T O R O N T O
In June, Jack and I booked a very last minute adventure to North America and the Caribbean (3 days before we flew… kind of last minute!) In 20 days, we managed to visit 5 countries (Canada, Cuba, Panama, Curacao and the USA – more posts to follow) and travelled a total of 99 hours! In the end we felt like we needed another holiday after our adventures! It took 26 hours to reach Cuban soil and we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Toronto during our 8 hour layover! We took a 25 minute UP express train to Toronto Union Station from the airport (we got a return ticket for £13 each) and when we reached the city we went to Hooters, had a couple of Canada’s famous Caesars (a better version of a Bloody Mary), had some feel good Canadian food in Jackastors, admired the CN tower and walked around the city just in time for our next flight to CUBA!
With the US embargo still in place, we really wanted to travel around Cuba before its clocks catch up with 21st century times. Stepping off the plane into Havana was like stepping out of a time machine and going back 70 years!
Home to 2.1 million people, Havana is the Caribbean’s largest city and it is an unforgettable experience, there is no where like it on planet earth. It has an incredibly captivating history and it is something you must understand in order to appreciate it. Formerly referred to as the ‘Las Vegas of the Latin world’ during the U.S prohibition- Havana’s lavish hotels, casinos and swanky bars and night clubs attracted many famous American tourists and celebrities namely Frank Sinatra and Ernst Hemmingway. However following the revolution and overthrowing of the dictator Batista, Cuba established itself as the first communist country in the Western hemisphere. Gambling was banned, the state own everything, everyone is treated equally – all citizens receive the same wage regardless of their profession and in 1962, the U.S placed a trade embargo (which was lifted in September 2015) prohibiting U.S citizens from travelling to Cuba, Cuban’s were not allowed to enter the U.S and all foreign trade was banned thus isolating Cuba from the rest of the world. Its lack of external influence is what has made Cuba the unique place it is today, there really is no where like it!
There is something very authentic about Havana, it is one of the few places I’ve visited that has maintained its identity instead of moulding to how tourists want it to be – fine dining, extravagant hotels, access to over the counter medicines or everyday essentials and the internet (be prepared to turn off from social media and the world while you are there, you can only connect to wifi in the big hotels and its at a price!) are hard to come by. Arrive with an open mind, have no expectations and you’ll fall in love, just like I did!
H A V A N A
We spent 2 nights in the Colonial Telegrafo hotel, before staying in casa particulares (home-stays) for the remaining 3! Casa particulares are Cuban family homes which can be identified by the blue insignia displayed near their front door. For many years, the state owned everything; i.e no private ownership, thus no Casas Particulares. However, now this is all changing and families have adapted their homes (buildings have been painted in beautiful bright colours, interior is immaculate and the rooms are sparkling), for tourists to stay and experience authentic Cuban living! Speaking Spanish was very handy, especially when bartering for a good price. The families we stayed with were the perfect hosts, they put on a spectacular breakfast spread every morning and some evenings they would prepare a banquet dinner, they were also delighted to join us for a few mojitos! Casa particulares in Havana cost around $25 and dinner is between $5-8 per person. If you decide to stay in these home stays, ask to see the room first and if you like it agree on a price and if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, just politely let the family know that you’re going to shop around – they’re very understanding and don’t get offended if you decide not to stay in their home. If you are thinking of visiting Cuba and would like some casa particulares recommendations, feel free to get in touch!
English isn’t widely spoken across Cuba. I learned Spanish at school for 4 years (5 years ago) and somehow it all came back to me really quickly! So, if you plan on visiting Cuba, make sure you brush up on your Spanish especially if you want to be able to barter for good prices and/or chat with the locals! Tourists pay in CUC (tourist currency 1 CUC = $1) and locals pay in pesos (local currency)!
Resting was for the dead and drinking water to hydrate wasn’t a thing in Cuba! We followed a delicious liquid diet of mojitos and daiquiris, spent all day everyday walking around the shadowy and cobbled streets of Havana listening to live Cuban music at every street corner! You couldn’t walk past a bar or paladar (Cuban restaurant) without hearing talented Cubans strum their guitars, sing famous Cuban theme tunes and salsa dance, no matter where you turned you would hear the locals performing Buena Vista Social Club’s greatest hits! We visited Havana’s famous markets, museums and landmarks, took a ride in a 1960’s Chevrolet Bel Air and admired Havana’s breathtaking landscape and sunsets from a height! We stayed in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), home to the famous Hemmingway bars, cobbled streets and art deco buildings. We spent 4 days walking (we walked everywhere with the exception of the 1920’s taxi to Universidad de la Habana and Hotel Nacional) around this beautiful neighbourhood and during these walking adventures (timetabled with lots of rum stops of course) we saw some pretty magical things!
