Cape Town South Africa: 5 Things You Probably Don’t Know

As your plane descends into Cape Town South Africa, you are immediately mesmerized by the scenery. A bay town situated at the edge of the ocean and flanked by grandiose mountains, Cape Town is a very special place. During our stay, we learned a lot that most don’t know about Cape Town — more about that later.

View of Cape Town South Africa from the plane

As you can see, Cape Town is the at the southern point of Africa and has been a pivotable trade route for Europe and India.

Map of Capetown South Africa

Cape Town  Waterfront

If you love cities flanked by water, you will really love Cape Town. It’s clean, easy to navigate, and relatively inexpensive for Americans.

Cape Town Water front

With Table Mountain as a backdrop, you will want to explore the city to appreciate its beauty from different angles.

Cape Town Beauty

As a bay city, it offers lots of great restaurants that specialize in seafood. We had some of the best fish and shrimp dishes in Cape Town.

The mountain you see in the background is called Table Mountain. Aptly named, it has a flat top that resembles a table. Each day you get a different look from the mountain. Some days it is flat with no low-hanging clouds. Other days, clouds tend to hover just over the table top and locals call this the tablecloth.

Cape Town Beauty

Table Mountain

Seeing Table Mountain from below is inspiring but catching the view from the top is simply spectacular. You can board a gondola for a 5-minute ride to the top.

Cape Town Gondola

You are rewarded with incredible panoramic views of the city and seascape below.

Table Mountain Cape Town

Bo-Kapp

Originally settled by freed Muslim slaves, Bo-Kapp is an area of Cape Town formerly known as the Malay Quarter. Muslims wanted the houses to be as beautiful on the outside as they were on the inside, so they painted the exteriors in pastel colors. This attracts lots of visitors each year. As we cruised these streets, we saw Muslim children playing and enjoying the day.

Bo-Kaap Cape Town

Juxtaposition of Wealth

As beautiful as Cape Town is, it has a checkered past. As we were riding from the airport to the city center, we noticed a sprawling area of shacks and shanties.  Our driver told us that over 2 million people live in the townships that are primarily filled with shanties. Five minutes later in our drive, we were surrounded by opulent homes and outward signs of wealth.

The all-white (mostly Dutch) Nationalist Party took power in South Africa in 1948 and quickly instituted Apartheid, a social system instituted to segregate blacks from whites.  In 1960, the government stormed the township called District 6 and forced the black residents to leave their homes, then bulldozed the homes. They were then relocated to less desirable areas of Cape Town and surrounding areas and were stripped of basic human rights and this was the beginning of the shanty townships.

One of our tour guides was forced from his home in District 6 and he told us of his personal losses in property and dignity. He said he has forgiven South Africa for this but he vows to never forget. The government is starting to make amends and plans to rebuild District 6 and give the new homes back to the families there were driven out.

Although Apartheid ended in 1994 and all South Africans were granted equal rights, we were floored by how families still live this way today. We took a bicycle tour of the shanty towns and it was truly eye-opening.

As you can see below, the houses are right on top of each other and most are made of tin.

Cape Town Shanty

Many shanties lack running water and we saw residents getting water from community wells. However, we were always greeted with a smile and a quick hello.

Cape Town Shanty

Our tour guide was a well-known philanthropist that built a community center that specializes in empowering youth from the community to ride bikes and live a more healthy lifestyle. His after school program keeps youth off the street, offers computer access and provides a positive influence during the critical formative years.

You might think the interior of the shanties would have dirt floors. Surprisingly, we saw nice furniture, flat screen TVs, satellite dishes, and nice appliances.

Inside of Shanty

Robben Island

Just a 30-minute boat ride from Cape Town is Robben Island, a prison island where Nelson Mandella was enprisoned from 1964 to 1982.  Nelson Mandella was an anti-apartheid revolutionary jailed due to influence in the anti-apartheid movement. As you enter Robben Island, you can see it was heavily fortified.

Robbin Island

The tour guides for Robben Island were actual prisoners that were incarcerated at the same time as Nelson Mandella, so they have first-hand knowledge of how it was. They explained their plight and showed us the jail cell Nelson Mandella occupied during his stay.

Nelson Mandellas Cell

It was a small cramped room with nothing more than a pad to sleep on. No pillows or quilts. They also explained how black inmates were given small rations of food while white inmates were fed more food.

Robben Island 07

Nelson Mandella was freed from Robben Island after 27 years and became South Africa’s president in 1994.

5 Little-Known Facts of Cape Town

Although Cape Town and South Africa has a difficult past, there is a lot of beauty in this place — we highly recommend you visit.  While there, we learned a few facts we would like to share:

  1. The first heart transplant was performed here – Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first successful heart transplant here. However, the patient died 18 days later of pneumonia.
  2. There are 11 official languages in South Africa – While most South Africans speak English, their second most popular language is Afrikaans. As we spoke with people in the townships, we heard many people speaking a language that has “clicking or popping sounds” as part of the language – very interesting!
  3. The Castle of Good Hope had a sea view – The oldest colonial building in South Africa is the Castle of Good Hope. It is located about a mile or so inward of the ocean but when it was originally built, it was ocean front. Through the years, Cape Town’s landscape was extended out to allow expansion and the sea was replaced with land.
  4. Fountain of Youth – Over 43% of Cape Town residents are under 25 years old!
  5. Income Equality – Income wise, Cape Town has better income equality than all of it’s South African neighbors. Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Buffalo City are the worst regarding income equality.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Cape Town. We visited a lot more coastal areas surrounding Cape Town, I will be chronicling those visits in the coming weeks.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of an interesting experience we had. We learned that a local delicacy of Cape Town (especially in the Shanty townships) is sheep’s head. Yep, you heard it right, sheep’s head. As we cycled through, we stopped and visited a place where you could buy sheep’s head. The lady in the picture below was using a hot wand scorches the hair off the sheep’s head. Once that’s done, they boil it, then serve it.

