MADRID, BARCELONA, and SITGES
Madrid by far has the most to offer any Traveler in a cosmopolitan setting. It is an extremely safe city with low crime minus the occasional pickpocket on the train which you need to be aware of when navigating the city. The clean and well-maintained monorail will give you full access throughout the city for only a few Euros. The main centralized entertainment area is called Chueca. This is a neighborhood of downtown Madrid, named after its main square, Plaza de Chueca. It is known as Madrid’s hipster and trendy neighborhood. It is located in the administrative ward of in the downtown Madrid neighborhood of Justicia. The neighborhood derives its name from its main square, Plaza de Chueca, which was named after Spanish composer and author Federico Chueca. The Chueca section of Madrid is very lively, quaint and charming with many street cafes, boutique shops, and nightlife. Lonely Planet describes it as “extravagantly gay, lively young, and always inclusive regardless of your sexual orientation. This area has very low crime. It was well patrolled by police and felt very safe even late at nite.
Barcelona is another important stop worth mentioning. Madrid is to LA as Barcelona is to NYC. This is just how different the feel is between these two major cities in Spain. If one of a kind awe-inspiring Avant-garde architecture is your thing. Then you simply cannot miss Barcelona as the architecture there is simply beyond belief.
Most of the actions center around this long sprawling and winding grand historic boulevard in the center of the city called La Rambla. Everything can be found here from shopping, dining to cruising. The location is very scenic and beautiful during the day. Yet, late at nite the scene completely changes and gets a bit sketchy with an influx of very aggressive streetwalkers, con artists, and pickpockets. This is a place at nite where you definitely want to keep a firm grip on your handbag, wallet, camera, and phone. As 1 in 4 tourists is usually parted with these items in this area at nite.
You will find many inexpensive hotels in Barcelona. Yet, make it a point to read the fine print when it comes to locating American standard westernized accommodations. The main examples I would like to point out is in the areas of bedding type such as King Bed, Central Air Conditioning, Private Bath and Free Wifi. These items are not common as they are in America. A place that I stayed at after a few disappointing B & B locations is a place called Axel Hotel. This is a Hotel in the heart of everything, moderately priced with all the comforts of home located at Carrer d’ Aribau, 33. There were a few great nightlife locations which I really enjoyed there as well.
One called Berlin Dark was the most active located at Pasattge Prunera, 18. It was little too over the top for my personal taste. Yet, if that is your thing then this is the place for you. There was also a fun daytime meet up and drinking place I liked that attracted a more eclectic varied crowd of locals and tourist in a video bar/arcade atmosphere. This place was located at Carrer de Calabria, 96. I really enjoyed this place immensely and met some amazing people from around the world at this location.
Once you have reached your fill with awe-inspiring architecture and the club scene. It is now time to hop a train from Barcelona to the coastal seaside oasis of Sitges. This upscale tourist destination by the sea is nothing short of charming, intimate and romantic. There are numerous nightclubs as well as extensive panoramic beaches. My favorite club was the XXL Bar. This is a must for one of your nights in Sitges located at Carrer Joan Tarrida, 7. There were a very active upstairs bar and disco in the lower level with an industrial style theme. Our preferred housing was at the Parrots Hotel in the heart of everything located at Calle Joan Tarrida, 16. A great staff offering all the western standard comforts of home.
However, my most enjoyable parts of visiting this charming seaside oasis were it’s numerous and panoramic postcard photogenic beaches. My favorite of these takes a little effort to get there but well worth the journey. The Beach is called Calle del Home Morte. First, you walk to the bottom of the village where there is the church by the sea. Once near the church, there is a trolley you can take to the far end of the main beach. This is the last stop on the trolley and the last one returns back to town at this stop at 5pm. You continue walking further down over the large rocks on the beach till you come to a hill. Once at the hill climb to the top then it slopes back down for about ¼ of a mile follow the trail till you come to a clearing with a railroad track. Follow the track on the side of the hill facing the sea until you come to a secluded cove with a small beach bar called a chiringuito. It is staffed by a great bartender from Venezuela who makes amazing tropical frozen drinks and mojitos which he delivers to your beach chair oceanside. This is a nude optional pebble beach with panoramic views. Yet, the beach is quite treacherous. If you go there then be careful of the slippery rocks in the surf and the ferocious undercurrent rip-tide.
