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Magnificent Madrid

After my epic trip to Cuba and Mexico, my next adventure was a low-key mini break to Madrid. I have been to beautiful Barcelona and spent time in Andalucia, which I love, but I heard that Madrid is perfect for a short break with great weather, good food and cheap flights. I was sold. I am keen to do as many mini breaks within the EU as possible, before Brexit, in case the ease of travel and no visa restrictions change forever, something I think my generation has sadly taken for granted. But this is not a politics blog, so I will try not to rant! We managed to get flights direct from London to Madrid with Ryanair (from Stanstead) for £60 return (hand luggage only), cheaper than most train fares within the UK! The only thing to be warned about is that even if you pay for a hand luggage only flight, if you end up at the back of the boarding queue, Ryanair will make you put your luggage in the hold as there is not always enough room in the overhead lockers. So if you are in a rush and don’t want to hang around the baggage carousel at your destination, bear this in mind.

#puertadetoldea #madrid #spain #españa #puerta #arch #nofilter

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One of the first things we noticed in the taxi drive from the airport to the city centre was how grand Madrid felt, with all the hallmarks of a European capital city i.e. grand buildings and lots of wide boulevards. We had chosen to stay in the city centre, as I always feel that when on a short break somewhere, staying within walking distance of the main sights means you can maximise how much you can squeeze in to a mini break! We choose to stay in Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes in Las Letras, and it was the perfect location, a 10 minute walk to El Prado museum with lots of beautiful squares and cobbled streets on our doorstep. I have to give a shout out to the hotel itself with spacious, clean rooms and really warm and friendly staff who were happy to help with recommendations and patiently put up with my attempts to speak Spanish. They also had free snacks in the lobby area every day for tourists like us who were not used to the late eating hours of the Spanish people, just to keep us going throughout the day! Continue reading

Photo Essay: The Real Cuba

My trip to Cuba in May 2016 was the turning point in my photography, largely because I had chosen to attempt to take my hobby to the next level by booking a photography holiday with Creative Escapes. 11 days of traveling with a pro-photographer, hands on tuition as well as learning about the different styles of photography pushed me to go beyond the usual cliché travel snaps to try and capture the essence of the country instead. I had always wanted to do this in Cuba – there is no greater place on earth to shoot with the colours, sun, music, crumbling facades, retro cars, (retro everything) and amazing people, all offering photo opportunities at every corner. Most of all, I wanted to see Cuba before everything changed and it opened up to the world, especially the Americans. One week after my trip, in fact, the first cruise ship from the USA since the severance of trade relations started, arrived in Cuba!

I have been fortunate enough to have traveled a lot in Latin America and while all countries are unified with a certain Latin culture, Cuba felt truly unique, even within the region. For a little Caribbean Island, with a population the size of London, it is quite amazing how strong a cultural influance Cuba has, especially in music. The best part of Cuba for me was seeing everyday life and how things are different (or not) to what I know as my everyday. With that in mind, comes this collection of photos of The Real Cuba.

Cuban Carwash

This is my favourite shot from the trip, and my best photo to date (even being selected as a staff pick by Creative Escapes! You know you are in Cuba when you see your first classic fifties car, and even though they are everywhere, it is impossible to tire of them. There is no greater sign of the US embargo than these giant gas guzzlers still being driven around (with no seat belts or carbon emission limits!) We were on our way out of Havana when I spotted this carwash and I asked our driver to stop and turn around. What I loved was the fact that this could be a carwash anywhere in the world but yet this image and the classic car screams Cuba.

Cuban Carwash

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Isla Hopping Round Mexican Yucatan

Isla Holbox, Piñata

Isla Holbox, Piñata

After a spectacular photo tour of Cuba, I knew I would be in need of a holiday to get over the trip as I am always exhausted after a day course in London, never mind 10 days of full on exercises and tuition. I had come to Cuba via Mexico as it was just a 55 minute plane journey from Havana to Cancun so I decided to have some R&R time in Mexico before heading back to London. And as Mexico is still my favourite country in the world, it would be rude not to enjoy it a second time on the way home. I had stopped over in Tulum already, so I decided to explore some of the islands off Cancun for the last six days to see new parts of Mexico.

