11

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  1. Bikes exist with motors that are activated by pedaling. The bike share program in Madrid uses these bikes. You feel like you have a super power as each effort shoots you forward much faster than it should. I would love to have one of these to pedal around at home (if I had a home.)
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  2. Spain has the third most tourists in the world.
  3. Finland is terrible at soccer.
  4. I can walk 25 km (15.5 miles) comfortably, and then walking any further becomes hellish. I learned this by walking 36 km (22 miles) with a group that was starting the Camino a Santiago Compostela in Madrid. Most were walking 100 km (62 miles) in 24 hours.
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  5. Countries with a small minority population of native foreign language speakers are willing to accommodate them, even beyond the point of reasonableness. Countries with a large minority population of native foreign language speakers try to curtail the second language’s use. Compare Finland putting every road sign in Swedish for the 5% of people who speak it as a first language versus Latvia, where 34% of people speak Russian at home requiring schools to teach at least 60% of subjects in Latvian and planning to ban Russian as a language of instruction by 2018. (I realize there’s more to these issues than how I’ve presented them.)
  6. On August 23, 1989, a 675 km (420 miles) human chain of 2 million people ran from Vilnius, Lithuania to Tallinn, Estonia. The protesters wanted independence from the Soviet Union.
  7. Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are part of the Finno-Urgic branch of the Uralic language family. Latvian and Lithuanian are Baltic languages that are part of the Balto-Slavic languages of most of Eastern Europe including Russian. Romanian is a Romance language like Spanish and French. Look at a map and try to make sense of that!
  8. In the 15th century, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe.

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    Trakai Castle, Lithuania
  9. Written Serbian is a very rare example of synchronic digraphia, ie when a language has two writing systems at the same time. I saw about 50% usage of the Serbian cyrillic alphabet and 50% usage of the Roman alphabet when I was in Belgrade.
  10. Americans are not the only ones who use fake boats. Most nightlife in Belgrade, Serbia during the summer is on splavovi, which are rafts docked to the Sava and Danube Rivers that look like boats.
  11. I look dumb enough–but I’m not–to pay $30 for a 2.5 mile taxi ride.
  12. The Ottoman Empire stretched much further into Europe, and much more recently, than I realized.
  13. There are majority Muslim countries in Europe other than Turkey.
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  14. In the early 20th century, The First Balkan War kicked the Ottoman Empire out of Europe. Bulgaria started the Second Balkan War because it was upset about not getting enough new territory after the First Balkan War. Ironically Bulgaria lost territory during the Second Balkan War.
  15. Romania started World War II neutral, joined Germany as an Axis Power, was invaded by the Soviet Union, and finally joined the Allies after a coup. Despite being a big help to the Allies in the end, Romania was not mentioned as a co-belligerent at the 1947 Treaty of Paris and ended up losing quite a bit of territory.
  16. Ceaușescu’s bungled final speech and even more bungled attempt to flee were a fantastically fitting end to his reign. Romania’s entire 1989 revolution is fascinating.
  17. The Wikipedia article glosses over the days after the Romanian Revolution, but they’re definitely the strangest part: “On 24 December, Bucharest was a city at war. Tanks, APCs and trucks continued to patrol the city and surround trouble spots in order to protect them. At intersections near strategic objectives, roadblocks were built; automatic gunfire continued in and around University Square, the Gara de Nord (the city’s main railroad station) and Palace Square. Yet amid the chaos, some people were seen clutching makeshift Christmas trees. ‘Terrorist activities’ continued until 27 December, when they abruptly stopped. Nobody ever found out who conducted them, or who ordered their termination.” [emphasis mine] A woman one year older than me told me her first memories are running through the city with her parents during the revolution trying to get to a safe apartment, and playing in the apartment of her uncle and picking up bullets that had gotten into the apartment. Two young Romanians echoed to me the comments that “no one knows” who the “terrorists” were that were fighting for those few days or why they stopped.
  18. Romanians are SO proud to be in the European Union. You rarely see a Romanian flag that is not flying next to an EU flag. Exception: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Carol Park in Bucharest.

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I have a clear picture of where I’ll be until about April 2016. Last week, I booked a flurry of awards, mostly with obscure mileage programs to lock in my dates for 2015. Here’s what I’m planning, with links to already written Anatomy of an Award posts:

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Lines do not represent direct flights

The rest of 2015 will see me:

  • explore new cities like Athens, Zurich, and Dubai
  • return to favorites like Zagreb, Dubrovnik (cliff jumping!), Bogota, and Buenos Aires
  • change hemispheres as the seasons change because everyone should live in Summer all year round
  • visit friends and family
  • speak at the Chicago Seminars

I’ll fly in products ranging from economy to one of the world’s fanciest First Classes on the Emirates A380. A plurality of my time in the air will be in Business Class products that are good but not top of the line. Most of the awards heavily prioritized destination over the best products.

All of the awards were carefully thought out to maximize miles, so I am excited to explain why I’ve been using so many Asiana and Singapore miles, and why you might want to use them also.

Some of the awards even touch on interesting problems like how long a transfer takes, what to do when there is only space in your desired cabin on some legs, and choosing which miles to use.

I still need to book an award from Buenos Aires to Honolulu for before Christmas. The Asiana miles that I hope to use to book the award in Business Class (35,000 miles) just posted. I may also book a short weekend getaway from Buenos Aires in November, which I could book with cash or miles. Other than that, I’m already focused on 2016 bookings.

Hopefully the rest of your 2015 travel schedule excites you as much as mine excites me. Where are you headed?

I’ll crank out the rest of the Anatomy of an Award posts soon–where I break down how to search the award, how to book the award, what miles to use, and how to get those miles–and I’ll keep this post updated as I do.

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7

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I spent the last month traveling from Helsinki to Tallinn by ferry and from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius by bus, spending about a week each in the capitals of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Ferries and buses are cheap, easy to book, and very comfortable in this beautiful part of Europe.

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Ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn

Ferries are the easiest way to get between Finland’s and Estonia’s capitals, which are just 80 km apart across the Gulf of Finland. Several companies have daily ferries you can book online that take 1:40 to 2:30 and connect city center to city center.

Sites like this one aggregate several (all?) of the options for ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki. I chose Linda Line because it is one of the fast ferries at 1 hour 40 minutes, and it had the departure time closest to when I wanted to leave.

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Linda Line is not the cheapest at 31.50 euros ($35) each way, and if you’re very price sensitive, you can book a late night, slower ferry for 25 euros ($28) each way from Viking Line.

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My Linda Line ferry was very nice. Boarding was quick, and the ship was probably only about 1/4 full, so everyone had as much space as he wanted. I’m not sure the baggage allowance, but I brought on one 44 pound bag I would check on an airplane, one 20 pound carry on sized backpack, and one laptop bag without issue.

During the ferry, I had meatballs and mashed potatoes–so Finnish!–for lunch, and it was delicious.

The terminals in Helsinki and Tallinn, were each about 1 km from my apartments in those cities, and I walked in both cases.

There is no immigration or customs on either end as both countries are in the Schengen Area.

Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius by Bus

Buses are the easiest way to travel between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s major cities.

Lux Express has several daily buses between the capitals and major cities. Lux Express buses have free wifi, and in some cases video monitors at each seat.

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Tallinn to Riga and Riga to Vilnius are each just over four hours.

For Tallinn to Riga, I paid 23 euros ($26) on a bus with standard 2-2 seating. The bus was only about half full, so I ended up moving back to get my own row of two seats to myself.

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For Riga to Vilnius, I had the chance to upgrade to Lux Express Lounge seating for 7 euros, which I did.Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 3.32.07 PM

Lux Express Lounge seating is 1-1 with a video monitor at every seat and more leg room. For $30 total, I thought this was a pretty outrageously good deal. I highly recommend upgrading to Lounge seating if your bus offers it.

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Lux Express buses are clean, on time, and comfortable. Again I’m not sure the baggage allowance, but I put my 44 pound bag I would check on an airplane and 20 pound carry on sized backpack in the storage hold of the bus and just carried on my one laptop bag.

I passed both bus rides with free wifi and views of the verdant countryside. On my second bus ride, there was even a selection of movies and TV shows I could watch on demand.

