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Home > Destinations > Cuba > Trip Reports > Trip Report

Cuba - Trip Reports


Here's my report on our vacation in Varadero, Cuba Jan 9-16, 2001. I hope it will be of some use to those about to go there for the first time.

I'm not even sure how we ended up in Cuba. Our intention all along had been to vacation in the Dominican Republic but we never found any indication that previous visitors raved about the place. Then we heard a rumour that there was a polio and/or typhoid outbreak. Somehow we moved our focus to Cuba but that also involved a lot of work finding a good deal with so many hotels and so little information. I think we ended up with a short list and Alba Tours and Sol Club Las Sirenas ended up the winner based on facilities, price and departure point. The airline was Royal and we later found out that they are tied in with Aeroplan so we have still to claim for Aeroplan points.

It turns out that most (all?) Caribbean tour packages that start from Ottawa leave on a Tuesday at 6 am. You are expected to be at the airport at least 1.5 hrs in advance so this means that unless you are terribly organized and get to bed right after supper you don't get more than a couple of hours sleep the previous night. We arrived at the airport at 4:40 am and there was already a long lineup. Some people managed to get checked in early by joining a shorter line but most resigned themselves to inch forward like we did. After checking in everyone headed to the Tim Hortons for breakfast so there was another lineup there. By this time it was getting uncomfortably close to takeoff time so everyone headed to the gate and another line for security checkin. We were all settled in our seats by 6 am but of course there was a delay while the wings were de-iced. The flight itself was very full but uneventful. There was breakfast and a second-rate movie.

I was anticipating a third-world airport so was pleasantly surprised when I found that the Varadero airport was quite modern. We passed by the outing tourists waiting to take our plane back to Ottawa. The wait to get through immigration was about the same as coming in to Ottawa. Remember to relax and smile to the official as you turn comes up - I find it always helps to get through faster. Customs was easy - go through the nothing to declare section, wait for your luggage - same as every other airport - everyone wants to get his bag out first. Outside the airport you get your first introduction to Cuban hustle. Porters want to take your bags to your tour bus which in some cases is only a few feet away (although you don't know that yet since there are about 15 of them there waiting). On the bus another hustler wants to sell you refreshments (it's still only 11 am !). Finally when everyone for the bus route is on board, the bus leaves and the guide starts into his welcome to Cuba, basic information tips and what to expect spiel. In our case the guy spoke good english and was knowledgeable and pleasant so I think he did well with tips. We were told about the Varadero peninsula and how to get around. We stopped at maybe 3-4 hotels before we got to Las Sirenas.

Our immediate impression about the hotel was positive. The lobby was colourful, airy and modern. We didn't understand why there was a Frankenstein figure outside but we later found out. At the checkin desk we were greeted by one of the staff and assigned a room. She strapped on to each of our wrists plastic bracelets that were to be our ticket to free food and drink at the hotel. Be aware that hotels require you to leave your passports at reception. It's not clear to me why this is necessary because the accommodation is already paid for. What they don't tell you however is that are quite willing to give you back your passport the next morning. This is important because in some stores you need your passport to cash checks or use your credit card. The lady helped us take our luggage up to the room since there didn't seem to be any porters around. Unfortunately although the room was large and had the facilities you would expect to see in North America, there was just one double bed that was definitely not what we were expecting. The room had a good view of the ocean so I think that was what the lady thought we would be interested in but once she understood our priorities she soon found a substitute with twin beds (which together made up at least a queen if not a king size). The view from this new room was actually not a lot worse than the first although it was on a lower floor. One thing that immediately struck us about both rooms was the musty odour but we learned to live with it. After settling in we then spent the next couple of hours exploring the hotel. In fact it took a couple of days to find out all the "tricks" - where to eat, when is the best time to go, how to sign up for tennis, special meals, get towels etc.

On the topic of electrical facilities, Cuban hotel bedrooms seem to predominantly operate on a 220 or 240v system. So you need a converter to operate devices that accommodate only North American voltages. Be aware however that it is NOT sufficient to just take a voltage converter you also need a plug converter. I have never seen receptacles like theirs before - 3 thin pinholes in a row but I presume the centre pin is the ground as my converter only had the 2 outside pins and worked. I bought a converter kit from Home Hardware for around $25 which contained the voltage converter and 3 or 4 plug converters. One of these was described as being for Caribbean use but it was the one that was labelled for use in Africa that I needed in Cuba ! I charged my Sony camcorder battery without any problem. It was a 120/240v 50/60 Hz but it charged OK with and without the voltage converter. On the other hand a hairdryer that was rated at 120-125v did not work with the converter. ! Strangely enough I also saw some North American style receptacles in places - I forget whether it was in the Hotel Lobby area or maybe in stores. So 110-120v must also be available in certain spots.

