Space Goth Mermaid is the theme of the day… because I’m in colorful Valparaíso, Chile!
“Valpo” is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and boasts some of the best street art in the world. This hip, rainbow-covered city is only a 1.5 hour drive from Santiago — making it a perfect day trip during my LATAM Airlines adventure in South America..
If you’re an art and culture seeker, you will adore Valparaiso’s vibe. Artists from around the world flock to this Chilean port city, to add their works to this open canvas.
Walking around, you’ll come across wall-sized murals, graffiti, found art, 3D installations… sky’s the limit, when it comes to creativity in Valpo.
Santiago is a popular hub for LATAM’s many domestic and international flights. If you’re in the capital of Chile, I urge you to take a day to explore the nearby Valparaiso. It’s an inspiring place to walk around, find unexpected art (some of it with political themes), and take a million photos.
(All images by Joey Wong, other than some iPhone snaps by LC.)
How to travel here: Valparaiso is located 120 kilometers west of Santiago. To get here, we rode the metro (subway) to Santiago’s Pajaritos station, near the end of the red line. Then, we bought roundtrip tickets for the bus that leaves every 30 minutes or so for Valpo. There’s no need to book in advance, as there are plenty of seats especially on weekdays.
Two bus companies, Turbus and Pullman, travel this route for $5-10. Both are about the same price and quality; we went with Turbus, and found ourselves in a modern carrier with comfortable reclining seats. We enjoyed this view of the Chilean mountains, and napped the rest of the way. (The ride is about 1.5 hours.)
When you arrive at Valparaiso bus station, you can look for the tourist information booth in case you have questions. The staff can help you find the local bus stop outside. Ride it to Plaza Sotomayor, the large central square.
From Plaza Sotomayor, you can take the old elevators up the various hills to see street art.
Valparaiso has over 40 hills, stacked with brightly colored houses and public art. There are quite a lot of stairs and slopes, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring sun protection.
I put together a “Space Gothic” outfit of the day. I combined Goth with cyber-galaxy colors that match my hair, as well as the murals around me!
I’m wearing a long Lip Service skirt and top from Salemonster (they have a large selection of alternative brand fashion, at reduced rates!). My pink cat-eye sunglasses are by Irregular Choice. This designer is known for its Rococo fabulous shoes, as you can see below…
If you aren’t keen on walking up and down hills, you can use the funicular “ascensors” built in the 19th century. There are 15 of these rickety metal elevators, which take you up the slopes for a few coins.
Some of Valparaiso’s districts can be a little sketchy (we were warned to be careful with our DSLR camera and belongings). To avoid any issues, I recommend that you stick to the main sightseeing areas. In any case, that’s where you will find most of the street art!
What’s the best way to get around Valparaiso? I recommend that you take the funicular or walk up El Peral. Once you reach the top, you’ll find a glorious view of the water, as well as an old palace and a fine arts museum.
From there, you can stroll around and enjoy the colorful works around you. The murals have wonderfully diverse styles and subjects. As a horror fan, I was delighted to see the Creature from the Black Lagoon!
While you will find street art all over Peral, the main streets are Monte and Cerro Alegre, Capilla, Miramar and especially Templeman.
How did Valpo become a tableau for worldwide artists? Around the 1920s, Mexico had a burgeoning muralism movement. This inspired Chilean poet / diplomat Pablo Neruda to invite artists to come to his city, and get creative.
Valparaiso was already known as the “Jewel of the Pacific” for its beautiful Pacific Ocean setting. However, now it’s best known as a laid-back, hipster destination covered head-to-toe in eclectic art. It’s a great place to art-walk, followed by a leisurely meal of empanadas and pisco sours at a local cafe.
I enjoyed seeing the contrast between old and new. Valparaiso was a major seaport in the 1800s, during Spanish Colonial times. Today, these churches and palaces stand next to quirky murals.
Many local buildings invited artists to decorate their storefronts. I was amazed at the variety of works throughout Valparaiso: from graffiti tags, to intricate portraits, to three-story narratives.
“Aliens welcome.” This sounds like my type of town!
