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Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4)

I managed to make it through my first 50 1/2 years on the earth without sitting on a horse. In the last year, though, I’ve ridden what I have learned are known as “tourist-string” horses in Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and now Iceland. This is 100% because of Erica, but it turns out I sort of like riding them. So it was with a cheerful smile that I headed out to Is Hestar to go ride some Icelandic horses on our last full day in country.

A few fun facts about Icelandic horses: a) don’t call them “ponies”; b) if a horse ever leaves the country, it cannot come back (thus preventing the spread of horse cooties); c) they use unique saddles because d) they have a unique gait. They also have an extremely distinctive mane, reminiscent of Rod Stewart from 1979.

We reserved a 2-hour “lava tour” ride at Is Hestar for Sunday morning. It’s an easy drive to the outskirts of Reykjavik, where you wouldn’t necessarily think there was any place to ride. However, their barn sits right in the middle of an extensive network of multi-use trails and is right next to a pretty good-size, 8000-year-old lava field. After a short safety briefing, we were assigned to our horses and saddled up to go ride. The photo above is me meeting my horse, whose name I can’t remember; he, and a couple of his compatriots, seemed to think that I had some horse candy in my pocket. (Spoiler: I did not.) After I saddled up, it became clear that, once again, I had gotten a horse who had his own plan for the day that didn’t necessarily align with mine. I sort of yanked him around the paddock a bit, culminating in a visit to the water trough for him that ended only when our guide opened the gate. (Another horse also had a long drink and then wiped his nose all over my knee, so that was fun.)

A word about the guides: they did a great job managing the 10 of us who were riding and our mounts. They were friendly, outgoing, full of interesting horse trivia, and just overall pleasant to be around. It didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely gorgeous as we rode around the back side of one of the trail loops and out into the lava fields.

After about an hour, we stopped a field where the horses like to snack. This had roughly the same effect as throwing a box of pizza rolls into a room full of teenage boys. The snack break provided some good photo opportunities, though.

One of the things I noticed quickly on my first visit is the contrast between the purple clumps (and, if you’re lucky, fields) of lupine and the black, gray, and brown shades of the landscape. Above is a good sample of what I mean; we happened to be there during peak season, which isn’t all that different than visiting Texas when bluebonnets are doing their thing.

You bet your sweet little horse that I was wearing a helmet.

After letting the horses snack, we rode back; the guides offered anyone who wanted to a chance to test out the faster gaits for which Icelandic horses are known, but as a super novice rider I was happy to pass on that opportunity.

After surviving the horses, our next stop was the Blue Lagoon. This is maybe the only borderline-controversial thing we did. I say that because there are essentially two camps of opinion: “the Blue Lagoon is an overpriced and stupid tourist trap” in one corner, versus “the Blue Lagoon is the best thing EVER” in the other. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The lagoon itself is about 45min outside of Reykjavik; it’s attached to the Svartsengi power station, which you can see from some distance away when you’re driving on the south coast road. The high mineral content of the water in that area gives it a unique color, and some bright spark decided years ago that the naturally heated water would be perfect for a spa. The whole Blue Lagoon complex is dedicated to that proposition; it’s themed and marketed as a spa, which isn’t normally my thing, but I figured it was worth a try.

When you arrive, the arrival flow is very much like I imagine a fancy spa would be: you check in, get an RFID wristband, pick up any options you prepaid for (we got robes and slippers), then go to the sex-segregated changing rooms.

Pro tip; Iceland, by law and custom, requires people to shower naked before entering shared baths like the waters at the Blue Lagoon. If you’re not used to communal showers, well, you’d better get used to them. (Some places, like the Blue Lagoon, do have more private showers, but don’t count on privacy anywhere else!)

Freshly showered, we went out into the water. There’s a large map showing the temperature zones of the overall lagoon. With a pretty much infinite supply of 105-degree-F water, they mix it so that there are warmer and cooler zones. One of those zones contains a swim-up bar; our package included one drink apiece, so we got our drinks and went to go… loiter in the water.

That’s it. That’s what there is to do at the Blue Lagoon. Oh, and you can get mud facials. The water has an extremely high silicate content, so they salvage some of the silica and use it to make face mask mud. I tried it. Do I look any younger in the below photo? No? Maybe you should save your money and not buy the mud when you go, then.

One of the common questions I see people asking on Reddit etc is “how long should I plan for a Blue Lagoon trip?” You absolutely could stop off here on the way to or from the airport as long as you keep an eye on time. I’d say 2 hours (not including travel time) is about right; after about 2 hours, we’d gotten our recommended daily allowance of spa fun. It wasn’t crowded, but there’s nothing to do or see other than the water and the mud. One note: little kids are allowed there, so if you want a child-free visit, you’ll have to find a spot as far away from the kids as possible. There were tons of adventurous 20-somethings; I’d say that was the main demographic but I suspect it varies by season and day of the week.

After a relaxing shower, we jumped back in the car and headed back into town. We had a little time to kill, so we went to the penis museum. Ahem. I mean the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which sounds way more scientific. Summary: save your money. It’s very much a one-note whistle and, while well-executed, there are only sny preserved animal dicks you can look at before they all blur together. The $70 or so it cost for two museum admissions plus two drinks could’ve been better spent.

For dinner, we wanted to go to Svarta Kaffid because it was right down the street from the hotel. We went there about 10pm on our first night and they politely but firmly said “oh, we’re closed”– despite their door signs and Facebook page both saying they were open until 11pm. Despite that, we decided to give them another try. The Icelandic meat soup was solidly OK– the bread bowl was an A+ but the soup, IMHO, wasn’t as good as it was at the Hotel Skogafoss.

After dinner, it was an easy, short walk back to the hotel so we could pack up to go home.

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Iceland 2021 day 4: up north to Langjökull

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3)

Astute readers may notice that, so far, I haven’t said anything about the entire northern 2/3 of the country. For reference, it was snowing in the north while we were there, and although I originally wanted to fly up to Akureyri, the timing of our trip just wouldn’t work for getting that far north. I didn’t want to miss the “ice” part of Iceland completely, though, so we decided to do one of the canned tours of Langjökull.

First, though, we had some business to conduct in town: a COVID-19 test, as required to return to the US. There are private test providers, but the easiest way to get a test is to register on travel.covid.is. Pick the city you’re in and a time, pay the fee (EUR 50 for a PCR test or EUR 30 for a rapid-antigen test, either of which are accepted in the US), and show up at the appointed time– that’s it.

The test location in Reykjavik is at a government health clinic not far from downtown. We had a 915a appointment (the first time slot available on a Saturday) and showed up at about 855a to find a line of 100 or so people. That was a little offputting but, once they started testing, we were in and out within another 15 minutes. I’d wanted to leave the city by 10am to make our 1230p tour time, and we were on the way by about 930a. The emails with our test results arrived within 90 minutes; unlike all the fooling around with the Rakning C19 app, it just worked.

To get to Húsafell, our route went mostly along highway 1, but northbound this time. Just before Borgarnes (where there’s a very cool-looking bridge across the water), we turned onto highway 50, which took us further north. Along the way we went through the Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel, which was unexpectedly cool. The real star, though, was the view. On the left, ocean and mountains. On the right, plains and mountains. Ahead, mountains, fields with horses and sheep, the occasional road-crossing sheep, and a continually variable cloud deck. It was a gloriously scenic drive, but fairly slow; between the occasional rain, the continual wind, and the 90kph speed limit, it took us just under 2 hours to get there. Just before we got to the Hotel Húsafell itself, we passed a golf course (surprise #1) that was right next to a lava-stone runway (surprise #2).

The Húsafell park complex, in addition to the hotel and golf course, has a ton of campsites and trails. It has a well-known thermal spa (the Canyon Baths), fishing, golf, and winter-focused activities like snowmobiling. I didn’t know about its extensive trail network or I’d’ve planned some extra time just to hike around the area… maybe next time. Anyway, When we got to the hotel, we found that nothing opened for another 20 minutes or so (surprise #3) so we walked around a bit. Once it opened, we had a quick lunch (pizza, nothing remarkable) to kill some time until the tour was to meet. We’d booked this tour with Arctic Adventures, mostly because we got to drive around in the bad boy pictured below, but that first required us to get on a boringly regular tour bus to drive to the base camp. The drive was interesting because it was mostly on unimproved roads that I wasn’t too sure the bus could handle. We made it to base camp without incident, though.

At base camp, we left the bus and queued up to get onto the ice truck that would carry us up above the snow line. Now, I should mention at this point that the truck can carry up to 46 people, and I think we had 40– so this was the most crowded-tourist-like activity of the entire trip. (Plus the driver’s dog, who rode in the cab the whole way!) The tour operator recommended dressing for cold, dry conditions, which makes sense given that you’re going to be on a glacier. “Dry” is relative though; it started lightly snowing as we loaded into the truck and snowed more and more as we climbed.

The cave entrance is at about 4200′ elevation. Surprisingly, it felt warmer there than it had at base camp or at the hotel, partly because the air was dry, partly because there was minimal wind, and partly because the sun had come out. After a short safety briefing, our guide took us into the cave complex. “Cave” is a little bit of a misnomer because the whole thing is really a man-made tunnel, not a natural cave, but “cave” is easier to type so that’s what I’ll call it.

The cave system forms a big loop; you enter, walk through what looks like a big sewer pipe, and come out into an anteroom with benches, where you add crampons to your boots. You’ll need them, as the floor of the cave is… ice. In some low-lying spots, there’s accumulated meltwater. If your boots are waterproof, you’ll have no trouble; if not, well, you probably should’ve worn some (but the guide will give you giant waterproof overshoes at base camp if you need them).

The cave system is lit with LED lights, some of which are inside the ice and give a sort of surreal glow to the scene. You can clearly see the seasonal ice rings, and the horizontal striations in the ice show where the seasonal snow-thaw-melt-freeze cycle has taken place really clearly. The ice is surprisingly textured, too.

Along the way through the cave, there are several hollowed-out chambers, one of which is a “wedding chapel”. Funnily enough, it contained nothing other than a tarp-covered digging machine; no alter, ceiling lights, etc. Our guide said the digger was stored there pending repair. One of the chambers is festooned with lights, and one is basically an echo chamber. My favorite was the one shown below; it’s basically a horizontal crevasse in the ice that shows all the different colors and textures to great advantage.

The last chamber is lit specifically to enable these kinds of cool silhouette photos

When we exited the cave, it was snowing steadily and visibility was no more than a few hundred yards. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it was pretty close. On one hand, it’s a glacier, so of course it was snowing. On the other hand, it was June. On the drive back down the glacier, which was pretty slow due to the snow, we saw a rented Land Rover that had gone off-road and was stuck, flipped at about a 30-degree angle. Our driver stopped and picked them up and dropped them at base camp with the rest of us; after that, it was an easy drive in the big bus back to our starting point.

Pro tip: there are lots of places in Iceland that have roads. Just because there’s a road, don’t assume that you can actually drive there. Check safetravel.is (especially for “F roads”, which aren’t paved and/or have very steep terrain) before you go anywhere.

Pro tip: as I mentioned before, you’ll never go wrong in Iceland by buying the maximum rental-car insurance that you can get. Note that these policies almost always have an exception for “door damage due to winds”– the winds are strong enough to snatch the car door out of your hand and break the mechanism, especially on small cars.

We skipped past the falls at Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (which are right next to each other) on the drive up, but stopped on the way back. I have to say that this complex was my favorite overall of all the waterfalls. “Hraun” is Icelandic for “lava,” which is why these falls have their name; instead of the typical gravity-fed water-falling-down falls, the complex here is made of falls where water that’s permeated the lava falls down. The rocks and colors are just spectacular.

As with several of our other stops, there’s almost no actual hiking involved here– you park (it’s free), walk about 100 yards, and boom, there are the falls. There’s a trail overlooking Hraunfossar that you can use to walk downriver; we saw (and heard) several sheep on the falls side. If you then walk back to the Hraunfossar trailhead, there’s a complex of trails that leads you around Barnafoss, including a bridge that lets you cross the river to get a different set of views.

