Category Archives: Regions

Arlington, Virginia’s Top 4 Basecamps for Hikers

Arlington, Virginia has a lot more to offer than government buildings! With miles of trails and parks scattered across northern Virginia, travelers looking to get away from the urban jungle of D.C. have a variety of trekking options. We found four places in and around Arlington to discover!

1. Potomac Overlook Regional Park – Key Bridge Marriott

A great option for families, Potomac Overlook Regional Park boasts well-maintained trails, averaging 2 miles each, known for their pleasant woodland environment and perfect for an easy stroll. Hikers can also unwind by checking out the park’s nature center and outdoor summer concert series, all while enjoying a picnic. The Key Bridge Marriott is a less than 10 minute drive from the park, and provides comfort and convenience at a hard-to-beat price.

2. Glencarlyn Park – Comfort Inn Arlington Boulevard

Another great option for hikers looking for a slower pace, the beautiful and secluded Glencarlyn Park’s nearly 100 acres feature picnic shelters, fishing, and nature trails, like the Four Mile Run, perfect for a stroll. A bonus for those wishing to bring along a furry friend – Glencarlyn boasts a well-loved dog park! Conveniently located 5 minutes away by car, the Comfort Inn Arlington Boulevard is the perfect place to unwind after a day spent exploring Glencarlyn.

3. Martha Custis Trail – The Westin Arlington Gateway

For more experienced hikers, the Martha Custis Trail, a 4 mile “point-to-point” trail (one designed to be walked from one point to another) is located near Arlington and rated as difficult due to its hilly vistas. The trail is accessible year-round and connects to the Key Bridge into Georgetown and to the Mount Vernon Trail. Those wishing to stay as close as possible to the Custis trail should look no further than the Westin Arlington Gateway, which is just a 5 minute drive, or a 25 minute walk, away. The Westin Arlington Gateway is also conveniently located within two blocks of the Ballston Metro Station, for those wishing to venture into nearby Washington, D.C.

4. C&O Canal Towpath – Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge

Running from D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood all the way to Point of Rocks, Maryland for a whopping 185 miles, the C&O Canal Towpath trail is a must for history buffs with a taste for the outdoors. Those looking to stay overnight during their hike have 30 campgrounds, located along the entire length of the trail, to choose from, all of which are free and operating on a first-come-first served basis. There are also restored “lockhouses,” for interested lodgers, which were originally used to house employees of the canal. The Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge is just a five minute drive from the Georgetown portion of the trail, which features historic barge rides along the canal.

Mongolian Wrestling: From Genghis Khan to Modern Day Mongolia

Seated on a grassy field in the afternoon light, a panel of serious looking judges survey the competitors before them. Half a dozen bare chested men, feet planted squarely on the ground, stretch their muscles and roll their shoulders, some, adjusting their outfits.

And how striking they are! Pink cropped jackets are fastened loosely with string over the men’s stomachs, and below, cling snug blue briefs. Calf-high leather boots and a four sided pointed hat completes the ensemble. To an outsider, it seems oddly incongruous to the men’s broad shouldered and fighter honed bodies. For these are Mongolian wrestlers: practitioners of a set of techniques, thousands of years old known as Bökh, or ‘durability’.

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Nicknamed one of Mongolia’s “three manly sports” (the others being archery and horse racing, san saddle, which girls and women now participate in), wrestling is to Mongolians what soccer is to Brazilians. So much more than just athleticism, wrestling here, embodies the traditions of Mongolian culture as far back as Genghis Khan. The ruthlessly successful 13th century conqueror encouraged his men to stay battle ready through training in what was then, a military sport. Even further back, cave paintings have been discovered in the Bayankhongor region of Southern Mongolia dating from 7000 BC, which depict men grappling in front of crowds.

And while the country is changing at an increasing rate, wrought by a mining boom attracting big international investment, little has changed within Mongolia’s wrestling heritage.

This month, it’s Naadam (‘game’ in English), Mongolia’s annual sporting festival, which celebrates all three traditional endeavours. But it’s wrestling in particular that draws the crowds.

“Wrestlers are the ideal Mongolian men, given our history of being warriors,” explains Lkhagva Erdene, the Executive Producer of Mongol TV, which covers the games every year.

And it takes a lot of work to live up to the expectations of a nation.

“Most wrestlers are in their training camps now. They are forbidden from talking to family or friends during the intense weeks before Naadam, and they will not talk to strangers; it’s bad luck for them.”

The hunt for Mongolia’s top wrestler begins on July 11th, the start of Naadam and Mongolia’s Independence Day. It will be decided over three days.

Preliminary rounds are held on a smaller scale in the countryside, in a provincial stadium or even an open field. The finals are held in the National Sports Stadium of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city.

The countdown has already begun.

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Batbileg Munkhtur trains with national wrestlers from all over the country.

“What’s unique about Mongolian wrestling for me is there are no weight categories and almost unlimited time for the competition.”

Whether skinny, fat, short, tall, young or old, fighters can be paired with each other. Each round is a knockout, with the winner moving forward and the loser being eliminated from the competition.

The rules themselves are very simple: the first man whose back, bum or knee touches the ground, loses. Hitting your opponent, gouging or strangling him is forbidden. Naturally.

“Techniques wise, they can be as sophisticated and elegant as judo.” enthuses Munkhtur.

Grappling holds, leg sweeps, throws and counters can see a man weighing more than 350 lbs lifted cleanly through the air, spiralling over an opponent’s shoulder before being slammed onto the ground.
However, the ceremony begins with a little more grace.