I’m wearing a spider pin that reminded me of the one Cheryl Blossom wears in the Riverdale TV series. My spider brooch got stolen from my luggage.. but thankfully, it was only a $7 pin that I got here!
There’s so much to see in this port city with dozens of hills. Some people join a guided walking tour, in order to see the highlights. We preferred to walk around on our own, and come across gems like this ostrich by chance.
It’s impossible to see all of the paintings in Valparaiso, and artists are constantly creating new works. I enjoyed taking snaps of whatever caught my eye. A drainpipe refashioned as a cat-girl’s mouth, a studio with sculptures made with found objects.
“Herrrreeee’s Johnny!” I’m clearly surprised to see Jack Nicholson from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, one of my favorite horror films. (I even had the VHS tape of it, back in the 9os!)
Some of the most interesting works convey a socio-political message. This one is a graphic commentary on religion and colonialism in South America, and the oppression of native Chileans.
I was impressed by the level of talent found in Valparaiso. There’s a sense of community among the (mostly young) artists as well.
Even the streetlamps and drainpipes get a technicolor makeover.
The local government supports creators with workspaces and resources. The result: glorious murals like this one.
This serene, blue “happy hippie” face was one of my favorites. Note the greenery growing out of his ears!
The pink sunglasses are Irregular Choice; shop more of their designs below:
Not all parts of Valparaiso are accessible for everyone. Be prepared for a lot of walking, including up and down lots of stairs.
How beautiful is this mural? If I came back to Valpo, I’d join a guided tour so that I could learn more about each specific artist.
Look out for the uniquely decorated stairs. This one looks like a kite, if you view it from a distance (see the diamond on my left). Another staircase looks like piano keys.
At the top of ascensor Peral, take a moment to enjoy this panoramic view of the city and bay.
And don’t miss out on the tiny details. Street signs, telephones and other unexpected objects get an artistic transformation here.
How sweet it must be for these local residents, living / working / studying / playing amidst these colorful creations!
These mosaic steps next to the funicular called out for a photoshoot.
As I explored, I took snaps of skeletons and other Gothic creatures (as I thought these would be of interest to you!) Here’s a cheerful fellow riding a bike.
A smiling skull, and two Frankensteins. Is he holding a clam on his fingertip?
Some of the skeletons had an anatomical feeling.
Others reminded me of the naughty Day of the Dead skeletons I saw in Tulum, Mexico.
Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda, adored living here. As he put it, “Valparaíso, what an absurdity you are, how crazy: a crazy port. What a head of dishevelled hills, that you never finished combing. Never did you have time to dress yourself, and always you were surprised by life.”
I think Neruda’s words sum up the eccentric atmosphere of Valparaiso today! (If you haven’t seen The Shining movie, you need to rent it.)
Isn’t this “street art city” a wonderland? Have you heard of Valparaiso before this story?
Perhaps these images may inspire you to book a flight to Chile on LATAM Airlines, and climb this rainbow staircase for yourself!
PS: if you enjoyed my space Goth outfit, here are more skeleton styles below. Click the thumbnails for details:
Futuristic Architecture in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil! Museum of Tomorrow, Niemeyer UFO building, Sofitel Ipanema hotel.
If you came across a flying saucer, what would you do? Personally, I’d beam myself in!
I think you can tell I had an (inter)stellar time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The city turned out to be one of my favorite stops on my LATAM Airlines trip in South America.
Rio is a laid-back destination for anyone interested in Brazilian culture, food and beach life. It’s also home to a few unexpectedly “spacey” attractions that stirred my imagination…
Let’s start inside my spaceship. This cosmic wonder is actually the MAC Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The MAC is located across the water from Rio de Janeiro. To get here, you can take a ferry across the water, or Uber over the sleek bridge to Niteroi.
Oscar Niemeyer is the modernist genius behind over 500 structures in Brazil, including the civic buildings of the new capital Brasilia (established 1960). With white concrete and flowing curves, his architecture looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
The stark, curving walls are the perfect setting for avantgarde art. Above is Ayrson Heraclitus’s exploration of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. Visitors hear the clank of metalwork (representing Ogun, the warrior god) over footage of worshippers cooking feijoada (a local stew presented as an offering).
