Stepping foot in Havana for the first time

While my time in Havana seems like a mere dream now, it’s still a place very deserving of recognition for its culture, vibrancy and history. While influenced by Europe in its wonderful bohemian architecture and Spanish cultural traits, it still feels like you’re very much in the Caribbean thanks to the hot weather and the jungle-like exteriors fringing the city.

It might seem clichéd to describe visiting Havana as like taking a trip back in time, but it really is true. While they may have most of the modern conveniences we recognise in our own daily lives, there’s none of the excessive technology or flashiness of other 21st century cities. Vintage is very much the norm, from Smeg fridges to classic cars.

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While you’d expect the historic buildings of Old Havana to be worn away by time and a lack of money to restore them, the same is actually true of the rest of the city as you’ll see on your way to and from the airport. The edges where the plantations begin are evidently poor, and even the newer part of the city has an air of neglect about it.

You’ll also notice that modern cars are few and road rules even less; expect to see seven person-strong families packed into chugging Chevys, and horse and carriages sharing the busy roads with the cars.

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I didn’t expect to see quite so many of the old cars that Havana is known for, but it turned out that about eight out of ten of the vehicles on the roads dated back to at least the 1960s. While most of them are hired out by tourists, regular people used them too as their everyday modes of transport.

Hiring an old car with a driver for an hour, although touristy, was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. With a huge choice of bright colours and attractive styles to choose from, it’s important to pick your car wisely before you climb in. We went for a lime green open top car, and our friendly driver took us on a brief tour of the city’s main attractions.

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We stopped at a couple of places for photos, including the Plaza de la Revolución and the gorgeously green Parque Almendares that was home to some of the most gigantic trees I’ve ever seen! We also drove along the seafront and were given a glimpse of the newer part of the city with its less picturesque seventies high-rises.

There’s far too much to write about this glorious city in just one post so here are just a few tips that I wish I’d been told before heading to Havana:

Don’t expect to get phone signal and Wi-Fi everywhere you go. Some hotels and bars may advertise that they have access to internet, but it’s usually very limited or doesn’t work. It’s best to download Google maps, learn any useful phrases before you go, and store up your photos to post on social media once you’re back home.

In the summer, Havana is HOT and there’s little to no respite. Only hotels, cigar stores and some more high-end shops have air-conditioning so you will almost certainly get a bit sweaty. It’s best just to embrace the heat by walking around the streets slowly, drinking water regularly and staying refreshed with a mojito every couple of hours (you are in their birth-place, after all!).

The food in Cuba is not like food in the rest of the Caribbean. It’s actually quite bland and mainly consists of simple meat or fish dishes paired with beans, rice and vegetables. Simple and wholesome is how I’d describe it.

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Have you been to Havana? Let me know what you thought of the vibrant city in the comments below 🙂

 

Paradise Found: The Cayman Islands

A destination that not many people have heard of (unless you’re interested in offshore finance), Cayman is an idyllic group of three west Caribbean islands that I have the good fortune of calling my second home.

It’s a place that you should definitely consider placing on your wanderlust bucket list if, like me, you like the sound of lounging on serene beaches, swimming with turtles and sting rays and spending your Sundays drinking rum cocktails at the aptly named Rum Point.

Touristy cliches apart, Cayman also has so much to offer when it comes to culture. Whether you’re up for tasting local bites like conch fritters and jerk chicken or you’re interested in learning more about the nation’s heritage and local arts scene, there’s certainly more to the Cayman Islands than initially meets the eye.

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Having experienced Grand Cayman like a local rather than a tourist, I’ve come to realise that there are (amazingly) definite downsides to living on a tropical island, too. The heat for one, and the incessant need to be in air conditioning all the time unless you want to be drenched to the skin in sweat. The slow pace of life also begins to get to you after a while, as does the expense of everything; go into any supermarket and you can expect to be paying double the cost of the UK for anything. For instance, my favourite cheese (halloumi) can be $15 a pack!

Heat and the cost aside though, I still find it very difficult to leave Cayman behind every time I visit. I’m very much a summer child and can only usually abide winter for about a week before I’m longing for t-shirt and shorts weather again. That’s exactly why I’ve been trying to make the most of my first Christmas in Cayman before I head back to the the dismal, rainy UK winter.

Enough about the weather, though.

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As this post is just supposed to be a short intro (and my first ever post!), I’m just going to jot down a few of my favourite experiences in the Cayman Islands so far, of which I’ll elaborate on at a later date. Promise.

  • Horse trekking along Barkers beach and swimming bareback in the warm sea (photo above). Definitely up there as a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
  • Visiting the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Gardens and seeing endangered blue iguanas.
  • Going to Sting Ray City and being scared to jump in the water with them (but finally conquering my fear!)
  • Trying green iguana (tastes like – surprise, surprise – chicken!), lionfish tacos and conch at Tukka restaurant in the East End.
  • Snorkelling off the reef near Rum Point and with green turtles at Spotts beach.
  • Soaking up some Cayman culture at the annual summer Carifesta showcase and various national heritage sites.
  • Exploring Grand Cayman’s great cafe scene – there are so many great coffee shops and healthy eateries.
  • Watching many glorious sunsets (like the one below).
  • Witnessing hundreds of fireworks being lit along Seven Mile Beach on New Year’s Eve.

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Next up, I’ll be writing about my short but sweet trip to New York in December and how you can enjoy both its festive and all-year round attractions in just two days. In the meantime, you can check out more pictures of my adventures in Cayman on my Instagram page (link below).