Cuba – Day 3: Old Havana (Photoshoot)

Cat was the perfect partner in crime. She was ready to have a full day dedicated to a photo shoot. 

After primping, we treated ourselves to a mojito (and the spectacular view from the grand garden) at Hotel Nacional, where we paid for wifi and checked in for our flight the next day.  As I mentioned before, the wifi was very unreliable & it was easy to to “disconnect” after checking in.  Besides, living in the moment is preferred in Cuba.

 



Once again, we booked Narki for the day & we headed to La Habana Vieja for some glamour shots. 








Sweaty and all, we wobbled through the cobble stone streets of La Habana Vieja in our stiletto heels, dresses, and full hair & make up.  We took turns shooting each other & soon, Narki, himself, became our official photographer, directing us & shooting on our phones. 

Walking down the streets in our fancy outfits & making heads turn, made us feel like superstars! At one point, I remember Cat saying, “These people wish they were living our photoshoot… or nah?!” Lol it was cute. 


 Not cocky, but confidently, we walked through the streets, spinning, laughing, dancing, holding hands, & interacting with the locals by waiving, blowing kisses, talking, posing & stopping to buy gifts.  














Later, we asked Narki to take us to the best place to watch the Sun set… he did not disappoint! 

At El Morro, we got the best view of our entire visit! We caught the sunset & snapped some great shots… we told Narki, that of our entire trip, this was his winning suggestion. 



I hope you enjoyed these photos… & I hope to see you in Cuba… soon! 

*Here are a few tips for visiting Cuba: 

1. Don’t be afraid. After experiencing this beautiful country, I must say, they seem very happy, welcoming & well balanced. Tourism is alive & well there. U.S. citizens are the only newbies. 

2.  U.S. tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel listed here.

3.  Book your place through Airbnb. Hotels can be pricey in Cuba. Get the experience of living like a local, surrounded by locals! Click here to book where we stayed. 

4.  U.S. CARDS WILL NOT WORK THERE! Take enough cash to cover your entire stay. In fact, whatever you think you will spend, take $100-$200 “emergency cash” more than that. Trust me! *The Cuban government requires that travelers declare cash amounts over 5,000 USD. 

4.  The Government of Cuba charges a 10% fee for all U.S. dollar cash conversions.  This does not apply to electronic transactions or other currencies.  *We used Euros that we had from our travels to exchange there.  

5. Take lots of hand sanitizer! Other than the bar form, soap is hard to find.

6. Be ready to be “disconnected.” Finding wifi is like finding a unicorn in Cuba. Enjoy the people around you & live in the moment! 

7. Have fun!!! Enjoy every minute of it! 

*Contact Narki (our taxi driver & photographer) by email: nankis@nauta.cu

*Cover photo/ Feature photo edited by Gustavo Gonzalez

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Cuba – Day 2: Varadero

After spending the day with our (now) trusted driver, Narki, we were ready for a beach day! It was Cat’s birthday & we wanted to chill on the sexy sands of Varadero, that people described as “divina” and  “incomparable.”  We started our 2 1/2 journey (1954 Chevys don’t speed down the highway) around 10:30am. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast & a few roadies (beers). We treated our driver to breakfast & beer too, of course.  

We thought we’d sleep the entire drive, after our night out, but the scenery was so captivating, that our feasting eyes would not rest. Between the little towns, the jungles, the canyons, the water, & the salsa music Narki was playing, we couldn’t dare sleep & miss out! 

When we finally got to Varadero… I mean, wow! It was the clearest, prettiest water I’ve ever seen in my entire life! 


We picked a spot on the (very open) beach & Naki posted up in the shade. We ordered a bucket of beer & dove into the warm, clear, tranquil water. I couldn’t believe that, even when I was up to my neck in water,  I could watch my toes wiggle! 


The water was perfect for floating and I did a lot of that until about 10 o’clock at night! Amazed by the clarity, I just couldn’t pull myself away… 

We met a group of crazy Canadian girls & a sexy latina who lives in Sweden. We drank, we danced, we sun-bathed, we lived in the moment! 



*Note: US cell phone carriers do not function in Cuba & finding wifi is like finding a unicorn. It’s the perfect place to disconnect from your phone & to connect with life as it comes & the people around you. 

**By the way, Happy birthday, Cat. Here are some shots I took of you that capture you in all your (natural) glory. 




Thank you for letting me spend your birthday with you! 

Havana, Cuba – Day 1 

So… Cuba! Here’s the scoop… I had zero sleep the night leading up to my Cuban vacation. My flight departed at 5am and when I fly that early, I simply cannot sleep. 

We landed in Havana & went straight to our Airbnb. The drive there was so stimulating.  Havana really does feel like time has stopped.. with all the vibrant colors & scenery & Chevys from the 1950’s, it’s hard not to be swept up in the romance! 