The portions even from very shallow water which feels like it wants to pull you out to sea. The beautiful secluded beach gets it’s last name Morte as in Mortality due to the many deaths from the strong rip currents. So enjoy the beautiful people and the scenic seaside but please stay in the shallow end very close to the shore.
Once you are done having your fun and sun while frolicking in the surf. It is now time to head up the hill and go directly across from the entrance to the beach bar at the top of the hill. You will see a railroad marker. Once at this location go across the track and there is an opening to some amazing nature trails that wind into cliffs as well as tunnels directly across the tracks from this beach. The views from here are panoramic and spectacular. There is a season for travel to this seaside oasis. Yet, the two times of year that I have always enjoyed the most was mid-June as well as the 2nd week of Sept.
The best way to travel to Spain by air is through the United / Continental gateway of EWR Newark non-stop or Lufthansa from many US gateways LAX, SFO, ORD, JFK and MIA connecting into Frankfurt or Munich then onto Madrid or Barcelona. Low-cost carrier Norwegian Air will now start operating flights to Barcelona, Spain, from four cities in the United States. The nonstop flights will be available from New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Oakland, and Los Angeles to the Barcelona-El Prat Airport. Well, I hope you all enjoyed this month’s destination highlights of Spain.
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This island nation was once the hot spot for gambling, mafia and Hollywood celebrities in the mid-1950s. The architecture and beautiful historical design of the city were comparable to a modern-day Madrid for its time. Yet, during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, everything took a sharp turn for Cuba as a tourist destination. There has been a multi-decade trade embargo since that time. The Obama administration has been loosening restrictions for the first time after many decades regarding the US position on Cuba. Now many passengers of Cuban heritage, journalists, humanitarian and religious groups can now travel from the US Gateways. As long as they are in the appropriate category with a license granted by applying through the US State Dept.
However, now US tourism makes up 40 percent of the travel revenues in Cuba mainly from US tourists who are going there to vacation via a non-US gateway. What many do not realize is that it is not illegal to travel to Cuba. It is only illegal to spend money there which can really only be tracked by credit cards. Yet, since everything is cash only in Cuba there is no way to enforce the law and track what is spent on your stay. The typical international gateways to enter Cuba are from Cancun on Cubana Airlines or Aero Mexico, Nassau, the Bahamas on Caribbean Airlines or Cayman Airways or Toronto, Canada on West Jet or Copa Airlines. You can do a round trip from the same international gateway. However, you may have to answer why you have 2 entry stamps and explain where you were during that time. The best way to avoid this is to purchase two one way flights. An example would be coming in from Toronto and returning through Cancun.
Cuban officials are familiar with the travel issues for Americans so they will not stamp your passport. They will only stamp your Cuban Tourist card which you purchase at your gateway airport for approx $20. There is also a departure tax paid in cash at the counter during check-in for approximately $28 which is not part of your normal included international ticket taxes. Upon arrival mentally prepare yourself for a very long wait for bags since the airport employees are part of the government regime and there is no sense of urgency. Prior to arrival I strongly suggest making arrangements with a local privately owned and operated private housing service in El Centro Havana. I highly recommend dealing with La Zarzamora Private Apartments. These are hosted by an absolutely wonderful host by the name of Frank Avila. He speaks fluent English and will be there for you every step of the way. This will ensure that your vacation to Cuba is not only effortless and seamless but a huge amount of fun as well. La Zarazamora is located at Consulado St, No.165, Apto:2 e/Trocadero y Colón Centro Habana, La Habana, Cuba. Frank’s cell number is 52716923 and his email is email@example.com The apartment is $25 USD per nite or 25 CUC which is the Convertible Cuban Peso currency. Frank will help you with converting funds upon your arrival. He will pick you up and provide you with a private taxi for $30 on arrival and $25 for the return.
