On Travel: Cuba, Authentico!

It’s miserable out as I write this – it’s cold and snowing.  To think, just yesterday I was in Cuba and today … back to reality.

I hadn’t been to Cuba in about 17 years, but my best memory is that of an aqua blue ocean, sugar-white beaches and mojitos, so, I was anxious to get back there.

The last time I was in Cuba I stayed in Holguín at Hotel Club Amigo Atlantico in Guardalavaca on the south eastern side of the island.  This time we chose Varadero.


Goals

  1. Relax ✅
  2. Enjoy the weather ✅
  3. Spend some quality time with the kiddos ✅
  4. Visit Hanava ✅
  5. Sip a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio OR a daiquiri at El Floridita. ❎

Weather

The weather, apart from the odd afternoon overcast, was great – it ranged from 25º to 29º degrees.  Seasonal temps for March are 29º (h) and 19º (l) – this is their winter season – and for this typical Canadian,  the weather was perfect … not too hot, a nice breeze and the odd reprieve from the sun with just enough cloud cover for just the perfect amount of time.  It did rain twice – but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits or our spirits. Get it? You know like their famed ron?  Jk


Hotel Review: Palma Real

We stayed at the Allegro Palma Real which has just been purchased from Gran Caribe – it’s a 3* resort situated a 5 minute walk from the beach on the Atlantic Ocean coast, this low-key all-inclusive resort definitely needs some updating.  I’d say to anyone traveling and staying at this particular resort “know your priorities and set your expectations”.

The Palma Real is inexpensive [I paid $625 CDN (taxes in) for a week, all inclusive], close to the beach, nightlife in town and local restaurants.

The food at the resort is meh.  The buffet serves pretty much the same menu all week and is fairly bland.  We brought hot sauce from home, which helped a smidge.  I saw some who brought Cheese Whiz, Mayonnaise, mustard, jam, peanut butter and Heinz ketchup with them.

IMG_1276.jpgThe rooms are a little tired, but the pool areas are good – at least there are separate pools for those who just wanna chill and those who don’t -as you can imagine the pool bar is a popular place.

Con:  It closes at 5:00 PM even though the pool is open til 6:00 PM.

The beach area is really nice, the walk from the hotel to the beach was littered with refuse though.

The service is hit and miss, our service was typically good.

The night shows are poor, we went to 1/2 of one (that’s right, we couldn’t even stay for the whole show), I think 15 guests were in the audience.

My Opinion (like it matters lol): If your priority is to find a place that is inexpensive and well located, it works. This hotel is not directly on the beach but it does offer some of the best value Varadero has to offer.

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Day Trip to 🎶Havana ooh na na🎶

We booked our full day trip to Havana via Cuba Among Cubans.  It had great reviews online (5* rating on Trip Advisor).  I emailed Randy and within a 10 minutes email exchange our day trip to La Habana was booked.  I was really pumped for our PRIVATE  tour of Havana – cost was 140 CUC for the 3 of us for a full day private tour – guide and taxi included.

Our vintage ’57 Ford picked us up in the hotel lobby at 8:00 AM – our tour guide’s name IMG_1411was David.  It’s about an hour and half drive to Havana (FYI, they call it La Habana). We stopped at look out spot in Matanzas (Puente de Bacunayagua) which has a stunning view of the whole valley – very pretty!

We started off at the Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro (Fort Morro) and the statue of The Christ of Havana (Cristo de La Habana).  David tells us that locals suggest that the statue was sculpted to depict a cigar in the right hand and a mojito in the left hand, honouring popular Cuban culture – I can totally see that 🙂

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We walked threw an open-air military museum just outside the El Morro Fort. It’s an open-air collection of weaponry (mostly Soviet) from the days of the Cuban missile crisis. The infamous missiles that brought the world to the knees of a nuclear war are also peacefully lying here in the weeds (without the nuclear load). There are also the remains of an America spy plane shot over Cuba at that time.

