Cuba – Readers Travel Tips – Debbie's Caribbean Resort Reviews

Cuba – Reader’s Travel Tips

Simone – Canada

Bring TOILET PAPER!!! They have none in public places. Well they do but you have to pay $1.00 for 1 square of paper.


Toni – Canada

The information contained in this document is based on personal observations and some superficial research, it is meant to be a guideline only for first time visitors to Cuba.


Cost of flight and accommodations at an all-inclusive resort in Cuba varies depending on season and on number of stars of Hotel : High season is December through February. Per person for one week at a 4.5 star Hotel (where I stayed at Hotel Solymar) : $1250-$1750 Can. before taxes (seemed to be not much difference between departures from Cape Breton, Montreal, Calgary and B.C.) Per person for two weeks at same hotel about $ 2,300-2,500 Can.

Money and things to give as gifts and to trade with. Things needed by Cubans not living close to tourist areas (things to give away) : Clothes (sweaters, sweatshirts, socks, T-shirts, trousers, shorts, shoes and or sandals, prescription glasses, (for kids in school : notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers) soap, shampoo, lighters, anything for infants and small children, gum is always a favourite. Things to trade with in tourist areas : black nylon stockings with or without patterns (medium to large sizes) fancy soaps, gel pens, conditioner, lighters, decorative items for hair, cassettes, CDs, gum, (I was approached to trade my sandals for things, someone else was approached to trade his portable CD player for something). Cubans are very nice people mind you some can also be surprisingly bold. For your personal use : bring Kleenex and facecloth (neither provided at Hotel) insect repellent, waterproof sunscreen Paba 30 is recommended, hat, camera and lots of film (otherwise very expensive to purchase such items in Cuba, ex. About 6.00 $ U.S. for a roll of 35mm film). Any medication should be brought with you in original bottles to avoid security or custom problems. If you plan on snorkelling bring your own mask and snorkel (theirs are leaky) and do bring a waterproof camera (you can buy disposable waterproof cameras here, good for 3-5 meters deep but no flash, therefore require sunny day for good photos). Bring a Berlitz or same type language book. If you plan on doing any tours, binoculars would be a good idea. A plastic thermos mug with lid, is great to keep drinks hot or cold, keeps sand out of your rum and straw fits in drinking spout, plus holds more than dinky glasses offered for drinks or small cups for coffee. Bring about $ 200.00 to 250.00 U. S. per person for one week This will pay for the $20.00 airport tax upon departure per person, two-day trips and leave between $75-125 for tips, caleche or taxi rides and souvenirs.

Bring U.S. Currency with you on your trip (paper money 1, 5, 10 and 20 notes, not larger). Tourists always pay in U.S. dollars. Currency exchange is about 25-27 pesos for one $1.00 U.S. dollar. Carry small bills, get lots of one dollar notes, (your Hotel should be able to break 10’s and 20’s for you) American coins are hard if not impossible to exchange for Cubans. When you buy things always ask for change in American, if amount is 1.50 you will get 50 pesos (use for tipping). Note 25 pesos is the exchange rate for tourists, but for the locals it takes 4 X 25 peso pieces to get an American dollar) BE VERY CAREFUL IF EXCHANGING DOLLARS FOR PESOS, AT SOME BANKS THEY WILL GIVE YOU 1 PESO FOR 1 U.S. DOLLAR. ALSO CAREFUL OF CREDIT CARD USE, GOOD FOR BOOKING TOURS THROUGH YOUR TRAVEL TOUR GUIDE, BUT NO AMERICAN CREDIT CARDS ARE ACCEPTED ANYWHERE IN CUBA (INCLUDES AMERICAN EXPRESS AND CITY BANK). A VISA CARD IS YOUR BEST BET. IF YOU NEED A CASH ADVANCE ON YOUR CREDIT CARD YOU CAN ONLY DO THIS THROUGH A BANK, YOU WILL NEED YOUR PASSPORT TO DO THIS, WARNING THE ADMINISTRATIVE FEES IN CUBA AND CANADA (EXCHANGE RATE AND ALL) MIGHT END UP COSTING YOU A SMALL FORTUNE.