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Headphones at my Lux Express Lounge Seat

Lux Express stops at several places in each city. For instance, in Riga, these are possible stops.

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Instead of mindlessly selecting to go from bus terminal to bus terminal, take a look at whether an alternative stop is closer to your lodging. On both my rides, I got on at the bus stations and got off at stops before the next city’s bus station.

Best Way to Buy the Ferry/Bus Ticket

I bought my tickets with the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card, which offers 3x on all travel and gas purchases. Ferry and bus rides certainly count in the 3x travel category. The card comes with 50,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

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The card has no foreign transaction fees, so it is ideal for foreign travel purchases.

Bottom Line

The Baltic capitals are very close to each other with convenient and cheap non-air transportation options. Next time you’re in this part of the world, catch a comfortable ferry or bus from one city to the next as you take in a beautiful part of Europe.

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5

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I’m in the middle of 18 months of travel. I live out of a suitcase and change beds every few days or few months. Here are some of my top travel tips that I use to enjoy my trips more. Test them out for yourself.

How to Always Stay Connected

Specifically I want data and text capability. Here’s how I always have data and text for a low price:

PLAN A: Travelers Should Be T-Mobile Customers

T-Mobile’s basic plans that have no contract include free data and free texting in 120+ countries. If you don’t have a compelling reason you have to use a different carrier, sign up for T-Mobile.

The data you get in other countries is throttled for speed to about “Edge” levels. It’s way too slow to watch a video, but it is plenty fast to load routes on your map, send emails, and send iMessages or WhatsApp messages. This is the basic level of data I need, and for more intensive uses, I wait for free wifi, which is only getting more and more common.

I had heard–I don’t remember where–that a T-Mobile plan cancels if you leave the United States for six consecutive weeks, but that isn’t the case. I’ve been out of the US for 57 days straight now with no interruption of my free data.

Occasionally the country I’m in will not be on the T-Mobile free list, like Serbia where I am going this week. In that case, Plan B.

PLAN B: Get a Local SIM Card

If you want faster data or to make a lot of phone calls, get a local SIM card. I’ve done this in several countries, and it is usually a 15 minute trip to the local cellular company’s store with your passport and costs only a few dollars for the SIM and much cheaper than you’re expecting for data and calls. For instance, in Argentina, a SIM from Claro is about $1 and unlimited data is about 25 cents per day.

You do need an unlocked phone to be able to just pop a new SIM card in and go.

PLAN C: Google Maps Download

Sometimes you can’t get free data, and your trip is so short that it’s impractical to get a local SIM. In that case, I just download the relevant Google Maps for where I’ll be, and then put my phone in airplane mode.

You can either download local Google Maps by opening up the city and zooming in and out on different areas while on wifi and then closing Google Maps or by following this process. In either case, the maps will be available offline, and your blue GPS dot is always available offline because GPS is a separate thing from data.

You cannot ask the Google Maps for directions offline, but you can see where you are, where you’re going, and eyeball the route yourself.

PLAN D: McDonald’s Wifi

Almost everywhere has wifi nowadays, but some of it is password protected and to get that password you need to buy something. Skip that wifi and walk to McDonald’s–there’s 10 near you in the touristy part of any European city–where the wifi has no password.

Text Like a Local

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage

In the US, most people use text messages. In most of the world, people use messages that aren’t technically text messages, instead relying on their data allotment.

In South America, Spain, and many other places, people use WhatsApp, a program that is free for a year, then costs $1. In other countries, they use a different messaging app. Most places also use Facebook Messenger at least secondarily, and iMessage between iPhone users is the same principle.

Even if you get free texts, the person you are texting might not. They will prefer to use one of these services, which are free per message. Figure out the appropriate program for the country you’re visiting and download it before you go.

Meet Your Friends

Your long lost friend might live in a city you’re visiting. Meeting up with friends while I travel is always a highlight, but I can’t keep track of where everyone lives. Enter Facebook.

In the search bar, just type “my friends who live in [place]”.

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Facebook will find your friends who list that place as their current city.

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You can also search “my friends who visited [place].” Many of those people will not live where you’re going, but you can get travel tips.

Meeting Locals and Other Travelers

CouchSurfing Events and Messages

CouchSurfing lets travelers stay with locals for free. I covered that here. Not everyone wants to stay at someone else’s house. Even I prefer more privacy and quiet these days, so I can work, but I still use CouchSurfing in every city.

First, I check the local events to see if any interest me. Here are some upcoming events in Belgrade.

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In general, I find the playing sports events to be more fun than the bigger language exchanges/city meetings, which are more fun than the smaller ones. Through CouchSurfing events I found awesome groups that played Ultimate Frisbee weekly in Argentina and volleyball weekly in Madrid.

I also send messages to people on CouchSurfing who look fun. I tell them I already have an apartment lined up, but I am just looking for some local knowledge. If they want to show me their favorite place in the city, I’ll buy them a beer. That gets a great response and leads to some delicious restaurants, local bars, and other off-the-beaten-path opportunities.

InterNations Events and Message Boards

InterNations is similar to CouchSurfing except its members are expats not locals and are 10-20 years older on average. I’ve used the message board for a city to find a tennis partner, and I’ve gone to some of the more promising events, which are usually food and wine based.

[city] [day of week]

If you want to meet locals out, search “[city] [day of week]” and wade through the results to see what bars are the it places on a Tuesday or whatever night you’re looking.

Local Info

Local Transport App

Most bus and subway systems have apps with route maps and GPS tracking to tell you exactly what bus/train to take, when it arrives, and where to transfer. Google Maps usually has the route info and timetables, but not the actual GPS data, which is more important because the buses/trains are rarely right on time.

Yelp Restaurants Open Now

The curse of the traveler is being hungry at weird times either through jet lag or different cultures’ dinner times.

Yelp’s app lets you sort by restaurants that are open now. Search for restaurants in a city, set Open Now as a Filter, and then re-check the results.

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Voila, all the restaurants open at 3 AM in Houston.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 3.02.04 PM

Unfortunately Yelp is not available everywhere, and I can’t find a reliable way on Google, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to search restaurants that are open now.

Cheap Private Rooms

Airbnb Rentals

I’ve covered Airbnb before. It is my main source of lodging because it is cheap, located exactly where you want to stay, and you can get as much space and as big of a kitchen as you want.

Full post: How Airbnb Works (Plus a $25 Credit You Can Use for Your First Stay)

Hostel Private Rooms

Even cheaper than Airbnb and just as private: book a private room at a hostel. I did this for $12 in Siem Reap, Cambodia while visiting Angkor Wat.

Save Big on Currency Conversion

In countries with a black market for dollars like Argentina or Venezuela, changing cash is definitely your best option.

But normally, ATMs are your best option as long as you can avoid ATM fees. I have an ATM card that charges no ATM fees, no foreign exchange fees, and even refunds the fee from any ATM I use.

Full post: How I Pay Zero ATM Fees Worldwide

What Can’t You Get or Will Be Inconvenient to Get?

I travel with chili powder, sriracha, a frisbee, and batteries everywhere I go.

Chili is so American that it’s rare to find chili powder anywhere outside the country. Even the constituent spice are hard to find in many places, so I travel with my own.

South America and Eastern Europe don’t eat much spicy food, so most grocery stores have terrible options for hot sauces. I carry my own sriracha. When I run out on the road, I google “[city] Chinatown” because you can almost always find it at Asian grocery stores.

Frisbees don’t take up much space and are the perfect thing to carry to the park. Buying one abroad is not usually easy.

Batteries are super easy to buy abroad and heavy, but batteries usually die when I am in my apartment and do not want to leave it, so I carry 2 AA and 2 AAA for my razor and remotes.

The Biggest Tip

When you’re in a city and have to go, find a casino. Casinos generally have very clean bathrooms, especially in cities where that is rare. This has saved me in Peru and Kenya.

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I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on my three days in Viñales.

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Sunset Over Viñales, Cuba

Other Posts

Viñales

Viñales is a tourist town in the middle of a tobacco growing valley dotted with spectacular rock outcroppings known as mogotes and amazing caves to explore.

