Tulum, Mexico

We had a wonderful time in Valladolid, but it was time to move on and get closer to the beach. After figuring out our bus tickets, we were ready to see what Tulum had in store for us. We had both heard a lot about this town as something special, up and coming, and beautiful as it’s right along the beach. So we had delicious breakfast on the hotel patio and then said goodbye to Valladolid.

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After a less than 2 hour bus ride we arrived at the bus station in Tulum and found a taxi driver to take us to our hotel. We were disappointed to realize that Tulum would be significantly more expensive than Valladolid was. The taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel and after arguing for a bit and using some gps, he continued and drove us towards our real hotel. When booking, we didn’t realize that this hotel was practically brand new and in a part of town that was very much being built up and full of construction. We couldn’t find the hotel with the driver, so he gave up and dropped us off. We started exploring and had no idea where to go or where this hotel was. Luckily, we ran into an American couple that asked us if we were lost and then pointed us in the right direction so we were able to find the place.

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Inside the hotel was really beautiful. We were happy to have found it after searching for so long in the heat and we were very happy to see it had an amazing swimming pool.

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After putting our stuff down and getting freshened up, we decided to find the beach. I thought the hotel was a lot closer to the beach than it ended up being and the front desk told us it wasn’t too far, but it was far enough. They had a shuttle that takes people to a beach club, but the shuttle only ran at odd hours that didn’t feel like our best option. The hotel did offer bikes to ride for free, so we figured we would try it.

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The bike ride was a little rough for me, I’m not going to lie. In that afternoon heat without any shade, I was struggling. Once we made it to the coast where the beaches were supposed to be, I realized it wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting. The whole coast where the beaches were, had been built up and were covered in beach clubs, hotels, restaurants, and shops. There was no public beach access that we could find, you had to pay in order to get to the beach. So we kept biking and biking trying to find somewhere to go where you didn’t have to spend money or at least not spend a lot of money. The road also wasn’t ideal for biking – it was tight, there were no sidewalks, the road often was damaged and with big potholes, and there were cars everywhere. We eventually gave up and found beach club where we could go, but we had to spend a certain amount of money in order to spend time there, which seemed to be how all the places nearby operated.

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After biking so long in the heat, it was worth it because the beach was beautiful and the water was perfect for swimming and so warm. We had a delicious lunch and smoothies and spent a few hours relaxing, swimming, and working on our tans. The guacamole was excellent!

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The bike ride to the hotel was a bit easier and we made it back as fast as we could. After biking back in the heat, we were ready to cool off again so we went straight to the hotel’s beautiful swimming pool and jumped right in. This was like paradise!

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We decided to go out for dinner so we found a really nice restaurant closer to the coast. It was dark, romantic (even though we didn’t really need that), and had the greatest food. The service was excellent too.

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After this dinner we were full and exhausted so we were ready to get back to the hotel and get some rest. Overall it was a great day in the sun!

Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Ik Kil

One of the main reasons we wanted to go to the Yucatan was to see some ancient ruins. We were able to arrange through our hotel to hire a driver for the day for very little cost who took us to Chichen Itza and a beautiful cenote at Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities hundreds of years ago and is now a large site of ruins. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has millions of visitors each year.

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I was amazed by the size of this site, it felt like we could keep walking and walking and there was always more to see. We could turn a corner and suddenly there would be another huge stretch of ruins. Actually standing there and walking around creates a really special feeling, like you’re somewhere you’ve only read about in textbooks in the past. It brings the whole history to life, something you can’t get from reading.

If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend doing a little research on when to go. One day of the week is free for Mexican citizens, making it way more crowded than other days. I also recommend going as early in the day as you can because by mid afternoon there were ten times as many people as when we first arrived and the temperatures were scorching. And as it was extremely hot, naturally we had to take a break for ice cream.

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After a few hours exploring everything this beautiful place has to offer, we were so ready to head to the cenote and go swimming to cool off and relax. Our driver took us to Ik Kil, which is very close to Chichen Itza. The water is about 130 feet deep (40 meters) and the denote itself goes 85 feet under ground (26 meters). This was the most beautiful cenote we visited on this trip.

 

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Swimming in that cold water was exhilarating and refreshing. Experiences like this are why I travel. The clear, bluish-green color of the water makes it hard to realize how deep the water actually is. This is a moment I’ll never forget because feeling so in touch with nature is one of the best feelings – with birds and bats flying over you, fish swimming beneath you, and butterflies all around.

