Countries Cuba Latin America Travel

Practical Guide To Cuba

By on April 24, 2016

Cuba is still one of the few places where buying a physical map will be the top priority when you land if you haven’t got it already. The internet has changed the way we travel but not in Cuba. You need to resort to the old methods of using a landline phone to call people or stop and ask for directions. For a change, we didn’t have to worry about the phone battery or power bank draining out. I reveled in the joy of using a map and not waking up to WhatsApp messages.

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It’s an incredible country so full of life, color and warm smiles. Independent travel on a budget and without any knowledge of Spanish can be challenging in Cuba, but what is travel without any hiccup? Cuba is such a different experience, it evoked so many different feelings and emotions in us. It’s difficult, intoxicating and stimulating and to be able to look back on all of that – extremely rewarding, to say the least. People from other countries tell me the same thing about India but I’ll never know that ūüôā

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We’ve put together all the practical information one will need when traveling to Cuba. We usually don’t have guides for the places we visit but we felt there are so many things different about Cuba and the information is a necessity. We hope this information will make your travel a lot more smooth. You can also read about our Cuban¬†experience and watch the video¬†(both open in a new tab).

CASA PARTICULARS GALORE

Casa Particulars are private homes of Cuban families and just one step closer to the real Cuban experience. Since 1997, the government has allowed Cubans to rent out rooms to foreigners to enable them to be more financially independent. It’s the best way to discover Cuba. The families give you a lot of privacy and don’t expect you to hang out with them but they are always around if you wish to. ¬†They can also provide you with breakfast and dinner for extra money and help you arrange casas in other cities.

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                     A typical casa in Trinidad can be recognized by the blue and white sign

Sometimes there is an entire section of the house for the tourist. They are very clean and comfortable with air condition and ensuite bathroom. They provide the basics like soap and towel. Our casa in Havana also had a mini-fridge and a hair dryer in the room. Since we were backpacking across Cuba and Mexico, we could carry only the bare essential so the hair dryer in the room was a pleasant surprise. A little luxury, however, small is always welcomed.

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There are various sites (Rentcubanhouse,HostelsClub, Cuba Junky) to book casas¬†online. The other way is to look up a few names and their email addresses’ on google (shortlist a few on TripAdvisor) . Send them an email, if they have availability they send you a confirmation or direct your request to other casa owners. It’s not possible to pay online so you pay once you check in.

Else, just walk down the streets knocking on a few doors (with signs) and you’re sure to find a casa.We did exactly that in Trinidad and found a beautiful colonial house with a mango tree in the garden. In Vinales, we just landed at a random casa and checked if they have availability. The owner was very kind, she invited us to her living room, made a few calls and walked us to an available casa. It’s very easy and you are sure to find one since every other house is a casa. We were there in peak season (and the week when President Obama and The Rolling Stones were visiting) but we still found casas without any prior booking.

If you travel by Viazul or Transtur buses then there will be many people at the bus stop of your destination advertising their casas. You could explore that option too.¬†Since Obama’s visit in March 2016, it’s now possible to book casa on Airbnb as well.

If living with a family is not your thing then you could also book independent flats or hotels. Hotel Nacional is the oldest hotel and a beautiful property overlooking the sea. This is where a lot of famous people have stayed in Havana. Even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth going there for a drink. There is even a hostel in Havana for backpackers for 8 CUC per person.

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                    Breakfast in the Casa, the best coffee we had was in the casa.

Tips: It is advisable to book the accommodation for the first night at least. Just in case, if you get interrogated at the immigration like us, they would want that information. Casas cost about 25-35 CUC per night. Breakfast is for 5 CUC and Dinner 10-15 CUC depending on your choice of meat.

DUAL CURRENCY

There are two currencies in Cuba. ¬†The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) pronounced kook which is equivalent to the US dollar. When you exchange currency from an official kiosk or withdraw money from an ATM, this is what you’ll get. ¬†Tourist will be using this currency for almost everything like accommodation, restaurants, bars, tipping and transport. This is not a currency for the tourist, even Cubans use it for the same things.

The other currency  is the Cuban pesos (referred to as Moneda Nacional, abbreviated MN/CUP). This is what the Cubans use mostly as they are paid in CUP. This currency is only used when you go to buy fruits or vegetables in the local market, a peso pizza, ham sandwich from a local restaurant or taking a collectivo taxi. You can also pay in CUC in these places but the change would be given in CUP.

It can get very confusing since the Cubans refer to both the currencies as pesos and both are indicated with the dollar sign. If you mix them up it can cost you 24 times more, be sure that Cuban know the difference too well. It takes a while to get used to it and understand if you are getting overcharged. Despite knowing all about the dual currency we still managed to get fleeced on our first day in Havana for a 5-minute taxi ride. So, always ask for the price and which currency do they mean before you buy something or get in the taxi.