I spent three days in Viñales walking, spelunking, swimming, scooter-ing, dancing, and mojito-ing.

Day 1: Leisurely Organized Walk

I arrived in Viñales about about noon and headed first to a restaurant that the Cuba Lonely Planet gushes about: El Olivo, a Mediterranean spot.

I got the patatas bravas and three-meat cannelloni.

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The food was fine. It was a bit more complex than food from my casa but no better. I later sampled a few other restaurants on the main drag, and none stood out. They were all 10 CUC or less for a meal and offered OK food.

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After lunch, I set about finding a casa particular to spend three nights. In Viñales, this couldn’t be easier. Literally every house I saw was renting rooms. I popped into one that looked fine, but the owner said the room was rented already and suggested her friend a block away. I headed there, looked into the detached room, negotiated the price down from 20 CUC to 18 CUC and plopped my bags down.

I walked into a tour office at the main square and inquired about hikes that afternoon. I was expecting a challenging, up-and-down hike that would make me break a sweat.

Instead the three hour walk that afternoon was more like a leisurely stroll. It was lovely, just not what I was anticipating.

We basically just walked out of the small village and immediately hit fields. Can you spot the pineapple?Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.13 AM

While Viñales itself is a town that must be more affluent than average from all the CUC coming in at casas particulares, just outside of town, you can see families more representative of rural Cubans, like this grandpa and grandson riding an emaciated horse.
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Early on in the walk, we made two stops intended to earn the guide a little extra cash. The first was at a tiny “bar” to offer us a drink. Similar structures dot the countryside, so I assume tourists are being herded into them for 15 minutes on a variety of tours. There was no pressure, and I just sat there drinking the water I had carried.
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Then we stopped at a tobacco warehouse where leaves were being dried and got a short presentation on cigar rolling.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.34 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.40 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.47 AM

We were each given a free cigar and then offered the chance to buy cigars. Again, no pressure.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.54 AM

From there we walked to a few caves and a pond to swim.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.27 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.34 AM

Finally, we went to a house with a beautiful view of sunset over the mogotes.
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Day 2: Another Leisurely Organized Walk

The next day, I took another 10 CUC walking tour that was similar but covered different areas.

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We walked down dusty paths past small houses and family farms.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.24.53 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.04 AM

We saw the biggest land mammal in Cuba, this delightful tree rat.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.16 AM

We saw plowing…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.29 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.42 AM

…super skinny horses…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.52 AM

…and farmers going about their routine.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.26.02 AM

We got back in time for lunch, so I popped into the first restaurant where I saw ropa vieja on the menu, the dish I most associate with Cuban food.

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It was 6 CUC and, again, fine, but not anything spectacular.

That night, I went to Centro Cultural Polo Montañez, which is right on the town’s plaza. It feature a live show nightly, mostly music with some dancing interludes. Cover is 1 CUC.
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During the music, patrons are encouraged to get up and salsa. Any girls sitting and watching will be invited to dance by the local guys who hang out around the place.

Polo Montañez seemed to draw about 100 people every night, starting at about 10 PM.

There is only one other place in town with live music, Patio del Decimista, on the main drag, but it doesn’t have the dance floor that Polo Montañez has. Patio de Decimista draws maybe 40 people, starting earlier in the evening.

Day 3: Moped Rental

I rented a scooter for the day for the exorbitant cost of around 30 CUC (they’re about half that in Southeast Asia) from a rental place at the same location as Restaurante la Casa de Don Tomás, Salvador Cisneros No 140.

The scooter was a really fun way to explore Viñales because some of its interesting sites and caves are 10 km outside of town.

First I scooted west of town on a paved road toward the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. I was in no hurry, so I pulled off to follow a dirt trail to a promised view point, which was lovely.

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I passed the Mural del Prehistoria, which was a 120 meter long painting with a huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters, and humans that symbolized evolution. I’m as confused as you are.

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Finally I got to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás where I paid 10 CUC to go on a 90-minute group tour of the second largest cave in the Americas.
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This was a highlight of my time in Cuba.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.49 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.56 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.04 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.11 AM

After the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, I went east back past Viñales to check out other caves. I really wanted to see Cueva del Indio where you ride in a boat on the underground river. I paid my entry fee and walked into the cave, but a tour guide in front of me said that the line was probably 40 minutes to get to the 10 minute boat ride, so I just left. Get to Cueva del Indio early in the day to beat tour buses.

Finally I just blasted through the countryside for an hour on the scooter, following road signs to any towns mentioned. It was a fun way to see parts of Cuba mostly unseen by tourists and to see Cubans going about their daily lives.

That afternoon, I used the internet at the ETECSA office in Viñales. More on internet usage in Cuba in this post.

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The wifi works on the front steps 24 hours even though you can only buy the scratch off internet cards during the day. I found that having an extra one with me at all times was nice if I wanted to check email at night.

Getting To/From Viñales

I took a Viazul bus from Havana. Here’s more information on Viazul buses and other transportation options in Cuba.

Bottom Line

I definitely think any trip to Cuba should include Havana and not-Havana, but I can’t say with any certainty that Viñales is the most interesting not-Havana on the island. I can say that I really enjoyed Viñales. It’s close enough to Havana to justify a two or three day trip to see the countryside, caves, and tobacco farms. The city has tons of casa particulares to stay in, a great place to salsa dance, and lots of easy walking tours.

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I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on things I wish I’d known about lodging and transportation in Cuba before going

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Full Series

Transportation

I got around with taxis, shared taxis, buses, a scooter, and my own two feet. You can also rent a bike or car.

Taxis

Don’t catch them in front of a hotel or where they are pooled waiting for tourists unless you want to pay extra. Flag one down on the street and then negotiate.

Yes, some taxis have taximeters, but the drivers don’t seem willing to use them. Or more accurately, they use them after negotiating with you, and then charge you the negotiated price, not the metered price.

Outside of hotels and at tourist sites where the queue can be 10-20 deep waiting a few hours to bilk one sucker. I don’t want to be that sucker. Use your own judgment on what to pay or try to negotiate with a few taxis to get an idea of the price.

I often walked from Vedado to Havana Vieja and then caught a taxi a few kilometers back home. That would run me 4 CUC. A trip to the airport from Vedado ran me 15 CUC.

I had one taxi driver rip me off. I had said I wanted to pay 4 CUC. He said 5 CUC. I told him I was only willing to pay 4 CUC, and he nodded, so I got in. When we arrived and I handed him 5 CUC, he handed back no change. I said, “We agreed to 4 CUC.” He said, “I never said that,” which was technically true. I decided to avoid a big scene over 1 CUC and got out, telling him he was a scammer.

Shared Taxis, “máquinas”

These are basically buses disguised as taxis that run a fixed or mostly fixed route down main streets. You flag the car down going the direction you want, tell him where you’re going, and he tells you whether he can get you there or close. I paid 1 CUC each trip, but you should confirm the price before getting in since you’re a gringo.

These were really fun because you are almost guaranteed to be jammed into a car with 5-6 passengers, and you’re the only gringo. I enjoyed joking around with the other passengers.

Your drop off might be a short walk from your destination, and you will have to stop to pick up and drop off other passengers, so this option is strictly for fun and a little money saving, not convenience.

Buses

Intercity buses from Viazul are really well run: professional, clean, on time, and full of other tourists. I used Viazul buses to go from Havana to Viñales and back.

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 10.41.04 PM

I booked my Viazul bus tickets online before going to Cuba with a MasterCard. The email you get says that you must print out your attached proof of purchase.

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 10.41.24 PM

I thought that was unlikely to be enforced, but I printed it out anyway. I’m sure glad I did because that was asked for at the bus station. In Havana and perhaps other bigger cities, there is a Viazul terminal that taxi drivers should know. In Viñales, and probably other small towns, the bus just picks up on the street in front of the storefront that sells tickets.

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 10.41.57 PM

Scooter

In Viñales, I rented a scooter for the day for the exorbitant cost of around 30 CUC (they’re about half that in Southeast Asia) from a rental place at the same location as Restaurante la Casa de Don Tomás, Salvador Cisneros No 140.

