under the journalistic reason.

We flew United Airlines and had friends fly JetBlue as well as Southwest Airlines. All three provided all the Visas prior to take off at the airport. United cost an extra $75, JetBlue cost $50 and Southwest was around $40 (as of March 2017). All these costs included the mandatory non-US health insurance (as required by Cuba).  If you are unsure what is going on with your airline, I would call ahead of time or at the very least arrive at the airport early (as we had to go to a separate line to complete the Visa paperwork and pay the fee upon arrival). There we were given a visa and although we were traveling for journalistic reasons, we were provided with a visa that read ‘Tourista.’

Once in the air we had to fill out several additional forms. On one form we had to list our purpose of travel where we put journalist activity (as we were documenting our trip). No one at the Havana (HAV), Varadero (VAR), Newark (EWR) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airports asked us any questions about our reason for going, proof of journalist activity or regarding non-US health insurance compliance. Some of these documents we completed on the plane were taken when we went through customs upon entering Cuba, some when we left Cuba, some we still have (they were never collected).

RECENT INFLUX IN TRAVELERS TO CUBA

Our experience not only showed us amazing sights, but taught us about the evolution of Cuban society and culture over the past few decades. More interesting is the current transformation taking place as a result of the recent allowance in US travel to Cuba. Just over the past year, it’s caused a major influx in visitors and the city is having a hard time keeping up! The required food and lodging alone to fulfill tourists are creating a bit of scarcity for locals. On the flip side, this current shortage will create more wealth for locals in the long run. I anticipate more locals starting to find opportunities to make money off the tourist influx by catering to their needs and adjusting their professions to provide more where there is currently a shortage and get paid much better because of it.

havana cuba, tourista, tourists, influx, rise, rise in tourism, rise in tourists, white people, americans, US tourists, us tourism

EVERYTHING IS NEGOTIABLE

Almost everything in Cuba is negotiable, so get your game face on. Cabs, food from vendors, trinkets — even if a price is listed, you can negotiate.  Often times we would walk away after giving a price ‘too low’ and the vendor would come back saying they would take it. We loved getting a super cheap fare from these little motorized style coach cabs!

WATER

Don’t drink the water. Most locals even boil their water before using/drinking it due to bacterial contamination. Plan on bringing something like a LifeStraw to properly filter your water in the event you’re stuck in a dire situation, or exclusively drink bottled water. We also avoided ice (as it is hard to tell if they filtered it  before freezing it or not), water rich vegetables/fruits, and anything that had a possibility of being under cooked. Food borne illness is common and is the number one complaint we heard from people that came back from traveling to Cuba. Eat/drink cautiously and bring medications in case you get sick.

FOOD

They cater to tourists in the big cities so you can expect most American staples if you look hard enough, and chicken, pork, rice, pizza are all abundant.  If you are a picky eater, swing by a fancy hotel — their restaurants usually have more American food options.

A typical breakfast consists of juice, eggs, and fruit; lunch is usually a sandwich and ice cream, dinner they have a lot of fish options with rice and vegetables. They love drinking mojitos, daqueries and beer. If you are on a budget, you can get away with a bunch of bananas for breakfast $1CUC, a Sandwich + ice cream for lunch $4CUC, 1 large bottles of water for the day $1CUC, and a fish dish for dinner for $3CUC = $9CUC/day of food. If you head to the non touristy areas these prices go down significantly. If you are picky or want something more fancy, these prices will go up. We spent about $25CUC/day/person on food/drinks in Havana (the most expensive place to eat).

INTERNET/CELL SERVICE

Cuba does not have ample wifi or cell service. We have T-Mobile and although it works in Cuba, they were imposing extreme additional costs for using the service (opposed to the free data in most other counties while using T-Mobile). Due to the astronomical costs for calls/texts/data we went to airplane mode and resorted on using the wifi service. We found the best wifi was located at nice hotels. It cost 1.50 CUC for 1 hour of wifi and you could buy the wifi cards with login details from a few stores or people selling them on the street for an up-charge (we got our for double the price but didn’t have to wait in the long line — $3 CUC / 1 hour or $5 CUC for 2 hours). Also, it is important to note that you should book any Airbnb lodging before you arrive in Cuba because Airbnb’s website will not let you book a venue for Cuba while in Cuba. Granted, you can get around this by using a VPN. 

MONEY

We converted at the airport and found the hotel currency conversion rates to be about the same. Cuba has few ATMs and very few places that accept credit cards. Regardless, US credit cards do not work in Cuba if you do spot an ATM or a place that accepts credit cards. You need to arrive with enough cash to sustain your trip.  They charge 5% to convert Euros and CAD to CUC (convertible Cuban currency which is at a 1:1 ratio with USD). They charge 10% to convert USD to CUC. With that being said, convert your USD to Euro or CAD before arriving THEN convert to CUC upon arrival (and save 5%).

1 USD = 1 CUC (Convertible Cuban Peso)
1 CUC = 25 CUP (Cuban Peso)

Most things are in CUC in the tourist areas. When you go to places outside of the tourist areas, they use CUP and these places are significantly less expensive. You can exchange CUC for CUP at most stores.

People offering to change your money on the street will try and scam you. The conversion rates are set by the government, they cannot exchange for lower rates. They will try and give you 1 USD for 1 CUP instead of 1 CUC. You’ll be at a loss. Beware of what a CUC and CUP look like so you know the difference.

We paid for our Airbnb before our arrival so we knew we only had to pay for transportation, food and excursions. With that being said, we each brought $100 USD per day per person and it was way more than enough.

Havana is the most expensive of the cities, if you know Spanish and stay out of the touristy areas you can save a lot of money. The average Cuban survives on the equivalent to $25 USD/month.

SERVICE & TIPPING

The service is slow everywhere. They believe in the journey and aren’t a rushed society. If you have a schedule you are trying to keep, give yourself more time when going to sit down places. Quite often we had to get our servers attention to be seated, again for the menu, again to take our order then again to bring the check. I am still unsure if they would have noticed if we got up to leave without paying. Most bar experiences lasted at least 1 hour and restaurants 2 hours. They aren’t a tipping society, tips are appreciated but not mandatory. However, the locals (especially in non touristy areas) do not make much. Anything extra you have will go a long way for them.  Side note: as of March 2017 you can bring 50 cigars from Cuba back into the US legally.

CIGARS — AVOID FAKES

Cuban Cigars — unless you’re buying at a government store, you’re probably buying a fake (this includes street vendors, random guys claiming they work at the factory and even hotel workers at cigar stands). Don’t waste your time or money. Most fakes are made from rolled banana leaves, it would be quite a disappointment. Government stores have set prices for the cigars as well, and these are not negotiable.

A few easy tell tale signs you’re buying a fake Cohiba cigar:

  • The COHIBA letters should be raised and the colors are rich (if they are flat and the colors are dull — it’s a fake)
  • Colors on the band have no tonal changes and no chipping/etching away, if they do — it’s a fake
  • The white squares on the band are never cut off, if they are — it’s a fake
  • There should be three rows of white squares above the COHIBA logo for 5 rows total. (Cohiba Behikes and other types may have different white square configurations)
  • If buying a box, you can only buy them in boxes of 10 (any more or any less is not legitimate)

Here are a few bands of actual real genuine Cohiba Cigars

real cohiba behike cigar

real cohiba cigar, fake, fakes, cohiba, how to spot a fake cohiba cigar, traveling to cuba, behike, bkereal cohiba cigar, fake, fakes, cohiba, how to spot a fake cohiba cigar, traveling to cuba, behike, bke real cohiba cigar, fake, fakes, cohiba, how to spot a fake cohiba cigar, traveling to cuba, behike, bke

Here are a few fake Cohiba Cigars we saw (bought) while in Havana.

The band of the fake Behike Cohiba cigar has raised letters and a holographic emblem but it’s done sloppy. The trim is not equal, the emblem isn’t centered and the trim doesn’t have an emblem of it’s own (for starters) plus some of the paint on the band is chipping away.

These fake cigars have a rolled tip would would never be the case in a Cohiba. Others have the white squares cut off, and others are missing the proper emblems.

This package above is just sloppy. It wouldn’t be sold in a package like that, the paint is chipping off, emblems are missing, girls head has the wrong shaped nose and the letters aren’t raised.

BATHROOMS

Bathrooms are lacking, to say the least. Toilet paper is a luxury and toilet seats and locks aren’t always there. Bring your own Kleenex packets in case you’re stuck in a situation without any TP! We found only the very nice hotels had proper bathrooms (according to US norms). It’s nice to have hand sanitizer on you, too.

ACCOMMODATIONS

We stayed at an Airbnb in Havana and an all inclusive resort in Varadero (the only place left with same day availability for 1 night). The Airbnb was much less expensive and gave a more authentic feel. Often the hosts will cook breakfast for you, too. They are the same as a casa particulars — you stay in someones home or rent a room in a locals home. Costs for an Airbnb / Casa Particulares are between 10-35 CUC per day. Ours was 2 bedrooms and 1 bath for 30/night with up to 5 guests. They are marked with these signs (seen below in purple) so if you are looking for a place to stay when you’re there, look for this symbol, knock on the door and ask if they have vacancy.

You don’t have to book all your accommodations in advance if you don’t want to stay at a resort/hotel. Often the locals you are staying with will have connections to people in other cities that you can stay with. With that being said, it is recommended you book at least your first place to stay. However, keep in mind, with the influx of travel, winging accommodations on the fly is more risky. We tried this in Varadero and found that it was more difficult than expected to find a spot to stay a few days in advance because there aren’t enough casas particulares for the number of tourists currently traveling there. Worst case, bring a hammock so you can post up somewhere for the night.

Hotels and resorts are much more expensive. They are usually booked out well in advance by tour groups. However, you can usually still use their facilities (restaurants, pools, bathrooms, lounges) even though you are not staying in the hotel.