Las Sirenas has 3 main restaurants and 3 or 4 bars (some of which also do sandwiches). 2 of the restaurants are speciality restaurants (one Italian and one Chinese). The other is a huge buffet restaurant that can probably seat around 200-300 people. We tried the Chinese restaurant on our 2nd evening there and were surprised we were able to get a reservation so easily. We understood why after our food arrived. The look was great but the taste terrible. Fortunately there was plenty of wine to dull the pain. The Italian Restaurant on the other hand was excellent - even classy. Wine again was plentiful (as is alcohol everywhere in these "all-inclusive" hotels) but a nice touch was a really good string quartet (who were pleasantly surprised by the applause from our table). We dined at the Italian restaurant 3 times during the week we were there. For the other suppers and all breakfasts we used the Buffet Restaurant. This place has an excellent variety of foods to suit every nationality. There were smoking and non-smoking sections (rare in Cuba where people look at you strangely if you don't have a cigarette or cigar in your mouth). The bar areas are typically taken over by the smokers so if this bothers you it is indeed a challenge to find a comfortable spot. Las Sirenas has a convenient bar and also a small buffet style lunch place by its pool. We found this very convenient on the days we decided to relax in the sun. On the third day we decided to check out neighbouring hotels and the one next door was the sister hotel to Las Sirenas - the Sol Club Coral. This has a similar layout and concept to Sirenas and we found we were not challenged when we went to the Biergarten there for hotdogs and beer - maybe because the Coral guests had the same colour bracelets and they didn't look too closely at the shape.

On our first morning there we attended an orientation session with the local Alba Tours rep. A nice guy by the name of Omar who turned out to be a very helpful asset (and did not even expect a tip - we had to arrange to leave it for him to pick up). Omar gave us a good introduction to the Cuban environment, the different types of currency (we only saw US dollars) and the availability of tours. We had already decided we wanted to visit Havana City and so immediately signed up for that. To be truthful we did not sign up for the full tour but just for transportation in the tour bus to Havana and back that cost us $30 each. We were more interested in exploring the city on our own and maybe seeing the real Havana rather than that normally presented to tourists.

In actual fact we were again lucky to get a good guide who had no problems with us tagging along with the other 4 people on the bus (all spanish speaking - so he had to do a bilingual commentary) for the first part of his itinerary. While the others were being shown the Rum Museum we walked around the harbour area and started to get a feel for the poverty that existed there. Afterwards we all met up and went through the market area together. At this point we split up and made our way into the "downtown" section, trying to find our way through the narrow streets and bustle of people and taxis (cars, bicycles and horsedrawn carriages). We finally found the Floridias Bar (famous as an Ernest Hemmingway hangout) which was where we had to meet the tour to start back to the hotel but decided it was much too expensive to have lunch at. Just around the corner was a more modest place however and we both had a decent ham and cheese sandwich plus a beer there. (The waiter wanted us to drink something more exotic until we started to get up and leave but then went to another bar down the street and came back with two beers). After lunch we continued walking through the poorer areas - passing the Capitoli and what seemed to be the Chinese Quarter (but there was no evidence other than a huge overhead arch with chinese writing on it). The roads in this area were extremely poorly maintained as were the buildings. I would venture to say that 50% of these buildings if they were located in Canada would have been condemned as uninhabitable and quickly demolished. Finally after about a 45 minute trek we reached our objective which was Revolution Square. This was disappointing - a huge cigar-shaped monument on a wide, open street across from which was a large empty parking-lot. One of the buildings beside this parking lot had a metal creation bolted to its outside wall that depicted the facial outline of Che Guevara. It would be one of many images of Guevara we would see in travelling around Cuba. Rather than walk back to our tour bus rendezvous point we opted to take a bicycle taxi. As we had been told to do I negotiated a price of $5 for him to take us back downtown. This was a fun trip and obviously required the driver to exert a lot of energy as we weaved in and out of traffic and climbed up a couple of steep hills. He frequently had to come to a full stop as we got back into the narrow streets and met up with potholes and huge crevices in the roadway. The only sour spot was when we arrived at our destination and found that he wanted $10 not $5 - i.e. $5 per person! Not that I wouldn't still have hired him if I had known at the start but I wasn't sure whether I was being taken advantage of or not.