Once settled into your private apartment you will want to go out and explore the city. There are several cultural learning curves that you will need to familiarize yourself with before you venture out. There are socioeconomic impacts on the Cuban culture. Locals do not make alot of money so tipping is a big culture there. It is customary to tip $1 CUC for any dealing with the locals providing tourist services. So bring lots of small currency for this custom. The Private Apartment is what I recommend for housing since Cuba is a country of many contradictions. The locals like to meet and play with the tourists. Yet, there are laws in place blocking them from doing so in local traditional hotels. This does not apply to private apartments like Frank’s where he has a great set up in place to circumvent this situation. There is also a wonderful local tour guide which I would highly recommend for your stay. The tour guide’s name is Luis de Armas. He speaks fluent English and is a very knowledgeable tour guide. Luis has a pulse on everything happening in the local scene, nightlife, dining, and entertainment. He offers (3) types of tours for $35 CUC each. The tours offered are a nightlife tour, a beach tour and a historical tour of Old Town Havana’s monuments as well as places of interest. Luis can be contacted at cell phone 53 58 000 739.
Havana has undergone some improvements over the most recent years regarding life in the country’s capital city. During years past GLBT patrons going to nightclubs had to meet undercover and at undisclosed locations. They were often persecuted and beaten if located. However, after many years of the official policy going back and forth regarding social issues in Cuba. Today they are finally enjoying being able to congregate in public at meeting places and clubs out in the open. This is mainly due to the penal code being struck down. Even high-ranking officials in the regime have been moving towards a kinder and gentler policy within the regime. Raul’s niece named Mariella Castro is blazing the path for social change in the island nation as an unexpected activist and she is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. There have been two major motion pictures that have also begun to sway public opinion on the island. This has created change which although slow is now on the rise in Cuba.
The movies that have helped move this change forward is Before Night Falls and Fresa y Chocolate. There was even a speech in 2010 where Fidel actually even apologized to the GLBT community for his past regime policies stating the former persecutions were a “great injustice” and vowed change would be ahead in the future.
Now that you know where the country has been and where it currently stands on tourism. It is time to go out and explore the city. First, take a nice evening stroll down the historic Prado which is a long tree lined beautiful boulevard that runs down the heart of El Centro. The end will take you past the Parque Central which is a charming park and a local meeting up spot from late afternoons till around dusk. As you keep going down the Prado past the Parque. It will eventually end at the ocean where you will see a long and curving wall on the Oceanfront. This long walkway is known as the Malecon where everyone congregates to cruise, socialize and meet up. Midway past the Malecon on the left-hand side, you will find another local meet up a spot called the Fiat Café.
As you make your way past the last curve of the Malecon you will come to an intersection at the ocean and 23rd Ave. This is the part of the Malecon wall where the tourist tends to congregate at nite. You can then make your way up to 23rd ave which is up a hill. This is the beginning of the most popular nightclub and restaurant area called La Rampa. It is just a few blocks before the famous, majestic and most enigmatic piece of architecture in Cuban history known as the Hotel National.
La Rampa has many options for socializing. Midway up the La Rampa at 23rd Ave and Calle L is the main early evening meeting spot called Cinema Yara. All the activity takes place along the fence in front of the ice cream parlor called Coppelia which was made famous in the movie Fresa y Chocolate. As the evening moves on the crowd migrates down to the lower end of La Rampa. This part of La Rampa has a great modern little video bar that starts happening around 10pm called Humbal. There are also moving private parties at different venues each weekend. Tour guide Luis is great at showing you the ropes of this social setting on his night tour. We went to one called the Divine Party on a Sat nite at the venue in a basement of the National Theatre. There were local live Latin singers, musicians, Cuban salsa dancers, and acrobatic Cirque du Soleil acts followed by a rocking DJ late nite disco dance party. The following day on Sundays everyone heads to the beautiful and very happening beach called Mi Cayito. Host Senior Frank can schedule you a private driver and taxi to drop you right into the heart of the action.
Another added benefit of the relaxing of the hard line from the Castro regime. Many owners can now keep portions of their profits by opening these amazing private restaurants in their homes called Paladares. I spent about 80 percent of my time dining in these amazing and charming establishments. My favorite one was called the La Guarida which was made famous as a set location in the movie Fresa y Chocolate. I had one of the most exceptional Grouper fish dinners there with black beans, plantains, an amazing delish pina colada, fried mongo, and a great local homemade fresa ice cream. La Guarida is located at 418 Concordia, Havana, Cuba +53 7 8669047. As far as shopping goes I would stick with local artwork, cigars, and trinkets. The local shopping mall experience was a bit sad with very low-quality fabrics, limited selections, and poor designs. They do have the high-end designer shops yet they are exports from the US and Europe at very over inflated prices. So I would skip that part altogether.