Would you eat it?

Sheeps Head

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Zimbabwe Africa Safari: One Thing We Did That Takes Nerve

After tracking the Big 5 in South Africa, we set our sights on one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

This led to an interesting encounter that took a bit of nerve — more about that later.  This area of Africa is at the cross section of 4 countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

You’ve probably seen Niagra Falls – an enormous waterfall that borders the USA and Canada. Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia has been billed as the greatest falling curtain of water on this planet, making it one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Victoria Falls

It is enormous and awe-inspiring. There are some small pools of water at the edge of the falls and we saw people swimming right up to the edge of the falls, we did not have time to do that but it would have been incredible.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe


Zambezi River Sunset Cruise

The Zambezi River feeds Victoria Falls and we took a sunset cruise along the banks of the river. It’s all you-can-drink as you meander down the river. Arriving at the launch point, we saw warthogs grazing on the property.

Zambezi River Warthogs

It’s interesting that they take a kneeled posture to get closer to the ground as they graze. You can see that a lot of the grass has been cleared by their efforts.

Zambezi River Warthogs Kneeling

In South Africa, elephants eluded us until our last day and were the last of the Big 5 we spotted. On the sunset cruise, it took all of 5 minutes to spot an elephant drinking from the river.

We also saw a hippo family with a baby hippo following close behind.

Zambezi River Hippos

As we floated quietly down the river, we saw a tower of giraffes feeding. The guide said that it is not an everyday occasion to see a giraffe. As we cruised down the river, sipped on cocktails and took in the view, we discovered how unencumbered wildlife is in Africa.


Lion Encounter

Earlier, I mentioned that we did something that takes a bit of nerve. Just outside of Victoria Falls is an active conservation program called Lion Encounter. Here, you can get up close and personal with lions.

Lion Encounter Petting

These lions are actually cubs – 19 months old. They were born in this conservation park and will eventually be put into the wild. Lion Encounter was started to raise money to conserve lions and to prevent poaching.

Are these lions tame? No, they are wild animals and they hunt game right in the conservation park. The rangers told us that this pair recently killed a baboon and zebra. However, they’ve become accustomed to people and aren’t likely to attack. In our group, there was a ranger with a gun (just in case), nicknamed Rambo!

During your visit, you can walk with the lions. You must carry a stick because in the unlikely event they get unruly, it takes their mind off attacking you if you dangle the stick in front of them.

Lion Encounter Walk

It was a treat to spend time with these magnificent beasts and to learn about the conservation efforts to prevent them from becoming extinct.

Lion Encounter Cubs

Would you have the nerve to walk with them?


Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana

Just a 2-hour drive from Victoria Falls is a game reserve called Chobe.  It’s unique in that it offers a river and land safari so you get to see wildlife in their native habitat from boat and land cruiser. We started our adventure by boat and as we cruised out to the Zambezi River, you immediately appreciate the scenery.

Chobe Marine Island

Pictures don’t do justice to how pretty this place is. You see all kinds of wildlife, like the Cape Buffalo grazing below.

Chobe Marine Hippos

Crocodiles and hippos bask in the sun and you see more birds than you can easily recognize.

Chobe Crocadiles

Chobe Hippos

Chobe Birds

As we meandered down the river, we saw a heard of elephant crossing the river ahead. They don’t seem fazed by the depth of the water, they just swim until they reach the other side.

Chobe Elephants

The younger elephants stop on the other side to play in the mud, using their trunk to stream mud and water onto their back.

Chobe Elephants Playing

As you cruise down the river, you cross over from Botswana to Namibia. As you cruise the river, you see hard-to-reach villas lining the shore.

Namibia Villas

There is even a bar and restaurant called “The Raft” that is only accessible by boat.

Namibia Floating Bar

Many of the locals live along the shore and take a water taxi to get to the mainland each day.

Namibia Water Taxis

After the water safari, we boarded a land cruiser and continued our journey. Not as impressive as the water safari but it does offer a different view.

Chobe Land Cruiser

Along the way, we saw giraffe, monkeys, impala, and kudu.

Chobe Giraffe

Chobe Monkeys

Chobe Impala

Chobe Kudo

Giraffes are built to eat from the tree tops, it is funny to watch them try to graze on grass.

Chobe Giraffe Kneeling


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Africa. We also visited Cape Town, South Africa, a beautiful port side city, we will chronicle that trip in a few weeks.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had from the Chobe Marine water safari, couldn’t you imagine hanging out here for a while?

Zambezi River View

South Africa Safari: Bet you can’t name the Big 5

Imagine visiting a land where giants roam the bush with indifference for humankind. True indifference — you’re not a staple of their diet yet they aren’t intimidated or scared of you. That’s when it hits you – Africa is a spectacularly unique destination.

Kapama Private Game Reserve

As you meet others that have visited Africa, the first question is almost always

“did you see the Big 5?”

As soon as we landed in Hoedspruit, South Africa, we were met by a young, funny and quick witted ranger named Ruan. He whisked us off to the Kapama Private Game Reserve. Along the way, he said we would be driving through the private game reserve to our lodge and that we would be on alert for animals along the way.

