Tulum

The second half of our trip couldn’t have been more different from the first half. Both places may speak Spanish, and it may only take an hour to get from one destination to the other, but Tulum was another world from Cuba. It’s beautiful here. Like, really beautiful. I’m from Hawaii and even I was in awe of the beaches, the cenotes, and the jungle. Unfortunately, the rest of the world also knows how beautiful Tulum is, which is why it’s probably one of the most touristy places I’ve ever visited. After interacting with locals constantly in Cuba, it was off-putting to be surrounded by so many influencers and wealthy Europeans in Tulum. Regardless, Anthony and I made the most of it and tried our best to find ways to do Tulum differently.

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Gorgeous beaches!

Stay

Most tourists in Tulum stay in outrageously expensive resorts on the beach. Many of these resorts are imaginatively designed and undeniably stunning, so if you have some extra cash, you can stay at Azulik, where you pay $700/night for a villa with no roof or no WiFi. We stayed at a glamping hotel called Nativus Tulum. The hotel contains six tents tucked into their own little corners of the property, each with zippered screens to keep any bugs out, a spa-worthy outdoor bathroom (outdoor shower included!), and a backyard with a hammock and outdoor seating. We’ve had an outdoor shower before — in our extravagant hotel on our safari in South Africa — but it was the first time we felt that there was complete privacy, so we really enjoyed using ours here, in utter paradise. The entire property had WiFi, complimentary bike rentals, an outdoor yoga studio, and huge breakfasts every morning. The best part, however, was direct access to a cenote, where we kayaked, paddleboarded, and watched the sunset from the deck. And if we wanted to go to the beach, all we had to do was cross the street and enter through a hotel. Since our hotel was on the southern end of Tulum, this part of the beach wasn’t crowded at all. This is how to do Tulum.

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We stayed in Tent #5 (cinco)

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Loved the design of our outdoor bathroom

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Comfortable bed, with outlets, WiFi, and all the necessities

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Our outdoor shower

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The entrance to our hotel

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Fresh eggs and quesadillas for breakfast

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Breakfast, part 2

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Our hammock right in front of our tent

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View of the cenote from our hotel

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Anthony goes paddleboarding

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Watching the sunset from our deck

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Of course there’s a yoga area at our hotel

Do

We were very adamant about not sitting on the beach all day, so we booked a couple of all-day tours with MexicoKan. Our first tour, Mayan Inland Expedition, was our favorite. We were driven deeper into the state of Quintana Roo to the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, which was once the most powerful in the region and is estimated to have had a population of over 50,000 at its peak. Massive pyramids and monuments have been buried in the jungle for over a thousand years, only recently discovered by archaeologists. Lush vegetation still covers most of the city, and it’s exciting to see only half-excavated ruins emerging from the vines and tree roots. We biked through Cobá and climbed Ixmoja, the largest pyramid. The climb up isn’t too bad, but coming down the steep, slippery steps is the hard part.

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Climbing up Ixmoja

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We were the first ones to the top! And wearing sandals instead of sneakers!

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Climbing down was the scariest part

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Our hilarious tour guide

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Riding a children’s bike to different ruins

After returning our bikes, we visited the stunning Punta Laguna nature reserve, where we searched for spider monkeys (it wasn’t difficult, their screeching are blood-curdling), ziplined across a turquoise lake, canoed, and were blessed in a Mayan ceremony.

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Mayan ceremony

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After ziplining and canoeing across this lake, we took in the views

For lunch we went to the nearby village of Nuevo Durango, where we visited the house of a local family who created a project that nurtures injured or endangered animals and reintroduces them into the wild. They have all types of birds and farm animals, as well as medicinal plants and honey bees that don’t have stingers. We made tortillas and had a delicious home-cooked meal there.

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Making tortillas

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Wanted the recipe for this soup!

Our last activity on this tour was swimming in a cenote that our group had all to ourselves. A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of the underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool which is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means “well.” The water in these cenotes is crystal-clear, cool, calcium-rich freshwater. The calcium levels are so high, in fact, that it’s hard to tread the water; I had to wear a lifejacket because my arms were getting so tired! The Yucatán Peninsula has thousands of these cenotes because the ground is primarily made up of limestone, which is porous. Cenotes were the area’s main source of water and played an important role in ancient Mayan civilization, as passages to the underworld and sites for sacrificial purposes. Some cenotes are easy to access, with staircases leading down to the water, while others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. Anthony and a couple other brave souls jumped from the very top, which was 8 meters high.

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Imagine stumbling across this!

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Wearing a lifejacket because my arms got tired!

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Enjoying the cenote with our new friends

The next day, we had another tour with the same company. The World Wonder Discovery tour was very different; instead of adventurous millennials, we were surrounded by mostly uncultural middle-aged Americans, and the pace was much slower. We started off at Chichen Itza, one of the New Wonders of the World. The iconic Temple of Kukulkan is a step pyramid of nine square terraces. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. Around the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. It’s widespread belief that this effect was achieved on purpose to record the equinoxes.

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Chichen Itza

Nearby is the Great Ball Court, the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. This sport was played throughout the Mayan civilization, but it was more than just an athletic event; it was also a sacrificial and religious event. The winning team’s captain was decapitated, an honorable sacrifice to the gods. A rubber ball could be hit with the right hip, right elbow, and right knee, but no hands. The aim was to move the ball through the stone ring up high.

After Chichen Itza, we had lunch at a touristy but beautiful former mansion in Valladolid, a quiet colonial town. Then we swam in another cenote, which was even more impressive than yesterday’s. It had a rope running through the middle just in case you got tired from swimming in the calcium-rich waters. On our way out, we looked at the fossils inlaid in the cenote walls — proof that the entire Yucatan used to be underwater.

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Beautiful restaurant for lunch in Valladolid

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Mole on chicken enchiladas

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Festive Valladolid

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Cenote Xux-Ha

Eat

Most of our meals in Tulum alternated between just two places (a dirt-cheap taco joint on the beach, and a mid-range vegan spot just a few steps from our hotel) because everything else by us was so overpriced, we felt like we were back in New York. Tulum caters to tourists so much that all places take USD and Euros; I sometimes forgot that I was in another country. Fortunately, we found two spots near our hotel that didn’t hurt our heart or wallet too much: Charley’s Vegan Tacos (a vegan spot with fun decor) and Taqueria La Eufemia (a boisterous beachfront taco shop where we saw the most locals in the entire region).

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Crispy fish and grilled shrimp tacos at La Eufemia

If we had another day in Tulum, I’d try to make reservations at Hartwood, the most prestigious restaurant in Tulum that was even beloved by locals.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. There are ATMs everywhere, and many of them only give out USD, which just highlights how tourist-centric this place is.
  2. Tip restaurants 15% and tour guides $50-70 per person. 1 USD = 19 Mexican Peso.
  3. We used a car service called eTransfers to pick us up from the airport and to take us back. I paid online, and they showed up on time and in a comfortable van.
  4. If you only do three things in Tulum: enjoy the beach, visit a few cenotes (they’re all unique, so you’ll want to explore more than one), and book the Mayan Inland Expedition tour with MexicoKan. MexicoKan Tours picks you up directly from your hotel in the morning and drops you off just before sunset.
  5. Wake up early and watch the sunrise from the beach, since it faces east.
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Secluded beaches

Cuba

The U.S. government is desperately trying to discourage Americans from visiting Cuba. Cruise ships are prohibited from stopping in Cuba, tourists are no longer allowed to travel under the convenient People-to-People category, and the exchange rate for USD to CUC is hit with an extra 10%. But I’m begging you: Don’t let these deter you, because if you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most vibrant countries we’ve ever visited, filled with some of the most well-informed, welcoming people I’ve ever met.

Anthony and I were nervous about visiting Cuba for obvious reasons. We knew we had to bring all the cash we’d need for the entire trip since American credit cards don’t work in Cuba. Also, we were traveling under the Support for the Cuban People category, which requires a “full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people” that we must document and retain for five years. We tend to travel this way anyway, staying at Airbnbs, eating at local restaurants, and filling our days with cultural activities — but still. It was a bit exhausting just feeling like we’d have to justify what we were doing.

Guess what? That law is complete bullshit because absolutely no one questioned us about Cuba.

In fact, for the most part, Cuba was a breeze. I booked our casa particular (private homestay) and majority of our activities through Airbnb. We stayed in a wonderful casa particular in Old Havana, where most tourists stay. Our charming room had huge French doors that opened up to a small balcony overlooking a lively street, WiFi (a rarity in Cuba!), and a large shower. We had a hefty breakfast each morning, and our host Laura was the first of many Cubans to openly share how she felt about living here.

