A1a Marathon and Colorful Little Havana

This weekend we made a stop in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area so that Steve could rack up his Florida marathon. While camping at one of the worst KOAs on earth, we did a little exploration, a little shopping, and enjoyed the nice warm weather that south Florida offers up in February.

First, the KOA. We regularly stay at KOA campgrounds when another option isn’t available. In the Miami area there are very few options for RVs, so we jumped on booking this one so that we could easily get to the race. Unfortunately the place was a dump.

What was once, a long time ago, maybe a decent place was decrepit and crowded, littered with ramshackle trailers and a dried up pond. Every time we took a walk we found more reasons why this park didn’t deserve to be under the KOA umbrella. We’ll be writing some reviews. Still, we met some nice people here, and it’s kind of par for the course when you travel via RV. Win some, lose some.

The real draw to this large metro area was the Publix A1a Marathon, which ran alongside the beach in Ft. Lauderdale.

Steve ran the 26.2 miles in just over four hours, and I completed the accompanying 6K (just under four miles) race. It was a beautiful morning punctuated by a sunrise over the Atlantic, a flat course, and relatively cool and breezy weather.

As you may recall, Steve’s goal is to complete a marathon (or more) in every state. This was state number 23 and his 33rd marathon overall. It was a great way to knock Florida off the list.

While in this area we also signed up for a tour of Little Havana, a distinct cultural neighborhood in Miami.  Since we’d been to Cuba in 2019 we have an interest in the history, culture, and political evolution of this nearby island.

Our tour guide Danny has lived in Little Havana most of his life and easily rattled off significant historical events that brought Cubans to the United States and to this region of south Florida. He told us about the political, economic, and social factors that have influenced US/Cuban relations and gave us a great history lesson on the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

In contrast to our visit to Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s picture is often displayed in restaurants and businesses, Little Havana is blatant about its hatred for the communist regime, even expressing that hatred in the name of an ice cream flavor (chocolate with cayenne pepper).

The perspective in Little Havana, established by Cuban exiles who have suffered under the Castros, is clearly on the side of freedom.  

After Danny showed us the serious part of the district, he introduced us to all that is great about Cuban food. On our walking tour we tried pressed sugar cane juice, Cuban coffee, churros, Cuban ice cream, and then enjoyed a traditional Cuban lunch. If you get to Miami and are looking for an activity where you learn while you eat, this colorful tour is for you!

Since our time in the Ft Lauderdale area was short, there’s so much more we need to see and do. At least we know that the next time we visit we won’t be bored (and we won’t stay at the KOA!)

Final Thoughts on Cuba

As we return to the USA we are overwhelmed with memories that make us still wonder, “what the heck just happened?” Cuba is probably one of the most “foreign“ places we’ve ever visited. 7438B6ED-55C6-462B-806A-9A6A7755552DHere are a few observations from our time on the island.

  1. Cuban pesos (CUP) are only used by Cubans.  Tourists deal in the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is 20 times more valuable than the peso. Both currencies are impossible to trade outside of Cuba. When we returned to Miami we discovered 40 CUC in our pockets. 9EAB101E-A3FC-43A8-AEEA-1304AA11F511The US-based currency exchange would not take the money and after asking at least a dozen Cuban-Americans working in the airport if they would like the money  (free money!), no one wanted it! We thought someone might be able to use it, but no one wanted to take the money!  Sidenote: if you are going to Cuba soon, let us know. We can sell you some convertible Cuban pesos!
  1. We take so much for granted in the USA. One big example is the availability of clean drinking water. We were advised not to drink from the tap;  however, our search for bottled water often turned up nothing. In fact when we stopped at a rest stop on the highway and attempted to buy water, the only beverage available to purchase was rum!  14B91148-94DE-4A43-B37D-7B01DC37F8AD.jpegWe stood in line at a store called Agua y Jabon for awhile until we looked in the window and only saw soap (jabon) on the shelves. No agua to be found!
  1. Cubans are master mechanics. The old US-made cars are really everywhere, and they’re all still running. How can they do it and yet, in the US, if we drive a car over 10 years old we’re really in need?
  2. Cuba has no advertising. On the highway and in the cities the signs you see are all in support of the revolution and the government.Most display the faces of Fidel Castro and/or Che Guevara. I guess we’re all  subject to advertising in one way or another.4DB7EEE7-85CA-48DB-B581-58D094D69BD6
  3. Why question? When we asked our guides questions about Cuban life,  we were often met with unclear answers.  We asked, “can you move to another city to escape the crowds in Havana?”  The answer was yes, but it’s very difficult and no, there are some places you can’t go, and well, no. Huh?“Does the government provide your housing?” No, but housing is free and the people in Las Terrazas got their homes for free. Huh? There are no mortgages but you can own your home. Huh? 30427AA3-052C-489A-B770-FDFB81C4F0CE.jpegWe tried really hard to understand the systems but concluded some things are better left misunderstood.
  4. Some things are free and some are impossibly expensive. Healthcare, education and housing are provided by the government. Buying a car could cost as much as $85,000 for a used sedan or $250,000 for a Peugeot.8A1156B2-C230-40CD-A78E-34F869CC5F03
  5. People are essentially the same everywhere. We found the Cuban people to be warm, friendly, fun-loving.And, like in every other part of the world we’ve visited, they are searching for the same things we are. We all want to be recognized. We all want to be safe. We all want to be loved. It’s no different in Cuba.696D32A2-99D5-45CF-82E1-1DCC66C87E7B.jpeg

