Sol Purpose

Cuba! November 2013

We have long wanted to see Cuba.  Initially we had thought to wait until we set off on our voyage as the Caribbean is first on our list of places to visit.  However, we feel that the embargo between the US and Cuba will be lifted/relaxed before we leave and Cuba will change forever soon after.  With this in mind, we opted to go now while it still had some of its old world charm, minus the inevitable commercialism that the US would bring with it.

Sunday 17th

Flew Southwest Airlines to Austin, then Air-Tran to Cancun.  In Cancun we ran the gauntlet of the taxi firms and time share-sellers to meet our pre-arranged car, complete with chilled towels and Dos Equis – the best start to our vacation!

We were driven to the Mallorca Hotel and Suites in Downtown Cancun (found on Trip Advisor).  The closer we got, the less sure I was about the choice of hotel, but it turned out to be great and I shouldn’t have worried.  The room was beautiful, opening out on to an enclosed courtyard with patio table and chairs.

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After settling into our room, we went out and explored the area.  We spotted several restaurants that looked like a good possibility for dinner – as well as several that most definitely were  not!  We tried to find a map, even searching the bus station, but with no luck.  Eventually I spotted a little park that we had noticed on our approach to the hotel.  It was a stone’s throw from the hotel and had lots of little food stands.  After a quick lunch, we found a corner store and bought some Modelo, which we drank on the patio.

Dinner was at Pescaditos, where the motto is “Un lugar para comer con los manos y cuspare los dedos” – “a place to eat with your hands and lick your fingers”.  It was fantastic!  Crab tacos, beer battered shrimp, ceviche and shrimp in a habanero cream sauce.  Add two beers, two margaritas and a bottle of water – all for US$54!  The waiter was awesome, humoring my attempts at Spanish.  Moray’s attempts were much better – he was even constructing sentences!  Maybe he should have stuck to Spanish – in an attempt to be romantic, he paraphrased Jack Nicholson’s immortal line from “As Good As It Gets”.  Aww, I hear you all saying.  Except he came out with “You make me want to drink more margaritas”….

Well, after that, it was time to head back to the hotel, past the little park we had seen earlier.  There was a party going on!  The stage was taken over by children from the local dance schools performing for the crowd; there were fire eaters and jugglers wandering around; there were little stalls and best of all, little electric cars for the children to ride around in.  Awesome! We watched some of the performances, and then Moray gave in and tried a crepe covered in Nutella.  Back to the hotel, where we sat in the roof garden,  watching the festivities and drinking a couple of beers.  Finally, we headed back to the room after a long, fun-filled first day of adventure!

Monday 18th

We got up at a reasonable hour – it was a vacation after all – and took a walk through the park to the main street.  There we found a little restaurant serving breakfast.  The staff didn’t speak any English, but we managed to order orange juice, scrambled eggs with ham and chorizo, black beans and tortilla chips.  It was excellent!  Then we headed back to the hotel, packed and sat on the roof deck in the breeze, drinking the last of our beer. Right at noon, as arranged, the car picked us up to take us to the airport.

The first stop at the airport was the kiosk to buy our tourist card for Cuba.  It cost MX$250 per person.  You just show your ticket and passport.  We used our British passports but we saw several US passport holders in the line and they had no problems at all.  Then we checked in and paid the exit charge from Mexico.  Most US airlines include this in the price of the ticket, but the Cuban airlines do not.

After a 55 minute flight, we arrived in Havana.  Havana Airport is not like anything I have experienced before.  There are uniformed armed police everywhere, but the immigration and customs officials are in a mixture of uniform and totally casual clothing!  We went through immigration painlessly , but there was a long wait for the bags.  Once we had those we headed out to look for the taxi, which we had ordered in advance.  It was great – our driver had a sign with our name, he was smartly dressed and smiling – and he spoke English!  He pointed out the cadeca where would could exchange euros for CUCs while he drove the car over to pick us up.  During the journey from the airport to Casa Maura in Havana, he pointed out landmarks and gave advice on how to survive in Havana.

