Vancouver Sun | Barb Wood, Special to The Sun
Cuba was to me an unexplored land of many unknowns. A land rapidly changing and constantly challenged. A big question for me and one to answer, so off we went, my patient husband, Don, my well-travelled son Roger and I, the curious artist who can’t take the sun, to an exotic tropical Caribbean island, 11 million souls, 145 kilometres from the U.S., communist and third world, run for almost 50 years by Fidel Castro.
We have been fortunate to experience many trips as a family, but this one had an added challenge: Both Don and Roger sought a relaxed holiday, at an all-inclusive resort. I wanted the aroma of city not surf, and was looking for sexy southern Latino music as well as the people and the wonderful old architectural gems of the several societies that have made this island their home. The boys wanted to swim, scuba, golf and relax. I wanted to walk, dance, explore new terrain and possibly ride some horses on the beach.
With the help of an experienced travel agent we booked an eight-day beginner’s package: Four days in an all-inclusive-you-don’t-have-to think-about-anything-resort, and four days in busy Havana.
This was one of the few trips where I took far more than I brought back. Because of the American embargo, Cubans are short of many standard consumer goods, from toothpaste to shoes to band-aids. Being an artist, I just about crippled the boys by loading up our bags with drawing paper, coloured pencils and pens.
You cannot take any American currency or charge cards, so we carried Canadian cash and Thomas Cook traveller’s cheques.
We packed strong sun-block, good hats, and, for the easy-to-burn, a long-sleeved cotton shirt. Do not assume you can just pick up things in Cuba. Often you can’t, or they are very hard to get, or outdated.
We landed in Varadero with no problems. Customs was a bit Russian-like: You go to the booth one at a time, and once cleared, are allowed to pass through the restricted zone door. Our shuttle bus was waiting for us, and hustled us off into the dark Cuban countryside. We swung on to the brightly-lit strip where all the modern high-rise hotels are located and settled into our hotel. The humidity and rich Caribbean air was intoxicating, and as it wasn’t too late Cuban time, we dumped our gear and headed out to explore the hotel.
We checked out the status of the famous mojito cocktail at the outdoor bar. Roger enjoyed the fact that 13 and up is considered an adult there, so at 15, he could have a beer with his dad.
We had a very professional and charming Conquest travel guide, Hector, who met us the next morning, to help us over any humps and to plan extra outings. I think we surprised him, as we booked just about every excursion, some twice in a day!
We enjoyed using the lovely pool, chatting up other guests and our first walk along the perfect beach. The white sand is like fine powder, the currents are friendly, and there were life guards, along with security people. The glare from the typically blue-white Canadians was blinding, I kept covered, and was not harpooned as a beluga the entire trip.
We had been told that the only TV would be Castro’s nightly speech but were amused to receive CNN in several languages. Lunch and dinner were a treat: I enjoy any meal that someone else has made, and cleans up. We had been told that the food can be simple, and it was, and also generous. The local fried sweet potatoes, cornbread and ice cream were my favourite.
The resort had some great gardens with a huge cactus tree, coconut palms, fragrant hibiscus bushes. We could use the hotel’s outriggers, canoes or kayaks, at our leisure. Bikes were available at the next resort.
Roger and I took a charming calloch into Varadero, five minutes away. The town is fascinating—old charming residences needing repair, with newer additions literally perched on top. One of the truly memorable sights in Cuba is the legions of beautiful well-maintained old cars, mostly from the ‘50s. The Cubans very proudly care for their old beauties, despite the damp salty climes. We spied our first glorious “Cocotaxis”—rotund yellow balls of energy, carefully built around a motorcycle base, and featuring usually a very speedy lady driver.
