Why I Cut Alcohol from my Diet


I’ve been on a health and wellness journey for quite some time now. I mentioned on a previous post that nutrition has played a huge part of my weight loss and fitness journey. Thanks to the nutrition services offered at InBalance San Antonio, I was able to lose a great deal of weight and really advance in my fitness goals. During that time I had been mostly plant-based and slowly but surely, the weight was coming off, but I would plateau for a very long time and become discouraged. I’d seen here and there how people would start the new year with a Dry January. That meant no alcohol for the entire month, and they would do it for different reasons like detox from Holiday drinking, jump start their weight loss, reducing excesses, etc. I decided to try it. I took a deep look into my habits and realized that the one thing that I hadn’t removed from my intake was alcohol. I thought to myself, “how is it that I live by a whole food, plant-based diet, habitually workout, yet I can’t seem to shake off this weight?” Granted, my drink of choice is red wine, but what about the Sunday Funday Mimosas and the margaritas? Something had to give, so I decided to quit for the month of January. I started the year with a Juice Cleanse using the fantastic new juicer my husband and I bought at the end of 2018, which turned out to be the healthiest investment we ever made! After the juice cleanse, I continued to use the tools and recipes provided by Inbalance, plus new recipes my sister sent me, who has recently become a nutrition and wellness coach using holistic, plant-based foods to improve overall physical and mental health. It would be a breeze, with all the available tools I had, but it didn’t come with it’s challenges. 
January kicked off with events lined up for me every single weekend, like blogger hosting, celebrations and plenty of launch parties. All I can say is thank goodness for flavored sparkling waters and the best Mocktails I’ve ever had, using Mingle Handcrafted Sparkling Mocktails. I discovered these delicious, non-alcoholic, low calorie beverages when I searched #DryJanuary on Instagram and found that they are meant for those having a Dry Month, Dry Year or Dry Life. They can definitely be used as Mixers for your boozy beverages, but they don’t need much if you’re cutting down on alcohol. So far, my favorite flavors are the Blackberry Hibiscus Bellini, which I added smashed and whole berries to, and the Cranberry Cosmo which you can serve in a martini glass and feel so fab while enjoying a night with friends. I love that you don’t have to “feel left out” especially if sobriety is challenged when you’re the host of the party. 


I noticed the pounds just melted away, in just 8 weeks I lost 12 lbs and counting. But, the truth is that as soon as January ended, I immediately drank a ton of wine on that first weekend of February. Like I had earned a prize or something. I realized that my drinking habits weren’t bad when I was out, socializing with friends. The cold hard truth is that I was definitely drinking more when I was alone, in the comfort of my home. I got a hard dose of reality when my husband brought up his concern, and questioned how I could give up all animal products for my health, but was still poisoning my body with alcohol. So, I decided to cut back drastically, again. The entire month of March was dry for me again. I did enjoy some champagne during a wedding on the last day of the month, but promised myself another dry month for April and just celebrate with a lovely wine on my upcoming birthday, in moderation, of course. As we are trying to conceive, I also want my body to be the healthiest vessel to carry life. I’m preparing for the biggest role in my life and I need to be the best version of myself as I hopefully take on pregnancy and motherhood. Drinking in moderation can work for me, as long as I am very clear that it has no power over me and I can limit my consumption to only special occasions. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my favorite sparkling waters and mocktails.



How I Whitened My Teeth

I’ve never really whitened my teeth before. I probably used those drug store brand strips years ago, but never professionally. I go to my regular teeth cleanings, brush with a natural toothpaste, floss and use a Waterpik. I do take care of my oral health, but I do drink a lot of coffee and love my red wine. So, I did think that I had nice white teeth, but when I took a selfie with natural lighting, I realized that in close ups, that wasn’t the case.

I discovered Smile Brilliant last Summer, and had the opportunity to try it out for myself. I went to my dentist to ask about at home whitening kits and they explained how they work and all about tooth sensitivity and the care I needed. I got my cleaning and ordered my trays with the super easy DIY impression kit I received upfront. So, I started my 1 hour to 2hr sessions while I Netflixed or read during the evenings before going to bed. With my first 14 day trial I started to see the difference! I did have to travel a lot for work, but I was still able to whiten while I was on the road. My teeth were bright for my major event in the Fall, but I did want to see how much better they could get with a second round. So, for the Holidays I decided to go again. From round one to round two, it was a huge difference! I did continue to drink coffee, though I tried to always use a straw, even when hot, during the whitening rounds. I avoided foods that stain, like tomato soup and acid fruits like oranges. It was totally worth it. I still want to try one more round, I feel like years of stains can take several times to clear up.

