Finally Cuba!

I can say that with certainty that the climax of our trip to Latin America absolutely was our time in Cuba, but not for the reasons you may think.  It was an fairly easy task to travel into the country that has alluded Americans for the past several decades. With President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing US/Cuban relations it was with a sense of excitement and wonder that Mike and I approached our trip. It was everything and nothing I expected to experience!IMG_1448

Here I am standing in front of the US Embassy with a hope and a prayer that the Cuban people will one day soon have lives that allow them to prosper and live to their fullest potential. May they be free from governments that oppress and hinder their freedoms, whether that be from their own Castro regime or foreign governments.

We are picked up at the airport by an elegant, handsome looking man sent by Intrepid Tours. He is talkative and as we drive from the airport into La Havana, he shares openly about his life, shares pictures of his family and is very candid about his country. My initial reaction as we approach the city of Havana is the realization of all my romantic notions about the country and it’s truly like traveling back in time… we see the old American cars of the 40’s and 50’s… the colonial era buildings… the exotic looking people… it will forever to be one of my favorite moments of the trip. However, as I listen to our driver another reality comes to life, he is a taxi driver and makes more than twice as much as his sister who is a doctor, the government rations are not enough to sustain anyone, and mostly those that prosper are those involved in tourism. While none of this is a surprise in a communist country, as we travel coming face to face with real people living this reality, it is overwhelming.

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We, unlike the locals, had the luxury of staying at the beautiful Hotel Nacional. Tourism is alive and well in Havana already, and imagining the new flood of visitors from the USA, as restictions are relaxed, make us wonder how the lives of Cubans will be forever changed. Our hope is that not the government but the citizens of this beautiful country are the beneficiaries of the new changes in government and the improving economy.

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Our favorite mode of transportation!

As we experience the kindness, hospitality and goodness of the people here we realize the time has come for the average Cuban citizen’s life to improve. We had the privilege of many home stay visits as we traveled through the country and making a connection with the people here was priceless. Here I am with our hostess Zoe in Vinales, Cuba.

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One of the homes we stayed in.

Music is everywhere and seems to be one of the best remedies for the troubles and hardships people face.

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IMG_1435Mike was blessed with a conga lesson from a seasoned musician in the town of Trinidad.

IMG_1475On to the more positive aspects of the trip. Our Intrepid guide was Tony and we both agreed that he was one of the best guides we have ever had the pleasure knowing. He shared his country, both the good and bad, with candor and humor. He is intelligent and informed and he made every effort to make sure we had a diverse and worthwhile experience.  We cannot praise him enough.

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Traveling through the countryside we visited a tobacco farm and were treated with viewing the whole harvesting process and even the rolling of a cigar. We also had a wonderful evening on the beach with food, a bonfire and a musical group to entertain and delight us! An unforgettable night! Thanks to all who made it possible.

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Reminders of La Revolucion are everywhere.IMG_1449IMG_1303

Portrait of Fidel Castro in the Museo de La Revolucion. History will record his legacy…

 

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Food Tour and more of Casco Viejo

Yesterday we returned to the BioMuseo for a longer visit and throughly enjoyed the morning, the building is beautifully designed by Frank Gehry but yet unfinished, once complete it will house two aquariums each featuring the sealife of the Pacific and Carribean Seas. Also, an atrium level which looks out onto the park and ocean will be spectacualr. The exhibits are well done and in Spanish and English, just a great way to spend a morning for young and old.

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Mike and I both visit the hair salon this morning for some much needed hair care. I throughly enjoy the pampering.IMG_1285

In the afternoon  we do some more sightseeing in the Casco Viejo area and go on a Food Tour with a delightful, informative young guy, Jeff, who is familiar with Panama’s nooks and crannies. One of our favorite stops is the Fish Market on the boardwalk where we have the very best ceviche.

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Jeff’s mom was with the group and we stayed on into the evening to visit a disco. Totally out of our element, but we had a drink and got a preview of the nightlife in Panama!IMG_1280FullSizeRender 4

What’s next?  Salsa dancing in Cuba!

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Time for some TLC

Our last four days in Panama City before we head off to Havana, Cuba. We are treating ourselves to a luxury hotel where I will take some time to do some hair touch up, a pedicure and sleep-in a little later in a comfortable, plush bed before our next Intrepid Tour in Cuba. We are staying in a Grace Hotel and it is beautiful and I would highly recommend it!

Our first day was for doing some errands, pharmacy, bank, and reorganizing luggage. Our evening was at a local restaurant which  had a lovely rooftop bar, Tantalo, where we had drinks and a nice dinner.