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The outside of our casa particular. That bright blue balcony on the right is our room
On no other trip did we get to interact with so many locals, and on no other trip were locals so honest and excited to share their thoughts with us. For our first night, I booked us a Food & Culture Tour with a couple named Maryla and Ricardo. Maryla is a sweet orthodontist and Ricardo is a talkative photographer, both of whom make more money leading these tours than from their actual careers. The tour brought us to three delicious spots in the neighborhood of Vedado, where I drank the best mojito of my life (it’s blended and uses spearmint instead of mint), discovered frituras de malanga (my new favorite dish!), and ended the night at a cute coffee shop. However, the highlight of the tour was discussing the pros and cons of Cuba, why some Cubans leave and why some stay, and what needs to happen for their country to function properly. Only about 25% of Cubans have the ability to leave, either by having family outside or by selling off their whole life to gamble with emigration. Maryla and Ricardo explained that everyone, even the government, relies on the black market. For example, because WiFi is so hard to come by, Cubans created something called “The Package”: 4 terabytes of pirated media for 1 CUC/week. Cubans sometimes get access to movies before Americans do. By the end of the tour, Maryla and Ricardo felt like old friends, and they actually helped us book another tour a few days later with their friend. Everyone in Cuba knows someone who knows someone who could be useful.

After the tour, we took the long way home along Malecón, Havana’s iconic waterfront road that curves along the coast. You can find everyone here, from romantic couples to groups of rowdy teenagers to families, all getting splashed by waves that crash against the rock wall every few minutes.

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Malecon
We took salsa lessons on our second day. A young Afro-Cuban led five of us to a dance studio in Central Havana and taught us a few basic moves. After class we had lunch at Dos Pelotas, where $5 lunch portions were so large that we were able to eat our leftovers for dinner that night. The meal was better and cheaper than any meal you can get in Old Havana. Afterward, our instructor took us to a juice shop that makes incredible coconut batidos (smoothies). Locals bring in their own plastic bottles and have them filled up with a batido. We tried to return a few days later to buy another coconut batido, but apparently they only take CUP, the local currency, unavailable to tourists! I was devastated.

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Salsa lessons
Still in a dance mood, we decided to see a ballet a few hours later. Ballet is huge in Cuba. Ballet Nacional de Cuba is the largest ballet school in the world, and I remember when my ballet company in Hawaii used to fly in Cubans to dance with us during our summer intensive programs. They put us all to shame. Coincidentally, there was a performance that very night, costing only $30 (and even less for locals). Seats seemed to be assigned randomly, but fortunately we ended up with prime orchestra seats. It was the first time Anthony actually enjoyed a ballet I had dragged him to!

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba
The next day, we were picked up in a teal ‘57 Chevy and driven 45-minutes away to San Antonio de Los Baños, where we learned how to cook typical Cuban food in our host’s home. Also in attendance was another couple who were professors from Toronto, though one of them is originally from South Africa, and his partner is from Nevada. Our host, Alejandro, taught us how to make Cuban-style pork tamales, which are boiled instead of steamed and are much wetter than Mexican tamales. We also learned to make tostones (fried smashed plantains), frituras de malanga (fried shredded taro root), and a fruit salad. During a break, Alejandro made us tinto de verano with crushed pineapple. We then packed up everything into his car and drove a few minutes to the Ariguanabo River to have a picnic. Alejandro made us some mojitos as we savored our meal. After lunch, we took rowboats out and felt like we had the whole river to ourselves. Cuba Libres were waiting for us back at the dock. Obviously, this was my favorite day of the entire trip.

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Our car matched our tour guide’s house!
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¡Hola! ¿Necesitas que te lleven?
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The bright, open-air kitchen
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Tamales
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Rowing down a secluded river
Another guide picked us up the next morning and drove us two hours to touristy but beautiful Viñales. The Valley of Viñales is a karstic depression with dramatic limestone cliffs called mogotes that rise up 300 meters from the bottom of the valley. We saw the Mural of Prehistory, an overhyped mural about evolution painted on a perpendicular slope of one of the elevations.

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Valley of Vinales
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Mural of Prehistory
Eventually, we arrived at the tobacco plantations, where we learned about cigars, rum, and coffee. Cigars are like wine; it’s all about the terroir. Soil, climate, and weather make all the difference, and every cigar maker has their own style and traditions. When the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, many former Cuban cigar manufacturers moved to other countries (primarily the Dominican Republic) to continue production. But any cigar connoisseur can taste the difference — the fertile, iron-rich red soil of this region produces a longer aftertaste and unique flavor.

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His first cigar. Che would approve
Different tobacco leaves are used for different purposes. The top leaves receive the most sunlight, so have the strongest flavor and are used for the body of a cigar. The middle leaves aren’t as good so they’re used to wrap the outside. Meanwhile, the bottom leaves receive very little sunlight and have very little flavor; since these leaves are combustible, they’re perfect for the end, which will be lit. Leaves are dried for several months, then fermented. Handmade cigars have the stem removed, therefore removing all the nicotine and making them non-addictive, while factory cigars leave in half the stem. If you don’t like the taste of the cigar by itself, dip the end in honey. Don’t inhale, just puff, hold, and release.

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Drying tobacco
We then tried Guayabita del Pinar, a rum that is not allowed to be exported, and even tourists can only purchase two bottles max. In this region, there’s a particular tree whose berries are tiny guavas about the size of a blueberry. The rum is infused with this guava, and it’s probably the only rum I’ve enjoyed sipping straight.

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Guayabita del Pinar. Can you see the little guava on the bottom?
We ended the tour with an unpleasant one-hour horse ride (I definitely should not have worn shorts!) and a couple of mojitos before purchasing some cigars to take home. Yes, the U.S. allows Americans to bring back up to $100-worth of cigars from Cuba.

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Camels > horses
On our last full day in Cuba, we took a 3.5-hour walking tour with an economist named Jorge. It was our most informative and interesting tour yet. We met Jorge in my favorite neighborhood of Vedado, where we chatted in a park before catching a public bus into a less touristy neighborhood. He answered every question we had, and answered questions we didn’t even know we had. Here’s a snippet of what we learned:

The average salary in Cuba is $40/month, which no one can live on. Between the 1960s and 1980s, there were ration cards that were enough to supplement the low salaries, providing food and other necessities. People often forget that Cuba had been doing pretty well back then, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. That changed everything. Now, it’s impossible to live on the salary and ration cards because the ration cards have covered less and less. Pretty much every Cuban has a “surge” (side hustle): Doctors take off work to do house calls, teachers cancel class to do private tutoring, and taxi drivers skip out on their last shift to sell the fuel. Cubans know how to hustle.

Very few people can completely retire because the pension is only $10/month. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate for old men who cannot work is on the rise. Most retired people do things to supplement their pension, such as selling snacks or mending clothing. We passed by a house at which a retired man was sitting outside, selling roasted peanuts conveniently wrapped in a folded paper cone; Jorge purchased us a couple to snack on.

When Anthony wanted to buy a bottle of water, Jorge took us to a huge state-run mall, and we tried the food court. None of the shops had water! We eventually found it at a new private store a few blocks away. That is the difference between state-run stores and privately-owned stores. Jorge explained that when stores claim a product is “out of season”, Cubans just ask around because someone will know someone who has what you need, and this is where the “surge” comes in again. When Jorge needed a new mattress, none of the stores had it, so he asked around and eventually someone found one for him. Jorge ended up paying more than he would have at the store, but the mattress was delivered straight to him and, mostly importantly, it was available.

The crumbling buildings that tourists find so charming about Havana are dangerous and have collapsed onto children recently, killing them. However, the government can’t do anything about these buildings since they’re private property usually passed down through generations; meanwhile, homeowners can’t maintain them since their salaries are so low.

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A typical building in Havana
President Obama brought huge changes to Cuba. He was the first president to ever visit Cuba, and when Cubans saw him being a decent human being, treating his wife with love and respect, and eating at local restaurants, for the first time Cubans couldn’t blame America for all their problems, which is what their government had taught them to do. With American tourists swarming into Cuba thanks to the ease of Airbnb and direct flights, Cubans were able to interact with real Americans and learned to hold their own government accountable. This forced their government to improve!

Unfortunately, Trump brought back the embargo against Cuba and increased sanctions, making it easier for the Cuban government to revert back to blaming America for the economy’s shortcomings. The embargo, which prevents American businesses from conducting trade with Cuba is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. The U.S. has also threatened other countries if they conduct non-food trade with Cuba, which affects the fuel that they depend on from Venezuela. The embargo is cruel and illogical, serving only to undo anything that Obama previously did.

Our tour ended at Jorge’s abuela-in-law’s home, where she made us snacks and offered her opinions. She lived through the Cuban revolution and remembers everyone being excited about it, but she is not a supporter. “Batista never took anything from us. Castro took everything from everyone.” Because she was privileged and lived in Havana, her parents had jobs and owned a second house that they would rent out. After the revolution, the government took that house away and gave it to people who needed a place to live. Jorge clarified that hers is one perspective. His own family is from the countryside where everyone adores Castro because their lives improved after the Revolution. Before the Revolution, no one in the countryside had doctors, hospitals, enough schools, or utilities. Castro gave them all of that. In the countryside, the revolution is revered, while in the city, it’s much more mixed.