Local calls can be made through the Hotel lobby rather easily. To call home is expensive : Best bet is to buy a phone card in Cuba, about 10.00 U.S is good for 5 minutes, operator will give a 30 second warning before cutting you off. Hotels can charge between $2.40-5.00. U.S. per minute, charge by minute not by second. (For calling home, dial 119-1-area code-number)

Car rental : $70-80 U.S. a day, gas was 95 cents a litre Bicycle rental : My Hotel offered one-hour free rental, then $ 2.00 per each additional hour, Careful, check brakes before using bike and don’t leave bike unattended anywhere. Also traffic pays no mind to bicycles, therefore use at your own risk and DON’T USE AT NIGHT. Moped rental : Varies in price (guidelines : $9.00 per hour, $ 25.00 for 24 hours), no helmet and same safety rules for bicycles apply for Mopeds, lots of accidents. Taxis: they have cars and cute little three wheeled yellow bubble vehicles, always decide on price with driver before getting in vehicle. Caleche rides: typical price is $ 10.00 U.S.per person for an hour, but you can bargain with them before you embark, (met a family of four that booked for 2 hours, bargained with driver for $25, trip lasted 3 hours (one hour waiting at a market while family shopped, final cost $30 U.S.) Apparently this is the best way to see Varadero, and get to know your way around.

I was told that the hotel staff were paid $ 12.00 U.S. per month to work there. Therefore $1.00 U.S. dollar tip is generous, our Tour Guide said it was at your discretion. Count on about $4.00 in tips from Airport to Hotel room (at least two people will handle your bags at airport, and two more at Hotel). If you can pick up Pesos, tip with those. Or pick a favourite Bartender or Waiter, tip them at the beginning of your stay, and a couple of times before you leave. Don`t know if hotel staff share tips (Bartender and waiters) (Waiter and chefs and sous-chefs and dishies). Chambermaids change, so tip at beginning and tip at end of stay, at your discretion. The garderners are plentiful and are usually ignored but very friendly (we gave small items as gifts for their families). Bus drivers on Tours and Tour guide should receive something. On trips, if you use the bathrooms, you will be expected to tip (carry pesos, gum, pens, lighters, matches, etc, to bail you out in a pinch, when you think $ 1.00 is too much). On tours, musical bands abound and will expect tips. The locals will offer to watch your bicycle for $ 1.00, your call, you risk not having a bike when you return.

Trips from Varadero :
(Preferable to book through your TravelTour guide at Hotel and not through Hotel people, (difference in cancellation policies basically) Tour guides are usually quite bilingual or trilingual (Your Travel Tour guide will make sure you are in a group of the language of your choice ((English, French, Spanish) also sometimes available : German, Italian) Tip : always bring bottled water, toilet paper and a few pesos with you (tipping bathroom staff), (gum, lighters and soap are greatly appreciated by the locals), some U.S. $, camera and sunscreen, food for critters you might meet.

A non-exhaustive list of trips available with tour guide, all prices in U.S. Currency per person :

$25.00 Bus trip to caves and city of Matanzas (half a day) $45.00 Rio Canimar (bus trip, snorkelling in sea by reefs, snorkelling in caves, long boat trip, lunch included, horseback riding, live band on boat) (whole day 9-6) (I did this trip it was great, mind you snorkelling can be hazardous, currents strong, reefs very close by and possibility of jelly fish, stick close to your guide when snorkelling) (Bring bread in a plastic bottle to attract fish when snorkelling, do not put bread in a mesh bag, the fish may bite). $59.00 Guama, Bay of Pigs and Haticuanico (bus trip, visit to a replica of a native village by boat, crocodile breeding farm, swim in the Bay of Pigs, lunch included with band, boat trip on ecological river) (whole day quite long, departure 7 :00 a.m. return 6 :00 p.m.) (I did this trip too, however the best part was the boat ride on the river in the afternoon (Haticuanico)). $ 71 Trinidad, bus trip to the city of Cienfuegos, visit to Trinidad, cigar factory (very long day) $70, Cruise on a large Catamaran to Cayo Blanco, (all day tour) $74 Jeep safari to Matanzas to see countryside and typical Cuban life, Zodiac water tour $63 Havana, bus trip, tour of city, visit a museum (whole day) (Havana about 2 hour drive) $139 Havana and Tropicana (visit to Havana, cigar factory and or rum factory and night club) (whole day and part night, 8 :00 a.m. to 2 :00 a.m) (note the factories may or may not be open) $139 Pinar del Rio, bus trip to mountains and visit to cigar factory and a rum factory, apparently a must see of the mountains, (very long day)