Each wrestler performs a short eagle dance (“devekh”) around the flag of Mongolia, followed by a few slaps on the thighs. Imitating an eagle has it’s origins in shamanism, a form of spirituality still alive in Mongolia despite the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century. The symbolism of the fighter’s dance represents power and elegance. The thigh slaps indicate the wrestler is ready.

Then, with hands gripped tightly onto each others arms, the fight begins.

Renown wrestlers, and those who advance to the higher rounds, also have a zasuul, or “fixer”, who acts both as a motivator, and the fighter’s hat holder during his rounds. Whilst there is technically no time limit, one of the zasuul’s roles is to slap the buttocks of his fighter, if he is deemed to be taking too long. Sometimes eliciting a friendly laugh from the crowd, it seems to do the trick.

As the games progress, wrestlers will begin to accumulate titles. The lowest rank awarded is ‘the Falcon of Sum’, and the highest is ‘Giant’. They get longer as fighters win more victories, with additional reverence being added. For example, a ‘Titan’ can become an ‘Invincible Titan’ and even an ‘Invincible Titan to be remembered by all’.

Munkhtur also stresses the importance of tradition.
“Mongolian wrestling is embedded with a lot of cultural aspects.”

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Indeed, the hard and fast of training in the physical techniques of grappling is still coupled with the old legends. Even the wrestling uniform is explained through folklore. The story goes that the reason for the frontless jackets is that there was once a skilled champion who remained unbeatable in many regions. Eventually, the other fighters discovered that their opponent was in fact a woman! Ever since, wrestlers have had to compete bare-chested, to avoid such duplicity occurring again.

Genghis Khan is even said to have had political rivals killed off in bouts.

It seems unthinkable that this remembrance of Mongolia’s past, both real and imagined, will ever change. Yet the balance of ancient and modern in Mongolia is clearly starting to shift. More than a decade-long mineral boom has introduced a taste for Western pleasures to one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth. Shiny Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores glint invitingly in Ulaanbaatar. Many tour companies now give quotes for their travel packages in $US rather than Mongolian Tugriks. And even for wrestlers, there’s the chance to get a slice of the burgeoning wealth within their country. Becoming a champion can be a gateway into politics aor a lucrative business.
All this goes on every year, largely overlooked by the Western world. Indeed, Americans seem to have largely forgotten the immense Asian nation, nestled between Russia and China. (At 1.6 million km², Mongolia is nearly as large as Alaska). Apart from a brief spike of interest in the 1920’s, when American Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, said to be the real life inspiration for Indiana Jones (fewer hearts being ripped out and more dangerous encounters with bandits and wild beasts) discovered the first dinosaur eggs buried in the Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Across America, a dinosaur craze ensued, and Mongolia was put on the map. Briefly.

It’s time to take notice again.

Open to the Western world since 1990, the “Land of Blue Sky” is one of the few places on earth where travellers can still glimpse the lives of true nomadic peoples. It’s so called because there are said to be about 250 sunny days throughout each year.

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Make the most of the clear weather and head out of Ulaanbaatar. US passport holders don’t have to pay for a 90 day tourist visa, which is more than enough time to explore the far corners of the countryside of Mongolia, where the diversity can be extreme. More than just rolling grassy steppes, there are the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, the permafrost ice valley in Yolyn Am and the thick forests and lakes of Khövsgöl, the “Switzerland of Mongolia.”

Despite all the talk these days of the world getting smaller, that sense does not exist in Mongolia. In a country so large with only 2.8 million inhabitants, you could drive for the better part of a day without seeing a single other soul. With such little light pollution, and hardly any evidence of human construction marring the horizon, the sky became truly vast.

By day, you’ll never have seen a sky stretching out so far. At night, the stars blaze undimmed by any obfuscation.

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For those of you who fancy your chances, the countryside is also the place to try your hand at Mongolian wrestling. Just remember to tell any tour companies back in Ulaanbaatar that you’re interested, whilst asking for package quotes. All participants must be registered in advance.

Yes, sure, there is a lot that’s unique about Mongolia. Throat singing, staying in yurts (called gers) with nomads and shamanism are all big tourist draws. But, unlike those more exotic pursuits, there’s something about close contact competitive fighting that is so much more elemental. Just look at the huge interest in the West in MMA and boxing matches. Somehow, that makes wrestling more relatable.
So what does Munkhtur think will be occupying the thoughts of every Mongolian wrestler right now?
“Rank. Rank is in their minds.”

He explains that a wrestler’s title can only be decided by the hotly contested bouts of Naadam, and not in any other competition. Once earned, they last for life.

And when this year’s games are over, thousands of wrestler’s hopes will spark again. Maybe next year will be theirs.

Maybe next year will connect them to nine thousand years of history, as they simultaneously become a new face of modern Mongolia.

7 Things To Know Before Traveling to Cuba

While adventurous travelers are urged to visit  Cuba before authenticity goes the way of a Starbucks on every corner, travelers should take a little extra time preparing, as heading to the island still isn’t that easy.  Whether planning to spend time relaxing on sandy beaches or exploring on a bike, the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero  are a great options for those just seeking some R&R.  Just note the following before booking your trip:

  1. Prep for the Sky

Direct flights from the US are still scarce and expensive, but that’s bound to change. Make sure to purchase traveler’s insurance when purchasing tickets — it is required to enter Cuba, and customs will likely do an insurance inspection upon arrival in Havana. Regardless of the route take to get there, get to the airport at least three hours before departure time, as check-in procedures are bound to take longer than usual.

