Castro’s Paradise: Varadero, Cuba

Before we made our way to Havana for our last days in Cuba, we travelled to Varadero – a famed Caribbean beach where Castro owns a home. The beach area is among the most famous in Cuba and when you arrive, you can immediately see why.

Varadero

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P1060774The Cuban Caribbean epitomizes every starry-eyed image the world has had of escaping the daily grind while kicking their feet up on a postcard-perfect beach and sipping on mojitos. Cuba is the kind of place you can disappear in (in a good way, and obviously in a bad way if you’re a journalist or somebody generally outspoken against Castro). It’s said that Assata Shakur is living in Cuba after fleeing from the USA, where she was charged with murder. As a member of the Black Panther party, she was harassed by police and became the center of a witch hunt by the FBI, who viewed the Black Panthers as a threat to national security. Evidence suggested that Shakur didn’t commit the murder, and with dirty cops in the mix and tampered evidence, she felt she would never win her freedom honestly and so fled to the sunny shores of her country’s enemy. Cuba has refused to extradite her to the US, publicly backing her case.

My bet’s on the fact that she’s living somewhere in Varadero. Wouldn’t you? This snapshot of history that I’m sharing with you really has nothing to do with the photos above, but I thought I’d share an anecdote that goes some way toward reflecting the relationship between Cuba and the US.

Varadero

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The beach was far more beautiful than any of my photos can show, and really offered a Caribbean escape in one of the most sheltered countries in the world. As a culturally rich island, Cuba gives visitors a unique travel experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Blessed with remarkable Caribbean blue waters, white sand, $2 mojitos, old American cars and a genuinely intriguing history, it’s a country that’s at the top of most people’s “To-Do” lists.

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We said our goodbyes to Varadero after five days and headed back to the heat of Havana….

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Our last days in Cuba were spent frantically trying to find a hotel that had operating Internet, so that when we arrived in Mexico we wouldn’t be homeless. The biggest culture shock was arriving in Playa Del Carmen from Havana – we expected a lot less from Mexico, but were greeted with the extreme end of tourism and tourism prices. We later countered this with a solid amount of time in Tulum, where we cycled around remote beaches and dived in the cenotes.

For our last couple of nights in Havana, we stayed at a historic, grand hotel called Hotel Sevilla. This hotel is basically everything you think of when you think of the 1950s – old world charm, Cuban cigar smoke in the air, heat, and live bands playing Cuban rhythms in the courtyard! It’s important to note that in Cuba, your idea of a five star hotel isn’t what you will receive. It’s not that the Cubans are trying to stooge you, but things are fairly old and the infrastructure poor. Cities like Havana struggle, but Cubans do their best to make you feel welcome. Basically, you’ll enjoy the rugged charm of a place like Hotel Sevilla, but don’t come to Havana expecting it to be an idyllic, honeymoon getaway. No matter how much money you spend, your hotel standards won’t measure up to what you’re used to staying in if 5 star hotels are more your style!

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A Whole New World: Banos, Ecuador!

Resting within a valley surrounded by giant green mountains with an active volcano nearby, is the hippie locale Banos. It’s quiet, extremely remote and relaxed. Bohemian in nature, vegetarian taverns, Hindu culture and native tribalism combine to form a spiritual wanderlust for those backpackers wishing to breakaway from the hustle and bustle of Quito.

Banos Ecuador

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A constant in Latin America has been the quality of the street art. Graffiti artists make the latter noun in that title genuine. Entire books could be published showcasing the phenomenal pieces from Chile to Ecuador! Unlike New York City and Melbourne, there are virtually no tags (shitty scribbles that make everything look horrible) and none of those typical, indecipherable word pieces which make entire cities look like crap. I’m unsure of the graffiti culture here, but in Melbourne it’s very cliquey, and rival crews get a rise out of painting over somebody else’s piece. Around the Americas, that’s not the case.

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It’s seriously relaxing here. Thermal springs and waterfalls are found throughout the city (in fact, our balcony at Chiminea Hostel has a mountain view, and on the mountain directly in front of us is a huge waterfall, and at the base of that waterfall? Hot springs)! Small massage parlours are dotted throughout the town, as well as handicraft stores, shopkeepers slinging toffee around wooden pegs and stretching it, and little huts making and selling sugarcane juice (the merchants slice up sugarcane and feed it into a manual steel machine which crushes it, extracting the raw juice). It’s high in vitamins and minerals, but also sugar, and is therefore high in calories. It gives you a major sugar high that leaves Redbull dead in its tracks! There are also fresh food markets with food stalls selling cheap eats, so it’s certainly a budget-friendly town.