The scooter was a really fun way to explore Viñales because some of its interesting sites and caves are 10 km outside of town. I scooted to one with a few stops along the way, then went back the other direction to another cave, and had an ill-fated search for a lake along the way.

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One View Point I Found with My Scooter

 

Renting a scooter was worth it, even at its too-high price, and was probably the same as (or cheaper than) hiring a taxi for the day.

My Own Two Feet

I felt extremely safe everywhere I went in Cuba. One of the few upsides of living in a police state is security. I thought nothing of walking through some neighborhoods between Vedado and Havana Vieja that, had they been in Central American countries, I would have completely avoided.

There are some great walking options in Viñales as well.

Car Rental

I didn’t do it. It is possible. I met some Americans who had paid 70 CUC per day and arranged their rental from America.

Bike Rental

I didn’t do it. I saw them in Viñales at the town square for 10 CUC per day.

Lodging

There are two main lodging options in Cuba:

  1. government-run hotels
  2. Rooms in private homes, casas particulares”

I am normally agnostic about other people’s travel. I’ll tell you your options and let you decide, but come on, in this case, eschew the hotels and stay in casas particulares.

I stopped by a few hotels in Havana on my trip for the internet, and my casa owner in Viñales suggested I go to a hotel there to enjoy the pool, but I have not seen the inside of a hotel room in Cuba. I imagine they are up to world standards, but more expensive than you’d expect to pay for a similar stay in a similarly poor country.

Casas particulares are much more interesting. I know of no other country in the world where it is so easy to stay at the house of a typical local for such a small fee, and generally with the option to have local food prepared for you for your meals. If you travel to meet locals and sample local food, you really can’t miss out on paying 20 CUC per night for the chance. There are three main ways to book casas:

  1. On long-running sites like cubacasas.com
  2. By walking around in Cuba
  3. On Airbnb

Old Sites

I did not rent on cubacasas.com, but I wish I had. I figured I didn’t want to call to book, and I doubted that I could book a casa by email based on what I knew about Cuba’s internet. However, from talking to my casa owner in Havana, I think it would be very easy to book a casa via email a few weeks in advance through a site like cubacasas.com. Casa owners have easy access to some sort of internet that is extremely slow and only good for email, she explained. So, if I could do it all over again, I’d book my first casa on cubacasas.com before arrival, just to lower the stress of arrival by having a bed ready.

Walking Around

Then I’d book the rest of my casas by walking around. They are all over Havana, with very visible signs over the door.

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 11.26.54 PM

And nearly every house in Viñales is a casa particular.

Walking around would let you see the rooms on offer–which vary widely–and the prices, which vary less. I paid 18 CUC per night, down from the 20 CUC offer, in Viñales. I paid 35 CUC per night in Havana for a room with a view of the Caribbean. Both of my casas had separate entrances for guests, which I appreciated, so I didn’t have to walk in loudly at night and disturb anyone.

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View from My Casa in Havana

 

My casa in Havana did not offer food. That’s pretty rare. I covered my meals at my Viñales casa in this post about food, money, internet, and nightlife in Cuba.

Airbnb

I booked my first two nights on Airbnb. I do not recommend it. Not only will you pay a little more than you’ll pay through other sites, but you won’t get the amazing Airbnb experience you’re used to.

My experience was a little off from start to finish. I was communicating with someone who was not in Cuba instead of the owner of the casa. Through Airbnb messages, I did set up an airport pick up at 1:30 AM for 25 CUC with the actual casa owner, which was nice because I was stressed about arriving so late and then maybe getting lost in a cab.

But the casa owner explained to me that the place I’d booked had a pipe problem, and he’d take me somewhere else. Isn’t that the classic line a taxi driver tells you to steer you to a place that offers him a commission instead of the ho(s)tel you have in mind?

He took me to another place, which might very well have been nicer, and I didn’t pay an extra or get any refund from him, so it worked out OK overall, but not the way I expect Airbnb to work. To get the experience you expect, book a casa through cubacasas.com.

Any questions about lodging or transportation in Cuba?

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Updated June 6, 2015: 3/5 accomplished, a fourth I’ve booked for this month. North Korea is still tantalizing.

I’ve passed the 55 country mark this year, but there’s still so much more of the world I want to see. I gave some thought to the top five countries I haven’t visited yet that I most want to see, and how and when I’ll fit them in, and I’ll share that here.

Sometimes my trip planning happens for reasons other than the country being at the top of my list:

  • There’s a mistake fare or cheap award.
  • There’s an incredible First Class product I want to fly.
  • I want to check a new region off my list.
  • I want to meet up with a traveling friend.

Those are all valid reasons for a trip or two, but I want to refocus and visit the countries where I think I’ll have the most fun and learn the most.

Beyond just thinking about going there, I’m coming up with a time and type of miles to use. Just the act of making a plan makes it more likely I’ll follow through and finally get to these places.

1. Colombia: October 2014

Update: I went in October 2014, November 2014, and April 2015 to Bogota and Medellin. I want to return to Parque Tayrona and to do the Ciudad Perdida hike.

I remember the rumblings when I was on the gringo backpackers trail through Peru in the summer of 2007. Most of the backpackers had not been to Colombia as the country had had a terrible reputation for killings, kidnappings, and terrorism for years, but the few who had been were unanimous: Colombia was their favorite country of the trip.

Everyone had a different reason–Cartagena and the Caribbean, the mountains, the nightlife–but everyone agreed. The seeds were planted then, but somehow I never got around to seeing Colombia even as I visited farther afield countries like Paraguay and Bolivia.

Colombia has been at the top of my wish list since 2011 when I had a big map of South America on my wall and sketched a possible trip where I’d land in Maracaibo, Venezuela, cross the border to Colombia and do a trek to the Ciudad Perdida, visit Cartagena, Bogota, Cali, and Medellin, then head home.

from http://www.ciudadperdidatour.com/informacion-ciudad-perdida/galeria-fotos-ciudad-perdida/
from http://www.ciudadperdidatour.com/informacion-ciudad-perdida/galeria-fotos-ciudad-perdida/

Back then, a great deal came up on a cash ticket to see East Africa and Turkey, so I scrapped the Colombia plan.

When I found out I’d have a perfect 2.5 week travel window this October, I knew where I wanted to go. I plan to travel to Bogota for the entire time to embrace slow travel and getting to really know one place instead of rushing through three (though I like rapid travel too.) I am expecting to love Colombia and to visit the rest of the places on my lost 2011 itinerary on future trips.

I’ll book my trip with American Airlines miles because of what commenters said in this thread.

2. Cuba: First week we lift the embargo, possibly before

Update: I went in April 2014 and am writing a six part trip report.

I’ve mentioned it to friends, but let me put out publicly, so that I am shamed if I don’t follow through: I am going to Cuba the first week the embargo is lifted.

Cuba calls me for a lot of reasons. I love all Spanish-speaking countries. I’m intrigued by its legacies of communism and autarky and how they’ve shaped the country. The beaches and cigars and food and music and legends of the glamor of the 1950s don’t hurt either.

I figure that going the first week the embargo is lifted will have the effect of beating the wave of American tourists that are sure to follow and change the country’s character.

Tourism might change this a bit, from http://www.360doc.com/content/11/1130/22/803452_168753914.shtml
Tourism might change this a bit, from http://www.360doc.com/content/11/1130/22/803452_168753914.shtml

I do know that there are ways to travel to Cuba now, both illegal and legal, and I may look into traveling to the island before the embargo is lifted. But, if I don’t make it before, I will make it in the first week after the embargo is lifted.

Who knows what the best type of miles will be? I would guess Avios from Miami to Havana for 4,500 Avios each way on American Airlines flights.

3. Latvia: June 2015

Update: Latvia is booked for late this month with Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania on the same trip.

If you slice up Europe into the British Isles, Iberia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltics, I’ve been to every region except the Baltics. Since I love all the other parts of Europe, I know I’ll love the Baltics.

Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia have been almost-destinations for too long. I can remember a few times when I had a ticket ready to be booked, but went with another option instead.

That ends next summer. I want to spend late Spring in the warmer parts of southern Europe, and then head to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in June.