The beds are stiff, it’s just the way things are. Some of the very nice hotels have more plush mattresses so if it matters a lot to you, spring for the extra money and book well in advance.

TRANSPORTATION

CAR RENTALS: Car rentals are not realistic. They are expensive and the rental car fleet is small, plus, because there is bad internet/cell service and roads are poorly marked, it isn’t a great idea — you’ll probably get lost. If you do want to rent a car, finding something around 60 CUC per day would be a great deal — most are significantly more. Plus, a one way rental is going to impose a hefty drop off fee, too. If you want to reach places the bus does not go, we suggest taking the bus as close as you can then hiring a taxi over a car rental.

TAXIS: We recommend hiring taxis (we paid a few CUC for a ride a few blocks away, to $80 CUC for a 2 hour drive from Havana to Varadero). Taxi’s are negotiable, they know the way, they let you stop for photos (unlike a bus) and you usually get a cool car to take you there so extra bonus points for riding in style. Plus, the drivers (if they know enough English) will chat with you and give you great insight.

BUS: If you are on a budget and planning in advance, we recommend looking into the bus. Schedules, ticket prices and more can be found on the Viazul website (plus they’re air conditioned) here: http://www.viazul.com/.  However, these need to be purchased well in advance as they usually sellout. Also, you should make sure you know where the bus station is in reference to where you’re staying as sometimes they’re tricky to find (especially since the roads aren’t usually well market). Always give yourself a bit more time to get there so you don’t miss it (they will leave without you and sell your spot if you do miss) and in case you get lost / can’t find it. But, this can save you a lot of money. Tickets are usually between $10 – $20 each way.  If tickets are sold out and you still want to save money by taking the bus, if you arrive at the bus station well in advance you can see if someone no-shows or cancels in which case you can take their place (which our friends did).

RIDE SHARE: No, Uber and Lyft don’t exist in Cuba (yet) but you can create a ride share for yourself the old school way.  Our friends flew into Havana and needed to go straight to Vinales. The bus didn’t leave from the Havana Airport so they took a piece of paper, wrote Vinales on it, and walked around until they found someone to split a cab with. It came out to around the same price as a bus ticket — $100 CUC for 4 people to get a taxi from the HAV airport to Vinales.

BIKES: You can rent bikes for the day or longer or even go on a bike guided tour. Check out this site for more details: http://bikerentalhavana.com/ Rate start at 15 CUC for the day without a guide and 25 CUC with a guide (but your party must be at least 2 people to get a guide).

SCOOTERS: Yes, you can rent scooters! There are several scooter rental locations throughout Varadero and Havana. Prebook or if you are winging it, just mark the locations closest to where you’re staying on a map and head there if you decide you want to check out the city on scooter (always fun)! One location in Havana is at 3rd near 30 in the suburb of Playa. One location (24/7) in Varadero is located just down the way from Gran Caribe Palma Real (at Avenida 1ra and Avenida Segunda). Prices are around 6 CUC/hour or $24 CUC for 1 day, longer rentals are less expensive.

WALKING: You can walk, most of Havana and Varadero are walkable and since it’s safe (day and night) no need to worry. It’s a great way to see the city, explore and stumble upon hidden gems.

FLYING: There are a few airports across the country. Depending on where you want to go once in the city, you may be able to fly domestically to your next stop. With airlines always changing their routes, it’s best to look this up yourself.  It does make it easier if you fly into one city and can fly out of your ending city. With that being said, Varadero and Havana both have airports with airlines that service the US as of March 2017 and we utilized them during our trip.

cuban candy car, cuban classic car, cuba, havana, green, lime creen, chevrolet, chevy, american car, cubano

MAPS

Download a cached map of Cuba or an app with an integrated map. Google wouldn’t let us cache a map (like we usually do) so we downloaded and use the app called Map of Cuba Offline AND Cuba by Triposo. The latter has integrated walking tours, tips, points of interest, historical background and more for which reason we used it more heavily. Without this, you’ll be relying on maps you purchase or directions from locals.

LANGUAGE BARRIER / GOOGLE TRANSLATE

Most locals speak just a little bit of English at best (and we only speak a little Spanish at best) so we downloaded the Spanish portion of Google Translate ahead of time and used it to help communicate with the locals. It is a free app (again, download it before you go, though, because of lack of internet) which allows you to look up words, form sentences, translate, will pronounce sentences/words for you and more.

MEDICATIONS

They do not have a lot of grocery stores or convenient stores. If you find one, it is not well stocked (according to American standards) and medications are hard to come by. Pack any and all medications you may need even if you think it’s very common to find. We brought Advil, Mucinex, allergy medication, Imodium, Dramamine, cough drops, sunscreen and Kleenex.

HOMELESS ANIMALS

There are a lot of homeless dogs and cats walking the streets. We saw some with mange, others that looked very healthy, some puppies/kittens, older animals close to the end of their life and anywhere between. If you are an animal advocate and looking to help / have extra room in your carry on we were informed to bring dry dog/cat food and evaporated milk as it’s hard for the local animal advocate groups to get their hands on these items and they are most needed by the animals.

CUBAN LAND AND JOB REGULATIONS

It was interesting to learn that Cubans do not own their homes, the government does and they rent the land the home is on from the government. They cannot own businesses, the government owns those, too. To evade these regulations many will work as a contractor or within a cooperative, all the while documenting everything as to appease government rules. This includes places like hotels and Airbnbs. The venues need to document the visitors, we had our passport details copies at each location we stayed at.

WARDROBE IN CUBA

When we landed the first thing we noticed was the very sexy dressed female airport security guards. They were wearing tan uniforms with short tan miniskirts and tight fitting tops topped off with black fancy fishnet pantyhose, heels and bright red lipstick. This theme was repeated by locals during our stay — women and men alike loved wearing vibrant colors with well fitting outfits. The women had shorter and more revealing pieces while the guys dressed sharply if they could afford to.

SCAMS

We listed these throughout but here’s a recap of some of the scams we found in the city.

  • Cigars being sold anywhere outside a government store are usually fake. Buyer beware.
  • If someone offers to escort you places, they will probably ask you to pay them. Often times they’ll ask to go to a bar with you (one they choose), order drinks, then when the bill comes ask you to foot it.  The venue is in on it. The bartender will charge you higher prices and split the dividends with the person that brought you in.
  • People changing money outside currency exchanges will try and give you CUP instead of CUC. Be aware what each dollar looks like as to ensure you are getting the right type of currency back because 1 CUC = 25 CUP. If they pretend to give you CUC instead of CUP, you’re losing a lot.
  • Any hustlers in the street claiming to get you a good deal is probably going to rip you off or sell you a bad product.

BOOKING EXCURSIONS

Planning in advance is helpful but not always realistic.  If you are winging it when you’re there — and want to do something but don’t know where to go? Ask a local – most of the time the Airbnb hosts were able to help us plan our excursions while we were there! If you have something specific you want to do but it isn’t booked and you can’t find someone to make it happen– head to a hotel/resort. Everyone hotel went to had someone that would be able to arrange an excursion for us if we wanted, even same day, and even if we weren’t staying at the hotel.

SCUBA DIVING

We heard scuba diving there is some of the best in the world. It’s so untouched due to the lack of tourists over the past few decades.  Some things to note: you need 24 hours before your flight to scuba due to the nitrogen tanks you use so keep this in mind when planning your trip.  If you are dead set on scuba diving during your trip to Varadero, if the waters are rough in Varadero they will take you on a long car ride to the opposite side of the island, to the Bay of Pigs, where a boat will take you out for scuba diving there. This turns it from a half day activity to a full day activity. Allocate enough time in case this happens to you. No one we talked to cared if we had a Padi scuba license or not (as the guys in our group were certified but we, the girls, were not). Although we didn’t go scuba diving in Varadero, our friends ended up doing a dive in Trinidad (they booked it when they got there) through their Airbnb host.

SUGGESTED EXCURSIONS IN HAVANA (suggested length of stay 2 nights):

SUGGESTED EXCURSIONS IN VARADERO (suggested length of stay 2 nights):

  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Sailing
  • Caving
  • Golf

SUGGESTED EXCURSIONS IN TRINIDAD (suggested length of stay 2 nights):

  • Sailing
  • Scuba Diving / Snorkeling
  • Hiking to Waterfalls 

SUGGESTED EXCURSIONS IN VINALES (suggested length of stay 2 nights):

  • Horseback riding 
  • Tobacco/Cigar tour (farm tour and rolling)
  • Caving
  • Hiking

Packing List for 5 days in Cuba

  • 10 Granola / Energy Bars
  • 1 Reusable Water Bottle
  • LifeStraws
  • DSLR + DSLR Charger
  • Laptops (we each brought one) and headphones
  • USB cords for phones/laptops/headphones
  • 2 pairs of shorts each, 1 pair of pants each, 1 dress, 3 tank tops each, 1 button up, a longsleeve zipup to layer each and a light weight casual coat each, hat, 1 swimsuit each
  • 3 days worth of Socks + 5 days worth underwear
  • Walking shoes and flip flops
  • Sunglasses
  • Minimal toiletries (small soap / shampoo / conditioner / razor, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, contact solution, sunscreen, hair gel, brush/comb, nail clippers)
  • Kleenex packets for bathrooms
  • Meds: Advil, Mucinex, Allergy medicine, Imodium, Dramamine, cough drops
  • snorkels/masks each, wet suit

Where to go in Cuba:

If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip.