We had a bit of light drizzle while exploring the falls, but the skies cleared nicely as we drove back to the south. As on the drive up, the landscape unrolled before us with plenty of horses, farms, sheep, mountains, and meadows to look at, and the coastal views were amazing once we turned southeast. After we got back to the city, we headed out for our planned dinner: Icelandic hot dogs.

Yes, that’s right: hot dogs, that American staple, are a bit of a delicacy in Iceland. They’re made using a lamb/beef/pork mix, and they’re reputed to be delicious. We walked over to BBP first, because it was closest to our hotel, and found the stand below.

It’s exactly what the picture shows: hot dogs and Coke-brand drinks. No side items (fries, chips, etc); no beer or wine; no desserts. Just… hot dogs. We each had one. As expected, they were delicious, but not really dinner by themselves. We decided to walk over to the Reykjavik Sausage Company, which gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront in the (chilly, windy) sunshine. When we got there, guess what: hot dogs, Coke-brand drinks, and… ice cream. Still not a real dinner, but we made do with an additional hot dog (BBP’s were way better) and some ice cream, then headed back to make an early night of it.

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Iceland 2021, day 2: the south coast

(Day 0; Day 1)

Pro tip: remember the lava video from day 1? In the US you’d never be able to get so close to something so dangerous. In Iceland, though, their approach is much more grown-up. Hazards are clearly marked but, even on the steepest cliffs or most dangerous areas, there aren’t that many physical barriers to actively prevent you from doing stupid things. So don’t be stupid. (Included in “don’t be stupid”: traffic laws are vigorously enforced and, if you pay your fine on the spot in cash, you get a 25% discount.)

Other things you should be aware of that may be forbidden include drones (not allowed in national parks and at most attractions), driving without headlights, pulling off the side of the road to take pictures, and driving on closed roads.

The “Ring Road” is the English nickname for Icelandic highway 1, which goes more or less around the perimeter of the island. The perimeter of Iceland is about the same length as the perimeter of Kentucky, so you can see that driving it might take you a little while. Many visitors rent a camper van and navigate all the way around the ring, stopping whenever they want to see one of the many sights, but that requires you to spend a ton of time d…r…i…v…i…n….g at 40-50mph on narrow roads, possibly in high winds, rain, and/or snow, and that wasn’t how we wanted to spend our trip. Instead, we agreed that we’d take a day and drive from Reykjavik over to Vík and back. Several tour companies offer bus tours along this route, but we couldn’t book one for any of the days we wanted to go, again due to low tourist demand. In the event, this worked out well and I’m glad we did the tour ourselves.

Our planned route was to start in the city, stop at Seljalandfoss, then Skógafoss, then on to Vík. The map above shows the actual route we took– I mistakenly navigated us to Selfoss, which was a non-event since it was pretty much on the route anyway.

First stop was the waterfall at Seljalandfoss. It’s clearly visible from the road, so you can’t miss it. You have to pay a few hundred ISK to park (around US$3), and there’s a small coffee stand and bathrooms. The waterfall itself is a super easy hike. In the first picture below, you can see a few tiny people in the background; you can easily hike behind the waterfall, then up a small trail (maybe 200 yds) onto the other side.

Midway up the small trail on the approach to behind-the-waterfall
Us just before walking directly behind the waterfall. There’s a lot of spray and mist but the path is rocky enough so that it’s not slippery. Once you get back to ground level, if you go to the far edge of the parking lot, you’ll see a path that takes you to the lesser-known Gljúfrafoss waterfall, which has a cave you can go into. It’s not really marked, but it’s only about 1/4mi and the path is easy to see. The odds are pretty good that you’ll get wet while you’re in here, but it’s worth it to stand on the big rock.

Standing on the big rock inside Gljúfrafoss
Awwwww…..

We spent about an hour there, then it was time for the short drive to Skógafoss. Like Seljalandfoss, it’s easy to see from the main road, but it’s also well marked by signs. Along the route you can see some Icelandic turf houses if you’re interested. There’s also a building with a big painting of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption from 2010, and there used to be a museum and visitors’ center, but it’s now closed.

The Skógafoss waterfall is another easy hike (maybe 1/4mi) from the parking lot to the base of the falls. Unlike Seljalandfoss, there are plenty of sea birds around, both in flight and nesting in the cliffs.

A set of about 300 steps leads off to the right side of the waterfall and the headwaters that feed it. It’s not an especially taxing climb, it just takes a little while. The view from the top is absolutely worth it, though. The trail continues on for another half mile at least; for that distance you’re hiking alongside a rocky stream, but the view down across the valley and towards the coast is better so we just stayed there for a few minutes admiring it.

We were pretty famished so elected to have lunch at the nearest restaurant, the Hotel Skógafoss. There are one or two other restaurants there, along with some rental cabins and another hotel. Excellent choice. The food was inexpensive (about $45 for two entrees plus dessert) and delicious. I had Icelandic lamb soup (which is the Icelandic equivalent of Swedish meatballs– nearly every place has it) and Erica had a really good lamb burger.

We’d previously debated whether to walk out and see the crashed plane at Sólheimasandur. It crashed in 1973 and the US Navy basically just left the wreck in place– it’s not the kind of thing you can see every day, so we decided we felt perky enough to do it. The hike is super easy: 45min out on a level trail, mostly packed gravel with some bigger rocks embedded, will take you to the plane. Sure enough, when we got there we found… a crashed airplane. Exactly as advertised. (Note that the trail is marked but there aren’t any signs, bathrooms, or water available.) The weather couldn’t have been nicer, though– it was about 45 degrees, with a steady but not obnoxious wind, mostly-clear skies, and plenty of sunshine.

The view going back towards parking was better than the view of the airplane, if I’m honest.

Our next planned stop was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, which gets its name (literally “door hole” in Icelandic) from its famous arch. This was the closest thing to an American-style national park that we had seen so far; there’s a small visitors’ center with bathrooms, and there are park rangers. When we were there, they closed the preserve daily at 7pm to protect seabird nesting grounds, although this is seasonal. It’s no more than a couple hundred yards from the parking area to the main trail, so it was probably the easiest walk of the entire day.

The views across the water and along the coast were stunning. You can see the black sand beach and one set of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks at Reynisfjara
We didn’t see any puffins but other seabirds are plentiful.
This is the original lighthouse, still operational. There’s a pleasant trail leading around the promontory that holds it.

After Dyrhólaey, our next stop was the black-sand beaches at Reynisfjara. By the time we got there, the clouds had lowered quite a bit and the wind had picked up. As we walked towards the beach, we saw signs cautioning visitors about “sneaker waves” so we stayed well away from the surf line itself (more because we didn’t want to get cold and wet than because we feared the waves!) The black sand of the beaches is really arresting– the area closest to the water is actually sand but then above the waterline it turns to shale pebbles, not unlike the beaches near Nice. Apart from the color, it’s… sand. It crunches like sand, absorbs water like sand, and shows footprints like sand. One major difference that I noticed between Gulf beaches and this area: we didn’t see any sea life– no crabs, bugs, etc., and no birds hunting for critters along the waterline.

There’s a small cave and a really interesting formation of basalt columns. They look so regular and rectangular that they give the appearance of being man-made… but they’re not. They’re just the right height and shape for a quick photo perch, though.

The pebbles made a fantastic accessory for my favorite action figure

By the time we were done on the beach, it was around 7pm and, once again, we were ready to eat. We drove the short distance to Vik to explore a bit and find dinner. The highlight was seeing this church, which was designed by the same architect as Hallsgrimkirkja. You can’t tell from looking at it, since this looks pretty much like every other local church we saw the entire time, and it sure doesn’t look like Hallsgrimkirkja.

A view from the church looking back towards Reynisdrangar

For dinner, we ended up at Halldorskaffi, mostly because it was open; after a short wait, they seated us and we both ordered the lamb sandwich. They were good but not exceptional; for dessert, we shared a slice of meringue cake but the star of the meal was the accompanying locally-made ice cream. We left the restaurant about 830p and were back in the city right at 11pm to rest up for our next set of adventures.

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Iceland 2021, day 1: Reykjavik and the volcano

We’d budgeted the rest of our first day for exploring around Reykjavik, so once we were freed from quarantine that’s what we went out to do. It was chilly with a fierce wind, which made it feel quite a bit cooler.

Nifty street art on the side of our hotel

Our first stop was the Sun Voyager statue. There are a few other statues along the waterside path known as Sæbraut, but it was so windy that we didn’t walk to see them. (We did, however, see two super-ostentatious yachts owned by Russian oligarchs, so that was nice.)

Sun Voyager, with both mega-yachts off to the left

Next was Hallgrimskirkja, which was easy to navigate to because you can see it from practically everywhere in the city. It was an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel.

Before we actually went into the church, we stopped at the famous waffle wagon. I’m not saying that I would eat one of these waffles every day, but I probably would try. After that, we entered the church itself and paid the EUR 8 apiece to go into the tower. It’s well worth it for the views, as you can see below (and even better on a clear day).

If the street itself is painted, I suppose that qualifies as “street art”. Interestingly, you can’t see the colored stripes from the church tower itself because there’s a slight downhill slope starting at the top of the stripes, where the man is standing in this picture.
Some more assorted street art

Nether Erica nor I like to shop much, and in any event many of the downtown shops are either closed outright or have restricted hours because of a lack of customers. We decided that, since it was going to be daylight for at least another 8 hours, to head to the volcano at Fagradalsfjall. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it.) It is an easy drive, past Grindavik and inland a bit. The Icelandic weather service has a really helpful page showing current conditions, which we checked ahead of time, and there are several webcams showing live views. However, safetravel.is has a lot more volcano-specific info. Here’s what it says as I’m typing this on Monday, 21 June:

Strong wind (13-18 m/s) and even more in wind gusts and rain. Not the day to visit the eruption. Tuesday and expecially Wednesday better choices.

If you poke around the SafeTravel website, you’ll see that there are three paths: A (which is now closed because it has lava all over it), B, and C, which is a newer path that goes down to the Nátthagi valley next to the river of lava. We opted for B, which is pretty difficult on its own. It was 45 degrees with a 25mph wind when we started off, which made it feel like 25 degrees, but we were dressed for it.

Pro tip: be prepared for variable weather in the same day, with anything from full sun and high 40s to moderate rain, 20+ mph winds, and temperatures in the high 30s. Bring some good base layers, heavy socks, and wind and waterproof clothing. You’ll need it.

First we walked on what might have been the “C” trail. It wasn’t marked, and it led to a big lava plain, so it might have been Nátthagi, but maybe not. When we got there, we found that the volcano was in shield mode, with new lava flowing underneath the existing top cap of cooled lava. No dramatic eruptions, sadly. Now’s probably a good time to point out that volcano conditions change rapidly too, so what you see there might be different from what we saw.

You can see the faint glow of lava behind Erica and to the right.
Caution: contents may be hot
The picture really doesn’t do justice to the scale of the lava field.

As you might expect, it’s noticeably warmer as you get closer to the lava— uncomfortably so if you get too close. We saw some British tourists who had the presence of mind to bring marshmallows, which they toasted over the lava. The smell is hard to describe, too: hints of sulfur, brick, and rock, but also toasted.

We traced our steps back to the trail fork that was marked with a sign saying “Trails A and B”. It was easy to see where the paths diverged because an ICESAR team had trail A blocked off. Then it was just a matter of hiking. The hike itself was pretty challenging— there are some steep sections with loose tuff, and the steady wind didn’t help much. The scenery was pretty amazing though. I didn’t include lots of pictures here because they really don’t capture the sweep of the view.

You’ll meet this rope just when you need it the most.
The elevation profile for the trail B hike, See that sharp peak in the middle? That’s where you’re grabbing onto the rope pictured above.
A panorama— zoom in!
We were super proud of ourselves for making it to the top

It was after 10pm when we finally made our way back to the parking lot, not that you could tell from looking at the (cloudy) sky. We drove back to the city and started looking for a place to eat. This turned out to be troublesome for two reasons.