Let me explain a little about casas particulares.  These are similar to Bed & Breakfasts.  You stay in a family home with the family, where you get your own bedroom and bathroom.  These homes will provide meals, usually for an additional but reasonable fee.  Some also will do laundry etc.  You can keep to yourself if you wish, but we chose, like most of the people in the casas we stayed in, to sit in the living room and chat with the hostess and the other guests.  We picked up a lot of tips on places to visit and learned a lot about Cuba that way.

Casa Maura (found on Trip Advisor) is in Centro Habana, within walking distance of just about anywhere you could want to visit in Havana.  We took the old-fashioned elevator with the gates (very reminiscent of Barcelona) up to the second floor where Maura was waiting to welcome us, and show us our room and bathroom.  Maura was lovely.  She understood English better than she spoke it, but she was taking lessons and was very keen to practice!  And let’s face facts here – her English was SO much better than our Spanish!  She suggested some places to go, and gave us tips such as “don’t buy anything from street vendors, always buy from the shops” as the stuff being sold by the street vendors is usually the seconds that have been rejected by the manufacturers.  She offered us dinner, but we were still full from the Johnny Rocket burgers, so we declined that, but accepted the neat rum she poured as a welcome drink! After talking with Maura and two other guests (an Argentinian couple on their honeymoon), we turned in early and slept really well!

Tuesday 19th

We got up late after a good night’s sleep and sat down to breakfast.  There was fresh fruit, fruit juice, pastries and coffee.  We then set out to explore the city.  We spent an hour or so walking from hotel to hotel trying to reserve a car for Friday, but it was impossible.  This is the first hurdle you have to cross when visiting Cuba from the USA.  The citizens of countries who trade with Cuba, such as the UK and Canada, can use their credit cards to reserve a car in advance.  As this wasn’t an option for us, we had to wait until we got there, which meant we were at the mercy of the car rental companies.  After hearing “come back on Thursday” several times, we decided to give up on that and enjoy the rest of the day.  We walked to the Malecon, which is the ocean-front road,

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We stopped at a cafe and sat outside eating plantains, pork crackling, cheese and olives, washed down with a couple of beers.  We were treated to the sight of a local fisherman carrying a sailfish past the cafe!

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Then on to the Museo de la Revolucion.  That was eye-opening.  Obviously there was a lot of pro-Castro propaganda, but we got a much better understanding of what had led to the revolution in the first place.  Then we visited the Museo Armerie where we saw a collection of Fidel Castro’s guns, machetes and knives.  He has a lot!

Be warned – hang on to all your small change because tips are required for everything – 25 cents for bathroom attendants (even if there isn’t one there, there is a tray for the tips!), tips for waiters, tips for any member of museum staff who tells you something about an artifact….  It can get a little overwhelming.  As for the hustlers on the street who walk alongside you trying to engage you in conversation or offering to find you a cab, just politely ignore them after the first ‘no, thank you”.  Another tip is when they ask how long you have been in Havana, tell them a week – they usually back off if they think you have been there long enough to figure out their scams.

After a long day of walking, we headed back to Casa Maura for a siesta and shower, before heading out to dinner.  We went back to the Malecon, to a restaurant called the Castropol (found in Lonely Planet).  Maura confirmed that this was a good restaurant though a little pricey for most Cubans.  We were a little disappointed as the lobster we chose was overcooked.  Still, while it might be pricey for Cubans, we thought a 2 course lobster dinner for two, with a bottle of wine, a rum cocktail and a jack and coke – yes, you can get both Jack Daniels AND coca cola in Cuba – for CUC100 (which is roughly $100), was pretty good.

Wednesday 20th

After another delicious breakfast we set off to do more sightseeing.  We headed to the Museo de la Ciudad.  It was a fascinating look at the history of Cuba and more specifically, Havana, prior to the revolution. We saw a beautiful sword, decorated by Tiffany’s and encrusted with gold and diamonds.

We ate lunch outside a cafe in one of the renovated old plazas, watching the world go by.  Despite his attempts to avoid it, Moray was caricatured by a street artist.  It’s actually pretty good!

