Monthly Archives: November 2015


I spent eight days in Cuba, traveling with ten other women, friends and friends of friends. We took an educational people-to-people trip with Globe Drifters. This country is definitely different than any I’ve visited. For the most part, development stopped in the 1950’s and it’s been decaying ever since. With the introduction of some private enterprises, it seems to be shifting from communism towards socialism, and with increasing tourism, restoration is beginning. It’s definitely on the cusp of big changes and it will be interesting to see what happens when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018.

Scroll down past the photos if you’d like to read more detail.

11/15/15 – Havana

We were warned to arrive 3-4 hours early for our flight from Miami to Cuba, but, even with the crazy scene of returning Cubans loaded down with piles of plastic wrapped packages, two hours would have been plenty.

It was relatively easy to get through customs and change money, .87 CUC (convertible Cuban pesos) per dollar after conversion fees. We were met at the airport by our Cuban guide, Mikel, and shuttled in three taxis to a half dozen casas. I’m sharing a room with Anne, one of my hiking buddies. We had the afternoon free so most of us had lunch together at Habana 61, a new private restaurant that opened within the last couple years. My swordfish was delicious, better than any meal I had in Florida.

We then split into small groups to explore historic Havana. It was sad to see so many once beautiful buildings in such decay. Hopefully the overdue end to the U.S. embargo will lead to funds for restoration of this UNESCO site. Music was playing on almost every block.

The group rejoined just as the rain was starting. We were soaked by the time we reached the restaurant where we experienced a crazy scene of people crowded onto wet curved marble staircase with waiters passing by with trays of food, wind blowing over rooftop tables, and other chaos. We were eventually seated inside and I enjoyed my first mojito.

11/16/15 – Road to Trinidad

 Breakfast at our casa was moved indoors due to more rain. It was the same government-dictated meal we would receive every morning – eggs, rolls, fresh tropical fruit (which we were assured was safe to eat), juice, and coffee/tea. We met the others at our rendezvous point. Our bus was significantly bigger than the van we were expecting, so with a row per person the long drive to Trinidad was quite comfortable.

Along the way we learned a bit about history, from the Cuban perspective. We stopped at Museo Giron, which documented the great inequities leading to the revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion. The American invaders were mostly upper class Cubans who either fled or were asked to leave after the revolution. (Those who refused to accept the small offerings for their land and business holdings received nothing). Due to leaked information, Castro knew about the invasion in advance and the Cuban Americans didn’t have a chance. Most of those that survived were returned to the U.S. after their families paid ransom.

 11/17/15 – Trinidad

 Anne stayed in all day, suffering from traveller illness. I almost got lost when I went out to find her a soda, but was able to retrace my steps on the cobblestone street by the sights along the way – primary schools filled with children, pregnant women in a row of rocking chairs, and interesting buildings.

I later joined the group for a walking tour of the historic district, another UNESCO site – homes of wealthy families on the square (sugar cane plantation owner, factory owner, railroad owner, and slave owner). More than a million African slaves were brought to Cuba and many of the island’s inhabitants are descendants of them. I later purchased a couple souvenirs at the handicraft market, one of the few places to buy anything. They had small wooden items, embroidered linen, jewelry made from old silverware, and handbags made by crocheting the aluminum tabs from flip top cans.

In the evening we had a wonderful dinner on a terrace with a live band. My mariposa lobster and Bucanero beer were both delicious. I had heard that the food in Cuba was mediocre, but Mikel obviously knows where to find the best. It felt a bit extravagant knowing that we were eating much better than most Cubans whose staples are rationed and “supermarkets” are tiny.

 11/18/15 – Waterfall and Playa

 Seven of us took a hike to the Javira Waterfall in Parque Natural el Cubano. Though I didn’t feel a thing, I later noticed a large red swelling on my elbow. While it has gone down, it has not disappeared. After a short break, just enough time for me to walk back to the plaza for an iced Torquino coffee served with ice cream (yum), we boarded the bus again for a short drive to the beach. We went swimming at one beautiful sandy spot then had a picnic dinner and bonfire at another. It was wonderful to watch the stars come out while barefoot in the sand.

 11/19 – Long Drive to Vinales

We spent the whole day on the bus with a few stops along the way – a sugar plantation, Manaca Iznaga (an estate previously owned by a wealthy slaver trafficker with a tower from which slaves were watched), and the Che Guevara memorial.

 11/20/15 – Vinales

After an early morning walk (colorful casas, horses, bicycles, oxen) and another identical breakfast, I joined the others for a tour of a tobacco farm where we learned how cigars are made. Permits are required for this family-run operation to allow tourists and it’s heavily taxed. We had time to walk to the town square before lunch. After a siesta, we toured an organic farm where we were served a huge family-style dinner while watching the sunset. I showered before heading back to the town square to see a band, but don’t know why I bothered since I was sweating again before I’m got dressed.

11/21/15 – Back to Havana

On our way back to Havana we stopped at Comunidad Las Terrazas where we learned abut this model town, then visited the river where we ate yet another ham and cheese sandwich (it was either that or cheese and ham). Our dinners may have been amazing, but most lunches are boring. On the way to our casas, we stopped to stroll though Fusterlandia with amazing tiled artwork and walls reminiscent of Gaudi.