Yet, the island nation will evoke many emotions from you which can only be described as intoxicating, infuriating, amazing, sad and intriguing. Several of the newer and more luxury neighborhoods are still well maintained and quite beautiful. While other areas in the older parts of the city have fallen into great disrepair since the 1950s. It is like a grand old city where time has stood still and it has been lost in a time warp from the past with the many vintage American cars on the streets. In an effort to sum up, the Cuban experience and Havana as an up and coming new travel destination.
A famous author once wrote while describing Havana. She is a once beautiful grand lady who had fallen on hard times and was unable to keep up her appearances. Yet, you could still tell she had really good bones. The intoxicating energy in the air, the natural, humble, unaffected beautiful people and the stunning turn of the century Spanish, Indian, Mediterranean and Art Deco architecture is just a writer and photographer dream to behold. This amazing unique experience is well worth the trip and efforts it takes to travel there.
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PERU: Lima, Machu Picchu
This area of Latin America is by far one of the most scenic, iconic and culturally diverse. Economically it is still considered up and coming relatively. Yet, it is still one of my favorite places to visit. Flying to Lima has a few good options. There are major airlines like Delta which fly the route from their gateway in Atlanta or American which does it from Miami. There is a low-cost airline Spirit which offers the flight from Ft Lauderdale. Once you arrive in Lima make sure that you book your transfer with a reputable agent at the airport there. I do not advise a rental car as the area around Lima airport is not the best or the safest. Do not change money at the airport or the hotels. Go online and find out the current exchange rate and either go to one of the changer-guys with the vests on the street or go to a local casino where you can exchange for free. Yet, once you arrive in town then I would recommend staying in the upscale and very safe neighborhood of Miraflores.
Many Americans and international tourist stay at the Hotel Estellar located on Av Benavidas 415, Miraflores 00018 Lima, Peru + 51 1 630 7777. The staff speaks fluent English and Spanish. Upon arrival, you will receive a voucher for a complimentary welcome cocktail at the rooftop bar overlooking the city. The local cocktail is called the Pisco Sour which is quite tasty and extremely potent. There is a late nite scene if you arrive on a Fri or Sat nite. Otherwise not as late on weeknights so best to get an early start the following day. The hotel stay also includes a complimentary latin style breakfast on the roof top in the mornings with an array of excellent local native fresh, fruits and juices.
The scene in Lima is a very interesting one and a bit unusual as well. One of the things that hit me right off the bat was the class system and unequal perception of the indigenous people known as the Inka descendants or the Chulos. They have darker brown skin, angular noses, Indian characteristics and shorter in stature. These are the historical people of Cusco, Peru who are the most culturally interesting which the tourists have the most fascination in interacting with there. The sad part is that their own people seem to look down on them for some reason and treat them as lesser individuals in Peruvian society. There is preferred treatment for the Peruvians who are of mixed Spaniard and Anglo descent which is taller, lighter skinned and looks more westernized. However, the tide is changing and it is getting better but it is still noticeable there.
Lima is a very culturally fascinating and interesting city with some very unique shopping. After breakfast start with a stop at the Inka Market located at Av. Petit Thouars 5321 (Gonzalez Prada), Miraflores, Peru. You will find many native crafts there to buy. My personal favorites are the well priced Peruvian laptop and computer travel bags as well as the great deals on some very well made Alpaca sweaters, scarves, and winter hats. Once you are done there then take a cab over to Blue Market or locally known as Polvos Azules in Victoria, Peru. The cab ride should be no more than 15 soles max which is around $5 US dollars. Do not hang out in Victoria. Just go to the market and leave right after as it is not a great area of town. Best buys there are the bootleg Rosetta Stone language tapes which run $400 in the US can be picked up there for like $10 to $20 a piece, bootleg new release CDs for like $1 to $5 each and numerous knock off designer fashions as well as walls of sneakers of every imaginable kind.
