Author Archive for

02
Jul
17

U.S.: Breathtaking Bryce Canyon


The Bryce Canyon National Park, a spectacular reserve of deep red, spire-shaped rock formations in southern Utah, was part of a number of stops my family took as we traveled by road from Phoenix to beautiful Sedona to the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks and onward to Las Vegas to cap our family day.

We arrived at our Bryce Canyon hotel way past midnight after spending a late afternoon stop at the Grand Canyon to tour members of my family who have not seen the canyon yet.  Most of us agreed to wake up early the next day to catch a glimpse of the stunning Bryce Canyon ampitheatre at sunrise. Three of us made it. Only the men.

 

sedona6One of the perks of experiencing the prime viewing sunrise time of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater is you won’t pay the park entrance. You can enter the park and the counter is not yet open for the day.

 

 

10369_13360_Inspiration_Point_Bryce_Canyon_Park_lg.jpgWith a lot of possible viewing points, I chose Inspiration Point (yes, over Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Bryce Point) to experience sunrise at the Bryce Canyon amphitheater. From the hotel staff to internet reviews, everyone would always recommend Inspiration Point. Indeed, the amazing point did not disappoint.

 

 

DSC_0287From the parking lot it was just a few steps to the base of the amphitheater enclave.  We ascended to the first level where we could already catch a glimpse of the crimson spires.  I have never read from any article on the web that this was as easy as I could imagine to get a spectacular view of the amphitheater.  I thought we needed to hike miles to be in the best vantage point.  Later I learned that hiking would be for those who would want to come closer and face to face with the hoodoos following established trails.

 

bryce8My father, who is almost 80 years old, stayed at the first level taking videos and photos.

 

 

DSC_0286My brother and I climbed up to the highest viewing platform of Inspiration Point.  The experience from there was simply awesome.

 

 

Here is the video that I took as the sun rose in the east.  I was lost for words.

 

 

DSC_0276Facing east, these are the hoodoos on the left side zoomed in.

 

 

DSC_0275This is the less crimson, nonetheless still splendid right side when facing east.

 

 

DSC_0277Down toward the center you can see trails where people are allowed to walk and climb the buttes.

 

 

DSC_0279Another angle of the spectacular area.

 

 

DSC_0283Another shot of the more stunning  right side.

 

 

IMG_6658What an awesome experience it was!

 

 

bryce2This has been one of my top five travel experiences so far! Simply awesome!

 

Bryce9From left that is my brother, my father and me as we prepared to leave the Bryce National Park.

 

 

BryceLater in the day just as we were leaving for Zion National Park, the ladies finally decided to visit the viewing points.  From left is my wife, who is carrying our 6-month old Ava in the womb, my awesome mother and then my two beautiful sisters. If blessed with a clear sunny day, an almost midday photo shoot would be simply breathtaking.

 

 

Bryce6Their decision gave me and my wife and our 9-month old daughter to have this photo near the park entrance.

 

 

where to stay

Staying overnight is recommended if one wants to experience the prime viewing times of either sunrise or sunset at the amphitheater. There are so many options for lodging and most hotels would be in one area which is  just near the the park entrance.  Only one hotel is inside the park but I do not think it really matters a lot because the park entrance and the viewing points are just less than 10 minutes drive away from the hotels outside the park.

Bryce-View-Lodge-Sunset-feI have chosen Bryce View Lodge as our sleeping quarters for the overnight stay as we only needed…..

 

 

bryce-canyon-hotel2……the basic rooms.

 

 

hotelWe got the rooms in the lower level shown above.  Parking space is directly in front of the rooms.

 

 

bryce-hotelBy staying at Bryce View Lodge guests gain access to all facilities across the street at the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn.

• Free wireless high-speed internet in lobby and conference center.
• Guest laundry. 6:30 am – 10:00 pm
• Business center
• Free airport shuttle
• Complimentary on-site parking
• Indoor pool and whirlpool

The lodge was inexpensive, basic and the staff was great.

bonus: red canyon national park

redcanyon5On our way to the Zion National Park and onward to Las Vegas, the Red Canyon National Park would be on our way and we took a quick stop to gaze at the red rocks and all.

 

 

redcanyon4We had to stop at the gorgeous red rocks.

 

 

redcanyon3My sisters enjoyed the stop too!

 

 

redcanyon1What a journey it had been.  Yes an incredible thumb up for an extraordinary display of nature!

12
Jun
17

U.S.: Sedona’s Enchantment Resort


Our late summer family getaway began in scorching hot Arizona as we flew in to Phoenix from Boston via L.A. and met up with my West Coast-based parents and siblings.  We hurriedly drove northwards to beautiful Sedona where it was comfortingly cooler by 10 degrees and the stunning Enchantment Resort was chosen as our base for our quick stay in the town famous for its marvelous red rocks.

 

 

first impression

IMG_6436We arrived at the resort in pitch black darkness so we did not have any idea of how close and how stunning the red rocks would be from our room.  Early morning the next day I woke up before sunset and I was amazed by the view of the red rocks surrounding us just as the rising sun was turning the sky into fiery red orange.

 

 

IMG_6464I enjoyed gazing at the amazing red rocks and  it was indeed an incredible experience.  I immediately woke up everyone……

 

 

DSC_0197…..including my wife and 9-month old daughter.

 

 

DSC_0202Coffee time.

 

 

DSC_0211I checked the balcony next door.

 

 

 

IMG_6518With my parents at the balcony of their room that has a better vantage point to view the red rocks.

 

 

resort layout & rooms

SWFIMG_141024_15191416_NRW19Set on 70 acres of breathtaking natural terrain, the resort has its casitas and rooms spread all over the area surrounded by red rocks.

 

 

DSC_0217Our casitas were on one of the highest locations in the resort offering breathtaking vistas.  We were less than five minutes walk to the main building housing the receiving area, the pool and the restaurants.  We never utilized the complimentary resort carts except during check-in and check-out as everyone enjoyed walking and enjoying the views.  The resort also offers free parking located  just beside the main building.

 

 

DSC_0214To compliment its stunning red rock backdrop, the casitas have been painted in red too.