First is that lots of places are either closed or have limited hours because of low visitor counts. The other is that many of these same places haven’t updated their hours on Facebook, TripAdvisor, or what-have-you. So the first two places we tried to go were either just closing when we arrived or had already closed their kitchens. We managed to get in to Forsettinn maybe 5 minutes before the kitchen closed. Too bad that their menu was so limited— we compromised on a pepperoni pizza, which was pretty decent, especially considering how hungry we were. Then it was back to the hotel for bedtime, with the prospect of our trip to the South Coast dancing in our heads.

Pro tip: restaurants in Iceland are expensive. We had a 9” pizza, one beer, and two “hot White Russians” and it was about US $80. Be prepared.

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Iceland 2021, day 0: notes and travel

I had a great visit to Iceland four years ago but didn’t get to see everything I wanted to. That presented a natural opportunity to take Erica and catch up on the stuff I’d missed so we planned a mid-summer sightseeing trip.

Many of the online blogs and guides you’ll see for Iceland (and I won’t link to them here!) say things like “this place is so magical” or “here’s your ULTIMATE guide to the BEST things in Iceland.” That irritates me, so here’s my practical (and hopefully useful) guide to what we did. I won’t pretend that any of it is the magical / ultimate / best, but it will be an accurate rendition that may help you in deciding what to do. We wanted to have an enjoyable time and not engage in the grinding cost-cutting (“buy a loaf of bread at Costco and make your own sandwiches!”) or frenzied drive-a-thons (“we saw every waterfall in Iceland in 8 days and it only took us 150 hours in the car!”) that seem endemic in Iceland travel. The most useful source that I found was the /r/VisitingIceland subreddit on Reddit, both for helpful tips but also for counter examples of people being stupid so I could avoid doing the same.

Before you go: all of the requirements for traveling to Iceland in the plague time are listed at travel.COVID.is. Make sure you read it thoroughly! We saw several people at various places who had problems caused by their own failure to read and follow the requirements. Until July 15, you have to have a COVID-19 PCR test at the Reykjavik airport and remain isolated at your lodging until it comes back but those requirements can change. You must also complete a web form that requires you to upload proof of either your vaccination status or your recovery from COVID. That form will result in you getting a barcode in email that you’ll need later. Iceland also recommends that you download the “Rakning C-19” app for exposure notification.

Getting there: we decided to fly Delta. They have daily flights to Reykjavik from Boston, JFK, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. It’s cheaper to fly Icelandair but then you have to get to one of their cities first, so it isn’t cheaper any more, at least for us. If you do book Delta, be aware that pretty much every Saturday they’re loading future schedule changes into their system, so your flights may change unexpectedly. Keep an eye on them. We checked in at Huntsville, flew to Atlanta and thence JFK, and got to Reykjavik about 715am. At Huntsville and again at JFK, we were required to show both our CDC vaccination cards but also the Icelandic pre-registration barcode. Apart from that, it was just like any other Delta flight.

Arrival in Reykjavik: at the airport, as is typical, first you clear customs, at which point the customs officer will ask to see your barcode. Once that’s done, you’ll pick up your bags. For our trip, since PCR tests were still required, we joined the queue and waited maybe 5 minutes to get nose-poked. After that, we took the shuttle to the rental car area, picked up our rental from Blue, and drove to our hotel.

A word about driving: Iceland has many more road hazards than most American drivers are used to, including wandering sheep, roads with no shoulders, narrow roads, one-lane bridges, poor visibility, and tightly enforced speed limits. Do yourself a favor and pay the extra for the full-liability rental-car insurance. It will protect you from cost associated with rock chips, paint dings, dents from garage parking, and so on. I also sprang for the 4G WiFi puck offered by the rental company and this was a good move, since it meant we could keep our phones connected as we drove around.

Staying in Reykjavik: originally we wanted to book an Airbnb. Until the next rules change, you can only do this if the Airbnb host agrees that they will honor the quarantine requirements (you must quarantine in a private room, with its own bathroom). The one we liked best didn’t answer our question about this, so we decided to pick a hotel instead. The Alda Reykjavik got very good reviews and was centrally located, so we made reservations there. There were other less-expensive options, but I wanted the downtown area to be within easy walking distance and this turned out to be a good choice— plenty of restaurants and bars nearby, easy access to parking, and very walkable. Breakfast was included, and it was very good, with fresh bread and pastries, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, skyr, cod liver oil, and surprisingly good coffee.

After checkin, we went to our room to wait for our quarantine results. Since I’d booked us the economy double room, we weren’t surprised to see how small it was (very typical of European hotel rooms, of course). We were hungry, but the front desk was kind enough to send up a breakfast box, then we napped and waited. If you preregister with the Rakning C-19 app, your test results are supposed to show up as an in-app notification. They do, but just as a single notification— you can’t go back and see them later, and we didn’t get an email or SMS notification. We got the popup after about a 4.5 hour wait, which seems to be pretty typical. The COVID.is website has a chat function that you can use to reach a human, and our helpful human sent us the negative test results, so we grabbed our jackets and headed out to walk a bit and go to the volcano. Stay tuned…

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Running in Bratislava

One of the joys I find in travel is running or cycling in new places. Since starting my current job, I’ve been able to run or cycle in the UK, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, the Balearics, Switzerland, and France, mostly along routes that were either intrinsically scenic or interesting because of their novelty. I was recently in Slovakia for meetings and was able to knock out a couple of runs in Zilina, but I also had the opportunity to run in Bratislava. 

Let me start with a few simple facts:

  1. One does not simply fly into Žilina. There are basically two ways to get there: fly into Vienna and drive, or fly into Krakow and drive. Both routes have their charms, but the Vienna route is a little shorter and much flatter, meaning it’s better when there is ice, snow, or rain. You wouldn’t think that’s a concern in May, but it snowed the day I arrived in country; I just routinely go through Vienna. The drive takes about 3 hours.
  2. Bratislava is only about 30mi from Vienna, and you drive right through it on the way to Žilina. 
  3. If you’re going back to the US from Vienna, all the flights leave in the early morning.

That means that I will normally have a full day of meetings, drive back to Vienna in the evening, stay at the airport, and then fly home the next morning. On this particular trip, I’d planned to get my last day’s workout in by running around the Žilina dam, but then it occurred to me that I could run in Vienna instead, as even with the drive I’d still arrive well before daylight. Then it hit me: I could run in Bratislava instead. 

A little research led me to this route, the “Bratislava Promenádna”. This is a simple loop that starts on the north bank of the Danube and runs to the west, then crosses the Lafranconi bridge to the west, which takes you to the south bank. You then run to the Apollo Bridge and cross back to the north bank. This looked like a good route to try, so I threw on my running clothes, jumped in my rental car, and drove to Bratislava with a vague idea of where I needed to go— none of the running route maps I had said anything about where to park or exactly where the route started.

A bit of driving around led me to a big shopping complex called the Eurovea that has ample parking, restrooms, and beer (more on that later). I parked there, then walked around the outside a bit until I found the river and the path adjoining it. I started running east, towards the Apollo, where I found this handy sign showing the actual route. Turns out I was running the “wrong” way, so I turned around and headed west again.

Promenádna sign

I only wanted to run about 5 miles, so I decided not to go all the way to the Lafranconi bridge. Instead, I ran to the bridge with the Bratislava UFO:

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Crossing that bridge put me out right near the Sad Janka park; the whole south bank is wooded and features some very pleasant and green trails. I could have detoured through the park, but I like running alongside the water whenever possible, so that’s what I did instead. (In retrospect I wish I’d gone through the park; it’s actually the oldest public park in central Europe!) There are lots of river barges moored along both banks; some are fancy cruise ship or dinner boats, while others aren’t. 

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As I approached the Apollo bridge, I very quickly figured out that I was going to be way short of 5 miles. Luckily there’s a cycling trail that continues further to the east, although it diverges from the river. Slovakia is plentifully supplied with all sorts of riding paths; this one was nicely paved and quite busy with runners, cyclists, and even a few rollerbladers. The area at the foot of the bridge is 1.3Km from the starting point of the loop, so with a little mental math I was able to figure out how long I needed to stay on the cycle path. Along the route I saw this cool painting on a bridge abutment.

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Coming back westbound, I climbed the footpath onto the Apollo Bridge, which is the newest and fanciest (and busiest!) of the four Bratislava bridges. 

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I had a fantastic view of the setting sun off to the west as I ran across, and I stopped to get a closeup of the Bratislava plaque on the bridge arch. I’m not sure if it’s officially a landmark or not, but it should be.

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From the north end of the bridge, it was an easy path back to the Eurovea, where I had a delicious dinner at the Kolkovna. This is a Czech chain of restaurants serving traditional central European food; I had a delicious goulash and a bowl of “bean soup” that was indistinguishable in ingredients from what Cajuns would call “red beans and rice” (except for not having any rice in it). Although there were many excellent beers on tap, I didn’t have any, as Slovakia has a very strict 0.0% blood-alcohol limit for driving. (Sorry if you read this far hoping to find out what delicious beer I sampled!) 

I thoroughly enjoyed the route; next time I’ll try to arrange things so I can run the full loop and maybe detour through the park. I’d also love to explore the bike paths around Bratislava more, although that will require an actual, y’know, bike,

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Fixing dual-SIM provisioning for T-Mobile and GigSky

When Apple announced dual-SIM support for the new iPhone XS, I immediately decided to buy one instead of the iPhone XR that I really wanted. My reasoning was simple: both the XS and XR had a much improved camera, but the XS would allow me to provision a data-only SIM for my international travel. I ordered one and happily started using it, even knowing that dual-SIM support wouldn’t be available at launch.

It’s important to understand what Apple actually supports: you can have one or two SIMs in your iPhone XS or XS Max. One of them may be a physical SIM; the other is a virtual SIM called an eSIM. There’s no requirement that the eSIM be data-only; you can have two phone numbers, provided by two different carriers from two different countries, if you want. All I wanted was international data, so I planned to buy an eSIM from GigSky. Keep in mind that, as of this writing, only a handful of carriers support eSIM. For example, T-Mobile in the US won’t sell you an eSIM, but T-Mobile in Austria will.

It’s also relevant that this phone came from Apple’s iPhone Update Program (IUP). IUP phones aren’t locked to a particular carrier, or at least they aren’t supposed to be.

I downloaded the GigSky app, bought a plan, and tried to flip the switch that enables the secondary SIM. No dice– when I did, the phone screen briefly flashed up the “Hello!” activation screen, then I got a dialog that said, simply, “Actication required.” Not super helpful.

After trying a few random things, like rebooting the phone, I filed a support ticket with GigSky. “Your phone must be locked,” they said. “Contact T-Mobile.”

So I did; TMO looked up my IMEI and said “nope, we don’t have it locked. Call Apple.”

So I did. Apple fooled around for a bit, had me try removing the existing GigSky eSIM and readding it (which you can’t do; I had to buy another one), then told me to verify that T-Mobile supports eSIM. As I mentioned earlier, they support using eSIMs on phones locked to them (which this one wasn’t anyway), but T-Mo US can’t sell you one– not relevant in this case.

I then called Apple back and spoke to a very helpful gentleman named Matt. He suggested that I back up the phone and erase it, then reactivate it, to force it to get a new activation profile. I dutifully did this, whilst sitting in my Swiss hotel room. After a long cycle of reset-related stuff (new FaceID, resyncing with my Apple Watch, &c), I bought a third GigSky eSIM and was able to activate it without error. The picture below tells the story: I’m roaming on Swisscom (through T-Mobile’s normal international roaming for voice and SMS) on my primary SIM (thus the small “P” icon) and using GigSky for data.

Long story short, Apple still has some work to do to make this process work more smoothly, but I am hopeful they and their carrier partners will file down the rough edges to make it less painful in future.