 Havana, Cuba History:

  • It was founded by the Europeans in 1509 and the first settlers (Spanish) came in 1510.
  • The country was found to be lacking in gold, silver and precious metals so many early settlers moved to Mexico and South America in search of more wealth
  • Havana was used as a trading port (this helped develop the cities agriculture and manufacturing since the ships coming in had to be supplied with food and goods to make the oceanic trip) and suffered regular attacks by pirates (the first occurring in 1555 when it was also burned to the ground) which prompted the Spanish Crown to fund fortresses across the city and country to gain control over the trade of goods happening at the ports (and thus why there are old castles scattered throughout). Goods traded included gold, silver and alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahoganies from Cuba and Guatemala, leather from Guajira, spices and sticks of dye from Campeche, corn, manioc and cocoa. The goods would arrive in port in Cuba then be placed on a fleet and sent to Spain.
  • In 1674 a further fortification effort was started then completed in 1740 at which time Havana had more than 70,000 inhabitants and was the third largest city in the Americas (behind Lima and Mexico City — but ahead of Boston and New York).
  • In 1762 it was captured by the British during the Seven Year’s War and opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies which quickly transformed the city — slaves were brought in from West Africa to work the sugar plantations, horses, and food
  • A year after the British took it over, a treaty was signed to end the Seven Years War which gave the British Florida in exchange for giving the Spanish Havana back. They then made it the most fortified city in the Americas (you’ll see a lot of canons throughout — some used a sidewalk posts)
  • In the 19th century, during the Spanish-American War, the US had its warship, Main, sunk in port which then caused the US to take Cuba from Spain and under occupation. This created an insurgance of new life with an American zest — famous celebrities visited like Frank Sanatra, Ernest Hemmingway, Gary Cooper and hundreds of thousands of American tourists flocked there. The casinos and hotels were thriving and it invited mafia figures into the city, too.
  • Social strife mounted in the country and in 1952, due to a political radicalization,  Fulegencio Batista was a US backed dictator that ruled the country
  • In 1959 Batista was ousted during the July 26th Movement and Fidel Castro took over leadership.
  • 1961 the US CIA backed an attempt for the Brigade 2506 to take over Cuba through the Bay of Pigs invasion but it took 3 days for Cuban rebellion to defeat the forces.
  • During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and US, a nuclear war nearly broke out.  Cuba requested from the Soviets that nuclear missiles be placed in Cuba to deter future invasions. This agreement was reached between Fidel Castro and Khrushchev in July 1962 and construction of several nuclear missile launch facilities started later that summer. During the US elections a U-2 spy plane had photographic evidence of the construction of the facilities in Cuba. The US created a military blockade and would not permit any additional delivery of weapons to Cuba (as they are only 90 miles from US soil) and demanded the weapons already there be dismantled and returned to the USSR.  This caused the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It lasted 13 days and was a series of negotiations between the US and Soviet Union’s Khrushchev. They agreed to dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Society Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for U.S. public declaration and agreement to never invade Cuba again without direct provocation. U.S. also dismantled their missiles they placed in Turkey and Italy which was unknown to the public.
  • The Revolution started in 1959 after which Castro expropriated all the private property in the country (all land is now owned by the government), all privately owned businesses became nationalized, everything moved toward a communist society, Cuba became backed by the Soviet Union after which the U.S. Embargo took effect.  All these aspects hit Cuban hard and forever altered the city from a thriving mecca to an isolated place that would then be stuck where it was left in the late 1950’s.
  • Che Guevara was another a very influential revolution leader that later died at the age of 39 in 1967 in Bolivia.  He was a big advocate for the universal education and healthcare that is still around in Cuba today. He saw the US capitalistic society exploiting Latin America and sought, as he was a well educated medical student himself, to fix the injustice by radicalizing the poverty, hunger and disease he saw so frequently. He joined forces with Fidel in overthrowing the US backed dictator, Batista, through a 2 year guerrilla campaign. Post revolution, he assisted in the literary campaign with armed forces and land reform. He left Cuba in 1965 with the hopes of revolutionizing Congo-Kinshasa (unsuccessfully) and then Bolivia where he was caught by US CIA assisted Bolivian forces and executed for crimes without a trial (summary execution). che, havana, cuba, che, tattered, torn, graffiti, mural, revolution, viva la revolution, cuba revolution, leader
  • Since 1965 Cuba has been governed by the Community Party of Cuba.
  • Soviet Union helped support Cuba after the embargo was enacted but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cuban economy took a more sever downturn.  You’ll find old American classic cars from the 1950’s but cars from the 1960’s-1990’s are all Russian / Soviet Union made cars (and there are a few modern cars, these days, too).
  • After 50 years of prohibition, the government turned to tourism for a financial revenue stream to keep it afloat allowing foreigners to build hotels and aid in the hospitality industry. Tourism hit 2.7 billion USD in 2008 and has continued to climb. However, although foreign investment is welcome, locals are not allowed to participate — they are not allowed to become owners or investors of property.

Havana, Cuba Fun Facts:

  • It was known as the Paris of the Caribbean during it’s high point in the 1930’s
  • Cubans receive free education and thus have a 99% literacy rate, it’s a proud aspect for locals to tout
  • Despite the entire country having free health insurance, they do not have a lot of medicine. You can get diagnosed if you have an illness but if you need medicine to treat it, that will be much more difficult to find
  • Between 1902 and 1959 Cuba was booming, it had the third largest middle class in the hemisphere
  • 15% of Cubans don’t live in Cuba despite a ban on free travel by the regime. It went from the largest emmigrant destinations in the early part of the centry to the largest immigration creators
  • Ernest Hemingway spent 22 years living in Cuba where he wrote many of his famous novels
  • With the governments strong stance on crime and punishment, there is little to no drug, gang, or prostitution issues and very little petty crimes.
  • Politics is a topic to avoid as talking bad about current or former leaders can have ill repercussions
  • Top local mixed drinks: Mojitos, daqueries and a Cuba Libre (similar to a rum and coke).
  • Top beers in Havana: Cristal and Bucanero

Varadero, Cuba Background:

  • It was relatively uninhabited when Havana was being colonized and settled from the 1500’s through most of the 1800’s
  • It wasn’t until the 1857 that it had residencies there. At that time 10 families were given permission to build their summer homes in Varadero
  • Currently it’s heavily visited by tourists but there aren’t many authentic / local establishments there due to the history and setup
  • It’s known for it’s diving, boating, beach and caving excursions — all which visitors love

Experience Highlights

Fabrica De Arte
Description: A multiple story warehouse club with DJs, live bands, and various art exhibits throughout
Location: Calle 26, La Habana, Cuba
Cost: $2 CUC cover and drinks are as little as $3 CUC.
Hours: 8pm-3am
Website: www.fabricadeartecubano.com
Notes: The line gets long but usually moves fast. Before you go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano we would suggest getting a dinner reservation (around 7pm) for Paladar la Esperanza nearby — very good food and great atmosphere plus not too far away.

Havana cuba, FAC, fabrica de arte, cuba club, clubbing, art, art gallery, night club, lounge, discoteca, discofabrica de arte, havana, club, nightclub, discoteca, cubano

Rooftop Pools / Restaurants
Description: Staying at an Airbnb? Sneak into a nice hotel and enjoy their pool!
Location: Parque Central and the hotel next to there and Sloppy Joes in Habana, Cuba
Cost: free, bring your own towel (just don’t get caught)
Hours: most close the pools around 8pm
Notes: If you order food or drinks while you’re up there, no one will care

Havana rooftop pool, hotel pool, havana, cuba, free, sneak in

Cuba Costs: $1991 for 2 people for a 4 night / 5 day Cuba trip to Havana and Varadero (all prices in USD)

  • $893 RT flights for 2 people from SFO to HAV ($446.5 each)
  • $150 Visas for 2 ($75 per person through United as of 3/20/17)
  • $16 for souvenirs ($12 Cuban hat, $2 shot glass, $2 cigar cutter)
  • $125 on Cigars
  • $10 on waters
  • $30 cab from HAV airport to Havana Airbnb
  • $30 cab from Varadero resort hotel to VAR airport
  • $80 cab from Havana to Varadero for 4 people (stopped for photos along the way)
  • $30 classic car 1 hour tour in Havana
  • $25 classic car 1 hour tour in Varadero
  • $20 ($10 each way) cab to/from club Fabrica de Arte Cubano
  • $20 2 huge drinks at Fabrica de Arte
  • $116 hotel in Varadero (Mar del Sur, 1 night, was further split between 4 people)
  • $21 7 hours worth of wifi/wifi cards ($3 CUC each from a street vendor)
  • $215 for 4 days/3 nights worth of food for 2 people in Havana (food/drinks were free / included in ‘all inclusive resort’ in Varadero): 2 Pizzas , 2 salmon bagels, 2 egg breakfast meals, chicken dinner, fish and chips, 2 churros, 2 ice cream cones, 2 homemade chips, 1 bunch of bananas, bruschetta plate, sausage/cheese plate, birthday dinner for our friend – Dave (sandwiches for 4 people), 2 salads, wrap on the airplane, various drinks (with no ice)
  • $109 Airbnb in Havana for 3 nights (was further split between 4 people)
  • $24 ($10 each to skip the line at Fabrica de Arte and $2 CUC each for cover)
  • $97 Ramada hotel in Newark EWR

OUR TRIP

We went with another couple, Dave and Heather, as it was Rodney’s friend’s (Dave’s) birthday during the trip. They flew into Havana and caught a cab to Vinales first, then met us in Havana, went with us to Varadero then after we flew out of Varadero they went to Trinidad (and caught a cab to fly back out of Havana). They had a better schedule than us but we had work and couldn’t be off grid that long, unfortunately.

After our arrival, we waited in a long line at the Havana airport to change our money (expect up to 1 hour if you’re caught in a time when multiple planes land) then hailed a classic car to our Airbnb. I insisted. No regular cab for us, I wanted to be driven in something with character (especially if they were the same price) so we waited and found a blue beauty to take us into town. Our driver was as cool as his car.  With his collar popped he blared his music that bumped that Cuban beat.

Upon meeting our Airbnb host we handed over our passports (language barrier created some issues but we eventually understood what she was saying) which she copied our details into a notebook (we were a bit skeptical at first, afraid we weren’t going to get them back). Then showed us how to use things in the apartment. It was missing one door handle and the beds were stiff but we didn’t care. And just like that, we were off to explore.