Young Ranger for Kapama Private Game Reserve

Ruan asked “what did you come to Africa to see?“. I quickly said “elephants and lions” and he said “Can you name the African Big 5?“. Big 5, eh?  Not sure but my guess is “elephant, lion, hippo, giraffe, and zebra”. Well, I got 2 of the Big 5 right, they are:

  • Lion
  • Elephant
  • Black Rhino
  • Cape Buffalo
  • Leopard

Just minutes on the way to our lodge we spot a giraffe. We’ve all seen this lanky animal at the zoo but to see it within a stone’s throw away was amazing.  We stopped as it contemplated drinking from a nearby watering hole.

Giraffe

It quickly spotted cousins and made its way to join the pack flanked by a lone zebra. By the way, a group of the giraffe is called a Tower, you can kinda see why:

Tower of Giraffe

At that moment, Ruan grabs his binoculars and excitingly focuses them in the distance. He sees something a half mile away and tells us to hold on. With dust flying and our backs pasted to the seat, we go flying down the road to come to an abrupt stop. As if seeing it for the first time, Ruan exclaims that one of the more difficult-to-find of the Big 5 is just ahead. He kills the engine and we wait as the giants make their way within feet of our land cruiser.

Rhinos

If you’ve never seen a Rhino in person or especially without any protection between you and this mammoth animal, it’s a bit intimidating.

Rhino

Ruan explains the plight of Rhino. They are often poached for their horns, as just a small section of the horn can sell for over $100,000. When Rhinos mate, it can last for up to 45 minutes and local folklore mistakenly suggests that eating Rhino horn can increase your stamina. Go figure. It’s become a huge problem in South Africa, about 2,000 of these wonderful animals have been poached in the last year.

As we continue our journey to the lodge, we see a few more animals, mostly antelope. In less than an hour, we’ve already spotted one of the Big 5.

Wow, this is going to be a great trip! 


Kapama Karula Lodge

Once we arrive at the lodge, we are greeted by name by the staff at Kapama Karula. This professional staff is very welcoming and give us a tour of the place. Their reputation is well deserved — they realize you’ve come a long way at considerable expense and want to ensure that you enjoy the absolute best experience possible.

After providing refreshments, they show us to our private villa, an incredible lodge complete with a huge deck with a private pool with direct views of the bush.

Kapama Karula Pool

View from the pool

The accommodations are 5-star, with beautiful architecture. It comes with a fireplace, private pool, indoor and outdoor showers, soaking tub and incredible furnishings. The staff explains that the mini bar is fully stocked, anything we desire in food and drink is at no additional cost — enjoy everything they have to offer.

Kapama Karula Bedroom

Kapama Karula Bathroom


Twice Daily Game Drives

Each day, we were awakened at 5:30 a.m. for our first game drive. It’s a bit cold — South Africa is in the southern hemisphere so our summer is their winter. Most days, it starts out at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We make our way to the restaurant for a quick snack before we start our game drive. We again are greeted by name by our assigned waiter. His name is Themba, a native South African with a kind manner and eager spirit. We sit by the fire as we enjoy a cappuccino and pastries as we anticipate our day.

At 6 a.m., it’s time for our first-morning game drive. Ruan introduces us to our tracker, a native South African named Nick that grew up in the bush. As a young boy, Nick learned to read animal tracks to determine which way animals are migrating. Nick sits at the front of the land cruiser and instructs Ruan as to where to go as he reads fresh tracks along our path. The picture below is not of Nick (it was another oncoming tracker), but it illuminates the vulnerable position of the tracker — they can be very close and unprotected from big game.

Safari Tracking

Although chilly, they provide blankets and a warming pad for the morning game drive. My hope was that we would see a lion today and it wasn’t long before Nick was hot on the trail of a pride of lions that we quickly found.

Lioness

The lioness had cubs that were just a few weeks old. They were running around playfully, learning to become quick and nimble. In the afternoon game drive, Ruan told us of 3 male lions called “the 3 brothers” that had formed an alliance to take over the pride from an older lion. The brothers were about 4 years old and during the day they would hunt independently and come together at night. We were fortunate to track the 3 brothers on the first night and saw them at dusk taking a nap.

The next day during our drive, we spotted one of the 3 brothers out hunting. We watched as he walked across the bush in search of a warthog, one of their main staples.

Lion on the Prowl

As we approached the massive lion, he seemed oblivious. It was a bit eery as he made his way within feet of our land cruiser. If he made a quick jump, we could be his next meal.

Lions in Kapama Private Game Reserve

He had his sights set upon a warthog just a few hundred feet ahead. The lion began to crouch as he made his way towards the warthog who got spooked and luckily made it safely out of harm’s way.

Warthog

On our second day, we heard that the most elusive of animals had been spotted nearby. It was the leopard, many people on safari never get a glimpse of this elusive animal. We raced out to the spot where he was last seen and as we arrived, he was making his way to the road, spraying his scent as he marked his territory.

Leopard in Kampala Private Game Reserve

As the leopard approached our land cruiser, Ruan warned us to not make any quick movements and not to stand up. I nervously snapped a few pics as the leopard walked a foot from our cruiser.

Leopard up close

After seeing the leopard, Ruan and Nick spotted buffalo tracks. Within 10 minutes, we came across a buffalo heard making their way to their morning drink.

Buffalo in Kampala South Africa

We watched as they drank and playfully splashed around in the pond.

