Our travel tips for Cuba

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Varadero Beach, Cuba.

(Shout out to my good friend Doris Alcivar for being an awesome editor on this post!)

I just got back from Cuba. It was the second time I’ve been in five years. Everyone is asking for tips and I figured this was the easiest way to share them!

First of all, GO! It’s a beautiful place with SWEET people who are HAPPY to see Americans. So how did I get there? Easy! Jet Blue. They have direct flights from JFK airport in NYC. You pay the travel visa on site. It cost me $50.

** Many have asked: Do I need to have an official “reason” for traveling there? No. Just pick “person to person” support/travel in the drop-down menu on Jet Blue’s website when purchasing your ticket. (More Cuba travel FAQs answered here.)

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Attitudes have changed. The young people we spoke to at length (20s through mid 40s) are ready for change and most spoke about wanting to visit the United States. (Some even bashed their former longtime dictator!)

LANGUAGE BARRIER?

Don’t worry if you’re not 100% fluent in Spanish. Many who work in the hotels or in tourism-related posts (snorkeling guides) speak some kind of English, so one can get by. Some of the cab drivers don’t know English, but they know ALL of the places tourists want to go, so you’ll be fine.

A note: Cubans say “Dale!” (sort of in the way Spaniards say vale) a lot (it means yes, got it, go ahead, sure). It isn’t just a Pitbull thing.

In 2013, I went to Cuba through a travel agent and stayed at Spanish-run hotel and resort. They were beautiful and clean and included breakfast (and, at the beach resort, all-inclusive food and drinks). If you’re a resort/concierge person, stay here:

In Old Havana, right by their Central Park: Hotel Parque Central

In Varadero (beautiful beach town, about two-hours away from Havana): Iberostar Varadero

Interested in booking through a travel agent so he can do all the legwork? Here’s his info:

Derek Snow

3174 Dwight St

San Diego, CA 92104

619-228-9714 (phone)

derek@cubatravelusa.com

For this trip, our travel agent included all transfers, so I couldn’t recommend a tour bus company for the ride between Havana and Varadero. (It was probably Transtur, which you see a lot of throughout the tourist areas) Find some bus transport tips here.

This time around, we took an official taxi. It should run about CUC$115 (115 Cuban Convertible Pesos, which is the currency tourists can change money into). The currency symbol is CUC$.

SPEAKING OF MONEY: Go to your bank or money exchange agency and buy EUROs to change into . Dollars from the United States get hit with a 10 to 15 percent tax. Go with the Euro. Last week, the exchange rate was about $1.07 CUCs per Euro. (You can also go with Canadian dollars, though I’m hearing it’s weak at this time.)

DIFFERENCES

My 2017 trip was very different than my 2013 experience. In Varadero, we stayed at a “casa particular,” which is a rental within someone’s house. We had our own separate entrance. The tiny apartment within the house slept four. It’s nothing fancy, but it did the job for our beach-all-day and restaurants at night agenda.

It’s called Casa Bertha & Alberto, and the email address is here. The well-kept home is air-conditioned, located just steps from the beach, and Alfredo is a great cook (breakfast is $5!). We booked everything for this trip directly with the owners via email (in Spanish, as they didn’t really speak English).

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Entrance to Bertha & Alberto’s house.

In Havana, we used good, old AirBNB. The apartment we rented is in the lovely neighborhood called Miramar. (Think beautiful pastel-colored mansions.) This apartment slept four (though we stretched it to five with an additional twin bed), and has a television in each room. There is internet access, though it can be spotty at times, and you must buy a $2 card for a password for about an hour’s worth of access. I highly recommend it.

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A home in Miramar.

However, on my last day in Havana, I met a nice Cuban lady who rents out her apartment within Old Havana (near Aguacate street – yes, avocado street!) for just CUC$35 per night! Her name is Nancy, and you can call her at: 54-293205.

Places to go

I can’t take credit for most of this wonderful list. A great friend (Elkin Cabas) of someone in our group typed it up for us (I added my input with an asterisk). We hit most everything he recommended.

So, go! Have fun!

Restaurants

1. La Foresta Restaurante
a. Calle 17, between 174 y 176, Rpto. Siboney, Playa
b. Fancier restaurant but pretty affordable!
c. Our Airbnb host recommended and actually took us there for dinner

2. Starbien Restaurante
a. Calle 29 #205, between B y C, Havana, Cuba
b. I think this was my favorite dining experience in Cuba. Great food, ambience, and the restaurant is set inside a colonial-style home. It’s pretty awesome. We had the paella and ropa vieja which was great!

3. Bodeguita del Medio (*** If you like your mojitos light, as in low in sugar, this is the place to drink them! They’re fantastic!)
a. Empedrado, La Habana, Cuba
b. Must see place, would recommend to do this for lunch
c. You’ll see plenty of writing on the walls from visitors all over the world and framed photographs of celebrities
d. Delicious food and live music in the front bar

+ If you can get reservations at Doña Eutimia I would recommend it! It’s one of my regrets not having eaten there. It was highly recommended by my friends.

