Cuba

Countries in tropical zones aren’t always as paradisiac as one could imagine. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Cuba, but this second visit to the island has opened my eyes to another truth: temperatures might be relatively stable all year round, but it’s climate is really volatile.

Last time I visited the island, back in October 2010, it was hurricane season and, as such, temperatures dropped significantly from one day to another and it was pouring so much that I had to get a cab to go to the office (which, by the way, was about a 50 meters walk from my hotel). Strong winds rushed through the city as a hurricane was approaching the east of the island.

This time, it was so hot I thought I would melt on the streets. Despite this, every afternoon was greeted with 10 minutes of heavy rain followed by a thunderstorm that would continue until right before dinner. Quite unstable, isn’t it?

But although tropical climates have this catastrophic downturn, there are some upturns as well – that is, the ability to grow fantastic fruits!

Disclaimer: There are many more upturns to cuban climate – or, say, tropical climates in general – but for the purpose of this post, I’ll only concentrate on what takes such an important part of my life: delicious food.

Watermelon – Mamey – Papaya

The Watermelon is originally from the south of Africa. How did it make all the way across the Atlantic Ocean? Given the country’s history, I would think it was introduced during the times of African work force, that had been introduced to Cuba by the Spaniards from early 16th century. The fruit thrives best in warm an humid climates that both, receive good sunshine and are well watered (sounds like Cuba, huh?).

Mamey is exotic and rare outside the growing regions, which is mainly Central America and the Caribbean. It has brown skin and a fleshy orange pulp that is really sweet – it’s actually a bit too sweet for my taste, but everyone else loves it, specially in milkshakes and smoothies!.

The Papaya, which looks very similar to Mamey, has a completely different taste – it’s soft, juicy with a very delicate sweet flavor that ends up a bit sour (in a good way). Cubans press fresh lime juice over it, to intensify its flavor.

Guayaba – Mango

Guayaba (Guava) is, personally, one of my favorites. From the outside, it looks like a pear (and it’s texture is also a bit grainy), but the taste is very different from what one expects it to be! The Guava is best to prepare jams and was my daily breakfast drink in Cuba (it contains a lot of vitamin C).

Mangos originally come from India, but frankly, I can’t imagine them tasting anything better than the ones I had this afternoon in the island. I wasn’t a fan of it before I ate it this last time, and I realized it was because I hadn’t tasted the real mangos. No fibers, pure taste, juicy, almost melting in my mouth… do I need to say more?

Chirimoya – Guayaba

Chirimoya is another exotic food not so easy to find. This ancient Incan fruit was originally reserved for royalty. Its custard like flesh (which is why in english its called custard apple) is said to taste like a combination of all tropical fruits in one (my palate is not that delicate though). I love it.

Mango – Pineapple – Guayaba

Pineapple has a very refreshing taste, perfect for the summer. No wonder it is grown in hot climates! Comparing with what you may get in a supermarket in Switzerland, Cuban Pineapples are really sweet and juicy – no offense, Europe, but the Pineapples here just look like Pineapples, don’t taste like them!

Besides all these, we also had Plantains and Bananas, which account for over 70 percent of national production. Plantains are often used for delicious entries like tostones and plátano frito.

Which is your favorite fruit? What exotic fruit has surprised you?

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I published my first post in April 2010. Back then, although I had already been living in Switzerland for 7 months, it was the first time I really felt lonely. It was probably when I moved from the honeymoon to frustration in the 4 phases of culture shock. Hoping to escape from this feeling of not belonging in Switzerland, I traveled as often as time (and money) would allow.

One year later, I’m now in the stage of Understanding the country, its culture and traditions. I’m learning french and enjoy my quality time at the lake or in the mountains.

For this occasion, I’ve gathered together my favorite 12 photos of 12 places I’ve visited in the last 12 months. I hope you enjoy the ride!

Sydney, Australia

Mid-May las year, I flew over to the other side of the World. My first stop was Sydney. Although I only stayed for 5 days, the city immediately hit my heart.

Having free champagne and sushi when visiting a small art auction, walking along the coast side watching business people changing their work suits for wetsuits and running off to the beach (and secretly hoping that could someday be me) and feeding kangaroos at Featherdale Wildlife Park are only some of my favorite memories of that short period of time. In less than a week, the city won my heart and obtained the second position in my Top 5 City Ranking (right after Buenos Aires).

New Zealand – North Island

Tongariro, New Zealand

Right after Sydney, we flew over to Auckland. 2 intensive weeks of road tripping from the north to the south were just ahead us! I was fascinated by the country’s geothermal activity, discovered I had the physical health of a couch potato and spent most of my extra cash in Wellington’s thrift shops.

New Zealand – South Island

Glacier Hiking, Franz Joseph, New Zealand

On an early morning, we took the ferry from Wellington to Picton and then slowly drove down to Queenstown. We stopped in Franz Joseph hoping to do a helicopter ride over the glacier, but our adventurous spirit pulled us towards the 3 and a half hours glacier hike. I never thought I’d enjoy ice this much and would do it all over again!

Annecy, France

Annecy, France

Annecy is a little Venice in France, not far away from the swiss border. Besides for being quite crowded during summer time, it’s a beautiful place to walk, eat crêpes and drink french cider.