 

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Overall this was one of the best days of the trip because we saw such a historically significant place and had the perfect afternoon in a stunning cenote. The next day we headed to the town of Tulum.

Leaving for Mexico and Finding Valladolid

So despite having travelled to far away places across the world, like Fiji or Cambodia, I had never actually been south of the border to Mexico before this latest trip. I was excited to go on some new adventures because I hadn’t been out of the country since the previous Summer.

Arriving at the airport was extra exciting because I walked up to my gate and got called to the podium to receive a note. I wondered what it was about, but it was actually sweet.

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I also found out I was upgraded to First Class, which is always an excellent benefit of being a frequent flyer. The meal was pretty great, especially because it was unexpected. I got lobster ravioli and a delicious summer salad. Thanks United!

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The guy I sat next to on the plane lives in Cancun and had a ton of information about traveling around the Yucatan. I went into this trip pretty blind and was thankful my cousin Katharina had done some research for our adventures. Finding a great travel partner is essential to having a great trip, and luckily my cousin and I love to travel together and are always planning new trips. So this guy next to me gave me great advice of cities worth seeing, places less worth seeing, and what was safe/dangerous nearby. I always recommend asking locals for their opinions because then it’s way easier to break out of the tourist bubbles and see something “real” in the country.

So after arriving and finding my cousin, we made our way to our hotel. She had been waiting a few hours, so she had plenty of time to gather information about buses and traveling around, which became so helpful. Unfortunately it was close to midnight when we got going so it was dark and hard to see much on the drive besides the lights of other hotels. We had a beautiful suite that was way bigger than anything the two of us needed, but we were excited to spend the night somewhere so nice.

The best part of arriving in Mexico was the following morning. Because of Katharina’s jet lag , coming all the way from Germany, and my general excitement, we were both wide awake and ready to go out by 6am. We went straight to the beach to enjoy the amazing weather. When we were there, it was April, which means it was still snowing where I’m from. Just being able to put on flip flops and feel the sand on my toes was spectacular.

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Cancun was only our arrival point, we had no real intention of staying there because the plan was to backpack around and head to Belize. So after a delicious breakfast, we decided to get going to our first destination – Valladolid. We took a local bus, where we were the only tourists on board, and headed to a bigger bus station.

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The trip from Cancun to Valladolid was a few hours. We weren’t on a fancy bus, it was a smaller company that seemed to be more for locals. We stopped frequently to pick up people along the road and it wasn’t as direct as other bus companies would have been. But it was worth the ride, because Valladolid is so beautiful and we picked a newer hotel that also has spa amenities. Talk about paradise…

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We went to Valladolid for two main reasons – 1. To be close to Chichen Itza and 2. To see some cenotes, which are like caves with natural water where you can go swimming.

So after settling in, we took a taxi for super cheap to two cenotes called Samula and Xkeken. The great part of Valladolid compared to other cities we ended up visiting is how much less expensive it is. We could take long taxi rides for barely anything once we split it between the two of us.

These two cenotes give very different vibes. One is super dark, creepy almost and has tons of bats. It’s beautiful for sure, but a little less inviting to go swimming.

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The other has a high ceiling inside the cave and has a large pool. We could see fish swimming throughout the water.

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Both cenotes are incredibly beautiful and worth visiting if you’ve never seen one before like the two of us. They were practically empty of visitors which makes them more appealing than some other cenotes. We loved exploring, feeling part of a natural wonder, and getting refreshed in the cool caves and water when the outside temperature was so hot. Not to mention, the areas around the cenotes are super unique as well!

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When we finished this part of the day, we ended up unexpectedly getting a lot of time to see Valladolid. Our taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was (perks of a new hotel!) and gave up looking really quickly, so he dropped us off in the town square and sent us on our way. Instead of trying another taxi, we decided to brave it and walk. But that was perfectly okay because it gave us the perfect opportunity to see some of this city and it is a beautiful place!

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After walking in the heat for a half hour, we were ready to jump in the pool at the hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening relaxing. We had a delicious dinner with some tacos that were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life (as expected). Amazing. Writing this while sitting in Sweden months later, I am craving Mexican food!

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We went to bed early that night after quite a long day of travel, cenotes, and heat. We had big plans for the next day to visit Chichen Itza, so we needed some rest.

 

Long Beach

I recently had such a great day visiting Long Beach in California, I just had to share! This is definitely not my first time visiting the area, but it was such a special day.

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After getting lucky with little traffic out of Los Angeles, we started off the morning right with some ice cream after breakfast.