 

 

sedona1This became my favorite photo of the resort.

 

 

HI323562311There was nothing incredible with the Southwestern-style rooms but they were spotlessly clean, very spacious and well-appointed.

 

 

Mark Boisclair Photography, Inc.The bathrooms were huge…..

 

 

IMG_6519..and had great views too!

 

 

food and dining

IMG_6423We had a room service just once and it was on the night we arrived at the resort.  We ordered salmon, chicken and pasta.  A standard tip was automatically added to the bill.  The food was a bit on the expensive side but everything tasted so good so I did not care about the price.  Also, we did not have any other option except the town center a few miles away.

 

 

sedona-restaurantsDuring lunch only the Che Ah Chi restaurant was open so we had to contend with just one option.  The amazing views of the red rocks made up for it.  The food was good but the service really needs improvement.

 

 

IMG_6544Oh, it was rather difficult to take a group-fie using a smartphone and a stick even with the white balance on. Anyway, at the other end of the table is my brother who was celebrating his nth birthday.  Muchas gracias for the lunch, bro!

 

 

IMG_6536This is part of the restaurant’s romantic patio offering the perfect backdrop for a family portrait.  Obviously no one would like to sweat and melt while dining so the area was completely empty.  This area would be crowded during late afternoon till early evening for tapas and wine. The hotel has two other restaurants, View 180 and Tii Gavo, that can satisfy one’s hunger.

 

 

the pool area

DSC_0220The resort pool with its spectacular views  is where we had so much fun taking our photos and swimming, of course. Ever since I saw the pool area as I was browsing about the resort, I was already decided to book it for our Sedona getaway.  The pool area just blew me away!

 

 

DSC_0225That’s me with my parents and two of my six sisters.

 

 

DSC_0221Then it was my turn to take the photo of my parents and my siblings.  We tried to get a family photo through a kind English guy but he focused more on our feet than the red rocks above so we took turns in taking the photos.

 

 

IMG_6533A family portrait.

 

 

IMG_6549A family group-fie.

 

 

IMG_6646My parents enjoyed the resort too!

 

 

IMG_6523Another view of the pool area from a different angle.

 

 

DSC_0230I really wished we could have stayed longer.

 

 

IMG_6538We spent some time in the pool.

 

 

DSC_0243My dear wife and my bubbly 8-month old daughter enjoyed the pool.

 

 

other resort facilities

000287-16-Mii amo pool-1Mii Amo Spa is perfect for those who want to invigorate and relax with its indoor and outdoor pools, heated whirlpool, steam rooms and a full menu of Native American-inspired treatments.

 

 

8360DE30-BA6C-07F1-8BB7588B8D172CF4One level lower and next to the pool area are the tennis courts for the outdoorsy and physically fit if the gym gets too boring and containing.

 

ending

DSC_0213Overall, this has been one of the most enchanting resorts we have been to. Secluded, amazing views, incredible showcase of nature at every turn and exceptional service (except at the restaurants). We were offered with a needed late checkout of 4 p.m. on our last day for all rooms because we booked the resort on AMEX Travel.

Too sad we did not have the time to check more of the town center but we have concluded that Sedona is one of the most picturesque places in the world. We promised to be back!

04
Jun
17

Mexico: 23 Hours in Mexico City


Mexico City is the largest metropolitan center in the western hemisphere. With its third world modernism, colonial spirit and Aztec vibe rolled into one, it is one of the most interesting urban centers in the world so I did not think twice about stopping there briefly. My recent Cuba trip gave me the chance to explore Mexico City as I chose to take Aeromexico.  As I was comparing the prices and timing of the flights in Aeromexico’s website and third party travel websites, I chanced upon a flight in cheapoair.com with good connections giving me exactly 23 hours to spend in Mexico City on my way back from Havana to New York.  This is how I spent it.

Day 1 08:25 Airport Arrival

MEX AIRPORTArrival at the Aeroporto Internacional de Benito Juárez from Havana was fast and efficient. I was out in 15 minutes. I bought coffee and a breakfast sandwich from one of the fastfood outlets in the airport terminal and then called the hotel where I would be staying requesting for the free shuttle.  In 10 minutes I was on my way to the hotel.

Day 1 09:00 Baggage Drop At The Hotel

IMG_8328

I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Mexico City Airport, which is less than 15 minutes drive from the airport and to the city center. I arrived several hours before the allowed check-in time so I left my things at the hotel, rested for a few minutes in the lobby and took a hotel taxi to Zócalo, the city’s main square.  I would later learn that the hotel taxi was almost double the price of an Uber ride.  Lesson learned: Do not take any hotel offers on taxis.  Book via Uber or Lyft.

Day 1 09:20 Entrance to Zócalo

DSC_0953It was an early Sunday morning so offices around Mexico City’s main square were closed but it was teeming with visitors like me and locals spending their time in and around the square. This was my first glimpse of Zócalo, the city’s main square  The giant CDMX in the southern part of the square stands for its Spanish name, Ciudad de México.

DSC_0948I spent around 15 minutes at this signage as visitors took turns to have their photos taken.

DSC_0951A visitor from Turkey obliged to take several shots for me.

DSC_0955I then walked across the square into and past the giant Mexican flag which is ceremoniously raised and lowered each day and carried to the National Palace. It would have been better if it was windy and the giant flag was stretched out, flying high.

Day 1 09:40 Checking Out The Cathedral

DSC_0956The Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the plaza’s most significant structures and it is the largest cathedral in the Americas.

DSC_1027It was built in sections from 1573 to 1813.

DSC_1025To the cathedral’s right is the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

DSC_0964As I veered into the right of the tabernacle, its side became evident. At this vantage point is where I did the next activity.

Day 1 10:00 Watch A Street Show

DSC_1023As I stepped away from the cathedral area to the right I chanced upon a group of five people donning Aztec customes doing a drum-beating show.

DSC_0973Their customer were colorful indeed!

DSC_0974And donations were accepted.

DSC_0976

DSC_0971I spent around 15 minutes watching the show and taking photos and then I moved on.

