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.

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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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Tropical Brazilian Paradise Off The Coast Of Salvador!

A few hours by boat off the coast of Salvador lies a tropical Brazilian paradise. Morro De São Paulo has everything the perfect beach getaway should have: The absence of gigantic five star hotel resorts (which tend to kill local vibes and replace them with clinical, standardised, culture-less objects), bright blue water, soft white sand, locally-caught seafood (you see fisherman rushing in buckets of prawns from the beach to the restaurant kitchens), and a true bohemian vibe running from the villas to the sunset lookouts.

If you want to disappear and experience a different Brazil, one that could be a Hollywood location for anything from Castaway to The Beach, then look no further: Morro De São Paulo keeps hotel chains out, and local culture in!
Be sure to check out Toca for chilled music, grandiose sunsets overlooking a vast panoramic ocean, and live music. This is one island you really could spend the rest of your life in!20140719-151222-54742263.jpg

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Salvador: Marching To Its Own Beat (Literally)! Colours And Music Abound!

Salvador, Brazil, is a city that marches to its own beat. Literally.

Percussion is a big part of the local culture here, with locals banging on bongos, snare drums, and other large drums as they dance through the streets of Pelourinho. Salvador is famed for several modern day and historical interests. There is a huge African population here due to the slavery trade that began in 1549, and therefore Afro-Brazilian culture dominates the city. It’s amazing. Culture, cuisine and outdoor parties provide an effective distraction from the poor economic reality which blights most of the city.

Home to the largest carnival in the world (eclipsing Rio’s), it’s no wonder that in Brazil, Salvador is referred to as “the capital of happiness.” The first colonial capital of Brazil, the city is one of the oldest in the Americas. Walking around these streets you will find colourful buildings, ancient churches, and in Pelourinho, the location where Michael Jackson filmed the video clip for “They Don’t Care About Us” (Lago de Pelourinho). The song plays constantly, all day everyday, while a man sells the opportunity to go upstairs and out onto a balcony where travellers can stand with a… cardboard cutout of Michael Jackson! MJ recruited the Afro-Brazilian cultural group Olodum to play drums in his video clip, and the group has become such an integral part of Salvador that they now have their own official stores selling merchandise, including the t-shirt MJ wore in the clip.

There’s a shady vibe which overshadows much of the city, unfortunately. Street-side binge drinking, drug addicts who are as high as a kite, and a few gangs tend to roam about the place commonly. A brawl involving around 20 people broke out just metres from me while I was buying a hot dog from a hot dog stand (the best hot dogs in the world, trust me) in Lago de Pelourinho. A man in a hat ran up to a group of people and punched a guy in the head, knocking him out cold. The crowd then chased the man and started throwing punches at him. I rushed in to help the guy on the ground with his friends, and eventually he came around, but he couldn’t stand up.

There’s no beating around the bush: As lovely and picturesque as Salvador is (it’s a lot more pleasing than Rio), it’s surrounded by favelas, and not just any favelas, but some of the most dangerous in all of Brazil, which consequently has elevated it to one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Out of everywhere in Latin America, Brazil appears to have serious poverty issues. Countries such as Bolivia and Peru are poor, and even though Brazil is rich, they just look like they are in such worse condition than other countries. It’s gritty, chaotic, can be violent, and the drug problems in some areas is alarming.

Like any place, keep your wits about you and you won’t run into trouble. Keep that in mind and you’ll love Salvador!20140719-145405-53645776.jpg

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The Beach Film

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