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And then we got in line for a whale watching boat tour. I did one of these trips a few years ago and it was amazing to see marine life and enjoy the boat ride.

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So I was definitely thrilled to do it again!

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The boat ride lasts a couple hours and it’s such an exciting joy. The trip out of the harbor area is full of waves, making it feel like you’re on a rollercoaster. The wind blows sprays of water on you, but it just makes the whole experience feel that much better.

We quickly were surrounded by dolphins and their little ones. I love seeing animals in the wild. Unfortunately, you never know when a dolphin will jump out of the water or where so it’s very hard to capture a good photo. But I did my best.

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And then we got very lucky and were able to find a fin whale! 

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After finishing the amazing tour, we realized we hadn’t had our fill of marine life, so we decided to take a trip to the aquarium right around the corner. I’ve been to a few aquariums, but this one was really special. The size was perfect, the variety in animal life was spectacular, and the exhibits were wonderful to look at.

It was so much fun hanging out with guys like this during our visit

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We were even able to touch some animals in their opens tanks

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It was a great experience overall and I definitely recommend this aquarium to anyone in the area!

A Perfect Vacation Spot In Cuba

I’ve been to beaches in different countries around many parts of the world – from Santa Monica to islands of Fiji, from Ghana to South Africa, and from Israel to Sweden – just to name a few. I couldn’t begin to count the number of beaches I’ve been to throughout the world, and some are definitely famous for being the best in the world. But walking through the sandy beaches of Cuba was really spectacular.

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After Havana, we spent the rest of our trip in Varadero on the northern coast. We arrived to a resort that couldn’t have been more beautiful.

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And besides the obvious beauty of the hotel itself, the beaches nearby were incredible. With white sand, crystal clear turquoise water, and endless miles of open space.

 

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While vacationing in Cuba, we were able to do a variety of activities, including horseback riding along the coast, taking a boat ride into sea, and snorkeling off coast in beautiful coral reefs.

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And in case the beaches and pool weren’t enough to keep you occupied, the resort was sure to offer a crazy amount of entertaining activities from foam parties, to dance lessons, to exciting evening shows.

 

We could even ride around in style with our old 1950’s car

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And there was always plenty to eat everywhere we went

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It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I’ve really been to many beautiful places. It’s a wonderful place to visit because there is plenty to do to keep you busy, so much lovely scenery to enjoy and experience, and natural wildlife close by. It’s exactly the kind of place people dream of  with real serenity and relaxation all around.

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I hope one day I’m able to go back!!

 

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History and Sites in Havana, Cuba

We started our second full day in Cuba with breakfast on the hotel balcony and enjoyed the beautiful view again.

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We left to see the Revolution Museum, which was interesting, but majority of the exhibits were in Spanish so it was harder to follow and understand. There were tons of photos, newspaper articles, clothing, and personal belongings from the revolution.

Let me give you a very brief summary of some of Cuba’s interesting history.

Cuba was inhabited by Mesoamerican cultures before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the land in 1942.

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Cuba then became a Spanish colony. In 1762, the colony was occupied by Great Britain before being traded back to Spain for Florida. The Spanish-American War caused Spain to withdraw from Cuba in 1898 and the United States gave Cuba its independence in 1902 with the requirements of the Platt Agreement. This agreement gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba and have access to Guantanamo Bay. In order to prevent fighting within Cuba and protect American economic interests, the US occupied Cuba for several years in the early 20th century after President Palma’s regime collapsed. During this period, the Cuban Communist Party was developed. American troops withdrew in 1909. Several presidents took over in Cuba over the next three decades. In World War I, Cuba declared war on Imperial Germany on April 7, 1917, just one day after the United States entered the war. Cuba could not send troops to fight in Europe, but played a major role in protecting the West Indies from German U-boat attacks. Cuba suffered an economic collapse due to a significant drop in sugar prices. In 1925, President Machado took over and did not step down after his term ended. The revolution of 1933 undermined the oligarchic state. In 1940, Fulgencio Batista, who was endorsed by Communists, won the election. Ramon Grau was elected in 1944, and with the end of World War II came economic boom. The increased prosperity brought corruption and nepotism within the country and as Cuba gained a reputation as a base for organized crime, Mafia mobsters came to Havana. Batista was re-elecred in 1953. The country did well economically and continued to grow for while, but the middle class became dissatisfied with the administration. In the 1950s, the economy started to collapse as unemployment rates soared and domestic product growth diminished.