Buffalos at a Watering Hole in Kampala

Wow, in just two days we’ve seen 4 of the Big 5.


In Search of Elephants

Lynn and Ruan have similar personalities. Both are great conversationalist, fun loving and are always joking and teasing, so they got along well. Lynn kept teasing Ruan because he would see animal scat (like a huge pile of Rhino dung) and would pick it up, inspect it for what the animal had recently eaten in an effort to help Nick track its location.

Since we had not seen elephant to round out our Big 5, Lynn and Ruan made a bet. Lynn told Ruan that if he would find elephants, she would pick up some elephant dung. If you know Lynn, she is a slight germaphobe, so picking up dung would certainly be out of character.

It was our last morning drive and we had yet to see any elephants. Ruan and Nick spent all morning tracking elephants. They spotted tracks and sectioned off quadrants of where they thought the elephant would be. But they were elusive, each time we thought we got close to seeing them, they were nowhere to be found.

Although we saw lots of other animals along the way, I could sense that Ruan and Nick were frustrated that we could not find elephants. We saw zebra, antelope, and Impala.

Zebra in South Africa

Antelopes in South Africa

South African Antelope

As we were finishing our last morning drive, we stumbled on a heard of hippos getting a bit of vitamin D.

Hippo lounging in Kampala

They are loud and rambunctious. We learned that hippos are the most dangerous of all African animals — big, nasty and can sprint at 35 miles per hour on those short legs. If you are between them and their watering hole, you could be in great danger.

We returned from our last morning drive without seeing an elephant. We had scheduled a massage at the lodge spa and that wiped away the disappointment of the elusive elephant. Lynn and I get massages often and we left the spa both thinking that this was the best massage we’ve ever had. The masseuses at Kapama Karula are simply the best.


Settling the Bet

It’s now our last game drive at the Kapama private game reserve and elephants have been elusive. Ruan and Nick are feeling the pressure of their bet with Lynn. They want to track an elephant in return for Lynn stepping out of her comfort zone in picking up and inspecting elephant dung.

We spend hours tracking fresh elephant tracks. Each time we feel we are close to finding them, we speed up to the area they should be and we see no sign of them. It doesn’t look like we are going to see them this trip, but 4 of the Big 5 isn’t bad. I can the see frustration in Ruan and Nick’s eyes as we drive mile after mile with the same result.

Earlier, Lynn and I told Ruan about a recent movie we saw that we really loved called Baby Driver. It is a story about this young gifted driver that was the getaway driver for a gang of robbers. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is a must — one of the best movies we’ve seen in a long time.  Ruan is a great ranger and incredible driver, so much so that Lynn teased Ruan as being “Baby Driver”.

The sun is setting, it’s our last game drive. The prospects of finding elephant look dim and Ruan apologizes to Lynn for not spotting any elephants. We stopped at a water hole and Ruan asked if Lynn would still pick up the elephant dung. Lynn’s a good sport and decided to do it even though we had not seen an elephant.  The picture below doesn’t do it justice, but Lynn was squirming back and forth as she handled the dung.

Lynn and Baby Driver picking up elephant dung

We decided to make our way back to the lodge and along the way, Nick spots more elephant dung and fresh tracks. Ruan quickly reverses the land cruiser in the direction of the tracks and speeds forward. After a couple of turns, I hear Ruan exclaim “there they are!“. In front of us stood not just one, but a huge herd of elephants.

Elephant in South Africa

Mission accomplished.


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Africa. We visited a lot more areas than just Kapama, I will be chronicling those visits in the coming weeks.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had each day at the end of a game drive as we made our way back to the Kapama Karula lodge.

Sunset at Kapama Karula

If you are planning an African safari, I can’t say enough about the warmness of the staff at Kapama Karula lodge. If you want to learn more about Kapama Karula lodge, click here.

Cuba: Living Like it’s 1960

As mentioned in our last blog post, my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Cuba. Visiting Cuba is like stepping back in time — to the 1960’s. This post is to provide a little background information on Cuba (based on what we learned and by talking with Cubans). The Cuban people are friendly, warm, and welcoming to Americans.

Cuba From Ocean View

A Bit of Cuban History

Up until 1492, Cuba had been inhabited for 10,000 years by an indigenous people, similar to our Native Americans. The Spanish (Christopher Columbus) began conquering the island in 1492 and eventually killed off the indigenous population with European disease. The Spanish ruled until 1898 when Cuban and American forces defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War and made Cuba a free land.

After the war, America occupied Cuba for a few years as it transitioned to a democratic nation with elected officials. Corruption was rampant and the American mob began running the island with the backing of President Batista during the 1950’s.

In 1953, Fidel Castro (a well-educated lawyer) with a group of other intellectuals wanted to overthrow Batista by storming the Moncada Barracks, you can still see the bullet holes in the front of the building. Fidel’s aim was to free the Cuban people from corruption, eliminate the mob, provide literacy training for all Cubans and to provide a better life for Cubans.

Moncada Barracks Cuba

The coup attempt effort failed and the members of Fidel’s group were either killed or jailed. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years but was soon released by Batista as amnesty was given to many political prisoners. Fidel fled to Mexico and resurrected his attempt to overthrow the government. He succeeded in 1959 and Batista fled the country.  Fidel ruled the country as a communist state until his death in 2016.

Why Were Americans Banned from Visiting?