Day 1 10:15 Exploring A Stretch East of Zocalo

CSC_0961I walked eastwards where the Templo Mayor Museum and the Nacional Palace are located. I did not enter these places as the queues were very long.

DSC_1022I continued to traverse the long stretch of Calle Moneda.

DSC_0980Taking snapshots of the scenery on both sides of the street.

DSC_1020There were a lot of shops selling really good and cheap items.

DSC_0996The murals did not escape my camera.

CSC_1004Even underpasses were filled with murals.

DSC_0998Restaurants also abound.

DSC_0993There were also some smaller kiosks selling food that were bought by locals munching on them with their bare hands sitting along the street.

DSC_1010

DSC_1006This was how I far I have walked from the dome of the cathedral in the square center.

DSC_1011I made a turn to discover a compound that was attracting a tour group. Honestly, I chose not to take a travel book with me or use my phone to check where should I go. I just wanted to stroll leisurely and took photos.

DSC_1012

DSC_1013The white statues surrounding the east portion of the compound were eye-catching.

DSC_1017

DSC_1016Colorful buildings…….

DSC_0992….and schools too.

Day 1 12:00 Back to the main square.

DSC_1036As I was back in the square center, my attention was focused on the transportation above ground.  Of course there were the basic taxis but the modern ciclotaxis reminded me of the coco taxis in Havana, the tuktuk in Bangkok and the tricycle in the Philippines.

DSC_1035To the left of the cathedral is the station for tourist trolleys….

DSC_1033

DSC_1032….and double-decker buses.

DSC_1028I walked a few steps to the west of the square and suddenly I was approached by a restaurant staff promoting a place overlooking the square at the top of the building shown above.  I just followed the guy and I was glad I did.

Day 1 12:30 Brunch With A View

DSC_1040First, the food truly had Mexican flair.

DSC_1038Secondly, the view of the square from above was breathtaking.

DSC_1037The view of the cathedral also took my breath away.  Mostly, the Catholic locals would come here after spending time in the church.

Day 1 13:30 Back At The Hotel

IMG_8462

I was back at the hotel before 2 p.m. and the front desk finally checked me in. The Holiday Inn Express Mexico City Airport Hotel has huge rooms and reasonable prices so I chose this during my overnight stopovers going to and coming from Cuba.  Since I was already awake at 3 a.m. early that day as I left Cuba I felt I needed to take a couple of hours of siesta.  Well, if I have been well-rested that night I could have used the two hours for other activities such as taking one of the exciting city tours or shopping.  I woke up before 4 p.m. and I booked an Uber ride back to Zocalo.

Day 1 16:00 To The Palacio de Bellas Artes

DSC_1041From the cathedral, you can take Calle 5 de Mayo or Francisco Madero westwards as the imposing Torre Latinoamericana would come into view and serve as compass. The two streets represent the modern Mexico City and they both lead to….

Museo_Palacio_Bellas_Artes_1_2….Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).

9373486666_32219e09d1_oCalled the Cathedral of Art in Mexico, the Palace of Fine Arts has hosted some of the most notable events in music, theatre, dance, opera and literature and has held important exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography.

Day 1 16:30 At The Best Western Hotel Penthouse

DSC_1042My day-ending plan would be to spend at a place overlooking the main square during sunset.  From the internet, I learned that the Best Western Hotel located next to the square has a top floor restaurant with sweeping views of the square.

DSC_1044So I went inside and asked the front desk about it and I was told to go to the 7th floor.

https://www.facebook.com/aniban.erwin/videos/vb.1490298170/10212124802743893/?type=2&theater

As soon as I got my table, I noticed everyone’s attention was on the square.  I peeked and I saw the daily ceremony of lowering the giant flag in the center of the square. Click the video link above.

DSC_1045The place offers a buffet of Mexican food and I feasted on anything my palate could take.

DSC_1049It started to get dim, the square was lit up and the night mode was on!

DSC_1053The cathedral right after sunset looked haunting.

DSC_1059Palacio Nacional, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico, looked shimmering as its lights were turned on.

DSC_1060This is the south side of the square.

DSC_1068I spent half an hour more at the restaurant after sundown. As I walked to the elevator I saw this Mexican flag with the lady sculpture.  Mexico, I did have a wonderful day indeed!  Gracias!

Day 1 20:30 Back At The Hotel

holiday-inn-express-mexico-4653979396-4x3I  went back to the hotel past eight in the evening as I had an early morning flight back to New York the next day.  I truly enjoyed the night zzzzzzz.

Day 2 05:00 Departure

IMG_8330.JPGAfter a quick breakfast at the hotel, I took the hourly complimentary hotel shuttle to the airport to board my flight back to New York.

plane-at-benito-juarez-mexico-airportIt was a unique experience for me having to maximize a limited amount of time to check out one of the world’s biggest cities in both population and land area.  Adiós Ciudad de México!  I will be back to explore you more!

[I actually wanted to skip Mexico City and instead go to San Miguel de Allende but the trip would cost me more time and resources so I stayed in Mexico City. I am more than convinced that I made the right decision.]

02
May
17

Cuba: Timeless Havana


Havana is where I grew up.  No, I’m not referring to the capital and largest city of Cuba but to a street in a little town of Tanauan in the island of Leyte, Philippines.  As a kid who was entranced with geography and world history I learned about the city of Havana in Cuba, definitely grander, more famous and controversy-laden. I dreamed of setting foot on it one day even though it seemed out of reach for me that time, being thousands of miles away from the other Havana I called home. I never stopped dreaming.

I almost made it to the other Havana on January 29, 2017 with my parents and two siblings only to suddenly make a turnaround flight alone upon landing at the Jose Marti International Airport. Arrival-Immigration-Customs-Checkin-Boarding. Kudos to Jetblue for the wonderful service providing me a dedicated staff as I breezed past through everything. Kudos to Jetblue too for the complimentary, fast and efficient Wi-Fi that I was able to learn about the family emergency while we’re up in the air that I really needed to head back to New York.  As persistent as I could be, two weeks later I tried again to make it to Havana, this time all alone. Yes, on February 10, 2017, I finally reached Havana, Cuba, one of the most enigmatic cities that I have always wanted to discover. This time Jetblue’s lower fares for its direct flights to Cuba were already sold out so I had to take that detour to Mexico City via Aeromexico for more than three hundred bucks of savings.