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Training Tuesday: Royal Parks Half Marathon race report

I very much enjoy running in new places, and I love destination races. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that I was excited to find out that there’s a giant half-marathon in London, the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. It’s a fundraiser for the foundation that maintains London’s 8 Royal Parks (including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and so on); in the 10 years of its existence, it raised more than £36 million for the upkeep of the parks and for other charities. Because the race is run by a nonprofit, seemingly every charity in the UK (and many global ones as well) have fundraising efforts and charity teams for the race. The race course cuts through four of the eight parks, and is almost completely flat. Runners start in Hyde Park, run east through St James’s Park (and past Buckingham Palace!), up the Strand and then back again, with detours through Trafalgar Square and down to Downing Street, then through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The photos on the race web site show an abundance of fall colors and sunshine… which is not exactly what happened.

I’d registered for the race lottery and didn’t get in, so the Royal Parks folks kept my entry fee and sent me a nice hoodie to cushion my disappointment. It didn’t, given that the hoodie arrived in July, which is not usually hoodie weather in Alabama. Quadrotech decided to sponsor a corporate team, so I got in through that route. I later learned that most runners get into the race through charity registrations, and in future my plan is to raise funds for London’s Air Ambulance (which is a charity!) so I can get one of these exceptionally cool running shirts:

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I got to London Thursday morning before the race and worked in our London office Thursday and Friday, running 5 miles Thursday. Both days were cool and gloomy, and there was lots of discussion about Sunday’s forecast of temperatures in the low 50s and rain. Saturday turned out glorious— I ran 8 miles along the Regents’ Canal in lovely sunshine, with temperatures in the high 60s. The scenery was pretty grand…

The Regents Canal

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After my run, I went out for pizza and watched First Man (pretty good; maybe wait for Netflix though.) A good night’s sleep and I awoke to… exactly the promised weather. Lot 50s, steady wind, and rain. I donned the rain gear I’d brought and headed out to the Moorgate Tube station. Once I hit Piccadilly, the Tube was completely jammed with runners and spectators making their way to Hyde Park. That’s one thing I hadn’t considered: even in a city the size of London, a race with 16,000 runners means that there are a ton of people packed into a relatively small area.

Now, a brief sidebar on race organization. The race organizers will mail race packets ahead of time, for free, if you ask them to, which I did; however, because we’d re-registered me as a team member, my packet went to our office instead, so when I got to the race site, I had to meet my teammates to get my bib so I would know what corral I was in, then drop off my post-race clothes at the baggage drop, then make my traditional pre-race pilgrimage to the portapotties, then go to the start.

f you’ve never run a large race, you may not realize this, but most large endurance races group runners by pace and then send them into corrals so runners of similar speed start together. This race had… 3 corrals total. That’s not a lot for 16,000 runners. There were long lines at baggage drop and for the toilets, and I got increasingly nervous as we got closer and closer to the 9am race start time. I needn’t have worried though— it turns out that even with those two long waits, I got into the line for my corral at 915am and actually crossed the start line at 927am. This was fine because the race is chip timed, so the time doesn’t start until you actually cross the timing mat. Here’s what the corral looked like before I started:

The corral

Once I crossed the start line, I was in a crowd until I finished. That’s a major difference from the races I normally run, especially triathlons— since you’re running after swimming and biking, differences in individual speed means people tend to be pretty spread out on the race course. Here’s an example from the leg through Hyde Park late in the race:

IMG 0167One of the best things about the race was the spectator presence. There were people pretty much lining the course whenever it was along a road, and for maybe 80% of the course length through parks. Lots of signs, and at least three or four bands (three drum corps I can recall). Several of the corporate and charity sponsors had big cheering stations set up, which was fun. Overall the race had a remarkable energy to it, the more so considering that the weather wasn’t great.

And then there was the race course scenery…

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Did not see any members of the Royal Family

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This cracked me up. I’m quite surprised it was deemed necessary

A word about race gear: I ran in a pair of On Cloudflows that I bought a week or so before the race, a pair of generic shorts, and my Rocket City Marathon race shirt. I started the race with a light rain jacket and a hat, but shed both of those mid-race— but I was glad to have them when it started raining just after I crossed the finish. The Cloudflows really felt good during the race, but I have since discovered that as I build volume, they aren’t cushioned enough so they’ve gone back to the store. I also bought a pair of Trekz Titanium bone-conduction earphones using some accumulated Amazon gift cards, figuring they might be worth a try. They sound good but feel a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that they’re better than the Plantronics BackBeat Fits I had been using. The Trekz would be great for cycling though, so I may keep them just for that.

I also ran with my Apple Watch paired to my Stryd footpod. This has been my normal daily running setup since April or so, and it’s worked very well, but for some reason on this race, the pod kept disconnecting— my final run showed up as only 10.2 miles. Best guess is that the pod doesn’t gracefully handle the case where my phone and watch are both connected to it. I only take my phone running when I want to take pictures… and I’ll absolutely want to take pictures at the Marine Corps Marathon. In many ways, this race was a dry run for MCM: I tried to use the same gear, nutrition, etc that I plan to use there, thus the test of the new shoes. This particular race prides itself on sustainability, so the race medals are made of reclaimed wood; the shirts are ring-spun bamboo; and so on. there’s nothing available on the course except water (no bananas, gels, sports drink, etc). I ran with a Fitletic bottle belt with 2 extra bottles; the one problem with this belt is that with all 4 bottles on it, the weight of the bottles stretches the belt enough for it to gradually work its way down towards my knees. The solution is to drink from the back bottles first (or just fill them halfway); I’ve already got the length adjusted to its shortest extent. That’s really good to know, since I don’t want to spend 26.2 miles in DC hitching my belt back up where it belongs.

I haven’t said anything really about the run itself so far. It was great. I held a much faster pace than I expected to be able to and ran my second-fastest half marathon time ever: 2:03:14. I took time to take pictures on the course, so that might have shaved another 2 min off my time, but I wasn’t running this for a PR, and I wasn’t wrecked after the race. In fact, I had a great run the next morning before leaving to go to the airport.

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See, I even look happy here despite standing in the rain for an inordinate amount of time.

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The Quadrofam!

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My reward for a good run: a Sunday roast (not shown: the incredible dessert brownie they brought after I cleaned my plate)

Overall, it was a fantastic experience— I loved the crowd energy and can’t wait to carry forward what I learned to the Marine Corps Marathon! I will absolutely be entering the lottery for the 2019 Royal Parks event, too.

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Visiting Iceland, day 2: the Golden Circle

Whatever else you can say about Iceland, there is this: they are brilliant marketers.

Slogans such as “the land of fire and ice” and “Icelandic Lamb: Roaming Free Since 874” do a great job of stimulating demand. So it is with “The Golden Circle,” a tourist route that encompasses three major attractions north of Reykjavik. I drove it. Here’s my report… but first, a digression.

Because I was in Iceland for such a short time, I had to be very picky about what to do. There are zillions of guided tours to various attractions, but all of them have high latency: you have to wait, board a bus, wait some more, and generally spend a lot of time buffering instead of doing stuff. Even though I would have loved to see a glacier, or visit a lava cave, etc etc, I had to find something to do that I could shoehorn in between about 7am and 33opm or so– at that time, I’d need to be at KEF getting ready for my return flight. I also wanted to find something affordable. Some attractions, such as Inside the Volcano, can be $400 or more, and I didn’t want to pay that much if I could help it.

My original plan was to rent a small plane at the Reykjavik airport (which was right near my Airbnb), fly up to Akureyri, and see the sights up north. Unfortunately, this plan had two major problems. First was the weather. The bigger one was cost: the airplane was $275/hour, plus I’d need at least one hour with an instructor (another $75), so it would have been $350 or more just to get checked out– then another 4 hours or so of flight time to get to/from Akureyri. Hard pass on that one.

Plan B was to do a bus tour of some kind, but there were none that would fit into the time I had available. That’s when I decided (as mentioned in day 1’s writeup) to rent a car instead. I figured that would give me maximum flexibility and make it easy to ensure that I was at the airport on time. Saturday morning, I got up about 7am, took a quick shower, and finished the last little bit of packing– I had packed about 90% of my stuff Friday before leaving for the race. With the bags in my car, I stopped at the corner bakery and had what was labeled as a cheese pastry. Imagine a pastry filled with scrambled egg and bacon bits, with some cheese.. but served at room temperature. Didn’t expect that. It was still pretty decent.

So, back to the Golden Circle. The three attractions on the circle are Thingvelli( (site of the first-ever democratic parliament), Geysir (from which we get the English word “geyser”), and Gullfoss, a giant waterfall. (Check the links if you want to learn waaaaay more about any of them.) I didn’t want to take the time to tour Thingvellir and see all the historical stuff there, so I modified my route slightly. Here’s more or less what I ended up with. Because I had to go back to Keflavik, I decided to take the longer southern route, along the coast, instead of heading back to Reykjavik directly. This meant I didn’t have time to go to Hafnarfjörður, where I’d hoped to hike Helgafell, but I decided the tradeoff was worth it.

My Golden Circle route

North from Reykjavik

After breakfast, I cracked open my diet Coke, put the new 311 album on repeat, and set out on the route using the free Maps.me app. It is a battery hog, and it has an annoying bug where it permanently lowers your audio volume when it gives directions, but it allows you to download maps and keep them locally cached so you get navigation even when there’s no cell service. Heading north, the first thing I noticed is the mountains to the west. The second thing I noticed was that the road is a very narrow ribbon of asphalt, with no shoulders or guardrails and a fairly steady flow of traffic. Every so often, there would be a spot to pull over for photos, which is fortunate, because you absolutely can’t pull over to the side of the road.

These purple flowers are ubiquitous along the roads in the southern lowlands

One of the many facets of the Icelandic landscape

The route is surprisingly green, green enough to support grazing animals. Along the route, the horses I saw were all fenced in– horse farms in Iceland look quite a bit different from their Kentucky counterparts though.

These ponies were just chilling by the side of the road.

Sheep are essentially free-range animals here, and they will get quite close to the road in some cases. Interestingly, many sheep have a brand spray-painted on their wool in fluorescent paint! I imagine there must be some way for Snorri to tell Bjorn that some of his sheep have wandered next door.

Free-range sheep

There’s an amazing variety of landscape to see along this part of the route; the road gradually climbs as you head north, then once you’re south of Thingvellir it descends.

The narrow road has no shoulders. Notice the low mist off to the west.

This one is worth clicking to see it at full size.

I loved the colors on this hill.

Not shown are all the other vehicles on road– everything from small cars (probably rented, as mine was) to 4x4s to large passenger vans to tour buses. I would imagine that almost all of the traffic was composed of tourists. There wasn’t a lot of traffic by US standards, but there was a fairly steady volume.

Geysir

When I arrived at Geysir, the only way I knew I was there was because there’s a gift shop/gas station complex on the right-hand side of the road. There’s not a lot of signage to indicate that you’re there. Oh, the cluster of tour buses was a good hint as well. The site at Geysir actually contains two geysers: Strokkur (live webcam here) and Geysir itself. They are a few hundred yards apart, and there’s a gravel path you take to walk from one to the other. Strokkur erupts pretty regularly; I saw it twice while I was there. Geysir, alas, does not. It used to, but apparently some bright stars decided they could make it more regular and, in the process, basically broke it. Because I was pressed for time, I didn’t stick around. However, I did rep the Cycle Club colors:

Cycle Club visits a geyser

This picture doesn’t capture the strong wind, nor the unique smell– just a bit of sulfur, plus some heat. You can see steam coming off the pool behind me, as it was from other places on the ground. The eruptions themselves were interesting but not as dramatic as I’d expected. Overall this was an interesting stop but I’m not sure I’d go again. (I did buy a diet coke at the gas station there, so there’s that.)