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Went to a cadeca to change some more euros,  We tried a hotel first but as we weren’t staying there, the exchange rate was horrendous and the teller suggested we try a cadeca instead.  She was right!

Dinner  was at Los Nardos, another Lonely Planet pick.  The prices were cheap and the amount of food ridiculous.  We could easily have fed four people with the food that we ordered (red snapper – huge but overcooked, and roast lamb – very nice).  And the total bill was CUC40!  After dinner, we rounded off a lovely day, sitting at a rooftop bar, on comfy sofas, in the historic Hotel Inglaterra, listening to live music, drinking cuba libres and mojitos and watching people dancing.

Thursday 21st

This morning was slightly aggravating as we renewed our search for a car, but we eventually managed to get one for 7 days.

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Once we had picked it up, we drove to the Hemingway Marina.  This wasn’t as nice as we had hoped.  We had thought that this might be a good place to stay when we set off on our sailing travel, but it was very run down (even by Havana standards) and a long way from anywhere.  Also, there were no facilities for use by boaters.  So we drove back to Havana, thinking we would drive up to the Morro to see the historic canons, which are fired at 9pm sharp every evening.  After a couple of wrong turns, we gave up and headed back to Old Havana.  Apparently, Moray’s parking karma works everywhere, and we immediately found a parking spot right in front of the Hotel Inglaterra.  The car was safe and watched for the night and it only cost 6CUC for 24 hours!

After a light lunch of fruit and ceviche, with a couple of Cristal beers, we went back to Casa Maura, where Maura helped us book a room at the hotel in Maria La Gorda and to arrange some diving.  Then out to dinner at a restaurant which was recommended by Maura.  This was  the the Paladar Los Mercaderes, in Vieja Habana.  It was a beautiful restaurant, with a violinist playing while we sat on the balcony and ate a wonderful meal.  The appetizer was breaded deep fried malanga, followed by entrees of smoked pork in Cuban spices and a shrimp & mushroom risotto.  After this delicious meal, we headed to  the Park View Hotel roof top terrace for a couple of cocktails before heading back to Casa Maura.

Here are some photos taken while in Havana to give you a feel for the city…

Friday 22nd

We made a reasonable early start.  After picking up our laundry from Maura, we packed up.  Then we ate breakfast before loading up the car and saying goodbye to Havana.  The plan was to drive down the west coast to Vinales.  Well that was the plan….  Tip – Cuban maps are a more a suggestion than an accurate depiction as to what standard of road you are on, and even where things are!  After a few wrong turns, wound up on the autopista (which is basically a freeway, but not in as good shape as most freeways in the US).  Our first adventure was that we thought we were being pulled over by a policeman when we were sure we hadn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, it turned out to be our first experience of an ‘amarillo’ and the common practice of hitch hiking or as Moray calls it, car-stuffing.  Most people have no form of transport, so it is expected that those fortunate enough to have a car will share with those who do not.  Amarillos are staged along the freeway to flag down cars with space to give rides to people who need them.  It’s all perfectly safe, even after we realized that one of our passengers was carrying an axe, we never felt endangered 🙂  Over the course of the 6 days we had the car we gave rides to about 36 people, getting two oranges, a dinner invitation and the offer of cash.  But most of all, we got where we needed to be, and learned a little Spanish.

Anyway, back to our journey.  We turned off the autopista at San Diego Los Banos, as that appeared to be the main road leading to La Cueva de los Portales, which is the cave where Che Guevara headquartered his troops during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The road was good to start with, but got narrower and narrower, and more and more pot-holed as we proceeded.  At one point, it was not so much a road as a big muddy hole with a little tarmac along each side.  Fearing that we might have finally pushed our luck too far and that we might break the car in the middle of the jungle, we nevertheless ploughed ahead and eventually found the cave!  It was worth a visit, though a different route would definitely have been better.

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After visiting the cave, and regaining our composure a little, we decided to head along the main road suggested by the map as being the way to Vinales.  First of all, we got on the right road, but going in completely the wrong direction!  Then we turned around, sure that we were now heading the right way.  The road was great to start with, but got worse and worse, the further we went.  Suddenly, it was impassable.  A pedestrian stood and stared at us as if we were crazy and then started gesturing that we couldn’t go that way.  We backed up towards him and in a mixture of English and Spanish, and pointing to the map, showed him where we were headed.  Obviously that road wasn’t going to work, and the only other road that was open was back the way we had come, through a town called La Palma.  It just so happened that he was going there, so we gave him a lift while he called out directions from the back seat.

