My parents loved to travel so naturally, as a child, I developed a need to wonder and see the world beyond my back yard. My travels started with small road trips around Cape Breton and the rest of Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada and graduated to bigger trips that included one month-long journey along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. Over the years my travels brought me on many adventures in central and western Canada, the southwestern United States, Mexico, Cuba and soon Costa Rica and the northwestern United States.
Up until two years ago, the Caribbean didn’t really appeal to me. I mean, I love beaches and warm weather but the all-inclusive resort vacations full of drinking, eating and partying didn’t sound like much fun to me. I like to drink once and a while, I like to eat and I like a good party from time to time, but wasting hundreds of dollars traveling to a far-flung destination to participate in activities I can do at home was just not what I wanted out of my vacations so I never considered a vacation “down south”. Places like Europe and Asia always appealed to me because I love culture and history and it is so easy to see a variety of different cultures on those continents. Europe with its castles, world-renowned museums and historical sites and Asia with its culture that is so vastly different from my own; these places always made the forefront of my travel aspirations. That all changed when I accepted a last minute invitation to accompany a friend on a trip to the Caribbean and not only was it the Caribbean, it was southern Mexico (the Riviera Maya), a country I was under the impression I should stay away from, not flock to because of all the violence that was supposedly happening in the country.
Because it was my first time traveling to the area and I had only seen pictures of the beautiful Caribbean sea and its white sandy beaches, I really had no idea what to expect when it came to seeing it with my own eyes rather than photoshopped magazine photos. Upon my arrival at the airport in Cancun, I was bombarded with “friendly” and seemingly helpful locals who I learned were only trying to “kipnap” me and take me on an unscheduled detour to try and sell me a timeshare. At least they were friendly about it and backed off when I politely said I was not interested unlike the aggressive salespeople here at home. The real shock came when I finally made it to my destination in Playa Del Carmen and the beach I would be spending the majority of my time on during my stay. Photoshopped or not, those magazine pictures didn’t compare to the real thing. The beaches with their soft, white sand free from seaweed and rocks and the Caribbean Sea with its crystal clear waters were more beautiful then I ever imagined. Combined with the hot temperatures, long sunny days and clear warm nights, I had truly found paradise and discovered what everyone was talking about when they said how magical and otherworldly the Caribbean was. For that week, it was almost like time stopped. The days were long and relaxing and a week felt more like a month. Clocks were never given a second look and the people, visitors and locals alike, seemed to just enjoy living the good life on the beach and were relaxed even while going about their daily chores. And did I mention that I not once wirnessed nor heard of any violent acts happening in the area during my entire stay and I felt 100% safe at all times even when I ventured off alone and took a public bus to Tulum to visit the Mayan Ruins. There were, of course, the Policia Tourista, who strutted around with their menacing, machine-gun looking weapons strapped across their chests so I assumed they needed such devices for a reason. That reason was never made clear to me; I was only told not to do anything that might ruffle their feathers and give them any excuse to use any force and in Mexico, apparently that can mean one of a few things. So this is how it all went down on my first Caribbean vacation. I was hooked. And I vowed to return to that magical place again someday. That someday came the very next spring when I booked a last minute trip to Varadero, Cuba. Same region, same sea but different music, different food and….a completely different world.
So on this chilly, wet and dark Canadian East Coast evening, I am dreaming of the Caribbean Sea and my next trip down south. I’m dreaming of the soft white sand, the warm clear waters, the hot sun, the upbeat people, the sounds of the beautiful Spanish language, the rhythm of steel drums and salsa beats echoing through the alleys, the warm and clear nights spent listening to the surf and the relaxing way of life of a people who take afternoon siesta and their love of life, despite the harsh realities of poverty and certain political unrest, seriously.
Last March I was dreaming of these exact same things when I went online in search of a good deal on a Caribbean vacation. I just wanted to have a look at what was available with no intentions in actually booking a trip. After all, I was between jobs at the time and in the middle of a move from one province to another and money and time was scarce. By the end of my search, I had a 7-night all-inclusive vacation booked. The combination of being hypnotized by the pictures of beautiful beaches and the realization that I had enough points built up to take a vacation were the two main things that did me in. A couple of weeks later, I jetsetted off to one of the Caribbean’s most revered and unique destinations; Cuba – home of some of the planet’s most beautiful beaches, the world’s best cigars, Salsa and the Mojito.