Gullfoss

Gullfoss is billed as one of the world’s wildest waterfalls, and it lives up to that billing. It’s not a long drive from Geysir; there’s good signage and a cluster of buildings (including a small hotel and a restaurant/gift shop) to show that you’re in the right spot. In case you’re in doubt, as soon as you dismount your vehicle you’ll hear the falls rumbling. I needed to offload some diet Coke, so I made a beeline for the “bathroom” sign only to be confronted with this:

The only pay-to-pee location I found on my trip

I’m not sure which amused me more: having to pay ISK 200 to use the bathroom or having the credit card machines (which worked with Apple Pay) there. Iceland really is a nearly cashless society. Anyway,with that stop made, I walked around the back of the compound towards the falls. There’s a nice-sized observation terrace with a path leading towards five or six flights of steps that descend towards the middle of the falls. At that level, you’re more or less level with the midpoint of the falls, and this is what you’ll see:

Gullfoss level 1

You can’t see it from this picture, but behind me is a rocky trail that leads up to a plateau that’s roughly level with the big part of the falls.

Gullfoss level 2

The falls themselves are wild and noisy. There’s a large spray curtain whipped off the edge of the falls, so between the noise, the wind, and the spray, you get the full Gullfoss experience. I loved it; it reminded me of visiting Snoqualmie Falls with Julie and Tim on a windy day a few years ago.

Love the spray curtain rising from the falls!

I lingered for half an hour or so, just walking around and enjoying the view. However, it was windy and cold, so pretty soon I decided that some shelter might be in order. I decided to wander through the gift shop and see if there was anything interesting (there was, but everything I liked was so expensive that I couldn’t make myself buy anything). The restaurant looked interesting– the only thing on their menu was “meat soup” for (I think) 1500 ISK. For that price, you get unlimited bread and soup. Important tip: Icelanders refer to “meat soup” when we would say “lamb soup.” That’s because they don’t really have any other kinds of meat easily available. Here’s what my 1500 ISK bought:

lamb soup… so, so delicious

Now. Let me say without reservation that this was the best soup I ever tasted. Flavorful and rich, with plenty of vegetables; hot but not enough to burn, and very filling. I ate two bowls and several rolls and then made myself push away from the table… that’s how good it was. Best meal I had in Iceland.

Suitably refueled, I headed back towards the parking lot. On my way I discovered that there are free bathrooms inside the restaurant. Well played, gift shop folks; you got my ISK 200.

The drive south

The first part of the route I had chosen took me back past Geysir and then south through very similar terrain– hills, some grassy areas, and a few horse farms. As I got further south, though, there were more (and bigger) rocks and the familiar black lava landscape started to draw closer. By this point the weather had improved quite a bit; it was about 55° and mostly sunny, with a stiff breeze from the south. I drove with the windows rolled down, blasting 311 out over the countryside. As I headed further south, I started to get glimpses of ocean, then the full view as I turned west to the coastal ring road. I had a hard time splitting my attention between the views of the water and the views of the inland landscape. Here’s just one example:

Sky and rock

This was taken near Sveitarfélagið Ölfus, along highway 427. The road parallels the coast, and it descends a fair bit as you get closer to Grindavík. A few more examples of the landscape:

Oh, why not. One more.

On the road to Grindavík

When I passed through Grindavík, and made the turn towards Keflavík, I could see more and more signs of civilization. One such sign: a nicely paved bike path running alongside the highway for several miles, with a fair number of cyclists on it. I was surprised by how many cycle campers I saw– people with large panniers slung fore and aft on their bikes, fighting the wind and staying vigilant for traffic. It’s not really a bike-friendly environment. Props to them.

Just short of Keflavík, I stopped to gas up the car. Most Icelandic gas stations are completely automated, so you can still buy gas when they’re closed. That means you need a credit card that can use chip + PIN. Some US cards can, and some can’t. Because I was close to the airport, I decided to forego a snack stop; I headed straight to the rental car place and caught the shuttle back to the airport, with more than a little reluctance.

The trip home

Checkin and security at KEF were quick and efficient. I made a huge run through the duty-free to buy souvenirs, grabbed a hot dog from the restaurant, and headed to my gate, where I found that literally the entire flight was in line to board– I think I was the 4th or 5th to last person to board. Icelandair doesn’t do zones or any of that stuff. They announce boarding, everyone gets in line, and off you go. I settled in to my window seat and looked out the window as much as possible during our taxi and takeoff.

Keflavík and the coastline, plus bonus 757 shadow

The flight was completely uneventful, except for when we flew across the southern end of Greenland. I’d never had a daytime window seat for that before, so I might have left a few nose prints against the window as I surveyed the beautiful landscape below. This is one of my favorite pictures; you have to see it full size to appreciate the range of colors and textures of the land.

I love Greenland

We arrived in Boston on time, where (thanks to Global Entry) I quickly cleared customs. The only snag in my travel was that my flight back to Atlanta wasn’t until the next morning! JetBlue and Icelandair have a code-sharing relationship but that doesn’t extend to coordinating their flight times, so there was no flight back to Atlanta that night. I knew that ahead of time, so I’d packed my overnight needs into my laptop bag and reserved a room at a hotel near the airport. I went straight there, had a quesadilla and some clam chowder for dinner, and was asleep within 90 minutes. The next morning, I came home.

Summary

It was a marvelous trip. I wouldn’t change anything about it, given how little time I had on the ground. For the next trip, a few things I will be keeping in mind:

  • Bring better clothing. A hat and gloves would have been nice. Layering is a must.
  • Plan ahead to see more remote areas, including at least one glacier
  • Save enough money to be able to rent that airplane and fly to Akureyri
  • Eat at the waffle wagon as often as possible
  • Try a little harder to pronounce things properly. Icelandic students study English from 2nd grade onwards, so I never had any trouble talking to people, but it was comical to see their facial expressions when I tried to say place names and so on.

I can’t wait to go back!

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Visiting Iceland, day 1: Reykjavik

Executive summary: wow. I can’t wait to go back.

When I was invited to present at Office 365 Engage, the only way I could get there from Huntsville and still meet the airfare budget was to take a frankenroute: drive to Atlanta, fly JetBlue to Boston, then Icelandair from Boston-Reykjavik-Amsterdam and back. I remembered that Icelandair offered free stopovers, so I decided to tack on a couple of days for a visit when on the return leg. I ended up being on the ground for 42 glorious hours.

To help plan my trip, I read the Lonely Planet guides to Iceland and Reykjavik, then spent a bunch of time hanging out in Reddit’s VisitingIceland forum. This was very valuable and I encourage you to check it out if you’re planning a trip there.

Getting to Amsterdam

Icelandair and JetBlue are both low-cost carriers, but the inflight experience was perfectly OK. Nothing fancy, but they both got me there in reasonable comfort, certainly no worse than traditional US carriers. My outbound flight ATL-BOS was delayed by 2 hours because of taxiway construction (helllloooo, B6.. did you not know about that in advance?), then my outbound BOS-KEF was delayed because the inbound aircraft was late. Despite these delays, I got to KEF on time to make my connection on to Amsterdam. Icelandair has Row44 wifi, which worked tolerably well, for EUR9.40. They have free in-seat entertainment in economy class and free soft drinks, but no in-seat power. On the flight over, I tried to sleep but didn’t have much success because I was too busy looking out the window to see the sun.. because it was up and shining in the middle of the night!

When we landed, we deplaned onto the tarmac and boarded buses back to the terminal. This was fun because many of the passengers, me included, weren’t prepared for the weather: 48 degrees F, wind at 22kts gusting 25, and moderate rain.

Lovely weather

Iceland is a Schengen country, so for connecting flights into the EU you clear customs there. This was fairly efficient, although the KEF terminal is long and narrow so there tend to be long lines everywhere. Incoming passengers are funneled through a large duty free shop before getting to the main concourse, but if you’re connecting onwards you probably shouldn’t bother. After a brief wait, I boarded my connecting flight (which involved another bus, but at least it wasn’t raining) and flew off to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam back to Reykjavik

I like the Amsterdam airport. It is clean, uncluttered, and easy to navigate. Their security is quick and pleasant, with lots of touches that would be welcome in the US (such as automated conveyors that move trays and bags through the X-ray machines).  Icelandair opens their checkin counter 3 hours before flight time, so if you get there earlier, be prepared to lug your suitcase around while you wait. I spent some time upstairs on the Panorama Terrace watching airplanes while I waited, then dropped off my bags and stopped to buy some duty-free goodies for the home folks. I ate at the Grand Cafe Het Paleis, which burned up almost all my layover time. Boarding was quick and efficient, and my flight left at its scheduled time of 1030p. That would put me on the ground in Iceland just before midnight. I settled in to my aisle seat, took a short in-flight nap, and then fidgeted until we were on the ground.

Oh, I also bought a Flybus ticket. This shuttle service is the simplest and least expensive way to get from the airport (which in Keflavik) to Reykjavik (which is about 30mi to the northeast). For 2500 ISK (about US$24), you get a bus ticket on a nice commuter bus that runs to the BSI bus station near the Reykjavik airport. Like the Delta Shuttle, the buses run as often as necessary to handle capacity, and there are buses there after every arriving flight, no matter how late. My plan was to Flybus it from the airport to BSI, then grab a cab onward from there.

Day 0: Thursday night

Once we landed, I deplaned and was through customs in about 15 minutes. I had a slightly longer wait to get my baggage from the carousel, which I spent looking around the airport terminal. I found a vending machine and was delighted to see that it supported ApplePay. I used ApplePay for the overwhelming majority of my transactions. I only used cash after a restaurant mixup (more on that later) left me with some ISK. While Iceland isn’t cashless, it’s fair to call it “low-cash” since virtually everyone pays for virtually everything, even small purchases, with cards.

After I finally got my luggage, I boarded the Flybus and we headed out. Here’s what I spent my whole ride looking at:

Midnight sun: check.

The bus was full of chatter, but I was content to watch the landscape pass by; although the picture doesn’t show it, the area nearest the airport is the rocky volcanic soil that Iceland is famous for.

Day 1: Friday

I didn’t sleep especially well, mostly because I was still a bit confused about what time it actually was. Between the light and my residual jet lag from going to Haarlem, I got maybe 4hrs total, which was plenty. After I got up, I showered. Interesting true fact: Reykjavik is considered a “low heat” area, meaning that groundwater is warm, but not always hot enough for showers and the like. Keflavik is a “high heat” area, meaning that its groundwater is too hot to be used directly for households. Anyway, all the groundwater in Iceland contains sulfur and other minerals– so you don’t cook with hot water, and when you use hot water in a pool, shower, etc. its mineral content leaves you feeling a little slimy. Anyway.. shower completed, off I went.

First stop for the day was the convenience store on the corner, where I grabbed a protein bar and a diet Coke. This was only because I didn’t know there was a bakery on the other end of the building. Oh well. It was windy, and colder than I thought, so I went back to the house to grab another layer and met Jakob, my Airbnb host, and his cat. We had a nice visit; in addition to Airbnb’ing, he’s a tour guide and has several other small part-time jobs. Nice guy and I would recommend his place highly.

I took off walking again, this time to  Kringlan, a giant American-style mall, just to look around. It was closed, which was no great loss; if you’ve been in an American or Canadian mall, the experience would feel very familiar. One difference: there are tables near the mall exits where you can wrap gifts for free– a nice touch.

Who doesn’t like free gift wrapping?

After Kringlan, I walked over to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous modernist church. My route took me through Miklatún park, one of the small parks that dot Reykjavik. I saw a ton of cyclists and walkers out getting where they needed to go, but I couldn’t help imagining what the park, and the people, would look like in six months when winter set in. Brrrrr.

It’s hard to describe the shape of Hallgrimskirkja, sort of like a football spiked so hard it went partly underground, or a poorly baked baguette. My sister described it as being designed by someone who had read a description of cathedrals but had never actually been in one, and that’s not a bad way to put it. The church spire is tall enough to dominate the city’s skyline; you can clearly see it from a good portion of the city.

Hallgrimskirkja from its less famous side

Most churches have a statue of Jesus; this one has a statue of Leifur Eiríksson

The interior of the church is understated, to put it mildly. I think the builders put much of their capital into the giant organ. An organist was playing while I was there, and it was bone-jarring, which was actually kind of awesome. Sadly I seem to have lost the video I took, not that the puny mic on my phone would have captured the majesty.

the church interior; notice the organ?