Continuing the trend of Latin American street art, Banos passes on a positive message to its youth.
Continuing the trend of Latin American street art, Banos passes on a positive message to its youth.

There’s an active volcano here which tends to smoke up and explode with lava every other month. It’s called Tungurahua, and it can be frightening (after all, how many people elect to hike up the side of an active volcano, which constantly erupts?), but there aren’t too many places in the world where you can get up and close with a live volcano. So in an ironic twist, the relaxing hippie town of Banos has the potential – quite often – to be not so relaxing (at least for those close to Tungurahua during an eruption).

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Chopping up the sugar cane roots and feeding them through a manual juice extractor.
Chopping up the sugar cane roots and feeding them through a manual juice extractor.

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Banos has cool bohemian cafes and an alternative, hippie lifestyle
Banos has cool bohemian cafes and an alternative, hippie lifestyle

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Raw sugar cane juice - the Ecuadorian version of Red Bull!
Raw sugar cane juice – the Ecuadorian version of Red Bull!

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It’s difficult to explain the serenity here. There aren’t many places I’ve been to around the world where one can feel truly isolated. Banos also has a great Spanish tavern whose name escapes me, but it was run by a big jolly man from Malaga, who in typical Mediterranean fashion, made us feel like family as soon as we entered. As the night went on in the tavern, he was having a dinner party with his Colombian wife and friends at the next table over. Drunkenly, he came over and started pouring us shots and served us more wine. On the way out, he and his wife implored us to visit Colombia which we never did, regrettably, since so many backpackers told us it was the best country in South America!

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In a couple of days we will go to a place far, far away, and witness for ourselves what life on Earth looks like in Mother Nature’s exact vision, sheltered away from natural predators and evolution: Galápagos Islands!

 

All You Need Is Ecuador: Quito!

Ah, Quito – one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America that we all must stop off at at least once. Almost every backpacker rates this city as the most likely one to be robbed in, beaten up in, or kidnapped in. Express kidnappings in taxis are commonplace – they are not rare, but a given – and as a result, everything from local restaurants to backpacker hostels, to Subway and beyond display signs reading “CAUTION: ASK THE MANAGER TO CALL A TAXI FOR YOU TO GET HOME SAFELY”. Yes, even the sandwich artist is concerned for you, and the armed security guard standing next to him. Who knew going out for a sandwich could be so dangerous?

foch square

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Quito is actually a well-developed city which has perfect roads, is rubbish-free, and has friendly locals. Ecuadorians are the best, and always greet you with a smile and some banter. At night time, apparently not even locals like to stay out for long in Quito, as the city becomes quite shady. Drug dealers stroll past you whispering “Coca, marijuana?” and taxis are known to stop in predetermined locations, where their friends jump inside, beat you up, hold guns or knives to you and force you to empty your bank account at a local ATM. We’ve all heard about these express kidnappings in Latin America, but apparently it’s so common in Quito that it’s a reasonable expectation as a traveller, in the event you aren’t scrupulous with your choice of taxi.

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Quito

Quito

Quito loves its pubs and bars, and has great Ecuadorian and American food available throughout the city. After a bit of a lacklustre culinary experience in Brazil, it was exciting to arrive in a country which has a passion for delicious food. Plaza Foch is the main square you’ll want to stay near, and you’ll want to stay close to avoid having to take cabs late at night (even though they’re cheap).

One of the most interesting experiences this trip has been immersing ourselves into the cultures and ways of life in Latin American countries that don’t have good relations with the US. What do I mean by that? Well, if you listened to George Bush in the past (not that many did), you’d be afraid to go south of the border. US relations in most of these countries are strained, and after a fair few public blunders in recent decades (as well as the release of WikiLeaks), it’s logical to say that there are two sides to every story. Don’t let one party’s side dictate your opinion about a country.

This isn’t a blog for politics though, and politics has never affected anybody’s propensity to travel (unless you’re an American, in which case your government – not Castro’s – has banned you from travelling to Cuba). Point is, if you have a curiosity about somewhere, go there. Don’t read the hyped up stories on the Internet about everything second and third world being a hellish pit of pending regrets. It’s not.

While a place like Quito has a reputation by night, it’s more than accommodating, friendly and filled with fantastic cultural experiences by day. Most backpackers agree that if you only have one country to visit in South America, make it Ecuador: It has the Amazon jungle, amazing mountain regions, Galapagos Islands and charming cities.

As they say, “All you need is Ecuador!”

 

The Beach Film

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