Discovering Matanzas

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Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of my Cuba adventure.

I arrived in Matanzas yesterday in the late afternoon, after a short taxi ride from Varadero.

Once in town, it took my driver and I an hour to figure out where my casa particular was – a journey that included one man getting in the taxi with us and trying to direct us and later (after he failed), a short stint in a stranger’s living room with her timid Chihuahua while she tried to decipher the directions I had been given.

I was glad I had not haggled too extremely with the taxi driver, who accompanied me and my luggage through all of this. And I did give him a tip of two pesos although I am almost out of money. (Thankfully, a friend of mine is arriving tomorrow with cash reserves; although some things are extremely cheap here, other things – namely transportation and the hotel I had to switch after my first one was cancelled – have been far more expensive than I anticipated.)

When I finally found the casa, it was quite nice. It’s pretty obvious my hosts are rich; their towels are of the quality of U.S. towels, they have hot water and everything looks new and nice.

In general, Matanzas is beautiful and seems more wealthy than Santa Clara at first glance. The food seems to be of much higher quality (or at least better technique) and the city is more expensive and much bigger than Santa Clara, which is very walkable.

I’m still trying to get the lay of the land. Apparently a map of the city is impossible to buy; I really wish I’d bought a better guide book. Exploring based on the limited instructions of my hosts yesterday I found the Parque Liberdad (the only place in the city to access wifi), had lunch at the beautiful Restaurante Romantica San Severino, a beautiful colonial-style loft with white curtains between every table and gorgeous tiled floors and then wandered around the bay a bit.

Later, my hosts recommended one of two places that were next to each other for dinner. I haven’t been able to figure out what the neighborhood is called – I’m having trouble communicating here – but it was out of the center and required a taxi to get to. Both places were full with a long wait, but otherwise it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to wait an hour outside for dinner so after asking three people for directions, I started to head for the discotheque my hosts had told me was nearby. Walking there required going down this creepy dark road next to a ditch. That was the third time on this trip where I wondered if I might die (the first being when at the airport I was escorted into a small room with two men and the door was shut and the second being when I was puking up my organs in Varadero). OK, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic, but it didn’t necessarily feel like it in the moment and the 15-minute excursion featured a lot of “WTF” exclamations out loud.

The club turned out to be a sweat box with strobe lights and chicks in very little clothing and dudes trying to put their arms around me, and so I slugged one drink and left. It was a far cry from El Mejunje in Santa Clara – such a beautiful venue and with such a great variety of live music, from choirs to singer-songwriters with guitars to rock bands. Santa Clara seemed so full of culture – the orchestra played in the Parque Vidal twice a week at night, and there were many other “artistic events,” as the residents called them, that were scheduled there. And people were so friendly. Agh, I miss that place already.

After I choked down my drink and made it back without dying on the dark ditch road, I returned to one of the two restaurants – called Jai Mike – and had the best meal I’ve had in Cuba so far, some chicken in a tangy pineapple sauce with some actual fresh vegetables. It didn’t even have cumin in it. Pretty much everything here is drowning in cumin. I’m not going to eat it for a year after I come back.

This morning, my hosts asked me how the club – La Salsa – was last night, and I told them it wasn’t my style. They laughed and said they had just realized it was the 40th birthday party of the mayor last night and it was not normally that bad.  I tried to communicate that the problem was definitely not that the place was too slow or too aged, but my Spanish hit a brick wall.

Discovering Matanzas

In Varadero in a monsoon with food poisoning/ the flu

My one and only photo of Varadero, after the rain stopped.

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of my Cuba adventure.

I’m not sure where a good place to have food poisoning or the flu is, but I know it’s not Cuba.

And that’s the way the I’ve spent the last two days.

Varadero was a shock to the system when I arrived on Friday. After my incredible time in Santa Clara, the manicured, palm-tree dotted peninsula felt like Disney World, a place where they had kicked out all of the native Cubans and invited a few back to “perform” at the rows of resorts for giddily clapping middle-aged tourists.

It was also starting to rain.

I was staying at Melia Varadero, and all of the resort’s restaurants were closed following lunch service when I arrived, but I was able to order the innards of a tuna sandwich (I can’t eat bread, and sandwiches and pizza was all they had) at one of the cafes. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, imagine how it looked.

I’m not sure what went wrong after that – if it was the tuna or if this persistent cold deciding to morph into something more menacing — but shortly after I became very sick and spent the next 36 hours bowing to the porcelain god in my bathroom and unable to keep anything down.

Outside, some serious downpours (OK, maybe not a monsoon) ensued, temporarily knocking out television (yes, there was a television!) access.