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Our taxi driver made his way to new Havana where we drove up the the famed Malecón seaside boulevard. David tells us that the waves that hit Havana with Hurricane Irma in Sept 2017 reached over 10 metres (over 30 ft) and crashed over the seawall flooding all of old Havana. The water pushed about a third of a mile inland into low-lying neighbourhoods and adjoining towns. It took 2 days to recede.

IMG_1436We walked around the emblematic Plaza de la Revolución.  I didn’t quite get the hype it just looked like a huge parking lot across from a modern tower with a statue in front of it (the José Martí Memorial) – but on special occasions the Cubans gather there.  At the time of our arrival – there was at least 25-30 classic cars in the parking lot (they serve as taxis) – most North Americans clambered to get pics with them – for us – this is a “classic car show”, to them – this is “normal”.  

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Afterward we went for lunch at a private paladare (restaurant) which is in the bottom of  private home – Cuba’s enterprising cooks open their homes as a way to become entrepreneurs. The food was good, the best we’ve had here all week – it had flavour and was well cooked.  For 20 CUC we got an alcoholic beverage, a choice of soup, an entree (choice between seafood, chicken, pork or lamb),  rice and beans and a mini mixed salad, it also included dessert and a tea/coffee.

From there we went to Old Havana which was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.  We learned of Cuba´s colonial history up to the US invasion and occupation of the island in 1898, the revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis from their perspective and the US trade embargo.  We also got to see the non-restored areas and how the less-privileged live.

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We walked around Old Havana´s most emblematic squares: Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral.

We saw the famous Ambos Mundos Hotel and the famous bars La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, both spots frequented by Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway wrote his most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea while residing in Cuba.  At La Bodeguita del Medio, it’s the tradition to drink your mojito and sign your name on the wall(s).

Hemingway is forever linked with La Bodeguita del Medio for drinking his mojitos there (which is where mojitos were apparently invented), but the man enjoyed his daiquiris at El Floridita. Which we also went to, I was hoping to have a daquari in there – which he is said to have perfected – however, it was PACKED!  So, the best I got was a selfie with I Hemingway’s statue.

An interesting fact I learned as we passed the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Colon Cemetery).  Firstly, there are nearly 2 million people in this cemetery (800,000 graves and 1 million interments) – an insane amount of people! Secondly, space in the Colon Cemetery is obviously at a premium and as such after 2 years remains are removed from their tombs by family members and buried elsewhere – in order to make room for new interments. If they are unable to do so, the care taker is able to do that for a fee. Of note: Fidel Castro is not buried here, according to his Will, he elected for cremation.

In between squares we got to see the daily life struggles of the common citizen and saw a typical Cuban Flea Market – where they grabbed the daily groceries – they typically use the old Cuban peso.  We went to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) which was originally built to defend against attack by pirates.  It’s a beautifully preserved old fortress with a circling mote – wish we had a bit more time to explore here.

From there were went to Centro Habana (Havana from the early 20th century) where we visited to the outdoor areas of the Museum of the Revolution (former Presidential Palace) and the Granma Memorial. Walked around and saw Parque Central, Great Theatre of Havana, Capitol Building.

My Opinion:  Definitely get in touch with Randy Montero Garcia at Cuba Among Cubans for your tour of Havana, ask for David – however I’m sure that any of the guides are more than willing to tour you around Havana or Varadero.  5*’s in my book!


What’s your favourite place in Cuba?

On Health: My 30 day Trial of the Whole Food, Plant Based Diet

Last week myself along with about 19 other colleagues started a trial whole food, plant based (WFPB) diet.  The trial is for one month, and we are to stick to the diet with a rule 28059422_10156014712985168_2262040742645808080_nof 80/20.

8 days in and I am starting to believe more than ever that so much of what we eat and how we think about eating and food is far removed from food’s primary purpose: which is to nourish our bodies.  I used to think of food as an event (going out for dinner), or a fancy smancy new place to try, or to be honest a pain in the a$s because I really detest cooking – but not for what it’s truly supposed to do.