  1. Go off the grid

Most hotels will have Internet cards for sale, and Wi-Fi in their lobbies, but with no real infrastructure, access is always spotty. To avoid frustrations, book any tours or activities, before arrival. Download local maps or purchase paper ones, and print out all travel documents that may be needed while abroad.

  1. Get around

Vintage cars converted into taxis are everywhere in Havana, and as glamorous as that may seem, it is important to note that they are not retrofitted. Beware that most cars, both government and privately owned, will have no seat belts, no air-conditioning, and no meters, even though they are supposedly mandatory.

  1. Get rid of the Benjamins

Cuba has two currencies, the CUC (Cuban Dollar) and the CUP (Cuban National Peso.) Tourists should exchange their cash into CUCs, as non-Cubans are not supposed to be in possession of CUPs.

There are very few ATMs around, but if if withdrawing cash is a must, the best bet is to do so at the Havana airport upon arrival.

Exchange rates are horrible for American dollars, and much better for Euros and Pounds—consider exchanging dollars into Euros before heading to Havana, and then exchange them into CUCs once in Cuba.

This may change in the near future, but as of now, it is nearly impossible to use credit cards to pay for anything in Cuba. In any case, make sure to inform the bank and credit card companies about any travel.

  1. Try the Cubano

There is still a heavy embargo on food, so meals may not be as spectacular as expected.  As a rule, “paladares” or privately owned restaurants will always be much better than government-run eateries. When in doubt, stick with local fruit, coffee with milk or “cafe con leche” and a Cubano sandwich, known in Cuba as a “jamon con queso.”

  1. Pack it light

Small doorways and cobblestone streets are not conducive to carrying a lot of luggage. With 24.1 billion bags being mishandled by airlines each year,  there is an advantage to packing all the essentials in a carry-on. Even bare necessities can be hard to track down in Havana,  so try to anticipate any needs.  Forgetting a toothbrush, means it may be days before finding one for purchase.

  1. Learn a lesson

A Spanish phrase here and there will go a long way with the locals. Most people will want to chat but very little english is spoken outside of the resorts. Any effort to speak the language will tend to be appreciated. For those looking to enjoy some salsa dancing, take a couple classes before embarking on the trip. Lessons will only better the odds for joining in on the fun on the dance floor!

5 Reasons to Fall In Love With Nepal

kind peopleThe country of Nepal is truly an incredible place in every sense of the word. From the spectacular Himalayan Mountains to the delicious food, travel Nepal and the country will win your heart. As someone whose heart has been captured by the beauty of Nepal, I would love to share with you a few reasons I believe you will also leave after a trip feeling like Nepal as somehow become a part of you.

The Kind People

I’m not sure if the word “kind” is even great enough of a word to describe the Nepali people. They are gracious, hospitable, genuine, compassionate, fun-loving, forgiving and accepting.  Everything a tourist could ask for, right? After spending ten plus years in Nepal, I really don’t have anything negative to say about the heart of the people. As a whole they are everything you could ask for in a people group. Spend time with them, ask them questions and you will see for yourself the hearts of gold that I am talking about.

The Tasty Food

“Tasty” is a English word that the Nepalis love to use. You will hear it in conversations, see it written on food packaging and even see it on signs above restaurants. When it comes to the food of Nepal, I can honestly say it is some of the best in the world. It is a blend between the exotic food of India and the more traditional food of the Asian hill tribes.

One of the most typical daily meals is called “dahl baht”. The literal translation of this is “rice and lentils”. The lentils go on top of the rice and are served with some type of sautéed and seasoned vegetable. If you are offered a spoon of red paste you may want to politely decline as it will mostly likely be the family’s homemade chili sauce. Don’t expect to eat a lot of meat as meat is a specialty in Nepali culture, saved for memorable occasions. As for dessert, you will most likely be served a variety of delicious fruit.

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The Unforgettable View

The gorgeous view of the snow-capped Himalayan mountain range is literally one that will be impossible to forget. In the capital city of Kathmandu, the entire mountain range visibly encircles a large part of the city. You will feel as though we were in a fairy tale. You cannot escape these awesome mountains. No matter where you travel in Kathmandu, you will find yourself gazing at this spectacular series of white mountains reaching up into the crisp, blue sky.

The Romantic Culture

Not only does the snow-capped mountains and delicious food set the scene for romance, but the culture itself does so as well. The women dress in elegant wraps of beautifully designed fabric and the men also love to dress in their dignified traditional wear. Wild flowers fill the side of the nearby hills and almost every home and hotel is dressed with a manicured garden. The Nepali people love to dance, love music, love art and most of all, love to have fun. It is normal to see friends break out in song as they walk down the street or see a grandfather get out his instrument after dinner with the family. It’s a country where you can easily sit back, relax and enjoy the romance of the culture.

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The Adventurous Opportunities 

Whether it is elephant riding, rock climbing, hillside yak riding, mountain hiking, zip lining, white water rafting or climbing to the top of Mount Everest, you will be given endless opportunities to explore the adventurous side of Nepal.  Make sure you don’t stay in Kathmandu the whole time and take the chance of exploring some mountain towns. I can promise that you won’t be disappointed. I will warn you, however, to prepare yourself for a taxi ride into the mountains in the very same way you would prepare yourself for a rollercoaster at a fair!

All this to say Nepal is a stunning country and there will be countless reasons why you won’t want to leave. Take your time, enjoy every moment and make sure to say “Namaste” to everyone!

Steve Halvorson

Jenna Halvorson is an entrepreneur, avid traveler, and the Director of Marketing for Volunteer Card (www.volunteercard.com), a travel insurance provider. While her parents are American, she was born in Nepal and grew up in Nepal, India, and Thailand.

