Our Casa Particular

April 2017 – In Vinales, Cuba

_DSC0392We found this fabulous casa particular on Airbnb before we left for Cuba.

Immediately upon our arrival in Vinales, we were greeted with the biggest and most welcoming smile by Sra Tata, owner of the casa particular.  
The location of this casa particular was perfect for us.  We were just a few short blocks off the busy main street making it an easy walk to find restaurants, but far enough off main street that offered a quiet respite where we were able to “get away” from the hustle and bustle of downtown Vinales. 
It was also convenient for any tours into the valley and tobacco farms as the tours all seemed to  to meet at the far end of the road.  And let’s not forget the welcoming mojito bar just up the road on the way to town.
Upon arriving, Sra Tata greeted us so enthusiastically we instantly felt welcomed to her Casa Particular and home. 
_DSC0440Once we were shown our rooms, we were pleasantly surprised and most appreciative of a very delightful welcome drink of chilled fresh juice.  Just what we needed after 2.5 hours spent in a 1954 Chevy without air-conditioning coming from Havana.  
We had booked two separate rooms.  Our rooms were across from each other, and shared a large table and chairs between for a comfortable place to congregate with each other.  We were pleasantly surprised to find each room had a small refrigerator which was well stocked with beer, soft drinks, and water.  We were able to refresh before and after sightseeing the town. 
The rooms were impeccably clean, showers had hot water and the the air conditioners were welcome after a hot day of exploring.   
Although Tata does not speak much English, and we speak little Spanish, communication never seemed to be a problem.  With many hand gestures, and a bit of patience we were able to have conversations.  We asked her to assist us in booking a horseback tour.  Within minutes our tour was booked for the next day, and she ensured us we would have an English speaking guide.  The guide met us outside the Casa Particular the next morning right on time.  
The next request we had was a recommendation for dinner the first night.  Again, Tata did not disappoint, and suggested what turned out to be a most lovely restaurant that was very well priced with an extensive menu.
P1030386Each morning we climbed the steps to the rooftop of the casa particular where we would find a private table for four set up for breakfast.  (Nope, no hand rail to be found.) _DSC0443
_DSC0445We were greeted with an abundant spread of food that included made to order eggs prepared however we each wanted (hand gestures came in handy when ordering), fresh fruit, breads, and hot beverages of choice.
Views from the rooftop. _DSC0447_DSC0457_DSC0451
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We ordered a dinner one night and can honestly say it was one of the best dinners we had during our entire time in Cuba.  With the choice of beef, pork, chicken, fish or lobster, we all chose lobster.  Served at the private table near our rooms with multiple side dishes we were offered more food than we could possibly eat, and all of it was prepared wonderfully and quite delicious.  
The Casa Particular is well laid out and offers privacy for multiple groups.  Our breakfasts were served on the rooftop while unbeknownst to us another group of 6 or more people was being served at a table in another corner of the property.  We never felt like we were sharing our space with anyone else.  
_DSC0696Sitting in the comfortable rocking chairs on the large front porch overlooking the quiet street is a great way to relax and watch the small quaint world of Vinales pass by. _DSC0462
 
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Local vendors pass by, selling their fresh produce, ice cream and even shoes to the local residents giving you a small bit of insight into what real life in Vinales may be like. 

Heading to Vinales

April 2017

As we were planning our Cuban adventure we all agreed it would be great to leave the city of Havana for a couple days and explore the inland rural area of Vinales.

We had booked a Casa Particular which is Spanish for private home.  Casa Particulares are private home stays, very much like a Bed & Breakfast.  Private citizens are allowed to rent out rooms in their homes for tourists.  Casa Particulares can be found throughout Cuba and are identified by a small sign on the door, with two blue triangles (“roofs”) against a white background.

To get to Vinales we had to secure a taxi in Havana to drive us the 180 kilometers.  The other trick was to communicate that we wanted them to come pick us up 2 days later and negotiate a price.  All with broken Spanish on our part and no English on taxi drivers’ parts.  The night before we were to depart, Ron negotiated with a driver and thought it was all arranged for the old car of his choice and a rate he agreed to.  In the morning, we discovered that wasn’t necessarily the case.

After readying the boat for our 2 day absence, tying fenders at multiple heights to protect the side of the boat from the rough concrete dock and allow for rising and falling tides, asking our neighbors to check on it occasionally, we made our way to the planned taxi pickup area.

_DSC0279We waited and still no taxi.  Ron walked down to the taxi depot in the marina again, and discovered the preferred taxi was there, but the driver was not the same and this driver didn’t know anything about the prearranged deal.  So…. more negotiations occurred.

Eventually, we thought it all got sorted and this 1952 Chevy rolled up to pick up the rest of us.

P1030373The driver spoke no English, so we enjoyed the 2.5 hour drive looking at the changing scenery.