Don Reina (our host’s neighbor) greeted us when we pulled up. He showed us around the house & made us a Cuban coffee.  

We got dressed & asked him to show us a good local spot for some food. He took us to an Anthony Bourdain (who is my idol & soulmate) favorite, Paladar Los Amigos.  Later, we would come to find that it’s pretty normal to be sent to restaurants in Cuba. It seemed impossible (in our few days) to find hole-in-the-wall, local joints.  

We bought Reina a beer & talked about our game plan. When he heard that we needed transportation, he walked outside & came back with Narki, a local taxi driver. We were going to tour the city of Havana after dinner. 

We said goodbye to Don Reina & hit the road with Narki, in his pink & silver 1954 Chevy. *Swoon*

We stopped at Plaza de la Revolución, a popular street/square where tons of taxi drivers (with beautifully kept) vintage cars meet; a total (wonderful) tourist trap. In the background, you find two tall buildings, one with a famous image of Che Guevara on it.  


And, the drivers… let me tell you… they are not shy! Flirting with Catalina & Me, they asked us if we’d like photos with their cars… ummmm, yes! 


You see, something you might not know about me:  

I grew up with a dad who owned a car shop that customized lowriders. The guy lived for candy paint jobs, “hitting the hydros,” and speakers that vibrated your seat & the floor under your feet. 

I remember when I was in elementary, “pap” would pick me up from school in a different ride almost everyday. Being in third grade, I was embarrassed when the boys in my class would follow me out just to see which car he’d roll up in… but, now, I realize how effing cool that really was… 

Anyway! Being in that square, with all those cars, and those men giving us all that attention, (but not pushing the line of full-on creep-mode) made me feel beautiful & adored.  It was a different feeling than walking the streets alone in the U.S. & being cat-called.

I decided that if I ever get my heart broken (again), or ever feel insecure,  I’m going back to Cuba to boost my confidence! Those men know how to flatter you, without making your skin crawl.  I felt like a total rockstar in their presence.  


We had a full-on photo shoot & continued on our tour of Cuba. I can’t possibly describe the forest that we went to (where remnants of burned chicken skulls & evidence of Santeria were scattered everywhere, and the trees appeared to be weeping) nor can I describe the neighborhoods, the uniforms of the city officials (females in short, tight skirts & high-heeled shoes), nor the vibrant colors of the convertible, classic cars & buildings… (partly because I lost over 200 photos from this day… but, hey… let your imagination run wild)! 

The day was filled with over-stimulation of all of our senses – as anybody in a new environment might feel, see, smell, feel, experience, etc.  

It was a lot. It was amazing. It was beautiful! 

Chichén Itzá

When we decided to go to Playa del Carmen, one of our motivators was to stop by the Mayan pyramids in Chichén Itzá.  With little research on our part & a lot of help from the front desk staff at our hotel, we booked our tour. 

After three bus rides, we finally made it to the sacred grounds.  We took the tour in Spanish, to be with a smaller crowd & we enjoyed learning all the history.  




Our tour guide, Victor, told us how the Mayan calendar was created, theories on how ceremonies were held, details on the placement of the structures & how the sun would set, creating an image of a serpent climbing up the pyramids.  We were told tales of brutal ball games, where to this day, it’s not quite certain if the winner or the loser was the one to be sacrificed to the gods.  



It was warm and sunny out & not as hot as it usually gets in that area. We were pretty lucky to enjoy such a beautiful day.  We learned so much and made some great memories. 

Hotel 52 

This weekend, I took a mini vacation with one of my friends.  We decided that a few days in Playa del Carmen was just what the doctor ordered.  We made a great choice.  Hotel 52 was part of why it was so great.


Hotel 52 is a new hotel (like seriously new… it hasn’t even been open for two months) located on Calle 52, just off the famous “5 Avenida,” which is home to tons of clubs, shops, bars & restaurants.  The hotel’s location is in an area that is currently under development, but we absolutely loved staying there.  

Hotel 52 is bright and modern.  The staff is great – from Alexis & Humberto, at the front desk, to Sergio, who pretty much can help you with anything you need to make your stay more comfortable.  We felt so at home. 



The shower worked great, the beds were extremely comfortable & we had our own balcony.  We opted for their most economic version, a single room with two queen beds.  But, the hotel also offers junior & master suites. 

The price can’t be beat & I highly recommend that you book your next stay here.



*Note: Hotel 52 currently has a 3 star rating.  The hotel is still being fine-tuned. The restaurant is still building their menu & does not serve liquor. But, there’s an Oxxo (Mexican convenience store- think 711 or wawa) a couple blocks away and the staff will provide you with an ice chest to keep your beer cold, or they’ll make fresh-squeezed orange juice for you to enjoy your own champagne mimosas on the rooftop… and what a rooftop it is! 