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Thoughts after 1 Week in Medellin

I’ve been in Medellin, Colombia for 1 week. The question I get from everyone I speak to…

How’s Colombia?

In short, it’s great. There is a great vibe here. A few details…

  • I’m staying in a 4 bedroom apartment in the Laureles neighborhood, with Will Moyer (OHW’s designer) and two other expats from the states.
  • The expat scene is largely English teachers and digital nomads working on various online businesses.
  • Many (most) of the locals don’t speak English, which makes me feel helpless at times. “Yo hablo un poco Espanol.
  • Wifi is very reliable, I’ve had no problems with Skype calls as of yet from my apartment. Some of the cafes have too much background noise to make calls from though.
  • Java Bean Cafe is great.
  • Taxi drivers don’t have a clue. But I guess that’s no different than many other cities abroad. Drivers don’t have GPS enabled phones like Uber and Lyft drivers, which certainly makes it harder to navigate.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the city (at least where I am living) seems safe.

I haven’t really ventured outside the city yet for any excursions, but I’ve still got three weeks until I leave on the 29th. If you have any recommendations for things to do or contacts I should reach out to, please do let me know in the comments.

Drew Meyers

Drew Meyers is the co-founder of Horizon & Oh Hey World. He worked for Zillow from September of 2005 to January of 2010 on the marketing team managing Zillow’s API program and various online partnerships. Founder of Geek Estate Blog, a multi-author blog focused on real estate technology for real estate professionals, and myKRO.org, a blog devoted to exploring the world of microfinance. As passionate as you get about travel.

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My Life-Changing Trip to Kazantip

party_at_nightWhen I told my friends in Ukraine that I wanted to come see them next summer, they suggested going to Kazantip along with them. That wasn’t the first time when I heard about this strange festival, the so-called “Republic of Kazantip”. Since I’m a big fan of techno music and love pretty girls in bikinis, I agreed without hesitation. I arrived in Ukraine at the beginning of August and soon my friends and I headed to Popovka, a sleepy resort town on the Black Sea coast where Kazantip is held. Once arrived, we first got settled in a small hostel, bought our tickets for the festival that are called “viZas” and went to look around the town. Although I came there for the first time, my Ukrainian friends had showered me with stories about wild parties on the beach, non-stop music played by the world’s best DJs and of course hundreds of beautiful girls in bikinis (and without).

on_the_beachThe next day, when we were hanging out on the Kazantip beach lined with dozens of bars and dance floors, I noticed that some girls had their viZas of different colors. Unlike most visitors like me who had the red cards, there were girls with green and white passes. My friends told me that the green viZas are given to the girls who are specially hired to promote various parties and events during the festival. It’s no problem if you approach, talk and drink with them. However I was warned to stay away from the girls with white passes, not even try talking to them. Those were the most beautiful girls, true super models. They came along with VIP guests, the richest Russian oligarchs, who have their own private, strictly guarded areas at Kazantip with own bars, swimming pools and other facilities. In short, if I dared to bother one of those goddesses, I could have been immediately kicked out of the festival.

Kazantip really turned out to be a paradise for open minded people like me. I enjoyed in full all the opportunities the festival had to offer: amazing music, swimming, dancing and sun bathing on the beach, drinking beer and Russian vodka with my friends and, of course, lovely evenings spent in the company of cute girls. That was the time to relax and not think, even for a second, about work and problems left at home. Just like for most other people at Kazantip, our day began late in the afternoon. Then we went to the beach and stayed there till sunset. And as the time got closer to midnight, the most interesting part began. There were different parties every night. We wandered from bar to bar, and from one dance floor to another one. When we felt totally exhausted, we just sat down on the sand and looked up at the night sky lit up with eye-popping fireworks, lasers and searchlights. Regardless of how tired you are, you never feel bored at Kazantip!

I’ve been to many festivals, but I have never experienced anything similar to Kazantip. I never thought I would see so many naked bodies, alcohol, wealth, sociability, neon, thunderous sounds of music and happy faces all at one place. While at Kazantip I totally forgot about the normal life. This is one of the main reasons why you will want to return here again and again after having visited it once. To tell the truth, it is much different from a typical festival and it is not for everybody. The Republic of Kazantip “gives shelter” only to the most open minded people without any complexes and taboo. I am proud to say I am one of those freaks!

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Anthony

Anthony Freeman is a travel enthusiast who loves to explore new places and always looks forward to his next adventure.

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Dublin Ireland

The Beautiful Town of Dingle

Dublin Ireland

Ever since the day I watched the movie ‘Leap year’, Ireland made a very special place in my heart. The town Dingle shown in the movie took the number one slot in my list titled ‘must visit places of the world’. It was after a year that my dream became a reality. I had saved money the whole year to make sure I fulfilled my dream. Going by a friend’s recommendation, I booked a cheap flight to Dublin and to make my reservation in Dingle Bay hotel. It took me approximately four hours to reach Dingle from Dublin. Dingle, a small town in county Kerry, Ireland was more beautiful than my imagination. In my short 5 day stay, I fell in love with the town. Here are some of the amazing places that I visited during my trip.

Eask Tower

On my first day in Dingle, I went to visit the popular Eask tower. This is a stone tower on top of Carhoo Hill. The tower overlooks the Dingle harbor. From the top, you can also see a large proportion of the Dingle peninsula including Blasket Islands and Ireland’s highest mountains – Mount Brandon and Carrauntoohill. Standing on top with the wind blowing, this place offered a spectacular view that left me mesmerized.