The best miles to get to Europe are United miles because the Star Alliance has the best award availability to and from Europe.

4. Chile: January 2015

Update: Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park from December 30 – January 2 is the highlight of my year so far.

There’s a scene in The Motorcycle Diaries where the characters cross a lake from Argentina to Chile. I want to cross that lake.

[Further research indicates they might have crossed Lago Nahuel Huapi, which I actually have visited already! Oops! I still want to see more of Patagonia, though.]

It’s the most beautiful backdrop I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Last year, I got to sample the Lake District of Argentine Patagonia. This upcoming South American summer, I want to spend longer and go farther south in Patagonia.

Lago Nahuel Huapi from downtown Bariloche, Argentina

I expect to get into Chile over land. But at some point I’ll use miles to move on to another South American destination. The best miles within South America are Singapore miles because any one way within the continent is 12,500 miles in economy and 20,000 in business. I get my Singapore miles from ThankYou Points.

5. North Korea: 2016

One of my favorite things about traveling is seeing places different than I’m used to–the novelty of the food, culture, language, and way of life.

No country is as unlike where I’m from and the rest of the world as North Korea.

I know that the tour I’d take would be very tightly controlled, so I won’t get anything like the “authentic North Korea experience,” but it’s still a tour I really want to take.

I wanted to go to North Korea in September 2014, but my brother nixed the idea, so we stuck to China and South Korea on that trip. I think I’ll have another chance in 2016.

For now, I can read this trip report to get me excited.

The tours start in Beijing, so I’d love to get there on Cathay Pacific with American Airlines or US Airways miles.

Where do you want to go? When will you go? With which type of miles?

If you don’t know the best type of miles, get a Free Credit Card Consultation in which I tell you the best type of miles.

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Last October, I ditched my apartment in Waikiki for a renewed stint of vagabonding. Most people just don’t get it.

  • “OK, but where do you live?” It’s equally true that I live wherever I am at that moment or nowhere.
  • “Where’s your home base?” Nowhere.

I’ve learned that I like to stay in a place for at least several weeks to figure out its rhythms and my favorite restaurants, sports activities places to go out, and new friends before I move on. That’s why I spent three months in Buenos Aires, a month in Madrid, and plan to spend a month each in Belgrade and Bucharest.

But I’ve also had short trips to Arizona and California to play in tennis tournaments; to North Carolina to watch basketball tournaments; and to Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia to see family and friends. I counted up all my 2015 nights through June 12, 2015 when I leave Madrid to see where I’ve actually slept in 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 10.54.04 PM

Camping: 2 Nights

I wish this number were 10 times higher.

I trekked and camped from December 29, 2014 to January 2, 2015 in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, so that was one night this year.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.25.28 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.25.59 PM

I camped a night in Maui at Oheo Gulch with a friend.Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.26.32 PMThese were two of my favorite experiences all year, so I would like to incorporate more camping and trekking into my life in 2015 and beyond. I don’t travel with a tent, but that would start making more sense if I were to camp more.

Hostel: 7 Nights

Eight years ago, traveling meant hostels for me, ideally for $5 a night.

Hostels are my back up, back up plan at this point. I only like to stay in them if I will be in a town for 1-2 nights–making Airbnb not a good option–and there are no chain hotels for which I have points–making hotels not a good option.

I can still enjoy hostels in small doses, but they bore me quickly because they are the same everywhere, and I consider meeting other travelers usually less interesting than meeting locals.

Airbnb: 6 Nights

(I’m only counting stays of under two weeks in this category. I also found the 90 nights in apartments on Airbnb, but I consider stays of over two weeks to be of a separate character, and both were actually rented outside Airbnb.)

Renting on Airbnb a place with a kitchen in the part of town where I want to spend my days is the ideal way for me to travel to a city for three days to a week.

These stays in Buenos Aires (while my regular apartment was unavailable) and Bogota were top notch, and I expect to Airbnb on my weeklong trip to each capital in the Baltics in June and July.

Apartments: 90 Nights

If I want to be in a place for a month or longer, I want to be in one apartment with a kitchen where I can cook my specialties and with space to entertain guests. I search Airbnb, Craigslist, and Google for apartments, but I always try to transact directly with the owner to save cash.

These 58 nights in Buenos Aires and 32 in Madrid were perfect. I had an apartment exactly where I wanted to be at a lower average nightly price than a hotel or a short term Airbnb stay.

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My apartment in Madrid

Redeye Flights: 3 Nights

Buenos Aires to Greensboro, Honolulu to Seattle, and Washington to Madrid all involved sleeping on planes.

Hotel: 3 Nights

A friend and I enjoyed Westin Maui for two nights on points, and I used an expiring Hyatt free night certificate at the Grand Hyatt in Washington.

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Grand Hyatt, Washington

I don’t stay at hotels often because I can get a cheaper, better place with Airbnb, but I do like my occasional stays in nice hotels on points. They’re a fun treat.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.28.20 PM
Westin Maui, Ka’anapali

Motels: 13 Nights

When I was watching basketball and heading to reunions on the East Coast, I was burning Choice Privileges Points for stays at Econolodges or booking similar $40-a-night motels that are frankly gross. Still I’d rather save the money over a nicer hotel if I’m going to be rarely in the room.

Friends: 8 Nights
Family: 23 Nights

I love visiting friends and family, and I’ll sleep on whatever surface is available from a spare bed to an air mattress to couch cushions on the floor because the couch isn’t long enough.

I especially love that home cooking I can’t replicate myself in foreign apartments, and the extra tennis and golf that family visits entail.

Casas Particulares: 7 Nights

Every night in Cuba, I stayed at a casa particular, which is just Spanish for “private home.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.24.51 PM

Although I had my own entry at both casas, it is still different from a standard Airbnb experience because the homeowner is living on the premises and offers to cook.

Going Forward

The mix should be pretty similar, I see three weeks of Airbnb stays coming up in the Baltics, two longer apartment rentals in Serbia and Romania, and bouncing for a few weeks in the US in the Fall. I’ll post the year end stats as Recap of 2015 post.

I’ve been nomadic for about eight months, and I see that continuing for at least another eight more. I love never paying rent/mortgage on two places the same night which saves me a lot of money over renting an apartment and still traveling half the time, and I love having fewer possessions. Leave a comment if you have any questions about the nomadic lifestyle or my lodging strategies.

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When I travel east, I’m not sure I do not get over jet lag naturally. I landed in Madrid Monday at 7 AM, and, in the days I’ve been here, I’ve moved toward even more of an American time zone schedule than Spanish. Here’s my sleep since I got here on Monday:

Technically all those AM’s are the next day.

Monday:  noon – 4 PM, 2 AM – 4 AM

Tuesday: noon – 6 PM, 3 AM – 9 AM

Wednesday: 2 PM – 5 PM, 6 AM – 1 PM

Thursday: 3 AM – 5 PM with a brief wake up at 5 AM where I popped melatonin

I know what I need to do, set an alarm for tomorrow and get onto a more normal sleeping schedule, but I would have expected a more normal one by now.

This is one reason I love traveling north/south to South America. There’s rarely more than a two hour time change in either direction–though in the winter West Coast to Buenos Aires is five hours–so there’s no jet lag. I also don’t mind traveling west. I tend to be a night owl, so I stay up to when I would have stayed up anyway, which is usually a reasonable time in my new time zone. It’s just traveling east that kills me.

All this isn’t to say I haven’t had an amazing week in Madrid so far. I went to the second leg of the Champions League Semifinal–the second biggest soccer game of the year worldwide–and had a blast. It could have only been more fun if Real Madrid had won.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 5.45.11 PM

 

I am excited for Madrid’s restaurants eventually, but I’ve been able to cook for myself all week, which is something I had been missing the last month of staying with friends and family.

I’ve been able to sample the infamous nightlife of Madrid twice this week, and I’m rested up for this three day weekend that starts tonight.

But I sure would prefer to be on a more consistent, earlier sleep schedule. That’s the goal for next week!

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Having just wrapped up three months in Buenos Aires (on top of the six months I spent there in 2013), I’m publishing three posts: The Five Best Restaurants in Buenos Aires, What to Do Every Night of the Week in Buenos Aires, and What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Buenos Aires.