Love Albany 

I spent Valentine’s Day with one of my many loves… (making) money.  I worked.  I ended up in Albany, NY and had a full 24 hours to catch up on some sleep & explore a little.  

Before this trip, I was not aware that Albany is the Capital City of New York.  So, when my hotel concierge told me that we were near the Capitol building, I knew I wanted to get out and walk around a bit, even if it was 30 degrees. 

By the time I got settled in, ate & changed, I had about an hour before sunset.  So, I stepped out to walked around the cute, quaint area.  
I was stunned by the State’s Capitol and I spent some time seeing it from every angle.  

Near the Capitol, I noticed a unique building, which I later found out is a theatre, called The Egg.  


There was a large ice skating rink near by & I could hear music playing.  I imagined quite a few skaters were couples, celebrating Qupid’s day.  

After a little bit of exploring, my hands were so cold that my phone wasn’t even responding to my touch.  (I forgot to pack gloves).  So, I decided to pop back into my hotel room to warm up.  That’s when Twilight started playing on TV, and I had to decide between a single gal’s Vday with a movie & wine, or an evening meeting locals.  This is usually an easy decision, but today, it took a little work… 

Considering my long layover – and words my cousin, Johnny, shared with me recently – “Come on, fool.  Go out.  You know you never have a hard time making friends.”  I went to to a local beer hall.  

City Beer Hall was busy, but still had room at the bar.  Perfect.  I took a seat & the lovely bartender, Beth Anne, came my aide.  She helped me pick a local IPA & left a food menu for me.  

When my beer arrived, it came with a raffle ticket.  The ticket was redeemable in the kitchen, for a personal-sized pizza.   This was not a Valentine’s Day special.  They do this everyday, folks! 

After meeting a few locals, tossing back a few local brews, and nibbling on free pizza, I was informed by a gentleman named Steve, of a speakeasy that was located right downstairs.  You have to  exit the beer hall, knock  on the door, and hope they let you in. We got lucky. 

They had a live jazz band, dim, romantic lighting, snazzy dressers, and a busy dance floor.  Steve ordered us some drinks.  One was served with a single, globe-shaped ice cube & set on fire.  Cheers! 

There had been dance lessons earlier in the night & the instructors were still there, pulling people to the dance floor.  There were guys dancing with girls, girls dancing with girls, and guys dancing with guys.  I got spun around a few times, which, those who know me, know that that’s all I need.

I made friends with the bartenders & host and I promised I’d be back again.  Then, I spent my morning resting in my warm, comfy bed, as I watched fresh snow fall.  Albany surprised me.  I really enjoyed my time there.  Thank you, upstate New York. 

Celebrating The Queen

I called this post “Celebrating The Queen,” because I spent Mother’s Day weekend with my mom at the Second Annual, Fiesta de la Flor – a festival celebrating the life of Selena Quintanilla Perez.

In so many ways, this festival ties my all worlds together. Attending the event meant incorporating flying, driving, dancing, music, singing, my mom, family, Selena costumes, red lips, eyeliner, waterfronts, blue skies, beauty, Latinos, love & history. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. 

 You see, when I was a little girl, my Mexican parents thought it would be best to have “Americanized” children. No Spanish, no accent, just perfect English. This would avoid all the ridicule they endured growing up. I’ve talked a little bit about this in a previous post

Anyway, when I was a young girl, my (Mexican-Amercican) mom had this Spanish cassette that she would listen to on repeat. The melodies were intriguing & the sultry, raspy voice called to me. When I first heard Selena’s Entre A Mi Mundo, it was love as first note. The album included an English track called “Missing My Baby,” which was reminiscent of the Golden Oldies you’d hear on Sunday nights, on the Art Laboe show. I was impressed that this “Mexican” singer knew English. When my mom explained to me that Selena was Mexican-American, like us, and that she only learned Spanish through her music, she instantly (along with Mariah Carey) became my idol.     

Little did I know that I’d only get to enjoy Selena as a living artist for a few short years. When I was in sixth grade, my mom picked me up from school on Friday,  March 31, 1995, with tears in her eyes. She told me that Selena had been shot & killed earlier that day. I remember crying myself to sleep that night. 

After losing such an icon in my life, the only thing I could do was try keep her alive in my world, in my own way.  Everyday after school, I’d come home & spend hours upon hours with her CDs on repeat, singing and dancing in my room. I was silly enough to think my family couldn’t hear me.  

About six months later, after hearing me practice so avidly, my mom asked me to sing at my dad’s birthday party. Nervous to sing in Spanish, in front of a Mexican crowd with a full Mariachi band, I initially declined. Then, she offered me to pay me & I jumped up and grabbed the microphone. I sang Tú Sólo Tú, trying as hard as I could to mimic Selena’s cover from her last studio album, “Dreaming of You,” which was released after her passing. 