Tuesday we are up at 4:30 a.m. for a day trip to the San Blas Islands. An authentic adventure with a two hour drive through the forrest in a jeep, a fiberglass boat which takes another hour of rough sea and we arrive at a small, beautiful island where I relax in a hammock and Mike ventures out for some snorkeling time. We return around 7 p.m. back to the hotel in time for dinner. It was a long day.

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Here we are soaked by the rough sea!IMG_1242FullSizeRenderIMG_1254

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Our last day with Intrepid Group


Here we are with our group celebrating our final day. Our Intrepid trips are always best remembered for the amazing people we meet and bond with, however fleeting it might be, for me all the gorgeous sights in the world mean nothing without people to share it with! It was a stellar experience and we enjoyed our group, our guide and or driver Alvaro who rescued us from the Border! Pura Vida!!!

When we arrived in Panama City we have lunch and then make a mad dash to tour the Canal facilities before the next ships pass through.

  
No pictures can do it justice but the opportunity to see it in person is not to be missed, it is an engineering wonder! It also opened my mind to the sacrifice of multiple cultures that created this connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Carribean Sea. The museum there was especially well done!


We did a drive by of the Bio Museo which Mike and I will return to on our own.

 
The skyline of Panama City is spectacular! This was one of my favorite buildings a real architectural feat!     

A quick tour of El Cascó Viejo left us wanting more.

 

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Valle de Anton

  Off the beaten path just before heading to the big city.  

  

 

I know my mom will enjoy seeing these ‘verduras’.  

   
A short tour of Piedra Pintada. Interesting petroglyphs. 

   

 Next stop Panama City!

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More of Panama

I wanted to share more of the Festival de Flores from last night. This is a very big event for the locals, attracting people from all over the ‘país’ for ten days! Many performances from young dance troops  and a great fun family night.  

    
   
This morning we travel the PanAmerican Highway on our way to Anton Valley our last stop before we reach Panama City. Our friend, Arisa from Australia, celebrates her birthday today so at lunch we surprise her with cake! 
    
    
 
Thanks to Zender for making it happen! 

 
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!

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Panama

Wandering requires stepping out into the world, trusting it has something good in store. Travel requires trust in people and in the unknown and, for me, in my God. Mike and I would rarely allow fear to dictate our choices but choose to trust. That means the recognition that some times bad things will happen.  
Mike safely in Panama!

Our experience at the border in Panama has been left behind but will not be forgotten. Having had a great reunion with our friends and settled into the town of Boquete, we open ourselves up for a great day at the local Festival de Flores.

 Young girls performing at festival.

 Our beautiful retreat awaited us.

 Lots of shared laughter and beautiful sights.

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Crossing the Border 

Our guide had forewarned us of difficulties crossing the border into Panama, strict officials, lots of questions, checking and rechecking details and luggage before granting passage, but nothing prepared us for the reality. While  most of the group pass through efficiently, NOT so my husband.  img_1128
The result was our group continues through without us and we had to spend an extra night in Costa Rica after 7 hours at the border patrol, paying a steep fine to obtain entry and missing the day’s activities. While finally a compassionate official was able to explain the conditions needed for us to proceed, we were able to continue the next morning into Panama. As always our Intrepid guides were there to walk us through the ordeal and reconnect us with our group. What could have been a disaster and rather unpleasant circumstances was resolved.

Our group was elated to see us, as we were seeing them! The adventures continue or should I say misadventures?

WARNING: Upon our final departure from Panama, the officials were not stamping our passport and when we questioned them and explained our previous difficulties the immigration officer stated that all the surrounding countries around Panama were well aware that they  NEVER stamp a passport upon exit?!? Really? Then how could she explain the heavy fees we were charged? She could not. Would extortion be too strong a word?)

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Down the River

Today our group is divided! About half of us will kayak down the Sierpe River, while the other half will float down on a shaded pontoon. Can you guess which group I am in?

It is hot, humid but another great day!

     

The crazy kayakers!


  

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Rain Forest

The Esquinas Lodge is located deep in the forest, miles from anywhere. It is quaint, simple and somewhat primitive but just to our liking.

Our first adventure starts out with a walk 2 miles into the rain forest to take photos and explore the area. Have you ever seen the rain approaching from a distance and, before you know it , you are in the center of the storm? There we are! We climb up and down the trail tramping, slipping and sliding, enjoying ourselves with both joy and trepidation. It is a great moment but so is the moment we arrive at the resort once again. Here we are with our Guide, Vender.


We return soaked through and through but elated and some of us have a drink at the bar to laugh about the afternoon’s adventure. We return to our rooms to relax before our evening meal.

Our dinner is full of lively conversations recounting another great day.

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Our guide Vender


Bridget,Valda and Lesley


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(These were actually breakfast photos ;) )

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