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Adventures in Cuba

‘So close, yet so far’

Today the Battlefords News-Optimist has a dispatch from one of its reporters from Cuba.

OK, I’m exaggerating. This is not a dispatch from Cuba; it’s just a story about my vacation there last December. 

The reason you are seeing it now is because that is how long it has taken for me to get the photos developed. Now that they’re done, I thought I would do a piece on what it was like there for any potential sun vacationers who may be interested.

Cuba has increasingly been in the news for the past year or so due to the moves by the United States to normalize relations with the Communist country. The Americans have opened an embassy in Havana, and there has been news that regular flights between the countries are to resume. More work is to be done, however, as the U.S. embargo is still in place as it has been since the 1960s.

American interest in Cuba has skyrocketed. Conan O’Brien taped one of his shows in Havana, and Americans have been dreaming of the day when they could be free to go to the country’s spectacular beaches and get their hands on its rum and cigars.

Here in Canada, however, there is no “embargo” on Canadians going to Cuba. Its beaches, rum and cigars and warm weather are all easily accessible thanks to reasonably-priced package vacations and direct flights to and from the country.  

I just thought I would share with you a few thoughts about what you need to know to help you decide whether it is a place you’d want to go to, and what to expect once you get there.

The first thing you need to figure out is which vacation deal is right for you. I’ve seen package vacations offered by various airlines and companies, including WestJet, Sunwing, Air Transat and others, and they all have their pros and cons.

The most popular carrier to Cuba from Saskatchewan right now appears to be Sunwing. I took Sunwing for my trip during the second week of December. Their main advantage is direct flights to and from the island country from John G. Diefenbaker International Airport.

The bad news is their flight times were ridiculous. My flight left Saskatoon about 7:40 p.m. and didn’t arrive in Cuba until a ridiculous hour in the morning, around 3 a.m. My flight actually stopped in Regina to pick up more passengers, and it took less than five hours from that point to fly over the United States and land in Cuba. My flight home also left in the middle of the night around 4 a.m.

Despite the insane hours, the trip with Sunwing went well. That was a relief because I was apprehensive about, ahem, some of the stories about the carrier in the news.

Global News has done lots of “investigations” of Sunwing vacations to Cuba, particularly to the “Memories” chain of resorts. Vacationers who returned from Cuba have been interviewed on TV with their awful stories about how violently ill they became. These stories make the place sound absolutely terrible!

What you don’t hear about are the stories of all the people who come back having had a good time. Most of the people on my flight were satisfied, repeat customers who said they were on their fifth or sixth trip to Cuba. Yet you don’t see the news organizations lining up to interview any of them. 

Still, it’s always good to know what you are in for at resorts before you go, and problems do occasionally happen. My suggestion is do your research. Go to the forums at TripAdvisor and see what’s being said about each resort. If there are major problems or illnesses or if you just have a nervous feeling about a particular place, don’t book there.

The other thing that has some people freaking out is the mosquito-borne Zika virus sweeping Latin America. The last time I checked, Cuba was one of the places where Zika wasn’t a major problem. But the situation could change as Zika spreads, so stay on top of the news if this concerns you.

The real issue in Cuba is not so much mosquitoes but “no-see-ums” — tiny sand fleas that bite your legs. These bugs are a real nuisance, so you can’t go wrong packing strong bug repellent. 

Now that I have scared you off of Cuba, here are some general thoughts and tips about vacations there:

Just based on what I’ve gathered in talking to people in the Battlefords it is obvious Mexico is far and away the preferred winter getaway destination. Many people simply don’t know about Cuba and what it’s like there, and probably think there isn’t much of a difference.

Folks, there is a huge difference between Cuba and Mexico: one is Communist and the other is capitalist! About all Cuba has in common with Mexico is the Spanish language and hot weather. It’s a huge difference in culture between the two places, so consider that before you book somewhere.     

Price of vacations: Here is another notable difference between Cuba and Mexico — Cuba is a “value destination.” Traditionally it is far less expensive to go to Cuba. I’d been looking at prices for Cuba and for Cancun over the last couple of years, and the deals for Cuba have come in for several hundred dollars less, even though Cancun is not far away.

Last December, when I booked for Cuba I got a great deal for my resort for $780, which included the all-inclusive, the flights, the transfers, the whole thing. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, because of the stories going around (again) of how the Canadian dollar was impacting  travel plans and driving up the costs in general.

