Category: Car

Cuba Is Not What You Think It Is

havana cuba tourists

There’s a romanticism behind most revolutions, particularly those associated with the now iconic images of Che Guevara. In 2015, a record number of tourists (nearly 3.1 million) visited Cuba, sharing stories online of brightly colored buildings with photos of rebellious ladies in their 60s smoking cigars. The allure of a place stuck in time and misconception, is one of the reasons many, including myself, travel to Cuba in the first place.

Lifted Upon Landing

The passport control in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport is in a poorly lit hall, immediately behind what is a conspicuous search of carry-on bags. (There’s a detailed list of things you can’t bring into Cuba on the immigration form.) But the friendly, if not slightly bored, faces of the passport control officers puts you at ease. Calmly you’ll walk out into the madness that is the arrivals hall, eventually finding the long, confused line to exchange currency. (The much shorter one is upstairs at departures.) Cuba has two types of currency, one for locals the Cuban Peso (CUP), the other, Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists. The rate is 25 CUP for 1 CUC.

havana square cuba

Cash in hand, you can see the faces of tourists from all parts of the world light up at the sight of the 1950s Chevy’s lined up as taxis, some colorful, others with fading paint. The car’s seats are boldly taped together, the doors missing interiors, but it’s amazing the vehicles are running as well as they do.

Strict Side Market

Surprisingly, Airbnb is an option in Havana, but you’ll have a less expensive stay at a casa particular. Basically, casa particulares are apartment rooms or sections of homes for rent, since law requires the owner stay on the premises. The particular place in Havana I stayed was an entire apartment floor with multiple rooms, spacious enough for 10 people comfortably.

cuba casa particular

A walk around the street below, the first person I meet is a man asking if I can help carry his bag. Travel scam warnings light up in my head but I do anyway, to see where this is going. Apparently, it’s going about 25 meters because he goes left but before he does, gives me a shot of the rum I was carrying. It’s 9:15 am. Cuba is both confusing, yet convincing, that things are certainly not what they seemed to be.

Many other Cubans are curious, striking up conversations, usually ending with some kind of veiled offer to get whatever (the wink, wink kind) you might want. The first thing that comes to mind is a bottle of water.

Stopped In Time

The heart of downtown Havana is either a rustic rebel against all the nation is deprived of or decades old buildings visibly falling apart despite any contrary effort. People in poverty, including plenty of grandmothers posing with cigars, for a price. The smiles quickly vanish after the photo is snapped or you decline a picture in the first place. Seeing those pictures isn’t ever the same afterward.

old havana

Lunch at Variedades Obispo, a local chicken and rice cafeteria hall, becomes a thought provoking internal debate on Cuba’s food rationing system. People are in a long line for eggs – 5 per month is the allowance – probably the reason small shops aren’t common; there aren’t many local shoppers.

Variedades Obispo

Half-century old cars breakdown. A lot. Those polished, bright, shiny ones you often see in pictures are kept in pristine condition and parked right where tourists can hop in, for $20-30 US dollars, depending on your negotiating skills. Most of the others on the road exhale large plumes of dark smoke, but the ride is still fun, because they often have excellent speakers with good music blasting. Making the most out of the situation is what you see much of in Cuba.

No Time To Scratch Your Head

If there ever were a ride that could symbolize what Cuba is or isn’t, it’s definitely the bright red, double-decker, Habana Hop On Hop Off Bus. What’s an ordinary tour wagon in most major cities, in Havana, the bus an entertaining speedy race around corners at speeds with just enough forward momentum to prevent the vehicle from tipping over. (Watch out if you’re on the sidewalk.) Branches hang low – and I’m serious – if you sit on the top floor without paying attention the best case scenario could be a concussion.

cuba taxi chevy

Some stops are typical: squares, and famous sights but many are big hotels. Aside from housing many tourists, these hotels are pretty much the only places (at least in Havana), where you can find an Internet connection. (And bottled water.) Controlled by access cards that cost about $2 USD for an hour of Internet connectivity, which is, surprisingly uncensored. Many Cubans sit outside of the hotels during the cooler evening temperatures, warming the air with the soft blue glow of their mobile phones. An indication, among many things, that even official salaries aren’t official.