I had dinner in an outdoor plaza with about half the group, an ever-present band playing. We then met the others for a taxi ride to a club. We were the first to arrive at 10 pm and didn’t stay for the live band, which we later heard started at 1:00 a.m. (Needless to say, many Cubans are on a later time schedule than we are). Back in our neighborhood, I took a short nighttime stroll with Anne, Nancy, and Harley (for the first time we are staying at a casa with fellow travelers).

11/22/15 – Havana

Mikel took us on a walking tour and to lunch on the roof of Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s first residence in Cuba. It rained a bit in the afternoon, but stopped just in time for our city tour in old convertible cars. That was great fun and our only chance to see other parts of Havana. We had another delicious dinner and then went to a theater performance at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

11/23/15 – Back to Miami

Taxis picked us up after breakfast and took us to the airport where I spent my final CUC on digestive biscuits. Part of me would have liked one more day in Havana, but my digestive system was happy to return to the U.S. where I can brush my teeth with tap water.


I’m in Florida for the first time since visiting my grandmother in 1988. She retired to West Palm Beach and when I visited her that summer, I vowed never to return. The humidity isn’t as oppressive this time, “only” 75%. Perhaps the unusually high humidity we experienced in San Francisco this year helped prepare me for it. This is my first venture into the southern part of this lush green state. I’ve enjoyed living in shorts and flip-flops.

 11/9/15 – Getting to Florida

 The shuttle picked me up at 4:00 a.m., expediting my adjustment to the East Coast time zone. Our take off was delayed a bit, due to a mechanical problem with a cargo door, so I entered commute traffic when I left Miami in a rented Hyundai. It was dark by the time I got out of town, so I saw nothing but taillights as I drove the Tamiami Highway to Everglades City, near the northwest section of the national park. The animal crossing signs were flashing, but no one slowed down for the wildlife. Fortunately I saw no dead panthers or alligators, though cars kill many of them.

11/10/15 – Boating in the Everglades

Considering the time change, it was mighty early when I got up to go on a four-hour guided canoe trip into the swamp. The mosquitoes were swarming when we got to the launch site, but they didn’t bother me on the water. The trip was great fun, in spite of a couple chatty couples sometimes spoiling the quiet; the little alligators quickly sunk beneath the surface as we approached. It was almost as magical as the Amazon jungle and not nearly as toxic. My favorite part was going through mangrove tunnels, especially when I was the lead canoe and had smooth reflective water in front of me. If I return, I’d consider doing the ten-mile trip from the launch site back to Everglades City, provided someone had recently gone through the tunnels and cleared the spider webs.

After lunch at Camilla Street Grill, a pleasant spot on the water right in back of the Ivey House where I’m staying, I headed south to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and took another boat ride (the best way to see this place is definitely on the water). I saw a few of the Ten Thousand Islands. We spotted several dolphins. Afterwards, I toured the Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee, now a “museum” containing an eclectic collection of old stuff, ranging from Indian tools and giant snakeskins to old jars and equipment. I enjoyed chatting with the proprietor. By then it was almost time for sunset, so I watched the clouds turn yellow, a very pleasant end to a great day.

11/11/15 – Big Cypress National Preserve

I considered canceling my pole boat tour, because I would be returning to the Turner River, but I’m glad I didn’t. This ride was more peaceful and better for photography than canoeing, especially since I was the only passenger. We were the first on the water and were able to see more wildlife. After the two-hour tour, I returned to the Skunk Ape Research Center, worth a stop, and got a personal tour of Rick’s collection of critters.

I then spent a couple hours driving around Big Cypress and stopping numerous times to photography birds and trees in the swamp.

11/12/15 – Ding Darling

I drove west to Cape Coral hoping to see lots of birds at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. I did see quite a few, but most of them were too far away to photograph, and I’m not sure it was worth the detour.

11/13/15 – Miami Beach

On my way to Miami, I stopped for a stroll in a sauna. At least that’s what my 3-mile walk in Shark Valley felt like. My shirt was soaked by the time I got back to the car. For my efforts, I was rewarded with several birds, a couple alligators in the water, a variety of flowers, and beautiful clouds. My favorite sighting was an Anhinga swimming underwater.

It was too early to check into our Airbnb when I got to Miami Beach, so I sauntered along the boardwalk, admiring the turquoise water and colorful umbrellas. That didn’t last long; soon I retired into an air conditioned restaurant for lunch. I take back everything I said about the weather not being oppressive. It got up to 90o F (that’s 32 o for you Celsius-minded folks) down here in the land of endless summer – too warm for me, especially when it’s humid.

Anne arrived early in the evening and we walked next door for a mediocre dinner – lousy wine and salty food.

11/14/15 – A Wet Day in Miami

We almost got back from a morning walk along the beach before the rain started. Since the sky was grey, we changed into dry clothes and braved the Aventura Mall, shopping for shirts and ponchos. The rain long stopped enough for us to take a short walk in the Wynwood area, filled with murals, galleries, and cafes. It started pouring just as we finished lunch at Coyo Taco, so we ordered hot beverages from Panther Coffee and waited for it to slow down. We headed out during a lull, but it started again and we were soaked again by the time we reached the car.