America provided arms to Batista during the revolution and Fidel resented it. In 1961, the USA also tried to overthrow Fidel’s new government when the CIA invaded the country at the Bay of Pigs but the attempt was thwarted. Relations deteriorated as Cuba began imposing high import taxes on American goods. America responded by imposing a trade embargo, not allowing any American companies to do business with Cuba and preventing Americans from visiting.

Cuba High Rises

The Soviet Union seized this opportunity by offering to support Cuba by replacing all American trade with Russian trade — Russia would purchase anything America was blocking with the trade embargo. As Russia and Cuba solidified a closer relationship, Cuba transitioned to a Communist state.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

In1962, relations deteriorated with Cuba and Russia when American spy satellites spotted Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, pointed at the USA. This resulted in a dangerous confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union, bringing the USA to DEFCON2 level — the closest we’ve ever been to a nuclear war.  After tense negotiations, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev quelled the crisis by Russia agreeing to remove the missiles if the USA agreed to remove nuclear missiles in Turkey and agree not to attack Cuba. If you want to learn more about this, check out this article.

The Cuban Revolution

After Cuba and the USA cut ties, Cuba began trading with Russia and transitioned to a Communist state. Cuba nationalized all American owned companies, which means the Cuban government took over the companies, the casinos that were previously run by the mob, and took possession of all of the mansions that lined the coast of Havana.

Cuban Mansions

Castro gave these mansions to Cuban peasants with several families living in the same home — an incredible improvement in their lifestyle. They also turned many of them into government offices.

Cuba Forts

Castro also implemented a 1-year project (Cuban Literacy Campaign) to eradicate illiteracy in small towns all around Cuba where literacy was just 60%. The effort was implemented by deploying teenagers, young adults and teachers all around Cuba to teach illiterate Cubans to read and write Spanish. This campaign was very successful, resulting in 96% of Cubans becoming literate within a year. Many of the Literacy Campaign’s volunteers went on to pursue teaching careers, and the rate of teachers is now 11 times higher than it was before the revolution.

A Socialist Cuba

As Cuba converted to Communism, the government continued to trade heavily with the Soviet Union and many Cubans will tell you that life felt better than when under Batista’s regime. Although Cubans could not start their own businesses, they received food, free education and healthcare, cheap housing and employment from the government.  Many of the peasants felt much better off but entrepreneurial Cubans felt trapped and many fled the country.

However, the government did not invest in Cuban infrastructure. We visited many parts of the town and you can see the impact of that with buildings beginning to crumble from neglect. Cuba is now starting to invest in renewing buildings but the problem is overwhelming.

Cuban Neglected Buildings

Cuba Neglected Buildings 2

This is not to say that Cuba does not have beautiful buildings, they really do. There are squares and really old buildings that are impressive, especially in Old Havana, where you see cobblestone streets and Spanish-inspired buildings.

Cuban Squares

Cuban New Architecture

Cuban Squares

As you take tours, they take you to the new Havana and they are very proud of this area. However, to Americans, it feels like a place stuck in time. The buildings are reminiscent of 1960, with an architecture similar to what you would have seen in 1960’s Miami.

Cuba New Architecture

Cuba New Architecture 2

Cuban New Architecture 3

And of course, you see all of the wonderful 1950 American cars. You will see some newer Russian and Cuban cars but about 70% of their cars are pristine 1950’s American cars. It is like being stuck in time — in a wonderful way.

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba 2

American 1950 Cars in Cuba 3

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

American 1950 Cars in Cuba

Normalizing Relations with the United States

After Fidel Castro’s death, the USA and Cuba began normalizing relations. This now allows us to travel to Cuba as long as we do in as an Educational Exchange tour. I actually prefer this because you get to learn a lot about Cuba.

It’s not fully normalized yet. For example, if you bring American currency, they charge you a 10% tax just for converting the money. If you are planning to go to Cuba, purchase Euro or Canadian dollars from your local bank and convert those when you get to Cuba so that you don’t incur the 10% penalty.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba was left without a major trading partner and it really affected them economically. The average wage for a Cuban working for the government is just $25 per month but most get their basic needs met from the government with free education, healthcare, low-cost housing, and food.

Cubans are also resourceful. Many Cubans have relatives living in other countries that send money. Tour guides also take tips so they can earn hundreds of dollars per day — much more than the normal Cuban government wage.  We found Cuba to be extremely safe, you can walk around at night with no worries. The people are incredibly friendly and appreciate the warming of relations with America. Although they have endured hardship from their government, they are a proud people who love their country.

Now is a great time to visit Cuba because it still feels like a land stuck in time. Eventually, as normalization matures, Cuba will become more wealthy and this nostalgic feeling will subside.

Things to See

When visiting Havana, you will obviously want to visit Old and New Havana. But here are a few things you will surely want see that’s a little off the beaten path.

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia is a town on the outskirts of Havana that was renovated with ceramic tiles by a local artisan, fashioned after the works of Gaudi.  When we visited Spain, we saw similar architecture by Gaudi in Park Guell.

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Fusterlandia

Floridita

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for over 10 years and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls there. One of his favorite hangouts was the Floridita, the birthplace of the daiquiri. Enjoy latin music and sip on the best daiquiri you will ever drink.

Floridita

Old American Car Tour

For just $40 an hour, get a personalized tour of Havana in an old American car. Our driver took us to find Cuban cigars, to a nature preserve and a ride along the ocean.

American Cars

American Car Tour

American Car Tour

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Cuba, you can see last month’s post about Cuba here.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had as we entered the bay into Havana as we viewed the iconic Morro Castle.