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With Jorge and his Batista-supporting abeula-in-law
The amount of information we learned from Jorge was overwhelming. If you want to visit Cuba to actually learn about Cuba, you must do this tour. In fact, all of our tours felt pretty necessary. Sure, Cuba has gorgeous beaches and photogenic architecture, but what makes Cuba so unique — why Cuba is the only place in the Caribbean that we’ve ever had an interest in visiting — is its people. Every single person we met was way more aware of their circumstances than the majority of Americans are of theirs. Cubans are extremely educated, honest, open, and appreciative that we came to visit, despite our country’s blatant discouragement. So, ve a Cuba!

Tips for future travelers:

Download the maps.me app (and its Havana map) before you leave the U.S. It works offline and is a lot better than Google Maps.

The only really difficult thing about visiting Cuba is that credit cards and ATMs don’t work for Americans. So, you need to bring all the cash you’ll use for your entire trip. If you have any other currency besides USD (we lucked out and found some Euros in my wallet), you’ll get a much better exchange rate. There are currency exchanges at the airport, and I recommend you just exchange all of it there so you don’t have to waste any time standing in line at currency exchanges during your trip.

If you do need to exchange more money, we had more luck at cadecas (currency exchanges) than at banks, which have very limited hours. There are cadecas in every neighborhood, and while they may open a few minutes later than the sign says, the hours are still more generous than banks.

Don’t forget to bring your passport when you exchange money! Count the bills in front of the cashier before handing them your money (just like you should in any country). You should get 87 CUC for every 100 USD, since there is a 3% exchange fee plus a 10% US fee (fuck you, Trump).

U.S. citizens need to purchase a Tourist Card before arriving in Cuba. Sometimes the airline takes care of this (I think JetBlue includes it in their fee?), but if you’re like us, you can just purchase it at your departure airport, either at the check-in desk or the boarding gate. Since we had a layover in Panama, we purchased our Tourist Cards for $20 each, right before boarding the plane from Panama City to Havana. Easy!

Foreign health insurance doesn’t work in Cuba, and depending on who’s working at customs when you arrive, you may or may not be forced to purchase Cuban health insurance there. It’s not a big deal. We were directed to a booth where we purchased health insurance for a few dollars a day (they take USD). You’ll get a little packet of paperwork, and you should carry this around with you at all times.

Coordinate the airport pickup with your Airbnb. Just like at a lot of airports, there will be a swarm of taxi drivers trying to get your attention as soon as you exit. Avoid the chaos by having your Airbnb hire someone who is familiar with your destination.

While we loved our Airbnb in Old Havana, I would have preferred to stay in Vedado, which is slightly less touristy, has better restaurants, and would have been more convenient for all our tours. We ended up walking about 40 minutes almost every day to start a tour in Vedado.

Drink lots of coffee! Cuban coffee is as good as Italian coffee, so it’s no surprise that Cubans drink it like Italians (standing up at a bar, and often).

One of our favorite activities was just people-watching at our neighborhood park. We bought churros from a churro cart and laughed at the silly children running around.

Tip everyone, from your tour guides to your taxi drivers. We tipped our all-day tour guides between 5 and 10 CUC per person.

It’s always hot in Cuba, and basically anything goes when it comes to what to wear. Bring sneakers if you’re going to walk a lot because the streets aren’t always flat. I alternated between a tank top and shorts and summer dresses.

If you’re interested in Cuban history, check out the Museo de la Revolucion, which is a former presidential palace and houses a pretty impressive exhibit, as well as Fidel’s jacket and Che’s hat!

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This station wagon was Fidel’s. Check out all the bulletholes!
El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars, is touristy, but you can’t not come here at least once. The frozen daiquiris are actually quite good and surprisingly affordable. Get there before they open because the crowd streams in as soon as it does.

If you’re looking for a cheap local spot, we loved Donde Adrian, which we discovered through our salsa instructor. Portions are huge, and the total cost for both of our tasty meals was $5. In fact, half our dinners were just leftovers because our lunches were so large. You can eat really well in Cuba if you go to the local spots, just be aware that some of the menu may not be available because grocery stores are often sold out of produce.

If you’re looking for a memorable meal, La Guarida is a must. Every tourist eats here, and it is touristy and expensive by Cuban standards, but the food is phenomenal and the restaurant is gorgeous. La Guarida is one of the first paladars (private restaurants) in the city. It’s easy to pass it on the street, but a stunning marble staircase inside a seemingly vacant lobby leads to a warm, candlelit restaurant upstairs. Request a balcony table and order the rabo del toro with risotto.

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The iconic staircase of La Guarida
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Great way to end our trip!

Emilia-Romagna

I didn’t want to spend my 30th birthday in the U.S., so we booked a last-minute flight to Milan and planned out a brief trip to Emilia-Romagna. While it would be my sixth time in Italy (it is my favorite country, after all!), it was my very first time in this region, the culinary capital of the country.

After an hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Bologna on a dreary morning and checked into our Airbnb. There was a free walking tour starting in ten minutes, so we scurried to the starting point at Torre degli Asinelli, the iconic twin towers of Bologna. Bologna used to have hundreds of these towers, but only two remain, and one of them is comically crooked — Bologna’s own Leaning Tower! Our tour led us to the University of Bologna, the oldest university in continuous operation, and Basilica di San Petronio, a church that is only half covered in marble. Apparently the Pope had gotten jealous of the size of this church, so he ordered marble suppliers in Carrera to stop the shipment of marble to Bologna and it was never completely finished. As we wandered around town, we noticed how many porticoes there were. Bologna is a city of porticoes; there’s actually a law for each block to have them. Porticoes make so much sense, especially in the rain or snow, and they make the entire city pedestrian-friendly.

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Torre degli Asinelli – look how far that right one leans!
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The oldest university in continuous operation
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Basilica di San Petronio – half marble
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Low-key canal
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City of porticoes
On our first night, we took a cooking class in the snug apartment of a former chef named Dennis, who hosted us and another couple. We learned how to make five different pastas (tagliatelle, ravioli, tortellini, garganelli, and agnolotti) and five fillings (various mixtures of ingredients such as Ricotta, spinach, potatoes, bergamot oil, truffle oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano), and then tossed our pasta creations with a simple butter and sage sauce. For some reason, I’m awful at rolling garganelli noodles (it kept getting stuck!) but can make a pretty good tagliatelle, which I loved magically unraveling off my knife before hanging on the drying rack. As we drank Chianti and snacked on Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Ricotta, Dennis let us design our own fillings using his enviable collection of bottled oils.

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My first time using a pasta maker!
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So many oil options for our pasta stuffings
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Drying our tagliatelle
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A mixture of tortellini and ravioli, topped with a butter and sage sauce
Tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo are two of the most iconic Bolognese dishes. According to legend, Tagliatelle was created by a chef in love with a noblewoman named Lucrezia Borgia, and the noodles represent her long blonde hair. These flat, thick, ribbon-like noodles are best served with a rich sauce like ragù (also called “bolognese”). Such a thick sauce should always be served with a thick noodle that can handle it, which is why anytime you see “spaghetti bolognese” on a menu, you should run away from that restaurant immediately. Meanwhile, tortellini is a cute little stuffed pasta that represents the navel of Venus and is best served “in brodo” (in a chicken on vegetable broth).

One of my favorite things we did in Bologna was walk the longest portico in the world, which runs from the edge of town up to the Basilica di San Luca, a church sitting up on rolling hills above Bologna. The pilgrimage is a steady uphill walk through ornate covered porticoes – 666 of them in all! – stretching 4 kilometers. This walkway was built in 1674 as a way to protect the Madonna di San Luca as she was carried on her yearly visit into town. Many Bologna residents use this as a walking path or exercise run, and we enjoyed seeing so many locals out and about on a Sunday morning.

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This gate marks the beginning of the portico
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If you look closely, you can see a monk is also on our pilgrimage!
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Gorgeous views of the countryside
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One of the 666 arches
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The end!
After our walk, we caught a 51-minute train ride to Parma, an elegant, compact city that’s also part of Emilia-Romagna. It’s famous for Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, being the home of Barilla (the world’s biggest pasta maker), and was the first city in Italy to be named “Creative City for Gastronomy” by UNESCO. Besides food, it’s also known for its artists, such as opera composer Giuseppi Verdi, Renaissance painter Correggio, and conductor Arturo Toscanini, and is the headquarters of Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini. Yup, good food, opera, and fancy cars. You can sense the affluence as soon as you set foot here.

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Civilized Parma
It was raining hard when we arrived in Parma (too bad Parma’s sidewalks aren’t covered by porticoes like in Bologna!), so we didn’t get to explore as comfortably as we would have liked, but we did get to see the stunning Correggio dome in the Parma cathedral. The fresco of the assumption of Mary is bursting with color even today.

