Cuba. Off limits to some for years but accessible and attractive tourist destination for many more. Like a lot of poli-nerds, I had a lot of questions that I hoped to answer and was eager to ask Cubans for their views. Even though this was a holiday, I can’t just visit a place without thinking about its past, present and future. And since this is Cuba, a communist country, located less than 150 kilometres from the coast of the United States, it was a trip that I had been wanting to make for years.
We stayed at the Meliá Marina Varadero Apartments located at the very end of a very long peninsula. Proximity to downtown Varadero might be a deal breaker for some because it is a solid 15 minutes by car and minimum one hour using the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus that stops.at.every.single.hotel. The Meliá Marina is two hotels – the apartments which we stayed which is not all-inclusive at and a hotel that is. They are a short ten minute walk from each other. What makes the apartments attractive is that it isn’t an all-inclusive property and each room offers either a full kitchen or a kitchenette. This makes it a great option if you want to save money by bringing your own food (we brought a little knowing we would have a kitchen). Opting in to the all-inclusive is as easy as purchasing a wristband for every day that you want all the amenities that come with an all-inclusive hotel. Staying at the apartments is ideal for people who plan to travel outside of Varadero either by spending a couple of nights in Havana or another city on the island.
Both Meliá Marina properties are exceptional in presenting totally accurate impressions of the room interiors and have the accompanying high TripAdvisor ratings to go along with them. The rooms look exactly like they do online which makes sense as both properties are the newest in Varadero (there were multiple resorts under construction when we were there though). The marina itself is large and empty in anticipation of the many yachts and boats to make the short trip from Florida.
A common thought, at least in Canada, is that food in Cuba isn’t very good. I think it depends on what you are expecting. Understanding that the country is limited in what and where it imports from is something to keep in mind. We brought along simple things like tuna and spaghetti sauce and pasta because it was easy to pack for the days when we didn’t want to opt-in to the all-inclusive. The food at the hotel, when we did opt in to the all-inclusive, was fine. The main dining room offered something for everyone but if you are a foodie who can’t function without artisanal granola or fresh cold-pressed green juice than should think about that in advance.
What was I most looking forward to Havana. Our trip to Havana was arranged by my husband and an entrepreneurial member of the hotel staff who said he knew a guy that had a car,the kind Cuba is famous for, and that could take us their and back. The driver we were told also spoke excellent English and would be not just a driver but a guide. Something to be aware of if you make the same kind of arrangement is that if your driver does not speak English you may have a translator along for the ride (English is most common but you can also find German translators). Make sure you ask this when booking and remember to tip both. Our driver arrived promptly and managed to fit the five of us, plus my mother-in-law’s wheelchair in the trunk.
After a two hour trip sans air conditioning (another thing to ask about when booking) we arrived at La Corona Cigar Factory. Although we had been given the name of another factory by someone at the hotel, we were taken here. This was probably a mistake. We later discovered we overpaid for the few cigars we bought compared to what they were selling for back at our hotel. Our tour group, once inside the factory, was too full and we heard almost nothing. I did get some great photos. My Spanish being not great, I usually held up my camera if they saw me as if to ask if it was ok even though you will be told where and when it’s ok to take them and offered a smile and “gracias” after.
After the cigar factory we were taken by our driver to a restaurant just outside the downtown core of Havana. We were seated in a nice but cramped area filled with other passengers from cars just like ours. The lunch ended up being the most expensive meal we had on our entire trip and not even the best one. Simply prepared rice, chicken, fish and pork with rice and black beans (a favourite since living in Brazil) was filling but I left feeling disappointed not because of the quality but because I had hoped to eat in Havana’s downtown. This was my error. I should have understood by this point that our day in Havana was being guided more by our driver’s pre-arranged agreement.
Following lunch we finally ventured into the core of Havana. We opted for a horse drawn carriage because of accessibility issues and were quickly spirited away for what seemed like multiple loops around the same areas (again, I should have known better…). If you can walk, don’t take a carriage. Ask your driver to drop you off and then make your way around the city on your own. You will see a lot more than we did and at your own pace. We made the mistake of not being prepared enough for this part of our trip. It was the first trip I can remember not getting a guide book before and it was a pretty major #FAIL. Know where you want to go and don’t be afraid of being direct with driver. Listen to his advice but tell him where you want to go. It’s your trip and you are the one who will regret not doing what you had hoped.
Our trip back to the hotel became more of an adventure than anticipated. Our driver pulled over after 30 minutes because of unusual engine noises. After looking at the engine and consulting with a few other drivers who pulled over to help, it was determined there was a hole in the engine. Initially, the suggestion was that we would all get back in the car and be pulled by rope behind another car for the rest of the trip. I immediately flagged this as being extremely unsafe. Three people from out group got in one car that had stopped and my husband and I in another that was occupied by a patient German couple, their driver and translator. Our new car pulled our old car with a rope grabbed from someone’s trunk with our old driver at the wheel. The whole thing was out of our control so we simply made the best of it which included me seizing the opportunity to speak German the rest of the way home !
Our only other excursion was a day trip on a catamaran with my husband and sister-in-law. We sailed from the marina beside our hotel to a dolphin facility where you could have your photo taken (I declined to take part as I didn’t want to support their captivity) followed by an extremely brief stop to snorkel over tragically dead coral reefs and a lunch and beach break on Cayo Blanco before making the return trip. If we had done more research (I’m never going anywhere without a guide book again), we would have known that the snorkelling area had been destroyed by careless practices of the companies like the one we used. Before booking a sailing trip or a day of snorkelling, make sure you do your due diligence.
What about the politics of Cuba? The reality of everyday Cubans, from what I was told, is far from the communist ideal. Cubans are challenged on a daily basis to provide for themselves and their families on a monthly salary of roughly $40 Canadian dollars. That isn’t a typo. It provides a glaring insight into the economy of tipping and why it matters. I spent a solid amount of time talking to one of the hotel workers about his life in Cuba and the hope of better relations with the United States. When you make $40 a month and meat for a few nights dinner costs you $7 and rent is $60 you are constantly working yourself out of a deficit. I’ve read transcripts of politicians in British Columbian idealizing the government of Cuba. This is extremely misguided and wrong. It is all too easy for those privileged enough to live in countries like Canada to extoll the virtues of a system of government that may sound utopian but in reality leaves its people desperate to provide for their families and cutoff from services that we take for granted. Internet? Limited. Media? Censored. Vehicles? Government controlled. Even dinner out is a luxury. Concierges make suggestions to tourists without having ever eaten in the restaurants they recommend because they can’t afford to eat their themselves. I left Cuba feeling confused and upset. Will I go back? Not unless things change.