At the end of the wild ride you’re once again slowed to a halt with a confusing reality. An empty Plaza de la Revolucion, with Che Guevara’s determined image looking down. You can’t help but wonder, is this Cuba what he and so many other revolutionaries, romantics, envisioned?

plaza de revolucion cuba

As a traveler it’s difficult to make judgements about something as complex as a society in a short visit. What you see are snapshots from a movie that’s been running for decades. Your Cuban story is colored by critic reviews, and following the advice you’re strongly recommended, talking politics might pose significant problems for everyone involved in the conversation. In a place that prides itself in planning, you appreciate how many long-lived people seem to benefit from an effective and efficient healthcare system. Conversely, the obvious poverty makes you wonder where the lines of premeditation were drawn on who and why.

Cuba isn’t what you think it is. Cuba is not what I think it is. There are very experienced journalists with enlightened insights on Cuba. What I know is what I don’t; a lesson Cuba can teach many of us.

The Best Way For Foreign Travelers To Order A Taxi In Belgrade, Serbia

belgrade serbia streets

Hopping into a taxi – or even finding one – in a foreign country can be a daunting experience. Once inside you never know if you’ll see a working meter or have a sweet talking cabbie who knows how to extend your route just up to a price you’re not likely to argue about. Belgrade, Serbia, where Uber isn’t available, can be particularly tricky since there are a number of taxi companies with intentionally similar logos that confuse even locals.

There is a simple method (that isn’t very well advertised) English speakers can use to call a taxi with a working meter at any hour plus be fairly confident the driver is taking the most efficient route.

The Right Numbers To Call

For travelers using non-Serbian mobile numbers or calling using Skype To Go (here’s information for getting online at Belgrade Airport) you want to Beogradski Taxi, which charges set rates you can find on their website.

  • Beogradski Taxi International Number – +381 011 20 999 20

Getting a local SIM card is fairly easy in Serbia and if you have one, you can call Beogradski Taxi by dialing 19801.

Why This Is Worth Posting

It might seem finding a taxi number in a European city would be straightforward but after trying out a number of recommendations given to me by locals, I found Beogradski Taxi was the only one with dedicated English-speaking staff. Most taxi drivers in Belgrade don’t speak English so having the phone operator translate your directions is very helpful. (Especially if you’re going somewhere non-touristy, like jiu-jitsu class.)

Beogradski Taxi also operate 24 hours a day, something you’ll be thankful for if you’re flying in or out of Belgrade as most international flights take-off and land in the very early morning hours. You are no doubt paying a slightly higher rate for a ride but consider it an exchange for peace of mind.

Despite my best efforts to not make this sound like an advertisement you might be wondering if I got paid to write all of this? To answer your question: no, I didn’t. I just found Beogradski Taxi a service that saved me time and headache, I hope it does the same for you during your visit as well.

Of course if you have any other recommendations on how to get around Belgrade, I’m happy to hear them in the comments below!

The Best Ways To Explore Havana, Cuba On Foot For Free

This is a guest post by Claudia Tavani, a former human rights lawyer and academic from Cagliari, Sardinia. After devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started traveling around Latin America, hardly stopping since. Blogging came as a natural consequence and Claudia keeps friends and family updated on her site, My Adventures Across The World.

havana cuba claudia tavani

The capital of Cuba, Havana, much like rest of the island nation, is packed with things to do but can be quite expensive for travelers on a tight budget. Given that the United States and Cuba have recently restored diplomatic relations, even more of you might be planning your next trip to the Caribbean’s largest island. Here’s how to start off and explore plenty of things to do in Havana, without spending much more than calories.