$136 Cayo Largo, plane trip, visit the island of Iguanas, boat trip to playa Sirena (very long day)

FAUNA: If you like animals, when you leave the Hotel for trips or walks, always carry some bread (for the birds and fish), meat (for the pathetically thin dogs), fruit for the horses and Iguanas.

Animals you may see : (native : Iguanas, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, birds and butterflies) I saw hundreds of cows, hundreds of dogs, dozens of horses, dozens of goats, more turles than Iguanas or cats or pigs, in one week I saw (4 cats, 3 pigs, 1 domesticated Iguana, and 2 salamanders or geckos) (no sheep anywhere to be seen) (In a small zoo, I saw the native rodent the « Jutia », about the size of a small groundhog, in a park I saw a peacock (imported) and an Iguana and two ostriches (imported of course). Horses are small and thin usually, smaller than a quarter horse, 13-14 hands high. At the crocodile breeding farm I saw adolescent, young adult, adult. (a 3-4 year old « cocodrillo » is only about 4-4.5 feet long). Native birds : Ibis, Herons, small owl, pelicans, cormorants, water fowl, Tocarroro (nat’l bird of Cuba), turkey vultures and some other raptors (small Eagles) etc. (Did not see Tocarroro or Ibis).

Bougainvillaea, Hibiscus, Orchids, Portulacca, Sanseveria, Philadandreum, Croton, Diefenbackia, Cacti, Canas, Mariposa, Oleander, some roses but I think Imported, Poinsettia also to be seen, Mangrove, and Coleus. Coconut, Banana, Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon and Banana trees. Fields of Sisal plants, and sugar cane. Inland on Rivers, lots of aerial plants to be seen on trees and lotus type water lilies (white with yellow hearts and very long stems above water) growing in most rivers. Of course many other plants I could not identify. They do have some coniferous trees that are akin to our Tamaracks. A form of Cedar is also growing on the Island.

I stayed in a 4 and a half star hotel « Hotel Solymar » from the Barcelona group of Hotels. On the beach. Everything is included, accommodations, all meals (three times a day), drinks (alcoholic beverages), small fridge with drinks in hotel room, games on beach and close to pool, also game room with pool tables, ping pong, dart boards, monster chess set close to pool (pieces about 2 feet high) shows everynight, non-motorised aqua activities (banana boat, catamaran, etc). Restaurants are open : 7-10 :00 a.m. 12 –5 :00 p.m. 7 :-10 :30 p.m. (sometimes a cafeteria is open from 11 :p.m. to 7 :00 a.m.) All the water is sterilised at this place, therefore is safe to drink, ice cubes are OK and vegetables are washed in sterilised water. (If you leave the Hotel grounds, bring bottled water with you, avoid anything with ice and don’t eat salads and don’t eat fruits without skins (stick to Bananas). (water purification and sewage treatment is not as good as in Canada).The Endemicity rates of Hepatitis A is high in Cuba, and intermediate for Hepatitis B. I had rented a bungalow : a large main room with two super single beds, small table with two chairs, desk with stool, large clothes closet, small dresser, satellite T.V. with remote (about 30 stations, 12-15 Spanish, 3-5 French, about 12-15 English), small fridge, bathroom with toilet, sink, bidet, and large tub with shower. Plumbing is excellent, mind you there was no hot water before 6 :30 –7 :00 a.m. Bathroom had built in hair dryer. We had lifeguards at the beach but not at the pools. Currents extremely strong on the beach in Varadero. Watch for flags on beach (red : do not go in water (currents, sharks, jelly fish), yellow : careful, green : ok)

For extra money at this Hotel : massages, hairdresser, saunas, and babysitter services are available. About 5 blocks from this Hotel there was an International Clinic with Doctors, nurses, Dentists available open 24 hours a day. I don’t know if they had a pharmacy too, but I did see a small local pharmacy in town about 20 blocks from the Hotel.