We wandered around looking for a grocery store thinking they would have packaged food and it would be safe to eat. But, we only found a series of places we did trust that smelled like barns and had food questionably sitting out in the open.  The main grocery store, Harry Bros, that the locals told us to check out was closed due to no electricity.  Welcome to Cuba, I thought to myself. After much walking around and upon hunger setting in, we opted for a busy pizza place with the ironic name of ‘Paris Cafe.’ We came all the way to Havana to eat Pizza from a place trying to emulate Paris. For $3 we didn’t care, we ordered two pizzas and a drink. The service was slow. It was the Cuban way. We had to hail a server to be seated in their outdoor cafe, again for a menu, then hail them again to take our order and after eating, hail them again for the check. We soon learned this was typical. We made friends with a young Danish guy that was traveling solo and meandered the city together, venturing into a rooftop venue to watch the sunset then to a local square where we listed to a live band.

The next day we figured out the internet situation. There was a guy the day prior standing in the street saying ‘wifi’ offering a card which we thought was questionable at the time. But, the Danish guy we met the other night assured us it was legit. So we ended up buying the same card from a guy selling them out of his house and posted up where the signal was strong — by a fancy hotel (Parque Central). After cranking out some work on our laptops, we left and met up with our friends that just arrived and wandered about together. We checked out a rooftop pool at a nearby hotel with sweeping views of the city. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day. Then walked around grabbing bites of food as we went to another rooftop spot then through the neighborhood streets taking in the local sights and sounds. We started on a self guided walking tour through Heather’s Cuba app but hunger set in as the sun was setting so we went to another rooftop hotel restaurant to watch the sunset and get a bite to eat. It was beautiful and there was hardly anyone there. The food was more expensive according to Havana standards but it was worth the view. We later went home to freshen up (only to learn the water stopped running in the entire apartment and wasn’t on again until the day we left) and try to fish an ear plug out of Dave’s ear. The Airbnb he stayed at in Vinales had chickens that crowed every morning so he used ear plugs to drown out the sound (as he’s done before) but this time when he went to take it out, only part of the ear plug came out and part was stuck in there. We tried with a light and tweezers but couldn’t it fully dislodged.  He was a trooped and said not to worry so we then headed out to the local square for a nightcap.

Friday, the next day, was our friend, Dave’s, birthday. We all woke up a bit late then went out to get internet. The couple we were traveling with was suppose to book an Airbnb for everyone in Varadero (as we took care of Havana) but didn’t so we were scrambling to find a place to stay. However, we learned that you cannot book an Airbnb for Cuba while accessing the internet in Cuba — it’s banned. We decided that we would just figure it out when we get there and dismissed the concern for the day.  Then headed to the local market for souvenirs where everyone seemed to selling the exact same things. It made the trinkets and their dealers feel a little less authentic. On our way back we stopped to get lunch where we convinced the band at the restaurant to sing happy birthday to our friend. As we made our way back we stopped in the Parque Central where they had a cigar vendor setup in the hall. He was supposedly selling Cohiba Cigars along with a host of others. We later found out this fancy five star hotel had duped us. The cigars were fakes. Buyer beware. Lesson learned — if you don’t know anything about cigars, you probably should try buying some. Later that night we went to a club called Factoria de Arte where we were immersed in local musical flare and art — we loved it. It was our last night in Havana.

On Saturday we packed up then went online to check emails before catching a cab to Varadero. The driver was very nice and told us all about the culture, it was a great 2 hour ride. He tried to help us find a place to stay but after 30 minutes and no luck, we let him leave in fear of taking up all his time. We learned that it is hard to book a place the same day since tourism is increasing, it is also hard to find a place to stay same day if you are only looking to stay 1 night (many places only take people for a minimum of 5 days). A local resort that was fully booked ended up calling a few places and found one that would take us for the night. The upside was the food/drinks were included so our costs would be minimal above the $30CUC per person fee. We checked in then headed to the beach. The wind was blowing and the water was rough. Despite bringing snorkel gear, we didn’t get much water time in. I decided it was too cold to go in and tanned in the sun (with a blanket over me) while everyone else played in the waves for a bit. Rodney and I headed back to freshen up then head shortly after to try and find a scooter to take up the peninsula while Heather and Dave stayed in the water. Upon dropping our stuff off at the resort, we learned that our water wasn’t warm — it was either freezing cold or cold. As far as water is concerned, we were 0/2 but made the most of it and did a quick-rinse for sake of cleanliness.  Although there is a 24 hour scooter place open with 3 scooters in their driveway near 60th street (see the map), the door was locked and the operator had her purse inside but she was no where to be found. So, we decided to rent a cab/cab driver for the hour and had the driver show us around and take some pretty photos.  We were told car rides to the airport in the mornings were tough (and our hotel said they could be as much as $100 CUC) so we convinced our driver to meet us the next morning at our hotel and take us to the airport for $30CUC.  We went all the way up to the marina and talked to a few people there. We were hoping to get an early morning boat ride in but learned they only have 2 times that they leave at per day and if the waters are rough (as they were) the ride may not happen. The same goes for scuba diving. We had hopes of going diving while there but because you need 24 hours before your flight to scuba and we arrived much too late in the day in conjunction to the rough waters, we were out of luck. We met back at the hotel where we all ate dinner and Rodney and I napped shortly after waking up in time to squeeze in some night photography.

The next morning Heather and Dave, although they didn’t have a bus ticket and the bus was sold old, went to the bus station hoping for 2 cancellations and were in luck. They caught the bus at 7am to Trinidad for $20CUC each (opposed to a car ride which would have been closer to $200 CUC total) and were on their way. We woke up closer to 10am, packed, ate breakfast and as we walked out saw our cab driver from the day before waiting to take us to the airport. He was really nice and stopped along the way so we could take some last minute photos. The airport was much easier than we expected and a little less busy than Havana.  We boarded our plane shortly after and were on our way back home.

Itinerary

  • Tuesday
    • 3pm Fly from SFO to EWR (landing around 10:30pm
    • 11pm Arrive at the Hotel in Newark, NJ
  • Wednesday
    • 8am head to the EWR airport
    • 9am get our Visas at the airport
    • 10am get on our United flight to HAV
    • 2pm land in HAV
    • 3pm clear customs in HAV
    • 3:30pm exchange our money at the airport for local currency CUC
    • 4pm catch a classic car from the airport to our Airbnb ($30)
    • 4:30pm arrive at the Airbnb and get situated
    • 5pm head to the main drag in the city and wander a bit
    • 6pm decide on a pizza dinner at Cafe Paris where we make friends with a Danish guy traveling solo. A local was outside sketching patrons and giving away free pictures he drew of them, Rodney got one! 
    • 7:30pm head down the block to a rooftop for a drink at Boutique Hotel Ambos Mundos 
    • 8:30pm head into the main square (Plaza Vieja) with the Danish guy for another drink / snacks at Factoria Plaza Vieja. You can’t miss it — it has the 3 meter high beer table toppers everyone is sharing (that only costs 12 CUC)!
    • 9:30pm pop in La Floridita (bar made famous by it’s former frequent visitor, Ernest Hemmingway — very touristy) la floridita, havana, ernest hemmingway
    • 10pm head home
  • Thursday
    • 9am wake up and head out, wandering around looking for breakfast/internet
    • 10am buy bananas and bottles of water from a street vendor
    • 10:30 get conned into buying fake Cohiba Cuban cigars from a local
    • 11am buy internet cards and a water bottle then head to the Parque Central hotel where we find internet connectivity
    • Noon head back to the Airbnb to meet our friends that arrived into Havana
    • 1pm head out for lunch at Parque Central and hopped on the internet again, checked out their rooftop pool and restaurant (view from on top)
    • 2pm and wander the main drag: stopped for photos, bought ice cream, chips, bottles of water, internet cards, stopped at Boutique Hotel Ambos Mundos rooftop again for a snack
    • 3:45pm grabbed a classic car for $30CUC and had them give us a 1 hour tour, stopped on the Malecon for a photo with the high flying Cuban flag and his swanky pink candy colored classic car
    • 4:45pm walked the streets as part of a self guided walking tour through Heather’s Cuba app and checked out the nearby castle
    • 7pm decided to check out the sunset at another swanky hotel (didn’t catch the name of the hotel but it’s between Parque central and Sloppy Joes) then grabbed dinner at their rooftop restaurant Havana rooftop pool, hotel pool, havana, cuba, free, sneak in
    • 8:30pm our friend got part of an earplug stuck in his ear so we tried to fish it out with tweezers, unsuccessfully
    • 9:30 headed out and wander the streets more
    • 10:30pm headed to one of the main squares (Plaza Vieja) where we grabbed drinks and listened to a band
    • 11:30pm headed home
  • Friday
    • 11am grabbed breakfast/lunch at the Parque central and hopped on the internet
    • Noon swung by the Airbnb to drop our stuff off and chilled for a bit
    • 3pm head to the large merchant center where we walked around looking at art and trinkets, and bought souviners
    • 5:30pm grab lunch at La Victorla in one of the main squares for Dave’s birthday lunch! 
    • 6:30pm headed back to toward the Airbnb stopping along the way for photos
    • 8pm stopped in Parque Central for a bathroom break and got conned into buy more fake Cuban Cohiba cigars from their 5 star establishment’s nice fancy cigar cart set out in the lobby. Face-palm.fake cohiba cigars, parque central, fake cigars, fake cohiba, five star hotel, selling fake cigars, fake cohiba cigars
    • 9pm arrive at our Airbnb and freshen up
    • 10pm head to the club, Fabrica de Arte, via a $10CUC cab
    • 11pm finally get into the club, cover was $2CUC per person fabrica de arte, havana, club, nightclub, discoteca, cubano
    • 1:30am leave the club and get a $10CUC ride back to our Airbnb where we crash
  • Saturday
    • 10:30am wake up and pack
    • 11am head out to the Parque Central Hotel to check internet and eat Breakfast
    • 11:45am hire a classic car for $80CUC to take the 4 of us from Havana to Varadero
    • 2:30pm arrive in Varadero and look for a place to stay (the cab driver helped us) but to no avail
    • 3pm tell the cab driver to leave us as to not waste his time and start looking for a hotel to stay at (as none of the casas had vacancy)
    • 3:30pm the hotel we were dropped off at found another hotel, Mar del Sur, that had vacancy for the night for us — we head there on food
    • 4pm check in to the hotel and change, the grab sandwiches (all inclusive) and head to the beach 
    • 5:30pm Rodney and I headed out to try and find a scooter rental (to no avail)
    • 6:30pm decide to hire a classic car to drive us around Varadero for the hour, we stop and take pics along the way and catch the sunset at the Varadero golf course restaurant that overlooks the ocean/beach and grabbed this pic
    • 7:30pm arrive back at the hotel where we catch dinner (and meet Israelis that want to buy our Canon battery charger for their camera)
    • 8:30pm take a nap
    • 10:30pm head back out to wander the streets and check out the town, look for internet and try night photography
    • Midnight, wander the beach and take some photos when we get back to the beach resort section with thatch umbrellas 
    • 1:30pm head back in and head to bed
  • Sunday
    • 10am wake up for breakfast and sell the battery charger to the Isralies then pack
    • 10:45am head to the airport
    • 11:15 arrive at the Varadero airport
    • 1pm fly out from Varader to FLL (via Southwest Airlines)
    • 2:30pm arrive in FLL
    • 5:30pm fly FLL to DEN
    • 10:30pm fly DEN to SFO
    • 1am (technically Monday morning) arrive in SFO