First Stop: Verdado

I started my walking tour at the Vedado, because that was where my casa particular (homestay) was located. Verdado is a gorgeous area packed with big colonial homes and beautiful gardens. It actually is considered the greenest area of Havana, as it is so full of trees. I found it very relaxing as it is a very quiet area: there isn’t much traffic. Most people who visit Havana for the first time actually opt to stay in Havana Vieja, but I prefer Verdado as I found it has lots of character and it is not nearly as touristic.

verdado havana cuba

Next: On To Plaza de la Revolución

I don’t mind walking, so from the Vedado I walked several blocks to Plaza de la Revolución. This is a huge square often used for political rallies and gatherings and from where political figures address Cubans. The Plaza hosts the memorial to José Martí, one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution. On the opposite side, there is a huge mural of Ernesto Che Guevara, which his famous motto “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until Victory, Always) painted right below. The image of Camilo Cienfuegos, another one of the heroes of the revolution, has been added on the nearby telecommunications building. I don’t this this square is a perfect example of beauty – quite the opposite in fact. Buildings around it are grey and somewhat oppressive. Yet, I appreciate the political and historical significance of the place.

Plaza de la Revolucion havana cuba

Third In Line: The Magnificent Capitol Building

Plaza de la Revolución is well out of the centre of Havana, so I bartered a taxi to get to the city center and continue my walking tour. Here, I headed to the Capitolio, which used to be the seat of the government until the Cuban revolution and is now home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. During the time of my visit, the Capitol building was under being restored, but I could still appreciate the magnificence of the building and its surroundings.

capitol building havana cuba

Fourth Stop: Museo de la Revolución

From the Capitol Building, I crossed the small Parque Central and walked along Avenida de las Misiones, and headed to the Museo de la Revolución. If there is one museum that should be visited in Havana, this is the one. I admit I am not a huge fan of museums. However, as a former human rights lawyer I have always had a special interest for the Cuban revolution and the Museo de la Revolución – which is located in the former presidential palace – is perfect to get a better understanding of the history of the country. The collection is huge and there is a lot to read but it was definitely worth my time and the (small) entrance fee.

Museo de la Revolucion havana cuba

Around The Corner: Havana Vieja

The Museo de la Revolución is really close to Havana Vieja, which was my fifth stop on my personal tour of Havana. A stroll in Havana Vieja took me to the beautiful Plaza de la Catedral (and, not far from it, to La Bodeguita del Medio, where I admit I splurged on a mojito, just to feel a bit Hemingway-like!). Then on to Plaza de Armas where I browsed through the book market before ending up in Plaza Vieja. Even if I did not go inside every single building or museum, it was lovely to walk around and take in the beautiful surroundings.

claudia tavani

Snapping: Vintage Cars

Vintage cars are everywhere in Havana, and indeed I snapped pictures of them all around town. While some cars simply looked old to me, I have to say that some were simply gorgeous, shiny and perfectly restored. I stopped at the traffic light at some point and all the cars waiting to pass were vintage ones. I had a lot of fun in spotting them – they are so unique to Cuba, unseen anywhere else, and beautiful to see.

old vintage cars havana cuba

Ending Up On The Malecon

On my way back to Vedado, I walked along the Malecon. Havana’s waterfront is where Havaneros go in the late afternoon to enjoy the fresh ocean breeze, to flirt and gossip. Along the Malecon, I took a detour to visit the Callejón de Hamel, which has some interesting street art, and finally stopped at Hotel Nacional for a sunset cocktail. I guess what impressed me the most when I walked along the Malecon was the smell of the sea, which to me is so familiar and refreshing! The overall atmosphere was very relaxing and very… Cuban!

havana cuba malecon

Have you been to Havana? Do you have any further tips on places to see on a low budget?

Thank you very much Claudia for showing us around Havana on foot. You can follow Claudia through her blog, My Adventures Across The World, as well as on Facebook and @Claudioula on Twitter.

Save Money Every Time You Ride The Singapore Metro By Returning Your Ride Card

singapore GTM

Not every travel budget tip is about big savings – there are those where advantage outweighs effort – adding up to a few extra dollars, like this trick you can use on the Singapore metro.