Still, common sense would tell one that being in a hotel with food poisoning/ the flu would be the preferred spot, but I am sure I would have gotten more assistance from the host – sweet Loana – at my last casa particular. Not to mention the fact that contrary to common sense, not much is superior here – not the service (I had to battle to get them to bring me even water) not the wifi (cell service/ wifi of any sort is VERY hard to find anywhere in this country it seems), not the stiff, starchy sheets, not the hot water (there is none) and definitely not the coffee.

I considered at one point whether I would also have the opportunity to discover the adequacy of Varadero’s hospital system, though luckily I avoided that and didn’t die in the process.

Of course, as I am discovering now that I have mostly emerged from the throws of death and am about half an hour from departure, it IS beautiful.

The rain is gone and I’m sitting at one of the cafes by the ocean, drinking the inferior coffee and staring at a boundless sheet of turquoise ocean under blue skies. The palm trees are swaying. It’s not too hot, not too cold. And I’m remembering the caves and the places in town I wanted to explore.

Dammit Varadero, not cool.

Oh well, moving on.

In Varadero in a monsoon with food poisoning/ the flu

Goodbye Santa Clara, hello Varadero

Cuba travels parts 1, 2 and 3.

This morning, when I awoke from my rum slumber, I walked two circles around Santa Clara and then had my hosts call me a taxi.

On the drive out, I teared up.

That’s the spell that is Santa Clara, delivering two of the fullest two days I’ve ever had in a locale I already know will be one of my favorites always.

Yesterday, Luy tells me, I became Cuban.

After waking up to the sound of children shouting and the thick smell of tobacco smoke rising in through the open windows, I went down to El Mejunje to meet Luy like we had agreed to the night before.

“If you’re going to hang with me, you have to be Cuban,” he said.

Stop No. 1? To get my nails done in a deep shade of blue, apparently. Across the street from the salon was the unofficial revolution museum – a tiny, coffee-shop sized space filled with original documents, pictures, artifacts, uniforms. None of it is under glass. The uniforms you can touch; the medals of honor, you can buy, tarnished and worn from years past. A turquoise bubbly fridge, era 1940s is still working – and they use it, to store drinks and food.

They live in this museum the way the city itself functions as a living, breathing museum. It is as though someone hit the pause button in the 1958 and the city has lived every day since, frozen in time.

They walk the same streets, they live in the same buildings, the rich ones drive the same cars, and the slow, social, vibrant, unplugged lifestyle continues. Wifi is all but absent. As for GPS? Google? Apple? The roads have never been mapped. Directions consist of landmarks and hand motions. Iphones are basically relegated to, well, telephones.  Friendship is valued above all worldly possessions, which are few. People find each other by going to the square or a particular café. And at night, everyone gets together, drinks rum and dances.

Nothing works, the power and the water across the city cuts out randomly – including once last night and once this morning and there aren’t enough jobs, by far. But there is a beauty in the pillars that hold together the disintegrating floor, the sloping roof. Everyone works together and for each other. And there is such joy and pride and why not? Beyond the historical gold mines, Santa Clara is unique, extremely lively with art and culture, incredibly progressive considering the context and full of wonderful coffee, cheap beer and amazing views.

I asked Luy what was hard to get in Cuba. Some of the things I have read it is very hard to get are quality shampoos, etc., sheets, towels, razor blades, toys and spices.

His answer included iphones, playstations and good wifi but he added “Food is easy. Beer is easy. Friends are easy. And almost anything else, you can get on the black market.”

After the museum, Luy showed me the Che Guevara monuments and the original trains that Che led the revolutionists in overturning, effectively pushing Batista from power. Across the street was a stand selling Che t-shirts, hats and bags.

“It makes me kind of sad,” Luy said. “Che was a great hero, but now he’s just a tourist symbol.

“You can buy a t-shirt for 7 CUCs. But if it has Che’s face on it, it’s 20.”

We bought a bag of bananas from another roadside stand and walked up the mountain, peering around the plateau at the city below after we caught our breath. Luy pronounced me 85 percent Cuban after the mountain and at lunch when I flicked a fly out of my wine and kept drinking, he gave me a disgusted look and said I was now more Cuban than he was.

Later I met up with Juniel and his friend Yesser, who happens to be a music artist who is of some repute in Havana I’m told.

The three of us drank coffees and beers at Café Europa for a while and then set off for the baseball game I had been yelling about for two days. Woops. Turns out I had gotten the time wrong – it was a day game – and the stadium was empty. Instead, we had pork and chicken and rice and beans and salad and rum at a nearby restaurant. For all of that for the three of us, it was 6.50 in U.S. dollars. Of course, there were no napkins. Another place, no ice.

“Everything is like this,” Yuniel said, shaking his head. “We don’t have, we don’t have.”