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Look at that ceiling!
For lunch, we couldn’t get into the first two restaurants I wanted to try, so we settled for a nondescript cafe called Cardinal Bar, which turned out to be an outstanding meal. When a city is this competent at food, you don’t even have to try finding a specific restaurant; you can stumble into anywhere and have the best Prosciutto and tortelli (large tortellini) of your life.

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Eating Prosciutto di Parma in Parma!
Back in Bologna, we had dinner at Osteria del Cappello, a traditional restaurant that’s been around since 1375. We tried more Bolognese specialties, such as Tortellini in Brodo, Gramigna alla Salsiccia (short, squiggly hollow pasta noodles with sausage and tomatoes), Squacquerone (a soft, creamy cheese), Tigelle (a flatbread baked in a round electric griddle), Gnocco Fritto (a puffy fried bread), and Mortadella (what Americans call “baloney” but is on a completely different level from what you can get in the U.S.).

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Best charcuterie board I’ve ever had
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Wearing tortellini earrings while eating tortellini
On my actual birthday — the only sunny day of our trip — we woke up early for a ten-hour food tour with Italian Days. This tour was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s up there with riding a camel through the Sahara Desert, waking up in Positano, eating a private meal at our ryokan in Kyoto, and riding on the back of a pickup truck through Wadi Rum.

We were promptly picked up from our Airbnb and driven for about 40 minutes to the tranquil countryside of Modena. Our first stop was a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, at which we were greeted with espresso and given disposable robes, hair caps, and shoe covers to wear for sanitation purposes. We watched the painstaking process of making official Parmigiano-Reggiano and learned the vast differences between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano D.O.P., which must be aged for at least 12 months and will have the official Parmigiano-Reggiano branding on its rind if it passes inspection. Inspectors come to the factories and tap different sections of the cheese wheel, listening for any flaws. If a Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t pass inspection, it is stripped of its rind and sold as grated “Parmesan” — no longer deemed worthy of the name Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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The cheese on the right is perfect, which is why it has the stamp of approval. The bottom left cheese, however, had mold, which was sliced out; soon it will be grated and sold as “parmesan”
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Cheese!
From there, we were driven just down the road to Antica Acetaia Cavedoni, where the Cavedoni family has been producing balsamic vinegar since 1860. This was probably the most fascinating part of our entire tour. Only 150 families are allowed to produce real balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P.), and they all live in this region. Each bottle is made from a set of barrels designated for a specific family member as soon as he or she is born, which is why the barrels were traditionally used as a dowry. Bottles made from these barrels are only sold to the public when that specific family member has passed away. I had no idea balsamic vinegar was so personal!

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Barrels that survived World War II
The highest quality of balsamic vinegar is D.O.P., which is made of only cooked grape must and aged for at least 12 years. To produce one bottle, 10,000 kilos of Trebbiano grapes are used. Families must send their balsamic vinegar to a consortium and pay €200 for inspection. If it passes, they must pay another fee for the bottle, since D.O.P. balsamic vinegar is only allowed to be in a specific type of bottle, and another fee for the special label (a red label for 12-14 years of aging, a gold label for over 15 years of aging). After all those fees, families must pay a 54% tax on any sales. Clearly, this is a passion, not for profit.

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This is the only type of bottle real balsamic vinegar is allowed to be in
After our balsamic vinegar tour, we sat around a cozy table, eager to finally try some food. We started with Lambrusco and Parmigiano-Reggiano, continued to Prosciutto and Mortadella, and finally ended with balsamic vinegar. D.O.P. balsamic vinegar is undeniably sweeter, thicker, and less sour and acidic than the balsamic vinegar most of us are used to, which is a blend of wine vinegar, cooked grape must, and usually caramels and preservatives to fake the fact that the vinegar hasn’t been aged anywhere near long enough. I.G.P. is another type of balsamic vinegar produced in this region, identifiable by its blue/yellow label. It may have more than just two ingredients and can age for a minimum of only 2 months, but the good ones are only cooked grape must and wine vinegar, and aged for at least five years. Condimento falls somewhere between D.O.P. and I.G.P., using the methods of D.O.P. but the ingredients of I.G.P. Anthony and I ended up purchasing a 3-ounce bottle of 15-year-old D.O.P. for $68 and a 3-ounce bottle of condimento for $38 — a bargain after learning about this industry, and after comparing the prices we’d be paying in the U.S.

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Drizzling some over ricotta
Our third stop was a Prosciutto factory hidden in what looked like a normal three-story house. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from the hind legs of specially selected heritage breed pigs raised in 11 regions of Italy according to the highest standards, on which they are monitored, inspected, and approved by a consortium. The hind leg is cleaned, salted with only Italian sea salt, and cured for about two months. During this time, it’s massaged carefully to drain all the blood left in the meat. Next, it is washed and hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the Prosciutto. When ready, an inspector comes in and uses a horse bone to poke into the hind leg at various points and sniff it for quality. Only after the Prosciutto passes can this smell test can it have the D.O.P. stamp. We sampled some Prosciutto di Parma with a glass of Lambrusco, and it was easily the best Prosciutto of my life.

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Looks like a normal house…
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… but it’s really a prosciutto factory!
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If it doesn’t have that Parma stamp, it’s not Prosciutto di Parma
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So different from that Prosciutto you find in America
Our final stop on the tour was an agriturismo up on the hills overlooking the Emilia-Romagna countryside. Agriturismi (“farm stays”) are popular in Italy. A nonna prepared our seven-course meal of pasta, veal, meatballs, chicken, zucchini, potatoes, and unlimited wine. Since we had been spending the past seven hours together, our tour group felt like old friends by this time. In fact, when our tour guide was asked why she wasn’t counting any of the Euros we handed over to pay for the tour, she told us, “If you want to pay me less than you owe, I have failed on my part.” With our bellies and hearts full, Anthony and I were dropped off at the Bologna train station, reluctant to head to Milan. Arrivederci, Emilia-Romagna!

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View from our agriturismo
Tips for future travelers:

If you only have a short time in Emilia-Romagna without a car, stay in Bologna. It’s the largest city in this region and is easily connected to the other towns by train.

In Bologna, hike the Portico di San Luca (the longest portico in the world) and climb the Torre degli Asinelli (the twin towers of Bologna). Both offer great views and a way to work off all the pasta you’ve been eating.

Eat: Tortellini in Brodo, Tagliatelle al Ragù, green lasagna, Mortadella, Gramigna alla Salsiccia, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gnocco fritto, balsamic vinegar, tigelle, and gelato (while gelato wasn’t invented in Emilia-Romagna, the best gelato of my life was at a gelateria in Bologna called OGGI)

Drink: Lambrusco, Pignoletto (Emilia-Romagna’s Prosecco)

If there’s only one thing you get from this entire post, it’s that you should take the Food & Wine Tour with Italian Days. It is hands down the best food tour I have ever been on — and we’ve gone on food tours everywhere (Rome, Cairo, Sevilla, Mexico City, Palermo…). It’s €150 per person, starts at 7 am and ends around 5:30 pm. There were ten of us in total, and we rode in two comfortable Mercedes vans between each site. Our tour guide Arianna was spectacular. I wish she could narrate my life! She had an infectious energy throughout the entire day, and taught us so many things we never would have learned on our own. The tour changed the way I eat food, appreciate Italy, and view the world.

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Since it was my birthday, our tour guide let me saber a bottle of Lambrusco. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 30th birthday!

Madrid + Toledo

Four years ago, Anthony and I went to Europe for three weeks, and our last twenty-four hours happened to be a layover in Madrid. Because we were young and cheap and curious about Spain’s notoriety for staying out late, we sacrificed a hotel room and spent those twenty-four hours roaming the city. We hung out at Puerta del Sol, we saw a major accident occur (a truck backed into an awning that fell on top of a woman dining outdoors, severely injuring her), we ate jamón and spent an embarrassing amount of time eating churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, and we napped in Retiro Park. It was an odd experience, and I felt pretty ambivalent about Madrid. Since that was my only experience with Spain, I also had no real desire to return to Spain — until a couple of months ago when I found round-trip flights to Madrid for an astonishingly low price of $261.

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Madrid’s sleek airport
Most of our trip was spent in Andalucía, but we did spend a couple of days in Madrid, as well as a day-trip to Toledo. Turns out, I still don’t love Madrid, but at least I finally appreciated how livable this vibrant metropolis is.

Stay

We stayed at an Airbnb in the trendy neighborhood of Malasaña, which I’d highly recommend. It’s connected to everywhere by metro, walkable to all the touristy sights, and filled with award-winning restaurants, colorful street art, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).

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View of Madrid rooftops from our Airbnb living room
Do

We spent our first morning doing the touristy Gran Vía stroll, starting at the elegant Palacio de Cibeles, which was once a post office, and ending at Plaza de España. It’s basically the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with interchangeable chain stores and foreign tourists moving slowly, but it’s interesting to see the phases of architecture along Gran Vía, from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. One of the more interesting stores to drop into is an H&M housed in a former theater.