I landed at the airport near Varadero after midnight and was immediately ushered to a shuttle bus that would take me to my home away from home for the next week, Arenas Doradas Beach Resort. It reminded me of when I first landed in Cancun and went through the same routine to get to The Real Playa Del Carmen. I had arrived in Playa to a small and laid back resort with colorful villas and hammocks scattered about the courtyard and was greeted by a friendly and accommodating staff who ensured that I was comfortable and well-taken care of during my entire stay. I assumed I would get the same reception upon my arrival in Varadero but instead I exited the shuttle bus and was greeted with loud and drunk spring break revelers and a worn-out and stressed out staff who seemed as irritated as I was upon arriving at what should have been a relaxing seaside vacation where I could sit pool or beachside during the day and quietly sip a Mojito while reading a good book. The next morning was much of the same. I don’t think those loud-mouthed revelers slept a wink the night before as they were still doing cannonballs in the swimming pool at 9AM, the taps still flowing. I stayed away from that pool for the rest of the week. I knew it was not the locals who were causing the massive disruption to what should be a relaxing holiday; it was mostly people from back home, my home province of Nova Scotia and other Canadian provinces along with a few Australians and Europeans. But the pool was no big loss for me; I traveled all that distance to spend time at the beach and explore the nearby cities of Matanzas and Havana and take a few tours of the countryside where I would get the true Cuban experience. And that is exactly what I did.
The beach was my first experience with the local people besides the frenzied staff at the resort. I was approached numerous times by curious locals who wanted to learn a few English phrases and find out where I came from and why I chose Cuba as my vacation destination. These conversations were never interrupted by cell phone calls, or texts to rush to a business meeting. The people I met were friendly, accommodating and interesting. They held onto my every word and were eager to tell me about their everyday lives. The zest for life I saw in the people I met, the constant smiles and welcoming gestures and positive attitudes was something foreign to me. I barely knew anyone back home I could carry on a decent conversation with (without being interrupted by their stories of what happened to their favorite characters on TV the night before or by a text rudely answered in the middle of a conversation) and you would think it would kill them to crack a smile once and a while. Guess I can’t blame the folks here at home for being a bit crabby. After all, the average Canadian works more than 40 hours a week, has bills and household business to take care of on the weekend along with the other obligations that come with living in our rat-race world (and the fact that we don’t live on the beach 365 days a year). Wash, rinse repeat…over and over again until we retire...if the stress doesn’t kill us first. The people I met in Cuba all had jobs and were well-educated but family, friends and living life each day as it comes was at the forefront of Cuban life. Yes, many Cubans have problems that most Canadians don’t face every day. Poverty, lack of faith in government to make things better and lack of freedom of speech. But what the Cubans do well is take everyday in stride as to not let these adversities stop them from living the one life they have to enjoy. The people up north could learn something from these people down south. And yes, because you ladies who have never ventured to a Latin American country are probably wondering, the men are very forward – but not in the way you may think. I was approached numerous times by very “friendly” men on the beach, in the clubs, on the street and everywhere else that their radar could reach. What may surprise you is, although these men were only looking for one thing, they were always polite, they were never aggressive and they always accepted my firm, but polite “no” to their invitations to go dancing at Tropicana or to take a drive to Havana and get the grand tour from a local. I can’t say the same for some of the men who have approached me here at home. I never had to call the police to report a stalker or physically aggressive, wannabe suitor in Latin America but similar things have happened more times than I can count here. And take “no” for an answer? I don’t think most of the men I meet on my travels up North even understand the word! That being said, I wandered the beach, the streets and the clubs alone at all hours of the day and never felt like I was in any danger at any point during the entire trip…except for some aggressive and very drunk Canadians who tried to throw me in the pool one night on my way back to my villa and some football-crazed Germans who literally forced me to sit with them for hours in front of the lobby TV while they cheered on their team who barely scored a goal the entire time. But despite some of the negative things that transpired during my week in Cuba, I had a spectacular time and the end result was the same; I came back to Canada feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and awakened in more ways than I can count.
Now you understand why I am always dreaming about returning to this very special region in Central America. Here in Cape Breton, the temperatures are hovering at 0 degrees Celcius, the days are getting shorter, the sun will scarcely make an appearance for the next 6 to 8 months, snow will soon blanket the ground and remain there until late April and I’m on my way to work the night shift where I do the same ol’ thing every night at the same time. Wash, rinse, repeat…Well, at least I won’t have to wait too long for my next jaunt down south; It may not be the Caribbean but I will be arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica only a mere five months from now to enjoy a week-long yoga retreat/beach holiday in Montezuma. Yes, only five months…which will probably be the longest five months of my life but the wait will be well worth it when I, once again, set foot on a long sandy beach and plant myself amongst the beach huts and cabanas surrounded by swaying palm trees with a tropical drink in my hand while time stands still and the rat race back home seems like a distant memory of a long-forgotten past life.
Mexico, Cuba and all the other islands and coastlines of central America that border the Caribbean sea: Each and every one has something unique to offer visitors but one thing always holds true once one makes that first journey to the Caribbean; the sand, the sea, and the people will change you and you will forever be dreaming of the next time you will be there again!