I managed to pay this time. Despite that Cubans are economically engrained in a far different world, I found my friends to be extremely generous – with their time, their hearts and their money – and often insisted on paying as I was “the guest” in their Santa Clara.

During dinner, Yuniel and Yasser talked about American movies they’d seen – the Hangover was a hit – and actors they tried to remember names for. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Sean Connery.  Yasser had played Tu Pac earlier – Cubans seem to love American rap and hip hop – and Yuniel sang bits of Bob Marley and “Everybody Dance Now.”

Earlier, I had asked Luy if he thought Cuba would change now that it was becoming more open to American tourists.

“It will change,” he said.

He doesn’t fear it. Thought Luy is relatively well off – the son of two doctors, one Cuban, one American. But most people he knows are not. One of the people I had met, he told me, shared a single room and a single bed with his mother and his brother.

“It has to change,” he said. “There is so much sacrifice.”

That night, the orchestra played in Parque Vidal before the premier event – a professional dancing academy performing African and traditional Cuban dances on a stage constructed that afternoon.

The night ended late once more at El Mejunje, where there were very good Cuban singer-songwriter types on stage and Juniel taught me a little more salsa in between downing Cuba Libres. We met a girl from Holland and a couple from Germany, who were all wonderful and I talked so much and so loudly over the music that I lost my voice. (I’m also still mui infirma!)

Today I made the trip to Varadero, the land of beautiful beaches and many, many tourists. The road was different than that from Havana to Santa Clara – through many small towns and amongst many more cars and trucks carrying goods and sometimes crammed with people, all standing up. My driver, who spoke very quick Spanish, of which I processed about 25 percent, wove in between horse carts and cars and bicycles on the single-lane road while whipping along at 140 kilometers. The front windows were missing and one of the back windows rolled up only halfway so we were thrashed with wind the whole way. When we got closer to Varadero, the land leveled, the road side became more sandy and the air wetter and more salty.

As I arrived at the Hotel Melia, a soft rain began, the first I’ve seen here. At the hotel, no one seems happy and everyone seems annoyed at the tourists parading around demanding things.

At least everything is still very Cuban: although they advertise free wifi, one has to purchase it by the hour in a glass room lit up by string lights in the lobby. The “internet center” hands out pieces of paper with passcodes for 3 CUCs and if you want more when the hour is over, you have to go back and purchase another piece of paper.  When I told the clerk I wanted to purchase wifi for my room, she shook her head.

“In the rooms it’s no good,” she said. “It’s best to sit in the lobby when you use.”

The elevators, already slow, have stopped working since I’ve arrived. The water heats only to luke warm. And the process for getting ice includes bringing your bucket down to the cafeteria where they will practically throw it back at you.


Goodbye Santa Clara, hello Varadero

A month-long day in vibrant Santa Clara

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Cuba Parts 1 and 2.

After yesterday, I feel as though I’ve been in Santa Clara – this subtly beautiful small-town center of vibrancy and progression – for a month.

In Rodolfo’s “luxury car,” I rolled into town, via the Che Guevara monument, around 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

The streets narrowed and became cobblestone. People on foot , bicycle, horse cart and taxi buggies that seemed incapable – or unwilling – to stop if anything crossed their paths, crowded the cars. People sat on the modest stoops of colorful row houses and talked with coffees.

It was immediately unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. I wish I could describe it properly. A wonderful, buzzing chaos.

Unlike most tourist cities, a lot of Santa Clara requires one to be in the know to access. Buzzing barber shops are almost hidden behind the slatted grates of an iron door. Cafeterias on side streets feel like homes – with only a kitchen and one or two tables. Places that are businesses often have no sign on the outside or hint that they are more than a residence – until you burst through the doors.

Rodolfo stopped to talk with four different people before pin-pointing my location. After unloading at my apartment – more on that later – I went out and walked a wide circle around the area in the center of town  before plopping down at the nearest bar, ordering a couple of Cuba Libres and trying to make a plan.

I never made one, but a plan soon found me. First, I ran into Luy, a Cuban American, who spends half his time in the states and half his time here.  Speaking English was a great relief after a morning of jagged communication and he quickly confirmed to me that I was swindled with my cab ride.

And I think I’m starting to learn why everyone – at least the younger side of everyone – is so friendly here and eager to show around, without apparent motives. You have to know a lot of people to get anything done. Everyone has a function. In Santa Clara, it seems like everyone knows each other.

After chatting with Luy for a while and telling him I’d see him later at El Menjunje, the club where he works  — “If you live in Cuba, you have to work hard,” he said – I quickly made some new friends.