What I loved about Smile Brilliant was how easy and convenient the process was. Once you get your personalized whitening trays, the process is really easy. First, you brush without toothpaste and floss like normal. Use the whitening gel and leave the tray on for 45 min up to 2 hours, depending on your level of sensitivity. Then you brush your teeth. I used a natural toothpaste without fluoride for sensitivity. Then you apply the desensitizing gel and leave it for about 15 minutes, then spit out any residue but don’t rinse in order for the gel to continue to do its magic while you sleep. And that’s it! Every day you’ll see it get better and better before your eyes!

Another fabulous aspect of this product is the fact that it’s vegan and cruelty free!! They don’t do any animal testing and the glycerin they use for the gel is plant based. Smile Brilliant is Leaping Bunny Certified and they’re the only teeth whitening company to receive the award. In my search for Vegan and Cruelty Free products for my wellness and Beauty, I have done extensive research and I’m so happy to have found this brand. If this is something that’s important to you, you should definitely check them out. Plus, the kits are affordable and they also have payment plans. I highly recommend this product, but don’t just take it from me. Try it for yourself! Use my special code thefashionlotus for 15% off site wide!

Before
After

I have another treat for you! Enter here for your chance to win a prize valued at $149 USD towards your very own Whitening Kit! The Giveaway is open to the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. Closes on March 2nd, so enter today!

Home Teeth Whitening provided by Smile Brilliant in exchange for post. Don’t worry, all opinions are my own and 100% honest!

Abs are made in the Kitchen, with inBalance

I realize that the title may be a bit misleading, due to the lack of my elusive 6-pack, which I’m still working on, of course. But, while I strive for progress and not perfection, inBalance has been a fantastic help! I signed up for their InTheKitchen program and received a personalized program based on my health needs and goals. 
I’d been taking classes at inBalance for over a year and though I’d been seeing changes in my muscle tone and improvement in stamina, I was still struggling to lose those extra lbs to reach my goal. With a very clear goal in mind, my plan was make sure I fit into my dream dress to rock the red carpet at the San Antonio Fashion Awards. The last time worked hard to look great in a dress it was for my wedding 4 years ago, so I knew I could make it happen, but I needed an extra push. 

The first step was filling out my intake form. I had to answer very honestly and take a deep look into my eating habits. I would eat healthy all week, then indulge over the weekend. Or I’d have a wonderful 2 months of eating a whole foods plant based diet, but wouldn’t give up my wine or weekend cocktails. After the intake form, my nutrition coach, Hope Pedraza, went over my meal plan she designed for me. I’ve never counted calories before, and even though it was just a guide, the hard part wasn’t sticking to the limit, it was staying within the macronutrients percentages, which was a completely new concept for me as well. Hope designed a plan that stayed with my whole food, plant-based lifestyle that I been trying to adopt. Being vegan herself, it was wonderful to learn her best secrets that keep her in the most amazing shape. 

The next step was my weekly meal planning and grocery shopping. Hope included a daily food journal, in which I would input my exercise, fluid intake, meals, and mood. Planning was key if I wanted to make this work. The biggest challenge was my travel schedule. So, while traveling for work, I made sure to follow the guide to eating at restaurants she prepared for me as well. When I was home, I planned, cooked and even included my husband in the process. In the 2 months leading up to the Fashion Awards, I followed the plan to a T while continuing my classes at the studio. Needless to say, I reached my goal! The dress that barely zipped up at the beginning of the year, actually needed to be taken in a few weeks just before the event! I was thrilled! The week before, my husband and I took an Anniversary vacation to Cuba. We ate amazing food, enjoyed mojitos and still stayed where I needed to be, thanks to my morning workouts using the inBalance App. I did a juice cleanse the week of, to detox and get rid of any water weight I may have accumulated during the vacation.
Juice Cleanse from SA Perks LLC.

