Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels. If you would like to take part please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org or @em_luxton – I would love to hear from you!
This week, I’m welcoming back another familiar face to the Postcard From feature. Julie Cao has taken art twice before with postcards from Hawaii and Ireland. Masters student Julie is currently completing her studies in Canada, and has spent the last five years living both there and in the USA. Having a passion for travel, writing and photography, she has also travelled extensively throughout North and Latin America. You can find her at the lovely blog alwaysontheway.org.
Welcome back, Julie! Where have you been this time?
Havana, Cuba – this capital city is a combination of unique architecture, historical sites and appealing seascapes. If you are into history, culture, and landscapes, this is the place to go.
Ooh, Cuba sounds lovely now that summer’s given up in the UK! How was the weather?
I was there for five days in early July. The weather was extremely hot, sticky, and almost unmanageable. Every day the temperature reached up to 40 celsius and it is incredibly humid. I started sweating from head-to-toe the moment I walked out of the hostel until I returned to my room, took a showerand put the AC on. There are two of these days I could not bear the heat, and I ended up spending the entire day just chilling in the hotel lounge at the historical center and watching the World Cup.
Yikes, almost too hot! Were you staying in a nice place to escape the heat?
I stayed at the Paradise Hostel Backpacker in the City Centre. It is not in the touristic area, but it is filled with wonderful backpackers. The hostel serve a big breakfast till noon, with unlimited juice and coffee, which is good to go for half day. The rooms are equipped with air conditioners and hot showers so you do not have to worry about the heat once you enter. It is also close to the bank and there are multiple local restaurants nearby. Rooms are sold out every day. If you go there, be sure to make your reservation at least a week in advance.
What did you get up to in Cuba?
I spent some time everyday to take a daily casual walk on the Malecon, a wide esplanade that has seawalls that stretch for 5 miles along the Cuban coastline. It is a perfect place for a walk under the sunset, and watching all the streets, cars, and people pass by. This roadway leads you to the old town of Cuba, and there are so many places to go and things to do out there. You can enter into the Museum of Revolution and get to know the history over the period of the revolutionary war, or explore the national capital building. You can set off a loop trip around both the old and the new town on a tour bus. The entire cityscape dates you back to the 1980s, since you will see many yank tank old American cars), like the 1957 Chevrolet. You can also take a shuttle bus from the historical centre and head to the Playa Del Este. This is the only beach near Havana. Swimming in the ocean would be the best on a sizzling hot day.
What was your highlight?
As for me, the best moment was the nights that I spent with other travellers at the rooftop bar in the hostel. Everyone I met had extensive travel experience and they shared many fun and wonderful stories. The bar had great music on display, and it was perfect for drinking Mojitos and having seafood dinner. Besides, the scorching heat deprived our energy entirely during the day, so we just wanted to relax and have a few cold beverages at night.
I loved the food in South America, but haven’t tried anything from central yet! How was the Cuban Cuisine?
Good food was everywhere, from the street food to the meals at restaurants. There was a wide selection of seafood for only $2-$6 at every restaurant I found and the portions were large. Freshly-squeezed mango juice and guava juice was everywhere too, and I enjoyed having them with very meal.
Were there any awkward moments on your trip?
One thing that really annoyed me is that every day I had some locals either want to rip me off or want something from me. On the first day, a tricycle driver told me he would be happy to show me around for $15. Two hours after the tour, I was asked to pay double. The same afternoon I was approached by local lady on the Malecon. We had a conversation for an hour about Cuba and her family. She also taught me some Spanish words. I really enjoyed our conversation and thought I had a good time, until she told me that she was hungry but cannot afford to get any drinks and food. She asked me for $5 and I immediately walked away. Sometimes when I was sitting outside and having street food, or drinking a bottle of water, someone would always look at me and say that he/she wants my food.
Before travelling, I heard many wonderful reviews about Cuba, but I do not like how some locals take advantage of tourists. Gladly, I had a wonderful time with the other travellers I met in the hostel, which made up for the unpleasant experience during the day.
Do you have any advice for travellers headed to Cuba?
A few tips for fellow travellers: study Spanish before you go, as there are less than a few people capable of speaking English. Ignore the locals who approach you and try to take you around as they are notorious for taking advantage of travellers. If you need guidance on where to go and what to do, resort to a staff member of the hostel. Cuba is a pretty safe country to visit, just be careful when comes to money.
Furthermore, Cuban currency is not traded internationally, and they can only be obtained in Cuba. There is a 10% penalty charge when exchanging US dollars. Bring enough Euros with you as most places do not accept credit cards and there are not many ATMs. Don’t forget to exchange your leftover Cuban currency before you leave (set CUC 25 aside for airport departure tax). Once you exit Cuba, there is nowhere that you can spend your Cuban currency. Lastly, if you plan to travel to the states, be sure to ask the Cuban immigration not to stamp your passport.
NB – images are owned by Julie Cao.