Category Archive for Caribbean
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.
Casa de Campo Villas: Caribbean luxury vacation rentals! Catalina Island, Minitas beach, spa & resort activities.
Coming at you… from my rock star villa in the Dominican Republic! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move in.
In my first post, I introduced you to the elegant Casa de Campo resort. We’ll kick things up yet another level: with a look at their tropical villas for rent, and activities including skeet shooting and horseback riding!
We’ll also bask in the white sand and waves of Minitas Beach and Catalina Island, aka paradise on Earth.
Casa de Campo is in located in La Romana, which is considered the most exclusive and beautiful area in the country. Quite a few celebrities own mansions or vacation here regularly; perhaps you might recognize the names Drake, Beyonce, J-Lo, A-Rod, Jay-Z.
When you step into this backyard of dreams, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it’s obvious why this is an A-list destination.
Casa de Campo has multiple Oceanfront Villas available for rent. They each have bright bedrooms filled with modern decor, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.
The star of the show, however, is the long outdoor pool flanked by a luxurious gazebo.
I could laze in this open-air lounge all day, reading a sci-fi novel. The space is airy thanks to the peaked roof and ceiling fans.
CDC’s villas are decorated in muted Caribbean colors, which match the elegant natural surroundings. The wicker furniture is accentuated by local crafts and glasswork.
Photographer Molly Weingart and I daydreamed about living here in style.
As villa guests, we’d have access to maid and butler services, and a culinary staff that prepares daily breakfast in the kitchen.
The most difficult decision you’d have to make is whether to dip into the swimming pool, the Caribbean sea…
Or the pod-like hot tub next to the bedroom patio.
We’d never get bored indoors, with these pop-modern rooms. The villas are equipped with a sauna, full gym, and private cinema with theater seating.
“Scarface” vibes, in the central living room that is set up to entertain guests.
Molly and I loved the artistic details that make each villa unique. This handcrafted mahogany bench and rainbow canvas formed the perfect photo backdrop.
Casa de Campo makes the most of the Dominican Republic’s tropical beauty. They also offer Garden Villas for rent, with lush natural surroundings as well as a swimming pool.
Although you’ll feel like a millionaire, the villa rentals are actually quite affordable compared to others in the area (especially when split among a group of friends). Many guests rent a villa for Christmas and New Year’s, hen getaways, or other occasions.
(If these photos make you keen to move in, there’s more info on Casa de Campo’s site.)
As guests of the resort, we had full access to “fun in the sun” activities — ranging from water sports to outdoor massages. Since Casa de Campo is a huge resort (at 7000 acres), we never ran out of options for activities, many of which are included in the package experience.
The Dominican Republic is known for its pristine beaches. One of the best is Playa Minitas, Casa de Campo’s private beach. We drove here in our personal golf cart, and found ourselves on a quiet stretch of soft white sand.
At Minitas Beach, guests can try activities like snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding or windsurfing in these gentle waves.
Molly and I couldn’t wait to wade into these clean, warm waters. This, right here, is my happy place.
I’ve visited beautiful beaches worldwide (Maldives, Bali, Maui), and Minitas Beach ranks among the best I’ve ever experienced. Unlike other places in the Dominican Republic, this is an uncrowded and meticulously maintained spot.
Casa de Campo offers free towel service at the entrance, and plenty of amenities including change rooms, several bars, and Minitas Beach Club restaurant (which we reviewed in this post).
(I’m wearing a skeleton swimsuit; similar one here).
We alternated between dips in the crystal-clear waters, and lounging on the comfortable chaises under the shade of palm trees.
There weren’t many tourists around, which let us feel as if were in our own Blue Lagoon.
If you stay until the sun sets, you’ll get this spectacular light show over the horizon.
We watched the sunset, while sipping their famous piña coladas served in a fresh, local pineapple…
I have to admit, I love being a “beach Goth” every so often!
Quite a few people recommended that we visit Catalina Island, and we were glad we took their advice. To get here, ask the Casa de Campo staff to help you make an advance booking for the catamaran ride. The boat departs from Minitas Beach and takes 25 minutes — and it’s a fast and furious ride that made us smile.