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Palacio de Cibeles
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The Metropolis Building was designed by a couple of French brothers. The dome is topped by a statue of the winged goddess Victoria, which replaced the original bronze statue of Phoenix and Ganymedes when a rival insurance company purchased the building and the original owners took the statue with them.
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Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

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Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
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One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
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We loved seeing these same-sex traffic lights, put up during Pride and never taken down
Eat

Most of our diet in Madrid consisted of churros con chocolate, as we went to Chocolatería San Ginés pretty much after every meal. It’s an impressive place, open 24 hours yet retaining a classy feel. Servers run around balancing elegant mugs of thick chocolate and little plates of churros.

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Churros con chocolate
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, which is an Andalucian tapas bar just off Plaza Mayor. The gory photos of bullfighting filling every crevice of the restaurant is a bit corny, but the food is authentic and even served Granada style (a free tapa with every drink!), with a stream of regulars — perhaps Andalucian transplants? — throughout the afternoon.

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Legit!
Since it was August, a lot of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed for vacation, so one night we reluctantly went to La Barraca, a historic paella restaurant. It reminded me of Delmonico’s, a New York institution with white tablecloths and awkwardly stuffy service. However, we couldn’t deny that the paellas were very good. The next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.

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Best paella on our trip
Afternoon Trip to Toledo

Just a half-hour train ride from Madrid is the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Toledo. Once the capital of Spain, it felt like a mix of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany and Dubrovnik in Croatia, some other favorite Medieval towns of mine. Toledo sits high up on a circular rocky hill protected on three sides by the Tajo River, like a moat. It has 2,500 years of tangled history between the Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. The city reached its peak in the 1500s, when Spain was in its Golden Age. Emperor Charles V made it his “Imperial City,” and El Greco made his home here. Cervantes’ wife came from near Toledo, and he often wrote about it. In 1561, Philip II moved the capital to a small town north of here called Madrid, beginning the slow decline of Toledo. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, remaining largely intact despite numerous violent takeovers throughout history due to the fact that it was considered the holiest city in Spain. Its ornate cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in Spain, taking over 250 years to build.

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Old winding roads of Toledo
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Cervantes is beloved here
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Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
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Mudejar touches everywhere
The impressive train station sits below the town center, so we caught a city bus into town. You can  catch #5, #11, #61, or #62 to Plaza de Zocodover. One thing we love about Spain is that buses give out change.

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Sunset views from Toledo
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Mudejar style train station
Spain claims that marzipan (“mazapán” in Spanish) was invented in Toledo by nuns of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine. There was no wheat but plenty of sugar and almonds, so nuns created a paste out of these ingredients and fed the undernourished people. Mazapán de Toledo is protected by D.O., which means it must be made in the province of Toledo and be at least 50% almonds. We tried mazapán from Santo Tomé and El Café de las Monjas, and both were much better than any marzipan I’ve had in the U.S. Each one is lovingly shaped by hand, and a box of assorted mazapán is the perfect gift.

Besides mazapán, swords are another popular souvenir in Toledo, as Toledo was famous for making the very best steel during the Middle Ages. Knights considered having a Toledo-cast sword to be the highest status symbol.

Unlike on the rest of our trip, Toledo doesn’t have a thriving tapas scene. Instead, Toledo excels at game, which is hunted in the hills to the south. Typical dishes include partridge, venison, wild boar, roast suckling pig, and baby lamb. We had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurante Placido.

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Roasted baby lamb
Tips for future travelers:

  1. It’s simple enough to get from the airport into Madrid by subway, but if you have a lot of luggage or don’t want to transfer, you can also take the comfortable Exprés Aeropuerto to Atocha train station, and then getting a cab. This yellow bus departs every 15 minutes, runs 24 hours a day, and takes about 40 minutes to reach Atocha.
  2. For our few days in Madrid, buying a 10-pack of Metro tickets was perfect for us. We first had to buy a cheap refillable card, and then we were able to share the ten rides. Madrid’s Metro system is fantastic and reminded us of Paris. Lines are color-coded and numbered. You can just tap your Metro card to the yellow pad to open the turnstile — no need to take it out again to exit.
  3. The best itinerary for Toledo is to take a late afternoon train there, so you can see things just as the daytrippers are leaving for the day, and watch the sunset. Then leave the following morning, after exploring a few of the sights that had been closed when you arrived the previous day.
  4. Buy your train tickets to and from Toledo in advance, as they often sell out to commuters. (Since Toledo is so close to Madrid, it makes sense that some people live in Toledo and work in Madrid.)
  5. When on Gran Vía, take a break and head up to Gourmet Experiences (a food court in El Corte Inglés) for a spectacular view of the Schweppes Building.

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Granada

Granada was the main reason I wanted to visit Spain this summer. While I’d never had much of an interest in Barcelona, Madrid, or even Sevilla (though, clearly I had been wrong about Sevilla), Granada has everything I’m passionate about: white-washed homes spilling down hills, seductive views of the Alhambra, diversity, a significant Arab influence, and incredibly cheap food.

Due to a scheduling issue, we had to catch a later train from Córdoba to Granada and arrived at our Airbnb two hours later than we had planned. Our affectionate Airbnb host Ana, who seemed to be more anxious than us to make our time slot for the Alhambra, gently rushed us out after we dropped off our luggage and ushered us to a taxi. As we drove through our winding cobblestone neighborhood of Albayzín, Anthony and I looked at each other and knew we were going to love our few days here.

We didn’t deserve to get into Alhambra, but Anthony coaxed the guard into letting us in fifty minutes after our time slot. The initial chaos was worth it! The Alhambra is a palace, citadel, and fortress that sits on a small plateau overlooking the entire city, enhanced by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, the Moors were creating magnificent palaces like the Alhambra, with ornate stucco, plaster stalactite ceilings, ceramic tiles, scalloped windows that perfectly frame views of Granada, lush gardens, open-air courtyards, and water — a precious symbol of life back then — everywhere. It’s the last and greatest Moorish palace in the world and once housed a city of a thousand people fortified by a 1.5-mile rampart, built in the 13th century for the Nasrids (one of the ethnic groups of Spanish Muslims). In the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Moors from Granada and moved into Alhambra, and it was here that Christopher Columbus requested royal endorsement to fund his sea voyage that year. The Holy Roman Emperor eventually took over, but because he respected the Moorish palace, built his own palace using the existing Alhambra instead of destroying everything. Moorish craftsmanship of Alhambra is first-class. Lead fittings between the pre-cut section of the columns allow the structures to flex during earthquakes, preventing destruction.

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View from Alhambra
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Intricate carvings everywhere
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Patio de Arrayanes
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Patio de los Leones
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Views everywhere
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Islamic architecture
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Look at that stalactite detailing!
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Gardens
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Open-air rooms
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Geometric patterns
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One more view from above
After a rousing start to our time in Granada, we were ready for food. And what a city for food! Granada is one of the only remaining cities in Spain to offer a free tapa with every drink, which makes eating out in Granada almost ludicrously inexpensive. Most bars will cook a large pot of something and hand out a small plate of the dish with every drink. It’s a brilliant way to eat, but will sadly never exist in America. Our favorite tapas were at El Tabernáculo (a tiny tapas bar filled with kitschy religious decorations), Bar Los Diamantes (multiple locations throughout the city), Bodegas Castaneda (always crowded), and Taberna La Tana (perfect for wine snobs).

 

With our bellies full, we were finally ready to check out our Airbnb, the place I’d been most excited about staying at on this trip. Our neighborhood retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Our room was on the second floor, with a direct view of Alhambra. Our rooftop, which is where we spent siestas and had breakfast every morning, had an even better view, and we loved that we didn’t have to trek out to the crowded viewpoint nearby, where all the other tourists have to wait around for hours.

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Wondering why we even deserve this rooftop
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Breakfast every morning
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Casual rooftop views
To get to the rest of the touristy sites, we had an entertaining downhill walk through Albayzín’s winding tight alleys. We never took the same path twice because it’s so easy to get slightly lost. But Albayzín is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost want to get lost in it, like you do in Venice.

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Typical street in our neighborhood
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Watch out for the tree!
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View of Alhambra from every corner
One of the most interesting things to do in Granada is to visit Alcaicería for Granada’s Great Bazaar, especially if you haven’t been to a Muslim country before. Like the souks we visited in Marrakech, Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul, you can find spices, precious goods, and other souvenirs. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century and survived until the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it. A replica was built, but only half the size of the original labyrinth. Nearby is Corral del Carbón, a caravanserai (protected place for merchants to rest their animals, spend the night and eat). This is the only surviving caravanserai of Granada’s original 14. Granada was a stop on the Silk Road, as silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside.