 Homemade Meals

Brown rice with Black Beans, Brussel Sprouts, Air fried plantains, Baked Boniato

Tomato-Roasted Pepper Soup

Quinoa, Gardein Chik’n Strips, Mushrooms, Avocado on Mixed Greens

Autumn Squash Soup

Dining Out

Quinoa Crust Pizza at Pharmtable
Brunch at Pharmtable

Lunch at Earth Burger
Results: Lost a total of 8 lbs, 2″ around my waist, and fit into a size 6 Dress. Regained confidence, and felt amazing!

Honestly, I highly recommend the meal plan services. Any fitness, health and wellness goal will only work if we improve our eating habits. Getting coaching and encouragement from a certified coach is the best way to go! A little encouragement and accountability goes a long way. Forever grateful to Hope for her help during this process. I can honestly say, that I couldn’t have done it without her and the incredible team of instructors at inBalance. Even if you don’t live in the San Antonio area, you can still use the App and receive an at home, personalized program. New Year, new goals? Check out inBalance today!
Photo by Miguel Flores Photography
*The InTheKitchen Meal Plan was provided by inBalance. Sponsored, but all results are real and opinions are my own.*

Christmas Feels: How we celebrated this year


Christmas came and went, but it’s still the season for us! In fact, my Dominican/Puertorican culture celebrates through mid-January! We did keep it simple with our Christmas Eve having a typical dinner with family in my home. We ate, opened presents and watched Christmas movies. On Christmas Day, I made brunch for the hubby and me, watched more movies, had leftovers for dinner and ended up watching the new Aquaman in the Theaters. Even though I was feeling a little sad about not having my parents and siblings with me this year, and we’ve experienced terrible loss this year, I was determined to not fall into the Christmas Blues. I really enjoyed spending Christmas with my husband and dear cousin, her husband and kids. Sometimes all you need is a small family gathering to feel connected.

The Tree

I always have one stand-out ornament in my tree. Every year I feature one. Last year it was a laser cut wooden ornament my sister brought me from Germany. This year, it’s a blue Santa I bought at the Biltmore Estate Christmas Shoppe in Asheville, North Carolina.

The Bar & the Mantle

I’m so happy with my new bar, I purchased on Wayfair. The decor is a mix of different purchases from Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Home Goods and even the Dollar Tree. Same goes for the decor on my mantle. The Nutcracker, I’ve had for years, since we moved to Texas and it’s my husband’s favorite piece, even if it’s broken.

The Gifts

I’m always looking for ways to reduce my environmental impact, and the Holidays is one of our planet’s largest contributors of plastic pollution. Between packaging and wrapping, the waste is excessive, to say the least. I decided to go with the least impactful wrapping option. I used mailing paper, which is inexpensive and 100% recyclable, and handmade the bows with wired ribbon which is re-usable. Adding a few other fun elements like silk flowers, berries from a floral arrangement and small branches from my Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve

Hubby & me on Christmas Eve
Wiggles on Christmas Day

Christmas Day Brunch

Meet Caley Cosmetics: A New Wave of Natural Beauty

For years, I’ve been searching high and low for affordable, natural makeup that is cruelty free, eco-friendly, with great pigments. I’ve seen a few online, but the pricing either didn’t fit my budget or the  reviews on quality didn’t really convince me. When I moved to San Antonio, I met Andrea Rodriguez, who along with her mother, Cindy Holland, owned a super cute & trendy boutique right down the street from my office. At the time, they were in the works of developing a new line of green beauty. They did temporarily have a line with the namesake of the boutique, Chalet, but it wasn’t 100% manufactured in house and the quality control wasn’t in their hands. 
Fast forward a few years later, they decided to go in the direction of  keeping the entire production in house, ensuring that their ingredients are sustainably sourced, vegan and cruelty free. Caley Cosmetics debuted in the Fall of 2018 and hit the ground running with the tropical vibes we all need. They are “Leaping Bunny” Certified and their manufacturing practices are mindful to produce minimal waste using recycled components in an environmentally responsible facility. All of these components were exactly what I’d been looking for all these years and it just so happens to be produced right here in San Antonio, TX! 

