Tag Archives: Travel

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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