If We Had to Do It Again — Changes to the Schedule

If we had to do it again we would have done at least 8 nights/9 days and done it this way: fly into Varadero, spend two nights there and go scuba diving and caving (or at least on a boat ride if the weather doesn’t permit scuba diving) and spend some time on the beach, prebook and take the bus ($20) to Trinidad and spend two nights there where we would do more scuba diving and check out the local waterfalls, then take the bus to Vinales where we would go horseback riding, check out the tobacco plants, go caving, go hiking, then take a bus to Havana where we would spend 2 nights there then fly out. Ideally spending Friday and Saturday night in Havana when it’s hopping as to check out the local clubs, musicians, markets and typical Havana touristy things.  Before you go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano we would suggest getting a dinner reservation (around 7pm) for Paladar la Esperanza nearby — very good food and great atmosphere.

If you had to stick to 4 nights/5 days, if you love scuba I would fly into Varadero and check out the beaches the day you fly in then scuba there the next day (as you need 24 hours after scuba diving before you can fly so ending your trip in Varadero doesn’t do you much good).  If the weather is windy they send you on a 4 hour car ride to the other side of the island where you’ll scuba there — this leaves you enough time do to that the day after you fly in and still head to Havana the following day.  After the second night, go to Havana and check out the city then fly out there. Varadero is a more relaxed experience than Havana but it was setup to cater to tourists so not extremely authentic feeling.

If you don’t care about scuba diving but only have 4 nights/5 days I would go in/out of Havana and head to Vinales rather than Varadero. I would structure it such that you get a weekend night in Havana if possible so you can check out one of the clubs. Again, I highly recommend Fabrica de Arte Cubano and going to Paladar la Esperanza near there for dinner beforehand. From there in Vinales I would go horseback riding, check out the cigar factories/plantations, check out the caves and go hiking. Vinales a more relaxed experience but still authentic.

san francisco, sailing to angel island, angel island, how to sail to angel island, oyster point, oyster point marina, cal 2-27
Big Cities California North America Travel United States

Sail to Angel Island in San Francisco from Oyster Point Marina

24 hour Sailing Trip to Angel Island, San Francisco, CA

We bought our Cal 2-27 sailboat last summer with the intent to learn how to sail then eventually sail to and overnight at Angel Island from our harbor, Oyster Point Marina, in South San Francisco. This weekend, we did it and had such a great time! If you’re looking to sail to Angel Island, we included a few tips, tricks and things we wish we knew ahead of time.

ayala cove, sail to angel island, sailing, cal 2-27, angel island, san francisco
Nearing Ayala Cove in Angel Island! Rodney’s so excited we made it before dark!

Where is Angel Island? Angel Island is located in the San Francisco Bay between Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and Tiburon. It’s only accessible by watercraft as there are no bridges to it which makes it a great hidden gem in the city. There are a handful of campsite you can reserve in advance if you wish to overnight, docks at Ayala Cove that can be used during the day for private boaters, ferry’s that go to and from the island for day visitors at Ayala Cove, and a handful of moorings for boaters that want to overnight there (also at Ayala Cove). It’s known for it’s hiking and biking paths along with great unobstructed views from the city and a bike of military history.

The great thing about leaving from South San Francisco is you can easily stop at a delicious restaurant called The Ramp. They have guest docks that are free, first come first serve basis and indoor as well as patio dining options that overlook the Bay. The food is great, too. We squeaked in right before their afternoon break and were able to grab a quick bite. This was a our first docking experience outside our harbor, too!

From there we went on our way under the Oakland Bay Bridge, alongside Alcatraz and as we waned to make our approach to Angel Island a huge tanker threw us off and we had to stall for about 15 minutes before heading toward the Island. It wouldn’t have been a big deal but sunset was approaching. As we entered the area of Sausalito, Belvedere, Tiburon, Angel Island – the water became very interesting. Certain areas had wave lines from the current changing directions (being diverted around the island vs. deep down the Bay, other areas had strong circular patterns). It was much different from our harbor and the outlining areas. Unfortunately, soon after we entered — the current and the winds died down and we motored the rest of the way in to Ayala Cove where the moorings were setup.

Angel Island itself has a lot of boating options during the day, but we arrived just as the sun was setting and were lucky enough that mooring options were still available. Seeing as this was our first mooring experience, a nice couple (Nick and Carmen) in another boat helped us rope up to the buoys with their dinghy. Thank goodness — there was no way we would have known what to do otherwise and we only had a kayak.

From what we heard, mooring at Angel island is somewhat atypical. They have a mooring system setup as indicated below. If the buoys look full, you can double up side by side in a rafting position so 2 boats are on each side of a buoy for 4 boats total connected to each. More information on boating and camping at Angel Island can be found here.

After we were tied up to the buoys we kayaked in for a hike on the island under the full moon (the island is accessible to boaters until 10pm), then made it back by 9:30 in time to head up some dinner and retire for the night. We used our kayak to release the ropes from the buoys in the morning and successfully avoided all the other boats (success). We made it out of the harbor just in time to witness leopard sea lions playing in the water. Their heads were popping up all over the still water as the sun was rising and the morning fog was drifting away. We motored to our breakfast spot, Sam’s Anchor Cafe, just as they opened at 9:30am and treated ourselves to a delicious meal overlooking our second non-harbor dock.

The rest of the afternoon was spent making our way back to our harbor which was slow going as there was no wind. But, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky so we enjoyed having the Bay all to ourselves (yes, no other sailboats were out — dead calm waters) and the calm air to get some drone shots from the boat (might as well take advantage of it). The tide changed in the SF Bay around 12:30 that day (1:05p at Oyster Point Marina) and as the tide was moving, there was a line of waves that came through. We were between Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge as this was happening and as we looked over, we saw a sea lion surfing the waves. Unfortunately the sea lion disappeared when the drone got close, but it was cool to see regardless.

Our little motor got us from the cafe at 10:30am to our harbor by 2pm which gave us enough time to pack up the boat, pick up the motorcycle and get an evening cruise in celebrating the time change and more daylight hours. Our trip maxed out around 12kts the first day (when we had wind) which is the fastest we’ve gone on our boat so far. The second day was much slower so no point in posting that.

thefasttrack

 Score Card for Angel Island: 6.5/10

  • Transportation: 5/10 (only accessibly by water but you can take a quick ferry over from Sausalito if you don’t have your own boat)
  • Price: 8/10 It’s a camping type location so not much to pay for however not much to buy, either. No shops on the island — you must bring everything you need
  • Safety: 8/10 It’s not a huge island but also not terribly tiny so those that visit hike a lot so the odds of something happening from another person are slim however you can twist an ankle or other hiking/biking type injuries
  • Food: 2/10 Little to no food options aside from the Angel Island Cantina but the camp sites have ways to cook and if you want, take a ferry back over to Tiburon or Sausalito for additional dining options, grocery stores or snack shops
  • Culture: 5/10 There are informationals but as it’s a nature park, there aren’t cultural opportunities
  • History: 6/10 There are informationals but the history is lacking as it isn’t an inhabited island
  • Excitement: 6/10 It has great hiking/biking options and if you brought a boat/kayak you can explore more of the coastline (some only accessible by kayak) but not much else.
  • Awe Inspiring: 7/10 (the landscape and experience are awe inspiring)
  • Technology Equipped: 4/10 Our cell and wifi service was intermittent but it’s nice if you’re looking to unplug.
  • Female Friendly: 9/10 (Because of the culture and the poverty, as a woman I felt mostly safe during the day (even when venturing into the communities) but wouldn’t want to drive around or walk around by myself at night)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 8/10 (if you like any of the activities listed, you would do well traveling here alone)
  • Language Barrier: 10/10 If you speak English you’ll be great

Where to go during your Angel Island Trip:

Downloadable Goolgle Map of where to go on your trip to Angel Island.