A ticket to the top of the spire costs EUR 8, which was very well worth it for the views. Apart from the spire and the sanctuary, there really isn’t anything else to see here but it is still a worthy stop.

The view from the spire looking north towards the water

The view to the south is pretty great too

I had read on Reddit about the “waffle wagon,” a small yellow food truck that usually sets up at Hallgrimskirkja, and when I saw it I stopped for breakfast. This turned out to be an excellent decision– that waffle was the best waffle I’ve ever had. However, it was about $8. This was very typical of Iceland overall: everything is expensive. At best you’re paying what you’d pay in a US airport (for example, a half-liter bottle of Diet Coke is usually around $4) for most things.

tasty, tasty waffle

Hallgrimskirkja is near Laugavegur, the primary shopping and tourist street in Reykjavik, so I walked over to have a look. Much like any similar area in another city, there were lots of tourists with shopping bags. I did my fair share of browsing, but couldn’t convince myself to pay $250+ for an Icelandic sweater or $800+ for true Arctic weather gear. My friend Julio had suggested a visit to The Laundromat, a hipster-ish coffee bar (and actual laundromat), so I stopped in and had a $12 latte. It was good, and the atmosphere was fun– the place was crowded but only about half of the people I could see or hear seemed to be speaking English. After people-watching a bit, I set off for more walking and shop/browsing.

When I was planning my trip, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do Saturday. After talking to Jakob and doing more research, I decided to rent a car and drive the Golden Circle route. Rental cars go for around $60 a day for the cheapest, most basic cars, then go up from there. I decided to rent from Atak, although there are lots of other choices (Hertz, Avis, and SadCars being among them). Demand is high and most places wouldn’t do such a short rental. The rental car companies’ offices are all clustered in a sort of auto-mall a couple of miles away from downtown, so I flagged down a cab, picked up a Hyundai I20, and went back to the house to grab my big camera and some more clothes. Along the way, I stopped at the small convenience store nearest the apartment and found that the shop next door was a fried chicken joint. I ordered a two-piece meal and fries and was charged… about $42. This turned out to be a mistake on the part of the cashier, but she didn’t know how to credit my card so I ended up with $21 worth of cash. This lasted me until I made it back to Boston, with some bonus coins to give Matt for his collection. (Note on the fried chicken from this place: just don’t.)

My afternoon plan was to take a boat tour to see puffins. This turned out to be an excellent decision. The excellent MustSeeInIceland website had recommended an operator called Happy Tours, so I booked with them ($55 or so). After parking near the Maritime Museum, I stopped for ice cream (always eat Icelandic ice cream when you can; it’s delicious!) and walked over to the tour area. Amazingly, no one else had signed up for the tour, so I had the boat to myself, along with the crew. Snorri, the captain, has been working the water for nearly 40 years, and his son and daughter both work with him as tour guides. Kristey, the daughter, was a great guide: fluent in English and very knowledgeable about puffins, the harbor, and (of course) Icelandic life and culture. The water was rough, and it was windy, both of which I loved, but Kristey said that previous passengers that day had been seasick.

Without further ado, some of what I saw on the tour…

takeoff roll

After the tour, I walked over to a nearby coffee shop and had a cup of coffee while looking out at the harbor. It was pleasantly warm inside and I was a little nervous about what the race weather would be like. About 6 I headed back to the apartment, where I met my two Airbnb-mates: Zach from Houston and his sister, both of whom were in town to run the race. Neither of them had picked up their race packets, so I offered them a ride over to the venue to save them a walk.

I ran the 10K race, which was a blast. The race organizers include a ticket to the Laugardalslaug swimming pool, which I was looking forward to trying. The pool complex is huge, with four or five large hot tubs (and when I say “large,” I mean “15′ in diameter or so”), a few giant lap pools, a waterslide, and so on. A few tips on Icelandic pool etiquette and use:

  • Bring a towel because the pool won’t provide them.
  • You must shower before entering the pool. You will be expected to be naked when you do, and to use plenty of soap. If casual locker-room nakedness bothers you, you’d better get over it before you hit the locker room.
  • The water feels different on your skin because a) it’s more mineralized than is typical in the US and b) it has much less chlorine than US pools tend to.
  • Some pools (including this one) have lockers that are operated by an RFID wristband. Wristbands are usually available from the front desk.
  • At least at Laugardalslaug, the big pool is just a little cooler than body temperature, and the hot tub I was in was maybe 1 degree above.
  • Expect crowding. When I was in the hot tub, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the people around me. I don’t know how common that is at 1130 at night, but I would imagine that in the middle of a summer day it wouldn’t be uncommon.

After the pool, we set out to find food. Here’s the problem: for all its exotic nature, Reykjavik is a fairly small city. Just like Huntsville, there are very few restaurants that are open at midnight… and Iceland doesn’t have Waffle House. It didn’t seem that late, given that it was still light and we had just finished running a race– both things you normally associate with daytime. None of the places we wanted to go were open, so we ended up downtown on Laugavegur again. We found Hlolli, which is sort of like an Icelandic version of Subway; I ended up eating what was basically a BBQ beef poboy. Not bad (in fact, the bread was quite good), but it was essentially drunk food, not fine dining. That’s OK, given that I was still wearing my running clothes. On the walk back to the car, we found that the waffle wagon I mentioned earlier had set up shop in the square, so we stopped off for dessert.. then it was back to the Airbnb for bed. I got there abut 130a, and of course it was still light.  That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a lava rock though.

 

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Training Tuesday: Reykjavik Midnight Sun 10K race report

I just came back from presenting at Office 365 Engage, where I had a terrific time. More on the conference in another post. As a new conference, the organizers’ budget was somewhat limited, so they gave me a 1500 EUR limit on airfare, which meant I could only afford a convoluted itinerary on JetBlue and Icelandair. However, Icelandair offers free stopovers, so I decided to take a couple of days after my trip to sightsee.

As is my habit, I spent some time looking for interesting places to run before my trip. The folks in /r/visitingIceland were very helpful, and I found https://runninginiceland.com, which led me to the Suzuki Midnight Sun run: 5K, 10K, and half-marathon distances, all starting at or just after 9pm. I immediately signed up online for the half.

Logistics

The race website was clear and easy to follow, and I got multiple mails in the days leading up to the race recapping the race routes, where to park, and so on. The race organizers sell race medals and shirts separately, so you don’t have to pay for them if you don’t want them. Packet pickup was on race day only, from 4p-845p, at the Laugardalshöll sports hall; it was well organized and smooth. I got in, grabbed my race number, bought a race shirt, and was out again all within 10 minutes. I made a game-day decision to move down from the half distance to the 10K because of a lingering hamstring problem, aggravated by the 9.5 miles I had already walked while sightseeing Friday; the race staff easily handled the changeover. In addition to the booth selling race shirts, the expo had a small table selling various Adidas goodies. One thing I particularly appreciated is that Laugardalshöll has plenty of bathrooms.

Men’s room? Right this way

The Airbnb I stayed in also hosted two Americans who were running the race, although I didn’t meet them until maybe 2 hours before the race start. We drove over 45min or so before start time, easily found a place to park, and joined the large crowd avoiding the wind inside the hall.

The hall before the race

 

Weather

Friday’s weather was pretty good for running: it was about 10ºC and mostly overcast, but a bit windy: a steady 30km/h wind from the north, with occasional higher gusts. I was sightseeing all day and got rained on and fairly wind-blasted during the day, but the rain had thankfully stopped by 9pm. I wore shorts, a long-sleeve tech shirt, and a light rain shell, which I took off about halfway through the race.

Race start

The RD started with a brief announcement that there were nearly 3000 registered runners, 1200 from outside Iceland, from a total of 52 countries, making this by far the most international event I’ve run in. The half marathon and 10K groups started together. As you can see from the race maps, the two courses follow a common path for the first few km, then the longer distance runners split off. The corral had pace signs and runners were encouraged to group according to their projected pace but there were no pacers.

The race start. Big crowd!

The course

Scenic, mostly on paved paths and some on residential streets. The course runs through a pretty valley and along a stream with a couple of waterfalls, like this one.

Oh, just an Icelandic waterfall

I saw two mother geese with goslings and a few rabbits along the stream, which was cool.

Not shown: large quantities of goose poop on trail

The first 3km has a few small rollers, with a larger and longer climb (maybe 30m elevation change?) from 4km-6km. There was one water stop, which had water, Powerade (a race sponsor), and 2 portajohns. The course was well-marked, with each km indicated and plenty of volunteers to keep runners from going off course. I didn’t see any split timers on the course and there were no on-course timing mats.

My performance

Because my hamstring had been hurting, and my right IT band had joined the party after my warmup run in Haarlem, I planned to take it easy and treat this like a training run. My 10K PR is 54:37 and I didn’t have any ambition of setting a new one on this run. The first 5km or so were fine; the hamstring was quiet and I held a good pace (modulo the time I spent in the portapotty at the rest stop– that cost me 2min or so). About 7km in, my left calf started to tighten, and this progressed into a numbness in my left forefoot. This has happened occasionally around the same distance in both my right and left feet since I switched to my current Brooks Adrenalines, which means pretty clearly I need different shoes. Anyway, it’s damn hard to maintain a good pace when you can’t feel one of your feet, so I slowed down and even walked a few stretches. About 9km it had loosened a bit and I was able to run more normally.

I ended up running a 1:02, well off my PR for the 10K distance. Strava data.

The finish

The finish line featured a traditional chute, right after which volunteers handed out race medals for those who’d bought them in advance. The recovery area had free water, Powerade, and half-bananas. There were a couple of booths set up where you could buy (delicious) Icelandic hotdogs and other snacks. The race also includes admission to the pool complex nearby at Laugardalslaug, so we headed over there. The logistics of using Icelandic public pools are worth a separate post. Suffice to say that you must be fully comfortable with locker-room nudity, large crowds, and crowding in the hot tub… but it was lovely to be able to have a good thermal soak after a long run.

Wrapup

My race experience was a 9/10: a high-energy fun crowd, beautiful course, and the unique aspect of running a race at a time when it would normally be pitch dark all combined to make a great memory. I’d love to go back and run the half, or (better yet), the Reykjavik marathon. Highly recommended.

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Havana, day 6

(See reports from days 0, 1, 2, 4 and 5.)

Two notes I forgot in my day 5 writeup: first, we gave Anita, our housekeeper, a set of All-Clad pots we’d brought as a gift. Y’all, she cried because she was so happy. Something that everyone reading this blog takes for granted was an incredible and unexpected gift to her. We also gave her around 20 lbs of assorted travel size toiletries: shampoo, deodorant, and so on.

Anita, our excellent housekeeper and singer

Second, in a related note, we’d asked Anita if there were any good bars in the neighborhood. She told us about Industria 8, so we went there after dinner, arriving about 945. It was completely deserted, and at 10 (when the DJ arrived and started playing music), it stayed that way. Take from that what you will. The drink below is called an “Industria 8” and Lance described it as tasting like vodka plus Crest toothpaste– it was the most memorable part of our visit. Now, on to day 6.

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Day 6 should be titled “my favorite day.” I woke up feeling chipper and well rested, in part because I knew our plan was a leisurely bike ride on the Malecón with plenty of stops for picture taking. We all got kitted up and assembled on the street for our ride. Riding on San Lázaro is a little tricky because it’s narrow and there are usually cars parked on both sides, plus there are several cross streets without signals or stop signs. We launched and I almost immediately had to stop for oncoming traffic– at which point I fell over. Humbling, since that was the only time anyone fell over while clipped in the entire trip.. but it was minor and gave my buds a good opportunity to hassle me for the rest of the day.

Our plan was to ride out to nearly the end of the Malecón, take some pictures, and then work our way back, stopping at various photo opportunities.

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Our initial route on the outbound leg; stops not shown

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Craig and his trusty steed

Lance let me ride his beautiful Lynskey, which he hand-built using his preferred components. Wow. It was so much smoother and responsive than my Domane 2 that I now want one, so thanks for that.