While you obviously come to Granada for the Alhambra, we fell in love with this city for its views and its soul. We spent hours sitting on our balcony and aimlessly wandered the streets. It’s impossible not to be enchanted here.

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re sick of tapas, have a fancier meal. Make reservations at Mirador de Morayma and request a table with a view of Alhambra. For piononos (a small, sweet cylindrical pastry from Granada), try Casa Ysla, which offers piononos in various flavors.

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View during our dinner at Mirador de Morayma
Our default drinks to order at any bar in Andalucia were tinto (house red), tinto de verano (house red with carbonated water or lemonade, served with ice), vermút (fortified white wine we know as vermouth, sometimes served with soda), or a cerveza (beer).

Take in the views of the city at Mirador de la Churra. While we didn’t have to go to the crowded Mirador San Nicolas because the view from our apartment was basically the same thing, we did go to Mirador de la Churra for an incredible view of Albayzín. Most tourists don’t know about this viewpoint, as it was completely empty when we were there.

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Peeking through someone’s gate
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View of our neighborhood. Can you spot our Airbnb?
As soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada, book your tickets to Alhambra because tickets sell out months in advance. You must enter within 30 minutes of your selected time.

Córdoba

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an art history class that changed my life. I didn’t end up majoring in art or art history in college like I thought I would. Nor did I become a curator like I had dreamt of becoming when I was 15. But I did gain an appreciation for and an insatiable drive to see what I had studied in real life. This is why I became obsessed with Istanbul and teared up when I finally visited Hagia Sophia. And this is also why I couldn’t visit Andalucía without stopping by Córdoba, a quaint little town conveniently located between Sevilla and Granada. Córdoba has the famous Mezquita, one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. I’d put it up there with Petra, Mont St-Michel, Machu Picchu, Venice, and Abu Simbel as man-made sights that one must visit in one’s lifetime.

Stay

We stayed at an adorable bed & breakfast in Barrio Santa Marina, a neighborhood of winding cobblestone roads, low white-washed buildings, and lots of dogs. Oddly enough, it reminded us of Ollantaytambo in Peru. Our charming host María José brought our breakfasts of pan con tomate y jamón, fresh coffee and orange juice, and Spanish biscuits up to the rooftop in the morning.

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Buenos dias from our rooftop!
Do

Obviously, the highlight of our time was visiting La Mezquita. This former 10th-century mosque was once the center of Western Islam and rivaled Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul!). It contains over 800 arches which, despite appearances, aren’t painted red and white but are actually alternating red brick and white stone. The columns are topped with double arches — a round Romanesque arch above a Visigothic horseshoe arch. They were recycled from ancient Roman ruins and conquered Visigothic churches. They seem to recede into infinity. Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236 and turned the mosque into a Gothic church, but 70% of the original mosque structure survives to this day. A giant 16th-century cathedral now sits awkwardly in the middle of the mosque. While the mosque is about 30 feet high, the cathedral’s space soars 130 feet up. Its glorious ceiling will make you forget you were in a former mosque just seconds ago. Though it would have been quicker and less expensive for Christian builders to destroy the mosque entirely when they wanted to build a church in the center of Córdoba, they respected La Mezquita’s beauty and built their church into it instead. The differences between Catholic and Islamic aesthetics and psychology are glaring in here: horizontal vs. vertical, intimate vs. intimidating, dark vs. bright, simple vs. elaborate…

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Over 800 of these columns
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Double arches
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One of the most important Islamic sites in the world
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A cathedral sits right in the middle of the mosque
In Córdoba, patios are taken seriously, especially in May, when the city even hosts a competition for most picturesque patio. You can pop your head into any wooden door that’s open, as homeowners love to show off their patios. Calle de San Basilio has the highest concentration of patio-contest award-winners.

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Flower pots of Calle de San Basilio
Walk along the iconic Calleja de las Flores. It’s congested for obvious reasons.

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Calle de las Flores
Eat

Eat dinner at Al Grano, where we had our best meal in Córdoba. We sat at an outside table overlooking a little neighborhood basilica tucked away from the touristy areas, and our squid ink paella was blowtorched at the table. We ended our meal with unlimited amounts of limoncello and hazelnut liqueur.

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Atmospheric setting
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Paellas
Order a “fino fresquito” for a chilled white wine from the nearby Montilla-Moriles region.

Other tips

  1. Buses are convenient to catch from the station into town. You can purchase a €1.30 ticket onboard.
  2. No need to make advanced reservations to La Mezquita. Just purchase a €10 ticket from the ticket booths inside the courtyard the day of.
  3. If you only have a limited time in Córdoba, I’d recommend arriving in the late afternoon, going straight to La Mezquita, which doesn’t close until 7 pm in the summer, and then enjoying the rest of the city at night, before leaving the next morning. Córdoba was the hottest city we went to — even hotter than sizzling Sevilla — so the evening was a much more pleasant time to appreciate other sights and take a paseo with the locals while all the daytrippers have left.

Sevilla

I fell in love with Sevilla, the first city on our ten-day trip to Spain this summer. Andalucía has always seemed like a region I’d find fascinating (it’s that blend of cultures that always gets me), but I didn’t realize that flamboyant Sevilla — stereotyped by other Spaniards as being kind of a tacky city — would be the place I loved so much that it made me cry on our last day there.

Stay

We stayed in a comfortable Airbnb in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, about a 12-minute walk from the touristy Barrio Santa Cruz district and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in town.

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Our street in Sevilla

Do

The most stunning site in Sevilla is the Real Alcázar, a lavish 10th-century palace built for Moorish royalty and the oldest palace in Europe still in use. I’m not usually a fan of palaces, but the Mudejar design (mix of Islamic and Christian styles) found throughout is absolutely stunning. For example, the place’s façade seems to be classic Islamic with scalloped arches and intricate stucco patterns, but there are also Christian elements, such as a coat of arms and depictions of animals. In the Courtyard of the Maidens, the first floor of the open-air courtyard has colorful ceramic tiles, coffered wooden ceilings, and intricate scalloped arches typical of the Islamic style, while the second floor has rounded arches and minimal decoration in Renaissance style. I could have spent an entire day at Real Alcázar.

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Entrance of Real Alcazar
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The iconic Courtyard of the Maidens. Notice how the first floor is Islamic, while the second floor is Renaissance style
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Look at that ceiling!
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Underground cistern – the coolest part of Sevilla
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Another room in Real Alcazar
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One of my favorite rooms – so sunny!

Our favorite thing we did in Sevilla was take a flamenco class, which is a must in Sevilla, the home of flamenco. We spent an hour and a half at a dance school called Maestdanza, learning about the fascinating history of flamenco (a result of the mix of cultures here, of course) and learning a pretty lengthy dance combination that we were able to record ourselves at the end. 

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On our first night, we took a tapas tour with Pancho Tours. While the tour itself was not the greatest (our guide offered little information to us as we sampled everything), we were taken to four fantastic and very different tapas bars, most of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon on our own. We started at a historic bar, continued to a sleek restaurant, then onto a former convent, and ended the night watching the sunset from a swanky rooftop bar where we tasted orange wine and piononos for my first time.

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Traditional tapas and cava at the bar
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Former convent
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Fried eggplant with orange marmalade and a glass of rioja
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Orange wine from a rooftop bar
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Sunset

I loved wandering around charming Barrio Santo Cruz and entering any patio whose doors were left open for the public. In Andalucía, traditional homes have interior patios (much like Moroccan riads) and those who have decorated them extravagantly with flower pots and fountains like to show them off to the masses.

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Anytime the doors are open to a patio…
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…you’re welcome to peek inside

We visited Plaza de España and Metropol Parasol, two new sites that are almost comically flamboyant and, thus, extremely Sevillian. Plaza de España is a remnant of the failed 1929 international fair. It’s like Las Vegas attempting Mudejar style. Meanwhile, Metropol Parasol was built just a few years ago. It’s a giant undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned wooden structures that look like mushrooms. Locals still don’t quite know what to make of it, but no one is arguing about the shade that the large canopy provides.

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Extravagance at Plaza de Espana
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Lots of columns
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Nice views from the balcony
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You can rent a rowboat
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Fake bell tower
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Metropol Parasol
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You can go up to the roof and walk along the winding path

On our last night, we crossed the Guadalquivir River and roamed around Triana, the equivalent of Rome’s Trastevere (formerly working-class neighborhood across the river with good food and a lot of character). I had my best meal of the trip in this neighborhood, and as we sat outside after dinner at 11pm surrounded by locals, I teared up, realizing then how much I had fallen in love with Sevilla.

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Tearing up in Triana

Plaza del Cabildo is a lovely semi-circular square near the Sevilla Cathedral but tucked away from the crowds.

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Plaza del Cabildo

Eat

Every single meal we ate in Sevilla was incredible, which probably explains why this city is so dear to me. The best restaurants we tried were Las Golondrinas, Castizo, Bodega Dos de Mayo, and La Cata Ciega. Sit at the bar and order a tinto de verano (a popular summer drink of red wine and spritz) and share a few tapas. You will wonder why the rest of the world eats any other way.