The crowd seemed pleased & very surprised… and, I was hooked. It was hard to keep me from singing at parties after that. 

After 21 years of imitating, impersonating & cultivating my own version of a Selena-inspired woman, I finally got to visit her home town of Corpus Christi.  The best part was that I got to take my mom, the woman who introduced me to this artist, who continues to influence my life even over two decades after her death.  I was beyond excited.  

The entire trip was a roller coaster ride.  Excitement, sadness, heartbreak, love, anger… Those were all a part of the emotional weekend.  


Our weekend started with a dash to the festival.  After two flights & a road trip from San Antonio, we made it to Corpus Christi in time to catch Pete Astudillo.  My mom and I both cried when he performed “Como Te Extraño,” a cumbia he wrote for Selena.  It was such a precious moment. 
The night ended on a happy note with the Legend, “El Rey de la Acordeón,” Ramón Ayala.”  Every Mexican family plays his classics at any given gathering.  His music is a staple in our culture. 


The next day, we mapped out some stops around Corpus Christi.  We wanted to see everything from where Selena lived, to where she was laid to rest.  Here’s how our day went: 

We (along with some other festival goers) started our day with a visit to Selena’s gravesite.



Our next stop was was Selena & Chris’s house. They actually lived next door to Abraham & Marcela Quintanilla (Selena’s parents). On the other side of their house (not photographed) was A.B. Quintanilla’s house – Selena’s brother/producer/bandmate.

The most chilling stop we made all day was to the (former) Days Inn, room 158 (now Knight’s Inn, room 150), where Selena was brutally murdered by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.

We met the guest staying in the room & he was nice enough to let us in to look around. It was definitely a heavy & eerie experience . I mean, this was the actual spot where Selena was shot! It was heartbreaking.


The hallway where Selena ran to look for help to save her life…


Next, was the Selena Museum. It’s also the location for Q Productions, Selena’s recording studio. The museum was closed, but we got a few pics outside.

My mom made me do this…

 

Our last stop, before Day 2 at the festival, was the Selena Memorial & statue.

After the emotional tour, we hit the festival for a bit & enjoyed the perfect weather, good music, and all the Selena costumes. It was such a beautiful day. 

I loved this girl’s costume! We chatted for a bit & discovered that we have same birthday, October 25.

The closest I got to Chris Perez during his meet & greet. The line was about 3hours…


Taking a page from the Selena movie & doing “The Washing Machine,” with my mom.

We turned in early, in order to get a good night’s sleep and to prepare for our day of travel.  In the morning, we thought we’d stop by the Selena Museum to check if it was as open. It was! 

After paying the small $3 entrance, we were lead into Selena’s recording studio. This was the actual room where she recorded the music that I still listen today; the same room you see Jennifer Lopez depicting the recording of “I Could Fall in Love,” in the movie. I was more than excited! 


After a short introduction & a mintute for photo ops, we were free to look around the Museum. The family has preserved & displayed Selena’s many awards, photos of the singer, some of her personal items, including jewelry, an old cell phone and her famous red Porsche. The main displays, and the center focus, are some of Selena’s iconic outfits.  To see the pieces up close and personal, is very moving.  Each display case contains a photo of the singer in that particular outfit.  Being that close to the actual clothes that she wore & designed touched my heart. It made me feel close to her & that the same time, I was reminded of how she stolen from us way too soon.

The oh-so famous Purple outfit from Selena’s last concert…



One of the most moving displays in the museum – a lipstick stained microphone…

I noticed that a lot of the things she wore didn’t look expensive or extravagant in those display cases.  A lot of the pieces had obviously been bedazzled by the singer herself.  You can see traces of glue from the hot glue gun under some of the jewels that made her belts & bra tops sparkle.  Some of the pieces looked worn & used, but man, when she wore them, she looked like a million bucks! 




After spending time in Corpus Christi, it became so clear to me that Selena really was just a small town girl, with a simple life.  She was just human, like me and you. She loved to be close to her family & she loved to sing.  She was innovative and driven and she would have done so many more great things, if she had been given the chance at a longer life.  

Standing in front of the “Selena” lights from the Last Concert, filmed at the Houston Astrodome on February 26, 1995.

I think one of the greatest things Selena (or her tragic death) did for me, was bring me to ask myself, “When I’m gone, what will people say about me? How will I be remembered?” 

It made me realize that in this life, there are so many people who I will cross paths with. Some people will be in my life for a long time, and others, for just a brief moment, but either way, whether they’re around for many moments, or for just one, those “moments” will be the only thing they ever know of me; the only experiences they’ll ever have… So, I might as well make them good! 

Forever…

Thank you for reading along.  I really hope you enjoyed this post.  Feel free to share any of your Selena stories in the comments.