I recently partnered with them to launch the rebrand of Caley Cosmetics and introduce a “New Wave of Natural”, that so many like me have been searching for. During the Caley Christmas party, some of my favorite TX bloggers friends joined me in some fun makeup testing, bubbly sipping and designing our own custom lipgloss using all natural ingredients and botanicals. We tried their wide range of lip and eye pencils, bronzer/blush combos, the creamiest lipstick you’ll ever know and of course, the lipgloss in every tropical flavor that will take you back to that island vacation.

Check out the video below for a fun recap of the event!

Order Caley Cosmetics online at caleycosmetics.com and us my special code FASHIONLOTUS for free shipping through December 31st!

*I received compensation for this post, but trust me, all opinions are my own!

The San Antonio Fashion Society Holiday Mixer: What Really Happens When Planning an Event

Event Planning is hard, really hard. There are a ton of components to it and it can definitely get stressful. With that said, I still took it upon myself to plan and host a Holiday Fashion Industry Mixer for the San Antonio Fashion Society. I’ve been the Organizer of this Meetup group for about 2 years and honestly I felt that I was failing miserably at it because we hadn’t done anything worth while the entire time. I was traveling so much, that I gave my time to other things and gave a million excuses for not hosting at the very least a coffee meetup with the group. I hadn’t completely ignored it of course; I would invite the members to other events I had co-organized or would be invited to, or even gain access to discount codes to get the “Fashionistas” to fashion related events. And they’d showed up, sporadically, here and there, but not as many people as I would’ve liked. After the 4th Annual Fashion Awards, I decided to change that. All the ideas I had brewing in my brain needed to become a reality, so I started planning the Industry Mixer.
I had been e-introduced to the wonderful people behind Merkaba, a new bar/lounge on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, by my good friend Christina Olivarez of the Social Butterfly Gal and co-organizer of Hustle + Socialize. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to finally host a proper networking event. And so it began…
At first we played a little bit of phone and email tag with the Merkaba team. Between my work travel, vacations, planning the Fashion Awards and a general busy time for both of us, it just kept happening but I was determined to not give up and set a date to have the event. When I was finally able to meet with the team, I told them about my purpose with this event. “The SA Fashion Society is an organization that serves as a hub for professionals in Fashion in our City on the Rise. We host networking events for everyone from Fashion Designers, Stylists, Photographers, Models, Hair & Makeup Artists to Bloggers, Influencers and Digital Content Creators. Our goal is to foster valuable relationships between fashion creatives around the city so that they can create their magic to share with the rest of the world. San Antonio’s Fashion Community is a growing Industry and the Annual San Antonio Fashion Awards is evidence of this phenomena.” was my pitch. They were so excited about MY excitement and we decided to go full force. 


The next thing to plan was food, decor, and of course inviting people. Then I remembered that most events I attend offer some kind of goody bag and even a fun raffle (the latter actually occurred to me about a week before the event, eek!). So many details, and with a full time job, that requires my full attention, time was of the essence and I had to act fast. One thing that I had in my favor was a good reputation thanks to my experience in planning major events as a Style Lush TV staffer, like the Fashion Awards, Fashion is Art and the Look Local Night. So, I sent my sponsorship pitch to all my existing and new contacts, even reaching out to businesses I had never worked with before, by just sending an email to the address on their website. The response was overwhelming! The vast majority of businesses I reached out to were ecstatic about this event and more than willing to donate their photography services, gifts for the goody bags, food and desserts for the guests and even a beautiful backdrop for the photo op. I worked specifically with all local or locally based businesses, even including a national brand that happens to be headquartered in San Antonio! I couldn’t believe the amount of support I received, but gained so much confidence because I realized that my hard work during the last 5 years helped me earn this position in the industry. I was humbled by the response, and so proud at the same time!
The week leading up to the event was insane, to say the least. I was tied to an 8-5 work schedule and I had to basically run around the entire city to pick up all the gifts from the sponsors for the gift bags, and everybody had a totally different schedule. My lunch hours were occupied with quick drives to the closest locations to me, my evenings were spent stuck in rush hour traffic trying to reach the further locations. I managed to go to the barre studio ONE time that week, and it just so happens that they were sponsoring a gift card as well… 2 birds! As I received goodies from each vendor, I would pack them in the gift bags to avoid having to cram it all together the night before. Still, my stress level was rising as we received 67 RSVPs (my goal was a humble 30), and there were over 200 “Interested” on the Facebook event page. Anxiety ridden on the fact that I was planning this alone, LESSON LEARNED, I had to rely on morning and evening meditation and essential oils to reduce my stress and actually sleep at night.

