A Cuban Christmas

We left Mexico sad to say goodbye but excited at the prospect of seeing Rose’s family in Cuba. We landed in the capital, Havana, as the sun was setting and were immediately taken aback by its contrast to Cancun. Where Cancun airport was host to designer shops and rich American tourists, Havana appeared harsh and outdated, its faded red walls a metaphor for the country’s struggling communism.

Despite 3 months of travelling we would be lying if we said Cuba did not come as a culture shock. The impact of half a century of communism and strict sanctions has made day-to-day life very difficult for those who remain there. Long queues can be seen outside every public building, with locals diligently waiting to enter supermarkets whose shelves are virtually empty. The strict control of internet has meant contact with the outside world is heavily restricted, with locals struggling to contact family members in neighbouring Miami fortunate enough to have left the country. The food leaves a lot to be desired—its incredibly bland nature arising from a scarcity of ingredients—and generally revolved around dishes containing meat, beans and rice. Additionally, the introduction of a dual currency system in 1994 only emphasises the divide between tourists and locals.

The knock-on effect of this is a soured attitude shown by a large number of Cubans towards tourists. It was rare that we felt we were not trying to be cheated out of our money, and when it was clear that we did not agree with proposed exorbitant prices people would very quickly lose interest. Perhaps the bitterness arises out of the assumption that outside of Cuba people are made of money; however, it inevitably left us with a negative view of the people.

That being said, Cuba itself is beautiful—a pastiche of crumbling colonial buildings and 1950’s Chevrolet’s. The photogenic old town of Havana is an assault on the senses, with Afro-Cuban mambo and rhumba blaring from every bar and restaurant. The cigars are cheap and the rum is cheaper, offering endless opportunities for fun. The long stretch of ocean boulevard which frames the city known as the Malecon made for beautiful sunsets, the silhouettes of countless fishing rods providing a memorable sight.

Bypassing the better known beach resort of Varadero, we spent our second week in Cuba in Guanabo. Situated only a short drive away from Havana, the neighbouring town is a favourite holiday destination for Cubanos and a much more low-key spot to enjoy the country’s stunning beaches. Grateful to escape the overwhelming buzz of Havana, our second week allowed us to enjoy the beach and make the most of our time with Rose’s family.

Being able to enjoy Cuba with Rose’s family was very special and made Christmas a much more enjoyable affair. We were incredibly lucky they agreed to come out and meet us and I hope they had as much fun as we did. Sadly though this meant it was that much harder to say goodbye. After two great weeks, we put on a brave face, said our farewells and looked forward to Colombia.

Tulum

Our last real stop in Mexico we were initially taken aback by how touristy Tulum was. Holiday goers out numbered Mexicans and we saw numerous people paying in US dollars. Despite this and a considerable spike in costs of things we adjusted quite quickly. We split our days by sightseeing in the morning and going to be beach in the afternoon. The first day we went to the Tulum ruins. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited by the Mayas surviving for around 70 years after the spanish started to occupy Mexico.

It was really nice seeing the temple right next to the sea and the ideas behind the sunrise and moon felt very akin to somewhere like Stonehenge. We arrived first thing in the morning and the light was incredible with no one else there- by the time we were leaving the droves of tourists arrived.

We went to Akumal which is known for turtles grazing on sea grass. We were excited to snorkel in the hope of seeing them- which we did. It was amazing, they are only about 1.5 meters down feeding on the grass below and coming up for air every few minutes, which was our favourite thing to see- it was quite funny! These turtles were the same species that we released in Bacocho a couple of weeks before. We also saw sting rays- Rose wasn’t as keen.

Before flying to Cuba for Christmas to meet Roses family we spent a night in Cancun with Rose’s work friend Jo with her husband Joe, who are also on their ‘honeymoon’. We drank lots of a delicious cocktail made by Joe with Mezcal, Mint, Agave syrup, and water. It was so nice catching up- revelling at the idea that it was just a few days before Christmas and it couldn’t feel less christmassy.