I’ve just got back from Cuba where I was part of the judging panel for the Havana Club Gap Year on behalf of gapyear.com.

18 finalists from around the world – including some from places like Latvia, Estonia, Chile and Belgium – gathered to compete to win the incredible year. The big prize included a month in Havana learning how to make the perfect daiquiri, another one in Canada touring with a jazz band and a month travelling on the Trans Siberian Express with a travel writer along with nine others. The winner would blog, create films and meet people in each country.

Havana Club Gap Year Experience

These guys really, really wanted to win. 

I spent five days getting to know them all – eating, drinking and partying alongside them to decide who I thought was worthy of winning the life-changing trip. We needed someone personable. Someone reliable, fun and who not only managed to capture the Havana Club spirit on camera, but also in themselves. Finding the best person for the job was an important task and it was down to me and the other judges, which included Ben Southall and the manager of El Floridita, Alessandro to carry it out.

Each finalist had three days to create a three-minute video that captured the spirit of Havana on an iPad mini. They were taken on tours of outer city neighbourhoods, to baseball games, out dancing and round the less-trodden streets of Havana. It was up to them if they wanted to stick with the group or go it alone.

Havana Club Gap Year

The judging

The atmosphere in the judging room was tense, but it was fun too. By this point we’d built relationships with the finalists and it was hard not to have a favourite based on their personalities. Now it was down to this final hurdle for them to convince us they were the right choice based on their films and their answers.

Us six judges sat around a board table in our fancy executive leather chairs. There was a film crew and a photographer and at least another six sat in the shadows at the back. The finalists had to come in present themselves and their video and then we’d interview them. It must’ve been terrifying; having to speak in English and answer these tough questions. If they can survive that – which they all did well – they can survive anything.

Judging the Havana Club Gap Year

We watched the stories of locals and learnt how they’d apparently changed the lives of the finalists in just one day. I saw into the local’s homes, how they worked, how they entertained themselves and what they ate and drank. I learned more about the finalists, about how they lived their lives back in Canada, Mexico, Spain and around the world.

We had finalists pleading with us to choose them, others arguing with the questions we asked and some who were so lovely it pulled at the heart strings to know it wouldn’t be them. I saw on their faces and on the screen just how much winning would mean to them and how hard they’d worked. I’d have happily sent 90% of the finalists on the trip, but our winner just had something a bit special over the rest of them.

And that winner was… Julian Medina from Colombia.

Havana Club Gap Year finalists

Why him?

Not only was his video fun and engaging, but he was the people’s choice too. Most of the group said that if they had to choose someone to go on the trip with it’d be him. In just a few days he’d managed to charm everyone involved in the project, and was a pretty cool guy to boot. It was obvious he was the man for the job.

When his name was announced at the wrap party my heart tensed. Even though I’d known he was the winner for a good three hours, one of my favourite moments of the whole Havana Club Gap Year experience was seeing this group of finalists who’s only met four days before launch forward and congratulate him. He sank to the floor covering his head with his hands while the other 17 gathered around him cheering and hugging to make a circle around him.

Havana Club Gap Year

When he finally managed to break free to get on the stage you only had to look around at the reaction to see that we’d made the right choice.

The finalists truly were inspiring. Under all that pressure they still managed to have fun and make lifelong friends. Of course there was a slight underlying competitiveness but I genuinely feel they’ll all stay in touch, like they agreed. They even had a pact to go see the winner on their gap year at different points.

I loved meeting such passionate, open minded and confident people and it just reinforces the fact that people who are into travelling are the best. It’s these people and our silly chats over dinner that will stay with me most out of the whole weeklong experience. I’m sure all 18 of them will do well in whatever they do next and I’ll definitely be following Julian on his travels on the Havana Club Facebook page.

Thanks for an amazing week Havana Club – you’ve always been my favourite rum.

Havana Club Gap Year

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