The day of the event, I must have received 100 text messages from guests, sponsors, venue management and my hubby. I also still had to pick up the desserts, and the final gifts for the bags, but fortunately all 3 locations were right next to my office. Honestly, I was going a little crazy, so I had to stop, breath and remind myself that everything was going to be great. It wasn’t my first rodeo, but it was definitely my first time doing it alone. Which, in hindsight, I should have recruited a small team to help me and delegate responsibility. Then the rain… It rained so hard all day and even into the night. I just had to replay my husband’s voice in my head telling me to go with the flow. So, I just thought, if only 20 people arrive, then this will be a success. I arrived downtown at around 4:30 pm and started my makeup in the car, I’d have to change at the venue since I had been at work all day and a velvet romper with sparkling tights wasn’t really office appropriate, lol. Arriving at the venue at 5pm, I needed to set up the dessert trays, the decor with the floral backdrop designer, and receive the caterer to direct them to our setup. Time FLEW while we were setting up. The venue staff assisted in getting the gifts to a designated area and getting rid of any boxes/bags where I had brought everything with me. The event started at 6pm, and I still hadn’t gotten dressed! About 4 guests arrived early, so I just had excuse myself and get ready. By the time I got out, there were about 10 people, and I was so happy! As the evening progressed we ended up with about 45 guests! I was elated!

Chocolates by Chocollazo

Donuts by The Art of Donut

Charcuterie Tray by Naselli Deli

Fruit & Cheese Tray by Naselli Deli

I mixed and mingled, met new people and introduced so many people that would be a perfect fit to collaborate! I looked around and saw everyone networking, connecting, enjoying the food, loving the happy hour Specialty Cocktail (we renamed 2 of Merkaba’s signature drinks to Faded Fashion and Distinguished Style, an ode to Saint Laurent’s famous quote). Everyone was having a great time, and I could rest easy knowing that this event was more of a success than I could even dream of! I am so grateful to Merkaba’s staff, to all the sponsors and of course, to the guests who braved the terrible weather to support the SA Fashion Society, who’s sole purpose is supporting them in return. I am so happy with the way everything turned out. Even though I’m still recovering from this one, I already have ideas for the next one and hopefully I’ll have a full team to work with on it.

All Photography by

4th Annual San Antonio Fashion Awards! Life on the Red Carpet!

Photography by Miguel Flores
The 4th Annual San Antonio Fashion Awards have come and gone and it was an absolutely wonderful experience to be part of the production team that hosts this beautiful event! It’s usually a whirlwind but I was able to capture every moment and I thought I’d do something different on the blog by sharing the timeline of that day with you. I think it would be interesting to see how a production of this magnitude looks like from the perspective of one of the shows organizers. Aside from being part of a fabulous team that puts this entire event together, I also worked on the Red Carpet and presented 2 Awards on stage. Here goes!



8 am: Wake up, drink a detox water from my 3 day Juice Cleanse from SA Perks. 

8:30 am: At home Mat Pilates workout using the inBalance app
9 am: Wash and blow dry my hair to straighten. It takes 40 min with large round brush and high strength Dominican blower that has been with me for over 6 years. 
10 am: Breakfast shake from SA Perks. Prepare lunch for my husband, pack a lunch bag with the rest of the juices for the day, chopped veggies. 
11 am: Load car with bag for the day with toiletries, plus my dress for Red Carpet and another for the Afterparty at Ocho, both from Grayce Ln. Boutique Dres Rentals.
11:30 am: Head out to the Tobin Center for Performing Arts
12:00 pm: Arrive at Tobin Center, unload car and take everything to the dressing rooms. Meet Burgundy and unload her car with 2 large carts filled with all the goodies for Nominees’ and VIP Gift Bags. Tobin crew has been setting up stage, and tables since early morning.
Juice Cleanse from SA Perks
12:30 pm: Interns, Volunteers and rest of staff arrive. Begin to pack over 100 small and large gift bags. 
1 pm: Lunch Juice (Lady K) from SA Perks
2 pm Hair and Makeup team begins to arrive. Models for Fashion Show exhibition start trickling in. DJ arrival prepares for soundcheck.
3 pm: I get sent to Hair & Makeup. Sponsored by Smooth Lines Salon. Hair by Charles May, Makeup by Alex from Elite Eyebrows. Staff, Interns and Models are all in seats or in line for their prep as well.