FLYING INTO CUBA

Flying into Cuba is not a big hassle.  The communist nation is warmly welcoming visitors from all over the world even Americans.  However, if your flight is coming direct from a U.S. city, you will be asked by the airline about the purpose of your travel.  As tourist travel by Americans remains prohibited, you should choose one of 12 U.S. government-approved categories of travel to Cuba. At the airport check-in is where you usually buy the Cuban visa.  An alternative way to enter Cuba is to fly via Mexico, Canada or a Caribbean island.

Tip:  If you are coming from the U.S., Jetblue Airways charges the cheapest Cuban visa issued by an airline at US$50.  Other U.S. airlines charge US$75.  However, if you are coming from Canada, Europe or via Mexico (just like me), the airlines at the airport only charge less than US$20.

ARRIVAL IN HAVANA

IMG_8361We arrived at the terminal 3 of Havana’s ageing airport. I was able to clear immigration and customs in less than 30 minutes. The lines for the currency exchange and taxis at the airport seemed like a mile long so I took the offer of an English-speaking taxi driver for an easy way out of the airport for 30 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Currency).

IMG_8337The 30-minute trip to Vedado along streets with beautifully lined-up palm trees included a quick stop at a major hotel in Vedado where there was no long line to exchange my euros into CUC which is the currency used by tourists. I then quickly dropped off my things at my Airbnb lodging in Vedado and changed into a more comfortable outfit. I requested the same taxi driver to take me to Old Havana, a 10-min. drive away for an additional 5 CUC.

Tips
  1. Bring a lot of cash and as much as possible try not to bring U.S. dollars into Cuba as you will be charged an additional 10% fee using this currency.  Bring British pounds, euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos.
  2. If you are the uber adventurous, you can leave the airport and walk a bit into the main road where taxis can bring you to the city center for just 10 CUC.  This is what a German lady told me when we chatted in Old Havana that she and her husband have been doing for many times.
  3. Taxis would charge usually higher than the normal fares (7CUC instead of 5CUC for example) so always try to bargain.  If they won’t agree, try to find another one but they usually would settle for the reduced amount.

 

WHAT TO SEE IN HAVANA

AROUND PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL

DSC_0844The taxi driver dropped me along Malecon about 2 minutes walk to the Plaza de la Catedral area.

 

 

DSC_0755The first major attraction I saw was the Plaza de la Catedral where the imposing 240-year old Catedral de San Cristobal stands. It is one of the five main squares of Havana, a city that will celebrate its 500th year of existence in 2020.

CSC_0854A restaurant called El Patio is at the left side of the square and is a popular place to people watch while dining.

 

 

DSC_0654Completed in 1777, the cathedral is a striking example of Cuban baroque architecture.

DSC_0769At sunset, which is my favorite time to shoot on a clear sunny day, the square exudes a different character as the evening lights are starting to come alive.

DSC_0779In front of the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) is where photographers would mostly converge to take the best shot of the cathedral and the buildings around it.

DSC_0771At this location too is where I met two young, lovely and friendly Peruvian ladies, Helen and Susan. Helen, the half-Russian, half-Peruvian, made the first move and gladly offered to take my photos. They became my travel companions for the rest of my short stay in Havana.

IMG_8355Just a few steps from Plaza de la Catedral is La Bodeguita del Medio, a very famous restaurant bar which is one of Hemingway’s stopovers. Quite cramped and crowded, I would call this place a bit over-rated.

ALONG CALLE OBISPO

DSC_0749Linking the area of Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Armas with Parque Central and Paseo de Marti is the very busy Calle Obispo.

 

 

DSC_0660Both locals and tourists fill in what is probably the most crowded street in Havana.

 

 

CSC_0665You could even find a lot of Cuban students roaming around too for whatever reason.

 

 

CSC_0765The stretch has plenty of souvenir shops…..

 

 

DSC_0748…bookstores……

 

 

 

DSC_0667…and full-packed places like the tiny Floridita. At the end of Calle Obispo near Parque Central before reaching Paseo de Marti is the famous bar that still attracts a huge number of Havana visitors.

 

 

IMG_8350In the 50s, it was named by Esquire magazine as one of the seven greatest bars in the world together with Raffles Bar in Singapore, Ritz Bar in Paris, 21 Club in New York, Pied Piper Bar in San Francisco & Shelbourne Hotel Bar in Dublin.

 

 

IMG_8351It may have lost its position in that listing but still when you get inside the place you could feel the grandeur it once had.

 

 

DSC_0736The classic main bar still remains and the staff are truly nice even if they are so busy.

IMG_8349Whether you like daiquiri or margarita, you would love the place with its reasonable prices and great-tasting cocktails.

 

 

CSC_0739Until this day it is frequented by a lot of visitors daily.  It was late afternoon when I got in and it was full. It was hard to get a seat so others would be glad to just stand and stay at the bar or even drink outside.  I had one glass of a drink and I left.

 

 

DSC_0735Just outside Floridita is the station for the cool Coco Taxi.

 

Along Paseo de Marti & Around Parque Central

DSC_0787The most relevant and the most splendid of Havana’s boulevards is Paseo de Marti that encompasses the area from the west end of the Capitolio to the east end of Parque Central shown above.

 

 

DSC_0790To my back is the Gran Teatro Nacional and the classic Hotel Inglatera both situated along Paseo de Marti,

 

 

DSC_0795Hotel Inglaterra is Havana’s oldest hotel. In late 2017 it would soon become part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).

 

 

IMG_8367This is part of the grand lobby and behind those steel bars is one of the hotel’s restaurants where the buffet breakfast is served.

 

 

IMG_8365I took my breakfast here one time and the 8 CUC I paid was more than worth it.  There was wide variety of food like the usual Western choices of eggs, sausages, toast, potatoes and many others. I was surprised in a positive way that they even served sardines!  Yes, the coffee was good too!