Interesting Facts about Angel Island:

  • Angel Island is known as the Ellis Island of the west as it was used as an immigration station that processed over 1 million Asian (primarily) immigrants from 1910 until 1940
  • During WWII it was a place used to confine war prisoners
  • It’s 1.2 square miles in size
  • It’s the largest island in the San Francisco Bay area
  • Between 1955 and 1962 it was also used as a radar missile site and you can hike to the Nike missile sites when you visit

Pro Tips for Traveling to Angel Island:

  • As any good sailor should, check the tides and winds in your area of departure as well as near Alcatraz and on the Tiburon side of Angel island
  • Make sure you have extra long mooring rope and a means to hook up to the buoys (kayak / dinghy)
  • Check your gas level before leaving and fill up, if the wind dies you’ll need to use the motor (which is often the case in the Angel Island inlet area).
  • Cache a map as the island has little to no service and although they have maps, it’s nice to have your bearings on your phone

Cost for traveling to Angel Island: $120 for 2 people for 1 night / 2 days

Alcatraz island, golden gate bridge, sail to angel island, san francisco
View of Golden Gate bridge as we passed Alcatraz

Itinerary for 24 hour Sailing trip to Angel Island

  • Saturday
    • 1:00pm reach the harbor and prep the boat
    • 1:30 pm leave Oyster Point Marina harbor heading toward the city
    • 3pm dock up at The Ramp and grab lunch
    • 4pm head back out toward the city
    • 5:30pm pass Alcatraz
    • 6:15pm arrive at Angel Island
    • 6:45pm setup with bouys
    • 7pm kayak over to the island for a full-moon hike
    • 9pm kayak back to the boat, make dinner, then head to bed
  • Sunday
    • 8:30am wake up and kayak out to undo the moorings
    • 9am head toward Tiburon
    • 9:30am arrive at Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon, dock up, have breakfast
    • 10:30am head toward the city (no wind, have to use motor)
    • 2pm arrive back at the harbor and clean up the boat

Unique Takeaways:

  • The area of Tiburon, Angel Island and Sausalito have a lot of visible marine life. We saw seals playing in the water, harbor porpoises and lots of birds.
angel island mooring, angel island sailing, sail to angel island, angel island trip
View when leaving Angel Island the next morning facing Golden Gate Bridge
angel island sailing, sail to angel island, alcatraz
The north side of Alcatraz as we made our way toward Angel Island
oakland bay bridge, view, sailing, sail to angel island, oyster point
View from under the Oakland Bay Bridge when we were sailing back to our Harbor, Oyster Point Marina
salomon speedcross gtx
Pro Tips

Our Favorite Shoes for Hiking and Travel

Our Favorite Shoes for Hiking and Travel

Most of our travels require comfy walking shoes, at bare minimum, if not full fledged hiking shoes. Being a former college cross country and track runner, I am a bit picky with athletic shoes. But, I fell in love with the Salomon Speedcross GTX trail/hiking/running shoes and haven’t purchased another brand or style since.

They retail for around $150 but you can find them on sale for around $120 or less if you hit it right.  My first pair I found on Ebay brand new for $76 (last one in that size available from the previous years version — salmon and yellow color) and my current pair I got shipped from a bike shop in Germany (again last one left in my size) for $108 including shipping (black with light blue stripes). REI often clears them out at the end of the season / release of a new version but, again, you need to hit it right and have a shoe size they still have left.  If that’s a little steep and you don’t need the Gortex, they have the ClimaShield and regular versions for lower retail prices and both versions come with the quick lace, comfort and same traction as the Gortex version.

We love the Speedcross GTX because:

  • Waterproof and Gortex layer makes them great in all weather conditions
  • Quick tie laces tuck into the tongue or can be undone and worn lose for easy on/off and never (from our experience) break
  • They wear well despite use and abuse
  • Overall very comfy
  • Great for gripping terrain
  • A lighter shoe than a traditional hiking shoe but with all the similar perks

I am hard on shoes as I usually have only one pair of outdoor shoes at a time and wear them for everything. With that being said, my last pair lasted nearly two years before I decided to replace them.

new zealand

la paz, whale shark diving, where to go whale shark diving
Mexico North America Travel

4 Days in La Paz, Mexico for Whale Shark Diving

4 days in La Paz, Mexico & Whale Shark Diving

It was my first time in La Paz and his second. With that being said, we had 4 days to make the most of our time in the city. The lure for us was whale shark diving and oh my, what an experience it was!

Where’s La Paz? La Paz is a city in the Baja California region of Mexico. It is the capital of Baja California, flanks the Sea of Cortez and is roughly 2 hours north of Cabo San Lucas.

What’s a Whale Shark? A whale shark looks like a creature you would get if you combined a whale and a shark. The body looks like shark but it has a mouth more like a whale (and isn’t interested in humans). But, it’s technically part of the shark family. They have a few hundred very small teeth as well as filter pads in their mouth. They take in gulps of water with tiny food particles and flush out the water, leaving the food on the filter pads for them to digest. The best part is they’re HUGE and docile, upwards of 40 feet long. Being next to a living creature that big is unreal. And, if you watched Finding Dory, Destiny is a whale shark!

La Paz is one of the few places you can find them as they migrate to La Paz every year in the winter months in search of warmer waters. The best time to go is late December through late February although they are there a few months prior and linger a few months after. Opposed to places like the Philippines that also have Whale Shark migration, La Paz has a greater abundance of food all within water that is only 20 feet deep or so. This allows for a lot of slow moving whale sharks that are guzzling up food particles to eat which is easier for people to view the big beasts easily opposed to swim a lot in order to keep up with them. However, it is important to note that because of the dense amount of food, it is also harder to get clear photos with the whale sharks in La Paz (unless you get lucky and have a very clear water day). Most of the photos we took only have part of the whale shark visible with the rest disappearing into the murky nutrient rich water.

To keep costs down, we flew into Cabo San Lucas, rented a car and drove 2 hours north to La Paz. La Paz has it’s own airport but the flights are usually more expensive so we saved a bit of money and wanted our own car anyway so it only cost us 2 hours of our time each direction. It’s good to note that you should have cash on hand (or pesos) as the drive from Cabo to La Paz and back has a toll you’ll need to pay.

We ventured out into the heart of the city the first night for dinner but the food wasn’t as good as another area he tried on his last trip. Granted, we didn’t know where to go and probably missed some great venues. However, our hotel, the Hyatt, was situated in a little touristy area called Costa Baja. For $75 a night we got free wifi, a heated pool, free breakfast, shuttle service to/from the city and very nice, modern rooms. Costa Baja Resort itself is a little gated community just up the way from the Hyatt (a longer walk or a 3 min drive). There are a handful of restaurants in there with indoor and outdoor seating that flank their private harbor. If you’re driving up, just let the gate agents know you’re there for dinner and they’ll let you right in. All the restaurants inside were amazing and despite ordering everything we wanted each night (as we typically only did dinner there and ate a large breakfast earlier in the day), the bill was usually around $40 for both of us including drinks and desserts.

la paz, hyatt, hotel, pool, view
View of the pool from the Hyatt hotel in La Paz!

 Score Card for La Paz: 6.5/10

  • Transportation: 6/10 (without a car you’re bound to very slow public transit or taxi’s. But, the roads are pretty well kept)
  • Price: 8/10 (The excursions were negotiable and the value was more than the cost, we ate like kings all for less than what we would spend at home on an entrée)
  • Safety: 6/10 (it’s a poor area so theft is plentiful but we didn’t get hassled the same way I did when I was in Cabo so I at least felt safer)
  • Food: 7/10 (Lots of great restaurants with authentic dishes)
  • Culture: 6/10 (There are a lot of art lining the street but as far as we could tell, very little festivals or the like that take place)
  • History: 6/10 (It’s an older city with a bit of history to learn about)
  • Excitement: 7/10 (it’s known for fun activities like ATVing, whale shark diving, boating, scuba diving, wind surfing, kite boarding and more)
  • Awe Inspiring: 7/10 (the landscape and experience are awe inspiring)
  • Technology Equipped: 6/10 (Our resort had wifi but service outside the area was spotty at best — although many restaurants offered free wifi services)
  • Female Friendly: 6/10 (Because of the culture and the poverty, as a woman I felt mostly safe during the day (even when venturing into the communities) but wouldn’t want to drive around or walk around by myself at night)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 6/10 (if you like any of the activities listed, you would do well traveling here alone)
  • Language Barrier: 7/10 (Most of the staff spoke English as they cater to tourists but in the authentic spots it was harder to understand each other)

Where to go in La Paz:

Downloadable map of where to go in La Paz through Google Maps.

Interesting Facts about La Paz:

  • In Mexico, the average worker makes $4.50 USD per day or about 70 pesos. It’s not a lot of money for one person to live off of let alone a family. They make ends meet by living in homes that were passed down from generation to generation along with furniture and vehicles they inherited, eating a lot of low cost staple foods like tortillas and rice (less meats and fish as they are more expensive), and minimal luxuries like electronics and travel.
  • La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur and located on the Sea of Cortez
  • Hurricane season is August through October and are nearly zero for all other months (although with global warming, this can change). It is highly recommended to get travelers insurance if you’re traveling during those months (especially late September and early October)
    • La Paz has been hit by Hurricane Newton in 2016, Odile in 2014 (most intense hurricane to make landfall in La Paz since the satellite area causing over $1.22 billion USD in damages), Paul in 2012 (causing $15.5 million USD in damages),  John in 2006 (causing $60.8 million 2006 USD in damages), etc.. This does not include the hurricanes that were reduced to heavy storms when they made landfall.
  • La Paz had police vehicles roaming the streets. It was quite a sight and much different from what I was use to in the US. The vehicles had flat backs kind of like a truck but with handle rests where they rested their machine guns. Usually there was a police office in the driver seat, the passenger seat and 2-3 men manning the machine guns in the back.
  • There are a lot of stray dogs walking around, most are friendly
  • Despite all the sun, the majority of La Paz is currently run on dirty diesel. There is too large of an upfront cost for the residents to put solar on their homes (especially when considering they make just $4.50 a day on average). However, on the utility side they just installed one of the largest solar arrays in Mexico which should help provide a renewable energy source for the locals.
hyatt, la paz, pool, sunset, harbor
Sunset view from Hyatt pool in La Paz overlooking the harbor