 

_CSC0442“Enjoyed the drive” may be too generous of a word for those of us in the back seat.  Having old 1950’s cars as taxis in Cuba is cool, but some of those backseats have not been refurbished, and have had over 60 years of butts in them.  Needless to say after 2.5 hours of sagging into the middle we were ready to get out.

_DSC0389Once arrived another negotiation ensued (in broken Spanish and no English) to be sure the driver would pick us up in two days to drive us back to Havana.  With that sorted (or so we thought) we got ready to enjoy exploring Vinales and our Casa Particular.

 

Boat Parade in Havana Harbor

2 April 2017 – Recreational boats are not usually allowed in Havana Harbor, but the 60 boats that came from Key West with the rally were invited to participate in the largest boat parade in the Harbor in Cuban history.

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Dreamtime is dressed and ready to go.

_DSC0143We left Marina Hemingway in mid morning along with everyone else.  Cuba is very serious about customs and usually when you leave the marina by boat, you are supposed to stop and get inspected to confirm who is on the boat and you don’t have any stowaways.

_DSC0140Because 60 boats were leaving and later arriving en masse they modified the procedure and as we did a slow pass by the customs dock we had to shout out the boat name and number of people on board.  If the number you shouted out did not agree with the paperwork from you cleared in, you had to stop and sort it out.  We yelled out our boat name and “cuatro” (holding up 4 fingers – in case they couldn’t understand our attempt at Spanish), and they waved us through.

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We made our way to the location where all the participating boats were to meet up.
We had been assigned position numbers based on alphabetical by boat builder, so the radio was busy as people tried to figure out what boat they were supposed to be behind or before.  Amazingly it all worked out and we were queued in our proper position for the start of the parade.

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Residents lined up along the Malecon to wave and cheer to the boats as we passed by.

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The coolest experience we had was when a trumpet player played the United States National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, in celebration of our visit.  (Sorry the photo and video did not turn out)

P1030360P1030339This was our first boat parade, and while the 3 crew members enjoyed sitting on the foredeck waving back to the crowds, Captain Bob had a less relaxing experience as he had to maintain safe distance from the boat in front as the pace of boats slowed and sped up in fits and starts.

 

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The famous landmark of Havana Harbor is Morro Castle, built in the 1700’s when Cuba was a Spanish colony.  This fortress was used to protect the harbor for centuries. _DSC0212

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Havana Harbor can be a busy harbor with large ships coming and going.  There seemed to always be a cruise ship docked and today was no different.

 

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And then it was time to turn around and head back out of the harbor and the friendly race back to Marina Hemingway commenced.

 

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And some additional photos of the skyline from the water:

 

First Day in Havana, Cuba

1 April 2017 – The organizers of the boat rally had arranged for a bus and walking tour of Old Havana for all of the participants.

Ron and Bob took this opportunity to sip their first Cuban rums on the bus before we departed.    _CSC1206

On the tours we learned much of the fascinating Cuban history which we all admitted we didn’t know much about.  As walked the streets we got to see and hear the many sights and sounds that are found in Havana. _DSC0080

We were intrigued by the many different styles of architecture that we saw.  You could identify which buildings were truly historic, others built in the United States heyday of the 40’s and 50’s when the United States had very active business and trade relations with Cuba and it was a holiday destination for the USA.  Other buildings  were in stark contrast with the block style built during the Soviet era after the USA discontinued all relations with Cuba.  The mix of architecture, makes for an interesting skyline.

While many buildings were beautiful and intact, there were many that were under restoration, some damaged by hurricanes from years past.

The city is full of street vendors of all kinds and if you are lucky you will see some street performers as well.

Cuba is known for its old US cars from the 1950’s and we looked forward to riding in one or two as our taxi.  Our first night we found ourselves squeezed into this little 1951 Henry to get back to Marina Hemingway. _DSC0138

Heading to Cuba

The sailing charter company, Harmony Yacht Vacations, we shared the dock with at Stock Island Marina organized a rally to Cuba in conjunction with Cruising World.  We aren’t usually joiners but this time decided we didn’t want to miss the the fun and joined the other 59 boats participating.

Ron and Sandy couldn’t resist the opportunity of a lifetime and flew back to Florida to join us on this week long adventure.

_CSC1124Part of the rally would include the opportunity to participate in a boat parade into Havana Harbor, where private vessels are not usually allowed.  We were told this was a big deal, and were asked to dress our boats for the occasion.  A couple of days before we left, we did a rehearsal dressing with decorative flags, just to be sure of how we wanted to do it.

The organizers arranged to stagger the departure times depending on expected speed of sailing.  As we usually calculate our sailing speed at about 5.5 knots per hour we are considered one of the slowest boats, and are scheduled to leave at 3 pm with the first group. In a best case scenario we could expect to arrive in Havana by mid morning.  The weather forecast was for “salty sailing”, meaning windy and choppy conditions that were supposed to calm down through the night.

We left Stock Island in mid-afternoon, planning for an overnight passage. The winds had calmed a bit by then and we were hoping for a pleasant passage.

_CSC1129With Bob at the helm we navigated out of the channel, raised the sails and took advantage of the early wind.