My travel partner and co-photographer was Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation, Bitch, and other bestselling books). We adored the “Anna Bella & Lygia & Mira & Wanda” exhibition, which put the spotlight on four leading Brazilian contemporary artists.
Above is a movable metal sculpture by Lygia Clark. In the next room, Mira Schendel’s Zen minimalist works express “transcendence from the zero spectrum” (that’s how the didactic label put it!)
Doesn’t this look like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey?
I was impressed by Wanda Pimentel’s fine linework; she paints women’s feet and domestic objects, in a “critique of society’s suppression of privacy.” We also loved the political art of Anna Bella Geiger, which rallied against “burocracia” and censorship during Brazil’s dictatorship.
Be sure to take in the spectacular view of Rio, from the red ramps that wrap around the flying object. You can spot Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer and other landmarks across Guanabara Bay.
Then, walk down the spiral staircase to the bistro, where you can drink caipirinhas and browse handmade jewelry inspired by Niemeyer.
Oscar Niemeyer is one of my architecture heroes, and I was over the moon to finally visit one of his masterpieces.
If you’re into experimental art (and aliens!), the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói is one of the coolest museums on planet Earth.
On another day, Elizabeth and I visited Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow, which also looks like an intergalactic shuttle! Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Museu do Amanhã opened in 2015 right before the Olympics.
The museum and urban plaza rejuvenated the Porto Maravilha waterfront, which was once a run-down district of Rio.
Calatrava’s innovative design looks like a spacecraft hovering over water. The silhouette was inspired by the bromelia flower, which he saw in Rio’s Botanical Gardens.
The visionary Museum of Tomorrow is unlike any other. The experience focuses on five questions: Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? And how do we want to live together over the next fifty years?
Visitors receive a touch card in their language of choice, for interacting with the displays. At the end, you can measure your consumption footprint; mine was not great, as I fly more than 100 hours a year…
(Leather wrap bracelet by Bulgari Serpenti.)
The high-tech exhibits make you think about global matters like population growth, ecological and climate changes, and distributions of wealth.
First, we entered a “cosmic portal” and watched a 360-degree film by City of God director Fernando Meirelle, which traced our development from the Big Bang to today. Then, we explored four giant cubes with mixed-media displays, highlighting different aspects of the “5 questions.”
This cube had 1200 fascinating images arranged in pillars. They show global examples of prayers, sensations, relationships, power, body modifications and other human expressions.
The Museum of Tomorrow lets you reflect about our impact on the planet. These Stonehenge-like screens present real-time numbers about global gas emissions, ozone depletion, ocean population losses…
On the right, Daniel Wurtzel’s dancing fabrics convey the constant flux of matter. (No relation to Elizabeth, but the last name was a neat coincidence.)
By the end, you’re encouraged to think about the possibilities for transformation. We entered a wooden structure based on an indigenous longhouse, with an Australian “tjurunga” (symbolizing the passing on of knowledge) in the center. Music and lights mimic the cycles of sunset and sunrise.
At last, you emerge from the cocoon. As Elizabeth put it, “I am a purple butterfly looking into the future and everything is beautiful.”
The large picture-windows reconnect you to the present. Santiago Calatrava designed a reflection pool around the building with filtered water that is pumped in from the bay, and then released back.
A Frank Stella sculpture appears to float on the water. Hearts for the neofuturistic Museum of Tomorrow and its message of sustainability.
Our guide Rodrigo took us to the nearby mural by Eduardo Kobra. It’s the largest in the world, at 190 meters long.
The Brazilian street artist created this rainbow work for the Rio Olympic games.
The “Ethnicities” mural depicts five indigenous faces from five continents (Brazil, Ethiopia, Thailand, Northern Europe, and Papua New Guinea). They represent human ancestors and the colors of the rings on the Olympic flag.
Within a few years, “Olympic Boulevard” has become a tech center with green spaces, public events, live music and nightly fireworks.
However, Rio’s beaches remain the heart of the city. Copacabana was favored by celebrities in the mid-20th century, but today, Ipanema beach is the place to be.