In 1953, Fidel Castro and his supporters led an attack near Santiago de Cuba, which failed. Castro was sentenced to prison and after being released he went into exile in Mexico. This is where he met Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and began organizing how to overthrow Batista. After many failed attempts to overthrow Batista and after the United States imposed trade restrictions on the Batista administration, the military situation became untenable and Batista fled.

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Castro took over in 1959. The revolution became increasingly radical and many opponents were executed or imprisoned.

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Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island and many went to the United States. Castro opposed the United States’ influence in Cuba and even threatened a war on the US. The relations between Cuba and the US continued to deteriorate rapidly and the dispute escalated. The two countries severed all diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961. The Kennedy administration forbid American citizens from traveling to Cuba or conducting any financial or commercial transactions with the country. The Bay of Pigs Invasion occurred in hope of overthrowing the Communist regime, but the invasion failed. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred.

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Throughout the 1970s, tens of thousands of dissidents were held and tortured under inhumane prison conditions and many were executed. Between 1959 and 1993, around 1.2 million Cubans fled for the United States by small boats or rafts, it’s estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 died trying. Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and withdrew from public life and officially resigned in 2008. As of 2015, Cuba was one of the few official socialist states in the world. The United States and Cuba have worked on their relationship and now it is legal again for Americans to visit Cuba.

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After our visit to the museum, we took a trip to a Jewish synagogue. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m Jewish and often visit Jewish museums or synagogues during my travels around the world. There are only 3 synagogues left in Havana and only 5 total in Cuba. We looked around the sanctuary and talked to people who work there about it. They told us how the Jewish population went from about 20,000 to 1,300 because of the revolution and events I described above. The Jews fled and emigrated to America, Europe, and Israel.

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After our visit to the synagogue, we walked to a main street and waited for a taxi to drive by to flag down and headed back to the hotel to shop a little and clean up. We packed and got ready because the next day we would leave Havana. We had seen and experienced so much during our short visit in the beautiful city, so it was hard to think about leaving already.

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For dinner, we drove to a nearby restaurant where we had to walk up a long staircase to a beautiful dining room. The service and food were exceptional and we enjoyed a wonderfully delicious meal. I had lobster and chocolate cake. We stayed for a long time relaxing and talking.

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We walked through a big square and looked around.

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We walked to another main road to find a taxi and had to argue about the price because they wanted to charge us $20 for a less than 5 minute drive, just because it was a touristy area. I would never accept that kind of price and if they say they won’t lower the price, just walk away. We walked away and kept walking until they chased after us and brought the offer down to a quarter of the original offer. Once we arrived back at the hotel, we went back upstairs to the balcony to listen to Cuban music before going to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Havana, Cuba

I woke up feeling pretty refreshed, but definitely not ready to get up. It was 3am after a very long day by the time we made it to sleep the night before, so I could’ve easily slept in late. We went upstairs for the hotel breakfast and it was a mediocre buffet. I wasn’t totally sure how the food would be in Cuba. The view from the breakfast table was great.

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After breakfast, we decided to take a walk around and see what there was nearby, but as soon as we got outside, a man offered to take us around and give us a tour in a car. He explained all the places we could go and was very excited to hear that we are Americans because he had lived in the states for a few years. We decided to take him up on his offer. The car was a 1951 Chevrolet convertible and it was awesome.

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We drove around the city and saw many military areas, monuments, beaches, markets, and general city life. It was a great way to get a sense of the city and see so much.

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We stopped in a famous cigar shop that has the world record’s longest cigar displayed on the ceiling.

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We stopped for lunch in a local place for lunch and had amazing lobster like nothing I’d ever had before.

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He drove us to places where there were no other tourists so we could really see how people actually live in Havana. I think it’s always important to break out of the tourist bubble on some level and see different parts of a country.

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We drove out to Ernest Hemingway’s old home and were able to tour the beautiful and very spacious property

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And the views from his home were incredible!

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The drive back was a little long and I had a hard time keeping my eyes open after the five hour tour of the city. Once we made it back, I was happy to clean up and climb into bed for a short nap. Once we got up, we decided to head upstairs for dinner because there was music playing all evening on the balcony. We had a delicious meal and relaxed for a few hours just enjoying the music and watching people dance.

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It was a day filled with excitement. By 11, we headed to the room to relax and get some rest so we were ready for another day of adventure.

Flying To Cuba!