We disembarked onto six square miles of beach paradise. No photo filters needed: the turquoise hues and perfectly clear waters are exactly what you get in real life.
Catalina Island is part of the Parque Nacional del Este, which preserves the diverse ecosystem that includes sand-dunes, mangroves, and reefs.
If you’re a snorkeler, take a short swim from the pier, and you’ll find calm waters teeming with sea life.
Relaxing on Catalina Island turned out to be one of the best moments of our trip to the DR.
You may recall that we ate like queens at Casa de Campo, from sushi fusion to rustic Italian. To balance it out, we spent time in the fitness center, which has a large selection of weights and machines.
Guests can also book a private training session, or visit the physiotherapy center. Molly did a functional class with David, and says: “I went to the workout tired, but left feeling energized. David did a great job of assessing my strength. When he realized that I could do more than he had originally intended to give me in the workout, he adjusted it workout accordingly — all with a smile. I even got to learn how to say some of the exercises in Spanish!”
The resort also has regularly scheduled group fitness classes like Pilates, Zumba, Saco Box, Spinning, and aerobics. We woke up for the 8:30am Pilates class, and it was absolutely worth it.
Molly’s reaction: “Liliam was such a magical teacher. I felt like she saw my heart, and then just made my abs work hard! One of the things that I really enjoyed about her (and David, and fitness at Casa de Campo in general) was that there was a focus on wellness, so progressing an injury to advanced athletic performance could be done in one class. She exemplified this completely, as she took the extra time to show us those stretching machines that released the back.”
The Spa was another place to rejuvenate both body and mind. Casa de Campo’s spa uses traditional techniques and local, organic ingredients in their menu of treatments.
Molly booked the Signature Ayurvedic massage. She says, “Alexandra, the woman who took care of me, touched me with such kindness and knowledge that the 90 minutes drifted by. I’ve been suffering from a pretty serious injury and she did a great job of handling the tension around the muscles to release some of the pain.”
I agree with her words that “The staff at Casa de Campo was spectacular. That’s an understatement. They made you feel like you were at home with friends you just hadn’t met yet. From checking in with Victor, to the bartenders who recommended we go to Catalina Island, and servers who pushed me to speak more Spanish… everyone just wanted to make us more comfortable and help us explore.”
The all-inclusive package includes horseback riding. I was excited to get on a horse for the first time in over a decade.
The horses are extremely well-trained, and will never dart off or disobey commands. We explored the ranch’s lush pathways, by walk and trot.
I also got to try skeet shooting for the first time. The all-inclusive package includes 25 shots; it’s nice how CDC encourages guests to experience new sports and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise do on their own.
Our instructor was a kind, detail-oriented teacher who made us feel we were in safe hands. He patiently showed us how to use the two-barrel gun, which could hold two shots before requiring a re-load.
Skeet shooting means hitting clay targets that fly in the air. By pressing a button, he launched these disks from fixed stations, at a variety of angles and speeds.
I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at hitting clay pigeons. I credit this to my many hours of playing “Duck Hunt” on the original Nintendo console… the 1980s video game is remarkably good at mimicking the actual experience of skeet shooting!
Don’t mess with travel bloggers. They learn skills on the job.
I’ve shot rifles in indoor gun ranges before, and didn’t enjoy the experience much. However, an outdoor shooting center is a different story. Molly and I appreciated getting to know the history and skill of the sport, at one of the biggest centers in the Caribbean.
If you’re a golf fan, then you might already know of Casa de Campo. The resort has three of the best golf courses in the Caribbean, if not the world: Teeth of the Dog, Dye Four, and The Links. We saw groups of golf buddies renting a villa together, and swinging their clubs in this postcard-perfect setting.
A big heart for Casa de Campo — Molly and I couldn’t have had a better time in the Dominican Republic! Everything about the resort was as pristine as these waters, and the staff deserves a special mention for their kindness.
If these photos are convincing you to fly off to this beach, check out more info on CDC’s website.