Yuniel and Islay, Santa Clara natives, were going to find a drink and I joined them. We bought three tall, tart and sugary mojitos and sat on the steps of the main bar in the square surrounding Parque Vidal and chatted best we could. Yuniel’s English is maybe about 40 percent where my Spanish is at about 15 percent and Islay’s English is about the same as my Spanish, but when we could not find the words, we acted it out. Occasionally, that got complicated, like when I was trying to ask them about the annual transvestite beauty pageant that I read is held here each year.

Around that time, Luy walked up again, shouting to Yuniel and Islay and slapping their hands. Of course – he knew them already. Luy, who had warned me earlier not to buy cigars from the factory outlet – the black market is better, he said – had procured a box of Cohibas for me. By legitimate means, I am sure!

Luy introduced me to his “life mentor” – a guy who everyone calls KK – and he promised he would find me a reasonable driver to take me to Varadero on Friday and that the ride wouldn’t cost me more than $50.

He shook his head at hearing my commute story and how they played up the “outside danger” factor.

“There are two Cubas,” he said. “The government and the people.

“The people want to work and they need the money the most, but they are fair and they are real and they will give you a real experience. The government sees it as its job to wring as much money as possible out of tourists, especially Americans. And the experiences, they come from a corporation, not a person. The best thing is to avoid the people in suits as much as you can.”

After cooking with my hosts – more on that later, too – I convened with everyone at El Mejunje, which hosts a wide variety of live performances in its stunning, open-air park-like space. It’s also the site of Cuba’s only gay club, which it transforms into each Saturday and Sunday.

Luy had told me earlier that when he works Saturdays “Guys will come and ffpt! Give me a pat [on the bum] and I’ll just grit my teeth and smile and carry the drinks.”

He laughs and smiles. In reality, they are all very proud that Santa Clara has this distinction – several people told me about it, beaming. Later, Luy told me he actually dons mascara for those nights and when I asked him if he was popular in the gay community, he just winked and strutted.

That night at Mejunje, there was a Cuban chorus  before the main act that people were actually buzzing about: a group of Washington State folk singers doing a people-to-people tour in the country.

The big event of the night was supposed to, instead, be a massive party over at Santa Clara’s university – the country’s largest. But it had been cancelled in honor of Fidel Castro’s death. Although I arrived after the official grieving process had completed – ending the country-wide ban on alcohol and most businesses closing – discotheques are still closed at least through January, Juniel said. There was to be no raucousness, no dancing, no reverie for at least another month.

“We’re supposed to be more calm,” Yuniel said. “We’re supposed to be sad.”

He winked. “But I’m  not sad.”

The group at El Mejunje – singing a sort of folky gospel music – was about what you’d expect and the group was a little disappointed. But still, the venue was incredible. When you walked through the door, it was like entering a park courtyard with trees, two small sets of iron-and-wood bleachers and a bar. Upstairs, there was another bar and a balcony overhang. Islay and I drank rums up there and when we were bored, wandered over to the attached art gallery which also happens to be a pop-up tattoo shops at certain times.

On the tiny terrace hanging over the street, we met a couple of American girls and a couple more Cubans, and the English was easy and entertaining. Someone found a portable speaker and one of the girls played hip hop from her playlist and the Cubans gave us a very off-beat impromptu salsa lesson. Don’t let the government know we were dancing!

I’m about to hit the town again now – I have a lot of sightseeing to do.

This morning, Milagros – my hostess, Loana’s sister – and Irving, her husband brought up breakfast to my apartment, a procession of trays and carafes. There was a plate of scrambled eggs with vegetables, a big plate of fruit with pineapple, starfruit, guava and papaya, a spiced pork hamburger patty, soft cheese, mango juice and a deep, dark coffee with no bitterness or acidity. Amazing. An hour later, they knocked on my door to collect it. More on those wonderful people later.

Ciao for now!

A month-long day in vibrant Santa Clara

Horses, baseball bats and overheating engines: on the open road in Cuba

The roadside cafeteria
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My top-notch cab and a horse and cart in the background.

Everything in Cuba feels different, right down to the roads.

Driving along a highway feels like stepping back in time, with colorful 1960s car models whizzing alongside. At the first railroad crossing we came to, a man was selling (or trying to sell) yellow baseball bats to cars that had to pass slowly over the raised tracks. Gaunt cows fed in roadside pastures. Men in wooden carts – sometimes on top of a pile of straw or with dogs – were pulled by horses alongside the regular traffic. At one point, when my driver spotted a jeep with blue lights atop the roof emerged and a pair of officers smoking cigarettes under palm trees, he literally cut our speed in half.