I have been interested in going to Cuba for so many years, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to make the trip. Since the flight from Toronto to Cuba is only three and a half hours, I didn’t think the trip would be too intense, which was dumb on my part – considering how much I travel, I should’ve known better. We started off the day in the morning with a three hour delay, causing us to stall on making the drive up to Toronto. The drive wasn’t too long, so after getting across the border we stopped in Niagara Falls for a quick lunch in one of our favorite Japanese restaurants. Then we had another hour and a half drive to the airport and arrived a few hours before our flight. After checking in and going through security, we found our gate and sat around for a long time. I have a lot of experience in airports, but it gets boring none the less. We explored meal options and decided on Indian food real quick, got some snacks and water for the trip. When we got back to the gate, it was ridiculously crowded and chaotic and after we made our way through the crowd and found a seat, they informed us that our gate had actually been changed. So we made our way back through that chaos and headed to the other end of the terminal. We waited another 45 minutes until we finally started boarding, several hours after our scheduled departure. We were all a little nervous and unsure about transportation and hotel checkin once we eventually would arrive because it was getting later and later at night. Because Cuba is different from many other countries in a lot of ways, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect.

If you’ve read my posts before, you know that my flights often tend to be very delayed with my luck. After boarding, we sat at the gate an extra half hour then had to get the plane de-iced and sit there for another half hour so we were another hour delayed than the expected delay. I sat next to Canadian two siblings , a boy who was about thirteen and a girl who was probably sixteen. The sister was trying to be the responsible one of the two and make sure the brother knew how things worked, but she didn’t seem to actually know what she was talking about so I tried to help them as best I could with questions and concerns about flying and planes. They were really adorable. The flight went by pretty quickly once we finally got going. The Sunwing flight had wonderful service and was quite an upgrade from many airlines. They started with complimentary sparkling wine for every passenger, had hot towels, chocolates, and a meal – most airlines don’t do such things anymore for shorter flights.

 

Once we arrived in Varadero, we had to go through customs, which was relatively easy and then get our luggage. When I travel to other countries, I’m never completely sure what to expect with customs and because of the political issues between America and Cuba, I was definitely curious. It was pretty standard though. They had cute dogs running on the baggage claim machines like it was a treadmill as they sniffed everyone’s bags.

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Once we got outside the airport, we exchanged money. Because Cuba doesn’t have systems that accept credit cards, cash is how people pay for everything, so there has to be some planning involved. We found our bus and got on. With the delayed flight it was after midnight by the time we started our two hour drive to Havana. I had a hard time staying awake on the drive and found myself drifting in and out of sleep. I was happy when the scenery changed and we made it to the city because we arrived at the hotel shortly after. We weren’t sure what the hotel would be like because the hotel we originally booked had been oversold and they moved us to this one instead. By the time we got there, we were so happy just to have a bed to lie down in that it really didn’t matter at that point. I slept so well through the night. It felt amazing to know I’d be waking up in Havana the next morning!

On Top Of The World

We started the day by grabbing breakfast at a diner called Yolk and indulged in some deliciousness because we had a long day and a lot of walking ahead of us. The weather was perfect – sunny, warm, light breeze. We walked to Michigan Avenue and made our way to 360 Chicago, which used to be known as the John Hancock Observatory. We took the elevator up 1,000 feet above ground level – more than 90s stories high. From here, the view of Lake Michigan is amazing and you can walk around and view the city from every direction.

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The views of the city from that high up are breath taking:

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We decided to be brave and try the new TILT on top of this building. You stand against the glass window, hold onto handles , and the window shifts forward 30 degrees so you are angled looking down at the city below. It was so exciting, even if a little scary!

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When you’re walking on the sidewalk, it’s easy to appreciate the skyline and how huge the city is, but when you’re looking at it all from above, it’s just incredible to see so much.

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After we took the elevator ride down, we decided that the observatory was merely a warmup and that we should keep going and visit the Skydeck at the Willis Tower. We walked a long way over, enjoying the sunshine and city excitement. The Skydeck is 1353 feet or 412 meters up or 103 floors. The minute long elevator ride has a video presentation showing how high you’re going by displaying what other famous buildings in the world you are passing in height with each increasing distance – such as the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. Once we made it up, the views were just awesome.

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So we walked over to the section where you can stand on surrounded by glass, even under your feet and look out at the city below.

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The thrill was totally there and it was wild to have that kind of experience!

Once we made it down, we visited more of the city. We went out for coffee, walked to a nice lunch place at Millennium Park, and visited the Apple Store one last time so Rachel could try on the new Edition Watch.

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Then we made our way back to the apartment to get ready for a night out with a very special friend – the one who was letting us stay in his place. We had a blast going out to dinner and for drinks. It was a fun and exciting way to spend our last night in the big city!