Since then, however, I’ve been checking the Sunwing websites and the deals have dried up for Cuba. Now a stay at that same resort costs upwards of $1,000. Keep an eye on the prices because deals do show up from time to time.       

Money: This is one of the stranger aspects of Cuba. They have two separate currencies. There are convertible pesos or CUCs as they are called, used by the tourists. And then there are the ordinary pesos used by ordinary Cubans, called CUP.

This is a ridiculous situation, but it all has to do with the embargo, apparently. Anyway, use the CUCs. You should be able to exchange your Canadian money for CUCs right at the resort.       

Varadero: Chances are, when you are booking a vacation to Cuba you are really talking about a vacation to Varadero in Matanzas province.

This is the most popular tourist destination in Cuba and has been the hub of the “tourist boom” of Cuba over the last couple of decades, with dozens upon dozens of new hotels and resorts built and opened up. There are other Cuban resort destinations — Holguin, Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco and others — but for most people, when they say they’re going to Cuba they usually mean Varadero, which has the tourist amenities and is also in close proximity to Havana.     

Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport is the airport for Varadero, but it is actually located in the middle of nowhere between Varadero and Matanzas. It is small by tourist standards, which is good because it means you usually avoid the zoo-like atmosphere you get in other international airports (Las Vegas, Cancun).

About Varadero: the area is built along a tiny strip of land surrounded by water. It consists of the town itself, which is full of restaurants, artisan shopping areas and other amenities. Moving east, you leave the town and enter “Resort Row” where there is one massive resort after another along the beach. This area is renowned for sandy beaches, so if you want to go to the beach and that’s all you care about, this is a prime destination.   

There are several options for transportation in Varadero, but I would use public transportation whenever possible. There is the Varadero Beach Tour, which operates a double-decker bus during the day and into the evenings. For $5 CUC you get a bus pass that you can use the whole day. Taxis are also widely available.

Safety: I have found Varadero to be very safe just walking down the street.

Still, use your tourist common sense and beware of pick-pockets and especially “panhandlers” who target the tourists. What they do is sing a song or draw your picture, and then use that as an excuse to demand money.

There were these two guys at the shopping mall in Varadero who did exactly this. They sang a song at the bus stop and then took off their hats to ask for money. I put $1 CUC into the hat, but then these guys looked at this amount disgustedly, as if this amount was an insult or something! They wanted even more money. What ingratitude! 

In general, the Cuban people and the resort staff are very friendly and will make you feel right at home. But you do have to watch for these few who ruin it for everyone else there.       

Spanish language barrier: I thought this would be the most intimidating thing about the trip, but it wasn’t. Almost everyone I ran into spoke English, so don’t worry about it.

Life at the resort: Basically, it depends on which resort you are at, some are better than others. My own resort was good though not fabulous (you get what you pay for).

My hotel room was well air conditioned, and always well supplied with things like toilet paper and clean towels, and I received a bottle of water every day. 

At my resort there was plenty of food during the main meal hours and it was tasty enough, but I didn’t find the variety to ever be enough for my liking — a common complaint among visitors to Cuba. If you get fed up with resort food, there are restaurants in town that have more variety. 

TV in Cuba: North American channels are in short supply. On offer are international channels like CNN. They also have ESPN. The main question people want to know is, can you watch NFL games on TV in the Cuban resorts? Yes, I am pleased to report, I had no difficulties finding NFL games to watch. The only difficulty was in comprehending the Spanish-language announcers for some of them.

Also, I took along a small radio to tune in some of the sports stations in nearby Florida. That’s about the only way you can follow the NHL games. I left my iPad at home, as Wi-Fi access is still in short supply in Cuba.     

Animals: You are probably wondering if I saw any interesting animals at my resort. Indeed, I saw a small, but very determined, frog climbing the hotel window! 

On the grounds, I noticed hummingbirds and lizards. I spotted one big lizard who crawled through a hole into a space underneath a concrete slab. It looked like quality housing by lizard standards.

Shopping: There are lots of “artisan” markets around where pictures, paintings and sculptures are sold. As well, in Varadero there are a few shopping centres. The biggest one is called Plaza America, which has a supermarket and a number of stores, and some places to eat including a pizza place.