Gallurus Oratory

Believed to be a Christian church, Gallarus Oratory is made from large cut stones. The Oratory has sloping side walls. It is said to be built somewhere in between 6th and 9th century. The dimly lit room is small and interesting. I loved the tiny round-headed window opposite the entrance door. As told by an Irish local, the local myth is that whoever goes through this window will have his soul cleansed. The church stands at a beautiful location.

Dingle Peninsula

The Dingle Peninsula is located near the town of Dingle. My visit to the Slea Head was one that I can never forget. I doubt I can explain the beauty of this place in mere words. This scenic landmark provided a beautiful view of the Blasket Islands. It is the perfect place to meditate and hear the sound of waves against the rocks. The Dingle peninsula is home to some of the most stunning beaches. Unfortunately I just got to visit one. The Inch beach was truly one of the best beaches I had ever visited. It has appeared in many movies because of its beauty. Surfing, swimming and the long walk at this beach was a wonderful experience.

Eask Tower

Saying Goodbye..

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially if the place is as beautiful as Dingle. But I was happy that I had made such wonderful memories. The amazing sights and locations captured in my camera serve as a reminder of my delightful trip. I wish my stay could’ve been longer. Surely there were many other places to discover. The Irish traditional music, pubs, cafes and delicious fish will always be remembered. I’ll miss the Goat Street Café the most which was my usual place for lunch during the stay.

Julia Taylor

To sum it up shortly, I have two passions; exploring the endless beauty of earth and watching the eyes of my third grade students dilate with wonder as I narrate to them stories from my diary called “Julia’s travel”

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11 Surprising Things About Traveling Cuba

Last week I shared my favorite highlights from my trip to Cuba and this week I’ll share some of the most surprising parts of my travels through the country.

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1) Rum in tetra-briks – Ah, Ron Planchao. It’s dirt-cheap rum sold in what looks like a juice box. For some reason vendors give you this look of respect when you buy these boxes, like, “Ha, he/she is the real deal”. When you’re walking in the Malecon, you see all the ladies with their cans of Cristal, and all the dudes drinking straight rum from these little cartons. It’s not too bad – we had some with Coke, I believe, once we were back home in the Dominican. It’s just funny because all these tough dudes just look like they’re drinking from a juice box.

Sample of Planchao.

Sample of Planchao.

2) The Granma yacht is completely sealed away – you can’t get a good look at it – That was the most disappointing part of all the sightseeing we did. For those of you unfamiliar with Cuban history, the Granma is the yacht in which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the other expedition members arrived in Cuba to begin the Revolution. The yacht itself is a permanent exhibit at the Revolution Museum…but it’s kept on a metal structure, which is heavily guarded at all times. There is what looks like a metal ramp around it, so I naturally assumed we would be allowed in (since we paid for access to it) to walk around it and take pictures. Nope, you pay for the right to see it, apparently. We had to exercise our camera’s zoom to get some shots.

3) The exorbitant prices at the Museo de la Revolucion – first you have to pay your entrance fee (which of course is more expensive if you’re a foreigner). Then, if you want to take pictures, you have to pay extra for that. Was it worth it? In my own humble opinion, no. The exterior is much more interesting than the interior. Two people’s entrance fees plus a picture fee put us back $16CUC.

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4) Havana is surprisingly clean (there is always someone cleaning up on the streets, sweeping, picking up garbage), and there are more people showing signs of obesity than you would think – I don’t know what was I expecting – maybe my mind image of Cuba was stuck in the early 90s, when, after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba went through a serious crisis of goods and people were going seriously hungry. But there was a lot more pizza and burger eating than what I would have ever expected, and well, let’s just say that there was a lot of people on the streets of Havana who should never wear spandex.

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Paseo del Prado, Old Havana. Very tourist heavy. Still very clean.

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5) There are also more Americans visiting Havana than you’d think! – One afternoon while chilling at the lobby of the gorgeous Hotel Parque Central, we ran into a group on English-speaking people…that didn’t sound British or anything like that. Upon asking them, turned out they were alumni from an Ivy League school on a class reunion trip. These days, it’s easier than ever for Americans to get licenses to go to Cuba – bear in mind, however, that these licenses come with a hefty price tag and you will be subject to a schedule. If you thought you could get a license to go hang out at the beach, think again.

6) Morning drinking in coffee shops – It was always funny to see people drinking Cristal (the Cuban beer of choice) at 9 am at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s because it’s hot the majority of the year, but apparently drinking in the early morning is perfectly acceptable. To be honest, though, we did not see anyone drunk stupid at any hour of the day, so be respectful and take the necessary measures to not make an ass of yourself.

7) Cinnamon rolls are called coffee cakes – “Coffee cakes” became our favorite snack after walking all day. Our two favorite pastry spots became Café Santo Domingo (no relation to the Dominican coffee brand but they also made very good coffee) and Café Zana, a small coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Sociedad Asturiana building (see Best Decisions)

8) Best mojitos of the trip: Bilbao Sports Bar – I won’t even go into the first mojitos we had while in Cuba. It was like drinking straight NyQuil. Yuck. We made Bar Bilbao (at Calle O’Reilly in Old Havana) our afternoon spot to cool off and hide from the crowds, as well as our post-dinner hangout. The bartenders are very nice and will take their time in making a perfect mojito. Not too sweet, minty enough, and packing a good Havana Club punch. Bask in the cheapness of Havana Club. Enjoy it. It’s superb quality rum. O’Reilly is parallel to Calle Obispo, which is the main commercial street of Old Havana, so impossible to miss. Calle Obispo is also an important one to remember because it has a CADECA that opens late. CADECAS are where you exchange money – please do not run out of cash in Havana, as ATMs are not very common and many foreign cards do not work there. American cards won’t work at all.