#puertomorelos #mexico #village #blackandwhite #nofilter #boardwalk #pier

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Top 5 Tips for Cuba First-Timers

La Mujer, La Habana

La Mujer, La Habana

 

So, you want to go to Cuba? Join the queue! Cuba is without doubt the hot travel destination for 2016, not just as a unique jewel in the Caribbean but because everyone wants to “see it before it changes”. Developments are looming following the thawing of relations with the USA, resulting in many non-US travelers keen to get to the island before the Americans (and Starbucks and McDonalds etc.) do. Having recently returned from my first trip there, I suggest that it is not a destination to just show up and travel; not only is the lack of infrastructure unable to cope with rising tourist demand but also because it is simply not internet-ready to enable you to just turn up and figure things out from there.

If you are a first-timer in Cuba, do your research first! Cuba is everything you dream of from the big fifties colourful cars, music on every corner and cigars, to Che Guevara murals and so much more you haven’t yet discovered. Here are my top 5 tips to prepare you for your first island visit. Continue reading

Cuba, Outside of La Habana

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

As part of my photography tour with Creative Escapes, we spent a few days outside of La Habana to experience the “real” Cuba. One place we had to see was Viñales (in Pinar del Rio), the heart of rural Cuba, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to many tobacco farms. What makes Viñales different to the rest of the country is the fact that it is a valley with rolling hills and mountains whereas the rest of Cuba, as you will notice when flying in, is pretty flat and underdeveloped. The rolling hills punctuate the landscape, making for a dramatic landscape photograph. Although Cuba is known for its tobacco, being the best in the world, we also saw plenty of livestock, bananas and even a coffee plantation. This was a great location to try out all sorts of photography genres ranging from landscape, to documentary to portrait. Rural life outside of many big cities around the world tends to be more simplistic but here, you really notice the absence of modern machinery or lots of cars and it seems that the basic traditional agricultural techniques including travelling by horse and cart are still the norm.

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

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Hip and Happening Habana

#lahabana #havana #cuba #city

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I definitely made the right decision to combine Mexico and Cuba into one holiday as the flight from Cancun, Mexico to La Habana, Cuba was literally 55 minutes! I would be spending the next 10 days traveling round Cuba with Creative Escapes for a photography tour so our itinerary would be based with photography in mind, rather than the usual tourist points of interest. We would be trying our hand at lots of different genres including portraits, documentary and black and white, with the aim of determining our own individual style. I had done quite a few half day/day courses in London so felt I knew the basics of my camera, semi-auto shooting and composition but I felt ready to take my hobby to the next level. I had thought about combining my love of travel and photography into a trip like this for a while but there was only one place I really wanted to do this and that was Cuba. As relations have been easing between Cuba and the USA, I also felt that now was the time to go before it changed and “the Americans ruined it” (from the mouth of an American tourist!).

Classic car, La Habana

Classic car, La Habana

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A Quickie in Tulum, Mexico

#beach #playa #playadetulum #cocotulum #sand #sea #tulum #mexico #nofilter

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My next big trip is something I have been wanting to do for a while – a photography tour of Cuba! There were two key reasons for this: a) to take my photography hobby to the next level and b) to photograph/tour Cuba at the same time. I can’t think of a more exciting place to practice photography than Cuba, which is unique for so many reasons. The other great thing about this adventure? The perfect excuse for me to head back to my beloved Mexico for the fourth time! A flight from Cancun to Havana is just under an hour so I figured I could combine two holidays into one long-haul air fare.