+ La Guarida, which is amaaazing and apparently lots of celebrities go here when they visit Havana. Definitely on the expensive side if you feel like splurging one night! *** ed. note: Ok, we ate here, and loved it! It’s in a gorgeous historic building that is being renovated and the restaurant is on the rooftop. You’ll see all the celeb pics on the wall. The food was great, as was the service (and wine!)

*** A word about the food in Cuba: they do not typically serve fruits and vegetables that are not in season. For instance, we kept wondering why there wasn’t any avocado. We asked and that was that. Makes sense for their farmers (so they don’t have to get the produce from OUTSIDE the country), but it’s a lesson learned for Americans who are used to getting nearly anything they want WHEN they want it. So, bring snacks! Especially because convenience stores are low on snacks (but never on rum or beer!)

**** Or don’t bring snacks and walk 15,000 steps a day average like we did and lose weight! I lost three pounds. 😉 But, seriously, I never felt ravenous. Their portion sizes, while not ENORMOUS, were filling enough with real food (chicken, beef, or pork, rice and beans, etc.)

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So many old cars, so little time! PS: Havanatur is a great place to ask about beach & city excursions!

Clubs/Lounges

1. El Floridita
a. Famous cocktail bar in the older part of Havana
b. Famous for its daiquiris and for having been one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts in Havana

2. Don Cangrejo
a. Friday nights are pretty fun here. They have a cover I think though of like 10 CUCs, but it’s pretty cool cause it’s open air and on the water and they have some live concerts on occasion

3. Mio & Tuyo
a. We went there one night and actually had fun! Lol We wound up buying a bottle and getting a “table” (smaller than we expected)
b. Good music, drinks, it gets pretty packed but it’s fun

ed. note: *** In Havana, have drinks at Sia Kara. The Times included them in their “36 Hours in Havana” write-up and I fully agree!

**** In Varadero, hit Calle 62. It’s an outdoor bar/restaurant with live music and dancing on the streets! (See video shot by my friend Giancarlo Ganoza below!)

Tourist Spots

· Old Havana
· Do the Hop-On/Hop-Off! (*** so worth it if you want to see all of the city in one day)
· Gran Teatro de la Habana – gorgeous by day and night!
· Central Park
· El Capitolio
· Plaza de la Revolucion
· El Malecon
· Hemingway’s House
· Varadero beach (**** must go!)

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How I pull off working out several times per week

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If you didn’t IG your gym visit, did you really go?

I happen to post my visits to the gym on social media as a way to keep myself accountable and to motivate myself. There are many who think it’s an absolutely obnoxious habit, and that’s perfectly OK and they’re more than welcome to mute, unfollow or unfriend me. Really, I don’t take offense at those things!

It also has prompted a few friends to ask me how I do it. How do I get away from my office to fit a class in? How do I have time to shower?

I’m going to answer all of that in this blog post.

Just like keeping a food diary (which I do on Weight Watchers’ website, as it’s the best system that works for me), tracking my workouts is a must. After xx (heh!) years on this earth, I know what works for my body. Right now, I’m in a great place. I have virtually zero aches and pains, I’m sleeping well, and my energy is high.

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What Weight Watchers tracking looks like.

I achieve this through eating well (real nourishment! Lots of colorful vegetables and mostly plant based proteins) throughout most of the week with a little indulgences on weekend, be it a glass (or a few!) of wine, a second helping of dinner or a snack, or dessert.

As for working out, I treat it as a commitment. I’m paying $70 a month for my gym plus other fees here and there for different yoga studios that I use. So I refuse to let that money go to waste. We all have periods when we slack off. Well, for me, it’s never the working out.

I enjoy working out and with a history of Parkinson’s in my family, I know it’s better for my health.

The challenge for me is with the food part. I’m a stress eater. While my dad was in and out of the hospital and nursing home, I put on weight because I was eating meals at the hospital or on the go. No matter if I’m making good choices, the way it works with my body is if I’m buying close to 100 percent of my meals, I put on weight.

I’m uncomfortable when I’m carrying an extra 10-15 pounds. I literally feel bad, so I usually hit the breaks when I can and work to get back on track.

Working out

I take 45-minute classes of cardio mixed with high intensity weight and plyometric training (“Sports Circuit,” “Total Body Conditioning,” “Burn,” or “Cardio Cross Training”) about three to four times a week, and hot power yoga (the Baron Baptiste style) about four to five times per week. On weekends, I tend to hike or walk an hour with the dog.

(The class in this video is a good example of what some of the classes are like. This instructor, Simon Lawson, was one of my favorites! He recently moved on to teach at the Fhitting Room.)

So how do I do this while balancing my job as a director of communications for a mid-size university in New York City? Truthfully: it takes a lot of planning but I admit I’m very fortunate:

  • I have a great job with a great boss and a great team. Communications work (public relations, social media and content news writing) is nonstop at my job, but we’re not a news media outlet that must push out news 24/7. We’re the public relations and marketing arm of the university. I have a wonderful staff that works hard, and a vice president who cares about work/life balance. While, for some, this means coming in early and leaving early to deal with children, for me, it means I gym during my lunch hour. A healthy staff is a happy staff!