Once you are back in Miraflores then go check out the local designer men’s clothing boutique called Lavini located at Calle Alcanfores 348, Miraflores, Perú. It is kinda hit or miss but I have found some nice things there but kinda pricey. A nice outing for lunch after shopping that I would highly recommend is the beautiful and scenic Larco Mar Plaza. Just a short walk from Miraflores straight down Avenida Jose Larco until you arrive at the ocean. Enjoy shopping and a sweeping view overlooking the cliffs and the ocean while dining at the Mango’s Restaurant lunch buffet. It costs around $15 USD and is a great deal for the quality and price. You will find many varieties of the native Peruvian Ceviche, Roasted pig, Pastas, Salads and a wide array of local-inspired entrees and desserts. It is a must for your first visit to Lima.
If you want something more casual and dining on the cheap. There are many great grocery stores there. My favorite is one that is comparable to a Peruvian style Whole Food Market called Vivanda which has great smoked chicken pollo empanadas. This location also has great prices on bottles of Pisco to bring back home from their extensive liquor and wine section. There is also a great Saturday Market for Organic foods called Bioferia located at Calle 15 de Enero in Miraflores.
After a full day of shopping and eating go back and take a nap for an evening out. The nightlife starts fairly late as it does in most of Latin America. Yet, there is a few interesting late afternoon to early evening spots worth hitting. My favorite is the 240 Banos Turcos Sauna located at Jr Tarma 240 in the Centro de Lima area. Take a taxi here and then do the same right afterward as this is not a good area to hang out in or walk around. It boasts a three-story facility which is immaculate and beautiful inside. Another fun late nite and happy hour bar which I like is called 80s Divas located in the Lince area at Av. Petit Thouars 2677 (511) 422-8873. Very kitsch décor and fun, friendly staff as well as patrons.
If you plan on an extended stay in Lima then consider an excursion tour to the iconic and famous Machu Picchu. You need some time in Lima for this one for a couple reasons. First of all, is time as it takes some time to do this iconic destination. Once in Lima, you need to take a 1:30 min taxi to the gateway staging area of Ollantaytambo. Taxi is $40 USD or a bus which is 2:30 min is $2. Once there you will go on the 4:15 min train ride on the Inka Rail http://incarail.com/” http://incarail.com/. It runs $55 each way in tourist class or more in Business and First Class. There are entrance tickets required for Machu Picchu and it is recommended that you purchase them at least one week in advance. You can not count on obtaining them the same day as entry is limited to only 2,500 people per day in this national heritage site. The climb to the top of Huayna Picchu at the site is even more limited to only 400 people per day. There are only 2 climbs available per day. One at 7am and one at 10am. Tickets can be purchased in advance on this site starting at $72 for adults https://www.ticket-machupicchu.com/” https://www.ticket– machupicchu.com/.
The second consideration is respiratory acclimation and recovery time. Due to the elevation and thin air in this higher region. You will need time to adjust your breathing. If you have a job which does not require random drug testing. There is an amazing local tea which expands the cells and breathing capabilities in the lungs which combat this syndrome dramatically called Coca Tea. The downside is that this will create a false positive on a random drug test given by your employer. So it depends on how long you plan to stay in Peru before returning to work. The Coca residue remains in your body for 3 weeks before you will show negative for a drug test again. Therefore, it is a lot of effort required to reach and tour this ancient 15th century Inka site in Cusco above the Andes Mountains. Yet, the breathtaking panoramic views and awe-inspiring ancient well-preserved architecture make it well worth the trip.
These tours can be booked on your own individually on the websites I have listed above. Yet, to prevent any potential mishaps then I would highly recommend a local tour operator in Lima. He speaks fluent English and Spanish. He is more than capable of offering assistance on all things Lima or cultural activities and bookings such as Machu Picchu. His name is Tino Guzman 99-909-5805 and his website is http://tourguides.viator.com/tour-guide-tino-guzman-11467.aspxhttp://tourguides.viator.com/tour-guide-tino- guzman-11467.aspx. He is a very personable and wonderful guy which I’m sure you will all enjoy. Wishing everyone a great time in the “Land of the Inkas.”
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