Unfortunately, this meant flying from Gatwick airport rather than my usual and easier Heathrow option. As I had chosen flights at a civilised lunchtime hour, this was not going to be a big problem and I could even avoid the expense of the Gatwick Express by jumping on a regular train from London Bridge direct to the airport (I felt very smug discovering this much cheaper option!). BIG MISTAKE. I forgot about the fact that me and the UK train service are jinxed and the journey turned into a nightmare. Getting to London Bridge was fine (apart from the suspect lone suitcase on the bus which nobody seemed to be bothered by apart from me) but after a few stops on the train, the delay began somewhere in Norwood. What started out as a small stop turned into a potential two hour delay because of a “fatality on the track”. Me and some other passengers deciphered this as a “jumper” which is obviously awful. But the train was full of people desperate to get to the airport. Luckily, we were at a station so we could all get off (if not, I would definitely have missed the flight) but we were stuck for what to do. Going back to London to try and get the Gatwick Express would waste more time so 5 of us decided to pool together to catch a cab to the airport together. We made it, JUST. In fact, I have no idea if the girl flying to Jersey for a friend’s wedding did make it or not as she was really pushing it  by arriving at Gatwick just half an hour before the flight! The whole experience was so stressful it has put me off going to an airport so far away again but the positive outcome of the experience was that a group of Londoners managed to get together to help each other out – which is pretty great for a city so famed for being full of reserved and unfriendly people!

Enchanting Edinburgh

#edinburgh #edinburghcastle #scotland #nofilter #sunset #winter

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I decided on a city break in Edinburgh, Scotland as my last trip of 2015. I had visited Edinburgh in my student days to stay with a friend who was at University there but I really don’t remember much other than stepping off the train on a winter’s evening and seeing Edinburgh castle lit up as it started to snow. Christmas is a magical time to visit the city as it it is geared up for the festive season and it is a small and easy place to shop for Christmas gifts.

The easiest way to get to Edinburgh from London is a direct train from Kings Cross in just 4.5 hours. Those of you who know me already know about my love-hate relationship with the UK train service. Love, because all of London’s mainline train stations are easy to get to and you don’t have the stress of getting to a London airport and through security etc. Hate, because the fares are extortionate – nowhere else do I know of in Europe where traveling by rail (and tube) is so expensive – and a double hate because the trains are always delayed so you are not even getting value for money. Thankfully, the UK is small enough to travel around easily by train meaning the inevitable delays will not result in days or nights stuck in the middle of nowhere. Also, I felt that this was a good time to take advantage of “going abroad” within the UK without Passport controls – which may all change if the Scots opt for another yes/no referendum! Continue reading

A Long Weekend in the Big Apple

Radio City, NYC

Radio City, NYC

The final stop on my West to East Coast US adventure was New York City. It was my turn to be the tour guide as I was meeting up with a few NYC freshers – as I visited NYC about five years ago and covered all the main tourist attractions, the idea was for me to pick and choose the best bits. The whole reason I chose October to go on this particular trip was so that I could see Central Park in the autumn and get all the glorious “fall” colours to photograph. Little did I know it was still going to be warm and later summer in the city and unfortunately, New York was looking really green! So I failed on that mission but it will be a good excuse for me to go another time….in November at the earliest! Continue reading

Austin: The Day I Became a Cowgirl, Y’all

#austin #texas #letters #lights #nofilter

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After a jam-packed four days in San Francisco, I was on my way to the East Coast with a two night stop-over in Austin, Texas. I had always wanted to see the middle of America although I have been apprehensive. The reality is that you hear so much about rednecks and guns; while I am enough of a seasoned traveler to know not to stereotype, I was nervous about how they would react to my olive skin and love of all things Mexican. So I chose Austin because I had heard it was the antithesis of all of that and was instead America’s capital of live music, barbecue, home to the first Whole Foods, had a great Tex-Mex scene…and lots of cowboy boots! Someone told me in San Francisco that Austin was the hippest place in America – and coming from a San Franciscan, that got me excited. Continue reading