 

 

IMG_8363In the hotel lobby is a plaque honoring Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.

 

 

 

CSC_0857Opposite Hotel Inglaterra is a stop for the HabanaBusTour.

 

 

 

DSC_0669In front of the Gran Teatro Nacional and around Parque Central is a staggering display of colorful American vintage cars.

 

 

 

CSC_0703Along Paseo de Marti is the Payret, the oldest and largest cinema in Central Havana.

 

 

CSC_0698To the left is the partly seen Gran Teatro Nacional and to the right is part of the Payret.

 

 

CSC_0695Several steps away from Parque Central one can have the best view of the Gran Teatro Nacional.

 

 

CSC_0694With the vintage cars of different colors constantly passing by,  selfies are truly worth all the effort at this vantage point.

 

 

DSC_0688Paseo de Marti is a major street and buses also ply the route.

 

 

DSC_0716Walking farther away from Gran Teatro Nacional, one can have the striking view of the Capitolio and the colorful buildings along Paseo de Marti.

 

 

CSC_0699At this area is where I met the German lady who told me about the cheapest way to get out of the airport to your destination. With the colorful buildings as background it is worth the time to spend a bit of your time here watching colorful vintage cars pass by.  Name the color, pink….

 

 

DSC_0672….green…..orange,,,,,

 

 

DSC_0721…yellow, you will surely find your favorite one!

 

DSC_0670Horse-drawn carriages are still available too albeit only for visitors.

 

 

DSC_0706At this area too was the first time I watched old sedans picking up local commuters who would squeeze themselves in with as much as 10 other people. It is probably their alternative mode of transportation that is akin to a mass taxi.  I wonder how much the locals pay and how far those cars can take passengers.

 

 

IMG_8359This is the Gran Teatro Nacional at night.

 

Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial)

DSC_0814We took time to visit the historic Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel Castro delivered speeches in this vast square, attracting more than a million people at times. In the center of the Plaza de la Revolucion stands a 109-meter gray tower, a memorial to the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, while a large, white marble statue of him lies at its base. Below the statue is the entrance to the interior of the Jose Marti Memorial, which contains a museum on Marti. Visitors can ascend the tower for incredible views over Havana.

 

 

DSC_0815Opposite the memorial, the famous giant portrait of Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building.

 

 

CSC_0856In another building, the portrait of Castro adorns another building.  Oh yes, that is me in a vintage orange Chevrolet car!

 

 

DSC_0799We hailed this taxi in front of Hotel Inglaterra. Our initial agreement was for the driver to drop us at the Plaza de la Revolucion but we ended up getting the return trip to Old Havana for free as he agreed to take us back since he was going the same way anyway for a passenger pickup.

 

 

IMG_8368Everything was made possible with the negotiation skills of my new found Spanish-speaking friends from Peru, Helena and Susana, whom I met at the Plaza de la Catedral the previous day.

 

 

DSC_0817We enjoyed the ride on the streets of Havana….

 

 

DSC_0821…and along the windy coastal stretch of Malecon.

 

 

DSC_0800Yes,  the two ladies made local heads turn.

 

 

Plaza de Armas

DSC_0926From Malecon, instead of turning to the direction of Plaza de la Catedral going straight would lead you to Plaza de Armas.

 

 

DSC_0753You would encounter ladies in colorful garments….

 

 

CSC_0764…..who would shower you with hot kisses!

 

 

CSC_0917You can also chance upon colorful musical parade.

 

 

DSC_0848In the middle of the day you can also sip freshly made piña colada sold at stalls around the area.  You can request for free for more rum if you want the drink stronger!

 

 

DSC_0751If you would like to dine or chill, restaurants and cafes abound the area surrounding Plaza de Armas.

 

 

DSC_0754Colorful paintings of Havana and Cuba for sale are on display too.

 

 

Along Calle O’Reilly

IMG_8383Calle O’Reilly is parallel to the more famous and busier Calle Obispo.  One time, coming from Plaza de Armas we traversed this narrow street to go into the road less traveled avoiding the crowd at Obispo.  It was not bad after all as we found restaurants and shops waiting to be discovered tucked on this stretch.

 

IMG_8380Also, at Calle O’Reilly we had some barber talk. I was not the one who actually got engaged in a conversation but my newly found Peruvian friends who speak Spanish. They chatted with the barber how Cuba had survived despite the U.S. trade embargo. Venezuela, Russia and North Korea were its only trading partners. Cuba made its way to create its own refineries to fuel its economy. However as I experienced it, the trade embargo still affected the Cuban people in a big way.

 

Palacio de los Capitanes

DSC_0859In the same way going to Plaza de Armas is the historic Palacio de los Capitanes which is just in front of the plaza.

 

 

DSC_0864With a bargain 3 CUC entrance fee, this museum was worth the visit.

 

 

DSC_0869Yeah, the Cuban flag!  This was taken at the entrance to the palace.

 

 

DSC_0911The two-story massive building is the former official residence of the Spanish governors of Cuba.

 

 

DSC_0878The galleried second storey of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales are preserved with their original colonial decorations and furniture.

 

 

CSC_0922The complex houses exhibitions of art and historical artifacts.

 

 

CSC_0923This was taken in one of the rooms in the upper level with all those classic canons.

DSC_0889This was taken from the upper storey that looks down onto a central courtyard with its signature two palm trees.

 

 

CSC_0900The Hall of Heroic Cuba contains important objects from the wars of independence and many flags of national significance including the flag of Carlos Manuel Cespedes, the “Father of the Homeland” (Padre de la Patria).

 

 

DSC_0912On the ground floor, only two things caught our attention.  One was the colorful peacock roaming around….

 

 

DSC_0910…and the opulent and well-preserved carriages used by the Spanish governor generals.

 

 

Parque Historico Militar

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Hotel Nacional de Cuba

DSC_0943My last day was spent in the magnificent historic luxury hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba located in Vedado area where I was staying.

DSC_0942The hotel was built with a mix of styles including Sevillian, Roman, Moorish and Art Deco.

 

 

DSC_0946The hotel opened in 1930 as the National Hotel of Cuba.  30 years later Fidel Castro nationalized the hotel.