Hold On To These Tickets

Singapore’s Mass Rail Transit (MRT) makes it pretty easy to get around to most places in the city-state, with a few convenient fare options for travelers. The Singapore Tourist Pass gives you unlimited bus and rail rides for  1, 2, or 3 days with rates of 20, 26, or 30 Singapore dollars (SGD). (Approximately $16, $20, $24 US dollars.) Those are pretty good prices considering you can zip around town limitless to places like Gardens By The Bay; whereas a standard one-way MRT ticket will run you about $2 SGD (~$1.60 USD).

singapore standard ticket

You can purchase a Singapore Tourist Pass online for pickup at one of several MRT stations throughout the city-state. Standard tickets (aka. single fare) are available from General Ticketing Machines (GTM) found at all subway stations. These are all reasonable amounts to pay for public transportation but if you hold on to your metro cards, you can sweeten the deal further.

newton circus food centre singaporeReturn Your Rail Cards For Refunds

Whether you’ve got a Singapore Tourist Pass or standard ticket, returning them properly can get you nearly half your fare refunded. All you have to do is go back to one of these TransitLink Offices within 6 days of first issue for the Singapore Tourist Pass and return the card to get $10 SGD back. That is basically a deposit incorporated into the original fare you can claim after you’re done traveling around Singapore.

The same goes for a standard ticket, except that you’ll need to go to one of the GTM machines and select the return card option via the touchscreen. You’ll get back $1 SGD for giving back the flimsy plastic card – or about half the fare you originally paid.

You Catch On Quickly

For many of us who’ve been to other cities where rail cards are trash after use, old habits might keep you from taking advantage of these savings the first few rides before eventually catching on. Obviously any savings from returning metro cards isn’t going to eliminate hidden traveler debt you might be carrying but it might get you a few extra beers at Newton Circus Food Centre. Just remember not to snack on any of the trains where nibbling can cost you expensive fines, so make sure to brush up on these 5 laws every traveler to Singapore should know.

Ford Asked Me To Find America’s Most Offbeat Road Trip Destinations In Their New 2015 Unminivan, Here’s Where I Went

This post is part of Geek Takeover Week 2014.

There are few offers sweeter to a traveler than, here’s a new car and an open road: go find the most interesting places you can. I was handed the keys to Ford’s 2015 Transit Connect minivan mutated unminivan in Las Vegas right after the 2014 Star Trek Convention, aiming to combine the best science plus fiction stops along the way to Chicago.

Turning On To The Extraterrestrial Highway

The official name of Nevada State Route 375, it was designated the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996, about a 100 minute drive north of Las Vegas beginning in the ghost town of Crystal Springs.

nevada extraterrestrial highway

The (Now White) Black Mailbox

Those of you who’ve seen the 2013 movie Paul might recognize this sole landmark within a 65 kilometer (40 mile) radius in the Nevada desert. It’s actually the mailbox of ranchers Steve and Glenda Medlin who live kilometers away but its proximity to Area 51 draws has made it an unofficial campground for UFO watchers. The box remains locked and is white because the former black one wasn’t bulletproof. More unusual than alien however was the rain, approximately 7.1 millimeters (.28 inches) or about 2% of the Mojave Desert’s total annual rainfall that fell within an hour.

black mailbox nevada

Rachel, Nevada Population: 98

The only town along the Extraterrestrial Highway that has cleverly aligned itself pro-alien.

rachel nevada ufo bar

The Gates Of Area 51

The United States government officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in 2013, meaning they’ve probably moved the Roswell alien bodies somewhere a bit more secret. Although the signs imply otherwise, pictures of the back gate into the Area 51 are allowed; just be sure not to photograph any white vans that might be observing you. And don’t think of walking across the borders for a closer picture, in Rachel they warn that means a few hours of watching sand while held at gunpoint – for starters.