Morro Castle

 

 

Havana Cuba: Cigars and old American Cars

My wife and I were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary and began looking for a unique trip to remember. Previously forbidden for Americans, Cuba fit the bill and did not disappoint. In fact, it’s the best trip we’ve taken in a long time.

Havana Cuba Old American Car

Where is Cuba?

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island (about the size of Florida) and sits between Florida and Jamaica.

Map of Cuba

We elected to take a cruise from Jamaica (we spent a couple of days in Jamaica first) with Celestyal Cruises. The cruise took us to Santiago de Cuba, then to Havana, and finally to Cienfuegos. Because it was an educational exchange, we learned about Cuban history, the culture, the people, and the normalization process with America.

Celestyal Cruises

Why Cuba?

What made us want to go to Cuba? Until just 3 years ago, it was a forbidden land for Americans. Even now, the only way to go to the island is via an educational exchange tour where you learn about the history and culture of Cuba. I’ll talk more about Cuba history and why Americans were forbidden to travel there in an upcoming blog, but if you want to know more check out the Netflix series called The Cuba Libre Story.

Santiago del Cuba

Old American Cars

Havana is the capital of Cuba and the most vibrant city we’ve visited in a while.  It feels like a city stuck in time. Because of the American embargo, Cubans could no longer purchase American cars after 1960 so the streets are full of beautiful American cars from the 50’s and the buildings look like buildings you would have seen in 1960’s America.

American Cars in Cuba

Old American Cars Cuba

Old American Cars Cuba

Old American cars were everywhere. Not just a few — tons of them.

You can grab a taxi tour in an old car for about $40 an hour. Lynn and I took a 2-hour tour and thoroughly enjoyed it. Our drivers were 2 young men (23 and 21-year-old brothers) whose vintage car was handed down from their Dad. They took us to the major sites of the city and by special request, they helped us track down a specific type of cigar we were looking for (Montecristo number 2).

Cuban Cigars

Before leaving for our trip, I had 10 people ask me to buy as many cigars as possible to share with them.  As you may know, we can’t buy Cuban cigars in the USA and that’s what makes them so special.

With cigars, you have to keep them in an environment that’s about 70 degrees and 70 percent humidity or they will dry out. Cuban cigars are not cheap — between $10 and $30 per cigar is the norm, so you don’t want to pay that kind of money and have them dry out.

I decided to purchase enough cigars to give to a few to friends and keep a few. You can bring back 50 cigars per person but I brought back 38. I also bought a few humidors to ensure that they kept to 70/70 for the temperature and humidity. That amount filled an entire backpack. In hindsight, I probably could have brought back 100 (50 for me and 50 for Lynn) and put them in a humidor once I got back to the states because it is humid enough in Cuba and they would not have dried up by the time I made it back.

I had never smoked a Cuban cigar before now. I did a bit of research and found that the most popular brand is Cohiba. They range in cost from $10 to $50 each, the ones I purchased were just over $20 each.

Another popular brand is Montecristo. In fact, Montecristo number 2 was voted best cigar in Cuba a few years back, so that intrigued me. The cost ranges from $10 to $30 per cigar. Finding the Montecristo number 2 became a challenge because they are so popular. We visited about 5 cigar shops before I finally found them so I purchased more of these than the Cohiba.

I’m not much of a cigar smoker and have only smoked a few cigars over the years. I’ve never had a good cigar before I found the Montecristo cigar and boy do I get it now. What a great cigar, it has a smooth taste, does not leave a bitter aftertaste and does not wreck your throat the next morning.

The Floridita

Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for over 10 years and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls there. One of his favorite hangouts was the Floridita, the birthplace of the daiquiri. Lynn and I made our way there.

Ernest Hemingway

As we walked in, a Cuban band was playing latin music so we moseyed up to the bar and ordered a Mojito (a popular Cuban drink). The bartender said, “you sure you don’t want a daiquiri”?  Not thinking, we said “no” and the Mojito was great. Then we noticed everyone was ordering daiquiris and finally saw the sign saying that it was invented there. Wow, the best daiquiris we’ve ever had. One turned into two, two turned into three — you get the picture.

Floridita Cuba

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Cuba, keep an eye out for upcoming blogs on Cuba where I will explain more about the history and culture.

We found the Cuban people to be warm, inviting and full of passion. They love to dance and to spend time with friends and family. Even though they’ve gone through hardships economically and politically over the years, they take great pride in their homeland and are glad that relations with America are finally normalizing.

If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of the view we had as we entered the bay into Havana.

Havana Cuba Bay

 

 

Crazy Powder in Tahoe

Three friends and I decided to take a boy’s ski trip to Lake Tahoe in March and it was a blast. By early March 2017, Tahoe had received 443 inches of snow and the powder was fantastic. Spending 15 years in Denver skiing the western slopes, this was the first time I had skied Tahoe and it did not disappoint.

Lake Tahoe

If you’ve never been to Tahoe, it’s right on the border of California and Nevada. In fact, the ski resort we visited is partly in California and Nevada.

Lake_Tahoe_Map

Lake Tahoe is the 2nd deepest freshwater lake in the USA, created over 2 million years ago and forged by the ice age. The area around Lake Tahoe was previously inhabited by the Washoe Native American tribe.  Tahoe was the epicenter of their territory. Here are some fun facts about the lake:

  • If you were to pour Lake Tahoe out onto an area the size of California, the water would still be 14 inches deep.
  • The amount of water in Lake Tahoe (39 trillion gallons) is enough to supply each person in the U.S. with 50 gallons of water per day for 5 years.
  • The amount of water that evaporates from the Lake each day (330 million gallons) could supply a city the size of Los Angeles for 5 years.
  • The water is 99.994% pure, making it one of the purest large lakes in the world. For comparison, commercially distilled water is 99.998% pure.