BUYING CUBAN CURRENCY

The best places to change currency are the banks and the Cadeca, the change bureau.

Banco De Cuba are the banks where you are given a token with a waiting number written on it. You can go to the counter when your number is called out or shown on the screen and exchange your money. Pretty straight forward.

Cadeca which is basically a currency kiosk. If you see long queues with mostly foreigners then those are usually Cadeca. You have to queue up on the street and only one person is allowed in at a time. Once you are in you buy your currency at the counter. Hotels also have a Cadeca within their premises, so if you land there on a Sunday then you can go over to one of  the hotels.

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This is the queue outside a Cadeca in Habana Vieja

There are ATMs too but are few and again the queues are long. Apparently only VISA cards work in the ATMs. We did not use the card in the ATM as we’d heard stories of cards getting swallowed by the machine. But if you do plan to use them 3% will be charged and if your bank is affiliated with America then your card won’t work in Cuba. It’s best to bring cash to the country. Euros, Canadian Dollars and British Sterling get the best rates. The other currencies that can be exchanged are Mexican Pesos, Japanese Yen, and Swiss Francs. Do not bring in US dollar since they charge a 10% service fee.

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Tips:¬†Always remember to take your passport with you. Don‚Äôt change money anywhere else due to the prevalence of forged currency. Change as much as you need for the entire trip to save time getting in a queue again. Ignore individuals on the street offering exchange facilities to avoid queues. The Cadeca at the airport is always super busy since all the passengers in your flight would be queuing up so it’s best either to go to the departure terminal or to change it in the city.

It is not possible to buy Cuban currency outside the country so the first thing you must do is buy some currency when you land. And you should exchange any leftover currency (or like us buy cigars or coffee at the airport) before catching your flight back since you won’t be able to exchange or use them outside of Cuba.

INTERNET 

You can buy an internet card from Etecsa for 2 CUC per hour. It’s basically a scratch¬†card with a username and password and every time you find a wifi hotspot you can access the net with your username and password. Don’t forget to log off at the end. So even though you can access the internet in Cuba, it is very scarce and expensive. It is extremely expensive for Cubans especially when their¬†average monthly salary could range from 20-30 CUC even for high-skilled professionals like engineers and doctors.

internet                 This is the scratch card for internet use- this can be used for 5 hours and costs 10CUC

It’s very easy to spot a wifi hotspot in Cuba. If you see lots of people gathered in one spot busy with their phones and tablets then you’ve come to the right place. Though there are limited hotspots and many people use it so the speed is slow. Wifi hotspots are available in hotels too and can be used with your own scratch card or can be bought at the hotel at inflated rates. There are internet cafes too but unless you are with a Cuban it’s impossible to find them, there is no signage.

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Using the internet in Cuba was fascinating, it was an experience I didn’t want to miss out on. It took us back to those earlier days when we’d type emails and messages offline and log in only to send them And the most important, logging out as soon as you’re done, it’s precious so use it sparingly. The squares and parks with wifi hotspots have become social hubs for Cubans. It’s interesting to just sit back and watch people chatting with friends or families, watching videos or making their presence felt on social media.

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Tips: You will need an identification proof to buy the internet card. The queues are very long and only one person is allowed at a time. Some people will offer you the card for 3 CUC an hour outside the Etecsa office. You could buy those to avoid the queue but buy it at your own risk. We bought one from the street on our way back to the airport (since we had to book our accommodation in Mexico for that night) but we got held up at the immigration again and barely made it to the flight let alone use the internet after the security check.

Here is a map with all the wifi hotspots in Havana and directions for how to use the wifi card.

PHONE

Foreigners cannot buy a local sim card in Cuba,you need the Cuban National Identity card to buy one. But you can rent a sim car from Etecsa’s office. You need a deposit of 20 CUC and a 3CUC rent per day plus credit to use the phone, a minimum of 10 CUC. It’s expensive and one must again get past the long queues to get one. We did queue up on day 1 to get it but since we left our passport back at the casa they didn’t give it to us.

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Payphones are very common and so is the landline. Almost every casa will have a landline since cell phones are very expensive. If you need to make a call to a Cuban then give them a missed call from your casa landline. There is an unsaid understanding between the Cubans- if they get a missed call from a landline on their mobile, they cancel the call and return it from their own landline. The first time we wanted to call a friend in Havana, we gave him a missed call and he called back within a few minutes. We did that every time we wanted to call our friend to make plans for the evening. We didn’t feel the need for a mobile phone, it’s one less hassle of the modern world.