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Lance’s uber-bike

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Cycle Club posse representing

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The Blevins Bicycle posse at the Garcia monument

We rode past the same restaurant, Cafe Bohemio, that we’d previously seen while driving and running by, and Lance noticed a couple sitting on the patio with a camera. They took our picture, so after passing by we circled back to eat breakfast there (and ask them for a copy of the picture, which they graciously provided).

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Riding by. Note Lance’s pointing

The first step, of course, was to order coffee. Note the prices shown in both CUC (“tourist money”) and CUP (moneda naciónal).

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A grand list of coffees

I ordered a cafe Caprichoso, which was the best single cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life. The ham, egg, and cheese croissant I ordered was equally good, but I didn’t find that out for nearly an hour while we waited for the food.

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soooo delicious

Luckily we had plenty to talk about while we waited.

the breakfast club, Havana style

After breakfast, we set out for part 2 of our ride. This time we stopped at several monuments, plus an open-air flea market where I got some nifty souvenirs: puzzle boxes for Matt and Jack, a backpack for Tom, and a Havana Club-logoed apron for myself. Cuba is not a souvenir place; we didn’t see a great deal of variety between different markets.

rambling ride

Perhaps the most interesting stop was at the gates of the US embassy in Havana, a terribly ugly building that was maintained by the Swiss until 2015, when it was reopened as the US embassy. Sadly, there are no Marine security guards outside, although we did meet a nice gentleman from Syracuse who volunteered to take our picture.

In front of AMEMB Havana

The embassy faces Monte de las Banderas (“monument of the flags”), a Cold War-era plaza with hundreds of now-empty flagpoles. It’s flanked by two giant signs with famous slogans… they’re not much to look at in person, especially with the oddly empty flagpoles towering over them. (Bonus: the guard yelled at us to get off the grass.)

“We are winning!”

“Homeland or death!” sort of the equivalent of Patrick Henry

After the ride, we headed back to the apartment to disassemble and pack up the bikes. Once again, I owe a great debt of thanks to Lance for being our on-call bike mechanic. He had all the bikes disassembled and packed up within about 90 minutes, while the rest of us were showering and packing the rest of our stuff. The afternoon schedule called for us to go back to Hotel Naciónal for a rite of passage: smoking a real Cuban cigar, while in Cuba. First, of course, we needed to eat, on the theory that such a fancy hotel would have good bar food. They did, on condition that you liked ham and cheese sandwiches (with or without pickles): that’s all they offer. When I say “all,” that’s what I mean: no sides, just sandwiches.

jamón y queso!

One thing about the National: their patio service is exceptionally slow, even by Cuban standards. Once we finally finished our food, we went back inside to the cigar shop, conveniently located right next to the rum shop, and bumbled around. None of us are cigar smokers, so we depended on the two very pleasant sales ladies to help us pick out cigars to take home. An old man was hand-rolling cigars in the shop lobby. This was a surprisingly interesting process to watch, although he was too busy rolling (and, I suspect, too hard of hearing and/or incredulous at our poor Spanish) to answer our questions. We bought our cigars, plus some rum (more on that later), and, suitably armed, headed out to the back patio of the hotel near the water.

Now, a confession: I have never smoked anything in my life. I couldn’t get my cigar lit until one of the guys borrowed a torch from another smoker. Then when I did get it lit, I didn’t really know what to do with it. The others were not a whole lot better off.

Lance, looking like a natural

Me, trying in vain to look as cool as Lance

Tony wins the award for “best hat”

Overall, it was a great experience and a solid reminder of why I’ve never smoked. It took about 4 hours for the taste to finally leave my mouth. However, I’m glad I partook– how can you not smoke a Cuban cigar at an iconic Cuban landmark while in Cuba? Speaking of Cuba, here’s a word from their sponsor:

Bonus picture of Fidel

After that outing, it was time for me to put in some work. I’d offered to take some pictures of Bicycle Cove swag around the city, so Chris and Jessica armed me with an 8′ banner. Craig was kind enough to be my photographer and we started taking pictures with various backgrounds:

at the apartment

We had planned to take some pictures of the banner hanging from the balcony of El Presidente. When we went in, however, the balcony was full of Danish tourists. The owner came over, all 6’4″ of him, seemingly pissed off, and we explained what we wanted– then Warren mentioned that we’d been in the day before. “That was you?” the owner rumbled in a strong Slavic accent. “You drank 21 daquiris. Is new record. Thought was my friends! You come back one hour.” So we did. We went next door to Nazdarovie, the most unique restaurant I’ve ever been to. It is a Soviet-themed (not Russian) restaurant, in the capital of the Soviet Union’s biggest client state, serving traditional Russian dishes and decorated with all sorts of Cold War-era propaganda. Here’s how the menu sums up their origin story:

“sun and snow” indeed

We ordered a round of drinks; the Green Russian I had is sort of like a White Russian but with mint, and it was incredibly refreshing. I wish I had the exact recipe. We also ordered some sardelki, a sort of Russian smoked sausage, as an appetizer. (Almost all of us were queasy and sick the next day; since the sardelki was the only thing we all ate in common, I am betting they were to blame.)

It was surreal to be sitting in a Soviet-themed restaurant, surrounded by flags and posters of what used to be the maximum bad guys, in Cuba. Seeing the hammer-and-sickle flying outside was weird.

in Soviet Cuba…

Luckily, we were able to apply some good old American ingenuity.

Bicycle Cove, represent

Also, I believe that more restaurants should have party hats for their guests. This was a great touch.

Other contenders for the “best hat” competition

Once we’d finished our sardelki, we went back to El President and Ján, the owner, greeted us warmly and treated us like kings. He spent probably 3 hours with us, explaining life in Cuba as an expat business owner. Raised in Slovakia and educated at the University of Oregon, his grandfather was a government official (there’s a picture of him with Castro in the restaurant), he had a unique perspective on Cuban life and culture. One of the many things we learned: toilet seats are very expensive, which is why so many public places don’t have them. Many people don’t have them in their homes because they’re costly, so they don’t mind not seeing them in restaurants, etc. (This leaves open the fascinating question of why they’re expensive, but none of us could come up with a plausible theory). Ján told us all about the beer market in Cuba (there’s no draft beer) and we spent a good bit of time planning how Warren and the Rocket Republic team could exploit the untapped market. I would happily go back to Cuba just to hang out with him some more.

Ján also spent some time explaining Cuban rum to us. It’s ubiquitous and cheap. His recommendations: Havana Club (sort of the Budweiser of rums) makes both dark and light rums that are good as mixers, with their higher-end 7- and 11-year rums (añejo, or mature) being better sipping rums. The best rum, he told us, was Mulate 15, but it’s around US $80/bottle. Instead, he suggested we try Cubay Añejo, and offered us each a free taste.. maybe half an ounce in a wide-mouthed glass. Summary: best. rum. EVER.

Anyway. By this point, we still hadn’t had dinner so by the time we left El Presidente, none of the places we wanted to go were still open… at 9 or 10pm, most places close. A helpful passer-by directed us to a paladar called El Viejo Enrike. Along the way I encountered some Havana wildlife:

tiny street kitten

fierce Cuban gecko. Probably named “Fidel”

Sadly, the best thing about El Viejo was the art on the walls.

wait, what?

Well, overall, I suppose it was nicely decorated, and the staff was friendly, but it was expensive (CUC 17 for a mediocre ropa viejo, smaller and less tasty than the one at Kilometro Zero) and the service was extremely slow. They also added a mandatory 10% charge to the bill, just because they could, I suppose. By the time we finally finished dinner, it was around 1130p and I was worn out– so I headed back to the apartment while a separate delegation peeled off to go bar hopping.

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Havana, day 4

(If you’re wondering what happened to day 3, that was race day. See the race report.)

I woke up the day after the race still feeling like a pile of garbage. “I didn’t eat much yesterday,” I reasoned. “A good breakfast will fix me up.” With that happy thought in mind, we headed out to the Parque Central hotel, where our Airbnb host alleged we could get a delicious buffet for 15 CUC.

A digression about money in Cuba. There are two currency systems in the country: “CUC” and “CUP” (formerly known as MN, for moneda naciónal). CUC is for tourists, CUP is for citizens. This is a practical restriction, not really a legal one; citizens are free to use CUC if they get any. The exchange rates for both are fixed; 1 CUC equals USD$1 equals a little more than 24 CUP. There are a few important things to know about Cuban money:

  • US-issued debit and credit cards cannot be used. This is thanks to the US economic embargo. Cards issued by banks in other parts of the world work just fine. That means if you want money in Cuba, bring it with you, because you won’t be getting any while you’re there unless you use Western Union.
  • As far as I can tell, no one in the US changes CUC. You can’t get it at the Atlanta airport or any of the online currency exchanges I found. There are currency exchanges at the Havana airport but you’re better off finding one in town. Many hotels have them, but Eric took us straight to one inbound from the airport.
  • There’s a 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. In our case, we saved about 1.5% by buying Euros and then changing them to CUC after our arrival. However, when you change CUC back to USD, there’s no penalty.
  • Prices for many things are quite low by US standards– you can get an excellent meal with drinks for 15 CUC, for example. However, hotel rooms and taxis are not particularly cheap, nor are cigars.
  • I found that I could comfortably get by on about 80 CUC/day for meals, transportation, and incidentals. That doesn’t include lodging. If you eat less, drink more, or do more tourist-y stuff your mileage may vary.

Anyway, back to the buffet. The other guys all loaded up huge plates with omelets, ham, pastries of various sorts, and all kinds of other goodies. I picked at a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of ham, and a roll… I just wasn’t hungry and was still feeling queasy and dizzy. Despite that, the two very strong cups of Cuban coffee I had were quite welcome.

Our next stop was Museo de la Revolución. Napoleon’s aphorism that history is written by the winners was clearly the inspiration for this museum, which is just as propaganda-heavy as you might expect. It’s housed in the former Presidential Palace, and many of the original furnishings and decorations are intact, as are the bullet holes generated by the armed band of students who attacked the palace as part of the Cuban revolution.

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Evidence that this was formerly the Presidential Palace

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View of the interior courtyard

As you might expect, the exhibits focus heavily on the revolution and its aftermath. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are extremely prominent; Camilo Cienfuegos, who was really the true military mastermind behind the revolutionary army, gets relatively short shrift. I learned that he died in a mysterious airplane accident in 1958, shortly after the revolution. The exhibits are all labeled in Spanish but only a few have English translations, and those are mostly poor in quality and too brief to accurately capture the detail of the Spanish versions. Sometimes the propaganda quality was just over the top– the “Corner of Cretins” is a good example. The small plaques thank each cretin (Batista is the fourth, off to the left) for various things. The entry for George H.W. Bush says “Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.” I mean, come on, guys, at least get someone who can conjugate verbs to help you write your insults!

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Cretins’ Corner

Interestingly, the museum itself contains three small shops selling random tourist crap. Not very revolutionary.

The ground floor has a small and well-hidden cafe where we stopped for a drink. This led to the highlight of my visit: reading the entries in the comment book the museum maintains for its visitors. I wish I’d taken pictures of some of the comments– there were people from eastern Europe writing (in beautiful English) that having the exhibits labeled only in Spanish was dumb; there were Australians and Canadians asking why the museum didn’t make a bigger effort to explain what was so bad about the pre-revolutionary Batista government, and one person (I think from Australia?) who said “Why are you selling Nestlé products in the cafe? They are the definition of imperialist devils!”

After the museum, I skipped lunch and went back to the apartment for a badly needed nap. When I awoke, everyone else had made it back and we all spent time washing our race stuff and hanging it to dry on the terrace. While this was going on, Anita, our housekeeper,  and her friend Rita were cooking us a Cuban dinner of slow-cooked chicken stew with pineapple, rice and beans, salad, and fried plantains.