 

 

DSC_0934Our best moment here was the Cuba libre time!

 

 

DSC_0935The overflow area of the hotel lobby was fully occupied during the happy, sunset hours.

 

 

DSC_0930We finally got a table and our drinks!  Cheers!

 

 

DSC_0939Here they are again my new friends from Peru who were with me again on this happy, sunset time.

 

 

DSC_0944Fidel Castro is immortalized in this painting inside the lobby of the Hotel Nacional of the Cuban revolution he led in 1959.

 

 

IMG_8387As I was on a taxi on my way back to my Airbnb lodging along Malecon watching as the sun was about to set, I felt extremely thankful to God for making this trip possible and made me experience the Cuban life even in such a short period of time. Cubans are one of the nicest people I have met.  Crime is almost unheard of  and the city is relatively safe but still I would recommend utmost care especially at night. Cuba has the highest literacy rates in the world at 99.7% but still most of them are struggling to make a living because of the Cuban trade embargo. The poorer ones who are in the tourist-related service would persistently convince visitors to take a tour, check-in to a certain hotel or to dine at a recommended restaurant so that they can earn extra via commission but certainly they are not  rude. They touched my heart in a certain way.  Even poverty (as defined by world standards, not mine) cannot extinguish their joy.  Life goes on in this beautiful island nation.

 

 

LODGING IN HAVANA

17888928_10211113364984491_1719925327_nAfter reading the somewhat negative reviews of hotels in Havana all over the internet, I decided to take my first Airbnb booking! I chose the upscale residential area of Vedado and I was not disappointed at all.  I was able to experience how to live like a local.

17888502_10211113003455453_315082916_nI took this two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Vedado.  My parents and two siblings stayed in this place two weeks before I did and they gave high marks for this place and the owner so I unhesitatingly booked this place.

 

 

95449023_originalThe living room was spacious and cozy.

 

 

17909518_10211112994615232_588966798_nb6775aa2_original-1The bedrooms were equipped with cabinets, air-conditioning system, a fan and safety boxes.

 

 

17888796_10211112994775236_1204263226_nForemost homey, the place was also consistently clean and very contemporary.

 

 

17888289_10211112994495229_76060224_nComplete with a fully-equipped kitchen, living and dining areas…..

cd37a978_original-1…….plus a spacious veranda, this place is home far away from home.  Just in front of the house is a wet market so if you plan to cook your own food this place will be more than perfect for you.

 

 

17888133_10211112994415227_891926426_nThe bathroom is nice as well. No bathtub but warm water is readily available.  As an honest suggestion, just bring your own soap or body wash. Trade embargo says it all.

 

 

17888909_10211112997455303_807540602_nPictured here are the extra pleasant and very accommodating Airbnb owners Osmary and Jose with my parents and two siblings.

17888827_10211112997575306_1897241033_nThe couple took care of my family and myself very well.

If you want to be very near Old Havana then choose the high end hotels like the Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Parque Central. I am really not sure though on the condition of the rooms and services. But if you do not mind being 10 minutes away from Old Havana, then choose Vedado area, either staying at the expensive Hotel Nacional or at one of the nicer Airbnb lodgings, like I did, to experience how to live like a local.

 

 

DEPARTING CUBA

IMG_8411This is the departure area of terminal 3 of the Jose Marti International Airport. The duty free area is in a sad, poor state, at least in this terminal where we departed. It is small, a bit dark and the products are of low quality except for these two world-class items: cigar and rum. These two are Cuba’s most celebrated exports.

If entering Havana was one for the books for me, I never expected that leaving the city would be a bigger story as I almost did not make it to the airport terminal.  The taxi driver that took me from the airport to the city center on my arrival agreed to pick me up at 3 a.m. for my ride from the city to the airport on my departure day. He did not show up. The owner of the Airbnb lodging gave me a ride and found for me a taxi that would take me to the airport. He found one but due to misunderstanding I was dropped at the wrong terminal that was not even open for the day yet! I waited at the airport entrance almost panicking because the correct terminal was two miles away! Yes I was contemplating on walking two miles until the unexpected happened! Thank God for sending a taxi driver who was trying to pick up passengers at the still closed terminal that I was able to make it to the correct terminal.

It was indeed an unbelievable story from beginning to end. So long Havana! It would be really nice to come back to experience Cayo Largo Sur, Trinidad and Santiago.

28
Apr
17

U.S.: Siesta & Bradenton Beaches


Coming from an unforgettable trip to lovely Key West and the remote yet jaw-dropping  Dry Tortugas National Park, we moved on to visit the beaches of Siesta and Brandenton, a 3.5 hours drive west of Miami.

SIESTA BEACH

SIESTAWe finally stepped on Siesta Beach after moving around the huge parking lot for 15 minutes trying to find a spot. One doesn’t have to pay for any parking fees here but since the beach is magnificent and it is insanely crowded,  the parking lots are always full so arriving early in the morning is highly suggested. This beach has been adjudged as the #1 beach in the U.S.A. in 2011 by Dr. Beach.

 

 

 

DSC_5959The entrance area has shower and changing rooms, drinks/food dispenser and picnic tables and benches.

 

 

DSC_5968We spotted some security personnel on horses.

 

 

 

DSC_5950We only brought in a very unique nylon beach mat from the Philippines and we settled ourselves one crowd row away from the shore.  Can you spot me sitting on the mat with a white cap and blue shorts?

 

 

DSC_5936This is how crowded the beach was.  As you can also see the water appears crystal clear and the white sand looks sugar-fine.

 

 

DSC_5949Indeed this beach is unique. Unlike beaches elsewhere that are made up mostly of pulverized coral, Siesta Beach’s sand is 99% quartz. Even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot. It’s estimated that the sand on Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach on Siesta Key is millions of years old, having its origin in the Appalachians and flowing down the rivers from the mountains until it eventually was deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.

 

 

DSC_5935Here are more photos of the beach.

