Changing Canuck bucks into Cuban tourist Monopoly money (called CUC) is a scam so try to change enough just once to get you through the entire stay. This is easily done because there is not much to buy on the beach, in the shops or at the markets.
We stayed at the Melia Las Americas hotel in Varadero, Cuba for one week in January 2010 on a WestJet all-inclusive vacation. It promotes itself as a 5-star hotel but turns out to be a 3-star. Built in the early 1990s, it is clean enough but has low wattage lighting in public areas. Many steps to the lobby, to the beach, to the restaurants, to the golf club – great exercise but not handicap-friendly if that’s important to you. Only two small elevators in the main hotel but, again, you can take the stairs.
Your Arrival: When we arrived at the Veradero Airport on January 17/10 we were met by maintenance staff, customs and security staff all wearing masks over their mouths and noses. So, the question is: protection from their germs or ours? Or, is this a hold-up? Given the Cuban attitude that tourists are cash cows (tourism is their largest government money maker far ahead of sisal, sugar, rum, cigars and oil), probably the latter. Our photos were taken, we passed thru security scanning on the way INTO the country, our tourist paper handed out on the plane was stamped but, not a mark appeared on our passports. The bus trip from the airport to hotel drop-offs went smoothly narrated by a Tourist Guide who told us how lucky we were to be in Cuba and how tipping vastly improved service. Yea, capitalism lives!
Rooms are basic two single beds pushed together, TV with CNN, CTV, French, German and Spanish channels, views of the golf course or the pools and ocean. Bathroom is all-beige fake marble and you get a packet of soap, shampoo and bath gel that lasts for one week. Bring your own face cloth. Electric power is 220V. The in-room fridge gets four soft drinks and two beers per day. The maid changes the bed linen if you put the reguest card on the bed (a tip helps).
Restaurants and Bars:
Hotel food is acceptable and plentiful. The open-air La Robleza restaurant by the pool is pleasant but opened later every day we were there – 12:00 Noon, became 12:30 PM then 1:00 PM. And stick with the luncheon meals – our paella took an hour to prepare but was a disappointing heap of rice, turmeric, one shrimp, one small chicken chunk and a piece of shellfish. The imported wine and domestic beer are good. The resort musicians all have CDs for sale ($10-$20 equivalent) and there are theatre shows every night.
The Varadero Golf Club is wrapped around two sides of the Las Americas Hotel. The beach is small and hemmed in at one end by the expropriated Dupont House (Xanadu) converted into a restaurant and clubhouse on a cliff and the Melia Varadero Hotel at the other end. The anal-retentive Cuban tourist police make sure you do not use any other beach than the one for the hotel where you are staying. Got the wrong colour wrist band? Go back! Forget any long walks along the beaches unless you stay on a property that includes a long beach. This confinement of tourists is not for any safety reason but so the Communist government can keep track of people. The public Las Americas Shopping Mall is a short walk away.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel: Take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus ($5 equivalent for 9:00AM-9:00PM) to see the tip of the sand spit (but watch those private hotel/beach police!) and back to downtown Veradero and its flea markets to buy junky souvenirs and T-shirts plastered with Che Guevara’s mug shot. Break up your stay in Varadero by taking a day tour to Havana. Have an over-priced Mojito at the bar frequented by Ernest Hemmingway. The Spanish colonial architecture is crumbling in Havana, the old-style 1950s cars are kept to amuse the tourists (most have replacement Hyundai or Kia motors) and, the government-run cultural tourist gift warehouse is full of white sales cubicles and computer-generated ‘art’ (there are a few, but very few, original artists). This will round out your excursion day.
Other Comments: On departure, our 11:00 AM hotel bus pick-up to the airport was prompt and contained another Tourist Guide who explained the final tourist tax grab – the $25 CUC per person “Tasa Aeroportuaria” that translates as “Airport Tax”. Can’t get home without paying it. CUC cash only! Two sour-faced Security Department guards in military uniforms stood at the entry to the WestJet plane to collect the boarding card stubs showing each of us had paid our head tax and could depart. We will never return.