Reno, Nevada

We stayed in Reno because it was less than an hour from the ski resorts, lodging was less expensive and it offered lots of casinos. This gave us a chance to ski during the day and visit the casinos at night. We all came out pretty well in the casinos, I came back $40 richer and one of my other friends (Tom) won over $700 in 3 pulls of a slot machine! In hindsight, South Lake Tahoe may have been a more convenient place to stay and much closer to the ski resorts.

Lake Tahoe Boys

While in Reno, we found an incredible breakfast place called Peg’s Glorified Ham N Eggs. The plates were huge, prices were reasonable, and the taste was amazing. If you’re ever in Reno, check that place out!

Heavenly Ski Resort

On our first day, we skied Heavenly Ski Resort. The snow was soft, powdery and easy to carve through. Once you get to the top of Heavenly, you are rewarded with incredible views of Lake Tahoe in the background.

Lake Tahoe from Heavenly

Joey was definitely the best dressed. Check out his Rasta hat.

Joey at Lake Tahoe

Pat at Lake Tahoe

Tom at Lake Tahoe

Squaw Valley Ski Resort

We also skied Squaw Valley. Heavenly is a bit bigger than Squaw Valley but Squaw offers some more technical and challenging runs. The snow at Squaw was a bit icy and the winds were brutal on some of the upper ski lifts.

Squaw Valley

As you can see from the snowy trees, Squaw creates lots of snow drifts but the view is spectacular.

Squaw Valley Trees

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this post on our trip to Lake Tahoe, we are already talking about making the ski outing an annual event. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of me getting ready to slay the mountain.

Steve in Tahoe

Lush Rain Forests of Tahiti

It was 2010, just a year after selling our business, and our boys were 16 and 17 years old at the time.  On our way to Bora Bora, we spent a few days in Tahiti.  Tahiti is in French Polynesia, halfway between the USA and Australia.

Tahiti map

If you zoom in, you can see that Tahiti looks like an infinity symbol. The left part of the infinity symbol is Tahiti Nui and the right part is Tahiti Iti.

Tahiti map

Tahiti was settled in about 1,300 BC by Southeast Asians wanting to expand east.  It is part of the “Polynesian Triangle” which includes Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the southeast, and New Zealand to the southwest. Tahiti has lush rain forests, waterfalls, lagoons, and black-sand beaches.

Tahiti Waterfalls

This was the view from our hotel room, the island you see in the distance is Moorea.

Tahiti Acommodations

During our stay, we took a bumpy ride deep into the rain forests in a 4-wheel drive.

Tahiti 4 Wheel Drive

Along the way, we stopped at massive waterfalls, water vapors filled the air as we got closer.

Tahiti Waterfalls

We visited several swimming holes where the boys and I practiced doing cannon balls after hurling ourselves off the rocks.

Tahiti Rock Diving

As we ventured deeper into the jungle, we arrived at a mountain home owned by a friend of our guide. We took that opportunity to learn more about their culture and to take in the views.

Tahiti Mountain House

Our guide was Polynesian. He sported many tattoos, each thoughtfully inked based on family stories. He told us that he continues to expand his tattoos as he ages and accumulates more life experiences.

Tahiti Tattoos

The word tattoo originated in French Polynesia. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns. In Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously applied when reaching adolescence.

Tahiti Tattoo

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to Tahiti. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture taken on the flight from Tahiti to Bora Bora. If you would like to see more pictures from our Bora Bora trip, click here.

Flight to Bora Bora

 

 

 

Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen): Mexico’s Caribbean Coastline

Slide the dial back to 2006 and our boys were 12 and 13 years old. After working long hours building our business, Lynn and I planned a family vacation to Riviera Maya, Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.

Playa del Carman

Located on the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula just south of Cancun, Riviera Maya has beautiful white sand beaches flanked by ancient Mayan ruins.

Play del Carman Mexico

Playa del Carmen Mexico

Playa del Carmen is a popular vacation destination for many Americans because it is relatively inexpensive, quick to travel to and offers access to a culture different from our own. It has also been popular with TV shows, as The Real Housewives of Vancouver shot a couple of episodes here as well as appearances on The Amazing Race and The Celebrity Mole.

Playa del Carmen resorts

Tulum Mexico

Just south of Playa del Carmen is Tulum, an ancient Mayan port city. Tulum was a thriving Mayan port during the 13th and 15th centuries, and was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya.  We took an excursion to visit the ruins and they did not disappoint.

Tulum Mayan Ruins

Mayan Ruins Tulum Mexico

On our way back from visiting the ruins, we stopped by a Mayan village. The villagers still live in small shacks with dirt floors and hammocks for beds. As we arrived, a group of women were making fresh tortillas and generously offered us a taste. It was the freshest and best tasting tortilla I’ve ever had.

Mayan Ruins Tulum

Xcaret Park

On our flight to Mexico, I was chatting with a couple that talked about a prior visit to Playa del Carmen. They said that when visiting, I had to go to Xcaret Park, so we planned an excursion.

Xcaret Park Mexico

Xcaret Park is an ecological park with jungles, beaches, caves, sinkholes and underground rivers.  It also sits atop an archaeological site.