Pro Tips for Traveling to La Paz:

  • Cache a map if you’re doing a drive from Cabo to La Paz as service is spotty & you don’t want to get lost or run out of fuel
  • Workers do not make much in Mexico, treat them with respect and tip often as to help them make ends meet
  • When driving, look out for potholes
  • Most excursion vendors accepted USD as well as pesos and the conversion rate sounded fair
  • The hotel had the best rates for excursions, you could sign up early or the day of (as long as they had spots left) — greatly less expensive than online prices

Experience Highlights in La Paz:

Whale Shark Diving Private Tour With Cortez Club
Description: They provided wet suits, snorkel masks and flippers for us, there was a driver a guide and the two of us. It took them about 30 minutes to find the whale sharks then we went in and swam with them until we needed a break, got back in the boat, found them again, went back in and repeated. You can’t touch the whale sharks and they want you to keep a good distance from them (for their safety) but they often change directions and you find yourself face to face with them as they breeze past you. We were lucky and had 6 whale sharks out feeding with us that day and one looked to be around 40 feet in length. The guides go in the water with you and are there in case you panic. If you are a weak swimmer, claustrophobic or think you may panic I suggest you go with a smaller group so the guide can assist you as necessary. 
Cost: $99 per person
Hours: 8am – sunset but best hours are in the morning and early afternoon
Duration: 2.5 hours
Website: http://www.cortezclub.com/whale-sharks/
Notes: We went on a guided trip that was just the two of us and the guides. If you don’t mind a larger crowd, you can go on a group whale shark diving tour and find rates closer to $45USD per person.

whale share diving in la paz

la paz, whale shark diving, where to go whale shark diving
We got so close to the whale sharks! It was amazing!

whale share diving in la paz

Isla del Espiritu Santo with Sea Lion diving with Alonson Tours
Description: This was a group tour with 2 tour guides (1 driver that only spoke Spanish and a designated guide that spoke pretty good English) that provided a boat to take us to the Isla del Espiritu, a ceviche lunch, stops, and snorkeling with the sea lions. Unfortunately, the weather was extremely windy and the water was choppy. What normally is a 30 min boat ride turned into a turbulent 90 min boat ride to reach the island at which time we were told we had to adjust the schedule because the water was too rough to make it to the spot where the sea lions were at. Our adjusted itinerary once we arrived at the island included snorkeling at a nearby reef where we saw lots of different fish and star fish, turtle sightings, bird watch, a beach stop where we had lunch provided by the captain, then a trek back where we stopped at a tiny island where the ‘rejected’ sea lions go and at which time we were allowed to swim and snorkel with them.
Cost: $36 per person
Hours: 10am departure from the hotel to the harbor
Duration: 5 hours
Website: http://www.alonsotours.com
Notes: It was unfortunate that the weather turned from the day prior, it was much more chilly out and the boat ride to the island due to the wind was unpleasant. However, it was well worth the money and a great way to experience more of the rich biodiversity from fish to birds and more. We suggest taking your own snorkel mask if you have one (although they do provide you one along with a wet suit if you want). Also be sure to bring towels, wardrobe appropriate for the weather, sunglasses and a water bottle! They were nice enough to drop us off at our hotels harbor, too!

la paz
This was just off the shores of the island, we were situated in a cove and the wind was calmer.

Cost for traveling to La Paz: $1282 for 2 people for 4 nights / 5 days

  • $270 Round Trip flight from SFO to Cabo San Lucas x 2
  • $99 Whale Shark Diving x 2
  • $300 Hotel for 4 nights/5 days
  • $104 car rental for 4 nights/5 days
  • $36 Isla del Espiritu Santo cruise, snorkel and swim with sea lions x 2
  • $240 Meals and snacks
  • $98 gas and tolls
costabaja, costa baja, restaurant, la paz, mexico, good food
Everything was amazing but we were blown away by how delicious the vegetables were! I’ve had a lot of salads and these places had lettuce with so much flavor. We found out it’s grown organically and locally!
costabaja, costa baja, restaurant, la paz, mexico, good food
The entrance to the Costa Baja Resort with a lot of amazing restaurants!
costabaja, costa baja, restaurant, la paz, mexico, good food
One of the restaurants we loved was Azul Marino.

Itinerary for 5 days in La Paz from Cabo

  • Thursday
    • 12:30am SFO to LAX to SJD (San Jose del Cabo)
    • 7pm grab dinner at a wing stop
    • 9pm make it to the hotel and relax
  • Friday
    • 8am have breakfast at the hotel
    • 10am check out the local solar installation as well as the destruction from the previous hurricane
    • 1pm grab a traditional mexican lunch
    • 2pm tour more of the city by car
    • 6:30pm head back to the hotel
    • 7:30pm have dinner in Costa Baja resort
    • 9pm try out our snorkel gear in the hotel’s heated pool to prep for whale shark diving the next day
  • Saturday
    • 8am have breakfast at the hotel
    • 9:30 am leave for the harbor to go whale shark diving
    • 10am get suited up, situated and head out to see the whale sharks
    • 11:45am back in the harbor and driving back to the hotel
    • noon hanging out in the pool at the hotel
    • 1pm venture into the city by car checking out the promenade, art on the promenade, neighborhoods and he taught me to drive stick. Got ample photos /  videos and drone shots of authentic La Paz
    • 6:30pm head back to the hotel after catching the sunset
    • 7pm get ready for dinner
    • 7:30pm head out to dinner in Costa Baja
    • 9:30pm head back to the hotel and head to bed
  • Sunday
    • 8am have breakfast
    • 10am catch the shuttle to the harbor for the Isla del Espiritu Santo cruise + snorkel + swim with sea lions
    • 5pm make it back to the hotel and hop in the heated pool to warm up!
    • 6pm take a nap and review photos/videos from that day and the day prior
    • 8pm head out to dinner in Costa Baja with friends we met there the night prior
    • 10pm head back to the hotel and head to bed
  • Monday
    • 8am have breakfast and pack
    • 9:30am hit the road toward San Jose Del Cabo (Cabo San Lucas)
    • 1:32pm SJD to SFO

Unique Takeaways:

  • It’s a great city to go to especially if you’re looking for something a little more sleepy than Cabo. They don’t have the hagglers, you can walk most places without feeling threatened and it’s really easy to keep your costs down but still take part in amazing excursions.
This is a map art piece in the Hyatt hotel of La Paz, the island is Isla Espiritu Santo
Pro Tips

Best Cellphone Provider for International Travelers

What’s the Best Cellphone Provider for International Travelers?

If you are looking for the best cellphone provider to use at home and during international travel with the United States as your home base, it’s hands down T-Mobile.  T-Mobile and AT&T both run on the GSM (Global System for Mobiles) network. This is the only system that is setup for international use of your phone because most other places in the world run their cellular networks on GSM as well.  CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is the other network and it represents the other players in the industry like Verizon, Sprint and US Cellular and is nearly exclusive to the US.

I choose T-Mobile over AT&T because they over free unlimited international data and texting, and calls are anywhere from free to $0.20 per minute depending on where you’re going. You can find a call cost breakdown here.  Plus, you don’t have to add any package to your plan to get these perks (although you do have to opt in which takes just a few minutes in a store or on the phone to complete). My cell service in Tokyo, New Zealand, Mexico and France were perfect. The data is sometimes brought down to 2G depending on where I’m at (so it can be slow) but it’s working and at no additional charge, so I love it.

T-Mobile has a series of single line and family plans with no contract that work with all the top cellphones like the iPhone, Google Phones and Samsung devices.

If you are on a CDMA network already and don’t want to switch providers, you have a few options.

  1. You can get a sim card prior to when you leave the country then buy a burner phone to put the sim card into upon arrival to make/receive all your calls/texts/data needs.
  2. You can forego getting a SIM and just get a burner phone for the trip as a emergency backup and depending on the burner phone, install necessary apps or browse the internet as you see fit

If you do work while you travel for fun, getting a T-Mobile or AT&T phone that you can take with is the better option than relying on a burner phone (in my opinion).

Hope this helps! Safe travels!

Big Cities California North America Travel United States

All the Places you MUST SEE in San Francisco in 72 hours

All the Places you MUST SEE in San Francisco

We live in San Francisco (and have been since 2013) but recently gave his sister and her husband a trip to SF to visit us as their wedding gift. Their trip was short, just a weekend, so we had to reflect and think of about all the things they must see and do while visiting this fabulous city. It was her second time visiting (she came once when Rodney moved) but it was her husbands first.

We broke the trip down into things they needed to see, do and things they would enjoy and scoured the local events and experiences to come up with fillers in the event there was a dull moment.

pixar tour, pixar office, pixar, san francisco, emeryville
Pixar Tour! Big kids for the day!