Tips:¬†To buy the internet card you can show any photo identification card but for the phone rental one must carry the passport along. Both can be bought in the same Etecsa’s office.

TRANSPORT  

It’s best to request your casa to send a pick up to the airport. The price is same, it’ll cost 25-30 CUC for a pick/drop. The driver will take you straight to your casa without any hassle and you can pay him later once you’ve exchanged the money in the city. If you take a taxi from the airport, you will first have to get the currency to pay him.

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Within Havana, there are many modes of transport. Bicitaxi’s are three wheelers similar to Asian rickshaws and Coco taxi is half covered yellow three wheelers. Both bicitaxi and coco taxi are fun rides and must be experienced in Cuba. Horse-drawn carriage and Old American cars are good for a joy ride around the city. They are expensive about 30 CUC for an hour. There is a hop on hop off bus which takes you around all of Havana’s major attraction, it’s a good and inexpensive way to see other parts of the city. The collectivo’s which are shared taxis are the old 1950’s vintage cars and run along a one-way pre-defined route, they pick and drop people along the way. The local bus is a very cheap way to get around but get on them only if you familiar with the route and can speak Spanish. We got onto one just for the experience of it with some Cuban friends. Then, of course, there are taxi’s which are expensive, some run on a meter but it’s always best to agree on a price at the start. Scooter and bicycle can be rented too but the heat is unbearable to cycle around the city.

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Viazul and Transtur are the best options to travel between the cities. These are comfortable air-conditioned buses with a toilet. However, the buses are few so options are limited. You can book the tickets a day in advance from one of the hotels or at the bus stop. If you are traveling in the peak season like us then you must book the tickets a few days in advance. We didn’t get the tickets to Vinales but a friend told us about a cheaper way to get there using Collectivo. These are shared taxis and are cheaper than the bus. They are so much fun, the best ride we had. I felt like I was in one of those Spanish movies traveling to the countryside. If you don’t mind a little adventure, people getting picked and dropped every now and then, changing collectivo from Pinar del Rio then this is the best way to get to Vinales in a vintage car.

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If you are in the mood to splurge then you can book a private taxi. A ride from Havana to Vinales/ Havana to Trinidad would cost 100-120 CUC. They can turn out to ¬†be the same as the bus if you can find people to share it with. The driver we’d spoken to found two Australian girls to share the ride from Trinidad to Havana with. It’s a great way to travel, make new friends, stop for some coffee, see the sale of fuel in the black market and get dropped right in front of the casa in Havana. On a side note, we also saw the migration of red female crabs on the way. ¬†They migrate from the forest through the highway in order to get to the Caribbean sea where they reproduce every spring. Unfortunately, a lot of them didn’t make it and the highway was littered with them. But it was a scene straight out of National Geographic.

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Tips: If you need currency to pay for the taxi at the airport, it’s best to use the ATM at the airport to save time. Once you get to the city, you can decide where you want to exchange your currency from.

VISA AND IMMIGRATION

If entering Cuba as a tourist, you will need to buy the tourist card. It can be bought at the major airports like Heathrow or Cancun. Most Latin American countries also sell them at the various airline counters. We had pre-ordered the tourist card via a website (cubavisa.com) based in London for 15¬£ each plus postage. The immigration officer will stamp the card and give you one-half of it back. You need to show this half when you’re leaving the country.

 

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As Indians, we need a visa to visit most of the countries and the list of documents required to apply for a visa is always long and complex. So, Cuba was a pleasant surprise and just when we were thinking that their visa policies are so aligned with their general chilled out attitude till we got to the immigration.  Our first immigration interrogation ever. We were probably the only South Asians in the entire flight and quite possibly also in Cuba, also noticed by a few European travelers we met while in Cuba.

As we were walking to the queue a man asked us which country we are from. When we said India, he took our passports and walked away without a word. We looked at each other and followed him but he quickly disappeared into a room, the door of which said, ‘Access denied’. ¬†We were left waiting outside the office without any explanation. To be honest we least expected to be stopped in Cuba of all the countries. Every time a person came out of the room we were told the passport is getting examined by their senior. After a while, the man came out without our passports, he pulled a folded paper from his pocket and started asking us questions about the kind of phones, laptops, cameras we are bringing into the country, why do we want to visit Cuba. It seemed a little seedy, the piece of paper was already crowded with a lot of information possibly from other foreigners like us and he scribbled the answers in the corner. He went back with the information and told us our passports have been sent to another official for further examination. They had a hard time understanding why Indians would be interested in visiting Cuba. It was a little amusing since they didn’t know what to do with us. After a 40 minute wait, they called us back and with a big smile on their faces said, ‘Welcome to Cuba, my friends’. Well, that is Cuba for you ūüôā