We tended to spend one day around the pool followed by a sight-seeing day followed by another day at the pool. This was not only to make sure we saw all we wanted to but also because the sun there is very deceiving in its intensity. As it was we both got a comfortable tan and did not suffer any burning at all. One of the sightseeing days involved walking down the Varadero hotel strip visiting other hotels and ending up at the town of Varadero. We did not have time to explore Varadero to any great extent but can report that it does have at least one major shopping mall - mostly occupied by clothing and souvenir shops. This mall was built around a central open area which was packed with stalls set up by small souvenir vendors - selling wooden carvings, jewellery, T-shirts etc. We were amazed to see some of these vendors in order to move their stalls from one location to another had actually adapted bicycles to carry all their goods, delicately balanced on trays attached to the various parts of the bike. On the way back it was late in the day and we decided to walk back along the main road rather than a smaller road closer to the shore and the hotels. This turned out to be a very busy highway with all the workers returning home from their early shifts at the hotels. It really hit home how common and necessary hitchhiking is to the Cuban way of life. Every intersection had a group of people waiting for transportation. Trucks drive down the road with numerous people in the back and still stop to cram more in.

The other major tour we took was to the Guama Indian Village and Bay of Pigs. This is about the same distance from Varadero as Havana City - around a 2-hour drive. The bus was very comfortable with air-conditioning and once again we were very happy with the quality of the tour guide. Part way to our destination we stopped at a rest area (whose purpose was mostly to milk money from the tourists - you even pay to use washrooms in Cuba). We then moved on to a swampy area where we boarded a small motor boat which was to take us to the Indian Village. This was another fun trip driving down a river inlet at high speed with dense jungle on either side until we came to a vast open lake (the largest in Cuba). On the far shore (actually it was probably an island in the lake) was a replica of an old indian village and we were given an interesting historical account of aboriginal Cuban Indian tribes. Arriving back at where we had left the tour bus we then walked through what was described as a Crocodile Farm. Crocodiles are actually an endangered species of reptile in Cuba and protected on two such farms on the island. This was where we had lunch (which was included in the price of the tour - $51 each).

Apart from tours and lazing around drinking, eating and sunning there were plenty of other things to do at Las Sirenas (and in Cuba in general). We were not into scuba (although I did exercise my right to a free lesson at the pool) or golf but these are definitely big for many visitors to Cuba. Sirenas as I have mentioned, has tennis courts (not great ones - and make sure you bring your own rackets and balls). It has ample facilities for children - a supervised play area for the younger ones and pool tables and ping-pong for teens. We did not spend much time at the beach but if that is your thing it is just a 2 minute walk through the property and it has its own bar and shelters. One of the more popular pastimes was watching the nightly shows. These each had a theme (the one on Tuesday when we arrived was ghosts and monsters!). The entertainers are only amateurs but it is still a pleasant way to spend a few hours. On warm evenings these events are held outside but there are also inside facilities.

The main complaint of our trip actually only happened on the day we left. Our flight was scheduled for 11 am Tuesday and we were told to be in the lobby of the hotel at 7:45 to catch the 8 am bus. Since the breakfast buffet only opened at 7:30 and we also had to get our bags to the lobby to check out this meant we could only gulp down orange juice and a couple of slices of toast. Some people we met from Toronto had it even worse as their bus was supposed to leave at 7:45. So the 4 of us met up in the lobby at 7:45 and then proceeded to wait for our pickup. For us the bus turned up at 8:30 and our friends were left wondering if they would make it in time for their flight. None of us need to have worried however. Even though our bus visited just about every hotel between ours and the airport we still arrived in time to spend 30 mins in line to check in and another 30 mins to have our passports and boarding passes checked. Everyone gets told this when they arrive but make sure you have $20 cash left when you get back to the airport for the Cuban exit tax. Finally when we got to the gate we found out that the flight had been delayed by weather in Ottawa and we had to wait another hour even before it arrived. We finally got away about 1:30 by which time we were starving.

Thanks to John for this trip report ...
February 2001

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