Cuba is an enigma. It’s vibrant, colorful, beautiful place with happy welcoming people. Because it’s  so different makes it that much more worth exploring.61204FF1-9AD1-4D56-B344-787DB4DBE233

Cuban Countryside: Viñales and Las Terrazas

After our time at the beach in Varadero, we left the larger group and set off with a guide and driver to the countryside.  We arrived in Viñales after a beautiful five hour drive and began exploring the life of rural Cubans.

We stayed at Los Jasmines Hotel, which overlooks the Viñales Valley.  The beautiful views contributed to the quick recovery of my sore throat, for sure. The Valley is the center of Cuba’s tabacco growing culture and has recently transformed into a tourist hub for those seeking outdoor adventures.D1C51618-3002-45E4-B7C7-8DCEFE70C42B We enjoyed several farm to table meals at rustic farms where the fresh veggies were grown on site. FCA080DD-C576-48A8-BF7A-73DAF04D7D81F62F20B2-FC21-4A0E-9573-F9FBC841BB65A80BCC05-28A4-4F94-AB66-C6E77037FC03They kept bringing out plate after plate until there was no room left on the table.

Steve enjoyed the planned hike to the village of Los Acquaticos while I stayed at the hotel and rested.  His 4+ mile trek took him up into the mogotes (limestone monoliths) to meet the 87 year old Sixto, who supposedly is the last person on Earth to know the source of the nearby healing waters. A534104F-842D-4A21-BC66-C84D0A6A2000.jpegThey couldn’t get it out of him, but they enjoyed fresh pressed sugar cane juice and coffee as a reward for the hike.2157D62A-AD82-422D-AB15-72DB47F27FE8B51D0A24-D663-403C-81AF-A5CA3C1BB425

Along the way Steve took in the classic sights of rural Cuba. In many ways it’s still operating like it was 100 years ago. FFFE77F7-C442-45C4-BD23-0C8D2CA8261DC6828573-F127-477C-BA6B-C01FBDBCE5354E0E3D05-2F1F-4089-8747-9C9BB5C5AC1BFDB34A98-894E-4AE7-9F5C-5C5C78EAB5074B928388-D89F-462D-9A6F-491DDC14A451

In the afternoon, after another farmer’s lunch, we visited the Cave of the Indian (Cueva de los Indios).  4B9155BA-034A-4B8B-B7E3-914C851D882E.jpegCompared to other caves we’ve visited this was pretty minor, but the boat ride in the cave set it apart.52F8FF95-7145-47C6-98E6-121458A76197A7FD29EF-BC9A-45A4-A4E3-6334BF0B3D2AFFD7078F-BE3E-4347-9679-BD358DA784DD

Another highlight of our time in Viñales was a visit to Benito Camejo’s tabacco farm. We hung out with farmhand and cigar rolling expert Ismael who taught us how to smoke the cigars we watched him roll. 1959B691-BA71-49A3-B915-40F58FEC564E.jpegWe’re not smokers but didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to smoke a cigar rolled right before our eyes.

Of course it was followed up with some Cuban rum and a walk around the farm to inspect the oxen and the tobacco plants.59CFB64E-5098-47EA-A46E-9B8EBCFA5A18.jpeg

Our private guide Santiago and our professional driver Rafael have taken great care of us and have helped us understand some of the mysteries of this land. 6B30C2C9-9E8D-4117-B7DA-08B934BED417.jpegIt’s always great to have friends along that help you understand the customs and history of a place. These guys were good!!

Our final night in the countryside was spent in the government-developed, sustainable community of Las Terrazas. 18B10CA7-8930-4BB4-A7CD-0DAF14F58F3A.jpegThe idyllic setting was the perfect place to relax and reflect on the many things we have seen and learned on this trip.

While in the area we visited the Baños de San Juan, a riverside park that provides a nice place to cool off (too cool to get in the water while we were here).

We also stopped at Rancho  Curujey, a lakeside picnic area also part of the Las Terrazas complex. 

Finally we toured the ruins of the Buena Vista coffee plantation which was built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti.

To this day you can see the house of the original owner and the slaves’ quarters.

We saw a lot in three days, considering the sore throat, fever, and then some stomach issues. It’s all part of the travel adventure. Next up, one more night in Havana.