About 40 minutes into my excursion with Rodolfo, the air conditioning stropped working. The fact we had it at all kind of surprised me but then, maybe that’s what I was paying for. About 20 minutes after that, Rodolfo unexpectedly pulled into a thatch-roofed, outdoor, roadside cafeteria where  people were sitting at small tables, drinking coffee and beer in the open air. Rodolfo silently got out, then came around, opened my door, took my hand and brought me past all the staring faces to the counter. I think he assumed I wanted something but I had already stockpiled water and it was way too hot for coffee, especially with the AC broken. I used the outhouse around the corner – an attendant gave me three squares of toilet paper and then had a small plate waiting for my coin when I got out – while Rodolfo made a phone call, inspected under the taxi hood and bought a bottle of water to pour over the engine.

That was the only real apparent business we’ve passed that I’ve noticed. Otherwise, the land is mostly farmed or untouched with occasional shacks decorated by swaying lines of laundry in this hot breeze.

I just saw a sign that we’ve entered the province Villa Clara, which is a good sign. Rodolfo piped up and said it’s not far now.

Horses, baseball bats and overheating engines: on the open road in Cuba

I’m in Cuba! (and I’ve already been swindled)

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I’ve been in Cuba for approximately 41 minutes and I’m pretty sure I’ve already been taken.

Less than an hour ago, we were descending from a quick jump from Miami. The cloud curtain parted and there she was: a patch of green and brown land that grew in size with every second, its meandering coast dotted with farms and villages.

People have been sneaking away to this closed-off country for decades, and with the restrictions barring American travel loosening last year, I was hardly a pioneer. But as I pressed my forehead against the thick airplane window, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of my first glimpse of a place most people in my situation haven’t seen.

I was in Cuba.

Then, I walked out of baggage claim all blonde and American and alone and stuff and it was like vultures to a corpse.

DoHaveMoneyToExchange, DoIHaveMoneyToExchange, DoINeedATaxi, DoINeedATaxi, DOINEEDATAXIIIII.

I in fact did have money to exchange. I had been told to exchange my American dollars to Euros before leaving the states so as to get a better conversion rate, but in my hurry/ excitement/ panic I neglected to do so. When I asked the info desk where to exchange money, the clerk quickly told me upstairs. Then she got a good look at me and decided her compatriot would escort me to where I needed to go, instead.

That turned out to be a small room in the DOWNSTAIRS area where two men sat in easy chairs at desks. Yeah, it seemed weird and I told them that but what the hell do I know? I’m just a blonde solo American chick. They gave me 87 cents on the dollar.

THEN, the taxi. I needed to get to Santa Clara – about three, four hours away depending on who you ask. And everyone’s eyes lit up at that.

“It’s verrrrrry far, miss. Very expensive.”

“Yes, I know it’s far, but I was told travel by taxi was not very expensive.”

“To Santa Clara? Miss that is VERRRY FAR.”

They quoted me at $300 even though I had been told much cheaper. Like MUCH cheaper. Throughout our little argument, I figured out what they didn’t want to tell me: yes, there are gypsy cabs and they are MUCH cheaper. Don’t ask me how much cheaper – I don’t want to know anymore.

“But those cabs miss, they are not safe.”

“They are not secure.”

“We don’t know who they are.”

Then, gesturing to me in a concerned manner: “You are all alone. No one will no where you are.”

Welp, OK, well you got me there because I AM all alone and I AM a little nervous about jumping into a rolling death trap and trusting the stranger in the front seat to take me where I need to go and not some hidden patch of nowhere to kill me. Oh and by the way, Mr. Stranger Danger, in case it’s not already crystal clear: I have no clue where I am or how to get where I’m going, so if you start off in the opposite direction or drive circles around my destination, that’s totally cool.

I don’t know how much security the color yellow and the letters T A X I and a sketchy airport conversation provide, but it does feel like something.

So I talked them down to $200 over the course of 15 minutes, accept my fate and now here I am in the slightly more official car, being escorted by a slightly less dangery stranger (although I do feel that he just robbed me) to what I hope will be Santa Clara.

Is the ride worth that much? Of course it is – it’s like four hours. But I didn’t budget for this. I’m going to run out of money.

I’m in Cuba! (and I’ve already been swindled)

Natural wealth well worth the eye-popping cost in Iceland

imageA thick mist hung in the air, but that didn’t stop them from gathering by the dozen.

In hooded coats and caps, they sat at picnic tables, on the grass, along the brick embankments surrounding Ingolfstorg, a public square in the center of Reykjavik, clutching beers from the snack stall on the north end, or just their own hands.

The Iceland national football team — Strákarnir okkar, “our boys”—was playing Portugal on a massive makeshift projector screen and a country full of awe and wonder was filled with it for this team, who they hadn’t yet realized would smash all expectations en route to the Euro Cup quarterfinals.