I think most everybody has watched the documentary on Netflix called Forks Over Knives (FoK) by now – if you haven’t I STRONGLY recommend you do.  Even if you don’t do the WFPB thing – it will at least help you make better food choices going forward and cause you to pause before you eat. The best we can hope for is to make more informed decisions about what we choose to put in our bodies.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past little while FoK essentially talks about how researchers explore the possibility that people changing their diets from animal-based to plant-based can help eliminate or control diseases like cancer and diabetes.

What To Eat and What Not to Eat, That is the Question!

The WFPB lifestyle (I’m not calling it a diet, because this is not a fad, this is a lifestyle change … for the better) means that for the next 3 more weeks we can not eat:

Animal products

  • no meat (red, white or fish) – the doctor monitoring our program says to eat nothing from anything that had a pulse or parents
  • no dairy products

No (or minimal) processed foods

  • oils
  • and pretty much most things in the middle aisles of the grocery store – which I already tried to do anyway

So, what do I eat?

  • It’s pretty simple: whole, unrefined plants. That’s it.

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Why Did I Agree to the Trial?

Each of us in the study group decided to participate for our own varying reasons.  Mine was to lose weight, get out of this general feeling of unwellness/malaise that I have been feeling and to kick start my metabolism – the way I used to feel – full of life and energy to burn.

The documentaries and research I’ve watched/read were information insofar as the benefits to living this lifestyle.  Some of the documented benefits to a WFPB diet include:

  • an increase in energy and alertness, weight loss
  • decreased pain, inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol to name a few

And most importantly a reduced risk of:

  • Some cancers, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes as well as proven reversal of: inflammatory bowel disease, Coronary artery disease and Type II diabetes

Armed with this information, I was eager to get started – I headed out to pick up some new cookbooks.

My 3 faves are: Forks Over Knives (Spring Edition), Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck (this is actually quite entertaining) and Rawlicious.    

I re-watched all of the documentaries on Netflix such as: FoK, Fed Up, Food Inc, Sick Fat and Nearly Dead I and II.

Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.- Hippocrates

So, What Are My Findings to Date?

A week in and this is what I am finding so far:

1- Because I have eliminated processed foods which are usually loaded with sodium, and oils I find food a lot more bland now.  Pro is that I am learning to cook with a lot more spices.  My taste buds are adapting and I am enjoying the natural taste of the food as they were intended not drenched in olive oil etc.

2- I haven’t had any headaches or anything from the detoxing effects – this is probably because I gave up coffee about 6 months ago and turned back to green teas.

3- Dining out while eating plant-based can be wholesome and enjoyable – said no body in their first week of this diet!  Many restaurants now offer vegan options, but mainstream menus aren’t yet created with WFPB diets in mind.  So when I’m out I mainly stick to salads or veggie sides.  There’s actually a great restaurant where I am from called Rawlicious – it’s a raw vegan restaurant – there are locations across Ontario and New York, I believe.

4- To be successful, you need to be planful – you need to make time to meal prep your lunches and dinners.  Most of my breakfasts consists of either an Ezekiel 4:9 bread with homemade almond butter, banana, crushed mixed nuts and hemp and a bit of agave nectar OR a homemade carrot cake oatmeal bowl.  Instead of allowing myself to get overwhelmed by all of the reductions to my menu, I am keeping it simple by just continuing to make the things I like which are WFPB or modify them in ways that they can be made into WFPB.

5- I am drinking a lot more water than I ever have – I’m not yet at the recommended 72 oz of water per day, but I’m at about 60 oz, I’m inching closer to that goal.

6- Any “sweet tooth” I have, can usually be cured by my new fave – dairy free – ice cream and it’s super simple.  Frozen strawberries, frozen banana and a bit on homemade cashew milk.  Ta-da!

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I will keep you posted as the remainder of this trial unfolds – I am anxious to get to the end to see if I actually can see and feel a difference by putting the right kinds of foods into my body and to see if there’s a difference both on the scale and in some of my blood work.

Have any of you tried the WFPB diet yet?  Any recipes to share?