So, I dip out for an hour to take a 45-minute gym class at New York Sports Clubs with a quick shower afterwards. I’m so glad my gym offers 45-minutes classes at 12:15p each day.

  • It helps that my gym is literally half a block away from my office. Like, no kidding, I can leave the office about 5 minutes before class starts (I change in my office before ducking out so all I have to do is walk into class and, ‘Go!’)
  • I take quick showers and get dressed quickly. I’m not one to wear makeup at work, so drying my [now shorter] hair is a cinch.
  • I often work after hours. I’ll go home after yoga, cook (cooking is key to how great I feel because I’m eating lots of greens and grains), and then hop back on email and Twitter to catch up with more work!
  • Important: FOOD PREP! No, I’m not the type to prep seven days of meals on a Sunday. But I do make egg or egg whites using a muffin tin on Sundays so my breakfast is taken care of. As for lunch, I prepare a hearty and healthy lunch by cooking it while I cook dinner. I’m talking lots of vegetables, a healthy grain like couscous, quinoa or brown rice, or a low-glycemic sweet potato & about four ounces of grilled chicken, tofu, or a half cup of legumes.
  • Having lunch ready means I don’t have to take a detour after the gym to buy lunch. The break room to nuke my lunch and I’m back in the office!
  • We depend heavily on Google calendar at work, so, for the most part, meetings are planned in the mornings or late afternoon. And when they have to cut into my midday gym time, that’s ok, too! 
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Incentive for extra WW “points” = food

So … why the yoga?

The hot power yoga (which I take at this amazing studio called Lyons Den in TriBeCa) has been key to improving my flexibility and eliminating aches and pains. Before I started getting into yoga heavy, I was dealing with frequent headaches and a nagging tennis elbow situation. Ever since getting into Bikram Yoga, and now power yoga, most of those aches are gone. The heat loosens my muscles, improves my flexibility, and challenges my mental stamina, while the quick pace of power yoga works my muscles.

Since the schedule at “the den” is constant, I can go any time from right after work, to 8 p.m. at night.

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Bethany Lyons is the founder of Lyons Den. [Images via Lucky mag]

OK, but what about time for other commitments?

Alright. I’m not going to lie. My social life takes a hit when I’m this “on” with working out/eating well. I tend not to want to go out to eat or go out drinking after work. Both of those things mess with my sleep, which inevitably f*cks with my weight, so I try and avoid them depending on how things are going at work. Right now, we’re super busy, so the social activities can wait.

Truth is, I’ve always been more of a weekend warrior when it comes to going out. I need to have an alert mind at work, so going out and cutting loose is few and far between. But it’s ok.

One thing I’ve learned while battling restrictive eating and an eating disorder in my 20s was to rid myself of dichotomous thinking, meaning viewing things in black or white. So if I get invited to a string of events in the coming weeks (and it WILL happen), that’s OK if I miss some workouts. It’s all about balance, which is something many of us struggle with.

I’m grateful practicing yoga has helped me with that, too. Hopefully I’ve helped someone with this post!

GIMME ANDEAN BEAR CUB!

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Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

I’ve never been to the Queens Zoo. Now may be a good time to explore it!

An Andean bear cub (Tremarctos ornatus) born over the winter at WCS’s (Wildlife Conservation Society) Queens Zoo has made his public debut. This is the first Andean bear born in New York City.

The male cub was born over the winter to mother, Nicole (four), and father, Bouba (six). Now weighing 25lbs, he is ready to venture into the zoo’s bear habitat with his mom to start exploring.

The cub has not yet been named. Exhibit times will vary until the cub becomes fully acclimated to its outdoor exhibit.

Andean bears are the only bear species native to South America. They are also known as spectacled bears due to the markings on their faces that sometimes resemble glasses. They have characteristically short faces and are relatively small in comparison to some other bear species. As adults, males weigh between 250-350 pounds while adult females rarely exceed 200 pounds.

The Queens Zoo is breeding Andean bears as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative breeding program designed to enhance the genetic viability and demographic stability of animal populations in zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The cub’s sire, Bouba, came to Queens from a zoo in France to breed with Nicole, who was born at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC and came to the Queens Zoo in 2015. This is the first cub born to this pair. There are currently only 42 bears in AZA- accredited zoos and only six potentially viable breeding pairs in the SSP population.  Queens Zoo Director and Animal Curator Scott Silver leads the national breeding program as the SSP coordinator.

Said Silver: “This is a significant birth for the Queens Zoo and the Andean bear SSP breeding program. This little guy may be adorable, but more importantly he reminds us of what we stand to lose when a species is in danger of extinction. We are excited to introduce the cub to New York and to share the work WCS and our partners are doing to save Andean bears and many other species in the wild.”

Andean bears are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Estimates indicate that there are fewer than 18,000 remaining in the wild.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has been working to study and conserve Andean bears in their South American range since 1977. In 2010, WCS and partners formed the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance which funds conservation efforts and supports knowledge sharing to improve monitoring techniques in the field.