XCaret Mexico Ruins

This was the first time I had ever done Snuba. Snuba is a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving. You wear a mask similar to scuba but the tank floats across the top of the water and moves with you. It is for shallow diving (about 15 feet) but gives you a taste of scuba diving without having to be certified.

Snuba Xcaret Mexico

Around Riviera Maya

We also ventured out a few times around the Riviera Maya area. We took a tour that had us cliff jumping. Well, I say us, Lynn watched safely from the shore. She almost had a heart attack as I coaxed our 12 and 13-year-old boys to jump off the cliff. As you can see below, Ryan took the plunge just after me. Cameron followed.

Cliff Jumping Riviera Maya

We also visited caves that normally just the locals visit, it was a treat to get off the beaten path.

Mexico grotto

We took turns diving off the rocks.

Mexico Caves

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to Mexico. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with one last picture of Cameron lazying around in Riviera Maya.

Riviera Maya

 

 

 

Dolphins and More in the Big Island Hawaii

This is another post from past travels our family took prior to me starting this blog. It was 2005 and our boys were 10 and 12 years old at the time.  Since we had already gone to a couple of Hawaii Islands (Oahu and Maui), it was time for something a bit different – The Big Island.

The Big Island is the biggest of all Hawaii islands and the first to be occupied. The Big Island was believed to be the first island Polynesian voyagers from the Marquesas Islands set foot on 1,500 years ago.

HawaiiMap.jpg

When we first stepped off the plane, we knew this island was like no other. Many of the areas of the island are volcanic rock.

bigislandrocks

bigislandrocks

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

One of first excursions was to visit Kaloko-Honokohau, a site early Hawaiians settled. They built sacred temples here and created fishponds that trapped fish.

kaloko-honokohau-1

kaloko-honokohau-2

You can see old artifacts that illustrate what life may have been like many years ago. The carving below was interesting enough to entice Ryan to stop using his Gameboy for a few minutes.

kaloko-honokohau-3

kaloko-honokohau-4

kaloko-honokohau-5

Here is a fishpond that would be used to trap fish to feed the locals.

kaloko-honokohau-6

kaloko-honokohau-7

Swimming with Dolphins

We arranged for the boys to swim with dolphins through Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and they loved it.  The dolphins are well trained and really put on a show.

swimwithdolphins

swimwithdolphins-2

swimwithdolphins-3

The Green Sand Beach (Papakolea)

The locals kept talking about the Green Sand Beach and how beautiful it was. So we took the 2.5 hour drive along the Kohola Coast to find the trailhead.

greensandbeach

What we didn’t realize was that it was another 2.5 mile hike just to get to the beach. Ryan was about to have a melt down by the time we made it there, as evidenced in the picture below.

greensandbeach-2

But it was definitely worth the hike, it is beautiful.

greensandbeach-3

The green sand gets its color from olivine crystals created from eruptions to a dormant volcano years ago. Nestled in Mahana Bay, this is truly a unique place and one of only two green sand beaches in the world.

Traveling around the Island

We saw most of the island and even took a helicopter ride to see the volcanic ash create new land along the ocean coast. I would love to show you those pictures but I accidentally deleted all of those pictures right after we returned. But I did save some of our pictures as we traveled around the island.

bigisland-5

bigisland-2

bigisland-3

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to the Big Island. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of Cameron and Ryan.

bigisland-4

 

Stingrays and Turtles in the Cayman Islands

This post is a blast-from-the-past. I started this blog after I retired in 2009 but we vacationed as a family since the boys were in diapers and experienced some amazing trips. So I figured I would go back and pull pictures from some of those old trips and post them on our blog.

We visited the Cayman Islands in May of 2001. Cameron was about 7.5 years old and Ryan was almost 6.

Cayman Islands 2001

Cayman Islands

If you’ve never visited the Cayman Islands, it’s located in the Caribbean just west of Jamaica.

cayman_islands_location

A British territory, the Cayman Islands was first discovered in 1503 by Christopher Columbus. He originally named it Los Tortugas because Tortugas means “turtle” in Spanish and reporting seeing lots of sea turtles on his first visit.

Cayman Turtle Centre

We visited the Cayman Turtle Centre where you can hold turtles of different sizes, check out their website here.

cayman-turtle-center

Stingray City

They also have a hefty population of stingrays. We visited Stingray City, a shallow area in the surrounding waters of the Cayman Islands where stingrays will feed out of your hands.

stingray-city-cayman

Ryan was a bit unsure what to think of the stingrays but our guide eased his fears. After feeding this one, it crept up on my arm and I felt a sucking sensation on my arm. I almost freaked out to find out that the stingray made a move on me and left a hickey to prove it.

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Meanwhile, Cameron sat quietly in the boat as the captain entertained him.

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Cayman Island Beaches

The beaches in the Cayman Islands are beautiful. The water is turquoise met by white sand. The boys enjoyed building sand castles, making a sand turtle and lazying around in the hammocks at the resort.

cayman-island-beaches-turtle

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Ryan Being Lazy

Devil’s Hangout

On one of our excursions, we ventured out to the edge of Hell and lived to tell about it.

Aye Matey

On our final excursion, the boys got to captain a pirate ship and were later forced to walk the plank.

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Co-Captains of the ship

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About to walk the plank

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Cameron snagged a life jacket before walking the plank

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this little blast-from-the-past of our trip to the Cayman Islands. If you are not subscribed to our blog and would like to subscribe so that new posts come directly to your email, scroll up to the right top section of this page and type in your email address.

I’ll leave you with a final picture of Ryan hanging 10.

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