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Grilled pork, mushrooms, and squid
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Best meal of our entire trip was at Las Golondrinas in Triana

Other tips

The city center is very walkable, but we took a cab from the Santa Justa train station into town since Ubers are cheap.

Sevilla is sizzling. Literally. It’s the hottest large city in Europe, and temperatures hovered in the high 90s each day we were there. However, it’s a dry heat, and we prepared properly by wearing our lightest clothing, walking on the shady side of the road, and taking siestas during the hottest time of the day (4-6pm). In the end, it was doable and most definitely worth it.

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Another flamboyant building in Sevilla

Upper Egypt

What Cairo lacked, the rest of the country made up for when we flew down south to Upper Egypt (called “Upper Egypt” because the Nile flows from south to north). It was like flying to an entirely different world from noisy, overcrowded Cairo. The indigenous peoples of this region are Nubians — much darker than the Arabs we met in Cairo, and fluent in varieties of the Nubian language. They hail from one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa and are split between modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Nubia is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest regions in the world, and is where Egypt’s most impressive temples are. If you only have a few days in Egypt, this is where I’d recommend spending your time.

At 5:00 am, a tour guide and driver picked us up from our Airbnb in Cairo and took us to the dysfunctional Cairo airport, where we caught an hour and a half flight to Aswan. There, another tour guide and driver led us on a breathtaking tour of the High Dam, Abu Simbel (my favorite!), and Philae Temple.

High Dam

The High Dam was built across the Nile between Egypt and Sudan to better control flooding, provide more water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. Before the dam was built, flooding was too inconsistent; some years flooding could destroy the whole crop, while other years the lack of it brought drought and famine. Unfortunately, the High Dam has also caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and many archaeological sites. Additionally, it’s created tension between various countries and contributed to the Cold War; it was partly funded by the Soviet Union.

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At the High Dam, facing Sudan

Abu Simbel

After the dam, we fell asleep in the car as our driver sped for three hours down to Abu Simbel, one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. Abu Simbel consists of two massive temples carved into solid rock cliffs in the 13th century B.C., in the southernmost part of Egypt, right by the border with Sudan. They are monuments for Pharaoh Ramses II & his favorite wife (out of 37) Nefertari, created to both celebrate his victory over the Hittites and symbolize his power over the conquered lands of Nubia. The temples are perfectly positioned so that on October 21 and February 21 (the dates of his birth and coronation), the sun rays penetrate and illuminate the sculptures deep inside the temple. Eventually, both temples were covered up by sand and weren’t rediscovered again until 1813. The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by a flood after the High Dam was built. An international team of engineers and scientists dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on higher ground. Skip the pyramids and come to Abu Simbel instead.

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Abu Simbel
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In awe
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Entrance of the larger temple
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Entrance of the smaller temple
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We couldn’t take a photo inside, so this was the closest we got

Philae Temple

We drove another three hours back up to Aswan, from which we took a little motorboat to the island of Angilika, where the Philae Temple stands. According to legend, the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who was jealous of the love between Osiris and their sister Isis (obviously incest was acceptable back then). Isis searched for the fragments of his body and brought Osiris back to life with her magical powers. The Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis and was nearly lost underwater when the Aswan High Dam was built, but was rescued by multiple nations with the help of UNESCO. The entire island was surrounded with a dam, and the inside was pumped dry. Then every stone block of the complex was labelled and removed, later to be reassembled on higher ground.

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Taking us on his little boat to Philae Temple
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There it is!
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Entrance
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Philae Temple
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Hieroglyphs everywhere
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Christians carved off the faces of gods

After a long day, we were finally dropped off at the Basma Hotel Aswan for the night. I’m always wary of hotels that tour companies select, but we loved our stay here, especially our room with a prime view of the resort.

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View from our balcony at Basma Hotel Aswan

At 5:00 am the next morning, a different tour guide and driver picked us up from the hotel and drove us three hours to Luxor, where we visited Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Temple. Luxor is often called the “world’s greatest open-air museum.”

Karnak Temple

Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the building of Karnak Temple, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity never seen before. In the Hypostyle Hall, 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. A roof, now fallen, was once supported by the columns. In 1899, 11 of the massive columns collapsed in a chain reaction because their foundations were undermined by ground water. An archaeologist supervised the rebuilding that was completed in 1902.

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Hypostyle Hall
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Sphinxes lining the entrance of Karnak Temple
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The security guard told us to stand on these stones and do these poses — for a tip
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Obsessed with these massive columns

Luxor Temple

Unlike other temples, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a god but was where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned. During the Christian era, the hall was converted into a Christian church. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually a mosque was built over it, which was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today (scroll to the second photo below to see the mosque, and how much the temple was buried).

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Hiding behind fluted columns at Luxor Temple
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That window used to be at ground level!
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The Romans drew themselves into history

After our whirlwind of sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a rooftop pool at a hotel in Luxor as we waited for our flight back to Cairo. From our hotel, we could see both the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as the row of sphinxes lining the path between the two.

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Our rooftop pool
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View from our hotel in Luxor

Upper Egypt is breathtaking. The farther south you go in Egypt, the deeper into Egypt’s African roots you discover. Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, and Karnak Temple are enough to justify an entire trip to Egypt. I wasn’t impressed by the pyramids in Giza, but in Upper Egypt, it felt like there was still a connection between modern-day Egyptians and their ancient history. Seeing these monuments still standing, thousands of years after construction, was already incredible, but learning about their relocation and rebuilding was perhaps even more impressive. For a civilization that was so concerned with preserving its legacy, it’s only fitting that the monuments ancient Egyptians left behind would undergo many rebirths and continue to influence other civilizations throughout history.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. We took all private tours using Emo Tours again, which seemed to be the biggest company in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Two out of three of our guides were wonderful. I definitely recommend having a guide at all the sites to show you the short cuts and make the vast history somewhat digestible.
  2. Abu Simbel may seem like a hassle to get to, requiring a flight and three-hour drive, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Machu Picchu, Mont St-Michel, Cappadocia, and Petra are the only other sites I’ve visited that match its grandeur. Plus, because Abu Simbel takes more effort to visit, there will be fewer tourists than all the other temples on your itinerary.
  3. At some of the sites, you have an option of paying a fee to take photos inside. Pay to take photos inside Abu Simbel. Not doing this is one of my biggest regrets.
  4. One of our best meals in Egypt was at El Zaeem, a popular koshary restaurant in Luxor. While it was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Google Maps gave us the wrong address and we quickly got frustrated by the mix of hasslers on the sidewalks and chaotic traffic — the traffic laws are no different from Cairo, after all. Fortunately, someone noticed we looked lost and, as soon as I mentioned “koshary”, he led us two more blocks down to El Zaeem. We ordered koshary and ful (mashed fava bean dip with a drizzle of tahini).
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Ful from El Zaeem

Cairo

Cairo was tough for us. With 20 million people and a notoriously corrupt government, Cairo was quite the culture shock after perfect, civilized Amman. We could feel the pollution in our lungs as we attempted to explore the city. We were unable to cross a street without risking our lives because traffic laws barely exist, so we resorted to shamelessly walking alongside locals who happened to be going our way. And it felt like a third of the Cairenes we met were either trying to scam us or at least pressure us for tips, as if all of Cairo were Times Square. If Jordan gave us hope for the Middle East (and humanity in general), Egypt reminded us of why we need so much hope.

That’s not to say that I regret visiting. We could have flown straight to Aswan for the temples in southern Egypt and merely stopped by Cairo on a daytrip to see the pyramids, but that wouldn’t feel right — the same way that I don’t think it’s right to visit the Yucatán peninsula without exploring Mexico City as well, or to go on a safari in South Africa without also visiting Johannesburg.

The best thing we did in Cairo was take a food tour with the only food tour company in the city, Bellies En-Route. For nearly six hours, our guide Laila impressively led seven naive tourists through the crazy streets of downtown Cairo to eight different spots. She took us to places we never would have found on our own, and everything we tried was incredible. In fact, we returned to two of the restaurants later because we loved them so much (and it’s kind of a hassle trying new restaurants in Cairo on your own).

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Koshari is Egypt’s national dish, made of boiled macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli, lentils, rice, hummus, and fried onions, topped with tomato sauce and a garlic/vinegar dressing
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Arabic coffee is made with very lightly roasted bean that almost stays green, with cardamom
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Molokhhia: stew made with okra leaves, garlic, and stock
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Fresh sugar cane juice
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Lentil soup, fried eggplants, and lots of fava bean dishes
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Kunafa, basbousa, and zalabya

We rode camels near the Giza Pyramids. The camel rides got us some great photos, especially since the herders knew exactly where to place us for the perfect shots, but I couldn’t help but compare them to the peaceful camel rides we took through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Like everything in Egypt, the camel ride felt transactional, and our camel herder bluntly told us to give him a tip while we were still riding our camels.