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9) The tipping culture is quite strong – depending on how much or how little you tip, people can be either super friendly or super jerks, quite frankly. In a country where income-generating opportunities are scarce, one can easily understand why Cubans have high expectations about the money tourists should spend, but I could never shake off the feeling that a lot of people would not be nice to you unless there would be a tip involved. My husband was actually yelled at by a guy who had two spectacular 1963 (or so) Ford Thunderbirds parked outside the Capitol. The cars were in immaculate condition, so of course we had to take pictures. The guy yelled, “you think my cars are here for you to take pictures?” and was starting to come at us, so we just decided to turn around and walk away. We got plenty of shots anyway.

10) Coppelia Ice Cream was sweet and a little sour – Coppelia Ice Cream is THE Cuban ice cream shop and almost the center of Vedado’s universe. I had read rave reviews about it so I decided that since at this point, Coppelia is a much a Havana landmark as Hotel Nacional, we should go. One day we decided to follow the crowd to do some people watching and see what the locals’ side looked like. Not allowed – we were asked by the guards to please go to “our section”. Tourists are not allowed where the locals are, just as locals are not allowed in 5-star hotels. That was possibly the most uncomfortable fact about Cuba for us. The ice cream, however, is quite good, even if they don’t have a lot of flavors anymore. We only had vanilla and chocolate. The LA Times published a story many years ago explaining the significance of Coppelia to Cubans (and the Cuban government).

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11) Factoria Plaza Vieja – Should be on the Favorite Things part but it was such a pleasant surprise! It was a little baffling to me how is it that in Santo Domingo, a completely service-oriented economy where essentially every American trend is eventually adopted there are no microbreweries yet. Havana, with its lack of resources and dependency on tourism, had that little gem called Factoria Plaza Vieja up and running, inviting you to take a break from all the walking and sip the sunset away while Plaza Vieja and its characters pass you by. Prices were pretty decent: $2CUC for a house brew, with choices between lager, amber or dark. While I love me some cold Presidente and Bohemia (the quintessential Dominican pils beers, both owned by the same company), variety never hurt anybody so many of our afternoons in Havana ended with a pint at Factoria before heading home or moving on to dinner plans.

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Plaza Vieja from our late afternoon seats at Factoria.

Last but not least, my best piece of advice if you’re going to Cuba is: keep your answers short but sweet at Immigration. When I get nervous, I ramble. And to make up for the fact that I’m rambling and probably not making any sense, I ramble some more. Follow the universal principle and do not offer any information you are not being asked for. And for the love of whatever God you believe in, do not say you work at an NGO – you will not hear the end of it. This was my one big rookie traveler mistake (our other mistake was getting ripped off by a tuk tuk driver in the rain). Cuban immigration is by far the most nerve-wrecking immigration experience I have ever had! After collecting our bags, I was interrogated 3 times over an approximately 90 minute period. Guards kept saying they had to check with “the boss”, who was a short dude in a t-shirt and jeans that did not look official in any way – he was taking notes on a scrap of paper and chased us down after “clearing us” twice. I’m pretty sure they were trying to get me to put my foot in my mouth in some sort of incriminating way, but how on Earth do you explain what direct peer-to-peer lending is to Cuban military youth? Won’t be trying that again.

Nevertheless, while looking back at our thousands of pictures when trying to pick a few to share on this post, I couldn’t help agreeing with a friend of mine who went to Havana a few weeks before I did: “Havana is a dream”. It truly is.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

Analin Saturria

Dominican Republic born. Adopted by the Pacific Northwest. A microfinance enthusiast, now training and managing volunteers for Zidisha Inc., and taking my first steps into teaching. Located in Shanghai, China.

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10 Highlights from my First Trip to Cuba!

The view from our balcony at Magda's casa.

The view from our balcony at Magda’s casa.

Hi everyone! I’m Analin Saturria McGregor am very excited to contribute to Oh Hey World as a guest writer. I discovered a new way of traveling 6 years ago when a friend invited me to the beautiful Samaná peninsula in my native Dominican Republic. Growing up during the expansion of the all-inclusive vacation tourism model, I had never dreamed that there could be a more meaningful, engaging and fun way to travel. I’m now an independent traveling convert and have relocated to Shanghai, China with my husband after two years in the Dominican Republic. This first post is about our first big travel adventure together: Cuba!

If you want to go to Cuba, make it happen! Go now, while that charm that has made Cuba famous is still there. The Dominican Republic is an easy place to do it from since travel between the two islands is fairly easy to figure out. If you have the time and the money you can also plan some time in the Dominican and some time in Cuba –two birds with one stone.

10 of my favorite things about Havana:

1) Staying at a casa particular – After seeing how Havana has so many tourist trap places, I have to say staying at a Casa Particular gave us a freedom we would have probably not enjoyed staying at a hotel. Hotels in Havana are, in my opinion, quite overwhelming – you get bombarded with multiple offers from guides, vendors, etc., to do things their way, which usually involves some sort of prepackaged fashion of what they assume is what every tourist should see. We also got to help a Cuban family directly (remember, in Cuba, all hotels are operated by the government through a number of companies established for this purpose. Even the ones who may be operated by foreign chains, such as Melia or Iberostar, are still under a government concession). In our case, Magda has just started with her Casa business and we were one of her first guests. If you want her Casa’s contact info you can message me. We made our own itinerary, took whatever risks we were okay with taking, and were pretty much undisturbed for the whole week. Magda made us breakfast herself every day (even placing the fruit in a happy face shape every morning – adorable), which was an interesting assessment of the food issues most Cubans face. For example, one day there was no bread on our breakfast because bakeries had no flour yet so no one had been able to bake any fresh bread. Also, casas are significantly cheaper than hotels – about half the price than a budget hotel, which allows for spending a little more on attraction fees or nicer dining.