INFOTUR

Infoturs are the official tourist offices in Cuba. This is where you can get all the information about local attractions etc. I even went there to ask the lady how much should a coconut water cost. I was quoted 5 CUC and I knew he was trying to fleece us. (Having lived in two busy Indian cities for over a decade and haggling with the rickshaw guy every day, bargaining has become a second nature to me. Even on days when the rickshaw guy doesn’t inflate the rate for the ride I end up haggling anyways only to realize he’s quoted what I am willing to pay him) The Havana office on Obispo street has maps for 2 CUC in case you feel the need for it. Without access to google maps, physical maps are the best way to help you get around. I enjoyed using a physical map after a long time and for a change, you’ll see every other tourist carry it too.

In Vinales, it’s possible to book Viazul buses to other cities and local tours like horse riding and tobacco field tour through them. They are efficient and reliable and people working there can speak in English and answer all your questions patiently. In Trinidad, they have Cubatur which is similar to Infotur.

LANGUAGE

Do yourself a favor and learn Spanish before you head to Cuba. Even a few sentences go a long way in Cuba. The only Spanish we could speak was ¬†Lo Siento,¬†No entiendo (I’m sorry, I don’t understand)¬†besides the greetings and believe me even that was a huge help ūüôā

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Lack of the knowledge forces you to stay within the tourist trail. If you walk into any popular restaurants or hotels you’d find people can speak a few sentences in English but a few streets off the tourist trail and you fall back on animating. It is fun especially when people make so much of an effort to communicate with you. People are incredibly friendly and will often stop you on the streets just to know where you’re from. Some of these would be after your dollars but most are genuine and warm. We had multiple encounters every day with strangers and those were our favorite moments in Cuba.

We did meet a few young Cubans through Couchsurfing and had extremely insightful and interesting conversation with them about Cuba, their opinions of their government, the revolution and just the world in general. Cubans are very curious and love to ask you questions. Knowing Spanish makes your experience with Cuban people much richer as you would be able to interact with an average Cuban on the street too.

WHAT TO DRINK?

Cuba is a great place to try out different cocktails. Read our detailed post here (opens in a new tab) about what to drink in Cuba.

AROUND CUBA IN 15 DRINKS

Bottled water is relatively expensive in Cuba at 1 CUC for half a liter and that can really add up to your budget in the soaring temperatures. ¬†It’s the standard price no matter where you buy it from.

EATING OUT

We were told the food in Cuba is very bland and since we were traveling to Cuba from Mexico we already had a bottle of Mexican sauce with us but we didn’t feel the need for it.

I loved their black rice and beans, a famous dish served at almost every restaurant. An order of your¬†choice of meat- chicken, pork, beef, lobster, fish and shrimp and they are usually accompanied by rice and beans, chips and salad. Lobster and shrimp are very popular and should be tried especially if you choose to dine with your casa owners. ¬†It is possible to get Italian or Mexican food too but it’s not very common on the menu. We saw them in a few odd places. However, with more and more private restaurants coming up in Cuba the culinary scene is changing rapidly.

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There aren’t too many inexpensive options to eat and eating peso pizza or ham sandwich every day can get quite tedious. ¬†A meal in a¬†paladar (privately owned restaurants) will be for about 5-7 CUC and in a proper tourist restaurant will set you back by 10-15 CUC . Like in any country, the swankier the place the more you pay for the food. La Guardia is a fine dining place in Old Havana and they have a 3-course meal for 50 CUC. This is the place where the Cuban film, ‘Fresa y chocolate’ was shot. You need to make reservations in the upscale restaurants.

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Vegetarian food is hard to find. The vegetarian options you can find are the peso cheese pizza and vegetarian burger in very few restaurant. Rice and beans can be found almost everywhere but it’s difficult to live on just rice and beans.