I loved walking by the ocean, especially on weekdays when Ipanema Beach is uncrowded. Groups gather in different “postos” or divisions; there are areas favored by hippies, LGBT, families, etc. You’ll come across groups of friends playing “football” (Brazil’s beloved national sport) and other games near the crashing waves.
I encourage you to book a hotel by the beach. My stay at Sofitel hotel let me live out my “girl from Ipanema” dreams: I only had to cross the street to have my feet in the sand.
(Book a stay at Sofitel Ipanema Rio here.)
The Sofitel made me feel at home with artistic interiors and surprise fruit plates, and staff that knew me by name. My 5-star room was decorated in mid-century modern tropicalia, with a picture-window that opened up to this view of Ipanema.
Every morning, I looked forward to Sofitel’s breakfast. You could choose from the buffet (the selection included a refreshing green detox juice, and coconut yogurt smoothies), or order from the menu (I always got the acai with banana, and tapioca crepe with cheese and vegetables).
We had lunch at the hotel’s 23 Ocean Lounge, located on a sunny terrace next to the swimming pool. We tried fresh cocktails made with Brazilian fruits, and ate local grilled fish followed by coconut mousse, while enjoying views of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
With a mod couch like this, waiting in the lobby was a pleasure! (Elizabeth is with Rodrigo, our outstanding local guide who also works as a TV fixer and speaks multiple languages.)
Sofitel Ipanema Rio de Janeiro is in the best possible location. You can walk over to the beachfront, or visit the fashion boutiques, cafes, jewelry stores and art galleries two blocks behind the hotel.
Most of the stores are on Rua Visconde de Pirajá. Brazilian fashion tends to be airy and relaxed. I was a fan of the footwear designers Melissa Shoes and Schutz Shoes; see below for some of their styles.
It was refreshing to be in a destination that doesn’t feel “touristy.” Very few people speak English in Brazil, even in major stores. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate with hand gestures and bits of Portuguese!
Rio de Janeiro is the place to shop for swimwear and resort fashion. (Find a similar red and white striped bikini here.)
Every Sunday, the road by Ipanema is closed to cars, which lets locals ride bikes, roller skate and walk along the shore. I strolled along the beach every day, and enjoyed the views (I’m talking about both the scenery and the fellows in it!)
Rodrigo recommended that we check out Botafogo, an up-and-coming neighborhood with outstanding restaurants, live music bars and nightlife.
We had dinner in this neighborhood, at Iraja Gastro — and it turned out to be one of the best meals I had in South America. Chef Camila Anacleto welcomed us to the cozy restaurant, known for its contemporary tasting menu with Brazilian influences.
We began with two addictive plates: mandioca (cassava) chips with grana padano and clarified butter, and churros of cheeses and herbs.
At Irajá Gastro, each dish is made with sustainable ingredients. Above is their latest version of caprese (it has gone through six variations so far): a brilliant combo of buffala mozzarella, basil oil, strawberry and tomato sorbet.
The open kitchen adds to the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant. It’s a perfect place to have a special meal with friends, or celebrate an occasion.
We adored the fish of the day with toasted coconut and avocado. On the right: an innovative ravioli with fondant palm, chestnut and canastra cheese. Below it is my juicy Angus entrecote cut of the day, with mustard and vegetables. It paired perfectly with a bottle of red Guaspari (Iraja Gastro carries an extensive Brazilian-only wine list).
The meal had a sweet ending with a berry marshmallow dessert, and “bolo de brigadeiro” — hot chocolate cake with vanilla cream poured on top.
A trip to Rio isn’t complete without seeing the spectacular view from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar). We rode cable cars up the two elongated mountains, which resemble traditional loaves of sugar.
Elizabeth and I took this photo from the top of the first mound, Urca Hill (Morro da Urca).
Visitors can walk around and take in the sights from 360 degrees.
When you’re ready to ascend the next peak, hop into the second glass-walled cable car. In three minutes, you’ll be at the top of Sugarloaf.
Do you see the crucifix-shaped silhouette on the mountain in the distance? That’s the famous statue Christ the Redeemer, on the peak of Corcovado. The 38-meter Jesus has his arms outstretched, and appears to be blessing the people from high above.