2) Going to local places to eat – In most local places, prices are quoted in Moneda Nacional, which is a lot cheaper than the more widely used in tourist areas, Cuban Convertible Peso. In many places, you can pay with either (1 US$= 24 Cuban Peso/Moneda Nacional, vs. 1 US$=1CUC). Portions are HUGE. First day out we went to this Chinese restaurant in Centro Habana’s Chinatown. We had to go up some stairs and it kind of looked like a place where small-scale mobsters would eat (at least movie mobsters), but the food was great (just like any American Chinese takeout restaurant) and we had enough leftovers for dinner and a bit of a midnight snack post-drinks. Total bill=something like US$5, including drinks). Another day we decided to go to this cafeteria that we had passed by a different day. The important thing here was that the place was PACKED. My husband, a more experienced traveler than me, always tells me: “pay attention to where the locals go. If there are a lot of locals there, it’s got to be good, and probably cheap”. They had no sitting, just tables you stood around, so it really was packed. It was basically as large as 6 feet of sidewalk. Portions? Huge. Finishing my sandwich was a tough task. My husband was nowhere near finishing his plate of rice, beans, pork and salad. If my memory serves me right we paid about $4.50 CUC for that meal. I might have not looked very happy while we were eating (it was hot and eating while standing up is not the best thing after walking all morning) but it was a cool experience. Couple of things: in Cuba you have to pay for any takeout containers – imported Styrofoam (cringe). Also, since you can’t drink the tap water, you should always keep bottled water with you – but buy it in stores away from the tourist areas if you can. Price of a 1.5 liter bottle of water at the local store: about 70 CUC cents. At the touristy area shops, the same 70 cents will just get you a 10-ounce bottle.

View of Havana from the lighthouse binoculars. El Castillo del Morro, Havana.

View of Havana from the lighthouse binoculars. El Castillo del Morro, Havana.

3) Taking our time with Havana and not overexerting ourselves – Initially we were keeping the option of traveling to other cities in Cuba in the back burner, but the city that we were truly interested in visiting was Santiago (second largest city in Cuba anyway) but decided against it due to distance. Domestic flights in Cuba are not exactly reliable (planes are outdated and often flights are delayed due to missing parts) and my husband has already done his fair share of scary domestic flights in Russia. The other option was the bus, but it’s an 11-hour drive. Didn’t really feel like losing two days to Santiago and back since we just had a week. After I came back I remember talking to a friend who had gone to Cuba not long before with a student group, and her comment about how much she deeply regretted not being able to stay put for longer, and just explore. For a weeklong trip, I would probably limit my trip to one or two locations, tops, due to the potential transport delays you could encounter.

4) Visiting El Castillo del Morro – In my opinion, the best attraction in Havana. My absolute favorite. First of all, you have to take a taxi to go there, so great opportunity to take a classic car. We rode in a ’49 Chevy. You can negotiate on price with them and if you ask, they will wait for you until you’re done and take you back. El Castillo del Morro was built to defend Havana and was an important defense point in the 1700s. It’s kept in wonderful shape and has very good exhibits. No need to hire a guide, you’re pretty much free to roam around the fort as much as you want. Save your guide money to pay for lighthouse access (it does cost extra to go up the lighthouse but it is a wonderful, wonderful point to get bird’s eye views of Havana. Getting the whole view of the skyline lets you see the striking difference between Old Havana and the newest districts in the city (most specifically Vedado). You can also get a pretty good idea of what inner city Havana (or Centro Habana) looks like. Get up here with a camera that allows for taking panoramic pictures – you will not regret it.

El Castillo del Morro - view from the Havana waterfront.

El Castillo del Morro – view from the Havana waterfront.

5) The cafeteria at Sociedad Asturiana – the Sociedad Asturiana is located at Paseo del Prado, the gateway to Old Havana coming from the Malecón. It’s a Spanish-founded cultural venue which holds live music, dance classes, etc. We saw a flamenco rehearsal one day. It was so elegant!). I believe we saw their ground floor cafeteria, Zana, on the way home one particularly hot evening. They sell in Moneda Nacional (Cuban peso), so we could get coffee and a “coffee cake” for about $2 CUC in the end). Those rolls were heaven. Not too cakey and not too bready, sweet, delicious and big. They also made great steak sandwiches (or pan con bistec – I’d call this the Cuban equivalent of a Philly Cheese Steak without the cheese and with thicker steak) and burgers.

6) Multiple transportation options, yet very walkable – Havana is a fairly flat city, so walking is not exactly challenging, and the city is laid out on a pattern that makes it quite easy to find your way. Also, if you’re walking, you’re free to take your precious time and look closely to what YOU think it’s important. The Malecón is a fabulous reference point. When you get tired of walking, hop on a Coco-Taxi. Coco-taxis are the clever and heat-proof way to take a motorcycle taxi: it’s a motorcycle with an circular sort of attachment on the back that seats three. They are open on the sides, so if it rains, you might get sprinkled on the legs, but who cares? These transport tourists and locals alike.

Vintage taxi and coco-taxi strolling down Havana's waterfront.

Vintage taxi and coco-taxi strolling down Havana’s waterfront.