After dropping him off, we continued uneventfully until we saw a lovely looking restaurant, high up looking out through the trees.  We had the special of  the day, which was lamb cooked in red wine, with black beans, rice and salad.  It was delicious.  And the mojito and cubra libre we had were easily the best so far on our trip.

Finally we decided it was time to get back on the road and get to Vinales and to our next casa particular, Casa Papo & Nuivlys.

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This was a beautiful casa, with lovely owners.  Again, this was a Trip Advisor find.  Both Papo and Nuivlys speak very good English and were very keen to help us make the most of our stay.  We now know that another good thing about them is that they don’t push daytrips on their guests, unlike several other casa owners.

Papo is a very good cook and will cook most things that his guests want.  We had read that the specialty of the region is puerco asado, which is basically pork slow roasted over coals.  Papo doesn’t have the facilities to cook this so they suggested a couple of paladars that would prepare that dish the next day.  In the meantime, we decided to go for a walk around the town and get a couple of beers.  While out, we bumped into Doug and Lara, the Canadian couple who had been staying at Casa Maura.  We arranged to meet them for dinner the next evening.

Saturday 23rd

Papo proved to us what an excellent cook he is with breakfast.  We sat outside on the terrace in a garden of fruit trees.

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He brought out fruit juice, coffee and fresh fruit salad.  Then he brought french bread, with a bowl of grated coconut to spread on it.  Absolutely delicious.  That was followed by toasted ham sandwiches and omelettes.  It was an amazing breakfast!

We decided to make this a chill out day, and lie on the beach at Cayo Jutias.  We set out from the casa and almost immediately acquired a couple of passengers.  One young girl was enjoying waving at her friends as we drive past!  And every time we dropped someone off, we would pick up another.  It worked out well as we didn’t get lost at all!  The road up to the Cayo was appalling, but once there, the beach and the ocean were beautiful.  We lay in the sun (for a little too long!) and ate the orange that one of passengers had given us.

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Then we headed back to Vinales, again with passengers to guide us all the way.  One even gave us his card and invited us to stay with him for free!

This region is indescribably beautiful.  The mountains, villages and valleys are all stunning.  There are very few cars, but lots of horses, oxcarts and pony & traps, which all add to the beauty.

That evening, we picked up Doug and Lara from the Town Square and drove out to the Paladar for the long awaited puerco asado. It was amazing.  The pork was a little cold, but beautifully cooked, and it came with salad, yucca, rice, rice & beans, refried beans – all for 10CUC per person.  We also discovered that Papo had called ahead for us so they knew we were coming.  Then back to the bar for a nightcap before heading back to our respective casas.

Sunday 24th

The day started with a minor panic.  We realized that it was Sunday and that it was possible that the cadecas would not be open.  This meant that we wouldn’t be able to pay for the hotel in Maria La Gorda, unless they took euros.  Nuivlys called the hotel for us and it seemed that euros would be OK, and so we set out.  We stopped at the hotel on the hillside to take photos of the beautiful scenery.   Good thing that we did, because Papo arrived with some guests in tow, and told us that the cadeca in town would be open for another hour.  So we rushed back there and changed all the rest of our money.  Just in case!

Here are some photos taken while in and around Vinales to give you a feel for the region…

That done, we headed south towards Pinar Del Rio (where a passenger misdirected us for some reason and we got horribly lost) and then on towards Maria La Gorda, which is on the southernmost tip of the island.  It is a Unesco biosphere where all the flora and fauna are  protected, including the sea life. So it’s a great place for scuba diving.

We arrived at the hotel in Maria La Gorda just before the check in time of 4pm, so we tried out the beach bar.

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Beers and cuba libres were reasonably priced but we realized you could buy a rum for 50 cents and a can of coke (which would cover 4 drinks).  Made for very cheap cuba libres!