Fun BTS with Charles May of Smooth Lines Salon
5 pm: Shower and get dressed with Red Carpet Gown from Grayce Ln. Snack and afternoon juice.
6 pm: Arrive at Red Carpet for paparazzi photos while interview station is setting up to receive guest. Red Carpet arrivals begin.

Photo credit: Miguel Flores
6:30 Red Carpet interviews with nominees, presenters and guests. Back to back flow of stunning gowns, great men’s suits and avant-garde looks

Photo credit: Miguel Flores

7:30 pm Musical guest Simply Rayne takes the stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime

8 pm Award Ceremony Opening with San Antonio’s First Lady Erika Prosper and District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño.

Photo credit: Studio HighKey
Photo credit: Studio HighKey

8:30 pm I present awards for Hair Innovator of the Year (minor freakout because I had written my speech just about an hour earlier an I didn’t have the order in which the nominees were being presented on the big screen. My wonderful colleague Crystal came to my rescue)
8:45 pm I guide winners to the Winner’s Lounge, sponsored by West Elm and am completely oblivious to the storm brewing backstage due to a missing nominees video. Our show director ended up having to create the video from scratch and was able hand it in to audiovisual team. photofinish, as the presenter delivered his speech.

Me (behind) walking Winner to Lounge.
Photo credit: Studio HighKey


9 pm Intermission with a beautiful Indian Diwali performance. At this point, my feet are aching and I sit down to enjoy the performance.

Photo credit: Studio HighKey
9:45 pm Show concludes and I run off to change into my cocktail dress. My team calls me for a team photo in front of the step & repeat.

Wrap up with Style Lush TV Team
(Left to right: Kaia Dublin, Me, Burgundy Woods, Crystal Martinez, Kassandra Rodriguez)

10 pm I’m finishing up getting ready for the afterparty. Drank my final dinner shake. Ended up cleaning up in the dressing room and taking a ton of leftover goodies back to the car with my lovely intern, Kaia.

10:30 pm Walk over to Ocho Lounge at Hotel Havana, right behind the Tobin Center to party with my team. We had a hidden little table and for about a good 35 minutes we just vent, laugh and cry. It was good. Then winners and guest came up to us for pictures and before we knew it, it was last call.
12:00 am Hugs and kisses from my amazing teammates for another successful San Antonio Fashion Awards.  Drive home with a huge smile on my face, and so unbelievably exhausted. Only one thought in my mind. “We fucking did it!”


Team Style Lush on Red Carpet Arrival. Photo Credit: Miguel Flores


Special Considerations:
Dress by Jovani. Sponsored by Grayce Ln. Fashion Boutique
Hair & Makeup: Sponsored by Smooth Lines Salon
Jewelry: Sponsored by Daniel Espinoza Jewelry

Traveling to Cuba? Here’s what you need to know!

For years travel to Cuba has been very restricted, especially if you were an American citizen. In recent years, it became less restrictive, and more recently it felt as it would be strict again, but it turns out that it’s actually very easy to visit this beautiful country. My research for planning this recent trip to the island was quite extensive, but there’s a lot you don’t know until you experience it yourself. When I returned I was received a ton of questions about how to get there and how things are when you arrive. Here’s some answers to your questions! Hope you’re able to plan and go visit!