When I get to a new city, I always google “Best Place to Go Out [city] [day of week].” When you’re new, it’s hard to know where to go. In my three months in Buenos Aires, I found favorites for every night of the week. Also check out the end of the post for my monthly and yearly favorites and other resources for recommendations that differ from mine.

Buenos Aires has the best nightlife of anywhere I’ve ever visited. There’s something to do every night of the week, entrance and drink prices are cheap, and the people are beautiful.

Unfortunately the general motto seems to be “If you have to ask how late it starts, you’re not going to be staying up late enough.” Bars don’t get going on the weekends until midnight, and boliches (night clubs) don’t get started until 2 AM. They rage until at least 6 AM, though I can’t really tell you how late, since I’ve never made it that late.

To stay sane in Buenos Aires, I try to find fun things happening a bit earlier in the night. Based almost exclusively on places that draw a fun crowd–I don’t care about the music or drinks on offer much–here are my top picks:

Sunday

Makena in Palermo is the place to be. They play a mix of rock, soul, and funk on Sunday nights starting at 11 PM. Free entry until 11:30 PM, though if you don’t show up on time, cover is less than $2.

Who can go out on a Sunday night until the wee hours of the morning? Mostly students, foreigners, and foreign students.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 4.13.07 PM

This is the second least fun event on the list, but it’s the best I can tell you on a Sunday night.

Monday

Bomba del Tiempo is a fantastically fun weekly drum performance. More than 3 million people have watched and danced to the two-hour drum show from a huge ensemble cast.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 4.27.21 PM

I like to arrive at 7 PM with a beer to drink while I wait in line to buy my ticket ($7) to get in early. The huge courtyard is a great place to chat with friends or make new ones. Last time I was there, they had even set up ping pong tables before the show.

At 8 PM, the show starts, and at 10 PM sharp, it ends. Hang out near the sides or back for a little more dancing space, and easier entry and exit to refresh your drink at the bar.

As you leave, people will be handing out flyers for after parties at bars within walking distance, but I’ve never had too much fun at one of these. I prefer to head out for a late dinner afterwards.

Tuesday

Cafe San Bernardo, in Villa Crespo, is a large, dingy bar with pool tables up front and ping pong tables in the back. The ping pong tables normally cost about $5 per hour to rent, but Tuesday nights after 10 PM, they’re free. This is the big night for groups of friends to come for pizzas, beers, and an occasional game.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/dec/11/top-10-bars-buenos-aires-argentina
Source: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/dec/11/top-10-bars-buenos-aires-argentina

Other than the ping pong, the atmosphere is similar to most Argentina pizzeria/resto/bars throughout the city. The same Quilmes beer is sold in the same liter bottles, and the same terrible pizza is dished out.

Only come with your friends if you’re good at ping pong on Tuesdays because winner stays on each table. If you’re not so good and just want to play more recreationally, come a different night and rent a table.

Also every Tuesday night for 7+ years, Hype (name of party) at Kika (name of boliche) in Palermo has raged from 2 to 6 AM. This is definitely my least favorite event in this post, and I didn’t even go this year, but how can you leave off such an iconic party on an otherwise rather dead night?

Head to Magdalena’s Party, a bar a few blocks away, earlier in the night to get a free wristband for Hype and have a few drinks before facing the 18 year olds at Kika.

Wednesday

Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, Mundo Lingo organizes language exchanges at bars in Buenos Aires for people trying to learn a new language or just trying to meet new people. The best one is Wednesdays at a bar I really like, Soria, in Palermo.

Show up from 9 PM to midnight and get sticker flags at check in to represent the languages you speak or are learning. After much pestering, I got them to start carrying Hawaiian flags. Mahalo!

Most people come alone or in pairs, so don’t worry about jumping into any conversation you see between people with the flag stickers. They just met and would love to meet you.

Thursday

My favorite weekly event is Thursday’s After Office at Rosebar in Palermo. An “After Office” is kind of like an American Happy Hour event but later in the night and with more dancing.

The night kicks off at 7 PM, and I think there is food at that time to attract people to come early. If you make it onto the list and arrive my 9 PM, you can get in free. Arrive after 9 PM, and you pay about $8 to get in. The place starts to fill up at 9 PM and shuts down at 2 AM. Men must wear a collared shirt and shoes that aren’t sneakers.

The crowd is a bit older than at Rosebar on the weekend, with lots of folks coming from work who are in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

Friday

Office workers in groups of 2 to 20 spill onto the streets outside a string of identical bars with happy hour specials on Reconquista Street at Alvear Street from 6 PM on. (If you stop in for a drink, you’re just a few blocks from one of The Five Best Restaurants in Buenos Aires.)

Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps

Later in the night, I like to go to my favorite bar in Buenos Aires–Festival in Palermo. On weekends, there is a DJ, and occasionally you can head upstairs to see an art exhibit. There’s nothing exceptional about the place, but I think it strikes the right balance.

It’s mostly outdoors, so you can enjoy a perfect Summer night. The bouncer starts a one-in-one-out policy before the place is too full, so there are always plenty of people to meet without being overcrowded. There’s a great mix of seating and standing area, the latter a rarity in Buenos Aires, where almost every bar features people seated with their friends all night.

Try to arrive by 12:30 to avoid the line. If you come later, you’ll probably just wait for 5-10 minutes. There’s no cover, and everybody waits equally in the line.

Saturday

Go back to Festival. It’s my favorite bar by a longshot.

Or if you’re up for a one-of-a-kind bar, try Jobs in Recoleta. This two-story warehouse has every game from pool to ping pong to oversized Jenga to board games, but the star of the place is archery.

You can shoot six arrows for under $3, and if you hit a bullseye you get a free beer.

Cover is about $5, and it includes a liter of beer or other drink or food options. Jobs mostly draws a very young crowd. I go with friends to see who has the best archery aim, drink some beer, and play Monopoly. I’ve never seen a bar with quite so many games.

Or if you want to spend $10+ per drink and hang out with some of the richest and best looking people in the city, head to Isabel in Palermo from 11 PM to 3 AM. This seems more like a place to take someone to impress them than a place to actually enjoy yourself.

The Best Rarer Events

Polo After Parties: Four in November/December

My favorite party ever in Buenos Aires was the after party for a polo match. Every November/December, for four consecutive Saturdays, there is a polo match at the Polo Grounds in Palermo. After the game, the parties take up the rest of the afternoon. They center on tents set up on the grounds by alcohol companies.

Some tents are public, and some are private.

Show up after the game, grab a ticket from someone leaving the grounds to show to the ushers to get on the grounds, and head to a public tent. Everyone’s dressed up a bit and having a ball.

Social Tattersall: Monthly After Office

My second favorite party ever was an After Office put on by a promotions company called Social at a venue called Tattersall. Check their Facebook page for their monthly event, but skip it if it’s not at Tattersall, which is near Palermo.

Sometimes their After Offices are held out on Punta Carrasco, near the Aeroparque (local airport), and those don’t draw nearly as big of a crowd.

Come Wine with Us

A once monthly wine-tasting-ish event with tapas in the Las Cañitas neighborhood. Check this page for announcements of when the monthly event is. This draws mostly a 30-something crowd from 7 PM to midnight.

Further Sources

Vuenos Airez is an online event guide with tons of parties and events listed.

The Guardian put out a Top Ten bar list for Buenos Aires. It’s how I found out about Cafe San Bernardo, and I obviously agree with Festival being on the list. I also really like Ferona.

Some of the others–namely The Harrison Speakeasy and Floreria Atlantico–are fake speakeasies, which are all the rage in Buenos Aires. I don’t like the whole fake speakeasy concept, but if you like that and mixology-type bars, check those out and Victoria Brown Bar in Palermo. Fake speakeasies are all the rage in Buenos Aires.

Bottom Line

Bars come and go, but over the last 11 years of international travel and 55 countries, Buenos Aires has had the best nightlife in the world in my opinion. I don’t think that will ever change.

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I’m considering a trip to Cuba in April because I fall under one of the 12 categories of Americans that now have a general license to visit Cuba: journalistic activity. (See the US State Department’s information on visiting Cuba. This post is not suggesting you should.)