Score Card: 6/10

  • Transportation: 8/10 (From ride shares to public transportation to car rentals to scooter rentals to bike rentals and more. There are options for everyone, although some are a bit more pricey than others.)
  • Price: 3/10 (Everything is expensive in the city — from lodging to food to excursions to tickets. But with a little time and effort you can find good deals)
  • Safety: 6/10 (San Francisco is generally safe but it does have a few sketchy areas (the Tenderloin) and is known for car theft)
  • Food: 7/10 (people rave about the dining options, experiences and quality. With a lot of trendy spots as well as mom and pop shops, everything is good but you’ll need to check reviews if you want to find things that are great)
  • Culture: 6/10 (Different neighborhoods offer difference experience, each with their own culture. The city as a whole has the underlying tech vibe. Regardless, it’s a big city that is somewhat normalized to current trends)
  • History: 7/10 (Being a major port, it has a lot of military history, architectural wonders and natural event information (like earthquakes and fault lines) to be learned)
  • Excitement: 6/10 (You’ll have to seek out the exciting experiences but they’re there)
  • Awe Inspiring: 6/10 (Some of the buildings and natural landmarks are awe inspiring)
  • Technology Equipped: 8/10 (data and GPS throughout in most areas)
  • Female Friendly: 7/10 (Aside from a few sketchy areas, it’s a female friendly city.)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 7/10 (A solo traveler can easily find themselves with things to see/do/experience and ways to meet people)
  • Language Barrier: 10/10 (As long as you speak English you’re good to go)

Where to go:

Pro Tips:

  • Check out Goldstar, Groupon, Gilt, and FindTicketsFast for good restaurant, event and experience deals!
  • Rush tickets are available for the Symphony and only cost $20. There is a hotline you can call after 6pm the day prior (or Friday after 6pm for weekend shows) and it will tell you if they will have Rush tickets. If they do, you need to be there right when the box office opens as it’s a first come first serve basis and (I believe) you can only buy 2 per person.
  • If you have friends or connections at Google, YouTube, Pixar, Tesla, Facebook, Apple they can take you on a tour. (But, if you do not — it is much harder to get a tour)
  • Punchline and Cobbs comedy clubs both give away tickets to their shows frequently. Sign up for the text messages and see if you can ‘win’ 2 free tickets during your trip!
lombard street, view, photo, san francisco, crooked street, zigzag street
At the bottom of Lombard Street

Experience Highlights:

Costs: $984 for 4 days/3 nights of events for 4 people

  • $38.50 Symphony tickets (we found a good deal) x 4 people
  • $500 Meals, groceries and random items for everyone for the weekend
  • Free Accommodations (they stayed with us)
  • Free Punchline tickets (won them)
  • Free Pixar tour (hooked up by a friend)
  • Free Helicopter tour (hooked up by a friend (score))
  • $150 RT Flights from SLC to SFO x 2 people
  • $15 Uber in the rain each way for the symphony x 2 ways
  • Fun with family — priceless
sutro tower, twin peaks, san francisco, view
Top of twin peaks / Sutro tower looking out over the city! Bundle up — it gets cold out there!

Itinerary

  • Thursday
    • 9:15pm Landed in OAK, scooped up and brough them to our place
  •  Friday
    • 8am Jog to and around Dolores Park
    • 9am Breakfast at Universal Cafe
    • 11:30am Pixar tour (courtesy of Rodney’s friend & lunch)
    • 3pm Sailing from Oyster Point Marina to the Bay Bridge and Back
    • 10pm Punchline Comedy Club
  • Saturday
    • SF Tour 8am:
      • Fort Funston National Park, San Francisco, CA 94118  (dog park / hang gliding / horse tours + great view)
      • Beach Chalet (for breakfast/lunch/dinner, good view of the beach and right by GG park)(1000 Great Hwy., San Francisco, CA 94121)
      • Golden Gate Park (GG Park)
        • Floor 9 of De Young Art Museum for 360* views of the city (it’s FREE except on Tuesday when it’s closed)
        • Stow Lake for paddle boat rentals (by the hour, bring bird feed if you want to attract the birds)
        • Huge Windmills near the entrance on the Great Highway side/Beach side
        • Buffalo’s at 1237 John F Kennedy Dr. in San Francisco, CA 94121
        • Archery at Golden Gate Park (47th & Fulton area), (take lessons/rent equipment at the San Francisco Archery Shop a short drive away)
      • Sutro Baths / Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121
        • You can walk to Lands End path and from there do a quick hike to Baker Beach where you can see the Golden Gate bridge from the ocean side
      • Marin Headlands (other end of Golden Gate Bridge) for a photo opportunity
        • GPS: 5702 Conzelman Rd Mill Valley, CA 94941
      • Muir Woods (redwood forest we’re well known for)
        • GPS 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley CA 94941
      • Stinston Beach / Highway 1
        • GPS 101 Calle Del Mar, Stinson Beach CA 94970 (parking lot turn in is right there)
        • Amazing Vista points on the drive there for amazing coastal views
        • Check to see if there are any road closures before going, if so — skip. Often with earthquakes and storms, parts of highway 1 will be eroded and closed.
      • Picture from Under Golden Gate Bridge
        • Drive to: 983 Marine Drive, San Francisco (Fort Point)
        • Assuming the brown building (Fort Point) is open, go in and take the stairs all the way up. From the roof (open to the public) you get sweeping uninterrupted views of the Golden Gate bridge
        • Crissy Field is just down the way from here — huge park where people picnic and have fun events outside
      • Lombard Street (most crooked street)
        • 2234 Leavenworth St, San Francisco, CA
      • Palace of Fine Arts
        • 3301 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123
        • Was erected as part of the 1915 Worlds Fair (everything else was taken down, one of the few remaining areas from the exposition). During that exposition they had the first call across the country (from New York to San Francsico)
      • Fisherman’s Warf
        • Go to Ghirardelli Square
        • Check out the touristy shops and get a good deal on souvenirs
        • Grab a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin
        • Musee Mecanique for the penny arcadesbut I think they’re at least a quarter to play now
        • Walk down to Pier 39 and see the sea lions
      • Alcatraz Tour (tickets usually need to be booked in advance, if you can get tickets for the night tour I think it’s a better experience than the day tour)
      • Coit Tower
        • 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd, San Francsico, CA
        • I’d skip the tour from inside but feel free to make the walk up the stairs if you’re in good shape (drive up otherwise) and get some photos of the skyline (and Lombard street) from there
      • Ferry building (they have tons of places to eat inside)
        • 1 Sausalito – San Francisco Ferry bldg, San Francisco, CA 94111
      • Cupid’s Span (HUGE Bow & Arrow on Embarcadero, SF Google building is near there, too)
        • Embarcadero & Folsom St, San Francisco
        • Great night views / photo opportunities with the Bay Bright decked out in lights
      • FullHouse house aka the Painted Ladies aka Alamo Square
        • GPS 1709 Broderick San Francisco, CA 94115
      • Twin Peaks / Sutro Tower (good spot to see all of SF)
        • 501 Twin Peaks Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94114
    • 5pm Relaxed a bit
    • 6:30pm Went and grabbed sushi at Blowfish Sushi
    • 7:30pm Headed to Davis center for the San Francisco Symphony
    • 10pm went to Treasure Island to see the San Francisco skyline at night
    • 11pm grabbed dessert at Cream in the Mission
  • Sunday
    • Breakfast at Atlas cafe
    • 9am Church
    • 10:30am mini work meeting / break
    • noon lunch
    • 1:30pm Helicopter tour of the city
    • 2:30pm Bocce ball in the park
    • 4pm Trip to the airport / flight home out of SJC
  • Other Things we didn’t get a chance to do but are highly recommended:
    • Riding the Cable Cars
    • Walk/Bike over Golden Gate Bridge
    • Do the GoCar tour (in those yellow 2 seater cars)
    • Go to Union Square for ice skating if you’re visiting in the winter
    • If you’re there during baseball season and don’t have time to go to a game but there is a home game going on – walk to the East side (waterfront promenade) of AT&T park, there is an area you can walk into that lines up with the outfield and you can watch some of the game! Great place for an afternoon run as well if a game is going on, just pop in! Should be toward the center of that side of the stadium.
    • Complimentary SF Walking tours if the schedule matches with yours, great info http://www.sfcityguides.org/
Golden Gate Bridge, san franisco, view from under, unique view
One of the many cool views from Under the Golden Gate Bridge

Into Food? Check out these great San Francisco Food and Drinks spots

  • Tonga Room at the Fairmont (good drinks/apps, eclectic venue – tiki inspired, and it rains from the ceiling plus boat on the indoor lake where a band plays): 950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108
  • RN 74 (drinks): 301 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94105
  • 25 Lusk (drinks): 25 Lusk St, San Francisco, CA 94107
  • La Mar (Embarcadero) Peruvian: Pier 1.5 The Embarcadero
  • El Techo de Lolinda (Mission District – rooftop bar/restaurant) Mexican: 2518 Mission St, San Francisco, CA
  • French Laundry (Napa/Sonoma – Yountville) Fine Dining (reservations are hard to get)
  • SPQR (Japan Town) Modern / Italian: 1911 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115
  • Swan Oyster Depot (Nob Hill) Oysters: 1517 Polk St.. San Francisco, Ca 94109
  • NOPA (Nopa) Late night & brunch: 560 Divisadero St, San Francisco
  • Elephant Sushi (Russian Hill) Sushi
  • The Cliff House (Outer Richmond) casual to fine dining, amazing view
  • Club Deluxe (Jazz spot 1511 Haight Street, San Francisco , CA)
  • Blue Bottle (coffee spot): Various around the city
  • Bourbon & Branch (Drinks, reservations required): 501 Jones St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Have More Time? Hit up these favorites

  • Nightlife at the Cal Academy (every Thursday from 6-10pm, 21+)
  • Exploratorium After Dark (every Thursday 6-10p, 21+ only)
  • Hike Mission Peak (Fremont, CA / East Bay)
  • Surf at Pacifica (surf rental shop Sonlight Surfshop 575 Crespi Dr Suite 1 Pacifica, CA 94044 or NorCal)
  • Angel Island, only accessibly by boat but if you can get there take a bike ride around
  • Google Tour (1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View, CA 94043)
  • Dolores Park (they have movie nights on occasion)
  • Sausalito Art Fair (grab food at The Barrel House after, be sure to request a seat outside – beautiful view)
  • Kayak/boat out to the East side of the AT&T stadium during a baseball game and wait for balls
  • Ferry from SF to Sausalito (grab food/drinks at Barrel House, be sure to get a seat on the upper level outside for a fabulous view!)
  • Armory Studios tour
  • Mini golf at Urban Putt (in the Mission)
  • Off the Grid (food trucks galore) in the Marina area
  • Saddle Rack (country bar in Fremont / East Bay, bull ride and all for the country lovers)
san francisco sailing, sailing on the bay, cal 2-27, cal 227, cal 2 27, sailboat, california
Sailing on the San Francsico Bay in our Cal 2-27