“Cristo Redentor” was completed in 1931 by French sculptor Paul Landowski and Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa. It’s the most recognizable landmark of Rio, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Both locals and visitors gather at the top of Sugar Loaf to take in this glowing sunset over Guanarana Bay. It’s one of the best spots in the city for golden hour.
Rodrigo then took us to the nearby Urca district, and ordered us caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with sugar, lime and cachaça — a sugarcane liquor). The seawall is a lively hangout spot for young locals, who play music and drink while watching the moon rise over the waterfront.
I also loved sipping tea and watching the pink skies from my window at Sofitel Ipanema hotel.
Elizabeth and I went outside to Ipanena beach for the last rays. Our trip to Rio was outstanding, and we’ll remember it for life.
It’s a great time to visit Brazil, as the complicated and expensive visa process has changed. In the past, you had to complete a detailed application that included bank statements and an employer’s letter, and leave your passport at the consulate for up to a month. Now, if you’re a citizen of Canada, United States, Japan, or Australia, the process is simpler. You can apply online for a Brazil tourist e-visa and receive it within a few days.
Did you know Rio de Janeiro had such trippy, extraterrestrial attractions?
Time to fly off in my UFO… but more stories to come soon, including my dream journey to Easter Island!
A cheesy trip to Gruyeres, Switzerland! Traveling by Swiss trains to see Medieval castles & culture.
Ready for part 2 of my Gruyères, Switzerland journey? I’ll warn you, it gets a little cheesy…
However, there are many more reasons to check out Gruyeres. Located in Switzerland’s canton of Fribourg, it’s one of the most scenic destinations that photographer Joey Wong and I have ever seen.
(And it’s the birthplace of Gruyeres cheese, which happens to be my favorite!)
We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this little Swiss village, with pastoral landscapes and a Medieval castle.
First, how do you get to Gruyere? Most travellers start in Geneva, the capital of Switzerland. From there, it’s about a two-hour journey by train.
Joey and I used First Class Swiss Travel Pass from Switzerland Tourism, for unlimited rides on any of the country’s trains. The system works like clockwork, with efficient timetables and connections. (No wonder the Swiss are known as master watch-makers.)
We stayed in a hotel in Geneva, and did a day-trip to Gruyeres (you can also stay in the village overnight, if you wish to spend more time here).
There are two railway routes you can take from Geneva central station: go to Romont and change at Bulle, or take the scenic ride to Montreux, and change at Montbovon.
I’d opt for the Montreux itinerary. As you can see, the view out the window is spectacular! For most of the journey, you can see the crystal waters of Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva), one of the largest in Western Europe.
Our jaws dropped at the scenes that passed by our train window: quaint churches with steeples, furry sheep grazing, green hilly landscapes.
When you arrive at Gruyeres Station, you must walk up a path to reach the village itself. Take your time to enjoy the sights along the way, including this cute chapel with a bell tower.
We said hello to these hungry sheep, with bells ringing from their collars.
“The hills are alive, with the Sound of Music!” This view of the Alps made me want to dance around like Maria Von Trapp.
And then, we arrived at the village of Gruyeres: home to only about 2000 people. However, behind the charm lurks aliens… (as you can see in my article about the H. R. Giger museum and bar.)
Gruyeres is in the French region of Switzerland, so most of the signs are in this language. Cheese is the main industry here, along with culture tourism — people come here from around the world, to soak up the old-time charm of this little town.
The town is named after the founder, Gruerius. He captured a crane and made it his symbolic animal (in French, the bird is called a “grue”).
No matter where you point the camera, La Gruyere is a stunner. We strolled by St. Theodul’s church (Église Saint-Théodule), which dates back to 1254. The Counts of Gruyeres are buried under the altar of St. Michael, in this Catholic church
However, this Goth was more interested in the Satanic underbelly of this town! (My alien emoji sweater hints at the occult world of HR Giger. See more styles below:)
La Gruyere is especially vibrant in the fall, when the leaves are fiery red.
For those who love culture, there are several artistic attractions in the village, including a Tibetan art museum.
Fans of the Alien movie series make pilgrimages here, to behold the H. R. Giger museum. Gruyeres is home to the largest collection of his works.