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We spoke with a few divers who had just finished their time there and were waiting for the bus back to Havana.  They had really enjoyed the diving, so we upgraded our stay from 2 to 3 nights and added another dive to the package.  The rooms were 58 CUC per night and the diving worked out at about 25 CUC per dive plus about 4 CUC per dive for gear.  The bar served sandwiches etc for a reasonable price, and the restaurant was buffet style.  Breakfast included with the room, and lunch or dinner was 12CUC per person.

Monday 25th and Tuesday 26th

These were dive days.  Thoroughly enjoyable dives, with a good dive guide.  We also befriended Olwen, a dive master who works in Egypt but had decided to try diving in Cuba!

Wednesday 27th

The weather changed overnight so there was no diving.  We decided to have breakfast, pack up and set off early for Las Terrazas.  While we were eating breakfast, the chef came and asked for a ride home to Sandino.  Lucky for us, we said yes.

This would be an ideal opportunity to tell you about our rental car.  As I mentioned, finding any car had been such an ordeal that we were grateful to get one at all.  The more we drove it, the more we began to realize what a ride we had been taken for!  The car was a little Chinese car called a Geely.  It looked clean enough, though almost immediately, we discovered that the glove compartment door fell off every time you opened it.  When we picked up our first hitch hiker, we discovered that the door handle on the inside of the rear passenger door would fall off if it was touched.  Made for a lot of amusement for our passengers!  Then there was the day when we realized that the black stuff all over the doors wasn’t mud but oil from the shock absorbers.  All annoying, but covered by the insurance, so we weren’t too worried.  The only thing that insurance didn’t cover was tires.  So would you believe it, when we get to the car ready to leave the dive resort, we discovered it had a flat tire!  Given that we were in the middle of nowhere, we weren’t sure what to do, but the chef wanted to get home.  He got someone to bring up a scuba tank and fill the tire from that!  Cubans are the masters of improvisation – just look at their 1950s cars that are still running beautifully!

So off we headed, picking up and dropping off along the way, until we reached Soroa.  We ate lunch overlooking a river that ran through the mountains at the Villa Soroa and then headed for Las Terazzas.  What d’ya know – as soon as we have no passengers we get lost!  Never mind, we figured out the route and found our next casa – Casa Juanita.  Having dropped off our stuff, we headed back to the community of Las Terrazas, where we went zip lining – yes, even I went, the lady with the fear of heights – and I enjoyed most of it!

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We eventually found a little place called Fonda La Mercedes, hidden on a back street, where we had a nice meal.

After dinner, we headed back to what was the worst casa we stayed in the whole trip.  It was OK, but by no means as nice or friendly as the first two.  Also, Juanita didn’t ask for any of the paperwork that the others had, so we are pretty she pocketed the money.

Thursday 28th

After a mediocre breakfast, we set off back to Havana.  The weather was bad in Havana, so the Malecon was closed, as the waves were crashing over the wall on to the road.  We found our way to our final casa, which Maura had arranged for us, and dropped off our bags.  Then we set off to find the place to drop off the rental car.  As usual, we tried to follow the map, but it was an estimation.  We eventually found it, only to find that no one was there.  We called the number that they gave us but it was recording in Spanish.  Getting very frustrated we walked back to the rental place to find that they had arrived.  We turned in the car and got back our 150CUC deposit (thank goodness the temporary fix on the tire held, and they never noticed the rear door handle!)  They drove us back into town and dropped us at the Hotel Inglaterra.  We headed back to the casa to sort out a room and then headed back to walk around Vieja Habana and be touristy!  We started in El Floridita, the home of the Daiquiri, where we had our pictures taken with Ernest Hemingway.

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Then to Havana Club, where they make Cuba’s most famous rum.

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Next we went to Dos Hermanos, where we saw pictures of the patrons of the pre-revolutionary days – Al Capone, Marlon Brando, Frank SInatra to name but a few.

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Our last dinner in Havana was back at the Paladar Los Mercaderes, where the food was again delicious.  After the meal, we went to another little bar to drink one more cuba libre and to listen to the live music, before heading back to the Casa.