Things to purchase :
The usual tourist stuff is available everywhere : T-shirts, sarongs, key chains, shot glasses, postcards (50 pesos to 1.50 U.S. (the 1.50 ones have Cuban postage pre paid). But postcards take 2-3 month to receive if they get there, bring to a post office, through your Hotel they will take about 2-3 weeks before sending to post office).

Cuba has some very talented artisans, shop around to see the difference in workmanship. Beautiful wood carvings (ebony is prohibited for export so stay away from it) (Local woods that are ok for export : Acana (reddish hardwood), Jiqui (teak or honey coloured softer wood, frequently painted black), (some carvings have been painted black with shoe polish or the like, ask before you buy (ebony is very heavy), also check the piece and see if paint or polish can be scraped off to expose true colour of wood). Caoba is a hard reddish wood, Cedar is also available. The hardest and therefore most expensive wood allowed for export is Quiebra Hacha (used to make the Cuban Telephone poles because of durability, this type of wood changes colour with age, the older the wood the darker it gets). Carvings from buffalo horn (from very simple to extremely intricate) Paintings (in markets or Art Galleries) (any painting larger than about 9 by 12 inches will need a certificate from the artist for customs purposes, this in order to protect Cubas artistic culture) Ceramic (Art galleries) (Plates, figures, abstract to realistic, some raku styles ) Pottery ( very light terra cotta, easy to break, but usually very whimsical) Wood crafts (all types and sizes) Dolls, (with fabric, papier maché, terra cotta, clay, wood, etc.) Papier Maché Cigar Humidors made of wood Cotton crochet work (a sweater or a sleeveless dress is about 12-20 U.S.) all hand made.

(the further inland or away from resort areas such as Varadero, the better the prices, but the highest calibre of artwork is mainly available in the resort areas) (Bargain with the vendors, offer to trade things, lots of fun)

Cigars : Careful where you purchase, example of Monte Christo # 4 box of 25 without tubes, Corona size 5 inches long by 42 millimetres in diameter. Casa de Habana (exclusive Cigar store) : 77$ U.S. Duty free at Cuban airport: # 4, 72.50 U.S. (Monte Christo`s #1, $112.50 , #2, $126.25 U.S., #3, $95.00 U.S., #5, $65.00 U.S.) Cigar store at Hotel : # 4, 72.00 U.S. (Monte Christo`s #3, $95.00 U.S., #5, $63.75 U.S.) Cigar factory : 80.00 U.S.

Black Market : prices vary widely starting about $25.U.S. and up (could be banana leaves, could be tabacco leaves with needles size holes, could be perfect quality but not have necessary seals, could be top row of cigars and bottom row duds) BE CAREFUL, YOU RISK BUYING GARBAGE OR HAVING THE GOODS CONFISCATED.

Cigar boxes, should have a paper seal on them (looks like a piece of paper currency wrapped around box and require 3 to 4 seals stamped on bottom of box) Canadian Duty free shop did not have Monte Christos, for a box of 25 : they had Tueros for 69$ Can. (not a well known brand in Cuba) and Don Tomas (Robustos :5.5. inches by 50 millim.) for $ 84. Can. Top of the line in Cuba are Cohibas, the strongest of the cigars (Hotel price was $394 U.S. for 25 no tubes). Romeo and Juliette (at Hotel with tubes a box of 25 was $ 100.00, Punch (Hotel price for 25 was $ 111.00 U.S.), Hoya de Monterrey (Hotel price was depending on size for a box of 25 was $98-$125. U.S.), Hotel did not carry Don Tomas Cigars. (I did not check prices on Partagas or Quintero brands).