We started at one of the main sights, the Castle of Gruyères. This fortress from the Middle Ages now holds a museum, art exhibitions, and theatrical showings.
Gruyères Castle was built in the late 13th century, with a distinctive Savoy square layout. With a labyrinth and garden beneath the Alps… this is a picture straight out of a fairy tale.
Many travel to this region to hike in the nearby mountains. Moléson-sur-Gruyères and Dent de Broc are ranges in the Frebourg pre-Alps, overlooking the lake of Gruyère.
History and culture-lovers flock to Switzerland to see the famous Medieval castles. (We also visited Chillon castle at Montreux, which you can see here.)
This sculpture, located at the entrance of Chateau de Gruyères, caught my eye. It’s called “Le Bouclier de Mars”, and appears to be an ancient carving. However, in fact, it was created by Patrick Woodruffe in 1993.
Leave it to me to find the devil, wherever I go! (There was also a “heaven” circular panel next to this one.)
Woodruffe’s work is based on his 1979 illustration, The Vicious Circle (1979). It depicts war as a closed circle of destruction and futility.
If you look at the imagery up close, you’ll notice alien sci-fi motifs — not unlike Giger’s visions.
The castle was hosting an exhibition of Patrick Woodruffe’s fantasy art. His works are surreal and unsettling; this one is a riff on Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Gruyeres was once completely surrounded by protective stone walls. Parts of this Medieval battlement still stand.
No matter where you walk, you’ll come across spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
It’s about to “get cheesy”… Around lunch-time, the entire village smells of delicious fromage! Diners come from afar to feast on Gruyere’s iconic product, especially in the form of fondue.
This Swiss cheese is as fresh as it gets. You can even spot the cows that provide the milk, in the nearby fields.
After a long afternoon, we sat down for an immensely satisfying meal at Chalet Restaurant. (Above is an image from their website, since the space was packed with people and it was difficult to get clear shots.)
Joey and I devoured the fondue (melted cheese in a communal pot, eaten by dipping bread, pickles and other crudites into the hot liquid). We also tried raclette for the first time (semi-hard cheese heated on a special device at the table, and scraped off), and the local herbal liqueur “Grande Gruyère”. We ended with a decadent dessert: double cream and raspberries.
My Swiss cheese feast at Chalet was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Europe. We literally were in a food coma after, and dozed off on the train ride back! Fortunately, we woke up in time to make our connections back to Geneve, and capture this psychedelic sunset.
PS: For a look at the sci-fi side of Gruyeres, check out my article about the H R Giger alien museum and bar here.
PPS: If you’re coveting an extraterrestrial sweater like mine, click the image below!
Cuba vintage car tour with Havana Urban Adventures! Renting a classic convertible, Callejon de Hamel Santeria.
When you think of Havana, Cuba — do classic cars come to mind? These sleek, 1950s-era automobiles are the only rides on the road in this fascinating country, where time seems to have frozen.
My dream was to ride down the Malecon in a vintage convertible… and this came true thanks to Havana Urban Adventures!
Urban Adventures offers one-of-a-kind, offbeat experiences in cities worldwide. These aren’t your typical tours; they’re small group or private adventures that let you dive deep into local life.
Read on to see how I cruised through Havana in this slick red “almendrón” (the Cuban word for antique auto)…
… and learned about Santeria (the Afro-Cuban religion of divine spirits), at the art-filled Callejon de Hamel.
(Photography by Asta Mail and me.)
In my first post about Cuba, I wrote about the joy of staying in a “casa particular” (Prado Colonial) and supporting local businesses. (You can read the full review here; definitely reach out if you’re looking for an authentic place to stay in Old Havana.)
When we made a booking with Urban Adventures, we received vouchers with confirmations of the start time, location, contact details and other info. In our case, the classic car came straight to our front door to pick us up for the 2 hour ride.
“Best day ever” is accurate, when it comes to their tours. As you may recall, I also linked up with Urban Adventures in Athens and Bucharest. I’m impressed by how their guides are always full of passion for their hometowns. In this case, Armando (Mandy) greeted us with a smile, and whisked us off on an adventure.