Up early the next day we witnessed a beautiful sunrise along the palm swept beach. Beautiful rolling waves, and exquisite little shells along the shoreline
Our last day in Varadero, our fourth, featured the best adventure yet: One of our pals had suggested a jeep tour across the island so we indulged. We were part of a convoy of eight well-used jeeps, led by our trusty guide, and tailed by our trusty guard. The jeeps were trashed—we found parts in the glove box, the wheels didn’t match. The spare had no kit, There was one seat belt out of three, and the shocks were non-existent. What a thrill! We headed out at top speed across the pot-holes of rural Cuba,
Once we left the main drag, the homes were simple, with water delivered daily to the barrel out front, a few chickens, a small garden. The countryside was often very beautiful, but seemed undertilled. Our first stop was the deep Saturn Caves. We could don snorkels and swim around, if we chose.
We drove through the well-worn old industrial town of Matanzas, with friendly locals, confusing intersections, lots of school kids. Derelict factories stared at us, narrow streets beckoned. Down the road to the beach to stop by the local conservation park, featuring clear turquoise water where the experienced could snorkel carefully amidst the coral reefs and fish.
On to a touristy bar in the forest, by the fast-flowing river. If you want a good mojito, get it here, with crushed fresh mint and white rum—Cuban sunshine and smile in a glass.
After four days we moved on to Havana.
Varadero is fun, but not Cuba, it is restful, predictable, quiet and mostly tourists. Havana is Cuba.
It was a cool ride into Havana to the spectacular old Hotel Nacionel. This beauty was most famous during the height of the mob era in Cuba. We oohed and ahhed and checked in. The room was spacious and clean but rather plain to our standards. We immediately started checking out all our options. Note to reader: If you travel with a teen, be prepared to run, not linger. You will see everything, and meet so many people, but why not? This is an adventure, not a holiday!
We immediately booked into the famous floor show at the Caberet Parisienne. About $50 a head and one of the best memories. We were all jammed into a small colourful club. Our fellow travellers were from Israel, Chile, Angola, Sicily. The floor show was truly spectacular—colourful costumes, incredible contortions by dancers. Beautiful multi-ethnic faces. Voices. History. Colour.
Roger was wowed, as were we. By 2 a.m. the acts were over and we were all invited to dance. We closed the place at 3, proving that Canadians aren’t always so boring.
About Havana—I will summarize by saying I will go back.
We enjoyed a very good meal at the hotel that evening, featuring the best food yet. I do think Cuba makes the best ice cream, and I’ve tried a lot, from Paris to Charlottetown! Next morning we were up early for another tour. We took our friends’ advice and, rather than taking the modern cabs by the hotel, walked a block and waited until a local cab hailed us. It was a beautiful old car, driven by a local, and licensed by the state. Our chatty driver enjoyed pointing out the local landmarks as we drove through central Havana to Old Havana.
Don and I toured several side streets with local shops and friendly musicians. We saw our cabbie again twice—he hailed us like an old friend. We were warned to buy cigars only at known outlets, as fakes are common (banana leaves).
At the Restaurant El Castillo (ave. de Belgica No. 361) the clientele was a mix of Cuban cigar sellers and locals and tourists. We treated ourselves to a show at a grand old theatre. Bought our balcony seats for about $5 from a scalper. Met Londoners and Parisians in seats. Saw Phantom of the Opera in Spanish, flamenco style! The phantom was rather odd, stamping away, but the women with twirling skirts and coiffed hair were spectacular.
After the performance we tried the famous Hemingway haunt El Floridita, but, at $60 a plate, it was too expensive for us. We backtracked to the wonderful Monserate Bar, with the best music yet. In my next life, I will be Latino.
Good eats, great music, nice people, about $20. The band usually has a CD, about $10. Buy them! It’s a great souvenir, and the money stays with the band. Took a rapid cab home, through largely darkened central Havana.
On our last day it was storming wildly—no ships in the harbour. Leaking room. Good beds, great breakfast (included). We found the hotel was the best place to buy cigars and rum as well as the best place to change money.
We toured the famous cathedral where Columbus was buried until 1890, when the Spanish claimed him. For lunch we lucked into Cafe de Paris for excellent food and more good music. Don asked the guys to sign our CD and all of them patiently did.
Would I go back to Cuba? Yes, and soon. The warmth of the sun was appreciated, but the warmth of the people was teh best of all.
Barb Wood is a Vancouver artist. For more art from her trips, see http://www.barbwoodgraphics.com