7) The photography opportunities! – Even the tattered buildings have indescribable beauty to them, you will get glimpses into the lives of Cubans you will not get or hear from any tour guide in Old Havana. Our waterfront location granted fantastic picture opportunities all day long. During our first three days in Havana, we took close to 3000 pictures. A building that might seem run-down and not worth a picture might change completely under a different sunlight, or once you bother to discover it.

8) Detouring through side streets in Centro Habana – We had read mixed reviews about Centro Habana’s safety, so we didn’t really walk through side streets at nighttime. During the day, however, it was fun to get glimpses of what Cubans’ lives are like: people cooking, hanging clothes, people-watching on their balconies, drinking and chatting, playing dominoes or music, repairing their vehicles with makeshift parts, playing baseball, watching baseball, coming to and from school. We also walked by some smaller businesses and witnessed long lines while people waited for their rations. Go to Old Havana, and all you see is white people.

9) Smoking cigars at the fancy hotels – Talk about a way to feel glamorous Old-Hollywood style. Sipping daiquiris and smoking our Romeo y Julietas while sitting on the Hotel Nacional’s gorgeous terrace overlooking the ocean…wow…straight out of any 60s TV show episode, regardless of your outfit. The fancy hotels will have either a store (at the basement in Hotel Nacional) or a cart (at the lobby at Hotel Parque Central), all run by very knowledgeable ladies that can recommend the Cuban that better suits the type of smoke you want to have.

10) The bomb shelter/tunnel at Hotel Nacional – This hotel, a National Monument in its own right, is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Havana. You can walk through their halls filled with pictures of celebrities during their visits to Cuba and world leaders visiting with Fidel Castro. Upon walking on their cliff-side gardens, we stumbled upon a shelter built during the Cuban missile crisis. The shelter includes illustrations of how the Cuban army used this secret point to spy on the American ships stationed facing Havana. We got a walk-through by its friendly guide, who will vividly explain the importance of this shelter over and over during the walking tours of Hotel Nacional – worth doing and better yet, it’s free. Make sure to take some change with you to tip guides.

Check back next week for the 11 most surprising part of my travels through Cuba, as well as tips for planning your own trip!

Analin Saturria

Dominican Republic born. Adopted by the Pacific Northwest. A microfinance enthusiast, now training and managing volunteers for Zidisha Inc., and taking my first steps into teaching. Located in Shanghai, China.

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Off the Beaten Path: North American Adventures

Craving a grand adventure, one that won’t make you pay $100 + just to get in, only to be surrounded by thousands of other sweaty people, all spending half of the day waiting in long lines (I’m talking about you, Disneyland)? That doesn’t seem like much of an escape, or any adventure I’d want to partake in. So why not take the road less frequented, head outside of town, and immerse yourself in an unfamiliar wilderness. The western United States is wild and full of rare beauty that should be witnessed. Below are a few of my top destinations for that adventurous spirit of yours.

Man Vs Nature

California: Lost Coast

Black beaches, spectacular ocean vistas, alpine forests, redwoods, and sweeping grasslands make up this rich 80 mile stretch of coastal wilderness. The Lost Coast is tucked away in an unusually quiet, undeveloped corner of California. Highway 1 had to be constructed around this area because it was too rough, leaving this area peaceful, pristine, and secluded. There are only four roads that will lead to this coastline, two of them being one-lane dirt roads; all of them are steep and winding. But it is certainly well worth the tough trek out there.

Arizona: Painted Desert

lost coast bixby bridge

On the outskirts of the Grand Canyon and just north of the Petrified Forest is the colorful mingling of badlands, buttes, and plateaus that seemingly extend forever – the Painted Desert. It is aptly named after the richly colored land of lavender, pink, white, gray, yellow, orange, and red and stunningly set against the blue sky backdrop. Travel a bit further from the peripheral to bask in the solitude and remarkable beauty. The vibrant color and otherworldly features must be seen and if you stay up late it is one of the finest places to stargaze in the country.

South Dakota: Wind Cave

Underneath South Dakota is one of the world’s longest caves with more than 130 miles of passageways home to many unusual and stunning mineral formations. And as you may have guessed by its name… it is windy down there. Don’t take forget to take in the scenery on your way to the caves – the above ground ecosystem is just as remarkable. The park is host to a myriad of species, miles of grassland surrounded by dense forest. I recommend going late spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and plentiful and the summer vacation season hasn’t yet begun.

Washington: North Cascades Backcountry

gates of the arcticJust three hours from Seattle is an intricate mix of rugged glacier topped peaks, countless streaming waterfalls, deep and densely forested valleys, and richly populated meadows. The two sides of the mountain couldn’t be different – dry on the east, damp on the west – making the Cascades a uniquely complex and varied ecosystem. Its home to a number of different habitats and hosts more plant species than any other park. Make a trip late summer, the snow on the higher trails is still quite ample at the start of summer.

Alaska: Gates of the Arctic

Most people fly in… the only other option is to walk. And that isn’t really recommended. You can, but it is a tough route to the interior. Bush pilots say the real Alaska begins where the road ends. The land is harsh, the wilderness is vast, and the weather is unpredictable. Definitely go in the summer, you don’t want to be stuck up there in the winter – it is entirely north of the Arctic Circle after all. Even in the summer, with its never-ending days and relatively mild temperature, rain and snow are not uncommon. They see few people up there (it’s for the truly adventurous), but visitor numbers have been increasing.

Alan Carr

Alan Carr is an avid aviation and travel aficionado learning about the aspects of the flying world from the business to the technical, while also frequently writing on what he finds. He currently works with globalair.com to provide resources on aircraft related information.

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