1. Do you need a visa? What is the option for someone without family, education or medical reasons to visit?

Yes, you need to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba. When purchasing your flight, before entering you payment information it asks you to select your reason for travel. Two options seem to fit a category that doesn’t apply for medical, educational, government or journalism. One is “People to People” exchange and the other is “Support of the Cuban People”. These are very ambiguous and does not require any documentation to prove that you are going for this. Of course, when you visit the country, staying in BNBs, eating and shopping local, you are, essentially supporting the local economy so you don’t have to feel bad about these selections. You can purchase the visa online or at the airport. We traveled through Miami and they have a stand where they sell them for $100 per person. No questions asked. They also don’t ask any questions upon arrival or departure in Cuba.

2. I hear hotels are limited. Where should I stay?

If you really want to experience a cultural or “People to people”exchange, you should stay at a “casa particular” or a private house, which can now be arranged via AirBNB, Trip Advisor and even Expedia. Hotels are available, but yes they are limited. There are definitely resorts on the island. We stayed in the beach town of Varadero and we booked one of the best rated hotels on the island via Expedia. The Blau Resort is all inclusive, so all meals, drinks and most activities were included in the price.

3. Is there cell service or data available?

Major cell phone companies like AT&T and T-Mobile provide service under a roaming category for which you will be charge per minute on incoming and outgoing calls. Data and text charges also apply. Check with you mobile provider to learn about the costs, but I do warn that they are very steep, so if you don’t want extra charges on your mobile bill, leave it on airplane mode or turn off the data roaming on your phone and just use the WIFI options. Very limited private homes or businesses have WIFI. There are some public spaces or internet cafes that provide Wifi, and you would purchase a card for $1CUC per hour. 

4. Do restaurants and shops accept credit cards? Are there ATMs?

Unfortunately, no. You must have the cash in hand and exchange when you arrive. When we got there, one thing I hadn’t research was the dollar exchange. The CUC is the Cuban Convertible Peso. This is what you receive when you exchange your dollar or euro to purchase or pay for services. Now, if you check a conversion table, the U.S. Dollar is valued at the exact same rate 1CUC=$1USD, but when you exchange at the airport, they skim off quite a bit. If you were to exchange say $300, you could get as low as $260 in return. Yeah, that’s super high and there’s no way to fight that. And if you try to exchange on the street, which is highly UNrecommended, they can skim off even more. So be sure to take plenty of cash so you won’t find yourself penniless during your visit. Also, things are pretty expensive, regardless of what you may have heard. The tourist industry is growing and prices are built to get as much as possible out of tourists looking to ride the cool cars, get a tour of fun spots, drink mojitos with Hemingway, etc. It’s definitely not cheap and can add up. If you DO end up spending all your cash, there’s always Western Union and a loved one can wire you some money, but save yourself the stress and prepare to bring more than you need. It’s just better that way.

EXTRA TIP: There’s a 10% penalty for exchanging US dollars into CUCs– it’s only against the US dollar. So convert most of your travel cash into Euros in the US before arriving in Cuba. You’ll keep more of your money that way! -Iris Gonzalez from irisgonzalez.com

5. Where can I buy cigars and rum? Can I bring it home with me?

It’s recommended that you only purchase cigars and rum in shops. Our AirBNB hosts warned us several times not to buy off the streets. People will come up to you and offer to sell you cigars, but they told us those cigars aren’t legit and can contain toxic components. Also, if you purchase anything total home during your visit, pack it in your checked suitcase. You still have to declare it in customs, so there’s no guarantee how TSA is feeling that day that might take it from you, so your best bet is to purchase it at the duty free shop in the airport on your way out of Cuba. They provide you with a sealed official bag and when you go through customs they see that it’s official. They still might ask you to pack it in your checked bag at the check point, but at least they won’t confiscate it.