While the driver navigated, Mandy filled us in on the colorful sights around us. We rode through Habana Viejo and Miramar, where we glimpsed colonial architecture, monuments, and the glamorous Fifth Avenue. Such a joy to ride through these streets in an antique car, and soak it all in.
Our first stop: Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square.
Behind me, you can see a memorial to Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the four leaders of the Cuban Revolution (along with Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara). Manny explained that “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine) refers to the supportive comment he made to the leader during his speech to the people.
Next to him is this iconic counterculture portrait. I’m sure you recognize the face of Che Guevara, the guerrilla revolutionary! Che’s slogan, “hasta la victoria siempre” (Until victory always), exemplifies how he always strove to the fullest in his quest to help the people of Latin America.
On the other side of Revolution Square rises José Martí Memorial. It’s a tribute to this 19th century national hero of Cuba, and consists of a statue of Marti, a star-shaped tower, and gardens.
Cuba has a fascinating political / cultural history that is unlike any other country (and very different from its neighbors in the Caribbean).
I was keen to learn more about the Communist takeover from a Cuban perspective, so I later visited the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion) in Old Havana. It’s filled with black and white photos of the leaders, and facts / records that may surprise you. I recommend it to all my fellow history buffs.
Onward to Vedado, a more modern and residential district of Havana. We drove through neighborhoods with beautiful homes, and then stopped in Havana Forest to take photos.
Asta and I were surprised to see this jungle area, in the middle of busy Havana! We took a moment to explore this lush park, featuring a river and waving trees.
Many Santeria practitioners come here to perform rituals in the stream, including animal sacrifices. Keep an open mind, and if you see worshipers dressed in white, don’t point a camera at them.
(There’s more on this Cuban religion further down in the post, so read on.)
We passed by the sprawling Colon Cemetery, founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood. Named after Christopher Columbus, there are over 500 mausoleums covering 140 acres. I’ll have to come back next time to walk through this impressive graveyard, packed with white tombstones.
There’s truly no better way to get into the spirit of Cuba than by taking an old American car tour. What’s the deal with these antique vehicles everywhere?
In 1959, Fidel Castro banned foreign vehicle imports, making it impossible to purchase cars from abroad. Since then, pretty much the only wheels on the road are remnants from this era, when American expats cruised through Havana in hot rods.
Our Urban Adventures vintage car tour ended with a drive along the Malecon, as the sun was setting. We sat in the back of our cherry red convertible, and took in the soft breeze and warm light…. pure Cuba bliss.
I loved spotting cars with space-age “tail fins”, a 1950s signature. So many classic American names on the road here: Chevy, Plymouth, Buick, Ford, Oldsmobile.
The Malecon is Cuba’s seawall, which wraps along the coast for 8 km (from Old to Central Havana, and ending in Vedado). You’ll see locals hanging out on the stone wall at all hours, but the scene is most beautiful at sunset.
We ended the journey at The Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It’s a grand, historic hotel that was the favorite of 1930s American gangsters, famous crooners, and silver screen stars.
Inside, we looked at a display that celebrated National Hotel’s most famous guests, including Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outerspace (who met Castro in 1961, and was celebrated in Cuba). Such a cool spot to drink a Mojito and reflect on the old days.
I think these photos say it all… Urban Adventures’ vintage car tour is the sweetest way to explore the neighborhoods of Havana! More info here on how you can book a ride with them in an antique American convertible. (You can even put in a request for a specific car color.)
Asta and I loved our Urban Adventures tour so much that we did another the next day. We met guide Yanet for the Afro-Cuban religions tour, which let us explore Santeria and the local spirituality. As always, our experienced guide enabled us to get insider access to a subculture.
The journey takes place at Callejón de Hamel, a hub filled with alleyways of bright murals and sculptures. The artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, began this project in 1990 to renew the surrounding neighborhood, and create a space for the Santeria community.
We admired the colorful paintings by Salvador, mixed in with works made from scrap objects like bathtubs, pinwheels and mechanical tools. The eclectic vibe reminded me of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
I wore a rainbow-witch outfit that day. You can find many of my clothes for sale here on Depop; contact me if I can send you anything from my personal wardrobe!