 

 

DSC_5941

DSC_5942

DSC_5945

11080927_10206384113910260_1367326432260468311_nDSC_5931DSC_5930

11013529_10206384114630278_7658242733079957749_nDSC_5923This is me just sitting on our unique beach mat from the Philippines with the busy crowd as background.

 

 

DSC_5933That is my beloved wife after taking a swim in the gorgeous waters.

 

 

DSC_5921This beach proved to be really magnificent but disappointingly crowded.  We promise we’d be back someday hoping there would be lesser crowd or we would try to base ourselves farther from the crowd either to the left or right side of the main entrance.

BRADENTON BEACH

From Siesta Beach we drove up north to Bradenton Beach in Ana Maria Island.  Compared to Siesta this place proved to be less spectacular based on the beach sand and water clarity.  What it lacked on the whiteness and fineness of its beach sand were easily covered up by the amazing choices of the dining places especially during sunset time.

10425099_10206385184777031_9194422814699372289_n

The beach is wider and less crowded.  I did not even see people swimming on the beach.

1797367_10206385784672028_9165763336539045116_nThis was taken from the Beach House restaurant where we checked in to have dinner watching as the sun would disappear into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

11081180_10206385785432047_340022473850304856_nAs we waited for our table to be ready, we walked unto the shore and took some photos.

 

 

11081311_10206385785072038_2551777463119039881_nA very nice and somewhat tipsy lady offered to take a snapshot of my wife and me.

 

 

DSC_5969As we waited for our dinner to be served, we enjoyed the scenery around the al fresco and seaside area of the restaurant.

 

 

bradenton sunset2Sunsets are amazing and our sunset experience here in Bradenton Beach would become one of the best we ever had.

bradenton sunsetThe restaurant ran a sort of a contest for all its customers to guess what time exactly would the sun actually disappear from the horizon.  I did not win. Someone else did.

DSC_5971Ahhhh we were just amazed at the breathtaking sunset unfolding before our eyes.

 

 

DSC_5975 2Indeed it was a a day well spent.  A few more minutes after the sun had set, we drove back to our base station in Fort Lauderdale to prepare for our flight the next day back to New York.

20
Mar
17

U.S.: St. John, Virgin Islands


In celebrating the 100th year of U.S. National Parks, we decided to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands composed of the three stunning islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. St. John’s awe-inspiring Trunk Bay was the main reason why we decided to base ourselves in St. John away from the maddening cruise ship crowd of St. Thomas.  Two-thirds of the island of St. John is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

We flew from New York’s JFK airport into St. Thomas which is the primary gateway to both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were whisked off from the airport by a private shuttle bus provided by the Westin St. John to the dock where we took the private ferry direct from  St. Thomas to the Westin dock in St. John.  We chose this route as we had our four-month old baby girl in tow.  An alternative and cheaper but more inconvenient route would be to take a 30-min. taxi from the airport to Red Hook in St. Thomas and take the ferry from there to Cruz Bay in St. John and then take a short taxi ride to the hotel.  All transportation information to St. John can be found at this link.

THE WESTIN ST. JOHN

We earned enough Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points for the year to spend a few nights at any Westin property so selecting our hotel in St. John was a no-brainer.  Otherwise, it would have been a toss-up between Westin St. John & Caneel Bay Resort if I wanted closer to Cruz Bay area.

image2Taking the hotel private ferry gives passengers a spectacular approach to the Westin dock as the ferry  makes its way to the docking area……..

image1…..and as the amazing strip of the private white sand beach comes into view in a stunningly clear and sunny weather like what we experienced.

IMG_5018Here is how the resort would look like from above.  I flew my drone much higher to get this shot. Just kidding.  Photo credit goes to the resort website.

USVI8As we arrived at the resort, we were immediately served the great tasting island signature rum punch as the welcome drink at the check-in area.  We brought our refillable drinks with us as we were transported by a hotel cart to our room.  Our luggage was delivered later. We were given a room facing the pool (shown above) that made it possible for me and my wife to dip in the pool later while our little angel slept. We brought with us our video monitor that worked via the hotel’s complimentary and reliable  Wi-Fi.

USVI3Shown here is part of the massive hotel pool during the day.

FullSizeRender_3Early one beautiful morning we had a photo shoot at the resort’s pool side when almost everyone was still asleep or was busy having breakfast.

image23Our lovely, little angel, shown here with my voluptuous wife, was very cooperative.

image25She even posed for some unforgettable shot.

image13At the other end of the resort near the breakfast area are the colorful canoes and speedboat docked at the resort’s private beach available for guests.

image27Whether it is late afternoon….

IMG_5132

image5..or early morning, the resort’s private beach is a great place to relax.

TRUNK BAY

DSC_0065This beautiful piece of paradise is a part of the Virgin Islands National Park and it is the main reason of our visit to USVI.  This photo was taken from the final vantage point as we began to descend to the entrance of the magnificent beach.  If you are driving your own rented car you can just stop by the lookout area. Taxis would usually make stops too that is why I was able to take this shot.

USVI6I have previously read that even if there is an entrance fee to the national park, if you arrive before it opens at 7:30 a.m. you won’t be paying anything.  We arrived there around 8:00 a.m. and the ticket counter was still closed so we did not pay anything!  We just paid for the chairs and umbrellas later rented at the single store operating there.

image16

image11

What a great treat to have the entire beach to ourselves! I was actually hoping that day that the massive cruise ship crowd won’t be filling this beautiful beach and certainly they did not for the entire time that we were there!  There is actually a cruise ship schedule to make one aware when the crowd would be arriving at St. Thomas and be flooding Trunk Bay.

USVI5An hour after we arrived, there were still less than ten people on the beach.

DSC_0001This not-so-young lady kept walking from one end of the beach to the other for many times since we arrived.  Like us, she could not get enough of the stunning scenery!

CSC_0021Now as more people rushed into the beach I set up my camera on a tree and we had our family portrait.

CSC_0010As our little angel took a nap under the shade on her mother’s arms…..

CSC_0051……I explored the other end of the beach!

DSC_0049There were boulders that were less distinctive than the ones in Virgin Gorda, BVI.

DSC_0040Yet from that point, the view of Trunk Bay was truly breathtaking.