I’ve been looking into the cheapest ways to get to Cuba with miles or cash. It turns out there awards you can book to Cuba, but if you don’t book those awards, cash tickets from even very nearby destinations are very expensive.

First let’s rule out some ways to get to Cuba easily:

  • Charter flights from the United States
  • Commercial flights from the United States

Charter Flights

I haven’t contacted any companies that run charter flights from the Untied States, mainly Florida and New York, to Cuba. But reading others’ experiences, it sounds like you need a specific license to be able to fly on a charter flight. I don’t want to go through that rigamarole. I’d travel on a general license.

Commercial Flights from the United States

There aren’t any.

There are plenty of news articles speculating when these could start, but the odds are near 0% that they’ll start in 2015.

With those out of the way, let’s consider the two ways you can travel to Cuba most easily with just a general license.

  • Awards from or via a third country
  • Cash tickets from a third country

Awards

Update 3/17/15: I successfully called Lufthansa Miles & More and had them willing to book BOG-HAV and IAD-HAV for 17,000 miles each.

If you go to united.com and type Havana into the search box, you get no results. The US-based airlines are not going to let you use their miles to fly to Cuba for the time being, even if you just want to use the miles to fly from Panama to Cuba.

Any awards you book to Cuba will have to be with foreign miles. The two best options I see are:

  • Avianca LifeMiles from Panama (or maybe even the USA) to Havana, flying Copa
  • Air France Flying Blue from Mexico City to Havana, flying AeroMexico

Avianca Awards

This is very interesting. If you search from a Copa destination in the United States to Cuba on lifemiles.com, you will get results. (Make sure you select Copa Airlines as the “Preferred carrier” on the search screen or the search engine seems to miss these results.)

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Here are the results for economy awards on April 15, all of which are Washington to Panama to Havana.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.28.55 PM

Selecting one brings up a price of 17,500 Lifemiles + $31.85. Or you can toggle the “More money” button to book the award for 7,500 Lifemiles and $181.85.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.29.42 PM

From Washington, a stop in Panama City turns a 1,200 mile journey into a 3,000 mile ordeal, but this could still be your best option–if it works.
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I don’t know if you could fly this ticket. Maybe it will get canceled before the day of departure, or maybe the check in agent will refuse to give you a boarding pass to Havana in Washington. Or maybe this award would work like a charm. I’d love to hear people’s take on this award’s feasibility in the comments.

Getting LifeMiles is a bit of a challenge. You basically need to buy them. They are often on sale for 1.65 cents each, though not currently. Once you have 7,500 LifeMiles, you can book the award for another $181.85.

Flying Blue Awards

Air France’s loyalty program Flying Blue is the best way to book AeroMexico flights from Mexico City to Havana.

Flying Blue charges 15,000 miles one way in economy and 30,000 in Business Class.

Award space is far better in Business Class (29/35 days) than economy (3/35 days) this spring.

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Mexico City is quite out of the way from the East Coast, but pretty much on the way from the West Coast.
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If you try to search from the United States to Havana on flyingblue.com, you will get an error message.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.37.40 PM

 

Flying Blue is a 1:1 transfer partner of Membership Rewards and ThankYou Points. ThankYou Points transfers take about 36 hours as long as you know how to correctly input your Flying Blue account number–it is not intuitive.

My favorite two cards to get ThankYou Points are the:

Cash Tickets

Here are all the airlines and destinations that serve Havana. Here are the other airports in Cuba.

I searched on Kayak for many of the destinations and on Cubana’s and Aerogaviota’s sites for their fares. Flights to and from Cuba are shockingly expensive. For instance, I considered entering Cuba from Bogota to visit friends in Colombia first, and the 3.5 hour flight is around $500 one way. Even one hour hops in the Caribbean are almost always over $200.

Here are the cheapest fares I found to and from Cuba:

$158 from Havana to Nassau on April 25, 27, and 29

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$209 from Havana to Grand Cayman on April 26 and 30

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$214 from Havana to Mexico City on April 28

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If you find cheaper fares, put them in the comments. (Include airline, route, and date please.)

Bottom Line

Unless the LifeMiles awards on Copa from the United States to Cuba and return work perfectly for you, just getting to and from Cuba will involve buying up to four tickets and will be very expensive.

Awards start at 15,000 Flying Blue miles for a one way from Mexico City, and cash prices start at $158 from Nassau to Havana in addition to the positioning flights to get to those cities.

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As I wrap up three months in Buenos Aires (on top of the six months I spent here in 2013), I’m going to publish three posts: The Five Best Restaurants in Buenos Aires, What to Do Every Night of the Week in Buenos Aires, and What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Buenos Aires.

Before I jump into my favorite restaurants in Buenos Aires, first a huge tip and a disclaimer.

Tip: http://pickupthefork.com/

It’s actually hard to not find the blog Pick Up the Fork, since it shows up on pretty any google search related to Buenos Aires restaurants. Run by a long term American expat, it is the English-language food guide to Buenos Aires. You can get reviews–funny and in depth–and pictures from pretty much every restaurant worth knowing about on Allie’s awesome blog. She’s even kindly agreed to let me swipe some of those photos for this post. Every photo in this post is hers except for two.

My only complaint about the blog is that it lists prices in pesos. With 40% annual inflation, those quickly become outdated, making it very hard to estimate current prices. In this post, I’ll put approximate prices in dollars (at the blue dollar exchange rate.) Those prices change way more slowly and far less dramatically.

Check out Pick Up the Fork’s restaurant guide where you can sort by neighborhood and cuisine.

Disclaimer: I like cheap, delicious food in large portions. I don’t like wine; I don’t like waiting; I don’t care for presentation. The more similar your tastes are to mine, the more useful this post will be. The less similar, the less useful.

The list also undoubtedly reflects that I live here for months at a time, so I don’t think it’s weird to go to delicious restaurants even if they serve American barbecue, burgers, or brunch. If you’re here for three days, you might prefer steaks and empanadas (one place for each is recommended below) because even if the food isn’t quite as good as at the masterpieces I recommend, you’ll be getting a more authentic Argentine experience.

Without further ado, my favorite five (plus one) restaurants.

Burger Joint; Borges 1766; Palermo Soho; Burger, Fries, & Beer

The best burger in the world is The Bleu from Burger Joint. I’m not the only one who has noticed. The Bleu is a perfectly sized and seasoned patty topped with blue cheese, mushrooms, sundried tomato, caramelized onion, and arugula on a home made bun for $4. Get it with fries and a pint of craft beer ($7 total) or fries and soda ($6.)

La Bleu from Burger Joint

I used to get the Mexican with its fresh guacamole and Jamaican with pineapple and bacon, but now I am stuck on the Bleu.

Jamaican from Burger Joint
Jamaican and Fries

 

When you order at the counter, make sure to ask for Curry Ketchup and Cilantro Mayo. I don’t even like mayo, but the Cilantro Mayo gets smothered on my bun and fries.

Really, the only thing Burger Joint is missing is chili, which is the perfect topping for burgers and fries. So one day I brought my own!

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At lunch, an expat-heavy crowd of students lingers over their burgers and Seinfeld plays looped on the TV. At night, the line is out the door. The restaurant is open every day from noon to midnight, and I prefer to eat before 8 PM for shorter wait times.

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Pick up the Fork Review of Burger Joint

Las Cabras; Fitz Roy 1795; Palermo Hollywood; Parrilla (Steakhouse)

Our relationship started because of proximity, but the portions, prices, chorizo, and flavor cemented my longterm bond with Las Cabras.

Two years ago, I lived half a block away, and I would sometimes pop in at lunch to get chorizo (pork sausage) to go.

It’s also my go-to place to take people for their first parrilla experience because the grill is visible to diners, and the parrillada para dos (platter for two) is suitable for three or four people who want to experiment with all the typical cuts of an Argentine asado (barbecue).

 

The steaks are huge, and a full dinner with drinks and tip should be under $15 per person.

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Steak, mashed potatoes, salad; 1/10 of the normal amount of food on the table

 

At lunch there is never a wait, but at dinner there always is unless you come early. Conveniently for Americans, early is 8 PM.