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From L to R: Warren, Rita, Anita, Craig, and Julio

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Yes, I ate the whole thing

It’s true, I was very hungry at this point, but I have to say that this was the best meal I had while in Cuba, and one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The chicken was tender and flawlessly seasoned; the pineapple was naturally sweet, slightly caramelized, and a bit spicy from being cooked with the chicken, and the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had 3 plates worth and then had to quit before I damaged anything.

Our plan for the night was to go to FAC– Fábrica de Arte Cubano, basically a super-powered art gallery and party space. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday from 8p to 3a, so this was our last chance to go. We wanted to have drinks on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, which is next door. However, when we arrived, we found the bar closed due to plumbing problems. That turned out to be OK; we got in line about 715 but by 730 the line was down the street and around the corner. FAC admits only 800 people each night, so if you don’t get there early, you might not get in.

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The FAC line

We stood in line chatting with other visitors, including a couple from Montreal who told a funny story. They were staying at an Airbnb owned by a Canadian and his Cuban boyfriend. Non-citizens can’t legally own real estate in Cuba though, and of course the Cuban government doesn’t permit gay marriage. How was that possible, I asked? “Oh,” laughed the Canadienne. “The Canadian married his boyfriend’s mother, and the apartment is in their names.” Nice workaround!

We paid 2 CUC for admission and got drink cards– to buy a drink, you show your card and the bartender marks it, then you provide your card at the exit to pay your tab. (Lose your card and it’s 30 CUC!) There are six or seven bars inside FAC, along with a large performance space, a video gallery, and wall after wall of art exhibits. The best way I can describe the overall vibe: noisy crowds of tourist hipsters. I’m not really an art person, and I tend to walk through art museums at a pretty brisk clip, so I didn’t really see anything that made a huge impression on me. (There was a nice gallery of small pictures of zebras chasing laser pointers, though.) The big attraction was being able to sit outside on the roof in the warm Cuban air talking with my friends and hipster-watching, but eventually I started getting more and more tired and decided to punch out and head back to the apartment.

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Lance marks the spot

I was awake for maybe 15 minutes once I got there– and getting there was an adventure, not because of the taxi we took (which was fine) but because of the stairs! My quads were still trashed from the previous day’s race and so I couldn’t make it up even half a flight of steep Cuban stairs without having to stop to catch my breath. Humbling.

 

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Havana, day 2

Day 1 of our trip was about getting settled in. Day 2 was all about race prep.

Lance and I got up early-ish and went for a short run along the Malécon. We started from our apartment (the little red pin on the map), so you can sort of see where we were situated compared to the rest of Old Havana. This was just a short shakeout run, so we made a couple of stops for picture-taking along the eastern leg. You can’t see it in the map, but there’s a really interesting old fort across the strait to the east.

Running along the Malécon

Running along the Malécon

Called Castillo de la Punta, its construction started in 1590. It offers a great landmark from anywhere along the shoreline to the west because its promontory is further to the north than the rest of Havana. It makes a great scenic backdrop, too.

Castillo de la Punta

Castillo de la Punta

Further to the south along our run route, we saw a couple of cruise ships jockeying for entrance into the port. Non-US-flagged cruise lines have been stopping at some other Cuban resorts for a few years now but having them come into, or just offshore, Havana is fairly new.

Paul and Lance on the run

Paul and Lance on the run

After our run, we met up with the rest of the posse and finished getting our gear and bikes together. This was quite a production, as Julio, the 6th member of our group, was staying one block away. We’d arranged for Eric to bring a friend with a truck, so we set out on the half-hour drive from our apartment to Marina Hemingway, named after Papa himself. The drive took us through a row of embassies (not including the US embassy; more on that later) and some scenic residential neighborhoods. The marina itself was pretty well representative of Cuba: dilapidated in spots but still functional. The marina has two hotels: Hotel Acuario and El Viejo y La Mar (“The Old Man and the Sea”), which is being renovated.

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The registration events were all held at Acuario, more or less. We were told the workflow would go like this:

  1. Get a race number and athlete wristband
  2. Drop off our bikes and bike bags in T1
  3. Drop off our run bags at T2

In my race report, I alluded to a certain degree of disorganization at registration, so it may not surprise you to know that things didn’t exactly work this way. We stood in line for a solid two hours to get in and register– registration opened at 10 and we were in line about 1015. The registration process itself was a maelstrom of people milling around trying to do 4 simple things: sign a waiver, sign up for race photos, get a race packet with numbers and so on, and get the coveted wristband. The volunteers seemed overwhelmed, and the layout was such that the crowd was funneled to the photo station first.. where you couldn’t sign up without your race number, which you wouldn’t have at that point. You get the idea.

Eventually we survived that process and walked back over to where we’d parked to get our bikes and bags. Each of us had to take all of our stuff and pack it into the event-provided T1 and T2 bags, so that took a few minutes. Then it was back to standing in another line to drop off our bikes and bags. This process was more smoothly organized: each of us had to find our numbered slot in the bike racks, park our bike, and hang our bike bags on the corresponding numbered hook. Run bags? Oh, yeah, we had to leave those too. At various times we were told that we could set up normal transition areas near our bikes, that we must set them up, and that we could not set them up (also that we could and/or could not leave helmets and shoes with the bikes). Oh, and also that we would and/or would not have access to our run bags before the race. You get the idea here too.

After another hour or so of fumbling around in the heat, everyone had their gear staged and we wandered off to find lunch. This was a bit of a challenge; our drivers had left, and the marina only featured one restaurant. Lonely Planet characterizes by saying that you can eat there, if you have no better options, which you won’t if you’re at the marina. They were right. Nothing was bad but it was, at best, mediocre. I had shrimp pasta; the shrimp and pasta were perfectly all right but they were served in an odd not-Italian tomato sauce.

Cuban pizza

Cuban pizza; note the skeptical looks of Tony and Julio

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The Cuban national tourism agency had offered a tour package for triathletes that included airport transfers, rooms at the Hotel Naciónal, and some other goodies. We found a bus going to the hotel and got on it; no one asked if we were supposed to be there, so we enjoyed the air conditioning and ended up at one of Havana’s most venerable institutions.

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The hotel is set on a hill, and it has a commanding view of the water from its back terrace. Naturally, we immediately went there, whereupon I met a new friend… because of course he’d be there.

No word on whether he supports Fidel

No word on whether he supports Fidel

We hung out at the hotel using their wifi for an hour or so, then Lance and I took a classic-car taxi back to the marina while the others went home.

Riding dirty

Riding dirty

The idea was that we didn’t need to all go to the race briefing, so Lance and I volunteered to go find out two important factoids: whether the swim would be wetsuit-legal and whether ITU rules allowed swimming bare-chested. The answers turned out to be “maybe” and “yes”, and we were able to avoid having to wait until 7pm or later to find that out. We left the marina on foot and walked around the area a bit, including crossing the small and sluggish Rio Jaimanitas, before we caught a taxi back– a late-model British MG sedan that had seat belts and air conditioning– the only vehicle I rode in the whole trip that had either, much less both. On the other hand, I’d just as soon have no seat belts and no AC if it means I could roll around in this beauty all day:

What a beauty

What a beauty

We got back to the apartment and back-briefed everyone on what we’d learned. They’d already had dinner, so Lance and I walked a block over to the Malécon to look for dinner, where we found Castropol. Named after the town in Spain, and not You Know Who, this was a lovely surprise. It was easily on a par with the best meals I’ve had anywhere else; I had a grilled chicken breast with arroz moro, some fried plantains with garlic and salt, and a no-kidding-really-delicious bottle of mineral water (usually that stuff tastes awful but this was great). Portions were generous, service was friendly and quick, there was great live music, and the sidewalk-level people watching opportunities were excellent. They also have a second level of the restaurant where they specialize in Italian food, but we never made it back there to try it.

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Full and sleepy after the 10 or so miles I’d walked/run that day, I headed back to the apartment and was in bed by about 830p. Now might be a good time to mention that I’d been getting steadily more and more congested– going through a pack or so of Kleenex and 2 12-hour pseudoephedrines per day, yet still continually honking like a foghorn. I was feeling a bit run down but was optimistic that a good night’s sleep would set me right. If you’ve read my race report, you already know how that turned out.

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Havana, day 1

My first “you know you’re in Cuba when…” moment was the customs agent wearing fishnet stockings. Before that point, José Martí International Airport in Havana looked mostly like any other airport terminal. As we got in line for customs clearance, though, I noticed that all of the agents were female, and most of them were wearing uniforms that were considerably shorter and/or tighter than I’d expect to see on a TSA agent. Then Warren pointed out Agent Fishnets and I knew: I was someplace really different.Clearing immigration itself was very straightforward: I turned in half of my tourist card, had my picture taken, and was cleared out into the baggage claim area. Our bike boxes eventually appeared on one end of the terminal and our bags on the other, and we proceeded to the declaration line. No one inspected our bags.. well, except for the TSA.

Outside immigration we met Eric, the driver that Tony had arranged to pick us up. He had an immaculate gray 1952 Plymouth coupe for us, or at least for 4 of us, plus a friend with a van to take the other 2 of our party, plus all 6 bikes.


 Eric gave us a well-narrated tour through Havana, which simultaneously looked exactly like I thought it would (lots of classic cars, plenty of exhaust, bright colors, crumbling Soviet-era buildings) and nothing like I thought it would (packed streets, thriving businesses, a fair number of new-looking Chinese Geelys and other cars). Then we went by the big stadium, featuring this sign hailing Fidel as the “permanent inspiration of the best athlete” and showing him in various uniforms. 


Eric expertly navigated us to the Airbnb we’d reserved, “Casa Hendrik.” I can’t say enough good about this place– when I write the review it deserves I’ll post it here. Hendrik was a marvelous host and the apartment was perfect for what we needed. It doesn’t look like that much from the outside but had two marvelous terraces with a view of the water. This photo shows the view from right outside the door of my room, where there was a small porch, looking down onto the 2nd floor terrace; you can see water in the upper-left corner.


Next to the rocking chair is a small cage with two birds. Why? Because Havana, I guess.


The photo shows Craig and me on the top-floor terrace, which is reachable by a tiny and completely unsafe concrete spiral staircase. No handrail, nothing on the outside other than a 30-foot drop, and a stair pitch and size completely incompatible with size 13 feet. So of course I went up there as often as possible. 

Hendrik introduced us to Tia (Spanish for “auntie”), the 95-year-old woman who lives on the ground floor. Her vocation is neighborhood coffee lady, so whenever we needed a shot of her coffee, which tasted like what they must drink in heaven, we’d go see her. Little cups packed a big punch.


Lance quickly started putting together bikes on the tiny front porch, gathering a fair amount of curious stares from passers-by. Our neighborhood had a number of other casas particulares (private rooms that the owners are allowed by the government to rent), along with small shops and so on. It was a good mix to give us a taste of Cuban life.

For dinner, I’d asked Hendrik to make reservations at Paladar Torreson. Paladars are licensed private restaurants, often located in people’s homes (as this one was). Dinner was quite good; for about $12 US I had a plate of 3 small lobster tails, bread with an excellent hummus-like spread, arroz Moro, and a (watery) Cuba Libre.

  

Best of all, the paladar overlooked the Malécon, Havana’s famous waterfront road, so we got to people- and traffic-watch while we waited for the sunset… which was spectacular.


After dinner, we went to walk the Prado, one of the main drags in Old Havana. Most of the big tourist hotels are near there, as is the National Grand Theater and the Capitol building. It was crowded with skateboarding kids, strolling lovers, tourists, locals, and the occasional street dog.

This is a building whose name I forgot to write down:


And here’s the Hotel Inglaterre:


After the Prado, Craig and I went back to the Malécon to look for some of the famous wifi parks. We found some but couldn’t get them to work… more on that in another post.

One final note. Cubans are absolute masters at making stuff work with very limited resources, as evidenced by the light in our bathroom. There was a nice wall-mounted finial, but someone decided to add an LED can light… so they did. An angle bracket, some wire, and a plastic bag to wrap it in… done!


I hit the bed exhausted but intrigued by what we might see the next day. I was not to be disappointed.

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