6. How do I get around?

There is no Uber type service but there are taxis, of course. You should definitely coordinate transportation with your hosts or hotel. Since we can’t use our phones, they schedule your taxi pickups and you coordinate with your driver to be picked up at a certain spot at a specific time. We were very nervous about possibly being stranded, but they are very responsible and if you tip them they might even be open to give you a private tour. Funny story, the car we had scheduled to drive us to Varadero (2 hours from Havana) had broken down before it was supposed to pick us up for our return. They had no way of calling us, so we had no idea. When we checked out we waited about 5 minutes and realized he wasn’t there to pick us up. I was about to ask the hotel to allow to me to call (for a charge, of course) and when we turned around a man was asking around in the lobby for us by name. I hear my name and responded “Yes?”, he said he was here for us because our guy, Dylan, was indisposed and he was here to take us back. That was almost like fate! We couldn’t believe the camaraderie between them and sense of responsibility to not leave guests stranded. It was a crazy experience, but it shows that the people are wonderful and was visitors to have a great experience all the way through.
That’s all I can think of to share that you might not find online, unless you hear first hand from someone who went. Our experience was lovely, and we’d go back for sure, especially with the new found knowledge we have and even better preparation. One thing for sure, we all say “it’s so beautiful”, “it’s like a time capsule”, “you should visit before it changes”, etc. The truth is that the people are still struggling. Their local currency is actually the CUB, and it’s $25 CUB to $1USD. We were told that the jobs they have are back breaking and a month’s worth of work earns them roughly $12 per month. Yes, education and medicine are free and they receive meal rations per month, but they still have to do so much to survive and that broke my heart. Being there all touristy, living my best life is hard when you see people struggling. Please make sure to tip, don’t be stingy and don’t haggle too much. If you want to support the people, please, really support them. Leave your hosts good tips, prepare a care package for young women in need, leave clothing behind for your attendants at the hotel. They need it more than you ever will. Other than that, enjoy your visit!

Days in Old Havana

Cuba, so close yet so far. I lived in Puerto Rico for 22 years, where as I learned about the rich history of the island I called home, I became more and more fascinated with the other half of this “bird” in Caribbean history. Cuba and Puerto Rico united forces during the Spanish-American War in the 19th century and as brothers, fought valiantly to attempt to escape colonialism, which is why both islands were known as “One bird, two wings”. They needed each other, brothers and sisters in arms. But alas, the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 also brought the end of Spaniard Colonialism, and part of the booty meant handing over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and as the island of Puerto Rico continues to be a U.S. Territory, the bird has long flown away and Cuba could not have been further to Puertoricans. Reading this made me so curious about this mystery island, now known as the island stuck in time that fascinates so many people from all around the world. 

For years I wanted to visit, and travel to Cuba has always been nearly impossible unless you had an approved reason like medical, sports or education/research. With less restrictions these days (we purchased a Visa with the People to People option and flew American Airlines), my husband and I finally made the plan to go. So, we visited during our Wedding Anniversary week and it was an eye-opening experience. We saw the similarities between Cuba and Puerto Rico, especially in the Spanish Colonial architecture, the history and the warmth of the people. I can see how they can be brothers. As a woman of Dominican roots, I also felt very at home. I saw so many beautiful skin tones that vary from the fairest (with blonde hair and blue eyes) to the darkest ebony (with the most amazing range of hair textures). 
Where we saw the differences, of course, was in the part where the island, especially Old Havana, can seem very old. The preservation of the old architecture seems halted. Of course, you see so many of the old timey cars, most of which have been restored and much to the entertainment of tourists, driving around with the top down. Our AirBNB hostess gave us the rundown of where to go and how to get there to fully enjoy the experience. We followed her instructions, well mostly, and found ourselves walking up the “wrong street” to get to one of the 4 “must see” plazas in Historic Havana. We had the map on our phone and it seemed to be the right way, but it was certainly the least tourist street ever. We loved every second of that walk! All locals, with a sprinkle of 1 or 2 Americans that past us by, we were walking among the Cuban people and fit right in. We may have stood out a tad because we carried a small bag with a camera in it, but not one person looked at us funny or stopped us or even begged for money. Once we arrived at the plaza, we laughed and said to each other “That was a legit adventure!”
At the plazas we could definitely see the change in the environment, where there were tourists from so many countries. A lot more Europeans than Americans, as I could observe the languages and accents I’d hear in their interactions. We stayed in an AirBNB in a part of town called El Vedado, a quiet neighborhood just a few blocks away from the Plaza de la Revolución and a short 10 minute drive to Old Havana, but it’s located away from the bustling downtown and quiet enough to relax when we needed to wind down. Our house was right around the corner from embassies and was very safe to walk to nearby restaurants and parks. The house is a colonial style home with an indoor deck for morning coffee and a gorgeous rooftop balcony where we sipped on Mojitos and Cuba Libres as the sun set in the horizon. 

More on our Cuba experience coming up!