My mother and I travelled with Air Canada Vacations to Havana for three days and Varadero for four days. I’ll make a few comments about Havana, but mostly stick to commenting about the Sol Sirenas hotel. At the beginning of September, the weather was hot and very humid, but little rain. We brought down old clothes, school supplies, and spices, which we gave to a Cuban woman we met, for her to distribute to her family and neighbours. We left a few things (toothpaste, clothes, and bandaids) in the hotel rooms for the workers there as well.
Havana: Upon arrival at the airport in Varadero, we took the bus (2 hours) to our hotel in Havana, the Habana Libre. This was the hotel that Castro used as his base of operations during his takeover, so it’s interesting from a historical point of view. The buffet was good and the pool was refreshing. It was a quick taxi ride to Old Havana, so very convenient. In the architecture, you could see Havana’s glory days that have now faded, and it’s quite a sad place. But we befriended one of the “cocotaxi” drivers, went to her house, and met a friend and her son. We talked about life in Cuba, what they earn, what things costs, and so on, which was very enlightening.
There was some begging, of course, due to the poverty, but they left you alone if you said “no”. Generally, the people in Havana were friendly. We went to a “paladar” in a person’s home (I’m not sure whether it was a legal one or not) and we had lobster, shrimp, chicken and fish, which was all very good for $14 USD each. Taking a tour of a cigar factory is also an interesting experience. I would highly recommend going to Havana to see some “real” life in Cuba, and for the history.
La Tropicana: We went to the show in Havana while we were there. Everyone says it’s a “must-see”. The costumes are wonderful, but the dancing is pretty sloppy. (Also, I expected to see more couples doing Latin-style professional dancing). At $70 USD (around $100 CDN) for just the show (no meal), we though it was highly over-rated and over-priced. (A couple from Calgary said that a similar show in their hotel – the Hotel Nacional – was better and half the price).
Varadero: We had some communication problems with the AC Vacations representative, but when we finally got to Varadero, we had a pleasant stay. We stayed on the Sirenas side, because Coral was closed for repair/renovations. As a result, there was a good mix of young and old, and people were from lots of different countries, mostly Germans, Italians, and Spaniards.
Our room was not cooled very well by the air conditioning. We commented on this once, but didn’t bother to make any further complaints, given our short stay. The buffet was good, and we tried the Italian restaurant (OK) and the Criollo/Cuban restaurant (very good).
The beach is absolutely gorgeous. And we talked to quite a few people who had been to Cuba before, and also had travelled to other parts of the Caribbean, and they said that the beaches in Varadero were the best they’d ever visited – white sand, shallow water, clean beach and water. The pool was wonderful as well, and the grounds are well-treed so there is shade to be found to escape the heat. The tennis racquets they have are pretty banged up, so bring your own down (and balls) if you want to have a decent game.
There were enough organized activities to keep me busy, considering the heat. I played beach volleyball (although after 15 minutes in the heat, we were all done!) and pool volleyball (much more tolerable for an hour’s worth of play), and participated in a “nautical competition”. It’s a good way to meet other people at the resort. The night-time entertainment was quite good as well. The “Cubana Quiz” was the most hilarious. I also took some spanish lessons that were available.
We took a tour to the Bellemar Caves outside of Matanzas. The caves are not that spectacular compared to others I’ve visited, but the rest of the tour is interesting, as you visit a local food market (prices in Cuban pesos), a french pharmacy established in 1822, and the town itself and surrounding area, with good commentary from the tour guide (He was very knowledgeable). At $25 USD, it was very good value.
We took a “cocotaxi” into Varadero to go to the tourist market. But otherwise, there’s not much to see outside of the tourist compound.
In the end, it was a good trip, even though I generally like to travel more independently. My mother chose the city-resort combination, which was more tolerable for me than a full week at a resort. The poverty, crumbling buildings and the dual monetary system are sad and disturbing, but that’s the reality of this country. The workers depend on the tips and gifts that the tourists bring. (We saw one guest who gave a worker a portable radio, among other things). But the weather was great, the accommodations generally good, and the Cuban people were wonderful.