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Look how proud Anthony’s camel looks!
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Our camel herder told me to lift my arms over my head, but I couldn’t because my jumpsuit was too tight 😦

The Giza Pyramids were constructed roughly 4,500 years ago. They’re so old that the time period in which Cleopatra lived is closer to us than to the Pyramids. Pharaohs erected these massive pyramid tombs for themselves, filling them with everything one might need in the afterlife. The largest of the Giza Pyramids was dedicated to Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second one, as well as the Great Sphinx, a limestone monument with the body of a lion and Khafre’s own head. Sphinxes were guard dogs of the pyramids. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two, built by Pharaoh Menkaure. The mere existence of these pyramids testifies to the resourcefulness and organization of ancient Egypt.

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We look like we’re on an engagement photo shoot
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Obligatory

While I typically don’t have much interest in Egyptian artifacts, touring the colossal Egyptian Museum ended up being one of my favorite activities in Cairo. Seeing artifacts in the actual country instead of in England, France, and Germany is a sensational feeling. Commissioned in 1835 to stop widespread plundering and looting of the country’s many archaeological sites, the Egyptian Museum is home to 120,000 Egyptian artifacts. An entire section is dedicated to Tutankhamen, the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, as his tomb was relatively intact when it was discovered in 1922.

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Mummy
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Queen Nefertiti. Her more famous mask is in Berin
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Guard dog

My other favorite activity was sailing down the Nile on a felucca. These traditional sailboats are perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. It was the only time I felt calm in Cairo. Even with the invention of motorized boats, feluccas have remained the primary transportation of the Nile.

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Lots of space
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We’re so relaxed!

Those were the highlights of our time in Cairo; honestly, everything else was either underwhelming or tension-filled. The airport is dysfunctional, traffic lanes are meaningless (a two-lane road becomes a four-lane road in Cairo), Ubers don’t have seatbelts, and even the supposedly fancy part of Cairo (Zamalek) felt like a desolate place to live since people just seemed to stay in their mansions. I’m reluctant to blame all of this on Egypt itself because so many of its problems stem from colonialism. I’ve been to Manila a few times, so I’m familiar with what this can do to a society. It’s a real shame, especially for Egypt, because the citizens of this country seem detached from their impressive history. We left Cairo for Aswan and Luxor, where ancient history felt a little more immediate.

Tips for future travelers:

I struggled to get an e-Visa before our trip (surprise, surprise, the website was not functioning properly), so we resorted to getting our visas upon arrival. Fortunately, this was a simple process. Just go to a bank window by baggage claim and pay $25 for a visa sticker. Bring this to customs, and they’ll put the sticker on a blank page in your passport.

Ubers are not allowed at the airport, so you’re going to have to walk out to the parking lot and request one there. Be ready for no seat belts.

Stay at a hotel. I booked an Airbnb because I usually prefer apartment rentals while staying in big cities so I can feel like a local (it really worked for us in Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, and Mexico City!), but I would not recommend an Airbnb in Cairo. It was always difficult for drivers to find our apartment, and, while we did find a decent place in the center of town, it was definitely one of my least favorite Airbnbs we’ve ever stayed in.

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View from our Airbnb

For every tour except the food tour, we used Emo Tours, which seems to be the biggest company (and probably sponsored by the government) in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Most of our guides were entertaining and knowledgeable, and the company was good about communication, but we did notice that our one-hour felucca ride ended up being only 20 minutes, and our 30-minute camel ride ended up being only 15 minutes. Regardless, I definitely recommend having a guide at the Egyptian Museum, Giza Pyramids, and Khan El Khalili Bazaar because people will hassle you less when they see that you’re with a local, and it’s nice to have guides deal with purchasing tickets.

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Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Tip everyone.

Eat koshari, ful (mashed fava beans with pita bread), ta’ameya (falafel made of fava beans), molokhia (okra stew), and hamam mahshi (grilled pigeon).

Buy basbousa and kunafa at El Abd and Mandarine Koueider.

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Amman

I have a soft spot for Amman not only because it reminded me of Istanbul — a hilly, cosmopolitan city of mosques, pistachio desserts, and rich history — but also because it was in Amman that we could really appreciate the inclusion of immigrants for which Jordan is so famous. Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by much larger, much more powerful countries. Despite its inevitable vulnerability to regional turmoil, Jordan has graciously welcomed refugees, i.e., cleaned up other countries’ messes. 60% of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, mostly refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli War and Six-Day War. Jordan is the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948. It has not been easy; schools must operate on double shifts, with teachers working both shifts, and since 2011, Jordan has also been taking in Syrian refugees fleeing the  Syrian civil war. Yet Jordan remains one of the most generous places I have ever visited, and its immigrants have only added to its tapestry of cultures.

We didn’t have much time in Amman, but we made sure to take a cooking class, smoke shisha at a rooftop bar, hike up to Amman Citadel for the best view of the city, eat the best kunafa of my life, and cautiously climb the steep steps of the Roman Theater.

We always take a cooking class or food tour in every country we visit. In Jordan, we took a cooking class at Beit Sitti, run by three sisters who want to keep their grandmother’s recipes alive. We learned to make maqluba (meat, rice, and vegetables cooked upside-down), mutabal (eggplant dip), shrak (flatbread), fattoush (salad), and basbousa (baked semolina and coconut soaked in rose water). Beit Sitti means “grandmother’s kitchen”, and after our class in the outdoor patio, we went inside to eat in her charming dining room and living room.

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Making maqluba
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The dining table, where we’d enjoy our hard work

Located on top of the city’s highest hill, the Amman Citadel has been inhabited by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans throughout its history. The site contains fragments of a colossal stone statue of Hercules that was destroyed by an earthquake. All that remains are three fingers and an elbow. It would have been 42 feet high, making it among the largest statues in the world.

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Hercules’ hand

The Roman Theater is a 6,000-seat theater that dates back to the 2nd century, when the Romans called this city Philadelphia. Unlike other Roman theaters, which are built from the ground up, this one was carved into the hillside. Even the highest section of seats can see and hear clearly, thanks to the steepness of the cavea. It faces north so audiences are protected from the sun. The theater is still used for cultural activities, such as the International Book Fair, marathon prize ceremony, and musical concerts.

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Steep, slippery stairs
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Perfect acoustics

One of the best things we did was take an “Alternative Downtown” tour through Airbnb with a young Palestinian guide named Anas. He led us through the oldest souk in Amman, where he bought us some necklaces when he noticed how touched we were by the legends he told of displacement and resilience. Then he took us to a Palestinian neighborhood, where we ran into his friends who bought us coffee and invited us to breakfast in their tire shop. We wandered around downtown and met the “duke” of Amman, who purchased a historic home that was about to be demolished for a new hotel and turned it into a cultural center instead, and invited us to join him for another breakfast. Anas then brought us to Habibah, where the kunafa is so good that I went back twice that day to get more. Next, he led us to the top of a parking lot for a secret view of the city. And finally, we ended at a neighborhood covered in street art, where more of his friends offered us drinks and welcomed us into their nonprofit restaurant that donates meals to the hungry.

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Overlooking Amman from the Palestinian side of town
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The Duke’s Diwan

Jordan, more than any other country I’ve been to, is proof that it is possible to be surrounded by corrupt countries (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) and war-torn countries (e.g., Syria, Iraq), yet still remain peaceful, civilized, and open-minded. This country is not perfect, but I think it has done as much good as it can and should be a model for the rest of us.

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at Hashem, a popular restaurant that serves Jordanian street food 24-hours a day. Order falafel and a bunch of spreads for a perfect dinner.

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Our first dinner in Amman

Stay at The House Boutique Suites, a hotel that perfectly matched civilized Amman. Our stylish room came with a kitchen and a huge bed we never wanted to leave. The hotel offered a lavish breakfast (make sure to walk over to the Middle Eastern section on the opposite side of the Western food section), free self-service laundry facilities, and a rooftop pool overlooking Amman.

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Our room
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Rooftop pool

Use your Jordan Pass to enter the Amman Citadel and Roman Theater for free.

Try kunafa at Habibah. Kunafa is made of a fine semolina dough prepared in a large round shallow dish, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with a mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios. It closes at midnight, which is fortunate because you’ll definitely want to come back after every meal throughout the day.

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Kunafa

Eat mansaf as often as you can. Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish and one of my favorite dishes in the world. Made of tender lamb cooked in a dried fermented yogurt sauce, sitting on rice and a thin flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, and dipped into more yogurt sauce. Also eat maqluba (meat, vegetables, and rice cooked in a pot upside-down), falafel, hummus, ful medames (mashed fava beans and olive oil), and baklava.

The city is built on seven hills, which you’ll notice immediately while walking around. Much to our delight, Amman is surprisingly walkable, though you’ll have to get used to holding your hand up and making eye contact with drivers to stop traffic as you cross the street.