By Canadian standards this shopping centre isn’t impressive, though. And of course you’ll find none of the usual chain stores.

There is also nothing in the way of McDonald’s, KFC, or Starbucks, but there is something called “El Rapido,” communist fast food.

Beverages: You will see signs for Havana Club and also for Cristal and Bucanero ,which are local beer brands.

It is possible to find Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta and other North American brands in Cuba. But the main “official” Cuban cola on offer is tuCola from the Ciego Montero company. It isn’t bad, but is far sweeter than regular cola.

Coffee is better in Cuba! At my resort they would whip up the coffee and milk so it was all frothy, so when you put sugar on the coffee it would actually float on top. This was regular coffee, too, not cappuccino or any of that.   

Weather: When I went to Cuba in December the temperatures were in the high 20s, which was probably a little above average. Unfortunately, the week I was there was rainy and humid. A big storm hit on my first full day in Varadero and it was rainy and miserable just about every night I was there. Fortunately, the sun managed to show up occasionally, and it was really sunny and hot during my entire day trip to Havana, even though it rained again when I returned at night.

An important word of advice is do not book Cuba during hurricane season. (This is also good advice for any travelers to Mexico.)

Havana: There are a lot of excursions and various activities you can purchase at your resort. I was able to purchase a Havana one-day package. The bus picks you up at 8 a.m. and takes you to Havana, and you get to see all the main attractions there including Revolution Square and also Old Havana.

During our tour, we were all able to walk around Old Havana and we visited a place where Cuban cigars and Cuban rum could be purchased.

Cuba is absolutely overrun with state-owned cigar shops and they are even at the resorts and the airport, but everyone told me the best deals on cigars are in Havana. Also, people were saying time and time again never to buy cigars from vendors off the street, because they are selling low-quality ripoffs.  

The one-day package to Havana is good because it includes a good lunch meal and is well organized if you don’t know the place. On my tour they also gave an hour of free time to walk around Old Havana unaccompanied.

About Old Havana: it was painfully obvious the place is just starting to get overrun by tourists and professional photographers. If the U.S. embargo is ever lifted, that place will be a zoo.

Oddities about life in Cuba: When I booked the trip I kind of went in expecting it to be about as foreign a place as you can get while still being in the western hemisphere.  

But once I got there, the place really didn’t feel “foreign” at all, more like “strange.” It felt like something was amiss, that’s the best way to describe being there.

Maybe it’s because despite the obvious differences in their language, culture, system of government and so on, there are still a lot of strong and obvious American influences in Cuban society — their love of baseball, and love of Detroit-made automobiles. So it didn’t feel like so “foreign” a place in that regard.

Yes indeed, what you have heard is true, there are plenty of classic old 1950s cars on the roads in Cuba!  

What you find on the streets is a real mix. About half the cars are European or Japanese models, and the other half are pre-embargo beaters from Detroit. Yet these old beaters are all in reasonably good shape and still running! Classic-car enthusiasts will love Cuba, the whole country is basically one big custom car show. However, I should point out in Varadero itself, most of the classic cars on the road seemed to be taxis.

Life in Cuba: if you want to see what the real Cuba is like, be sure to take one of the tours outside of the resort zone in Varadero to Havana or somewhere like that, and you’ll see for yourself the real Cuba and living conditions there. You’ll see buildings that are run down and other things that are falling apart, including the washrooms.

One major tipoff you are in Cuba: you don’t see the gas station chains like those in Canada. In Cuba there are chains such as CUPET-CIMEX and Oro Negro (or “black gold”). I get the impression many of these used to be “Texaco” back in the old days.  

Another tipoff you are in Cuba: advertising billboards with propaganda messages on them. You see these on the roads outside of Havana, with messages like “revolucion” and lots of pictures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. You see pictures of Che a lot in Cuba.

When I say Cuba didn’t feel “foreign,” but “strange,” it’s stuff like this that I am talking about. This was definitely not the Free World. 

This is the Third World, with toilet paper shortages and food shortages and a shortage of shopping malls and of all the amenities North Americans are accustomed to. And yet it’s not all bad there. The classic cars are cool and they’ve got cigars, and rum, and other interesting things.  

It’s hard to believe a country located so close to Canada and the United States could be so different in so many respects. I think maybe someone was thinking of Cuba when coming up with the phrase “so close, yet so far away.”