Beyond the square, a miniature international city — a town, technically — simmered beneath the damp chill. To say that Reykjavik is bustling would be misconceived; if you can push past the hoards of tourists that are rapidly growing, the northern outpost invokes a village-like feel. In a city that is easily walkable in a day, locals have seemingly serendipitous meetings in cafes; people know each others’ names; they take lunch breaks at Ingolfstorg; life stop when football starts.

It isn’t the biggest, or the prettiest city I’ve been to, but it also has the power to make your stop in your tracks. This quiet beauty is best experienced, in my opinion, after schlepping your luggage up the steep, gravely streets rising from the BSI bus station after making the trek from the airport outside of town. Suddenly, the hill levels and the sidewalk descends, cracker-jack box houses jutting in the foreground of a cerulean blue sea.

Ta da — you’re in Reykjavik. You’ll shiver as you walk down dripping streets. You’ll bask under crisp, sharp skies when the sun pokes through. You’ll walk into a bar at sun set and walk out an hour later at sunrise, the horizon stitched with red all the while. And if you live like the city lives, at its pace and through its wacky customs, you’ll also find a vibrant core thriving below the surface.

The capital boasts restaurants, chefs and designers that belie its size and isolation. Natural repositories of cold-water fish, lamb, crustaceans and roots dictate menus but many creative takes ensure the selections are never tiresome. Design and art extends far beyond the wool sweaters and gloves so known for this region to furniture, paintings, home goods, music, eclectic shoes.

But to really exercise your sense of wonder, get out.

The landscape seems at first glance, otherworldly. Black, bulbous rock bubbles up from the treeless terrain as if from some prehistoric cauldron. Green moss coats popcorn hills, some dipping to unload crashing waterfalls, some hosting grazing sheep. Black, brown, green, wispy gray mountains sit beside active volcanoes; rock slides tumble out to black-sand beaches. Wild blue lupine, the most lovely of invasive species, grows like a weed, blanketing hilltops in a lavender carpet. Glacier pools appear suddenly, steam rises from the earth in other places.

You have left earth and landed again, on some foreign planet. Iceland.


Tips for travel:

1. Save on the flight, then be prepared to spend outrageously. Book your ticket well in advance to get the best rate; fares below $550 are attainable. Everything else is weirdly expensive. I’m talking $20 for a glass of wine, $60 for a main course, so on and so forth. Figure out the exchange rate and do the math before you make a purchase. Whatever it is might be more than you could have imagined.

2. Shop Duty-Free. Per that point, pick up any alcohol you may want for your apartment or hotel at the airport. It will be the best deal you’ll find anywhere in the city, including retail stores

3. Don’t worry about a language barrier. I am the sort that enjoys attempting the language wherever I travel. But if you don’t know a speck of Icelandic, never fear: almost all Icelanders speak fluent English.

4. Switch out some currency only if you want. I never needed it. Everywhere from restaurants to the public market to the cabs accept credit cards.

5. Don’t buy bottled water. A) You’re already spending too much money. B) Icelandic water is among the best in the world.

6. Don’t be shocked to see abandoned babies. Iceland is apparently the safest country in the world. Never is that more obvious than at lunchtime in Reykjavik, when parents leave their babies, in prams, outside whatever shop or cafe they’re in. One day at lunch, there were three such prams lined up outside, babies swaddled in blankets. When it began to rain, out all the mothers went out on cue — just to attach the pram tarp and then go back to their espressos. This culture seems to work just fine. However, in America, it would result in immediate arrest.

7. Don’t be shocked to see a lot of Americans. I mean way too many. Iceland is probably too trendy right now. Some places I travel, at some point I start longing for an American accent. Not here. The city is flooded with them. I was told nearly two million tourists visit this city of 30,000 every year and it seems a lot of them are from the good ‘ol U.S. I actually tried to escape them, and I couldn’t.

8. Prepare for eclectic weather. Even in the summer, Reykjavik can get quite chilly — and rainy, and windy and blustery. The sun also pops out in an instant, including sometimes at 11 p.m. for the first time. When it does, expect a more dramatic temperature shift than you’re accustomed to. Iceland has a much thinner ozone layer than we do, the sun feels stronger and can deliver a sunburn very quickly.

9. Stay in the center. Yes, Reykjavík is very walkable, no matter where you’re based. Still, as it feels too small and too expensive to splurge for a cab, staying in the downtown/ Austervöllur area, where most of the best shops and restaurants are centered will save energy. That area allows easy access to the Old Harbour, which has some good cafes but is mostly touristy and commercial, as well as the eastern stretches of Lagavegeur, the main street with shops and restaurants. The middle houses most of the bars and nightlight with some very good restaurants as well.