Our guide, Yanet, explained the installations and spoke about the roots of Santeria. This Afro-Cuban religion has origins in the native spirituality of Africa, and became syncretized with Catholicism during colonial times (when slaves were brought to the New World).
Cuba’s spiritual practices are a mix of local customs, folklore, and beliefs from various sources. Some people mistakenly associate Santeria with voodoo, but these two are very different (voudou is a syncretic religion practiced mainly in Haiti.)
Callejon de Hamel is free for anyone to visit. It’s hard to imagine that this once was a sketchy, desolate area: Salvador has transformed it into an inviting, positive space. You can often catch musicians and rumba dancers performing in these alleys.
Yanet taught us about the orishas, or gods of the Santeria pantheon. One of my favorites is Elegua (on the left), represented as a playful child or old man. Visitors leave Cuban cigars in his mouth to keep this trickster happy.
There’s also a god of war (Changó), goddess of love (Oshún), a mother figure (Yemayá), a hunter (Ochosi), healer (Babalú Ayé) and more.
Santeria translates to “worship of the saints,” as there is a creator god and a number of lesser deities. These orishas rule over various aspects of human nature and endeavor, and you can call upon them depending on your particular situation.
When the colonialists shipped Africans to the Caribbean to work as slaves, they also baptized them as Catholics and banned their tribal faiths. However, the Africans still worshiped their orishas in secret, by associating them with Christian saints like St. Christopher. Santeria therefore developed as a unique syncretism.
We met a babalawo, or priest. His role is to be a spiritual adviser, and help people in various ways — including by fortune-telling with the tossing of shells.
Urban Adventures has special permission to enter the home of Salvador (the artist) and his family. We got to see their personal shrines to the orishas, where they make offerings of food, and bow in a way that touches each elbow to the ground.
In Santeria, each practitioner is associated with one protector deity (which you determine through ritual and the advice of the babalawo). This family member’s orisha is Yemaya, the fierce mother of the seas — hence the blue decorations, shells, fish and other objects related to her.
These personal shrines stay with them their entire lives. When Iku (the deity of death) arrives, the babalawo consults the spirits to find out what to do with the objects (burn them, bury them, etc).
We loved learning about Cuban spirituality and culture up-close. If you simply walk through the streets of Old Havana, you’ll come across colorful aspects — like this costumed parade of stilt-walkers.
The colonial legacy is everywhere to be seen, especially in the dramatic architecture and tall doorways.
Havana is a safe city, and “chill” is the best word to describe the residents. You’ll see locals hanging out on doorsteps, and chatting with their neighbors.
Headwraps and bright clothing are a common sight.
I came across a fortune teller, clad in white and with strands of beads draped around her neck.
Havana is also associated with author Ernest Hemingway, who lived here from about 1940-60. Many tourists visit his favorite bars, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where he drank daiquiris and mojitos. (I didn’t visit, as I was more interested in seeing the romantic gardens all around Havana.)
We ran into more street art by Yulier Rodriguez. His provocative, signature style is unmistakable.
How fitting to find a motorcycle, in front of this mural of Che Guevara! When he was a young medical student, Che rode 5000 miles through South America (as documented in his book “The Motorcycle Diaries.”) The journey opened his eyes, and stirred his dream of seeing a united Latin America.
On the right, we see “Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil” (Study, Work, Rifle), the motto of Cuba’s Communist Youth Union.
It was interesting to learn the Cuban point-of-view of historical events and figures. They highlighted achievements such as the excellent medical and educational system, which is open to all Cubans regardless of their income.
Without doubt, Havana is a city of music and color! Where else can you pay 2 CUC ($2) for a mojito, and enjoy an energetic rumba?
These silly boys welcomed us back to our casa particular, Prado Colonial. I’m all about supporting small local businesses, and staying with a casa is one of the easiest ways to do so. (More info and photos of our hotel here.)
Gracias Havana Urban Adventures for making my “greased lightning” goals a reality! If only I could take this classic auto home as a souvenir…
Have you been to Cuba? Planning a trip? Feel free to leave a comment if I can help you with travel tips, and I’ll gladly reply.