From strongest to lightest in taste : Cohiba, Monte Christo, Romeo and Juliette, Quintero.

Cuban Coffee is very good : Three top brands : Cubita, Turquina and Atola

Cuban Beer (Cerveza) : Crystal (most popular), Bucanero (about 6% alcohol content) (tastes like American beer, very pale, not very strong in taste)

Cuban Rum : « Havana house » (most popular), there are three types of rum, white, oro and anejo, (white is 1-3 years old, oro (gold coloured) is 3-5 years old, anejo (dark colour) is 7-15 years old. In Hotel shop : 750ml bottle : 1 year old white is $3.00 U.S., 3 year old gold is $6.00 U.S., 15 year old dark was 70.00 $ U.S. (a glass of this one in a bar at the hotel was $22.00 U.S.)

Local drinks all with rum (ron) : Cuba Libre : rum and coke Mojito : rum, sugar, fresh mint leaves, bitters, carbonated water (Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite) Daiquiri : rum and I forget what else Chanchàchara : rum, lemon juice and honey

Soaco : rum and coconut water

A typical Cuban dish is composed of chicken or pork or fish (grilled) and rice mixed with black beans and bread, no salad or hardly any. Fresh vegetables appear to be a luxury for the natives, not many have gardens, either don’t have space or can’t find or afford seeds, irrigation can be an issue, quality of soil varies (they have black and very red soil which depending on what you want to grow can be very fertile). They do have lots of oranges, grapefruit, lemon, coconut and banana trees. At the crocodile breeding farm I was told the best part to eat was the tail. At the Indian Village I sampled crocodile meat, it tasted much like pork, same consistency and colour.

FOOD AT THE HOTEL : Varied greatly : Meat : Chicken, Turkey, Pork, some Beef, Bacon, Ham, Lamb, cold cuts, excellent boudin, sausages Fish : mainly fish with white flesh, shrimps, lobster tails, paellas (shrimp, mussels, and clams) Vegetables : potatoes (mashed or pan fried), asparagus and artichokes (imported), okra, onions, spinach, eggplant, carrots, peas, black beans, rice Lots of pasta of all kinds with several sauces always available. Pizza is also available Hamburgers and hotdogs are available but not like the North American style Always lots of cold cuts, cheese, bread, deserts and soups available. Fresh fruit always available at meals : oranges, grapefruit, pineapple, watermelon, guava, banana and mango. Cheese : basically a light cheddar or a rich cream cheese, a few times a blue cheese was available. Hotel offered : a buffet breakfast only in Hotel Lobby (eggs anyway you liked them, large eggs with big yolks) and then lunch was available at two places buffet at a place on the beach or a grill by the pool, dinner offered a buffet or three a la carte restaurants (a seafood place, an Italian place and one offering International meals (pasta to seafood, to grilled meat). These where all included in price of our stay.

Outside Hotel you can of course go to restaurants : Specialty restaurant per person : Steak is about $ 15.00 U.S., Seafood about $12-25 U.S..

If you don’t want beer or rum with your meals, you can always find wine (blanco o tinto (white or red), an imported Spanish wine (De la Terra) is what was offered at this Hotel. Of course there is always bottled water, and carbonated bottled water, but the best had to be the fresh o.j. in the morning (fresh whole unpeeled oranges dropped in a machine and out came liquid sunshine). Coffee is either American style or Cuban style (espresso) (Tea is harder to obtain)

INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT CUBA : Cuba is 77 km west of Haiti Closest point to Miami is about 30 minutes East of Varadero, I think somewhere around 100 km. North side of Cuba is on Atlantic, South side is in the Caribbean, West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico Varadero is on North side of Cuba, it’s beach is 22 km long, it is a peninsula. It is now the biggest tourist site of Cuba. Cuba is on metric system but some things measured in pounds 110 volts and same type plugs as in Canada Eastern Standard Time (same time as Montreal) A Cuban Peso = 100 centamos Che Guevara (1928-1967) born in Argentina, died in Bolivia. Born in the bourgeoisie, left Medicine to join Fidel Castro, together led the Cuban revolution (1956-59) Minister of Industry to Cuba (1961-65). He quit this job to organise a revolution in Latin America and was killed in Bolivia, is a much-revered Martyr, his image is reproduced everywhere and on everything. Fidel Castro (1927- ) Born in Cuba, studied Law in Havana, was expelled from University twice for his revolutionary activities. In 1956 with the help of Guevara and partisans organised the Guerrilla War in la sierra Maestra. Took control of Cuba after downfall of Batista in 1959. Gays are not allowed in the Communist party. Because of a large discrimination against Gays, the Gay population is extremely small (well the ones that have come out of the closet) (I read in a Tour Book that it was about 4-6% of population HIV, Hepatitis A and B is a big problem on the island Poverty is a huge issue  Education is faltering; teachers have left the trade to go into tourist trade, along with many other Cuban professionals (however doctors where not allowed to give up their trade) Cubans are a grab bag mix of people, the indigenous natives (Tainos are long gone) but black slaves where brought in Centuries ago, whites have settled and therefore you will see, dark, brown and light skinned people, blondes and brunettes, brown, black, green and blue eyes, mainly shorter than taller people, medium weight (I did not see any grossly obese Cubans and even in the country side they vary from slim to medium in size). (whites represent at least a third of the population) Cuban people are very friendly and nice; they smile and wave from everywhere. Havana is about a two-hour drive from Varadero and is the most densely populated place on the Island, population of about 2.9 million. Cuba is about 600 miles long. 114,500 square kilometres. Biggest river is Cauto, about 240 km long. Cuba is the least warm of all places in the Antilles. Winter season is October to April, cooler but rainy, dry season is may to September, (August is the warmest month). In February, sun rises about 6 :30 a.m. sets about 7 :00 p.m., temperature can vary from 55-80 F. Cuba must import most of its petrol needs. « Discovered « by Columbus in 1492. From Varadero (north of Island) to south (Bay of Pigs, Bayos de Cochinos) is about a two-hour drive.  Population of Cuba about 11 million. (almost a third live in Havana) Language spoken is of course Spanish, don’t expect even Hotel staff to be able to speak very good English or French. (The best English I heard was from the Tour guides and Bartenders) Cuba has at least 8 airports for international tourist flights (Camaguey, Cayo Largo, Ciego De Avila, Cienfugos, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, Varadero) The big push for Tourist attraction in Varadero started in 1990, with the construction of the Hotel « Sol Palmeras » cost of $ 3 million U.S. approved and inaugurated by Fidel Castro. As I understand it most Hotels are government owned and perhaps with some private investors. Hotel Solymar, (where I stayed), just built in end of 2001, but bungalows already existed and where completely renovated. Bay of Pigs event was 1961, since then most if not all support from U.S. has disappeared. Foreign Investors such as Canada, much to the dismay of U.S. have started pumping money into Cuba, such as big oil refinery, « Sherrry or Sherrit » a Canadian company, employs many Cubans and split of profits is 50% Cuba/Canada. Cars are a very precious commodity, most cars predate Bay of Pigs, therefore wonderful old American cars seen everywhere, some look like junkyard rejects others are kept almost in mint condition. Mind you some Hotels have fleets of recent Mercedes Benzes for Taxis. Biggest export items : Cigars, Rum, Sugar from sugar cane, products from Sisal plant (Agave in French) (looks like a pineapple plant, made into : rope, alcohol (once fermented and distilled becomes Mescal, sold to Mexico), detergent and a contraceptive ingredient. (Also oranges, grapefruit, lemons and bananas are exported). Canada donated bull semen a few years ago to help replenish bovine bloodline, native cows look like Brahmin types. Vietnam donated schoolbooks, notebooks, pencils and pens a few years ago for the schools. Cuban National bird is the « Tocarorro » (named after the sound it makes), colours of Cuban flag (white, blue and red). Cuban National flower : « Mariposa », is white and looks very much like a Cana (bulb plant)

Cuban National Tree : The Royal Palm (tallest of the Palm trees)


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Last updated January 18, 2003

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