10. Get out. As cute as Reykjavík is, it gets small quickly. It’s not Barcelona or Rome, where you feel like you could languish weeks or months without fully grasping its potential. And the biggest lure of Iceland is the vast beauty of the mostly wild countryside; only 20 percent of the island is habitable. I experimented with renting a car (about $130/day) and also took a long bus tour ($205/ 14 hours, per Viator); both are adequate but a car might be preferred if you want to set your own pace. Navigation was very simple throughout the city and countryside.

11. Pack a lot. I rarely check a bag. This is partly because airlines have a way of losing/ damaging/ redirecting bags and partly because it’s just convenient. I like to travel light; I don’t like lugging heavy bags around or having extra things. But next trip to Iceland, my personal policy will change. I carried on for this trip, too, and regretted not having enough kinds of shoes, enough layers, enough warm clothes, or enough hot weather clothes for the bizarre weather changes. This is a trip where you’ll need hiking boots and high heels; a serious parka and a swimsuit; summer sandals and winter gloves. A carry on just wasn’t enough.

12. Observe Happy Hour. This is when you’ll find decently priced alcohol — many bars tout half-off cocktails, beer and wine, and most offers seem to fall from 4 to 6 p.m. Download the Reykjavík Appy Hour app on your iPhone for specifics.

13. Then go home. The bars, at happy hour, are packed and vibrant. A few hours later at, say, 10 p.m.? Dead. Largely due to the high cost of alcohol, locals (and now tourists) have learned to venture out for happy hour, then retreat to house parties or home for dinner. The bar-hopping crowd doesn’t get going again until at least 12:30, which makes for a late night or a pretty awkward in-between zone when you might find yourself to be the only one in the bar.

14. Get some money back. You’re broke by now, after all. Thankfully, Iceland offers tourists tax-free shopping in many stores (look for the tax-free flag outside) for purchases over 40,000 krona. Ask stores for the appropriate paperwork to get your refunds, which can be done at Duty Free in the airport on the way out. So instead of spending a fortune, you’ll spend a fortune minus 24.5 percent.


My top 15 highlights (in no particular order):

The South Coast: I hopped on this bus tour, a 14-hour excursion that hit Skógafoss, Seljalandfoss (a pair of very  different and equally striking waterfalls), the town of Vík (a tiny village with a beautiful black-sand beach) and at the furthest point, Jökulsárlón, a stunning glacier lagoon, turquoise-blue, carved out of a dusty, brown stretch of earth. There, we boated through the exposed glaciers, jutting into the sky in kingly formations. It was a long day, for sure, and there was the annoyance of not having enough time at certain stops while there was too much at others. But the sights — however you do them — are worth it. Pro tip: skip the dinner stop at Vík and head straight out for the rocks hanging over the beach. I had toted some bread, soft cheese and a flask of wine with me.


The Food Cellar (Matarkjallarinn): New this year, Food Cellar wasn’t mentioned in any of the books or research I read before visiting Reykjavík, but chatter from a few locals had me intrigued. It turned out to be my best meal in the country. Forget looking at the menu; sit in the brick-walled lounge area wit a jazz pianist entertaining at dinner and order the chef’s “secret menu,” which changes upon the night. The best part is they will cater this menu to your wants and needs, at least to some extent. They were kind enough to create an entirely gluten-free meal for me — all six courses — that was quite memorable. Everything was wonderful, including the wine and the service, but an early course of  baby scallops, seared to caramel perfection, with charred cauliflower, chili puree, crushed peanuts and a cauliflower broth will not quickly be forgotten.image

Ostabúdin: The snug cafe is the perfect stop for lunch and a coffee on a day full of drizzle. You’ll find a lot of soup in Reykjavík, but this plainly named fish soup may be the best, a decadently creamy concoction with pillows of cod bobbing in a cauldron of pureed tomatoes and spices. Next door, an attached market offers cheese and pâté counters and shelves are stocked full of salts, teas, olive oils and pickled goods. Both stops are delightful. imageimage

The Golden Circle: After jaunting along the South Coast, I thought those sites couldn’t be surpassed in shock-and-awe appeal. Therein lies the wonder and beauty of Iceland; when you think you’ve finally gotten your head around the island, it surprises you once again. Gullfoss might be the most stunning natural landmark I’ve ever seen. And the day I encountered it, I did so in whipping rain, sheets blowing sideways at my face as I walked down the steps to the sprawling canyon waterfall. Even so, its effect was brilliant. Resist the urge, if the weather is similarly terrible, to stop at the first platform, snap a few pictures and leave. Although at every point downward your mind will tell you the view CAN’T POSSIBLY get better at another vantage point, it can and it does. imageimageimageimage