area 51 back gate

The Next Generation Of Solar Energy Technology In Delta, Utah

Meeting the head engineer on this project whose solar panels concentrate sunlight into electrical energy in a variety of ways (more technical details here) was a pleasure for my mechanical mind. From a distance these disks seemed almost abandoned, conversely, this might be the beginning of what solar power comes to look like around the world in the next decade.

utah delta solar delta utah solar power

Shoe Tree On The Outskirts Of Hinckley, Utah

On the outskirts of Delta and Hinckley, Utah is this tree whose origins are mysterious. But whoever threw the first shoe started a trend that hasn’t stopped over the past few years. It might not seem like anything interesting but when it’s the last roadside evidence of humanity you’ll see for 133 km (83 miles), a shoe tree sticks out.

shoe tree hinckley delta utah

Detouring Into The Wasatch Mountains In Alta, Utah

You’ll save around 60% off winter prices at ski resorts like the Alta Lodge in the summer which overlooks scenery that will enamor you with the state of Utah.

utah wasatch mountains

Lemonade For A Good Cause

On the way down after hiking at 2,700 meters (9,400 feet) above sea level, I recharged with some lemonade and cookies these kids were selling to help support children in need through the charity World Vision.

wasatch utah mountains lemonade stand

Driving The Dinosaur Freeway Near Morrison, Colorado

Construction on the Alameda Parkway through these Colorado mountains in 1937 uncovered a number of dinosaur fossils and footprints, originally noticed by some of the workers on the site. Dubbed the “Dinosaur Freeway,” 98 million years ago this was a major migration route for herbivores and the predators who ate them. Though I wouldn’t have known any of this without a tour of the ridge by the volunteers at Dinosaur Ridge. It’s worth the $5 donation just to find out the secret hidden in a flat layer of gray rock at the base of the ridge.

dinosaur ridge colorado tour

Carhenge In Alliance, Nebraska

The story of Carhenge is almost as interesting as the sight of cars sticking out of a Nebraska farm. The father of Jim Reinders, who studied Stonehenge while in England, passed away in 1982. Reinders’ father was a car enthusiast and (I’m assuming after several beers) he decided with 35 family members to create a memorial combining both father-son passions. Five years later, as agreed, the family members met to create Carhenge, which was designed in scale to Stonehenge. The land is maintained by the local group Friends of Carhenge who kindly let the Transit Connect be a part of it for an #unminivan moment.

carhenge nebraska

Kool-Aid Days

This annual festival in Hastings, Nebraska where Edward Perkins invented the drink powder in 1927 is the town’s biggest event. Oh, yeah the biggest celebrity of the weekend was not easy to get a hold of but it was harder for Kool-Aid Man to make the hashtag symbol, though not for lack of effort.

kool aid days hastings 2014

 The Center Of America Is In Lebanon

Somewhat ironically, according to the U.S. National Geodetic Survey (NGS) the geographic center of the lower 48 United States is located at this spot, right outside of Lebanon, Kansas. Stranger, is the tiny, empty chapel right next to it.

geographic center of united states lebanon kansas

The Future Birthplace Of Captain James Tiberius Kirk

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the whale one) Captain Kirk says, “I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.” Since the exact town wasn’t specified, Steve Miller, a Riverside councilmen decided to hold a vote to make it this town, population 1,040. Unanimously passed in 1985, now the town holds annual Trekfest, the last weekend in every June. There’s a museum at this birthstone, placed on land Miller owns – to ensure it can’t be removed by Earth politics.

riverside iowa kirk birth stone riverside iowa trek kirk birth

The World’s Once Crookedest Street

At least at one time, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Snake Alley lost its winding record to Lombard Street in San Francisco when someone remembered it was there. The most memorable thing about the brick road designed by three Germans in 1894 was the biker in yellow who made three trips up it in the time I spent photographing Snake Alley.

unminivan moments ford blog

Final Stop Chicago

In the end I covered 14% the circumference of the Earth (at 41 degrees latitude) over 4512 km (2,804 miles), many of it stretches of highway you could pull over on and hear absolutely nothing. Several studies have shown that people living in higher population densities tend to be more withdrawn from strangers plus displaying more overall stress and feelings of aggression.