P1030325Unfortunately the wind was more fickle than forecast and died in the middle of the night, the seas got sloppy which made for a less than comfortable ride, and our arrival was many hours later than planned.  But we got there safe and in good spirits which is what matters most.

P1030327As we approached Cuban waters, Bob raised the yellow quarantine flag, signifying that we were entering from a foreign country and have not yet gone through customs.

_DSC0196The officials at the customs dock were forewarned and prepared for the 60 boats arriving to Marina Hemingway, a very usual experience for them.  They tried to keep things moving as smoothly as possible, but still the number of boats arriving at around the same time meant we all had to wait yet another hour for our turn to enter the harbor.

P1030333Once we were boarded and inspected by customs, Bob lowered the quarantine flat, raised the Cuban courtesy flag and we were welcomed into Cuba!

More Sightseeing Up the Keys

26 February – 4 March

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 59After our fun at the Dolphin Research Center on Marathon we continued north to Key Largo.  We found a hotel for the night to start the next day at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Here, we explored the on-sight aquarium, sat through what ended being a fascinating video presentation and enjoyed a 2.5 hour glass bottom boat excursion over a portion of the only living coral reef in the United States.  This reef in the Florida Keys is the 3rd largest coral reef in the world, surpassed by The Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Belize Barrier Reef.  Unfortunately no good photos were captured of the varied coral and sea life we saw through glass bottom boat.  For those that don’t snorkel or dive, this is a great option to see things you can’t see many other places.

Sightseeing in the Everglades

26 February – 4 March 2017

After Pennekamp State Park, we finished our drive to arrive in Miami Beach for two nights.

Bara thank youthumb_DSCN0001_1024 103The next morning we headed to the Everglades for an airboat tour which got us up close (but not too personal) with alligators and other creaturesthumb_DSCN0001_1024 104. thumb_DSCN0001_1024 110

Our tour guide taught us about the plants and animals making the experience even more fascinating.  thumb_DSCN0001_1024 106thumb_DSCN0001_1024 102

We definitely enjoyed the experience.

Sightseeing up the Keys

28 February – 4 March, 2017

The girls left Bob on Dreamtime for a few days, rented a car and ventured north up the keys toward Miami.

We decided to take two days to travel the 165 miles, seeing some sights along the way.

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 10First stop was in Marathon where we stopped to visit the Turtle Hospital, a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles and has its own ambulance to transport their patients.

Unfortunately we arrived right after a tour bus (or 2) did a drop off, so the place was full of people, and it didn’t really appeal to us to fight our way through a tour with the masses.  We decided to continue up the road but, Christina has vowed to come back another time to learn more. 

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 35Next stop was the Dolphin Research Center.  This place is definitely worth the time and money.  What we expected to be an hour or so visit, seemed to turn into an enjoyable whole afternoon affair.thumb_DSCN0001_1024 34

The Dolphin Research Center is a non profit research and education organization.  Their mission statement states:

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 26Through Education, research and rescue, Dolphin Research Center promotes peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals, humans and the environment we share with the well being of DRC’s animals taking precedence.

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 24So, although the photos may look like a “regular commercial” sea lion or dolphin performance often seen at theme parks, here, you really do get a sense that the animals are happy, and really do whatever they want.  You are able to get up close and personal with the dolphins and really interact with them.  thumb_DSCN0001_1024 29thumb_DSCN0001_1024 23

They have four resident sea lions and over 25 dolphins in their care.

This place is definitely worth a stop along the Overseas Highway.  (Thank you to Carmel for the awesome photos capturing the animals in mid-flight.)  thumb_DSCN0001_1024 14

More Sightseeing in Key West

26 February – 4 March 2017

Sunsets at Mallory Square in Key West are events unto themselves.

In addition to watching spectacular sunsets you are also entertained by numerous buskers/street performers who really do amazing things.

Today we enjoyed a couple of shows with guys doing remarkable balancing acts, juggling flames and knives, and other things we don’t recommend you try at home.

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 2This guy basically stacked regular straight back chairs on top of each other and then balanced in a handstand as his grand finale.

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 5The guys in red pants were pure entertainment, balancing on each other, juggling various items including knives and flaming torches.  thumb_DSCN0001_1024 7
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Their grand finale was with each balancing in a handstand on a regular extension ladder (leaning against nothing) that is being supported by four ropes being held by four random members of the audience.

 

After the performances we focused our attention to the west and the sunset marking the end of a fabulous day.

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Sightseeing in Key West

26 February – 4 March 2017

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P1030310Friends from Australia came to visit us in Florida “since they were in the neighborhood” after they toured Peru and the Amazon.

For the next week we played tour guides and tourists  and enjoyed seeing more of what Key West has to offer while our friends were here.

thumb_DSCN0001_1024 86One day we decided to book a sailing charter that took us snorkeling and kayaking.  It was great to have someone else responsible for the driving, so we could sit back and enjoy the ride. f4Afv