Lavaux Region, Switzerland

Lavaux Wine Region, Switzerland

I was just celebrating my one year in Switzerland when I discovered the beautiful region of Lavaux and haven’t stopped dreaming of it ever since. Good wine, some cheese, the Alps and the lake – could there be any better combination to spend a warm summer night?

La Habana, Cuba

La Habana, Cuba

In October, my job took me to the timeless city of La Habana. During those two weeks, when I wasn’t working, I walked along its colorful streets, danced to the rhythm of casino (the real cuban salsa) and ate far too many fried banana chips. I love my job.

London, UK

London, UK

London is my safe haven – Whenever I feel lonely or just need a change, I know that this city won’t fail. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to London in the last year, but I do know that, the more I walk through its streets admiring its Victorian mansions, the more I fall in love with it.

Lanzarote, Canary Islands (Spain)

La Geria Wine Region, Lanzarote, Spain

I spent Christmas on a neighbor island – Lanzarote, particularly known for its volcanic scenery and good wine.

Paris, France

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Paris and me. A Love-Hate Story. On a sunny friday afternoon, as I was on my way to the train station and return to Switzerland for the weekend, I finally decided to put my resentment aside and give the city of love a second chance. And then I fell in love again.

New York, USA

New York, USA

January 2010, I won the best prize I could ever receive at my company’s Christmas party: 2 tickets to New York! I invited one of my best friends and we had a great time – despite the big freeze.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh was one of those impulsive ticket purchases on a really low price (for swiss standards, that is) – and I’m so glad I did! It did rain all the time, but this didn’t stop me of walking its small and enchanted alleys. This is where I discovered that rainy days make out for great pictures!

Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain)

Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain)

Home Sweet Home. I just returned from a relaxing week in what still is one of my favorite places worldwide – How couldn’t it? Its black sand beaches and breathtaking mountain scenery, its fresh fish and good wine, my family and two cats. My one week vacation was just too short…

La Habana, Cuba
  1. They’ve got the moves. Cubans can dance salsa (also called “casino”). If you get the chance to go to a local Cuban party, you’ll probably get to see a Rueda de Casino – a particular type of round dancing developed in La Habana in the late 50s. Pairs of dancers create a circle, in which each dance move is called out by one person in the circle. Many of these moves involve swapping partners!
  2. The Soviet Union. In 1960, Cuba signed a trade agreement (sugar / oil) with the Soviet Union – which provided the island with many Russian cars (you’ll recognise them for having a rectangular shape), as well as TVs and cameras. When driving through La Habana, it’s also easy to spot the remaining Stalinist architecture.
  3. Cuban cigars. I recently read that Cuban cigars can’t be sold in the US. There are rumours of Kennedy requesting his press secretary to get thousands of his favourite cigars to stock them up in the White House right before he signed the embargo.
  4. Cuba time. Whenever I was told “dinner is at 8” I could be sure that I would not be anywhere before 9 PM. It’s not a surprise for me, having grown up in Spain – but it is something other cultures might have difficulties adapting to.
  5. They are proud of their Rum. Cuba distills different types of rum. First, you can find white rums – which are primarily used as mixers (mostly mojitos and daiquiris). Golden or Amber rums will have spent several years ageing in oak casts and have a stronger taste, which makes them less suitable for cocktails but ideal for Cuba Libres or Rum on the rocks. And lastly, dark rums have a characteristic sweet caramel-dominated taste due to its long ageing and are mostly recommended to drink neat or on the rocks.
La Habana, Cuba

  1. One country with two currencies – The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible (CUC). Exchange is about 25 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.78 EIR. Cubans generally get paid in CUP, and salaries average around 400-500 CUP per month (which equals 12-16 EUR). This is obviously really low, given that many consumer items now sell at international prices. As a tourist, you’ll only trade in CUCs and, unless you go off the beaten track, will never come across a CUP.
  2. The tourism industry. The education system in Cuba is enviable: school is free for everyone and it focusses on students to understand rather than memorise. Professors demand a high level of participation and students have to do a lot of research at home (mostly without internet!). In bars, restaurants and hotels, you’ll find engineers, biologists and historians, who, after graduating, realised that they’ll earn more working in tourism because of the tips in CUC.
  3. The right to buy or rent a home. When you drive across La Habana, you probably wonder who lives in all these beautiful colonial villas. Well, it could be anyone. Cubans can’t buy or rent homes – they only get their own home by inheriting it. In the case that someone leaves the country and doesn’t come back after a year, te home will fall into the hands of the Government – who will donate it to someone else.
  4. A sip of rum for the Saints. Every time a new bottle of Rum is opened, a sip is dropped to the ground and said to be offered to the Saints.
  5. What a car plate can tell about yourself. The old-timers circulating around La Habana are certainty one of many tourist attractions. However, the car plates reveal so much more about who is driving it than you may think at first. There are seven colours: the black ones (starting with TUR) are rental cars for tourists, the rend ones are rented by companies, the yellow plates indicate private cars (most of which are the classic pre-revolution cars from the 40s and 50s), green plates are for militaries, blue ones belong to the State and if you see one with a white number plate, it will probably be a government minister or another important state person.

Want to know more about Cuba? Click here to read Part II of the list.