USVI4At last one of the beaches I was dying to check off my list was finally conquered in an early morning solitude and in a stunningly sunny weather. I would love to be back. This beach immediately made my list of the top 10 best beaches that I have been to.

CINNAMON BAY

DSC_0103 Longer but less impressive than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay is worth a visit too.

DSC_0082The sand here was white too but not as fine as the one in Trunk Bay and the water was invitingly clear.

DSC_0092This is where our daughter had her first saltwater dip.

DSC_0067We left before sunset as we were told that it would be hard to get taxis after 6 p.m. We surely missed the highly-acclaimed Maho Bay Beach just a few miles from Cinnamon Bay but we promised to be back to visit it.

FOOD

DSC_0116During our stay at St. John, we only had one dining experience outside the Westin St. John and it was at the highly recommended Morgan’s Mango. The famous place is a neo-Caribbean restaurant with West Indian and Latin twist.

DSC_0121We ordered the celebrated grilled Caribbean lobster served with sweet plantains, black beans and seasoned rice with the usual butter-lemon sauce. Honestly, Maine lobster is still juicier (and probably the best) but this one is good enough!

DSC_0115This seafood soup made my day. It’s made of shrimps, mussels and squid with quinoa in seafood broth. Excellent!

seafood paellaThe seafood paella also captivated our taste buds! The Latin kick created that different twist!

GETTING AROUND ST. JOHN

DSC_1079There are only two main options how to get around St. John.  One is to rent one of those reliable Jeeps. Please take note that you would drive at the other side of the road opposite of the U.S. experience.

DSC_0056The other option would be the island taxis that abound everywhere.  These are non-aircon cars that can take up to 20 passengers.

DSC_0113Shown here is my wife and our daughter as we were about to leave Cinnamon Bay using an island taxi.

IMG_5242One of the most breathtaking views that you can have as you travel around St. John is Cruz Bay.  We saw many tourists pending time just looking at the beautiful scenery.

image8Truly, this has been one of my family’s most memorable Caribbean experiences.  Swaying palm trees, gorgeous beaches, sumptuous food, friendly people and laid back atmosphere. Ah, paradise!  Virgin Islands, we will keep on coming back!

17
Mar
17

Morocco: The Ruins of Volubilis


After spending days in the World Heritage Site of the greatly preserved medieval city of Fez and touring the blue city of Chefchaouen for a day, we were on our way to exciting Marrakesh with a stop in Casablanca. Volubilis and Meknes can both be visited along the way from Fez to Casablanca so we suddenly decided to spend an entire day in these two magnificent places. We rented a car and hired a driver during our entire stay in Morocco so even last minute decisions like this could be easily accommodated.

VOLUBILIS

DSC_0270About one and half hour drive from Fez is the spectacular, partly excavated Berber and Roman city of Volubilis. The archaeological site overlooks a rolling fertile plain and the surrounding verdant greens can make one say he is in Italy instead of Morocco.

DSC_0348There is a ticket booth at the entrance and upon entering the sprawling 42-hectare complex there is a newly constructed structure that houses the restrooms and some prototypes of architectural columns during different eras. One should make sure to use the restrooms first and bring plenty of water or any liquid as it will be a long and arduous walk especially during noontime under the searing heat of the Moroccan sun.

DSC_0352As we walked up the hilly path into the main site, we initially caught a glimpse of some of the ruins.

 

 

DSC_0347The two public buildings readily visible at the center of the city are what remains of the basilica and the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

DSC_0345Now with only one side largely intact this is considered one of the finest basilicas in Africa.

 

 

DSC_0278The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city.

 

 

DSC_0335The outer wall of the basilica, which is faced with columns, overlooks the forum where markets were held.

 

 

DSC_0336The forum fronting the basilica used to have statues of emperors and local dignitaries but now all that remains is the pedestal.

 

 

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DSC_0338Exterior of the basilica.

 

 

CSC_0297Interior of the basilica at Volubilis.

 

 

DSC_0337Just behind the basilica is the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

CSC_0283The layout of the temple seems unusual and it has been said that it was built on top of an existing shrine.  Nobody and nothing could confirm that.

 

 

DSC_0341

DSC_0343The temple was dedicated o the trinity of Roman gods: Juno, Jupiter and Minerva.

 

 

ARCHOnward, we found the Arch of Caracalla, one of Volubilis’ most distinctive landmarks.

 

 

CSC_0295It was built in 217 A.D. by the town council in honour of Emperor Carcalla (an African) and his mother Julia Domna as a way of thanking them for bestowing upon citizens of Roman provinces the Roman citizenship and eventually tax exemption. Sadly, by the time the arch was finished, Caracalla and Julia had been murdered.

CSC_0328 The triumphal arch marks the end of the city’s main street on one side and beyond that leads to fertile rolling green plains.

 

 

DSC_0293Next along, the House of Columns is so named because of the columns arranged in a circle around the interior court – note their differing styles, which include spirals.

 

 

DSC_0303More columns. We were actually a bit exhausted at this point and we stopped every now and then where there was some sort of a shade from the fierce sun and sipped the refreshing water and sugar-laden coke (blame my wife!) that we brought with us.

DSC_0305Next are the fine town houses with impressive mosaic floors that were built during the first and second century AD as the city grew and prospered.  The city’s wealth was derived mainly from olive growing business that until now is widespread in most parts of Morocco.

DSC_0306Although much of the city’s structures were destroyed by previous earthquakes, especially the one in the 18th century and then looted by Moroccan rulers seeking for stones to be used in building nearby Meknes, the mosaics remained intact.

 

 

CSC_0311From the Arch of Caracalla, the city’s main street, Decumanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northeast.

 

 

DSC_0307Going to the other end of the city’s main street  would lead to the small Tingis gate at the far end of the decumanus.

 

 

DSC_0323Pillars lining up one side of the city’s main street lead to small Tingis gate.

 

 

DSC_0315This part of the city was the last part of the ruins of Volubilis that we checked.

DSC_0320In 1997, the Archaeological Site of Volubilis was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value as a property of the humankind. It is indeed Morocco’s best-preserved archaeological site!




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