TIPPING

Tipping is a norm in Cuba and people will expect it in CUC. Everyone you come in contact with will expect a tip from the taxi driver to the waiters, musicians in the bars, musicians on the street and tour guides. If you take a photograph¬†of anyone on the street they might ask you for a dollar, it’s very common. People walking on the street will stop and talk to you for a few minutes and ask you for a dollar at the end of the conversation, street vendors will forcefully place a small item they’re selling on your hand and demand you to pay for it.¬†Some will ask you to buy milk for their child, some will tell you it’s their birthday and ask you to buy a drink. The musician playing in a restaurant will go around every table for a tip after a few songs. The lady at the free bag deposit counter in the Museum of the Revolution tried asking me for 5 CUC but I refused politely. It’s important to put this behind and not let it affect you. Tourism is the only means of supporting their families. They mean no harm. Such scams are not isolated to Cuba alone, I’ve seen them aplenty in India and a few times in the developed countries too like in France. We’ve been told that the Cubans working in the tourism industry are the richest. So the person on the street will probably benefit from your dollar than the waiter or a taxi driver. A University educated software engineer earns 20-30 CUC per month and the taxi driver makes 25 CUC for an airport pick up. It’s important to gaze when you must tip since tipping can very quickly add up to your budget. It’s equally important that you don’t end up feeling cheated and can appreciate them for their creative ideas, if not enjoy them ūüôā

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WHAT TO PACK FOR CUBA?

While forgetting essential items on travel to any country is no big deal. It’s easy to pop into the nearest convenience store and get what you want. In Cuba if you forget your toothbrush you might spend a day looking for it and pay a premium to buy it. So, packing efficiently and everything that you might need is extremely important.

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CLOTHING: Pack for warm weather. Afternoons¬†are extremely hot but the evenings are breezy and lovely. It’s best to get a sweater or a light jacket along for the air conditioned buses and those occasional sudden downpours especially if you’re in the mountains. Add a hat and sunglasses to that list. If you are visiting during the winters, evenings tend to be a little chilly.

TOILETRIES: Get everything that you need and sunscreen should be on top of that list. The casa that we stayed in did provide bathing soap and clean towels but get your own if you like. It’s best to get all the toiletries along, it’s difficult to find a place to buy them especially if you don’t speak Spanish. And when you get to the place they are notoriously expensive.

MEDICINE: Take every kind of medicine you require. Cuba has free Healthcare system even for foreigners (You need an Insurance but if you haven’t got one they’ll ask you to purchase it at the airport when you land) and can access the facilities if you fall ill or have injured yourself. But it’s difficult to find smaller things like paracetamol or band aids etc since the medicines are in short supply, so we’ve been told.

SHOES: If you like walking, you can explore a large part of Havana Vieja on foot like we did, so good walking shoes are essential. They will also come handy if you travel to Trinidad and walk on those beautiful cobblestone streets. Footwear for the beach if you plan to plonk yourself on the powdery sand for a few days. And hiking boots or trainers if you plan to go hiking in the Vinales valley.

GUIDEBOOK: I don’t own any travel guidebook and have never traveled with one, it’s just not our style of travel. But we borrowed one from a friend who’d been there already. It was a huge help especially on the first day when we were orienting ourselves with the names of the streets with no immediate access to the internet. But if you don’t want to lug that huge book then you can jot down the names of all the places on your phone. The Spanish phrases in the guide were handy too.

FOOD:¬†There is hardly any street food and virtually no supermarkets. So if you like me , like to munch on something or the other then you should carry some food like noodles, crisps, energy bars and chocolates with you. If you don’t consume them, they make for great gifts for children.

OTHER PARAPHERNALIA: Bring a power adapter. Cuba has 110V and some hotels have 220 V. Insect Repellant is a must, especially in Vinales.

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WHAT TO TAKE BACK WITH YOU?

There are loads of souvenir shops filled with Che Guevara’s images. If you are a fan of Che then there are many options from hand fan, T-Shirts, caps and fridge magnets. I am a fridge magnet hoarder and I picked a few different kinds.

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Cigars are the most popular gifts everyone wants to take back. But be careful of street hustlers trying to sell fake cigars. The only place to buy cigars is from the official cigar shops or from the farmers in Vinales. Cuban coffee is great and if you are a coffee junkie then you must take some back with you. And Rum of course which can be bought from The Havana Club in Old Havana or at the airport.

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Different brands of Cigar

Tips: There are many souvenir shops and cigar shop at the Jose Marti airport and we found the prices a little less or almost the same for most of the stuff we bought. There are a few options even after the security check as well.

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If Cuba was not on your wanderlust list,we hope we’ve managed to convince you to drop everything else and head to Cuba before it changes.

PS: All the information and the prices in the article above is from our personal travel experience in Cuba in March 2016. The telecommunication market in Cuba is changing rapidly so please check for the latest information.

If you wish to plan a trip to Cuba, we would love to help you with it or answer any questions you might have. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us through our Facebook page¬†or IG¬†@morchangblog¬†or¬†leave a comment below. We love hearing from you ūüôā

Have you been to Cuba? Would you add anything to this list?

 

 

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About Us :)

Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
We both love traveling and watching films so we decided to document some of it. Hope you enjoy reading as much as we’ve enjoyed traveling and writing about them ūüôā

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