Friday 29th

After breakfast. our taxi arrived to take us back to the airport for our flight to Cancun.  The check in process is easy, but slow.  A couple of tips too.  Even though you had to pay for a tourist card to get into the country, you won’t get out without paying an exit tax!  It was 25CUC per person. so make sure you have kept that much back.  Another thing to note, when you try to change back any CUCs you have at the airport cadeca, they will only give you US dollars and they incorporate a 10% charge into the exchange rate.  Not a problem if you are going back to the US, but I can imagine it’s not much use if you headed to Europe!

We arrived safely in Cancun, where again, we were met by a car, and a couple of Dos Equis!  This time we stayed at the SIna Suites, again a trip advisor pick.  It was a nice, large suite, with a kitchen, nice bathroom, patio and good size bedroom.  However, it was basic, and quite a distance from the main hotel area, though we walked it a few times.  We ate dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, and had an early night, to be rested for the next day’s adventure.

Saturday 30th

The day that Moray had been waiting for and I had been dreading.  Alfredo and Fernando, from Nautilus Dive Center, picked us up right on time to drive to the Cenotes where we would be doing our first cavern diving.  On route, Alfredo, gave us a really thorough briefing on the safety requirements, signals that are different in cavern diving, and the history of the caverns we would be diving in.  I was very nervous, but Alfredo managed to convince me that it was all fine.  And I am so glad he did!  The dives were amazing – almost indescribable.  To see stalagmites and stalactites, trees under the water, the way the sunlight comes down into the caverns, and the effect the halocline has on the visibilty – all absolutely amazing.  We will definitely be doing this again!!!  See the link below to see a video of some of the cenote dive… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9btmUCrNDYA

After the drive back to Cancun, we got ready to go out for our long anticipated dinner at Peter’s restaurant.  This was a restaurant Moray had found on Trip Advisor, which sounded amazing.  So we got dressed up, and then rode the local bus to the restaurant!  We were not disappointed at all.  The food was excellent and reasonably priced.  The wine list was great, if a little pricey.  And a nice touch was that the owner/chef came out to welcome us.  I would definitely recommend it for a nice dinner in Cancun.

When we left the restaurant, there was a cab outside, so we asked how much it would cost to take us back to our hotel.  The driver said $30, so we declined.  Suddenly the price came down to $11!  We had already started walking towards the bus stop, and we just kept walking.  That might not have been the best decision-we should have turned right to get to a bus stop, but instead we turned left – the direction we wanted to go.  We walked for miles, me in high heels and Moray in new shoes that were causing blisters on his heels.  To make matters worse, it started to rain!  Eventually, we got to a bus stop and jumped on the next one headed to the hotel zone, where we went to Carlos and Charlies for a couple of drinks.  That was fun, until the bartender tried to overcharge us – really?!?!  By no stretch of the imagination did we look like drunk springbreakers!!!

Sunday December 1st

We walked over to the dive operation to meet up with Fernando and Alfredo again, this time for a couple of ocean dives.  The operation and dive boat looked a little the worse for wear, but the quality of the dives was amazing.  First we did a wreck dive, and while we were there, we saw a few eagle rays.  They are such graceful creatures, and it was quite a highlight.  Then a great drift dive, where we saw all sorts of creatures, but in particular a lot of eels.  Perfect last dive of the year!

After the diving, and dropping our stuff back at the hotel we had a Mexican meal near the dive operation on restaurant row.  Very nice, and reasonably priced.

Monday 2nd

Car picked us up, as usual right on time, and we headed to the airport for our flight back home.  After checking in, we ate lunch at Bubba Gumps and then took our flight back to Austin.  The only travel glitch of the whole trip was here, where the 50 minute flight back to Houston was delayed, but a couple of drinks in the bar took away the pain!

All-in-all, this was an amazing trip!  We learned a lot about traveling on a budget – when you have to use cash for everything because you can’t fall back on a credit card, you learn to be very careful with your spending.  But the joy when you realize you have some spare at the end of the trip so you can have a nice dinner is fantastic!  It’s the little things…..

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