Blue Lagoon/ LAVA: It’s touristy for sure, and the experience doesn’t come without a steep price — both for the food and wine on site and for the mere entry. Lines, crowds and waterproof selfie sticks will remind you that you’re not the first, nor the 10 millionth to discover this. But just go. The lagoon — like walking through a waking dream — somehow evokes pure serenity even when full. On the ride out from the airport or from Reykjavík, you’ll notice, first, the plumes of steam arising from the piles of lava rubble. When you catch the first sight of the outer edges of the lagoon, that milky blue-green stream twisting and bending through the black sulpher, it’s startling. Do it all: both the silica and algae masks, at a swim-up station, and a drink or two at the swim-up bar. Just note that you’re getting super dehydrated while you’re submerged. If you go during the day, shower and head to LAVA in your bathrobe. Although the space has all the charm of a hotel conference room, the food stretched the boundaries of what I expected. The torched artic char, with a spattering of dill, roe and fennel was delicate and flavorfully balanced. The langoustine soup was like a crustacean cappuccino, frothy and rich. And the Aya brut champagne, at $22 a glass, I have to say is worth every penny. This is not where to skimp on the trip, folks.


Dillon Whiskey Bar: If you know anything about Icelandic distilling, your mind probably jumps to vodka and Brennivín (aka “Black Death”) first, but the island is not without its variety. First up, Flóki whiskey, young and immature but certainly unique. There are a couple of varieties — the stuff that’s aged for bottles and the stuff that’s aged for the mini kegs like the one sitting at the bar when I was there. It’s about one and a half times as strong as regular whiskey, by the way. Then there’s Vor gin, one variation of which is aged, interestingly in the whiskey kegs when the whiskey is harvested. This is a different gin than anything you’ve had before.


Sushi Samba: Sushi? In Iceland? Let me do you one further. Japanese-Latin American FUSHION sushi in Iceland. Confused as to why you would frequent this place? Let me give it to you plainly: because it’s amazing. That begins with the fish, much of which — including the salmon and artic char — is caught off of Iceland’s coast. The nigiri I had practically melted in my mouth. And although there are certainly varying opinions from sushi nerds about fancy rolls, the variations here are restrained (think tiny flecks of additions, even if the additions are many) and expertly created. The motif is wild, a mixture of Japanese and Latin American pop art, furnishings and music, but it works. And I don’t care that this is the least Icelandic thing ever. It’s just good.


Kolaportid Flea Market: Spend part of an afternoon here when the sun goes away. The indoor, warehouse-like building isn’t necessarily full of treasures, but it’s entertaining to sift through. At various stalls, you’ll find dishes and glassware, stockings, sweaters, jewelry, books, shoes, spices, dried kelps and seaweeds, smoked fish, sausages, dried fish, baked goods and seagull eggs — an intriguing snapshot of Scandinavian life.


Helsuhúsid/ Safabar: Sometimes, when abroad, I like to shop at pharmacies for local lotions and other products that might not be designer, but different. This is of that ilk with the added value of a juice bar lodged at the back end. The green juice might be the city’s best detox after a long midsummer night. fimage

Jacobson Loftid: Head to this upper-floor, square-bar lounge for some of the better cocktails in the city, but don’t show your face before 1 a.m.

Snaps: I discovered this French bistro is a local favorite and super vibrant in the early evenings. There’s a great bar for dinner/ drinks/ pouring over your latest book while savoring the lamb chops and frites with buttery béarnaise sauce. imageimage

My Concept Store: Lagaveguer, full of colorful row shops with slanted roofs, is the place to shop in the city. Of all the interesting local shops, I liked this one the most — like most spots, it isn’t cheap, but the artisan jewelry, maps, leather goods and gifts stood out among the pack. Other shops I liked included Nam, Mál og Menning (gifts), Aurum (home goods), Eva, Kroll (designer clothes, shoes), Kokka (kitchenware) and Vinberio (local candy).

Café Haiti: One of the gems along an otherwise less-than-photogenic harbor, this picturesque gem serves up strong coffee in a warm environment. I sat there writing for a long morning and enjoyed the hell out of it.


Sandholt Bakery: This was mostly torture for me, being Celiac and unable to eat gluten, but the truffles were also excellent and artistic masterpieces of their own. If you’re of the all-for-gluten variety, peep the baguette sandwiches and pastries (I saw a lot of ecstatic faces, that’s all I can say).


Sæta Svinid: My favorite pick for happy hour. Translating to “Sweet Pig,” the West Village-esque bar celebrates swine on the walls and in the wooden beams, over the copper bar and beside the hanging fixtures. If the atmosphere isn’t enough, try out their gin and tonic bar, replete with varieties including “strawberry and black pepper” and “juniper and rhubarb.”


Natural wealth well worth the eye-popping cost in Iceland