Sarkis; Thames 1101; Villa Crespo (a block from Palermo); Mediterranean

This institution of Mediterranean food is a favorite of everyone I’ve taken for its moussaka, hummus, baba ganoush, and grilled meats. The food plus being way too cheap ensure a long line every night when it opens.

sarkis
With a crowd of people at 7:55 PM

Unlimited pita is included in the $1.25 per person table fee (most sit-down restaurants in Buenos Aires charge one), which I pair with hummus and baba ganoush to start. Most of the appetizers are priced at $2.50 per plate, so go wild with sharing for the table.

For the mains, I love the moussaka (sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and minced meat) and fierrito del pollo (chicken kabab with tomato and onion). Everyone else raves about the lamb if that’s your thing.

I suggest going for lunch or arriving at 7:55 PM. There will already be a line five minutes before the restaurant opens for dinner at 8 PM, but you will definitely get a seat. If you come at 9 PM instead, expect to wait an hour.

Huge, shared meals with lots of drinks set the group back about $15 per person after tip.

El Tejano; Honduras 4416; Palermo; Texas Barbecue

El Tejano is a closed-door restaurant and catering company that churns out the best brisket and ribs in Buenos Aires.

underground market
Brisket sandwich at El Tejano, also served in a warm tortilla

 

I recently went to a friend’s birthday here that was course after course of thick-cut fries, chorizo, chicken wings, brisket, and fall-off-the-bone ribs. I’ve seriously never seen ribs so tender–and “seen” is the right sense, give them a shake–and I think the owner sent the courses out in reverse order of deliciousness, which caused me to gorge more than I should have. I had to cancel my plans for the rest of the night.

To eat at El Tejano, you must make a reservation online, and the restaurant is not open every night. Meals range from $9 to 12 including beer in a frosty mug and tip, or pay $28 for the sampler platter with a pitcher of beer for two.

Try out all the sauces on the table. They will only add to the experience.

Blurb on El Tejano from Pick up the Fork

Chile Caliente; Alem 674; Microcentro; Mongolian Barbecue

Don’t be fooled by its location. Don’t be fooled by the dingy interior. Don’t be fooled by poutine being on the menu. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it failed in another neighborhood, and–by the lack of customers–seems headed toward the same fate in the microcentro. I love this place!

IMG_7784

Fill your bowl with as much meat and veggies as you can, pick your pasta, and sauces, and watch it cooked in front of you in three minutes. My preferred bowl is beef, chicken, broccoli, green pepper, spinach, mushroom, pineapple, tomato, and the yellow noodle (semolina) with all the sauces including hot and garlic.

IMG_7755

Your stir fry is $5 and comes with bread, which I skip. Drinks are extra, and I recommend the ginger lemonade.

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Pick Up the Fork Review of Chile Caliente

 

Pekin; Honduras 5303, Palermo Soho; Empanadas

Everywhere in Argentina has empanadas, and every Argentine has his favorite spot.

My favorite empanadas in town are at this pizzeria and bar that stays open later than I’ve ever stayed up, located on a main drag of bars and clubs in Palermo.

Empanadas are $1 each, and I love the chicken, ground beef (carne picada), and spicy chunks of beef (carne cortada a cuchillo muy picante) empanadas. People rave about the lamb empanadas.

IMG_1460

Grab the empanadas to eat at Pekin or to go on your way home from a night out or have them delivered for free (consider a small tip for the delivery man.) Skip the pizza.

Pick Up the Fork Love Letter to Pekin

Your Take

If you’ve visited Buenos Aires, what were your favorite restaurants?

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2014 was a great year of travel for me, and hopefully for you too.

Last year (2013) was a year of deep and broad travel since I spent almost six months in Argentina and another two months flying through 21 total countries. I spent over nine months outside the United States

This year (2014) was focused on three main trips with much more time spent at my home base on Oahu:

  1. Fly the best First Classes / see SE Asia / follow UVA basketball through the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
  2. World Cup
  3. Start of a nine month trip to follow Summer through South America and Europe (next summer.)

COUNTRIES VISITED (14)

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from amcharts.com

In chronological order (excluding countries where I never left the airport):

  • United States (9 months; Hawaii: 7.5 months; mainland: 1.5 months)
  • Macau (1 day)
  • Singapore (4 days)
  • Cambodia (8 days)
  • United Kingdom (2 days)
  • Slovenia (4 days)
  • Brazil (10 days)
  • Hong Kong (4 days)
  • China (3 days)
  • South Korea (5 days)
  • North Korea (2 minutes)
  • Colombia (28 days)
  • Argentina (24 days)
  • Chile (5 days)

All of these countries were new except the United States, United Kingdom, and Argentina. My total is now 55 (counting England, Wales, Macau, Hong Kong, and China separately):

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 9.19.07 PM

PREMIUM AIRLINE CABINS FLOWN (12)

In chronological order (with links to trip reports):

Unfortunately six of these premium cabins were the front of United planes, which are comfortable but not exactly luxurious.

My favorite flights were in Cathay Pacific First Class and Asiana First Class.

MILES FLOWN (88,392)

  • 88,392 miles flown over 45 segments
  • If I had flown all these as paid flights on one airline like United or American, I wouldn’t even have top tier status!
  • Longest flight: JFK to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class (8,072 miles)
  • Shortest flight: Honolulu to Kahului, Maui (100 miles)
  • Favorite flight: JFK to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class. 16 hours wasn’t long enough
  • Runner up: Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, Chile in the front row over the mountains, fjords, and oceans of Patagonia with a view of the cockpit

Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 10.16.38 AM

 

FAVORITE MOMENTS OF TRAVEL

  • Biking the walls of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
  • Jumping into the FREEZING cold Beagle Channel in Puerto Williams, Chile
  • Trekking 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
  • Watching the last few minutes of the United States loss to Belgium in the World Cup as we mounted a frantic comeback surrounded by Americans and Brazilians at the FIFA Fan Zone in Sao Paulo.
  • Playing two USTA National Championship tournaments in Palm Springs, CA and Tucson, AZ with great friends from Hawaii.
  • Celebrating at the Obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires when River Plate won the Copa Sudamericana soccer tournament.
  • Being at all three UVA games at the first ACC tournament we’ve won since 1976. Being at all three NCAA tournament games including the Sweet 16 loss at Madison Square Garden with my brother.
  • Haircuts and a shave in Medellin, Colombia and the Indian section of Singapore.
  • Cliff jumping from 30 feet at several spots on Oahu and Maui.
  • Flying a friend to Oahu and Maui with Avios to spend a week together.
  • The nightlife-turning-into-daylife in Sao Paulo, Rio, Bogota, Medellin, and Buenos Aires.
  • Hiking the Great Wall of China with my brother.
  • A bike tour of rural livelihoods in Battambang, Cambodia.
  • The DMZ between North and South Korea.
  • Hiking to Sai Wan in Hong Kong and discovering a beautiful beach and natural pool.
  • Meeting new friends along the way.
  • Reconnecting with old friends from previous trips.
  • Visiting family.

Upon reading the list, I’m struck by how idiosyncratic my favorite moments were. Surely most of my readers wouldn’t have enjoyed many of my favorite moments. What’s great about miles is that they work for you to make your dream trips happen. They are not one size fits all. We can all be a part of the same community even though we have wildly different travel styles and goals.

What were your travel stats for 2014? More importantly, what were your best travel memories from this year?

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I like to ask people what their stereotype of Americans is when I travel. I just get a kick out of it. The other day in the taxi in Medellin, Colombia, I didn’t even have to ask.

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I am generally planning on being in South America through March and then in Europe from April to August.

I’ll have a blast no matter what, but I’ll have even more fun if my time some of my trip to coincide with festivals, events, and other parties.

For instance, I would have had a blast in Brazil in June no matter what, but I had 10x the fun because I was there during World Cup.

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Before I go into the guidebooks, I’ll go the infinite wisdom of my readers. What should I not miss over that time frame on those continents. The stranger and more obscure the better.

This post was inspired by One Mile at a Time’s Asian Festival Bucket List.

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