Some of that might explain why people were so welcoming everywhere I stopped – with little or no advanced warning – telling me where I should go locally or where to stay. On one stormy night in Nebraska, an innkeeper overbooked the only “vacant” hotel in town. The manager was mentally unable to sort out the situation but it was quickly resolved by the group of very drunk softball players staying there with a few room swaps.

When I pulled into America’s third largest city, Chicago, from Snake Alley after 44 hours 12 minutes behind the wheel through 7 states, it seemed more alien than anywhere I had been to since Las Vegas.

Is Sarajevo Safe?

is sarajevo safe

That question, whether or not Sarajevo is safe enough to visit, is one I’m surprised to be writing; nearly as surprising as it was to hear from many curious travelers. Although safety and security are valid concerns worth brushing up on before you visit anywhere, it seems in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, extraordinary worries of war remain but the real concerns are more mundane.

sebilj fountain sarajevoYour Self Is Safe

Sarajevo was the center of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and endured the longest siege of a capital city since World War II. An important part of their history you should learn about during your visit; I highly recommend a day HYH City Tour which will give you an excellent overview. However, the violence of the Bosnian War is long gone, so much so that according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) violent crime in Sarajevo is not something to be concerned about. The Canadian embassy in Bosnia says the same, which makes sense since both countries have about the same violent crime rate. [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report; Excel]

Less Dangerous Than Belgium But Watch Your Pockets

On the whole, although Bosnia and Herzegovina is safer than Belgium and 73% of all other countries in the world, theft and property crime rates in Sarajevo are high. There are no foreign troops (NATO left in 2005) or snipers in the hills but the effects of a lost generation with 40% unemployment fuels the main threat to travelers in Sarajevo – petty crime such as pickpocketing and purse-snatching.

sarajevo Miljacka River

Those of you driving into Sarajevo should be especially careful as the roads are most likely to get you killed while being mindful not to leave anything in your car. Vehicles with foreign plates are especially tempting targets as are the compartments of day packs tourists like to walk around with. The less interaction you have with the police – advice that goes for anywhere in the world – the better. Corruption among government institutions is rampant as any Bosnian will frustratingly tell you.

The UNODC says if you’re paying a bribe in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s probably to either a cop or doctor. Keep in mind that 40% of Bosnians refuse to pay up to crooked authorities and you should too – but the key is realizing it’s happening first.

Remnants Of War Underfoot

There are an estimated 200,000 landmines scattered across 2.5% Bosnia and Herzegovina, sadly killing 600 locals since the end of the Bosnian War. However, as a tourist the chance of you encountering one is non-existent within the city of Sarajevo and negligent in the surrounding countryside – provided you stick to established trails and heed warning signs.

sarajevo eternal flame

I hiked up to Sarajevo’s Zuta Tabija (Yellow Fortress) to unexpectedly discover the filming of a Bosnian comedy movie, sticking to the well marked trails. I also visited the site of the discarded 1984 Olympic bobsled tube, again, not wandering off the main paths. As I explored the hills by foot, many locals reminded me to follow that basic advice. If you do too, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

To Answer Your Question: Yes

Crime statistics rarely sound comforting, even if somewhere is 95% crime-free, our minds tend to remember that 5% is not. But like most safe cities in the world, you don’t need more than the usual dose of common sense before visiting Sarajevo. Anecdotally, this city of 297,000 felt much safer than its larger European counterparts, just one more good reason Sarajevo was voted the best to visit in 2012.

Safety, and comfort in it, often comes in numbers. For those of you who’ve been to Sarajevo, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the city, misconceptions you had before going, and what you’d tell someone who might be a little afraid to visit; in the comments below.

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About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutI'm the blogger and computer security engineer who writes foXnoMad while on a journey to visit every country in the world. I'll show you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter. Read More


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