1. The crumbling buildings, baroque architecture and shadowy streets
2. The Old American cars
The 1962 U.S trade embargo has prevented many Cuban’s from being able to import cars over the past 55 years. As a result many Cuban families have been driving the same car for up to 80 years! With over 400,000 miles on the clock of some of these beauties, it’s a near miracle that they’re still functioning and A HUGE contrast to the consumer society we live in.
3. Edificio Bacardi
It’s well known that Cuba’s healthcare system which is based on preventative medicine ranks as one of the best worldwide – patients have free access to all aspects of healthcare, Cuba also has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world and Cuba has sent out more healthcare support to fight epidemics and humanitarian disasters than any other country in the world. Cuba’s trade restrictions have driven scientists and pharmacists to develop their own biotechnology products, generics and alternative medicines, namely treatments for diabetic foot ulcer, multiple cancers and dengue fever all of which have received marketing authorisation in both developed and developing countries. In May 2015, I completed my Master of Pharmacy degree and in July 2015, I graduated. I’m currently undertaking my hospital pre-registration year, so stumbling across these 1800s pharmacies was one of my highlights!
Have you ever been told to improvise with what you have? This Cuban doctor certainly did, read this article!
5. El Malecón
6. Bebida y comida
Here’s a video of a some of talented musicians performing in a paladar where we had lunch that day
7. ¡ Viva la Revolución!
Plaza de la Revolución is a symbol of Cuba’s incredible history and remains the place where it continues to be made! It is where Fidel Castro addressed millions of Cubans, where political rallies have been held and is where Pope Francis held mass for thousands. Its unique and iconic features certainly has an interesting story to tell and standing at the top of the stairs looking down onto the square was quite surreal; its size was overwhelming and standing there it felt as if you were standing beside Fidel as he addressed the Cubans and the Cubans responded in hurrah!
8. Universidad de la Habana
Established by Dominican monks in 1728, Universidad de la Habana was the oldest and most prestigious university in Cuba. Until 1899, only white elites were educated here, all other races were banned from studying at this institution. This university Cuba’s famous political figures: Fidel Castro, José Marti and independence fighter Ignacio Agramonte who all graduated with law degrees. I’ve never seen such a beautiful university campus in my life, Universidad de la Habana was remarkable. As we admired the campus on the steps, I began talking to Yoandey, a mathematics student about his university, he then offered to show us around his campus, he told us about university life in Havana and we told him about university life in Scotland. Unfortunately it was after 6pm so we had to admire many of the faculty buildings from afar namely, the Medical, Pharmacy, History, Mathematics and Foreign language schools. He gave us his contact details (his next door neighbours phone number) and explained that if we wanted to get in touch with him, we would need to phone is neighbour who would then knock on his door to let him know someone was on the phone for him, he did not have a house phone in his family home, nor would he be able to leave Cuba to be a mathematics teacher and studied using books, not the internet. The contrast in our worlds was huge and what an eye opener to how lucky we really are. Meeting this lovely student was really special, he taught us a lot about the life of young Cubanos!
One thing I really struggled to digest was that regardless of how hard you’ve worked or how educated and intelligent you are or have become you will always be treated the same as the person next to you – your home, your car will be worth the exact same. It doesn’t matter if you are a Cuban maths teacher, doctor, a cleaner, an accountant, a banker, a shop keeper, a barman, a nurse, a pharmacist, a lawyer or a historian, they all earn 471 pesos (£12.94) a month and that is it. We met a practising hospital doctor that admitted, his second job as a taxi driver paid more than being a doctor– and this is very common, many will work in various industries particularly the lucrative tourist industry. We were also told about another hospital doctor whom not only had a medical and pharmacy degree, she was also a Professor – and despite her incredible achievements and devotion, her wage could only afford a tiny studio apartment. Families that accommodate tourists in their casa particulares need to pay back almost 90% of their income back to the state to maintain socialist equality. Ironically, when we visited Vedado area where many politicians live, we noticed that their homes were significantly bigger and more extravagant and as George Orwell once wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, this was certainly the case.
After Yoandey showed us around his campus, he managed to convince a Cuban man with a lada, to take us back to Havana vieja for $3!
9. Museums, Markets & Art
10. La Tropicana
We spent our last night in Havana at the world famous outdoor cabaret show, as we drank champagne and rum, we watched showgirls covered in feathers, sequins and flamboyant headdresses put on an unforgettable show. A ticket was $80 and it included a glass of champagne, 1/4 of Havana rum, snacks and a table in the second row.
HAVAVA FROM A HEIGHT
Exploring Havana by foot sometimes got a bit too hot, so we often decided to stop off in Parque Central’s rooftop swimming pool for a daiquiri and a dip! And from above, we also got to admire Havana’s architecturally distinct neighbourhoods dating from separate eras.
After a busy 5 days in Havana, we got an 8am bus to Viñales, a very picturesque town surrounded by bolder like hills and acres of green (check out my next post on Viñales & María la Gorda!)